How Dancemakers Responded To The First Year Of The Trump Presidency
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
Dance has long been a haven for transgressive bodies, ideas and aesthetics. So it's no surprise that many artists feel the Trump administration's platform stands in direct opposition to their values.
"The election was absolutely horrifying for me," says Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director Donald Byrd. "Trump annihilated my beliefs about basic human characteristics, like kindness."
Filmmaker and choreographer Celia Rowlson-Hall adds, "I'd thought our moral arc was bending toward good. I feel distraught that the country I call mine is dominated by values rooted in fear and racism and hatred."
Some of the administration's proposals, like eliminating the National Endowment for the Arts, have yet to be realized, but that doesn't make them any less frightening. Nor does it blunt the impact of those that have been implemented—and which directly affect dancers—like rolling back protections for trans people, changing the tax code in a way that will likely reduce charitable giving and complicating access to health care.
In response, dancemakers are reconsidering how their work and their process can better reflect the state of today's politics.
Counter-Narrative and Solidarity
For some, dance is a way to give a voice to those who may otherwise go unheard. During a 2016 road trip, Minneapolis-based choreographer April Sellers began to consider how politicians use campaigning to collect and disperse versions of what it means to be an American.
"They're potential creators of our history and future," she says. So for her project Gay Patriot, Sellers felt that it was imperative for her dancers to speak for themselves onstage as a way to take control of their own stories.
April Sellers' Gay Patriot rehearsal. Photo by Steven Lang
She adds that in the wake of the election, she and several of her dancers have disconnected from their biological families because of political tension. The experience has raised questions about who the work is for. "Do we only perform in theaters where people love us, or do we dance at family reunions?" she asks.
To avoid preaching to the choir, choreographer Danielle Russo is taking her work Sentinel, which responds to surveillance and social profiling, to public sites across the five boroughs of New York City. Russo is interested in seeing what happens as unsuspecting passersby encounter the dancers.
She hopes the heightened visibility of a public performance on a city street in daylight—a space that seems safe, but can be dangerous for marginalized people—will help her emphasize what she calls "the lived experiences of a targeted body."
Danielle Russo working on Sentinel. Photo by Nir Arieli
Education and Community
Artists like San Francisco choreographer Keith Hennessy, who are deeply rooted as educators as well as creators, are developing specific teaching devices in response to the election. "Right now, the escalation toward the right has forced us to rethink the role of dance class, performance and how we're using choreography," he says.
How might the patience and willingness to experiment and fail, so necessary in dance improvisation, function in politics or social justice organizing? The workshop Hennessy teaches most frequently is called "Social Dancing (aka Negotiation)."
"I have a few exercises that reduce all touch to either pushing or pulling," he says. "The dancers create precarious and interdependent structures that become metaphors of community economics, power, failure, hierarchy and collaboration."
Though Dante Brown has long made work with social justice commentary, the aftermath of the election inspired him to create the kind of community he wanted to see, a space where people could come together in a commitment to movement and activism.
Dante Brown's Package (revamped) featured dancers in Trump masks. Photo by Ezra Goh, via Facebook
"The election made me care less about myself as an artist and more about platforms and programs for others," he says. For example, he organized a successful workshop series to raise money and awareness for Black Lives Matter.
The power to make change, according to New York dancer and choreographer Okwui Okpokwasili, is in the persistence. "The folks I know have been working to accommodate artistic practices that are generous, collaborative and non-authoritarian—a direct rebuke to the patriarchal violence, toxic masculinity and winner-take-all ethos that defines the Trumpian way," she says.
But, she adds, these practices have stretched for decades, and have long challenged the worldview that made Trump's election possible in the first place.
Committing to those values takes real work, especially in a world that, as Bill T. Jones points out, is experiencing a crisis of truth. He is astounded by the Trump administration's opportunistic relationship with facts, and worries that cynicism will replace skepticism. "Now, everything is suspect," he says, "and this is frustrating to artists who believe in ambiguity."
Bill T. Jones' A Letter to My Nephew. Photo by Bernie Ng.
Reverberations Within the Audience
Fans of Spectrum Dance Theater know to expect what Byrd calls "social/civic engagement" from the company, and he has long choreographed straight from the most difficult headlines. However, even in the firmly progressive city of Seattle, Byrd finds that his audience isn't always receptive to political content.
Donald Byrd's (IM)PULSE responds to aggression against the LGBTQ community. Photo by Nate Watters
"You want someone there to receive your work," he says. "I'm grappling with that fear and whether it will push me away from work that I feel is important."
Lately, Byrd has considered how the audience might become active, rather than passive, spectators, and how the work itself can instigate political engagement. "I wonder, though," he says, "if that desire might drive my audience away from participation because they feel alienated."
BalletX choreographer Matthew Neenan recently created Let mortal tongues awake, a contemporary ballet that uses images of silencing, control and bureaucratic power to hint at our political climate. It was a thematic departure for him, and Philadelphia audience members had strong reactions—not all of them positive.
"People found it shocking, but I told them I wouldn't apologize," he says. "Some people only want to see dance as beautiful and elite, and I truly believe you need to entertain your audience. Right now, though, we have no choice but to make work that responds to what's going on."
Love your audience, he suggests, but also challenge them.
Rowlson-Hall, whose first commission after the election was a short film investigating paranoia, isolation and nuclear fallout, sees dance as a way to unlock empathy in others. "I can't convince a white supremacist to change their views," she says. "But maybe they can see a performance or a film that will affect their heart. It's a little less locked than the mind."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.