March Madness — Dance Blooms in NYC

In the New York dance world, March came in like a lion and went out like a lion. The density of performances seems to have returned to pre-pandemic levels. Here is a quick round up of some of our local March Madness.

Hubbard Street Dance Chicago exploded onto the Joyce stage with two programs of rich repertory. In the first, Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Dichotomy of a Journey (2022) contained a gorgeous duet in which elbow-contact grew into a romantic adagio. The still in-process Nevermore, by Thang Dao, played with spooky imagery based on Edgar Allen Poe’s poem The Raven. For a rip-roaring finish, Rennie Harris’ new Dear Frankie revved up the dancers to full-blast house dancing in a tribute to Chicago’s influential DJ Frankie Knuckles. Alysia Johnson tore into this material while Cyrie Topeke nailed a jazzy solo and Aaron Choate strutted in fine flamboyant drag style.

Aaron Choate in Rennie Harris’ Dear Frankie, Ph Michelle Reid

At Danspace, Stacy Matthew Spence crafted a spare piece with live music by Charlotte Jacobs and Raf Vertessen. For I am, here; Here with us; Where we find ourselves, he brought a gently erupting, slightly jazz-inflected rhythm to his opening solo. When other dancers entered one at a time (Joanna Kotze, Tim Bendernagel, and Hsiao-jou Tang), it got more complex but avoided the usual liftings and partnerings. The connections were more subtle—just a whiff of a shared phrase or direction here and there.

Stacy Spence with Joanna Kotze, Ph Elyssa Goodman


The celebration of 150 years of the 92nd Street Y (newly branded 92NY), featured three companies—Graham, Limón and Ailey— that found a home at the Y in their early years. Each company paired an old chestnut with a new or in-progress work. The new work for the Limón company was Like Those Playground Kids at Midnight by Omar Román de Jesús, who also performed it with Ian Spring. Borrowing from contact improvisation, this duo created dramatic huggings and hurtlings, taking startling risks. Representing the Graham company’s forward look was an excerpt of We the People by Jamar Roberts, showing the dancers’ unadorned, ready strength—to songs of Rhiannon Giddens.
A highlight of the evening for me was watching the sublime Bahiyah Sayyed as a guest in Manifesting Legacy, which Hope Boykin made for Ailey II. Oh, the wisdom and sensuality of that dancing body!
And for a condensed education on modern dance, the accompanying exhibit, Dance to Belong: A History of Dance at 92NY, is on view in the Y’s Weill Art Gallery through October.

Bahiyah Sayyed, right, with Ailey II in Boykin’s Manifesting Legacy, Ph Richard Termine

Another anniversary—30 years of Buglisi Dance Theatre—brought Jacqulyn Buglisi’s lustrous Frida (1998) to the Chelsea Factory. Three former Graham stars—Terese Capucilli, Christine Daykin, and PeiJu Chien-Pott—reveled in the tortured soul of Frida Kahlo. Also on the program were the lively Caravaggio Meets Hopper (2007) and the earthy premiere, A Walk Through Fire.

Frida with Christine Dakin, PeiJu Chien-Pott, and Terese Capucilli, Ph Kristin Lodoen

Illinoise had fans of singer/songwriter Sufjan Stevens cheering at the Park Avenue Armory. Justin Peck’s direction and choreography gave it kinetic momentum. The young dancers, huddled around a campfire or dancing out their yearnings, had energy to burn. But the show took its time settling on a plot. I hope this problem gets solved by the time the production reaches Broadway on April 24.

Illinoise, Ph Liz Lauren

Shen Wei’s Dongpo: Life in Poems filled the Koch Theater with a visual splendor that was a both ancient and modern. Drawing on his background in Chinese opera and contemporary dance, choreographer/painter/poet Shen Wei created sumptuous, beguiling, dreamlike visions. More about it here.

Shen Wei’s Dongpo: Life of Poems

The musical Water for Elephants, with choreography by Jesse Robb & Shana Carroll, combined circus, aerial dance, and Broadway dance in captivating ways. Imagine the soul of an injured horse expressed in aerial silks! With this team of vivid characters occupying the Imperial Theatre, you could see why someone might want to run away with the circus.

Water for Elephants with Isabelle McCalla and Grant Gustin, Ph Matthew Murphy

Glacial Decoy (1979), the first work Trisha Brown choreographed for the proscenium stage, was quietly radiant at the Joyce. The contrast between Rauschenberg’s workaday photos (a lightbulb, a truck, a cow’s head) and the ethereal nightgowns billowing around the spring-y, lilting movement created a mesmerizing effect. If you missed it, find an excerpt on the Trisha Brown Company’s new Vimeo page. Also on the program were Working Title (1985, a stripped down version of Lateral Pass), and Noé Soulier’s premiere, In the Fall, an absorbing study in off-balance.

Glacial Decoy with Jennifer Payán and Cecily Campbell, Ph Maria Baranova

Existentialism, directed by Anne Bogart in collaboration with the wondrous actors Paul Zimet and Ellen Maddow, came to La MaMa. They showed how the sparest of movements can indicate affection, indifference, everyday drudgery, or a spark of curiosity. And when Zimet and Maddow, who are married in real life, find a moment to dance together, one cannot help but smile.

Ellen Maddow and Paul Zimet in Existentialism

Another show about an elderly couple—and their past— is the musical The Notebook. Noah and Allie’s long romance culminates in the poignant situation of her succumbing to dementia. The movement of Maryann Plunkett, who plays Older Allie, reveals her loss of control as much as the script. The halting, destabilized zig-zagging is painful to watch yet thrilling because Plunkett embodies Allie’s psychological plight so fully.

Marianne Plunket and Dorian Harewood in The Notebook, Ph Julieta Cervantes

For its Spring Dances program, Juilliard challenged its students with works by Kyle Abraham, Bobbie Jene Smith & Or Schreiber, and Shen Wei. Abraham’s Studies on a Farewell interlaced different ways of touching and caring with nicely open ballet lines. In Smith and Schreiber’s Fugue in Crimson, shape-shifting characters goaded each other with stylized aggression by way of brilliant choreographic imagination. Shen Wei’s Map (2005) traced the evolution of movements that paralleled the rhythmic changes of Steve Reich’s Desert Music—played live by the Juilliard orchestra—to a powerful cumulative effect.

