Breaking Stereotypes
The author (with her hair down) in Jane Comfort's Deportment

These days I work as assistant to shoe icon Steve Madden. It's a busy job, and it had me running late for my first dance rehearsal with Jane Comfort and Company after…22 years? Yikes!

When Jane asked if I'd like to perform in her 40th-year retrospective, I didn't hesitate to say yes. I'd worked with Jane for many years, and really missed her and the process of putting a show together. The pieces I'd be performing involved mostly gesture, like Four Screaming Women, and singing and acting in She/He. At 64 years old, I was thrilled at the chance to hit the stage again.

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Dancers & Companies

The Glass Menagerie? Fantastic! Seventeen years ago, our dance group jointly gave birth to Faith Healing, Jane Comfort’s brilliant deconstruction of Tennessee William’s play, The Glass Menagerie. We were working with an amazing team of downtown dancer/actors: Mark Dendy as Amanda, David Neumann as The Gentleman Caller, and Scott Willingham as Tom. I played Laura, the painfully shy, physically and emotionally crippled young girl.

 

Being a huge fan of Tennessee Williams, I was excited to start the rehearsal process. Since much of Jane’s choreography incorporated text, humor, gesture, and pure dance movement, I had no doubt that The Glass Menagerie was the perfect vehicle for the company.

 

We began to tinker with Jane’s reinvention of Williams’ play. She interwove chosen snippets of text with original choreography, and incorporated physicalized versions of iconic film segments, which helped to articulate the characters’ inner lives and fantasies. A really fun improvisation resulted in one of my favorite scenes: the segment where David and I “fly” as we’re lying side-by-side on stools, arms and legs outstretched, Superman-style. This scene was totally inspired by David, and grew into a collaboration between all of us. Jane encouraged our participation in the making of the piece, which made me feel personally invested in its success as a creative work.

 

Last week, I was invited to watch a rehearsal of the 2010 revival of Faith Healing. I was excited to see the piece again, and curious to see how “our” roles would be transferred onto other minds and bodies. The only original cast member is Mark Dendy, and to watch him 17 years later pull out all stops as Amanda was pretty spectacular. It seems life experience has added a more sympathetic dimension to his portrayal of a woman whose time has come and gone. While watching the run-through, the fact that Mark isn’t a woman never crossed my mind.

 

I was curious to see what Heather Christian would bring to the part of Laura, and her portrayal has a feisty energy that’s refreshing and endearing. After working so closely with David, it was hard for me to imagine anyone else in the part of the Gentleman Caller, but Matthew Hardy brings a sweet, genuine quality to the role that makes it shine. Leslie Cuyjet steamed up my glasses in sexy fantasy scene with “Tom”, and Sean Donovan is flawless as the disturbed Tom; he brings a vulnerability to the part that makes the story that much sadder.

 

Performing in Faith Healing in 1993 was one of the highlights of my dance career. I’m not sure I ever felt as connected to a part as I did to the role of Laura. To be able to see it again brought me back to the time and place where I was living my dream. I’m grateful I was once part of this amazing piece, and I look forward to seeing the show this month at Joyce Soho.

 

 

Nancy Alfaro and David Neumann in the original Faith Healing, photo by Arthur Elgort, Courtesy Jane Comfort

Dance can be a moral transporter as well as an artistic one. It’s a form that joins the heart and mind and has the power to bridge different worlds. Dance Magazine interviewed several artists who are using dance to engage in, or raise awareness for, a variety of causes.

 

Boulder, Colorado’s Eco Arts was founded by Marda Kirn. Her mission is to bring together science, environmental arts, and indigenous organizations to increase awareness about climate change and sustainable living. Eco Arts’ projects combine the cognitive power of science with the emotional power of art to get people to think about these issues. “We try to be to scientifically accurate, and to have as many full-on collaborations as possible,” says Kirn, who also edits the International Tap Association Newsletter. This is where local dancer/choreographer Michelle Ellsworth comes in. She is collaborating with climate change scientist Jason Neff on a piece called The Wheels of Blame, which will be performed in a program called “Balancing Acts: Visions for a Sustainable Future.”

