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Dancing for Doug
All photos by Kyle Froman
Above: Elkins demonstrates a step. Here: Mark Gindick and Cori Marquis work on a phrase
It’s been a while since Doug Elkins has made a dance without a big story to guide him. In 2006, he affectionately spoofed The Sound of Music with his popular Fräulein Maria, which toured 17 cities over three years. In Mo(or)town/Redux (2012), he used Shakespeare’s Othello as a framework for risky partnering and steps inspired by his b-boying past.
His latest work, Hapless Bizarre, maintains his signature wit—made goofier by new collaborator Mark Gindick, a visitor from the world of clowning and physical comedy—but forgoes any predetermined storyline. At a rehearsal at DANY Studios in New York City, prior to the piece’s February premiere, five of his dancers played around with new material as Elkins nudged the dance in different directions. Siobhan Burke spoke with him after.
What were you working on today?
Transitions. Right now we’re tying loose ends together. If something’s ambiguous, should it stay ambiguous? I don’t necessarily feel the need to resolve everything.
Do you choreograph with a story in mind? It seems like there are a lot of little narratives happening at the same time.
I’m not looking for a linear narrative, but I’m looking at things accumulating, and you build meaning out of that. More of a collage than anything. There are definitely a lot of little stories and premises that bang into each other. Watching those things happen, watching them connect or fail to connect, is interesting for me. Part of the structure is its own failure. That sounds a little esoteric, but the missed opportunities are just as important as when connections are made.
Left top: Kyle Marshall with Mark Gindick. Bottom: Marshall with Deborah Lohse.
What’s an example of that?
Like, someone going to do something and doing it poorly—which isn’t really poorly, it’s just the failure has a different quality.
What are you exploring in this piece that’s new for you?
Well, integrating a range of people. But I tend to always be interested in playing with everyone’s collective corporeality—their movement languages and ideas—and how that either synthesizes or fails to in rehearsal. It’s interesting watching Mark, who’s not a “dancer.” After a while, I don’t even think that’s a special feature. He just becomes part of the community, and he brings his movement palette with him, or a new palette is made out of everyone’s abilities.
But do I feel it’s new? I feel it’s developing in a different way. Part of me wants to satisfy you by saying what I think this piece is about, but I have no real idea yet. That’s fascinating for me, too, because with my last two works, I knew what the vessel of the ideas was. Watching these narratives appear and fade into smoke—it’s more abstract than anything I’ve done in a while.
How do you approach making the actual movement?
If you and I and Mark were making a work, we’d get in a room and just start asking, “What interests you in terms of moving? All right. Teach me a phrase of yours so I can learn the DNA of it. Wow, you like to lead with the joints a lot. You like to spiral forward before you go back.” Or sometimes I ask the dancers to build a phrase with me. “Can you retrograde it in the middle? Now can you use the phrase to go under me when I go up and around? Can our dances dance together?”
You’re known for combining different movement languages very fluidly, like Scottish dance and voguing, or break dancing and Graham technique. What are you working with this time?
New vaudeville. Strange snippets of odd musicals. Cinematic ideas, from silent comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, a French filmmaker named Jacques Tati. And Jackie Chan.
What do you look for in a dancer?
People who are willing to play seriously. Deep play. People who have a very strong tolerance for uncertainty. Like, “Hmmm, I don’t know if that’s right. Hmmm, that looks pretty. But do we want it to be pretty? Pretty’s just one choice.” Sometimes my approach is like, “Mark, come in at the wrong time. Come in after you’re supposed to come in. Amusing. Let’s try that a few more times."
For Hapless Bizarre tour dates, see dougelkinschoreography.com.
Above, clockwise from left: Gindick and Lohse. John Sorensen-Jolink and Cori Marquis. Elkins watches a scene come together.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.