Bill T. Jones is one of the few choreographers who can weave together social consciousness with choreographic inventiveness. This is visible in all three parts of his Analogy Trilogy, a 6½-hour marathon that comes to NYU Skirball Center on Sept. 22 and 23.
In this Trilogy, Jones goes beyond his own cultural identity. The first part, Dora: Tramontane, centers on Dora Amelan, a Holocaust survivor who tried to help children during World War II. Her ordeal is told through interviews spoken by the dancers and envisioned in shifting scenes. The second part, Lance: Pretty aka the Escape Artist, is about Jones' nephew, and his involvement in the underground world of drugs and sex in New York in the 80s. This section contains several gorgeously choreographed duets. The third part, Ambros: The Emigrant, is not about a real person but about the nature of trauma and memory.
From coast to coast, choreographers have spent the first year of Donald Trump's presidency responding to the impact of his election and what it means for them as artists.
New York City's Dante Brown used rubber Trump masks in his work Package (revamped), which examines the monstrosities of power.
A video titled "Dancers vs. Trump Quotes" went viral last summer, showing dancers taking Trump's "locker-room" talk to task.
Alexis Convento, lead curator of the New York City–based Current Sessions, dedicated a whole program to the concept of resistance, while educator and interdisciplinary artist Jill Sigman has initiated a workshop called "Body Politic, Somatic Selves," as a space for movement research around questions of support, activism and solidarity.
In San Francisco, choreographer Margaret Jenkins facilitated a panel of artists about the role of activism within their work.
After 30 years of pioneering work in physically integrated dance, AXIS Dance Company co-founder Judith Smith has announced plans to retire from the Oakland, California, company. Throughout her tenure, she strived to get equal recognition for integrated dance and disabled dancers, commissioning work from high-profile choreographers like Bill T. Jones. Her efforts generated huge momentum for expanded training, choreography, education and advocacy for dancers with disabilities.
By phone from her home in Oakland, Smith reflected on how far the field has evolved since the early days of AXIS, and what's yet to be done.
As soon as we started putting together a list of the most influential people in dance today, we knew two things. By the very nature of the topic we were tackling, our final list was going to be:
1. Entirely subjective, and
2. By no means comprehensive.
We wanted to get your input and hear who else you felt should be on the list. So we asked you who we missed, and here's what you told us through email, Facebook and Twitter:
When the news is filled with tragedy, turning to creative work can have a powerful effect on ourselves and our communities. This afternoon, the inimitable Bill T. Jones, a choreographer who is well known for his challenging dance pieces that tackle social issues head on, spoke on WNYC (New York City's local NPR station) with poet Claudia Rankine and journalist Rebecca Carroll to discuss the importance of creative expression in the midst of social unrest and violence.
They spoke candidly about gun violence in the U.S., the need to develop new ways to talk about racism and social justice, the role that the media plays in mediating the public's response and the place that art holds in the midst of it all. Overwhelmingly, the idea emerged that there is no single correct response to tragedy: it is important to simply respond, and to use art as a source of comfort and a place for dialogue. Jones had less air time than we might have wished, but when he did speak it was insightful, honest and arresting—much like his choreography. Read highlights of Jones' wise words below, and listen to the full conversation here.
There is no correct way to respond. Jones pointed out that as artists, and as people, there isn't a "real right or wrong" when it comes to reacting to tragedy. He went on to question the notion of universal truth, offering instead the idea that truth is subjective and based on our individual perception.
Art-making is crucial to discussing difficult issues. Rankine observed that art can lend nuance to complex conversations when normal dialogue fails. Jones agreed, noting the struggle between the artist as someone who engages in public performance and as a human being trying to understand and express the effect that the outside world has on the inner psyche.
"I wish I could be in some place where people can sing together." Jones expressed his desire for the grieving to discover what it means to sing together. He spontaneously sang a snippet of "I Shall Not Be Moved" on air, saying he heard his mother's voice in it and was finding comfort there.
On his current project, Analogy 1, 2, & 3: The first "analogy" is about his mother-in-law, a Holocaust survivor; the second, his nephew; the third is semi-fictitious but deals with buried trauma. Though Jones allows that there are moments in the works where the thematic links may be visually unclear, that was not the most important thing to him: "Can you hear my heart in it? Can you hear that, at a time when I could have escaped to abstraction, this work is trying to grapple publicly with, I don't know, but I think I can do this. That's what art-making is for me. That's what conversation is for me."