 

Dancer Ellsworth and scientist Neff believe that each of their native “languages” is inadequate for communicating ideas. Says Ellsworth, “We thought it would be pleasing to use each other’s forms to make a hybrid that deals with the problem of global warming.” Ellsworth is inspired by the rigor of science; and Neff, for his part, feels that dancers can help make scientific fact more easily digestible.

 

“The issue of global warming is not going to go away,” says Ellsworth, “and its implications are enormous.” Ellsworth hopes that if scientific evidence is presented through the lens of performance, people will connect to the information in unexpected ways and begin to take action.

 

Tap, ballet and jazz dancer Amy Danielson got the idea for Genesis Sarajevo after volunteering to teach dance at a children’s camp in war-torn Bosnia. In June of 2006 she offered her first dance intensive at the camp, which is sponsored by Foundation Land of Friendship and Peace in Kakringe, a town outside Sarajevo.

 

Danielson now travels to Bosnia twice a year for the two-week sessions. The students study technique, perform group exercises, and work together to put on together a show. Her new goal is to bring tap and hip hop companies to mentor the students and have Genesis Sarajevo perform what they’ve developed. “I’ve been their only teacher for the past two years,” she says. “Now I need to involve more people.”

 

Danielson feels that young people in areas of conflict need this kind of outlet, and that dancing together provides a meeting ground for differing cultures and religions. “The ultimate goal is to have a fully functioning dance company in Sarajevo,” says Danielson. “If some of the girls want to pursue dance professionally, they can go that route. And if they’re just doing it for fun, they’re getting an experience that they may never have had.”

 

Eventually Danielson would like to broaden the project to include other conflict-ridden areas like Uganda and Manila. “I get a lot out of teaching these girls because they respond so quickly,” she says. “They are joyful and excited, and that’s so rewarding.”

 

New Jersey dance studio owner Kathleen Cirioli is a tap dancer and cancer survivor. She’s also the founder of Dance for the Cure, an organization that promotes cancer awareness at corporate events. Her lyrical “dance of hope,” performed by four young dancers, ends with the audience singing “Go and Get Your Mammogram” and tap dancing to the tune of “Button Up Your Overcoat.” “If I can educate people to know that cancer doesn’t have to be a death sentence, and inspire them to get mammograms and not be afraid,” she says, “I will have fulfilled my dream.”

 

Many of the moms at her studio, Cirioli says, are surprised to hear she’s overcome so many obstacles. She believes her passion for dance has fueled her mission of hope. “Having dance to look forward to made me recover,” says Cirioli, who had both breast and ovarian cancer. “In order to get through my surgeries and treatments, I thought about how I missed teaching, choreographing, and moving.” And she sees a benefit for the students who got involved. “The young girls who participated in Dance for a Cure learned so much. If they have to address these issues in the future, they’ll be more prepared to help themselves and others.”

 

Since last February Ashley Hilton has taught ballet to kindergarteners, first and second graders in the outreach program at The Patel Performing Arts Conservatory, the education arm of Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center and the Orlando Ballet School in Florida. The conservatory recently developed a dance program in conjunction with Metropolitan Ministries School, a charter institution for homeless and disadvantaged children in levels K through 5.

 

Hilton has already noticed an improvement in her students’ focus and interest. “The kids can be creative and physical here, and they are learning an artistic discipline,” she says. “Dance shows them that they can do something they’re proud of, and they learn to concentrate—which is also good for schoolwork and sports.” Inspired by the children’s progress, Metropolitan Ministries has added more classes and is bringing in guest artists like Bill T. Jones and Ballet Hispanico.

 

Since the children don’t have dance gear, they take class in jeans and skirts—but they give it their all. Patel Conservatory organized a drive to give the children ballet slippers. “Many of the kids have told me they love their ballet shoes and want to sleep in them,” says Hilton. “And they’re so excited to have a real dance studio, with ballet barres.”

 

“As the children’s home lives improve,” Hilton adds, “they leave the school, but they get to take their shoes with them, in the hopes that they’ll pursue dance elsewhere.”

 

Our daily lives bombard us with reminders of hardship, from the front page of the morning paper to the roundup on the nightly news. Buckling under an information overload, we find it hard to take action, easier to turn away. But dance can speak to people in ways that other language can’t. Whether making a statement about the state of the world, creating common ground between clashing cultures, or teaching just one child the rewards of hard work, as dancers we can move toward making a difference.

 

 

Nancy Alfaro is a former dancer who lives and writes in NYC.

Dancers & Companies

Ivana Müller
Florence Gould Hall, NYC
September 24–26, 2008
Reviewed by Nancy Alfaro

 

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.

Karen Røise Kielland,

Pere Faura, Stefan Rokebrand,

Katja Dreyer, and Bill Aitchison

in Ivana Müller's While We Were

Holding It Together at Dance Theater Workshop.

 

While We Were Holding It Together is a witty theatrical event from Paris- and Amsterdam-based choreographer Ivana Müller. Co-presented by Dance Theater Workshop and the French Alliance’s “Crossing the Line” series, the piece opens with a colorful tableau vivant: Four performers assume a variety of frozen standing positions, while the fifth casually reclines on the floor, propped on her elbow.


Because these initial poses are in perfect silence, the viewer is able to absorb the barebones staging; the actors’ deadpan expressions; and their colorful, shabby-chic street-wear. The lack of sound and movement leaves the audience expectant, and when the first blackout occurs you believe you’re in for your reward. The scene is revealed again, and nothing new happens, so the audience’s refuted expectation becomes a humorous self-observation.

 

When the lights come up a third time, the setting remains the same. But the actors begin to speak, starting each time with the words, “I imagine.” Their fantasies, wishes, and thoughts are revealed with phrases like “soldiers in a minefield,” or “statues in a museum.” Because there is no set or movement, the audience is riveted by the text, the sound of the actors’ voices, and their European-accented English.

 

As the evening progresses, the performers switch places and adopt the previous actor’s stance, or strike their own new positions. The only movement we really see is the shaking of limbs as the performers struggle to retain the stillness of their outstretched arms. Somehow this small, tremulous movement becomes an added layer, a new focal point, and you wonder whether or not their shaking is really originating from strain, or if the actor is exaggerating its intensity.

 

Bit by bit, the complexities of Müller’s concept emerge. Even when the lights go off, the actors continue to speak, leaving the imagination to determine where they are in space. It’s like listening to a radio play, where you’re free to create your own scenario. The text is mundane yet somehow profound and funny, and the actors’ simple storytelling approach makes their pronouncements easy for the audience to identify with.

 

I liked While We Were Holding It Together and thought it a clever theatrical work. But the question of whether or not it’s dance isn’t even debatable; it’s not. And because there is so little money available for dance and choreography, the need to distinguish which works are presented as dance is absolutely necessary.

Bringing dance to new audiences across the country and around the world is exciting for touring dancers. But whether you’re dancing at a nearby school or as far away as Australia, you’ve traveled there in cramped quarters on a plane, train, or bus. And while you probably won’t leap from the runway directly to the stage, it’s best to arrive at your destination as supple, energized, and ready to move as possible.

 

But keeping your joints oiled during travel requires some ingenuity. So Dance Magazine spoke to several performers and experts who are pros at fighting touring trauma. Read their tips and stay loose!


Combat Dehydration Virginia Wilmerding, past president of the International Association for Dance Medicine and Science, says that when flying, the altitude creates conditions that can promote dehydration, which puts you at risk for swollen legs and creaky joints. Drinking lots of water, and even electrolyte-carbohydrate beverages like Gatorade, may help keep swelling at bay. And staying away from alcohol, which is dehydrating, is a must. Wearing compression stockings (found in hospital supply stores) may help relieve swelling. So can performing relevés, which are easy to do while standing in narrow aisles.

