At the End of All Things: Hofesh Shechter on His Latest Work
The first time I saw a Hofesh Shechter work, the usher handed me a program and a pair of earplugs as I walked up to the theater door. I was running late so I stuffed the tiny foam pieces in my pocket. I could not imagine in what universe I would ever need such things if I didn't even use them at rock concerts. And then I walked into the theater. I was pleasantly surprised to be accosted by the decibel level of what appeared to be a death metal band playing live for Shechter's Political Mother. I never used the earplugs, but perhaps the usual concert dance audience was grateful for the gesture.
In 2012, the show was a surprise even by the standards of Brooklyn Academy of Music's Next Wave Festival. In the years since, the Israeli choreographer has continued to shock and awe American audiences with his powerful, raw dance theater. His latest creation, Grand Finale, is a mature study in the contrasts and contradictions, the violence and the transcendence, that mark the modern human condition. I caught up with Shechter, now based in London, ahead of the work's appearance at BAM Next Wave November 9–11.
Grand Finale. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Danse Danse
What was your inspiration for Grand Finale? Is it purely abstract or is there a story in it for you?
I try to make work that is like a real night dream: You feel a lot of things and kind of know where you are are, and you kind of understand what is happening. It is an opportunity to express and digest a lot of emotions in the world today and in my life. And the responses are subjective; some people speak to me about the absolute despair in it and some speak of the hope they see, a shining star in the dark or a celebration of life. I think these two powers just exist together. There is a feeling of celebrating life regardless of how difficult it is, and, perhaps new to me, the feeling that there is beauty in the horrifying truth of our world, in what people are and how they behave. I was trying to make poetry with atrocities around me.
What is your creative process like when you are both composing and choreographing? Has this process changed over the last 10 years of your work?
I am learning each time. Normally I write the score and meet musicians near the end of the dance process. In the case of Grand Finale, I did a bit more of the early work with music and the musicians.
The score was not completed when I began with dancers. There was a lot of shifting, moving, readjusting. It is really a nonlinear, complex, messy experience.
When working with live musicians, I am not just telling them what to do, I am trying to find material to see how they flourish and connect with it. I want them to feel comfortable, to be able to improvise, like my dancers. This time, I wanted to discover new sounds and instruments and see how they could define the new material with dancers. The whole essence is human, very gentle, though of course the track has percussive energies, too. It was important to me that the band hold together the human spirit.
Grand Finale. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Danse Danse
What was the collaboration process like with your designers?
I try not to have literal conversations with designers. I want the design to kick us out of the literal world. The lighting designer Tom Visser was a great collaborator. It was wordless, and he stepped into my vision through doing and trying. For three days we just played a cold/hot game, getting warmer, colder, and then hot, and he read me through that process. His artistic vision is powerful and he has this ability to make the piece better without interrupting it.
And the walls in this show...
The movement of the walls was a very technical thing. My original idea was to shift them around the space but not have the audience see those movements. But then set designer Tom Scutt came up with walls that were so elegant and moved so smoothly, and had such artistic merit on their own, that we decided to make their movements visible. They appear solid but the world keeps shifting, and people are existing in the spaces in-between.
I am curious about if, and how, your military service [mandatory in Israel] informs your work? This is a rare thing in America, for a choreographer to also be a veteran.
Everything I have experienced goes into my work. I was a clerk in the military and I had special status as a dancer, but even though I was a "chocolate soldier" and not on the battlefield, I was still sucked into the system of the army. This hierarchic, fascistic system shocked me and was difficult for me to accept. It amplified a lot of my questions.
You are returning to New York after your Broadway choreographic debut with Fiddler on the Roof, for which you received a Tony nomination. Do you feel like there are expectations based on what has seemed to many like such rapid success?
I didn't even consider it. Maybe I am a bit like a child? I look at what is in front of me and I either get excited or afraid or nervous. Right now I am just excited to bring Grand Finale to audiences. We have had great experiences at BAM and I think the audience will connect to its power. If a different sort of audience is curious about Grand Finale because of Fiddler, great. I don't think they will be disappointed. For Broadway audiences to delve into a world that is different than musicals...that is exciting to me.
Grand Finale. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy Danse Danse
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
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For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
What's next for the dance world? Our annual list of the dancers, choreographers and companies that are on the verge of skyrocketing has a pretty excellent track record of answering that question.
Here they are: the 25 up-and-coming artists we believe represent the future of our field.
Update: Additional perspectives have been added to this story as more responses have come in.
"Every time I see a little girl in a tutu or with her hair in a bun on her way to ballet class, all I can think is that she should run in the other direction," she said, "because no one will protect her, like no one protected me."
It was quite a statement, and it got us thinking. Of course, it's heartbreaking to imagine the experiences that Waterbury lists in the lawsuit, and it's easy to see why this would be her reaction.
But should aspiring ballet dancers really "run in the other direction"? Were her alleged experiences isolated incidences perpetuated by a tiny percentage of just one company—or are they indicative of major problems in today's ballet culture within and beyond NYCB's walls?
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.
Rehearsal is in full swing, and Leta Biasucci, Pacific Northwest Ballet's newest principal dancer, finds herself in unfamiliar territory. Biasucci is always game for a challenge, but choreographer Kyle Davis wants her to lift fellow dancer Clara Ruf Maldonado. Repeatedly. While she's known for her technical prowess, lifting another dancer off the floor is a bit daunting for Biasucci, who stands all of 5' 3". She eyes Maldonado skeptically, then breaks into a grin.
"It's absolutely given me a new appreciation for the partner standing behind me!" Biasucci says with a laugh.
Looking at Biasucci, 29, with her wide smile and eager curiosity, you think you see the quintessential extrovert. In reality, she's anything but. "I was an introverted kid," Biasucci says. "That's part of the reason I fell in love with dance—I didn't have to be talkative."
It's only one of the seeming contradictions in Biasucci's life: She's a short, muscular ballerina in a company known for its fleet of tall, long-legged women; she's also most comfortable with classical ballet, while taking on a growing repertoire of contemporary work.
Sergei Polunin, whose recent homophobic and sexist Instagram posts have sparked international outrage, will not be appearing with the Paris Opéra Ballet as previously announced.
POB artistic director Aurélie Dupont sent an internal email to company staff and dancers on Sunday, explaining that she did not share Polunin's values and that the Russian-based dancer would not be guesting with the company during the upcoming run of Rudolf Nureyev's Swan Lake in February.
Before spending a summer at Los Angeles Ballet School, Lillian Glasscock had never learned a Balanchine variation. "The stylistic differences, like preparing for a pirouette with a straight back leg, were at first very challenging," says Glasscock, 17. "But it soon got easier."
Los Angeles Ballet company members were in class daily, motivating and inspiring her. Trying out a new style and expanding her repertoire gave Glasscock more strength, and a better understanding of the varied demands of ballet companies today. Months later, the Balanchine variations she learned are now personal favorites.
While the early years of training are typically spent diligently working through the syllabus of a single ballet technique, when you start to prepare for a professional career, versatility is key. There isn't just one correct version of each step. And as ballet companies continue to diversify their repertoires, directors need dancers who can move fluidly between an array of styles.