Dance Matters

May 27, 2009

A Royal Risk
Finding a bold voice for the 21st century


**Watch Tamara Rojo and Carlos Acosta rehearse and discuss “Manon”


A great deal has happened to The Royal Ballet since its American visit in 2006. Then, the company had just pulled through the worst crisis in its 75-year history and wanted to show it was back on track. The Sleeping Beauty, in a lavish ultra-traditional production, was just the ticket—a work that was embedded in the company’s DNA. Three years on, though, the Royal has a different story to tell. While no less proud of its distinctive back-catalogue—on its visit to Washington, DC’s Kennedy Center in June it will present Kenneth MacMillan’s three-act Manon—it also wants to introduce some more recent additions to the repertory. After all, as someone on the staff once waspishly noted, if the Royal only concerned itself with works of the past, it would be merely a rather expensive museum.


A couple of seasons ago, director Monica Mason wrote that the company probably has the most varied and distinguished repertory in the world. “But,” she added, “we must also set a standard for new work. I want, very much, to try to develop world-class choreographers.” Not just a generalized nod to keeping things fresh, it is her belief that renewal might best come from within. The root of her decision not to chase the big choreographer names around the globe stems from the problems preceding Mason’s tenure. The late Ross Stretton set out to refresh the Royal’s rep with new work from Europe, and the howl that went up from dancers, critics, and audiences alike was deafening. New was very well in principle, but not if it made the Royal look like every other ballet company on the planet.


The triple bill bound for DC is testament to Mason’s success in the delicate balancing act. While Ashton’s A Month in the Country is core “heritage rep”—complete with lucid narrative, naturalistic set, and Chopin piano music—the other two works are new and bold. Christopher Wheeldon’s DGV: Danse à grande vitesse is a vast ensemble piece—using at least half the approximately 100-member company—which plays with imagery of train and plane travel on and around a great sculpture of buckled metal, while the Michael Nyman score rattles to its destination like a high-speed train. “Of course Christopher is well known in America,” admits Mason. “But this is Christopher writing for us, for the company where he started as a dancer, and we are particularly proud of the exciting result.”


Wayne McGregor’s Chroma, set for 10 hyper-articulated dancers within a box of white light, was the other hit of the 2006–07 Covent Garden season. It was also the work that persuaded Monica Mason to appoint McGregor as the company’s resident choreographer—significant, given that the post had been vacant for 13 years, and radical, given McGregor’s non-classical background. Indeed, what the dancers do in Chroma looks health-threatening. Joints twist, spines buckle, heads butt and judder. No movement is familiar, and familiar dancers are transformed: Federico Bonelli becomes a wriggle of slippery sinew, Sarah Lamb practically invertebrate. Alina Cojocaru, the tiny Romanian dancer, defies all skeletal logic, flicking her torso through sudden S-bends, legs forked at 190 degrees.


“It’s not actually as dangerous as it looks,” says Lauren Cuthbertson, who was in on the creation of both Chroma and DGV, and will perform both at the Kennedy Center. “For one thing, we give ourselves an extra hour’s special warm-up before a performance of Chroma. But Wayne is brilliant in the way he works with what each person’s body can naturally do. He never forces it. As for the speed—it might look neck-breaking, but when your body is properly prepared, it’s no more risky than the neo-classical moves that Chris uses in DGV, like when the boys twirl the girls in the air as if we’re propellers.”


Which makes it all the more ironic that three of Cuthbertson’s fellow original cast members, Bonelli, Cojocaru, and Lamb, have been injured this season, for reasons unconnected. Might they be back in time for Washington? Mason is hopeful. “Of course I want the current company to be seen; it’s a disappointment to us all if we’re missing major players. But it underlines the risk involved in every creative venture. Casting is a risk; commissioning new work is a risk,” she says. “You try to reduce the level of risk you feel you’re taking, but in the end I have to admit there is something thrilling in the risk itself.” —Jenny Gilbert



NYIBC Turns 25

Not only will June mark the 25th anniversary of the New York International Ballet Competition, but it’s also a year of transition. This month, founder and executive director Ilona Copen will officially hand the reins to director Richard Chen See. “My dreams have been fulfilled,” says Copen. “When I step down, Richard will have his own dreams to fulfill.”  Copen will continue as president of the Board of Directors.


The NYIBC brings 48 dancers to New York City for three fully funded weeks every other year. Unlike other competitions, in which students present classical variations they’ve prepared with their personal coaches, the NYIBC is geared toward dancers in the first chapter of their careers. (The competition is open to women ages 17–23 and men ages 18–24.) It also offers a chance to catch the eye of potential employers. More than 50 percent of participants have been offered contracts with major companies around the world, including New York City Ballet, Paris Opera, and Stuttgart. The roster of talent to come through the NYIBC over the last two decades reads like a glitzy gala program. Alumni include such international stars as Jose Manuel Carreño, Carlos Molina, and Sarah Lamb. In addition to medals, two contracts are awarded: a one-year contract with the Joffrey Ballet in Chicago and a one-year contract with American Ballet Theatre. Even if dancers are not offered contracts at the end of the three weeks, they can do a lot of networking that could lead to jobs down the line.  