 

Tamara Riewe, of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, has her travel routine down to a science, as the company tours an average of two weeks every other month. When flying, she drinks 20 oz. of water every two hours, and orders a vegetarian meal. “It has less fat content and more fiber, so it keeps the system regulated,” she says. She also makes sure to pack fresh fruits and veggies to snack on.

 

Paul Taylor Dance Company veteran Robert Kleinendorst also says that dehydration is the number one body wrecker. Dancers’ overstressed muscles need water to release lactic acid, so they don’t become stiff. Kleinendorst recommends taking ibuprofen, since it thins the blood and increases circulation, helping to flush out toxins.


Travel Exercises Riewe makes sure to book an aisle seat so she can stand up easily. “I am that dork who’s actually doing a little yoga in the bulkhead space,” she says. And since planes now supply pamphlets and videos that give passengers limited-space exercises, Riewe’s noticed more and more “civilians” working out while flying.

 

“Even though we try to keep a low profile, on long flights we’ll go to the galley and stretch,” says Kleinendorst. “I loosen my hamstrings and lower back by hanging over, because there’s not a lot of room. You want to stay out of the way of the other passengers and crew.” He’ll also try to work in shoulder circles, contractions, pliés, and quad stretches to keep him from “fusing into solid bone.”

 

Massage therapist Russ Beasley has worked with many dancers. He says that you should get up and walk the aisle every hour to counterbalance the time you’re seated. He also suggests calf stretches and pulling the knee up to the chest while standing. “Even standing and reaching for the ceiling can provide lengthening movement,” says Beasley. And some trains have larger bathrooms, where Beasley suggests carefully engaging in standing stretches. “Just be aware there can be sudden stops,” he says.

 

John Michael Schert dances with LINES Ballet and the Trey McIntyre Project (see “On the Rise,” Nov. 2007). “I don’t think air travel is natural. The pressure is brutal on joints. My ankles swell, and when I land they’re not aligned,” he says. He performs lots of ankle rotations and suggests manually manipulating the foot by moving the metatarsal in a circular motion with your hand.


Carry-On Baggage While seated, Riewe uses softball-sized body balls with rubbery spikes to self-massage. “This applies pressure to my back. And rolling balls with my feet keeps them more active than they normally would be while flying,” she says. Lots of her touring buddies use them too.

 

Beasley says the seats in planes, trains, buses, and cars tend to pitch the pelvis backwards, causing undue stress on dancers’ hypermobile joints. He recommends traveling with inflatable lumbar and cervical (head/neck) support pillows for long trips. These can be found at most luggage shops and some drug stores. If you don’t have time to search them out, rolled up towels can provide support too.

 

On the Ground As soon as Schert boards a flight of 12 hours or more, he adjusts the time on his computer, cell phone, and watch to mentally prep for his new time zone. Before the meal, he’ll take a sleeping pill prescribed by his doctor. Then he eats, goes to the bathroom, and hits the hay. “I try to get a solid block of sleep on the plane, because it helps my body to behave like it would in the time zone I’ve landed in,” he says.

 

When traveling by bus or car, use rest stops to stretch and move as much as you can. Try developing a supported stretch routine with another dancer, or walk around and shake out the kinks. Just make sure to dress comfortably so your movement choices aren’t restricted.

 


Nancy Alfaro lives (and stretches) in New York.

Massage. The word evokes visions of serenity, sensuality, and relaxation. But for dancers who work 6, 8, or 10-hour days, massage is also a basic requirement for maintaining physical and mental health.

 

Massage practitioners study a variety of techniques, and may combine different styles within a typical hour-long session. Dancers may experience Eastern massage forms like shiatsu or acupressure (Japanese compression massage based on Chinese theories of health and well-being), or Thai massage, which incorporates yoga-like stretching to increase range of motion. The therapist may also include Western styles like deep tissue, Swedish, or myofascial release. All three include long, gliding strokes and kneading. They focus on releasing chronic tension patterns in deeper layers of muscle tissue, alleviating chronic pain, and increasing blood and lymph circulation.

