Dancers & Companies

Moving Day Chez Merce

Seventy of us gathered that evening of Friday, March 30, 2012 to take the last class at the Merce Cunningham Studio, closing after 41 years at its Westbeth location. Among us were current and past students, teachers, and company members. Douglas Dunn (click here for his memories of Merce), Michael Cole, Patricia Lent, Daniel Squire, Alan Good, Banu Ogan, Carol Teitelbaum, Robert Swinston, and Ellen Cornfield were all there. About 25 others watched, from Neil Greenberg and Kimberly Bartosik to beloved Cunningham archivist and writer David Vaughan. Douglas Dunn gleefully announced, "Oh my spot is still available," going to the place where he always stood for class. Ghosts of many others who had shared our spots over the years were there too. The most veteran of the current faculty, June Finch, was to teach, and longtime accompanists Pat Richter and Taylor McLean were to play. I remembered Pat had played for the first class I ever took at the Cunningham Studio way back in 1968 when it was at 498 Third Avenue.

 

Thunderous applause greeted June when she entered to teach. Despite the mixed emotions I think we all felt, the mood was celebratory, not mournful. How wonderful it had been to dance in that room: the high ceilings, the endless space to run-run-leap, and the light from those 12 arched windows, particularly glorious at dusk that night. We were going to soak up that joy one more time in a technique we loved, born from a philosophy that embraced dancing as meaningful enough in itself. To dance there again as committed and fully as we could was a tribute we wanted to pay to Merce.

 

Last day of class at Westbeth. Photo by Kenneth E. Parris III, Courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation.

 

 

June masterfully took us through the exercises we all knew, bridling our high energy and varying the form enough to give us the kind of mental and physical challenges Cunningham classes always did. At one of many high-spirited moments, Daniel Squire held Kimberly Bartosik’s young daughter in his arms as he did the leaping combination, much to her delight, giving her an experience of dancing in that room that her grown up body would never have.

 

It all was magical and it went so fast. When we curved over in second position, as we always ended class, and rolled up to arch our torsos and gaze heavenward, my eyes filled with tears. Hard to believe I would never dance a step in that room again. It had been my dance home for over 40 years.

 

With June’s final words of thank you to the musicians, it was over. We broke into tremendous applause and whooping. No one wanted it to end. Then came lots of hugs followed by a party with snacks and drinks and colored lights flashing over the dance floor. Most people chatted and reminisced, a few younger ones danced about to the music mix. It got harder as the evening wore on and the time came closer when we would have to leave.

 

Robert Swinston teaching the morning class. Photo by Emil Bognar-Nasdor, Courtesy Merce Cunningham Dance Foundation.

 

 

The crowd gradually thinned. When I decided it was time for me to go, I kept studying every little inch, planting it in my memory: last time stepping off that dance floor, last time sitting in one of those pews or on the stage steps, last time looking over to where Merce always sat at his desk surrounded by the plants that were still there, last time looking out at the West Village from those windows, last time looking in those mirrors which had watched me age.

 

It was so hard to go. It seemed wrong that we had to leave this place where we loved to dance. Then came the last time pressing the elevator button, getting in, seeing "11" in red. When the doors closed I thought about what Robert Swinston had said that day before he taught the last morning class. He said the Cunningham Studio was not about a building; it was about the countless students who had come there to study and commit themselves to the work. And that, he promised, would continue, just elsewhere.

 

 

Pat Catterson, a NYC-based dance artist, is a 2011 Guggenheim Choreography Award recipient and dancer and rehearsal assistant for Yvonne Rainer.

 

Editor's note: Click here for Siobhan Burke's article on where Cunningham technique is being taught now.

 

Lopez in Circus Polka. PC Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy MCB

When Miami City Ballet artistic director Lourdes Lopez was a principal dancer at New York City Ballet, she missed her opportunity to honor Jerome Robbins onstage. "Every time there was a celebration for Jerry, I was either injured or had just retired," says Lopez. "I was never able to publicly thank him onstage for all that he taught us and the beauty he left us."

But when Lopez was planning MCB's Jerome Robbins Celebration for the 100th anniversary of the legend's birth, she saw an opportunity. She asked the Robbins Trust to allow her to perform the Ringmaster in Robbins' Circus Polka, a role the choreographer originated himself.

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Matthew Neenan used images of silencing and control in let mortal tongues awake. Photo by Bill Herbert.

From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.

New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.

A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.

Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.

In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.

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Breaking Stereotypes
Ash in Rochester, NY. PC Thaler Photography by Arleen and Daryl Thaler for the Swan Dreams Project

Growing up in inner city Rochester, NY, Aesha Ash was just one of the neighborhood kids. She'd imagine people driving by, judging her by her black skin.

"They'd never know that I was dreaming of becoming a professional ballet dancer. No one would think, Some day she's going to make it into New York City Ballet," says Ash.

After an inspiring career at NYCB, Béjart's Ballet Lausanne and LINES, the January 2006 Dance Magazine cover star—one of our 25 to Watch that year—is no longer performing. But she's determined to use her dance background to change the stereotypes and misconceptions that people—including black people—have about women of color. "I want to show it's okay to embrace our softer side, and let the world know we're multidimensional," says Ash.

