Dancers Trending

Known for its spectacular art, architecture, music, and the gently lapping waters of its famed canals, Venice has recently joined the ranks of cities playing host to edgy European dance festivals. The dance portion of the Venice Biennale—the grande dame of contemporary art exhibitions founded in 1895, one that has also included a film sector since 1932 (cue A-list movie stars each August)—is now celebrating its eighth edition. As for me, I couldn’t be happier wandering around the pigeon/tourist-laden San Marco Square (Napoleon dubbed it “the drawing room of Europe”), or even getting lost on Venice’s splendid streets in search of performances that range from the intimate and sublime to more traditional, by-the-book-type offerings.

 

Under the artistic direction of Ismael Ivo (past directors have included Carolyn Carlson and Frédéric Flammand), this 16-day extravaganza, “Awakenings” (June 8–24), takes full advantage of the city’s unique venues. Indeed, if dance is a religion for some (and it certainly is for me), it seems appropriate that the first performance I attend on June 16 is held in the centuries-old St. George’s Anglican Church. An audience of about 30, we’re seated at the front of the space, facing away from the altar, when the lights dim and six women pop up from the small wooden pews to begin Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal.

 

 

Rathimalar Govindarajoo and Kamala Devam in Shobana Jeyasingh's TooMortal. Photo by JP Masclet, Courtesy Biennale.

 

Set to a remix of James MacMillan music, the 20-minute world premiere features the sextet slithering on top of and around the narrow pews, at times isolating their heads, arms, and legs to create a series of kinetic but disjointed paintings, occasionally in unison or fugally. Surprising, sumptuous, and beatific, the meditative work proves a silent confessional, with the dancers tossing their hair, arching their backs, and carrying secrets in their bodies they’re willing to share—with those willing to learn. I love the work so much, in fact, that I return for the final showing (Shobana Jeyasingh Dance performed three times on each of three nights), filled with joy, knowing that the troupe, who celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, is spreading a beautiful dance gospel. (The piece next travels to London, Stockholm and Belgrade—see it if you can.)

 

 

Konstanze Mello of Teatro Castro Alves. Photo by Ramonah Gayã, Courtesy Biennale.


Punctuating my first night in Venice with a scrumptious chocolate and whipped cream gelato (vino comes later), I return to my hotel behind the Doge’s Palace, where I turn down the Murano glass chandelier and fall into a dance-induced, jet-lagged sleep, excited for the next day’s presentations. Not for nothing has Venice been called the Queen of the Adriatic, where the famed 16th-century Arsenale—the historic docks and shipyards that once employed an army of 16,000—has been home to the Biennale since 1980. In 1999, parts of the Arsenale's vast warehouses were converted into theaters, which is where I head on Sunday for some wildly disparate performances.
 
In the afternoon I'm escorted into a series of makeshift “cabins”—6 feet tall by 6 feet deep by 3 feet wide—where I am spectator to a solo performance given by individuals from Bahia’s Balé Teatro Castro Alves. Called 1Por1Praum, the show consists of 10 cabins, allowing for 10 possibilities, all created by the troupe's director, Jorge Vermelho. I make it through five of these miniatures, beginning with a private showing by Konstanze Mello, whose big blonde wig and chalky make-up obscure the performer’s gender, which I finally ascertain is female. Rising slowly, she plays with her wig and fiddles with a faux nesting doll contraption attached to her garb beneath the breastbone. Wow! Quel terpsichorean fun house, although the heat in the booths makes for some heavy Italian claustrophobia...so I take my leave after sharing a session with Ticiana Garrido. Shirtless and moving yoga-like in red trunks, he eventually outlined his body in chalk, a finale that was eerily reminiscent of a crime scene procedural.

 

 

A quem possa interessar by Teatro Castro Alves with the singer Badi Assad. Photo by Adenor Gondim, Courtesy Biennale.

 

Grabbing a pizza and small carafe of red wine at Rossopomodoro, directly behind San Marco, I watch the passing parade dragging strollers and toting designer bags, no doubt filled with Venetian glass, masks, silks, and Italianate tchotchkes, before returning to the Arsenale for the Bahian company’s A quem passa interessar. A 70-minute performance that is accompanied by superstar musician/singer Badi Assad, who plays guitar and African thumb piano, as well as providing percussion with vocal cluckings and claps, this meta-entertainer is, perhaps, too much of the show, which features the troupe of 24. Choreographed by Henrique Rodovalho, this Italian premiere includes voice-overs of the dancers talking about themselves as they are showcased in individually-illuminated squares. With numerous performers over 40, the piece is pleasantly sweet and the moves eclectic, though nothing radical: From Brazilian Samba-esque hip swivelings to quirky, whole-body gyrations, the smiling dancers are likeable enough, and, as each tells his/her own story (in Portuguese with Italian subtitles, both languages foreign to this scribe), each persona comes across as unique, no matter nationality, body type, age, or gender.
 
A perfect fit for Venice, a city that opens its arms (expensive ones, alas), to welcome the world into its winding alleys, mind-blowing scenery, and ever-bustling canals. I’ll be blabbing again in a few days from Venezia, where upcoming performers include Koffi Kôkô, Wim Vanekeybus and Sylvie Guillem, who receives the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Ciao for now.

Magazine

 

What is it that makes Ohad Naharin's work so enticing to dancers?

Photography by Joe Toreno

Mario Bermudez Gil with Adi Zlatin.

 

Not many contemporary dance troupes stick around for half a century and still remain relevant. But Tel Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company, founded in 1964 by Baroness Batsheva de Rothschild and American dance pioneer Martha Graham, has, under Ohad Naharin’s artistic direction since 1990, become one of the world’s pre-eminent cultural institutions.

And while he was a superb dancer, it’s Naharin’s singular choreography—more than 20 works for Batsheva and its junior company—and his own technique that propelled him to the upper echelons of dance. Gaga, a movement vocabulary that releases unconscious, often playful impulses, is a kind of corporeal multi-tasking that trains the body while helping the performer gain self-awareness. Resulting in a hard-edged physicality and relaxed fluidity, Naharin’s choreography is instantly recognizable for its mash-up of virtuosity and idiosyncratic moves wrapped in hard-core passion.

It is precisely for this reason that dancers around the world covet being in the troupe. Whether in class, rehearsing or performing for global audiences, Batsheva dancers seem to come into their own as artists under Naharin’s direction. Many describe it as a revelatory experience. Dance Magazine recently spoke to three members of Batsheva—all Americans—to discover what attracts each of them to the work.

Photos from top: Rachel Osborne; Nitzan Ressler; Ian Robinson with Adi Zlatin

"A lot of Gaga is connecting to your weaknesses--and the more I can do that, the more I can feel my actual strength." --Bobbi Smith, 31, joined 2008

 

 

 

 

 

"Ohad's work taps into qualities I didn't have before. what's surprising is the subtlety, and how small gestures can be both delicate and explosive." --Shamel Pitts, 30, joined 2010

"His choreography looks like it's happening somewhere else in the cosmos. It isn't earthbound. It feels like play, but in a laboratory setting. Sometimes it's bruised, sometimes ecstatic." --Ian Robinson, 29, joined 2009

Magazine

Molly Lynch is on a mission: providing emerging and mid-career contemporary ballet choreographers with a three-week laboratory that fosters new works. Founded in 2004, the National Choreographers Initiative celebrates 10 years this month.

 

At left: Geoffrey Kropp and Melissa Nolen in Melissa Barak’s Yueh Fei, developed at NCI in 2007. Photo by Dave Friedman, Courtesy NCI.

“While the focus remains on process and not necessarily a finished work,” says Lynch, a choreographer and associate professor of dance at University of California–Irvine, “the great by-product is that 22 pieces that started with NCI have gone on to premiere at other companies around the U.S.”

Indeed, 37 choreographers have participated to date, including this year’s group—David Fernandez, Susan McCullough, Kitty McNamee, and Petr Zahradnicek—whose works will be performed by a 16-member pop-up troupe on July 27.

NCI, solely by word of mouth, has grown into a mini-brand. In 10 years, annual choreographer submissions have spiked from 20 to 55; dancer submissions (from the likes of Richmond Ballet, Ballet Austin, and Kansas City Ballet) doubled to 80. These artists are drawn to NCI by its intimate feel. “When choreographers create new works, they’re usually alone,” says Lynch. “Here they watch each others’ rehearsals, discuss process, and go to dinner together. Because there’s no competition and they’re not required to finish a piece, they have freedom to be more open. There’s a real weaving between dancers and choreographers.”

Former New York City Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet dancer Melissa Barak, who has choreographed works for both companies, participated in NCI in 2007 and 2012. Currently launching her own company, The Barak Ballet, she sings Lynch’s praises. “Molly creates a perfect environment for choreographers to work on a piece they’ve longed to create or try something new. It’s a chance to grow—and that’s huge,” she says.

Pondering the next decade, Lynch says she wants to work with even more choreographers. “It’s a nice mix of new energy and people that know the routine. And it’s a way of supporting the dance community at large.”

Magazine

The choreographers on their unique dance partnership

 

 

The L.A.–based duo Casebolt and Smith combine talking, singing, and full-throttle dancing with a freshness that can delight or startle an audience—or make them laugh. Their latest work, O(h), with a fair amount of good-natured ribbing of modern dance, will be performed at the Walking Distance Dance Festival in San Francisco May 31–June 1 and in Toronto and Winnipeg next month. Contributing editor Victoria Looseleaf spoke to the pair by phone in January.

How do speech and dance relate for you?

Liz Casebolt: They each clarify the other. There are connections that can be found and read, but not literal illustrations of the movement. Layering also speaks to our process. We’ll purposely try to complicate something for ourselves. We’ll do this very physical, dance-y movement phrase and have a chatty conversation on top of that—a set movement phrase and an improvised conversation.

Joel Smith: In one of our improv structures, I give Liz the lyrics to a song and Liz has to give me the movement. It’s literal in the sense that she’s going to use the words to motivate her movement material. My direction to her is on how to sing it. Her direction to me is on how to dance it. So there are two kinds of text being used—a song being sung while somebody’s dancing, and the conversation back and forth that illustrates how we build a dance.

Is the back-and-forth conversation designed to make the work more accessible?

Smith: It’s a way to help the audience into our work. They see the process and they also see the product. But we do it in a manner that it still feels all part of the performance—humorous, cheeky, campy, ironic at times.

We have several works that intentionally include the audience. We speak to them directly and we’re OK when they talk back. We can respond to any feedback: a response, question, or statement. But we know how to move forward.

We don’t want contemporary dance audiences leaving going, “I don’t understand that.”

Do you put words together in a similar way to putting steps together?

 

Casebolt: The words are written and set, but as far as the structure Joel’s talking about, we keep it very conversational, sometimes speaking to each other onstage and sometimes speaking to the audience.

Smith: We have a script that is built out of our rehearsal process, maintaining Liz and Joel the whole time. But it has to have the quality of happening in the moment.

 

Casebolt and Smith in O(h). Photo by Troy Conrad, Courtesy Casebolt and Smith.

What are some of the challenges of speaking and dancing?

Casebolt: There’s the physical challenge of dancing and trying to have a calm, relaxed conversational tone. There’s also the stamina issue.

