And the seasons keep coming. Dancing with the Stars, the reality TV show that began in the summer of 2005, started its fifth season last fall topping the charts with more than 20 million viewers. Twenty-three-year-old Cheryl Burke, the raven-headed San Franciscan, has taken two celebrities to first place. She hopes to be invited back for the sixth season, which premieres March 17. She talked to Emily Macel last fall while on tour with last season's cast.

 

Tell us about your dance training. I did ballet and jazz first, then I switched to ballroom at the age of 12. My morn has always loved to dance so she put me into ballet. But she saw I wasn't excited about it. Then she started dancing ballroom socially with my dad. When she took me to a competition, I fell in love with it. In high school, I'd compete every free day I got. I never thought I would be on the number one hit show on television.

 

What is technically difficult in this work? There are two styles—Latin and Ballroom—both difficult. In Latin sometimes you can't bend your legs, you have to walk on straight legs, or you have to walk from toe to heel, It's very detailed. In Ballroom, it's the opposite. Sometimes you have to step onto a bent leg and then most of the time you walk heel to toe, It's really difficult for the celebrities to adjust. For me, I love competing in Latin.

 

Who was your main ballroom mentor? Allan Tornsberg. He was a World Champion and he took me under his wing and taught me everything I knew from the very beginning.

 

What's your week like when you're doing a season of Dancing with the Stars? We have a fourweek training period before the show and we do three to five hours every day. We start off slow because we don't want the celebrities to get exhausted. Then when the competition hits, we extend the hours to six to eight a day. Then we have live shows twice a week. For the professionals, it's exhausting because we have to come up with the choreography ourselves. But it's even more exhausting for the celebrities because it's a whole new dance and they have to memorize all these steps.

 

What celebrities have you partnered with on the show? My first partner was Drew Lachey in the second season and we won that season. The third season was with Emmitt Smith and I won that one as well. The fourth season was lan Ziering from 90210. The fifth was with Wayne Newton (left). They're all different. Drew was my first and he was a lot of fun; Emmitt was such a great guy; Ian was such a hard worker; and Wayne—he's a living legend.

 

Were they natural leaders? They don't know dancing so they leave it up to you. You have to teach them how to be a man and lead the woman. Maybe they're natural leaders in everyday life but when it comes to something they don't know, it's hard to lead.

 

What has been the most surprising thing about the show? I think it's the popularity of it. People are so in love with the show. It's not like ice skating that's been shown across the world, it's ballroom dancing. Dancers never get paid enough and we work really hard. It shows the public how hard it is to become a good dancer.

 

How is a ballroom competition different from Dancing with the Stars? In competitions, the couples all dance on the same floor together. What we do for TV is a show dance, we just do it solo and make it entertaining. In a competition you don't have the song you're dancing to, they just put on a song and you dance to it. With the show they give you a specific song to choreograph to.

 

Does it annoy you that the professional dancers aren't interviewed? I think it's slowly coming to the level that we're getting more attention. During the result shows we do a lot of professional numbers. At the end of the day it's Dancing with the Stars. But for some of us who've been on for a few seasons, now we're getting recognition.

Dancers Trending

The Washington Ballet
Harman Center for the Arts, Sidney Harman Hall
Washington D.C.
April 14–18, 2010
Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Sona Kharatian and the women of TWB in Armitage's Brahms on Edge. Photo by Carol Pratt, Courtesy TWB.

 

The three works billed as “Bolero+” showcased TWB’s technical strengths and emotional depth, but the program itself was disjointed and the choreography, in some cases, felt like a step backwards.


Karole Armitage’s Brahms on Edge, a premiere created for the company, was a pleasure to watch, but there was nothing edgy about this elegant work. Armitage acknowledged in program notes that “I am drawn towards two poles in my choreography—the very lyrical and the very edgy.” Here, her “very lyrical” focus could have pulled closer to the center of the spectrum. At times the work felt generic in its classicism, and one wished for something more boundary-defying, which is not too much to expect from this generally forward-thinking choreographer. There were moments that made the piece come to life: a series of tornado-like turns, a flexed foot rather than a pointed one, a fist pump. But Brahms needed more of these departures from the fluid romanticism.


The lead dancers and longtime Washington Ballet members Sona Kharatian and Jared Nelson shared a natural partnership. In one remarkable moment, Nelson seemed to push Kharatian so far into a deep plié on one foot that I expected her to shoot into the air like a spring that’s been compressed and released.


Cynthia Hanna, mezzo-soprano of the Washington National Opera, sang the medley of Brahams’ music to live piano, and while her voice was rich and full, at times it distracted from the dance. The melody often seemed incompatible with what was happening onstage, as if the score were an afterthought to the choreography.


To be fair, Edwaard Liang’s Wunderland is a tough act to follow. The 2009 ballet paints a vivid portrait of snow falling and dancers whirling. It is full of the unexpected. The women’s extreme flexibility made them seem like rubber that the men could mold in any way. While the racing Philip Glass score drove the dance forward, it also allowed solos and pas de deux to stand on their own with an electric force.


The evening ended with Nicolo Fonte’s Bolero, originally created for Oregon Ballet Theatre in 2008. For all the promise that the set design offered, the choreography itself fell short. A number of corrugated metal sheets, hanging from the rafters, were lifted periodically, sometimes revealing dancers, sometimes on cue with the music. With Bolero, a piece of music used so frequently by choreographers, the dancing has to reinvent the score, but Fonte’s attempt did not. When the stage was clear of metal sheets, the dancers seemed to finally come alive and break from an almost robotic feeling, but only briefly. For the finale, a red drape descended from the ceiling and Sonia Kharatian threw herself into it. (Another dancer stood behind the curtain to catch her.) It felt like an overly-symbolic ending, a grand flourish that carried little weight.

Now 25, Onuki grew up in Yokohama, a city just south of Tokyo. She started ballet at age 4, performing in small local schools. By 12, she knew she wanted a professional ballet career. Luckily, her parents already were accustomed to their children's ballet passion: one of Onuki's older brothers, Masayoshi, dances with Victor Ullate Ballet in Spain.

Onuki says her flexibility comes naturally. She credits her strong technique, however, to training for several years at the Stuttgart Ballet's John Cranko School and dancing for a year with Vancouver's Goh Ballet. Despite her international schooling, Onuki only had one destination. “When I left Japan, I wanted to end up in the United States," she says. She auditioned for the Washington Ballet's Studio Company seven years ago and jumped when she received an offer.

From the start, she impressed Washington Ballet artistic director Septime Webre, who invited her into the main company after only a year, though most dancers spend two years at the junior company. “Maki brings an amazingly strong technique," he says. “She has a jump that springs out of nowhere and the ability to move quickly without seeming to be working at all. Yet despite those athletic qualities, she's comfortable with extreme lyricism. You're left almost giddy after watching her dance."

Webre cites her enthusiasm for every role as one reason for his frequently casting her. Though the company is unranked, Onuki often ends up with a featured part. “She's really excelled in the full gamut of repertory," Webre notes, praising her performance in La Sylphide, as well as her Kitri, Sugar Plum, and many Balanchine roles. Her range, he feels, stems as much from her attitude as her technique. “She's a go-for-broke dancer," Webre says.

Offstage Onuki seems quiet and shy. It's onstage that she feels at home. “When I'm performing," she says, “I can express myself so much better than in normal life." Though she feels more at ease with the audience on the other side of the footlights, Onuki remembers sitting there and falling in love with dance as a child. Once in Tokyo, Onuki saw Sylvie Guillem perform Maurice Béjart's Bolero. “She was so strong and dramatic, it shocked me," Onuki remembers. She now works toward having similar emphasis in her movement. “I like to think of my dancing as having that attack," she says.

While she admires Guillem's hyperextended limbs and sheer ability, Onuki does not want to be pigeonholed as simply a superior technician. “I'm quick, I have good technique," she says. “But I would like to do something adagio with soft movement." She hopes one day to perform the lead in Giselle. “That role is all about coming from inside," she says. Webre agrees Giselle would suit her. “She'd be beautiful," he says. “She can be like smoke or a whisper when she dances."

He feels that Onuki has hit her stride in the last two years. Webre credits her work with guest choreographers—like Twyla Tharp, Mark Morris, and Liang—who have set and created works on the company. This month, Onuki will star in the Bolero(+) program, which features pieces by Liang, Nicolo Fonte, and Karole Armitage. In May, she'll perform more contemporary works like Tharp's Push Comes to Shove, Morris' Pacific, Nacho Duato's Cor Perdut, and Balanchine's The Four Temperaments.

Though onstage perfection may be Onuki's goal, she doesn't mind having imperfect moments in the classroom and studio. “If anything goes wrong, the moment always ends in a laugh from her," says Webre. “She doesn't take herself so seriously." Her frequent partner, Jonathan Jordan, says she throws herself into the material without fear. “She's a no-bones-about-it kind of person," he says. “She always gives 100 percent. But she's light-hearted about it." That combination, light of heart and strong in spirit, can take you far—just ask Onuki.


Dancers Trending

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

January 29–30, 2010

Eisenhower Theater

Kennedy Center, Washington DC

Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Moon Water. Photo by LIU Chen-hsiang, courtesy Cloud Gate.

 

Once in a while a dance show comes along that leaves you feeling dizzy and breathless. During Cloud Gate’s performance of Moon Water, I was torn between keeping my eyes wide open to avoid missing something and letting my eyelids fall heavy, to let the dreamlike dancing imprint itself in my mind.

 

The mood was set by a single dancer in a cone of light with a tilted aluminum-like mirror hanging overhead. He moved with the fluidity of a serpent, without angles or jarring changes of direction. He was a technical powerhouse, but his mood was calm and introspective. Watching him, one didn’t gasp with excitement over his flexibility and proficiency, but rather sighed with delight and pleasure.

 

Lin Hwai-min’s choreography was inspired by tai chi, and the meditative qualities of the practice read clearly. Not only did the dancers appear to fall into a trance while they were performing—with peaceful faces and relaxed limbs—but the audience was welcome to join in this meditation. At times, the repetition and steady tempo made one eager for a quicker pace or surprising change. But the intricacies of the choreography—like the way a dancer pointing his toes would raise just the big toe—recaptured my focus. Dancers lifted legs overhead and balanced on one foot without any restraint or wobbling, or sank into impossibly deep pliés and sat there as if this were the most comfortable position in the world.

 

The simple costumes (by Lin Ching-ju) and set (by Austin Wang) were proof that less can be more. The women wore nude leotards, the men were bare-chested, and all wore translucent flowing white pants that left trails of billowing fabric. In one section a dancer was lit so that she glowed against the black stage. The marley floor had swirls of white, and at various points in the production, mirrors were revealed—first overhead and eventually against the entire backdrop.