Aesha Ash in Richmond, CA. PC Renee Scott via swandreamsproject.org

In 2011, she launched the Swan Dreams Project to inspire kids in the community she grew up in. The original idea was to post images of herself in a tutu all over Rochester. "I remember growing up and in the bodega you'd see images of girls in bikinis on motorbikes," says Ash. "I wanted to replace those with photos that show women of color in a different light."

She knew the power imagery can have: She still remembers what it felt like as a student at the School of American Ballet to see a photo of black ballet dancer Andrea Long. "That image was everything on days when I was feeling disenchanted. I'd see that picture of her, and know that the struggles I was going through, she went through them, too."

Ash soon realized she didn't have the budget to fund her original plan ("I never realized how expensive a bus stop advertisement is!"). But she's made the images available through an online store, and often simply gives away prints at her own expense to schools and students in need of some inspiration.

Any proceeds she makes from the sales go directly to other organizations that are working to expand ballet in diverse communities. One large donation even led to a pointe shoe fund at dancer Robyn Gardenhire's City Ballet of Los Angeles school—and it helped one dancer who had quit ballet because of the expense come back to class.

Now a mother of two in San Jose, CA, Ash will also start teaching a free after-school ballet class at her daughter's public school next month. "I recently taught at Girls Inc. in Oakland, and one of the little black girls said, 'Are you the ballet teacher?' She just stood there, staring at me with her mouth open, like a unicorn had just walked into the room," Ash says. "You never know the impact you can have just by being a presence."

If you're interested in supporting the project, check out the online shop, or donate directly at swandreamsproject.org.

Training
Sylvie Guillem, via 1843magazine.com

Ever find yourself lusting after that six o'clock penché, or a développé that will reach your nose? You're not alone. The eye is naturally drawn to the end points of a movement, and, in dance, that often translates to the highest extension.

But what if you're born without extreme, Instagram-worthy lines? It's a matter of developing a laser focus on alignment as well as strengthening and stretching with better body mechanics in mind.

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Dancers & Companies
Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

When London-based perfume company The Beautiful Mind Series was looking for a collaborator for their next scent, they skipped the usual celebrity set and brought in prima ballerina Polina Semionova instead. "I was fascinated by what goes on in the mind of a great dancer," perfumer Geza Schoen said in a press release. Semionova's ballet-inspired scent, Precision & Grace, celebrates the intelligence and beauty behind her craft.

Courtesy of The Beautiful Mind Series

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In The Studio
Abraham.In.Motion performing "Drive." Photo by Ian Douglas.

The ever-so-busy Kyle Abraham is back in New York City for a brief visit with his company Abraham.In.Motion as they prepare for an exciting spring season of new endeavors with some surprising guests. The company will be debuting a new program at The Joyce Theater on May 1, that will include two new pieces from Abraham, restaged works by Doug Varone and Bebe Miller, and a world premiere from Andrea Miller. Talk about an exciting line-up!

We caught up with Abraham during a recent rehearsal where he revealed what he is tired of hearing in the dance community.

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News
Tero Saarinen's Morphed. Photo by Darya Popova, Courtesy Helene Davis Public Relations

Choreographer Tero Saarinen has a proclivity for the peculiar—and for epic orchestral music. That he should be commissioned by the Los Angeles Philharmonic to create a new dance work to accompany the U.S. premiere of Bernd Alois Zimmermann's Cello Concerto en forme de pas de trois only makes sense. Zimmermann's eerie, difficult-to-classify composition falls squarely in Saarinen's wheelhouse. Walt Disney Concert Hall, Jan. 19–21. laphil.com.


Rant & Rave
PC Break the Floor

Two competition routines are equal in technical proficiency, artistry and choreography. One consists of all girls, the other includes a boy. Guess which takes home first prize?

If you guessed the one with the boy, you may be privy to an unspoken and much-debated phenomenon in the competition dance world: The Boy Factor. According to The Boy Factor, a competitive piece is more likely to win if there's a boy in it.

"If it's all technically equal and one group is all girls and the other group has a boy, the one with the boy will win," says Rysa Childress, owner of All Star Studios in Forest Hills, New York. "Boy soloists are sometimes scored higher than more technically proficient girls because if a boy has good stage presence, we let him slide," says an anonymous competition judge. "And most of the feedback will be for the boy."

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Dance in Pop Culture
Roberto Bolle and Kenall Jenner on set. Photo via tods.com

I'll never forget something Roberto Bolle once told me when I was interviewing him about his workout regimen: Talking about how much he loved to swim, he said, "I would love to go in the Italian sea, but I am too well-known there to show up in my suit."

It always amused and kinda shocked me that a ballet dancer could reach that level of fame. But it's true: In his native Italy, Bolle is a bonafide celerity.

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Training
Anne Arundel Community College students, PC Kenneth Harriford

Everyone knows that community college is an affordable option if a four-year school isn't in the cards. But it can also be a solid foundation for a career in the dance field. Whether students want an associate in arts degree as a precursor to obtaining a bachelor's, or to go straight into the performing world, the right two-year dance program can be a uniquely supportive place to train. Don't let negative stereotypes prevent you from attending a program that could be right for you:

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