It's the 60th anniversary of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and their season at New York City Center is going strong with more than 20 works—including world premieres and company premieres.
Ronald K. Brown, who just received a Dance Magazine Award, has made his seventh work for Ailey, The Call. It's a gorgeous pastiche of three different types of music: Bach, jazz by singer Mary Lou Williams and Malian music by Asase Yaa Entertainment Group.
"Is everyone okay?" was my most used sentence during my time with American Ballet Theatre. There I was, leading world-class ABT dancers through my own choreographic process. I knew that it was unlike anything they'd ever experienced, but I think half of the time I was asking that question, it was really directed to myself.ABT Incubator is a two-week choreographic program created by principal dancer David Hallberg. Supported by The Howard Hughes Corporation, this process-oriented lab gave me and four other choreographers the opportunity to generate ideas for the work we have been inspired to create.
This month, American Ballet Theatre principal David Hallberg sees the first test of his directorial chops with the launch of ABT Incubator, the company's latest initiative to promote the creation of new ballets, particularly by in-house talent.
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.)
For many choreographers, opera is a mysterious world. Though operas often employ concert dance choreographers, they operate on an entirely different scale than most dance productions, and pose new challenges for dancemakers. Here's what you need to know to tackle your first production.
American Ballet Theatre is putting more women in charge of its ballets.
Today, artistic director Kevin McKenzie announced that the company is launching a multi-year initiative called the ABT Women's Movement.
Collaboration is a curious thing. For choreographers, it can open their practice to another set of eyes. It can allow their work to exist in a larger way. It can add serious heft to the final artistic product, with a signature all of its own.
But: There's an art to working in close communion with another artist, whether they're a designer or a composer. At the heart of the process is developing a rapport where each collaborator feels a sense of freedom within a set of given limits, where each understands what the other needs. Getting to that point takes some back and forth, trial and error, and several stabs in the dark.
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"Do away with it."
"How about just plain old 'artist' or 'choreographer'?"
These are a few of the comments that popped up when, on a recent morning, I posted a query on Facebook fielding thoughts about the term "emerging"—as in "emerging choreographer." I can't remember when I first sensed disgruntlement toward the E-word. But in speaking with dancers and choreographers over the years, I've noticed that more often than not it elicits an eye roll, head shake, groan, sigh or shrug of "whatever that means."
The concept-oriented choreographer meets her architectural match.
Takao Komaru, courtesy Lang.
Architects, studios and artists from more than 30 countries will attend the inaugural Chicago Architecture Biennial. One of its highest-profile commissions, however, involves two artists who work just a short subway ride away from each other in New York City. Tesseracts of Time, by choreographer Jessica Lang and architect Steven Holl, will premiere on November 6, at the Harris Theater for Music and Dance as part of the Biennial, which runs through January 3.
Were you familiar with Steven’s work before this commission?
Steven is building the new Queens Library at Hunters Point, right next to my company’s offices. I was attracted to the building before knowing he designed it, and that led me to learn more about him. So his name coming up for this commission felt like a wink—like it was supposed to happen.
His sense of light is consistently inventive and poetic, like yours.
Light is one of the subjects that came to the forefront right away, along with this founding thought of Steven’s, that architecture exists under, in, on, and over the ground. That led to this piece being in four sections, based on those concepts, while reflecting his musical ideas and composers he enjoys: John Cage, Iannis Xenakis, Morton Feldman and David Lang. Steven is my subject, so to speak—I’ve been diving into his world to bring it into mine.
Jessica Lang Dance in Lines Cubed. Photo by Sharen Bradford, courtesy Lang.
What about dance interests him?
One of our first conversations was about the time and length of our careers. We discussed how, if a dancer is lucky, they work until they’re 40. He explained that his first commission came when he was 50. I make a dance in three weeks. His start-to-finish can take eight years. That continues into size, shape, budget, everything else. To make a building and to make a dance are very different things.
And one is permanent, one is not.
Now, tesseracts are “impossible” shapes—they exist only in theoretical geometry.
That’s right. Square is to cube as cube is to tesseract—they’re incredible forms.
How are you and Steven referencing them?