Dancers spend the first two weeks of the NYIBC taking technique class in the morning before splitting into groups to learn repertory from world-renowned teachers and coaches. “It gave me a better idea of what being a professional is all about, and the confidence to know I could do it,” says alumna Emily Patterson of the Joffrey. Patterson earned the Lefkowitz Award for Artistic Achievement at the NYIBC in 1996. “It’s a concentrated version of a professional season. I did it for the coaching and the exposure and being in New York.” Patterson was auditioning for the ABT Studio Company (now ABT II) at the time. Performing at NYIBC gave ABT’s staff a chance to see her in an environment other than class, which Patterson says helped her get hired.


In NYIBC’s final week, dancers perform the repertory they’ve learned. This year’s panel of judges includes five artistic directors: Ballet du Capitole’s Nanette Glushak, Houston Ballet’s Stanton Welch, Ballet Argentino’s Julio Bocca, Boston Ballet’s Mikko Nissinen, and the Joffrey’s Ashley Wheater, along with International Baltic Ballet Festival director Lita Beiris and Korea National University of the Arts dean Hae Shik Kim.


Since NYIBC is tuition-free, dancers who might not otherwise be able to fund a three-week visit to NYC can afford to attend. To this end, one of Chen See’s hopes is that the NYIBC will be able to partner with state cultural organizations and elite training programs abroad to help subsidize participation. “We want to continue discovering new talent and bringing them here,” says Chen See, “irrespective of their economic or international borders.”


Chen See is confident that the future of the NYIBC is bright in spite of the economy. The organization just signed a 10-year contract with the Rose Theater at Lincoln Center. This year’s NYIBC will be held there June 8–28. For more: —Kristin Lewis



40 Years

Chicago has Polaski Day, Cubs Opening Day, and of course St. Patrick’s Day, but it’s never had a Dance Day until now, thanks to the talent and untiring efforts of dancer, choreographer, teacher, and producer Shirley Mordine. Mayor Richard M. Daley officially proclaimed February 28, 2009, Shirley Mordine Day.


Mordine didn’t miss a beat capitalizing on the occasion to celebrate the vitality of Mordine & Company Dance Theater, the longest-running contemporary dance company in the Midwest. Typical of her inimitable panache, Mordine treated the audience to a performance of her 1981 solo Silver Lining, easily the high point of the company’s 40th-anniversary concert at The Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago, which Mordine founded in 1969 and directed until 1999. Appearing in a gold lamé body suit and an endlessly long sequined cape, Mordine captivated the audience first with humor, then with her character’s dramatic exit followed by an unexpected return. With pathos and wonder she portrayed an aging diva trying to relive the past and gazing into an uncertain future. The dance epitomized Mordine’s unique blend of theater and movement. Unlike the character in her dance, Mordine & Co., eight dancers strong, continues to sparkle with the richness of her choreography, both in revivals and new work, and shows no signs of slowing down.


Mordine received her initial training in San Francisco with Welland Lathrop (she performed with his company for 10 years), Anna Halprin, and the San Francisco Ballet School. She credits her studies with Alwin Nikolais and Murray Louis as especially influential. Her approach to movement is centered in the torso and spine. “Every gesture comes out of that.” Mordine’s choreography ranges from the character-driven Songspiel, influenced by the theater of Bertolt Brecht, to her newest, Illuminations, an abstract movement collage that enlists John Boesche’s visual design as an equal partner with the dancers.


Not only have several generations of Chicago audiences and dancers been influenced by Mordine, so have many composers, visual artists, theatrical designers, and musicians. Many former Mordine dancers have gone on to other companies, including Daniel Charon with Doug Varone and Dancers, and Noah Vinson with Mark Morris Company. Jan Erkert (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” Oct. 2008), another alum, established her own company while teaching at The Dance Center, and is now head of the dance department at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Mary Wohl Haan is the artistic director of Boulder’s HAAN Dances, and Margi Cole directs her own company in Chicago.


Mordine is most proud of creating The Dance Center and its active role in the dance community. The small department with courses in dance technique and composition blossomed into Chicago’s leading dance training program, but not without some growing pains. Threatened with budgetary problems early on, Mordine sought to save the fledgling department by establishing a performance program. Bringing modern dance companies from New York, the West Coast, and abroad gave Columbia College students access to the world of dance and at the same time brought credibility to the college. In addition, The Dance Center built a strong audience and put modern dance on the map in Chicago. It continues to be Chicago’s premiere presenter of contemporary dance.


What’s ahead? Under the banner of “New Voices/New Directions,” the company will be establishing a “Low Rent/High Impact” lab series of at least three weekends in different locales. Mordine plans to continue exploring the possibilities of technology, and “pursue what intrigues me through collision with other bodies of culture and generational differences. And I still want to perform,” she says with an uncharacteristic blush. “I love performing!” — Lynn Colburn Shapiro



Photo (top to bottom): Johan Persson, courtesy The Royal Ballet; Sasha Fornari, courtesy Joffrey Ballet; William Frederking, courtesy Shirley Mordine