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Site-Specific Stirrings: Dance in New York Comes Out of Hibernation
During summer in New York, there are no limits to where dance can happen. For me, some highlights of the past month have been site-specific works that transform the city into a stage—popping up on rooftops and stairwells, spilling out from storefronts onto sidewalks, and roving through gardens at night.
As the average pedestrian spends more and more time looking down—eyes fixed on smartphone in hand—Trisha Brown, that legendary scaler of buildings, is still giving us reason to look up. Earlier this month, she revived her 1971 Roof Piece, performed by nine dancers, each perched atop a different roof (or other raised edifice) in the vicinity of the High Line, the elevated park that runs along Manhattan’s west side. (While the piece made an appearance at MoMA last January, this was its first outdoor presentation since the ’70s.)
From the park’s southernmost end, you could, with a 360-degree scan of the space, spot all of the performers, in their bright red slacks and shirts, enacting what might be described as a game of gestural telephone. One dancer began a chain of improvised motions, which a second dancer reproduced, followed by a third, and so on; halfway through, a new leader took over. Once you figured out who was in the lead, you could have fun charting the lag time between the first dancer and the ninth, who were separated by a distance of several blocks and seven interpreters of the same movement.
The blustery weather on the evening I attended (June 11) made even the gentlest actions—swooping arms, swaying torsos, a half-hearted running-in-place—seem like intrepid feats. The dancers stood their ground in the wind, red silhouettes resolute against the grey sky. There were other poetic tensions: the vastness of the performance space, next to the intimate act of observing and mirroring one other person; the infrastructure of a rooftop—boilers, chimneys, pipes—juxtaposed with the supple machinery of the human form. The dancers relayed every action with such specificity, such deliberate focus, that you felt certain they were transmitting some decipherable message—if only you could crack the code. But with Brown, the message is often right there on the surface, profound in its simplicity: Here are some options for what the body in space can do.
The performance duo robbinschilds (Sonya Robbins and Layla Childs) has a similar knack for grabbing the attention of busy New Yorkers. On a warm Friday evening last month, a passerby on University Place between 10th and 11th Streets would have been startled by the neon colors swishing past the window of JF & SON, a clothing boutique just south of Union Square. Even I was startled, and I had the advantage of knowing that something (other than shopping) would be going on inside. That something was Portable Arc, a dance/fashion collaboration (or what the press release called a “structured improvisational happening of trans-genre wearables that celebrate the artists’ commitment to rainbow living”) by robbinschilds and designer Travis Boyer.
When I arrived, three dancers were using strips of brightly colored ribbon to outline each other’s bodies on the floor, accompanied by a score that involved women’s voices, in blasé tones, reciting colors of the rainbow. A crowd of about 30 people had managed to squeeze inside. Others peered through the window from the street, catching what glimpses they could of the pedestrian, understated movement, with its shades of relaxed ballet. Eventually four of the dancers (Robbins, Childs, Rebecca Brooks, and Sarah White-Ayon) exited onto the sidewalk, walking briskly around in linear and arcing patterns, while exploring variations on the theme of a swinging arm. They threw in the occasional dramatic pose but kept their matter-of-fact cool; this is just as ordinary, they seemed to say, as the stoplights switching from red to green down the block, or the yellow cabs hurtling by.
That sense of cool was only intensified by the fluorescent hues and breezy textures of their “trans-genre wearbles,” which Boyer designed with “today’s movement artist in mind.” (Not the movement artist’s pocketbook, though; after the show, the pants, skirts, tops, and head wraps went on sale for between $530 and $820.) He also had in mind some artists from a different era—Martha Graham and Isamu Noguchi, whose collaboration for Appalachian Spring served as his jumping-off point. Imagine drapey, translucent, above-the-knee riffs on Noguchi’s frontier-inspired costumes—with pleats here, ruffles there—and you’ll have an idea of the thoroughly modern collection that Boyer dreamed up. While the performance was more laissez-faire than anything in the Graham repertoire, it held something of her pioneering spirit: today’s young Americans charting their own frontiers, weaving their vision into the fabric of the city, finding productive new ways to marry commerce and art.
Rather than making use of the city, Yanira Castro’s Paradis provided an oasis from it. A companion piece to her 2010 Wildnerness, presented by Dance Theater Workshop, the work took place at two locations inside the Brooklyn Botanic Garden—the Desert House and, by way of a long meandering walk, the Cherry Esplanade.
The whole journey was sublime. You didn’t just stumble upon this event, as you might have with Roof Piece or Portable Arc; you were guided through it, but not without some wonderfully disorienting moments.
From the Visitor Center, the audience set out into the garden, pausing just within sight of the Desert House. One by one, we were invited to approach its glass walls. Inside, a lone performer, Peter Schmitz, clad in a white suit and white face paint, circled the cacti and other spiky vegetation, making his way along a dusty path with staccato steps; this was a parched paradise, not the lush place that we associate with Eden. Schmitz’s mime-like gestures quivered with the crazed tension of a mad scientist. His frenzy escalated as he plucked an invisible apple from an invisible branch and tasted the invisible fruit—first one, then another, then another—voracious in his thirst.
During this episode, piano notes trickled out from a walkie talkie strapped to the belt of a guard standing nearby. Soon, we would discover the source of the sound. As we arrived at the Cherry Esplanade, a vast grassy field lined with cherry trees and lit by four enormous floodlights, we found Michael Dauphinais seated at a piano, making music alone in the dark.
For a long time, we didn’t know where to look—Castro doesn’t like to let her audiences get too comfortable—until eight tiny white figures appeared at the far end of the lawn, undulating filaments aglow in the night. Running, lunging, bounding, they closed in on us, crossing whatever imaginary line had separated us from them. More like human beings now, less like ghosts, they led us underneath the cherry trees—each dancer instructing a small group of spectators to “Watch me, only me”—then backed away and undressed, stripping down to flesh-colored undergarments. In the distance, a performer and an audience member shared an apple, passing it back and forth. Later, zooming in again, we were invited to witness, from just a few feet’s distance, the intricacies of an intensely slow, entwining duet.
At a certain point, the dancers began to sing:
“In the sun, in the snow, if I lead then would you follow?
Who is right, who is wrong, to be saving their own lives?”
Was it before or after they ran away, disappearing into the night, that Dauphinais invited us to sing along? Either way, we were left alone to carry on the tune—continue the performance without the performers, interpret the message without the messengers, and do what we would with the weight of that responsibility. We kept on singing, for a while at least. Whatever this strange paradise was, far removed from civilization, it now belonged to us as much as them.
Photos, top to bottom: Rebecca Brooks (left) and Sarah White-Ayon in Portable Arc, photo by Jessica Williams, courtesy JF & SON; Rebecca Brooks (foreground) in Portable Arc, photo by Jessica Williams, courtesy JF & SON; Peggy H. Cheng, Luke Miller, and Shayla-Vie Jenkins in Paradis, photo by Yi-Chun Wu, courtesy DTW.
When Rachel Hamrick was in the corps of Universal Ballet in Seoul, her determination to strengthen her flexibility turned into a side hobby that would eventually land her a new career. "I was in La Bayadere for the first time, and I was the first girl out for that arabesque sequence in The Kingdom of the Shades," she says. "I had the flexibility, but I was wobbly because I wasn't stretching in the right way. That's when I first started playing around with the idea of the Flexistretcher. It was tied together then, so it was definitely more makeshift," she says with a laugh, "But I trained with it to help me get the correct alignment so that I would have the strength to sustain the whole act."
Now, Hamrick is running her own business, complete with an ever-growing product line and her FLX training method—all because of her initial need to make it through 38 arabesques.
For the new Broadway season, Ellenore Scott has scored two associate choreographer gigs: For Head Over Heels, which starts previews June 23, Scott is working with choreographer Spencer Liff on an original musical mashing up The Go-Go's punk-rock hits with a narrative based on Sir Philip Sidney's 1590 book, Arcadia. Four days after that show opens, she'll head into rehearsals for this fall's King Kong, collaborating with director/choreographer Drew McOnie and a 20-foot gorilla.
Scott gave us the inside scoop about Head Over Heels, the craziness of her freelance hustle and the most surprising element of working on Broadway.
Dance in movies is a trend as old as time. Movies like The Red Shoes and Singin' in the Rain paved the way for Black Swan and La La Land; dancing stars like Gene Kelly and Ginger Rogers led the way for Channing Tatum and Julianne Hough.
Lucky for us, some of Hollywood's most incredible dance scenes have been compiled into this amazing montage, featuring close to 300 films in only seven minutes. So grab the popcorn, cozy on up, and watch the moves that made the movies.
Broadway musicals have been on my mind for more than half a century. I discovered them in grade school, not in a theater but electronically. On the radio, every weeknight an otherwise boring local station would play a cast album in its entirety; on television, periodically Ed Sullivan's Sunday night variety show would feature an excerpt from the latest hit—numbers from Bye Bye Birdie, West Side Story, Camelot, Flower Drum Song.
