Siobhan Burke is a dance writer based in New York City. She contributes regularly to The New York Times and Dance Magazine. She has also written for The Brooklyn Rail, The Performance Club, Pointe, The Columbia Journal of American Studies and Hyperallergic. She was a 2013 USC Annenberg/Getty Arts Journalism Fellow.
As a dancer, Siobhan has performed with New York-based artists Jillian Sweeney & Jeffrey Cranor, Rebecca Warner, Hadley Smith, and RoseAnne Spradlin, among others. She grew up studying traditional Irish dance and toured the U.S. and Canada with the North American company of Riverdance.
Siobhan holds a degree in American Studies from Barnard College, where she is now an adjunct lecturer in the Dance Department. She was a mentor with Girls Write Now and has been a guest speaker in classes at Princeton University, University of Virginia, University of Florida, Hofstra University, and New York University. She has read her work at Sarah Maxfield's Now and Then series and the Poetry Project.
Martha Graham said that it takes 10 years to become a Graham dancer. But two years into her job with the Martha Graham Dance Company, Leslie Andrea Williams is well on her way, as luminous in the classics as she is in the troupe's more contemporary repertory. Whether mastering the sculptural specificity of Graham's Diversion of Angels (she's the stately Woman in White) or relishing the droll humor of Annie-B Parson's I used to love you, she's a dancer who can do it all.
What is "dance theater"? Is it Pina Bausch's raw examinations of everyday life? Is it performance that mixes movement and text? Is it dance that tells a story? Dance Magazine talked with four choreographers who use elements of dance and theater—but whose work escapes easy categorization—about playing with narrative, integrating movement and words, and what "dance theater" means to them.
Dance theater, to me personally, means that there's no hierarchy of materials you can use to make a piece. Movement is not more important; text and narrative aren't more important. I feel this complete free range as I try to express something, to use a whole variety of theatrical elements, like relationship, cause and effect, clothes, dance, singing, talking, found text, plays, literature—this cornucopia of theatrical possibilities.
The term "backup dancer" might bring to mind the army of women on Beyoncé's Formation tour, or the men who didn't miss a beat during Mariah Carey's recent New Year's Eve performance, maintaining flawless unison as she dealt with technical difficulties. Choreography for concerts tends to be almost aggressively slick and synchronized, a sea of dancers serving to multiply the image of the star.
But when it comes to making dance for the music industry's stages, the Japanese-born, Brooklyn-based choreographer Juri Onuki is in a league of her own. Last fall at Terminal 5 in New York, Onuki, 34, was one of three dancers accompanying Dev Hynes (also known as Blood Orange) during the tour of his new album Freetown Sound.
With spidery limbs and a sprawling imagination, Brooklyn-based Raja Feather Kelly brings a vivid boundlessness to all he does. Whether dancing for the likes of Reggie Wilson or cooking up his own darkly entertaining dance-theater productions, he seems insatiably curious. Fascinated by pop culture and performance history, Kelly has been pursuing an unabashed obsession with Andy Warhol since 2009. His projects include a Warholian version of A Chorus Line and other works inspired by the artist’s diaries.
Photo by Andy Toad, Courtesy Raja Feather Kelly
Companies: Artistic director of the feath3r theory and dancer with, most recently, Keely Garfield, Rebecca Lazier, Christopher Williams and Reggie Wilson
Hometown: Fort Hood, Texas
Training: Jazz, tap, modern, musical theater and competition dance at Long Branch High School, NJ; theater at the Governor’s School of the Arts, NJ; BA in dance and English from Connecticut College
Accolades: 2016 Solange MacArthur Award for New Choreography; 2016 Gelsey Kirkland Academy Artist in Residence; two-time danceWEB scholar at ImPulsTanz
Falling for Fosse: Kelly traces his love for dance and theater to middle school, when he saw a performance by the high school dance club. “These students did Bob Fosse’s Steam Heat, and I was like ‘I’m supposed to do that.’ As soon as I could, I signed up for anything with ‘dance’ in the title.”
