Can choreography solve social conflict? Dana Caspersen thinks it might. A veteran dancer with Ballett Frankfurt—which was run by her husband, William Forsythe—Caspersen now uses movement to help people around the world navigate disputes.
She promotes conflict resolution through teaching, writing and coaching, and develops choreographic methods that let groups address differences in nonverbal ways. Many of her projects center on participatory "action dialogues," which allow groups as large as 250 to tackle fraught issues like racism and polarization.
She recently spoke to Dance Magazine about her work, and why she sees choreography as an appropriate vehicle to change minds.
At 78, Lucinda Childs is about to pivot—again. The postmodern choreographer and director came to prominence in the 1960s and '70s, first with Judson Dance Theater and then with her own eponymous company. She shut down her troupe almost two decades ago to work as a freelance director, relaunched it nine years later to stage a couple of revivals...and then just kept going. We spoke to her as the company was getting ready to wrap up its final season, which included a summer staging of Available Light—a 1983 work developed with John Adams and Frank Gehry—at Lincoln Center's Mostly Mozart Festival, as well as final performances Oct. 29–Nov. 4 at New York City's Museum of Modern Art.
The first time Jacqueline Green auditioned for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, she was 16. She'd taken her first dance class just three years earlier—when teachers had to physically hold her foot to teach her a tendu. Yet when she and a couple of friends learned that Ailey's main company was holding auditions in Washington, DC, they shuttled down from Baltimore to try out.
The auditions were being run by Matthew Rushing—now the company's rehearsal director—and then-artistic director Judith Jamison. "After a couple of combinations, Miss Jamison said, 'I think some of you need to be auditioning for The Ailey School'—and my girlfriends said, 'I think she's talking about us.' "
It may have been the last time Green took anything in her dance career so casually.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
Ailey audiences know the 25-year-old rising star for her impossibly long legs, her angular ferocity, her regal onstage presence, even her elegant braided hairstyles. New Yorkers got to know her this spring as the girl in a giant split leap on subway posters promoting Ailey's Lincoln Center run. But ask her colleagues about this Princess Grace Award winner and they focus not on her physical characteristics but her more cerebral ones.
“She's hungry, and she has great potential," says Ailey artistic director Robert Battle. “She still has room to grow, because she's so curious, so intelligent. That's a unique combination. You get a sense that she hasn't plateaued."
But Green's drive and determination alone don't explain what's been a meteoric career path. Although she was always dancing around the house as a child, she had no training until high school, when her single mother—focused on giving her kids an excellent education—sent her to audition for the rigorous Baltimore School for the Arts.
“I asked her, 'What am I going to audition for?' " Green says. “She said, 'Well, you dance.' So that audition was my first ballet class."
There were some 200 kids at the audition, which involved a short barre plus flexibility and musicality tests. Green was one of 22 students accepted into the dance program, and one of only two without training.
During Green's sophomore year, Ailey dancer and BSA grad Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell, dropped in for a class. “She was just quietly in the corner," Green says. “She did a simple arabesque enveloppé to passé—and my jaw dropped. I stared at her for the rest of class. She was so perfect, so beautiful."
Suddenly Green had a path forward. She started researching dance careers in general, and Ailey in particular. After three years of taking classical ballet, she started training in Horton during her senior year, and set her sights on Ailey's joint BFA with Fordham University.
Photo by Jayme Thornton.
“In the audition process with young dancers, you immediately recognize those with extraordinary talent and ability," says Melanie Person, now director of the Ailey/Fordham program, who was one of the audition judges that offered Green a spot. “Jackie has a beautiful facility for dancing. She also exudes this energy of aspiration and determination. She has a real, sincere desire to dance."
Green was determined to make a career at Ailey. “You walk in the building and it's just like," she says, pausing to find the right word, “history."
“And beautiful people," she adds, then qualifies it further—“and beautiful people who look like me."
By junior year, she was apprenticing with Ailey II; as a senior, she was a full member of the second company, layering her academic coursework on top of company dance classes, school dance requirements and rehearsals.
The next year, Green auditioned once again for the main company. This time, she was prepared—as was Battle, who had just stepped into his new role. “I'd had my eye on her," he says. “I thought she'd be perfect for the main company."
