Magazine

The Queen of Quirk

With her wacky charm, Celia Rowlson-Hall has become the dance darling of fashion and film. 

 

Photo by Jayme Thornton (2)

 

When Celia Rowlson-Hall found out she would be choreographing for HBO’s “Girls,” she felt like she was in the right place. Woven into the drama of last season’s “Beach House” episode, her coy, catchy moves had the actors chugging, grapevining and otherwise grooving around kitchen counters and living room furniture. For those 45 seconds, their characters—four feuding friends—managed to get along.

“The job was serendipitous in terms of the style,” says Rowlson-Hall. “I mean, making up a dance in the living room is really all I like to do anyway.”

She’s joking, but not entirely. Much of what this Brooklyn-based choreographer, filmmaker and performer makes has the impromptu, wacky charm of the stuff you do at home when no one’s watching. And her passion for telling stories through film and movement is no less zealous than that of a kid staging a backyard musical. But her work is also remarkably sophisticated, in all of its onscreen forms: her own surreal, wordless short films; choreography for music videos and commercials; off-the-cuff dances on Instagram; and, coming soon, her first feature-length film, MA, a silent movie about a virgin mother’s pilgrimage across the American  Southwest. (More on that later.) At a time when many people would sooner spend $300 on an iPad than on tickets to the ballet, she’s telling smart, whimsical stories that dance across our devices.

Rowlson-Hall, 30, started out in contemporary dance, but the “highs and heartbreaks” of live performance, she says, became too taxing: all that work and emotional investment for just a few fleeting shows. “Maybe I’m too sentimental,” she says, “but I needed something to hold on to.”

 

Her path isn’t easy to trace. Slipping between high-profile gigs and DIY adventures, Rowlson-Hall is something of a chameleon. Her clients range from independent designers to big-name brands (Kate Spade, Lee Jeans), from cult electronic artists to popular Indie bands (MGMT, Sleigh Bells). When “Girls” writer and star Lena Dunham appeared on the cover of Vogue, Rowlson-Hall choreographed the cheeky companion video. She seems to be that magazine’s go-to dance consultant, having also directed a Vogue video of the Memphis jookin’ virtuoso Lil Buck.

Her own films, in which she often stars—all spindly, elegant limbs and wild blue eyes—lure the viewer into strange, hyper-saturated worlds unto themselves, where movement does the talking in both loud and subtle ways. They can be disturbing or disarming, garish or achingly poignant. A few of her shorts have earned the exclusive “Staff Pick” stamp at Vimeo, and two of those made it to South by Southwest last year: her haunting si nos dejan and hilarious The Audition, an absurdist one-take perhaps inspired by her own auditioning past.

It’s hard to imagine anyone seeing “zero professional promise” in Rowlson-Hall. But such was the assessment, as she remembers it, from her professors at the University of North Carolina School of the Arts, where she spent her college years. (She grew up in the tiny town of Urbanna, Virginia.) While most dance majors auditioned for the work of guest artists and spent their afternoons in rehearsal, Rowlson-Hall, not the most conventionally technical dancer—as she puts it, “I move a little weird”—never made the cut.

“I could have been done with classes by 3 pm and messed around the rest of the day,” she recalls. “But that’s when I started to really choreograph. I made my own work.”

Upon graduating in 2006, Rowlson-Hall plunged into New York City life, exploring every creative outlet in sight. The so-called awkwardness that had hindered her in college endeared her to a couple of audacious choreographers: Faye Driscoll and Monica Bill Barnes. “She had this gangliness,” Driscoll says, “but it became for me the thing that was so beautiful about her.” Driscoll also admired her up-for-anything attitude, “this willingness to try, to just go for things, whether or not they ended up being a horrible idea. She’s really just an idea machine.” Barnes, who mentored Rowlson-Hall through Lincoln Center’s Kenan Fellowship, an opportunity for emerging artists from UNCSA, describes her as “an incredibly genuine performer, with these bold instincts and a sense of how to carry them out.”

Rowlson-Hall danced with Driscoll and Barnes for several years, even winning a Bessie Award as a performer in Driscoll’s 837 Venice Blvd. But her interests had always varied, darting between dance, photography and fashion. Through a growing network of artist friends willing to teach her new skills—and through modeling jobs that connected her with commercial casting directors—she discovered that her passions could converge in a single, less ephemeral medium: film. The first time she walked onto a music video set, she says, “it felt like home.”

“I think filmmaking in itself is a bit of a dance,” she says, “whether it’s how the camera is moving or how you’re editing; it all has momentum and lyricism and tempo.”

Her versatility—her fluency in choreographing both for and with the camera—makes her a sought-after collaborator. As “Girls” director Jesse Peretz puts it, “I could tell I was working with someone who had not only a choreographer’s brain but also a director’s brain.” Other colleagues, like the clothing designer Rachel Antonoff, for whom Rowlson-Hall directed a fanciful five-minute promo, note her almost telepathic intuition. “She has this ability to extract what’s in your head,” Antonoff says, “to take something you weren’t able to totally verbalize and not only verbalize it perfectly, but make it better than you ever thought it could be.”

