10 Minutes with Jessica Lang
The concept-oriented choreographer meets her architectural match.
Takao Komaru, courtesy Lang.
Architects, studios and artists from more than 30 countries will attend the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. One of its highest-profile commissions, however, involves two artists who work just a short subway ride away from each other in New York City. Tesseracts of Time, by choreographer Jessica Lang and architect Steven Holl, will premiere on November 6, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance as part of the Biennial, which runs through January 3.
Were you familiar with Steven’s work before this commission?
Steven is building the new Queens Library at Hunters Point, right next to my company’s offices. I was attracted to the building before knowing he designed it, and that led me to learn more about him. So his name coming up for this commission felt like a wink—like it was supposed to happen.
His sense of light is consistently inventive and poetic, like yours.
Light is one of the subjects that came to the forefront right away, along with this founding thought of Steven’s, that architecture exists under, in, on, and over the ground. That led to this piece being in four sections, based on those concepts, while reflecting his musical ideas and composers he enjoys: John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman and David Lang. Steven is my subject, so to speak—I’ve been diving into his world to bring it into mine.
Jessica Lang Dance in Lines Cubed. Photo by Sharen Bradford, courtesy Lang.
What about dance interests him?
One of our first conversations was about the time and length of our careers. We discussed how, if a dancer is lucky, they work until they’re 40. He explained that his first commission came when he was 50. I make a dance in three weeks. His start-to-finish can take eight years. That continues into size, shape, budget, everything else. To make a building and to make a dance are very different things.
And one is permanent, one is not.
Now, tesseracts are “impossible” shapes—they exist only in theoretical geometry.
That’s right. Square is to cube as cube is to tesseract—they’re incredible forms.
How are you and Steven referencing them?
He created models of them, which he recorded on video, moving the camera to guide us through them. We’re putting dancers in front of projections of that video to make the “in” section; the models will look huge because he shot them up close. For the “on” section, those same tesseracts we were just “in”—three of them, 12 to 16 feet tall—are on the stage as set elements, which get raised up for the “over” section, so the dancers are “under” them. It comes around, full circle.
Will Tesseracts of Time go on tour?
Yes. I put that limitation on Steven right away. It had to be tourable, and so now, in addition to Chicago Architecture Biennial and Harris Theater, it’s co-commissioned by the Joyce Theater Foundation as well as the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston, where he’s building an expansion to the Museum of Fine Arts. Everywhere that Steven is, or will be, can be an opportunity for us to perform.
Does that mean China?
It’s been discussed. Steven has an office in Beijing. That would be a first for my company.
When I was a young dancer in Louisville, Kentucky, my ballet teacher used to speak a lot about Merrill Ashley. She brought neoclassical technique to exquisite new heights under Balanchine, and as a technician, she famously paved the way for today's balletic whiz kids. (Later, when I was a teenager, I was lucky enough to have her as a teacher.) Today, as I travel around the country giving master classes, I often find myself bringing up the names of quintessential American ballerinas, dancers like Merrill. But now, if I mention her name, I can't help but notice my students' eyes widening as they look to each other wondering who exactly this famous ballerina named Merrill is.
Jennifer Garner wants the world to know that she takes game day seriously—and she's not talking about football. For ballet dancers during December, there's obviously only one type of "game day." Nutcracker, of course.
Garner is a highly documented ballet lover, and, this time, she went the extra mile to show her dedication. Thankfully, she was on hand as American Ballet Theatre warmed up for its current Nutcracker run at the Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California.
When Marinda Davis was named second runner-up at the 2015 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, she dove headfirst into choreographing and producing a full-length show for her company, marInspired; the storytellers. But as her career was booming, Davis' body was breaking down. Behind the scenes, she was dealing with eight very serious illnesses, one of which led to a months-long hospital stay. Now, as she prepares a piece for Giordano Dance Chicago (debuting in March), Davis reflects on how she's powered through it all.
Next semester, there'll be a new course name on the syllabus of Boston Conservatory at Berklee: "Constructed Gender Identities in Classical Ballet: Men's Variations."
