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.
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.
What happens when drones become part of the dance? For Margaret Jenkins Dance Company's latest work, Skies Calling Skies Falling, video artists David and Hi-Jin Hudge used a drone hovering 200 to 400 feet above the ground to film the dancers performing in an industrial granary. The resulting footage will be projected onto the floor and walls of the Taube Atrium Theater, creating a dystopian backdrop to the live performance.
Alex Carrington of MJDC, Photo by RJ Muna
It's been 34 years since Sir Kenneth MacMillan's Mayerling touched down on American soil, when The Royal Ballet first performed the great English master's tour de force ballet stateside. On September 22–24, Houston Ballet becomes the first North American company to perform MacMillan's epic chronicle of the murder-suicide of the heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, Crown Prince Rudolf, and his 17-year-old mistress, Baroness Mary Vetsera. Chronicling the last chapter of the Hapsburg Empire, the ballet is known for its true-to-life realism, and for the role of Rudolf, which transformed the way male ballet dancers drive a story. It's considered a dream role for a male dancer. And with seven pas de deux with five different women, a deadly difficult one at that.
Driving Houston Ballet's Mayerling train is principal Connor Walsh, who nearly missed this opportunity to dance the part when Hurricane Harvey flooded Houston Ballet's theatrical home, Wortham Center. Now moved to the Hobby Center for the Performing Arts and back in rehearsal, Walsh took a break from his busy schedule to talk about the role of a lifetime.
Have you ever felt like your relationship to dance is something of an addiction? Not to worry, that's completely normal—it's simply the way our brains are wired.
This week, The Washington Post published an intriguing feature that looks at the science of what actually goes on upstairs when we're watching a live performance. The insight comes from the emerging field of neuroaesthetics, which uses tools like brain imaging to study the relationship between art and the brain.
Here are some of the most fascinating takeaways: