Why Aren't We Seeing Older Dancers More Often?

April 17, 2011

I get it that not every older dancer is as glorious as Carmen de Lavallade. But Paradigm keeps coming up with some great dancers in its small company. For instance, Karen Brown, whom I never saw when she danced with Dance Theatre of Harlem. Radiant, delicate, and focused.

These performers have such vivid eyes and expressive faces. And Gus Solomons jr, the artistic director, plays with that in his pieces.

I had seen A Thin Frost before and thought I knew it, but it’s gotten less frosty and more mischievous. Both Dudley Williams and Michael Blake look great in this trio, especially in their solo vocalizing parts. They each make sounds while gesturing, and their own personalities really come out. I’ve never seen Dudley Williams be so funny and precise at the same time. Michael Blake, when he gets a leg stuck, is hilarious. And Gus himself gets into a Beckettian snit when his own body confounds him in frustration. These solo turns are giddy with intricate, nonsensical sequences that make a lot of sense emotionally.

Carmen’s new Tango with Ghosts is simply delicious. She doesn’t have to do much onstage to lure you. The relation of her hands to her face, the timing of each gesture, the way her fanning fingers catch the light make you realize you are witnessing a woman of the theater. She pulls and stretches her costume à la Graham’s Lamentation (is Graham one of the ghosts?). She manifests her pride through her long neck and stylish look, and she absorbs Piazzola’s rhythms with subtlety. At the end she placed a bracelet on the floor, and walked toward us—and past us—in triumph.

Carmen is turning 80. Even if she were 40 or 50, we would adore her dancing. She is all woman, all performer.

The bracelet was picked up by the youngest dancer of the evening, Kyle Abraham. It’s almost a bit unfair to throw Kyle Abraham into the mix. It seemed as if Paradigm included him for insurance—just in case the rest of the evening didn’t entice us. His silky version of hip hop is irresistible (see our bit on him as an emerging choreographer in the current issue). His presence was the icing on the cake of an already full, satisfying evening.

Working with older dancers forces choreographers to grapple with physical limitations. I think Gus is choreographing in a more connected way than before. It’s no longer about making cool shapes, or about how you can throw this limb out here and lift a leg there. It’s about what you can ask a dancer to do who has limited range but has a depth of expression—and a willingness to be honest.

Gus’ premiere, Royalty Redux, offers five of these extraordinary older dancers as royalty. Each was a diva of a different sort, enhanced by Oana Botez-Ban’s extravagant black costumes. Valda Setterfield was majestic, calm—the Helen Mirren of the group. Sarita Allen was sensual and strong. Her duet with Robert La Fosse was the only moment of heat between two dancers in the evening. Hope Clarke had a dramatic urgency. Robert covered space more than the others. And Michael Blake lunged boldly in a downstage column of light. A softer section for the three women had them sweetly stirring a feminine brew. The women pulled Solomons’ choreography into more rounded shapes here.

Kate Weare is a really interesting young choreographer (see my Quick Q & A with her from 2008), but her new work for Paradigm, Idyll, was disappointing. With her own company, she challenges the dancers to make continuity out of nifty disjointed interactions, and something about human ambivalence emerges. But here, her small, sharp moves were merely puzzling. When, at the end, Michael jabs his head into Gus’ chest and gets stuck there, you go, Huh?

But the whole evening gave a chance to savor these performers. What a great mix—black and white, modern and ballet, aging and aged.

In 2000, I wrote an article for The New York Times on older dancers, asking them how they keep themselves moving. I quoted Gus saying, ‘”I’m dancing on momentum now. You can do more on momentum than on muscles.” Well, at this point, I think he is tempering the momentum with physical care. In A Thin Frost, and for moments in his solo Impulse, he’s dancing more about his own paradoxes and frustrations. He’s dancing with less technique but more wit, imagination, and humor.



Photo of Carmen deLavallade by Christopher Duggan, Courtesy Paradigm