One of New York City Ballet's most adventurous ballerinas will be a special guest of Paul Taylor American Modern Dance for its annual season at the Koch Theater. Sara Mearns is performing solos created by early modern dance icon Isadora Duncan as staged by Lori Belilove. Also on the menu: Paul Taylor Dance Company members in 13 classic Taylor works and world premieres from Doug Varone, Bryan Arias and Mr. Taylor himself (his 147th!), plus the resurgent Trisha Brown Dance Company in her iconic Set and Reset. March 7–25. ptamd.org.
Trisha Brown, the high priestess of postmodern dance, is hugely influential. Her slippery movement style and her brainy structures are emulated by choreographers all over the United States and Europe. I am an alum of her company, and when she died last March, I gathered my thoughts and memories to write this farewell.
For the past 3 years, choreographer Stephen Petronio has been reviving groundbreaking works of postmodern dance through his BLOODLINES project. This season, although his company will be performing a work by Merce Cunningham, his own choreography moves in a more luxurious direction. We stepped into the studio with Petronio and his dancers where they were busy creating a new work, Hardness 10, named for the categorization of diamonds.
Growing up, Leah Ives always enjoyed preparing food—especially after-school snacks. So now, while she cooks to fuel her work with the Trisha Brown Dance Company, she always wants it to be "free-form in a casual, no-pressure way," she says.
That means she preps and eats whatever her body calls for. "I've gone through phases of cleanses and diets," she says. "But that can take the pleasure out of eating. And it doesn't feel nourishing to me. Now, I listen to my body."
Leah Ives with Marc Crousillat. Photo by Stephanie Berger
Fall For Dance is always a huge talkabout here in the Dance Media offices. So after all the programs were performed this year, a few of the editors from Dance Magazine, Pointe and Dance Teacher got together on Google Hangouts this morning to share our thoughts. Here are excerpts from our convo:
For a special viewing of the Trisha Brown: In Plain Site series, Jacob's Pillow is teaming up with the Clark Art Institute, one of the best museums in the Berkshires. The Institute's exquisite landscaping will no doubt provide a harmonious setting for the profound simplicity of Brown's early work on Aug. 13. This free event is a prelude to the Trisha Brown Dance Company's program at the Pillow, Aug. 16–19, that includes three works: the baroque L'Amour au théâtre (2009), the jazz-inflected Groove and Countermove (2000) and the serenely quiet Opal Loop (1980). jacobspillow.org.
It's well known that Robert Rauschenberg, one of the most famous American artists of the 20th century, made costumes and sets for Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor and Trisha Brown. What you may not know is that he also choreographed and danced in many performances of his own devising. You can see evidence of them among the vast amount of paintings, sculptures and collages at the exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art called Robert Rauschenberg: Among Friends.
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It's our 90th anniversary! To celebrate, we excavated some of our favorite hidden gems from the DM Archives—images that capture a few of the moments in time we've documented over the decades.
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
That feeling when you have four shows between 7 pm and 7 am
What does it feel like to dance an all-night marathon of performances? Five dancers recently found out during Trisha Brown: In Plain Site, part of "A Night of Philosophy and Ideas" at the Brooklyn Public Library. The festival of screenings, debate and performances took place in over 30 cities around the globe, with the Brooklyn edition lasting from 7 pm on January 28 to 7 am the next day. The Trisha Brown dancers put on a series of four site-specific performances, and Mariah Maloney kept a diary of her experience:
4:45 pm: I'm heading to the Brooklyn Public Library. In my overnight bag, I've packed five six-inch balls, a blanket, pillow, yoga mat, headphones, toothbrush, toothpaste, makeup, lotion, deodorant and sparkling water.
7:45 pm: Our guide navigates us through the crowd to the Commons Room to listen to Trisha Brown's audio recording of Skymap (1969). I lay down with fellow Trisha Brown dancer Brandi Norton to absorb Trisha’s voice.
8:30 pm: Stage manager Jessie Ksanznak calls half hour until our first performance. I put on headphones to listen to Bob Dylan's “Early Morning Rain,” gently letting my feet find the rhythm, allowing my arms to enact Trisha’s 1973 Spanish Dance score, where a dancer slowly raises her arms like a magnificent Spanish dancer and travels forward in time.
Spanish Dance in 1977. Photo by Tristan Vales via trishabrowndancecompany.org
9 pm: I walk to my floor tape near the returns desk and take my place in the center of five women. Leah Morrison, at the far back, begins the piece; Vicky Schick is next; then me; then Amanda Kmett'Pendry and finally Brandi.
I hear people shifting as they try to get a view. Leah and Vicky’s soft pitter pat footsteps approach my body, a whisper of a knee visits the back of my right knee and then my left knee and I can feel the surface of Vicky’s body against mine as my body joins the passage of Spanish Dance. I see Amanda’s long braid with slight blue streaks and I allow my knee to visit the back surface of her knee. I am the center of the sandwich as we meet Brandi; I feel a wonderful squish and suspension within the line of swaying bodies.
Harmonica vibrations reverberate through the library. Suddenly we stop, pressed up against the wall. A wave of energy, clapping, laughter and conversation erupts from the audience. We have made our first foray into this evening.
