When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.
A watershed moment. That's how choreographer Lar Lubovitch recently described his now-classic A Brahms Symphony. Now, a group of 16 George Mason University dance majors are having their own watershed moment with that jubilant work: They will dance it at the venerable Joyce Theater in New York City, where they will close the 50th anniversary season of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company on April 22. It's such a big deal the college president, Angel Cabrera, likened it to when the basketball team made it to the NCAA Final Four.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
MK Abadoo is an unapologetic activist. The dances she creates speak her truth to power. Her choreography offers a socially conscious take on torn-from-the-headlines issues of racial, social and gender equity.
Drawn to community-based work, Abadoo fuses postmodernist aesthetics with fleet-footed and full-bodied West African forms—she spent a Fulbright year in Ghana—and the nonchalant swagger of funk. Her 2015 work Octavia's Brood: Riding the Ox Home is inspired by science-fiction writer Octavia Butler's work and vignettes from the Underground Railroad, toggling between an Afro-futurist view of the U.S. and the searing history of Harriet Tubman. When Abadoo and her dancers stop short, caught by swaths of brown fabric tugging them ceaselessly back, they're trapped in an extension of their skin as Akua Allrich croons "My skin is black." Abadoo's message: The struggle against racism remains real, visceral and unvarnished, and she's ready to confront the issue head-on.
Ballet teacher Therrell C. Smith may be 100, but she's still got it. She celebrated her 100th birthday with family, friends and former students earlier this month by performing the "Fascination Waltz" with ballroom dancer Stan Kelly. She finished off the afternoon tribute at the University of the District of Columbia's Theater of the Arts at the center of a kick line surrounded by her nephews and great nephews as the recording crooned "Hello, Auntie," to the tune of "Hello, Dolly."
She, of course, stole the show, which featured many tributes and proclamations from the mayor of DC, her alma mater Fisk University and others.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Triple threat Donna McKechnie is cherished for her Tony Award–winning portrayal of Cassie in the 1975 musical A Chorus Line. Her featured number, "The Music and the Mirror," sheds a spotlight on the hopes and dreams of a struggling dancer, willing to return to the chorus for a job doing what she loves. McKechnie has spent her more than 50-year career doing what she loves—dancing, singing and acting. The Broadway darling has grown up onstage, from her first gig as a teen to her latest: Starting October 27 she plays Mabel in Arena Stage's production of The Pajama Game in Washington, DC.
Have you done Pajama Game before?
This is my first. I love the show and was thrilled when choreographer Parker Esse called me. I see connections with my career generationally in the script. When I came to New York, Bob Fosse was my first choreographer. I was in shows that original writer/director George Abbott directed.
Will you be dancing?
I play Mabel, the secretary and mother hen, but Parker said he was going to expand the dancing. I'll be 75 this month and I'm proud of it. I want to be a living example for people to keep dancing and moving. I take ballet class five times a week—if you don't, you lose it. I do the whole barre. If you do a ballet barre correctly, I can't think of anything harder.
Maggie Kudirka was just beginning her ballet career with the Joffrey Concert Group in New York when she discovered an ache and a knot in her sternum that would not go away. It became excruciating.
The company physical therapist gave her exercises and massages to assuage the pain. "I just thought it was a muscle mass…we were doing a lot of partnering, but it didn't get better," she says.
Months later, as her first season was ending, she found a doctor to take a look. It took a few appointments to get the diagnosis because, at 23, Kudirka was not in the risk group for breast cancer. But that's what the lump was. Within weeks she was in treatment for stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, meaning it had spread to other parts of her body and was incurable.
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At 18, Baakari Wilder was flying high. The tap dance kid, who began lessons at 3 in a community center in Laurel, Maryland, was dancing every night on Broadway as part of the hand-selected cast of the George C. Wolfe/Savion Glover vehicle Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. But in the middle of one show, he came off stage so out of breath the stage manager sent him to the hospital. "I didn't wake back up until months later," he wrote recently. "After leaving the hospital, I recall seeing my fellow dancers promoting Noise/Funk on Jay Leno. That was my motivation. I was determined to dance again. Months later I rejoined the cast on Broadway and when Savion left the show, I assumed the lead until it closed."
