The 4 Cardinal Rules of Site-Specific Performance
When Rashaun Mitchell danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, he yearned for an alternative to the isolation he felt onstage. “Many times, the experience as a performer in a theater was lonely," says Mitchell. “The lights are blinding. You look out into the blackness and don't see anyone's face. The show ends, and you go back to your hotel." The works Mitchell now creates and performs in collaboration with Silas Riener are frequently site-specific, offering an entirely different experience. Audiences are often integrated into the performance, and dancers rely on their instincts to navigate constantly changing environments.
Although site-specific works can be invigorating in their intimacy, dancers need to be prepared for the unique challenges they present. From performing in the elements to interacting with audiences who don't behave the way you'd expect, site-specific work requires a fresh mind-set and a different kind of flexibility than performing onstage.
#1. Don't Get Too Attached
Biba Bell thinks of a site-specific performance as an improvisation. Photo by Corrie Baldauf, courtesy of Biba Bell.
You might be used to spending weeks or months in rehearsal, fine-tuning one ideal version of the choreography. But it almost always helps to view your role in a site-specific work more like an improvisation, says Biba Bell, assistant professor at Wayne State University. "Once you take things out of a controlled environment, the elements can fall into flux and become unstable," she explains. "The ground itself can be uneven, and there are often distractions."
Mitchell says these "complicated, unpredictable conditions" are among the benefits of performing in unusual spaces. "When it's set choreography and really well rehearsed, you can do it a million times with your eyes closed. Having some things remain outside your control keeps it fresh and new," he observes. Each variation generates a different result and, over time, performing the same work for different audiences in different locations contributes to a broader understanding of the part that you play.
#2. Keep Your Distance (in Mind)
How close you are to audiences will influence how much you should project outward. Photo by Adam Jason Photography, courtesy Third Rail Projects.
When performing in a theater, you're responsible for projecting from the front row all the way to the back of the house. Depending on the venue for a site-specific show, your front row might be 2 inches from your nose—or 200 feet away. Be prepared to engage with a show's environment during an audition, says Jennine Willett, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects, which presents Then She Fell at the Kingsland Ward, a century-old building at St. John's Church in Brooklyn. "Over time, we've gotten better at understanding what we want to ask people to do that might reveal their potential for being successful in this kind of work," says Willett. In anticipation of having audiences of various sizes in different rooms, Willett might ask performers to practice presenting a phrase once as they would for a single viewer, then again as if for 100 people, and then again for 1,000 people. "It helps to think of having a 'dial' you can turn," she suggests, "to draw the audience closer to you, or, to project outward more, whether physically or in how you're using your voice."
Mitchell and Riener agree. "When someone's standing right next to you, you have a lot of power as a performer, and you have to recognize that," says Riener, "although I'm drawn to playing with that volume as well. We might moderate ourselves to set a kind of decorum, but we also might want to be 'the wrong thing' for the space we're in. Once I understand what people's assumptions about a space will be, I often find myself wanting to turn those things on their heads."
#3. Go Outside—and Back in Again
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener say performing outside is like going camping. Photo by Truth Cole via Madison Square Park Conservancy
Some artists bring their site-specific projects out of doors. From 2005 to 2011, Bell and her collaborators ran MGM Grand (Modern Garage Movement), through which "we'd take something on the road and perform it one to three times a day, for three to six weeks," she recalls. "And we'd always have our costumes on—in essence, we were ready to perform anywhere, at any time."
Mitchell and Riener liken performing outdoors to going camping, and advise their collaborators on outdoor projects to come prepared for any contingency. Pack your bag or a small suitcase with all the footwear, outerwear and warm-ups you might need, and be sure to ask in advance what kind of dressing area or green room—if any—you'll have access to. With a laugh, Riener adds, "It's always definitely going to rain."
He still enjoys performing onstage—as do many other dancers who've gone the site-specific route. Willett even says that, to some degree, being absent from stages makes the heart grow fonder: "Once you're in the woods trying to hang clip lights and present a performance in a place that has absolutely no infrastructure, stepping back into a nice, clean theater with a light plot is so amazing."
#4. Your Audience Will Be Unpredictable—Embrace It
Audiences are going to misbehave—don't take it personally. Photo by Dariel Sneed, Courtesy Third Rail Projects
New York City–based artist Lia Bonfilio, cast in immersive shows with Third Rail Projects such as Then She Fell and Sweet & Lucky, is quick to confirm that "audiences never do what you planned for them to do." Especially when you're performing in intimate spaces, Bonfilio's main advice is to "love your audience, no matter what. If someone's being a troublemaker, you have to find an acceptance of that, and soften into it; if you meet it with resistance, things will go awry." Flat-out ignoring them defeats the purpose of an intimate setting, so remain engaged without taking any audience members' (mis)behavior personally.
Alicia Alonso's famed ballet company in Cuba has a new leader: the beloved hometown prima ballerina Viengsay Valdés.