Smith: Another challenge is that since we want it to be conversational, we have to make sure what we say doesn’t feel scripted. Actors deal with that all the time. When you add the layer of dancing it has to feel in the moment.

Casebolt: We’ve given ourselves permission to improv in the moment, so there’s also this element of responding—“Oh, he said that differently.” Allowing that change in the moment keeps it fresh.

Have you studied acting?

Smith: Liz and I aren’t taking acting classes because we’re not trying to be anyone other than ourselves. To remain being Liz and Joel and to illuminate our relationship onstage and still do it as if we haven’t rehearsed it a thousand times—that’s the challenge. Knowing we don’t have to be in character makes it easier. A lot of people say how true it feels to them, that we’re just being ourselves.

 

Different facets of our personalities come out that we are able to access onstage. At times we appear to be kids who are surprised when the other person says something funny. Other times we’re more professorial—we have all this knowledge to share.

Casebolt: Sometimes we’re just questioning or wondering, breaking something down to be able to respond inside a set structure.

Do you find that there are expectations for a male/female duo?

Smith: We use the work as an opportunity to challenge conventional genders. So many [onstage] relationships closet the male—we don’t do that. We use our gender and sexuality dynamic to our advantage. We have no interest in creating another heterosexual duet.

Dancers Trending

El Portal Theater

North Hollywood, CA

May 19, 2013

 

Never has the ‘C’ word—commercial—looked so great on the concert stage. That was the case when the 14 dancers of Shaping Sound, a new troupe founded and choreographed by Travis Wall, Nick Lazzarini, Teddy Forance, and Kyle Robinson, kicked off its 13-city, 14-dancer tour (landing in New York on June 17), spiking the sizzle-meter to scorching.  

 

If these names sound familiar, it’s because Wall is a two-time Emmy nominee for his So You Think You Can Dance choreography, Lazzarini was that show’s Season One winner, Forance had a hand (and foot) in that show, as well as in Dancing With the Stars, and Robinson freelanced with contemporary troupes, including the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company. As for the others, there was enough performance cred to fill a four-gigabyte hard drive.

 

The show, “That’s Where I’ll Be Waiting,” is divided into two acts. Basically a reverie, it was populated with characters such as The Dreamer (a divine Jaimie Goodwin), The Wayward (a pumped-up-on-pirouettes Lazzarini), The One (Forance never met a lift he couldn’t handle) and The Past (Wall, who should be renamed The Future, for his authentic drama-driven work that seems sprinkled with vision).    

 


Teddy Forance and Jaimie Goodwin in "That's Where I'll Be Waiting"
Photo by Charley Gallay, Courtesy Shaping Sound

 

The full company shredded the stage with unison moves that blended hip-hop, jazz, ballet, and full-tilt charisma, before Goodwin awoke in bed under some flowy fabric in a scene that was too, well, New Agey. But she then danced a sultry duet with Lazzarini, after which several cast members billowed the satin from underneath (reminiscent of the Nutcracker’s Mother Ginger, whose skirt houses a gaggle of kids). Forance presented Goodwin with a rose, and as more men tried wooing her, she could have been Princess Aurora, dancing the Rose Adagio from The Sleeping Beauty, albeit a 21st-century royal.

 

The fantasy continued, with forays to a flapper-type nightclub, where the girls sported garters and cigarette holders, the men hats and skinny ties. This was jazz-hot for real, with nods to Fosse and Fitzgerald (F.Scott). Props included a rolling, honky tonk piano and the inevitable cabaret chairs, with the seven girls oozing sex and giving new life to that cane-backed prop. Although the stage was too small for this high-octane show, the dancers, including Chantel Aguirre (The Beloved), Channing Cooke (sultry in sequins as The Temptress) and Rory Freeman (The Desired), performed full out without fear of colliding into one another.

 

Indeed, ‘fierce’ was the operative word of the evening, along with ‘volcanic’ and ‘eclectic.’ Where else could one find neo-Charlestons danced to Nina Simone (the music was a madcap pastiche that even included Arvo Pärt’s haunting “Spiegel im Spiegel”), and a post-Baroque ball where girls looked as if they were both half Black/half White Swans.

 

The costumes by Oxyjen, a style-conscious new dancewear company, were bold and sensual; Jesus Rodriguez and Gregory Anderson’s set—mostly movable panels and cubes—proved effective, and Seth Jackson and Nathan Scheuer’s lighting provided rich ambience. Smart, sassy, and super cool, if this is commercial dance, we want more, please!

 

Pictured at top: Shaping Sound Dance Company in "That's Where I'll Be Waiting."
Photo by Charley Gallay, Courtesy Shaping Sound

Dancers Trending

Grand Théâtre de Provence 

Aix-en-Provence, France

April 29–30, 2013

 

Steamy. Slinky. Sexy. Such adjectives could be used to describe that fictional princess, Scheherazade, and the 1,001 tales she spun in order to stay alive. In Angelin Preljocaj’s evocative telling, Les Nuits (The Nights) the French-born Albanian has seemingly given us 1,001 scenes, as many snippets of music from Natacha Atlas & Samy Bishai, and 79D, and more costume changes than Lady Gaga, courtesy of haute couturier Azzedine Alaïa.

 

Wrapped up in his signature choreographic style—a hybrid of classical and contemporary movement infused with intense physicality and emotion—Preljocaj’s latest epic debuted in Aix (home to his troupe), as part of a yearlong celebration of Marseille-Provence 2013, European Capital of Culture. Since founding the company in 1984, Preljocaj has made an international name for himself, with controversial works, including his 2002 Rite of Spring and his 2008 Blanche Neige (“Snow White”), still in demand. 

 

Les Nuits, for 18 dancers, looks to be no exception, as the work is currently touring throughout Europe, with stops planned for Lebanon, Kazakhstan, and Russia (and possibly Brazil and Macao), before arriving in Los Angeles in June 2014. 

 

Suffused with Cécile Giovansili-Vissière’s sumptuous lighting, the work opens on a Turkish bath–like tableau. Reminiscent of Ingres’ painting “Grand Odalisque,” the dancers, some topless with arms outstretched, writhe and luxuriate in their bodies. Ah, let the eroticism begin—or not—as the ambient soundtrack seemed to include crickets chirping and rain falling before morphing into a rhythmically propelled vein more in keeping with the mysterious East.

 


Angelin Preljocaj’s Les Nuits, Photo ©JC Carbonne, Courtesy Preljocaj

 

Furthering the communal bath motif, there was also a scene that smacked of Sweeney Todd, with men being shaved by other men, the mock throat-cutting providing an ominous tone. But a disco beat soon prevailed and a dozen women clad in red mini-dresses with matching high-heeled boots moved in semi-unison to James Brown’s, “This Is a Man’s World.” Hot and humorous, the Rockettish bit gave way to several violence-tinged duets, with Natacha Grimaud being tossed about by Jean-Charles Jousni, and Yurie Tsugawa, her long hair flying, facing off against Sergio Diaz. Continuing to riff on gams, Preljocaj also staged a sequence wherein four large Persian carpets were transported across the stage, with only legs (dozens of them), visible, a Pilobolussian touch!

 

Constance Guisset’s alluring stage designs ranged from Moroccan-style arches to fluid fabric backdrops. Aluminum cages with pliable elastic bands became home to crotch-grabbing, preening men, bumping and grinding in “Magic Mike” mode to a reprise of “This Is a Man’s World.” Women in bondage-like halters and trunks soon joined them, and the entangled couples sparred within and between the malleable bars, exuding force fields of sexuality, before the story shifted to…urns and hookahs.

 

A trio of women, perched on giant vases and seen in striking silhouette, spread their legs and slunk about acrobatically, with cerulean blue and saffron-colored lighting accenting the exotic/erotic aspect. Music also veered from neo-Egyptian modalities and vocal vamping, to more pop culture tunes, including, inexplicably, the James Bond theme, “You Only Live Twice.” Perhaps the only missing composer was Mahler, a Preljocaj favorite and one who would have been at home with this production’s array of twitchy shoulders, warrior poses, and Nijinskyesque leaps.

 

Filled with undeniably exquisite moments, the 90-minute work nevertheless suffered from awkward transitions, as well as a lack of a true focal point. We did not have one Scheherazade, we had a dozen. As for a king, all the Preljocaj men are noble in bearing, but it’s as if the morphine-addled dreamscape of Eugene O’Neill was fused with Preljocaj’s aesthetic, giving birth to a Long Day’s Journey Into Les Nuits.

 

Photo at top ©JC Carbonne, Courtesy Preljocaj.

Dancers Trending

Royce Hall

Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Los Angeles, CA

March 15–16, 2013

 

A quarter-century ago Wim Vandekeybus burst onto the dance scene with brute force, brilliance and, well, bricks. The work, What the Body Does Not Remember, performed by Vandekeybus and his then-fledgling troupe, Ultima Vez, not only created shock waves throughout Europe, but also garnered 1988 Bessie Awards for the Belgian-born choreographer/filmmaker and the work’s composers, Thierry De Mey and Peter Vermeersch. (The duo also wrote the score for Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker’s seminal Rosas Danst Rosas, making the case for Belgium as a hotbed of creativity.)

 

Seen in its Los Angeles premiere (and landing at New York’s Pace University March 22–23 as part of a two-year tour), the revival of Body is 80 minutes of controlled chaos, sly wit, and highly charged violent eroticism. It’s also as relevant today as it was when it debuted in 1987, perhaps even more so. Comprising six scenes, the work assaults with moments of sheer beauty, extreme danger, and unmitigated awe. The cast of nine (half of whom had not been born when Body first cracked open the notion of hyper-physicality), comports itself like the proverbial well-oiled machine.

 

But the moves are far from robotic or predictable. Indeed, with Livia Balazova’s stern taskmistress scraping her fingernails across a miked desktop, alternately clapping and pounding her hands like a drill sergeant, the stage is immediately set for impending mayhem. Her charges, Eddie Oroyan and Pavel Masek, do Balazova’s bidding in regimented rolls, push-ups and crisp leaps, in a thudding, thwacking body percussion pas de deux.

 

Livia Balazova in What the Body Does Not Remember
Photo by Spencer Davis, Courtesy UCLA

 

Then dust begins to fly—literally—as riotous sounds of clarinets (heard on tape), become backdrop to a kind of brick-hurling endurance test.  No Legos here, as all nine dancers build and disassemble pedestals, toss, catch and neo-juggle white plaster blocks, some of which come crashing to the floor. Furiously tearing across the stage, like naughty kids left home alone, these dancers give new meaning to the words high-risk frolicking.

 

A beach towel segment ensues (talk about cabana boys), with the brightly colored Terries part of a jacket-swapping motif, the ensemble now in Keystone Kop mode. Set to relentless piano arpeggiations, the routine culminates in silence, with dancers on all fours mopping the floor with their towels.

 

And then there’s the frisking (or, as this reviewer likes to say, the T.S.A. dance): Three women spread their legs and arms out to the side as partners search and violate them, running hands and fingers along well-toned bodies, with jolt-inducing hugs and rebuffs part of the unsettling mix. Here are Maria Kolegova, Tanja Marin Friðjónsdóttir and Aymara Parola, steely-faced yet vulnerable objects of desire, where love becomes a tango of attraction/repulsion. Beginning with domination, the dance, a cauldron of hot emotions, is a far cry from The Bachelor and his rose offerings.

