A Pittsburgh-based writer, Emily Macel Theys is a Contributing Editor of Dance Magazine and a frequent contributor to Dance Spirit and Dance Teacher magazines. In addition to dance writing, Emily is non-profit consultant and specializes in grant writing. Currently she serves as Director of Institutional Giving at Dance Exchange and is a grant writer for Surala Consulting, where she has had the pleasure of working with clients such as Alison Chase/Performance, Dance Films Association, and The Field, among others. Emily holds a Bachelor of Arts degree from Allegheny College where she minored in Dance Studies, and a Masters of Fine Arts from Sarah Lawrence College.
Yabin Wang converts movement into liquid that spills across the stage. A celebrity in her home country of China, this choreographer, dancer and actress has helped to pioneer modern dance there by blending Chinese classical and contemporary dance. Wang's international career was kick-started in 2010 at American Dance Festival, where she returned this summer to perform on a shared program with Michelle Dorrance, Aparna Ramaswamy, Rhapsody James and Camille A. Brown. She has also worked with Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui on Genesis and was commissioned by English National Ballet to create a piece for its Olivier Award–winning She Said program. This month, she is back stateside for the U.S. premiere of her Moon Opera, Nov. 3 in Pittsburgh.
Dance historian, writer and educator Rose Anne Thom passed away from cancer last month. She was 72 years old. Thom was born in Montreal, where she trained in dance and studied at McGill University before moving to New York. Thom first wrote for Dance Magazine in 1968.
Does the thought of being asked to improvise in a tap class make you sweat? Do you have a hard time finding the freedom in your feet?
Master tap dance teacher and performer Barbara Duffy knows the feeling. In her new book "Tap into Improv," Duffy offers tools, tips and exercises to alleviate improv anxiety.
Our national advocacy organization turns 30.
For 30 years, Dance/USA has been a stalwart advocate for the field, providing resources like job listings and grant opportunities, research on trends, and assistance with professional development and obtaining visas. Its big moment is the annual conference, this year June 27–30 in San Francisco, which brings together dance artists and administrators from across the nation.
During her first year and a half at the helm, executive director Amy Fitterer has been implementing programs that benefit a broad range of dance professionals, including more than 450 Dance/USA members. One of her initiatives is the Institute for Leadership Training, which pairs a working choreographer, dancer, or administrator with a veteran for a seminar as well as a one-on-one mentorship.
The Taskforce on Dancer Health continues to compile data on 30 companies in order to improve dancers’ well-being. The companies include Ailey, Houston Ballet, Hubbard Street, San Francisco Ballet, North Carolina Dance Theatre, and Boston Ballet. Through a screening process, medical professionals track risk of injury through physical aspects like turnout, flexibility, and nutrition. The taskforce has put out guides on first-aid basics for stage managers and tips on navigating the U.S. health insurance system.
Dance/USA coordinates projects with its two branch offices, in Philadelphia and NYC, as well as local organizations such as Dancers’ Group in San Francisco, Boston Dance Alliance, and Audience Architects in Chicago, to host roundtable discussions and gather audition postings.
Among the speakers at this year’s conference are Ken Tabachnick, dean of School of the Arts at SUNY Purchase; Marc Kirschner of Tendu TV; retired San Francisco Ballet star Muriel Maffre; choreographer and technology maven Sydney Skybetter; and Chicago dance writer Zachary Whittenburg. Hot topics will include using technology in marketing, archiving, and audience development; diversity; and best practices for collaborating—with the community, within an organization, and among professionals.
Boston Ballet dancer Sarah Wroth with Shaw Bronner, PT, part of the Taskforce on Dancer Health. Photo by Ernesto Galan, Courtesy BB.
Weidman leading a rehearsal of Lynchtown. Photo by John Daughtry, Courtesy DM Archives.
Charles Weidman’s Lynchtown depicts a mob hunting an outsider and surrounding him like vultures, an experience that Weidman himself witnessed as a child. The piece was part of a larger suite of works entitled Atavisms.
How Long Brethren? (1937)
Helen Tamiris choreographed a suite of eight pieces called Negro Spirituals, a protest of the discrimination against African Americans. The most famous was How Long Brethren?, which shed light on the lives of unemployed Southern blacks.
Strange Fruit (1945)
Pearl Primus’ Strange Fruit is a commentary on the panicked culture of lynching as seen through the eyes of a woman who witnesses the brutal event.
A two-part work about lynchings in America, Katherine Dunham’s Southland premiered in Chile, shocking the American embassy. It had only one other performance, in Paris. The U.S. government denied funding for future works by Dunham for her negative portrayal of the U.S. at the height of the Cold War.
Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder. Photo by Rosemary Winkley, Courtesy DM Archives.
Rainbow ‘Round My Shoulder (1959)
Donald McKayle’s dramatic masterwork reveals the frustration of oppression and aspirations for freedom of a chain gang toiling in the American South.
Blues for the Jungle (1966)
A signature work that came to the stage in the Civil Rights era, Eleo Pomare’s Blues for the Jungle shed light on struggles like the Harlem riot of 1964.
Ceremony of Us. Laurie Gruenberg, Courtesy DM Archives.
Ceremony of Us (1969)
Following the Watts race riots in Los Angeles, Anna Halprin choreographed Ceremony of Us. She developed choreography for dancers from Studio Watts, an African-American arts organization, and separately for her all-white dance company, the San Francisco Dancer’s Workshop. The groups came together for a short rehearsal period before performing.
Alvin Ailey created Cry for “all black women everywhere—especially our mothers.” Judith Jamison, who originated the role, wrote: “She represented those women...who came from the hardships of slavery, through the pain of losing loved ones, through overcoming extraordinary depressions and tribulations...she has found her way and triumphed.”
Deep South Suite (1976)
Dianne McIntyre’s Deep South Suite shares realities of the 1940s South, set to Duke Ellington’s music.
Creole Giselle. PC Leslie E. Spatt, Courtesy DM Archives.
Creole Giselle (1984)
Frederic Franklin’s restaging of Giselle for Dance Theatre of Harlem sets the work in antebellum Louisiana, where Giselle can’t marry Albrecht because of her family ties to slavery.
Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin/The Promised Land (1990)
In this three-hour work, Bill T. Jones, then known mostly for pushing the avant-garde, dealt directly with his black heritage, confronting slavery and racism.
Minstrel Show (1991)
Donald Byrd created Minstrel Show in light of the slaying of Yusef Hawkins, a Brooklyn teenager killed by a white mob. Byrd reworked the piece in 2014 as The Minstrel Show Revisited after Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal.
Bring in ‘da Noise, Bring in ‘da Funk (1996)
Savion Glover’s musical revue showcased a history of African-American men from slavery to present day (the mid-’90s), with numbers like “The Chicago Riot Rag,” “The Lynching Blues” and “Slave Ships,” as well as a parody of Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.
Invisible Wings. PC Alan E. Solomon, Courtesy Jacob's Pillow
Invisible Wings (1998)
Joanna Haigood’s site-specific Invisible Wings is set on the grounds of Jacob’s Pillow, illuminating its history as a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Come home Charley Patton (2004)
In the third part of The Geography Trilogy, Ralph Lemon focused on various sites from the Civil Rights period, with a recording of a James Baldwin lecture about race.
Walking with Pearl (2004–05)
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founder of Urban Bush Women, created an homage to Pearl Primus in Walking with Pearl...African Diaries and Walking with Pearl...Southern Diaries, which received a New York Dance and Performance Award (Bessie).
Mr. TOL E. RAncE (2012)
Camille A. Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RAncE looks at intolerance and the modern dance minstrelsy.
