"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."
It's easy to think of sculpture as a static form, but what happens when you place it in the midst of a public park and invite performing artists to inhabit it? Passerby have been finding that out since Josiah McElheny's Prismatic Park arrived in Manhattan's Madison Square Park this June. Madison Square Park Conservancy's Mad. Sq. Art partnered with Danspace Project to offer residencies to four beloved downtown dance artists to create, rehearse and perform under the public eye atop McElheny's green prismatic-glass floor. Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener already had the first go at the end of June, but Aug. 1–6 and 8–13 will see the fearless Netta Yerushalmy take on the challenge (continuing work on her Paramodernites series), followed by Jodi Melnick in September. danspaceproject.org.
Check out an excerpt from Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener's residency!
Many people see dance and choreography as separate pursuits, or view choreography as a dance career's second act. For some dancers, however, performing and choreographing inform one another. "That's just the kind of choreographer I am. I feel things so deeply in my physicality. I have to do it to know it," says Jodi Melnick, who is a prolific performer of her own work. She also maintains an active practice as a performer for other choreographers: Throughout her career, she's worked with Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, Tere O'Connor and Donna Uchizono, to name a few.
Though a dual career can be fulfilling, simultaneously inhabiting the roles of dancer and choreographer requires focus, organization and a great deal of energy.
Efficient movement is easy to recognize—we all know when we see a dancer whose every action seems essential and unmannered. Understanding how to create this effect, however, is far more elusive. From a practical perspective, dancing with efficiency helps you to conserve your energy and minimize wear and tear on the body; from an artistic point of view, it allows you to make big impressions out of little moments, and lasting memories for those watching.
So much struggle and determination goes into your training that it can be difficult for early-career dancers to recalibrate their priorities toward simplicity and ease, says Laurel Jenkins, freelance performer and Trisha Brown Dance Company staging artist. "Your aesthetic might shift, and you might have to find new things beautiful." Mastering the art of effortless movement requires a new perspective and a smart strategy—on- and offstage.
The Music Man
Mark Morris Dance Group is plenty busy this month, headlining Luminato, Toronto’s annual arts festival, with Morris’ masterwork L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato in its Canadian premiere June 21–23. Morris directs this year’s Ojai Music Festival (the first choreographer to do so), where his dancers will perform; and at Ojai North!, a collaboration with Cal Performances in Berkeley, MMDG will premiere Morris’ Rite of Spring, danced to a new arrangement of Stravinsky’s music by The Bad Plus jazz trio. www.luminato.com and www.ojaifestival.org.
MMDG in L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato. Photo by Elaine Mayson, Courtesy Luminato.
Adventures in Action
Two daring dancemakers return to this year’s Festival TransAmériques in Montreal. Lemi Ponifasio brings Birds with Skymirrors, in which frenetic limbs contrast with intense stillness. At 54, the indomitable Louise Lecavalier performs So Blue, a whirlwind solo and duet for which she receives her first sole choreographic credit. May 29–June 7. www.fta.qc.ca.
Lecavalier in So Blue. Photo by André Cornellier, Courtesy FTA.
Feast for 40
This year marks John Neumeier’s 40th anniversary at the helm of Hamburg Ballet. To celebrate, the company has expanded its annual summer festival Hamburg Ballet-Days. HB will dance in 16 productions over the three weeks, joined by its school and two guest troupes led by former company dancers: Ivan Liska of Bavarian State Ballet and Jean-Christophe Maillot of Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo. While companies all over the world have been feting the centennial of The Rite of Spring, Neumeier, whose personal collection of Nijinsky memorabilia is legendary, has dedicated several evenings to his idol/muse. June 9–30. www.hamburgballett.de.
Neumeier rehearsing Carsten Jung in his Liliom. Photo by Holger Badekow, Courtesy HB.
Swiftly but Gently
A free series of site-specific performances around San Francisco, presented by Dancers’ Group/ONSITE, honors a local pioneer this month. Amara Tabor-Smith, a former associate artistic director of Urban Bush Women who now directs Oakland-based Deep Waters Dance Theater, pays tribute to her mentor, choreographer Ed Mock, an AIDS casualty in the 1980s. June 15–23. www.dancersgroup.org.
Amara Tabor-Smith. Photo by Alan Kimara Dixon, Courtesy Tabor-Smith.
Twenty years after his death (and 75 after his birth), Rudolf Nureyev’s impact on ballet is still felt worldwide. Tributes to the unrelentingly charismatic star have been happening all year, and this summer brings still more. In addition to a gala at the Vienna State Opera Ballet at the end of the month and a production of his Swan Lake at Teatro alla Scala later this summer, Le Palais des Congrès de Paris hosts the Noureev and Friends gala May 31–June 1. The fabulous lineup of today’s stars come from companies like the Bolshoi (Obraztsova), the Mariinsky (Kondaurova and Somova), and English National Ballet (Rojo). www.viparis.com.
