Flying Through Space
Crystal Edwards and BLM below a 135 underpass in Duluth, MN; Photo by Bill Cameron, Courtesy BLM
Black Label Movement gives new meaning to risky behavior. Coming to dance from a serious soccer background gave founder Carl Flink what he describes as “a commitment to flying into space without being worried about the impact.” Onstage, he creates dances that explore wildly physical action and dramatic subjects, such as the fate of people trapped in an airtight compartment of a sinking ship. Offstage, he collaborates with scientists, works on TED Talks and uses dance to simulate molecular processes and navigate zero-gravity environments.
“When I was young, movement was about running, jumping, falling, catching,” he says. “I never want to lose that passion to move—to be alive in my skin.”
That full-throttle approach—combined with his TED Talk fame—has made Flink the in-demand choreographer of the moment whom many modern dance undergrads dream of working with. “I’d never seen movement done that way—so visceral, dynamic, big,” says Lauren Baker, who studied under Flink at the University of Minnesota before joining BLM in 2011. “It tore my world apart.”
It’s not only students; presenters are also taking notice: Flink has recently gotten several commissions, and his Twin Cities–based company is increasingly touring beyond Minnesota’s borders. His wide-ranging vision and philosophy of hyper-engagement have brought BLM from the concert stage to science laboratories and the viral upper echelons of the internet.
Flink, who holds a law degree from Stanford University, sees his work as an attempt to “manifest political statements in the work of the body.” He first began taking dance classes at the University of Minnesota while majoring in political science and women’s studies. After graduating in 1990, he performed with the Limón Dance Company in New York for six years. He eventually moved back home to Minneapolis to work with the Farmers’ Legal Action Group where he approached social justice issues through problem solving. He also sees choreography as a set of problems to be solved. Flink, who had started making dances in New York, continued creating his own work at Stanford and while teaching men’s and partnering classes at the U of M. In 2004, he left his career in law to become director of the dance program and later chair of the Department of Theatre Arts and Dance at Minnesota.
Above: BLM dancers in HIT; Photo by V. Paul Virtucio, Courtesy BLM
Flink launched BLM in 2005. He named the company after generic food brands because of their no-nonsense way of communicating: “I liked those unrelenting black and yellow labels saying exactly what’s inside—like ‘peas’.”
Since the beginning, he’s collaborated closely with Emilie Plauché Flink, his partner in dance and life, with whom he has three daughters. As an artistic associate at BLM, Emilie performs with the company and often directs rehearsals. She brainstorms with Carl and provides “a different voice, a different approach,” she says. “Carl has the big picture in mind, and I’m the detail person who wants more of a road map.”
Flink calls his 10 dancers (several of whom are U of M graduates), “movers.” He likens them to surfers trying to find ease riding natural forces they can’t control. Each mover must figure out how his or her body works in the dynamics of the material Flink creates, whether it’s complex partnering or falling, colliding, rebounding.
This approach is part of why Flink has become an appealing collaborator for scientists. Biomedical engineer David Odde worked with Flink to develop “bodystorming,” a technique for scientists and dancers to model scientific theories, such as embodying the tumultuous function of particles in a cell. That led to a dance entitled HIT that explores the impact of bodies colliding and finding, as the Minneapolis Star Tribune put it, “the unexpected poetry within aggression.”
Flink is determined to bring dance to diverse audiences. In 2011, BLM and John Bohannon, a Science magazine correspondent and the founder of the annual Dance Your Ph.D. contest, performed “A Modest Proposal” during TEDx Brussels. The 11-minute presentation examined ways that dance, science and communication could intersect to become an alternative to the dominant medium of PowerPoint. When posted on the main TED website, the video went viral.
The success of “A Modest Proposal” led to BLM working with Bohannon and the Minneapolis band Jelloslave to create a new presentation for the 2012 TED: Full Spectrum conference. Called “Let’s Talk About Sex,” it discusses the evolutionary nature of sex and how to explain it to young people. Later that year, Flink’s award-winning choreography for a Twin Cities production of Spring Awakening took some of those ideas to embody adolescent passion and pain, with dancers literally bouncing off of the walls.
Flink demands an extreme intensity from his dancers; there is no marking in his rehearsals. “On the one hand there’s the excitement of dancers moving around in risky and exhilarating ways and pounding on each other,” says Flink. “But by the end it’s about survival.”
