New York City to Dancers: Immigrants Welcome Here
Immigration has been a hot topic in this election, but in the dance world it’s a no-brainer. We are immeasurably enriched by people from different places and different cultures. Last night I moderated a panel titled “Cultural Identity and Creative Process,” that turned into a passionate discussion about immigration and shifting perceptions of whiteness during this election. I came away thinking, One thing we can be proud of is that dancers from all over the world want to come to the United States. This is the country where they find themselves as artists.
The illustrious panelists were Zvi Gotheiner (originally from Israel), Patricia Hoffbauer (from Brazil), Eiko Otake (from Japan) and Reggie Wilson (from…Milwaukee). The evening was sponsored by the New York Foundation for the Arts and hosted by Gibney Dance.
From left: Reggie Wilson, Eiko Otake, Wendy Perron, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Zvi Gotheiner, photo by Julie Lemberger
While moderating, I could only take sparse notes, so what follows are a few sound bites of a robust, rambling discussion.
Coming to America
The first question I posed to each panelist was, What were your expectations when you came to the United States (or, in the case of Wilson, NYC) as a dance artist? It was clear that they all sought artistic freedom and a wider sphere of influences. But they also found a dance community.
Gotheiner: I grew up on a kibbutz in Israel. I was trained to be a soldier. I came to the United States to find my individuality.
Hoffbauer: I came here because I wanted to dance like Graciela Figueroa [a dancer from Uruguay who had worked with Twyla Tharp], but nobody here danced like that!
Otake: I’m an American choreographer. The only criterion is that I live and work here. When Koma and I came here in 1976, we performed everywhere in the first six months. We also made many friends.
Hoffbauer: I’m a U. S. choreographer, but I still think like a Latin American.
Wilson: I came to New York because I wanted to be a dancer. I was able to dance with people from Brazil, Israel and Japan.
Wilson, Otake, Perron, photo by Ellen Claycomb for NYFA
Expectations of You
Wilson said that when he goes abroad, people expect him to do tap dance or hip hop or African. Hoffbauer said, “When I tell people I’m from Brazil, they think I do Capoeira and wear a bikini.”
Since the Election
Gotheiner: On Wednesday morning I taught my ballet class as usual, and people were sobbing during the barre exercises.
Wilson: I was not completely surprised. I have stopped being surprised by the deep well of racism that is in America.
Otake: The day of 9/11 was such a shock. Koma and I had a studio in the World Trade Center the previous year. We resolved to always remember that we had put our assistants in the target, but the resolve often fades in years. I tell myself after this election, as was at the last few elections I would not forget about this. We have to observe, think and act upon our regrets.
Otake speaking, photo by Ellen Claycomb
Gotheiner: Are we glorifying violence in portraying difference so great that people cannot listen to each other? My direction is to go back to the body. It comes back to the body. How can we be more articulate and communicate better?
Wilson: We have to really think about what is peculiar to dance. What can dance do that no other art can do?
Questions from the Audience
One audience member asked about how one forms a “cultural identity.”
Hoffbauer: "Culture" has been always projected onto the bodies of non-whites, but white is now revealed as a racial/cultural identity with this election. Cunningham also did cultural work. The abstraction, besides being an aesthetic choice, was also a political one that illustrated his cultural identity. [Check out Brenda Dixon Gottschild's "Whoa! Whiteness in Dance” from 2005 for more on this.]
Otake: Cultural identity is fluid. My culture is different from my mother’s culture.
Another audience member said she tries to speak to people who voted the other way so that she can try to understand them. We agreed that it was important to make the effort to understand others.
Perron: The perception of whiteness has been reconfigured in this election. It is no longer a mark of the elite but of the rural, working poor. Instead of the polarization of white vs. non-white, we have the polarization of rural vs. urban, or the educated vs. the uneducated.
Otake: What’s needed now is courage.
All in agreement.
The coming weeks see not one, but two companies that can best be described as French cultural mash-ups landing at New York City's Joyce Theater.
It was a Christmas Eve that The Lion King dancer India Bolds will never forget.
Exhausted from a long week of performances, Bolds was clueless when she saw her cast mates randomly dancing in Broadway's Minskoff Theater lobby, and even more confused when they morphed into a choreographed flash mob. But when her boyfriend of four years, Dale Browne, popped up in the mob wearing a beautiful blue suit, she realized what was coming.
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."
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.
Back in the 80s, Molissa Fenley introduced a luscious, almost Eastern-feeling torque in the body that made her work compelling to watch. Her sculptural shapes and fierce momentum showed a different kind of female strength than we had seen. Now, as part of The Kitchen's series on composer Julius Eastman, Fenley has remounted her 1986 Geologic Moments, the second half of which she had developed with Eastman. The result, which premiered at Brooklyn Academy of Music, is a richly textured piece in both music and dance. (The first half has music by Philip Glass.)
When Paul Taylor created Beloved Renegade on Laura Halzack in 2008, he gave unequivocal instructions. She was the figure, sometimes referred to as the angel of death, who circles dancer Michael Trusnovec in a compassionate, yet emphatic way.
"He choreographed every single step for me," she says. "He showed it to me—do this développé, reach here, turn here, a very specific idea," she says. His guidance was that she be cool and sweet. Then, she says, "he just let me become her. That's where I really earned Paul's trust."
From the minute my journey as a dancer began at age 4, there were no other options of what I might do with my life.
Sure, I tried other "after-school activities." I tried desperately to master The Phantom of the Opera with my squeaky violin rental—a headache for my parents who paid for private Suzuki method lessons at our house. Constantly attempting famous show tunes on my violin, the effort was completely futile. I actually remember thinking, 'Surely this sheet music is wrong, this sounds nothing like the Phantom of the Opera.'
I even tried my hand at gymnastics. But when my mom's brilliant bribery of $100 for my first mastery of a kip or a back handspring didn't produce any results, we quickly threw in the towel.
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.
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.
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