Breakout moment: Rehearsing for David Dorfman’s Disavowal right after receiving his diploma in 2009. “I finished college and my career started two hours later,” Kelly says. “I don’t think I’ve stopped dancing or making since. To top it off, The New York Times called me the ‘enthusiastic Raja Kelly,’ and it felt like my 15 minutes.”
What David Dorfman is saying: “There’s no one I’ve met who moves like Raja,” says Kelly’s longtime mentor. “He has that long, lanky body, but plenty of people are tall and thin. It’s the way he uses it. He works with an immediacy, a power and an element of surprise that’s very exciting and human.”
Warhol as muse: “I think Andy Warhol gets a bad rap as being superficial or vapid,” Kelly says. “I feel the opposite, that his work speaks to something really humane and deep and sometimes dark.” The latest installment of Kelly’s Warhol Series, Andy Warhol’s TROPICO—part performance, part graphic novel—comes to Danspace Project June 2–4.
Marketing magic: A web and media designer for his own company and others, Kelly approaches marketing as its own art. “I feel like a piece starts when you start talking about it. If that’s not treated with the same integrity as the work itself, you could be selling yourself short.”
On a Saturday in October, Omagbitse Omagbemi performed in Jon Kinzel's COWHAND CON MAN, for the eighth time in two weeks, at Gibney Dance in Lower Manhattan. Three days later and a few miles uptown, she was lighting up a new role in Ralph Lemon's Scaffold Room at The Kitchen. With cool delicacy in one work and searing drive in the other, she was at home in both, unequivocally herself even as she transformed.
While the freelancer's path is precarious, with unsteady work and unpredictable income, some dancers make it look easy. Omagbemi, Stuart Singer and Molly Lieber have that in common. In recent years, they've become three of the most in-demand performers in New York's experimental dance scene and beyond. Audiences relish watching them; choreographers seek them out. Strikingly individual and endlessly hard-working, they seem to bend the laws of space and time not only with their bodies but with their schedules, which accommodate many projects at once. Yet while they may be stellar multitaskers, they're above all dedicated artists. Dance Magazine asked them how they do it.
luciana achugar's The Pleasure Project. Photo by Alex Kangangi, courtesy achugar
“Strong" is an adjective that Lieber gets a lot, and for good reason: She dances like she can't be messed with. Insatiably curious about what the body can do—“It's kind of endless and awesome," she says—she welcomes the influx of new ideas that comes with a project-to-project career. “It's an amazing thing, bringing something new into the world, and I guess that's why I've gravitated away from repertory work. I love experimental dance because we're making it up as we go."
Growing up in Pittsburgh, Lieber attended the Creative and Performing Arts High School and Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School, then headed to Connecticut College with multiple career paths in mind. After graduation, she worked as a special education teacher in New York, a hiatus from dance that made her want to dance more. Making connections through classes and the occasional audition, she began performing and being seen around town.
Neil Greenberg's This. Photo by Frank Mullaney, courtesy Greenberg.
While her strength gets noticed, so does her sensitivity to a range of aesthetics, whether dancing for other choreographers like Neil Greenberg, Melinda Ring and Donna Uchizono, or in the work that she makes collaboratively with her friend Eleanor Smith. Greenberg invited Lieber to work with him after seeing her perform with Anna Sperber and luciana achugar. “She was so committed to the moment," he says of her role in Sperber's austere duet, The Superseded Third. “Then I saw her again with luciana achugar"—in the much rowdier ritual-dance OTRO TEATRO—“and she was so completely in there, too, embodying in a very full way a very different kind of work."
Considering her workload, Lieber, 32, has stayed remarkably injury-free. That might have to do with her thorough warm-up regimen and her ongoing study of Klein Technique, which has helped her find range and stability in her legs and spine. She isn't immune to exhaustion, but, as she puts it, “I don't mind effort and endurance. Enjoying the process, the effort—that makes this life a lot more enjoyable."
Job advice: “If you're moving to the city, think of it as a continuation of whatever you've been studying. Things like seeing work and taking class are part of your profession."
See her dance with Maria Hassabi at the Museum of Modern Art, through March 20.
