Out of the Maze
When Martha Graham formed her company in 1926, it was the start of a dance revolution. But for those dedicated to keeping the Graham flame alive—namely Janet Eilber, artistic director of Martha Graham Dance Company—the foremost question is, How can a company formed 87 years ago be relevant today?
“You have to make decisions,” says Eilber at the Graham company’s West Village studios in Westbeth, formerly home to the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Take Eilber’s current undertaking: to cut Graham’s 1958 two-act masterpiece Clytemnestra down to one hour.
Right: Katherine Crockett in Satyric Festival Song. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
“I don’t see that as really losing anything,” she says. “I see that as traveling through time. You do have to strip things away as you move forward and accept the fact that they’re no longer relevant. That’s the great thing about the Graham legacy: the core of it is so relevant.”
When Eilber took over as artistic director in 2005—joined by LaRue Allen, who remains the company’s executive director—she had immediate crises to deal with. The company, previously led by the two foremost Graham interpreters of the 1980s and ’90s—Terese Capucilli and Christine Dakin—was in substantial debt. Dancers were full of doubt. It seemed like the company had a better chance of folding than rediscovering itself.
The turnaround has been an evolution. “We started with a $5 million debt and used this whole trajectory of starting with simple, inexpensive creative programs that gave us a foundation to build on,” Eilber explains. The organization has been in the black for eight years, and its budget more than doubled since 2006.
For Tadej Brdnik, who joined in 1996, the success comes down to artistic vision. “The biggest mistake after Martha’s death is that nobody actually sat down and said, Who are we? How can we make this legacy thrive past the years of Martha Graham?” he says. “It was kind of like sucking on a lollipop: Nobody noticed there was nothing left on it.”
Eilber danced with the Graham company from 1972 to 1980. Martha trusted her so much with her own roles that she invited her back as a guest artisteven while Eilber was in Los Angeles, where she was acting in films like Whose Life Is It Anyway? Eilber has lost none of her statuesque polish, yet while she may evoke the blond coolness of Grace Kelly, there is heat in her, too. Her eyes sparkle with passion whenever she shares a thought about how an aspect of Graham’s world could be disseminated. It’s almost as if she’s built a web and shooting from its center are silken pathways showing all the ways Graham’s work can live on.
Left: Blakeley White-McGuire in costume for Diversion of Angels. Photo by Nathan Sayers.
Eilber’s first mission was to shorten programs so that there would be one intermission instead of two. She initiated audience-access experiments in the form of online video competitions like the “Clytemnestra Remash Challenge” and “On the Couch,” which was part of that season’s “Inner Landscape” theme. Eilber, who is greatly inspired by museum curation, adores themes. They give her a sense of structure; from there, her imagination can run wild. Currently, the organization is enmeshed in “Myth and Transformation,” but she’s starting to cook up “Shape and Design,” which will address Graham’s place in American modernism.
Yet Eilber also stays in the present. Lamentation Variations is an ongoing series in which short works—created in reaction to Graham’s extraordinary 1930 solo—are commissioned for a range of choreographers. (The list includes Larry Keigwin, Aszure Barton, and Doug Varone.) “It’s easier in Lamentation Variations to open the door to any style, but for a larger work we need somebody who can stand up next to Martha Graham,” she says.
In February, Nacho Duato will begin his second piece for the company. His first was Rust, a devastating male quintet exploring ideas about torture. “Even before he finished the piece, he volunteered to come back and do another one as soon as possible,” says Brdnik, laughing. “I could feel him in the studio—he was really happy because he was tapping into a part of his imagination that maybe wasn’t being fulfilled with different kinds of dancers.” (Duato, who mainly works with classical dancers, is the artistic director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg.)
Above: Doug Varone's Lamentation Variation with, from left to right, Tadej Brdnik, Lloyd Knight, Abdiel Jacobsen, and Maurizio Nardi. By Costas, courtesy MGDC.
Eilber also hopes to bring contemporary classics into the mix, like Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch and Jerome Robbins’ Watermill; she would love to have, as museums do, an acquisition fund. “A work by Pina Bausch for the Graham company?” she asks in wonderment. “Pina was so influenced by Martha. There are so many people out there who are grandchildren of Martha Graham. Matthew Bourne. It’s the emotional narrative: Remember the duet in his Swan Lake between the son and his mother? It’s like a Graham duet. As you can tell, I dream…”
But her ideas are doubly exciting when the current crop of Graham dancers have so much to offer. If Katherine Crockett is the company’s incandescent bombshell—she was Cate Blanchett’s dance double in The Curious Case of Benjamin Button for a reason—Blakeley White-McGuire is its drama queen. Her performances become more ravaged and haunting—without the melodrama, if you can believe it—with each passing season.
