Preserving the Past

Last week, dance great Bill T. Jones blogged about the question of preserving the past within the next generation of dancers. He commented on how refreshing the Martha Graham Dance Company's performance of its newest work—The Tempest Songbook—was, as it fused classical Graham movement and shapes with contemporary elements of film and design. For Jones, the event was "encouraging," perhaps because the company was able to maintain the formality of Graham technique within a more updated—dare I say contemporary—structure.

 

This, to me, presents a great challenge. As a young dancer, I'm frequently asked to generate my own material and set my own phrase work in both student and guest dances. I love this opportunity—to be able to move like myself—and I know my fellow dancers do, too. But if we're consistently encouraged to explore our own movement, even in technique classes, ​how do we maintain the rigor of classical techniques? Without many "classical" modern companies left, should we even care to infuse post-modern traditions and ideas (pertaining to the techniques of Cunningham, Limon, Graham and others) into our work?

 

Jones posed a similar question ​to some of my peers when he popped by Tisch Dance to coach a rehearsal for his Ravel: Portrait or Landscape?, which was set on the students by dance goddess Janet Wong. To Jones, Ravel was a response to post-modern greats, an attempt to preserve their legacy through a slicing-and-dicing of their signature styles. At Tisch, the work had changed. Unlike the Graham work he wrote about, which had maintained its signature structure and style even in a contemporary setting, Tisch's Ravel was a personal interpretation of the movement.

 

The question remains: Do we, as the next generation of dance artists, find it important to preserve and present classical traditions in our own work? In our interpretations of others' work? It's one that can't be answered generally, I think. Personally, it's not one I had even necessarily addressed until reading Jones' post—and I'm not sure my peers in his rehearsal had thought about it either. I appreciate that Jones opened up the floor for this type of discussion.

 

In the meantime, I'll continue to enjoy watching Ravel as part of our final concert. It's become one of my favorites of the evening, and it's exciting to see the influence that Jones' thoughts and comments have had on the way the dancers perform the work.

 

The Creative Process
Rehearsal of Yvonne Rainer's Parts of Some Sextets. Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy Performa.

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.

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Ailey II artistic director Troy Powell teaching an Ailey Workshop at NYCDA. Courtesy NYCDA

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"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.

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Left: Hurricane Harvey damage in Houston Ballet's Dance Lab; Courtesy Harlequin. Right: The Dance Lab pre-Harvey; Nic Lehoux, Courtesy Houston Ballet.

"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.

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