Katherine Barkman's career reads like a storybook: At 18, she left Pennsylvania and moved to the Philippines to become a principal at Ballet Manila. She danced Juliet, Giselle, Odette/Odile and Kitri, but three years in, it was time for new challenges. Late last year, Barkman joined The Washington Ballet, bringing her scintillating, pure Vaganova technique and her warm stage persona to U.S. audiences.
How do you honor a comedian lauded for her physical humor and awkward dancing? Commission a contemporary dance, of course. Better yet, have the stars of HBO's "Broad City," Abbi Jacobson and Ilana Glazer—physical comedians and awkward dancers in their own right—star in a contemporary dance.
Last month, comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus was awarded the 2018 Mark Twain Prize for American Humor at The Kennedy Center. (The ceremony airs tonight on PBS.) Most known for her role as Elaine on "Seinfeld," Louis-Dreyfus has had a long career of tickling funny bones, from her start at Chicago's Second City, then on "Saturday Night Live," CBS's "The New Adventures of the Old Christine" and now as foul-mouthed Vice President Selina Meyer on "Veep."
The "Broad City" gals determined that the best way to honor their idol was to dance, an appropriate choice considering "The Elaine," the dance that became Louis-Dreyfus' piece de resistance on "Seinfeld." (Not to mention her other go-to physical comedy moments as Elaine, like "The Shove"—hands on the chest, forcefully pushing one's companion back, sometimes with the exclamation "Get out!"—or the twitchy forefinger devil horns.)
Egg Drop Soup's "Partying Alone" video turns a run-of-the-mill dance team audition on its head with a vision of female power from a mature woman. The panel is stunned when a gray-haired, red-lipsticked 80-something tosses aside her cane and lets loose, flipping her hair—and the bird.
Egg Drop Soup - Partying Alone (Official music video)
Take a second look at that head-banging grandma—she is none other than renowned dance researcher and anthropologist Judith Lynne Hanna. An affiliate research professor in anthropology at the University of Maryland, College Park, the author of numerous scholarly books and an expert witness in trials for exotic dancers, she has spent her career getting us to think about dance's relationship to society. Hanna, 82, said she hadn't performed since college when she got a call from a music video producer, who caught a video of her dancing with her 13-year-old grandson. The rockers of Egg Drop Soup loved her energy and flew her out to Los Angeles for a day-long video shoot. We spoke to Hanna about the experience.
When the Bible spoke of the "ingathering of the exiles," it didn't have dance in mind. Yet, this month, more than 100 dancers, choreographers and scholars from around the world will gather at Arizona State University to celebrate the impact of Jews and the Jewish experience on dance. From hora to hip hop, social justice to somatics, ballet to Gaga, the three-day event (Oct. 13–15) is "deliberately inclusive," says conference organizer and ASU professor Naomi Jackson.
A watershed moment. That's how choreographer Lar Lubovitch recently described his now-classic A Brahms Symphony. Now, a group of 16 George Mason University dance majors are having their own watershed moment with that jubilant work: They will dance it at the venerable Joyce Theater in New York City, where they will close the 50th anniversary season of the Lar Lubovitch Dance Company on April 22. It's such a big deal the college president, Angel Cabrera, likened it to when the basketball team made it to the NCAA Final Four.
Onstage, Clifton Brown is a force of nature. The Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dancer joined the celebrated company at 19, in 1999. In 2011, he left to dance with Jessica Lang Dance and Lar Lubovitch Dance Company before returning to Ailey last year. Brown has been trying his hand at choreography on the side, but this week his first larger work—a commission from The Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent—premieres on a program of new works by choreographers who still perform.
Brown will take a day or two away from the Ailey company's rigorous tour schedule to see TWB dancers perform his Menagerie, danced to Rossini's Duet for Cello and Double Bass in D Major, at Washington, D.C.'s Harman Center for the Arts. We caught up with him last week in Chicago.
MK Abadoo is an unapologetic activist. The dances she creates speak her truth to power. Her choreography offers a socially conscious take on torn-from-the-headlines issues of racial, social and gender equity.
Drawn to community-based work, Abadoo fuses postmodernist aesthetics with fleet-footed and full-bodied West African forms—she spent a Fulbright year in Ghana—and the nonchalant swagger of funk. Her 2015 work Octavia's Brood: Riding the Ox Home is inspired by science-fiction writer Octavia Butler's work and vignettes from the Underground Railroad, toggling between an Afro-futurist view of the U.S. and the searing history of Harriet Tubman. When Abadoo and her dancers stop short, caught by swaths of brown fabric tugging them ceaselessly back, they're trapped in an extension of their skin as Akua Allrich croons "My skin is black." Abadoo's message: The struggle against racism remains real, visceral and unvarnished, and she's ready to confront the issue head-on.
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Ballet teacher Therrell C. Smith may be 100, but she's still got it. She celebrated her 100th birthday with family, friends and former students earlier this month by performing the "Fascination Waltz" with ballroom dancer Stan Kelly. She finished off the afternoon tribute at the University of the District of Columbia's Theater of the Arts at the center of a kick line surrounded by her nephews and great nephews as the recording crooned "Hello, Auntie," to the tune of "Hello, Dolly."
She, of course, stole the show, which featured many tributes and proclamations from the mayor of DC, her alma mater Fisk University and others.
With her fearless demeanor onstage, it's easy to see how Washington Ballet apprentice Sarah Steele attracted the keen eye of former American Ballet Theatre stars Julie Kent and Ethan Stiefel. Promoted mid-season from the studio company by artistic director Kent, Steele was cast by Stiefel as the lead in Frontier, his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, this past spring. For the space-themed piece, Steele donned a black-and-white "space suit" onstage, exhibiting dual qualities of strength and grace. Most evocative about Steele's dancing might be her innate intelligence—she was accepted to Harvard on early admission, and plans to resume her studies there in the future. But first, she'll dance.