Fugue in Crimson, with Polina Mankova & Reginald Turner, Ph Rachel Papo

Shen Wei’s Map, from left: Julie Ciesielska, John Chapell, and Kayla Mak, Ph Rachel Papo

At the Chocolate Factory, Ursula Eagly re-jiggered the space to transform it for Dream Body Body Building. With audience on one side of the wide space and performers on the opposite side. After a period of stillness on both sides, the performers picked up their chairs and infiltrated the audience. They started telling us their dreams—a few inches from our faces. An unexpected intimacy.

Ursula Eagly, with Madeline Best and Takemi Kitamura in her Dream Body Body Building, Ph Brian Rogers

Although the monumental Border Crossings exhibit at the NY Library for the Performing Arts closed in mid-March, the catalog, with many essays (including mine on Syvilla Fort/Merce Cunningham/John Cage at the Cornish School in the 1930s), is now available at here.

An ominous ambience descended on the Baryshnikov Art Center for 4/2/3, choreographed by the amazing duo Baye & Asa. A program note said they “grapple with our collective search for blame.” Inspired by the riddle, “What has 4 legs in the morning, 2 legs in the afternoon, and 3 legs in the evening,” it’s divided into three acts. First, three children (mostly innocent with a few aggressive shoves here and there); second, five adult dancers (mostly sinister, with occasional moments of caring here and there); and third, a solo for an older woman. In this last, Janet Charleston glowed with wisdom and vigor and…a certain aura. She was a sorceress.

Janet Charleston in 4/2/3, Ph Maria Baranova

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Notes on Shen Wei’s Latest Vision

The lavish, dreamlike vision of Shen Wei graced the David Koch Theater last weekend. Co-produced by the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG) and American Dance Festival, Dongpo: Life in Poems melds Shen Wei’s swirling choreography, spectacularly multileveled sets, and otherworldly costumes into a magical experience.

All photos courtesy of CAEG

The show loosely depicts the journey of Song Dynasty poet Dongpo (1037–1101) in six acts. It’s a lifelong journey, filled with wonder and sorrow—but no wars, no famine. This was a journey of peace, of honoring nature, and of self-reflection. Like Dongpo, Shen Wei is an artist of multiple roles: choreographer, painter, playwright, director, and poet. Throughout the many changes of mood and scene, Shen Wei has sustained a visual experience of exquisite beauty.

I offer here, not a review, but notes on some of the elements that contributed to the aesthetic wonder.

The journey: It began with a sole figure, perched high up behind a scrim of a sketch of bamboo. Facing to the right, he walks slowly, setting out on a journey. We see a map that is crisscrossed many times, presumably to the places Dongpo traveled to. After many dreamlike adventures, it ends the same way, with the man having moved only a little further toward his destination.

Telling the story: Lead dancer Su Peng appears in a circle of light, also high up. With his skin painted white, he seems to absorb light as his arms and spine move in circular pathways…a lunar being calling out his story. With mesmerizing fluidity, Su Peng is telling the story and being the story at the same time.

The illusions: The dancers are sometimes lifted into the stratosphere of the stage space. At one point, nine men in three rows stage left and nine women in a circle stage right appear as glowing blue paintings floating in the air. Even when they start moving, it seems like they may be films and not people. But they are indeed alive, which is only discernible when the men step ultra-slowly across the space to infiltrate the women’s circle. This kind of illusion is, of course, accomplished by the lighting designer, Xiao Lihe, who has studied with Jennifer Tipton!


The music: The performance alternated between a recording of Western-sounding orchestral music composed by Chen Qigang, and a live Guqin player, Zhao Xiaoxia. The traditional Guqin is a seven-stringed plucked instrument that sounds a bit like a dulcimer. In one scene, an operatic voice lets loose, veering toward a Meredith Monk–style looping and ricocheting.

The 23 dancers: Members of China Oriental Performing Arts group and Meishan Song and Dance Theatre, the dancers all have a formality that enabled them to guide us on this ceremonial journey. They executed Shen Wei’s choreography of whipping circles and extended lines with great flourish while keeping a sense of being close to nature. Su Peng commanded the stage with every gesture. I learned later that these dancers have never done contemporary dance before!

The costumes. Some of the costumes had a magnificent sculptural quality. In Act IV, a series of moving sculptures trudge onto the stage…large indecipherable statues in pale pastels. Each sculpture turned out to be two entwined people wearing voluminous skirts. This was a slow march of otherworldly figures.

Another aspect of the costumes: In Act I, the men and women wore the same red unitards, and later they wore the same blue tunics over burgundy leotard and tights. Considering the highly gendered presentation of most Chinese Classical Dance—and most ballet and modern dance too—this decision was refreshing.

The humor. To break with the ceremonial quality, a series of wheeled devices crossed from stage right to stage left: first a kind of rickshaw, then a bicycle, then a scooter, and finally a skateboard. Later, one person whizzed down a skateboard ramp. A little history of wheels in two minutes!

The tangled cloud: In a clever animation, a hand quickly drew brush-strokes, first in one color ink, then another. What looked at first like Chinese letters turned into a cluster of tightly intersecting curved lines. In the next scene, this little tangle became a cloud overhead that slowly passed from stage right to stage left before disappearing.

The poetry. Shen Wei chose a few fragments of Dongpo’s thousands of poems to appear on the scrim. They seemed to be mostly about time passing and an affinity with nature. I caught these lines:
• “A new fire to brew fresh tea will set our minds at peace.”
• “Even if we met you might not know me so frayed; my face is covered with dust; my hair is grayed.”
• “May all of us far apart be blessed with longevity, So that we can forever share the moon’s beauty.”