 

Pavel Masek and Maria Kolgova in the frisking section of What the Body Does Not Remember
Photo by Spencer Davis, Courtesy UCLA

 

Vandekeybus cools things down with a brief interlude involving feathers, another with chairs and tableaux featuring amusing family-like portrait posings (think a twisted Norman Rockwell). Damien Chapelle, with Balazova on his lap, also canoodles with the arms of his sweater, bringing to mind a bit of Merce Cunningham’s Antic Meet.

 

Capping the work off is a brutally fierce dance where the full company, including Ricardo Ambrozio and Zebastián Méndez Marin, displays split-second timing to avoid being stamped upon by their partners, primeval jumpers who are nothing less than demonic in their gamesmanship. (Thank God for sprung floors!)

 

In this adroit restaging, the bodies of Ultima Vez not only remember, but continue to leave bold and thrilling imprints on the dance landscape.

 

 

Pictured at top: Eddie Oroyan; by Spencer Davis, Courtesy UCLA

Magazine

Bending Genre and Gender at CalArts

 

 

Members of Daughters of Sappho in the collective’s first concert.

Photo: Leah Case, Courtesy Greene. 

“I’m a singer, songwriter, and harpist,” says Paris-born Naomi Greene, a junior at Valencia-based California Institute of the Arts, “and I wanted to do something with as many art forms as possible.”

 

Before you could say “voilà,” that desire quickly became reality as Daughters of Sappho, an interdisciplinary arts collective, was born. An exemplar of the CalArts credo—one that fosters collaborations between disciplines—the collective is made up of Greene, choreographer Tarren Johnson, and filmmaker Chloé Miller, as well as several other musicians.

 

With student grants totaling $1,000 used toward production costs, the group debuted at the college’s Sharon Disney Lund School of Dance Theater in early December, a mere three months after inception. Turning to Kickstarter, they raised an additional $1,000, and then booked themselves on a mixed bill at Dixon Place (a performance space on New York City’s Lower East Side) and at Bard College, where Greene had been a student before transferring to CalArts last September. Both East Coast shows were self-produced and also took place during December.

 

No ordinary concert, the performance at CalArts revolved around a 25-minute work set to Debussy’s Les Chansons de Bilitis (scored for two harps, two flutes, and celesta), with erotic poetry by Pierre Louÿs. Greene not only played the harp, but also recited the 12 poems (in French), moving stealthily about the floor while doing so, becoming part of Johnson’s choreographic tableaux.

 

While Debussy’s early 20th-century music conjured romance and a pastoral quality, the dancers (Hannah Anderson Rickett, Ffion Campbell-Davies, and Johnson), dressed in flowing beige costumes, were a heady mix of Isadora Duncan, Nijinskyan nymphs, and alluring Bausch-like femmes.

 

Says Johnson, who graduates in June with a degree in dance, “What brought me into this project was the idea of legendary female storytellers—that dance could be used as a means to create and empower female imagery onstage—of women passing down stories by means of body movement and body language. Since most of the audience doesn’t understand French, dance was the means of drawing architecture from the poetry to create these vignettes.”

 

Ten artists were involved with the initial program, which also featured Miller’s silent short film, The Anatomy of Striptease (an abstract take on a pole dancer, performed by CalArts theater student Megan Therese Rippey); and A Page of Madness, scenes Miller edited together from the 1926 Japanese film of the same name, which she used to enhance a solo danced and choreographed by Johnson.

 

Daughters of Sappho, whose members (not all women) also include pianist James Morcaldi and flutist Ryan Bancroft, did not fulfill any academic requirements but was formed as an extracurricular activity that grew out of mentoring relationships with faculty members and a shared vision. Using social media (and good old-fashioned flyers) to promote the concert, the troupe packed the house at the Lund Theater, with A Page of Madness completing the program. Featuring Johnson as an asylum inmate—first seen confined to a large birdcage—it was set to Greene’s vocal pyrotechnics and Morcaldi tinkering, John Cage–like, with a grand piano.

 

Johnson says her movement evolved through experimentation and exemplified hyper-femininity, or exaggerated gender-playing. “The subtlety of waiting in the cage, moving delicately, then exiting and having demons come out was very dramatic, which is why we wanted to pair it with the piece set to Debussy.

 

“We also wanted to express the uninhibited passion of the empowered female in both pieces,” Johnson adds. “I think dance is a place for interesting conversations. The relationship between women and their bodies, the female performer, the roles that we naturally assume onstage—I feel the more we know what we’re representing the more we can change the ways we’re represented.”

 

The collective hopes that this incarnation of Daughters of Sappho is the first of many.

 

Dancers Trending
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago in Little mortal jump by resident choreographer Alejandro Cerrudo. Photo by Todd Rosenberg, Courtesy HSDC.

What is it about the words “contemporary" and “modern" that has dancers, choreographers, and artistic directors talking these days? Is it a question of semantics, training, or technique? What about style?

Perhaps modern and contemporary genres have taken on new meanings because the global village has created a melting pot of moves, a stew of blurred forms that not only break down conventions and challenge definitions, but, in the process, create something wholly new, but as yet unnamed.

To further muddy the waters, we've got Fox's hit TV show So You Think You Can Dance, where seemingly every barefoot number is dubbed “contemporary." In seeking answers, Dance Magazine spoke to 10 professionals in their respective fields—jazz, hip-hop, modern, and, yes, contemporary—about their thoughts on this intriguing topic.

Glenn Edgerton Photo by Cheryl Mann, Courtesy HSDC.

Artistic director, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago

“There's no clear distinction between the two. My thoughts are that it's all an extension of classical ballet. Though there have been connotations with the term 'contemporary,' I think of it as having more shapes and lines of classicism, whereas modern would be more grounded, more earthy.

“The use of the body, the use of weight, also defines the piece. If you have a classical piece on pointe, the moment they lean off pointe and take their weight off balance, it would be considered contemporary classical. Somewhere along the line these words got to be nouns rather than a description of the movement."

Janet Eilber Photo by John Deane, Courtesy MGDC.

Artistic director, Martha Graham Dance Company, New York City

“There's no way to nail these terms down. They're constantly morphing through usage, though the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance has always been called 'contemporary,' and not modern dance. When I was dancing, modern dance was modern dance; it was what we did.

“Now that we have perspective, you can compare it with modern art and the modernism movement. Graham was a modernist in the style of her dancing—the stripped-away, geometric force that you can relate to in the era's contemporary art. Every generation throws out the work of the generation before them, meaning the titles keep changing. Is there going to be a post-contemporary dance? I heard a new label recently: The post-post-postmoderns are calling themselves the Independents. In terms of Graham's legacy [and works], we're now calling them 'classics of modern dance.' "

Benoit-Swan Pouffer Photo by François Rousseau, Courtesy Cedar Lake.

Artistic director, Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, New York City

“For me, 'contemporary' means what's happening today, now. That's why we put 'contemporary' in our name, since most of our repertory is new work created on Cedar Lake. Because I'm from Europe, when we hear the word 'modern'—we think about a major technique coming from America—Limón, Horton, Graham, the dancemakers that shaped what we are today.

Maybe for another person it's a style, but when you say contemporary ballet, I hear the word ballet, and I'm thinking this person will use some aspect of ballet, either the technique or the aesthetic, though not necessarily ballet slippers or pointe shoes."

Cedar Lake performs Grace Engine by Crystal Pite. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy Cedar Lake.

Jean Freebury Photo by Mike Lawley, Courtesy Freebury.

Reconstructor and former member, Merce Cunningham Dance Company, New York City

“I think Cunningham is the beginning of post-modern dance, as it came out of modern—and he came out of Graham. His technique also has ballet aspects in it. But I think modern is something older that comes from a certain time and speaks about getting away from classical dance, as opposed to integrating it. Contemporary is more a term you would use for something current, but it has a more integrated aspect, so you'd use a mixture of things—ballet and modern. Different generations also have different styles."

Brenda Way Photo by Steve Maller, Courtesy ODC.

Founder, artistic director, ODC/Dance, San Francisco

“Modern dance concerned itself with theatrical presentation and the invention of expressive vocabulary in the first half of the 20th century. It took a stance in opposition to the aesthetic beauty upon which classical ballet was based, but still embraced the fundamental abstraction—the referential image. There are certainly choreographers who continue to work within these variables, but it might be compared to working within the constraints of a novel or sonnet form.

“Contemporary suggests a more pluralistic aesthetic and resonates with the grounded authenticity of a regional dialect—real people, really moving. It seems a broader, more inclusive term, making room for everything from conceptual explorations to site-specific forays to highly technical displays of athleticism."

Alex Ketley Photo by Aline Wachsmuth, Courtesy Ketley.

Choreographer and co-founder, The Foundry, San Francisco

“My work is contemporary—it's dance interested in translating the current-day culture. Art moves in cycles—Graham, Cunningham, Taylor, Forsythe, Bausch—and has moments so bright they crystallize in a way that somebody takes it in a new direction. We're in the infancy of seeing how this flashy athletic form seen on TV infuses into fine art dance."

Patrick Corbin Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy Corbin.

Artistic director, CorbinDances, New York City

“For me, modern dance is anything that came out of the Denishawn School. Contemporary movement is whatever is influencing art, architecture, and how you process, read, and develop movement at any given time. But these labels usually come in hindsight, or after establishing a style or a technique. There's no real school of contemporary technique; nobody's emerging as a leader who's developing a technique that you could further and say, 'This is contemporary dance,' to go on for generations and generations."

Ray Leeper Photo courtesy Break the Floor Productions.

Director, NUVO Dance Convention, choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance and many others, Los Angeles

“Contemporary is anything current. It's more of a style, but rooted in technique, because it's a fusion of several techniques—ballet, jazz, modern. But I wouldn't want to be labeled a strictly contemporary jazz choreographer. I'm inspired by music or a concept I want to have realized through movement. If people really knew where contemporary came from, we wouldn't be so quick to label it contemporary, when it might be contemporary jazz or contemporary ballet."

Jennifer Archibald Photo by Alastair Christopher, Courtesy Archibald.

Founder/director, Arch Dance, New York City

“Contemporary is a collection of methods that have been developed from modern and postmodern dance. It's also a cycle of shedding techniques we've learned in favor of personal expression of movement. Where modern dance moved against the grain of ballet, contemporary moves against the grain of classical modern techniques.

“Contemporary is not a technique, it's a genre associated with a philosophy and exploration of different natural energies and emotions. There's a physicality that's appealing today, but there's a spirituality of the contemporary movement that has been lost with the new generation in this free-for-all of different methods."

Mia Michaels Photo courtesy Fox.

Choreographer for So You Think You Can Dance and various pop stars and dance companies, Los Angeles

“I'm a little responsible for So You Think You Can Dance co-opting the term 'contemporary.' When we first started the show, Nigel [Lythgoe] was calling it lyrical. I said, 'It's not lyrical, it's contemporary.' We've created a monster. Contemporary is an easy way out—it's when you don't know what to call it, you call it contemporary. I feel like dance is fusing all the forms and that the uniqueness of each genre is starting to be muddled. It feels regurgitated and I want it to change desperately. I'm wanting to see where these new legends and voices—like Fosse, Robbins, Graham—are going to pop up."

