Choreographer Ralph Lemon Honored by President Obama
How does it feel to have President Obama bedeck you with a Medal of the Arts?
“It was crazy! The most intense one-day event of my life, by far.” That was choreographer Ralph Lemon’s reaction last week after President Obama hung the National Medal of Arts around his neck. Lemon was honored for his contributions along with other major American artists like Philip Glass, Berry Gordy, Mel Brooks and Audra McDonald.
President Barack Obama awarded the 2015 National Medal of Arts to Ralph Lemon, photo by Cheriss May
During the National Medals of Arts and Humanities Awards Ceremony, the President began with his usual eloquence: “Michelle and I believe that the arts and humanities are reflective of our national soul. They’re central to who we are as Americans: dreamers, storytellers, innovators and visionaries. They’re what helps us make sense of the past, the good and the bad. They’re how we chart a course for the future while leaving something of ourselves for the next generation to learn from.”
These words are so true of Ralph Lemon and his work. The choreographer from Minneapolis dropped the comfort of his own company and traveled to Africa, Asia and the American South to delve into his heritage. In so doing he questioned everything he knew as a dancemaker and asked instead, What does it mean to be an American? And, What does it mean to be a citizen of the world? Over ten years starting in 1997, he created a monumental trilogy of works at Brooklyn Academy of Music: Geography, Tree and Come home Charlie Patton.
In his more recent How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2010), he again threw out everything he knew. The piece was so exhausting for the dancers that the title could just as well have been "What Kind of Dance Do You Make When Life Falls Apart?" (I was blown away by it.)
Not only a choreographer (or, one might say, an anti-choreographer), Lemon has also been central to the current trend of dancing in museums. He’s been so instrumental as a curator at the Museum of Modern Art that they just published a book about him. (He has also created a book of writings and drawings with each work in the trilogy.)
In a quick email a few days after the ceremony, this is what Lemon said about the people he met: “Obama is a prince, beyond his presidential highness! And 90-year-old Brooks is a genius joke machine; every time he opened his mouth something hilarious filled the room. Met Berry Gordy too. I told him his music made my young life a joyful dance. He was remarkably convivial and generous.”
It was a good day for dance and music.
Jennifer Kahn knew the theater industry could do better. As a professional stage manager for 17 years she worked on regional, off-Broadway and Broadway shows. Nearly each time a show closed, something unsettling happened: "I would watch them throw away our shows. All of the beautiful artwork by my friends in the paint shop would go in the trash." The elaborate backdrops? Gone.
But she had an idea: What if the material used in the backdrops and legs could be upcycled into something new? And what if theater lovers could literally keep a piece of a beloved show?
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.
For decades the name Alicia Alonso has been virtually synonymous with Ballet Nacional de Cuba, the company she co-founded in Havana in 1948. Alonso died on October 17, just shy of what would have been her 99th birthday. In recent years, she had stepped back from day-to-day decision-making in the company. As if preparing for the future, in January, the company's leading ballerina, 42-year-old Viengsay Valdés, was named deputy director, a job that seems to encompass most of the responsibilities of a traditional director. Now, presumably, she will step into her new role as director of the company. Her debut as curator of the repertory comes in November, when the troupe will perform three mixed bills selected by her at the Gran Teatro de la Habana Alicia Alonso. The following has been translated from a conversation conducted in Spanish, Valdés' native tongue.
New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns wasn't sure she was strong enough. A ballerina who has danced many demanding full-length and contemporary roles, she was about to push herself physically more than she thought was possible.
"I said, 'I can't. My body won't,' " she says. "He told me, 'Yes, it will.' "
She wasn't working with a ballet coach, but with personal trainer Joel Prouty, who was asking her to do squats with a heavier barbell than she'd ever used.