Looking ahead: With the magnificent Dongpo: Life in Poems still in my mind’s eye, I look forward to re-seeing Shen Wei’s signature piece Map (2006), as part of Spring Dances at Juilliard. Very different from Dongpo, Map has casual costumes and all the dancing on one level. But the intricate phrases and patterns accumulate a certain force over forty-five minutes. For a special pleasure, the Juilliard orchestra will play the accompaniment, Steve Reich’s Desert Music, live.






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Steve Paxton (1939–2024): A Lifetime of Burning Questions

Ph Monika Rittershaus

A mesmerizing dancer and an intellectual force in the field, Steve Paxton asked the most basic questions—about movement, performance, and hierarchies of all kinds. His curiosity led him to become a leading figure in three historic collaborative entities: Judson Dance Theater, Grand Union, and Contact Improvisation. For almost six decades, Paxton performed and taught around the world, earning the Golden Lion for lifetime achievement at the Venice Biennial in 2014. Since his death at Mad Brook Farm in Vermont on February 20, at the age of 85, expressions of intense gratitude have appeared across social media.


Paxton grew up in Tucson, Arizona, where he excelled in gymnastics. He also took Graham-based dance classes in community centers. To hear it from his childhood friend, the critic and educator Sally Sommer, “We partied all the time because we hung out at a friend’s ranch house, played records, and danced. We also danced at night on the tarmac of empty roads—turned on the headlights and cranked up the radio.” In school his two favorite subjects were English (hence, the eloquence of his writings) and microbiology (the curiosity of body mechanics). He attended the nearby University of Arizona, where his father was a campus policeman. He didn’t like the teachers, so he withdrew from college life.

He did like dancing. He accepted a scholarship to the American Dance Festival at Connecticut College the summer of 1958. Although the José Limón Company had provided the financial aid, it was his encounter with Merce Cunningham’s work that intrigued him. He recalled how the Cunningham company, during its first residency at this stronghold of established modern dance, caused “consternation” with his chance procedures.

Aeon, by Merce Cunningham,1961, From left: Steve Paxton, Carolyn Brown, Judith Dunn, Marilyn Wood, Viola Farber, and Shareen Blair (on floor). Studio photo Rauschenberg.

That fall, Paxton came to New York, where he continued studying with Limón. He soon added Cunningham classes, where, as a scholarship student, he helped clean the studio. Limón’s company was in residence at Juilliard, and when the school needed more men for the restaging of Doris Humphrey’s Passacaglia, Paxton was asked to step in. (Aside: Pina Bausch, who was a student at Juilliard that year, danced the lead female role.) He later said, “I regarded myself as a barbarian entering the hallowed halls of culture when I came to New York.”

When Robert Dunn offered a workshop in dance composition at the Cunningham studio in 1960, Paxton, along with Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, was one of the first five to sign up. A protégé of John Cage, Dunn taught in a Zen manner, providing the space for experimentation without judgment. As Paxton has said, “The premise of the Bob Dunn class was to provoke untried forms, or forms that were new to us.”

Flat (1964) reprised in 1982 for Bennington College Judson Project, ph Tom Brazil

Stylistically, Dunn stressed the value of the ordinary rather than laboring to make a dance study “interesting.” From that evolved many of Paxton’s walking dances. Why walking? Of course it fits Dunn’s request for the “ordinary.” But also, as Paxton explained in this interview, at Walker Art Center, “How we walk is one of our primary movement patterns and a lot of dance relates to this pattern.”

Fellow student Simone Forti, who had studied with Anna Halprin, produced a historic evening of “dance constructions” at Yoko Ono’s loft on Chambers Street in 1961. Paxton performed in her works Huddle, Slant Board, and Herding. Forti had no interest in technique, preferring to meld the movement function to objects. As Paxton told me in a 2015 email, he found the effort to divest from his technical training “self-shaking, paradoxical, and enlarging.”

Also in 1961, Paxton joined the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. Though bewildered at first, he loved the company and responded to the beauty and humor in the work. He felt drawn toward the Buddhist bent of John Cage and “felt at home” when listening to Cunningham, Cage, and visual collaborators Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns.

When the students in Dunn’s class wanted to show their work, they auditioned for the 92nd Street YMHA, the bastion of modern dance. Paxton, along with Rainer and Gordon, were rejected. (Aside: Lucinda Childs, however, was accepted and did perform at the Y in 1963.) So they went to Judson Memorial Church, which already housed the Judson Poets Theater and Art Gallery. Dunn’s students—who by then included Trisha Brown, Rudy Perez, Deborah Hay, Elaine Summers, and many more— collectively produced a series of sixteen numbered concerts, not all of them at the Church, from 1962 to 1964.

Trisha Brown’s Lightfall at Judson Church, Ph Al Giese

One of the early works at Judson was Trisha Brown’s Lightfall, in which Trisha and Steve perched on each others’ back until the standing person moved and the perching person slithered off. Robert Rauschenberg, who had started coming to Dunn’s classes, said, ”In Lightfall the two were just bouncing all over and under each other. The choreography seemed to be based on how much risk they could take.”

For an assignment to make a one-minute dance, Steve sat on a bench and ate a sandwich.

Paxton’s burning question at the time was Why not? About Judson Dance Theater, he said, “The work that I did there was first of all to flush out my ‘why-nots’…‘Why not?’ was a catchword at that time. It was a very permissive time.”

Yvonne Rainer wrote about his work at Judson in her memoir, Feelings Are Facts:

Steve’s was the most severe and rigorous of all the work that appeared in and around Judson during the 1960s…Eschewing music, spectacle, and his own innate kinetic gifts and acquired virtuosity, he embraced extended duration and so-called pedestrian movement while maintaining a seemingly obdurate disregard for audience expectation.”

