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The Queen of Quirk
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.
Camille A. Brown is on an impressive streak: In October, the Ford Foundation named her an Art of Change fellow. In November, she won an AUDELCO ("Viv") Award for her choreography in the musical Bella: An American Tall Tale. On December 1, her Camille A. Brown & Dancers made its debut at the Kennedy Center, and two days later she was back in New York City to see her choreography in the opening of Broadway's Once on This Island. Weeks later, it was announced that she was choreographing NBC's live television musical Jesus Christ Superstar Live in Concert, to air on April 1.
An extraordinarily private person, few knew that during this time Brown was in the midst of a health crisis. It started with an upset stomach while performing with her company on tour last summer.
"I was drinking ginger ale, thinking that I would feel better," she says. Finally, the pain became so acute that she went to the emergency room in Mississippi. Her appendix had burst. "Until then, I didn't know it was serious," she says. "I'm a dancer—aches and pains don't keep you from work."
The encounter with man-eating female creatures in Jerome Robbins' The Cage never fails to shock audiences. As this tribe of insects initiates the newly-born Novice into their community and prepares her for the attack of the male Intruders, the ballet draws us into a world of survival and instinct.
This year celebrates the 100th anniversary of Jerome Robbins' birth, and a number of Robbins programs are celebrating his timeless repertoire. But it especially feels like a prime moment to experience The Cage again. Several companies are performing it: San Francisco Ballet begins performances on March 20, followed by the English National Ballet in April and New York City Ballet in May.
Why it matters: In this time of female empowerment—as women are supporting one another in vocalizing injustices, demanding fair treatment and pay, and advocating for future generations—The Cage's nest of dominant women have new significance.
Last week in a piece I wrote about the drama at English National Ballet, I pointed out that many of the accusations against artistic director Tamara Rojo—screaming at dancers, giving them the silent treatment, taking away roles without explanation—were, unfortunately, pretty standard practice in the ballet world:
If it's a conversation we're going to have, we can't only point the finger at ENB.
The line provoked a pretty strong response. Professional dancers, students and administrators reached out to me, making it clear that it's a conversation they want to have. Several shared their personal stories of experiencing abusive behavior.
Christopher Hampson, artistic director of the Scottish Ballet, wrote his thoughts about the issue on his company's website on Monday:
I always knew my ballet career would eventually end. It was implied from the very start that at some point I would be too old and decrepit to take morning ballet class, followed by six hours of intense rehearsals.
What I never imagined was that I would experience a time when I couldn't walk at all.
In rehearsal for Nutcracker in 2013, I slipped while pushing off for a fouetté sauté, instantly rupturing the ACL in my right knee. In that moment my dance life flashed before my eyes.
Stephen Petronio brings a bracing season to New York City's Joyce Theater, where he has performed almost every year for 24 years . His work is exciting to the subscription audience as well as to many dance artists. He delves into movement invention at the same time as creating complex postmodern forms. The new work, Hardness 10, is his third collaboration with composer Nico Muhly. The costumes are by Patricia Field ARTFASHION, hand-painted by Iris Bonner/These Pink Lips. Petronio's work still practically defines the word contemporary.
Stephen Petronio Company also continues with its Bloodlines series. That's where he pays homage to landmark works of the past that have influenced his own edgy aesthetics. This season he's chosen Merce Cunningham's playful trio Signals (1970), which will be performed with live music from Composers Inside Electronics.
Completing the program is an excerpt from Petronio's Underland (2003), with music by Nick Cave. Video footage courtesy of Stephen Petronio Company, filmed by Blake Martin.
Never did I think I'd see the day when I'd outgrow dance. Sure, I knew my life would have to evolve. In fact, my dance career had already taken me through seasons of being a performer, a choreographer, a business owner and even a dance professor. Evolution was a given. Evolving past dancing for a living, however, was not.
Transitioning from a dance career involved just as much of a process as building one did. But after I overcame the initial identity crisis, I realized that my dance career had helped me develop strengths that could be put to use in other careers. For instance, my work as a dance professor allowed me to discover my knack for connecting with students and helping them with their careers, skills that ultimately opened the door for a pivot into college career services.
Here's how five dance skills can land you a new job—and help you thrive in it:
When you spend as much time on the road as The Royal Ballet's Steven McRae, getting access to a proper gym can be a hassle. To stay fit, the Australian-born principal turns to calisthenics—the old-school art of developing aerobic ability and strength with little to no equipment.
"It's basically just using your own body weight," McRae explains. "In terms of partnering, I'm not going to dance with a ballerina who is bigger than me, so if I can sustain my own body weight, then in my head I should be fine."
We all know that companies too often take dancers for granted. When I wrote last week about a few common ways in which dancers are mistreated—routine screaming, humiliation, being pressured to perform injured and be stick-thin—I knew I was only scratching the surface.
So I put out a call to readers asking for your perspective on the most pressing issues that need to be addressed first, and what positive changes we might be able to make to achieve those goals.
The bottom line: Readers agree it's time to hold directors accountable, particularly to make sure that dancers are being paid fairly. But the good news is that change is already happening. Here are some of the most intriguing ideas you shared via comments, email and social media:
With dancer and choreographer credits that cover everything from touring with Beyoncé to music videos and even feature films, Tricia Miranda knows more than a thing or two about what it takes to make it. And aspiring dancers are well aware. We caught up with the commercial dance queen last weekend at the Brooklyn Funk convention, where she taught a ballroom full of dancers classes in hip-hop and dancing for film and video.
How To Land An Agency
"At times with the agencies, they already have someone that looks like you or you're just not ready to work. Look has to do with a lot of it, work ethic and also just the type of person you are. Do you have personality? Do people want to work with you? Because you can be the greatest dancer, but if you're not someone that gives off this energy of wanting to get to know you, then it doesn't matter how dope you are because people want to work with who they want to be around. I learned that by later transitioning into a choreographer because now that I'm hiring people, I want to hire the people that I want to be around for 12 or 14 hours a day.
You also have to understand that class dancers are different from working commercial dancers. A lot of class dancers and what you see in these YouTube videos are people who stand out because they're doing what they want and remixing choreography. They're kind of stars in their own right, which is great for class, but when it comes to a job, you have to do the choreography how it's taught."
Houston's METdance and the Dallas-based Bruce Wood Dance have teamed up to commission a new work from Dallas native (and former Dallas Black Dance Theatre artistic director) Bridget L. Moore. The two contemporary companies will take the stage together in Dallas at Moody Performance Hall on March 16 and at Houston's Hobby Center for the Performing Arts on April 13–15. Visit brucewooddance.org and metdance.org for details on the respective engagements.