What did we miss?
Share which dance works about racism and social injustice have spoken to you. Write to us on Facebook or Twitter @Dance_Magazine.
The tapper is shuffling back to Broadway.
Photo Courtesy Savion Glover Productions
Savion Glover made his Broadway debut at age 10, and has been dancing in the spotlight ever since. Today, at 41 years old, he still hopes to keep learning, improving, expanding and challenging himself and audiences. This month, he’ll open the Vail International Dance Festival. And in 2016, he will make a return to Broadway, as the choreographer for Shuffle Along, or, The Making of the Musical Sensation of 1921 and All That Followed, directed by Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk’s George C. Wolfe.
Shuffle Along is your first show with George C. Wolfe since Bring in ’Da Noise in 1996. What has that been like?
I’m just enjoying being in the same room with him. George is really pushing my choreography. I’m looking forward to gaining more knowledge about ways to approach theater and performing.
What do you think of tap on Broadway?
Tap on Broadway varies through time. There’s the Tommy Tune or Susan Stroman approach versus the Henry LeTang, Cholly Atkins, Honi Coles style—both lend themselves to the excitement and invite the audience in. Then something else becomes popular. Noise/Funk came with a different approach. I’m looking forward to being back on Broadway and reminding people of the greats of the past.
At this point in your career, how are you challenging yourself?
I don’t know if it’s something that I can or would be aware of. I continue to explore all the creative options available—through the dance, through different music choices—and try to produce in ways that will allow the audience to hear musicality differently.
You’ve been dancing your entire life. Do you ever grow tired?
No, never. I’m proud to be a part of a long legacy of great entertainment. I don’t take that lightly. It’s a privilege. That keeps me wanting to tap dance every day—to allow the names of these great people who have given so much of their talent and energy to live on. I continue to be inspired by the men and women who have raised me, taught me, have been my mentors: Jimmy Slyde, Buster Brown, Lon Chaney, Gregory Hines. And Dianne Walker, of course.
What do you think about tap today?
I can only speak for myself. As long as I’m doing it, then it’s in a good place! I have my opinion of what’s being done, but everyone’s entitled to their own way. I had to realize at a very early age that everyone doesn’t tap for the same reason. I just pay attention to what I have to do to make sure I am maintaining it with integrity.
An eclectic mix of artists reenvisions Martha Graham’s Lamentation.
PeiJu Chien-Pott in Lamentation. Photo by Hibbard Nash Photography, Courtesy MGDC.
They’re choreographers you would never expect to see sharing a bill with Martha Graham: Modern dancer Kyle Abraham, tapper Michelle Dorrance, contemporary abstractionist Liz Gerring and Sonya Tayeh of “So You Think You Can Dance.” But each has created their own version of her historical work Lamentation to premiere during Martha Graham Dance Company’s season at The Joyce Theater, February 10–22. “Lamentation was a radical departure from what had come before, stripping everything away and representing the essence of emotion,” says artistic director Janet Eilber. “That seismic shift still resonates today.”
The project, Lamentation Variations, began in 2007 as a way to commemorate September 11. Come this season, MGDC will have 12 Variations in its repertoire. Eilber hopes that the range of choreographers participating this year—part wish list, part kismet—will bring something new to the Graham repertoire and grow MGDC’s audience by making the 85-year-old Lamentation more accessible.
Some of the choreographers feel like a natural fit. For instance, Kyle Abraham has built his Variation from his Graham and Cunningham training. “There’s a fear of doing too much of a derivative. I’m giving a nod to the technique, but allowing it to be my take,” says Abraham. “Knowing that Merce had studied with Graham, I found myself wanting to pair Cunningham curves and Graham contractions.”
Other choreographers’ works, like Dorrance’s, will introduce a new style to the Graham aesthetic. “I am not using tap dance as an acute technique in this work, but I am using its foundation,” says Dorrance. “This opportunity allows me to branch out and apply the way I see rhythm as a driving force for non-percussive dancers.
What would Martha think about all of this? “As we move forward on all of our experiments, I believe she’s cheering us on,” says Eilber. “She was all about the future.”
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Top dancers on how their favorite teachers shaped their dancing
Behind every gravity-defying leap, each soul-wrenching solo, each flawless fouetté is a great teacher who worked tirelessly to hone a young dancer’s potential. Ask any successful dancer how they got to where they are today and they will always thank a teacher (or three!) for helping them to reach their potential. Dance Magazine’s Emily Macel Theys spoke to five top-of-their-game dancers about mentors who helped to sculpt their careers.
Ashley Bouder on Darla Hoover
Ashley Bouder, principal dancer with New York City Ballet, credits Darla Hoover, now at New York’s Ballet Academy East as well as Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, for her mastery of Balanchine technique. The two have very similar career trajectories: Both trained at the Central Pennsylvania Youth Ballet, both received scholarships to the School of American Ballet, and both became dancers at New York City Ballet. “I’ve known Darla since I was very young. She grew up dancing with my mother and she trained me until I was 15.” A répétiteur for the Balanchine Trust, Hoover worked with Bouder on a core Balanchine aesthetic. “She taught me how to bring out the music through the way you’re moving your body,” says Bouder. “She teaches you how to be a dancer rather than just how to dance.”
Above: Ashley Bouder on Darla Hoover: “She teaches you how to be a dancer rather than just how to dance.” Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
What stands out to Bouder is what Hoover helped her to refine: speed and technical cleanliness. “She starts you off going slow and building strength so that when you get to moving fast, it’s accurate. You need to have a clean fifth position and clean pointed feet and can’t be messy in between.” Bouder started attending Hoover’s advanced class when she was 11. “She would have me stand behind one of the other girls to learn. The girl she had me behind was Noelani Pantastico, now with Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo.” Bouder says she transitioned from being the dancer standing behind another to being a model in the class for younger dancers to stand behind.
Though now a celebrated principal dancer, Bouder still keeps Hoover’s advice close at heart. “She’s always with me when I do petit allégro because that’s what she teaches best.”
Jason Samuels Smith on Savion Glover
Jason Samuels Smith is one of the busiest tappers in the world. He’s sought after to perform on national and international stages, on TV shows, and in movies—but perhaps even more to spread his rhythmic command through master classes, workshops, and festivals. While the 33-year-old tap-lebrity gives credit to many tap legends and teachers for his dance upbringing (including his mother Sue Samuels, who got him into dance), Samuels Smith says his most influential tap teacher was Savion Glover.
Left: Jason Samuels Smith on Savion Glover: “He was the kind of teacher that acknowledged hard work and effort.” Photo by Jayme Thornton.
“Savion showed me that you could accomplish anything that you wanted to as an artist,” Samuels Smith says. “He was involved in so many things at an early age, from Broadway to teaching to choreography, and that was definitely a major influence for me.”
Samuels Smith started studying with Glover at Broadway Dance Center, where his mother was teaching, when he was 8. Glover was only 15 but was already a buzz-worthy Broadway veteran. Glover instilled a strong work ethic in Samuels Smith from the get-go. “He was the kind of teacher that acknowledged hard work and effort. If you were hitting it and doing what he wanted to hear, that was a plus. But the harder you worked, your work ethic was what he would praise the most.” Glover saw talent in Samuels Smith early on and gave him his first highly visible dance gig—a spot on on the PBS show Sesame Street, where Glover had become a regular guest.
What the younger tapper appreciates most about Glover’s mentorship is his focus on those who came before: Gregory Hines and Lon Chaney, Chuck Green, Buster Brown, Jimmy Slyde, Dianne Walker. The ways he presented the vocabulary of the greats was new and accessible, Samuels Smith says. “He focused on a lot of paddle and roll, things rooted in cramp rolls and pullbacks, but it was all about how he was using the steps and creating musical phrases. That still inspires me when I think back to some of the stuff that I learned as a kid.”