One of the landmark pieces that came out of that aesthetic, which celebrated the untrained human body, was Paxton’s Satisfyin Lover (1968). In it, a large group of dancers simply walked, stood still, or sat on a chair. Jill Johnston wrote this now famous passage in the Village Voice:

And here they all were . . . thirty-two any old wonderful people in Satisfying Lover walking one after the other across the gymnasium in their any old clothes. The fat, the skinny, the medium, the slouched and slumped, the straight and tall, the bowlegged and knock-kneed, the awkward, the elegant, the coarse, the delicate, the pregnant, the virginal, the you name it, by implication every postural possibility in the postural spectrum, that’s you and me in all our ordinary everyday who cares postural splendor. . . .  Let us now praise famous ordinary people.

Paxton & Rauschenberg in their in Jag Vil Gärna Telefonera (1964)

Robert Rauschenberg, Cunningham’s lighting designer and frequent visual collaborator, visited Dunn’s class and started making his own performances. Paxton was often involved in Rauschenberg’s pieces, and the two were a pair at the time. In the fall of 1964, they collaborated on one duet, Jag vill gärna telefonera  (I Would Like to Make a Phone Call). This duet, based on photos of athletes, was reprised by the Bennington College Judson Project in 1982, and by the Stephen Petronio Company in 2018.

Judson Dance Theater marks a historical moment when (portions of) modern dance morphed into postmodern. At the time, Paxton thought of Judson as a place where you could just do stuff and not worry about big entertainment in big theaters. Rather than thinking they were doing something revolutionary, as Rainer felt, Paxton located himself in the lineage of modern dance tradition. In a recent Pillow Voices podcast about Grand Union, he says that modern dance—Graham, Limon, Cunningham, Humphrey, Dunham—gave permission to create new forms “from the ground up.”

Linoleum, a performance piece by Rauschenberg, with Paxton prone, 1966, ph Steve Schapiro

For an engagement at the L. A. County Museum in 1966, Trisha Brown convinced Paxton to improvise with her. He was amazed that her loose structure elicited an immediate response from the audience; he realized the “personal element reaching through the form” was the key to the audience response—and he got hooked on improvisation.

How can objects be transformative? In his surreal solo Bound (1982), Paxton wore a strange object around his neck that turned out to be a travel pillow. In some kind of endurance test, he walked slowly into a bright light, his eyes watering. For years he was fascinated by inflatable plastic sheets. In Music for Word Words (1963) at Judson Church, with the help of Rainer operating an industrial vacuum cleaner, he inflated a room-sized plastic bubble around himself, then deflated it and walked away. After several other experiments, his obsession reached its endpoint with Physical Things, the piece he made for “9 Evenings of Theatre and Engineering.” For that 1966 series in the massive 69th Regiment Armory, he created a huge inflatable tower that audience people walked through, realizing only later how toxic the plastic was.

Paxton in his Music for Word Word, 1963, Judson Church, ph Robert McElroy

Paxton’s Physical Things, 9 Evenings of Theatre & Engineering, 69th Regiment Armory, 1966, ph Peter Moore

Another question was about censorship: What, really, is obscenity? For a performance at NYU in 1970, he proposed a version of Satisfyin Lover in which 42 red-headed people would be nude. The university administration nixed it on the grounds of obscenity, so he replaced it with Intravenous Lecture, in which a medical assistant injects him while he keeps talking. This piece was reprised by Stephen Petronio in 2012 with instructions from Paxton to “make it his own.”

Stephen Petronio in Paxton’s Intravenous Lecture 1970), 2012, ph Julie Lemberger

In 1971, Paxton worked with Vietnam Veterans Against the War, who had made a documentary with testimonies of the atrocities that American soldiers committed against Vietnamese civilians. In Collaboration with Winter Soldier, he had two performers watching this anti-war documentary while hanging upside down.

In 1972, he proposed Beautiful Lecture, which juxtaposed a porn film with a film of the Bolshoi’s Swan Lake (the famous Ulanova version), to the New School for Social Research. Pressured by the authorities to omit the porn film, he replaced it with a documentary about people starving in Biafra.


Paxton’s dancing—with his loose limbs, swerving spine, and charismatic aura—was magnificent to behold. In Terpsichore in Sneakers, Banes described him as projecting “a continuing sense of the body’s potential to invent and discover, to recover equilibrium after losing control, to regain vigor despite pain and disorder.”

Steve Paxton while in with Grand Union, Walker Art Center Auditorium, 1975, ph Boyd Hagen

At the end of the Sixties, Paxton was working with Rainer on her piece Continuous Project—Altered Daily, which changed with every performance. Rainer had given the dancers—Paxton, David Gordon, Douglas Dunn, Barbara Dilley and Becky Arnold—so much freedom that the choreography eventually blew open, obliterating previous plans. After a period of uncertainty, the group then morphed into the Grand Union, an improvisation collective with no leader. It was then augmented by Trisha Brown, Nancy Lewis and Lincoln Scott. Some of Paxton’s questions at that time were “how to make artistic decisions, how not to depend on anyone unless it is mutually agreed; what mutuality agreed means, and how to detect it.”

Paxton witj, from left: David Gordon, Yvonne Rainer, Becky Arnold, Carol Dilley, ph James Klosty

In the June 2004 issue of Dance Magazine, Paxton said, “Grand Union was a luxurious improvisational laboratory. All of us were very formally oriented, even though we were doing formless work.”  He called the group anarchistic, which meant to him that they could do its work without a leader. He had witnessed a “dictatorial” situation and a fixed hierarchy in dance companies. For him, Grand Union “bypasses the grand game of choreography and company [where] ego-play is the issue.”

Grand Union residency at Walker Art Center, 1975. Steve jumping over David Gordon. At left: Douglas Dunn, Trisha Brown (almost hidden), Nancy Lewis and Barbara Dilley (head hidden), Tnx WAC Archives

Grand Union at Walker Art Center, 1975. From left: Barbara Dilley, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Douglas Dunn, Steve Paxton. Tnx to WAC Archives

When Grand Union was engaged for a residency at Oberlin College in 1972, Steve taught a daily class at dawn that included “the small dance.” Nancy Stark Smith, a student, took the class and loved it: “It was basically standing still and releasing tension and turning your attention to notice the small reflexive activity that the body makes to keep itself balanced and not fall over. So you’re standing and relaxing and noticing what your body’s doing. You’re not doing it but you’re noticing what it’s doing.” This concept of noticing interior movement became foundational for Contact Improvisation.