Gwen Welliver's What a Horse! Photo by Jinyoul Lim, courtesy Singer.
Singer vividly remembers his first “dream job": to join the Paul Taylor Dance Company. As a student at New York State Summer School of the Arts, he was introduced to Taylor's buoyant, athletic technique. Having grown up as a “nerdy and overweight kid," he says, it was a revelation. “That large-scale moving felt deeply empowering and expressive in a way I'd never experienced."
Singer never pursued that dream, but he did spend four years with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, leaving SUNY Purchase after his sophomore year to dance full-time. While he grew exponentially as an artist, he also got restless. “I wanted a range of experiences," he says. “I think I perceived on some level that this long-term commitment to one choreographer wasn't how I wanted to build my career."
John Jasperse's Within between. Photo by Ian Douglas, courtesy Jasperse.
Since leaving the company in 2008, Singer, 30, has definitely broadened his range, dancing with Wally Cardona, Beth Gill, John Jasperse, Joanna Kotze, Pam Tanowitz and Gwen Welliver, and in the epic five-hour opera Einstein on the Beach. Amid more creative concerns, he doesn't underestimate the importance of a detailed calendar. “One of the biggest skills that gets called upon in this work is communication about schedule. I know it's so dry and so boring, but it's a huge part of my life."
While Singer can be pragmatic, he can also be wild, a quality he tapped into for his role in Jasperse's Within between, which earned him a 2014 Bessie for outstanding performer. Jasperse appreciates his fearlessness: “Not so much a physical fearlessness," he says, “but a willingness to look awkward, to go into a space of potential discomfort with excitement about the unknown."
Job advice: "Networking has this slimy reputation, but to me it's just finding like-minded people. Reach out to people you want to work for, and tell them you want to work for them. The worst that happens is you're exactly where you were when you started."
See him dance in a play by Andrew Ondrejcak, with choreography by John Jasperse, March 10–19 at The Kitchen, and with Beth Gill, May 18–28 at the Chocolate Factory.
With Simon Courchel in Jon Kinzel's COWHAND COW MAN. Photo by Scott Shaw, courtesy Kinzel.
Of all she's learned throughout her career, one epiphany stands out to Omagbemi: “It's okay to be ugly." That came to her while rehearsing with Wally Cardona for his 2009 Really Real. “He said, 'You're a beautiful dancer. Now show me something else,' " she recalls. “It shifted everything: how I see myself, how I see dance and choose to be in it."
Maybe that explains the depth and nuance of her dancing, which has caught the attention of everyone from Vicky Shick, whose ornate works she's graced since 2011, to the creative team of Sleep No More, the popular immersive theater show in which she played Lady Macbeth. “There's an inherent drama in whatever she does, but it's not overdone," says Shick. “She has this pared-down elegance and this natural, unforced flamboyance."
Omagbemi, 42, grew up in Silver Spring, Maryland, and began dancing relatively late, at 16. After dabbling in fashion merchandising at Radford University, she majored in dance at Montclair State University and moved to New York. (Known among friends as a “fashion icon," she's still serious about clothes.) She says that while she's always thought about joining a company full-time (“it seems simpler"), she feels inspired by everyone she's worked with, an illustrious group that's only grown since 2012, when she won a Bessie for sustained achievement in the work of Keely Garfield, David Gordon, Ralph Lemon, Urban Bush Women and others.
Keely Garfield's Twin Pines. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy Garfield.
Nursing some aches and pains last fall, Omagbemi was considering a vacation—and potentially bigger changes: “Sometimes you have to reassess. How long can I actually do this?" Europe has been on her mind; she recently auditioned for Cullberg Ballet in Sweden. But for now she's staying stateside, in a community she's glad to be part of. “As crazy and competitive as New York is," she says, “people are really supportive."
Job advice: "It's not easy, but you've got to talk about money. When I start a new project, I try to ask right at the beginning about compensation. If someone can't pay, that's okay, but they need to tell me so it can be my decision."
