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.
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.
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.
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?
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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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.
Cloud & Victory gets dancers. The dancewear brand's social media drools over Roberto Bolle's abs, sets classical variations to Beyoncé and moans over Mondays and long adagios. And it all comes from the mind of founder Tan Li Min, the boss lady who takes on everything from designs to inventory to shipping orders.
Known simply (and affectionately) to the brand's 41K Instagram followers as Min, she's used her wry, winking sense of humor to give the Singapore-based C&V international cachet.
She recently spoke with Dance Magazine about building the brand, overcoming insecurity and using pizza as inspiration.
The Ballet Memphis New American Dance Residency, which welcomes selected choreographers for its inaugural iteration next week, goes a step beyond granting space, time and dancers for the development of new work.
This is huge news, so we'll get straight to it:
We now (finally!) know who'll be appearing onscreen alongside Ariana DeBose and the other previously announced leads in Steven Spielberg's remake of West Side Story, choreographed by Justin Peck. Unsurprisingly, the Sharks/Jets cast list includes some of the best dancers in the industry.
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.
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.
At six feet tall, Jesse Obremski dances as though he's investigating each movement for the first time. His quiet transitional moments are as astounding as his long lines, bounding jumps and seamless floorwork. Add in his versatility and work ethic, and it's clear why he's an invaluable asset to New York City choreographers. Currently a freelance artist with multiple contemporary groups, including Gibney Dance Company and Limón Dance Company, Obremski also choreographs for his recently formed troupe, Obremski/Works.
Last night at Parsons Dance's 2019 gala, the company celebrated one of our own: DanceMedia owner Frederic M. Seegal.
In a speech, artistic director David Parsons said that he wanted to honor Seegal for the way he devotes his energy to supporting premier art organizations, "making sure that the arts are part of who we are," he said.
It's a bit of an understatement to say that Bob Fosse was challenging to work with. He was irritable, inappropriate and often clashed with his collaborators in front of all his dancers. Fosse/Verdon, which premieres on FX tonight, doesn't sugarcoat any of this.
But for Sasha Hutchings, who danced in the first episode's rendition of "Big Spender," the mood on set was quite opposite from the one that Fosse created. Hutchings had already worked with choreographer Andy Blankenbuehler, who she calls "a dancer's dream," director Tommy Kail and music director Alex Lacamoire as a original cast member in Hamilton, and she says the collaborators' calm energy made the experience a pleasant one for the dancers.
"Television can be really stressful," she says. "There's so many moving parts and everyone has to work in sync. With Tommy, Andy and Lac I never felt the stress of that as a performer."