 

True to its name, Moon Water, which premiered in 1998, began with moonlit dances and a tranquil feeling of nighttime. But when the water appeared, the stage became awake and alive. Mysteriously seeping in, the shallow pool was nearly invisible to the audience at first. Then one dancer dove in, legs first, spinning and throwing an arching splash across the stage. Nothing was overdone here—each dancer moved with grace, ease, and intention through the liquid, creating fountain-like curves and sprays as they circled their arms in the water or crawled through puddles on the floor. The images reflected in the mirrored backdrop were like a moving watercolor with blurred edges.

 

The eight sections of the dance were done to Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello. Each new solo, duet, full company piece, or quartet added another level of depth to the musicality.

 

The piece left this reviewer satisfied. It was just long enough to make one wonder when it would be over, but not too long to allow the mind to wander from the simple beauty onstage.

 

Dancers Trending

Cloud Gate Dance Theatre

January 29–30, 2010

Eisenhower Theater

Kennedy Center

Washington DC

Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Moon Water. Photo by LIU Chen-hsiang, courtesy Cloud Gate.

 

Once in a while a dance show comes along that leaves you feeling dizzy and breathless. During Cloud Gate’s performance of Moon Water, I was torn between keeping my eyes wide open to avoid missing something and letting my eyelids fall heavy, to let the dreamlike dancing imprint itself in my mind.

 

The mood was set by a single dancer in a cone of light with a tilted aluminum-like mirror hanging overhead. He moved with the fluidity of a serpent, without angles or jarring changes of direction. He was a technical powerhouse, but his mood was calm and introspective. Watching him, one didn’t gasp with excitement over his flexibility and proficiency, but rather sighed with delight and pleasure.

 

Lin Hwai-min’s choreography was inspired by tai chi, and the meditative qualities of the practice read clearly. Not only did the dancers appear to fall into a trance while they were performing—with peaceful faces and relaxed limbs—but the audience was welcome to join in this meditation. At times, the repetition and steady tempo made one eager for a quicker pace or surprising change. But the intricacies of the choreography—like the way a dancer pointing his toes would raise just the big toe—recaptured my focus. Dancers lifted legs overhead and balanced on one foot without any restraint or wobbling, or sank into impossibly deep pliés and sat there as if this were the most comfortable position in the world.

 

The simple costumes (by Lin Ching-ju) and set (by Austin Wang) were proof that less can be more. The women wore nude leotards, the men were bare-chested, and all wore translucent flowing white pants that left trails of billowing fabric. In one section a dancer was lit so that she glowed against the black stage. The marley floor had swirls of white, and at various points in the production, mirrors were revealed—first overhead and eventually against the entire backdrop.

 

True to its name, Moon Water, which premiered in 1998, began with moonlit dances and a tranquil feeling of nighttime. But when the water appeared, the stage became awake and alive. Mysteriously seeping in, the shallow pool was nearly invisible to the audience at first. Then one dancer dove in, legs first, spinning and throwing an arching splash across the stage. Nothing was overdone here—each dancer moved with grace, ease, and intention through the liquid, creating fountain-like curves and sprays as they circled their arms in the water or crawled through puddles on the floor. The images reflected in the mirrored backdrop were like a moving watercolor with blurred edges.

 

The eight sections of the dance were done to Bach’s Six Suites for Solo Cello. Each new solo, duet, full company piece, or quartet added another level of depth to the musicality.

 

The piece left this reviewer satisfied. It was just long enough to make one wonder when it would be over, but not too long to allow the mind to wander from the simple beauty onstage.

 

Jonah Bokaer is everywhere these days. Whether he’s choreographing operas for avant-garde theater director Robert Wilson, building new spaces for dance in Brooklyn, collaborating on a fashion shoot for The New York Times’ T. Magazine, or presenting multidimensional performance pieces, his calendar is brimming with cool collaborations in nontraditional spaces. Yet with so much on his plate, the voracious go-getter has the constant desire to do more. He’s a new breed of dancer/choreographer/innovator/impresario.


Judith Sanchez Ruiz, who is working with Bokaer on his current project, Replica, says, “He is like many at once. He is what you need in order to achieve things in this complicated and difficult world of art.”

Replica
has its New York premiere this month at the New Museum. In it, an 8' x 8' white box (designed by Daniel Arsham) onstage acts as a projection screen, and a portal into and out of another dimension of reality. Filmed images of a person destroying a wall, in reverse, play on its surface as chunks of the box are torn apart from the inside out.

Bokaer and Ruiz emerge from the box in a series of duets and solos, mingling limbs, mirroring actions, and reflecting impulses of movement. At times, Bokaer’s choreography makes a dancer look like a marionette, being manipulated from the outside with sudden impulses to move this way or that. And yet they are often tied to a larger theme related to the video projection, or they perform moves in opposition that melt into a synchronized series with grand sweeping arms and lofty leaps.

While Bokaer, a 2006 Dance Magazine “25 to Watch,” has been working with technology since he began choreographing five years ago, he recently started infusing his work with scientific concepts, particularly human perception. For Replica, which was commissioned by the cultural programs of the National Academy of Sciences, he incorporated his research into biomechanics and neurology. While working with mirrors, he says, “Replica came to me because of doubling vision and reflection.”

Born in Ithaca, New York, Bokaer is one of six children; his mother is a theater director and his father, who is from Tunisia, is a filmmaker. When Bokaer was 12, choreographer and former Cunningham dancer Jim Self, a faculty member at Cornell University, invited him to take classes there in Cunningham technique, ballet, and yoga. He was also performing with Ithaca Ballet, a regional company that uses students. He received scholarships to study at the Washington Ballet School, Jacob’s Pillow, and The Ailey School. “Jacob’s Pillow was revelatory because I discovered Merce there,” Bokaer says. He was able to observe the Cunningham company perform and teach. At the age of 15, he went to the University of the North Carolina School of the Arts, where he learned more about Cunningham technique.

“We immediately knew he was somebody special,” says Brenda Daniels, assistant dean for contemporary dance at the UNCSA. “We could tell his outward beauty right away, but his inner beauty is an equal match.”

Daniels, who teaches Cunningham technique, received a phone call from Cunningham assistant Robert Swinston saying they were looking for a male dancer. She didn’t hesitate to suggest Bokaer. “I said we have someone who is quite young but unbelievably mature.”

Bokaer had been a standout in her class from the start. “He’s got a lot of facility, nice legs, clean lines, a balletic look to the body, real gorgeous openness and clarity to his movement—that big voluptuous clarity.”

Bokaer graduated in 2000 and moved to New York knowing he had a place with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. He plunged into a five-week rehearsal period and a tour to Lebanon, Spain, and Austria. “It was a whirlwind experience and eye-opening in terms of different avenues of artistic expression,” he says. Being part of the Cunningham milieu, he naturally developed an interest in site-specific work, contemporary music, and technology.

At 18 years old, Bokaer was the youngest dancer ever to join the com­pany. During his eight years of performing and touring—to 32 countries!—he also completed a degree in visual and media studies at the New School.

At the New School, Bokaer studied several computer programs, such as Maya and Isadora, that can translate movement into digital imagery (“Plugged In,” Dec. 2007), and he learned of William Forsythe’s improvisation technology (“Doing Double Duty,” Nov. 2003). Bokaer’s interest in contemporary animation was at the core of his first solo studies, which he created at the age of 20 but didn’t perform until a few years later, including Nudedescendance in 2005 and Charade in 2006.

Bokaer also sought out collaborations with choreographers like John Jasperse and David Gordon. “I was hesitant to be pinned down, or to remain satisfied with dancing in one place with one company,” Bokaer says in his careful and articulated language (he can seem like a tenured professor with boyish looks). “I wanted to keep my professional experiences as expansive as possible.”

In early 2007, he was approached by Robert Wilson about choreographing for his large-scale operas, first for Faust at the Polish National Opera. Later that year, renowned writer Anne Carson invited him to collaborate in a work called Stacks, which premiered at the Skirball Center in 2008. With the onslaught of creative opportunities, Bokaer decided to leave the Cunningham Dance Company. “I told Merce I wanted to pursue my own artistic vision, and we parted peacefully.”

In addition to his choreography, Bokaer has been active in building community. In 2002, with a group of artists and choreographers, he founded Chez Bushwick, an artist-run organization dedicated to the advancement of interdisciplinary art and performance, with an emphasis on economic assistance (offering rehearsal space for only $5 an hour). In 2008, he co-founded the Center for Performance Research with John Jasperse. It is Brooklyn’s first LEED-certified green performance art building. The 4,000-sq.-ft. facility, which opened in September, provides affordable space for rehearsals and performance as well as arts programming, education, and community outreach.

As dynamic and aggressive as he is in moving the field forward, Bokaer is a quiet and gentle soul, humble of his accomplishments. Daniels calls him “a super Boy Scout.”

For his social activism in the field of dance and his own choreographic endeavors, Bokaer was named a Young Leader by the French-American Foundation. He joins Hillary and Bill Clinton on the list of alumni leaders and is the first dance artist to be given this honor.

Bokaer already has two premieres lined up for 2010: a second collaboration with Arsham involving 3,000 Ping-Pong balls that is headed for the Netherlands; and Cipher, a work that will be performed in a large-scale circular space in the fall. This past September, the Ferst Center for the Arts at Georgia Tech invited him to join in a long-term residency involving collaborations between the colleges of architecture, engineering, computer science, and applied physiology. “The field of dance,” he says, “needs to forefront itself in the conversation about what’s possible with technology and the body.”

Bokaer says that he makes about one solo and one group work a year, and he tours 20 weeks out of the year. His aesthetic range is wide, from the technology-influenced solo False Start, inspired by the painting of the same name by Jasper Johns, to Prayer & Player, a trio for Paradigm dancers Carmen de Lavallade, Valda Setterfield, and Gus Solomons jr (all are past the age of 65). They wore MP3 players that transmitted oral histories of their careers for the audience to hear.

While much of Bokaer’s work has been for himself or small groups of dancers, Robert Wilson’s invitation to create movement for four of his operas has broadened his scope. Some of the operas include as many as 90 people onstage—a far cry from the 14 or 15 in the Cunningham company.


Bokaer is hopeful for the future of dance, but plans to keep pushing borders and exploring technological advances, as Merce Cunningham told him to do: “I was able to spend two hours with Merce before he passed away, and we spoke with humor and good feelings and good memories,” says Bokaer. “One of the things he said was to keep going.”

And that’s exactly what Bokaer plans to do.



Emily Macel is a dance writer based in Washington, DC.

 

Photo by Jacob Sutton for The New York Times Style Magazine

A 75-year history whispers through the photo-lined walls and worn wooden floors of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center. Alvin Ailey premiered Revelations here; Anna Sokolow’s Rooms and José Limón’s The Moor’s Pavane debuted here as well. Lincoln Kirstein’s Ballet Caravan, a precursor to New York City Ballet, had its first performances at the Y; Katherine Dunham and Carmelita Maracci made their New York debuts here. And La Argentinita, Carmen Amaya, La Meri, and Jean-León Destiné all brought their international dance to the Y.