Green has since taken on several of Ailey's iconic roles—including one originated by Jamison in Pas de Duke and the prominent “umbrella" role in Revelations, which she says has been her “favorite forever."
“Revelations is very heavy in the beginning, and she's the first glimpse of light and joy," Green says. “She's taking on the movement of the water....It's such a regal role. I'm trying to look at how other people did it," she adds. “I talked to Renee Robinson, to Miss Jamison. I'm still doing research."
To Battle, the umbrella role is just part of a range of work that shows Green's flexible talents. “With umbrella, she has within her movement that old-time religion—something in the lilt of the movement, the weight, that reminds you of our past," he explains. “It's got nothing to do with concert dance. But then she has this way, in Chroma"—a Wayne McGregor piece in which Green dances the same role often taken by Ailey star Linda Celeste Sims—“of doing something very futuristic. She can give you that contemporary style."
In a company that has been known to emphasize crowd-pleasing flair and showy theatrics, Green is notable for her internal focus and economy of movement. Even in humorous pieces—the “Bucket" routine in Rushing's Odetta, for instance—she delivers razor-sharp restraint, to delicious effect.
Green "gave a little sass" to Kyle Abraham's Another Night (here with Jamar Roberts).
Meanwhile, Ailey's diverse rep also gives Green an opportunity to challenge herself. “Anytime we have a choreographer coming in, I do a little research," she says. “If it's something I'm not used to, I just try to find something familiar that I can work with." For Rennie Harris' piece Home, from her first year, she dug into her Baltimore roots. When Kyle Abraham came in, she recalls, “the movement was very jazzy, but I knew he liked sass. So I gave it a little sass." It worked: Green had a starring role in his Another Night.
Or maybe it wasn't just the sass: Abraham praises not just the “otherworldly things she can do with her body," but also her collaboration during rehearsals. “She was very helpful with the other dancers in the room, teaching them the movements," he says. “It sets up a good environment for trust."
Even Green's elaborate hairstyles are deliberate—part of an effort to connect with the audience. “I like the braids because I had them in my head shot, so the audience can recognize me," she says. For Green, being recognized matters. “I want to do that for black girls who don't think they can be dancers," she says. “Dance was a gift, a blessing. I want to make people aware of the opportunities they have. I didn't know about them till Linda-Denise came and took class, and that changed my life."
This past spring, Green was looking forward to performing in her hometown, but Ailey had to cancel its performances due to Baltimore's unrest over the death of Freddie Gray, who suffered fatal injuries in police custody. “It would have been so beneficial for us to be there; dance is very necessary," says Green, adding that, “Politics is completely who I am. I was a black person before I was an artist. But I use my frustrations, go into rehearsal or onstage and vent through what I do. It's an emotional release."
And when she does go back home to Baltimore, she tries to share her outlet with others. “I want girls to think, Oh, wow; she's like me," Green says. “I want to show them it is a dream, but you can make it a reality."
Photo by Jayme Thornton
Choreographer Kyle Abraham’s works are freighted with heavy social questions, tackling issues like race, gender, isolation and community. But what might be most intriguing is his physical vocabulary. As both a choreographer and a performer himself, Abraham fuses the rippled posturing of hip hop with the curves and weight of modern dance. A stutter pulses through two men’s bodies as they negotiate their approach; the adjustment of a hand position gives a shoulder roll a streetwise edge.
“Watching him in the studio, it’s like watching an artist doing sketches; you can’t tell where a movement begins and where it ends,” says Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater artistic director Robert Battle. When he commissioned Abraham to create Another Night for the company in 2012, he explains, “everyone was learning a new language.”
In the last two years, it seems, the 36-year-old dancer and choreographer has suddenly landed in the spotlight. Abraham’s strong social messages and hybrid style have made him the darling of the dance world establishment—gaining him honors from Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, commissions from Alvin Ailey and New York Live Arts, and a prestigious MacArthur Fellowship, often referred to as a “genius grant.”
The recent attention has been a game changer: This winter alone, he worked on a set of new works for NYLA, a solo that premiered in Lyon, France, and a video side project, while also preparing new members of his company for tours of Pavement and The Radio Show—all before heading abroad to perform a duet with Wendy Whelan this summer.