He created models of them, which he recorded on video, moving the camera to guide us through them. We’re putting dancers in front of projections of that video to make the “in” section; the models will look huge because he shot them up close. For the “on” section, those same tesseracts we were just “in”—three of them, 12 to 16 feet tall—are on the stage as set elements, which get raised up for the “over” section, so the dancers are “under” them. It comes around, full circle.
Will Tesseracts of Time go on tour?
Yes. I put that limitation on Steven right away. It had to be tourable, and so now, in addition to Chicago Architecture Biennial and Harris Theater, it’s co-commissioned by the Joyce Theater Foundation as well as the Society for the Performing Arts in Houston, where he’s building an expansion to the Museum of Fine Arts. Everywhere that Steven is, or will be, can be an opportunity for us to perform.
Does that mean China?
It’s been discussed. Steven has an office in Beijing. That would be a first for my company.
How choreographers decide
Jessica Lang sought advice from Mark Morris before launching her company. Photo by Takao Komaru, Courtesy Jessica Lang Dance.
Jessica Lang succeeded as an independent choreographer for 15 years, creating many works on ballet troupes such as Joffrey Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. But she began to wonder how the benefits of having a company would change the quality of her dances. “I wanted to know what it would be like to work with the same group of dancers, who were willing to embody my vision,” says Lang. She got exactly that in 2010 when she won a residency at The Joyce Theater, where she was given time, space and $25,000 to just play. After gathering a group of six dancers, Lang went to work. “I gave all of the money to the dancers, and had 240 hours to pretend to have a dance company,” she quips.
Dancemakers today have endless possibilities for how to structure their careers. The company model still works best for some, and companies now come in all forms, from full-time to pickup, project-based and loosely organized. Other artists prefer to come and go without the added administration of an organization. Understanding the challenges and benefits of each option can help you decide what’s right for you and your work.
Today, Jessica Lang Dance boasts 10 dancers with 30-week contracts, a full-time executive director, part-time staff and a robust touring schedule, which includes a two-week stint at Jacob’s Pillow this August. Recently, they had their Brooklyn Academy of Music debut, performed at the Kennedy Center and traveled to Istanbul. “It’s surreal, and still daunting,” admits Lang, who also continues to work as a freelance choreographer. “At 40, I have the experience as a choreographer. I could not have done this when I was 24.”
Before making the company leap, Lang sought advice from Mark Morris and Nancy Umanoff, executive director of Mark Morris Dance Group. “I knew they created such an incredible organization and I went to them seeking insight,” she recalls. Having and keeping a mentor has proven critical to Lang’s success, but you need more than mentorship to make it work. “You have to enjoy the business end,” she says. “Also, be up on your state laws.”
Philadelphia- and New York-based Gabrielle Revlock, 34, considers herself part of a generation of dancemakers who never seriously considered starting a company. “The trend is to stay independent,” she says. “I want to work on a small scale, keep a light footprint and be available to take on projects that interest me.”
Revlock leads a busy life as a dance artist that includes dancing with Jane Comfort and Leah Stein, in addition to her own work and her collaborative choreographic projects with Nicole Bindler and others. “I apply for a ton of opportunities, because I know that most I won’t get,” she says. Her attention to sustainability permeates the way she structures her rehearsals. For instance, in the past she’s created sections of work that could be rehearsed separately. “Things are always changing in the dance world,” she says. “I want the freedom to jump on whatever is best for me.”
She’s the first to admit that it’s a juggling act, dancing for other people and doing her own shows while managing touring, grants and residencies. “You can’t guarantee how much work you will have, so I made sure early on to establish some savings,” she says. “I also try to not take a job unless I really want to do it. It’s important to keep commitments because many projects lead to other projects.”
For Danielle Agami, launching Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY was about giving her devoted dancers a professional setting and access to a long-term process. “It had a lot to do with the need of local dancers to have a home for their dancing,” she says. She settled in Seattle at first, and after half a year relocated to Los Angeles with six dancers in tow. “Location is key. L.A. has so many opportunities,” she says. “Yet, it’s not overcrowded with dance, either.”
Today, with eight committed dancers, Agami operates with no paid staff and the grace of brave presenters who are willing to give her a chance. Even though the company is project-based, it has remained busy in its hometown, and toured to Moscow, Atlanta, Houston, Portland and Seattle.
