Magazine

The Queen of Quirk

With her wacky charm, Celia Rowlson-Hall has become the dance darling of fashion and film. 

 

Photo by Jayme Thornton (2)

 

When Celia Rowlson-Hall found out she would be choreographing for HBO’s “Girls,” she felt like she was in the right place. Woven into the drama of last season’s “Beach House” episode, her coy, catchy moves had the actors chugging, grapevining and otherwise grooving around kitchen counters and living room furniture. For those 45 seconds, their characters—four feuding friends—managed to get along.

“The job was serendipitous in terms of the style,” says Rowlson-Hall. “I mean, making up a dance in the living room is really all I like to do anyway.”

She’s joking, but not entirely. Much of what this Brooklyn-based choreographer, filmmaker and performer makes has the impromptu, wacky charm of the stuff you do at home when no one’s watching. And her passion for telling stories through film and movement is no less zealous than that of a kid staging a backyard musical. But her work is also remarkably sophisticated, in all of its onscreen forms: her own surreal, wordless short films; choreography for music videos and commercials; off-the-cuff dances on Instagram; and, coming soon, her first feature-length film, MA, a silent movie about a virgin mother’s pilgrimage across the American  Southwest. (More on that later.) At a time when many people would sooner spend $300 on an iPad than on tickets to the ballet, she’s telling smart, whimsical stories that dance across our devices.

Rowlson-Hall, 30, started out in contemporary dance, but the “highs and heartbreaks” of live performance, she says, became too taxing: all that work and emotional investment for just a few fleeting shows. “Maybe I’m too sentimental,” she says, “but I needed something to hold on to.”

 

Her path isn’t easy to trace. Slipping between high-profile gigs and DIY adventures, Rowlson-Hall is something of a chameleon. Her clients range from independent designers to big-name brands (Kate Spade, Lee Jeans), from cult electronic artists to popular Indie bands (MGMT, Sleigh Bells). When “Girls” writer and star Lena Dunham appeared on the cover of Vogue, Rowlson-Hall choreographed the cheeky companion video. She seems to be that magazine’s go-to dance consultant, having also directed a Vogue video of the Memphis jookin’ virtuoso Lil Buck.

Her own films, in which she often stars—all spindly, elegant limbs and wild blue eyes—lure the viewer into strange, hyper-saturated worlds unto themselves, where movement does the talking in both loud and subtle ways. They can be disturbing or disarming, garish or achingly poignant. A few of her shorts have earned the exclusive “Staff Pick” stamp at Vimeo, and two of those made it to South by Southwest last year: her haunting si nos dejan and hilarious The Audition, an absurdist one-take perhaps inspired by her own auditioning past.

It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing “zero professional promise” in Rowlson-Hall. But such was the assessment, as she remembers it, from her professors at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she spent her college years. (She grew up in the tiny town of Urbanna, Virginia.) While most dance majors auditioned for the work of guest artists and spent their afternoons in rehearsal, Rowlson-Hall, not the most conventionally technical dancer—as she puts it, “I move a little weird”—never made the cut.

“I could have been done with classes by 3 pm and messed around the rest of the day,” she recalls. “But that’s when I started to really choreograph. I made my own work.”

Upon graduating in 2006, Rowlson-Hall plunged into New York City life, exploring every creative outlet in sight. The so-called awkwardness that had hindered her in college endeared her to a couple of audacious choreographers: Faye Driscoll and Monica Bill Barnes. “She had this gangliness,” Driscoll says, “but it became for me the thing that was so beautiful about her.” Driscoll also admired her up-for-anything attitude, “this willingness to try, to just go for things, whether or not they ended up being a horrible idea. She’s really just an idea machine.” Barnes, who mentored Rowlson-Hall through Lincoln Center’s Kenan Fellowship, an opportunity for emerging artists from UNCSA, describes her as “an incredibly genuine performer, with these bold instincts and a sense of how to carry them out.”

Rowlson-Hall danced with Driscoll and Barnes for several years, even winning a Bessie Award as a performer in Driscoll’s 837 Venice Blvd. But her interests had always varied, darting between dance, photography and fashion. Through a growing network of artist friends willing to teach her new skills—and through modeling jobs that connected her with commercial casting directors—she discovered that her passions could converge in a single, less ephemeral medium: film. The first time she walked onto a music video set, she says, “it felt like home.”

“I think filmmaking in itself is a bit of a dance,” she says, “whether it’s how the camera is moving or how you’re editing; it all has momentum and lyricism and tempo.”

Her versatility—her fluency in choreographing both for and with the camera—makes her a sought-after collaborator. As “Girls” director Jesse Peretz puts it, “I could tell I was working with someone who had not only a choreographer’s brain but also a director’s brain.” Other colleagues, like the clothing designer Rachel Antonoff, for whom Rowlson-Hall directed a fanciful five-minute promo, note her almost telepathic intuition. “She has this ability to extract what’s in your head,” Antonoff says, “to take something you weren’t able to totally verbalize and not only verbalize it perfectly, but make it better than you ever thought it could be.”

Rowlson-Hall also has an uncanny way of rallying people behind her ideas—no matter how out-there they may seem. Last year she raised $50,000 on Kickstarter to fund MA, her most ambitious project yet, in which she’ll play the title role: “a virgin mother on a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to give birth to our savior.” (She’s on location in Arizona and Nevada this month.) The choreographer Sydney Skybetter was among her backers. “At a time when Kickstarter had gotten so obnoxious and noisy, she commanded it for something meaningful and highly personal and utterly nonsensical,” he says. “I honestly don’t understand what she’s doing, and it’s great.”

