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There’s something luscious about honoring the greats among us. It gives us an opportunity to bask in their accomplishments and to realize how much richer our world is with them in it. This year the Dance Magazine Awards go to a beloved writer, a modern dance star, a groundbreaking collective, and a cherished keeper of the classic flame.
Gifted with an avid curiosity and prodigious memory for detail, Deborah Jowitt remains one of our most eloquent, prolific, and influential dance writers. She knows whereof she speaks because she herself danced and made dances. Understanding that practice firsthand lends authority—and compassion—to her writing.
What distinguished Jowitt’s dances was an abiding humanity, organized within clearly articulated structures. She still keeps her hand in, choreographing annually at NYU Tisch School of the Arts, where she teaches, giving students the experience of her solid craft.
Her dancing career included performing in the companies of such modern dance luminaries of the 1950s and 1960s as Mary Anthony, Valerie Bettis, Harriette Ann Gray, Pauline Koner, Pearl Lang, and Joyce Trisler, and in dances by Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, José Limón, Sophie Maslow, Anna Sokolow, and Helen Tamiris. She began her weekly column for the Village Voice in 1967—when dance reviews rated three whole pages—but she started out reading her reviews on listener-supported WBAI Radio.
Her ability to describe so perceptively what she sees and to articulate it so eloquently has ensured her a unique critical influence. She explains her philosophy about trying to place the reader at the performance in the preface to her 1985 collection The Dance in Mind: Profiles and Reviews 1976–1983:
“I'd like my words to be a bridge to the work, a window opening on it. (By that I don't mean I wish to stand between the spectators and the work, only that I offer my perspective for people to compare with their own, if they're interested in doing that.) It's this goal that accounts for the amount of space I give to description.”
And she addresses the inevitable query, “Don’t you ever get sick of going to dance?”
“Of course,” she says. “Well, no. There are nights when I’d rather go to bed, have friends over, take in a movie. There are mornings when the words won’t come, and there are sloughs of depression when I have to comment on too much mediocre dance. But when the dancing is wonderful or the ideas bright and fresh, or even, sometimes, when the performance is electrifyingly bad, I'd rather be watching dance and writing about it than doing anything else.”
Among the other dance books she has authored are two of the most comprehensive in the field. Her tour through dance history,Time and the Dancing Image (1988), focuses on the changing image of dancers in a shifting cultural universe. And her 2004 biography, Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance, is the definitive critical examination of the choreography and controversial personality of the genius dancemaker.
Over the years, Jowitt’s reviews of my own choreography and that of countless others have been enormously helpful in comparing our expressive intentions to what the audience actually gets. Thus, her writing serves as a compass for creators, pointing the way to audience’s hearts and minds.
Jowitt’s writing encourages readers to look and think about what they’re seeing before judging it and lends insight into the creators’ perspectives. Her dedication and devotion to the art of dance and her pungent writing make her a universally respected force in the field. The range of her dance expertise would seem virtually limitless, elucidating everything from Romantic ballet to postmodern to hip hop to whatever comes next. —Gus Solomons jr
The Pilobolus founders never dreamed that what they were doing would one day lead to a dance company that tours nationally and internationally, performs on screen as well as onstage, and astounds their ever-growing fan base. “Quite honestly we were thinking about what we were going to have for dinner,” quips co-founder Robby Barnett. “Making dances and growing string beans and climbing have always been integral and have always seemed part of the same project for us.”
It’s been 39 years since Barnett, Lee Harris, Moses Pendleton, and the late Jonathan Wolken (see “Transitions,” Sept.) played around with shape, weight-sharing, and goofy ideas in a dance class taught by Alison Chase at Dartmouth College. With Chase’s guidance and partnership, they decided to have a go at performing in front of audiences. Chase and Martha Clarke soon joined the company, and Michael Tracy replaced Harris. They had something that made dance lovers do a double take—and non-dance lovers ooh and aah.