Nureyev in costume for Don Quixote. Photo by Serge Lido, DM Archives.
Three enduring goddesses of downtown dance—Sara Rudner, Vicky Shick, and Jodi Melnick—come together at The Yard June 22–30. Each one alone is glorious to behold, but together they’ll be an irresistible pileup of brainy female sensuality. Also on the agenda at Martha’s Vineyard’s largest dance festival: Faye Driscoll (see “Word Play,” April), Doug Elkins, Everett Dance Theatre, and Deborah Lohse (see “Nine Who Dared,” Nov. 2012). Without a doubt, The Yard, now helmed by former DTW chief David White, is undergoing a major revitalization. www.dancetheyard.org.
Melnick. Photo by Matthew Karas.
Forsythe: Former and Future
William Forsythe’s approach to ballet technique was revolutionary in the 1980s. His style is still often imitated, never matched. In recent years, with his own Forsythe Company, he has moved into the realm of dance theater—where whimsy and crazily delicious dancing play equal roles. His latest piece, which comes to Sadler’s Wells this month, aims to cover it all. Study #3 incorporates movement sequences, choreographic methods, music, costumes, and technical effects from 30 works spanning the last 30 years. www.sadlerswells.com.
The Forsythe Company in Study #3. Photo by Dominik Mentzos, Courtesy Sadler’s Wells.
Contributors: Suzannah Friscia, Wendy Perron, Kina Poon
Second, we have two stories related to the short-lived musical Scandalous. Before it closed last fall, it gave Lorin Latarro, a Broadway dancer, her first chance to choreograph on Broadway. Read Sylviane Gold’s account of Latarro’s career and catch up on her latest projects in “On Broadway.” Coincidentally, one of Latarro’s strong performers in Scandalous was Betsy Struxness, who, in this issue, is our “On the Rise.”
Third, there’s Jodi Melnick, our cover subject. While she never caused an actual scandal, it’s kind of outrageous how fabulous she looks and dances at the age of 49. Going against the “neutral” aesthetic of downtown, her sheer glamour is slightly transgressive. No high jumps or multiple turns, but her intricate dancing tumbles out with a rich imagination and witty timing. A mesmerizing dancer, Jodi can carry off a near-nothing of a phrase as well as a spoof of Giselle’s mad scene, as she once did in Vicky Shick’s Repair a few years ago.
At right: Shoe twins. Photo, and headshot photo above, by Matthew Karas.
It just so happens that Jodi has worked with the same five women choreographers I did a decade or two (or three) earlier: Trisha Brown, Sara Rudner, Susan Rethorst, Vicky Shick, and Twyla Tharp. In Gia Kourlas’ compelling cover story, Jodi talks about all those influences. She also talks about her discovery of what dance means to her through thick and thin.
Through thick and thin may be a good description for the persistence of young dancers who keep trying to get into the company of their dreams. Turn to “If At First You Don’t Succeed” in our “Auditions Guide” to read some rousing stories from those who tried, tried again, and finally succeeded.
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Melnick in costume for her Solo, (Re)Deluxe Version. All photos by Matthew Karas.
Not everyone grows up wanting to become a ballerina. Jodi Melnick, whose bare feet are firmly planted in New York’s downtown dance world, is a case in point.
“I do think there’s an idea that if you’re a modern dancer it must be because you weren’t good enough to be a ballerina,” she says over coffee. “I did not set out to do modern dance because I didn’t have that body type or that technique. This was a conscious decision. It had more relevance to me.”
And, as it happens, Melnick is also one of the most beautiful dancers there ever was—full of delicacy, lucidity, sensuality, mystery, and ferocity, which gives her an indelible sense of drama. Of course, there is another side to her charm: a dainty porcelain face framed by a halo of auburn hair.
Melnick may be a downtown dancer, but it’s clear that she’s breaking into the national scene. After heralded performances at the American Dance Festival, the Vail International Dance Festival, and New York City Center’s wildly popular Fall for Dance Festival, Melnick’s fame is growing. It’s hardly a surprise: When Melnick is onstage, there is little to do but stare. Is this the same sort of power Isadora Duncan had?
“Sometimes I look at her and think, How can those little legs hold her up?” says Vicky Shick, a dancer/choreographer who has worked extensively with Melnick. “How can she be so strong? In her soul and in her personality, there is fragility and huge vulnerability, but she’s so tough as well. And I don’t know anyone who can track, simultaneously, so many different complex coordinations in one body.” Or, as choreographer Susan Rethorst puts it, “Jodi and Steve Martin are the most brilliant physical people that I can think of.”