Barbara Dilley & Steve, Grand Union, Lo Guidice Gallery, 1972, ph Gordon Mumma

Trisha Brown supporting Steve, Grand Union, 1972, ph Gordon Mumma


He also taught an afternoon class in tumbling just for men. The question was: How can tumbling be taught in a non-aggressive way, with soft landings? The class produced a group piece called Magnesium that was, as Paxton said, a “prototype for Contact Improvisation.” After the performance, as he recounted, “Nancy told me that if it was ever performed again, she would like to be in it. I was startled. It had not occurred to me that such a rough-and-tumble dance would be of interest to a woman.”

Although Paxton is called the “inventor” of CI, he has pointed to the mutuality of the form. It’s “governed by the participants rather than by a leader, similar to the structure of Grand Union.”

Paxton & Nancy Stark Smith in a CI performance, 1980

Contact Improvisation caught on for thousands of people who wanted to move—and move with other people—but who did not want to train to be concert dancers. Paxton and Smith co-founded Contact Quarterly, which presented an alternate vision of dance with its own strong aesthetic.

Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton in their collaboration, PA RT, 1978, Ph Tom Brazil

He participated in Contact Improvisation, often with Nancy Stark Smith, for ten years. Then he started developing his solo works, including his improvisations to Bach’s Goldberg Variations from 1986 to early 90s. He then developed “Material for the spine,” which he described as “what the spine is doing in that tumbling sphere with another person—a kind of yogic form, a technique that focuses on the pelvis, the spine, the shoulder blades, the rotation of the head.” He has collaborated with Lisa Nelson, fellow improviser extraordinaire and his life partner, on two entrancingly improvised duets: PA RT (1978), and Night Stand (2004). Paxton has given workshops all over the U.S. and Europe, returning to some venues again and again, especially England, Netherlands, Austria, Germany, Italy, Spain, and Portugal.

Night Stand, ph Paula Court

When Paxton was honored by the Danspace Project in 2014, his Judson co-conspirator, Yvonne Rainer, gave a tribute. Here is an excerpt:

I won’t go into all the beautifully perverse and clarifying dances that Steve has created… over the years, like his performance of Flat from 1964, which I’ve heard drove members of a 2002 Parisian audience out of the theater as Steve took his own sweet time transforming himself into a clothes rack…and Proxy of 1961, which began with his promenading of Jennifer Tipton en passé on ball bearings in a washtub; and Steve’s glorious improvisations to Glenn Gould. Always we are riveted by his imposing presence and a solemnity that can morph unexpectedly into a wry comedic effect.

Paxton & Brown, Bennington College Judson Project, 1980, ph Tyler Resch

Trisha and Steve, ph Joanne Savio, Courtesy TBDC

In 1992, his burning question was What does an idea feel like? He brought this question to a panel at Movement Research at Judson Church. His Judson-era peers —Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, Simone Forti, and Carolee Schneemann— seemed stumped by this question. No one answered him straight on, so he asked again: “Does an idea have a feeling for you? If you use a stove as a score, where’s the idea?”


The Beast ph Julieta Cervantes

His solo The Beast (2010), in which he seemed possessed, elicited intense reactions. When he performed it at Baryshnikov Art Center, dancer/writer Lisa Kraus wrote that he “presents his own body as a locus for inquiry… His investigation has become increasingly detailed, exquisite…he is pure facet, pure torque, pure stacked bones and stretched sinew.” Amy Taubin described it in ArtForum: “If a crustacean could trace its consciousness in its carapace, it might move as Paxton did in this darkly beautiful piece, an intimate examination of the living skeleton and an evocation of what remains in the grave.” One reviewer, however, claimed that the dance was “about” old age. In this interview at Dia:Beacon, Paxton rails against the word “about,” saying “it should be stricken from the vocabulary.”

While Paxton wasn’t a warm and cuddly teacher, he was thrillingly articulate. He never faked enthusiasm. He was trusted completely by his  colleagues from the Sixties—Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer, Simone Forti, and Cunningham dancer Carolyn Brown—in a way that I would call pure love.

Well after he had drifted away from CI, he extolled the efforts of Karen Nelson and others who brought CI to people with impairments. With democracy always in mind, he said, “that’s probably my favorite innovation in Contact Improvisation.”

Tea for Three at Danspace, 2017, From left: Rainer, Forti, Paxton, ph Ian Douglas

Reflecting on his role in the flow of dance history, Paxton said, while interviewed by Philip Bither at Walker Art Center, that he was both a “mutant” and an “evolver” (his terms), meaning he was both a maverick for change and a stabilizing force.

Paxton always opted for the organic, close-to-nature option. Toward the end of his life, he spent much time in his garden in Vermont. In a talk at the Judson Dance Theater exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art in 2018, when asked about his life at that time, he said, “Every atom in the landscape in front of me that I look at every day is changing…I feel like it’s a living soup and I’m…kind of dissolving into its space.” He has now completed his dissolution.



Books and journals:

• Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-Modern Dance
By Sally Banes
Wesleyan University Press, 1977, 1987

• The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970–1976
By Wendy Perron
Wesleyan University Press, 2020

Sharing the Dance: Contact Improvisation and American Culture
By Cynthia Novack
University of Wisconsin Press, 1990

• Taken by Surprise: A Dance Improvisation Reader
Editors: Ann Cooper Albright & David Gere
Contact Editions

• Caught Falling: The Confluence of Contact Improvisation, Nancy Stark Smith, and Other Moving Ideas
by David Koteen and Nancy Stark Smith
with a Backwords by Steve Paxton
Contact Editions, CE Books in Print

“Trance Script,” Contact Quarterly, Winter 1989 Vol. 14 No. 1, Judson Project Interview with Steve Paxton, Sept. 12, 1980.

