- The Latest
- Breaking Stereotypes
- Rant & Rave
- Dance As Activism
- Dancers Trending
- Viral Videos
- The Dancer's Toolkit
- Health & Body
- Dance Training
- Career Advice
- Style & Beauty
- Dance Auditions
- Guides & Resources
- Performance Calendar
- College Guide
- Dance Magazine Awards
- Meet The Editors
- Contact Us
- Advertise/Media Kit
Kim Brandstrup: Master of Moods
While many of today’s top choreographers are getting commissions for story ballets, their creations don’t always build a satisfying experience for the audience. As Jennifer Stahl wrote in last week’s posting, there are risks to trying to make a new story ballet.
So it’s with great pleasure that I can say I discovered a dance artist I feel is a master of narrative. True, I’ve seen only one work by Danish choreographer Kim Brandstrup. But his Jeux (2015) is so intriguing that I want to see more. Happily, Jeux returns to New York City Ballet this week.
NYCB's Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Kim Brandstrup's Jeux, photos by Paul Kolnik.
Loosely based on Nijinsky’s Jeux of 1913, it uses the same tempestuous Debussy score. More than a clear plot, Brandstrup's version portrays a woman who gets trapped in a tense mood of wariness, of paranoia within flirtation. Playing a party game where she gets blindfolded, she finds herself surrounded by people she can’t trust. As in film noir, a dark cloud of suspense hovers over the ballet.
Based in London, the award-winning choreographer studied dance at the London Contemporary Dance School (The Place) and later came to New York to study at the Merce Cunningham studio. He has made ballets for The Royal Ballet, Les Grands Ballets Canadiens, the Royal Danish Ballet, Rambert Dance Company and his own group, Arc. If there is something cinematic about his ballets, it’s because he studied film at the University of Copenhagen before discovering dance. Jeux is his first commission for an American company.
I chatted with Brandstrup after he rehearsed the second cast of Jeux last Thursday. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.
How did your early training affect your choreography?
I went to The Place in London in 1980. It was absolute hard-core Graham. In hindsight it was a fabulous gift, but at the time I thought it was terribly dated. It was Merce and Pina we wanted to study with. I was completely taken by Merce. I think it was the purity of the performing: You didn’t emote; you didn’t lay things on. That generation would say, "Do it, don't pretend."
Are there any narrative choreographers that you admired?
Tudor’s Dark Elegies has a sort of ritual nature—this mourning over the dead children. It has a kind of formality to it and that I loved. Later on, Bournonville.
So you really got into ballet.
Slowly slowly slowly. I resisted it. I felt, It’s not me. I had some very good teachers at The Place. One fabulous teacher, Nina Fonaroff, was a great believer in ballet. She said, "You’ve got to study it," and I did. What I found is that ballet, when it’s good, it’s the science of how you move the body. And then creatively you should try to be free of those prescribed steps. If ballet is well taught it creates these fabulous creatures that can do anything—like the New York City Ballet dancers.
You do so much great off-balance partnering. Does that mean something to you narratively?
Ballet is about balance, and the drama happens as soon as you start going off. The more precarious, the more exciting it is. When I work with dancers, I ask, "How far can you go this way and how far can you go that way? Is there any way you can push this?" And out of that falls the next thing.
In Jeux there’s such a strong sense of mood that it’s almost cinematic. How are you influenced by film?
Since I started choreographing 30 years ago, I’ve always storyboarded like you do for film—making little pictures. Of course now I film the rehearsals on my phone. It’s about creating a scene. And then, sometime, letting that scene go. Maybe I took that with me from Merce: You can make these very bold, quite radical shifts.
Like in Jeux when the guy with the basketball comes out and the whole scene changes!
When you jolt somebody somewhere else, that’s where you start making up a story.
Is the story based on Nijinsky’s Jeux?
In a loose way. There were two kinds of games. There was the playful ball game and then there’s the sexual manipulation. Nijinsky’s Jeux was a ménage à trois with a tennis match. For me the narrative has to be found inside the music. Half way thru Jeux there was this extraordinary moment: Something has changed radically, so that becomes the beginning of a story. It very much depends on who the dancers are. I built the ballet around Sara [Mearns], Adrian [Danchig-Waring], Amar [Ramasar] and Sterling [Hyltin].
Kim Brandstrup rehearsing Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring.
I hope NYCB has you back.
I had the best time. I didn’t know whether the dancers would respond, but they did. They just move and I say, "Is this possible?" Because they’re so good the rehearsals can be playful.
How do you go about creating a mood?
It’s about setting a scene. In Robbins’ Afternoon of a Faun, it’s just two people in a room and suddenly something happens between them and it’s intriguing. It reveals itself in this mysterious way. If the scene is clear you don’t ask any questions; you just sit and let it happen. That’s the magic of it.
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.