Dance Matters: Away We Go
“Is it safe?” That’s the first question resident choreographer/rehearsal director Christopher K. Morgan asked CityDance Ensemble artistic director Paul Gordon Emerson when he heard that the company might travel to Algiers late last year. “I immediately thought of the 2007 bombing of the U.N. building there, which was claimed by Al Qaeda,” says Morgan.
For most dance companies the biggest security concern on tour is getting through the TSA line without a glitch. But for companies on official business as cultural diplomats, often arranged and funded by the State Department or U.S. embassies abroad, security can be a major worry. Outside of the scope of the high-profile DanceMotion USA program (see “Exporting Modern Dance,” Jan. 2010), smaller companies are also turning to dance diplomacy. And these companies (Washington, DC’s CityDance, Dana Tai Soon Burgess & Company, and StepAfrika! among them) reap rewards for being flexible enough to travel to off-the-beaten-track countries like Venezuela, Peru, Kazakhstan, Pakistan, Jordan, and Mongolia.
“If you look at American TV as much of the rest of the world does, you would think we all went around wrestling and wearing bikinis,” quipped Secretary of State Hillary Clinton last year. Dance diplomacy introduces a new script in places where the American presence is limited to action films and TV sitcoms. Dance fulfills the State Department’s intention to more broadly communicate American ideals without the barrier of language. For CityDance, that meant giving budding ballerinas the confidence to exert their bodies and stretch their minds with modern dance in Belarus. In Bahrain, it meant opening children’s eyes to the concept that multiple movement interpretations can all be right. In Algeria, it meant being the first Americans that a group of North African hip hop dancers ever met. “In the case of countries where information is tightly controlled, freedom of expression is most often found in art,” says Emerson.
With just eight dancers, CityDance is lean and nimble. The number of dancers on a tour can be even smaller, depending on the budget and needs of the embassy. While past tours have taken more than a year to plan, the company received word about traveling to Algiers barely five weeks before boarding the plane.
Algiers (where CityDance was the only American group to perform in the Second International Contemporary Dance Festival) felt safe enough, but preventative measures were taken. A police escort with flashing blue lights stopped traffic to bring CityDance’s bus to the hotel, which was in a gated area of the city. And when the five company members on the tour asked to sightsee in the ancient Casbah, festival directors relented only after plainclothes guards could be obtained to follow the group—something they only learned after the excursion was over.
The rewards of traveling to unfamiliar places far outweigh the risks. “It’s fulfilling to see what our everyday craft, our primary language, can do as far as reaching across borders,” says CityDance member Elizabeth Gahl. These cultural exchanges have made Gahl reassess her own dance career. A recent stint teaching in the West Bank of Israel has “awakened a new inspiration for me as a dancer,” she says. Gahl is now seeking funds to return to the West Bank to develop a conservatory program for young dancers. “We take arts for granted. There are young children in Palestine who don’t have access to ballet classes the way we do. As much as I love performing, I’ve gotten a new wind with this cultural diplomacy.” —Lisa Traiger
Christopher K. Morgan leads a master class in Minsk, Belarus. Photo by Paul Gordon Emerson, courtesy CityDance
Capezio, Bloch, So Dança, Gaynor Minden.
At the top of the line, dancers have plenty of quality footwear options to choose from, and in most metropolitan areas, stores to go try them on. But for many of North America's most economically disadvantaged dance students, there has often been just one option for purchasing footwear in person: Payless ShoeSource.
When Sonya Tayeh saw Moulin Rouge! for the first time, on opening night at a movie theater in Detroit, she remembers not only being inspired by the story, but noticing the way it was filmed.
"What struck me the most was the pace, and the erratic feeling it had," she says. The camera's quick shifts and angles reminded her of bodies in motion. "I was like, 'What is this movie? This is so insane and marvelous and excessive,' " she says. "And excessive is I think how I approach dance. I enjoy the challenge of swiftness, and the pushing of the body. I love piling on a lot of vocabulary and seeing what comes out."
Back when Robbie Fairchild graced the cover of the May 2018 issue of Dance Magazine, he mentioned an idea for a short dance film he was toying around with. That idea has now come to fruition: In This Life, starring Fairchild and directed by dance filmmaker Bat-Sheva Guez, is being screened at this year's Dance on Camera Festival.
While the film itself covers heavy material—specifically, how we deal with grief and loss—the making of it was anything but: "It was really weird to have so much fun filming a piece about grief!" Fairchild laughs. We caught up with him, Guez and Christopher Wheeldon (one of In This Life's five choreographers) to find out what went into creating the 11-minute short film.
When Hollywood needs to build a fantasy world populated with extraordinary creatures, they call Terry Notary.
The former gymnast and circus performer got his start in film in 2000 when Ron Howard asked him to teach the actors how to move like Whos for How the Grinch Stole Christmas. Notary has since served as a movement choreographer, stunt coordinator and performer via motion capture technology for everything from the Planet of the Apes series to The Hobbit trilogy, Avatar, Avengers: Endgame and this summer's The Lion King.
Since opening the Industry Dance Academy with his wife, Rhonda, and partners Maia and Richard Suckle, Notary also offers movement workshops for actors in Los Angeles.