 

Michael Leslie, massage therapist for San Francisco Ballet, finds deep-tissue technique in greatest demand there. “It helps dancers use their bodies better because it aids their alignment,” he says. It softens tissue and helps muscles release so they “fall back into place.” Deep-tissue massage also helps normalize muscle tone, allowing the dancer to perform better at the next rehearsal or performance. Russ Beasley, who works on Broadway and American Ballet Theatre dancers, notes that it’s not easy to pinpoint which technique is most effective. But, he says, “Most dancers would probably expect and ask for a deep-tissue session that gets down and into the layers of muscle and fascia.”

 

Frequency of sessions varies according to schedule and individual preference. Beasley works on some dancers on a daily basis, and with others on a weekly or bimonthly basis. Most of his dance clients come in for a weekly visit on their day off, with occasional extra visits during the week for spot work. Beasley feels the weekly sessions allow therapists to get to know a dancer’s likes and dislikes, and allow for a better understanding of the unique aspects of each dancer’s body.

 

Injury often plays a role in what areas get worked on. “First we’ll look at the muscle groups surrounding the injured part to see what we can do to keep those areas functioning optimally,” says Jennifer Levitz, a former Pacific Northwest Ballet dancer who is now a company massage therapist. “When inflammation decreases, we work right on the injured area to restore function.” SFB’s Leslie says that working with tissue surrounding the trauma area will enhance the healing process, since it improves circulation to the area. Work on a typical overuse injury can start within a day.

 

Beasley feels massage rarely makes things worse for a dancer. But a physician should evaluate injuries first, especially if there’s bruising or if pain prevents sleep. “Generally, injuries need a period of rest before being treated with massage, whether it’s 24 hours, several weeks, or longer,” he says. Once an injury has been properly identified, and the physician gives an OK, massage is safe when approached conservatively.

 

All agree that, by taking on mild soreness before it becomes a bigger problem, massage can help prevent injury. Says Beasley, “At Twyla Tharp’s Broadway production of Movin’ Out, the overwhelming consensus of the performers was that massage was the single most effective technique to keep them going and to limit injury.” ’Nuff said!

 

 

Nancy Alfaro, a New York writer, danced with STREB, Jane Comfort, and Meredith Monk.

The audience settles and the lights begin to dim. The music’s cued, and you prepare to make your entrance. Though you know your director and fellow dancers trust you, and you’ve worked your buns off rehearsing for your moment in the limelight, an unfounded fear suddenly floods your being. Rather than bounding onstage with joyful energy, you’re quaking in the wings, with your legs shaking and your heart racing so fast you could never dance to its beat! That, fellow dancers, is what’s known as stage fright. If you’re a victim of it (or if you just want to understand it), please read on.

 

Michelle Yard, a veteran of Mark Morris Dance Group says, “I get stage fright all the time!” Yard reveals that she’s slightly panicked every time she steps onstage, though not to the point of being frozen in her tracks. But her queasy stomach and pounding heart let her know she’s about to go on.

 

“Working with live music and different stages makes everything new all the time, so you get nervous,” says Yard. She also feels that handling difficult costumes contributes to feeling anxious, and that pieces where she’s featured are even more difficult to perform. “You’re out there by yourself, and if fear distracts you and your mind goes elsewhere for a second, you’ve got to come to your senses and figure things out fast!”

 

Yard’s been with the company for 10 years, and admits the fear was worse at the beginning. “When you’re new you want to show what you can do and why they hired you,” she says. She feels that having to prove yourself is nerve-wracking, and she believes it plays into the fear of going onstage. “Ultimately you want the company to think they made a good choice!” she says.

 

Tulsa Ballet demi-soloist Megan Keough doesn’t often experience stage fright, but she does remember having an episode when she danced in Bournonville’s Pas de Quatre. “When I first did the piece, I was so nervous I actually choked onstage,” says Keough. “I didn’t fall down, but the final diagonal of turns was nothing like it was in rehearsal—I was stumbling!”