But this is not a new course, just a new title. The old name is one you might recognize: "Men's Class."
Love it or hate it, come December, The Nutcracker is ubiquitous. It's easy to wonder whether it's sustainable to keep performing the same holiday classic year after year, or to spend millions of dollars reinventing it for new productions. But believe it or not, the show's popularity is only growing.
Every year, Dance/USA conducts a Nutcracker Survey on its member companies, compiling data about ticket sales, attendance and more. The organization just reported on the state of the Nutcracker for the first time since 2008, and the data shows just how much the ballet's prevalence has grown in the past 10 years—and how much companies have come to rely on it as a revenue source:
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Why do back injuries seem to be so common these days among dancers?
"It used to be that if you were in a company, you did all the work of that choreographer," says Rocky Bornstein, a New York City–based physical therapist who specializes in professional dancers. "Now companies feel like they have to bring in choreographers to work with the company, so the work is much more eclectic." More and more dancers are also building freelance careers, which forces them to hop between various styles. This is an unprecedented challenge for the body.
Dr. William Hamilton, who was an orthopedic consultant for New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre for four decades, adds that even big companies are getting smaller, which puts more pressure on each individual dancer. A minor injury in one member can cause a domino effect within the company: Other dancers need to do double duty, which puts their bodies at risk for injury as well.
Few people who are busier during the holidays than corps members of American ballet companies. December is officially Nutcracker season—a company's chance to earn a huge chunk of their revenue for the year, and a dancer's chance to go a little, ahem, nuts, waltzing and swallowing fake snow night after night for weeks on end.
But Nutcracker can also be an opportunity like no other, and for some corps members, it's the highlight of their year. Five dancers told us what helps them get through it all.
When Rambert, the United Kingdom's oldest professional dance company, announced Wednesday that Benoit Swan Pouffer had been appointed artistic director, it was hardly surprising news. Since April, two months after Mark Baldwin stepped away from Rambert after a 15-year tenure at its head, Pouffer has served as guest artistic director. That initial appointment was in and of itself a somewhat unexpected move, but the company had already brought the choreographer into the fold with a commission for its newly-formed junior company, Rambert2.
Given how regimented the Radio City Rockettes are, from their precise kick lines to their Christmas Spectacular season show schedule (which can include up to four performances a day), it's no surprise they're just as strict with their skincare routines. After all, sweating in stage makeup six days a week can cause dryness and breakouts for even the most easygoing skin types. We caught up with Rockettes Alyssa Lemons and Nina Linhart for all of their tried-and-true skincare picks.
Congratulations are in order for American Ballet Theatre star Gillian Murphy and her husband, former ABT dancer Ethan Stiefel, who are expecting their first child next June!
Murphy announced her pregnancy today on Instagram:
She will not be dancing in the company's upcoming tour or the 2019 Metropolitan Opera House season, but plans to return to the stage next fall.
We have no doubt that Murphy will be the ultimate cool mom. Here's why:
Since losing her eyesight due to an undiagnosed optic nerve atrophy, choreographer and performer Mana Hashimoto has dedicated her life's work to exploring how the body exists in space with or without sight.
Trained in ballet, jazz and Graham technique, she has performed all over the world, from her native home in Japan to New York City's Metropolitan Museum of Art and Jacob's Pillow. Hashimoto is also the founder of Dance without Sight, a series of workshops designed to discover movement through touch, sound and smell.
Dance Magazine recently say down with Hashimoto to learn more about her process, and what it's like to be a bridge between the seen and unseen worlds.
Online video game Fortnite is involved in serious controversy over its "emotes" dance feature. Even if you're not a gamer, this is a case choreographers should keep close tabs on. Here's why.
Let us quickly introduce you to Fortnite Battle Royale: The video game sprung up in September 2017 and has grown to insane levels of popularity. It's free to play and features 100 users duking it out to be the last person standing. But here's the catch: If you want to get ahead, you have to make in-game purchases, trading real money for V-Bucks, which you use to redeem things like weapons.