Wilder has Lupus, an autoimmune disease that, in his case, has targeted his kidneys. Last week, he opened the Facebook page "Wanted: A Kidney for Baakari," where he tells this story. Back when he was 28, his brother donated a kidney, "And I sure enough felt the difference." Now 40, Wilder is hoping another donor will come forward as his kidney is failing again.
Cliff Brody claims he can barely execute a box step. But he's looking to raise more than $5 million for dance. The retired diplomat and businessman says, "I was struck by the extraordinary entrepreneurial efforts that these artists have: the creativity, the risks, including the physical risk. And the reality of learning that among the three areas of performing arts—music, theater and dance—dance is by far the least funded."
He founded the National Performing Arts Funding Exchange in 2016 to find more money for dance from nontraditional sources. NPAFE recently announced its three-year, $5,750,000 campaign that will funnel funds straight to performing artists throughout the United States. There will be no "middle man," Brody says.
Ethan Stiefel's love of motorcycles has been well documented over the years, perhaps most memorably when he played ballet bad boy Cooper Nielsen in the popular 2000 dance movie Center Stage. So it seems fitting that the former American Ballet Theatre star's Harley-Davidson played a role in the creation of his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, which honors the centenary of President John F. Kennedy's birth. New Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent called on her longtime ABT colleague for her first commission, Frontier, which premieres May 25–27 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Tell us how you and Julie Kent met.
Julie and I first started working together in the late '90s at ABT. I danced some of my first roles and debuts with her. I think my favorite ballet with Julie was Romeo and Juliet. You never forget your first Juliet.
How did she approach you about the Washington Ballet commission?
She contacted me last year in late May and said she wanted me to do a new ballet, specifically one that was connected in some way to President Kennedy. I was obviously very excited, but I needed to take a moment to do some homework, some research. There are many different ways that one could go in making a JFK ballet.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall in Washington, DC, covers a wide and deep swath of the history of black Americans. Included are many items that demonstrates the importance dance holds for the community and the tremendous contributions African Americans have made to the dance world. Here are a few of the many notable dance items on display:
- Sammy Davis Jr.'s childhood tap shoes (shown above)
- Virginia Johnson's costume from Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole Giselle
- A sequin-covered black jacket worn by Michael Jackson on his 1984 Victory Tour, on the heels of his Thriller album
- Selected photos of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from the 1960s and '70s
- A portrait of dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker
- A pair of American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland's pointe shoes
- A case on musical theater detailing the history of minstrel shows and the evolution of black dance from blackface and the cakewalk to Broadway's The Wiz and The Tap Dance Kid
- A wildly popular interactive video-tutorial on step dancing, featuring Step Afrika!, Washington, DC's much-in-demand touring troupe, teaching classic step-dance moves
For more information or free passes, visit nmaahc.si.edu.
Five years after Liz Lerman's departure, Dance Exchange continues to forge new initiatives.
Who gets to dance? Where is the dance happening? What is the dancing about? Why does it matter? In the 40 years since then-fledgling dancemaker Liz Lerman founded Dance Exchange, these four simple but profound questions have become not just the multigenerational company's mission, but its raison d'être. “The four questions," Cassie Meador, Dance Exchange's current executive artistic director, says, “are at the core of everything we do." Today, five years after Lerman left the company to work independently, the legacy she created is being reinvented by a new cohort of artists under Meador's direction.
Dana Tai Soon Burgess is the National Portrait Gallery’s first choreographer in residence.
Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company in Confluence. Photo by Jeff Malet, Courtesy DTSBDC.
If you visited the “Eye Pop: The Celebrity Gaze” exhibit at the Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC, you probably noticed photographer CYJO’s portrait of choreographer Dana Tai Soon Burgess. It’s a lovely image, but it doesn’t show his work in motion. That will change. Earlier this year, the Smithsonian named Burgess its first choreographer in residence. Over the coming three years Burgess will create new works inspired by and in collaboration with the museum’s exhibitions, and participate in public discussions and open rehearsals about dance, art and portraiture.
For National Portrait Gallery associate curator Dorothy Moss, the objective of incorporating dance and other performance arts is to bring new audiences into the museum and catch visitors off-guard. “They come to visit, and find motion and music and all sorts of lively action in the museum,” she says. The Smithsonian is one of many museums exploring live performances. “These are not spontaneous performances,” says Moss. “They are put together the same way an exhibit is,” with intensive research and collaborative partnerships. “The intellectual framework must be there to ensure that the art and performance fits with our mission.”