Desmond Richardson on Penny Frank
“You’re coming to the space to electrify the sanctuary. You have to infect that space.” This was advice that Penny Frank, Graham teacher at the LaGuardia High School of Music and Art and Performing Arts, gave to a young Desmond Richardson. And clearly, the advice hit home.
Right: Desmond Richardson on Penny Frank: “Because of her, I understand that the beauty is in the transition.” Photo by Jae Man Joo, Courtesy Complexions.
Richardson, the co-artistic director of Complexions Contemporary Ballet who has electrified stages as a principal for both Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and American Ballet Theatre, as well as bringing his larger-than-life presence to Broadway (he’s currently a member of the ensemble in the Broadway show After Midnight), got a late start to dance. “I came into the audition at the High School of Performing Arts not knowing that there were dance clothes needed. I just knew I wanted to dance. I got into the school and I was very hard on myself because I have a perfectionist mind and I knew that I was late to dance.” Richardson says Frank noticed how he was correcting himself constantly. “She would say ‘instead of beating yourself up, why don’t you take the opportunity to use this to think about your process. Take your time to get everything.’ When she told me that, things started to come faster.”
Frank taught Richardson the Graham principal of movement starting at the core. “I do that ad nauseam now because I had that information when I was young.” She also emphasized awareness of time and space. Richardson remembers, “She would say, ‘You must sustain at this moment because people are watching. If you continue through movement, it’s like a run-on sentence: There’s no pause, no lilt, no rise.’ I say that to my dancers today. Because of her, I understand that the beauty is in the transition.”
In addition to teaching technique and artistry, she also gave Richardson advice that has helped him throughout his wildly successful career. “She taught me to be humble, to be real and honest in all of my dancing.”
Diana Vishneva on Lyudmila Kovaleva
‘‘All my years at the company school, I worked with her, and whenever I am in St. Petersburg, dancing at the Mariinsky, I go back to her. She’s strong and demanding and pays a lot of attention to details. She doesn’t care how you feel, what bothers you. If you come to work, be ready to work hard and be very precise.
Left: Diana Vishneva on coach Lyudmila Kovaleva: “Lyudmila knows how to hide all problems, and look the best onstage.” Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy ABT.
‘‘Every dancer knows his body better than anybody else. Everyone has their own problems—me, too. I know that my body is probably not ideal. Lyudmila knows how to hide all problems, and look the best onstage. She has a very good eye, and she’s always honest with me. We trust each other. If that were not so, we probably would not have been able to work together all these years.’’
Kathleen Breen Combes on Magda Aunon
Kathleen Breen Combes, principal with Boston Ballet, says she wouldn’t be the powerhouse jumper that she is today without Magda Aunon, her teacher at Fort Lauderdale Ballet Classique from ages 8 to 12. “She was the first teacher who saw real potential in me. She honed in on that and made me realize that I could have a future.”
Above: Kathleen Breen Combes on Magda Aunon: “She would tell us, ‘Dance is an art form, not just a sport.’" Photo by Gene Schiavone, Courtesy Boston Ballet.
With Aunon, it wasn’t just about the technique. “She was always interested in the artistic quality,” Combes remembers. “Her biggest thing was the performing qualities in dance. She would tell us, ‘Dance is an art form, not just a sport.’ ”
Having a teacher who urged Combes to prepare for a performance by starting at the barre made a huge impact on her as both a performer and now as a teacher herself. “I find myself telling my students a lot of things she said to me. It’s not just about what’s happening from the waist down, it’s about the big picture.”
What stands out to Combes about Aunon’s teaching style was the individualized attention she received. “She saw you for what you had to offer and tried to make you the best that you could be rather than fitting into a mold. She would adjust her teaching style to make sure you’re featured in the best way you could be.”
As a young dancer Combes admits she wasn’t a very good jumper. “When I was 9 she brought a mini trampoline in and she made me do all my small jumps on it during class. She would hold my hand while I worked on my ballon. I think that’s why I can jump as high as I do now.”
Emily Macel Theys is a Pittsburgh-based contributing writer to Dance Magazine.
Rachel Meyer of Ballet BC. Photo: Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Think you have to choose between going to college or heading straight to auditions right out of high school? Think again. More than ever dancers are pursuing bachelor degrees without putting their careers on hold. And the focused time pays off. Dance Magazine talked to five dancers at the top of their game who opted for college degrees and performing careers.
Ballet BC’s Rachel Meyer decided to pursue her BFA in dance and in doing so widened her range as a dancer. “When I graduated high school I was training with St. Louis Ballet and thought that I might want to go into an apprenticeship. But I didn’t feel like I was quite ready,” she says. “I needed more training and experience.” Meyer was interested in joining a major ballet company after school, so she looked for a college that had a strong ballet department. University of Utah’s stellar faculty and classical focus drew Meyer to Salt Lake City.
In addition to a range of technique classes, Meyer took kinesiology and dance history classes, as well as anthropology, absurdist theater, literature, and early childhood education courses. “I met all kinds of people, not just dancers and artists. It helped me grow and to understand what I wanted in a career.”
After college, Meyer joined the contemporary company Dominic Walsh Dance Theater in Houston. In 2011, she moved north—far north—from Texas to the Vancouver-based company Ballet BC. (If her photo looks familiar, it’s because she is the poster girl for Jacob’s Pillow this summer—literally.)
Gary Jeter. Photo: Sharen Bradford, Courtesy Complexions.
Unlike Meyer, Gary W. Jeter II of Complexions Contemporary Ballet didn’t know what sort of dance he wanted to focus on when he entered college, so variety was a driving factor in his choice. “When I visited the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, there was a focus on modern and jazz, and a lot of other opportunities throughout the city.” Born and raised in Atlanta, the former competitive gymnast had only danced for a year and a half before he graduated high school, “so I felt like I needed that extra time to hone my craft.”
Taking a wide range of courses has been beneficial to his career. “The non-dance classes gave me a different outlook and different things to be inspired by, not just movement. My art and literature classes helped me to understand how art is an imitation of life and that it also works the other way around.”
A lyrical mover who packs a punch, Jeter also benefited from guest artists like Mia Michaels and the late Fernando Bujones. His training with Bujones was invaluable. And, he says, “the main reason that I became a ballet major was that I understood that most dance forms have a basis in ballet. I wanted to have the clearest foundation of my own personal technique.”
Leah Morrison, at right. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu, Courtesy TBDC.
Going to college was always the path that Leah Morrison, a willowy, Bessie award–winning member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, planned to take. “I didn’t even consider going straight into a dance career,” she says. “College was needed for me as a period of gestation and to develop myself as a dancer and get to know who I am as a creative artist.”
Morrison says SUNY Purchase gave her a strong technique, but “getting to work with Neil Greenberg was a game changer. He was teaching Klein technique and Body-Mind Centering. He gave me a whole different awareness to thinking about moving. That aspect was really important for me, particularly in going for the Trisha Brown movement style.”
She feels that Purchase prepared her well for the professional modern dance world. “Choreographers and dance companies aren’t just looking for those with technical ability; they’re looking for someone to contribute to their creative process. In college, you learn to improvise, experiment with making your own work, be engaged in other people’s processes, and be engaged in your own creative process.” At Trisha Brown, Morrison says, “we’re asked to give a lot of our own creativity and our own opinion in the process of making work.”
Sykes, center, in Motown. Photo: © Joan Marcus, Courtesy Motown.