Ballet Nacional of Cuba just named Valdés deputy artistic director, which means she will immediately assume the daily responsibilities of running the company. Alonso, 98, will retain the title of general director, but in practice, Valdés will be the one making all the artistic decisions.
I'm terrified of performing choreography that changes directions. I messed up last year when the stage lights caused me to become disoriented. What can I do to prevent this from happening again? I can perform the combination just fine in the studio with the mirror.
—Scared, San Francisco, CA
From the angles of your feet to the size of your head, it can sometimes seem like there is no part of a dancer's body that is not under scrutiny. It's easy to get obsessed when you are constantly in front of a mirror, trying to fit a mold.
Yet the traditional ideals seem to be exploding every day. "The days of carbon-copy dancers are over," says BalletX dancer Caili Quan. "Only when you're confident in your own body can you start truly working with what you have."
While the striving may never end, there can be unexpected benefits to what you may think of as your "imperfections."
It's the second week of Miami City Ballet School's Choreographic Intensive, and the students stand in a light-drenched studio watching as choreographer Durante Verzola sets a pas de trois. "Don't be afraid to look at the ceiling—look that high," Verzola shows one student as she holds an arabesque. "That gives so much more dimension to your dancing." Other students try the same movement from the sidelines.
When Arantxa Ochoa took over as MCB School's director of faculty and curriculum two years ago, she decided to add a second part to the summer intensive: five weeks focused on technique would be followed by a new two-week choreography session. The technique intensive is not a requirement, but students audition for both at the same time and many attend the two back-to-back.
On a summer afternoon at The Ailey School's studios, a group of students go through a sequence of Horton exercises, radiating concentration and strength as they tilt to one side, arms outstretched and leg parallel to the ground. Later, in a studio down the hall, a theater dance class rehearses a lively medley of Broadway show tunes. With giant smiles and bouncy energy, students run through steps to "The Nicest Kids in Town" from Hairspray.
"You gotta really scream!" teacher Judine Somerville calls out as they mime their excitement. "This is live theater!" They segue into the audition number from A Chorus Line, "I Hope I Get It," their expressions becoming purposeful and slightly nervous. "Center stage is wherever I am," Somerville tells them when the music stops, making them repeat the words back to her. "Take that wherever you go."
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Dance artists, as a rule, are a resilient bunch. But working in a studio in New York City without heat or electricity in the middle of winter? That's not just crazy; it's unhealthy, and too much to ask of anyone.
Unfortunately, Brooklyn Studios for Dance hasn't had heat since mid-November, making it impossible for classes or performances to take place in the community-oriented center.
So what's a studio to do? Throw a massive dance party, of course.
As winter sets in, your muscles may feel tighter than they did in warmer weather. You're not imagining it: Cold weather can cause muscles to lose heat and contract, resulting in a more limited range of motion and muscle soreness or stiffness.
But dancers need their muscles to be supple and fresh, no matter the weather outside. Here's how to maintain your mobility during the colder months so your dancing isn't affected:
A newly launched initiative hopes to change the face of ballet, both onstage and behind the scenes. Called "The Equity Project: Increasing the Presence of Blacks in Ballet," the three-year initiative, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, is a partnership between Dance Theatre of Harlem, the International Association of Blacks in Dance and Dance/USA.
"We've seen huge amounts of change in the years since 1969, when Dance Theatre of Harlem was founded," says Virginia Johnson, artistic director of DTH. "But change is happening much too slowly, and it will continue to be too slow until we come to a little bit more of an awareness of what the underlying issues are and what needs to be done to address them."
From the outside, it seemed like the worst of New York City Ballet's problems were behind them last winter, when ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired amid accusations of abuse and sexual harassment, and an internal investigation did not substantiate those claims.
But further troubles were revealed in August when a scandal broke that led to dancer Chase Finlay's abrupt resignation and the firing of fellow principals Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro. All three were accused of "inappropriate communications" and violating "norms of conduct."
The artistic director sets the tone for a dance company and leads by example. But regardless of whether Martins, and George Balanchine before him, established a healthy organization, the issues at NYCB bespeak an industry-wide problem, says Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, founding artistic director of Urban Bush Women. "From New York City Ballet to emerging artists, we've just done what's been handed down," she observes. "That has not necessarily led to great practices."
If you've ever wondered what goes on behind the scenes at Dance Magazine, now's your chance to find out. Dance Magazine is seeking an editorial intern who's equally passionate about dance and journalism.
Through March 1, we are accepting applications for a summer intern to assist our staff onsite in New York City from June to August. The internship includes an hourly stipend and requires a minimum two-day-a-week commitment. (We do not provide assistance securing housing.)
For the past few months, the dance world has been holding its collective breath, waiting for New York City Ballet to announce who will take over the helm as artistic director.