Ballet BC dancer Darren Devaney. Photo by Michael Slobodian, Courtesy Ballet BC.
Inspiration can come from anywhere, but for choreographers, the body itself is a rich source. Some dancemakers may be drawn to specific physical traits: lanky limbs, an articulate spine, a muscular build. But those features can’t move on their own. There’s always a heart, a mind, a spirit, a psyche—some form of inner life propelling what we see externally, animating what the body can do. Dance Magazine asked four choreographers: What body inspires you?
Bill T. Jones
Artistic director, Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company
We’re a company that started out with very eccentric bodies: Larry Goldhuber, Arthur Aviles, people like that. Some of the repertory has such a strong imprint from those dancers that you’re always looking for some version of it, though you don’t want to be shameless about trying to reproduce it. Of course, there aren’t many Larry Goldhubers with 300 pounds, but my company must always have a very large man, somebody with stature. Larry always made me feel small when I danced with him.
For the kind of movement we do, it’s good to have long arms, a supple back, to be able to find stillness in a way that’s hopefully not dead. We talk about the skeleton as rock-and-roll: the bones of the skeleton, the way you let your backbone slip. It’s first got to be strong, like a marionette, so you can articulate from some central point.
Shayla-Vie Jenkins is one example of that. I love her beauty. When Arnie and I started out, we never had a regal black woman with training. They were going to Mr. Ailey or somewhere else. But Shayla was attracted to my movement. Because of the length of her limbs, the way there’s something aloof about her, she can deliver abstract movement convincingly. That’s more about the quality of interpretation than the body, but the two work together in my mind.
Photo of Bill T. Jones, Courtesy NYLA.
Artistic director, Ballet BC
There’s not one body type that interests me. What interests me is a dancer who is fully engaged inside of their body. There’s no blockage, no insecurity. They’re confident in who they are, and you can sense it in the way they dance. That usually leads, for me, to a body that is strong, agile, vulnerable, expressive and can really move through three-dimensional space.
Ballet BC is reflective of that. Every one of the dancers looks very different. They’re not the same height; some are more muscular. What’s interesting to me is how a group of individuals works as a collective. I think that when everybody is a carbon copy it misses the point of what artistic expression is.
There’s a dancer in Ballet BC, Darren Devaney, who is very slight. One would think on first observation that he wouldn’t be able to partner, but he’s one of the strongest and most supple dancers I’ve seen. Some of the greatest artists I’ve seen are the dancers with more difficult bodies: Maybe they don’t have the greatest arched feet, or the most flexibility, or an enormous amount of rotation or that fabulous arabesque. But it can be more interesting to watch, because they’ve had to create a real understanding of how their body works and what they’re saying with it.
Photo of Emily Molnar courtesy Ballet BC.
Artistic director, Dorrance Dance
I like working with a diverse range of individuals. A great example is Ryan Casey, who’s 6' 8" and really lanky. He stands out the second he’s onstage. That’s not just another body to me. It’s a body that inspires character work specifically. I centered a lot of scenes around him. I liked playing with the idea that he could look totally gangly, almost absurd, and still execute every sound with utmost precision and clarity and tone and nuance. You’d never think that someone with feet that big and a body that long could wield it with the same efficiency as a smaller, more compact dancer. I love that paradox and the character that comes from it.
I don’t mind if a dancer has some extra weight, some extra meat, a lot of muscle or barely any, as long as they have control. I want dancers who are strong and sharp but also capable of great subtlety. Of course, they have to have incredibly intelligent feet. The music and the integrity of our technique comes first. I want that clarity. But I do ask for more.
Dorrance (left) rehearsing a Petite Suite, with Ryan Casey (right). Photo by Joni Lohr, Courtesy Dorrance.
Artistic director, Gallim Dance
I could tell you everything that’s physically beautiful about any of my dancers. But if someone didn’t have the soul or the imagination or the depth to try something new and be bold, I don’t think those physical features would matter.