This month, the dance center’s anniversary kicks off with a gala on November 5 that exemplifies the breadth and depth of its his­tory. Among the works to be performed are Frontier (1935), by the Martha Graham Dance Company; Doris Humphrey’s Two Ecstatic Themes (1931), by Lauren Naslund; excerpts from Revelations (1960), by Ailey II; David Parsons’ Caught (1982); plus a piece by Doug Varone and Dancers. The Y’s own Harkness Repertory Ensemble will perform Jerome Robbins’ NY Export: Opus Jazz. And a plethora of events throughout the year will highlight the Y’s mark on dance history.


It all began in 1934, when William Kolodney, the newly appointed educational director of the Y, had a vision: He wanted dance to be part of his humanistic center for education. Perhaps it was fateful that his first choice for adviser, renowned ballet choreographer Michel Fokine, said he wasn’t interested. When Kolodney next went to John Martin, chief dance critic of The New York Times, he was pointed in a more modern direction. Martin suggested Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman—who had worked together that summer to form the Bennington School of the Dance—be at the core of the Y’s dance center as teachers and performers. The rest, as they say, is history.


In addition to the gala event, the Y’s Sundays at Three and Fridays at Noon series will honor the Y’s history as well. These two series were started more than 20 years ago by dancer-turned-Alexander-practitioner Jane Kosminsky and Ilona Copen (who also founded the New York International Ballet Competition). “They recognized the need for artists to have a space where they could try out their ideas and stay in dialogue with their peers,” says Renata Celichowska, director of the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center. During the anniversary year, Sundays at Three presents re-creations and reconstructions, including performances of the de Mille legacy by the New York Theatre Ballet, the Erick Hawkins Centennial Celebration, an Anna Sokolow Birthday Tribute, and perfor­mances of Jean Erdman’s work. The Fridays at Noon programs will represent more contemporary artists like David Parker, Doug Elkins, and Keely Garfield.


This spring’s Harkness Dance Festival will span five weekends and will take place at the Y for the first time in its 15-year history. The festival was the brainchild of then-director Joan Finkelstein, with the support of the Harkness Foundation. (In 1994, the dance center was renamed in honor of the Foundation, and it is now known as the Harkness Dance Center.) In the beginning, the festival was meant to be an intimate event, so the Y’s 900-seat Kaufmann Concert Hall wasn’t the right venue. Finkelstein searched for off-site venues and found the 91st Street Playhouse. The festival later moved to the Duke Theater, and recently to the Ailey Citigroup Theater. In this anniversary year, the organization is bringing the festival home to their upstairs studio theater, Buttenwieser Hall.


As part of this year’s festival, From the Horse’s Mouth, an exuberant traveling show designed by Jamie Cunningham and Tina Croll, will bring more than 30 dance artists onstage to improvise and tell stories. The Limón Dance Company, Doug Varone, Yoshiko Chuma, and Molissa Fenley will perform during the festival as well.

 

As the Young Men’s and Young Women’s Hebrew Association, the Y’s Jewish roots are reflected in the dancers who have chosen to perform and work here, like Anna Sokolow, Pearl Lang, and Sophie Maslow. Naomi Jackson wrote in her book, Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y, about Kolodney’s “desire to bring together the Jewish and non-Jewish worlds. He fervently believed that within the American context, with its potentially pluralistic society, this difficult act of integration could be achieved with joy and mutual benefit.”


In the 1960s a new movement was brewing downtown, influenced by Merce Cunningham and John Cage. When budding dancemakers Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton auditioned their minimalist pieces at the Y, they were turned down. And thus began a new style, which evolved into postmodern dance, based in Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village during the ’60s. The dance center at the Y was no longer the place to be.


But eventually downtown dancers found their way back up to the Y. For David Dorfman, the first time he visited the Y was to take a class with David Parsons in the 1980s. “I used to joke about needing a visa to go uptown,” he says. “The moment I set foot in the Y, it reminded me of a Jewish community center in my hometown of Chicago,” says Dorfman. “But this was so much more cosmopolitan. It’s a grand building with all this history.” He has continued to give workshops and performances at the Y. The historical significance of the Y is not lost on him. “Like at ADF and Connecticut College, these pioneers and master teachers and thinkers and innovators taught at the Y. So any time I get to rub my feet and do a little rhythm on the same floors they did, I feel honored.”


The Y also welcomed black dance artists. Katherine Dunham gave her first New York performance there in 1937 with Asadata Dafora, an immigrant from Sierra Leone who first brought African dance to the concert stage. When the Y hosted Dunham’s 90th birthday celebration decades later and she was asked how it felt to be back, she replied, “I’m home.” Alvin Ailey, too, found his first New York home at the Y when he debuted his company in 1958. Carmen de Lavallade, who was an original member in his company, says, “The 92nd Street Y was the hub. It was the the place to be seen in the ’50s. If you performed on the Y stage it was like you’d arrived.”


Sharon Gersten Luckman, executive director of Alvin Ailey Dance Founda­tion, ran the Y dance center from 1978–86. Her personal history with the Y began when she took classes as a child in the ’50s. “My mother wanted me to have the best training, so she brought me to the Y.” She went on to teach at the Y and eventually took over as the director. “The Y had very good teachers who really cared about the individual. Modern dance was at the core, but we started doing ballet, and the adult program became very popular as well—like the Ailey Extension is now.”


Celichowska says the Y has sustained Kolodney’s mission to support dance through the years. It now offers almost 100 dance classes a week in not only modern dance but also Afro-Caribbean, Israeli folk dance, flamenco, swing, tango, and salsa classes to more than 1,000 students of all ages. The center does ballet outreach to public schools and offers the Dance Education Laboratory, a series of workshops for educators to develop dance in their curriculum.


The 92nd Street Y dance center has a great history, and Celichowska wants people to know: “We’re still here.”

 

 

Emily Macel, former associate editor of DM, is a writer based in Washington, DC.

 

Pictured: Martha Graham in Frontier (1935). Photo by Barbara Morgan.

 

 

 

This month a new cast of young dancers wants audiences to remember their names in Fame, a remake of the classic film about the lives of students at the High School of Performing Arts in New York City.

 

The award-winning original revealed the raw ambition and vulnerability of teenagers trying to make it as performers. With young fresh talent, a new set of characters, and modern-day drama, Fame’s next generation adds new twists and even more dancing.

 

The past several years have brought a surge of dance films and TV shows—all of them indebted to the Fame of 1980. So You Think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and the onslaught of similar reality TV competitions that followed has thrust dance into the mainstream. And the successes of the High School Musical franchise brought audiences back to the lunchroom where a dance sequence could break loose at any minute.

 

The original Fame movie introduced real-world characters from a performing arts school: the dancer from the streets who hadn’t even planned to audition, a boy struggling with his homosexuality, a Puerto Rican from the Bronx trying to overcome stereotypes, a stellar singer who will do just about anything for fame, and a plain Jane who finds herself when she learns to let go. The lyrics to “Fame,” “Out Here On My Own,” and “I Sing the Body Electric” became anthems for young performers following their passions. The film was hugely successful; it won two Oscars and a Golden Globe, and inspired a TV show spin-off. In 1995 it was made into a musical in London’s West End, and it eventually landed off-Broadway. Now, Fame is coming back to the big screen.

 

What can audiences expect from this revamped look at a high school for the performing arts? “It’s really very modern,” says Kherington Payne, who plays the role of Alice, the upper-crust girl who is driven to dance. “It’s not just legwarmers and leotards. These kids’ lives are stories that could be completely true. I think we portray that well. It’s not cookie cutter; it’s not sugar-coated. It’s grimy and gritty. It’s what we really go through in life.”

 

The movie was filmed in both Los Angeles and New York to give it the realistic vibe of the city. And what’s a Fame remake without a wild dance party scene in the street?

 

Thanks to choreographer/director Kevin Tancharoen, dance is even more central to the plot than the first time around. From Payne’s leggy, sultry jazz solo to the high-energy all-genre celebration for the graduation finale, the entire cast dances. The movie spans ballet, jazz, tap, freestyle, African, and hip hop. More than 600 dancers auditioned for parts in the film; nearly 100 dancers were cast; 16 of those dancers are featured.

 

Tancharoen himself could be said to have a dosage of raw ambition. He began dancing with pop sensation Wade Robson at the age of 12; as a teen he worked with *NSync and choreographed for Britney Spears and Madonna. By 20, he was producing the MTV show “Dancelife” with Jennifer Lopez. Now 25, he has just directed a major Hollywood film.

 

For Fame, Tancharoen stayed behind the camera and hired his former teacher, Marguerite Derricks, to choreograph. Derricks was trained at the National Ballet School of Canada before heading to Hollywood, where she racked up choreography awards. She choreographed the Austin Powers films, 10 Things I Hate About You, Little Miss Sunshine, Charlie’s Angels, popular TV shows, and Cirque du Soleil. But of all the work Derricks has done, Fame hits closest to home. “This brings me back to my first job of being a Fame dancer with Debbie Allen,” she says.

 

Allen, who was a mentor to Derricks, appeared in the original movie of Fame as a teacher and reprised her role in the TV series. Now, nearly three decades later, she returns to Fame as Principal Simms. She’s joined by a star-studded cast including TV and Broadway star Megan Mullally and the dancer/singer/actress—and 2007 Dance Magazine awardee—Bebe Neuwirth.

 

Neuwirth plays Lynn, the ex-ballet dancer turned teacher. Neuwirth had studied dance at the Princeton Ballet and went to Juilliard for a year. “But I’m not a Juilliard-trained dancer,” she says. She took classes all around New York and eventually focused on jazz, going on to shine in Fosse classics like Sweet Charity and Chicago.

 

On the film set, the dancer embraced her old habits. “It was interesting to show up in a leotard and tights and throw my hair up. I felt very much at home,” Neuwirth says. “I found myself vetting everything, like, ‘Where’s the rosin box? Is that the right kind of rosin?’ This was all stuff that was happening inside my head as I was looking around.”

 

Neuwirth used her ballet background to make her character believable. “Since Lynn’s an ex-ballet dancer, I was trying to walk with as much turnout as possible. I don’t have any turnout at all—I’m even a little pigeon-toed, especially since I’ve had two hip replacements. I’d be walking down the hall thinking I was doing this great SAB walk and I’d look like a normal person,” she laughs.

 

Payne can relate to her character, Alice—at least partly. “She’s the Park Avenue rich girl who’s at this school for one thing and that’s dance. She meets this guy from Spanish Harlem, and she has to choose between her loves.” She says that she and Alice are similar in their drive. “She’s really focused on dance, and I’ve been focused on it my whole life.”