John Bohannon with BLM at TEDx Brussels; Photo by Bill Cameron, Courtesy BLM
During a rehearsal last September at the Cowles Center for Dance and the Performing Arts in Minneapolis, Flink began a new piece by asking the dancers to create duets based on touch and an “oozing” movement phrase he had taught them. “Can we just see the rawness of where you are?” he asked. Five couples showed a fascinating range of fluid athleticism with hints of aggression, humor, menace. Flink then suggested structures, such as having the group surround a duet and shadow the pelvis of one dancer to create a surging group dynamic. By the end of the hour dancers were orbiting the central couple at full speed, or crowding in, forcing the pair to break through them. “Carl allows us to try things without any kind of judgment,” says Baker. “He honors what we come up with and then he shapes it.”
His young company members have taken to Flink’s work voraciously. “They’re so rabid in their desire to move and be challenged,” says Flink. “When I walk into rehearsal, I’d better have my work boots on.”
Linda Shapiro is a Minneapolis-based writer.
PLAY VIDEO of BLM’s TED talk appearance at ted.com/talks.
New Works Coming Up
Projects in 2014 include two premieres for the company’s Cowles Center performances March 27–29, a work exploring phases of touch and another inspired by the transition of Venus across the face of the sun. Flink will set or create a work at the University of Utah this month, and BLM will travel to the University of North Texas in April to perform “A Modest Proposal” and other pieces. Then Flink creates a work for American Dance Festival students that will premiere in July, with the working title An Unkindness of Ravens. July also includes a remount of Flink’s Wreck (2008), about a shipwreck on Lake Superior, at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis. See blacklabelmovement.com.
Even if you haven't heard her name, you've almost certainly seen the work of commercial choreographer James Alsop. Though she's made award-winning dances for Beyoncé ("Run the World," anyone?) and worked with stars like Lady GaGa and Janelle Monae, Alsop's most recent project may be her most powerful: A moving music video for Everytown for Gun Safety, directed by Ezra Hurwitz and featuring students from the National Dance Institute.
We caught up with Alsop for our "Spotlight" series:
I want to make an apology because, in my opening speech at the Dance Magazine Awards on Monday, I inadvertently left out one awardee. I said, "Tonight we are honoring four outstanding dance artists who have contributed to the dance field over time." But then I named only three. How could I have forgotten Lourdes Lopez?!?!
We had all been hearing about Lourdes's taking the helm at Miami City Ballet with grace, intelligence, compassion and new ideas. I was planning to say, "Lourdes Lopez, who has brought new life to Miami City Ballet" because I thought that would cover a lot of ground. (My only quibble with myself was whether to say "brought new life" or "gave new life.")
Each year, The New York Times Magazine shines a spotlight on who they deem to be the best actors of the year in its Great Performers series. But, what we're wondering is, can they dance? Thankfully, the NYT Mag recruited none other than Justin Peck to put them to the test.
Peck choreographed and directed a series of 10 short dance films, placing megastars in everyday situations: riding the subway, getting out of bed in the morning, waiting at a doctor's office.
Today, we are thrilled to announce the honorees of the 2018 Dance Magazine Awards. A tradition dating back to 1954, the Dance Magazine Awards celebrate the living legends who have made a lasting impact on dance. This year's honorees include:
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On busy performance days, international guest artist Joy Womack always makes time for one activity after class and rehearsals: a nap. "I like to feel well-rested when I need to be in the spotlight at night, not dragging at the end of the day," she says. "It helps me recover and refocus."
With her earbuds tuned to a guided meditation app, she can squeeze in a nap wherever she needs to. "One time I even took a nap on the floor of the tour bus in Siberia," she says. "Dancers can sleep anywhere."
Joy Womack prioritizes napping before a show. Photo by Quinn Wharton for Pointe magazine.
As research has revealed the benefits of short daytime naps, power-napping advice has proliferated, and more dancers are choosing to include a nap in their pre-performance routines. Approaching napping strategically will help you get the most out of an afternoon snooze.
On Monday night, a memorial was held at Riverside Church to honor the life and achievements of Dance Theatre of Harlem co-founder Arthur Mitchell. With nearly three months to process and grieve (Mitchell passed away on September 19) the atmosphere was not that of mourning as much as reflection, reverence and admiration for who he was, what he built and what remains. (Watch the full livestream here.)
The church filled with family, artistic friends, fans and admirers. What was most gratifying was the volume of DTH alumni from the school, company and organization who traveled across the globe to pay their respects, from founding members to present dancers and students. The house of worship was filled with the sentiment of a family reunion. As Mitchell was sent home, it was a homecoming for many who have not shared air together in decades. What was palpable was the authentic bonds that Dance Theatre of Harlem and Mitchell fostered in all.
Fans of the sublime English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams were probably excited to see her image splashed across the company's website in a promotional image for an upcoming production of Swan Lake.
But those who took a closer look were met with a disappointing reality: Adams, who is the only black woman in the company, is not listed on the principal casting sheet for the production.
