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."
Just in time for its summer season at Lincoln Center, the dancers and management of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater have settled their issues surrounding the performers' union contracts. Now that they've reached a new collective bargaining agreement, the dancers can sail into this weeklong season of nine ballets. (Well, maybe not sail, since this is some of the hardest repertory on earth.)
While some companies thrive on uniformity of style and attack, the dancers of Jawole Willa Jo Zollar's Urban Bush Women find strength in the very opposite: Her movement is human, with an aesthetic that makes the choreography appear to be improvised. That's been a foundation of Zollar's work since she started UBW in 1984.
Three Bessie Awards and two Doris Duke Awards later, Zollar has also created work for companies like Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Philadanco. Given her desire for all her dancers to share their voices, it's no surprise that many former UBW members have gone on to make accomplished work of their own.
The Bessies Committee announced its choice of two bodacious women to receive awards for Lifetime Achievement and Outstanding Service to the Field: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar for the first, and Eva Yaa Asantewaa for the second. Because both women stand at the intersection of dance and social justice, one feels that the Bessies (the New York Dance and Performance Awards) is making a statement in these highly polarized times.
To kick off 2015, we asked 15 leading choreographers working in the U.S. to choose what they see as the most influential work of the past 15 years. Their selections highlight a slice of the creativity witnessed in the past decade and a half—and offer insight into what drives their own artistic choices.
Julie Tolentino in Raised by Wolves. Photo by Yongho Kim, Courtesy Tolentino.
Julie Tolentino’s Raised by Wolves, 2013
In a virtuosic tour-de-force that included choreography, improvisation and vocal incantations, Tolentino created an intimacy so potent that it was both frightening and exhilarating. This installation included a solo performed 50 times over a few weeks for an audience of no more than five in the Commonwealth & Council gallery in Los Angeles. It influenced me not just on how to make dances, but how to be an artist. It was a reminder of why I do what I do: to takes risks, to speak directly about the most complex issues of the human condition, and to try to do so in a wholly original way.
Bel in Cédric Andrieux, Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal, Courtesy Bel.
Jérôme Bel’s Cédric Andrieux, 2009
The end had me in tears as Cédric sang along with The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” I felt so seen and understood as a dancer throughout the piece. I wanted to continually stand up and say, “See, this is what it is like!” And at the end, when Cédric looked at all of us, with no dancer gaze, just as a human being, I thought, This is exactly why I make dances: So I can get to this moment.
Ordinary Witnesses, Photo by Ian Douglas, Courtesy NYLA.
Rachid Ouramdane’s Ordinary Witnesses, 2009
This rare, powerful work attempts to bear witness to events of human suffering in history. But it also achieves an aesthetic coup by using understated and intelligent staging in a documentary form of dance theater. I feel Rachid is posing an existential question: Can dance and choreography even have the criteria to address these issues? This work tilts the conversation of choreographic content, quite radically, into new directions.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company in 2011’s Park Avenue Armory Events, Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy Park Avenue Armory.
Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s farewell performance, 2011
The final shows of the Cunningham company at the Park Avenue Armory, which included his 2009 Nearly Ninety, were a profound reminder that artists can keep forever growing through all points of their creative journey, regardless of age. The scope/size of the space and the amount of dance vocabulary being shared from the several stages set up—and the magnitude of importance of Merce’s work—was beyond anything I have witnessed.
Urban Bush Women in Walking with Pearl...Southern Diaries, Photo by Ayano Hisa, Courtesy UBW.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar’s Walking with Pearl suite (Africa Diaries, 2004; Southern Diaries, 2005)
In this piece, Jawole Zollar mined histories of dance, a people and a place. Using collective and personal narratives with dancing that’s both fierce and intimate, she’s influenced generations of artists. She’s made a refuge in the form of a company, a network and an institute for choreographers of color, and has raised her voice for all women in the field.
Cedar Lake in Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue. Photo by Paula Lobo, Courtesy Cedar Lake.
Crystal Pite’s Ten Duets on a Theme of Rescue, 2008
This work very literally explores what the title expresses. Yet it is so fully realized that the choreography transcends its own specificity into a totally riveting experience of sheer physical magnificence. She reveals the fragility in human emotion and beauty without an ounce of irony.
Alvin Ailey performs Grace. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy AAADT.
Ronald K. Brown’s Grace, 1999
This piece makes me want to shout, holler and cry…and give witness. Witness to a culture where dance works as an exalter of pain, frustration and loneliness. The themes still resonate, 15 years later, as a powerful celebration of the lives deeply embedded into club culture that have passed on. I’ve always viewed it as a dedication to those who’ve sought dance and club culture as the ultimate healer.
Mark Haim’s This Land Is Your Land. Photo by Tim Summers, Courtesy Haim.
Monica Bill Barnes
Mark Haim’s This Land Is Your Land, 2010
This was one of the most powerful, moving works I have ever seen. Mark is a riveting performer who blends a down-to-earth real-person quality with perfectly executed technical movement choices, and he was able to transfer these qualities to a large group of both dancers and non-dancers. It was profoundly beautiful and joyful and heartbreaking. I feel like this is the best example of the belief that some ideas and emotions can only be expressed through movement.
Liam Mower as Billy. Photo by David Scheinmann, Courtesy Billy Elliot.
Peter Darling’s Billy Elliot, 2005
I was so intrigued by the beautiful imagery that Peter Darling brought to the “Grandma’s Song,” a vocal solo, through a slow-moving wave of choreography that passed from one side of the stage to the other. It was a perfect example of how stylized ensemble choreography can function as an impressionistic surround, illuminating the subtext and complexity of a narrative solo.
You Got Served. Photo © Columbia Pictures’ Screen Gems.
Tabitha and Napoleon D’umo
You Got Served, 2004
This was the first time that the crew-based mentality style of hip hop was seen on the big screen. Dave Scott’s work is incredible, and really started a whole dance crew craze.
Atlanta Ballet in 1st Flash. Photo by Charlie McCullers, Courtesy Atlanta Ballet.
Jorma Elo’s 1st Flash, 2003
I remember being in awe of this piece. I told everyone I knew that Jorma had reignited the conversation between classical and contemporary dance, in a new way that invited gesture and idiosyncrasy back to the table. After its premiere, Jorma was called to choreograph for major classical and contemporary companies everywhere. He has since clearly influenced the dance world and, to my eyes, 1st Flash was the beginning of it.
Non Griffiths in Dover Beach. Photo by Paula Court, Courtesy The Kitchen.
Sarah Michelson’s Dover Beach, 2009
Through an accumulation of highly original and powerfully athletic dances, exemplified well by Dover Beach, Sarah Michelson re-legitimized the type of technical/formalist dance language as a vehicle for avant-garde expression that had formerly become anathema to downtown dancemakers in general. Her dances oppose the rejection of all artifice (associated with the Judson Church aesthetic) with a theatricalism that nonetheless retains high-art bona fides poised on the border between dance and gallery-worthy visual art.
Mark Morris Dance Group in V. Photo by Robbie Jack, Courtesy MMDG.
Mark Morris’ V, 2001
The intelligence, craft, structure, musicality, mathematical patterns, the unavoidable humanity—this piece is timeless. It inspired me by demonstrating that a choreographer is responsible for creating everything that happens on the stage. Nothing is haphazard about its construction, indicating a strong singular voice from Mr. Morris that is brought to life through his beautiful dancers.
Akram Khan’s ma. Photo Courtesy Akram Khan Company.
Annabelle Lopez Ochoa
Akram Khan’s ma, 2004
I was humbled by ma. It combined philosophy, poetry, intricacy and humor. I felt that everything had been said. Nothing more could be added choreographically.
Paxton in The Beast. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy BAC.
Steve Paxton’s The Beast, 2010
Through this profoundly gripping study of small spinal manipulations and shifts of energy, Paxton somehow suspends time. The dark, disorienting palette of action confirms the belief that imagination is the only limit to innovation, and that the prerequisite of youth in dance is an illusion: Paxton, still an extraordinary innovator at age 75, accomplishes what younger dancers can’t begin to do.