Great Troupes Come In Small Packages

January 29, 2008

Sometimes the big companies get all the attention, so
Dance Magazine decided to highlight five great troupes that come in much smaller packages. With 10 or less dancers, they may be tiny, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t mighty.

Verb Ballets
Variety in action

Named after a term indicating a state of action, Cleveland’s Verb Ballets has been on the move, creating a buzz and garnering a loyal local audience since the company’s inception in 2002. Led by former Paul Taylor Dance Company dancer Hernando Cortez, Verb is a close-knit nine-member contemporary dance ensemble with a strong personality—Cortez’s. That is to say Cortez feels the company reflects the many sides of his personality.


“What makes a dance company unique is the personality behind it,” says Cortez. “What distinguishes Verb is the personality I created for it.”


Formerly known as The Repertory Project, a predominately postmodern dance company, Cortez made the company more mainstream, changing its name and almost overnight turning it into perhaps Cleveland’s most recognizable dance organization.


Verb’s personality in large part is revealed in the repertoire Cortez has chosen for it: a mixture of masterpieces by Graham and Taylor, quality works by contemporary choreographers like David Parsons and Seán Curran, works by emerging choreographers, and about 16 new works created for the company by the prolific Cortez.


About Cortez’s choreographic contributions, company dancer Catherine Meredith says, “I have tangoed, polkaed, done the salsa, danced barefoot, and been on pointe. I think his range of styles really helps us grow as artists.”


The company’s personality is also revealed in the dancers Cortez has hired—a variety of shapes, sizes, and ethnicities. Cortez says they are not only a great mix but are a main source of choreographic inspiration.


“I have always dreamed of making a national touring company,” says Cortez. “There are great institutions here like The Cleveland Orchestra and The Cleveland Museum of Art that get recognized nationally. I feel Verb can be that ambassador for dance.”


That vision has had to take a back seat lately to fiscal responsibility. Averaging 25–30 (mostly local) performances a year on a modest budget of $360,000, Verb has struggled to stay out of the red. The company’s survival has depended on income from outreach programs as well as an arrangement to sublease rehearsal space from another dance company.


“As with any job, some days it can be difficult,” says Meredith. “But we all love each other and always put the work first. It is a company where everyone is passionate about what they do. It’s a labor of love.” —Steve Sucato

Minnesota’s mosaic

In 1979 a feisty and visionary young dancer—whose college counselor had advised her to try Broadway but who longed to head a college dance department—started the Ozone Dance School in Minneapolis. Four years later, Linda Z. Andrews combined her two fledgling dance companies, Rezone Dancers (modern) and Just Jazz Dancers (jazz), into one troupe: Zenon Dance Company. The buzz generated by the dynamic, eight-member company with a “Z” has continued ever since.


Andrews has made Zenon a standard-bearer of artistic verity, technical virtuosity, and choreographic eclecticism in the Twin Cities. At the same time, the company has built and retained loyal, enthusiastic audiences. Behind its longevity are Andrews’ unflagging drive and her rigorous expectations for excellence. And she’s constructed a dynamic repertoire by offering young choreographers—more than 50 regional, national, and international dancemakers to date—the opportunity to work with a professional company in generating new work.


“I’ve always been interested in emerging choreographers, because that’s where the risks are exciting,” Andrews says. Early in their careers, such luminaries as Bill T. Jones, Bebe Miller, David Dorfman, Doug Varone, and the Argentine dancemaker Susana Tambutti created dances for Zenon. More recently, Andrews has commissioned Tere O’Connor, Keely Garfield, Bill Young, Seán Curran, and Johannes Wieland. From these commissions, Andrews has built a staggeringly diverse repertoire of evergreen work for Zenon, while introducing these choreographers to the Twin Cities and raising the bar for performance.


Christine Maginnis, a dancer of leonine physical prowess and astute comic timing, has performed with the company since its inception. “I have always been challenged by the rigorous repertoire, as well as by the powerhouse eccentric performers Linda has chosen,” Maginnis says.


“Just when you think you’ve done it all, there’s someone new around the corner taking you out of your comfort zone, like Minneapolis choreographer Ranee Ramaswamy putting us through Bharata Natyam boot camp, or Hungarian choreographer Gyula Berger having us step in counterpoint to a Steve Reich score.”


