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Dancing for Doug
All photos by Kyle Froman
Above: Elkins demonstrates a step. Here: Mark Gindick and Cori Marquis work on a phrase
It’s been a while since Doug Elkins has made a dance without a big story to guide him. In 2006, he affectionately spoofed The Sound of Music with his popular Fräulein Maria, which toured 17 cities over three years. In Mo(or)town/Redux (2012), he used Shakespeare’s Othello as a framework for risky partnering and steps inspired by his b-boying past.
His latest work, Hapless Bizarre, maintains his signature wit—made goofier by new collaborator Mark Gindick, a visitor from the world of clowning and physical comedy—but forgoes any predetermined storyline. At a rehearsal at DANY Studios in New York City, prior to the piece’s February premiere, five of his dancers played around with new material as Elkins nudged the dance in different directions. Siobhan Burke spoke with him after.
What were you working on today?
Transitions. Right now we’re tying loose ends together. If something’s ambiguous, should it stay ambiguous? I don’t necessarily feel the need to resolve everything.
Do you choreograph with a story in mind? It seems like there are a lot of little narratives happening at the same time.
I’m not looking for a linear narrative, but I’m looking at things accumulating, and you build meaning out of that. More of a collage than anything. There are definitely a lot of little stories and premises that bang into each other. Watching those things happen, watching them connect or fail to connect, is interesting for me. Part of the structure is its own failure. That sounds a little esoteric, but the missed opportunities are just as important as when connections are made.
Left top: Kyle Marshall with Mark Gindick. Bottom: Marshall with Deborah Lohse.
What’s an example of that?
Like, someone going to do something and doing it poorly—which isn’t really poorly, it’s just the failure has a different quality.
What are you exploring in this piece that’s new for you?
Well, integrating a range of people. But I tend to always be interested in playing with everyone’s collective corporeality—their movement languages and ideas—and how that either synthesizes or fails to in rehearsal. It’s interesting watching Mark, who’s not a “dancer.” After a while, I don’t even think that’s a special feature. He just becomes part of the community, and he brings his movement palette with him, or a new palette is made out of everyone’s abilities.
But do I feel it’s new? I feel it’s developing in a different way. Part of me wants to satisfy you by saying what I think this piece is about, but I have no real idea yet. That’s fascinating for me, too, because with my last two works, I knew what the vessel of the ideas was. Watching these narratives appear and fade into smoke—it’s more abstract than anything I’ve done in a while.
How do you approach making the actual movement?
If you and I and Mark were making a work, we’d get in a room and just start asking, “What interests you in terms of moving? All right. Teach me a phrase of yours so I can learn the DNA of it. Wow, you like to lead with the joints a lot. You like to spiral forward before you go back.” Or sometimes I ask the dancers to build a phrase with me. “Can you retrograde it in the middle? Now can you use the phrase to go under me when I go up and around? Can our dances dance together?”
You’re known for combining different movement languages very fluidly, like Scottish dance and voguing, or break dancing and Graham technique. What are you working with this time?
New vaudeville. Strange snippets of odd musicals. Cinematic ideas, from silent comedians like Keaton, Chaplin, a French filmmaker named Jacques Tati. And Jackie Chan.
What do you look for in a dancer?
People who are willing to play seriously. Deep play. People who have a very strong tolerance for uncertainty. Like, “Hmmm, I don’t know if that’s right. Hmmm, that looks pretty. But do we want it to be pretty? Pretty’s just one choice.” Sometimes my approach is like, “Mark, come in at the wrong time. Come in after you’re supposed to come in. Amusing. Let’s try that a few more times."
For Hapless Bizarre tour dates, see dougelkinschoreography.com.
Above, clockwise from left: Gindick and Lohse. John Sorensen-Jolink and Cori Marquis. Elkins watches a scene come together.
Pain is an inevitable part of a dancing life and dancers have a high tolerance for it, according to Sean Gallagher, a New York physical therapist whose practice includes many professional performers. "So when dancers complain, it really means something," he says.
But women and men experience pain differently, and tend to be treated for it differently as well. Female dancers need to understand those differences before they go to a doctor, so they can make sure they get treated promptly and effectively.
On the occasion of its 70th anniversary, the Ballet Nacional de Cuba tours the U.S. this spring with the resolute Cuban prima ballerina assoluta Alicia Alonso a the helm. Named a National Hero of Labor in Cuba, Alonso, 97, has weathered strained international relations and devastating fiscal challenges to have BNC emerge as a world-class dance company. Her dancers are some of ballet's best. On offer this time are Alonso's Giselle and Don Quixote. The profoundly Cuban company performs in Chicago May 18–20, Tampa May 23, Washington, D.C., May 29–June 3 and Saratoga, New York June 6–8.
Ever wonder why some dancers' port de bras appears to be disconnected from their body? It typically comes down to how they stabilize their shoulder blades, says Marimba Gold-Watts, Pilates instructor to dancers like Robert Fairchild.
"Dancers often hear the cue to pull down on their latissimus,"—the biggest muscle in the back—"which doesn't allow the shoulder blades to lie flat," she says. "It makes the bottom tips of the shoulder blades wing, or flare out, off the rib cage."
Rebecca Warthen was on a year-long assignment with the Peace Corps in Dominica last fall when a storm started brewing. A former dancer with North Carolina Dance Theatre (now Charlotte Ballet) and Columbia City Ballet, she'd been sent to the Caribbean island nation to teach ballet at the Dominica Institute of the Arts and in outreach classes at public schools.
But nine and a half months into her assignment, a tropical storm grew into what would become Hurricane Maria—the worst national disaster in Dominica's history.
Sidra Bell is one of those choreographers whose movement dancers are drawn to. Exploring the juxtaposition of fierce athleticism and pure honesty in something as simple as stillness, her work brings her dancers to the depths of their abilities and the audience to the edge of their seats.
A few weeks ago, American Ballet Theatre announced the A.B.T. Women's Movement, a new program that will support three women choreographers per season, one of whom will make work on the main company.
"The ABT Women's Movement takes inspiration from the groundbreaking female choreographers who have left a lasting impact on ABT's legacy, including Agnes de Mille and Twyla Tharp," said artistic director Kevin McKenzie in a press release.
Hypothetically, this is a great idea. We're all for more ballet commissions for women. But the way ABT has promoted the initiative is problematic.
Some dancers move to New York City with their sights set on a dream job: that one choreographer or company they have to dance for. But when Maggie Cloud graduated from Florida State University in 2010, she envisioned herself on a less straightforward path.
"I always had in mind that I would be dancing for different people," she says. "I knew I had some kind of range that I wanted to tap into."
New York City Ballet is celebrating the Jerome Robbins Centennial with twenty (20!) ballets. The great American choreographer died in 1998, so very few of today's dancers have actually worked with him. There are plenty of stories about how demanding (at times brutally so) he could be in rehearsal. But Peter Boal has written about Robbins in a more balanced, loving way. In this post he writes about how Robbins' crystal clear imagery helped him approach a role with clarity and purpose.
Who says you need fancy equipment to make a festival-worthy dance film? Right now, two New York City–based dance film festivals are calling for aspiring filmmakers to show their stuff—and you don't need anything more cumbersome than a smartphone to get in on the action.
Here's everything you need to know about how to submit: