On the Rise: Warren Craft
Adding emotional dimension to musicality and skill
On Wednesday evenings in Smalls Jazz Club, you’ll find eager New York tap dancers waiting to take a turn improvising with the house band. If you’re lucky, Warren Craft will be among them. An uncanny performer who uses every inch of his rangy body, Craft can create tempestuous flurries of sound, his upper body twisting like a child throwing a tantrum. But he’s just as likely to resist the urge to move, holding his weight suspended on his heels, elbows pulled up like a marionette, until he collapses in a rhythmic stutter.
Though only 20, Craft performs like a veteran. Long recognized for his impeccable skill and sophisticated musicality, lately Craft has transformed. His virtuosic technique is now informed by emotional vulnerability and artistic experimentation. “His personal style has grown leaps and bounds in the past two years,” says Michelle Dorrance, the artistic director of Dorrance Dance, which has been showcasing Craft’s talents. “There’s no one on the planet who dances like him.”
As a young child in Poughkeepsie, New York, Craft began taking ballet at 8 and added tap classes soon after with David Rider, who helped him build a strong foundation of classic tap technique. When Rider went on tour, Craft’s parents began shuttling him to New York City to study privately with Ayodele Casel, a star of the rhythm tap scene. “She taught more about music and improvisation,” says Craft. “Some days we’d just listen to music the whole time.”
Then he began studying at the American Tap Dance Foundation—a New York City tap hub directed by Tony Waag—and joined their student repertory ensemble. ATDF offered Craft invaluable experience working with top tap dancers such as Barbara Duffy, Brenda Bufalino and Dorrance. It also provided a host of performance opportunities. In 2006, Craft performed at the foundation’s annual summer festival, Tap City. Tony Waag and tap dancer Tony Mayes sang Neil Young’s “Old Man,” while Craft—then 12 years old—danced. It was a pivotal experience. “They led me in an interesting direction with such a mature song,” he says. “I saw how much greater a reaction I could get if I understate my ability and think of myself as an artist rather than an entertainer.”
As he was making strides in tap, Craft continued to study ballet, training at the School of American Ballet and then American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School. But as the demands on his time became unmanageable, he had to choose a path. “I felt like ballet school was really stifling to my creative energy,” he says. Today, he seems to have shed any remnants of the form. “A lot of ballet dancers can’t let go,” says Duffy. “To me, Warren looks like a tap dancer, and that’s not always easy to accomplish.”
Once he refocused his training, Craft sought out new ways of moving—and found inspiration in butoh, a Japanese dance-theater form. In 2009 and 2010 he took butoh workshops at CAVE, in Brooklyn. Butoh also inspired a new look. “I felt I had broken free of something,” Craft says. “I trained my body to move not like anything I had seen before, but just to express. I really want to continue to where my body can do whatever I’m feeling in my head.” And he wanted the outside to match the inside. He shaved his head and accumulated a collection of piercings, including a small bullring in his nose.
Craft’s metamorphosis has recently been on display with Dorrance Dance. When the company debuted its first full-length piece, SOUNDspace, he was featured in a memorable solo. Wearing leather-soled shoes, Craft articulated quiet rhythms made all the more resonant by his dynamic body. He’ll perform with the company this year at the Spoleto Festival and at Jacob’s Pillow.
Duffy and Dorrance say they’d be curious to see what Craft’s choreography would look like. For the moment, Craft simply wants to keep growing as a performer. In addition to his dancing, he hopes to forge a music career (he plays drums and also sings). Whatever he does, it will undoubtedly be distinctive. “He’s not trying to be like anyone else,” says Duffy. “He’s finding his voice.”
Photos of Craft performing at the Tap City 2013 gala by Amanda Gentile.
The dancers file into an audition room. They are given a number and asked to wait for registration to finish before the audition starts. At the end of the room, behind a table and a computer (and probably a number of mobile devices), there I sit, doing audio tests and updating the audition schedule as the room fills up with candidates. The dancers, more nervous than they need to be, see me, typing, perhaps teasing my colleagues, almost certainly with a coffee cup at my side.
By itself, a competition trophy won't really prepare you for professional life. Sometimes it is not even a plus. "Some directors are afraid that a kid who wins a lot of medals will come to their company with too many expectations," says Youth America Grand Prix artistic director Larissa Saveliev. "Directors want to mold young dancers to fit their company."
More valuable than taking home a title from a competition is the exposure you can get and the connections you can make while you're there. But how can you take advantage of the opportunity?
New York Live Arts opens its 2017-18 season with A Love Supreme, a revised work by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and collaborator Salva Sanchis. Known as a choreographer of pure form, pattern and musicality, De Keersmaeker can bring a visceral power to the stage without the use of narrative. She has taken this 2005 work to John Coltrane's famous jazz score of the same title and recast it for four young men of her company Rosas, giving it an infusion of new energy.
Photo by Anne Van Aerschot
Before too long, dancers and choreographers will get to create on the luxurious 170-acre property in rural Connecticut that is currently home to legendary visual artist Jasper Johns.
If you think that sounds far more glamorous than your average choreographic retreat, you're right. Though there are some seriously generous opportunities out there, this one seems particularly lavish.
Every dancer has learned—probably the hard way—that healthy feet are the foundation of a productive and happy day in the studio. As dancers, our most important asset has to carry the weight (literally) of everything we do. So it's not surprising that most professional dancers have foot care down to an art.
Three dancers shared their foot-care products they can't live without.
Dancers trying their hand at designing is nothing new. But they do tend to stick with studio or performance-wear (think Miami City Ballet's Ella Titus and her line of knit warm-ups or former NYCB dancer Janie Taylor and her ballet costumes). But several dancers at American Ballet Theatre—corps members Jamie Kopit, Erica Lall, Katie Boren, Katie Williams, Lauren Post, Zhong-Jing Fang and soloist Cassandra Trenary—are about to launch a fashion line that's built around designs that can be worn outside of the studio. Titled Company Cooperative, the luxe line of women's wear is handmade in New York City's garment district and designed by the dancers themselves.
Royal Ballet dancers Yasmine Naghdi and Beatriz Stix-Brunell recently got together for a different kind of performance: no decadent costumes, sets, stage makeup or lighting. Instead, the principal and first soloist danced choreography by principal character artist Kristen McNally in a stark studio.
The movement is crystal clear, and at the beginning, Naghdi and Stix-Brunell duck and weave around each other with near vacant stares. Do they even know they have a partner? And how should they interact? The situation raises a much larger question: How often do we see a female duet in ballet?
As a student, Milwaukee native John Neumeier appeared in an opera at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As Hamburg Ballet's artistic director and one of the world's leading choreographers, Neumeier now returns to the Midwest to direct and choreograph a new version of Gluck's Orphée et Eurydice, a co-production of the Lyric Opera, LA Opera and Hamburg State Opera. Set to open in Chicago September 23 with the Joffrey Ballet, the ambitious work will see additional engagements in Los Angeles and Hamburg over the next two years.
How did you come to be involved with this collaboration?
It was initiated by the director of the Lyric Opera, Anthony Freud, but I had already been in contact with Ashley Wheater about a separate project with the Joffrey Ballet. The two things came together—and this was really interesting to me because Chicago was important at the start of my career. I was born in Milwaukee, but most of my training was in or near Chicago.
You've previously created version of Orpheus for Hamburg Ballet. What about this particular production caught your interest?
When I got this offer from Anthony, I just went back to the piece and tried to sense what it meant to me now. Gluck's Orphée was part of a push to reform opera and to make a complete work of art involving music, text and dance. What interests me—particularly in this French version we are doing—is that dance plays such an essential role. When Agnes de Mille choreographed Oklahoma!, it was considered a revolution in musical theater, because dance moved the plot along. In Orphée, we can see that the same idea had been realized several centuries ago: that dance would not be just a divertissement, but a theatrical element, literally "moving" the plot along and expressing in another form the emotion of each situation.
Another idea in Orphée which fascinates me is its directness in projecting profound human emotions—emotions not used as an excuse for vocal virtuosity, but expressed in simple and direct musical terms. In Orphée, we have a mythical subject which is related in an extremely relevant, familiar, human way.