Maginnis also thrived during the fruitful three-year merger of Zenon with Danny Buraczeski’s JAZZDANCE that began in 1989. And she’s experienced minimal dancer turnover. “When a group solidifies and gets in a groove, the style of choreography is always changing,” she says. “The beauty of Zenon is that it’s forever evolving while grounded by Linda’s aesthetic. There’s a good balance of tradition and experimentation, along with works that contain a high potency of athleticism, emotion, precision, and transcendence.”


Zenon has toured throughout the United States, as well as to Aruba, Guam, Russia, Saipan, Switzerland, and Budapest—where the dancers were treated “like rock stars,” according to dancer Greg Waletski. With its masterful command of an array of dance styles, which each Zenon dancer infuses with emotional integrity and technical nuance, the company continues to earn accolades here and abroad.


“I’m a determined person,” Andrews says of her company’s success. “I was born with a lot of energy. And I’ve pushed the dancers to try everything. This company is about working hard together so that every dance emerges with its own soul and integrity intact.” —Camille LeFevre

Singing the body eclectic

A sense of togetherness, say members, distinguishes Portland, Oregon’s contemporary company BodyVox. Artistic directors (and married couple) Jamey Hampton and Ashley Roland, former members of MOMIX and co-founders of ISO, launched the group in 1997. Since then, it has built a repertoire of full-length works marked by athleticism, striking imagery, and a comic bent, including the short films it created with moviemaker Mitchell Rose.


Hampton likes the company’s modest size (8–10 dancers on average, plus apprentices) because it encourages artistic individuality. “There’s no star system,” he says. “Everyone is utilized. The way our shows are constructed, people get rests but they’re still dancing a lot.”


BodyVox doesn’t audition dancers so much as get to know them, says BodyVoxer Lane Hunter. “Ashley told me, ‘If I would feel comfortable having dinner with you at my house, I would feel comfortable dancing with you.’ ” Hunter had looked at other companies but was put off by a string of bleak auditions. He took BodyVox’s workshops in Ashland, Oregon, and liked the humor and imagery of the choreography. He also liked the company’s friendly, open manner. “It’s kind of like a family,” he says, “in that you work your way into it.”


With BodyVox, he says, dancers get to do different things. “We’re willing to create pieces for different sites,” he says. They have performed at sports events and festivals, in operas and fashion shows, as well as regular repertory programs and touring. The part-time nature of the work—the dancers train weekday mornings—is both a blessing and a curse, he says. On one hand, it can mean racing from one place to the next; on the other, it allows people to explore other interests besides dance, and to maintain a family life.


Fellow BodyVoxer Eric Skinner, who danced with Oregon Ballet Theatre before he came to BodyVox, admits there are benefits to working for a larger company: “You punch in, you do your eight hours, things are pretty much taken care of for you.” But there’s a downside too: “You become part of the machine. It takes away some of the personality of the dancer,” he says. Like Hunter, he enjoys the intimacy and spontaneity of working with a smaller group. “Ashley said that if someone makes a mistake onstage, just fix it, laugh it off, and move on.” He describes the movement itself as sophisticated but also accessible. “A lot of times people who don’t like dance—husbands who say they were dragged there by their wives—will leave saying, ‘That was really cool.’ ” —Heather Wisner

Taking a (second) chance

Dancers Judith Fugate and Medhi Bahiri faced a slippery choice: After retiring from the stage, would their future be in noodles? This married couple became co-owners of a restaurant called Mimi’s Macaroni in New York City. Carbohydrates and kiddie menus were not the answer for these two, however.


Fugate had been a star with New York City Ballet. Bahiri had performed with Béjart’s Ballet of the 20th Century, Boston Ballet, and other companies. A more natural second career now has them running Ballet NY, a chamber-sized ensemble where they can employ their theater smarts. They founded the troupe, originally called DanceGalaxy, in 1997.


Ballet NY showcases a variety of choreographers, and the directors hire mature performers who can finesse a challenging range of styles. While often neoclassical, these ballets make contemporary demands on the dancers. They can be plotless or dramatic.


Fugate and Bahiri enrich the New York dance scene by presenting high-quality pieces like John Butler’s Othello and William Forsythe’s Artifact II, which local audiences might not see otherwise. They save familiar favorites by Balanchine, including Who Cares? and Tschaikovsky Pas de Deux, for their tours.


