Immersive, Integrated & Awkward
Some nights, Jennine Willett convinces two strangers to get into bed with her. Then she reads them a bedtime story for almost exactly six minutes. It's just one of many intimate but carefully calibrated moments Willett engineers between herself and her audience in Third Rail Projects' production of Then She Fell, an immersive theatrical dance production based on the writings of Lewis Carroll.
Dancers don't typically enter the professional field prepared to coax viewers into joining them on a bed, or to hold hands, or skip together side by side. But an increasing number of productions—from high-profile extravaganzas like Punchdrunk's Sleep No More (which has taken over entire buildings in London, New York City and Boston), to avant-garde installations by postmodern choreographers like Jody Oberfelder and Siobhan Davies—require dancers to do just that. Although not your typical choreography, participatory encounters must be as deftly timed as a pirouette—and as rigorously rehearsed. But how do perfomers learn to navigate a show in which every moment may contain a surprise?
Above: Sean Donovan encourages audience members to skip with him around the stage in Faye Driscoll's Thank You For Coming. Photo by Maria Baranova, Courtesy Faye Driscoll.
It starts with studying the audience members. For his role in the Dionysian dance-fest Queen of the Night, dance captain Kimo Kepano concentrates on body language as he scans the crowd for someone to pull onto the dance floor. “I'm looking for someone who allows themselves to be open," he says. “Someone who in their eyes has already said 'Yes,' and who has planted their feet firmly on the ground and is already smiling." After locking eyes with his target, Kepano swoops in and asks a simple question. His directness draws viewers in. “I'll go up to someone and ask, 'Are you willing to say yes to me?' " If they answer, Kepano considers it an in. Soon he'll be able to introduce them to higher levels of engagement built into the show, like getting fed out of his hand, or being pulled in for an intimate slow dance. “We come at it from a place of deep, tactile feeling," he says. “It's like meditating with someone." The process forces Kepano to dance more organically to allow his body to pick up on “physical vibrations" from the audience. “Feel the space around you, the air vibrations, the architecture."
Both Brandon Washington and Nikki Zialcita say eye contact helped them navigate Faye Driscoll's recent work, Thank You For Coming: Attendance. Establishing a firm but flexible gaze at the beginning of the piece prepared viewers for an eventual touch. “If you look at someone first and then touch them, it's very different than when you just touch them without first checking in," says Zialcita. “The eyes are really important to letting people know you're not trying to put them on the spot. You can't glare," says Washington. In rehearsal, the cast played mirroring games to practice seamlessly reading and responding to impulses from others. Driscoll also invited guests to some rehearsals so the dancers could practice locking eyes.
The Queen of the Night performers, on the other hand, met with a professional dominatrix during their rehearsal process. “It wasn't about anything sexual," says Kepano. “She taught us about approaching people in a way that let them shed their fears. It's different from passion or intimacy—it's about creating a safe space for people to let go."
But what happens when viewers simply refuse to interact? Kepano has learned to deal with closed-off people simply by walking away. “We call them 'energy vampires,' " he says. “And we can't allow it to affect us. We let them be. There's someone else nearby who is just dying to have that experience." It has taken time to learn to let negative energy roll off his back. “I had to create a whole new warm-up that involved hiding out to recharge," says Kepano. “And I see performers around me who are still working to figure out how to do this effectively six days a week and not get overwhelmed."
Above: Alberto Denis and Marissa Nielsen-Pincus in Then She Fell. Photo Courtesy Third Rail Projects.
Not all dancers sign their contracts while anticipating this challenge. When Shamel Pitts joined the Israel-based Batsheva Dance Company, he expected his audience to stay at a safe but adoring distance, since Batsheva mostly performs on traditional proscenium stages. But certain pieces, such as Minus 16, pull audience members up on stage; in Mamootot, dancers perform all the way up to the front row, reaching out and stroking the viewers' hands.
When Pitts was first cast in Mamootot, he was excited to show off his technique up close. But he quickly found that proximity changed his experience of a performer's ego. “To look at the audience, sit near them, see and feel them breathing and sweating," he says, “I connect with something other than how smart I can be with the material. I'm showing them how delicate my virtuosity can be."
The proximity often has a moving effect on viewers, as well. “Israeli audiences are tough," says Pitts. “People aren't afraid to walk out or turn away. But once I was dancing near a big macho-looking guy, a man with gray hair in his fifties sitting next to his wife. I shook his hand and I could see he was shaking, almost vibrating. He looked like he was holding back from crying."
One woman at Queen of the Night once cried on Kepano's shoulder for 10 minutes as they slow-danced. “She told me she had not been touched in 10 years." Other times, visitors have “freaked out, or gotten into a kind of hypnotic state." (Security steps in if an audience grows too rowdy—but this rarely happens, says Kepano.)
For Pitts, rather than overwhelming him, being close to an audience helps him lighten up. “The work we do is total, physical, extreme," he says. “It's challenging to be able to honor the work and the environment, but not take yourself too seriously." During Mamootot, Pitts reminds himself to “chill out and check in with the outside world." Above: Queen of the Night dancers on and around the stage. Photo by Joan Marcus, Courtesy Queen of the Night.
Audience interaction has helped Zialcita feel more like herself when she performs—like a person, not just a dancer. Embracing that feeling helps calm her nerves. “I had a first-date feeling when I started," says Zialcita. “But then it became about, What do I do in this situation? Me, as a person. I realized that some aspect of this is social," she reflects. “When you interact with someone, no matter what, you become more yourself."
The process of interaction helps some dancers find something more human in their performance. In New York–based choreographer luciana achugar's recent work OTRO TEATRO, Molly Lieber acted as an audience plant, rising from her seat and entering the stage partway through the show. It surprised many audience members—especially her friends, unaware of her participation in the piece, with whom she had been chatting in the lobby. “Lots of people didn't know I was involved," she says. “To have just been sitting in a chair and then walk into the show—it took away the whole notion of 'show,' for me," says Lieber. “It called my ego into question. It made me realize that being a performer should always be a really honest thing, rather than being in some 'other' state. You can be really complex and still know who you are."
Lizzie Feidelson is a freelance writer and choreographer in New York City.
If you love Michael Jackson, you'll love this news: A pre-Broadway run of the MJ jukebox musical will hit Chicago this fall.
Don't Stop 'Til You Get Enough boasts more than 25 MJ hits and has set its premiere for October 29. As previously reported, Christopher Wheeldon will direct and choreograph the new musical, while Lynn Nottage pens the book.
Gallim will honor Frederic M. Seegal and Limor Tomer at its February 12 Force of Nature gala. Both honorees have a close relationship with the Brooklyn-based contemporary dance troupe, so it's fitting that they'll be recognized at Gallim's first-ever gala.
Seegal, Dance Media's CEO, previously served as Gallim's board chairman. He fondly recalls his first encounter with the company: After Gallim brought down the house at its 2010 Fall For Dance performance, Seegal was immediately convinced that he had to support the company and connected with artistic director Andrea Miller that night.
These days, you don't have to be in the circus to learn how to fly. Aerial dance has grown in popularity in recent years, blending modern dance and circus traditions and enlisting the help of trapeze, silks, hammocks, lyra and cube for shows that push both viewers and performers past their comfort zones.
More dancers are learning aerial than ever before. Besides adding new skills to your resumé, becoming an aerialist opens up a new realm of possibilities.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
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From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
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.
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:
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."
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."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
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.
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:
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.
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.