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By Lauren Kay
Lisa Gajda is the epitome of a Broadway baby: She’s performed in more than a dozen Broadway productions including Cry-Baby, Monty Python’s Spamalot, Movin’ Out, and Fosse. Charismatic presence and fierce technique have made her a favorite of many top Broadway dancemakers, from Rob Ashford to Jerry Mitchell. Now, she’s hitting the boards again—in her 16th show—as part of the ensemble in Mitchell’s latest choreographic project, Catch Me If You Can. DM interviewed Gajda to learn how she’s danced mostly injury-free over such a busy career.
Connected to Class For Gajda, staying in shape means staying in class. She says that getting to know various styles, from African dance to Simonson technique, has helped her adapt to the demands of different choreographers. “When I’m in a show, I often just take ballet barre or the barre-like warm up in Suzi Taylor’s jazz class,” Gajda says. “But when I’m on hiatus, I explore and expand, taking full classes as often as I can. I cherish the time to study.” Though Gajda is interested in discovering new approaches, “I stay away from anything that doesn’t start sequentially,” she says. “Class should begin with a plié that moves to a tendu that moves to a dégagé. I’m not interested in classes that are thrown together or too muscled.”
Taking class for Gajda is as much about mental satisfaction as physical. “When I’m in a production, I express my curiosity through the choreography,” she says. “But in my downtime I feel the desire to become a student again. I get to address all the things I’m curious about, like closing my ribs in modern class.”
While Gajda loves yoga, she doesn’t think it can take the place of class. “A lot of people are using yoga as a replacement for dance class and I think that’s a mistake,” she says. “As dancers, we use our bodies a certain way, and you have to train—and maintain—the muscles to do these things. I think that—and a certain amount of genetic luck!—have kept me relatively injury-free and healthy all these years. Though I practice Bikram yoga, if I go too far in that direction and don’t maintain enough dance in my schedule, my body is less prepared for movement in rehearsal and onstage.”
Rehearsal-Ready When in rehearsal, Gajda follows a weekly routine, especially as she’s trying to heal. Recently she injured a knee due to a collision with a partner and pulled a hamstring in pre-production rehearsal. “On rehearsal days, I used to do the minimum possible to save my energy,” she says. “But now that I’m handling a few injuries, I’ve added the standing series of Bikram three times a week, as well as an at-home session I learned from my physical therapist for alternate days. Then, right before rehearsal, I do 15 minutes on the elliptical at the gym to get warm.”
At home, Gajda strengthens her hamstrings and hips with exercises like clamshells (lying on one side, with knees bent, she lifts the top knee to create a diamond space using her glute), single-leg bridges, 20 relevés on each foot, and hamstring curls. She also likes this “skiing” exercise for overall leg strength: Stand on one leg in parallel demi-plié, with your weight in your heel, and tendu your other leg to the side 10 times and then to the back 10 times.
Stretch, Strengthen Gajda has learned that active, not passive, stretching is best for her. She especially likes an active stretch called “bottoms up”: Squat in parallel with your hands in prayer position and heels on the ground. Slowly straighten your legs just a bit and lace your prayer hands between your legs, pressing your elbows against the insides of your knees. Then straighten your legs as much as you can with resistance from your arms.
To rebalance her pelvis after the loads of beveling in Catch Me, Gajda does this “marching” exercise on a foam roller: Lying face up, with the roller along the length of her spine, she tries to balance while lifting one leg at a time. “When I get strong, I add opposition arms,” she says. “When my left leg is off the ground, my right arm is extended straight by my right ear, with my left arm straight by my hip. My arms switch as my legs switch.”
A Simple Life Outside of the studio and theater, Gajda says a simple, focused life is essential. “I don’t drink, I’m vegetarian, and I try to pick foods that have high nutritional value—though I’m not super strict with my diet,” she says. “I think things like a good night’s sleep and a calm walk to work are underrated. I always try to enter the workspace with a clear mind and fully rested. Then you can cope with anything.”
Lauren Kay, a Dance Spirit contributing editor, is a dancer and writer in NYC.
Gajda in rehearsal for Catch Me. Photo by Matthew Murphy
Across The Floor
Notes & News
The ¡Sí Cuba! festival, a three-month celebration of Cuban arts and culture in NYC, offers rare opportunities not only to see Cuban dance companies—some of whom have never performed in the U.S.—but also to learn from them. On May 13 and 20, members of the wildly energetic Danza Contemporánea de Cuba teach master classes at DANY studios, during their two-week run at the Joyce (see “Dance Matters,” p. 16). May 29 and 30, Ballet Folklórico Cutumba (performing at Brooklyn Academy of Music, May 27–30) invites all ages to experience the infectious rhythms of Afro-Cuban folkloric dance. See www.sicuba.org and www.joyce.org.
As the academic year draws to a close, UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures shows the public what students and faculty have been up to. In a Senior Projects Showcase, May 13–14, undergraduates present the culmination of their studies through choreography, documentaries, and hard-to-categorize projects. Faculty members share the seeds of ideas in a Works in Progress Presentation, June 3–4. The provocative dancemakers (and educators) on the program include Rennie Harris, Victoria Marks, Lionel Popkin, David Roussève, and Cheng-Chieh Yu, who are sure to make audiences think and laugh in equal measure. See www.happenings.ucla.edu.
Making it to the Joyce stage is a milestone for many seasoned dance companies. On May 2, students from the Mason Gross School of the Arts, part of Rutgers University, get to do just that—and they haven’t even graduated! Each year, thanks to the “Rutgers in New York” program, students from one artistic discipline get to perform or exhibit their work in Manhattan, just 40 miles away from the school’s New Brunswick, NJ, campus; this year it’s the dance program’s turn. Students will perform the high-octane , created on them last semester by Cedar Lake artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer; a new work by Doug Elkins, crafted in his signature mode of street-meets-modern dance; and excerpts of the Cunningham repertoire. See www.masongross.rutgers.edu/dance.