Gennadi Nedvigin is not the only early tenure director breaking out a new production of The Nutcracker this season.
We love The Nutcracker as much as the next person, but that perennial holiday classic isn't the only thing making its way onstage this month. Here are five alternatives that piqued our editors' curiosity.
The Nutcracker is synonymous with American ballet. So when Gennadi Nedvigin took the helm at Atlanta Ballet in 2016, a new version of the holiday classic was one of his top priorities. This month, evidence of two years' worth of changes will appear when the company unwraps its latest version at Atlanta's Fox Theatre Dec. 8–24. Choreographed by Yuri Possokhov and produced on a larger-than-ever scale for Atlanta, the new ballet represents Nedvigin's big ambitions.
Ballet Hispánico returns to the famed Apollo Theater in Harlem with its full-length ballet, CARMEN.maquia. Spanish choreographer Gustavo Ramirez Sansano has reenvisioned the story of Carmen to emphasize Don José, the man who falls in love with Carmen, suffers because of her infidelity, then murders her in a "fit of passion." Their duets are filled with all the sensuality, jealousy and violence you could wish for—in a totally contemporary dance language.
Sansano's previous piece for Ballet Hispánico, El Beso, bloomed with a thousand playful and witty ways of expressing desire. He has a knack for splicing humor into romance.
Not being able to attend the in-person audition at your top college can feel like the end of the world. But while it's true that going to the live audition is ideal, you can still make the best out of sending a video. Here are some of the perks:
It's become a colloquialism—or, we admit, a cliche—to say that dance can heal.
But with a new initiative launched by British Health Secretary Matt Hancock, doctors in the U.K. will soon be able to prescribe dance classes—along with art, music, sports, gardening and more—for patients suffering from conditions as various as dementia, lung problems and mental health issues.
We always figured that stretching made us more flexible by loosening up our muscles and joints. Some of us, ahem, might have even tried to fall asleep in our middle splits to get our stubbornly stiff inner thighs to let go.
But it turns out that might not actually be how stretching works.
A new review published in the Scandinavian Journal of Science & Medicine in Sports suggests that increased flexibility actually comes from your brain growing more used to the tension.
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
What does it mean to be human? Well, many things. But if you were at the Dance Magazine Awards last night, you could argue that to be human is to dance. Speeches about the powerful humanity of our art form were backed up with performances by incredible dancers hailing from everywhere from Hubbard Street Dance Chicago to Miami City Ballet.
Misty Copeland started off the celebration. A self-professed "Dance Magazine connoisseur from the age of 13," she not only spoke about how excited she was to be in a room full of dancers, but also—having just come from Dance Theatre of Harlem's memorial for Arthur Mitchell—what she saw as their duty: "We all in this room hold a responsibility to use this art for good," she said. "Dance unifies, so let's get to work."
That sentiment was repeated throughout the night.
Choreographer Val Caniparoli started his ballet career by performing in Lew Christensen's The Nutcracker with San Francisco Ballet in 1971. Today, he still performs with SFB as Drosselmeir, in the company's current version by Helgi Tomasson.
It takes Caniparoli a lot of concentration to stick to the choreography.
"I have the four versions that I choreographed of the role in my head, plus the original I danced for years by Lew," he says. "That's a lot of versions to keep straight."
A list of Clara alumnae from Radio City's Christmas Spectacular reads like a star-studded, international gala program: Tiler Peck and Brittany Pollack of New York City Ballet (and Broadway), Meaghan Grace Hinkis of The Royal Ballet, Whitney Jensen of Norwegian National Ballet and more. Madison Square Garden's casting requirements for the role are simple: The dancer should be 4' 10" and under, appear to be 14 years old or younger and have strong ballet technique and pointework.
The unspoken requisite? They need abundant tenacity at a very young age.
When I read last month that Jessica Lang Dance had announced its farewell, I'm sure I wasn't the only dancer surprised. In the same way that many of us, when reading an obituary, instinctively look for the cause of death, I searched for a reason for the company's unexpected folding. It was buried in the fifth paragraph of The New York Times article:
Her manager, Margaret Selby, said in an interview that Jessica Lang Dance's closing showed how difficult it is to keep a small dance company running these days. "You have to raise so much money, the smaller companies don't have enough staff, and Jessica was running the company for the last seven years without a day off," she said. "She wants to focus on creative work."
Whereas the announcement itself may have come as a shock, the root cause certainly doesn't. All of us in the field are familiar with the conditions to which Selby refers. But that these problems can topple the success of a company like Lang's, which boasts seven years of national and international touring that include commissions from Jacob's Pillow and The Joyce, among others, is sobering.