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.
Sparking discussion: The Minstrel Show puts race front and center. Photo by Nate Watters, Courtesy Spectrum.
Donald Byrd’s Bessie Award–winning The Minstrel Show has a history of creating controversy: Past performances have even sparked shouting matches between audience members. His Spectrum Dance Theater premieres a restaging of the 1991 work—the centerpiece of the company’s season, “America: Sex, Race, & Religion”—February 20–22 at Seattle’s Cornish Playhouse. The update is inspired by the February 2012 death of Trayvon Martin and subsequent trial and acquittal of the man who shot him, George Zimmerman. “The fact that I’ve chosen the Martin/Zimmerman shooting and trial is enough comment on why I’m reviving the piece,” says Byrd. “Americans in general are uncomfortable talking about race.”
Performed by both white and black actors during the Civil War era, minstrel shows used stock characters, music, comedy and blackface to lampoon black culture. The first act of Byrd’s version, with music ranging from Scott Joplin to rapper Le1f (new for 2014), presents this format traditionally to give the audience historical context.
Act Two uses minstrel shows to confront current racial prejudices—in one now notorious segment, audience members and Byrd read audience-submitted racial jokes aloud. The new version includes a recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call the night of Martin’s death, as well as his public interviews. In this section, Byrd says the movement embodies Zimmerman’s unemotional tone, and aims to provoke the audience to face uncomfortable realities about race in America. “What I’m hoping to discover,” he says, “is the nature of dialogue—how we talk about race. That can never be a reality until we are able to have a serious, honest, fearless conversation about it.”
Donald Byrd’s 10th season at Spectrum Dance Theater has been chock-full: a national tour of his Theater of Needless Talents, Byrd’s homage to artists who perished in the Holocaust; the premiere of A Meeting Place last winter; and a DanceMotion USA goodwill trip to Sri Lanka, Nepal, and Bangladesh. This month, the Seattle-based company reprises A Cruel New World/the new normal, Byrd’s first piece for Spectrum after becoming director, about post-9/11 America. www.spectrumdance.org.
A Cruel New World/the new normal. Photo by Nate Watters, Courtesy Spectrum.
See the Music
Oregon Ballet Theatre’s artistic director departed at the end of 2012, in response to the board-supported new direction for the company (see “Transitions,” p. 58). But Christopher Stowell’s vision for the season lives on, and this month’s American Music Festival is but one example of his progressive leadership. Both Trey McIntyre and Pontus Lidberg have been commissioned. McIntyre’s feel-good choreography will be set to music by Pacific Northwest band Fleet Foxes, and Lidberg has chosen Portland-born composer Ryan Francis. The company also performs Matthew Neenan’s At the Border, set to music by John Adams and made for Pennsylvania Ballet. April 18–27. www.obt.org.
Alison Roper in McIntyre’s Just. Photo by Blaine Truitt Covert, Courtesy OBT.
All That Jazz
In a pair of tributes to legendary jazz musicians, River North Dance Chicago will celebrate Eva Cassidy and Cuban jazz this month. The Cassidy premiere runs April 4–6 at the Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Philly. On April 13, the company combines forces with Chicago Jazz Philharmonic and the Auditorium Theatre in a co-commissioned work titled “The Cuban Project.” www.rivernorthchicago.com.
Monique Haley of River North Dance Chicago. Photo by Marc Hauser, Courtesy RNDC.
One Starry Night
After hundreds of budding ballet dancers have competed, the trophies have been awarded, and the tears have dried, Youth America Grand Prix puts on a spectacular gala. Joining dancers from American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, and Ballet West’s Beckanne Sisk (a YAGP alumna), flying in for “Stars of Today Meet the Stars of Tomorrow” will be Dorothée Gilbert, one of Paris Opéra Ballet’s most fetching étoiles, and from Ballet Nacional de Cuba, balancing queen Viengsay Valdés and Osiel Gounod, the company’s promising new principal. April 18. www.yagp.org.
Viengsay Valdés of Ballet Nacional de Cuba. Photo by Matthew Karas.
Repping for Vets
Repertory Dance Theatre honors the women who have served in the United States military in “Women of Valor: In the Spirit of Service.” Featuring choreography by Joanie Smith, Bill Evans, and Susan Hadley, the April 11 performance will raise proceeds to help fund the Utah Women’s Military Memorial at the Fort Douglas Museum. April 11–13 at the Jeanne Wagner Theatre. www.rdtutah.org.
Katherine Winder. Photo by Scott Peterson, Courtesy RDT.
A Toast to Trisha
UCLA’s Center for the Art of Performance fetes Trisha Brown and her legacy this month in “Trisha Brown Dance Company: The Retrospective Project.” On April 4, the company performs Astral Converted in an outdoor amphitheater on campus. Set and Reset and Spanish Dance, among other works, come to Royce Hall on April 5 and 7. UCLA students, coached by company members, will perform the groping-through-clothing Floor of the Forest at the Hammer Museum, and two performances of Roof Piece on April 6 at the iconic J. Paul Getty Museum round out the weeklong celebration. www.cap.ucla.edu.
Brown’s Spanish Dance. Photo by Alfredo Anceschi, Courtesy CAP.
The Rite Moves
Companies around the world continue to perform tributes to Nijinsky’s Le Sacre du Printemps on the occasion of the ballet’s centennial:
Fabulous Beast Dance Theatre dances Michael Keegan-Dolan’s The Rite of Spring at Sadler’s Wells in London.
GroundWorks DanceTheater performs director David Shimotakahara’s new Rite of Spring with the Akron Symphony Orchestra.
Meryl Tankard’s Oracle appears in Urbana, IL; Austin, TX; and Syracuse, NY.
Tanztheater Wuppertal performs Pina Bausch’s Das Frühlingsopfer in Taiwan and at the Bolshoi Theatre.
At Carolina Performing Arts: Nederlands Dans Theater dances Medhi Walerski’s Chamber, inspired by Le Sacre; Martha Graham Dance Company revives Graham’s Rite of Spring (1984); and students at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts perform Shen Wei’s Rite of Spring.
Nederlands Dans Theater in Medhi Walerski’s Chamber. Photo by Rahi Rezvani, Courtesy NDT.
Contributors: Kathleen Dalton, Kina Poon