 

Though Payne is relatively unknown, she’s no stranger to the spotlight. She’s the blond, vibrant top 10 dancer from last season’s So You Think You Can Dance. (Half of the duo “Twitchington,” she was in Mia Michaels’ bed routine.)

 

Unlike the stars who play the teachers, the dancers are intentionally un-famous to allow the audience to follow them as young students without any preconceived notions of their talent. “We aren’t well known faces yet so it’s gonna feel more real,” Payne says. “I think watching us live our dream, showing our passion through what we’re doing, will inspire audiences.”

 

Paul McGill, another cast member, is more accustomed to being in a performing arts school. While on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles, McGill attended the Professional Performing Arts School (PPAS) in New York City. McGill’s character Kevin is from the Midwest. “He’s kind of an outcast in the Midwest and he went to ballet school and wants to be a ballet dancer.” McGill, who is from Pittsburgh, relates to Kevin. “I left home at a very young age. I was going to PPAS and I know that sense of community.”

 

Having performed on Broadway in La Cage aux Folles and A Chorus Line, he’s learned the difference between Broadway and film work. “The thing I love about live theater is that as a character you get to feel the arc. You go into the theater an hour or so before the curtain, warm up, and perform,” he says. “For the film you get there at 5 a.m., you’re in hair and makeup, you’re doing 15-hour days. At any moment they say ‘Go.’ You have to be warm all day long.”

 

Neuwirth, who has starred in countless TV shows and films as well as musicals, knows the difference well. “In theater, the dancer dances,” she says. “In film, the cameras dance. You choreograph the dancer but you have to choreograph the cameras. Kevin Tancharoen is brilliant with choreographing the cameras, and Marguerite is brilliant for choreographing the dancers.”

 

Derricks says the dancers were inspirational for her choreography. “These kids are training the way I did when I was a Fame dancer,” she says. “For a while because of music videos, dancers stopped training—they specialized in one style.” But the dancers for this film had to be versatile. Though she says her choreography is not usually a collaborative process, this project was different. “When we got to the Hot Lunch and Halloween scenes, it was fun to see them be under my strict guidance one day, then another day be let out of the cage and turned loose,” Derricks says. “I wanted those kids to feel a creativity beyond just being a dance machine.”

 

Fame hits theaters nationwide September 25. For a preview, see www.generationfame.com.

 

Emily Macel, a former DM associate editor, is now based in Washington, DC.

 

Photo by Matthew Karas

Pilobolus Dance Theater delights and compels, mesmerizes and befuddles. When watching them perform, one’s mind is a flurry of questions like “How’d they do that?” and “Where’d that arm come from?” and “Who’s holding who?” But it’s more than just gymnastics or circus stunts.


The inventiveness of these daring dancers has a 39-year history of more than 100 dance works, proving what you can do when you work together as a team—in ways you’d never imagine.


Co-artistic director Robby Barnett talks about Pilobolus as an organism, using scientific terminology that you wouldn’t expect from a dancer. “We look for a kind of membroidian fractal application of our beliefs,” he says. The name Pilobolus itself came from a type of fungus that co-founder Jonathan Wolken studied. Though the terms might seem misplaced outside of a laboratory, when you watch the company dance together it can be like looking through a lab microscope. Like an amoeba, they have no fixed shape, but are in constant flux. Bodies move together, then separate from one large mass to a few smaller groups. Then they reunite, forming a new structure of limbs and torsos, balanced on heads, hands, and feet. Audiences are fascinated and presenters love to book them.


It all started in 1971 with a dance composition class at Dartmouth College taught by Alison Chase. The company founders, Wolken and Moses Pendleton, met in that class; later that year classmates Robby Barnett and Lee Harris joined their team. Pendleton, Wolken, Harris, and Barnett presented their first concert in New York that summer, performing the piece they’d developed in Chase’s class, Pilobolus. In 1973, Chase, who trained with Merce Cunningham and Mia Slavenska, left Dartmouth to join her former students full time; Harris left and was replaced by Michael Tracy, another Dartmouth peer. And the sixth member, Martha Clarke, had been a dancer with Anna Sokolow.


The strength of Pilobolus—in technique, in organization, and in philosophy—is in its core. “The original Pilobolus was a group of four men twisted together like proteins trying to figure out how to move across the floor en masse,” says Barnett. “We clung to each other for moral and physical support. We had a single center as a compound creature. If your partner moved away you would fall down.” The creation of the company came out of the ethos of the 1960s. “Our generation had freedom to imagine what our lives could be. It was a physical life, a creative life, and we were doing it with people we enjoyed being with.”


Though the company has gone through changes (Pendleton left in 1981 to form his own company, MOMIX; Clarke also left to pursue her own dance/theater work) the core values remain. The current company has seven performing members, three artistic directors, and a whole lot of collaboration.


Although Jenny Mendez, who joined Pilobolus in 2004, started dance at a late age, she was immediately comfortable with the founders of Pilobolus. “They had no ballet experience, no modern experience, the company grew out of their own physical abilities. I related to that because I knew I liked to run and jump and fall.”


Dance captain Andrew Herro was also attracted to the physicality. A former athlete, he came to dance at Marquette University because he wanted to keep himself physically active. His athletic background has helped him, though. “I’ve got several pieces where I’m picking up two people at a time. If you get your body physically strong you have a lot more options available for you to work with other bodies.”


For a piece like Megawatt (2004), performed to the music of Primus, Radiohead, and Squarepusher, Mendez says, “It’s 16 minutes of pure raw physicality; it’s about how much you can push yourself to roll, jump, flip, create these incredible movements onstage.”


Though Barnett says there is no set technique, the dancers have terms for the ways weight can be shared and carried. For example, “reciprocals” are the way “you pick somebody up and put them on their feet, then they pick you up and put you back on your feet,” explains company member Annika Sheaff. “It’s unexpected and the audience can’t see how it’s happening or if they can see it, they can’t believe it’s happening,” she says. “Those magical moments are typical Pilobolus.”


In repertory classics like Ocellus, Day Two, Gnomen, Pseudopodia, and Symbiosis, the dancers form amazing entanglements that yield shapes unlike two bodies in a typical dancer’s embrace. Nearly nude in many of these works, their muscles and limbs glisten. Though its obvious that a great deal of strength is required for a dancer to hold himself on a diagonal straight line hinged only on another dancer’s thigh, or for a woman to crawl up a man’s body like a spider and hang from his neck by her ankles, the dancing is always graceful, agile, and somehow natural.


Other works incorporate these balancing skills into something more theatrical and often funny. In one of the company’s earliest pieces, Walklyndon (1971), a dancer balances on his arms in a horizontal plank, while two dancers push his head and legs like a seesaw. This silent physical-theater piece is rife with slapstick humor. In Lanterna Magica the dancers are mythical creatures who flit around with a lantern on a long rod, tumbling and balancing, and just playing around. There’s no doubt that the dancers are having fun.


In recent years, collaboration has grown with artists and choreographers outside of the company. The first came in 1999 with artists/authors Maurice Sendak and Arthur Yorinks to create A Selection, which is documented in the film Last Dance (2002). In 2007, the company in­vited Israeli choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak to create a work. The result was the quirky and riveting Rushes.


“It was a strange experiment for Inbal and me because we didn’t know what was going to happen,” Pollack says. “Pilobolus is a great group of people who have fun and are fun to be with and can do many things. They gave us the opportunity to go in a different direction than they’re used to going,” such as the use of costumes, sets, props, and character development. One dancer wears suspenders and carries a suitcase while hunched over, skittering around the space; three men climb onto one another to create a slot machine of their bodies and faces. It’s all darkly humorous mixed with astonishing lifts and balances, proving that the company is not only a troupe of dancers, but also of gymnasts, actors, mimes, and collaborators.


This summer the company will perform a second collaboration with Pinto and Pollak during their season at the Joyce, July 13–Aug. 8. They’ll also premiere a collaboration with Steven Banks, the head writer of the cartoon Sponge­Bob SquarePants. Last year Pilobolus worked with New York City puppeteer Basil Twist for Darkness and Light.


The shadows-as-dancers in Twist’s piece was not the first time they experimented with shadow work. In 2006 the company got the gig of doing a commercial for Hyundai Santa Fe, creating silhouettes of campfires, bicycles, harps, and opera singers using only their bodies. “You’re trying to hit these specific shapes and perfect images. The process is really about finding what exactly makes that image come to life,” says Herro. The ad led to the invitation to make shadow images for the 2007 Oscars—from a women’s high heel shoe with a devil’s fork for the heel, to a van with passengers riding in it, to a firing gun. This type of gig involves an extended company that includes former members and those trained specifically for the commercial work.


Five years ago the company hired its first-ever executive director, Itamar Kubovy. In 2005, mother of Pilobolus Alison Chase was let go—a painful decision all around. When she asked the company to stop performing the works she’d helped to choreograph, it raised complex questions about choreographic rights.


Pilobolus tours seven to eight months a year. In the past year they’ve been to New Zealand, Australia, Brazil, and Israel. The company often performs in the U.S. as well. This fall and winter they’ll makes stops in over a dozen states, from Vermont to California. Abroad or on home turf though, audiences can enter a place of euphoria watching the company perform.


“We’ve been through plenty of ups and downs over the years, but at the moment the company is on a wonderful upswing,” Barnett says. “The thing I’m most proud of is Pilobolus the arts organism. It was like getting a fire going and keeping it burning. For all its quirks and faults and errors, the company has survived. We’ve made this creature Pilobolus, which in its turn does many things.”  



Emily Macel, a former associate editor for Dance Magazine, is now based in Washington, DC.

 

Photography by John Kane, Courtesy Pilobolus

Dancers Trending

Drift
A Liz Lerman Dance Exchange Project
Dance Place
Washington, DC
June 27–28, 2009
Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Cassie Meador's Drift. Photo by George Hagegeorge, Courtesy Liz Lerman Dance Exchange.

 

At the edge of the stage, an old man in suspenders holds a large burlap sack, and a woman with grey hair pulled into a bun wields a knife. She plunges the knife into the bag and rich soil pours out onto the floor. This sets the scene for Cassie Meador’s Drift, a dance-theater piece that addresses the politics of changing suburban landscapes.

 

Meador, a member of the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange (whose dancers make up part of the cast) was inspired by the way a plot of land in her hometown of Augusta, Georgia, went from a farm, to a strip mall, to a Piggly Wiggly grocery store, to a church. (The piece was commissioned by the Kennedy Center and first performed last fall.)

 

Meador called upon a cast of dancers-turned-townspeople to tell the story of the changing land. A spunky grocery store clerk, played by Sarah Levitt, spoke to the audience about loving the thrice daily rainstorms in the store (the watering system for the produce) and enjoying her employee discount on cereal. She then pondered why her store sold peaches from California rather than from Georgia.

