When I was approached to write on ageism in dance, I have to admit that after the initial honor of the invite, I suddenly felt old.
I guess I fit the "qualifications" to write this. I'm 63. I've been professionally dancing and choreographing for some 40-plus years, and, in the process, have accumulated a certain amount of perspective on the field. After 20 years running Corning Dances & Company, in 2000 I suddenly looked up and realized I was 10 to 20 years older than my company members. The layers of nuance I was craving were not there; their albeit lithe bodies understandably lacked a base of worldly experience and expression. I couldn't present the kind of movement or conversation I wanted onstage.
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.
Points should be given to the dance world for beginning to address the issue of diversity. But have we ever taken into consideration who critiques dance—and the lack of diversity in that area of our community? Or how critics' subconscious biases create barriers to the elevation of non-white artists?
Recently, Charmian Wells wrote a scathing critical analysis of New York Times dance critic Gia Kourlas' review of DanceAfrica. Entitled "Strong and Wrong: On Ignorance and Modes of White Spectatorship in Dance Criticism" it took Kourlas to task for critiquing from a place of cultural and technical ignorance.
Forces of Nature Dance Theatre, which performed at DanceAfrica. Photo via Facebook.
Reviews are part of the life blood of artistic sustainability—funders, agents, bookers and audience members use them as guides. Dance critics have a responsibility to the community to do, and be better, or at least have the courage to let the reader know what they don't understand.
On remaking Agnes de Mille’s classic dances in Carousel
Byrd working with Spectrum Dance Theater. Photo by Nate Watters, Courtesy Spectrum Dance Theater.
Though he’s best known for his highly physical and socially engaged contemporary choreography, Donald Byrd is no novice when it comes to musical theater. The Spectrum Dance Theater artistic director received a 2006 Tony nomination for his work on The Color Purple. Now, Byrd and his dancers have teamed up with the 5th Avenue Theatre in Seattle for a new production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s iconic Carousel, running February 5–March 1. The show, which revolves around the ill-fated carousel barker Billy Bigelow, comes with a weighty choreographic pedigree: Agnes de Mille choreographed the 1945 original.
What cues have you taken from de Mille’s Carousel?
I wanted to honor Agnes de Mille because she was the original author, so she’s quoted in all of the dances. If you know them, you’ll recognize them. The choreography is contemporary, but it’s also balletic, like the original. However, our sensibility of how dance numbers work in musicals is different than in the past. Theater used to have a great sense of building to a real climax—the classic kind of arc. I’ve tried to give it that old-fashioned sense of how a number builds, but also include the highly physical dancing that we’ve gotten used to in musicals.
Did you ever work directly with de Mille?
When I went to the Harvard summer dance school, she came to give a lecture. She watched a class and came up to me at the end and said, “Young man, you need to go to New York. And tell them I sent you.” So I did, actually.
What themes of Carousel have you highlighted for the contemporary audience?
One of the things we’re talking about this season at Spectrum is virtue. The virtue of forgiveness and the notion of redemption fit right in with Carousel. Billy’s character reminds me of somebody who is ill-equipped to deal with his circumstances—the way he treats Julie, his wife. He hits her, and her justification is the same one that you hear for domestic violence now. Certainly people weren’t talking about these things then, in the setting of the musical and even in the period it was produced.
What are the challenges of sharing the work in a co-production?
You have to acknowledge the hierarchy in the theater. The director is the boss, so I answer to him, but all of us answer to the producer. It’s a different level of input. At Spectrum, I’m the final word.
What do you look for in your dancers?
I used to say I look for dancers who are fearless, but that’s not true. I don’t think that anybody is fearless. I look for people who can act in spite of their fear. And also I look for people I wouldn’t mind spending a day with, people I wouldn’t mind having dinner with.