But theater lives in the here and now, and I was in middle school when I attended my first Broadway musical, Gypsy—based, of all things, on the early life of the famed burlesque queen Gypsy Rose Lee. I didn't know who Jerome Robbins was, but I recognized genius when I saw it—kids morphing into adults as a dance number progresses, hilarious stripping routines, a pas de deux giving concrete shape to the romantic yearnings of an ugly duckling. It proved the birth of a lifelong habit, indulged for the last 18 years in the pages of this magazine. But all long runs eventually end, and it's time to say good-bye to the "On Broadway" column. It's not the last of our Broadway coverage—there's too much great work being created and performed, and you can count on hearing from me in print and online.
If you want to know how scary the AIDS epidemic was in the 1980s, come see Ishmael Houston-Jones' piece THEM from 1986. This piece reveals the subterranean fears that crept into gay relationships at the time. Houston-Jones is one of downtown's great improvisers, and his six dancers also improvise in response to his suggestions. With Chris Cochrane's edgy guitar riffs and Dennis Cooper's ominous text, there's an unpredictable, near-creepy but epic quality to THEM.
What is the right flooring system for us?
So many choices, companies, claims, endorsements, and recommendations to consider. The more you look, the more confusing it gets. Here is what you need to do. Here is what you need to know to get the flooring system suited to your needs.
This time last year, Catherine Conley was already living a ballet dancer's dream. After an exchange between her home ballet school in Chicago and the Cuban National Ballet School in Havana, she'd been invited to train in Cuba full-time. It was the opportunity of a lifetime, and one that was nearly unheard of for an American dancer. Now, though, Conley has even more exciting news: She's a full-fledged member of the National Ballet of Cuba's corps de ballet.
"In the school there were other foreigners, but in the company I'm the only foreigner—not just the only American, but the only non-Cuban," Conley says. But she doesn't feel like an outsider, or like a dancer embarking on a historic journey. "Nobody makes me feel different. They treat me as one of them," she says. Conley has become fluent in Spanish, and Cuba has come to feel like home. "The other day I was watching a movie that was dubbed in Spanish, and I understand absolutely everything now," she says.
Chantel Aguirre may call sunny Los Angeles home, but the Shaping Sound company member and NUVO faculty member spends more time in the air, on a tour bus or in a convention ballroom than she does in the City of Angels.
Aguirre, who is married to fellow Shaping Sound member Michael Keefe, generally only spends one week per month at home. "When I'm not working, I'm exploring," Aguirre says. "Michael and I are total travel junkies."
Akram Khan and Florence Welch (of Florence + The Machine) is not a pairing we ever would have dreamt up. But now that the music video for "Big God" has dropped, with choreography attributed to Khan and Welch, it seems that we just weren't dreaming big enough.
In the video, Welch leads a group of women standing in an eerily reflective pool of water. They seem untouchable, until they begin shedding their colorful veils, movements morphing to become animalistic and aggressive as the song progresses.
Savannah Lowery is about as well acquainted with the inner workings of a hospital as she is with the intricate footwork of Dewdrop.
As a child, the former New York City Ballet soloist would roam the hospital where her parents worked, pushing buttons and probably getting into too much trouble, she says. While other girls her age were clad in tutus playing ballerina, she was playing doctor.
"It just felt like home. I think it made me not scared of medicine, not scared of a hospital," she says. "I thought it was fascinating what they did."
It can be hard to focus when Alice Sheppard dances.
Her recent sold-out run of DESCENT at New York Live Arts, for instance, offered a constellation of stimulation. Onstage was a large architectural ramp with an assortment of peaks and planes. There was an intricate lighting and projection design. There was a musical score that unfolded like an epic poem. There was a live score too: the sounds of Sheppard and fellow dancer Laurel Lawson's bodies interacting with the surfaces beneath them.
And there were wheelchairs. But if you think the wheelchairs are the center of this work, you're missing something vital about what Sheppard creates.
A Jellicle Ball is coming to the big screen, with the unlikeliest of dancemakers on tap to choreograph.
We'll give you some hints: His choreography can aptly be described as "animalistic," though Jellicle cats have never come to mind specifically when watching his hyper-physical work. He's worked on movies before—even one about Beasts. And though contemporary ballet is his genre of choice, his choreography is certainly theatrical enough to lend itself to a musical.