abezikus/Getty Images

Has the Quest for Versatility Erased Dancers’ Movement Signatures?

"Dancers can do everything these days," I announced to whoever was in earshot at the Jacob's Pillow Archives during a recent summer. I had just been dazzled by footage of a ballet dancer performing hip hop, remarkably well. But my very next thought was, What if that isn't always a good thing? What if what one can't do is the very thing that lends character?


Let me explain. I am finding it harder these days to define a dancer's kinetic signature, which is my signature as a dance writer. As someone from the somatic persuasion (the Feldenkrais Method), I've always felt my gift to the field is being able to put into words how an artist moves differently than the person next to them. I am well aware that dancers need to be able to move precisely in sync to remain employable. I get that. Imagine La Bayadère's "Kingdom of the Shades" without sameness. It's the ability to turn the "same" function off when necessary that I am concerned about.

Watch an episode of "So You Think You Can Dance" or "World of Dance," and you'll witness an ocean of sameness, often performed at a level 10 intensity the entire time. High legs, endless turns, eye-popping technique, zero personality. I've also seen generic dancing at college programs, contemporary companies and in the corps de ballet. There's even less tribalism these days; we used to be able to tell a dancer's ancestry—be it Graham, Cunningham or Balanchine—by their movement.

Courtney D. Jones stands out for her unique movement approach.

dabfoto creative, Courtesy Jones and Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts

I worry that all this neuro-diversity has smoothed over our idiosyncrasies, so I consulted my brainy, neuromuscular friends from the somatics world. Not one of them would confirm that the required fluency in many forms of dance is the culprit.

So what then? Is it that the training itself has developed to produce a more technical dancer highly capable of sameness at the expense of individual expression? Just watch the earliest footage of modern dance and compare that to the graduating class of Juilliard to see how technique has evolved.

Bodies inherently move with a personality. When I consider my "25 to Watch" nominations who've made the list over the years, I've chosen artists who move in a way that I've never seen before: dancer/choreographer Courtney D. Jones' embodied authority; freelancer Ching Ching Wong's ability to divide her body between wiggly-squiggly and completely still; the slippery chillness of Laura Gutierrez, who evokes classic Cunningham style with a juicy twist; at Boston Ballet, it's how Derek Dunn carves the contours of each step such that he leaves a trace of his action; and at Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, it's Stephanie Troyak's sublime awkwardness, reminding me of a colt's first steps out of the womb—all powerful signatures.

Ching Ching Wong (in blue) maintains a recognizable movement signature.

Otto Kitsinger, Courtesy Lauren Edson

I don't have the answer as to why kinetic signatures have eroded. But I do know that we need to nurture the dancing personality. For an instant burst of inspiration—and a reminder of what it looks like when dancers truly embrace what makes them unique—I recommend turning to Jacob's Pillow Dance Interactive. The handy online archive contains footage of some of my favorite movers. There's Louise Lecavalier's human-cannonball thrusts into space. Roy Assaf's silky-smooth rope tricks of a pas de deux. Lutz Förster's nonchalant charm. Each artist moves with undeniable distinction.

As a field, we've got technique, cross-training and ensemble skills all down in spades. To choreographers I say: Create a studio environment where what makes us unique survives intact. To teachers I say: A dancer's individuality needs to be cultivated from the get-go. To dancers I say: No one moves like you do.

Latest Posts


Clockwise from top left: Photo by Loreto Jamlig, Courtesy Ladies of Hip-Hop; Wikimedia Commons; Photo by Alexander Iziliaev, Courtesy Pennsylvania Ballet; Natasha Razina, Courtesy State Academic Mariinsky Theatre; Photo by Will Mayer for Better Half Productions, Courtesy ABT

The 10 Biggest Dance Stories of 2019

What were the dance moments that defined 2019? The stories that kept us talking, week after week? According to our top-clicked articles of the year, they ranged from explorations of dance medicine and dance history, takedowns of Lara Spencer and companies who still charge dancers to audition, and, of course, our list of expert tips on how to succeed in dance today.

We compiled our 10 biggest hits of the year, and broke down why we think they struck a chord:

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS
Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Nichols

I Am a Black Dancer Who Was Dressed Up in Blackface to Perform in La Bayadère

On Instagram this week, Misty Copeland reposted a picture of two Russian ballerinas covered head to toe in black, exposing the Bolshoi's practice of using blackface in the classical ballet La Bayadère. The post has already received over 60,000 likes and 2,000 comments, starting a long overdue conversation.

Comments have been pouring in from every angle imaginable: from history lessons on black face, to people outside of the ballet world expressing disbelief that this happens in 2019, to castigations of Copeland for exposing these young girls to the line of fire for what is ultimately the Bolshoi's costuming choice, to the accusations that the girls—no matter their cultural competence—should have known better.

I am a black dancer, and in 2003, when I was 11 years old, I was dressed up in blackface to perform in the Mariinsky Ballet's production of La Bayadère.

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS

Here's the First Trailer for the "In the Heights" Movie

Lights up on Washington Heights—because the trailer for the movie adaptation of the hit Broadway musical In the Heights has arrived. It's our first look into Lin-Manuel Miranda's latest venture into film—because LMM isn't stopping at three Tony awards, a Grammy award, and an Emmy.

GO DEEPER SHOW LESS
contest
Enter Our Video Contest