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?
We've been saying for years that dance training has benefits that reach far beyond preparation for a professional dance career: The discipline and attention to detail fostered in technique class, the critical thinking skills acquired in composition, and the awareness and rapid reaction times required for improvisation can all carry over into other fields.
But what if a choreographic tool kit could have a more direct application outside the studio? Say, to city planning?
"What if you could learn from the world's best dance teachers in your living room?" This is the question that Dancio poses on their website. Dancio is a new startup that offers full length videos of ballet classes taught by master teachers. As founder Caitlin Trainor puts it, "these superstar teachers can be available to students everywhere for the cost of a cup of coffee."
For Trainor, a choreographer and the artistic director of Trainor Dance, the idea for Dancio came from a sense of frustration relatable to many dancers; feeling like they need to warm up properly before rehearsals, but not always having the time, energy or funds to get to dance class. One day while searching the internet for a quick online class, Trainor was shocked to not be able to find anything that, as she puts it, "hit the mark in terms of relevance and quality. I thought to myself, how does this not exist?" she says. "We have the Daily Burn for Fitness, YogaGlo for yogis, Netflix for entertainment and nothing for dancers! But then I thought, I can make this!" And thus, Dancio (the name is a combination of dance and video), was born.
There's a surprising twist to Regina Willoughby's last season with Columbia City Ballet: It's also her 18-year-old daughter Melina's first season with the company. Regina, 40, will retire from the stage in March, just as her daughter starts her own career as a trainee. But for this one season, they're sharing the stage together.
Last night, the New York City Ballet board of directors approved ballet master in chief Peter Martins' request for a temporary leave of absence amidst an ongoing investigation into sexual harassment.
The investigation came to light on Monday, when the New York Times reported that NYCB and the School of American Ballet had hired a law firm to investigate their leader after receiving an anonymous letter detailing instances of harassment.
You dance like a knockout—but can you take a punch? Intense stage combat is a crucial element in many shows, from the sword fighting in Romeo & Juliet to the left hooks of the Broadway musical Rocky. But performing it well requires careful body awareness, trust and a full commitment to safety. Whether you're dancing a pivotal battle in a story ballet or intense partnering in a contemporary piece, these expert tips can help you make your fight scenes convincing, compelling and safe.
1. Master the Basics
When Luke Ingham was cast as Tybalt in San Francisco Ballet's Romeo & Juliet, he spent a full month practicing the basic body positions, footwork and momentum of fencing. "You need to be really grounded, you need to know where your feet are," Ingham says.
Brooklyn-based burlesque troupe Company XIV isn't afraid to take risks. Nutcracker Rouge, their take on the holiday classic, features a cast of jack-of-all-trades dancers who double as greeters, ushers, singers, actors and aerialists, while baring a good amount of skin but even more confidence. (Disclaimer: The show is for mature audiences only.) What's most impressive about these artists is how captivating they are. Regardless of what style of dance you do, if you want to become a better performer, consider taking a page out of their playbook.
You've got to be "on" the moment the audience walks in the front door.
Former New York City Ballet dancer Wilhelmina Frankfurt first spoke out about sexual misconduct at NYCB in Psychology Tomorrow in 2012. Since October, she's been working with The Washington Post reporter Sarah Kaufman for a story about Peter Martins, and when the School of American Ballet began investigating Martins for an anonymous accusation, she was called in to discuss her experiences. But Frankfurt feels there's more to the larger picture, and shares that here with Dance Magazine, as edited by Maggie Levin.
In 1994, I began to write a book of essays about my life in dance—mostly as an exercise. When the #MeToo movement began this year, I knew it was time to brush the dust off and take another look. Although incomplete, these essays addressed the roots that have long run between sexual abuse, alcoholism and ballet. They involve George Balanchine, Peter Martins and numerous stars of the New York City Ballet. It's painfully clear that my story is the same story that has occurred thousands of times, all over the world.
I'm heartbroken that I might have to drop out of the Radio City Christmas Spectacular. My back has been spasming since I did an extra-high kick to the back. My X-ray and MRI are normal, but my doctor thinks I hurt my sacroiliac joint. Physical therapy hasn't helped yet. How can I know for sure that this is the real problem?
—Injured Rockette, New York, NY
Freddie Kimmel's musical theater career was just taking off when he woke up one morning with a pain in his groin. A trip to the doctor assured him it was nothing of concern, even though the sensation returned a few months later. As a dancer, Kimmel was used to pushing through discomfort, so he kept going to dance class to "work it out."
But the pain persisted. During a run of The Full Monty at Westchester Broadway Theatre, Kimmel was diagnosed with advanced metastasized cancer. Ten tumors had infiltrated his body.
Japanese-born, New York–based choreographer Kota Yamazaki returns to his roots as a butoh dancer in Darkness Odyssey Part 2: I or Hallucination. He explores butoh founder Tatsumi Hijikata's idea of the extreme fragility of the body. Yamazaki is joined by contemporary luminaries Julian Barnett, Raja Feather Kelly, Joanna Kotze and Mina Nishimura, each of whom engages in drastically eccentric pathways, making the body appear to disintegrate before your eyes. Music is by Kenta Nagai and visual environment by lighting wizard Thomas Dunn. Dec. 13–15, Baryshnikov Arts Center. bacnyc.org.