Rowlson-Hall also has an uncanny way of rallying people behind her ideas—no matter how out-there they may seem. Last year she raised $50,000 on Kickstarter to fund MA, her most ambitious project yet, in which she’ll play the title role: “a virgin mother on a pilgrimage to Las Vegas to give birth to our savior.” (She’s on location in Arizona and Nevada this month.) The choreographer Sydney Skybetter was among her backers. “At a time when Kickstarter had gotten so obnoxious and noisy, she commanded it for something meaningful and highly personal and utterly nonsensical,” he says. “I honestly don’t understand what she’s doing, and it’s great.”

Rowlson-Hall admits that she doesn’t completely understand either. But she loves the journey of finding out, and she knows what fascinates her: the untold stories of women—“the mother of the hero,” she says—and myths of all kinds, including biblical ones. (Raised  in a Christian Scientist family, she has since settled into a broader kind of spirituality.) In MA, those fascinations collide with the help of a sprawling creative team. Her cast features the dancers Jason Kittelberger (formerly of Cedar Lake) and Bobbi Jene Smith (formerly of Batsheva).

As untamed as her work can be—see the punch-bowl scene in Prom Night or the confectionary ghost in Piñata—Rowlson-Hall loves to tunnel into a simple idea. At a residency last May, she spent days refining how Ma will walk: How does she carry herself? Where is her focus? Outside the studio, she keeps her eyes peeled for naturally occurring choreography. On a recent trip to India, from the 30th floor of a hotel, she spotted four boys frolicking on the street below. “I swear, it was more beautiful than a Cunningham piece,” she says. From that image, a section of MA was born.

As a performer in her own work, Rowlson-Hall likes to capture herself in a single take. It’s like being onstage: no second chances. “I do miss performing live,” she says, “so in my filmmaking, I try to bring a sense of that aliveness—try to get the best of both worlds.”

 

Siobhan Burke, a former Dance Magazine editor, is a dance critic for The New York Times.

 

Four photos from top: Making a video with Hamish Bowles, international editor at large of Vogue; Rowlson-Hall’s choreography for “Girls”; performing in her short films All the World’s a Stage and Mariah’s Lollipop. All photos courtesy Rowlson-Hall, except “Girls” by Mark Schafer/HBO, Courtesy HBO.

The Conversation
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Rolling In

To get a 180-degree first position, dancers will sometimes let their arches roll forward. But turnout is not about forcing your feet open; it's about opening up in the hips. “Turning out is an activity, not a position," says Irene Dowd, who teaches anatomy at the Juilliard School. “If we stop sustaining that movement, our feet will passively roll in." Rolling in places stress on the tendons of the feet and leads to injury because the rest of the body compensates for the imbalance when your knees can't line up over your toes.

Dowd warns against using only the arch to combat rolling in. “Dancers will try to lift up their arches and pull up on the inside of the ankle," she says. This can result in the inflammation of the tendons in the ankle and lead to tendinitis, a painful overuse injury that's common in dancers. What she feels are “Victorian furniture feet—feet that aren't fully in contact with the ground" should be solid in three areas: the heel, the ball of the big toe, and the ball of the little toe. Imagine how your weight is being transferred from above, through the body and down the legs, rather than gripping the foot and lifting from the arch.

Misaligning the Spine

Distorting the back, either by crunching the lumbar vertebrae and splaying the rib cage open or by hunching the shoulders forward and tucking the pelvis under, affects every other part of the body. Since the proper placement of the torso is the foundation of any movement, a dancer with a misaligned spine will develop other deadly technique sins. Problems can ripple all the way down to the extremities and upward to the neck and head. The core will be loose, unable to provide essential support. A pelvis that either tips back or tucks under will limit the range of motion in the hips.

Christine Spizzo's students at the North Carolina School of the Arts constantly work on their placement. “The one directive I give in class more than any other," she says, “is tailbone down, navel muscles lifted." She emphasizes that the tailbone lengthens downward without tucking under, and the navel muscles lift upward, not inward. This opposition allows the external rotator muscles to be actively engaged at the top of the thigh. Spizzo uses the expression the Four Ts—“no tucking, tipping, tilting, or twisting of the pelvis"—as a reminder for students.

Clenching the Toes

Clenching, curling, knuckling—no matter what it's called, this condition hampers a dancer's ability to articulate the feet. Clenched toes also make the feet an unstable platform to stand on, creating problems for the rest of the body. The muscles and tendons of the foot, knee, and ankle must work together to perform a relevé or jump, says Edward Ellison, director of Ellison Ballet Professional Training Program in New York. Clenched toes will place unwanted stress on the joints of the legs, leading to imbalance and overuse injuries. On pointe, knuckling over can damage the bones and tendons of the feet.