 

At a kitchen table, the elderly woman (Martha Wittman) served her husband, Thomas Dwyer, a plate of rocks, representing the lack of crops from that season. The large stones then became dance partners as well as burdens; rocks were held in hands and waltzed with, and they sat on shoulders to weigh the dancers down.    

 

Three moveable screens, covered in white quilting, made up the set. The images projected onto them—farmers and their land, aisles of a store—reflected the storytelling.

 

The dancing spoke as loudly as the spoken word in Drift. When the grocery store clerk talked of rainstorms, her movements resembled a plant growing upwards and out, arms stretched to the side. Her body fell to the earth, then she stood and repeated the motion. However, there were also purely entertaining dance interludes. At one point the screens were turned around to reveal hundreds of boxes of cereal, as the cast bounced around with grocery carts and Cheerios to the 70s tune “Right Back to Where We Started From.” It was cute and intentionally kitschy.

 

In some moments the choreography was simple. Between embracing lifts, a man helped a woman step from rock to rock. At times the entire cast pulled the sky down with sharp thrusting fists. When three couples appeared diagonally onstage, one partner moved in slow motion, as the other encircled them with a fast bounding run. The partner then ran backwards, taking the music with them as chords became dissonant, like a record on reverse.

 

Liz Lerman’s intergenerational style shines in this work. Meador’s eye bodes well for the future of this choreographic approach.

 

 

 

When Terese Capucilli demonstrates a Graham contraction, it’s as if all the air in the room is sucked into her C-curve. A linchpin of the Martha Graham Dance Company for 26 years, Capucilli carries on the legacy of the mother of modern dance as a teacher of Graham technique. Through vivid imagery, she urges dancers to get to their core, then go a bit farther. Graham technique, she says, is always about going deeper.

 
Born in Syracuse, NY, Capucilli studied at SUNY Purchase with Carol Fried and Kazuko Hirabayashi before attending the Graham school to study with Gertrude Shurr, Linda Hodes, and Graham herself. As a principal in the company, she illuminated Graham’s lead roles, from the maddened Medea in
Cave of the Heart to the young, wistful Bride in Appalachian Spring. She was co-artistic director of the company with Christine Dakin from 2002 to 2005. A 2001 Dance Magazine Award recipient, Capucilli now performs with Buglisi Dance Theater and teaches at Juilliard, where Emily Macel spoke with her recently.


Tell me about taking class with Martha Graham. What did you learn from her, and how do you transmit that to your students?

 

In this day and age, where life is so fast-paced, we tend to lose the sensitivity that human beings innately have. I learned this sensitivity working with Martha, and I try to pass that down. When students are learning, they want to move quickly and don’t see the process as a wonderful challenge. Working with simplicity, and enjoying the challenges of that, can give dancers a heightened awareness of themselves as artists. But it begins in the studio with the patience to repeat movements over and over again.


How are Graham classes beneficial for dancers today?

 

Graham technique generates movement through the very core of one’s being, something that can be taken anywhere along the dancer’s path. I tell my students, whether you choose to become a Graham dancer or you never do a Graham ballet in your life, you’re going to use the strength you’ve developed through your pelvis and spine.

The Graham contraction is such a crucial part of the technique. What is a contraction?

 

A contraction is the most beautiful, passionate, vulnerable, and innately expressive movement known to humanity! A cry, a laugh, a gasp finds the body in and out of a contracted state. Martha codified this involuntary movement of the body to bring dance closer to the depth of expression known to all mankind.


In a technical sense, a contraction is the lengthening of the spine into a curve while the front of the body is shortened. The front of the hip bones move in such a way that their energy comes under the rib cage and out through the mouth like an incredible fountain. But you can have a contraction only if you have an awareness of the front and the back of the body. Dancers often think they’re contracting when they’re actually dropping all their weight into the pelvis and diminishing their height. The misconception is that you’re shortening the body; in fact, it’s rising ecstatically.


Tell me about the cupped hands in Graham technique and how they tie in to contractions.

 

The cupped hands are a stylistic element; they bring an awareness to the feeling of the stigmata in the center of the hands and the bones pressing away from the heart. Martha spoke about the heels of the hands much like the heels of the feet, creating a similar opposition with the front of the body. In a walk, the heel of the foot can press away from the pubic bone and center of the body to deepen the contraction, which would ultimately happen in a standing attitude front, flexed. We work with the hands in that same way.


Are the technique classes at Juilliard different from those at the Graham school?

 

The technique is codified so that no matter where you study it, the class structure should be the same. But every teacher teaches differently. I talk about my approach as coming from a very core place in the body. I want my students to be expressive through the technique, as opposed to mechanical.


How do you help students deepen their spirals and contractions?

 

I’m a very hands-on person, and I think touch is wonderful for dancers to feel. If a student is missing one side of the back in a spiral, I can gently move them through it so they can feel the energy start to permeate the space above their head. I also try to bring them past the four walls they’re sitting within—bring something real to them—so they can begin to work creatively in an imagistic way. For instance, in the “pleading” (the contraction lying on the back), I might talk about the feeling of the pietà, the vulnerability in the sternum and the heart. Images were extremely important to Martha.


What do you learn from your students?

 

When students have a hunger for learning, a desire to take risks, that’s where I’m most fed. Martha was always so incredible, working 150 percent. I had to come neck to neck with her on that, and I demand the same from my students. I tell them, “I’ll give you all I have to give, but I have to see your desire for learning.” When they give that to me, the work we do together can be phenomenal.

 

 

Photo by Martha Swope, DM Archives. 

Sixteen dancers in a tight formation push a 12-foot tall-metal gate-like structure forward. They begin to claw and climb and crawl through the small square holes, manipulating bodies and contorting into angles that allow an arm to escape before a head, a leg to carry the shoulder through.

 


This kind of malleable, near liquidity of limbs is a hallmark of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s choreography. His newest work, Orbo Novo, made for Cedar Lake Contemporary Dance, premieres this month at Jacob’s Pillow.

 


The chameleon-like Cedar Lake dancers mold their style to whichever articulate and often non-American choreographer is creating works for them. This time it’s the 33-year-old Belgian choreographer Cherkaoui. The title of his work is a term that dates back to the late 1400s, used to describe Christopher Columbus’ journey to the Americas. “ ‘Orbo Novo’ is an old word for the New World,” he says. “You have that relationship of extreme past and what’s coming.”

 


Last year, Cherkaoui created his Buddhist and kung fu inspired work Sutra in collaboration with Shaolin monks in Henan, China. About Orbo Novo he says, “I am describing this voyage I made from being in China, being in the East, being so far away, and now being in the West, being in New York. There’s an extreme difference, and yet there is something similar to me.” The company will perform to a live original score by Szymon Brzóska. The giant trellis was designed by Alexander Dodge and the costumes were designed by Isabelle Lhoas.

 


This is the first time that Cherkaoui will debut a work in the U.S. His choreography has been performed only a handful of times here: In 2008 his Myth, performed by Antwerp’s Toneelhuis theater collective, came to UCLA (they also performed a version at Houston’s Dance Salad in April). Zero Degrees, a critically acclaimed duet he made with Akram Khan (see “Akram Khan,” Nov. 2008), came to New York City Center. In 2007 Ballet du Grand Théâtre de Genève performed Cherkaoui’s Loin at Jacob’s Pillow. Cedar Lake will perform Orbo Novo at the Pillow from July 8–12, and later at the Joyce and UCLA.

 


Cherkaoui says his movement aesthetic is inspired by his heritage. “I’m half Moroccan and half Belgian. The Belgian side is very surrealistic but then on the Moroccan side, there’s something of calligraphy. I always search for continuous movement.” Cherkaoui is inspired by choreographers Pina Bausch and William Forsythe as well as Alain Platel, founder of Les Ballets C. de la B. (formerly Les Ballets Contemporains de la Belgique). Cherkaoui performed with the company from 2000–2006, and has choreographed for it as well. He has also created pieces for the Royal Danish Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, and Cullberg Ballet, and has collaborated with Wim Vandekeybus. Next year Cherkaoui will unveil his own company in Belgium, called Eastman, the literal translation of his own last name.  

 


Cherkaoui is a big proponent of collaborating with the performers. “I constantly am picking up new ideas—from every dancer I meet, every body I see moving.” He feels fortunate to have been invited by artistic director Benoit-Swan Pouffer to choreograph for Cedar Lake. “The dancers are extremely gifted technically,” he says. “And they are eager to try different things; they are not afraid.”

 


Cedar Lake dancer Golan Yosef says Cherkaoui’s work is very human. “A lot of artists in dance become very visual so the bodies are very tight and it’s very linear. His posture is very relaxed so it looks like normal human beings moving.” Yosef says Cherkaoui gives the dancers tasks to work with, and those tasks yield new material for the piece. “There was one task where we had to stay connected to each other with the head and find different movements without disconnecting. There were phrases where we were manipulating the movements of the ladies while they make very day-to-day movements.” Other tasks have included finding animal-like movements and exploring the possibility of bouncing. In one segment, the dancers all sit cross-legged and facing forward to perform an elaborately articulate phrase using only their hands, creating images of birds, butterflies, and spiderwebs. (Go to dancemedia.com for rehearsal videos of Cherkaoui with Cedar Lake.)

 

The dancers enjoy the collaborative process, but there’s a bit of mystery behind Cherkaoui’s approach as well. “He doesn’t share much, so you’re not sure how it’ll come together,” says Jason Kittelberger, who has been with Cedar Lake since the company formed in 2003. “But then he’ll make a minor change and things start to link in and a story starts to happen without us even realizing he was creating a story.” —Emily Macel

 

 

Photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy of Cedar Lake. 

Dancers Trending
Les Grand Ballets
Canadiens de Montreal
March 26–28,
April 2–4, 2009
La Place des Arts, Montréal
Reviewed by Emily Macel

Stijn Celis’ The Rite of Spring. Photo by Robert Etcheverry, courtesy Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.


It seems that when recreating one of the masterworks of the 20th century, there is a right and a wrong way to do it. After getting the wrong Rite of Spring out of his system in 2008 with Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis got it right with Les Grands Ballets Canadiens.

 

What makes this Rite so right is that it doesn’t strip away the original but rather adds to it in a more contemporary fashion. The movements are not Nijinsky’s two-dimensional jumps; instead the dancers leap through squares of light and sweep their limbs through space. At times they look reckless, like they’ve lost control of their arms and legs. But they always reign them in at the last second.

 

The ballet has seven sections, separated by Ohad Naharin-like blackouts that come unexpectedly and not always along with the music, movement, or apparent storyline.