Next, Vicky captivates the crowd with an except from Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981). Brandi and Leah locate opposite ends of the Grand Lobby for Trisha Brown’s iconic Accumulation (1971). And the performance concludes with the Groove and Countermove (2000) duet performed eloquently by Amanda and Leah.
Vicky and Brandi in the green room
9:45 pm: I rest in the green room, rolling on my balls.
11:45 pm: Group Primary Accumulation begins. I lay supine on the floor, watching the crowd overflowing the Grand Lobby’s vast architecture: Bodies are filling the ground level and peeking over the edge of the second- and third-floor balconies. First gesture: right finger tips rise toward the ceiling, elbow releases to the floor. Repeat first gesture, add second gesture. Repeat first gesture, add second and now third.
12 am: I ride the post-performance energy and engage in conversations with audience members.
1 am: Brandi and I find ourselves in the midst of a yoga session.
1:30 am: Seated at the calligraphy table, I find it hard to focus. I join a few strangers in the Commons Room where I rest on mats and pillows.
1:45 am: I feel like I am going to fall asleep and decide moving will help, so I join a dance party to Michael Jackson in the Grand Lobby with 100 other night owls. My body feels loose, warm and easy, but my eyes feel heavy.
Most of us are horizontal
2:15 am I lay down in the Commons Room with a group of people listening to rapper LA Latasha Alcindor. I realize I am fading fast. A cup of hot tea is essential.
3 am: Back in the green room, most of us are horizontal, some sleeping, and some resting yet awake.
4 am: Quiet conversations, costumes, fresh applications of makeup and movement begin. The stage manager calls half hour and we start to rally.
5 am: The once-crowded library gives way to an open floor. Small clusters of people gather around the periphery. We arrive into the space for another Spanish Dance; Bob Dylan’s music begins and so do we, joined by the inspiring Trisha Brown dancer and "Night of Philosophy and Ideas" curator Iréne Hultman.
Next, Vicky performs an excerpt from Son of Gone Fishin’ (1981). Amanda and I then dance part of For M.G.: The Movie (1991): We initiate layered gestures over one another, I dissolve into a slow motion solo transitioning from standing to floor level while Amanda rises to vertical, moving into the space with a feisty solo.
Wake up and dance: Vicky and Irene
5:15 am: It's fascinating to feel our exhausted bodies respond to the unique experience of dancing this choreography. The early morning becomes a sort of group meditation as thousands of people rally through the wee hours.
The performance concludes with Group Primary Accumulation, a work that requires a great deal of concentration. As we enact the final gestures, there is a sense of absolute solidarity with our audience. We stand up and find ourselves hugging each other. We have entered into a different state, one that feels unformed, flowing and dreamlike. The Grand Lobby feels relaxed—the space is our home, a home where thousands of people have gathered to exchange ideas and to witness.
6 am: Quick selfie with the group
6:30 am: Many slumber party library-goers witness our final performance of Spanish Dance. Some quietly try it on their own bodies, hips swaying in solidarity with us. A final Groove and Countermove by Amanda brings us to our finish line.
All done, and heading home
We make one last trip to the green room to change out of the white costumes, give hugs goodbye, gather our things and head home. As I get in the car, I fall into my seat, deeply content as I feel the experience of the life-changing night wash over me.
"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."
When it comes to postmodern choreography, Trisha Brown is royalty. Her half-century of work includes the exhilaratingly disorienting “equipment pieces” (as in Walking on the Wall), her beguiling mathematical structures (as in her “accumulations”), her famously liquid movement quality (see Brown's Artist Statement for her elegant definition of “pure movement”), and her reenvisioning of dance on a proscenium stage. Her influence on an international scale is huge and subtly pervasive.
Sadly, Brown, 76, has been felled by a series of mini-strokes that left her unable to create new work. Well-loved for her generosity and playfulness as well as for her choreographic genius, she will be missed by many who anticipated each new work with pleasure.
Brown rehearsing in her loft, 1970s. Photo by Lois Greenfield, Perron collection.
During its season at Brooklyn Academy of Music last winter, the Trisha Brown Dance Company announced a three-part plan to continue her work. First, taking a page from the Cunningham Dance Foundation’s “Legacy Tour,” TBDC has embarked on a three-year tour called “Proscenium Works, 1979–2011.” The repertoire will include her well-known collaborations with the likes of artists Robert Rauschenberg and Donald Judd, and composer Laurie Anderson, with titles like Set and Reset, Glacial Decoy, and Foray Forêt. The job of artistic director will be shared by her two longest dance associates: Diane Madden and Carolyn Lucas, who have been with the company 33 and 29 years respectively.
In 2015, the company will return to the 1970s-type of presentation, when Brown’s dances appeared in art galleries, firehouses, and other non-proscenium spaces. Brown aligned herself more with art than entertainment, and she is often the first choreographer museum curators think of when extending into “performance.”
The last prong of the plan is to create an online interactive media library in the spirit of experimenting with another non-theatrical space. Needless to say, it will be comforting to still have Trisha with us in this way.
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
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.