What Is "Dance Theater"?
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.
Parson's Big Dance: Short Form. Photo by Paula Court, courtesy of The Kitchen.
Having said that, the contradiction is that I think dance is the most important thing. Dance is sacred. So even though everything's equal, what really needs to be preserved is dance, because it's the most fundamental element at hand.
I don't know why dance and theater ever separated in the first place. Since the ancient Greeks, they've been united. That theater became this thing where people sit on couches and move their mouths—to me it's insane, so unexpressive. One thing that attracted me to Samuel Pepys [the 17-century English diarist and inspiration for Big Dance Theater's new work, 17c] is that when he went to the theater, he described the dances. He's seeing Shakespeare, first- and second-generation Shakespeare, and he's saying, "Well, the play was bad, but the dances were really good." It didn't look like theater does now. They danced!
I don't call my work dance theater, but I am borrowing super-liberally from both disciplines. Both have to do with language, embodied language, these multiple utterances that have different forms and shapes that I hope will collide with each other.
Okpokwasili in her Poor People's TV Room. Photo by Mena Burnette.
Generally I start with text. Once I've written something, I try to think about particular gestures or if there's some kind of movement that resonates with what I've been writing. In working on my piece Bronx Gothic, I came out with this vibrating gesture, something related to a twerk and a twerk gone wrong and the question of how long can that be sustained.
When I move away from written language and go into a space of movement, it's a very open and yummy space where I just follow my body, but it's anchored somewhere in this text that I have floating in the back of my mind, a word or an idea. It's like going into a really wide field, and you don't know which way you're going to go. You can stay in one place, but it's quite spacious.
I find dance theater to be a difficult term. When theater-based people use movement, they don't call it "theater dance." They might say "physical theater" or "experimental theater." It's funny, the qualifications that seem to happen when dance-based artists work outside of dance. I relate more to the word performance—it's more open—and the idea of grabbing from whatever's needed to make the work.
Faye Driscoll's PLAY. Photo by Julieta Cervantes.
Whether there are words or no words, music or no music, it's all interrelated and coming from a similar source of a desire to create. I'm really interested in story, but I have very little interest in plot or telling a story. I'm more concerned with the efforts of storytelling, the labor to convey meaning, the sense of going on a journey through something and just riding that feeling, without necessarily a linear comprehension of it.
When I came here [to New York, from Brazil] I started studying with the people from Twyla Tharp's company. The investigation of movement and the problems it would offer up, like your arms do 7 counts, your legs do 3, the impossibility of those coordinations—that was my first love.
Patricia Hoffbauer in Para-Dice #2. Photo by Ian Douglas.
At the same time I was very attracted to humor and interested in process, exposing the process of making something and the accidents in a rehearsal and the absurdity of it. Early on I did a piece based on an Ionesco play, in which Peter Richards and I were two old ladies. We were looking at absurd theater as a way to break from formal movement, which seemed like it was done, exhausted. I don't know if you'd call what we did dance theater, but it was very theatrical.
If I wasn't borrowing from famous playwrights, I was repeating verbatim what had happened in the studio; I wasn't trying to be a writer. But in 1993 I got together with George [Emilio Sanchez], an actor and writer doing solo performance at this moment of identity politics. I was interested in that, too, so the work became much more political. We've worked together for over 20 years, and it's the most excruciating difficulty—the competition between us, and the difficulties of what's more important, the words or the movement?
Last night, American Ballet Theatre held its annual Fall Gala at the David H. Koch Theater in New York City. To celebrate ABT's artistic director Kevin McKenzie's 25 years of leadership, dancers from ABT's company, apprentices, studio company members and students from the Jaqueline Kennedy Onassis School took to the stage in Jessica Lang's The Gift, Alexei Ratmansky's Songs of Bukovina and Christopher Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions.
But we also love a good behind-the-scenes glimpse—especially when designer gowns are involved. And the dancers gave us plenty of glam looks to obsess over once the curtains closed. Ahead, see our favorite moments from gala straight from the dancers.