• Avalanche, 11, 1975

Democracy’s Body 
by Sally Banes
Duke University Press, 1993

• Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue, exh. catalog, 2002

Online resources

Contact Quarterly — for many videos and articles

Steve Paxton Talking Dance, Walker Art Center, 2014.  Paxton gives a full account of his professional life with video clips spliced in, and allows questions to lead him into deep discussion.

Steve Paxton and the Walker: A 50-Year History

Steve Paxton and Simone Forti in Conversation, REDCAT, 2016, A charming performance/encounter between two old friends who are also dance icons.

Paxton Interview with Dia:Beacon, 2014

“How Grand Union Found a Home Outside SoHo at the Walker”




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Duets in Greyscale

I’m kicking off a new collection of duets in greyscale. For most of these images, I haven’t seen the dance they represent, I’ve just fallen in love with the photo—its composition, its tone, its hint of a relationship. Some of these will look familiar to you, others are more obscure. If you want to know more about a particular photo—or have something to add—please leave a comment below.

Katherine Dunham and Roger Ohardieno
in Dunham’s Barrelhouse, 1938

Viola Farber and Merce Cunningham in his Crises, 1963, Ph John Wulp

Baryshnikov and Makarova rehearsing Other Dances by Jerome Robbins, 1976, Ph Martha Swope, Billy Rose Theatre Collection

Bill Robinson and Jeni LeGon, publicity shot for Hooray for Love, 1935

Marcia Lerner and Art Bauman in Burlesque Black and White by Bauman, c.1968, Dance Theater Workshop

Louis Falco & Sarah Stackhouse in Exiles by Limón, ph Jack Mitchell, Dance Magazine cover, Aug. 1966

Tanaquil LeClercq, and Balanchine, Metamorphoses by Balanchine, 1952, Kino Lorber

Lisa Nelson and Steve Paxton in their collaboration, PA RT, 1978, Ph Tom Brazil


Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams, Agon by Balanchine, 1957, Ph Martha Swope, Billy Rose Theatre Collection


Robert Morris and Yvonne Rainer in Rainer’s A Part of a Sextet, 1964 , Ph Peter Moore

Martha Graham & Merce Cnningham in Graham’s Deaths & Entrances, 1943, Ph Barbara Morgan


Ande Peck & Wendy Perron in Jack Moore’s Rocks, c. 1971, Ph Eric Reiner





Alvin Ailey & Judith Jamison, 1975, Ph Jack Mitchell



Rose Marie Wright and Sara Rudner in Raggedy Dances by Twyla Tharp, 1971, Ph William Pierce


Rudy Perez and Elaine Summers in his Take Your Alligator With You, 1963, Judson Memorial Church, Ph Al Giese

Betty Jones & José Limón in The Apostate by Limón, 1959, Ph Matt Wysocki


Carmen de Lavallade and Geoffrey Holder, c. 1958, Ph Peter Basch.















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Dance Math: George Balanchine and Trisha Brown

Happy New Year. I like the number 2024. It almost looks like 2+2=4. Common sense. Hopefully there will be more of that, all around, this year than last year.

In dance, numbers matter. I’m thinking of two choreographers whose brilliant use of numbers are very different: George Balanchine and Trisha Brown. What prompted me to notice this was two recent events: The latest issue of Dance Index, and the creation of Trisha Brown Company’s Vimeo page. In the first, Jed Perl mentions Balanchine’s use of numbers as an inspiration for some of Arlene Croce’s writings featured in that issue. The second has posted several pieces and excerpts of excerpts that illuminate Trisha Brown’s math.

For both choreographers, the math helps the audience make sense of the work, and it helps the dancers stay connected to the other people onstage.

Boston Ballet in Stravinsky Violin Concerto, ph Liza Voll

In Balanchine’s Stravinsky Violin Concerto (1972) each of the 4 soloists introduces themselves with an entourage of 4 dancers. Each star has their own constellation—or backup group. Four tight groups of 4, and one spread-out group of 4 (the leads). The 4 leads break into 2 and 2, one exquisitely modernist duet after the other. The corps of 16 (8 women and 8 men) breaks into 4 groups of 4, or 8 couples. They never all do the same steps until right near the end, and then, suddenly, for the very last position, they all break into couples—just to remind you that you’ve been watching 10 x 2 = 20 people.

Kansas City Ballet in Stravinsky Violin Concerto ph Steve Wilson

In La Valse (1951), naturally the unit changes to 3. (After all, it’s a waltz.) It starts with 3 women in elegant Karinska gowns. Later a man partners 3 women at once (shades of Apollo). The corps of 24 is sometimes divided into trios, and of course the timing is in 3/4. And the woman in white is caught in a triangle between her lover and the death figure.

New York City Ballet in La Valse, costumes by Karinska

Balanchine famously said, If you don’t like the dancing, you can close your eyes and listen to the music. Well I say, If you don’t like the dancing, you can keep your eyes open and count the math.

For Trisha Brown, the Accumulation series is not only about numbers, but also about how we learn. We go back to the beginning each time and add something new. Trisha made her first Accumulation in 1971. She stands in silence and begins her 1st move, extending her right thumb outward, just like a hitch-hiking gesture. After a while, she adds the 2nd move, which is both thumbs extending outward. With the thumbs constantly going, she intersperses a dropped arm, a sinking hip, a head turn. Since she repeats each addition a few times, whenever the new move comes, you notice it. (Click on Accumulation on the Vimeo page.)

Group Primary Accumulation (1973) photo Nina Vandenberg, 2008

Brown’s Group Primary Accumulation (not yet posted on the Vimeo page) is a more explicit counting dance, structured like “The 12 Days of Christmas.” In it, 4 women gradually accumulate 30 moves while lying down, not even seeing each other until movement # 13. In order to stay together, they have to feel the group rhythm as they are counting. Their concentration is intense, which makes the audience concentrate too. When we are counting along with the dancers, we’re involved in a physical memory game.

