Magazine

Downtown Diva

Dancer and dancemaker Jodi Melnick brings her unique sensibility to a variety of projects.

Melnick in costume for her Solo, (Re)Deluxe Version. All photos by Matthew Karas.

Not everyone grows up wanting to become a ballerina. Jodi Melnick, whose bare feet are firmly planted in New York’s downtown dance world, is a case in point.

“I do think there’s an idea that if you’re a modern dancer it must be because you weren’t good enough to be a ballerina,” she says over coffee. “I did not set out to do modern dance because I didn’t have that body type or that technique. This was a conscious decision. It had more relevance to me.”

And, as it happens, Melnick is also one of the most beautiful dancers there ever was—full of delicacy, lucidity, sensuality, mystery, and ferocity, which gives her an indelible sense of drama. Of course, there is another side to her charm: a dainty porcelain face framed by a halo of auburn hair.

Melnick may be a downtown dancer, but it’s clear that she’s breaking into the national scene. After heralded performances at the American Dance Festival, the Vail International Dance Festival, and New York City Center’s wildly popular Fall for Dance Festival, Melnick’s fame is growing. It’s hardly a surprise: When Melnick is onstage, there is little to do but stare. Is this the same sort of power Isadora Duncan had?

“Sometimes I look at her and think, How can those little legs hold her up?” says Vicky Shick, a dancer/choreographer who has worked extensively with Melnick. “How can she be so strong? In her soul and in her personality, there is fragility and huge vulnerability, but she’s so tough as well. And I don’t know anyone who can track, simultaneously, so many different complex coordinations in one body.” Or, as choreographer Susan Rethorst puts it, “Jodi and Steve Martin are the most brilliant physical people that I can think of.”

For Melnick, also a choreographer and influential teacher, every movement matters—even those you can’t see. Her art isn’t about making shapes, but giving sense to the myriad of layers in the body beneath the muscles and bones. She most admires Trisha Brown, and it’s easy to see why: The slippery mercurial path that movement takes as it travels through the body is somehow ancient.

Teaching an advanced class at Barnard College, where she is a professor of dance, Melnick guides a group of young women in a stream of movement. “Open your minor pectorals,” she instructs. “Now slide your earlobes down, drop the arms, shoulder blades down, soften the knees, and float the fingers up, thinking of the weight of the organs. Just be aware of the inside body—the three-dimensional body. Bring your hands back to where your kidneys are—sacs of water heating the body. Steam.”

It is this exacting focus that draws your eye to details, like the way a shoulder rotates in and out; Melnick’s art is a scintillating exploration of the human form.

However easy she makes it look, Melnick, by her own account, works like a dog. “It’s no big mystery,” she says dryly. “I never go into rehearsal without being completely warmed up. I don’t get drunk or high. It’s work, and if I’m going to be dancing at my age, I have to take care of my body. I don’t want a day off.”

At 49, Melnick could pass for two decades younger. “Am I going to lie about my age?” she asks, laughing in disbelief. “I think that would just be so dumb.”

Born in Brooklyn but raised in Long Island, Melnick started out not in dance, but in competitive gymnastics, which took her from fourth grade through high school. “I loved the idea of being ferociously physical,” she says. “And I had this crazy sense of momentum. Like I understood momentum in my body, and I remember it colliding with a fearlessness and with form.”

Through gymnastics, she took her first dance classes, which were mainly jazz and tap. “During my senior year, I was like, Why am I a competitive gymnast?” she recalls. “What am I going to do? That’s when I started getting more into dance. I would come into the city and take jazz class. I wanted to be on Broadway and be in A Chorus Line and do Bob Fosse.” She pauses. “I still secretly do.”

While at Purchase College, Melnick trained in the modern techniques of Graham, Limón, and Cunningham, as well as improvisation and experimental forms. “I took one class with Sarah Stackhouse, and I was like, my life has changed,” Melnick recalls. “It was the way she moved through space, very precise, but very grand. It was the way she talked about the body and movement and life and spirit—how she related dance to the world.”

Mel Wong, who specialized in Cunningham technique, was another influence. “He was very political, and in class he would talk about issues of the time,” Melnick says. “It didn’t feel superfluous. It didn’t feel like when I would take a ballet class and it was just about an aesthetic.”

Morever, she found ballet class oppressive. “When you went across the floor doing tombé pas de bourrée glissade jeté in a gorgeous studio with gorgeous windows and live music, it’s an exhilarating feeling—but for me, it was not,” she continues. “It was physically unenjoyable. But then I would go to modern dance class, and it was running, putting your heels down, articulating the hip joint, the foot going into the ground, using your body weight, what the elbow did, how you moved through space, and there was something about that that moved me. I had a visceral connection to it.”