“What has been gained is a vibrancy and an unleashing of the spirit of the artist that made all of this,” White-McGuire says. “I didn’t know Graham as a personality. What Janet has done, in a way, is made that OK. She has opened up the possibility of it going forward.”
And Xiaochuan Xie, a soloist from China, is proof that the company is still attracting talent. A dancer of startling luminosity (see “On the Rise,” Sept. 2011), she will be featured in The Rite of Spring during the company’s New York City Center season this March. Having joined the company in 2010, she’s still learning; White-McGuire is her idol.
“She has a special intensity, which I think I’m lacking,” Xie says. “I see myself as a weak person. That’s also why I came to Graham: I want to be strong. When I came here, it was a new experience for me to really think, What’s in me? I still ask myself that question every day.”
Xie describes Eilber in one word: “Brave.” It takes a few seconds for Xie’s peals of laughter to die down. “I couldn’t do those things. It’s an older company with all this reputation and probably a lot of stereotypes from the audience.”
She recounts how one spectator complimented her dancing in a Graham duet, but referred to the other more contemporary piece on the program in a derogatory way. “There are probably a lot of people who say things like that to her face,” Xie says. “It’s hard to get all those opinions, but at the same time, you still need to say, This is what I want to do and I’m doing it.”
For Crockett, the company now has a greater openness. “Things change and they should change, because we have new people in the company and the world is changing,” she says. “The beauty is to understand the impulse of the technique and to understand that technique is not the style, but how to shift the body from the pelvis, how to spiral from the back, how to find the impulse of the contraction shooting you through space. If you project that into everything you do, it will still live, it will still be pure.”
Right: Blakeley White-McGuire in costume for Cave of the Heart, set by Noguchi. By Nathan Sayers
In a way, Eilber is creating a highly technical repertory company with a secret weapon: a Graham base. “These works will resonate,” she says, “and can be disassembled and reassembled in many different configurations.”
Falling under the category of what she calls “creative curation,” Eilber is experimenting with ways to reframe the Graham repertoire. In 2011 she collaborated with Italian theater director Antonio Calenda for a production about Picasso in which dancers performed remixed sections from Graham works. Another Italian venture featured 10 members of the company in casts of Prometheus Bound and The Bacchae.
“That was a great experience in deciding which Graham phrases to manipulate,” Eilber says. “Prometheus Bound had the dancers flying down this huge staircase, and we used moves from the white lady from Diversion of Angels for the whole group. Later, they had a more angry section; we used the solo Deep Song, but turned it into a group dance. It was amazing. I want to do it again!”
Another of Eilber’s dreams is to collaborate with an opera director to give a production a Graham look using, say, characters from the Trojan War. “What if scenes from all of these dances could be seen and the audience could walk through them?” she asks. “A film artist could create projections while you saw the sacrifice of Iphigenia, and then soldiers would lead you into a town square, and you’d see Cassandra’s crazy scene. You’d turn the corner and see Clytemnestra murdering Agamemnon.”
Eilber’s eyes, it should be noted, have that special sparkle again.
“These are the sorts of things that I figure if you don’t think about them they’ll never happen,” she says. But it also comes down to what she’s been handed: the Graham legacy.
“If you’re going to curate something, curate something that’s limitless.”
Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.
Xiaochuan Xie in costume for The Rite of Spring. Photo by Nathan Sayers for DM.
I don't understand why I've lost my motivation to dance at 20 years old. My parents have always encouraged me to have a life plan and ask continuously how my pre-professional training program is going. I feel crushed by their expectations. I'm actually relieved when I get injured and can't dance, even though I miss it.
—Confused, Nashville, TN
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With limited space for luggage on the tour bus, Justin Timberlake dancer Natalie Gilmore makes sure her beauty routine can pull double duty. "Most of the stuff I use day to day I also use onstage," she says, adding that the dancers do their own hair and makeup for every show. "They give us a lot of freedom to use what we want, and I really enjoy getting to play with new products and experiment with different looks." That same freedom she has with her look carries over into her performance. "There's a lot of freestyle in the show," Gilmore says. "We have certain places we need to be, but we're able to map out how we want things to flow—I have a lot of fun with it."