Master ballet teacher Sara Neece of Ballet Arts in New York says that when the first joint of the toe presses down into the floor too hard, the second joint of the toe jams into the metatarsal. For Neece, the key to remedying clenched toes lies in “bringing sensation to those unused tendons" beneath the second joint, and teaching the toes how to work in a careful and deliberate manner. While seated, a dancer should prick the back of each clenched toe with a fingernail about 20 times. Sitting on a chair with the foot on the ground, she should drag it back toward the body, slowly raising it to demi-pointe with a forced arch. Teachers must pay attention to the response of the feet to this localized work, since overstressing the tendons can damage them. Another way to teach the toes to stretch out is to weave a strip of cloth over the second toe and alternate below and above successive toes, leaving it there during barrework and nondance activities.

Giving In to Extreme Hyperextension

Hyperextended legs, in which the straightened knee naturally curves behind the thigh and calf muscles, are prized in the world of extreme ballet bodies. Christine Spizzo sings the praise of a moderately hyperextended leg line, as the leg fits snugly in fifth position, and the arabesque looks gorgeous, with that slight curve offsetting the arch of the foot. However, dancers with extreme hyperextension must take special care. “The hyperextended dancer tends to have weak external rotator muscles," she says, so the legs are more prone to collapse in on themselves when landing from a jump, letting the body weight fall on the knees. This can result in damage to the joints that maintain the alignment of the leg, including twisted knees and sprained ankles. Even if the dancer understands how to avoid giving in to her hyperextension, she has to learn how to express herself fully while restraining her legs.

But Spizzo points to dancers such as international star Sylvie Guillem, who has used her extreme hyperextension to her advantage. The dancer must think of lengthening rather than straightening or locking the knee, even if it feels slightly bent. She must develop a heightened awareness of the turnout muscles from the top of the thigh down to the calf. “The muscles must be activated to not allow the dancer to give in to the hyperextension," says Spizzo. She uses the image of the barbershop pole to encourage dancers to apply that feeling of an infinite spiral to their legs. Somatic practices such as Pilates can help to strengthen those stabilizing turnout muscles. Spizzo insists that dancers stand with the heels together in first position and never be allowed to press back into that knee joint. To do this, “the quadriceps must remain soft. As soon as you grip, it pulls that kneecap back dangerously."

Using Unnecessary Tension

“Tension," says Daniel Lewis, dean of dance at the New World School of the Arts, “pulls you off balance. It tightens the muscles and causes injury." Stiff muscles are injury-prone muscles, which make free and confident movement impossible.

Unwanted stiffness can also limit your versatility as a dancer. “Modern dance is concerned with trying to go into space off-center and off-balance," says Mary Cochran, chair of the dance department at Barnard College. “If you spend too much time holding your body stiffly, it's hard to make the transition from working in-balance to working off-balance."

Rhythmic breathing helps dissipate tension. Think of the lungs as another limb and pace the breath with the dynamics of the music. Sustain a sense of motion in the body, even when you are still, advises Cochran. Doing so will help reverse the muscle memory of using tension as a form of stability.

Pinching Your Shoulder Blades

Although used as a strategy to open the chest in front, pinching your shoulder blades together immobilizes the back. The serratus anterior on the sides of your rib cage is so overstretched that it can't work. Edward Ellison says that pinched shoulder blades impede the freedom of the arms and the support of the upper spine. He feels that they “cause your weight to fall behind your axis, and strain the trapezius and rhomboid muscles of the back."

Irene Dowd suggests thinking about widening the tips of the shoulders to the side, to allow plenty of room for the chest. “It helps to think about the chest—full of your lungs, your heart, all those organs—as a sphere," says Dowd. “We need to have enough room for all those precious organs to breathe." To relax shoulder blades, sometimes she will tell students to focus on the movement of the hands. “Is the hand really a lively part of my being?" Dowd has her students ask. “The shoulder blade should support that hand."

Getting Stuck in a Rut

While physical habits impede progress, the deadliest sin is losing the drive to improve technique at all. Franco De Vita, principal of American Ballet Theatre's Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says good technique begins with a dancer's approach to class. Being present and focused enables the dancer to learn combinations quickly—and correctly. “Not listening and changing the exercise is unacceptable," says De Vita.

Michael Vernon, chair of the ballet department at Indiana University, feels the worst thing a dancer can do “is to get fixed into doing something a certain way, being safe. I love young dancers who understand that you have to dance for tomorrow, and not yesterday." Keeping an open mind means more than just trying a different preparation for a pirouette. “Being open to new styles of dance and new ways of moving the body is vital to keeping the art relevant."

Cover Story
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2. Feel worthless and alone? You slump your shoulders, avoid eye contact with your teacher and fellow dancers, and wish to disappear.

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