 

Keough says she was terrified and that the experience “shocked the hell,” out of her. “I felt like I was standing about an inch off the stage, like I wasn’t connected to the floor,” she says. She was so afraid to “mess it up” that that’s exactly what she did!

 

She feels she’s learned from that one experience. “I saw that I needed to spend more time in pointe shoes beforehand. I wasn’t taking class on pointe, and I let my guard down,” she says. Keough also decided that she can’t approach every piece the same way. “Learning these things is part of growing as a dancer and as an artist.”

 

BalletMet Columbus’ Emily Ramirez finds that dancing solo is a nerve-inducing experience. “My stage fright developed over time as the choreography got more difficult, and I realized I had more of a chance of screwing it up,” she says. The anticipation of performing certain pieces gives Ramirez the shakes, and her heart rate escalates noticeably. “These symptoms can even start when the music comes on,” she says. “It’s ridiculous, because I’m a ham. But I’m a ham and a ball of nerves all at once!”

 

Ramirez’s heart rate has gotten so high when performing certain parts that she’s lost feeling in her legs. “It’s scary to go onstage when you can’t feel your legs,” she says. “That’s an extreme thing.”

 

But she has found that standing in the wings with her arms raised above her head helps calm her down. “I close my eyes and take deep breaths to lower my heart rate,” she says. “It’s relaxing. I can get into my own zone for a while.”

 

She’s also afraid of heights, so being lifted and tossed around in the air is fear-inducing too. “I did a James Kudelka piece where I ran into a treacherous lift right off the bat,” she says. “My partner knew how scared I get, so we’d do a funny little dance in the wings to shake the nerves off.”

 

Humor still helps her through tough stage fright bouts. “If I’m nervous in the wings, I’m going to lighten the mood,” she says. “I’ll be the one to say something irreverent. First I resort to joking, and then I do some trusty deep breathing and close off my surroundings. I say to myself, ‘I’m a dancer in a ballet and I have to make it work!’ ”

 

Audra Johnson has been with American Repertory Ballet for four years. During her first season with the company, Johnson says she was filled with fear. “I am classically trained but was doing contemporary movement,” she says. “I felt if it didn’t feel right, how could it look right?”

 

Johnson says even onstage she would battle her nonstop internal monologue. “I was in my head all the time,” says Johnson. “It was hard to stop worrying and get comfortable with the movement.”

 

The director of the company took Johnson aside and told her she needed more confidence and that everyone was rooting for her. Once she began to understand that, she could let go of some of her fear. “I tried not to be so worried about how I looked and felt,” she says. “Dance is not about the perfect pirouette; it’s so much deeper than perfection.”

 

Johnson doesn’t experience stage fright too often anymore. “Of course I get the jitters before a show, but I have to trust myself and my partners,” she says. “I tell myself to go out there and have fun.”

 

John Heginbotham, another member of the Mark Morris Dance Group, isn’t a victim of perpetual stage fright, but he has gotten it while performing I Love You Dearly, a highly aerobic solo. The first time he did it, he says, “I was alone in the wings and I felt my heart in my stomach. For about three seconds I entertained the idea of leaving the theater!”

 

As the piece began, Heginbotham felt like he was on a rollercoaster ride. Once he was accomplishing his landmarks, he began to enjoy dancing. But when he was asked to perform it for the company’s 25th-anniversary season, he found himself getting nervous again. As he was warming up, he felt he needed some words of wisdom to help him get through the dance. Morris happened to be backstage, so Heginbotham asked him to tell him something about the piece he didn’t know. “This piece is easy,” said Morris. “But I can’t tell you you’ll have a good life!” The humor helped him to relax, and when he thought of it as easy, it flowed better.

 

“There are always pieces that are more nerve-wracking than others, but you have to get through it,” says Heginbotham. “There are worse things that can happen in life than making mistakes onstage.”

 

So if stage fright is your constant or part-time partner, remember: Even the most accomplished dancers have experienced it sometime in their career, and most dancers do find ways of coping with their fears. Breathe, laugh, and enjoy your time onstage.


Nancy Alfaro lives and writes in Queens, NY.

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