Dancers Trending

Attending 13 dance concerts in seven days must be some kind of a record—and this on top of my L.A.-to-Lyon jet lag. But who’s counting when I’m in the city famous for the birth of film and where an enterprising young dance aficionado named Guy Darmet helped put Lyon on the terpsichorean map.

Allow me to explain: It was 1895 when those fabulous Lumière brothers, Lyon’s Auguste and Louis, after seeing Thomas Edison’s kinetoscope in Paris, took it upon themselves to design a motion-picture camera of their own and—voilà—the first film of an approaching train that looked as if it were about to burst from the screen was shown in December of that year. It’s fitting, then, that film should play a role in the Lyon Danse Biennale, founded by Darmet in 1984 and now directed by Dominique Hervieu. At the brilliant Café Danse, where Emmanuel Cedat presides over the kitchen and where we like-minded dance-lovers schmooze, a selection of dance films was screened daily. So, in between visits to Les Halles Bocuse (where all things gastronomic teeter between delicious and decadent), trekking to the gloriously white Notre Dame Basilica to pray for the strength to attend yet another performance, and catching Perugino’s Ascension of Christ at Lyon’s Beaux-Arts Museum, this scribe was moving like the TGV, France’s famed Train à Grande Vitesse (literally, high speed).

Of the festival’s 15 world premieres, I managed to catch four, as well as other new works created earlier this year. Two performances, held back to back, began with the 15-minute Ellipses, from the French company CIE 14:20, with Aragorn Boulanger moving butoh-like to Matthieu Saglio’s elegiac cello playing as choreographed by company directors Clément Debailleul and Raphaël Navarro. Easy on the eyes and ears, this mood was immediately shattered by provocateurs Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, whose new work, Altered Natives Say Yes To Another Excess—Twerk, was both maddening and astonishing.

Taking cues from the London and New York club scenes, the duo famous for their surprising use of props (check out my 2010 Montpellier Dance Festival coverage) here concerned themselves with pure dance. Abetted by DJs Elijah and Skilliam, who blasted out sounds ranging from Reggae to dubstep (ear plugs were given to audience members), the pair was joined by three other dancers—Élisa Yvelin, Ana Pi, and Alex Mugler—in this high-octane but empty-headed frolic.

As Diaghilev once said, “Astonish me.” Bengolea and Chaignaud managed to do precisely that but only in the first 15 minutes of their homage to disco and beyond: Like the Sufi Whirling Dervishes, the quintet spun non-stop in tour-de-force hyper-pirouette mode, Chaignaud sporting an outrageous Louis XIV wig. (Not surprising, as I believe he believes that he is some kind of regal incarnation, decidedly an étoile, if not always in this critic’s mind, at least in his own.)

These whirling, er, squirmishes were jaw-dropping extremism personified, their determined frenzy laudable. But when the dancers reverted to other moves, from house and krumping to neo-balletic lunacy, the next 75 minutes turned shock and awe into schlock and flaw. Sometimes less is more, but never with Bengolea and Chaignaud, who, when I later asked him if he’d taken any prompts from New York’s iconic but bygone nightspot, Studio 54—where Jagger, Warhol, Halston, et al held court—he told me he hadn’t heard of it. But, of course, the 27-year old hadn’t been born yet. And precisely because Chaignaud is so outré, or in spite of it (and the Argentine Bengolea is a beauty), I can’t help but look forward to the next number in their oeuvre.

 

 

Robyn Orlin's Beauty Remained for Just a Moment Then Returned to Her Starting Position.
© John Hogg, courtesy Lyon Biennale
.

 

On the subject of beauty, Robyn Orlin’s world premiere, Beauty Remained for Just a Moment Then Returned Gently to Her Starting Position (what’s with these unwieldy titles?), featured her South African troupe, Moving Into Dance Mophatong, interacting with the audience for much of its 60 minutes, with beauty only intermittently visible. Of the seven dancers (who didn’t actually dance much), Julia Burnham, clad in a ball gown made out of plastic bags (costumes by Marianne Fassler), was a kind of ringleader: She demanded (harangued would be more accurate) that we drink from water bottles we’d been given, do a group gargle, then hurl the empties onto the stage (I got bonked with one). She stripped t-shirts off of various men in the audience, which led to a long, uneventful dénouement whereby Burnham then made a T-shirt tutu. This was all interspersed with Philippe Lainé’s video that featured piles of garbage, chickens clucking, lions lazing, and the South African sun, rising and setting. The recycling message, unmistakably tilting towards anti-beauty, gave Orlin’s work a stale whiff, although the performers’ collective energy was quite commendable.

Beauty prevailed on all counts in JiÅ™í Kylián’s 1998 masterpiece, One of a Kind. Performed exquisitely by Lyon Opéra Ballet’s 18 dancers, the three-act abstract dance featured rapid-fire weight shifts, sliding and dipping moves, as well as sumptuous partnering. Coralie Leviuex and Julian Nicosia became a tangled web, all limbs and lushness, while architect Atsushi Kitagawara’s fluid sets (different in each act: a square and a cone, black staircases—shades of Apollo—and gold beaded curtains) made for compelling viewing. Brett Dean’s score, taped snippets of Britten, Cage, and others, was enhanced by cellist Matthew Barley’s onstage performance, another formidable component making this a foray into a magical, mystical realm.

 

 

Philippe Decouflé’s 2012 work, Panorama, was a dance of a different color, with little dance but plenty of schtick. Having become commercially successful with shows for Cirque du Soleil and Paris’ famed Le Crazy Horse revue, Decouflé put together his own 90-minute retrospective. Making use of baton-twirling majorettes, an aerial duet, mirrors, videos, shadow puppetry, and a phalanx of flipper-wearing aliens, Decouflé appealed more to children, but this unfunny and messy Panorama needs focus, not a wide-angle, all-over-the-place approach.

 

 

Dada Masilo's Swan Lake.

Photo © John Hogg, courtesy Lyon Biennale.

 

Perhaps I’m swanned out, but I was still looking forward to Dada Masilo’s one-hour deconstruction of Swan Lake, a work the South African made in 2010 for 12 dancers, including herself as Odette. To a mash-up of Tchaikovsky’s brilliant score with snippets of, among others, Arvo Pärt’s overexposed Spiegel im Spiegel and Saint-Saëns’ Dying Swan, Masilo, a beautiful dancer, goes for broke. She plays with gender (Craig Arnolds is Odile, with most of the other guys also sporting unflattering tutu skirts). She casts Siegfried (Songezo Mcilizeli) as gay— still taboo in many parts of Africa. And she sends up most of the ballet’s already ripe-for-parodying scenes.

That there are few Swan Lakes of color is a fact, and that this hour-long opus is entertaining also cannot be denied, but the fusion of barefoot ballet with African dance, coupled with Bailey Snyman’s frenetic, ADD-like emcee, did not quite work for me. Already a hit and scheduled for a European tour, Swan Lake, as rendered by Masilo, feels more like an extended So You Think You Can Dance routine. I do believe, however, that the 27-year-old who has already tackled Romeo and Juliet and Carmen, is gifted—and brave—but I would have liked more depth and less Keystone Kop-like antics.

The Lyon Biennale, with its good, bad and, well, ugly, is still the gold standard of festivals. Alors, merci beaucoup, Dominique Hervieu, and long may you bring tout le monde—all the world—together through la danse! —Victoria Looseleaf

Dancers Trending

While foiemaggedon is currently roiling California foodies (the law banning the delicacy officially took effect July 1), and I can get all the fatted goose liver dishes my little heart desires here, my main reason for coming to France’s second largest metropolitan city is its famed Lyon Dance Biennale. Founded in 1984 by the formidable Guy Darmet, this 15th edition has a new artistic director, Dominique Hervieu. A choreographer who also ran Paris’ National Theater of Chaillot, the 49-year old Hervieu was hand-picked by Darmet, who, by the way, can be spotted around town sporting bright orange (including matching shirt and shoes), and whose love for the art form remains fierce.


As for filling Darmet’s shoes, a difficult task no matter the color, Hervieu is still keeping a laser focus on contemporary dance, with this untitled edition offering 19 new works, including 15 world premieres during 35 performances at an array of venues. At 18 days (September 13–30), the festival, in a departure from Darmet’s scheduling, presented its glorious Défilé (parade), four days prior to the first concert, meaning your scribe wasn’t among the 300,000 spectators packing Lyon’s Rue de Republique ogling some 4,500 decked-out boogying participants.

 

But I did arrive in the town famous for its three Michelin-starred Paul Bocuse restaurant in time to catch Israel Galván’s final Biennale performance, La Curva (not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s latest film and post–empty chair fiasco, Trouble With the Curve). I’m a huge Galván fan (and once waited until 1 in the morning to snag an in-person interview, through a translator, no less, with the dancer dubbed the “Nijinsky of Flamenco”). Needless to say, I was not disappointed in the 2010 work that also featured pianist Sylvie Courvoisier, who may have been channeling John Cage in this, his centenary year, in some of her string-plucking, elbow-jamming keyboard-playing. Also abetting Galván: singer Ines Bacan, rhythmic clapper Bobote, Txiki Berraondo’s tall cubistic chair sculptures, and a lot of chalk dust.

 

 

Israel Galvan in his La Curva.

© Felix Vazquez, couresty Lyon Biennale.

 

Then there’s Galván, himself. His extraordinary leaps and landings, positively feral, his brilliant spins and his full-body-slapping/finger-flicking countenance once again mesmerized. And ya gotta love the flamenco dancer who flaunts it all in a gold leather waistcoat—especially when he takes it off and wields it like a matador confronting a snorting torero, before daintily hanging it up as prelude to a slithering, stomping shoe serenade—l’homme fatale.


As for une femme fatale, Maguy Marin, a festival darling for years with her daring, thoughtful works, albeit ones that have recently become more text-dependent and less dancerly, gave darkness a dull patina in her world premiere, Nocturnes. Marin’s latest work since leaving the national choreographic center in Rillieux-le-Pape after 12 years, seems, alas, to have arrived stillborn. Created with Denis Mariotte, the hour-long piece is about memory, history, and what passes from generation to generation. Featuring six dancers amid a series of black-outs, an ominous electronic soundtrack, and sequences of drab, fleeting tableaux (but not the vivant type), the work’s discernible movement vocabulary—let’s just call it minimalist to the max—left me longing for partnering beyond a bromantic hug or stance other than the crouched knees-to-chest variety. Spoken phrases such as “I am Tunisian” and “I am Greek” evoked questions of home, exile, and loss, with the rear of the stage serving as a kind of wailing wall flanked by monolithic panels. Depressing, mystifying, and, yes, stultifying, Nocturnes, the nadir of warm and fuzzy, bears no resemblance to another French work, also titled, Nocturnes—Claude Debussy’s impressionistic orchestral tone poem. 

 

 

Ballet Preljocaj in Ce que j'appelle oubli
Photo by JC Carbonne, courtesy Lyon Biennale.


And talk about bleak impressions, there was Angelin Preljocaj’s world premiere, Ce que j’appelle oubli (That which I call forgetting), based on Laurent Mauvignier’s novella of the same name. The fictionalized account of a young Lyonnaise man who was savagely beaten to death by security guards after being arrested for drinking a can of beer in a supermarket, the 90-minute opus suffered on several counts: The verbose text (recited onstage by actor Laurent Cazanave), no matter how poetic, was rendered in extremely long and hard-to-read English supertitles projected high above the stage of the lovely Célestins Theater. But it was the literalization of this dismal story that proved Preljocaj’s undoing. Did we really need to see six stunning male dancers from Ballet Preljocaj simulating acts of violence, including choreographed rape and body blows, narrated in all too graphic detail by Cazanave? Reality is harsh enough, and having been an admirer of Preljocaj’s past works (even his 2008 Snow White moved beyond mere narrative), this tragedy gave no insight into that which wordless dance can and does do so beautifully.

 

Rachid Ouramdane’s latest work, Sfumato, was yet another exercise in darkness, though in this case it was more about greys, and I don’t mean 50 shades, but the doom and gloom of tsunamis, hurricanes, and other natural catastrophes. Sylvain Giraudeau’s décor, Jacques Hoepffner’s video and Sonia Chiambretto’s libretto helped set the tone for Sfumato. Four dancers, a singer, and even a contortionist (elasticity is a good thing when fleeing disasters) created languid imagery.

 

 

Rachide Ouramdane's Sfumato.

Photo by Michel Cavalca, courtesy Lyon Biennale.


But it was a polished cool that resulted—too cool, actually—that made it hard to establish an emotional connection, although the onstage rain did make me feel something for the wet dancers: Oui, I was hoping they wouldn’t catch cold. Ouramdane’s work, sometimes termed “docu-fiction dance” and inspired by testimonials of people confronted with exile, may be lovely to look at, but, like so much morning fog, dissipates too quickly.


Taking nature beyond the metaphorical is Luc Petton’s ornithologically bent troupe, Cie Le Guetteur (The Watcher). His 2008 La Confidence des oiseaux (The Birds’ Confession), may have nothing to do with Hitchcock’s classic, The Birds, in which icy blonde Tippi Hedren fights off flying predators, but it does feature four dancers and 30 birds in a gentle, surreal meditation on terpsichorean/avian bonding. Set to Xavier Rosselle’s elegiac score, performed live by the composer on soprano saxophone and computer, La Confidence seamlessly combines a basic movement vocabulary (arabesques, balancing poses, and yoga-like postures), with the dancers’ bodies often becoming intriguing perches for their fine feathered friends. While ornithology and dance may not be new (think Firebird and Swan Lake), this work soared nonetheless.


Speaking of swans, in my next epistle, I’ll be covering Dada Masilo’s all-black, barefoot Swan Lake, as well as a new work by her fellow South African, Robyn Orlin. And, not to worry, there’s also a new offering by Cecilia Bengolea and François Chaignaud, France’s red hot duo famous for their, er, penetrating, Paquerette, aka (by this reviewer), dances with dildos. J’aime la France!

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Drabant (right) with fellow Wayne State student Craig Fuchs. Photo by Jon Anderson, Courtesy Wayne State.

 

 

So you think you can tap! That wasn’t quite the case at Wayne State University when Megan Drabant, who had studied jazz, tap, and ballet growing up, began her freshman year in the fall of 2009 at the Detroit, Michigan, college. It was then that she learned there were no tap classes—at least on a consistent basis—in the dance department, whose focus is on modern dance and ballet.

Drabant, a National Society of Collegiate Scholars member, jumped in feet first to remedy the situation. Voted freshman class representative in the dance department (a yearly position she still holds), she approached the faculty, asking them to offer an all-level tap class.

“They were initially interested,” recalls Drabant, who graduates next May, “but their concern was how many people would want to take the class. So I started petitioning my theater and dance friends to see how many people were interested, and then I presented the faculty with a list at our majors’ meeting.”

Once the faculty saw the data, Drabant says they decided it would be worth the money to create an all-level course. Former Radio City Rockette Laura Bovenkerk was hired to teach the first class—enrollment 10—during the winter of 2010, with class size increasing each year, and the latest roster at 13.

With nearly 31,000 students at the school, this number may seem small, but considering there are roughly 90 dance students and 120 studying theater (the dance department recently merged with the theater department, now called the Maggie Allesee Department of Theatre and Dance), the number of those hoofing has proven Drabant’s instincts on the mark.

Indeed, Drabant says the students range from theater and dance majors to those studying political science. “Tap is a good form for those with no dance experience,” she explains. “There’s a strong history behind it. You also learn a lot of rhythmic musicality that helps you in other forms, and it’s another skill you can have in your tool belt when you go to an audition.”

Jeff Rebudal is an associate professor and area head of dance at Wayne State. He says the curriculum is fairly rigid and that few students propose new courses, but the tap class has been well received. He describes Drabant as an enthusiastic ambassador for the program, as well as a good spokesperson: “She speaks wonderfully on behalf of her peers,” he says.

Rebudal agrees that the benefits of studying tap carry over into other genres. “The challenges of those polyrhythms help a dancer in learning how to move through space,” he observes, adding that tap can even help with ballet because of the quick rhythmic steps in the legs, ankles, and lower body.

Drabant says she’s been approached by a number of students to try getting a second tap class started. “That’s the next goal before I leave,” she asserts. “It would be great to have an open beginning class and a second one for advanced students—people who’ve never put on tap shoes before and people studying it since they were 3.”

“And it’s fun,” adds Drabant. “It’s a more free, grooving style—rather than jazz and ballet and modern, which are very structured with technical aspects. There is a technique to tap, but it’s different on everybody’s body.”

Dancers Trending

Various venues

Montpellier, France
June 22–July 12, 2012


Presiding over one of Europe’s most exciting contemporary dance festivals like an obsessed potentate, Jean-Paul Montanari has been at the helm of Montpellier Dance since 1983, two years after its founding by Dominique Bagouet, who died of AIDS in 1992. The pressures of assembling a collage of new works, groups, and themes year after year—along with tried-and-true big names—must, no doubt, be enormous.

And so it was that this year’s festival, dubbed, “The Taste of the Mediterranean,” offered 37 artists from 19 different countries who presented 23 world and French premieres from a host of mostly Middle Eastern and Arabic troupes. There was also an interesting slate of Iranian films, as well as a slew of festival regulars. The whole, however, turned out to be less than the sum of its ambitious parts.

With a budget north of one million euros and numerous conferences and free events on tap (including Rima Maroun’s photo exhibition), the festival presented 59 concerts over 16 days, attended by some 27,000 spectators. Admittedly, this reviewer only caught seven out of 27 performances (June 24–29), but, to paraphrase an expression, “Where’s the entrecôte?”

Ah, while much of the beef was served at after-concert soirees, there were, fortunately, several artists who helped make this 32nd edition noteworthy, including Lebanese dancer/choreographer Danya Hammoud. In her premiere, Mahalli (My Place) the performer, clad in Wafa Aoun’s little black dress (where were the pearls?), moved sensuously to Cristian Sotomayor’s moody electronic soundtrack.

With her enigmatic smile and seductive hip swivelings, Hammoud was a Lebanese Mona Lisa, albeit one crossed with a come-hither Marilyn Monroe. Sphinx-like and rooted to the floor one moment, arms outstretched like a flower bursting into bloom the next, Hammoud packed a kind of deconstructed belly dance punch in a mere 30 minutes.

 

 

Raimund Hoghe and Takashi Ueno in Hoghe's Pas de Deux. Photo by Rosa Frank, Courtesy Montpellier.

 

Brevity, however, is not Raimund Hoghe’s strong suit. Limited by his humpbacked body, the former Pina Bausch dramaturge has never let his disability—or middle age—stop him from piling on scene after scene in his surreal, sometimes excruciatingly repetitious works (he’s made more than a dozen). With Pas de deux, which premiered last year in Paris, Hoghe and his partner made use of mirrored gestures in this homage to balletic couplings. Here, his danseur noble was the marvelous Takeshi Ueno, who, whether leaping, crouching, or carrying Hoghe in a series of dramatic lifts, proved mesmerizing.

Set to a musical pastiche of Bach, Piaf, and Garland, the work (which travels to New York in the fall) not only tapped into Ueno’s culture—the pair walking oh-so-slowly in Japanese heeled sandals (geta), as well as addressing Hiroshima—it also accented Hoghe’s humor. He was Ginger to Ueno’s Fred; he was a lone Garland, hands on hips, sporting shades and dragging on a faux cigarette holder.
 
At two hours (and in need of trimming), this was performance as metaphorical roulette wheel, with the black box theater transforming, by turns, into a padded cell, place of worship, or social hall, where real connections, not virtual ones, were made.  

Connections, unfortunately, were not evident in Mathilde Monnier’s world premiere, Twin Paradox. Ostensibly about marathon dancing, the two-hour opus featured five couples clinging to one another for extended periods of time, giving it a sado-masochistic bent that also involved slow-motion rolling about and unison spoonings. Set to Luc Ferrari’s irritating sound collage (cars revving, warped Beethoven snippets, and cowboy-twanged voice-overs), Twin could have made better use of its stellar dancers, among them, Jonathan Pranlas, Félix Ott, and Marion Ballester, all showing emotional grit.

Set designer Annie Tolleter provided relief with a downpour of orange-colored snowflakes, but this was too little too late. Monnier, a festival favorite, seems to have run out of ideas, unless the notion of monotony and frozen tableaux hold a particular fascination.

Ennui also ruled in It Shocks Me But Not You, a world premiere from Iranian-born Ali Moini, wherein he and three others walked around a square area in Frankenstein mode, spouting sentences having something to do with a taxicab crash, a hospital, and acute psychological trauma.

Hip-hop is big in France, but Brahim Bouchelaghem’s world premiere, Hiya, featuring four housedress-clad women noodling about in their own private angst, was the Leave It to Beaver of the genre, climaxing with a quasi-Maypole dance. Faring a little better was the collective 2 Temps 3 Movements. In what was billed as a fusion of hip-hop and circus arts, directors Mathieu Desseigne, Sylvain Bouillet, and Nabil Hemaïza were joined onstage by Marie Bauer to perform the premiere, Et des poussières… (dust). The quartet proved more Pilobolussian than hip-hop, occasionally forging intriguing shapes with their bodies, but the final extended romp through a pile of leaves came out of left field.

 

 

Forsythe's Yes, We Can't. Photo by Dominik Mentzos, Courtesy Montpellier.

 

Talk about left field: William Forsythe’s new version of his Yes, We Can’t (originally made in 2010), presented at the Corum Opera House, was a deliberate exercise in bad dance-making. “We’re trying to fail,” Forsythe had said in a press conference, adding, “If you try to fail and you do, do you succeed?”

To put it bluntly, yes. Forsythe’s troupe of 16, accompanied by David Morrow, who performed his own piano score live, knocked convention on its head with singing, speaking (in French), jostling and heckling each other in the name of, well, screwball commedia dell’arte. There was little sustained movement, but flashes of tango, high kicks, and a soupçon of pointe work contributed to this madcap scenario. An uncomplicated, unsophisticated study in “bad taste” (to quote Forsythe), at 70 minutes, Yes, delivered its overly long message with Forsythian farce.