Rowlson-Hall admits that she doesn’t completely understand either. But she loves the journey of finding out, and she knows what fascinates her: the untold stories of women—“the mother of the hero,” she says—and myths of all kinds, including biblical ones. (Raised  in a Christian Scientist family, she has since settled into a broader kind of spirituality.) In MA, those fascinations collide with the help of a sprawling creative team. Her cast features the dancers Jason Kittelberger (formerly of Cedar Lake) and Bobbi Jene Smith (formerly of Batsheva).

As untamed as her work can be—see the punch-bowl scene in Prom Night or the confectionary ghost in Piñata—Rowlson-Hall loves to tunnel into a simple idea. At a residency last May, she spent days refining how Ma will walk: How does she carry herself? Where is her focus? Outside the studio, she keeps her eyes peeled for naturally occurring choreography. On a recent trip to India, from the 30th floor of a hotel, she spotted four boys frolicking on the street below. “I swear, it was more beautiful than a Cunningham piece,” she says. From that image, a section of MA was born.

As a performer in her own work, Rowlson-Hall likes to capture herself in a single take. It’s like being onstage: no second chances. “I do miss performing live,” she says, “so in my filmmaking, I try to bring a sense of that aliveness—try to get the best of both worlds.”

 

Siobhan Burke, a former Dance Magazine editor, is a dance critic for The New York Times.

 

Four photos from top: Making a video with Hamish Bowles, international editor at large of Vogue; Rowlson-Hall’s choreography for “Girls”; performing in her short films All the World’s a Stage and Mariah’s Lollipop. All photos courtesy Rowlson-Hall, except “Girls” by Mark Schafer/HBO, Courtesy HBO.

Jacob Jonas directed, filmed and choreographed last year's Best Overall winner. Image via Facebook

What if there was a way to get your dancing in front of the likes of Desmond Richardson, d. Sabela grimes and Vincent Paterson all at once? Just in case you needed another excuse to break out your best moves this week, the Dare to Dance in Public Film Festival is back, and Richardson, grimes and Paterson are among this year's judges.

Dancers and non-dancers alike are invited to submit short dance films to the international online festival, with one caveat: The dancing has to take place in a public space.

Keep reading... Show less
Popular

By Rick Tjia, Dance Talent Scout, Cirque du Soleil Casting

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.

Keep reading... Show less
AXIS Dance Company. Photo by David DeSilva, Courtesy AXIS.

Now in its 30th year, AXIS Dance Company, the pioneering physically integrated troupe in Oakland, California, is celebrating with a new artistic director, a new logo and expanded ambitions.

Keep reading... Show less
Delores Brown, photo via mobballet.org

When we're talking about the history of black dancers in ballet, three names typically pop up: Raven Wilkinson at Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo, Janet Collins at New York's Metropolitan Opera and Arthur Mitchell at New York City Ballet.

But in the 1930s through 50s, there was a largely overlooked hot spot for black ballet dancers: Philadelphia. What was going on in that city that made it such an incubator? To answer that question, we caught up with Memoirs of Blacks in Ballet founder (and frequent Dance Magazine contributor) Theresa Ruth Howard, who yesterday released her latest project, a video series called And Still They Rose: The Legacy of Black Philadelphians in Ballet.

Keep reading... Show less
Nathan Sayers

Janie Taylor didn't know if she'd ever return to the stage. But that's exactly where the former New York City Ballet principal has found herself: Nearly three years after retiring, she is performing again, as a member of L.A. Dance Project.

Taylor officially debuted with the company at its December 2016 gala in Los Angeles, then performed in Boston, via live stream from Marfa, Texas, and at New York's Joyce Theater before heading off on tour dates in France, Singapore, Dubai and beyond.

"She is wildly interesting to watch—and not conventional," says LADP artistic director Benjamin Millepied. "There are films of Suzanne Farrell dancing, where you feel like the music is coming out of her body," he says. "I think Janie has that same kind of quality."

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies

Last night was not your average Thursday at Bay Ridge Ballet in Brooklyn, New York. Studio owner and teacher Patty Foster Grado—a former Parsons Dance Company dancer—was teaching a boys class, when with only five minutes left, she heard commotion in the waiting area and someone yelled, "There's a lady giving birth in the bathroom!"

Keep reading... Show less
Dancers & Companies
PC Elena Fetisova

Where can you watch Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, The Nutcracker, Coppélia and Le Corsaire all in one place? Hint: It also has extra-buttery popcorn.

Yep, it's your local movie theater. Starting this weekend, theaters across the country will be showing Bolshoi Ballet productions of classical and contemporary story ballets.

Keep reading... Show less
Health & Body
Danielle Peazer, photo by David Salafia

When commercial dancer Danielle Peazer took on an ambassadorial role with Reebok in early 2016, she didn't realize the gig would also lead to a career shift. But while traveling with and teaching workshops for the brand, the idea for DDM (Danielle's Dance Method) Collective started to take shape.

Keep reading... Show less

Sponsored

Videos

Sponsored

mailbox

Get Dance Magazine in your inbox

Sponsored

Win It!