The costumes, designed by Catherine Voeffray, and the lighting, by Marc Parent, are crucial to the contemporary atmosphere. The women wear white dresses with splashes and slashes of red. Men, dressed in drab pedestrian clothes, act first as partners to the women, then as partners to each other, then with a mob mentality in a male-female power struggle. Patterned with squares of light, the stage looks like a chessboard, the dancers like kings, knights, and pawns. Herds of them move from square to square while a single dancer stands outside the light in isolation.

 

At one point Celis does something that really speaks to a young, 21st-century audience: He turns the dancers into zombies. As we near the end of the score—its climactic shrills pounding faster and faster—the dancers encroach on the Chosen One with heavy stomps to the beat of the music, tearing at their chests as if their hearts are beating out of control. The Chosen One, performed by the elegant and sincere Vanesa G.R. Montoya, collapses upon herself in a fit of insanity. It’s as riveting as it is unsettling.

 

The second piece on the bill was Re–, II. Chinese choreographer Shen Wei is a master of making movement look as elegant as a brushstroke of watercolor on canvas, and his homage to Cambodia is just that—peaceful and quiet, yet eerie and exotic.

 

Dancers appear in red- and blue-streaked grey unitards. When they dance together, always keeping their bodies connected, they create a single moving painted sculpture. The floor and backdrop, stark white at first, quickly fill up with images of the Angkor Wat temples.

 

In the second part, one dancer enters the stage nude, with whitewashed skin, and poses in a reclined position. She twists in a nearly distorted way. Others follow, filling the stage with naked bodies. They, too, find reclining angles and tilt their heads so far back that they look headless. They are ghosts—not like Celis' zombies but ethereal, serene, like evaporating images that eventually disappear into the whiteness of the stage.

Balletic and delicate from the waist up, crisp and quick through her legs and feet, Maya Guice seems like a tap throwback to the era when hoofing and Hollywood were still in sync.

 

When Jazz Tap Ensemble performed at New York’s Joyce Theater last September, the program paid homage to big-screen greats from Bill “Bojangles” Robinson and Ann Miller to Gregory Hines and Gene Kelly. With her high heels and flirty femininity, Guice, 18, seemed sweetly at ease onstage, glowing among a starry ensemble of tap talent, even in a recreation of the tricky jukebox number from Eleanor Powell’s Broadway Melody of 1940.

 

“Maya exemplifies grace,” says tap dancer Chloe Arnold, who appeared with her in the JTE run. “She has the footwork and clarity of the great tap dancers, but she brings her technical training to her dancing as well.”

 

Guice’s strong grounding in several genres has given her an edge as a performer, as well as an interest in blending styles of dance that began early on. Born in Pasadena, California, she started dancing at 6 when her mother enrolled her at the Peninsula School for the Performing Arts in movement classes that included ballet and tap. When Guice was 11, Lynn Dally, JTE’s artistic director, invited her to participate in the Caravan Project, the company’s professional training program.

 

Her studio tapping had done little to prepare her for JTE’s jazzy approach. “It was so different from just doing shuffles,” Guice says. “I became more interested in tap as a way to express myself and as a career.” While studying and performing in the Caravan Project, she attended Los Angeles County High School for the Arts, and continued studying ballet, as well as modern and contemporary, to hone her technique.

 

Then last fall Dally invited Guice to join the full company and perform during their week-long season at the Joyce. “Maya’s fearless and smart,” says Dally. “She has lots of skill, but more than that she has a sensibility, an alertness to movement.”

 

For Guice, performing with JTE gives her an opportunity to dance with, and learn from, tap masters like Jason Samuels Smith and Chloe Arnold. Guice and Arnold performed a duet during the Joyce run called Lucky Number, a tribute to the Nicholas Brothers. The two wore hats, baggy pants, and suspenders while exuberantly nailing some of the Nicholas Brothers’ moves.

 

“In many ways I feel like she’s a little sister,” says Arnold, who admires Guice’s work ethic. “She’s down for the cause. She comes ready to do the work.”

 

Dally notes that Guice can hold her own with very experienced performers. “She’s totally capable right in there with Jason and Chloe,” she says. “Maya can also dance with Sam Weber, who has one of the most refined techniques in tap. She has that flexibility, plus a big battement, which doesn’t hurt.”

 

Guice uses her modern and ballet training to create a style of her own. She likes to “find new ways to move and initiate movement.” Her ballet training, for instance, helps her smooth her transitions, while her modern training has helped her with her core. “Ballet and modern have made me lighter on my feet,” she says. “It has had a huge impact on my movement quality.”

 

She’s also found that tap helps her in other genres. “When I do a petit allegro combination in class,” she says, “I always think about tapping, instead of ‘This is so hard.’ ”

 

Guice loves to watch classic film tappers like Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers. “I’m working on bringing back that old style kind of dancing, integrating the more danceresque element of tap,” she says. “I’ve been watching a lot of old footage; Cyd Charisse is one of my favorites. And I’ve been listening to stories of dancers who have paved the way, like Jeni LeGon, who was the first African American woman to sign a long-term contract with MGM.”

 

Guice plans to perform with JTE when they have gigs, but she remains involved in contemporary dance as well. She attended an intensive at Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet last summer, and hopes to dance for the company someday. “I love his work,” she says. “Last summer was life-altering. I like how Alonzo focuses on coming from a real place, on finding the authenticity, and not just doing something to be doing it,” she says. “He taught me to see my body as an instrument.”

 

Guice is currently a freshman at Scripps College in Claremont, California, which has a dance program and allows her to continue auditioning. “I really want to get my business degree, and I hope to create my own arts management major,” she says. Her goal is one day to run a dance company and help promote dance as an art form.

 

Meantime, she relishes her time onstage, showing her groove. “Dance has become a part of expressing myself as a person,” she says. “It is me.” 



Emily Macel is an associate editor of
Dance Magazine.

 

Photo: Rose Eichenbaum

Dancers Trending

LAVA
The Brooklyn Lyceum, NYC
February 12–March 1, 2009
Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Photo by Angela Jimenes, courtesy Lava. Diana Y Greiner (blue), Molly Chanoff (yellow), and Lollo (red) dance a trazpeze trio in the evening-length we become.

 

Imagine performing an evening-length dance on your hands. That’s essentially what you can expect from the Brooklyn-based all-female company LAVA.


The six women dance with calculated and skilled abandon. For their three-week run of we become, they cartwheeled and catapulted, walked on their hands, heaved their bodies onto mats, and balanced precariously on the hips and shoulders and backs of each other.


A site-specific installation on the walls of the Lyceum (by Nancy Brooks Brody) looked like an explosion of stars across the night sky. The choreography, by company founder Sarah East Johnson, was a collaboration with the dancers to an original score by singer-songwriter Toshi Reagon.


In one memorable segment, three women climbed onto a trapeze-like swing raised high above the stage. They squeezed themselves onto the trapeze bar, barely big enough for two, and began a trio, weaving their limbs together to counterbalance as one dancer dangled and another stood on the bar. They looked like children playing on a jungle gym, carefree in their movements, never fearing the fall.


Another childhood-like section was a game of follow the leader. Each dancer would bolt from a side of the stage and flip onto a tumbling mat then jump to her feet, or slink forward like a snake on her belly then rush towards the audience without hesitation. Each mini-solo (which was then mimicked by the company) exposed something about the dancer’s personality and spirit.

    
The partnering work showed how comfortable and trusting the performers are with one another. They use bodies for resistance and leverage. In one duet, a dancer climbs onto the shoulders of another, then leans her body forward and falls, from standing, towards the mats. As the audience gasps, the dancer rolls through her torso to avoid the impact and is quickly up and running again.


The most poignant parts of the evening were those in which the athleticism came to a halt and the dancers found moments of repose—a tender embrace, a meaningful look. It was at these times, which this viewer wanted more of, that the performance revealed its dance roots rather than just a series of acrobatic routines.

“I am the one. They don’t know yet, but I’m going to change the world.” Make no mistake about it. Shane Sparks is on a mission. The hip hop choreographer who has helped thrust this genre of dance into the mainstream spotlight is on a roll. And his whirlwind of success has happened in only five years.

 

A compact powerhouse, Sparks can talk the talk and dance the dance. When a beat of music is in the air he starts to feel it out, popping and locking to hip hop old and new. And though he has a style all his own, he can become a chameleon, shakin’ it in Beyoncé’s style to Single Ladies on set of a photo shoot, bringin’ it hard with choreography to Flo Rida’s Elevator, or taking us back a few decades with old school hip hop to Bell Biv DeVoe’s Poison.

 

At 34, Sparks has worked on music videos, commercials, films, TV shows, and is now about to add Broadway to his credits. He came to the East Coast in November to choreograph the musical Dreamgirls and attend the open auditions at the Apollo Theater in Harlem (where the story itself takes place and where the revamped Broadway version plans to open in 2010). Broadway is not where he would have expected to land when he left his home to pursue a career in dance. But with a dream and determination, this self-made dance man is unstoppable.

 

“I was born to dance. I don’t remember ever taking a lesson. It was just something I was around.” Sparks grew up in Cincinnati in the 1970s and ’80s. “At the time there were so many dance crews. We would meet on the weekends and dance and create.”

 

A street dancer had to be prepared. “When I was a teenager, every day of my life I wore a pair of kneepads. No matter where I was going, in my mind and in my heart, I was going to battle that day,” he says. “If anything came up, we’d pull up our kneepads.” Though it started as a hobby, Sparks eventually wanted more. He says his parents, who are both police officers, were not entirely supportive of his aspirations to make dancing his career. “Saying to my mom ‘I wanna be a dancer’ was almost like saying ‘I’m gonna drink all the water in the ocean.’ ”

 

Sparks moved to Los Angeles in 1993 with a singing group called Cold Premiere. “I never wanted to be a choreographer. My goal was to dance in movies, like Breakin’.” Cold Premiere worked on a movie and some photo shoots, but the record label dropped the group. Sparks wasn’t ready to go back to Cincinnati so he stayed in L.A. He says he was dancing in a club next to very different kinds of dancers than he was used to—more elevated, less grounded. “I come from that booty-shakin’, poppin’, droppin’, and all that. A friend said I need to get to a dance studio, they teach hip hop. Which was so funny to me, we never called it that. You wouldn’t say ‘I’m about to go do hip hop.’ You just did it.” But he took his friend’s advice and started taking class.

 

A case of mistaken identity got Sparks his first teaching gig at one of L.A.’s largest commercial dance studios, Millennium Dance Complex. “One day this guy was late for teaching class, I took over his class, and to this day I still hold the biggest class-size in L.A. I started taking it more seriously then.” In 2003 he was approached to choreograph for the Chris Stokes film You Got Served, which brought battling—a street dance competition where two hip hop crews battle to determine who has the best moves—to movie theaters. You Got Served paved the way for the slew of battle films to follow and piqued audiences’ interests in this form of street dance that replaced violence with a test of skills.

 

In 2005, Sparks was called to judge and choreograph for the show So You Think You Can Dance alongside Mary Murphy and Nigel Lythgoe. “And I’ve been there every episode since,” he says. The fifth season of the show begins this spring.

 

Lovers, robots, nerds, Matrix-style fighters—Sparks builds characters in his choreography for the TV show and gets the dancers to commit. He might have a guy simply pointing to different parts of a girl’s body, causing sharp pops of hips or butts or shoulders. He mixes a fast, synchronized duet sequence with a slow, sensual touch of the cheek.

 

“He has mad character,” says Season 3 contestant Lauren Gottlieb. “He taught me how to keep in character and get the audience to believe you’re actually a badass Matrix chick,” she says, referring to her lead role in his group dance to Flo Rida’s Elevator. Regarding the Emmy-nominated Transformers dance to Pitbull’s Fuego that she performed with Pasha Kovalev, she says, “Shane changed a lot with that dance. He knows how to be creative and what works on TV. He left that dance in a lot of people’s hearts.”

 

Though there was never any doubt that he could make a fierce and fast pop-and-lock piece, Sparks brings new slants on hip hop to the stage. When he choreographed a slow hip hop love ballad to Sexy Love for Allison and Ivan in Season 2, Adam Shankman, who did the choreography for the movie version of Hairspray and was on the judges’ panel, called it a breakthrough for the whole field of hip hop.

 

Sparks says TV has always been a source of inspiration for his choreography. “My mother got on me about watching too much TV when I was young, but I draw from TV every day of my life.” And now, with the slew of reality TV dance shows that exist, Sparks says they’ve upped the ante in a good way. “They changed the game. They made hip hop dance respected like ballet and jazz. They put ballroom and salsa on the map.”

 

Last year Sparks got the call to work on a new version of Dreamgirls with director Robert Longbottom. Though Sparks has never choreographed for Broadway before, “I’m always putting something theatrical behind everything I do.” The original choreographer for Dreamgirls was Michael Bennett (creator of A Chorus Line), but Sparks is starting fresh, with brand-new choreography. “There will be an old-school vibe with a touch of what Dreamgirls is about,” Sparks says. “You have to be an entertainer. You have to put a show together that makes people want to see it over and over again.”

 

The musical is not taking the usual route to the Broadway stage. The first stop is Korea. The Seoul Theater Association will present the show in South Korea and make an investment of approximately $4 million in the Broadway production, slated to open fall 2010.

 

Sparks culls ideas for Dreamgirls from his choreographic influences, which may seem out of the ordinary for a hip hop dancer. Among these inspirations are Fred Astaire and Bob Fosse. “Fosse thought out of the box,” says Sparks. “He was not somebody who created because you told him to. He created because that’s what he wanted to do.” As part of his research, he watched Busby Berkeley films for a glamorous, over-the-top look. Sparks says the first person to intertwine the street dance style with Broadway was Wade Robson (see cover story, March 2008), Sparks’ colleague on So You Think You Can Dance and The Pulse Tour.

 

In addition to SYTYCD, Shane is also a panelist on Randy Jackson Presents: America’s Best Dance Crew, now in its third season. With two successful TV shows and a landmark hip hop dance film, Sparks’ new projects include a sequel to You Got Served called Back Down, as well as another film called Boogie Town, a futuristic hip hop take on West Side Story.

 

With such variety on his resumé now, Sparks wants people to know he’s more than meets the eye. “I was just a hip hop teacher to everyone. That’s the only thing they expected,” he says. “But I have so much more to show everybody.”

 


Emily Macel is an associate editor of
Dance Magazine.

Dancers Trending

Elisa Monte Dance
The Joyce Theater, NYC
January 21-25, 2009
Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Photo by James Edmunds, courtesy Elisa Monte Dance.

Daquan Thompson barrel rolls across the "rich Louisiana landscape" of Monte's Zydeco Zaré.


Live music almost always makes a dance performance come to life, and you can’t get much more lively than Zydeco music. For Zydeco Zaré, a New York premiere, Elisa Monte’s company collaborated with Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys. The accordion, scrubboard, drums, fiddle, guitar, and vocals of soulful, southern folk/jazz brought a foot-tapping energy to the audience and to the stage.


The other pieces on the program included Slope of Enlightenment (2007), Arrow’s Path (a world premiere), and Audentity, a revival from 1984.


While vastly different in theme—Slope depicts one man’s struggle to find his place within the group, Arrow’s Path is a romantic quintet—the choreography looked recycled. Perhaps program placement was the issue. In Slope the embrace between the main male dancer and secondary male dancers was the recurring movement theme. In Arrow’s Path, the same embrace appeared throughout the intimate portrait that at times looked like a soap opera’s tangled web of love.


Audentity was relentlessly repetitive. With a minimal setting and costumes, the full company danced a movement score that built slightly on itself—an audio exploration into their identities. But the synthesizer sound score (by Klaus Schulze) and the metallic lycra unitards rooted this piece firmly in the ’80s without much hope of making a new statement 25 years later.


To help create a rich Louisiana landscape for Zydeco Zaré, photographs of Creole characters and environmental portraits by Jack Vartoogian slide through the background while the company of eight performs solos, duets, trios, and full-company numbers. The dancing is energetic and exuberant. When the band sings “Laissez le bons temps roulet,” the company indeed lets the good times roll. Women tease men in a bar scene; there’s a sensual duet under the stars, and it ends in a full company celebration of life. The varied vignettes not only gaze into the Louisiana world but also showcase the dancers’ skills. Maya Taylor’s come-hither hip flicks and Daquan Thompson’s aerobatic barrel rolls were memorable and indicative of the what the company has to offer.

Elisa Monte Dance
The Joyce Theater, NYC
January 21-25, 2009
Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Photo by James Edmunds, courtesy Elisa Monte Dance.

Daquan Thompson barrel rolls across the "rich Louisiana landscape" of Monte's Zydeco Zaré.


Live music almost always makes a dance performance come to life, and you can’t get much more lively than Zydeco music. For Zydeco Zaré, a New York premiere, Elisa Monte’s company collaborated with Jeffrey Broussard and the Creole Cowboys. The accordion, scrubboard, drums, fiddle, guitar, and vocals of soulful, southern folk/jazz brought a foot-tapping energy to the audience and to the stage.


The other pieces on the program included Slope of Enlightenment (2007), Arrow’s Path (a world premiere), and Audentity, a revival from 1984.
While vastly different in theme—Slope depicts one man’s struggle to find his place within the group, Arrow’s Path is a romantic quintet—the choreography looked recycled. Perhaps program placement was the issue. In Slope the embrace between the main male dancer and secondary male dancers was the recurring movement theme. In Arrow’s Path, the same embrace appeared throughout the intimate portrait that at times looked like a soap opera’s tangled web of love.


Audentity was relentlessly repetitive. With a minimal setting and costumes, the full company danced a movement score that built slightly on itself—an audio exploration into their identities. But the synthesizer sound score (by Klaus Schulze) and the metallic lycra unitards rooted this piece firmly in the ’80s without much hope of making a new statement 25 years later.


To help create a rich Louisiana landscape for Zydeco Zaré, photographs of Creole characters and environmental portraits by Jack Vartoogian slide through the background while the company of eight performs solos, duets, trios, and full-company numbers. The dancing is energetic and exuberant. When the band sings “Laissez le bons temps roulet,” the company indeed lets the good times roll. Women tease men in a bar scene; there’s a sensual duet under the stars, and it ends in a full company celebration of life. The varied vignettes not only gaze into the Louisiana world but also showcase the dancers’ skills. Maya Taylor’s come-hither hip flicks and Daquan Thompson’s aerobatic barrel rolls were memorable and indicative of the what the company has to offer.

Dancers Trending

Shen Wei Dance Arts

Connect Transfer II

Judson Memorial

Church, NYC
December 3, 5–7, 2008
Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Photo by Mark Murray, courtesy Shen Wei Dance Arts. "The dancers found unique and angular poses of resting—bodies slipped into what looked like Picasso’s take on the traditional odalisque recline."

 

As the audience surrounded the white canvas-covered sanctuary, a quartet of string players sat, one per corner of the square stage, so the music would play towards the dancers, and towards the other musicians. When the members of Shen Wei Dance Arts first entered the space, one at a time, they found unique and angular poses of resting—bodies slipped into what looked like Picasso’s take on the traditional odalisque recline. The movement sprang from this stillness. There was a sort of slow motion fluidity, the kind we’ve come to expect from films—a bullet in slow motion, a body falling from a ledge. Here, it was poetic in its tangibility. One could imagine their bodies creating strokes of paint on the canvas with large sweeps of the legs and arms. Then, the real painting began. One dancer entered the space and fell to the ground. Her hand was covered in a paint-soaked sock, and as she danced horizontally around the stage, she created beautiful spiraling circles of black paint, a human calligraphy pen.

 

At one point, the dancers stood close to the altar of the church. They used their bodies to move each other—a head connected with a shoulder, transferring energy to that shoulder’s torso, which transferred to another hip. The dancers became amorphous and amoebic. Shen Wei, who does not usually perform with his company, danced a solo to piano accompaniment. The rolling scales of the piano seemed to partner his own movements, which are both flowing and defined. Shen’s precision reveals his Chinese training, but his Western influences are evident in his contemporary aesthetic. The Chinese-born choreographer, who left his home in Guangzhou 15 years ago, returned to China last August to present a version of this work at the Olympics. Connect Transfer originally premiered at the American Dance Festival in 2004.

 

There were stand out performances by several other dancers in Shen’s company: Hou Ying’s dizzying barrel rolls were entrancing and acted as a stark contrast to the slow momentum of much of the dancing in the piece. Brooke Broussard emerged from the wings covered completely in black ink, her body glistening like she had fallen into an oil well. She moved with ease and grace, not at all inhibited by the viscous paint.

 

A once bare canvas quickly became an abstract portrait. Streaks and strokes appeared from dancers on the edge, moving paint with their feet; a line of dancers with bright red paint on their stomachs and backs hit the floor, adding color to the stark black and white. At the end, rather than a traditional curtain call, the dancer returned to the canvas one at a time from off stage, each with their own color—red, green, teal, blue, yellow—a collective signature to the work of art.

 

 

The bustling city of Beijing is full of movement. Arms of calligraphers sweep delicate brushstrokes on the sun-drenched slate at the Temple of Heaven. Legs of cyclists pump their pedals as they speed down busy streets returning from the market with heaps of green onions. Even the red and gold lanterns that appear everywhere—from storefronts to archways on the street—seem to move with a syncopated sway.

 

Beijing’s modern dance scene is adding to the city’s rhythm. In a country known for its history, modern is not the first word that springs to mind. And yet modern dance here is alive—young, fresh, and refreshing. In less than three decades, China has broken ground with contemporary works that spring from traditional Chinese dance forms with new life.

 

For example, during the Booking Dance Festival Beijing (see sidebar, page 38) Fei Bo’s Kunqu Vision revealed the current appeal of modern dance in Beijing. A single spotlight pours down on a classically trained ballerina in a sculpted white dress. Her three male partners guide her through the space by braiding her long black hair, a familiar element of traditional Chinese ethnic dance. These performers represent China’s past, present, and future: Cao Shuci, a prima ballerina from the National Ballet of China; Yi Jie, a member of the China Er Pao Army Song and Dance Troupe; Li Xing, who performs with the People’s Liberation Army; and Fei Bo, who graduated from the Beijing Dance Academy for choreography, has studied traditional dance and now works with the National Ballet of China. What started as a gentle, sweet pas de quatre erupts, and the ballerina furiously dances in a tight space while the men sway back and forth under her spell. But a greater spell spreads across the stage when these four contemporary dancers are confronted with China’s long, elaborate history—a performer dressed in traditional Kunqu opera regalia slowly walks across the back of the stage, nodding to acknowledge the future of dance in China.

 

Fei (surnames come first in China) says about this work, “We draw on elements of Kunqu opera to discover a new kind of modern expression from an ancient culture.”


A Dance Scene Is Born In Beijing—a city the size of Belgium, with a population of more than 17,000,000 (double that of New York)—there are a handful of modern and contemporary dance companies. Beijing is known as China’s cultural center, yet it wasn’t the first city to make its mark on Chinese modern dance.

 

Until 1980, modern dance had been banned in China. But as the Communist party began to loosen its grip and China became a more open society, the interest in modern dance began to grow. Willy Tsao, often called China’s father of modern dance, had studied modern in Tacoma, Washington, at Pacific Lutheran University. He returned to Hong Kong and formed its first modern dance group, the City Contemporary Dance Company, in 1979. (Tsao would go on to help form two more modern dance companies on China’s mainland.) Then, in 1986, Chiang Ching, a choreographer and actress, helped to set up a scholarship program for Chinese dancers to study at the American Dance Festival. Charles Reinhart, director of ADF, tells the story of Yang Mei-qi, one of the first scholarship recipients, who came to his office after a Limón class with Betty Jones: “She asked me, ‘Why do they fall on the ground?’ I thought, do I start telling her about fall and recovery? But instead I said to her, ‘Why not?’ The next day she came back and asked me to help build a modern dance program at her Guangdong Dance Academy.”

 

Through its Institutional Linkage Program (ILP), ADF sent American teachers to the Guangdong Dance Academy in Guangzhou, and the first graduating class became the Guangdong Modern Dance Company. The company had 18 members, including those who were proficient in ballet, Chinese folk, and classical dance. Among this class was Shen Wei, who moved to the U.S. 15 years ago and formed his own company, and was invited back to China last summer to choreograph for the opening ceremonies of the Olympics. His piece for 15 Chinese dancers created the effect of calligraphy on a huge canvas. The entire opening ceremony, directed by filmmaker Zhang Yimou, included 14,000 dancers and musicians.

 

In 1992, Beijing joined China’s modern dance revolution via the Beijing Dance Academy. Gao Yanjinzi was in the founding class of modern dance in Beijing. Her teachers, Wang Mei and Zhang Shou He, established the first choreography program at the Beijing Dance Academy. In 1995, Wang, Zhang, and the students of the class founded the Beijing Modern Dance Company. “When we left the academy, we could pull ourselves out of the training and discover our own voices,” says Gao. The first artistic director of BMDC was Jin Xing, a colonel in the People’s Liberation Army who trained at a Chinese military dance academy. Known as one of China’s best dancers, in ’96 he underwent a sex change operation and became one of the first transgendered women officially recognized by the Chinese government.

 

A few years later, Tsao took over for Jin Xing at BMDC. Now, Gao is the resident choreographer of the Beijing Modern Dance Company and her husband, Zhang Changcheng, is the director. “BMDC has been a platform for artists to develop their individual voices,” she says.


Modern Dance in Beijing Now Currently, there are four major companies in Beijing. The Beijing Modern Dance Company is still housed in the Beijing Dance Academy and draws members from its graduates. The work is often a modernized abstraction, like Gao’s Oath, which includes traditional Chinese Opera costuming paired with expressive, modern choreography. BMDC is striving to build a fan base in its hometown. The company dubbed last year the Year of Modern Dance in Beijing, and performed monthly.  

 

Tsao broke away from BMDC in 2005 and formed Beijing Dance/LDTX. The company works with various choreographers, including Li Hanzhong and Ma Bo and Rolex protégé Sang Jijia (who has worked with William Forsythe’s company for four years). They tour frequently, and host an international dance festival in China each year.

 

The Living Dance Studio was formed in 1994 by Wen Hui, a graduate of the Beijing Dance Academy who has studied dance in New York. Her progressive works are known for their feminist subject matter, like Report on Giving Birth.

 

The fourth company is the National Ballet of China. Though in the U.S., we would hesitate to classify a ballet company as modern, “The company is always trying new things, including new forms of Chinese-influenced ballet and more contemporary ballet,” says Fei Bo. He attributes the contemporary explorations to artistic director Zhao Ruheng. Last summer in England the company performed both Swan Lake and the contemporary Raise the Red Lantern. The ballet, based on the 1991 movie of the same name, was directed by Zhang Yimou and then staged by him on National Ballet of China in 2002.

 

In China, works like Raise the Red Lantern are referred to as modern. The term “contemporary” refers to the army- style dance troupes, because contemporary indicates socialist China versus traditional China. The emphasis on this kind of dance is on the technical ability. Cao Shuci, principal in NBC, says she feels closer to the contemporary work that the company has done, including a ballet by Roland Petit set to Pink Floyd music and William Forsythe’s In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated. “The expressions and exaggerated movements are more suited to our generation. It allows more freedom.” The company also recently collaborated with Akram Khan and his company in Bahok (“East and West Meet in the Body of Akram Khan,” Nov. 2008).

 

Newcomers are emerging, like Tao Ye, who studied Chinese folk dance, classical dance, and ballet and began his performing career with an army dance troupe. “The army dance troupe serves the government through the arts, by promoting ideas of strength, power, and collectivism,” says  Tao. “The companies perform all kinds of dance, even tap dance. The content of the pieces is about the wonderful relationship between the army and the people of China.”

 

He joined Jin Xing’s dance company, and later BMDC. After a few years he formed his own company. Tao Studio is only a year old, but Tao hopes to shake up the modern dance community. “Everyone is still looking for his or her voice. The Chinese modern dance environment isn’t mature; it’s still a baby.” He feels there is a lack of leadership. “There’s no needle poking through to lead the thread of dancers,” he says.

 

Gao says it will take time for audiences to get used to the work. “They don’t yet accept a different art form that is about individual expression. With 5,000 years of Chinese history, we’re dealing with a lot of baggage. It can’t become the mainstream that quickly.”


How Chinese Is Chinese Modern Dance? “Your mother tongue will never leave you,” says Tsao. “But I consider modern dance a free form of art. It is about the individual.” Tsao says studying in the U.S. helped him formulate his ideas. “In America nobody asked me to be Chinese; they asked me to be myself.” Taking cues from the Chinese government is something he stays away from. “There’s a lot of propaganda.”

 

Dancer Wang Hao, who performs with Tao Studio and BMDC, says of Tao Ye’s piece, Double, which she performed during the Booking Festival, “The clothing has a very obvious traditional Chinese feel to it, but the movements themselves weren’t Chinese. The influence of Chinese dance on modern dance is from the environment that we’ve grown up in. Like a seed, with the soil around us having all these traditional elements, we’re absorbing from the environment. These elements will influence us. It’s a natural fusion.”

 

So where does modern dance in China go from here? Wang Hao is cautious. “I’m worried that modern dance will enter into this cage of limiting environment where people will say, ‘Your arms have to be here.’ But the purpose of modern dance is to say No.” However, she feels that as long as there is room to grow, “This interesting interaction between modern dance and China will create something new. Something great will come out of that set of contradictions.”

 


Emily Macel, an associate editor at
Dance Magazine, was a guest of Booking Dance Festival Beijing.

 

Photo: Simon Lim, Courtesy Booking Dance

Dancers Trending

OtherShore
Baryshnikov Arts Center, NYC
October 9–12, 2008
Reviewed by Emily Macel

 

Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

Miguel Anaya and Sonja

Kostich in Annie-B Parson's

The Snow Falls in the Winter.

 

When OtherShore premiered at the Baryshnikov Arts Center in October, the packed audience was filled with eager eyes for the company’s debut. Mikhail Baryshnikov himself was there to support his former White Oak Dance Project member Sonja Kostich; and Trisha Brown was there to watch her former dancer, Brandi Norton.


All three pieces were world premieres: small earthquakes along the way by Stacy Matthew Spence; Lift by Edwaard Liang; and The Snow Falls in the Winter, created by Annie-B Parson and co-directed by Paul Lazar.


As the audience filtered in and took their seats, four dancers lounged and slowly shifted positions on one side of the stage. When projections of clouds began to drift across the asymmetrical pillars at the rear, the dancers—Kostich, Norton, Robbie Cook, and Miguel Anaya—moved to the sounds of ambient and at times percussive violin distortion, a live, original score by Cornelius Dufallo. Eventually the pacing picked up, and the dancers were flying—like birds, like planes, like insects, like particles. The piece provided a meditative start to the evening.


But Liang’s work startled the audience out of the peaceful meditation. Lift began with four dancers at a table. An eerie painting (by Mark Kostabi) hung overhead with two figures entangled in what could be either a struggle or an embrace. The dancers formed partnerships and battled each other—at times aggressively, others sensually. In one moment, Kostich faced the audience while being pulled back toward her partner. Her anguished and languid movements, while morphing from ballet to modern, were captivating.


Parson’s The Snow Falls in the Winter brought out a subtle hilarity and awkwardness from the dancers. As with much of Parson’s work, we hear from a variety of narrators who change roles and eventually become the ones being narrated. This tangled and mangled version of Ionesco’s The Lesson tells a story of a professor who gives a schoolgirl, played by Kostich, lessons in his home. The maid of the house completes her chores—like answering the door—by way of collapsing to the floor and speaking with a sarcastic affect towards the audience. In the end, we’re left with the maid, played by Elizabeth DeMent, explaining the proper etiquette—Emily Post-style—of writing a thank-you note, while the other dancers swirl around her, babbling incoherently enough to distract her from her monologue.


If nothing else, the dancers of OtherShore offered a beautiful distraction from the outside world. But they brought much more than that, and we’ll continue to wonder where else this ambitious troupe will take us.

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