On the Edge, and Not Apologizing for It
Over the past few days, I've had the pleasure of taking a choreography workshop led by Donna Uchizono, a Guggenheim fellow and Bessie award-winning choreographer. She came equipped with exercises designed to challenge and provoke the future dancemakers in the room. The first day, we experimented with tasks and strategies in the space to create short phrases to play with. On the second day, we started off with a discussion of artistic statements, and what each dancer looks to achieve in their work and in performing the works of others. The discussion then turned back to Uchizono.
She addressed the nature of her own work, describing it as "downtown" and "experimental," still a niche genre in the dance world. She's been creating and performing work of this nature for her company since establishing Donna Uchizono Company in 1990. As she described her aesthetic interests and artistic pursuits to us, she laughed, reminiscing about a time when she attempted to give a disclaimer to a friend interested in catching one of her performances. "Are you sure you want to run all the way down to Judson, just to see some strange downtown modern dance piece?"
I find myself giving my friends and colleagues disclaimers, too, before I perform or show work. "I just want to let you know, the show tonight might be a little out there," I warn them. But why do I feel the need to justify the work I'm performing and creating? Why did Uchizono? Why do groundbreaking artists (artists she calls "on the fringe") fall into that trap, and how do we fight that urge?
Uchizono's friend, a business-type working for the United Nations at the time, said to her, simply, "You are on the edge. We at the center need people on the edge to move forward."
This moved me just as it had moved Uchizono years ago. It's important to remember that many large companies and new ideas now "at the center" were, at one point, led by dancers and choreographers "on the edge." Starting on the fringe is an essential part of the process for artists trying something new. I thought first about what I'm interested in, the recent trend in immersive work I've noticed. When I first moved here four years ago, this strange show that unfolded around you called Sleep No More had just found its home in the city. Now, immersive shows seem to be popping up all over, whether they plan to run for just a few days or are here for the long haul.
Though there's no guarantee that a company or movement will pick up momentum, that doesn't mean I can't move forward with my own ideas. Young artists should continue to embrace their work for what it is, not dismiss it, even if it is a little "out there" or "on the fringe." It's yours, and that's what makes it worth creating.
Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets (AKA "the mattress dance") hasn't been revived since it premiered in 1965. Nor has Rainer had any wish to do it again, to ask performers to heave 10 mattresses around while carrying out 31 tasks that changed every 30 seconds. It was an unwieldy, difficult dance. (Even the title is unwieldy.) But Emily Coates, who has danced in Rainer's work for 20 years, became curious about this piece and was determined to see it again—and to dance in it. She will get her wish November 15–17, when the mattress dance will be performed as part of the Performa 19 Biennial.
Back in 2011 when Joe Lanteri first approached Katie Langan, chair of Marymount Manhattan College's dance department, about getting involved with New York City Dance Alliance, she was skeptical about the convention/competition world.
"But I was pleasantly surprised by the enormity of talent that was there," she says. "His goal was to start scholarship opportunities, and I said okay, I'm in."
Today, it's fair to say that Lanteri has far surpassed his goal of creating scholarship opportunities. But NYCDA has done so much more, bridging the gap between the convention world and the professional world by forging a wealth of partnerships with dance institutions from Marymount to The Ailey School to Complexions Contemporary Ballet and many more. There's a reason these companies and schools—some of whom otherwise may not see themselves as aligned with the convention/competition world—keep deepening their relationships with NYCDA.
Now, college scholarships are just one of many ways NYCDA has gone beyond the typical weekend-long convention experience and created life-changing opportunities for students. We rounded up some of the most notable ones:
"The show must go on" may be a platitude we use to get through everything from costume malfunctions to stormy moods. But when it came to overcoming a literal hurricane, Houston Ballet was buoyed by this mantra to go from devastated to dancing in a matter of weeks—with the help of Harlequin Floors, Houston Ballet's longstanding partner who sprang into action to build new floors in record time.