Similarly for Ephraim Sykes, a wiry and chameleon-like dancer in the current Broadway hit Motown, he was interested in college as a way to expand his craft and his sense of place in the world. He was drawn to the Ailey/Fordham BFA program because “the company has a lot of dancers that I looked up to, black dancers like myself with technique and artistry. It gave me something to shoot towards.” He had the opportunity to take class with the lead Ailey dancers who inspired him, like Desmond Richardson and Matthew Rushing. During his junior year, when Sykes joined Ailey II, he had the chance to perform alongside some of them as well.
Sykes says he became a well-rounded dancer by learning “how to speak with the body and how to initiate every movement. That’s what makes you understand why you move, and how deep it goes.” The program has a strong modern focus on Horton and Graham techniques along with jazz, hip-hop, and ballet. While Sykes was not training specifically to be a Broadway performer, his time in the program laid the foundation for success: “I have the technique to do eight shows a week and do a range of choreography.”
Sykes affirms that going to college isn’t just for the physical training, but also for the “opportunity to extend the mind.” He studied philosophy and theology in addition to his dance courses. Those classes, he says, “gave me a great understanding of how the mind and spirit work and why we move the way we move.”
Ebony Williams. Photo: Eduardo Patino for Dance Spirit.
Ebony Williams, a fierce and captivating Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet dancer, attended The Boston Conservatory. You wouldn’t guess that she ever had career doubts, with the confidence she exudes in her roles— whether it’s center stage in Cedar Lake or alongside of Beyoncé in her music video “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It).” But she fought the notion of being a professional dancer for years. “I hadn’t danced for six years before I went to the conservatory,” she says. “As a kid, I would always say that I wanted to be an architect or anything other than dance. Maybe it was fear, but I didn’t think it was what I wanted to do or was supposed to do.” But upon recommendation from a dance teacher she met through the Boston Arts Academy during her time off, Williams decided to dive back into dance in the conservatory setting. “I was ready. I think I needed that break from dance to realize how much I missed it.”
Williams says she became a completely different dancer at TBC. “I was such a bunhead when I was younger, I did a little jazz and hip-hop with my girlfriends but was focused on ballet. There’s nothing like getting training from some of the best teachers in the world to open your eyes up.” Williams says of former Limón dancer Jennifer Scanlon: “She is one of the best teachers I ever had.” In her work with Cedar Lake she carries with her what she learned. “She taught me how to use my body in a holistic way, from my center, not just my limbs.”
Williams also cites the business side of the dance world that she learned at TBC: auditions, presentation, contracts.
And Williams, who has aspirations of teaching or directing a school someday, feels that having a solid higher education will help her to stay in the field longer. “It’s key for future endeavors that you may want to pursue when you’re not dancing anymore or if you’re injured. You can educate young people,” she says. “There’s nothing like having a degree.”
Emily Macel Theys is a contributing writer to Dance Magazine and is the communications and development director of Dance Exchange in Washington, DC.
BodyCartography Project, coming to Walker Art Center in October. Photo by Gene Pittman, Courtesy WAC.
This fall, a vibrant mix of voices will be “heard” onstage through movement, memorials, and mile-markers. From an array of world premieres hitting theaters across the U.S., to tantalizing festivals celebrating major anniversaries, to a wealth of international work, autumn is the perfect season to cozy up in a dance theater—or venture out on a dance-viewing road trip!
One of the most interesting imports promises to be “Voices of Strength,” which brings together fierce women choreographers from across Africa and its diaspora. The program includes a duet by Kettly Noël (from Haiti and Mali) and Nelisiwe Xaba (from South Africa) that shares stories and reunions; a solo by Maria Helena Pinto of Mozambique with a large sculptural set; and works by Bouchra Ouizguen of Morocco and Nadia Beugré (formerly of Compagnie TchéTché) of Côte d’Ivoire. The project tours to the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago (Sept. 13–15), New York Live Arts (Sept. 18–22), Seattle Theatre Group (Sept. 28–29), the Kennedy Center (Oct. 4–5), the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Oct. 10–13), and Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in the Bay Area (Oct. 19–20).
Hofesh Shechter’s choreographic voice is loud, in-your-face, and refreshing. Political Mother, his first full-length piece, is touring worldwide this year, including U.S. stops at BAM (Oct. 11–13) and a co-presentation by University of Minnesota’s Northrop Dance and the Walker Art Center (Nov. 13). The Israeli choreographer (and former drummer) describes the work as having the atmosphere of a rock concert, and critics have called it an “audiovisual marvel.”
BAM Next Wave 30th-anniversary season kicks off with multi-media maven Jonah Bokaer, whose collaboration with visual artist Anthony McCall, ECLIPSE, premieres Sept. 5–9 as the first work at BAM’s new Richard B. Fisher Building. The festival includes a slew of world, U.S., and New York premieres. Australian choreographer Lucy Guerin’s Untrained pairs two male dancers with two male nondancers and lets the chips fall where they may (Nov. 27–Dec. 1). Nora Chipaumire’s Miriam (Sept. 12–15) draws from Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, interviews with Miriam Makeba, Christian prayers, and original text by Chipaumire. And Brazil’s hyperactive Grupo Corpo brings two pieces (Nov. 1–3). The festival offers a chance for artists to come home again too, like Garth Fagan Dance, returning to BAM for the first time in more than 20 years to premiere a new work with music by Wynton Marsalis (Sept. 27–30). Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch returns with Bausch’s final work, “…como el musguito en la piedra, ay si, si, si…” (…like moss on a stone), which is the last of the “World Cities” series, made in Santiago, Chile (Oct. 18–21, 23–24, 26–27). BAM’s DanceMotion USA ambassador program gives space for a collaborative performance between Trey McIntyre Project and an Asian dance company to be selected from the company’s international tour. This work premieres Nov. 14–17 in the Fishman Space.
At right: BAM Next Wave Festival presents Pina Bausch’s last piece in the “World Cities” series, made in Santiago, Chile; shown here, Anna Wehsarg and Rainer Behr. Photo by Bo Lahola, Courtesy BAM.
“Judson Now,” the fall-season platform of the Danspace Project, marks 50 years since the start of Judson Dance Theater, that incubator of postmodern dance. It welcomes rebels-turned-masters Steve Paxton Sept. 8; David Gordon Oct. 25–27; Yvonne Rainer Nov. 1–3; and a work by Deborah Hay performed by Roz Warby and Jeanine Durning Nov. 29–Dec. 1.
New York Live Arts (formerly DTW), taking a page from Judson, is presenting dance artists with a wild streak. RoseAnne Spradlin’s beginning of something returns to NYC in all its naked-women glory Sept. 26–29; the outrageous Keith Hennessy brings “improvised happening and political theater” in his Turbulence Oct. 4–6; the always enigmatic Tere O’Connor give us a world premiere Nov. 27–Dec. 1.
For the third year, New York City Ballet has added a welcome fall season. Stretching from Sept. 18 through Oct. 14 at the David H. Koch Theater in Lincoln Center, it focuses on the groundbreaking Stravinsky/Balanchine collaboration. It also includes a premiere by corps member Justin Peck.
At left: NYCB’s Orpheus with Wendy Whelan and Ask la Cour. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB.
Beyond NYC, audiences from Houston to Milwaukee and Boston to Seattle get to be the first to see the following world premieres: Michael Pink makes Milwaukee Ballet dancers the “unsung” heroes in his full-length ballet take on the Puccini opera, La Bohème (Oct. 18–21). St. Louis Ballet brings in NYC contemporary choreographer Pam Tanowitz to create a work on the company, which premieres on a mixed bill including premieres by local companies such as aTrek Dance Collective, MADCO, and Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company (Oct. 5–6). Jorma Elo, resident choreographer of Boston Ballet, makes his eighth work for the company Oct. 25 to Nov. 4. And in a program entitled Women@Art, Houston Ballet gives Aszure Barton’s light a chance to shine in the south with a world premiere. Barton’s cohorts for this program include Tharp’s The Brahms–Haydn Variations and Julia Adam’s Ketubah (Sept. 20–30).
The Minneapolis presenter Walker Art Center has commissioned Miguel Gutierrez’s And lose the name of action, an evening-length “séance” (Sept. 19–22); and the BodyCartography Project’s dance/performance/installation Super Nature (Oct. 25–27), an ecological melodrama. After participating in the Judson Now program at Danspace, Deborah Hay will have an encore at the Walker in “Hay Days: A Deborah Hay Celebration” Dec. 5–8.
Over in the Windy City, the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago showcases such artists as Kota Yamazaki/Fluid Hug-Hug in (glowing) Sept. 27–29 and Gallim Dance Oct. 11–13. At Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, Marc Chagall’s America Windows stained-glass artwork will come to life in a world premiere by Alejandro Cerrudo Oct. 18–21. Later in the season, Hubbard Street will bring Mats Ek’s Casi-Casa, Aszure Barton’s Untouched, and Cerrudo’s Blank and PACOPEPEPLUTO Dec. 6–9.
At right: Meredith Dincolo of Hubbard Street in Untouched by Aszure Barton. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.
Pacific Northwest Ballet turns the big 4-0 this year. To celebrate, their November programming features four world premieres. After opening the season in September with Kent Stowell’s beloved Cinderella Sept. 21–30 (and a special one-night-only performance of Circus Polka, with Patricia Barker as the Ringmaster, Sept. 21), PNB performs new works by company dancers Andrew Bartee, Kiyon Gaines, and Margaret Mullin alongside a premiere by Mark Morris (Nov. 2–11).
ODC Theater in the Bay Area is highlighting collaborations this fall. LEVY Dance has invited NYC choreographer Sidra Bell to spend eight weeks making a piece together, to premiere Nov. 15–18. The following week Garrett +Moulton Productions (Janice Garrett and Charlie Moulton) work with local musicians to come up with an evening of dance theater on “themes of wonder and enchantment.”
Paul Taylor will have his work seen as part of the Sarasota Ballet season. His company performs The Uncommitted as guest artists Oct. 26–28. Then Sarasota Ballet dances his Company B, along with Wheeldon’s There Where She Loved (Nov. 16–17). Miami City Ballet performs Taylor’s Piazzolla Caldera on a mixed bill that also includes Ashton’s Les Patineurs and Balanchine’s Apollo (Oct. 19–21, Oct. 26–28, and Nov. 30–Dec. 2).
For classic story ballets, there’s a spate of Giselles. Pennsylvania Ballet’s version goes up Oct. 18–28, Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre’s is Oct. 26–28, and Ballet Arizona’s is Nov. 1–4. Nashville Ballet awakens The Sleeping Beauty Oct. 19–21. The nation’s capital will have a chance to escape election overload by diving into classics remade, like the Mariinsky Ballet in Ratmansky’s Cinderella at the Kennedy Center Oct. 16–21, and San Francisco Ballet in Helgi Tomasson’s Romeo & Juliet Nov. 13–18.
At left: Mariinsky Ballet’s Daria Pavlenko in Cinderella. Photo by N. Razina, Courtesy Mariinsky.
Surely you can find something that speaks to you in this diverse lineup. Celebrate the new season by challenging yourself to see a style of dance you haven’t seen before.
Emily Macel Theys, a former associate editor of Dance Magazine, is the communications and development director for Dance Exchange in Washington, DC.
The girl who brought tap to SYTYCD is also a B’way baby.
When Melinda Sullivan leapt into the TV spotlight as the leggy tap dancing beauty on Season 7 of So You Think You Can Dance, it was clear that she could, indeed, dance. She excelled in a multitude of styles, not just her hoofing routines—though she showed the judges and America that tap belongs on the TV stage as much as any other genre. Born on Long Island, New York, and raised in Southern California, she’s performed in national Broadway tours, on hit TV shows like Glee and Dancing with the Stars, and in the company of some of the best tappers on the scene, including Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold. While her commercial work keeps her busy in Los Angeles, she was a hit at the Career Transition For Dancers gala in NYC last fall, and she’s been involved in developing The Jack Cole Project, a musical that opens this month at Queens Theatre. Emily Macel Theys spoke with Sullivan in February about tap, musical theater, and the illustrious Ann Miller.
How did your tap career start? My parents put me in a local dance studio when I was 4. I had great teachers, particularly Betsy Melber. At a tap festival she took me to, I saw Lynn Dally’s Jazz Tap Ensemble. That was the first time I was exposed to rhythm tap and I auditioned as soon as I could for the Caravan Project with Jazz Tap Ensemble. That’s where I learned the history of where the art form came from.
Who have your mentors been? Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold—they’ve taught me to never get comfortable as a tap dancer, always be pushing yourself and reaching. I went to Jason’s Monday night tap classes at Debbie Allen’s studio. Laura Klein pushed me towards musical theater. She told me you have to learn how to sing and act and be a storyteller, you can’t just be a technician. [Although he wasn’t a mentor,] I really look up to the way Gregory Hines made his mark in TV and film and live theater.
What did you learn about yourself as a dancer from being on SYTYCD? The experience was very challenging, especially physically. I’ve never rehearsed so much, been pushed so hard. I was proud to be there as a tapper—you’re already unique because it’s a contemporary-heavy show. I love doing TV, theater, and film, but I love saying I’m a tap dancer.
Are you doing more commercial work as a result of being on the show? It’s helped me get teaching gigs, but being on that show is not a golden ticket. I still audition all the time, still get rejected all the time, still knock on doors and send e-mail after e-mail to get myself out there.
How did your involvement in The Jack Cole Project come about? Ray Hesselink is a consultant on the show and was asked by [creator] Chet Walker to put together one of the Ann Miller numbers, “I’m Gonna See My Baby.” Ray asked me to help him re-create that scene.
Were you familiar with Ann Miller’s work before? This past year I worked on a film project with Dante Russo called Shakin’ the Blues Away that pays homage to Ann Miller. It’s very similar to that Ann Miller style but has some of the Jack flavor to it too—the pressed arms and the pictures he would make with the angular body. There’s a fantastic tap scene and turn sequence. No Ann Miller dance ever happened without a turn sequence! In the beginning it’s sort of like a wartime song and then it goes into this rapid-fire, machine-gun tap number.
Sullivan paying homage to Ann Miller in the short film Shakin’ the Blues Away. Photo courtesy Imagiland Productions.
How did you research Ann’s work? For my own project, I watched a lot of Ann’s stuff on YouTube. She was fiery, confident, showy, over-the-top—the epitome of a Hollywood diva.
Are you still doing other dance work besides tap? This week I’ve been doing hip hop on a show for Nickelodeon. I don’t like being pigeon-holed, I like having options and being able to work a lot, so I’ve always kept up with different styles of dance. I still take jazz and tap and ballet classes. I still cross-train and do Pilates. I keep up with my acting classes. You never know what to expect, so I like to be as prepared as possible.
At top: Melinda Sullivan. Photo by Galen Hooks, Courtesy Sullivan.
Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards’ tap shoes spit out sounds a mile a minute. She builds a percussive plotline to any song and fills the musical gaps seamlessly with her own riffs and rhythms. All the while she wears a calm countenance punctuated by a sly smile when she hits a particularly satisfying beat. She is smooth, soulful, sultry, and sexy. Sumbry-Edwards uses tap to converse, tell stories, show emotion, and continue a legacy of all the great hoofers who came before her.
Though she’s too humble to tell you about the impact she’s had on generations of tappers, others will. “She’s the best female tap dancer alive,” says fellow tapper Michelle Dorrance. “She’s a technical powerhouse and a beautiful musician. She has an incredible attack but also so much grace and swing and funk and fun.”
Jason Samuels Smith takes it a step further. “To me, she’s the greatest tap dancer/hoofer alive right now,” he says. “She’s on top in terms of her all-around versatility and her wealth of knowledge and experience with the masters of tap. As a woman, she can present her work in a softer approach or to come strong. Most of the time when you see a tapper on television or film, it’s usually a man and there’s something particular about a man’s energy that can attract an audience. But to see a woman sustain the same energy but then bring the femininity and grace to it too—whoa!”
As the youngest of three daughters, Sumbry-Edwards, a California native, had recognizable talent from early on. “When I was 3, my sister Benita was in a dance program at school. She’d come home and be doing the warm-ups and I’d be down on the floor doing them with her.” Her family noticed that when music was playing, she would clap right on the beats. “They would look at me like, Oh the girl has rhythm! Let’s put her in a dance class.” So they did. Sumbry-Edwards started taking classes with Paul and Arlene Kennedy at Universal Dance Designs, where she studied ballet, jazz and tap. But it was the tap that stuck.
Aside from the Kennedys, she counts hoofers Jimmy Slyde, Lon Chaney, and Ralph Brown—all of whom she worked with in the revue in the late 1980s—among her mentors. She was all of 12. “They would pull you to the side and show you something or say something about your dancing as they’d walk by. And certain things you didn’t get right away, but then a week later they hit you like a ton of bricks,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “Being around them and seeing them perform as older men and the love and respect they had for the dance, I absorbed some of that energy.”
By the mid-’90s, a sort of boys club of the next generation of tap dancers was gathering steam. Savion Glover’s rise to fame enabled him to create Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk on Broadway, showcasing some of Sumbry-Edwards’ peers, including Omar Edwards, Derick K. Grant, and Baakari Wilder. A year into Noise/Funk’s run on Broadway, Glover called Sumbry-Edwards, who had gone back to California after Black and Blue to finish school and to teach. (They had met when Dormeshia was a child in a tap production in Rome, then worked together again in several projects, including Black and Blue, through the years.) “A couple years had gone by and I hadn’t had any sort of contact with him,” she says. “I answered the phone and he said, ‘Yo, what up D? How you feel about coming out here to do this show?’ ”
Sumbry-Edwards, now 35, was the only female tap dancer in Noise/Funk and at first was performing dressed as a man. “The guys were…I don’t want to say afraid of me…but there was a sense of respect as far as my dance was concerned,” she says. When the show was revived for touring, she was allowed to drop the drag and perform as a woman, and in heels!
“She totally revolutionized the field by reappropriating heels in a more contemporary way,” says Dorrance. “Her movement, technical ability, and her sound in heels set her apart.” Sumbry-Edwards says of her choice to wear heels in Noise/Funk, “I only wore heels where it absolutely made sense. But it blew people away. We were performing all over the world, from Los Angeles to Japan, and people would come backstage and tell me how amazed they were that I could do it in heels.”
In 1998, she married fellow tapper Omar Edwards and opened a studio with him in Harlem. They have three kids: Jeremiah, 11, Eboni, 10 (who has been performing in Billy Elliot on Broadway since it opened in 2008!), and the youngest, EmilyBalee, was born last October. Sumbry-Edwards appeared onscreen in Spike Lee’s Bamboozled and Michael Jackson’s music video “You Rock My World,” starred in the independent tap movie called The Rise and Fall of Miss Thang, and competed on the TV show Superstars of Dance (where the judges were hardly connoisseurs of tap). She has performed and taught in countless tap festivals, most recently at the Chicago Human Rhythm Project’s Winter Tap Jamboree in Chicago. In March she shared an evening with Dorrance at the Danspace Project in New York that broke some barriers between the “downtown” audience and the tap audience.
Sumbry-Edwards cites Jason Samuels Smith’s production Charlie’s Angels, which premiered in 2008, as a highlight of her career. Inspired by jazz musician Charlie Parker, the intensely intricate choreography challenges the three-woman cast to embody the bebop music. Sumbry-Edwards is a natural, exuding coolness while nailing the complex rhythms, and it’s no surprise that she was, in large part, the inspiration for the piece. Samuels Smith says he watched Sumbry-Edwards during their time together in Derick K. Grant’s Imagine Tap! in 2006. “Every night her execution was incredible. She hadn’t been featured as a star performer in any production I’ve seen, so I felt like it was way past due. Charlie’s Angels was one of my answers for that.”
Another influence in Sumbry-Edwards’ life was the late, great, Michael Jackson. Their professional relationship began shortly before she joined Noise/Funk on Broadway, and continued up until the November before his death. Her teacher, Paul Kennedy, had begun one-on-one lessons with Jackson, but when Kennedy fell ill, he turned Jackson over to Sumbry-Edwards. “Michael was curious about tap dance,” she says. “He loved rhythms. He was an absolute perfectionist. We would work for three hours on two bars!” She remembers how intensely he’d watch her dance. “He would lay down in front of me like a kid and ask me to tap and tell me, ‘Slower, slower, slower,’ then ‘Faster, faster, faster!’ Then he’d look up at me and say, ‘Can you show me how to do that?’ ”
Now, she’s turning her time with Michael Jackson into inspiration for her choreography. She prepared a section of this for her Danspace performance in March. “It’s kind of like closing a chapter,” she says. “It’s a tribute to Michael Jackson but it’s also for Paul Kennedy. Both of them are gone now.”
Sumbry-Edwards hopes that tap will gain more widespread popularity. “I believe that tap can be put in any situation. If you want to break into a dance number in a show or a movie, it doesn’t have to be jazz, it doesn’t have to be ballet. It’s OK to walk into a jazz club and see somebody tap dancing, so why can’t it happen in movies and musicals?”
What’s on Sumbry-Edwards’ dance card for the year? Imagine Tap! is headed for New York this fall, and Samuels Smith is working with a creative team on a new expanded Charlie’s Angels; Sumbry-Edwards anticipates performing in both. She’s also in the midst of recording a tap album called Once Upon a Timestep that she hopes to release this year, and working on her full-length Michael Jackson tribute. On top of that, she’ll be teaching a lot. “I was fortunate enough to learn from some of the greatest tap dancers who ever lived. I feel it is part of my responsibility to keep the information going. If we don’t talk about it and don’t teach our young ones, how do we expect it to stay alive?”
Dianne Walker, who was featured in Black and Blue, praises her for her desire to move the field forward. “With her talent she could be doing it all for herself, but she shares, she gives back. She’s an extraordinary example for the young dancers.”
Samuels Smith treasures her generosity. “Dormeshia is one of the last in my generation that got that hands-on experience from the masters. She found the art and the art found her. She’s inspired me and countless other dancers in our generation. I don’t think she realizes how important she is,” he says. “She’s one of our silent leaders who we’re gonna hear a lot about in the future.”
Emily Macel Theys is the communications manager for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
Top: Photo by Matthew Karas. Bottom: A career highlight: Jason Samuels Smith’s Charlie’s Angels; Dormeshia in center, with Michelle Dorrance and Chloe Arnold. Photo by Debi Field.