In a dress made of screen material that Melnick designed herself.

After graduation, Melnick performed with Nina Wiener’s company and embarked on a freelance route, working with choreographers like Donna Uchizono, with whom she reunited for a 2006 piece featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hristoula Harakas. “The next huge, monumental experience came in meeting Sara Rudner crossing the street in the early ’90s,” Melnick says. “I stood pointing and saying, ‘Oh, my God, you’re Sara Rudner!’ ”

She found a mentor in Rudner, a spellbinding dancer who was a founding member of Twyla Tharp’s group in the 1960s (and a 2009 Dance Magazine Awardee). “All we did for years was work and work and not talk in the studio,” Melnick says. “There was a point where I actually felt my body go through her like osmosis.” She laughs. “If you’re going to pick anyone to do that with, she’s an amazing choice.”

Melnick came close, but never made it into Trisha Brown’s company. (“I was destroyed and devastated.”) Later, she had other opportunities to work with Brown, in both setting her operas abroad, and in a solo that Melnick performed last spring at New York Live Arts. “Ultimately, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I got the other relationship with Trisha, where I could be who I was with her. So I lucked out.”

Through Rudner, she became acquainted with Tharp and went on to dance with her in the early ’90s and again in 2009. Melnick had a distinct feeling about Tharp’s work. “It was so challenging for my body technically, but I understood something about opposition and the range of motion in your ankles, in your pelvis. I understood those coordinations, and the sophisticated structure she would pair with them.”

After Tharp, Melnick worked with Iréne Hultman, Rethorst, and Shick. Working with these three women “developed my more quirky, inventive approach to movement,” she says. “It developed my eye to see the subtle nuance, how dance was not fleeting, that when I saw Vicky do something, after she left, I still saw it.”

In 2005, her own choreography began to take center stage: Wanderlust, Kentucky at Dance Theater Workshop was followed, in 2009, with a mixed bill at The Kitchen, where she unveiled Suedehead and Fanfare, a collaboration with the visual artist Burt Barr. The latter was a purely physical exploration of Melnick’s body in space.

“I had just gone through this very tragic experience,” she says. “One piece was going to be laden with the last two years of what I’d gone through—the good, bad, ugly, tremendous—and I wanted this other piece to be only about me being in the space with this movement and Burt’s set. I had to have a task to keep my mind from straying because when my mind strayed it went to a very dark and horrible place.”

Melnick doesn’t like to talk about the devastating incident in which her fiancé died suddenly, but she will say that her relationship to dance and to art saved her. “It’s so important to me, and then when you get out of yourself, you realize that it’s bigger than you in a way,” she says. “The way the ocean is important because it’s so big. I felt the thing I was so devoted to and that had loved me and that I had loved back, and I was so grateful.”

Now, she’s in a good personal situation and lives on the Upper West Side with her boyfriend, a math teacher. “I don’t know how this happened: I have this great guy,” she says. “Brilliant, beautiful relationship. I’m done.”

Her most recent concert included One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures, the solo that was created in collaboration with Brown. “It was a dream come true, and I know that sounds really corny, but she lives up to every expectation I have,” Melnick says. “Her choices were radical and fierce and unpredictable and spirited and crazy technical and hard.

In a costume designed by Yeohlee Teng for One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures.

This winter, Melnick will begin a new investigation in the studio. That’s how she starts every piece: Alone, with maybe a bit of talk radio to keep her company.

“My next work is a little based on my feelings,” she says. “How is that in cahoots with this abstract physical medium I use my body? It’s less tangible than love and hate or despair. I have a certain feeling when I’m onstage: The atmosphere, the environment, the way I move from A to B with a certain kind of motor. It makes me feel something that I don’t ever feel anywhere else. I want to expand on that.”

Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.

 

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Cover Story
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She steps out to watch the others try the phrase, and adds a few more steps. Quick, staccato movement, legs kicking out, torsos swiveling around, fists hitting glass. "This is a puzzle," she says, almost to herself. "I'm not sure I'll like it." The statement, like so many, is punctured with a sweet, nervous laugh.

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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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My hypermobility used to cause me a lot of trouble, but I've gained confidence and strength after reading about it in one of your columns. I now have a Pilates instructor who's retraining my body and helping me dance in a consistent way. Thank you!

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