Triple threat Donna McKechnie is cherished for her Tony Award–winning portrayal of Cassie in the 1975 musical A Chorus Line. Her featured number, "The Music and the Mirror," sheds a spotlight on the hopes and dreams of a struggling dancer, willing to return to the chorus for a job doing what she loves. McKechnie has spent her more than 50-year career doing what she loves—dancing, singing and acting. The Broadway darling has grown up onstage, from her first gig as a teen to her latest: Starting October 27 she plays Mabel in Arena Stage's production of The Pajama Game in Washington, DC.
Have you done Pajama Game before?
This is my first. I love the show and was thrilled when choreographer Parker Esse called me. I see connections with my career generationally in the script. When I came to New York, Bob Fosse was my first choreographer. I was in shows that original writer/director George Abbott directed.
Will you be dancing?
I play Mabel, the secretary and mother hen, but Parker said he was going to expand the dancing. I'll be 75 this month and I'm proud of it. I want to be a living example for people to keep dancing and moving. I take ballet class five times a week—if you don't, you lose it. I do the whole barre. If you do a ballet barre correctly, I can't think of anything harder.
Maggie Kudirka was just beginning her ballet career with the Joffrey Concert Group in New York when she discovered an ache and a knot in her sternum that would not go away. It became excruciating.
The company physical therapist gave her exercises and massages to assuage the pain. "I just thought it was a muscle mass…we were doing a lot of partnering, but it didn't get better," she says.
Months later, as her first season was ending, she found a doctor to take a look. It took a few appointments to get the diagnosis because, at 23, Kudirka was not in the risk group for breast cancer. But that's what the lump was. Within weeks she was in treatment for stage 4 metastatic breast cancer, meaning it had spread to other parts of her body and was incurable.
At 18, Baakari Wilder was flying high. The tap dance kid, who began lessons at 3 in a community center in Laurel, Maryland, was dancing every night on Broadway as part of the hand-selected cast of the George C. Wolfe/Savion Glover vehicle Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk. But in the middle of one show, he came off stage so out of breath the stage manager sent him to the hospital. "I didn't wake back up until months later," he wrote recently. "After leaving the hospital, I recall seeing my fellow dancers promoting Noise/Funk on Jay Leno. That was my motivation. I was determined to dance again. Months later I rejoined the cast on Broadway and when Savion left the show, I assumed the lead until it closed."
Wilder has Lupus, an autoimmune disease that, in his case, has targeted his kidneys. Last week, he opened the Facebook page "Wanted: A Kidney for Baakari," where he tells this story. Back when he was 28, his brother donated a kidney, "And I sure enough felt the difference." Now 40, Wilder is hoping another donor will come forward as his kidney is failing again.
Cliff Brody claims he can barely execute a box step. But he's looking to raise more than $5 million for dance. The retired diplomat and businessman says, "I was struck by the extraordinary entrepreneurial efforts that these artists have: the creativity, the risks, including the physical risk. And the reality of learning that among the three areas of performing arts—music, theater and dance—dance is by far the least funded."
He founded the National Performing Arts Funding Exchange in 2016 to find more money for dance from nontraditional sources. NPAFE recently announced its three-year, $5,750,000 campaign that will funnel funds straight to performing artists throughout the United States. There will be no "middle man," Brody says.
Ethan Stiefel's love of motorcycles has been well documented over the years, perhaps most memorably when he played ballet bad boy Cooper Nielsen in the popular 2000 dance movie Center Stage. So it seems fitting that the former American Ballet Theatre star's Harley-Davidson played a role in the creation of his world premiere for The Washington Ballet, which honors the centenary of President John F. Kennedy's birth. New Washington Ballet artistic director Julie Kent called on her longtime ABT colleague for her first commission, Frontier, which premieres May 25–27 at the Kennedy Center Opera House.
Tell us how you and Julie Kent met.
Julie and I first started working together in the late '90s at ABT. I danced some of my first roles and debuts with her. I think my favorite ballet with Julie was Romeo and Juliet. You never forget your first Juliet.
How did she approach you about the Washington Ballet commission?
She contacted me last year in late May and said she wanted me to do a new ballet, specifically one that was connected in some way to President Kennedy. I was obviously very excited, but I needed to take a moment to do some homework, some research. There are many different ways that one could go in making a JFK ballet.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture, which opened last fall in Washington, DC, covers a wide and deep swath of the history of black Americans. Included are many items that demonstrates the importance dance holds for the community and the tremendous contributions African Americans have made to the dance world. Here are a few of the many notable dance items on display:
- Sammy Davis Jr.'s childhood tap shoes (shown above)
- Virginia Johnson's costume from Dance Theatre of Harlem's Creole Giselle
- A sequin-covered black jacket worn by Michael Jackson on his 1984 Victory Tour, on the heels of his Thriller album
- Selected photos of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater from the 1960s and '70s
- A portrait of dancer and entertainer Josephine Baker
- A pair of American Ballet Theatre principal Misty Copeland's pointe shoes
- A case on musical theater detailing the history of minstrel shows and the evolution of black dance from blackface and the cakewalk to Broadway's The Wiz and The Tap Dance Kid
- A wildly popular interactive video-tutorial on step dancing, featuring Step Afrika!, Washington, DC's much-in-demand touring troupe, teaching classic step-dance moves
For more information or free passes, visit nmaahc.si.edu.