PearsonWidrig DanceTheater and Sharon Mansur // Clarice Smith Performing Arts Center // University of Maryland College Park // February 17–18, 2011 // Reviewed by Emily Macel Theys
Tzveta Kassabova in PearsonWidrig's Drama. Photo by Zachary Z. Handler. Courtesy UMD.
Tzveta Kassabova moves as if her limbs are only loosely joined to her body. It’s as though every impetus to fling an arm, hurl her chest forward, or kick out a leg then reverse her torso, sending that leg into a high arabesque, is simply part of the way she moves. Her quirky, somewhat dark Tim Burton-esque movement quality is all her own. It’s no surprise that Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig used her improvisations as inspiration for Drama, which premiered last month.
The piece lived up to its title with the help of numerous scenic, lighting, and sound elements. But it was the choreography that felt most dramatic, with its over-the-top exaggerations, its cartoon-like and contortionist moments. While Kassabova was not the only performer, the others did not—could not—embody her style. Betty Skeen and Erin Lehua Brown (who, along with Kassabova, made up the core group of dancers) came close, bringing their own suppleness or sensitivity to the movement. But it was hard to shift your attention away from Kassabova each time she lurched into the space or dropped to the ground like a bag of rocks.
And there were rocks too, literally. A thick border of gravel lined the stage; the dancers carefully stepped over it when entering or exiting. (The set design was conceived by Pearson and Widrig with Ryan Knapp and Erin Glasspatrick.) At one point, a box that had hung from the rafters, slightly off-center–stage, gave way from the bottom and spewed out a heap of pebbles. Just when you were hoping the dancers would protect their feet, Kassabova throttled herself into the pile, curled into fetal position, and became one with the rocks, then continued to dance through them. You could hear her bones grinding against the gravel and the floor, a gruesome and painful experience, and yet she pulled off looking natural, even elegant.
One particularly stunning motif—dancers sitting, facing upstage, moving in and out of varied odalisque poses with an arm placed at the small of the back—recurred with larger and smaller groups. The performers created sensual, womanly shapes but with disconnected, somewhat deadpan facial expressions. Most of the time they looked at the floor or offstage, so that Kassabova’s one glance toward the audience sent an audible gasp through the house.
Adding another level of drama, the soundscore (by Lauren Burke) included live opertatic-style singing from Madeline Miskie, who moved around the theater—backstage, at the rear of the house, in the adjacent hallway, and eventually onstage—interrupting or infusing the performance with her voice.
The evening was shared with Sharon Mansur, whose cimmerian light meditated quietly on the Japanese concept of wabi-sabi—finding beauty in the imperfect, incomplete, and impermanent. The set, by Felicia Glidden, was exquisite, with its hanging sculptures of wires and paper, lit by the soft glow of lanterns. While the movement was peaceful and pleasing to watch, it hit the same note the whole way through, rarely changing pacing, tone, or depth.
Thoughts on this review? Email your comments, questions, opinions to email@example.com.
NY2Dance // Dance Place, Washington DC // November 13–14, 2010 // Reviewed by Emily Macel Theys
Yatkin's Wallstories. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu. Courtesy Dance Place.
When Nejla Yatkin lifts a finger, the whole room watches in hushed anticipation. For People With Wings opens with Yatkin lying on her back in a pile of black tulle and feathers. Her head is downstage, and her arms are expanded like wings. With very little movement she creates a scene that looks like it could be a projection of a black and white film, showing frame-by-frame the control and range of her wingspan. When she rises from the floor, the feathers are sent off in all directions. Her legs and torso have just as much if not more control than her muscular arms, and the piece becomes a duet with the layers upon layers of tulle. A woman in a tutu is so much more for Yatkin: It’s a love affair, a struggle against nature, a choice between being covered up and revealing it all. Eventually she strips herself of the tutu, and rises out of the now lifeless fabric. Strong and powerful yet feminine and ethereal, she is surely the kind of muse the sculptor had in mind when creating the Winged Victory.
Wings was made in 2000, the first year of NY2Dance. For this 10th-anniversary season, Yatkin showed a range of her work from the last decade. In Journey to the One, a Tango (2004), her company dances in progressively smaller groups—five women move giddily and cattily about a bouquet of roses, four men strut to show off, a trio represents a love triangle that blends into a duet between lovers. Finally Yatkin returns to the stage to again show us that fabric—this time bright red satin—can be a powerful and gripping partner. Her company members appeared younger and less experienced than Yatkin, but a few showed sparks of Nejla’s passion, particularly Emily Schoen and Ahmaud Culver in their heated duet.
The final work for the evening was Wallstories (2009), an hour-long ode to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Using songs from Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” album, eight dancers take the audience through the history surrounding the Berlin Wall’s creation and downfall. Images of Germany and oral histories of those who experienced hardship because of the Wall created a visual backdrop and soundscape.
What’s most apparent from this journey is how Yatkin’s choreography has matured. She is able to blend cold militaristic movements with youthful dancing. The dancers represent the teenagers of Germany in the 1980s and 90s who grew up in the time of division and conflict, which is what Yatkin herself experienced growing up in Berlin. There were a number of stand-out moments: Yatkin’s take on running, literally, up the wall of the stage (while this motif has appeared in several works before Wallstories, the dancers here accomplished it with palpable ferocity, symbolic of resistance to The Wall); the tender duets where women cover their male counterparts with handkerchiefs; and a solo where a dancer moves about a central square of light, while the others slowly walk backwards from the edges of the stage, eventually enclosing him inside of their wall of bodies. Again Schoen was memorable for her precision, control, and intensity. In the end, she and Yatkin dance a duet across a wide distance, Schoen onstage while Yatkin rises up out of a seat in the house. They are breaking down yet another wall—the one between the dancers and the audience.
As Martha Graham put it, a dancer is an “athlete of God.” There’s no denying that dance is just as athletic as any sporting event. Professionals in both fields train intensely, depend on muscle memory, and have to be on when the lights go up. Dancers will never make the gobs of money that athletes do, but we can learn some valuable lessons from the success of sports. Read on to see how the dance community is stepping up—toe-to-toe—with professional athletes and infiltrating their advertising market.
For some, the similarities between sports and dance are apparent. Tune in to any sporting event on TV and notice that the way an athlete moves on the field resembles what you’re doing in the studio. “A parallel second-position plié is the same stance as a free throw in basketball,” says Ailey dancer Guillermo Asca, “or a lineman’s stance in football, or a batter’s stance in baseball.” Asca, who grew up playing soccer and trained in karate, continues, “A golfer’s swing is like the turn-the-back in Graham technique. The other day I was watching tennis player Rafael Nadal and he hit the ball right at his feet and did a single tour with his arms down in fifth. I see dance in sports all the time.”
But ultimately Asca believes that dancing is tougher. “Our season is all year round,” he says. “In sports, the downtime is greater because the season is usually only a few months long. Their practices tend to run three hours, with massage after and then some weight lifting. Our days are seven or eight hours long, and then you’re going to gym, Pilates, or the pool before or after the actual rehearsal and performance.”
Some athletes have integrated dance into their training. Football Hall of Famer Lynn Swann, who has been called the Baryshnikov of football and even appeared with Gene Kelly, Peter Martins, and Twyla Tharp in a 1980 TV special, has long championed the benefits of dance. He studied ballet, tap, and jazz for years. “They helped with body control, balance, a sense of rhythm, and timing,” he acknowledges. Many athletes have gained a newfound appreciation for dance through Dancing with the Stars, including NFL wide receiver Chad Ochocinco, NFL Hall of Famer Emmitt Smith, Olympic speed skater Apolo Anton Ohno, Olympic figure skater Kristi Yamaguchi, and IndyCar driver Helio Castroneves. And they’ve proven their skills on the stage: Many of the sports stars have taken home first-place finishes, adding a dance trophy to their collection.