In 1973, Charles Reinhart brought the troupe to the American Dance Festival. “It was so unbelievably original and so brilliantly naïve that I realized this was a complete breakaway. They were one of those extraordinary mushrooms that grew up under the modern dance tree, but was not connected to it,” Reinhart says. “Their innocence became a strong source of their direction.”
What’s so appealing about a company of acrobats, athletes, and architects? They go out onstage and take it to the extreme, building astonishing, gravity-defying structures. They take comedy and farce to the next level with works like the dark, animated comic strip Hapless Hooligan in “Still Moving” and the poignant Rushes for a band of misfits and a circle of chairs. While storytelling has become central to the company’s repertory, in the early days pieces like Ocellus, Ciona, Pseudopodia and later works like Gnomen and Symbiosis create fascinating shifting forms that challenge the limits of the human body.
The collective has always been about sharing the weighty responsibilities of being a professional dance company. There are no star dancers, no separate choreographic styles. For the past four years, their International Collaborators Project has been in full swing. Pilobolus has been drawing from a variety of voices including Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak (Rushes), and other collaborators like cartoonist Art Speigelman (Hapless Hooligan) and puppet master Basil Twist. Seems everyone wants a piece of Pilobolus these days, including organizations with ideas of how to use their pliable shape-building bodies, like the NFL, the Oscars, and Dance Magazine (see our Sept. 2007 80th anniversary cover).
The group has sprouted several arms over the years. In addition to the main touring group Pilobolus Dance Theatre, there are the Pilobolus Institute (educational programming) and Pilobolus Creative Services (hiring themselves out for film, advertising, publishing, commercial clients, and corporate events).
There have been personnel changes through the years. Pendleton left in 1981, after starting his own company, MOMIX. In 2004 the company brought in its first ever executive director, Itamar Kubovy, to help with the business end of things. Chase, the sole female choreographic mainstay, was asked to leave in 2005—a difficult parting for all.
Certainly Wolken’s passing will leave a mark. But Barnett says Pilobolus is built for change. “We’ve always carried our house on our back and we’ll continue to.
And as they say, it takes a village. “Pilobolus isn’t one person, it’s a community,” says rehearsal director Renee Jaworski. “It’s had to reinvent itself over and over. You do what you need to do to keep existing.” —Emily Macel Theys
Anyone lucky enough to watch Irina Kolpakova in a coaching session at American Ballet Theatre studios will never forget it. Of course your eye goes to the ballerina, be it Paloma Herrera, Irina Dvorovenko, or Veronika Part. But you can’t help watching the coach too, a small figure seated in front of the mirror, legs crossed, chin in hand, so absorbed that she can talk to her charge about what’s going on inside a body that’s not hers. And when she gets up to show a pose—winged-victory back, delicate face at exactly the right angle—you see the spirit particular to this great ballerina: an ecstatic abandonment mixed with a hint of mischievous self-awareness.
Ballerina Julie Kent, who has recently been coached by Kolpokova, says, “She’s a sparkling, bright, energetic, loving person. With her tone, she makes you believe that all you have to do is this and this and it’ll be fine. It’s an uplifting feeling. She has a strong rule about the placement of the back: The arms precede the movement so your back is in the correct position.”
One of the last students of the Kirov’s legendary Agrippina Vaganova, Kolpakova was at the forefront of Soviet ballet for three decades. She animated the classics, from The Sleeping Beauty to Raymonda, and originated lead roles from Yuri Grigorovich’s The Stone Flower (1957), to Natalia Kasatkina and Vladimir Vasiliov’s Creation of the World (1971). She danced with all the great leading men of her time— Vasiliev, Soloviev, Nureyev, Baryshnikov.
When, in the late 1980s, the Soviet Union opened up to the outside world, Kolpakova accepted Baryshnikov’s invitation to become ballet master at American Ballet Theatre. “Besides being an extraordinary dancer,” Baryshnikov wrote in an email, “Irina was a wonderful partner and an elegant human being. Her contribution to my career was immeasurable. She was the ultimate pro and her taste in classical ballet is impeccable. When we danced together I felt as though I was getting the most invaluable lessons in stagecraft and I hope that is what she is able to pass on to the next generation of dancers.”