As a dancer going through a mental health challenge, loneliness can feel like your only companion. Pacific Northwest Ballet soloist Steven Loch has managed obsessive-compulsive disorder since middle school, and for nearly a decade felt too scared to speak up. "We feel like if we say something people will be horrified by some of the thoughts that we are having," he says.
But according to the National Alliance on Mental Illness, one in five adults in the U.S. experiences a mental illness each year. Psychologists say that in competitive environments like the dance studio—where perfectionism can make you feel like you're never good enough, and an injury can suddenly strip you of your identity—this likelihood may increase.
Last summer I shared my own story of quitting dance due to untreated depression on the Dance Magazine website. It was met with an outpouring of support and camaraderie that I found both affirming and terrifying. A few weeks later, the magazine published an online survey to learn more about dancer attitudes around the need for mental health support. Readers submitted more than 1,000 comments, demonstrating that these struggles are very much a shared experience.
Considering the demands of a career in dance, it isn't surprising that many professionals find romance in the rehearsal studio. With taxing schedules, perfectionist tendencies and quirky habits, it can be challenging to find true love outside of the art form. We spoke with three non-dancer spouses to hear what it's like sharing their life with professionals from ballet to Broadway.
As a very shy little girl, my happy place was my room, where I would wear improvised costumes and giggle with happiness while dancing for an imaginary audience. I was raised in a family where dancing was "normal." My mom and sisters graduated from the national ballet academy in Poland, and I, of course, wanted to follow their steps. But I was never forced to. I am proud to say I discovered the magic of ballet all by myself.
Photo by Costin Radu, courtesy of Petra Conti
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The midterm elections are less than three weeks away on November 6. If you're registered to vote, hooray!
But you can't fully celebrate before you've completed your mission. Showing up at the polls is what matters most—especially since voter turnout for midterms doesn't have a fabulous track record. According to statistics from FairVote, about 40 percent of the population that is eligible to vote actually casts a ballot during midterm elections.
Many members of the dance community are making it clear that they want that percentage go up, and they're using social media to take a stand. Here's how they're getting involved:
Dancers will do just about anything to increase their odds of staying injury-free. And there are plenty of products out there claiming that they can help you do just that. But which actually work?
We asked for recommendations from four experts: Martt Lawrence, who teaches Pilates to dancers in San Francisco; Lisa-Marie Lewis, who teaches yoga at The Ailey Extension in New York City; physical therapist Alexis Sams, who treats dancers at her clinic in Phoenix; and stretch training coach Vicente Hernandez, who teaches at The School of Pennsylvania Ballet.
With a contemporary air that exalts—rather than obscures—flamenco tradition, and a technique and stamina that boggle the mind, Eduardo Guerrero's professional trajectory has done nothing but skyrocket since being named one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" earlier this year. His 2017 solo Guerrero has toured widely, and he has created premieres for the Jerez Festival (Faro) and the 2018 Seville Flamenco Biennial (Sombra Efímera). In the midst of his seemingly unstoppable ascension, he's created Gaditanía, his first work utilizing a corps de ballet. Guerrero is currently touring the U.S. with this homage to Cadiz, the city of his birth.
At our cover shoot for the November issue, Bobbi Jene Smith curated one of the best lineups of YouTube music videos that I've heard in a long time. From Bob Dylan to Tom Waits, they felt like such perfect choices for her earthy, visceral movement and soulful approach to dance.
Dance technology has come a long way from ballet variations painstakingly learned by watching fuzzy VHS tapes. Over the last few years, a dizzying number of online training programs have cropped up, offering the chance to take class in contemporary, jazz, ballet, tap, hip hop and even ballroom from the comfort of your own living room or studio.
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Scottish Ballet is turning 50 next year, but they'll be the one giving out the gifts.
In 2019, the company will make five wishes from fans come true, as a way of thanking them for their loyalty and support over the years. "It can be anything from the dancers performing at a birthday party or on the banks of Loch Ness, or even the chance to get on stage and be part of a Scottish Ballet show," according to the company.
Some of my favorite experiences as both an audience member and a dancer have involved audience participation. Artists who cleverly use participatory moments can make bold statements about the boundaries between performer and spectator, onstage and off. And the challenge to be more than a passive viewer can redefine an audience's relationship to what they're watching. But all the experiences I've loved have had something in common: They've given audiences a choice.
A few weeks back, I had a starkly different experience—one that has caused me to think deeply about how consent should play into audience-performer relationships.
People have a tendency to think of dance as purely physical and not intellectual. But when we separate movement from intellect, we limit what dance can do for the world.