Now, everyone is asking: What will Kyle Abraham do next?
Above: In Pavement, Abraham uses the setting of a basketball court as a backdrop to dig into issues like black masculinity and police violence. Photo by Carrie Schneider, Courtesy A.I.M.
Abraham’s diverse set of influences—which range from Martha Graham to hip hop and rave culture—may owe something to the fact that he didn’t begin dance training until his senior year in high school, after being cast in a school musical. He immediately started taking some classes at Pittsburgh’s Civic Light Opera Academy, as well as at the Creative and Performing Arts High School. “All the teachers were so encouraging,” he says. While Abraham played catch-up with technique, “they would bring me in tapes to watch—Garth Fagan, Ulysses Dove.”
He says now that late start actually helped determine his path. “Because I came to it so late, I always thought I was going to be a choreographer.” He went on to study at SUNY Purchase, where there were two separate composition classes at any time—so he would do his own class assignments, then ask about the other class’s tasks and do those on his own.
“From the get-go, he made solos for himself that showed something special about him as a dancer,” says Neil Greenberg, a former choreography professor at Purchase. “He’s really successful at stripping away the aspects of the modern dance vernacular that get in the way for him, but without taking away everything.”
Right: Abraham in The Radio Show. Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy A.I.M.
Finding an artistic home after graduation, however, proved challenging. Abraham quickly got a position with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane—one of the companies that had inspired him in high school—but “that did not work out well,” Abraham says. “You don’t learn in college about company dynamics. I was like: Wait, I can’t just do my own thing?”
He was fired within the year. “I realized years later that I didn’t really want to be a dancer in the company; I just wanted to be around those people.” Even Jones—now executive artistic director of NYLA and a big supporter of Abraham’s work—concedes that he didn’t notice the young dancer’s talent. “I had a room full of personalities,” he says. “I told him later that I wasn’t really seeing him at that time.”
Back in Pittsburgh, Abraham’s father was showing early signs of Alzheimer’s. So he took time off, moving home for a while, and then wandering to London and San Francisco, working in retail, considering other paths.
But by 2004, he was ready to give dance another try and entered the MFA program at New York University. “The first year was a struggle,” he admits, “but I was making work. There were really talented dancers that I got to work with.” During the summer program there, he caught the eye of choreographer David Dorfman, who later asked him to join his namesake company. “I loved that company,” Abraham says. “There were times I forgot we got paid.”
Residencies and Grants
Meanwhile, his own work was getting noticed, as well.
Abraham began making solo appearances at DanceNow NYC and Harlem Stage while still at NYU; by the time he appeared at the White Wave Festival in 2005, he had a name for what was then a one-man company: Kyle Abraham/Abraham.In.Motion.
A jaw-dropping solo piece, Inventing Pookie Jenkins—featuring Abraham, shirtless, in a flowing maxi-skirt—landed him a slot at New York’s Fall for Dance showcase. “I remember seeing this young guy, wearing a long, white skirt, moving in the most seductive and beguiling way,” says Jones, who saw a kindred spirit in the younger man. “It felt like an idea I would have done in my time and in my way. I thought: Look at the time we’re in right now, that he can be onstage and move that way.”
Connections back in Pittsburgh helped Abraham find funding to develop work there; later support from the Joyce Theater Foundation in New York allowed him to bring in administrative help and an editing advisor—ultimately helping Abraham create The Radio Show, a 2010 Bessie Award–winning piece.
Above: Abraham and A.I.M. dancer Chalvar Monteiro in Live! The Realest MC. Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy A.I.M.
Then, in one breakout year, 2012, Abraham hit the big time: He was named the 2012–14 resident commissioned artist at NYLA; he also received the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, as well as the Ailey commission and a $50,000 grant from United States Artists. Just a few years earlier, Abraham was taking food stamps to get by; now he left Dorfman to focus on his own company; soon after, he received the prestigious MacArthur nod, worth $625,000 over a five-year period.
In conversation, Abraham is thoughtful and culturally omnivorous. At one point, he mentions James Baldwin as an influence—then dismisses him as too obvious. Back in high school, he recalls, he resisted full-time enrollment at the performing arts school because the academics were stronger at his own school. His musical tastes include classic jazz and pop, but also contemporary classical star Nico Muhly.