Tamara Riewe, Melinda Myers, and Judith Sanchez Ruiz, in a screen grab of Glacial Decoy, set design and costumes by Rauschenberg

In Glacial Decoy (1979), 2 women perform together for a while. Then a 3rd enters from the side, joining them in near unison, then a 4th, creating the illusion that there are even more dancers extending laterally, beyond the wings. It’s hard to count the dancers because they keep drifting in and out. Meanwhile there are definitely 4 frames of Robert Rauschenberg’s photographic images upstage that keep changing. Whereas the number of dancers is destabilized, the number of frames, even as the images shift to the next frame, is stable. (Click on an excerpt of Decoy on the Vimeo page.)

Watching these math-rich ballets, you can meditate on the numbers. I feel that our arithmetic brain is stimulated simultaneously with the art brain. They require a multi-layered alertness from us.

Both Balanchine and Brown have made many ballets rich in math. I invite you to enter your own favorite numbers dances, from either of them or any other choreographer, in the Comments below.

Group Primary Accumulation (1972) ph Babette Mangolte, design from Columbia conference on dance history titled Accumulation


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Dancing on the Day JFK Was Assassinated

I wrote this ten years ago, on the 50th anniversary of the assassination of John Fitzgerald Kennedy. Now, for the 60th year, I am updating it.

Like a lot of people today, I am thinking about the anniversary of the Kennedy assassination. For me, that fateful day ended up affirming my commitment to dance.

Me at 17, during the time I was in the Advanced Teenage Class at the Graham School, Photo by Jerry Bauer

While in high school, I was taking the Advanced Teenage Class every Friday at the Martha Graham Center for Contemporary Dance. I lived in Ridgewood, New Jersey, so, right after school I would hop on the bus to Port Authority, get on the subway, and arrive at the Graham studio on East 63rd Street in time for the 4:30 class.

That Friday, earlier in the day, our whole high school heard, over the P.A. system, that Kennedy had been shot. And a few minutes later, another announcement: He was dead. I don’t remember the immediate reaction in the classroom, but when I went into the girls’ room, everyone in there was crying. We really let it out. Ridgewood was a heavily Republican town, but plenty of us admired Kennedy.

Whatever was happening in the world, it was a Friday and that was my day to take class at the Graham school. (My after-school schedule included Mondays and Tuesdays at the Joffrey school, and Wednesdays and Thursdays at Irine Fokine School of Ballet right there in Ridgewood.) I wondered if our class would actually happen, considering the national pandemonium. But I didn’t know what else to do with myself, so I took the bus as usual. When I got to the studio, there were only about six of us there. Would David Wood, our teacher, show up? When David entered the studio, we stood up—as was the custom at the school—then sat down on the floor to begin. In his strong, deep, kind voice, David said, “I know this is difficult, that a great tragedy has occurred. But we are dancers, and what we do is dance.” And with that, we began the bounces on the count of One.

David Wood and Martha Graham in Acrobats of God (1960) photo Martha Swope, Billy Rose Theatre Division, The New York Public Library.






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Notable Dance Books of 2023

This year I decided to post this column early enough to anticipate Thanksgiving—a fitting way to remind us to be thankful for dance and dance books. Starting with last year’s list, I’ve invited several other writers to contribute, and they’ve brought some recommendations too. After our twelve chosen books, you’ll find an additional list of nine that have been announced. I am sure they will make as good gifts (for others or for yourself) as the ones we are calling notable. Feel free to make a comment about our faves or add your own.


The Boy from Kyiv: Alexei Ratmansky’s Life in Ballet
By Marina Harss
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Reviewed by Mindy Aloff

What a wonderful book: A biography and an autobiography at once. It provides a wide window on the thinking process of a great dancemaker. It braids the story of the choreographer’s life with vivid accounts of his dances in prose that practically turns the pages by itself. And, swiftly and efficiently, it positions the subject’s Soviet training and Bolshoi experiences in the context of ballet in Europe and the U.S. during the late twentieth century. One sees the theatrical foundation for Ratmansky’s aesthetics from childhood and then, as he matures, his reach and aesthetic risk-taking that help his artistry to flourish.

“A phrase choreographed by Ratmansky contains more ideas than entire ballets by other choreographers,” author Marina Harss writes. “Multiple stories unfold at once. . . .This profusion of ideas is just as evident in the way Ratmansky modulates the steps. He is a product of many traditions; he melds them into one, shaping them through the filter of his imagination.”

Paragraph by paragraph, The Boy from Kyiv provides evidence for those sweeping statements. (Disclosure: Engaged by Harss as a reader of an earlier draft, I had the privilege of seeing how attentive she was to the drive of her storytelling.) She reveals nuances of Ratmansky’s character, showing him in awkward jams as well as in streamlined triumphs; she delineates some of the steep learning curves he had yet to master on becoming director of the Bolshoi Ballet. One concerns his efforts to explain to the dancers how to “be themselves” without smiling broadly when performing George Balanchine’s work; another concerns the Machiavellian power games that Ratmansky was forced to play with such old hands as the retired Soviet choreographer Yuri Grigorovich.

Harss deeply responds to Ratmansky’s aesthetic sensibility and she clearly cares about him and his family. The trust they share has resulted in a magical balance in the writing between her streaming chronicle of his life and her accounts of the ballets. She has elected to complete this book while Ratmansky, now 55, is in his prime. (Her meticulous chronology of works at the back, including the many ballets he has made for American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet, is complete through the choreographer’s impassioned yet deliberately disunified Wartime Elegy, given its 2022 premiere by Pacific Northwest Ballet.) His art is still opening more doors than it is closing. At this point, he has the satisfaction of having explored his intense curiosity about Soviet ballets of the 1930s, the music of Shostakovich, and the original productions of many of Marius Petipa’s masterpieces. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine—the country where Ratmansky’s and his wife’s families reside—has prompted him to redefine elements of his identity. The events of history have forced him to remain young in the sense of ready to move at the drop of a hat in unplanned directions. As Harss writes, where that road will lead him, not even he knows.