This is not Burgess’ first foray into the museum and gallery world. The son of two artists, he grew up amid galleries in Santa Fe, New Mexico, and has previously worked in conjunction with the National Portrait Gallery and the Smithsonian’s American Art Museum. “What’s interesting about portraiture is that there is the subject, the portrait, and then there’s the psychology of the portrait itself,” says Burgess. “And that psychology relates really well to the world of dance because it allows the inner terrain to be explored through movement.”
The first of Burgess’ new museum collaborations takes place in October in the museum’s Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, a soaring space with a glass ceiling. Drawing from works in the triennial Outwin Boochever Portrait Competition, Burgess will explore identities and personal stories through modern dance. The images he chose all feature youths and young adults as subjects. “One of the main themes of the exhibit is the question of what’s facing our young people today—gender, finding a sense of place, immigration, cultural identities, questions that are at the forefront of our American dialogue right now.”
Burgess and his 10 company dancers will also rehearse in the galleries of the Outwin exhibit, where patrons can observe and ask questions when the performers go on breaks. “Rehearsing right in front of the portraits is so inspiring. If there is a question or the dancers need to examine a posture or observe how people are responding, it’s right there.”
American Dance Institute moves to Catskill, New York.
In the five short years since expanding its mission, a modest dance school in a Washington, DC, suburb has remade itself into one of the most progressive modern dance presenters in the country. With its out-of-the-ordinary Incubator program, American Dance Institute has provided unprecedented support for mid-career artists like Jane Comfort, Susan Marshall and David Neumann. “I’ve never had the opportunity to be in a theater like that,” says Comfort, who was given a tech crew for herweeklong residency in 2011. Her dancers were fed, housed and paid during their stay.
Susan Marshall's Chromatic will come to New York City's The Kitchen, June 23-25. Photo by Peter Serling, Courtesy ADI.
But at the close of the 2017 season, ADI, which was founded in 1999 by former ballet dancers Pamela and Michael Bjerknes, will move to a former lumberyard in Catskill, New York, a small town two hours north of Manhattan. This month, it will present its first season in New York City at The Kitchen, its new performance-space partner, featuring postmodern matriarch Yvonne Rainer’s The Concept of Dust: Continuous Project-Altered Annually, as well as works by Comfort, Marshall, Brian Brooks and Jack Ferver.
Finances are the driving reason for the move. Executive director Adrienne Willis says it costs about a million dollars a year to keep the Rockville, Maryland, location running, and at 20,000 square feet, it is far smaller than the new space. Purchased for $1.2 million, the new property features a 30,000-square-foot main building unencumbered by poles. Three adjacent waterfront barns and outdoor spaces will also be added in phase two of development. Willis envisions a self-contained artistic haven that can house between 24 and 26 dancers and crew in the upstairs part of the building, which will also have a warm-up studio, public lobby and chef’s kitchen. The groundbreaking took place in May, and ADI Lumberyard, as the facility will be called, will accept its first artistic residencies in summer 2018. Meanwhile, ADI will close out its Maryland space in 2016–17 with 11 performances, including works by Zvi Dance, Steven Reker/Open House, Marshall, David Dorfman, David Gordon and Stephen Petronio.
Will ADI’s move leave a hole in the metropolitan Washington, DC, dance community? Willis says she is committed to maintaining a presence, and is providing a new $100,000 subsidy for the programming of ADI-curated artists. ADI is also working with the local service organization Dance Metro DC to support an existing local artist commissioning program, with modest subsidies doled out over the coming two years. “We really want to help strengthen Dance Metro DC and the local community if we can,” Willis says. Stephen Clapp, director of Dance Metro DC, notes that ADI, which supported DC dance artists like Christopher Morgan and Tzveta Kassabova, would be missed. “In addition to the Incubator, ADI instituted excellent pre-show talks,” he says, “and it was really wonderful to hear the scholarly perspective on dance works.”
ADI’s adventurous presenting and residencies will be a loss for the Washington, DC, region. “They’ve been a great asset to this community,” says Clapp. “As they transition out of our area, I’m glad they’re committed to continuing to support this community. It speaks to the commitment that they have had from the beginning.”
