In a sun-soaked studio in Manhattan, members of the Martha Graham Dance Company (all women) lie on the floor with their feet and heads hovering off the ground. Choreographer Bobbi Jene Smith encourages the dancers to be unapologetic about being looked at as their bodies begin to tremble with exhaustion and they move into a new formation.
In Paramodernities, Netta Yerushalmy deconstructs dance masterworks and presents their movement alongside scholarly essays that contextualize them. Yerushalmy has had a sterling dance career, working with Doug Varone's company and freelancing with notables like Joanna Kotze, as well as making her own dances. This particular project is in demand in such places as Jacob's Pillow this month, and later at venues across the country, including multiple New York City sites.
At a time when the political climate is increasingly divisive, it's no wonder people want to compartmentalize. Some want their pirouettes separate from their politics, and can be quick to protest when dancers challenge that both on and off the stage.
Most recently, American Ballet Theatre principal Isabella Boylston was scrutinized when she shared this post on her Instagram.
The much-anticipated Martha Graham Dance Company season at New York City Center is upon us. From April 11–14, the company will present classics like Chronicle, the sly melodrama Embattled Garden and of course Graham's visceral masterwork The Rite of Spring. This season also includes works by internationally acclaimed choreographers Lucinda Childs, Lar Lubovitch and Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui.
We sat down with Graham artistic director Janet Eilber to talk about bringing back older Graham works, working with new choreographers and what Martha would have to say about today's wave of feminism.
Department store Barneys New York has teamed up with Samsung and the Martha Graham Dance Company for what's possibly the most intriguing dance-meets-fashion collaboration to date. Today through April 8, you can visit select Barneys stores or their website to experience Mantle, a surreal 11-minute virtual reality experience featuring current and former Graham company members in eerie choreography by Cynthia Stanley.
I first got hooked on Broadway musicals as a preteen at Gypsy, with its tapping moppets, gyrating burlesque queens and Tulsa, the dancing heartthrob. I've been going ever since, but Dance Magazine has been at it even longer.
The 1926-27 Broadway season was just ending when DM began publication, and of its 200-plus shows, dozens were new musicals. One, a Ziegfeld revue called No Foolin', listed more than 80 performers. Such huge ensembles of dancers and singers were common, whether in revues, operettas or musical comedies.
And why not? The '20s were roaring, and Broadway was flush. But that wasn't the only difference between then and now. Dance in the theater was only tangentially related to a show's content. It was window dressing—however extravagant, it remained mere entertainment.
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This week marks three years since brilliant and beloved poet Maya Angelou passed at the age of 86. And of course, we're taking the time to remember timeless works like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
But we also discovered something that makes us love Angelou even more—and gives us a new perspective on her writing. Before she became renowned for her poetry and memoirs, Angelou was a bonafide professional dancer, touring Europe in a production of Porgy & Bess, studying with Martha Graham and performing with Alvin Ailey (she was even one of Ailey's first partners!).
We're not ashamed to admit it: The Dance Magazine staff is a big bunch of dance history nerds. But we also know that, sometimes, learning about our art form's past via textbook can feel stale. That's why we completely lost it (in a good way) when Seet Dance, a contemporary school in Sydney, Australia, contacted us about their special take on dance history. As part of their curriculum, they recreate scenes from famous modern and contemporary works with Legos.
Yes. You read that right. With Legos! Who doesn't love Legos?
And the level of detail—from the figures' positions to their costumes and the accompanying sets—shows a keen understanding of these iconic moments.
Browse through some of Seet Dance's set-ups below, and put your own dance history knowledge to the test. How many do you recognize? Scroll to the bottom for the choreographer and name of each work, and links to clips of these memorable performances.
All photos Courtesy Seet Dance
If you still don't know what you're going to be for Halloween, don't panic just yet. Dance Magazine has your back. Whether you're heading to a party, dressing up for technique class or doing some good ol' trick-or-treating, there are countless costume options that take inspiration from modern, ballet and Broadway. (Chances are you already have the basic pieces in your closet!) Snag one of these ideas, or riff off one to create a unique look. Happy Halloween!
Cartoon by Jessica Love in The Juilliard Journal via juilliard.edu
Go Modern: Want to transform into Martha Graham? Purple fabric can do wonders. You're sure to get some confused looks from your non-dance friends. Bonus points if you do an excerpt from Lamentation and give a mini dance-history lesson.
If you're even nerdier, you can create your own version of one of Alwin Nikolais' imaginative costumes. Back in college, I showed up to a party for dance majors in this gem, based on "Mantis" from Imago. Peruse the racks at Goodwill for colorblock clothing, paint your face white and fashion a hat out of a Styrofoam cup and elastic.
Left: "Mantis" from Imago. At right: Madeline Schrock's take on the original.
Cat costumes also require meowing. The cast of Broadway's CATS. Photo by Matthew Murphy, Courtesy DKC/O&M.
Broadway Bound: Characters from the Great White Way provide endless costume ideas. If you're looking for French flair, try these dreamy pieces inspired by An American in Paris. Flouncy skirts and wrap sweaters in pastel shades evoke the fashion of late-'40s Paris.
If you've ever wanted to be a Jellicle cat, now's the time to make use of that unitard at the back of your closet. Add some fur trim, ears and creative makeup based on your favorite feline from CATS.
Dressing up as a founding father doesn't have to be stuffy. Borrow a look from the cast of Hamilton, by pairing a ruffled blouse with a military jacket and boots.
Graceful Ballet Looks: Take a page from American Ballet Theatre principals James Whiteside and Daniil Simkin and dress up as your favorite ballet legend. Last year, the two transformed into Gelsey Kirkland and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
If you are addicted to "The Walking Dead" and ballet, this costume is for you. "One year as a last-minute costume, I was a zombie ballerina," says DM assistant editor Lauren Wingenroth. "It's a super-easy one if you need something in a pinch—use an old ballet costume that you don't care about getting dirty, and paint your face white with dark eyes. Fake blood optional."
Escoyne as Terpsichore (far left), next to Nijinsky's faun
A Balanchine look is timeless and doesn't require too much planning. "When I was getting my BFA, we all got really into Halloween and would have themed days for an entire week," says DM assistant editor Courtney Escoyne. "For 'Mythical Monday,' I decided to pull some inspiration from Mr. B and go as Terpsichore from Apollo: classic white leo, white ballet skirt, pink tights. It was easy to put together, plus I got to pretend to be an NYCB ballerina for a day."
Last but not least, Halloween is the perfect excuse to dress up anyone's baby who may be crawling around the studio. Suzannah Friscia, an assistant editor at DM, says, "My very first Halloween costume as a baby was dance inspired: I was a purple Sugar Plum Fairy with a sparkly tutu and a little wand."
An eclectic mix of artists reenvisions Martha Graham’s Lamentation.
PeiJu Chien-Pott in Lamentation. Photo by Hibbard Nash Photography, Courtesy MGDC.
They’re choreographers you would never expect to see sharing a bill with Martha Graham: Modern dancer Kyle Abraham, tapper Michelle Dorrance, contemporary abstractionist Liz Gerring and Sonya Tayeh of “So You Think You Can Dance.” But each has created their own version of her historical work Lamentation to premiere during Martha Graham Dance Company’s season at The Joyce Theater, February 10–22. “Lamentation was a radical departure from what had come before, stripping everything away and representing the essence of emotion,” says artistic director Janet Eilber. “That seismic shift still resonates today.”
The project, Lamentation Variations, began in 2007 as a way to commemorate September 11. Come this season, MGDC will have 12 Variations in its repertoire. Eilber hopes that the range of choreographers participating this year—part wish list, part kismet—will bring something new to the Graham repertoire and grow MGDC’s audience by making the 85-year-old Lamentation more accessible.
Some of the choreographers feel like a natural fit. For instance, Kyle Abraham has built his Variation from his Graham and Cunningham training. “There’s a fear of doing too much of a derivative. I’m giving a nod to the technique, but allowing it to be my take,” says Abraham. “Knowing that Merce had studied with Graham, I found myself wanting to pair Cunningham curves and Graham contractions.”
Other choreographers’ works, like Dorrance’s, will introduce a new style to the Graham aesthetic. “I am not using tap dance as an acute technique in this work, but I am using its foundation,” says Dorrance. “This opportunity allows me to branch out and apply the way I see rhythm as a driving force for non-percussive dancers.
What would Martha think about all of this? “As we move forward on all of our experiments, I believe she’s cheering us on,” says Eilber. “She was all about the future.”
Clockwise from top left: Merce Cunningham, 1962; Agnes de Mille, 1980; Ruth St. Denis in White Jade, 1950.
In November, the dance world lost one of its most prolific photographers, Jack Mitchell (1925–2013), whose work helped chronicle an epoch in dance history. In a career spanning more than 40 years, Mitchell captured almost every major figure in the field, from ballet legends to downtown dancemakers, as well as tap dancers, b-boys and composers.
A longtime contributor to Dance Magazine, Mitchell’s work has filled our pages since the early 1950s. He photographed more than 160 covers; subjects included José Limón, George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and Bob Fosse. And though he announced his retirement in 1996, he received a Dance Magazine Award in 2002 and remained on the magazine’s masthead until his death.
Mitchell also found great success outside of dance: His portraits for publications like The New York Times, Rolling Stone and Vanity Fair included John Lennon and Yoko Ono, Alfred Hitchcock and Meryl Streep. Today, the Thrasher-Horne Center for the Arts in Florida is home to some of Mitchell’s most iconic work, including the images on these pages.
Clockwise from top left: Martha Graham in Alcestis, 1962; Paul Taylor in Aureole, 1979; Mikhail Baryshnikov rehearsing Taylor’s Aureole, 1993.
"Musée de la danse" at New York's Museum of Modern Art. Photo by Julieta Cervantes, Courtesy MoMA
They were part of an exhibit titled “Musée de la danse: Three Collective Gestures," a collaboration with the French choreographer Boris Charmatz presented by MoMA's Department of Media and Performance Art. The program, which was promoted as “re-imagining the function of dance and its relationship with the body, society and the institution," is an example of a growing trend of postmodern dancers and dance companies performing site-specific works in museums. In recent years, MoMA has also showcased the work of Yvonne Rainer, Ralph Lemon and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, positioning these “outsider" artists firmly within the establishment. It's a move that's given a sense of weight and permanence to a traditionally ephemeral art form.
Of course, the idea of live dancing in museums isn't entirely new. Steve Paxton's 1972 performance series at New York City's John Weber Gallery, Trisha Brown's 1974 residency at the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis and other “happenings" at that time explored the relationship between movement and public spaces for art.
But over the past several years, these presentations have moved from the margins of the art world to inside leading cultural institutions such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and the Tate Modern in London. The choreographer Liz Santoro even won a 2013 Bessie Award for her site-specific work Watch It at New York City's Museum of Arts and Design. The facts that MoMA created a department for producing performances in 2008 and the Whitney Museum of American Art hired a full-time performance curator in 2012 suggest that dance today is seen as a core component of programming, not an occasional novelty. These museums are aware of the current popularity of performance art, and have invested in helping to direct its transition into the mainstream.
Above: Shen Wei Dance Arts at New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art. Courtesy Metropolitan Museum of Art
“What happened with photography—it was not originally considered fine art—is happening now with dance," says Muriel Maffre, executive director of San Francisco's Museum of Performance + Design and a former principal with the San Francisco Ballet. “It's being recognized by a bigger group of people and finding a place next to great paintings." Ana Janevski, a curator of the “Musée de la danse" exhibit at MoMA who describes dancers as “living archives," agrees. “Dance is not only about movement, but about space and writing and thinking," she says. “What we've tried to show is how dance is not just a footnote or sporadic event but an art form contained in itself."
This recognition has helped to elevate dance, which is often perceived as less serious than fine art, says Diane Madden, associate artistic director of the Trisha Brown Dance Company, who has set the choreographer's works at MoMA, the Tate Modern, Berlin's Hamburger Bahnhof, the Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago and the Getty and Hammer Museums in Los Angeles. “People go to a dance performance expecting to be entertained, but people go to an art museum expecting to put thought and time into what they're seeing," she says. “It does give it a little more validity to associate ourselves with these more accepted art forms."
It also provides a profoundly different way to experience dance. Unlike a traditional theater, where the audience is fixed and their attention is focused on a proscenium stage, site-specific works in museums often allow viewers to move throughout the performers, shifting their proximity and perspective. As a result, these pieces are more intimate and interactive. “It shows the humanity of the dancers," says Madden, who recalls how during a performance of Roof Piece Re-Layed at MoMA in 2011, a group of middle-aged women started doing the steps along with them. The dance, which is about the transmission of movement, really resonated “in a space where the audience can be with them instead of looking upon them."
For Shen Wei, whose company has performed everywhere from the Metropolitan Museum to the North Carolina Museum of Art to the Collezione Maramotti in Italy, this reflects a larger mission. “When we perform onstage, it's showing," he says. “But more current dance works are not about showing something. They're about discovery. And those things fit well in these kinds of surroundings."
Maffre believes this immersive quality appeals to dance and non-dance audiences alike. “More than ever people are looking for experiences," she says. “In the past museums were considered temples of art, but museums are becoming more of a place of exchange and encounters." As Evan Copeland, a member of Shen Wei Dance Arts, puts it: “Museums are sacred ground—don't touch—whereas we're like, 'Please touch, be part of this, contribute.' We're making the space accessible."
Site-specific works can also make dance more accessible, engaging audiences who might never set foot in an opera house. But they require certain sacrifices of the artists. Because these spaces weren't designed for dance (awkward layouts, no sprung floors), steps have to be modified and rehearsals are limited. And dancers used to performing in theaters have to get used to people staring them in the face.
“There's not that distance of the stage, so you're very vulnerable," says Copeland of works like Undivided Divided, where the practically naked performers dance and roll around in paint on 7x7-foot squares while the audience wanders among them. But he ultimately enjoys the sense of community this generates with the viewers, just as Shen finds the location constraints stimulating. “It makes you create something you wouldn't think of before you saw the space," he says.
And since many cities lack affordable performance venues, alternative spaces like galleries provide more opportunities for dance artists to present their work. But as with all trends, there's the chance that dance in museums will become too ubiquitous. “The challenge is how to continue to reinvent and not enter into certain patterns," Janevski says. “If you're really interested in breaking down the fourth wall and trying to push how an audience views art, that's awesome," adds Copeland. “But if you're just using the space to dance around, personally I don't find that interesting."
Shen stresses that just like dance in a theater, the quality of site-specific works varies. But he believes the potential for connecting with audiences—both new and old—and making dance come alive outweighs any risk of this becoming a gimmick.
Madden agrees, citing the reactions she's seen as proof of the powerful impact of these pieces. “Inevitably, there's some joyful surprised discovery that happens among the audience, and I just love that. It tells me we're on the right track."