Orlando Zane Hunter, Jr. and Samantha Allen in Colleen Thomas' Her(e) Repetitive Blueprint. Photo by Judith Stuart Boroson

"But What Does It Mean?" A New Book Deconstructs Contemporary Dance

As a contemporary dance critic and lover of the art form, I have spent countless hours in bars and restaurants after a performance at The Joyce or New York Live Arts trying to explain to befuddled friends the "meaning" of a particular piece. Some admit to being fascinated but ignorant; others find the movement vocabulary used vexing or cryptic. All somehow feel that they have "missed the point."

So I found Judith Stuart Boroson's mission in her new book, ChoreoGraphics: Six Studies particularly enticing: To use photography, along with text, to explain contemporary dance to lay viewers and dance insiders alike.

Once You Are Not A Stranger by Janis Brenner

Judith Stuart Boroson

A former dancer herself who founded the LIU Brooklyn campus dance department, Stuart Boroson examines six works by contemporary choreographers: Alexandra Beller, Janis Brenner, Marjani Forté-Saunders, Colleen Thomas, Nathan Trice, and the Urban Bush Women team of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Samantha Speis.

She provides an introduction to each choreographer along with a simple and informative Q&A which explains the piece's genesis and what it means to them on a personal level. It's the inside look that you always wished you'd been given before attending a dance performance.

Each of the pieces is then deconstructed in beautiful black and white photographs also taken by the author. The images are accompanied by simple titles that illustrate a particular point or theme in a work: "trying to connect" and "imagery of wings," for example, or "parallel experiences for white women and black men."

Each work examines a particular social issue or aspect of human relationships. Alexandra Beller explains that the genesis for her piece milkdreams lies in the birth of her two sons, Ivo and Lucas. Through examining the movement of 14 month-old Ivo, she rediscovered meaning in movement, as babies seem to always have a teleological goal when they move, i.e. to get somewhere or imitate something.

"He was all about great need and acute desire and surprise and survival. How he moved was circumstantial," Beller explains. "He would fall, get up, didn't seem to have any fear of falling again. It simply happened." I first watched the YouTube link to milkdreams when the rehearsal video went viral several years ago. The book clarified how much Ivo had helped to take her choreography back to basics.

Alexandra Beller's milkdreams

Judith Stuart Boroson

In another chapter, we learn how Eric Garner's murder sent Marjani Forté-Saunders on a journey to better understand her father and Garner—both African-American men who resemble each other physically—in Memoirs…of a unicorn. "Did Eric Garner ride motorcycles? My dad rode motorcycles… Did Eric Garner have a specialty? My dad used to be a DJ… My dad was also a contractor. All anyone sees is this big black man getting wrestled down and dying. But to his family, he's their hero, their daddy, a husband who has a story and who has had journeys. I can tell those stories. That's what the piece does."

ChoreoGraphics makes a novel contribution to books on dance by explaining key sections shot-by-shot, while comments by the choreographers themselves simplify sometimes difficult themes. At times, one is left wanting even more analysis. For example, what was the catharsis that Forté-Saunders achieved as she so powerfully channeled her beloved father? Hopefully Stuart Boroson will continue down this road in new volumes executed with as much skill and knowledge of her field.

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Courtesy Harlequin

What Does It Take to Make a Safe Outdoor Stage for Dance?

Warmer weather is just around the corner, and with it comes a light at the end of a hibernation tunnel for many dance organizations: a chance to perform again. While social distancing and mask-wearing remain essential to gathering safely, the great outdoors has become an often-preferred performance venue.

But, of course, nature likes to throw its curveballs. What does it take to successfully pull off an alfresco show?

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Dwight Rhodens "Ave Maria," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

Keeping dancers safe outside requires the same intentional flooring as you have in the studio—but it also needs to be hearty enough to withstand the weather. With so many factors to consider, two ballet companies consulted with Harlequin Floors to find the perfect floor for their unique circumstances.

Last fall, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre invested in a mobile stage that allowed the dancers to perform live for socially distanced audiences. "But we didn't have an outdoor resilient floor, so we quickly realized that if we had any rain, we were going to be in big trouble—it would have rotted," says artistic director Susan Jaffe.

The company purchased the lightweight, waterproof Harlequin's AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and the heavy-duty Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl, which is manufactured with BioCote® Antimicrobial Protection to help with the prevention of bacteria and mold. After an indoor test run while filming Nutcracker ("It felt exactly like our regular floor," says Jaffe), the company will debut the new setup this May in Pittsburgh's Schenley Park during a two-week series of performances shared with other local arts organizations.

Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre's Open Air Series last fall. The company plans to roll out their new Harlequin AeroDeck® sprung floor panels and Harlequin Cascade™ vinyl floor for more outdoor performances this spring.

Harris Ferris, Courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

In addition to the possibility of rain, a range of temperatures also has to be taken into account. When the State Ballet of Rhode Island received a grant from the state to upgrade its 15-year-old stage, executive director Ana Fox chose the Harlequin Cascade vinyl floor in the lighter gray color "so that it would be cooler if it's reflecting sunlight during daytime performances," she says.

However, for the civic ballet company's first performance on its new 24-by-48–foot stage on November 22, heat was less of a concern than the Northeastern cold. Fortunately, Fox says the surface never got icy or too stiff. "It felt warm to the feel," she says. "You could see the dancers didn't hesitate to run or step into arabesque." (The Harlequin Cascade floor is known for providing a good grip.)

"To have a safe floor for dancers not to worry about shin splints or something of that nature, that's everything," she says. "The dancers have to feel secure."

State Ballet of Rhode Island first rolled out their new Harlequin Cascade™ flooring for an outdoor performance last November.

Courtesy of Harlequin

Of course, the elements need to be considered even when dancers aren't actively performing. Although Harlequin's AeroDeck is waterproof, both PBT and SBRI have tarps to cover their stages to keep any water out. SBRI also does damp mopping before performances to get pollen off the surface. Additionally, the company is building a shed to safely store the floor long-term when it's not in use. "Of course, it's heavy, but laying down the floor and putting it away was not an issue at all," says Fox, adding that both were easy to accomplish with a crew of four people.

Since the Harlequin Cascade surface is versatile enough to support a wide range of dance styles—and even opera and theater sets—both PBT and SBRI are partnering with other local arts organizations to put their outdoor stages to use as much as possible. Because audiences are hungry for art right now.

"In September, I made our outdoor performance shorter so we wouldn't have to worry about intermission or bathrooms, but when it was over, they just sat there," says Jaffe, with a laugh. "People were so grateful and so happy to see us perform. We just got an overwhelming response of love and gratitude."

Marisa Grywalski and Alejandro Diaz in Susan Jaffes "Carmina Terra," part of PBT's Open Air Series last fall.

Kelly Perkovich, courtesy Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre

February 2021