The rosters at major companies are growing.
Artistic director Gil Boggs (right) leads a Colorado Ballet rehearsal. Photo courtesy Colorado Ballet.
The recession in 2008–09 took a major toll on U.S. dance companies of all sizes, genres and geographic locations. Some shortened their programming and cut staff members. Many had to downsize their troupes.
But the 2014–15 season suggests that many ballet companies’ finances are on the upswing. Colorado Ballet, Oklahoma City Ballet, Kansas City Ballet, Miami City Ballet and Boston Ballet have all expanded their rosters this year. Still, Amy Fitterer, executive director of Dance/USA, which gathers dance company statistics annually, warns that it’s too soon to tell if the dance world has had an economic turnaround. “I’m still hearing from companies, especially those with budgets under $1.5 million, that they are struggling,” she says.
Boston Ballet’s Mikko Nissinen is seeing positive steps forward. When he became artistic director in 2001, the company roster reached 54 dancers. “Then around 2008 we had to take one step backwards to move forward. The smallest we got was 43,” he says. This year, he reached his longtime goal as artistic director: Boston Ballet now employs 70 dancers, including nine in the second company. This gives him flexibility to do full-scale ballets without overworking the corps, and the company opened its season with 16 performances of his new Swan Lake. “Every artistic decision is also a financial decision,” he says.
At Colorado Ballet, artistic director Gil Boggs has upped the studio company roster to 22 from 16. He says he’s not fiscally ready to add dancers to the main company, but hopes it’s in the near future. “When we expand our corps, we have to take a hard look at the financial commitment that requires. Right now we’re committed to being fiscally responsible.” Last year, the company saw record ticket sales. “If that continues,” Boggs says, “the money would be used to increase the company size.” That’s what every company is hoping for: to turn back the recession clock and jump-start growth.
Incubator artist Brian Brooks workshopped Run Don’t Run at ADI. Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Brian Brooks.
The postmodern dance scene has found a home in suburban Washington, DC. Dance education and performance hub American Dance Institute has created a new residency and overhauled an existing one. “Midcareer artists usually receive commissions, while early career artists tend to get rehearsal space,” says artistic adviser Dan Hurlin. “We wanted to turn the tables.” Its ADI Commissioning Program now supports an early career artist’s premiere, while its National Incubator, once a space grant, gives contemporary dancemakers an opportunity to test nearly completed works before opening elsewhere.
The National Incubator’s makeover, a response to previous artist feedback, took three years of residency research. “We looked at all the programs in the country and talked to funders and artists to find where the holes were for choreographers,” says executive director Adrienne Willis.
Established artists originally received three days at ADI’s studios, but are now given one to two weeks of theater time. This allows them to test any technology or sets they might integrate into their work, culminating in a work-in-progress performance and discussion. “Many residencies give you space and maybe a place to live,” says 2013–14 Incubator artist Jane Comfort. “ADI provided a tech crew for a whole week without the pressure of press reviews.”
For the first ADI Commissioning Series, geared to new choreographic talent, Minneapolis choreographer Chris Schlichting will be given the large-scale resources Hurlin says are usually set aside for international artists: a $10,000 stipend that allows choreographers to pay dancers, commission a score, build sets and make costumes, plus development and marketing support and a performance slot in ADI’s 2015–16 season.
In the future, ADI will continue to revise its National Incubator model. Its four 2013–14 artists are Comfort, Brian Brooks, Doug Elkins and John Jasperse, and Willis already has plans to expand next season’s lineup to seven.
Ashley Thorndike (far left) with both college and middle school students.
Photo by Katherine Anderson, Courtesy NNDMP.
When Hannah Fischer graduated two years ago from Saint Mary’s College in Indiana, she was nervous about her next step. She had a teaching and performing job with Leverage Dance Theater in St. Louis, but was unsure about what her day-to-day work would actually entail.
She was lucky; help came in an unusual form.
Before she took off for Missouri, Fischer spent a week at Appalachian State University to take part in the Now & Next Dance Mentoring Project. Founded in 2010 by Ashley Thorndike, Now & Next unites female college-aged dancers, middle school girls (ages 10 to 14), and working choreographers. For a week, the tweens are led by college students, who in turn experience real-world teaching scenarios—backed by the professionals. Fischer was able to hone some teaching, programming, and leadership skills while also getting the chance to ask the pros on staff about practical issues, like health insurance and fundraising.
“I call it a nested model,” says Thorndike, Now & Next’s executive director, who also has a private yoga and Pilates practice in Washington, DC. In the mornings, the 15 to 20 college students—mentored by dance professors and arts administrators—take somatics, dance, and choreography classes with the professional artists. They also share ideas to improve their own teaching and prepare lessons for the middle schoolers. When the kids arrive each day after lunch, the undergrads are ready to take the lead in movement classes, improvisation workshops, and arts-and-craft sessions.
Thorndike, who holds a Ph.D. in dance studies from Ohio State University, developed Now & Next’s curriculum while overseeing an educational program at the University of Virginia that paired college women with at-risk adolescents—without the dance component. But from her own experiences working with modern choreographers (in New York City, Chicago, and Charlottesville), Thorndike knew that dance could be the key to providing adolescent girls with healthy and creative choices.
Each day at Now & Next is framed by one of five themes: action, support, curiosity, challenge, or resilience. During the day that focuses on curiosity, for instance, college students lead a movement class and a body-mapping exercise. The middle-schoolers create self-portraits, tracing their body surfaces on oversized paper. “They’re learning all the ways they can move, talking about joint actions and articulations,” Thorndike says.
Now & Next doesn’t have a single location; universities like Appalachian State offer to host the program. Marianne Adams, chair of Appalachian’s theater and dance division, finds Now & Next a good fit for her department. “I see it as mentoring that comes full circle,” she says. “The students are at various places in their development, and so are the faculty members.” Adams also says it helps build her students’ confidence for life after college. “They get an opportunity to realize that they do know a lot, because of their role as mentor/teacher with the middle-school girls,” she says.
Thorndike hopes to expand Now & Next a little each year. Appalachian State will host the program again this June, and in 2014, and Thorndike has plans for additional locations. Her challenge, however, is to keep the student-to-mentor ratio as close to one-to-one as possible. “Because the program is so intense, the students are really receptive to feedback,” she says. “They are so engaged in wanting to make deeper connections for the middle-schoolers each day.”
Fischer, now 25, has taken her Now & Next experience and run with it. Today, she’s the assistant director of Leverage Dance Theater, where she recently helped launch an outreach program for underserved youth, incarcerated teens, and victims of sexual assault and domestic violence. She is now developing more of the program’s curriculum on her own. How did Now & Next help? “The building blocks that it put in place for me are invaluable.”
Lisa Traiger writes on the performing arts from Rockville, MD.
CityDance students and members of Hubbard Street 2 warm up for a dress rehearsal. Photo: Theo Kossenas/Media 4 Artists, Courtesy CityDance.
“Pronounciate your feet,” Taryn Kaschock Russell declared to 28 of CityDance’s ballet students last fall during a master class in the airy North Bethesda, Maryland, studio. Russell meshed “pronounce” and “enunciate” into her own portmanteau to emphasize the clarity she wanted to see in the petit allégro. “I want you to fly,” she encouraged the students, some as young as 11, others seniors in high school. Then in sock-clad feet she hitched up her warm-up pants and precisely demonstrated the speed and ballon she was seeking. Breathless, the black-and-pink--–clad ballet students tried it again. Then again.
Russell, director of Hubbard Street 2, the second company of the acclaimed troupe Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, spent a brief three-day residency at the suburban Washington, DC, studio, where she and HS2 dancers taught both master classes and repertory and, most unusually, shared the stage with the high-school–aged dancers in a program featuring three works from the semi-professional company and eight showcasing the students of CityDance’s Conservatory/Select program.
Among the numerous pre-professional studios in the Washington, DC, region, CityDance has in just a few short years built a reputation as an alternative to dance studios that focus solely on ballet training or on a regimen of competitions. While it’s still too soon to track alumni from the program, students are being accepted into some of the nation’s most prestigious college dance programs, from Ailey/Fordham to SUNY Purchase.
“We have a lot of talented young people here,” said Lorraine Spiegler, artistic director of studio education for the school and conservatory. Many, she explained, find their way to CityDance when they’ve outgrown or don’t quite fit into their home studio. She said: “In our institution students don’t primarily come from one area or another. They come from ballet, hip-hop, the competition world; they come out of tiny little studios and larger, well-established ballet programs. At CityDance, they seek to understand what contemporary dance is and they can discover what it will mean to be a contemporary dancer.”
Founded in 1996, CityDance rose to acclaim as a repertory company that performed works by an impressive range of choreographers, including Doug Varone, Kate Weare, Sophie Maslow, and even Paul Taylor. The school came about after the company, and in 2005 became a partner in the Music Center at Strathmore’s education wing. Last year, though, the school eclipsed the company, which after years of touring internationally under the direction of Paul Gordon Emerson, folded up shop.
CityDance has more than 500 children enrolled this year, 120 of whom are in the competitive Conservatory/Select program, which offers performing opportunities and weekly master classes every Saturday for the studio’s pre-professional dancers ages 11 to 19. Recent or upcoming guest artists include members of Evidence, Complexions, and La La La Human Steps. That experience of a new teacher each week acclimates students to pick up unfamiliar material quickly and without fear, readying them for the world of auditions early in their careers.
The HS2 residency scheduled for the fall was unusual. Together, Russell and Spiegler agreed to share a bill, presenting three HS2 works and a selection of solo and group works from the CityDance student repertoire. Both organizations, Spiegler explained, are committed to seeking out and supporting new choreographic voices. Spiegler often hires young talent to create works on her students, and HS2 runs an annual choreography competition to expand the field.
Russell saw the brief residency (which occurred in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy) as an opportunity for her dancers. “I love to give HS2 as many performing opportunities as possible,” she said. “I love that there’s some integration [between the two groups]. I don’t know that this exact model will go forward as something we might pursue, but I’m looking at what’s going to be most enriching for a residency.”
In this case, she saw success. The CityDance students got to take master classes and learn repertory from the HS2 dancers. The HS2 dancers got a chance to try out their own recently learned rep onstage, but, more important, Russell noted, they got the opportunity to lead classes and teach.
She pointed out that the HS2 dancers were only about four or five years older than some of the CityDance students. “Anytime they’re able to teach and they have that interaction in the front of the room,” Russell said, “I feel that that only brings inspiration for them when they go onstage.”
HS2 dancer Alicia Delgadillo taught a solo to a room full of attentive teens. While she now performs it regularly, Delgadillo first learned it as a high schooler when she was attending a HS2 summer intensive. She says that if she could go back and talk to her high school self, “I would say, ‘Get out of your head and just dance.’ ” That’s exactly what she hopes these students, who have the technical chops—legs that brush past ears, triple turns, and split leaps—can glean from her. The CityDance students dance at a high level technically; they are learning to rein in their energy and harness their emotions onstage.
Russell said that she wouldn’t be surprised if she were to cross paths with some of the CityDance students in coming years. “There’s no question that some of these dancers could be completely inspired by this experience and could find their way to us. I would welcome that.”
Lisa Traiger, a former president of Dance Critics Association, writes on dance from Rockville, MD.
Christina Ilisije and Elena D’Amario of Parsons Dance at the Big Cypress National Preserve. Photo by Andrew Propp, Courtesy Wolf Trap.
“No dancer was eaten alive, either by mosquitoes or alligators,” quips Barbara Parker, director of artistic initiatives at Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts in Virginia. She is referring to the 10 days Parsons Dance Company spent shooting video in the varied terrain of four different South Florida national parks, from the Everglades to beaches to remote islands. As part the “Face of America” series, Parsons Dance will incorporate the footage into a live performance at Wolf Trap on Sept. 8.
Beginning in 2000 with the breathtaking aerial dance of Project Bandaloop rigged on mountains in Yosemite, “Face of America” has featured the Olympic synchronized swimming team performing underwater at Coral Reef National Monument, along with a work by Donald Byrd in Virgin Islands National Park; gone underground at Kentucky’s Mammoth Cave National Park with Doug Varone and Dancers; simulated human flight at the Wright Brothers National Memorial in Kitty Hawk, NC, with daredevil Elizabeth Streb; scaled volcanoes with Halau O Kekuhi at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park; and traversed the Going-to-the-Sun Road with Trey McIntyre Project in Montana’s expansive Glacier National Park.