Agami is frank about the difficulties of maintaining a company in today’s money-scarce environment. “The lack of staff and funds are problems, but still the hardest task is to sell the tickets,” she says. But for her, the decision to become a professional company came before the funds. “We are like a family,” she says. “It feels natural, yet it’s demanding to run a company. There have been some amazing and maddening moments.”
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.
Rizqi Rachmat of Urban Artistry. Photo by Isaac Oboka, Courtesy Dance Place.
Urban Dance Sampler
Following its grand reopening in September, Dance Place continues to present weekly performances, now with expanded space and technology. Up next is the Urban Dance Theater Festival, curated by Junious “House” Brickhouse of local troupe Urban Artistry, with Ariston “B-Boy ReMind” Ripolya from California’s Style Elements Crew; Helsinki’s Sara “Lil Flex” Hirn; and Memphis jookin’ pioneers G-Force. Dec. 6–7. danceplace.org.
Two Mediums Meet
Fitting right in with the dance-in-museums craze is Shen Wei, a choreographer who actually is a painter, as well. His latest effort draws on both talents, co-presented by Miami Dade College’s Museum of Art + Design and MDC Live Arts. Shen Wei—In Black, White and Gray premieres during Art Basel—Miami Beach with five gallery performances by Shen Wei Dance Arts, Dec. 5–7. Shen Wei’s 11 paintings stay on view until Feb. 1. mdcmoad.org or mdclivearts.org.
Above: Shen Wei’s Undivided Divided. Photo Courtesy Rockaway PR.
A Choreographer’s Next Step
Jessica Lang has spent 15 years as a freelance choreographer, creating works for prominent companies like the Birmingham Royal Ballet, Joffrey Ballet and Pennsylvania Ballet. Yet just this year, she won a Bessie Award for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. What qualified her to oddly fall under the elusive “emerging” umbrella? Her troupe Jessica Lang Dance is a green 3 years old. “Freelancing helped me figure out who I was as a creator,” says Lang. “When I started choreographing, I knew the last thing the world needed was another dance company that couldn’t support its dancers—they don’t deserve that. Now I have the foundation I need to have a company. And I’m able to investigate more and reach my fullest potential.”
This month, Lang premieres her first narrative full-length work set to Franz Schubert’s song cycle Die schöne Müllerin, about a young woman who misleads the love of a journeyman. But The Wanderer will not be your typical swoony ballet. The scenery—trees, roots, brook and all—will be made entirely of 3,000 yards of white string, a stage installation that the dancers will manipulate from scene to scene. Brooklyn Academy of Music, Dec. 3–6. bam.org.
Above: Laura Mead and Kirk Henning in The Wanderer. Photo by Stephanie Berger, Courtesy BAM.
It seems as though
modern-day storyteller Alexei Ratmansky is out to redo all the ballets, one classic at a time. Next in line is Paquita at Bayerrisches Staatsballett. Dec. 13–Jan. 11 (select dates), Nationaltheater Munich. staatsoper.de.
Right: Ratmansky rehearsing with American Ballet Theatre. Photo by Rosalie O’Connor, Courtesy ABT.
You’ve probably seen or danced The Nutcracker too many times to count. On Land of Sweets overload? Here are four new or notable productions to shake up your holiday tradition.
Grand Rapids Ballet
Dec. 12–14, 19–21
The company debuts Val Caniparoli’s collaboration with Chris Van Allsburg, author and illustrator of The Polar Express and Jumanji, and Eugene Lee, who designed sets for Broadway musicals Sweeney Todd and Wicked.
Oklahoma City Ballet
Choreographed by artistic director Robert Mills, this production will feature scenes by Emmy Award–winning designer Gregory Crane.
LAST CHANCE PRODUCTIONS
American Ballet Theatre
Alexei Ratmansky’s version will have its fifth and final run at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Beginning next year, ABT will bring it to Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Costa Mesa, California, each winter.
Pacific Northwest Ballet
Nov. 28–Dec. 28
Kent Stowell’s production will take the stage for the last time. The company will dance Balanchine’s next season.
Above: Lindsi Dec in PNB’s Nutcracker. Photo by Angela Sterling, Courtesy PNB.