See her dance with Vicky Shick, April 14–16 at Danspace Project, and Heather Kravas, April 27–30 at the Chocolate Factory.
Tricks of the Trade
Lieber, Omagbemi and Singer discuss three pillars of freelance life.
On side jobs
Singer: I always tell my students: Get a skill you can get paid for, some way to make money outside your dancing that doesn't make you insane. For me, when I started freelancing, it was part-time bookkeeping. Now I teach dance at Princeton and still do a bit of bookkeeping. Having other work gives me more freedom to be selective about the projects I take on.
On getting work
Omagbemi: I've been lucky in that people have seen me perform and asked me to work with them. I approach people, too, because for some reason they might think you're not interested. I still audition. I hate doing it, but that's how I got Sleep No More. It helps if you have friends in the company. Honestly, I can't say I've gotten a job from an audition where the people didn't know me.
Lieber: It can be expensive, but I try to get body work every two or three weeks, mostly Zero Balancing with Barbara Mahler, and occasionally a massage. I should get acupuncture, but I'm scared of needles.
The controversial artist shares the stage with a pig in Elektra.
The performance artist Ann Liv Young is most notorious as her alter ego Sherry, a platinum-blonde provocateur who lashes out at audiences and gives free therapy (Sherapy) in her roving Sherry Truck. But she can do other characters, too, as her dark, deranged takes on Snow White, Cinderella and Sleeping Beauty have shown. Turning to Greek mythology with her latest works—Elektra and its more portable companion piece, Elektra Cabaret—she offers a sympathetic portrait of the princess who plots with her brother to kill their mother for killing their father. This Elektra even has a pet: a live pig in the role of the Chorus. Both versions come to New York Live Arts, January 20–23 and 26–30, and both boast more dancing than much of Young's recent work.
One of our producers actually suggested it. I read as many versions as I could find, and loved the story. I can relate to Elektra's character, and I think a lot of people can, this woman who has dedicated her life to avenging her father's death. I'm interested in that intense will, to be so devoted that nothing can deter you from your goal.
Advice from Clarice Marshall, the injury-prevention guru New York’s top dancers swear by.
Marshall suggests translating somatics to dance: Here, Ailey II apprentice Djouliet Amara moves through a phrase. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
When American Ballet Theatre principal Gillian Murphy was looking for a new trainer eight years ago, she called the person every dancer seemed to be talking about: Clarice Marshall. Murphy was in search of a gentle but rigorous cross-training regimen, and found just that. “Clarice has an eagle-eye for spotting areas in my body that are compensating or firing unevenly,” she says. When Murphy strained an inner thigh muscle, for example, Marshall helped her find “a lengthened sense of alignment” rather than giving in to her body’s immediate, muscle-gripping response.
A former member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, Marshall is the injury-prevention guru who keeps some of New York City’s finest dancers on the move. In addition to running her own practice, she teaches Pilates to ABT’s apprentices, Studio Company members and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School students. She’s been introducing New York City Ballet dancers to the GYROTONIC® equipment in their new gym, and teaches a company class combining Pilates and ballet at Mark Morris. Whether recovering from injury or working to maintain healthy alignment, her clients swear by her precise, sensitive approach to body conditioning.
Marshall’s interest in what she calls “helping dancers back into dancing” stems from her own experience. At 27, having danced with David Gordon, Rosalind Newman and other choreographers, she sustained a severe knee injury caused by poor alignment and overuse. Dance medicine wasn’t what it is today, and her 18-month rehabilitation was largely self-guided. Through a combination of physical therapy, Pilates and Alexander Technique—a method of improving ease and efficiency of movement—she pieced together the puzzle of returning to class. She joined Mark Morris Dance Group at 36 and performed into her 40s.
In order to meet the needs of increasingly versatile dancers, Marshall became certified in GYROTONIC®, which explores larger ranges of movement against the resistance of specialized equipment. She also became interested in choral master Carl Stough’s method of breathing coordination, investigating its application to movement.
Her own recovery taught her a few lasting lessons. “Too often and increasingly, our lives are rushed and we try to fast-track our bodies,” Marshall says. “I try to provide dancers with a place that is safe for them to explore and develop in a way that puts them in charge of a process of discovery.”