Those influences weave their way into his dances. The Radio Show looks at communication breakdowns—the demise of urban radio and his father’s aphasia and Alzheimer’s—while both Live! The Realest MC and Pavement deal with cultural notions of masculinity for black men. To create work, he immerses himself in a piece’s concept—reading Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns, about the Great Migration, in the warm-up to Pavement, and studying up on the civil-rights movement (and listening to music of the era) for a new work dealing with the 1960s.
New Award, New Pressure
Abraham admits there’s a flip side to the flurry of attention. As generous as the MacArthur grant is, it also puts a new level of pressure on a company still operating like a startup, with a slender checking account, no board and no individual donor base. “My dancers still need money; I still live in a studio apartment—in a basement.” And although he’s now able to pay for health insurance for his company, he points out, “I still have dancers who want to leave to go dance somewhere else. I still have to strive to be that choreographer who dancers want to spend their career with.”
Above: Abraham directs Ailey dancers Jamar Roberts and Jacqueline Green. Photo by Paul Kolnik, Courtesy Ailey.
However, Abraham now has dance world luminaries lining up to support him. At Ailey, Battle speaks hopefully of future commissions; Jones, meanwhile, expresses hope that he can pass along to Abraham some of the help he himself received as a young choreographer. “This is an exhilarating time for him—but this is a treacherous time for him,” Jones says. “Everybody wants a piece.”
Even more challenging for Abraham himself, perhaps, is the expectations the MacArthur honor confers on its recipients.
“The scary thing for me is thinking about the weight of the award,” Abraham says. “It sets up an expectation that the work will always be great. There’s no guarantee.”
Rachel F. Elson is a New York City-based writer.
As the only woman in choreographer Kyle Abraham's Pavement, Rena Butler is hard to overlook. Not that you would: She's visually striking, with long limbs that seem to carve up space. Pavement is based loosely on the 1991 film, Boyz n the Hood, and Butler's character weaves her way through a forest of macho posturing with a physical vocabulary that ranges from sly and streetwise to piercing.
“She's a wonderful mix of soft and hard," Abraham says. “She's so defined, but very fluid in her movement. When she gives you an attack rather than that delicate movement, it goes against what people might assume."
At left: In Kyle Abraham's Pavement. Photo by Steven Schreiber, Courtesy Abraham.in.Motion.
The 23-year-old Butler thinks of that fluidity as part of what a dancer must bring to the table. “When people ask, 'What kind of dance do you do?' I think: Everything," Butler says. “Especially in New York, you have to be able to speak in a lot of ways and languages."
The Chicago native started dancing when she was 7, taking ballet and modern classes at a neighborhood studio. “My parents just threw me into dance class to give me something to do," she says. She didn't focus seriously on dance until she was about 12, though; even then, dance lessons competed with swimming and water polo practice.
As she approached high school age, she knew she had to choose between dance and sports. She was accepted at the prestigious Chicago Academy for the Arts, where she studied with Randy Duncan and Anna Paskevska. “I really started dancing seriously there," she says. “I was learning Graham, all the classical techniques—finding out what my body was doing." Her move to New York, for college at SUNY Purchase, set her on her current path. An emphasis on choreography helped her develop as a dancer, she says. “Making student work really helps you develop your artistry, your style, your quality of movement."
Then instructor Kevin Wynn suggested that Abraham.in.Motion dancer Amber Lee Parker create a solo piece for Butler's senior project. So one day in the summer of 2010, Butler ended up working with Parker across the studio from Abraham, who was rehearsing The Radio Show (see “Taking Off," April 2011).
At the time, he was looking for temporary replacement dancers—and when he glanced across the room, he was struck. “I saw her doing a phrase, and thought, This girl's amazing," Abraham says now. “That was all I needed. I didn't even know what role I'd put her in."
He also adds: “She had this great intuitive response to the movement that Amber was teaching her. She wasn't getting frustrated. She just learned the material, and was able to show something midway through rehearsal. I was sold."
Butler worked with Abraham.in.Motion throughout her senior year, touring with the company intermittently. She missed her senior week for a performance in Jordan. Now a full member, Butler finds she has little downtime. She has become interested in choreographing as well, and is creating a solo for Ailey/Fordham senior Janelle Jones, which will be performed this month at the senior showcase.