Though former ballet master in chief Peter Martins retired over a year ago after accusations of sexual harassment and abuse (an internal investigation did not corroborate the accusations), the search for a new leader didn't begin until last May.
Nine months later, the new director's name could be released any day now. And we have some theories about who it might be:
Some people take this profession as just a chapter of their life. They feel like dance is a job—a fun job, but a job. Other people live their life through dance. I never considered being a ballerina a profession. It's a lifestyle.
If I don't have a performance, I feel like a tiger trapped in a cage. I have so many emotions, I feel I need to give them to somebody, to exhaust myself—I need to cry or laugh, or else it's suffocating. Other people might scream or throw bottles into the wall. We dancers scream onstage through our movement. For me, it's like sweeping off the dust in my soul.
Back in 2011, Yale University's dean of science was thinking about refreshing the program's offerings for non-majors when he happened upon a Pilobolus performance. A light bulb went off: Dance is full of physics.
That realization led to what has become an eight-year collaboration between particle physicist Sarah Demers and former New York City Ballet dancer Emily Coates, both professors at Yale who were brought together to co-teach a course called The Physics of Dance. Their partnership has involved everything from directing a short film to presenting a TedX Talk and performing a piece that Coates created, commissioned by Danspace Project. This month, they're publishing a book about what they've discovered by dialoging across two seemingly disparate disciplines.
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.
Though Polunin has long had a reputation for behaving inappropriately, in the last month his posts have been somewhat unhinged. In one, Polunin, who is Ukrainian, shows off his new tattoo of Vladimir Putin:
Just before retiring in 2015, Sylvie Guillem appeared on "HARDtalk with Zeinab Badawi," the BBC's hard-hitting interview program. Badawi told Guillem,
"Clement Crisp of the Financial Times, 14 years ago, described your dancing as vulgar."
"Yeah, well, he said that. But at the same time, when they asked Margot Fonteyn what she thought about lifting the leg like this she said, 'Well, if I could have done it, I would have done it.' "
They were discussing Guillem's signature stroke—her 180-degree leg extension à la seconde. Ballet legs had often flashed about in the higher zones between 135 and 160 degrees before. But it wasn't until the virtuoso French ballerina regularly
extended her leg beside her ear with immaculate poise in the 1980s that leg extensions for ballet dancers in classical roles reached their zenith. Traditionalists like Clement Crisp were not taken with it.
Sebastian Abarbanell remembers being asked as an undergrad at Trinity Laban in London to perform wearing only a dance belt. "I said no," he says, "because I felt uncomfortable." Now a performer with Sidra Bell Dance New York, he's performed partially nude several times, without reservation. The difference? "It comes with more experience and maturing as a dancer," he says. "When you see a dancer living in their skin, you don't need to put anything else on them. When I said no in college, I wasn't in my skin yet."
Getting in your skin—and getting comfortable wearing only your skin onstage—requires a particular alchemy of vulnerability, agency, preparation and practice.
Birmingham Royal Ballet announced today that international star Carlos Acosta will be taking over as director in January of 2020. Current BRB director David Bintley will be stepping down this summer, at the end of the company's 2019 season, after a 24-year tenure. "It is a tremendous honor and privilege to have been appointed to lead Birmingham Royal Ballet," Acosta said in a statement.
Since retiring from The Royal Ballet in 2015, Acosta has focused much of his attention on his native Cuba, where he's proven his directorial abilities at the helm of Acosta Danza, the contemporary company that he founded in 2016. In 2017 Acosta also opened his first Dance Academy through his foundation, which provides free training to students. We don't yet know how Acosta will balance his time between his projects in Cuba and his new role at BRB.
My personal life has taken a nosedive since I broke up with my boyfriend. He's in the same show and is now dating one of my colleagues. It's heartbreaking to see them together, and I'm determined never to date a fellow dancer again. But it's challenging to find someone outside, as I practically live in the theater. Do you have any advice?
—Loveless, New York, NY
The inimitable Carol Channing, best known for her role as the titular Hello, Dolly!, passed away today at 97.
Though she became a three-time Tony winner, Channing was born in Seattle, far from the Great White Way, in 1921. After growing up in San Francisco, she attended the famed Bennington College, studying dance and drama. She later told the university, "What Bennington allows you to do is develop the thing you're going to do anyway, over everybody's dead body." For Channing, that meant decades of fiery, comical performances, bursting with energy.
Something's coming, I don't know when
But it's soon...maybe tonight?
Those iconic lyrics have basically been our #mood ever since we first heard a remake of the West Side Story film, directed by Steven Spielberg and choreographed by Justin Peck, was in the works. THE CASTING. THE CASTING WAS COMING.
Well, last night—after an extensive search process that focused on finding the best actors within the Puerto Rican/Latinx community—the WSS team finally revealed who'll be playing Maria, Anita, Bernardo, and Chino (joining Ansel Elgort, who was cast as Tony last fall). And you guys: It is a truly epic group.