Other choreographers in this edition included Bouchra Ouizguen, Mourad Merzouki, Salia Sanou and Saburo Teshigawara. And while not every dancemaker or dance has the power to surprise, inspire, or provoke, Montanari’s global curatorial efforts must certainly be applauded. Indeed, with the world in a constant state of change, it’s great to know that—for dance—we’ll always have Montpellier.


Pictured at top: Marion Ballester, Jonathan Pranlas, Julia Cima, and Cédric Andrieu in Mathilde Monnier's
Twin Paradox.

Photo by Marc Coudrais, Courtesy Montpellier.

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A postmodern pioneer discovers a new hotbed of creativity.

 

 

Steve Paxton leads a workshop at The Wooden Floor. Photo by Omar Galvez, Courtesy The Wooden Floor.

 

 

“Some of you are having trouble with coordination,” says the wiry man with the soft voice as he leads 18 young people through a series of exercises involving rolling shoulder blades, extended arms, and circling hipbones. “That’s good,” he continues with a chuckle, “otherwise I’d have nothing to do.”

This is not just any teacher, however, nor are these just any students. He’s legendary postmodern dancer/choreographer Steve Paxton, creator of contact improvisation and a co-founder of the seminal Judson Dance Theater. And while Paxton has been teaching his workshop “Material for the Spine” to dancers throughout the U.S. and in Europe, guiding this type of student is a first for him. Paxton’s class, a system for exploring the muscles of the back, was given under the auspices of The Wooden Floor, a Southern California nonprofit organization that provides tutoring, academic services, counseling, and dance education to low-income, mostly Latino youth.

“I’m seeing amazing students who are completely open,” says the 73-year-old Paxton. “They’ve been through a lot and I want to give them sensations that they perhaps haven’t had before—an exploration of the central spine, concepts of chi, and things that are basic but often unexamined, like gravity.”

He adds, “When I look at performers, I’m looking for authenticity and commitment to the task at hand. That’s what these students show.”

Founded in 1983, The Wooden Floor offers free classes in contemporary and improvisational techniques to 375 students who are admitted between ages 8 and 13; each student is expected to stay 10 years. A hundred percent of The Wooden Floor graduates go on to college. The organization also commissions choreographers to make new works on the students, who then perform in annual concerts.

“Because they have consistent contact with artists making work collaboratively with them,” says Melanie Ríos Glaser, a choreographer and The Wooden Floor’s artistic director, “they’re learning all the skills of making art—not just by imitation, but by creation. They develop critical thinking skills, spatial relationships, working as a team, openness, and having to reach inside and find some self-awareness to produce and contribute to the work.”

Ríos Glaser says she chooses choreographers who are actively contributing to the field—a roster that has included Susan Rethorst, Mark Haim, and John Heginbotham—and whose process will resonate with the students. “It’s complex, challenging work that does not condescend to the youth,” she says. “Steve Paxton has always been a person I’ve admired from afar and who influenced me tremendously. I reached out to him and said, ‘You have to erase every idea of dance-for-youth programs to understand The Wooden Floor.’ I sent him samples of the work and he got it.”

Paxton, who lives on a farm in northern Vermont, came to The Wooden Floor in part to see how the organization operates and why it has such a great effect on the students’ lives. “Here you have people who are really bright but they’re disadvantaged. I’m interested that this is a dance-centered educational facility, because physical activity is being eliminated from so many schools and so many schools are not turning out students who go to college. We’re seeing something here that’s very special—like Judson,” adds Paxton. “It’s not too clearly understood how centers of creativity occur, it seems like it just happens, but I’m very interested and we need this.”

Paxton taught a daily, three-hour workshop for two weeks in March. His calm demeanor, probing insights, and easy way with the students brought fruitful results. From floor movements that exercised the sacrum to visualizing the shapes of bones and cartilage, the body was worked in new, exciting ways.

As students rolled up to a sitting position in one class, Paxton explained, “The head is the last thing up. You have to design the body through the exercise. What is design? You’ve got a lot of possibilities. You’ve got a task to do.”

Kerlly Castellano, a student at The Wooden Floor since she was 12, was recently offered a scholarship to Boston University. The 18-year-old says that The Wooden Floor has been inspirational. “It’s what keeps me going every day. It’s a stress release, especially from school and all of the things going on outside. I get to relax and forget about everything and just focus on one thing.”

As for taking Paxton’s workshop, Castellano gushes, “It’s a huge, huge honor to be able to work with Steve Paxton. It’s also rewarding to come here and be treated like a real adult by all the teachers and learn new techniques and put that into work every single day.”

John Heginbotham, a dancer and choreographer who has performed with Mark Morris since 1998 (see his “Why I Dance,” Jan.), knew Ríos Glaser from Juilliard. Last year, she invited him to make a work, which resulted in Pieces of Wood, a dance for 97 students set to music of Steve Reich. The experience proved so rewarding that he returned this year to choreograph another piece, Promenade.

“I’m thrilled to be back, because these kids are fabulous,” he says. “They’re also kids—they’re messing around some of the time, but at heart they’re excited, they have imagination, they have humor.”

“It’s very moving to be part of a group that is all working towards the same thing,” adds Heginbotham, “which is to make something really good, and beautiful, and to have a great time. Everybody here is working toward that.”

 

 

Victoria Looseleaf contributes to the Los Angeles Times and KUSC-FM radio. She teaches dance history at USC.

Dancers Trending

It’s hot, crowded and very expensive. Indeed, if I were writing a travel book, I’d call it Venice on Five Euros A Minute. But seriously, there’s a reason hordes keep coming to this achingly beautiful town, and for me, it’s not only to walk through history, where the continuously mellifluous sounds of tolling church bells are like a call to personal prayer, but to experience the dance sector of the city’s famed Biennale.

The festival, which began June 8 and ended June 24, not only showcased various spectacular productions (alas, I couldn’t stay for the entire run), but also took place in often breathtaking venues. And so it was that I returned twice to see Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time, an installation by The Forsythe Company that featured Brock Labrenz in a four-hour performance presented on six different nights. This was stamina of heroic proportions, proving that, in this case, youth is not wasted on the young!

 

 

Brock Labrenz in Forsythe's Nowhere and Everywhere at the Same Time.

Photo by Philip Bussmann, Courtesy Venice Biennale.

 

Set in a vast space in one of the Arsenale warehouses, the work featured the dancer moving in Forsythe’s signature fashion, with speedy bursts of quirky bends, scrunchy shoulders and questing head-bobs. The predominant sounds were the squeaking of his tennis shoes, as this determined, jeans-clad Adonis moved amidst a lot of weighted silver pendulums that dangled from long lengths of nylon strings, resting inches above the floor. Traversing the area, himself a kind of human pinball, Labrenz sometimes launched the weights in twirling mode, at other moments he contemplated their mere existence.

I was told that at the two-hour mark, hot American coffee was brought to Labrenz (no Starbucks here; Venice won’t hear of it…), after which the dancer continued his bird-like prowl, investigating the body and the brick-walled space, while an ever-changing audience, who came and went at leisure, also roamed through the kinetic art. I popped in twice: first during the third hour, and again on another night near the beginning of his performance. On both occasions Labrenz remained unflappable and, in a surreal way, serene, no matter the sweltering summer heat.

Although Sylvie Guillem’s program, 6000 miles away, featured a Forsythe piece, her concert, which also included works by JiÅ™í Kylián and Mats Ek, couldn’t have been more different from Labrenz’s tour de force. Guillem, the ultimate diva, still dances beautifully, but the evening left me wanting more—more guts, more risk-taking, more boundary-pushing. Let’s just say that at 47, Guillem, who received the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement, plays it too safe. I would have loved to witness her long supple limbs, expressive arms, and remarkably sculptured face tackle a work by, perhaps, a Wim Vandekeybus.

I mention this because the Belgian choreographer/filmmaker/photographer was also in Venice…to premiere his 27th work, booty Looting, with the troupe he founded in 1987, Ultima Vez. Having seen a number of his works, I was excited to be able to hear the artist talk about his process in a press conference. Articulate, witty, and provocative, the Belgian, who turns 49 Saturday, could have gabbed for hours, but rehearsal beckoned. Whatever—in more than 90 minutes, including a Q&A, we got a crash course in Vandekeybussianism, and were served Prosecco and crustless tea sandwiches afterwards. (By the way, the Venetians certainly know how to throw a bash. To honor Guillem, a soiree was held on the Biennale terrace overlooking the Grand Canal, where several of us knocked back Spritzes—white wine and Campari—and chowed down on cold pasta and tiny squids with mashed potatoes served in Lady Gaga-esque plastic eggs. Anisette-infused watermelon, nestled in neo-Bento boxes, was the perfect prelude for dessert—chocolate crème in toothpaste tubes. Mamma mia!)

 

 

Danny Willems (photographer) and Luke Jessop (airborne) in Wim Vandekeybus’s booty Looting.

Photo by Vandekeybus, Courtesy Venice Biennale.

 

But I digress. Vandekeybus’s booty Looting, which deals with memory, distortion, photography, and audience participation, at nearly two hours, gives the quartet of astonishingly hyperphysical dancers, actors Jerry Killick and Birgit Walter, and photographer Danny Willems quite the workout. Along with a mesmerizing guitar score composed and performed live by Elko Blijweert (I heard shades of Purcell, Jerry Garcia, and the theme from Bonanza), there was visceral imagery to rival any found at, well, Museo Fortuny. (A lovely palazzo, the Fortuny was the site of a curious exhibition, “Diana Vreeland After Diana Vreeland,” which featured an original costume from La Bayadère, a long red cape worn by Maria Callas, and an assortment of the late fashionista’s shoes.)

And while shoes weren’t part of the crashing, thudding booty body tableaux (think Sergio Leone meets Stanley Kubrick, with Willems providing on-the-spot documentation, the photos offering a brooding, neo-Weegee Flemishness), the text Vandekeybus wrote took us on a night of 1,000 journeys. With Killick leading us through tales of plundering, Medea, and death by Xerox machine—and Walter’s visage a testament to Norma Desmond and Martha Graham—this work finally deals with the art of creation, destruction, truth and lies.

 

 

Koffi Kôkô in The Beauty of the Devil.

Photo by Arnaldo J.G.Torres, Courtesy Venice Biennale.

 

Other truths were found in Koffi Kôkô, a dancer from Benin, West Africa, who incorporates butoh in his ritualistic work, The Beauty of the Devil. With three percussionists providing a resonant backdrop, Koko offered a primally shamanistic performance that ranged from beaming smiles and silent screams to one in which he chalked his face. His deliberate, snail-like moves occasionally reminded me of a Nik Wallenda, one who gingerly threaded along his own, albeit invisible tightrope.

Adding to the Biennale’s appeal was a performance by students from the Paolo Grassi School in Milan. Performing Trisha Brown’s iconic 1976 work, Line Up (set on them by former Brown dancers), the 13 dancers did not quite have the choreographer’s vocabulary solidly in their bodies, but acquitted themselves well, introducing many Italians to the wondrous originality of this bold American artist.

Wondrous is also the perfect adjective to describe both Venezia and the Biennale, where I hated to say, “Arrivederci.”

