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.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
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.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
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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We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
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.
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?
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?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
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.
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
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.