For Melnick, also a choreographer and influential teacher, every movement matters—even those you can’t see. Her art isn’t about making shapes, but giving sense to the myriad of layers in the body beneath the muscles and bones. She most admires Trisha Brown, and it’s easy to see why: The slippery mercurial path that movement takes as it travels through the body is somehow ancient.
Teaching an advanced class at Barnard College, where she is a professor of dance, Melnick guides a group of young women in a stream of movement. “Open your minor pectorals,” she instructs. “Now slide your earlobes down, drop the arms, shoulder blades down, soften the knees, and float the fingers up, thinking of the weight of the organs. Just be aware of the inside body—the three-dimensional body. Bring your hands back to where your kidneys are—sacs of water heating the body. Steam.”
It is this exacting focus that draws your eye to details, like the way a shoulder rotates in and out; Melnick’s art is a scintillating exploration of the human form.
However easy she makes it look, Melnick, by her own account, works like a dog. “It’s no big mystery,” she says dryly. “I never go into rehearsal without being completely warmed up. I don’t get drunk or high. It’s work, and if I’m going to be dancing at my age, I have to take care of my body. I don’t want a day off.”
At 49, Melnick could pass for two decades younger. “Am I going to lie about my age?” she asks, laughing in disbelief. “I think that would just be so dumb.”
Born in Brooklyn but raised in Long Island, Melnick started out not in dance, but in competitive gymnastics, which took her from fourth grade through high school. “I loved the idea of being ferociously physical,” she says. “And I had this crazy sense of momentum. Like I understood momentum in my body, and I remember it colliding with a fearlessness and with form.”
Through gymnastics, she took her first dance classes, which were mainly jazz and tap. “During my senior year, I was like, Why am I a competitive gymnast?” she recalls. “What am I going to do? That’s when I started getting more into dance. I would come into the city and take jazz class. I wanted to be on Broadway and be in A Chorus Line and do Bob Fosse.” She pauses. “I still secretly do.”
While at Purchase College, Melnick trained in the modern techniques of Graham, Limón, and Cunningham, as well as improvisation and experimental forms. “I took one class with Sarah Stackhouse, and I was like, my life has changed,” Melnick recalls. “It was the way she moved through space, very precise, but very grand. It was the way she talked about the body and movement and life and spirit—how she related dance to the world.”
Mel Wong, who specialized in Cunningham technique, was another influence. “He was very political, and in class he would talk about issues of the time,” Melnick says. “It didn’t feel superfluous. It didn’t feel like when I would take a ballet class and it was just about an aesthetic.”
Morever, she found ballet class oppressive. “When you went across the floor doing tombé pas de bourrée glissade jeté in a gorgeous studio with gorgeous windows and live music, it’s an exhilarating feeling—but for me, it was not,” she continues. “It was physically unenjoyable. But then I would go to modern dance class, and it was running, putting your heels down, articulating the hip joint, the foot going into the ground, using your body weight, what the elbow did, how you moved through space, and there was something about that that moved me. I had a visceral connection to it.”
In a dress made of screen material that Melnick designed herself.
After graduation, Melnick performed with Nina Wiener’s company and embarked on a freelance route, working with choreographers like Donna Uchizono, with whom she reunited for a 2006 piece featuring Mikhail Baryshnikov and Hristoula Harakas. “The next huge, monumental experience came in meeting Sara Rudner crossing the street in the early ’90s,” Melnick says. “I stood pointing and saying, ‘Oh, my God, you’re Sara Rudner!’ ”
She found a mentor in Rudner, a spellbinding dancer who was a founding member of Twyla Tharp’s group in the 1960s (and a 2009 Dance Magazine Awardee). “All we did for years was work and work and not talk in the studio,” Melnick says. “There was a point where I actually felt my body go through her like osmosis.” She laughs. “If you’re going to pick anyone to do that with, she’s an amazing choice.”
Melnick came close, but never made it into Trisha Brown’s company. (“I was destroyed and devastated.”) Later, she had other opportunities to work with Brown, in both setting her operas abroad, and in a solo that Melnick performed last spring at New York Live Arts. “Ultimately, it was the best thing that ever happened to me,” she says. “I got the other relationship with Trisha, where I could be who I was with her. So I lucked out.”
Through Rudner, she became acquainted with Tharp and went on to dance with her in the early ’90s and again in 2009. Melnick had a distinct feeling about Tharp’s work. “It was so challenging for my body technically, but I understood something about opposition and the range of motion in your ankles, in your pelvis. I understood those coordinations, and the sophisticated structure she would pair with them.”
After Tharp, Melnick worked with Iréne Hultman, Rethorst, and Shick. Working with these three women “developed my more quirky, inventive approach to movement,” she says. “It developed my eye to see the subtle nuance, how dance was not fleeting, that when I saw Vicky do something, after she left, I still saw it.”