Dancers Trending

Known for its spectacular art, architecture, music, and the gently lapping waters of its famed canals, Venice has recently joined the ranks of cities playing host to edgy European dance festivals. The dance portion of the Venice Biennale—the grande dame of contemporary art exhibitions founded in 1895, one that has also included a film sector since 1932 (cue A-list movie stars each August)—is now celebrating its eighth edition. As for me, I couldn’t be happier wandering around the pigeon/tourist-laden San Marco Square (Napoleon dubbed it “the drawing room of Europe”), or even getting lost on Venice’s splendid streets in search of performances that range from the intimate and sublime to more traditional, by-the-book-type offerings.

 

Under the artistic direction of Ismael Ivo (past directors have included Carolyn Carlson and Frédéric Flammand), this 16-day extravaganza, “Awakenings” (June 8–24), takes full advantage of the city’s unique venues. Indeed, if dance is a religion for some (and it certainly is for me), it seems appropriate that the first performance I attend, on June 16, is held in the centuries-old St. George’s Anglican Church. An audience of about 30, we’re seated at the front of the space, facing away from the altar, when the lights dim and six women pop up from the small wooden pews to begin Shobana Jeyasingh’s TooMortal.

 

 

Rathimalar Govindarajoo and Kamala Devam in Shobana Jeyasingh's TooMortal.

Photo by JP Masclet, Courtesy Biennale.

 

Set to a remix of James MacMillan music, the 20-minute world premiere features the sextet slithering on top of and around the narrow pews, at times isolating their heads, arms, and legs to create a series of kinetic but disjointed paintings, occasionally in unison or fugally. Surprising, sumptuous, and beatific, the meditative work proves a silent confessional, with the dancers tossing their hair, arching their backs, and carrying secrets in their bodies they’re willing to share—with those willing to learn. I love the work so much, in fact, that I return for the final showing (Shobana Jeyasingh Dance performed three times on each of three nights), filled with joy, knowing that the troupe, who celebrates its 25th anniversary next year, is spreading a beautiful dance gospel. (The piece next travels to London, Stockholm and Belgrade—see it if you can.)

 

 

Konstanze Mello of Teatro Castro Alves.

Photo by Ramonah Gayã, Courtesy Biennale.


Punctuating my first night in Venice with a scrumptious chocolate and whipped cream gelato (vino comes later), I return to my hotel behind the Doge’s Palace, where I turn down the Murano glass chandelier and fall into a dance-induced, jet-lagged sleep, excited for the next day’s presentations. Not for nothing has Venice been called the Queen of the Adriatic, where the famed 16th-century Arsenale—the historic docks and shipyards that once employed an army of 16,000—has been home to the Biennale since 1980. In 1999, parts of the Arsenale's vast warehouses were converted into theaters, which is where I head on Sunday for some wildly disparate performances.
 
In the afternoon I'm escorted into a series of makeshift “cabins”—6 feet tall by 6 feet deep by 3 feet wide—where I am spectator to a solo performance given by individuals from Bahia’s Balé Teatro Castro Alves. Called 1Por1Praum, the show consists of 10 cabins, allowing for 10 possibilities, all created by the troupe's director, Jorge Vermelho. I make it through five of these miniatures, beginning with a private showing by Konstanze Mello, whose big blonde wig and chalky make-up obscure the performer’s gender, which I finally ascertain is female. Rising slowly, she plays with her wig and fiddles with a faux nesting doll contraption attached to her garb beneath the breastbone. Wow! Quel terpsichorean fun house, although the heat in the booths makes for some heavy Italian claustrophobia...so I take my leave after sharing a session with Ticiana Garrido. Shirtless and moving yoga-like in red trunks, he eventually outlined his body in chalk, a finale that was eerily reminiscent of a crime scene procedural.

 

 

Teatro Castro Alves in A quem possa interessar with the singer Badi Assad.

Photo by Adenor Gondim, Courtesy Biennale.

 

Grabbing a pizza and small carafe of red wine at Rossopomodoro, directly behind San Marco, I watch the passing parade dragging strollers and toting designer bags, no doubt filled with Venetian glass, masks, silks, and Italianate tchotchkes, before returning to the Arsenale for the Bahian company’s A quem passa interessar. A 70-minute performance that is accompanied by superstar musician/singer Badi Assad, who plays guitar and African thumb piano, as well as providing percussion with vocal cluckings and claps, this meta-entertainer is, perhaps, too much of the show, which features the troupe of 24. Choreographed by Henrique Rodovalho, this Italian premiere includes voice-overs of the dancers talking about themselves as they are showcased in individually-illuminated squares. With numerous performers over 40, the piece is pleasantly sweet and the moves eclectic, though nothing radical: From Brazilian Samba-esque hip swivelings to quirky, whole-body gyrations, the smiling dancers are likeable enough, and, as each tells his/her own story (in Portuguese with Italian subtitles, both languages foreign to this scribe), each persona comes across as unique, no matter nationality, body type, age, or gender.
 
A perfect fit for Venice, a city that opens its arms (expensive ones, alas), to welcome the world into its winding alleys, mind-blowing scenery, and ever-bustling canals. I’ll be blabbing again in a few days from Venezia, where upcoming performers include Koffi Kôkô, Wim Vanekeybus and Sylvie Guillem, who receives the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement. Ciao for now.

So You Think You Can Dance revamped

 

 

Fans of dance on TV received a jolt in January, when Nigel Lythgoe, executive producer and judge of the Fox juggernaut So You Think You Can Dance, tweeted that the Thursday night results show would be canceled. But, says the English erstwhile choreographer/dancer, the changed format would actually produce more dance, not less, as the show begins its ninth season this month.


“Fox wanted a focus on one program, giving it two hours, as opposed to one hour each over two nights,” explains Lythgoe. He promises the show will be “jam-packed.”


As to the new structure, the producer says judges will have two episodes of performances to consider before eliminating dancers. “We’ll watch and get America’s vote, which we’ll know the next day, and put [that] perspective into our thoughts. The next week we’ll see them dance again and then it goes back to a normal show. We’ll have the bottom three couples and they’ll dance for their lives, if required, or we’ll have made a decision.”


Musical guest performances will be cut, says Lythgoe, because he’s more interested in the dance element, with each show still kicking off with a group performance.


While the challenge facing the dancers remains the same, another major change is being implemented: Each dancer will have his or her own telephone number, rather than the public voting for couples. Lythgoe says this is fairer, “because some dancers got through on the strength of their partners.”


Admitting that the show’s new format is still a work in progress, Lythgoe posits, “If we can think of other exciting things to do, we will. After all, it’s not the Bible yet,” he quips, “and even that got changed.”


What hasn’t changed is Lythgoe’s enthusiasm for the show, citing that though ratings have dipped, SYTYCD has maintained the most viewers of all the primetime shows in its time slot. “It’s one of the best loved programs on TV and has a very passionate audience. I’m still shocked at how much we have achieved over the last eight years.”

 

 

2011 SYTYCD finalists Clarice Ordaz and Jess LeProtto. Photo by Adam Rose, Courtesy FOX.

Dancers Trending

Dorothy Chandler Pavilion
Los Angeles, CA
April 13–15, 2012
Performance reviewed: April 13


Hailed by some as the choreographic étoile du jour, Benjamin Millepied is, alas, more akin to the Minkus of dancemakers. In a program devoted to three of his works—all North American premieres—Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève, in its West Coast debut, saw its dancers muddle through Millepied’s relentlessly tedious steps and unattractive arm-flailings, while simultaneously quashing the tsunami of hype that the 34-year-old choreographer has been riding since making a splash in Black Swan.

Granted, Millepied had been steadily cranking out works for nearly a decade before his Swan turn, but show me the bourrées! Or at least the butts!

Seriously, pointe shoes would not have made a difference in Millepied’s trio of dances, as this hard-working troupe of 22 (under the ballet direction of Philippe Cohen), never wears them. And so it was that the spirited performers leaped, twirled, and arabesqued galore, with nary an idea in sight—nor a body, to boot—as Paul Cox’s costumes (mostly gowns and business suits), were part of a vast sartorial cover-up that left, well, everything to the imagination. (Cox also designed all the sets.)

 

 

Dancers of Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Millepied's Les Sylphides

 

Amoveo, a roundelay for 11 dancers originally created for the Paris Opéra Ballet in 2006, was restaged this year for Grand Théâtre. Set to excerpts from Philip Glass' Einstein on the Beach, with primary-colored garb (unflattering pants, skirts, and tops), the work's disconnect between Millepied's moves and the music was disconcerting.

 

Indeed, Cox’s ingenious backdrop proved a better fit: A large elevated screen displaying continuously woven lines of Mondrianesque hues, this kinetic painting was a mesmerizing diversion from the performers, who scrambled through trios, quartets, and ensembles, all the while lurching, spinning, and emulating airplane wings. A quasi-abstract love story, the central duo (Madeline Wong and Nathanaël Marie) featured sensual partnering and a lyric virtuosity that provided welcome relief from the number’s overwrought swirlings. 

 

 

Dancers of Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Millepied's Le Spectre de la Rose

 

Completing the program: Millepied’s 2011 reimagining of two Fokine classics, Le Spectre de la Rose and Les Sylphides, both originally made for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. In the former, set to Carl Maria von Weber’s “Invitation to the Dance,” instead of one high-flying Nijinskyan Rose, Millepied gave us a trio of black-suited, Lone Rangerish, mask-clad men (Joseph Aitken, Pierre-Antoine Brunet, Vladimir Ippolitov), who delighted in razzing the stunning Sarawanee Tanatanit as a tossed-about young Maiden. The pelvis-grinding threesome cavorted amid Cox’s cubistic bedroom setting, with the Maiden sleep-dancing before joining them in some kitschy high-jinx, a prelude to the dudes’ soaring-through-the-window exit.

 

Les Sylphides also tilted towards the farcical, no matter the Chopin score, with its 32-minute length working against it. Cox’s backdrop—black and white, vertigo-inducing crisscrossed lines—did little for the romp, eight scenes of various tableaux, one with a naked light bulb. Waltzes fizzled (cotillion interruptus); three couples did faux jigs; there were piggyback promenades and a parade of crashing bodies.

By lowering the barre, Millepied, in the process, neglected the poetry, the romance, the beauty of ballet. Talk about pointe blank.


All photos: GTG/Vincent Lepresle, courtesy Davidson & Choy Publicity

Pictured at top: Dancers of Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève in Millepied's Les Sylphides

Choreographers and students team up at UCLA.

 

 

For college students, getting up close with a professional choreographer’s process is not uncommon on campuses these days. But it’s still exciting and invaluable—and it’s precisely what David Roussève had in mind when he created First Hand for UCLA’s Department of World Arts and Cultures/Dance. A professor of choreography and performance, Roussève is also the Bessie Award–winning artistic director of the Los Angeles–based dance/theater troupe Reality.


“It gives choreographers a chance to try out new ideas and develop vocabulary,” says Roussève of the course he created in 2011. “And since we use the students, they get the best of what we as choreographers and teachers have to offer. It’s a real development process with no pressure—although you can’t goof off,” he says with a chuckle.


And unlike the “old days,” notes Roussève, when students were taught existing repertoire to present in concerts, First Hand is all about the process of creating new works. UCLA has five professional choreographers on full-time faculty, plus adjunct and visiting artists, including the hip hop artist Rennie Harris, who usually teaches two courses a year. As they devise new projects, their students get a taste of what Roussève calls “the real world,” beginning with auditions and ending with two performances of a fully produced work.


