“The ensemble of dancers is like a band.” So says choreographer Annie-B Parson; she should know—she’s worked with David Byrne on a number of projects. Her group, the tiny (six-member) Big Dance Theater, performs a New York premiere called Goats as an ensemble at the Kitchen, and I’m sure it’s gonna rock.
Left to right: Elizabeth DeMent, Enrico D. Wey, Tymberly Canale, Jennie Liu, Aaron Mattocks
Known for its multi-media scenarios where narratives intersect with a certain frisson, Big Dance Theater makes you sit on the edge of your seat with wonder and bemusement. Co-directors Parson and Paul Lazar decided, this time around, to create concise, vivid distillations instead of an evening-length work. They say they’re inspired by forms like “novellas, folk tales, diary entries, pencil drawings, thumbnail sketches, and the single page of a notebook.” Each performer has a certain responsibility to shape the work. As Parson continued her comparison (in this “Choreography in Focus”): “They have to figure out who they are in the band.”
In addition to Goats, the extraordinary dancer/actors of BDT will perform other New York premieres that are solos and duets. The audience is invited to party with the band during intermission, when they celebrate their 25 anniversary. January 6 – 9 and 13 – 16 at The Kitchen. Click here for tickets.
Aaron Mattocks, all photos by Liz Lynch, courtesy ADI
Although I cut down a bit on my dance addiction this year, I still saw many terrific performances—and a few clunkers. I tried to stick to world premieres or company premieres but other things snuck into this list.
BEST CHOREOGRAPHY (in order of how strongly it hit me)
• Polaris, by Crystal Pite with 6 Kidd Pivot dancers and 60 NYU Tisch Dance students. Massive. Inventive. Shocking in its brutal beauty, masterful in its craft, it was part of “Thomas Adès: Concentric Paths—Movements in Music,” commissioned by Sadler’s Wells in 2014, brought to NYC by Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in coordination with NY City Center.
“Polaris” by Crystal Pite, photo by Kevin Yatarola
• Andrea Miller’s Whale at the Joyce with her company Gallim. Almost unbearable cravings alternating with giddy flesh contact. Howling, dragging, hurtling through the air. A celebration of awkwardness. Yes, Miller is obviously influenced by Ohad Naharin, but she’s got her own unstoppable zing.
Andrea Miller’s “Whale,” photo by Yi-Chun Wu
• Birdgang Dance Company, an urban dance group from the U.K. in its U.S. debut, at the Breakin Convention at the Apollo (produced by Sadler’s Wells). Dancer/choreographer/actor Ukweli Roach created and starred in Vice, a searing depiction of addiction. The power and precision blew me away.
Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Kim Brandstrup’s “Jeux.” Photo by Paul Kolnik
• Kim Brandstrup’s Jeux, for New York City Ballet, takes you from a cocktail party to film-noir creepiness. Haunting use of Debussy’s music and Jean Kalman’s eclipse-like lights.
• Michelle Dorrance on two occasions: First, The Blues Project, with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely at the Joyce in April, with fellow tap stars Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Delving into what the blues means individually, culturally and musically. And then, only months later, Myelination, a commission from Fall for Dance. Knockout rhythm and shape, spiced with weird and wonderful (partly improvised) solos and poignant duets. Dorrance has taken tap from being just “numbers” to being real choreography.
Alexander Ekman in “Thoughts at the Bolshoi,” photo by Jack Devant
• Another choreographer who impressed me twice was Alexander Ekman. His cheeky, large-cast Tulle, mounted on the Joffrey Ballet, placed tutu-wearing dancers in everyday situations to hilarious effect, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. In Moscow at the Benois de la danse, he dashed around the vast Bolshoi stage, charming the crowd with his witty words (translated into Russion on tape) and actions in Thoughts at the Bolshoi. Irreverent and reverent at the same time, this Swedish choreographer has the ability to see things from a fresh angle.
• David Neumann’s Noh-influenced dance/play I Understand Everything Better, at Abrons Arts. To see Neumann play the role of a delirious older man is to see him become more vulnerable as well as philosophical. Influenced by his work with Big Dance Theater, he created a dreamlike environment in which objects have their own choreography.
Louise Lecavalier in her “So Blue”
• Louise Lecavalier’s keenly focused So Blue, at New York Live Arts. Her famous fearlessness from the 1980s (when she was the star of La La La Human Steps) found a counterpart in her uncanny momentum as an older performer—one who happens to look like David Bowie. A beautifully shaped (mostly) solo concert, depending only on her singularity as a mover.
• Time It Was/116, an utterly delightful encounter between the scintillating New York City Ballet ballerina Tiler Peck and master clown Bill Irwin (who also happens to be one of New York’s greatest dancers). The performers co-choreographed this brilliant romp with Damian Woetzel, who commissioned it for Vail Dance Festival; the NY premiere was at Fall for Dance.
• Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, for NYCB. The kinetic thrill of people running at top speed across the expanse of the stage of David Koch Theater matched Peck’s brazenness at appropriating Aaron Copland’s famous music for Agnes de Mille’s famous ballet. In section after section, Peck’s inventiveness tumbled forth, with the merest hint of the original source.
• Dream’d in a Dream by Seán Curran Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music. A beautiful reimagining of Central Asia carried on the currents of the Ustatshakirt Plus, a traditional Kyrgyz music ensemble. Gently transporting, veering away from folk dances and folk tunes in a good-natured glow of camaraderie. No aggression to show or prove anything, just an immersion in a faraway world.
• William Forsythe’s Duo2015 is an exhilarating example of his crazy wild idea of counterpoint. Two guys (Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts), enthusiastically caught in a spider’s web of repetition and distortion, as part of Sylvie Guillem’s farewell performance at NY City Center, produced by Sadler’s Wells. I’d love to see it right after the original two-women Duo of 1996.
• Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz’s Partita 2 at Sadler’s Wells in London. Postmodern in the best sense: dance that creates structure and relationship from nothing but movement and squeaky sneakers. Energizing.
(photo by Anne Van Aerschot)
• The Snow Falls in the Winter, first made by Annie-B Parson on the short-lived Other Shore company, now set on the Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce. Co-directed by Paul Lazar, this piece uses lines from Ionesco’s absurdist play The Lesson to frame the piece. Parson and Lazar have elicited a new, ironic edge from these hard-working, virtuosic dancers.
• Rainforest performed by Stephen Petronio Company at the Joyce as the first in his “Bloodlines” series. The dancers got the quietly feral force of this 1968 gem of Merce Cunningham’s. Warhol’s silver pillows caused a lovely chaos onstage and in the house, where viewers either batted them back to the stage or held them down.
• The musical Spring Awakening, this time produced by Deaf West Theatre, most of whose members are hearing impaired. With American Sign Language crucial for communication, choreographer Spencer Liff found a dynamic way to express the urgency, defiance and sorrows of these young people of 19th-century Germany—and he expertly incorporated Broadway’s first wheelchair performer.
LOOKING BACK—WITH GUSTO
• Dancenoise: Don’t Look Back. Annie Iobst and Lucy Sexton brought back their wacky, anarchic duo with the full complement of fake blood and real nudity, dildoes and cowboy hats, now with the added “relevance” of appearing in a museum (the new Whitney building). We guffawed in mock shock, and tapped into that old feeling of madcap liberation.
• “get dancing,” a tribute to Andy De Groat organized by Catherine Galasso at Danspace (an earlier version at Fridays at Noon), revealing the richness and spirituality of “minimalist” dance of the 70s to a younger generation. Plus, it was heavenly to hear Michael Galasso’s music again.
• ABT’s 75th -anniversary gala, with glimpses from 23 ballets including Billy the Kid, Fancy Free, Push Comes to Shove, Rodeo and The Bright Stream. Spectacular dancing from Herman Cornejo, Marcelo Gomes, Maria Kochetkova, Xiomara Reyes, Daniil Simkin, Diana Vishneva, James Whiteside and others. We felt the weight and glory of ABT’s trajectory.
• Event, directed by Robert Swinston, former associate director of Cunningham’s company and current director of Compagnie CNDC (Le Centre National de Danse Contemporaine) in Angers, France. Presented at the Joyce with an intriguing set of flowy strips of art by French artist Jackie Matisse (yes—the granddaughter of Henri). Swinston was inspired in his choice of excerpts of Cunningham works from 1965 to 1990, and the French group danced it with verve, at the Joyce.
MIXING IT UP
• “Platform: Dancers, Buildings, People in the Streets,” dreamed up by Claudia La Rocco, at Danspace. A multi-week series that threw together ballet and postmodern, Balanchine and Judson Dance Theater, through the lens of legendary dance writer and poet Edwin Denby. Much food for thought.
• “The Hidden Erotic Body of Soviet Ballet: A Tribute to Leonid Yacobson” combined a talk with Yacobson scholar Janice Ross (see my book list here) with reconstructions of Russia’s radical choreographer who is little known in the West. His entwining Rodin duets were sensual and seamless and triggered debate. Fridays at Noon at the 92nd Street Y, Harkness Dance Center.
• Also at Danspace: National treasure Meredith Monk, whose music and dancing light up the soul, teamed up with poetry goddess Anne Waldman. From gutsy rhythms of suffering to giddy ghosts to transcendent vocals, they made us feel lucky to live in their times.
BEST PERFORMERS (roughly in the order I saw them)
• Xiaochuan Xie of the Graham company in The Snow Falls in the Winter, also as Eliza in The King and I at Lincoln Center. A piquant sort of vibrancy.
• Lloyd Knight in the Graham company: Physical strength, dramatic impact, and a sense of the human being underneath the dancer.
• Megumi Eda in On the Nature of Things by Karole Armitage at the Museum of Natural History. With her crystalline quality she embodies the sacredness of the music by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and others.
• Davalois Fearon in Stephen Petronio’s Locomotor/NonLocomotor, mainly the second half when she engaged in brash, tough-love partnering with three guys, at the Joyce. A woman warrior in a bright turquoise leotard.
• Ballet West’s gemlike Arolyn Williams in Presto by Nicolo Fonte, at the Joyce.
• Natalia Osipova in Ashton’s The Dream, The Royal Ballet, at Lincoln Center, presented by the Joyce. Star wattage both before and after she fell on her behind.
“Trois Gnociennes” with Lopatkina and Yermakov. photo by Mikhail Logvinov
• At the Benois de la danse, Moscow: The Mariinsky’s Uliana Lopatkina, transcendent in Dying Swan and dreamy yet precise in Trois Gnossiennes by Hans Van Manen.
• Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works for The Royal Ballet, playing the roles of an author and her protagonist with dramatic focus, making you care what’s going on in her character’s mind. Royal Opera House, London.
Diana Vishneva in Ratmansky’s Cinderella for the Mariinsky Ballet
• During the Mariinsky Ballet’s season at BAM, outstanding performances were given by Vishneva in Ratmansky’s Cinderella, Kondaurova in Robbins’ In the Night, Xander Parish as Siegfried in Swan Lake, and Kristina Shapran in Without by Benjamin Millepied.
• Olsi Gjeci of Vicky Shick Dance in Pathétique, Miniatures in Detail, 92Y Harkness Dance Festival. Springs up like a cat, dances like he has a secret up his sleeve.
• Marie-Agnès Gillot in Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes at the Park Avenue Armory. A creature-woman extending her legs like tentacles. Kinda scary but fitting what I imagine Tree of Codes to be about.
• Soledad Barrio in Antigona, a Noche Flamenca production directed by Martín Santangelo with choreography by Barrio. Her gradually building heat culminates in wrapping her anger around her while heels clatter amazing rhythms into the floor. At West Park Presbyterian Church, last summer and again now until Jan. 23.
• Okwui Okpokwasili, coolly provocative in her delivery of Kathy Acker’s sometimes porno script, in Scaffold Room, a performance piece by Ralph Lemon at The Kitchen.
• Daniel Staaf of Gallim Dance in Andrea Miller’s Whale. In a cast of individuals who allow themselves to be painfully exposed, he was the most extreme: desperate in expressing need, a rock in accepting those who need him. It must have been emotionally exhausting.
• Meg Weeks in Andy de Groat & Catherine Galasso’s “get dancing” evening. Specifically in get wreck (1978), fan dance (1978) and notes on de groat, the new work by Catherine Galasso. Athletic freshness and buoyancy.
• Jennie Somogyi in Liebeslieder Walzer in her farewell performance with NYCB. This is how it’s done: melding emotion with strength and fluidity. We’ll miss you, Jennie.
• Rika Okamoto in Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues: a delicious sense of style. But even better in Yowzie, where she reveled in the crazy fun of it, morphing from a drunk to a pothead to a gorilla to the Iron Lady too heavy to lift. Astonishing go-for-broke performance.
• Edivaldo Ernesto in Sasha Waltz and Guests’ Continu at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Sharp, puppet-like, dense, riveting.
• Tendayi Kuumba in Walking with ’Trane, by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Urban Bush Women at BAM, incorporating crazy sick vocal scatting into dance improv.
• Jamar Roberts in the Ailey company, magnificent in works by Robert Battle, Paul Taylor and Ron Brown and more. (photo of Roberts in Aszure Barton’s LIFT, by Paul Kolnik)
THE YEAR OF MISTY COPELAND
She shone in works from the Graham company gala to Ivy in On the Town, from Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations to Swan Lake. In this last, she took her time to feel surrender and to let the anguish of Odette be expressed through her exquisite lines. She showed grace and humility in every public appearance. And she brought public attention to the dearth of female African-American ballet dancers.
A SLEW OF OTHER ABT DANCERS
Other breathtaking performances: Stella Abrera in Ashton’s Cinderella, Kim Kimin as Solor in La Bayadere, Maria Kochetkova and Sarah Lane in The Brahms-Haydn Variations, Jeffrey Cirio in AfterEffect by Marcelo Gomes, Evgenia Obraztsova as Juliet.
PERFORMERS IN MUSICALS
• Tommy Tune: long, lanky and loving in the Gershwin musical Lady Be Good, NY City Center’s Encores! series
• Leanne Cope in An American in Paris. Gorgeous, breathy dancing, an open expressive face, and a voice that makes her a true triple threat.
• Alex Brightman in School of Rock: whether fidgeting, bouncing to his own music, or exploding, he’s a buoyant hurricane of energy.
• Making the most of a small cast: the six players of Dames at Sea all act, tap dance, and sing terrifically. The show is as much fun as some of the bigger, flashier musicals. Choreography by Randy Skinner.
Wendy Whelan in David Michalek’s “Hagoromo,” photo by Julieta Cervantes
• Great dancers continuing to perform into “advanced” age: Wendy Whelan, Eiko, Ana Laguna, Carmen de Lavallade, and, as mentioned, Louise Lecavalier and Alessandra Ferri, are deepening their artistry every year. Audiences want to see them because they know they will see not only a great performance, but maybe they will learn something about life.
• Broadway Musicals Take on the Immigrant Debate: Not only the blockbuster Hamilton, but also the dance-crazy On Your Feet and the moving Allegiance tell complicated stories of racism and resistance. Hamilton highlights how international and multi-cultural the founding of the United States was. On Your Feet tells how brazen Gloria and Emilio Estefan were to bring the Cuban beat to American pop music. And Allegiance lays bare the disgraceful treatment of Asians during World War II. Of course, Fiddler on the Roof, which premiered in 1964 and has just opened as a revival, may have been the first to dramatize the painful trek from the Old World to the New. [And a friend just reminded me, duh, of West Side Story from 1964!]
• ABT’s remake of The Sleeping Beauty with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky based on the original versions. Fascinating to ballet historians, it looked to me like everything got smaller: dancers taking up less space, being coy rather than daring, and our multi-cultural world shrinking back to the precious courts of Europe. Only the budget was large—six million dollars.
• Mark Morris’ After You at ABT. Pedestrian in the most banal sense. Morris’ usual wit and sense of form eluded him, not to mention his intuitive understanding of ballet line.
• The Age of Anxiety by Liam Scarlett, danced by The Royal Ballet, presented by the Joyce at Lincoln Center. Sturm and Drang overlaid on a plot that looked like Fancy Free and even had music by Leonard Bernstein. Dreadful portrayals of four supposedly typical New Yorkers, all of them belligerent.
• Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor by Doris Humphrey, presented by Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. A great classic of the modern dance canon, it felt lost and faraway in the Koch Theater. The Limón Dance Company performed it well, but the organ sound was thin and the narrative felt incomplete.
But let’s not end on that note. Scroll back up to the things I was excited about, or click here to browse through my list of books published this year.
A flurry of new books arrived on my doorstep (so to speak), just in time for the gift-giving season. I’ve made a list of the ones that you might find especially engaging. I have not had the time to read them all the way through, but have dipped into each one, sometimes just enough to cull a key quote. The list includes memoirs or musings that I find illuminating and edifying. It does not include uber scholarly books, textbooks, or manuals on technique. Most of these books can be bought on Amazon, but it’s more PC to buy directly from the publisher or distributor, so I’ve inserted links. Enjoy.
This Very Moment: teaching thinking dancing
By Barbara Dilley
Published by Naropa University Press
Available through Contact Editions The radiance of Barbara Dilley, as both a dance artist and spiritual force comes off every page. She danced with Merce Cunningham, was a sweet, mischievous presence in the legendary improvisation group Grand Union, and went on to teach at Buddhist-centered Naropa University, where she started a dance program and eventually led the institution. Each chapter combines memoir and practice. Quote (about performing with the Grand Union): “Intuition becomes a survival skill. It takes me forward through the unknown. I find companionship. In this environment an imagistic world explodes. I become part of stories bursting forth like Surrealist images.”
Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley
Edited by Ann Murphy and Molissa Fenley
Published by Seagull Books London Ltd Fenley’s exotically torquing movement vocabulary and exhilarating momentum marked her as a new, exciting dance artist in the 1980s. She continues to choreograph today. This slim volume has contributions from Elizabeth Streb, Philip Glass, Richard Move, Tere O’Connor and others. Quote: “She appeared as if the movement was bursting out from her body without her permission, just streaming out, before the idea of streaming was coined for the Internet.” —Elizabeth Streb, on working with Fenley
What the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing
By Brian Seibert
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan) This author has a witty, appealing writing style that you can see in his reviews for The New York Times. The book is chock full of stories, loving descriptions, and accounts of shifting aesthetics since the inception of tap. Here’s what Elizabeth Kendall said in her New York Times review: “It…offers passion about its subject, deft evocations of dance action and a narrative mischief suited to tap’s trickster mentality.”
Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia
By Janice Ross
Published by Yale University Press An unabashed provocateur, Leonid Yacobson (1904–1975) was one of the leading choreographers of Russia for decades. He was a favorite of both Plisetskaya and Baryshnikov, but his work was considered too sexy (close embraces were called pornographic), too modernist, or too Western for the Soviet authorities. That he survived the Stalin purges was amazing. In the ’70s he created many inventive works for his company, Choreographic Miniatures, but the troupe was forbidden to tour. The Soviet strikes against him were constant, and Ross highlights his heroism in standing against the totalitarian regime. A must-read for anyone interested in the development of Soviet ballet.
Alla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet
By Joel Lobenthal
Published by Oxford University Press Another book about the resistance of a ballet artist in the Soviet Union. Alla Osipenko, with her beautiful lines and rebel spirit, left her job as one of the top ballerinas of the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet to dance with renegade choreographer Leonid Yacobson (see Janice Ross’ book, above) and later Boris Eifman. Along the way are descriptions of the young Baryshnikov, the great pedagogue Vaganova, and Nureyev. In fact, the description of Nureyev’s defection in Paris, right after performing with Osipenko and the Kirov, is one of the most harrowing passages.
Saving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story
By Rosemary Novellino-Mearns
Published by Turning Point Press As dance captain of the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company (yes, for many years there was a ballet company that performed as often as the Rockettes—four times a day), Rosemary Novellino-Mearns loved the stage, the theater, and its mission to entertain. But in the late 1970s, the choice of movies went downhill, audience numbers started falling off, and Radio City was slated for demolition. Alarmed, “Rosie” gathered some dancer friends together to protest what seemed like mismanagement. It turned into a long battle that cost her and her husband their jobs. She didn’t realize she was a David to the Goliath of the Rockefellers, who had planned to doom the theater in order to build something more profitable. Click here to see a review and vintage videos of the fight to keep “the showplace of the nation” open.
Dancers As Diplomats: American Choreography in Cultural Exchange
By Clare Croft
Published by Oxford University Press Interviews with dancers who served as ambassadors for the U.S. while touring internationally during the Cold War and after.
Rebel on Pointe: A Memoir of Ballet & Broadway
By Lee Wilson
Published by University Press of Florida When Lee Wilson saw the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet in the 1950s, it sparked a passion to dance. She studied at Ballet Theatre School with Madame Pereyaslavic and danced with the companies of Rosella Hightower, Eric Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, Maina Gielgud, and with Alicia Markova at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. Quote: “I sensed that ballet, like church, could be a transcendent experience. As the lights dimmed, instead of one solitary organ, an entire orchestra began to play. When the curtain rose, the dancers leaped onto the stage, which was far more exciting than the predictable slow march of a clergy and choir.”
Lois Greenfield: Moving Still
Photographs by Lois Greenfield; text by William A. Ewing
Published by Chronicle Books
(In Europe, Thames & Hudson) From a master photographer, a book of spectacular images that see the dancing body through the lens of Greenfield’s imagination. Reflecting surfaces, yards of silk, and other objects extend the performers in beguiling ways. Quote: “Rather than capturing peak moments of a dance… Greenfield instead seeks unusual, enigmatic moments that perturb our reading of the image. We find ourselves wondering: Can a body really be doing what I think it’s doing? Where did he come from? Where is he going? Is she rising? Is she falling? Are those bodies about to collide, or are they flying apart?”
Girl Through Glass
A novel by Sari Wilson
Published by HarperCollins A former dance student of both ballet and experimental dance, Wilson has set her novel in 1970s NYC. The two main women characters are a ballet dancer and a dance history professor. Quote: “The mirror lies. We know this. Its secret smiles are the images that match our own dreams. But it persists, categorical and seductive. How often have I learned this? Still, the desire to trust the image persists.”
Isadora Duncan in the 21st Century: Capturing the Art and Spirit of the Dancer’s Legacy
By Andrea Mantell Seidel
Published by McFarland Written by a dancer who has reconstructed and performed Isadora’s choreography, this book has chapters with titles like “Dancing Innocence and Awakening,” “Apollonian Form, Beauty and the Natural Body,” and “Women Warriors.” A serious study of the influential Duncan oeuvre, the book discusses training, aesthetics, religious aspects, and the actual experience of dancing these historic dances.
FOR CHILDREN Rupert Can Dance
By Jules Feiffer
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan) The unstoppable cartoonist who famously lampooned a fictitious serious-&-silly modern dancer, has now come out with a story about a girl and her cat who get the dance bug. See a video of Feiffer talking about his new venture here.
My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey
By Lesa Cline-Ransome
Foreword by Robert Battle
Published by Simon & Schuster As a child, Robert Battle had to wear leg braces to stabilize bad alignment. But he fell in love with dance, attended Juilliard, performed and choreographed professionally, and is now the inspired artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.
BOOKS BY DANCERS, NOT ABOUT DANCE
The last books are not about dance, but if you love these two dance artists—Kenneth King and Dana Caspersen—you may want to read them.
The Secret Invention and Red Fog
Both by Kenneth King
Both published by Club Lighthouse Publishing Kenneth King, a choreographer/improvisor who enjoyed a special niche as “the dancing philosopher” of the experimental dance world, came out with two novels this year. He endows his characters with a richness of marginality—and usually a healthy dose of gender bending. The Secret Invention involves twins—a poet and an inventor—who get caught up in the swirl of New York nightlife. The plot involves an invention that makes clean energy freely accessible but the CIA claims it threatens our democracy. Science fiction with a sprinkling of sexual encounters. In Red Fog, one character is based on Frances Alenikoff, who danced wonderfully sensual duets with King when she was in her 80s. The topics of the characters’ conversations range from Wittgenstein to sex to crime to nutrition.
Changing the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution
By Dana Caspersen
Published by Penguin Random House, A Joost Elffers book Dana Caspersen, whose dazzling technique and acting skills distinguished her in William Forsythe’s work for decades, has added mediator to her resumé. Her book presents short bits of advice emphasizing ways to calm things down, possibly learned in a rehearsal studio. Here are two examples: “Develop curiosity in difficult situations,” and “Acknowledge emotions. See them as signals.” Listening is paramount, and Caspersen’s principles build on all the ways that dancers listen.
Some of my favorite books have been re-issued in paperback or new editions. All of them have given me much pleasure and food for thought.
Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer
By Elizabeth Kendall Oxford University Press
In light of this being the 50th-anniversary year of Twyla Tharp’s choreographic life, we asked Sara Rudner, who was deeply involved in Tharp’s early dancing-making, to come to NYU Tisch Dance (where I am an adjunct) to talk about working with her. Rudner, who is now the director of dance at Sarah Lawrence College, imbued her dancing with light and depth and helped create the Tharp style. Rudner’s talk, which focused on Tharp’s work but also touched on her own choreography, took place in one of the NYU Tisch Dance studios on September 25, 2015. Luckily, one of our sharp grad students, Donald Shorter, turned on the voice memo of his cell phone and recorded the event. I transcribed his recording and edited the interview slightly, then got Sara’s input to clarify some sections. To learn more, go to the Tharp website.
Wendy: How did you first start working with Twyla?
Sara: My friend Margy Jenkins was working with her. We were neighbors on Broome Street. Twyla was doing a show and she needed another dancer, and Margy said, “I know someone.” And Twyla wanted to see who I was before she didn’t pay me—before she didn’t pay me. [laughter] No one was paying anybody, there was no money, but I did receive $50 for the first performance of Re-Moves.
Wendy: The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] didn’t start till later in the 60s.
Sara: There was no New York State Council on the Arts. Anyway, so Margy took Twyla to see a performance I was doing at Judson Hall. Barbara Gardner had done a piece and someone got injured and I stepped in and I learned the piece. Margy said that Twyla came in [to see me dance] and stayed for a few minutes and said, “She’ll do.” [laughter] That was the beginning.
Wendy: And boy did she do! Sara defined Twyla’s work for 20 years.
Sara: We came from very different backgrounds—I was a New York City kid, born and raised in Brooklyn. I had no art training. I ran around and swam.
Wendy: And you didn’t do ballet training.
Sara: I had a little bit of baby ballet. I knew what that was, and then nothing. But our energy was very similar. So one of the first times we met [in the studio], I saw her rubbing her hands, saying Ah, you’ve got a lot of energy.
Sara Rudner and Twyla Tharp in “The Bix Pieces” (1972), photo by Tony Russell
Wendy: She was probably thinking, Ooh what I can do with this girl!
Sara: I was really almost a blank slate. The first time Margy told me that she was studying with Merce Cunningham, I said, “Who’s she?” I had no idea. I had a degree in Russian studies from Barnard College, I was 20 years old and I knew nothing. So it was a perfect opportunity because I was a blank slate and had a lot of energy. I’d been a swimmer and a runner, so I was strong and well coordinated.
Wendy: That’s so interesting because now, one of the people she likes is John Selya, who was a surfer. Twyla always liked someone who looks like a person onstage rather than a dancer with this kind of I’m-dancing-for-the-balcony-seats projection. And you were definitely that person.
Sara: In the beginning experimentations she chose to work with Margy Jenkins, who’s a statuesque woman, and then with me and then with herself. So she was not into the cookie-cutter thing, she was experimenting with the kinds of people. When I say experiment, I mean she experimented like crazy. We did all sorts of things that most people if they look at them now they would say, That’s not dance. The first thing I ever did with Twyla was with a stopwatch; it was at Judson Church. My part was [gets up and walks a straight line, the long side of a rectangle]. Then I got to a corner and I returned to where I began to give the stopwatch to Margy, maybe Twyla, and she walked the diagonal; and Twyla, or maybe Margy, walked the short side of the rectangle.
Wendy: Was that Re-Moves?
Sara: Yes, Re-Moves, 1966, was task-based. Twyla was looking at stuff from the bottom up. She had done all this dancing; she had done a lot of ballet. There are pictures of her in a tutu, wearing a tiara.
Wendy: Do you think she was influenced by the other stuff going on at Judson? Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs were also very task-based.
Sara: Yes, task based. She was also very influenced by the minimalist painters.
Wendy: Of which her husband, Robert Huot, was one.
Sara: Yes. Those early pieces had props, objects, were spatially very structural. They were circles, squares, oblongs. They [minimalist painters, sculptors and dancers] were all hanging out together. Twyla was in that group of people who went to Max’s Kansas City and drank a lot and ate ice cream. That’s what I remember about Max’s Kansas City is the ice cream sundaes Sundays. But eventually—Twyla’s a dancer. She loved movement; she loved complicated things, she loved a great physical challenge. And the physical challenges in those early pieces were really intense. In the same piece, Re-Moves, there’s a balcony at Judson and she hung a ladder, a rope ladder down, and I climbed down the rope ladder backwards. I was wearing black leotard and tights—we all were—and a white felt hat. Wendy: Yeah, you looked like nuns in the photos.
Sara: The hat was a triangle, and the tip was in the middle of the forehead.
Wendy: And Robert Huot probably designed it.
Sara: He designed it, yeah. The thing she asked me to do was to walk backwards on relevé after coming off the ladder and make zig-zag patterns. So if the ladder was there, the pattern was [demonstrates in the space] zig-zag zig-zag all the way down till I ended on the floor. The entire time I had to slowly lower my arms and head, flex my spine, bend my knees until I was lying supine on the floor. It took about 10 minutes.
Wendy: Were there other people doing other things, or that was it?
Sara: I was supposed to give a cue in performance but I went so slowly that the cue I was supposed to give was late. Technically I was not so great, and the task took a lot of control and concentration. It might have been easier if I had gone faster.
Wendy: Most of these pieces were in silence, right? Was there music?
Sara: No but she would choreograph to music. We would dance to Beethoven, Mozart. We didn’t perform to music until Three Page Sonata for Four (1967), with music by Charles Ives. She was extremely musical, even to the point of translating musical scores to lines. She would set up a straight line, I followed the rhythm of one musical line, she the other. We would take the rhythms and go back and forth on the lines. Something like that [demonstrating]. It never looked like music; it was just us translating those musical phrases.
In Judson gym, rehearsing for “Three Page Sonata for Four” (1967); left to right: Theresa Dickinson, Rudner, Tharp, Margery Tupling; photo by Robert Propper.
Wendy: In her later work, one of the things she’s known for is her range of music—classical, rock, jazz.
Sara: Wide ranging, big appetite for dance art. Huge. Huge energy; questioning all the time. Very intense intellect. She brought extreme passion into our work together. She was also a monster mover. This woman …she was unbelievable,…watching her dance was really extraordinary.
Wendy: My eye always went to Sara, because Sara, in addition to being an incredible mover, has a kind of sweetness. [To Sara:] Your whole body was in every movement. Whereas Twyla gave off a different energy like, “I’m getting through this.” It was more belligerent.
Sara: She was fierce. She was hyper-mobile in her joints. She had strong muscles so could keep all that together and she had great power and reach. She also had a personality. What happened was, because we had a range of personalities and physicalities, it gave the work a more everyday look, less like a corps de ballet.
Wendy: Rose Marie Wright was six feet tall. She told me in one interview, “When I was dancing in Pennsylvania Ballet, they didn’t know what to do with me. They just couldn’t cast me in anything.”
Sara: In toe shoes, she’s like 6 foot 3 inches.
Wendy: And she said, “When I got to Twyla, Twyla knew what to do with me.” And Twyla put her to work. It was the three of them: Twyla, Sara and Rose were like the three goddesses for years.
Sara: We did a lot of work together, a lot of hours. What I learned from Twyla besides the amazing experiences she gave me, was how to work, how to be in a studio and just focus on what I was doing. Let’s do it again. Let’s do it again. Oh, maybe we should do it again. One more time—17 more times later—one more time. Let’s do it one more time.
Wendy: Because the work was so intricate.
Sara: It was very intricate, and to put that into your muscle memory so that you could then be fairly accurate. There were pieces I never did correctly. I never did it the way it was written. We were a team so we could pick up and be where we needed to be.
Wendy: But she also wanted a little freedom in there, didn’t she?
Sara: Not in The Fugue.
Wendy: How much movement did you contribute? The Fugue (1970) had certain variations; did you make your own variations?
Sara: No, that was a set piece. The time we started doing things individually was in Medley which was created before The Fugue. Medley was danced outdoors in 1969 on the great lawn and at American Dance Festival when it was in New London, CT, and this was a real experiment for her. We were all working down in Kermit Love’s studio on Great Jones Street. There was a studio and she’d take us in one by one and she would do something, and the others didn’t know what she was doing in there. She would say, Don’t tell the others what we did. She had made some phrases and then she just did them and said, What do you remember? So we each came up with something different. She started working more improvisationally with us. She also worked with each of us separately in different ways. She wrote down words that were prompts, and then she’d string whatever we did together. That’s the first piece she didn’t dance in. So that piece led me to be an individual dancer.
Rehearsing at the Metropolitan Museum for “Dancing in the Streets of London and Paris, continued in Stockholm, and Sometimes Madrid,” 1970. Rudner at left with braid.
Wendy: How were you earning a living? You were spending hours and hours in the studio with Twyla, not getting paid very much. What else were you doing?
Sara: I worked for a slumlord in his office. In 1965–66, I worked for the Free Southern Theater. It was an integrated group of actors who went down south and blew everybody’s mind. And then I started working for Merce Cunningham, in Merce’s office at Brooklyn Academy of Music. I did clerical work; I typed. (I learned typing in my high school.) Rose babysat. Theresa Dickinson did administrative work for arts organizations and proofreading for science textbooks. Margery Tupling had her own source of money. I could work for half a day; I could leave work at noon and take a class, then go to rehearsal.
Wendy: When did you start choreographing yourself?
Sara: The first thing I did was the program with Douglas [Dunn] in 1971 at Laura Dean’s place. I started with Twyla 65-66 and then I stayed with her until ’74. In the early ’70s I started working with you guys [Wendy Rogers, Risa Jaroslow and Wendy Perron] and I started doing other things on my own. Twyla was amazing because she insisted at some point that the dancers she was working with get paid 52 weeks a year. We didn’t have a lot of money. Part of my curiosity about being in dance was Let’s take responsibility for your artistic ideas: Rehearsals, going on tour, the bus, the airplane, whatever. I wanted to learn more about the business of making dances, putting them on, working with dancers. So in 1974 I said I think I need to do other things,, and she said, Are you gonna have a baby? [laughter] What could you possibly wanna do…and she was right in many ways. (I did have a baby many years later.) But I was hanging out with other dancers, and people were talking about what they were doing. I was 30 years old and I was thinking, Yah maybe I should find out about other things. So I went off and made a couple solos, and danced with Wendy P. and Risa and Wendy Rogers, we did marathon dances. Five hours at St. Mark’s Church.
Wendy: You had a whole philosophy about that, so talk about that.
Sara: As far as I was concerned, dancing happened whether someone watched you or not. Dancing was always going on. So the idea behind this was, we were dancers and this is what dancers do – dance. I had initially asked for seven hours, but Barbara Dilley [director of Danspace at the time] and the people at Danspace, said six, five maybe. So we bargained. But the idea was, we’re just gonna keep on dancing. You [the audience] can come and go whenever you want. We started at 5:00 pm and we ended at 10 pm. We worked our way up methodically. We created all this basic material that we all danced together, the phrases we made together then we set up improvisations. “Brain Damage,” one of the sections, was the hardest concept to realize.
Wendy: I can’t forget “Brain Damage.”
Sara: “Brain Damage” was one pattern in the arms and another pattern in the legs, it was like a five against a seven, so nothing fit together.
Wendy: And there was running in circles, and slightly different versions of it, which I extricated myself from because I didn’t have the stamina to run. [This clip from “Running” section, as performed in 1975 at Oberlin (without Sara), is mostly with Wendy Rogers and Risa Jaroslow.]
Sara: We were running around, and did some improvisation, we didn’t have music.
Wendy: Didn’t we have a fan making noise?
Sara: Yes, we had a backdrop, which was painted with floral designs by visual artist Robert Kushner; it was hung across the altar at St. Mark’s. At that point, St. Marks’ Church had fixed pews, a big wooden cross, and a red linoleum floor. Bob hung curtains in panels, and he had fans that blew these panels. When we weren’t dancing we were hiding behind the panels.
Rudner in her own solo, “33 Dances on her 33rd Birthday,” 1977, photo by Nathaniel Tileston
Wendy: There were just four of us.
Sara: Just four of us for five hours. It was intense. And my mother asked why we didn’t shave under our arms. [laughter] We were making a statement. “It’s not nice,” she said. But she came and watched. And people did come and go.
Wendy: Carolyn Brown stayed the whole five hours, and so did Kenneth King. The whole thing was to have dance be a continuum [to the students] not like a thing that had a beginning, middle, and end. You guys read the Merce Cunningham essay “The Impermanent Art.” Very much along those lines: Dancing is as impermanent as breathing.
Sara: It’s just what we do. [to the students] I know you guys have the same experience. You come here in the morning and you work all day. So we just put it all together. I couldn’t get to do that kind of thing with Twyla because her aesthetic was really to be in theaters and make those pieces and that’s what she wanted to do.
Wendy: And she changed more towards the theatrical. The things you were describing with the stopwatch, in the beginning…
Sara: That was open spaces. That was very simple. And then we had our hair done, and put on beautiful costumes.
Wendy: The haircutting was a big deal. In 1972 all dancers, whether ballet or modern, had their hair in a bun. And all of a sudden, Twyla and her two main dancers had their hair cut at Sassoon and they were stylish-looking. And then everyone went, Why do we have to have our hair in a bun? For women in downtown New York, it was a landmark influence; we started wearing our hair in more the way we might want to rather than like ballet girls. Onstage it made it even more that thing of They’re people rather than “dancers.” It made the performers closer to the audience somehow.
Sara: They could identify more. Especially during the ’70s, in hippie land, and feminist land. And we all were different. Twyla had a blunt bowl cut. Rose had longer hair, shaped, and my hair was layered into curls.
Wendy: And this was during the feminist time, and it had to do with what Twyla was doing onstage because her women were very athletic, they could do a lot physically. The first company was just women, and they were so strong and they didn’t have to relate to a man. It’s the way Martha Graham’s company started too: it was all women at first.
Sara: And then things progressed. Wendy and I were talking about the dichotomies of Twyla’s work: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. There were these very methodical pieces, and then there was a piece called Jam. Jam was premiered at Barnard College in 1967 and we were just throwing fits. We wore thick plastic costumes, full body suits and if you just blew on them, they made a horrible noise. You know those lights when you’re driving and you need flashers because your car is breaking down? One side is a spotlight and the other side is the flasher. So these spotlights were in our faces and we were in these noisy costumes. We had these fits and we would shake. Twyla choreographed it to James Brown. We would stop while Margy was doing something very serene. It was really pretty wild.
Wendy: But that sounds like Deuce Coupe. She had the ballet person being serene and then all you guys were doing crazy stuff. [To the students] Deuce Coupe was in 1973, and it’s when she brought her own dancers to the Joffrey’s ballet dancers. The music was the Beach Boys, so that was already a kind of sacrilege. In the first version, what she had for a set was about five kids who were already doing graffiti on subways. There was a scroll upstage, and they would come in spraying the graffiti, and the scroll would go up and they’d spray graffiti on the new stretch of paper. So she had two kinds of dancers, Beach Boys music, and the graffiti kids, and the whole thing made a statement of smashing high art and popular art together.
Sara: And this tour [Tharp’s 50th-anniversary tour] is Bach and Yowzie.
Wendy: Apollonian and Dionysian, two different halves.
Sara: She started that with Bad Smells and Sinatra Songs (both 1982). Bad Smells was everybody wearing rags. It was an intense dance. That was the first time she used a big screen. SONY had this big screen and Tom Rawe was filming it while it was going on. No one was using video that way. She was pushing the envelope early and hard.
Wendy: That takes a lot of courage. Where do you think she got that courage from, or how did that manifest in your work with her?
Sara: When we got in the studio we just worked. Twyla never came in and started talking about “It was a horrible review, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m feeling lousy today.” Nothing like that. If you read her book, Push Comes to Shove, she had an early childhood full of schedules. Wake up. 6:30: Work on my English composition. 6:45: Practice my viola. All through the day. In her family, she was the first child; she was the genius child. She did it with hard hard work. As hard as we thought we worked, she worked twice as hard. I can remember being on our first tour in 1967. We were in Germany and we were dancing on some crap floor, and she cut her foot and I went up to her and said, “Twyla your foot,” and she said [loud, stern voice], “Go back to the dance!” It was just another world for me, being in the presence of that kind of energy and ambition and determination. Thank god she had the brilliance to carry this on. In seven years she made 35 pieces.
Wendy: When I met you, you had that same kind of determination in work, and that was a new world for me. The focus: just keep working working working.
Sara: That’s what we do. Things do shift as you get older. I would hear her coaching dancers, going back to Deuce Coupe, I would hear her saying things to them that she never said to us.
Wendy: Probably because you just did them intuitively.
Sara: And she also then thought about her work. Sometimes you make something and don’t know what you’re doing until you perform it, and finally you start understanding what was coming out, what that intuition was.
Wendy: I remember one thing she said, when I was in one of her “farm clubs,” which is when she had a bunch of people working, when we were doing almost like a tendu, and she said, “You must feel personally about every move.” I understood that because I already felt that and I loved hearing that from her. It’s a really simple statement but instead of saying “You must do it correctly,” she said, “You must feel personally about it.” I think that’s a key to how she brought personalities out.
Rudner in Tharp’s “Eight Jelly Rolls” (1971)
Sara: Twyla was extremely generous in the studio, fun and intense to work with, so you wanted to meet the challenges. And she did it herself; it wasn’t like she was sitting back. It was great because you didn’t have eyes on you so you could do what you had to do. You weren’t being scrutinized by a master. She is fun to work with. She’d say, “What can you do?” and she’d laugh and giggle. She takes what the dancers can do and pushes them to do more. I think that’s why people love working with her. After I took time off—for three years I went out and had a company and did all kinds of things—I went back, which was a real gift to me because I had an injury, a detached retina. At that time in the early 80s when you have a detached retina, they didn’t do laser surgeries yet. You were in bed on your back for weeks on end. I had a lot of time to think, to think about who I was: I was about 37. What do I want to do now? I’ve had a company, I’ve done this touring thing. Managers wanted me to do things I don’t want to do. They would never let me do big open pieces.
Wendy: They’re gonna force you to be on a stage!
Sara: Yeah, to be on a stage, with three pieces on a program, and this and that. So I went back. As a dancer I could appreciate all the work that went into creating the choreography, creating the touring schedule, the company structure. It was like, “Oh, you’re gonna do all that for me and I can dance?!?! Fabulous!” So I truly appreciate how hard it is to make those structures and make them work.
Wendy: What pieces was she making then?
Sara: Baker’s Dozen (1979). She made Catherine Wheel (1981) during that time; she made Sinatra Songs. She made Bad Smells.
Wendy: [to the class] If you see the video of The Catherine Wheel and the “Golden Section,” Sara is really the goddess in it. You just can’t imagine anyone moving more beautifully.
Sara: Well that whole section of the dance was about transcendence/heaven. Like In the Upper Room (1986), it was the aspirational, heavenly place as opposed to the hell that was the main body of that dance. Saint Catherine was martyred at the wheel, the human family was fighting with each other, the father fucking the cat; it was horrible stuff. She meant it to be hell, malicious. Then came “The Golden Section.” It was all early David Byrne, the Talking Heads. He made the score for this piece.
¶¶¶ Questions from the students were not recorded. ¶¶¶