In 2005, her own choreography began to take center stage: Wanderlust, Kentucky at Dance Theater Workshop was followed, in 2009, with a mixed bill at The Kitchen, where she unveiled Suedehead and Fanfare, a collaboration with the visual artist Burt Barr. The latter was a purely physical exploration of Melnick’s body in space.
“I had just gone through this very tragic experience,” she says. “One piece was going to be laden with the last two years of what I’d gone through—the good, bad, ugly, tremendous—and I wanted this other piece to be only about me being in the space with this movement and Burt’s set. I had to have a task to keep my mind from straying because when my mind strayed it went to a very dark and horrible place.”
Melnick doesn’t like to talk about the devastating incident in which her fiancé died suddenly, but she will say that her relationship to dance and to art saved her. “It’s so important to me, and then when you get out of yourself, you realize that it’s bigger than you in a way,” she says. “The way the ocean is important because it’s so big. I felt the thing I was so devoted to and that had loved me and that I had loved back, and I was so grateful.”
Now, she’s in a good personal situation and lives on the Upper West Side with her boyfriend, a math teacher. “I don’t know how this happened: I have this great guy,” she says. “Brilliant, beautiful relationship. I’m done.”
Her most recent concert included One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures, the solo that was created in collaboration with Brown. “It was a dream come true, and I know that sounds really corny, but she lives up to every expectation I have,” Melnick says. “Her choices were radical and fierce and unpredictable and spirited and crazy technical and hard.
In a costume designed by Yeohlee Teng for One of Sixty Five Thousand Gestures.
This winter, Melnick will begin a new investigation in the studio. That’s how she starts every piece: Alone, with maybe a bit of talk radio to keep her company.
“My next work is a little based on my feelings,” she says. “How is that in cahoots with this abstract physical medium I use my body? It’s less tangible than love and hate or despair. I have a certain feeling when I’m onstage: The atmosphere, the environment, the way I move from A to B with a certain kind of motor. It makes me feel something that I don’t ever feel anywhere else. I want to expand on that.”
Gia Kourlas is the dance editor of Time Out New York and writes about dance for The New York Times.
Every year the Thunderbird American Indian Dancers hold a rousing powwow on the Lower East Side. A New York troupe founded in 1963 by a group of Native Americans, the Thunderbird dancers represent a variety of nations descended from Mohawk, Hopi, Winnebago, and San Blas peoples. They are not professional, but they’ve handed their dances down from generation to generation. There’s the Caribou Dance (from the Inuits of Alaska), the Buffalo Dance (from the Hopi of the Southwest), and a Jingle Dress Dance (from the Northern Plains). Come see how softly and rhythmically these dancers tread on the earth. Theater for the New City, Jan. 25 to Feb. 3. See www.theaterforthenewcity.net/programs. —Wendy Perron
Raymond Two Feathers (Cherokee) in an Eagle Dance. Photo by Lee Wexler, Courtesy TNC.
Celebrating American choreographers, Gotham Arts Exchange brings a slew of groups to the Skirball this month. They include the NYC companies of Larry Keigwin, Kate Weare, Pam Tanowitz, Karole Armitage, Aszure Barton, and David Parsons, as well as non-NYC companies Ballet Memphis, Aspen Sante Fe Ballet, Chicago’s Lucky Plush, and L.A.’s BODYTRAFFIC (see “25 to Watch,” page 48). Find out more at nyuskirball.org. And in a related marathon, Gotham presents the second annual Focus Dance, which includes Camille A. Brown, Rosie Hererra, Jodi Melnick, Eiko and Koma, and John Jasperse (see “Quick Q&A,” page 40) at the Joyce, Jan. 8–13. See www.joyce.org. —W. P.
Mora-Amina Parker of Camille A. Brown & Dancers. Photo by Matthew Karas, Courtesy Gotham.
2 from Tokyo and 1 from Taipei
Japanese contemporary dance can range from Pokemon-cute to butoh- drastic. This month’s 15th Annual Contemporary Dance Showcase: Japan & East Asia features a variety of dance. The Makotocluv dance company from Tokyo offers a “post-butoh” piece entitled Misshitsu: Secret Honey Room, co-created by founder Makoto Enda and former Dairakudakan dancer Kumotaro Mukai. The choreographer/singer KENTARO!!, also from Tokyo, brings his singing-and-dancing hip-hop group Tokyo Electrock Stairs in Send it, Mr. Monster. And from Taipei, Chieh-hua Hsieh’s Seventh Sense, for his company Anarchy Dance Theatre, promises to be high-tech and interactive—and hopefully anarchic. Jan. 11–12 at Japan Society. www.japansociety.org. —Kathleen Dalton
Seventh Sense by Chieh-hua Hsieh. Photo by Shou-Cheng Lin, Courtesy Japan Society.