Dance medicine has gleaned wisdom from sports medicine. Dr. William Hamilton, orthopedic consultant for the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, also works with members of the New York Yankees and New York Knicks. “We’ve gotten a lot of training tools from athletes that dancers use. In sports medicine there has been a great deal of attention to proper nutrition and cross-training, and that has spilled very much into dance medicine.”
Hamilton says sports medicine is older and more experienced than dance medicine. “One of the most common acute injuries in both,” he says, “is the sprained ankle. The treatment of this injury has been studied extensively in the sports medicine field.” He advises dancers with a severely sprained ankle to see a sports medicine doctor if a dance specialist is not available.
While dancer and athlete injuries may be similar, Hamilton says dancers tend to heal more slowly. This is partially due to the fact that dancers have to be 90 to 95 percent healed to get back onstage, “so it takes a lot longer to get back to that edge.”
There’s no hiding bulky bandages and braces under uniforms; dancers must look pristine, showing off clean lines, muscular backs and legs. As Dance St. Louis put it in a recent ad campaign, dance is “the most beautiful sport in the world.” The presenter partnered with the St. Louis Cardinals, St. Louis Rams, and St. Louis Blues on visuals aimed at representing the high-powered athleticism of dance. “We were trying to make dance more available to the public so it’s not so elitist,” says Michael Uthoff, artistic and executive director of Dance St. Louis. The ads paired Julie Tice of Paul Taylor Dance Company with linebacker Chris Draft; outfielder Rick Ankiel with Emily Ramirez of BalletMet Columbus; and Mei-Hua Wang of Armitage Gone! Dance with defenseman Erik Johnson. The campaign was recognized with a Mid-America Emmy Award in 2009.
Pilobolus also got to show off their athleticism when they were hired by the National Football League to make promotional pieces for featured NFL matchups. And Fort Wayne Ballet in Indiana distributed baseball playing cards that feature their dancers as well as local baseball players with the phrase “Everybody Dances!”
And remember how excited Nigel Lythgoe was to announce on So You Think You Can Dance that this year, for the first time ever, Gatorade is featuring a dancer in its ads? Lauren Froderman, winner of this season’s SYTYCD, is featured as the sports drink’s first dance athlete, putting dancers in the same league as Usain Bolt and Derek Jeter.
Dancers aren’t just showing up in ads, they’re also performing alongside athletes. “We believe that audiences need to have a wealth of experiences with the art,” says John Michael Schert, dancer and executive director of Trey McIntyre Project. When TMP set up shop in Boise, Idaho, they were bringing contemporary ballet to an area that had little, but had plenty of sports because of the state university. They’ve built relationships with local basketball and football teams, and have sponsored the Treasure Valley Rollergirls’ season. “They help promote TMP as a member of the community,” says Schert of the teams. “We further that by performing at their events from time to time. Usually their crowds are not the type to sit in a theater and watch a dance performance. But we found they are so excited by what they see that we’re able to reach this whole other audience.”
TMP has taken it a step further by borrowing the age-old tradition of tailgating before a sporting event. “We invite audiences to experience the performance like they would a football game: They come and hang out in the parking lot with their friends and relax. That way they have a comfortable point of entry.”
ODC/Dance in San Francisco also pairs up with their athletic counterparts. For the past four years, they’ve held a competition called Toe to Toe that pits ODC dancers against University of California athletes to see who is faster, stronger, and more agile. ODC’s record is 3–1, beating out basketball players, the water polo team, and track-and-field athletes, among others. Events run the gamut from three-legged races to obstacle courses to jousting. Elizabeth Farotte Heenan of ODC, who has competed for all four years, says, “I think people were surprised the first year we won. But this year we were surprised when we won a couple of the relays against the women’s soccer team!”
Dancers have the strength, endurance, muscularity, devotion, and prowess of any sports player. And they have another dimension, too. As Hamilton says, “Dancers are athletic artists and not artistic athletes.” It’s the artistry that raises dancers up to the status of gods in Martha Graham’s eyes. After all, we aren’t just playing a game.
Emily Macel Theys, a writer based in Washington, DC, is the communications manager for the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.
Pictured: ODC dancer Elizabeth Farotte Heenan with a member of the University of California’s track-and-field team. Photo by RJ Muna, Courtesy ODC.
Nicole Wolcott needed walls—large, movable, white ones—for 100 Beginnings, a piece that premieres this month at Dance New Amsterdam. Earlier this year, the co-founder of Keigwin + Company decided to go out on her own after eight years with Larry Keigwin. But without the backing of an established organization, how does one find funding in a down economy? Wolcott turned to Kickstarter for help.
Kickstarter, Crowdrise, IndieGoGo, and RocketHub might sound like names of rock bands or drinks. Instead, they’re websites designed for artists who are looking for new ways to raise money (who isn’t?). Meet fundraising 2.0—a combination of microgranting (small amounts of donations that add up) and crowdsourcing (tasking your audience with a job that is typically done in-house, like fundraising). For a percentage fee, these sites allow individuals to create a webpage explaining their project, establishing a goal amount to be raised, and providing a secure way for the public to donate. More and more small to mid-sized companies are taking a web-savvy approach to finding funds.
For Wolcott’s walls, she needed $2,500. She created a funky video showing the work-in-progress. The incentives for donating ranged from a handwritten thank-you note to a plate of homemade cookies to a cameo in the piece. “We sent the request to everyone we knew. I thought I’d get a lot of small donations. But family who had never donated before and others gave me larger donations than I expected.” Her campaign was so successful that she surpassed her goal, raising just over $3,200. Wolcott has launched a second one on Kickstarter this fall.
While the sites offer similar approaches, there are slight differences. Kickstarter and RocketHub provide all-or-nothing funding, meaning if the goal is not met by the designated deadline, all the funds are returned to the donors (or are never charged). Others, like IndieGoGo and Crowdrise, release the donations to the artist throughout the process. The sites also offer ways to link up to social networks like Facebook to give your fanbase updates—and hopefully to inspire more donations.
(More established artists like Eiko & Koma and Jawole Willa Jo Zollar have posted projects on Project Site, which is invitation-only through United States Artists.)
Nejla Y. Yatkin, NY2Dance director and a 2005 “25 to Watch,” used Crowdrise to help raise $10,000 for her 10th-anniversary season. She chose this site over the others because “Crowdrise made me think of people coming together and moving in a chorus.” Yatkin likes the way it involves the public. “The audience feels like being part of it, they know about the show and they come because they already supported it. We’re building a history with them.”
While these campaigns usually target a younger base, they also have the potential to reach people who are not your typical audience. They could be art lovers who are inspired by your project page, or friends and family that don’t see you perform often but are enjoying your videos.
The sites’ fees seem to be worth it, and there are even ways around them. The nonprofit arts organization Fractured Atlas has teamed up with IndieGoGo to offer sponsorship to members and coverage of the bulk of the fees.
Sydney Skybetter, a founding partner with Design Brooklyn, a consulting firm that helps arts organizations develop their presence online and offline, says that the dance community is just starting to jump onboard with these fundraising trends. But, he cautions, don’t dive in without a plan. “These things can be very powerful; they’ve translated into revenue more effectively than any other social network that I’ve seen,” says Skybetter. “But without proper planning, you’ll alienate your fans by relentlessly bombarding them with requests.” —Emily Macel Theys