When she came to the U.S., Kolpakova had already begun coaching at her home theater. But what is striking about her today is the flexibility she has shown working on two sides of the Russian/American ballet divide. She doesn’t simply “reproduce” her Russian heritage. Instead, for 20 years, she has been deepening her understanding of it, refitting it to each body, spirit, and ballet that becomes her responsibility. She brings to American dancers a respect for both tradition and audience. But she shows a surprising intellectual pragmatism in the way she has conveyed that conviction, especially in the classics.
This year, when the young Bolshoi ballerina Natalia Osipova returned to guest at ABT and to dance her first Romeo and Juliet, Kolpakova was called on to coach a version of the ballet—Kenneth MacMillan’s—that was not the one she knew. For this transcultural task, she spent hours watching tapes of Makarova and Fonteyn in the role, reviewing the performances of the seven other ABT ballerinas who also dance it, exploring the differences between this version and the Russian (Lavrovsky) choreography—so as to “think myself deep into the role as portrayed by MacMillan.”
For her rare adaptability of spirit, her imaginative attention to each dancer she coaches, and her ability to infuse the classics with new life, Dance Magazine celebrates Irina Kolpakova. —Elizabeth Kendall
Matthew Rushing moves like butter. He blends beautifully in any group, but as a soloist has a presence that simply rocks. During his 18-year tenure at Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, he has shone in such works as Ailey’s Revelations, A Song for You, Blues Suite, Pas de Duke, Reflections in D, to name only a few. In “Sinner Man” from Revelations, Rushing’s limbs slice the air so sharply that he leaves a trail of air streaks; in “Wade in the Water,” he buckles his knees, giving in to the call of a true baptism. Then there is Reflections in D where he glides like a pebble across a very still pond. The audience wants to close their eyes, to be inside his body, to move with him, but no, their eyes are opened—nothing is missed. In every role, Matthew Rushing gives a sense of deep humanity, illuminated by an inner light.
A native of Los Angeles, California, who since the age of 13 has had a passion for dance, Rushing began training with Kashmir Blake in an after-school program. Recognizing his keen need for dance, his mother (both parents are ministers) managed to procure two tickets to a sold-out performance of AAADT where he saw Ailey’s signature works Revelations and Cry. He was completely smitten. Soon after, he enrolled at the Los Angeles County High School for the Arts and auditioned for The Ailey School his senior year. The judges included the three strong women: Judith Jamison (artistic director of AAADT), the late Denise Jefferson (director of The Ailey School), and Sylvia Waters (artistic director of Ailey II, then called Alvin Ailey Repertory Ensemble). They loved him. They awarded him a full scholarship and invited him to join the Repertory Ensemble. After just one year— before completing the requisite two-year contract—he was invited to join the main company.
Rushing joined the company in 1992. Within five years, he was pushed toward a lead position because stars like Desmond Richardson and Aubrey Lynch II were leaving and he had to “take on their load.” He was chosen to dance Ailey’s Love Songs (1972), the male equivalent to Cry, a role which he says was “rewarding and spiritual” to dance. After waiting his turn for eight years to perform solos in Revelations, he remembers crying from the beginning to end because he realized “why they made me wait.”
In 2005 he co-choreographed his first work for AAADT, Acceptance in Surrender, a collaboration with company members Hope Boykin and Abdur Jackson. In 2009 he choreographed his own work, Uptown, a tribute to the Harlem Renaissance, which will be included in the Ailey season at New York City Center next month.
Rushing was recently named rehearsal director of AAADT. This year will be his last as a full-time Ailey performer. In the new role, he insists that he does not want to stop dancing. “I have to ease into the position,” he says. “I need to focus and can’t do both jobs completely. I’m the person giving the directions now and I have to pay attention.”
It seems fitting that after 18 years of giving and sharing so much of himself, Rushing would be awarded a position where he can continue the Ailey lineage he sincerely embodies. —Charmaine Patricia Warren