I see the body in its most inspiring state when a dancer lets their imagination change the makeup of their structure from one moment to the next, like the softness or thickness of their skin. One of my dancers, Dan Walczak, has really transformed in that way. He came from an approach that was more release-based, I think. There was something hesitant in his movement. We really had to get him to engage: engage his fire, his muscles, his focus, his jump. And he completely changed. He has a huge range of expressivity. You can feel his soul, his compassion, his sadness or his silliness. His heart is all over his body.
Miller watching Gallim’s Gwyneth Mackenzie and Matthew Perez. Photo by Carey Kirkella.
Siobhan Burke, a former Dance Magazine associate editor, is a dance critic for The New York Times.
Our cover story reveals Ailey artistic director Robert Battle’s thinking behind his choices, as well as the challenges that two of his most stunning dancers, Jamar Roberts and Rachael McLaren, face with these new works. In Kina Poon’s “The New Ailey,” you’ll get a sense of how much the company has changed, and yet how much the Ailey spirit has remained an anchor.
On the other side of the dance universe, I got to see the legendary Lyudmila Kovaleva teach class at the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg last June. Apparently, Kovaleva still, to this day, coaches her former student Diana Vishneva on certain roles. That gave me the idea to ask Vishneva, as well as other top dancers, about their favorite teachers, the ones who really made a difference. Read “They Taught Me To...” to learn who Ashley Bouder, Kathleen Breen Combes, Desmond Richardson, and Jason Samuels Smith cherish as the mentors who changed their lives.
Right: Rachel McLaren and Jamar Roberts in Barton's LIFT. By Jayme Thornton
While I watched class and rehearsals at the old Mariinsky theater, I was surprised to encounter a British dancer. I had no idea that Xander Parish had left The Royal Ballet and joined the Mariinsky. He guided me from one studio to another, and I soon realized that his story could be told quite nicely in a “Why I Dance”—which appears on our back page this month.
Lastly, this is my final “Curtain Up” because I have transitioned into a role as editor at large. As you will see in “DM Recommends,” a book of my writings has just come out, and it has opened up some new opportunities for me. I am leaving the magazine in good hands, those of the very capable Jennifer Stahl. I have enjoyed working on Dance Magazine immensely.
Wendy Perron, Editor in Chief
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Bill T. Jones fills brainy group structures with hurtling, full-out dancing in D-Man in the Waters. A tribute to the courageous spirit of Demian Acquavella, a dancer in the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company who fought the ravages of AIDS, the piece is exuberantly performed to the music of Mendelssohn. We’ll have another chance to see this 1989 masterwork March 26–April 7 at the Joyce, along with other works to classical music—Mozart, Schubert, and Ravel. The Orion String Quartet plays live. See www.joyce.org.
D-Man in the Waters with, clockwise from left, Antonio Brown, Erick Montes Chavero, and LaMichael Leonard. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Courtesy Jones/Zane.
From Spain With Pasión
Who knew that New York was a mecca for early flamenco artists? The exhibit “100 Years of Flamenco in NYC, 1913–2013” celebrates the evolution of a dance form more associated with Madrid and Seville than the Big Apple. Curated by scholars Ninotchka Bennahum and K. Meira Goldberg (“La Meira”), it includes memorabilia of great artists like La Argentina, José Greco, and Maria Alba; costumes; castanets; a documentary on the tumultuous Carmen Amaya; and performances by Flamenco Vivo Carlota Santana. Stretching deep into the past, it has unearthed a short film that Thomas Edison made of the hugely popular flamenca Carmencita—in 1894! March 12–Aug. 3, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center. See www.nypl.org.
Maria Alba and Ramon de los Reyes, 1965. Photo courtesy NY Public Library for the Performing Arts.
Uplifting art arises from suffering and oppression. We’ve seen it in our country, and we can see it in South Africa. Community groups in the township of Katlehong, a hotspot of violence during apartheid, evolved into the professional, world-touring Via Katlehong Dance. Rough-edged but joyous, this all-male troupe combines gumboot (named for the rubber footgear that miners wear), tap dance, and pantsula (a form of hip-hop) into a terrifically rhythmic mix. Their boisterous spirit in Katlehong Cabaret yields exhilarating entertainment as well as cross-cultural education. March 16–24, Peak Performances, Montclair, NJ. See www.peakperfs.org.
Katlehong Cabaret. Photo by Annely Boucher, Courtesy Peak Performances.