It's not hard to see that dance is thought of as less than other so-called "intellectual pursuits." How many dancers have been told they should pursue something "more serious"? How many college dance departments don't receive funding on par with theater or music departments, much less science departments?
New York City Ballet fired principal dancers Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro on Saturday. Both had initially been suspended until 2019 for engaging in "inappropriate communications," while principal Chase Finlay, who was the instigator of those communications, resigned. (Although, in a statement on Saturday, NYCB made it clear they had decided to terminate Finlay prior to his resignation.)
The New York Times reports that NYCB says the change from suspension to termination resulted from hearing the concerns of dancers, staff members and others in the NYCB community. Yet it's hard to ignore the fact that a lawsuit against NYCB had been filed in the meantime. A statement from NYCB executive director Katherine Brown and interim artistic team leader Jonathan Stafford stated:
"We have no higher obligation than to ensure that our dancers and staff have a workplace where they feel respected and valued, and we are committed to providing that environment for all employees of New York City Ballet."
Since the news was announced, both Catazaro and Ramasar have spoken out publicly about being fired.
Recently, English National Ballet first artist Precious Adams announced that she will no longer be wearing pink tights. With the support of her artistic director Tamara Rojo, she will instead wear chocolate brown tights (and shoes) that match her flesh tone.
It may seem like a simple change, but this could be a watershed moment—one where the aesthetics of ballet begin to expand to include the presence of people of color.
Flamenco dancer and choreographer Rocío Molina created her first full-length production, Entre paredes ("Between Walls"), at the age of 22. At 26, the prodigy received Spain's National Dance Prize, the most coveted dance award in Spain. Now 34, her rupture with tradition makes her no stranger to controversy. But it, and her fiercely personal and contemporary style, means that each new project is a fascinating voyage.
Molina is the subject of French filmmaker Emilio Belmonte's first feature length documentary, IMPULSO. The film, which makes its U.S. theatrical premiere at New York City's Film Forum on October 17, follows Molina for two years as she tours Europe presenting a series of improvised works. These improvisations ultimately inspired the creation of one of Molina's masterworks, Caída de Cielo ("Fallen from Heaven"), which premiered in 2016.
In a move that was both surprising and seemingly inevitable, New York City Ballet closed its fall season by promoting seven dancers. Joseph Gordon, who was promoted to soloist in February 2017, is now a principal dancer. Daniel Applebaum, Harrison Coll, Claire Kretzschmar, Aaron Sanz, Sebastian Villarini-Velez and Peter Walker have been promoted to soloist.
Newly promoted soloist Peter Walker has been showing his abilities as a leading man in ballets like Jerome Robbins' West Side Story Suite. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy NYCB
The announcement was made on Saturday by Jonathan Stafford, the head of NYCB's interim leadership team. These seven promotions mark the first since longtime ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired in the midst of harassment allegations at the beginning of this year. While Stafford and fellow interim leaders Rebecca Krohn, Craig Hall and Justin Peck have made some bold choices in terms of programming—such as commissioning Kyle Abraham and Emma Portner to create new works for the 2018–19 season—their primary focus has appeared to be keeping the company running on an even keel while the search for a new artistic leader is ongoing. Some of us theorized that we would not be seeing any promotions until a new artistic director was in place.
Ryan Steele has a simple rule for demanding days on Broadway: "I listen to my body," he says. "I have whatever I'm craving: If I need more protein, I go straight for that. If I'm tired, I know I need carbs."
This wasn't always Steele's approach. Growing up, shuttling between the studio and school meant relying on McDonald's and Burger King.
For over a decade, husband-and-wife team Pascal Rioult and Joyce Herring, artistic and associate artistic directors of RIOULT Dance NY, dreamed of building a space for their company and fellow artists in the community, and a school for future dancers. This month, their 11,000-square-foot dream opens its doors in the Kaufman Arts District in Astoria, Queens, a New York City neighborhood across the East River from Manhattan.
In the final years of her decade-long career with the Lewitzky Dance Company, University of Arizona Associate Professor Amy Ernst began to develop an interest in dance injury prevention. She remembers feeling an urge to widen her understanding of dance and the body. Soon after retirement from the Company, she was hired by the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic in Inglewood, California as a physical therapy assistant, where she worked for the next three and a half years. This work eventually led her to pursue an M.F.A. in dance at the University of Washington-Seattle. She remembers growing into the role of a professor during her time pursuing her degree. That incubation phase was critical. Ernst joined the faculty at the University of Arizona in 1995, and now as director of the M.F.A. program, mentors the new generation of dance faculty, company directors and innovators.