The directors have managed to balance accessibility with risk. They have presented audience-friendly works by Ginger Thatcher and Michael Smuin; and they have explored the subtle movement qualities in compositions by Sarah Slipper and Helen Heineman. Ballet NY supplies a platform for lesser-known dancemakers who deserve a second look. Fugate and Bahiri also have an eye for emerging talent. Their most glorious successes have been premieres commissioned from Stanton Welch (Orange, in 2001) and Thaddeus Davis (Once before, Twice after, in 2002).


Ballet NY employs a handful of dancers, and their season is regrettably short—from 16 to 24 weeks. For a mid-career performer like Anitra Nurnberger, however, the chance to deepen her artistry in featured roles makes Ballet NY her top priority. In this company, she dances a lot—sometimes three or four ballets per night. “There have been so many ballets that I think I’m losing my mind,” Nurnberger says laughing.


Nurnberger loves contemporary work, but has valued the opportunity to hone her acting skills in Ballet NY. She was featured as Desdemona in Othello; and this season she played a woman mourning an unspecified loss in William Soleau’s Table Games. Fugate and Bahiri, she says, can identify a dancer’s talents and match her with the right roles. And Fugate’s coaching is both helpful and unobtrusive. Though demanding in class, Fugate doesn’t try to push her personal style on anyone. “She wants you to dance the way you dance, and she just wants to embellish it,” Nurnberger says. Both directors are very thoughtful, thanking their dancers after each performance. Their warmth contributes to the troupe’s no-fuss professionalism and camaraderie.


“With every ballet I keep growing,” Nurnberger says. “It’s such an exciting experience.” —Robert Johnson

Dance Alloy Theater
Rebuilding, step by step

Beth Corning is on a mission to crash through the “fourth wall,” the invisible line of demarcation that separates performers from spectators. As artistic/executive director of Pittsburgh’s Dance Alloy Theater, she is rejuvenating the 32-year-old modern dance group with programming that emphasizes the human condition. She invites dancemakers like Marina Harris and Claire Porter who create high quality, fully envisioned dances to challenge the five-member troupe. She is also amassing a new repertoire that embraces offerings by Susan Marshall and Pilobolus and promoting the dance theater aesthetic reflected in her own choreography. Although audience accessibility is paramount, Corning believes that the public craves the provocative and is cautiously tiptoeing toward riskier undertakings.


When Corning assumed the DAT directorship in 2003, the organization was low on funding and staff. The national and international touring that had built the repertory troupe’s reputation was at a standstill. This season, DAT emerged from the overhaul with gigs in Ohio, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania; two main stage home events at the Kelly-Strayhorn and New Hazlett Theaters; and appearances at local festivals for a total of 30 performances.


“We’re a small organization. I like it small,” says Corning, who prefers spending money on choreography and raises for dancers and staff than on increasing the roster. “A company of this size allows humanity on many levels. Dancers don’t get lost. On the downside, injuries have a huge ripple effect. Dancers really need to take care of themselves and deal with injuries immediately.”


DAT’s five full-time dancers get 28-week, August-through-May contracts with health benefits and have a massage therapist onsite twice monthly. Corning rarely holds auditions, but encourages aspirants to spend a week taking the company’s mandatory ballet and contemporary dance classes. She values dancers with technical ability, mature theatricality, vulnerability, and seasoned bodies.


Pittsburgh has a tight-knit dance community. It’s home to several small contemporary troupes, among them Attack Theatre and LABCO Dance, both Alloy offspring. Corning, noting Pittsburgh’s affordable housing, actively campaigns to lure dance professionals to relocate.


“I wasn’t looking for the Alloy job,” says Corning, who directed her own company in Stockholm, New York, and Minnesota for over 20 years. “It found me. It’s exciting now. After four years, I can say this company is mine.”


Stephanie Dumaine, who joined DAT in 2005, relishes working with DAT’s influx of choreographers, including Donald Byrd and Joe Goode. She also appreciates the company’s intimate environment and palpable sense of community. “I have absolute respect for my fellow company members,” she says. “We’re working towards a similar goal.” —Karen Dacko