Moving Through Trauma
In the spring of 2001, I sat in a room at the VA Hospital in New York City, surrounded by five war veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
I was a member of Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects, and we were working on a dance-theater piece about the psychological effects of war. These men told us stories about dropping bombs over Vietnam and being held in POW camps during World War II.
I was terrified. What did I—a 23-year-old dancer—have in common with them, and how could I gain their trust?
The process wasn’t easy, and the veterans were occasionally resistant. But over nine months of get-togethers and interviews, I became very close with John McCarthy, the WWII veteran I was “paired” with. He told me about being blown out of a plane and being held over a cliff by an enemy soldier, stories he had told almost no one. And while the piece wasn’t meant to be therapeutic, it was healing for both the veterans and the dancers. John died a year later, and his nephew asked me to dance at his funeral. Never had I felt the transformational power of dance so strongly.
For decades, choreographers have been making work with—or about—victims of disease or war; and teachers and dance therapists have been using dance to help people heal from trauma, torture, and abuse. I spoke with three choreographers who have worked, respectively, with children living in post-war Bosnia and Rwanda; survivors of domestic abuse; and ex–child soldiers in Sierra Leone. While the three have very different approaches, they all agree on a few points: Know why you want to work with a specific population, what you have to offer, and why you think dance would be of service. Educate yourself before entering a community: What have these people been through and what are they facing now? It helps to be guided by social workers and/or an elder in the community. And lastly: Be flexible. That said, all three concur that this kind of work is tremendously challenging and rewarding.
Rebecca Davis became interested in teaching children in war-torn areas after choreographing a work about Darfur for her company, the Philadelphia-based Rebecca Davis Dance Company. “When I made Darfur, it was very fulfilling to see an issue that I cared about transform the dancers and audience,” she says. “But I wanted to understand on a deeper level how genocide can come about.”
In 2008, she traveled to Rwanda with Global Youth Connect, a human rights organization that held seminars for the volunteers before they worked with them.
Davis taught jazz dance to boys who lived in a child-headed household. (All of the childrens’ parents had been killed in the 1994 genocide.) Twenty boys, ages 10 to 17, were living under one roof. Despite the tragedy of the situation, Davis says, “What’s so shocking and powerful and optimistic is that you walk in and see these kids—some are Tutsi and some are Hutu—being forced to live together, because it’s their only chance. No one will take care of them.”
Davis admits that they were surprised to see a white woman put on jazz shoes and lead them in a warm-up (women do traditional dances in Rwanda but not contemporary styles) but says the boys loved it. “You put on music and everyone starts moving,” Davis explains. “It’s how they’re able to handle their aggression and channel their emotions. Dance is a part of their culture.”
A master’s student in international relations with a concentration in peacekeeping at the online American Public University System, Davis says she “gained an understanding of how important dance is in post-conflict countries. Working with these boys, I learned that dance is what they do: They go to school and then they dance.”
The trip inspired her to go to Brcko, Bosnia, last summer, where she developed a program for students 4 to 18. Fourteen years after the war, ethnic tensions are still high, and Serbs, Croats and Muslims rarely interact beyond what is required. But Davis found that the two best dancers in her teens class were a Serb and a Muslim. The girls had to dance together so much that they became friends. At the end of the workshop, the Serbian girl asked the Muslim girl to celebrate Christmas with her family.
Gina Gibney and her company, Gibney Dance, have been providing movement workshops to survivors of domestic violence in shelters for over 10 years. But Gibney was very clear from the get-go that they were not doing movement therapy. “My interest has been to take what dancers are naturally good at,” she explains, “and apply it in a broader more inclusive context.”
Gibney developed a program in conjunction with Sanctuary for Families, which assists survivors of domestic abuse and their children. “We identify the women’s needs and issues,” Gibney says, “and figure out how those dovetail with the skills that are intuitive to dancers.” The company members go through a rigorous training program, learning everything from what these women have faced to what life is like in a shelter.
Once trained, each company member travels alone to undisclosed locations around New York City. Most of the time the dancer works with a support group that has a trained mental health professional on-hand to address anything serious that comes up.
“The class gives the women tools to open and inhabit their bodies and to overcome resistance they have from being physically traumatized,” Gibney says. It starts with a gentle warm-up, which helps the women uncover where they are tense. “It gives them a chance to think about their own lives—where they’ve been and where they want their feet to take them.” It also gives the women a sense of self-worth: “These women have been told the worst possible things about themselves,” Gibney reports, “so to hear a room full of women shout what is great about them is an unbelievable experience.”
For most of the 15 years that David Alan Harris was dancing and choreographing in New York City, he also worked as a writer for Human Rights Watch, a national group dedicated to protecting human rights. “I remember sitting at my desk one day, and having the idea to become a dance movement therapist to work with torture survivors,” Harris says. He imagined that dance could be healing to survivors because they often undergo a mind/body “split.” When a torturer inflicts bodily pain in order to gain access to the victim’s mind—and thus gain control over him—the pain is often so unbearable that the victim will divorce himself from his body (what clinicians call “dissociating”). “The task of healing for torture survivors is reintegration,” he explains. “I intuited from years of focusing on my own body and working improvisationally, that reintegration would mean working at the body level as well as the psychic level.”
While pursuing his degree in creative arts therapy at Philadelphia’s Drexel University, he worked with a group of resettled “lost boys” from Sudan. He asked them to teach him their traditional dances. “I put them in the role of expert and me in the role of recipient,” he explains. “It helps to undo the stigma.”
Four years later, he traveled to Sierra Leone and worked with ex–child soldiers. “These teenage boys had lived in a unit under a commando where if they did the wrong thing, they’d be shot,” Harris says.
Harris began the session in a circle, with Sierra Leonean hip hop playing on a little battery-operated stereo. He asked the boys to follow his movements. As the warm-up progressed, leadership would change hands organically, encouraging the boys to stay attuned to the group and trust each other, which is particularly difficult for ex–child soldiers.
“In the first session, we found ourselves on our stomachs looking around,” Harris recalls. “I said, ‘What are we doing?’ Somebody replied, ‘We’re hiding from our enemies.’ This is five years after the war! These kids are orphans—they’ve been shunned and they live on streets. But they found a way to symbolically reenact the central conflicts of their existence. I believe that in doing so, they find a way to tolerate their memories.”
Harris worked with the boys for several months. Although the emphasis was on process (and healing), the boys decided they wanted to perform for the community. Most of the village watched the boys reenact the roles they had played in the war; they even depicted a scene in which a boy is ordered to shoot a gun into the corpse of his father and sister. “One boy who had been forced to kill his parents went to the village elder and asked to be welcomed back into the community,” Harris says. “At the end of the performance, the elders stood one after the other and welcomed the boys back. People who had feared these guys said they weren’t afraid anymore. It was the most amazing thing that’s ever happened in my life.”
Harris feels that this work required everything of him—in the same way that dancing once did. “It involves the integration of mind and body, passion, spirituality. It’s holistic. It gives me a sense of hope, of creatively building a new future.”
Abigail Rasminsky is an MFA student in writing at Columbia University.
Illustration by Tifenn Python.
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.
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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?
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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."