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.

 

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