Marshall treats all dancers individually, working closely with physical therapists to understand each body’s unique strengths and limitations. Asked how she addresses common habits such as forced turnout, she replies, “That depends on the person in front of me.” Still, no matter the issue at hand, there are certain ideas she stands by.
Translate Exercise To Dance
Improving alignment during a Pilates session is one thing. Applying that new awareness while, say, learning a knotty Wayne McGregor ballet is another. “It’s important to take the kind of work that I do and translate it into class, into dancing, into performing,” Marshall says. “At almost every session, I try to finish by standing up and doing some dance-related movement or something on the equipment that has a more direct application to dance.”
Keep Thoughts Simple
When a dancer is injured or in discomfort, Marshall says, “they can spiral into really complicated thinking.” She tries to send them back to class with simple, straightforward, positive thoughts, without room for self-doubt. Those thoughts might take the form of a movement-focused mantra: “Say that someone thinks about going up so much that they’re no longer feeling the floor. You want to keep that opposition equal. So I might tell them to keep telling themselves: ‘Feel the floor, lengthen into the ground.’ ”
A common tendency is to lock the core or turnout into place—“like trying to put something in landing gear”—when more fluidity should be allowed. “The core is a dynamic muscle group that is connected to the movement of breathing,” Marshall says, “not a girdle of muscles that can be held in place all day.” Engaging too rigidly not only inhibits freedom of movement but can also lead to injury. Simple thoughts are useful here, too. “I might coach somebody into thinking about their torso in ballet class by saying to themselves, ‘Lengthen and breathe and move’—to keep words like that going. The same with rotation: ‘Spiral and open and move.’ ”
Challenge Your Inner Core
“In general, the things that really challenge your core muscles are more subtle than most people think,” Marshall says. “They’re not heavy-duty ab-crunching series.” She likens the core to a group of people collaborating on a project: Some people want to do everything, and others will let them. “Your external muscles can start to work hard to the point where your core muscles”—the diaphragm, pelvic floor, transversus abdominis and multifidus, all deep under the surface—“decide to take a backseat.” The real core challengers, in her view, “are simple movements that require a refined sense of stability in the torso.” For instance: a knee-fold while lying on your back, in neutral alignment, maintaining torso stability while breathing. Or a simple half sit-up or head-lift, maintaining pelvic stability while breathing.
Give It Time
For dancers in their teens, the body’s constant change calls for patience and attentiveness. “As a person grows, their core muscles are also growing and forming,” Marshall says. “Teenage dancers are often given abdominal exercises that are overly challenging given that their core muscles are not fully developed.” Another challenge: growth spurts. “At times the bones can outgrow the muscles, which have to catch up. This can lead to issues of tightness around joints that can lead to injuries.” Young dancers can be skeptical of slow, subtle strengthening—another thing Marshall knows from experience. “When I was exposed to Pilates at 18, I thought it was stupid,” she admits. “I wanted to dance. I didn’t want somebody to tell me to lie down on the floor and feel something.” Today she sometimes sees that restlessness in her students, but they grow out of it, too. “I’ll run into somebody I taught when they were a teenager, and now they’re dancing in a company, and they say, ‘I had no idea what I was being exposed to, and now I know.’ ”
Siobhan Burke writes on dance for The New York Times.
There’s no substitute for working in person with a body-conditioning expert, but if cost or travel time gets in the way of weekly sessions, try once a month, which has its own benefits. “Having to absorb and practice on your own can help to make you a more independent student,” Clarice Marshall says. To supplement that training at home, here are two resources she recommends:
Pilates Anytime: Subscribe to pilatesanytime.com for access to hundreds of online tutorials with trusted instructors, plus a guide to Pilates history.
Alexander on DVD: The renowned Alexander teacher Jane Kosminsky introduces the foundations of Alexander Technique in a series of DVDs available through balanceofwellbeing.com. —SB
A former Cunningham dancer, Toogood now juggles so many projects she has “often ended up at the wrong rehearsal space.” Photos by Jim Lafferty.
As a former member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, Melissa Toogood knows about extremes. In the past few years, since the troupe’s closure, she’s taken the Cunningham ethos of attempting the impossible into her daily life as a freelancer. With her sparkling clarity and composure, she’s one of the most captivating modern dancers in New York City—and one of the busiest.
This spring, Toogood performed in full-fledged shows by Pam Tanowitz, David Parker, Sally Silvers, Rashaun Mitchell, Stephen Petronio, Kimberly Bartosik and Dylan Crossman, while teaching at Barnard College and squeezing in a trip to Paris for a film project with fellow Cunningham alumni. Dance Magazine caught up with her one Friday, which could hardly be called average. As Toogood says, “Every day is different.”
Ready to go
Staying healthy is Toogood’s top priority, so she starts her day with a homemade blend of fruits and veggies. “I began doing that last fall because so many people in New York were getting sick,” she says. “I don’t have time to take a day off, so I started using hand sanitizer religiously and making a green shake every morning with lots of dark greens, ginger, lemon, chia seeds, beets, nuts, whatever I can put in there to boost my immune system and energy. So far it’s working!”
Morning is also a time for calm multitasking: “Often my feet are swollen and tight when I wake up, so I’ll stand on my calf stretcher while having coffee and thinking about the day ahead—making sure that I’m going to the right places and have all the right things. I’ve often ended up at the wrong rehearsal space.”
When their schedules allow, Toogood and her husband, Kenneth E. Parris III, try to leave their apartment in Brooklyn at the same time and travel together into Manhattan. Parris works as a visual artist and creative director, and their off-hours don’t always align. “This way we can actually spend 30 minutes together on the subway,” Toogood says.
If there’s any constant in Toogood’s schedule, it’s her weekly visit to Clarice Marshall, a Pilates and body-conditioning guru who treats some of New York City’s most illustrious freelance dancers. “She’s amazing. I’ve been working with her for about eight years,” Toogood says. “When she’s out of town, we all freak out.” Their sessions, at Marshall’s midtown studio, change based on Toogood’s needs, which include reining in hypermobility and improving proprioception. “Often it’s just rehab and getting myself back to a neutral place, but when I’m not as tired, we push more.”
Class at City Center
During her five years with the Cunningham company, Toogood took daily classes in Cunningham technique, which remains the most centering practice for her body and mind, she says. She tries to take class at New York City Center, home of the Merce Cunningham Trust, two or three times per week. While rehearsal is a place to explore and try new things, class offers a stabilizing—though still challenging—kind of familiarity.
“It’s like meditation,” Toogood says. “I’m in my own head and focused on me, rather than problem-solving with other people. When you’re making new steps, you’re not always so internally focused. Class is where I take care of myself.”
Rest and review
After class, Toogood cools down with stretching and a quick restorative nap. In a brief respite before evening rehearsal with Pam Tanowitz, also at City Center, she answers e-mails on her iPad and studies sections of Tanowitz’s choreography on video. Her colleague Dylan Crossman, also a former Cunningham dancer, joins her to review their parts in Actual Size, an intricate work by Sally Silvers that they’ll be reviving the following week at the 92nd Street Y. Toogood will be out of town until then, at an upstate residency with Stephen Petronio, so every free minute counts.
Extended downtime—anything longer than a midday break—is hard to come by for Toogood. But when she has it, she gravitates to the outdoors. “I’m definitely an Aussie girl,” she says. (She grew up in Sydney, Australia, and attended New World School of the Arts in Miami.) “I love the water, the beach.” For nature close to home, she and Parris take their folding bikes to Prospect Park, a short ride from their apartment.
Rehearsal with Pam Tanowitz
Toogood thrives on the challenges of developing and performing new material. Her rehearsals with Tanowitz, generally in the evenings, are sometimes her second or third of the day. “I get tired, but once I’m in the work, it rejuvenates me, and I get really excited about it,” she says. “I wouldn’t want to do anything else.”
Siobhan Burke writes on dance for The New York Times.