David Parsons and his dancers took inspiration from the natural settings and wildlife. “We got primal and it really shaped a lot of the choreography,” he says. They spent entire days immersed in swampy water last November to capture the vitality and variety of the landscape.
Seventy miles off the coast of Key West in the remote Dry Tortugas islands, Parsons was astounded that Cuban refugees continue to land there. “You really get the sense of urgency when it comes to the plight of the Cuban people,” he says.
Parsons continues to feel the effects of this meeting of art and park in the forests, beaches, and swamps of South Florida. “This collaboration between our lands, our filmmakers, our choreographers, our dancers, and our musicians is a powerful premise,” he says. “I hope all of these elements inspire people to go visit these places.”
“Is it safe?” That’s the first question resident choreographer/rehearsal director Christopher K. Morgan asked CityDance Ensemble artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson when he heard that the company might travel to Algiers late last year. “I immediately thought of the 2007 bombing of the U.N. building there, which was claimed by Al Qaeda,” says Morgan.
For most dance companies the biggest security concern on tour is getting through the TSA line without a glitch. But for companies on official business as cultural diplomats, often arranged and funded by the State Department or U.S. embassies abroad, security can be a major worry. Outside of the scope of the high-profile DanceMotion USA program (see “Exporting Modern Dance,” Jan. 2010), smaller companies are also turning to dance diplomacy. And these companies (Washington, DC’s CityDance, Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company, and StepAfrika! among them) reap rewards for being flexible enough to travel to off-the-beaten-track countries like Venezuela, Peru, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Mongolia.
“If you look at American TV as much of the rest of the world does, you would think we all went around wrestling and wearing bikinis,” quipped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year. Dance diplomacy introduces a new script in places where the American presence is limited to action films and TV sitcoms. Dance fulfills the State Department’s intention to more broadly communicate American ideals without the barrier of language. For CityDance, that meant giving budding ballerinas the confidence to exert their bodies and stretch their minds with modern dance in Belarus. In Bahrain, it meant opening children’s eyes to the concept that multiple movement interpretations can all be right. In Algeria, it meant being the first Americans that a group of North African hip hop dancers ever met. “In the case of countries where information is tightly controlled, freedom of expression is most often found in art,” says Emerson.
With just eight dancers, CityDance is lean and nimble. The number of dancers on a tour can be even smaller, depending on the budget and needs of the embassy. While past tours have taken more than a year to plan, the company received word about traveling to Algiers barely five weeks before boarding the plane.
Algiers (where CityDance was the only American group to perform in the Second International Contemporary Dance Festival) felt safe enough, but preventative measures were taken. A police escort with flashing blue lights stopped traffic to bring CityDance’s bus to the hotel, which was in a gated area of the city. And when the five company members on the tour asked to sightsee in the ancient Casbah, festival directors relented only after plainclothes guards could be obtained to follow the group—something they only learned after the excursion was over.
The rewards of traveling to unfamiliar places far outweigh the risks. “It’s fulfilling to see what our everyday craft, our primary language, can do as far as reaching across borders,” says CityDance member Elizabeth Gahl. These cultural exchanges have made Gahl reassess her own dance career. A recent stint teaching in the West Bank of Israel has “awakened a new inspiration for me as a dancer,” she says. Gahl is now seeking funds to return to the West Bank to develop a conservatory program for young dancers. “We take arts for granted. There are young children in Palestine who don’t have access to ballet classes the way we do. As much as I love performing, I’ve gotten a new wind with this cultural diplomacy.” —Lisa Traiger
Christopher K. Morgan leads a master class in Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson, courtesy CityDance
When John and Leo Manzari tear up the floor, their old-school rhythm tapping recalls brother acts of a time gone by—the Nicholas, Condos, and Hines brothers. Though the brothers may need a few years to catch up to their predecessors (Leo isn’t old enough to vote), the Manzaris recently blew the roof off Duke Ellington’s old stomping grounds, the Lincoln Theatre in Washington, DC. The brothers brought audiences to their feet in a flashy, record-breaking revival of Sophisticated Ladies, choreographed by Maurice Hines for the Arena Stage. Spiffy in their tuxedo pants and striped vests, the brothers playfully snagged the limelight from their mentor Hines. When they performed “Ko-Ko,” a rhythmic conversation that flitted, fluttered, and pounded before subsiding in an easy final handshake, The Washington Post called it one of the show’s highlights.