Abraham has only praise for Butler, and the regard is mutual. “I think Kyle speaks for the people," Butler says. “He's really aware of social issues, of cultural issues. I want to make sure that whether I'm dancing or choreographing, my voice is there and it's strong. I want to have that impact on the world."
Rachel F. Elson is a NYC-based writer.
Audiences last spring at New York’s Joyce Theater could have been forgiven for doing a double take when a nearly naked dancer sprinted across the stage before the start of Larry Keigwin’s Runaway. “Larry egged me on,” says dancer Kristina Hanna. “It was meant to look like backstage at a runway show. There was a girl onstage getting her hair done, and he had me run across as if I was looking for my costume.”
Hanna—who Keigwin hired right out of Juilliard two years ago to join Keigwin + Company—commands attention even fully clothed. Spunky and elfin, the 24-year-old radiates energy, her movements fluid yet punchy. “She has a nice balance between a percussive, rhythmic attack and an effortless ease,” says Keigwin.
Directors and teachers praise Hanna’s physical and intellectual energy. “She’s a real dance thinker,” says Ara Guzelimian, a Juilliard dean and one of Hanna’s mentors. Ironically, Hanna’s dance life started with a fluke: “When I was 4, my best friend went to take a dance class, and I just happened to go along,” she says. It may have been the only accident in her career. Terri Newman, a teacher at The Dance Shoppe studio who worked with Hanna for a decade in Waterford, Michigan, notes from the start that Hanna had a deep commitment. “She was very, very focused at a very early age,” says Newman. “She never waited for me to give her a correction; she took any correction given to anyone in the class.”
Newman’s was a competition studio, and Hanna excelled, piling up awards. But Newman stresses that her ability went beyond technical prowess. “She always understood there was more to it than just kicks and turns.” The competition world taught Hanna a range of styles, but it was not until she arrived at Michigan’s Interlochen Arts Academy that she got her first exposure to modern dance. She was named a Presidential Scholar for the Arts in 2005; she also studied with Laura Glenn at the White Mountain Summer Dance Festival.
Hanna entered Juilliard after Interlochen. It proved a different experience. “My first year was really, really, really hard,” she says. Teachers had students start over from scratch. In one class, she recalls being taught how to roll over; in another they relearned tendus.
But Juilliard also gave Hanna the opportunity to sample a wide variety of choreographers, including Ohad Naharin and Mark Morris. “Some things are like a second skin, and some don’t fit,” she says. “But you realize it’s all valid experience.”
Keigwin came to work with the students her senior year. “On day one, Larry had us improvise in a circle to different qualities he’d call out,” she says. “And I just thought: If I could do this every day, it would be like play.”
Keigwin, meanwhile, was impressed by both her movement quality and her onstage presence. “We did a piece where everybody had a separate entrance,” he says. ”And of everyone there, her entrance got applause. And I thought, ‘Ah, note to self.’ ”
Hanna sent him a Facebook message; he responded with a dinner invitation. “I knew her dancing; I could see her work ethic,” he says. “I wanted to see how she was at the dinner table. Someone can be a great dancer, but you don’t want to work with them unless they’re a great person.” By the end of dinner, Keigwin had offered her a place in his company.
For Hanna, it was the fulfillment of a dream.“I wanted to be in a smaller company, and I wanted not to be a cog in a wheel,” she says. “I wanted to be making a contribution.” She loves that in rehearsals, the company huddles around the laptop to offer suggestions. “I love that nothing’s off limits,” she says. “We’re redefining dance.”
Rachel Elson is an editor at CBS MoneyWatch.com.
Photo of Kristina Hanna in Runaway by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Keigwin
Noah Vinson looks like a born Romeo in Mark Morris’ new version of Shakespeare’s classic love story. Tall, slender, and boyishly handsome, he appears at ease in the ballet’s vaguely Renaissance costumes and sets. When Juliet enters the ball, he’s smitten at the sight of her, gazing in astonished wonder. When he returns to the deserted stage after the ball has ended, his longing for his new love fills every step. With its focus on narrative, Romeo & Juliet, On Motifs of Shakespeare may seem something of an anomaly for Morris. But for Vinson, one of the newer members of Mark Morris Dance Group, it has been a chance to find his footing in a company with many long-established talents and a tightknit ensemble approach.
“This is a hard company to join when you’re young,” says Maile Okamura, who performs Juliet to Vinson’s Romeo. “You have to find your place. Noah has learned to stand up for himself and think through his approach to movement. He’s reached the point where you realize that it’s not so much about following directions as understanding the direction in which to go.”
Once Vinson, 30, thought he was headed to Broadway. Raised in Springfield, Illinois, he began gymnastics while still in grade school, but soon added tap and jazz. “Classes were fine,” he says, “but performing was always my favorite part. At 5, I was dancing on picnic tables.”
Vinson’s thirst to be onstage led him to audition for Springfield Ballet Company’s Nutcracker, where he debuted as a party guest when he was around 9, and danced the role of Fritz for the next three years. As he became more serious about his dancing, he enrolled in Springfield’s Dorothy Irvine School of Dancing, focusing on ballet. A few years later he moved to a local competition studio, Linda Ushman’s Dance Centre, where he took jazz, modern, and tap. Seeing his passion, his parents sent him to summer workshops in Los Angeles at the Edge and in New York at Broadway Dance Center. During those visits, he dreamed about being a Broadway or commercial dancer.
When he got back to school, he joined the diving team. The experience gave his movements a precision that persists even today. Other MMDG dancers note that Morris often uses Vinson as a model during rehearsals. “Knowing the line, knowing what your body is doing, whether your leg is straight, whether your foot is pointed, all that definitely helped me later as a dancer,” Vinson says of his diving practice.
Although he enjoyed the diving team, when he graduated from high school he went to Columbia College Chicago, renowned for its dance program. “Noah was extremely musical. He had an extraordinary ability to work a phrase,” says Jan Erkert, a former Columbia College professor who now heads the dance department at University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign (see “Teacher’s Wisdom,” Oct. 2008).
While Erkert worked with Vinson on a broad range of contemporary technique, mostly new to him, Columbia’s multidisciplinary approach gave him a chance to work with musicians and take classes from postmodern choreographers like Joe Goode and Stephen Petronio when their companies were touring in Chicago. By the time he graduated in 2002, his Broadway dreams had shifted to concert dance and he headed straight to New York. By midsummer, he landed a spot as a supplementary dancer for Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso, ed il Moderato. Vinson was hired as an apprentice in 2003 and as a full-time company member in 2004.
With the 2006 premiere of Morris’ Mozart Dances, Vinson stepped into the spotlight in a mesmerizing, balletic duet with longtime MMDG member Joe Bowie. Their interplay unfolds over an extended passage. Bowie approaches Vinson, lifts and turns him, then shadows him. Vinson’s long, languorous line and spritely jumps offer a striking counterpoint to the senior dancer’s strapping, emphatic presence.
While the duet could be read as sinister—particularly given Bowie’s costume, a long black coat that contrasts with Vinson’s wispy garments—as Bowie and Vinson dance it, the two characters seem to share a watchful, protective connection. “There’s an understated human beauty between Joe and Noah in it,” says MMDG rehearsal director Matthew Rose. “It’s very tender. And it convinced Mark to give Noah the Romeo role.”
Morris found his confidence well placed. “Noah is very versatile,” Morris says. “He has a strong sense of curiosity and he’s a wonderful dancer.”
Dancing Romeo helped Vinson strengthen his stage presence. Working with Okamura has helped, too. “Before the show we always say good-bye to each other,” she says. “So the first time we see each other onstage is always a surprise—because Noah is gone and Romeo is there. He is very easy to fall in love with onstage.”
As the company winds up its year-long tour of the ballet, Vinson feels grateful for what the role has taught him. “Shaping Mark’s movement in your own body can be difficult,” he says. “It’s a little scary to stand out from the crowd.” Still, that anxiety doesn’t show when Vinson performs Romeo. “Now,” he says, “I can allow my personality to come out in my dancing.”
Rachel F. Elson is a writer and editor who lives in Brooklyn.
Photo: Rosalie O'Connor, Courtesy MMDG