“Auditioning is part of the experience, so I tell them, ‘Get used to it,’ ” says Roussève. “And though we were adamant that the class be informal and just about ideas, the pieces ended up being pretty well-formed.”


Indeed, Harris’ work was the germ for his Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater commission, the warmly received Home, which premiered last December.  Roussève says that his own 20-minute sketch has also become the basis for a full-evening work he’s developing, Stardust. Set to the music of Nat King Cole, the final piece is scheduled to premiere in 2013 or 2014, with three of his First Hand students also slated to perform.


One of those students, Nguyen Nguyen, who will receive his master’s degree in June, says the course was helpful in a number of ways.


“We had a chance to see how choreographers create work, how they direct, how they come up with material, how they coordinate bodies in space”— observations that he can apply to his own work. “It was valuable for me as a choreographer,” he adds, “to see how to get the product ready to be put onstage in a short amount of time.”


For Victoria Marks, UCLA professor of choreography and performance, First Hand proved a two-way street. She notes that for students, it provided a place to put into practice what they’re learning in other classes. “When you’re making a dance,” says Marks, who creates work for the stage, film, and in community settings, “all the things that an aspiring artist is studying come together—technique, composition, improvisation. So training becomes a vehicle for creating. Often there’s a disconnect between technique and composing, but I feel that making these new works really addresses that for the students.”


Marks explains that students also get to see their professors in less formal situations where they can be humorous, even vulnerable. But unlike Harris, Roussève, and fellow faculty member Lionel Popkin (whose original work for First Hand will be mounted at Los Angeles’ REDCAT during its 2013–14 season), Marks used the opportunity to make a dance without expectations.


“I could practice my craft and see what was going on, but for me there was a lot less on the line. When you choose to continue your choreographic career as an employee of a university, you’re split in so many directions. You’re teaching, you’re participating in the life of that academic/artistic community, but the piece of the pie that is you and your creative process gets smaller and smaller.  This was a wonderful way to make that connection—to make my commitment to my students and to myself in my own development as an artist.”


First Hand is being offered again this year, and Roussève wants to continue running it “at the highest level possible.” That includes keeping it fun. As he says, “We get to explore, laugh, joke, take risks—all that good stuff that the students need to be exposed to in the creative process.”

4 dancers on their breakthrough gigs



With unemployment still high, these are tough times all around, no less so for a dancer. Competition is stiff, not only because there are more dancers who are better trained (the jump higher/turn faster syndrome), but also because many dance companies are hurting economically, with troupes hiring fewer dancers or folding completely.


But it’s not all gloom and doom: Where there’s a will, there’s a plié! Dance Magazine spoke to four working dancers whose winning combination of talent, timing, and perseverance landed them jobs they love.


Katricia Eaglin, 31, has been a member of Dallas Black Dance Theatre for seven years. A Dallas native, Eaglin had wanted to join the contemporary troupe since she was 14 and first saw them perform. But the road to the 12-member company, founded by Ann Williams in 1976, wasn’t easy.


“I auditioned four times over five years,” recalls Eaglin, who majored in dance at the University of North Texas. She would take class with DBDT whenever possible. “I wasn’t willing to take no for an answer, so I did everything in my power to make it happen.”


Part of that included becoming a charter member of Dallas Black Dance’s second company and performing with them for three years. After graduating college, Eaglin auditioned for a third time, but Williams told her she needed to be “more consistent.” 


“I was slightly devastated, but in 2005, my fourth audition, I finally got into the main company,” says Eaglin, who is also in her second year as assis­tant rehearsal director. “I was relieved and very happy. 


“I like that I can do everything I’m capable of,” she adds. “I can dance, I can direct, I’ve been given opportunities to choreograph, and I enjoy the fact that I’m continually finding more ways to grow as an artist. I knew it was the start of a journey.”


The journey for Caroline Diane Wilson was a bit more circuitous. Now in her first year in the corps of San Francisco Ballet, Wilson, 19, began her training in Colorado Springs, but she also attended a 2007 summer intensive at SFB’s school.


“I’d never seen them perform live before, only on YouTube,” recalls Wilson. “I would stand in the doorway and watch them rehearse. That’s when I decided this was the company for me. I kept dreaming about coming here.”


But before Wilson realized her dream, she made a slight detour, to Stuttgart, Germany. After being named a national finalist and scholar at Youth America Grand Prix, she received a full scholarship to attend the John Cranko School. Wilson was then accepted into the John Cranko Ballet Academy, a two-year, intensive postgraduate program.


But it seems the young dancer had left her heart in San Francisco. After sending a DVD and resumé to SFB, she was asked to fly from Germany to take company class for three days. “It was nerve-racking,” admits Wilson, “but after those three days they offered me a job and I signed a contract on my 18th birthday. It was the best birthday present ever!”


Wilson says she missed her graduation performance at Cranko, but that was a small price to pay. “San Francisco Ballet is an amazing company, and I never envisioned it happening. But after I went to their summer intensive, I had a feel for the company. Timing is important, too,” she adds. “Some years companies aren’t hiring or they’re looking for a different type of dancer.”


At 5' 4", Wilson says she might not have snagged a job overseas, as European troupes were looking for taller dancers. As for dancing with San Francisco Ballet, Wilson says the perks are many, including working with fellow dancers she admires. “I watch and learn from them. I also love how appreciative the audience is. I feel connected to them—that we’re providing an escape.”


Wilson also relishes the different styles the dancers are asked to perform, as well as working with visiting choreographers. “This is my first job and there are so many talented dancers out there who don’t get the opportunity. I just feel I was in the right place at the right time.”


Jillian Barrell, a rising star with Ballet Arizona, also acknowledged serendipity as a factor in helping her land a job. She began training in her home state of Delaware, and also took summer courses with various troupes, including Princeton Ballet and Orlando Ballet. When the young dancer was a senior in high school, she was spotted in a spring performance by former Ballet Arizona dancer Judith Adee-Leppek.   


“I’d auditioned for a handful of places—Pennsylvania Ballet, the Joffrey, Ballet West,” recalls Barrell. “Then I made an audition video that I sent to loads of companies, including Ballet Arizona. The only offer I received was in 2007 from Orlando Ballet. They said they would give me a scholarship and I should come to their summer program—that they might accept me into their second company.”


Then fate stepped in. Two days before Barrell was to leave for Orlando, Ballet Arizona’s director Ib Andersen called and offered her a job, in part based on Adee-Leppek’s recommendation. 


Explains Barrell: “It turns out that at the last minute, Ib needed another woman. He took a chance on me, even though I hadn’t had experience anywhere. It’s kind of unreal and I’m still so happy to be not only dancing every day, but that someone’s paying me to come in, rehearse, and perform. That’s what I like—pushing my body, trying to do this better, that better, do bigger roles.”


And though Ballet Arizona’s dancers aren’t ranked, Barrell, who says she “started at the bottom,” performed Cinderella last October and Aurora in February. Barrell has also been singled out by The New York Times’ Alastair Macaulay for her “radiance and clarity” as Dew Drop and Sugar Plum Fairy.


Now in her fifth season with the troupe, Barrell, 23, says she initially wasn’t aware of what being a professional ballet dancer entailed. “I came from nowhere and still feel like I’m learning how to look like a ballerina, how to perform like one and do the acting part of it. I’m challenged to be better every day.”


Barrell admits that “I didn’t know what to expect when I got here.” But now she says simply, “This is awesome. I can’t imagine doing anything else.”


Awesome is as awesome does, and for Ramona Kelley, also 23, nothing could be better than dancing the role of Betsy in the touring production of Twyla Tharp’s Come Fly Away. Kelley grew up in Berkeley, California, and moved to New York in 2006, graduating from New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts in 2009. Two years ago she auditioned for the Tharp show, but didn’t get the gig.


Undaunted, Kelley freelanced, dancing for small contemporary ballet companies, as well as taking classes “all over the city.” Meanwhile, in another kismet moment, Laura Mead, a friend who had attended the same ballet school as Kelley (Berkeley Ballet Theatre), and had danced the original role of Betsy on Broadway, put in a good word for her colleague last spring.


“There were two six-hour days of auditions,” says Kelley, “and Twyla was there. I had no idea what part it was for and, in retrospect, I think that was a good thing, because you can get more nervous. I’d seen the show on Broadway and it became obvious they were looking for a Betsy. 


“I was surprised and thrilled,” exclaims Kelley. “To be part of this show is huge and also doing Twyla’s choreography. It’s the best of both worlds, Broadway and concert dance.” 


Kelley, who says the job will last through the summer and could be extended, adores her ingénue character. “The role challenges me, with lots of floor work and inverted cartwheels, handstands, and ballet technique. This is my first big full-time job,” she says, “and getting the job has taught me that you don’t really know what the offer could be. But when it came, I was ready for it.”


Indeed, these four dancers have much in common. Talent, determination, hard work, and a bit of luck helped them land satisfying, career-making jobs. Oh, yes, there’s one other shared quality: a positive, can-do attitude.

 


Victoria Looseleaf contributes to the Los Angeles Times and KUSC-FM radio. She also teaches dance history at USC.


From top: Katricia Eaglin of Dallas Black Dance Theatre. Photo by Brian Guilliaux, Courtesy DBDT; SFB’s Caroline Diane Wilson. Alberto Leopizzi, Courtesy Wilson; Jillian Barrell of Ballet Arizona. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy BAZ; Ramona Kelley, touring with Tharp’s Come Fly Away. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Come Fly Away.

The company takes on new spaces (and structures).

 

 

Jacques Heim never met a block, pegboard, or wheel he didn’t like. Artistic director of the risk-intensive troupe Diavolo Dance Theater, Heim, 47, has been using custom-made structures in his choreography since founding the Los Angeles–based company in 1992. Props have included a 5,000-pound, 16-foot rotating aluminum wheel (Humachina); a 17-foot-long rocking boat (Trajectoire); and a large vertical pegboard resembling an oversized S&M device (D2R).


On January 28, the 10-member troupe begins a 17-city, four-month tour, ending in Tulsa, Oklahoma. Performing works including the above three, Diavolo’s über-athletic dancers (all from the U.S.) seem to have trust embedded in their DNA: The flying, whirling performers rely on one another to partner, catch (death-defying swan dives are common), and occasionally slink about in clown mode.


Heim’s latest work, Transit Space, co-commissioned by Penn State and the Los Angeles Music Center, premieres April 19 in University Park, Pennsylvania. Making use of specially designed ramps, Heim appropriated skateboard culture as a metaphor for finding one’s way—through public space and in life.


Currently in its 13th year of international touring, Diavolo is one of L.A.’s most successful dance troupes. Its works have grown larger in scope. Diavolo’s rep includes two collaborations with the Los Angeles Philharmonic at the Hollywood Bowl, with 2010’s Fearful Symmetries (set to John Adams music) featuring dancers manipulating a giant cube that splits into six parts, often atop a motorized stage.


And while Diavolo doesn’t have a home season, the company performs two SoCal concerts this year (Feb. 2, Northridge; March 22, Irvine).


“My dancers are gladiators,” says the Paris-born Heim. “And because I keep pushing them—mentally, physically, emotionally—they can become giants.”

 

 

Fearful Symmetries. Photo by Rose Eichenbaum, Courtesy Diavolo.

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