Hines first glimpsed 15-year-old Leo, with his riot of curls and shy smile, in a jazz master class a year ago at Washington’s Duke Ellington School of the Arts. “First I saw all this hair pop up, then I looked out and I thought, ‘Wow, who’s that?’ Later, he was sitting out so I went over to ask if he was OK. John spoke up: ‘Yeah, my brother’s OK.’”
When Hines heard the word “brother,” a chill went up his back. Ever since he picked out a young Savion Glover at another dance class and then passed the tap prodigy on to his own brother Gregory to mentor, Hines has been itching for a prodigy—or two—of his own. After class, Hines casually asked the boys if they could tap. “Uh huh,” John answered. It didn’t take long to demonstrate what he meant. Hines urged the brothers to try out for the Arena Stage production he was mounting. After the audition, Hines remembers, “I looked up to my brother Gregory and just said, ‘Thank you.’”
In performance, John, 18, has elegance and refinement, his arms as fluid as a ballet dancer’s, his head cocked slightly, expression serious, upper body floating atop nimble beat-emitting feet. Leo’s improvisations, in contrast, burst with bubbling foot syncopations, his hair tumbling, his arms akimbo, displaying an easy physicality as suited to the basketball court he also loves as much as to the dance floor.
The pair, born and raised in Washington, DC, has been dancing practically since they could toddle. Their mother Mary Manzari, a legal secretary, says that before they were even in preschool, strangers would stop to ask if her sons studied dance because the boys seemed like natural movers—and were always moving. They began dance lessons at age 3 (John) and 2 (Leo). Over the years they danced at several DC-area studios, building a solid foundation in tap, ballet, jazz, and hip hop. They also competed frequently, winning awards at New York City Dance Alliance, Onstage New York, Hall of Fame Dance Challenge, and a host of other competitions. These days the boys study ballet privately with Troy Brown in Washington, DC, and travel to New York for private tap classes with Anthony Morigerato, who has choreographed some of their numbers. “The fact is,” says John, “if you stay at one studio, you don’t get as many of the experiences from different teachers and different training that we’ve had.”
The brothers have started getting offers. This past summer they performed on the National Mall at the Kennedy Center with Branford Marsalis on a program that included the Suzanne Farrell Ballet and Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company and on Fox TV’s So You Think You Can Dance and The Jerry Lewis MDA Telethon. John has deferred his freshman year at Marymount Manhattan, depending on their dance commitments.
Both brothers turn to past greats for their tap inspiration. While Hines’ link to generations of tap dancers was the basement of New York’s Apollo Theater, inhaling the buck and wing, time steps, Maxie Fords and friendly but competitive banter from the likes of Fayard Nicholas, “Baby Laurence,” Teddy Hale, Charles “Honi” Coles and a slew of others, YouTube is the Manzaris’ new theater basement.
After he finishes classes at the private Field School, Leo goes home to surf the web with his brother looking for old black-and-white clips. “Watching videos has given both of us a lot of material,” said Leo. “I look at other people’s styles and try to make it my own. Like Gregory Hines said in one video, ‘You take it and then you try to shape it.’ ” Leo names some of 20th-century tap’s greatest stars as influences: the Nicholas brothers, “Buck and Bubbles,” Sammy Davis, Jr., and the Hines brothers, whom he and John first saw on Sesame Street.
Hines notes that an old-school show like Sophisticated Ladies demands triple-threat dancers who can sing, act, and dance everything from jitterbug to Ailey-style contemporary in addition to tap. “When these boys came to me, they were raw, but they had that something,” said Hines, 66, who has taken the pair under his wing. The boys’ mother, who serves as her sons’ manager, uses Hines as a sounding board, calling him to seek advice about potential performance opportunities. And when the boys see Hines in New York, he checks out their latest routines and gives them the nod.
“What John and Leo have is above charisma,” Hines says. “The audience adores them the minute they see them. And they are growing and getting better and better. Right now my job is to guide them the way I was guided.”
Lisa Traiger writes on theater, dance and the arts from Rockville, MD.
Photo by Scott Suchman, courtesy Arena Stage