So what's it got to do with dance? A whole lot. One of Fortnite's most popular—and lucrative—features is its emotes, animated dances that users can purchase to perform on the battlefield. Many are taken directly from pop culture, and Fortnite's developer, Epic Games, is in the midst of a heated lawsuit regarding its Swipe It emote. After much public debate, rapper 2 Milly filed a suit last week claiming that Epic Games stole—and is now largely profiting from—the Milly Rock, a dance move he created and popularized, without his permission. Take a look:
It's the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and their season at New York City Center is going strong with more than 20 works—including world premieres and company premieres.
Ronald K. Brown, who just received a Dance Magazine Award, has made his seventh work for Ailey, The Call. It's a gorgeous pastiche of three different types of music: Bach, jazz by singer Mary Lou Williams and Malian music by Asase Yaa Entertainment Group.
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
Throughout your dancing life, you've heard the same corrections over and over. The reason for the repetition? Dancers tend to make the same errors, sometimes with catastrophic results. Dance Magazine spoke to eight teachers about what they perceive to be the worst habits—the ones that will destroy a dancer's technique—and what can be done to reverse the damage.
To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.
Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.
Misaligning the Spine
Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.
Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.
Clenching the Toes
Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.
Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.
Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension
Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.
But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."
Using Unnecessary Tension
“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.
Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."
Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.
Pinching Your Shoulder Blades
Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."
Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."
Getting Stuck in a Rut
While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.
Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
If a teacher or choreographer has ever commented that your dancing looks stiff, the problem could be that you aren't breathing effectively. "When dancers aren't breathing, their shoulders are up and there's no length in their movement. They start to look like they're just waiting to get to the next thing," says Maria Bai, artistic director of Central Park Dance in New York.
It may seem like a no-brainer—of course you can't move without breathing. But beginning dancers often hold their breath because they are so focused on picking up choreography, says Sarah Skaggs, director of dance at Dickinson College. Even advanced dancers can benefit from focusing more on their breath. "Sometimes they are paying so much attention to what their limbs are doing that they forget about the lungs, the chest, the trunk. Breath is the last thing they're thinking about, but really it should be the first," says Skaggs. The more integrated your breathing is, the more relaxed and present you will feel.
I've been a fan of Jordan Isadore's for about a decade. His gorgeous, spine-contorting renditions of Christopher Williams' repertory are legendary, and for many years I had the privilege of making dances with him and producing his works through DanceNOW[NYC].
Over the last year or so, as he began winding down his performance career, Isadore began making odd, phenomenal objects: dribs of Labanotation scores rendered as hung mobiles, gorgeously crafted in stained glass and metal. The designs are stunning, imbued simultaneously with a hipster-nonsense contemporaneousness and reverence for dance history.
I spoke with Isadore about his retirement from the stage, and transition to crafting full time.
There's always that fateful day each year, usually in February or March, when ballet contracts are renewed. Dancers file into an office one by one, grab an envelope and sign their name on a nearby sheet of paper to signify the receipt of their fate. Inside that envelope is a contract for next season or a letter stating that their artistic contribution will no longer be needed. This yearly ritual is filled with anxiety and is usually followed by either celebratory frolicking or resumé writing.
Whenever I received my contract, I would throw up my hands joyfully knowing that I would get to spend one more year dancing. In 14 years at Boston Ballet, I never once looked at my pay rate when signing a contract. The thought of assessing my work through my salary never crossed my mind.
Watching Bohemian Rhapsody through the eyes of dancer, there's a certain element of the movie that's impossible to ignore: Rami Malek's physical performance of Freddie Mercury. The way he so completely embodies the nuances of the rock star is simply mind-blowing. We had to learn how he did it, so we called up Polly Bennett, the movement director who coached him through the entire process.
In a bit of serendipitous timing, while we were on the phone, she got a text from Malek that he had just been nominated for a Golden Globe. And during our chat, it became quite clear that she had obviously been a major part of that—more than we could have ever imagined.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series: