Site-Specific Stirrings: Dance in New York Comes Out of Hibernation
During summer in New York, there are no limits to where dance can happen. For me, some highlights of the past month have been site-specific works that transform the city into a stage—popping up on rooftops and stairwells, spilling out from storefronts onto sidewalks, and roving through gardens at night.
As the average pedestrian spends more and more time looking down—eyes fixed on smartphone in hand—Trisha Brown, that legendary scaler of buildings, is still giving us reason to look up. Earlier this month, she revived her 1971 Roof Piece, performed by nine dancers, each perched atop a different roof (or other raised edifice) in the vicinity of the High Line, the elevated park that runs along Manhattan’s west side. (While the piece made an appearance at MoMA last January, this was its first outdoor presentation since the ’70s.)
From the park’s southernmost end, you could, with a 360-degree scan of the space, spot all of the performers, in their bright red slacks and shirts, enacting what might be described as a game of gestural telephone. One dancer began a chain of improvised motions, which a second dancer reproduced, followed by a third, and so on; halfway through, a new leader took over. Once you figured out who was in the lead, you could have fun charting the lag time between the first dancer and the ninth, who were separated by a distance of several blocks and seven interpreters of the same movement.
The blustery weather on the evening I attended (June 11) made even the gentlest actions—swooping arms, swaying torsos, a half-hearted running-in-place—seem like intrepid feats. The dancers stood their ground in the wind, red silhouettes resolute against the grey sky. There were other poetic tensions: the vastness of the performance space, next to the intimate act of observing and mirroring one other person; the infrastructure of a rooftop—boilers, chimneys, pipes—juxtaposed with the supple machinery of the human form. The dancers relayed every action with such specificity, such deliberate focus, that you felt certain they were transmitting some decipherable message—if only you could crack the code. But with Brown, the message is often right there on the surface, profound in its simplicity: Here are some options for what the body in space can do.
The performance duo robbinschilds (Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs) has a similar knack for grabbing the attention of busy New Yorkers. On a warm Friday evening last month, a passerby on University Place between 10th and 11th Streets would have been startled by the neon colors swishing past the window of JF & SON, a clothing boutique just south of Union Square. Even I was startled, and I had the advantage of knowing that something (other than shopping) would be going on inside. That something was Portable Arc, a dance/fashion collaboration (or what the press release called a “structured improvisational happening of trans-genre wearables that celebrate the artists’ commitment to rainbow living”) by robbinschilds and designer Travis Boyer.
When I arrived, three dancers were using strips of brightly colored ribbon to outline each other’s bodies on the floor, accompanied by a score that involved women’s voices, in blasé tones, reciting colors of the rainbow. A crowd of about 30 people had managed to squeeze inside. Others peered through the window from the street, catching what glimpses they could of the pedestrian, understated movement, with its shades of relaxed ballet. Eventually four of the dancers (Robbins, Childs, Rebecca Brooks, and Sarah White-Ayon) exited onto the sidewalk, walking briskly around in linear and arcing patterns, while exploring variations on the theme of a swinging arm. They threw in the occasional dramatic pose but kept their matter-of-fact cool; this is just as ordinary, they seemed to say, as the stoplights switching from red to green down the block, or the yellow cabs hurtling by.
That sense of cool was only intensified by the fluorescent hues and breezy textures of their “trans-genre wearbles,” which Boyer designed with “today’s movement artist in mind.” (Not the movement artist’s pocketbook, though; after the show, the pants, skirts, tops, and head wraps went on sale for between $530 and $820.) He also had in mind some artists from a different era—Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi, whose collaboration for Appalachian Spring served as his jumping-off point. Imagine drapey, translucent, above-the-knee riffs on Noguchi’s frontier-inspired costumes—with pleats here, ruffles there—and you’ll have an idea of the thoroughly modern collection that Boyer dreamed up. While the performance was more laissez-faire than anything in the Graham repertoire, it held something of her pioneering spirit: today’s young Americans charting their own frontiers, weaving their vision into the fabric of the city, finding productive new ways to marry commerce and art.
Rather than making use of the city, Yanira Castro’s Paradis provided an oasis from it. A companion piece to her 2010 Wildnerness, presented by Dance Theater Workshop, the work took place at two locations inside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—the Desert House and, by way of a long meandering walk, the Cherry Esplanade.
The whole journey was sublime. You didn’t just stumble upon this event, as you might have with Roof Piece or Portable Arc; you were guided through it, but not without some wonderfully disorienting moments.
From the Visitor Center, the audience set out into the garden, pausing just within sight of the Desert House. One by one, we were invited to approach its glass walls. Inside, a lone performer, Peter Schmitz, clad in a white suit and white face paint, circled the cacti and other spiky vegetation, making his way along a dusty path with staccato steps; this was a parched paradise, not the lush place that we associate with Eden. Schmitz’s mime-like gestures quivered with the crazed tension of a mad scientist. His frenzy escalated as he plucked an invisible apple from an invisible branch and tasted the invisible fruit—first one, then another, then another—voracious in his thirst.
During this episode, piano notes trickled out from a walkie talkie strapped to the belt of a guard standing nearby. Soon, we would discover the source of the sound. As we arrived at the Cherry Esplanade, a vast grassy field lined with cherry trees and lit by four enormous floodlights, we found Michael Dauphinais seated at a piano, making music alone in the dark.
For a long time, we didn’t know where to look—Castro doesn’t like to let her audiences get too comfortable—until eight tiny white figures appeared at the far end of the lawn, undulating filaments aglow in the night. Running, lunging, bounding, they closed in on us, crossing whatever imaginary line had separated us from them. More like human beings now, less like ghosts, they led us underneath the cherry trees—each dancer instructing a small group of spectators to “Watch me, only me”—then backed away and undressed, stripping down to flesh-colored undergarments. In the distance, a performer and an audience member shared an apple, passing it back and forth. Later, zooming in again, we were invited to witness, from just a few feet’s distance, the intricacies of an intensely slow, entwining duet.
At a certain point, the dancers began to sing:
“In the sun, in the snow, if I lead then would you follow?
Who is right, who is wrong, to be saving their own lives?”
Was it before or after they ran away, disappearing into the night, that Dauphinais invited us to sing along? Either way, we were left alone to carry on the tune—continue the performance without the performers, interpret the message without the messengers, and do what we would with the weight of that responsibility. We kept on singing, for a while at least. Whatever this strange paradise was, far removed from civilization, it now belonged to us as much as them.
Photos, top to bottom: Rebecca Brooks (left) and Sarah White-Ayon in Portable Arc, photo by Jessica Williams, courtesy JF & SON; Rebecca Brooks (foreground) in Portable Arc, photo by Jessica Williams, courtesy JF & SON; Peggy H. Cheng, Luke Miller, and Shayla-Vie Jenkins in Paradis, photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy DTW.
Showing choreography at a major venue in New York City is a goal and milestone for many dance artists. Yet when such an opportunity comes their way, choreographers frequently find themselves scrambling for time and technical resources to give their work that professional shine. What they end up performing may not have the polish they intended. "Far too often artists are arriving at their presenting house and the piece isn't ready," says Adrienne Willis, the executive and artistic director of Lumberyard Contemporary Performing Arts, an organization that helps dance artists develop new work.
Back when Lumberyard was known as the American Dance Institute and operated out of a strip mall in Rockville, Maryland, it pioneered its Incubator program to whip new pieces into shape, kind of like the "out-of-town" tryout model for theater. Several of the artists it supported ultimately brought their shows to the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of New York City's most prestigious venues, which quickly recognized the positive influence of the Incubator on performances.
Since Thanksgiving is finally here, it's officially time to talk Nutcracker. With countless productions taking place between now and Christmas (and even some through the new year), we've been keeping tabs on Instagram to check in on rehearsals. Whether you're obsessed with all things Sugar Plum Fairy or the snow scene is more your speed, we've got your first look at the holiday classic.
We have a feeling even the Boston Ballet dancing bear couldn't keep up with second soloist Lawrence Rines' tricks in Russian.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
'Tis the season to have some fun in the kitchen. If you want to get more creative than simply baking another pumpkin pie, try these Nutcracker-themed treats—created by and for dancers. These recipes from former Boston Ballet and Joffrey Ballet dancers were first published in Dance Magazine's December 1990 issue. Today, they're still guaranteed to turn any holiday party or dressing room into a true Land of the Sweets.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
Everyone knows that training is the cornerstone of a successful career in dance. But as a dance educator, I also take comfort in the fact that high-quality dance training helps shape students into genuinely good people (in addition to creating future artists, which is a wonderful goal in itself.) These are the lessons dance teaches that help make students into better humans:
Improvement Takes Commitment Over Time
In my tap courses at Cal State University, sometimes students are shocked when they can't learn something quickly. In today's world, we're used to getting fast results. You need an answer—Google it. You need to talk to someone—text them. The cooking channel wants your dinner to be easy, the physical trainer wants your workout to be five minutes, Rosetta Stone can have you speaking Mandarin in an hour.
It's no secret that affording college is a challenge for many students. And for dancers, there are added complications, like the relative lack of merit scholarships that take artistic talent into consideration and the improbability of a stable salary to pay off loans post-graduation. But no matter your budget, a smart approach to the application process can help you focus less on money and more on your training.
According to Drexel University performing arts department head Miriam Giguere, figuring out the kind of financial assistance a school offers is just as important as navigating what kind of dance program you want. Here's how to incorporate finances into your decision-making process:
When dancers get injured, they often think they should eat less. The thought process goes something like, Since I'm not able to move as much as I usually do, I'm not burning enough calories to justify the portions I'm used to.
But the truth is, scaling back your meals could actually be detrimental to your healing process.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Lots of college groups do stepping—a form of body percussion based on slapping, tapping and stomping—but Step Afrika! is the first professional dance company to do it. They are currently at New York City's New Victory Theater, presenting The Migration: Reflections on Jacob Lawrence, a show based on the painting series by Harlem Renaissance artist Jacob Lawrence about The Great Migration of the 1900s, when millions of African Americans fled the Jim Crow South and traveled by train to the North for a better life. The Great Migration transformed the demographics of the country, and Jacob Lawrence's paintings became famous for their bold color and evocative power.