Devon Teuscher in the floral print suit of our dreams (by designer Patricia Bonaldi) practices her dance moves with Christine Shevchenko. Both girls accessorized with sparkling jewels from gala sponsor de Grisogono.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
Last week Ballet West breezed into New York City's Joyce Theater from Salt Lake City. The dancers are excellent—especially the women (what else is new). The company brought five pieces including works by Gerald Arpino, Val Caniparoli and resident choreographer Nicolo Fonte.
Arpino's last work, made in 2004, is a duet called RUTH, Ricordi per Due ("remembrance for two"). It's about a man haunted by the memory of the woman he loved. Christopher Ruud is strong and sensitive as the man, and Arolyn Williams is riveting as the ghost of his beloved.
Val Caniparoli energizes his dancers with juicy movement, and always sticks to his theme. (He doesn't ramble, and let's face it, long rambling choreography is a problem these days.) In his premiere for Ballet West, Dances for Lou, he takes on the music of Lou Harrison, a composer known for his Eastern sounds and rhythms.
Photo by Filip VanRoe, courtesy Marquee
Your Saturday nights are about to go from "Netflix and chill" to "Marquee and chill." (Okay, maybe we'll need to coin a new phrase).
But seriously, the new streaming app Marquee Arts TV lets you curl up with Bolshoi Ballet's Swan Lake, Sylvie Guillem dancing Mats Ek's solo Bye, a dance film by Cullberg Ballet called 40 M Under, or a documentary about Alonzo King and LINES Ballet. Marquee unlocks a world of digital arts: dance, theater, opera, music, documentaries and film shorts that you can stream directly to your TV or mobile device.
When Simone Forti moved from California to New York City in 1960, she brought with her the improvisational approach of Anna Halprin. As one of the first five students in Robert Dunn's John Cage–inspired composition course (that led to Judson Dance Theater), she was a magnet for two others in that class: Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. This month the three reunite for Tea for Three, an evening of moving and talking at Danspace Project, Oct. 26–28. It's a chance to see how dance mavericks grow and change and mellow. Forti will also give "Body Mind World" workshops Oct. 19–20. danspaceproject.org.
When you're dancing for what feels like eight days a week, it takes more than just stretching to put your body back in order. You need a good rub down. Unfortunately, most of us don't exactly have the money to afford an on-call personal masseuse.
The solution: Self-massage, with foam rollers, lacrosse balls, elbows and anything else that can help loosen up your muscles. We dug into Dance Magazine's archives to find the best pieces of advice we've published on the topic. Follow these rules to get what you, ahem, knead out of self-massage.
This week American Ballet Theatre launches its fall season at Lincoln Center with an exciting lineup of performances. One last-minute addition to the program is a new work from Benjamin Millepied, which will be performed by ABT Studio Company and Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School dancers in the theater's promenade during select intermissions. Although the specifics of the performance are hush hush, we stepped into the studio with Millepied for an inside look.
What has it been like to choreograph on younger dancers and how, if at all, did you change your approach?
To be honest, they're really good. Rhythmically, it's not easy at all and they've done incredibly well. The piece could be longer. It's really one movement but, for the first time, to use that space it felt right. Nothing says I couldn't add two more movements next season to make it longer.
What are your thoughts on bringing classical ballet outside the proscenium setting?
For me, it's great to think of spaces theatrically. We build sets with lighting and props, but there are also all these environments that are beautiful and theatrical, and with a little bit of work you can create something within them and that becomes site-specific. That's really fun because you create something really specific for the environment.
What would you like to see more of from young ballet dancers?
What I would want to see more of in ballet is just more interesting collaborations. These ballet dancers are great and they're ready and what they need is more interesting work. I feel people are playing it safe a lot. If anything, I think it's the choreographers and the directors who need to make an effort for these dancers who have made this art form their passion, and to really be as daring or at least as relevant as some of our peers were when they were commissioning pieces a long time ago.
For many victims of recent natural disasters like Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Maria, the new "normal" involves power outages, food shortages and massive property damage. The dance community has stepped up to help by doing what they do best: This Sunday, October 22, members from major American companies will perform in two separate concerts in New York City, benefitting those affected by the hurricanes in Texas and Puerto Rico.