The Wind at My Back: Resilience, Grace, and Other Gifts from My Mentor, Raven Wilkinson
By Misty Copeland with Susan Fales-Hill
Hachette Book Group
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This is an inspiring story of a relationship between a younger and older ballerina. In 2010, when watching a DVD documentary, Misty discovered the first African American ballerina to dance with a major ballet company. With awe and gratitude, she learned that Raven Wilkinson had been a lyrical Black ballerina with the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in the 1950s. Together with her agent, Gilda Squires, they tracked her down, finding that she lived only blocks away from Copeland’s home. Squires arranged for a public conversation at the Studio Museum in Harlem, the first of many conversations over the next seven years.

Misty was moved by the grace with which Raven encountered racism while touring the South, where the Ku Klux Klan was still on the rampage. “Raven understood…how racism traps everyone in a no-win situation, bringing out the worst in all of us. Her response was always to rise to her best self. She was the embodiment of ‘Be the change you want to see in the world.’” In appreciation of Raven, Misty articulates the difference between then and now: “She belonged to a generation that led with proof of excellence first and identity second.”

In her gentle yet firm way, Wilkinson challenged Copeland to take her talents further. One of the most moving moments is when Wilkinson said to her, “Every time you step on that stage, I’ll be the wind at your back.” The book details the months and years when Raven fulfilled that promise. She encouraged, listened, soothed, pushed, explained, reminisced, and shared moments of laughter. More than all that, she demonstrated how to be, how to exist with dignity in this racist world. What comes across is how vulnerable Misty felt, how much she needed the example of Raven. She puts Raven’s lessons into these words: “Soar above the hate. Lose yourself in the music and the steps, which will live on long after bigotry has died. Defeat hatred with beauty.”


Capoeria Connections: A Memoir in Motion
By Katya Wesolowski
University of Florida Press
Reviewed by Lori Brungard

The circle is a powerful symbol in African diasporic culture. Given Capoeria’s roots in Africa, it makes sense that circularity plays a key role in Katya Wesolowski’s Capoeria Connections: A Memoir in Motion. The primary vehicle for capoeria play is the circular formation of the roda. Circularity is lived as reciprocity. Various forms of give and take happen within the roda: the call and response between musicians and dancers, the capoeristas’ alternating attack and defense moves, and the African resonance that imbues the ever modernizing movement. Wesolowski invites the reader into the roda:

“The game has begun: with bodies close and low we trace arcs and circles above and around each other. . . I manage to catch myself on my arms and rise from the floor with a straight kick from the ground and then propel myself into a handstand. [My partner-opponent] enters with a scissor movement on the floor, and I touch my knees to my chest and slide under her legs on the floor careful to avoid an attack.”

The improvised interaction between two sparring capoeristas is almost like a moving yin yang symbol, as each one reacts to the other’s move by filling in the negative space (interestingly, a defensive move in capoeira is called a negativa). This complementarity is expressed in a larger sense by Capoeria’s repurposing of traditional African movement as resistance, in its original form as self-defense by enslaved Africans. But it did not rest there.

While Wesolowski does investigate Capoeira’s roots, she focuses more on the evolution of the form as it shifted from “its reputation as a marginal, violent, and delinquent activity” to folkloric staging and community building. In its representation of Brazilian pride with an international following, capoeira became a means of escaping poverty for its mestres (masters). She traces this trajectory through a similarly circular structure of chapters that starts in her hometown of Berkeley, CA, moves to Brazil, Africa, Europe, and circles back again to Africa, finally to return to the U.S. to her current home of Durham, NC. In the process, she interrogates her own positionality as a white woman in a form that was originally performed by Black males, finding connections despite these differences.

Wesolowski leads with a warm invitation to join her in convivencia, a Portuguese term connoting “connection, coexistence, and companionship.” Her story always returns to her relationships within various capoeira communities. Her writing is a dialogue with the reader: she calls and requests a response. It erupts from an inner necessity…from legs to limbs then directly to the page, taking us along for the ride, with all its bumps and beauty.


Chita, A Memoir
By Chita Rivera, with Patrick Pacheco
Harper One
Reviewed by Sandra Kurtz

We live in a first-person world right now—from the intense revelations of reality television through the never-ending scroll of social media posts, we are saturated with “I.” Chita Rivera, who combines a thrilling theatrical dynamism with the precision of ballet onstage, tells many stories about her life in her self-titled memoir, but she also gives us an up-close view of her times as well. And those times include some of the most innovative and significant developments in American musical theater. Her eye-witness account of a time that still affects what we see in the theater today is a roll call of artists and events from the 1950s to the present.

Rivera tells her story in a mostly chronological fashion, starting with her early life in Washington, DC, when her mother put the ultra-active girl in dance classes to keep her occupied. From there, a scholarship to the School of American Ballet took her to New York and launched her on the path to her career on Broadway.

Her first real job, as a chorus girl in the touring cast of Call Me Madam, sets her on a pathway full of other firsts, including the original Anita in West Side Story, the original Velma in Chicago, and the original Aurora in Kiss of the Spiderwoman. The highlights are quite high—Leonard Bernstein taught her to sing, and Gwen Verdon encouraged her to aim beyond the chorus—but Rivera’s narration of her dancing life brims over with names from all parts of the business. She performed in musical reviews with Bea Arthur and James Garner, learned to bump and grind from choreographer Peter Gennaro, and helped Dick Van Dyke learn to dance soft shoe for Bye Bye Birdie.

Rivera’s story of her personal life overlaps with her theater work—colleagues become friends, and friends become something more. She meets husband Tony Mordente in the cast of West Side Story—their daughter Lisa follows them into the theater. Her relationship with Sammy Davis, Jr. grew from their work in Mr. Wonderful.

She rarely has something negative to say about a person or an experience. She touches gently on racial stereotypes when she discusses her time at SAB (“Ballet at that time was an almost exclusively white world.”) Although she acknowledges that Jerome Robbins had a reputation for being harsh in rehearsal, “he was never that way with me.” More often, any frustration is softened by humor, like her quoting the song from Forbidden Broadway, commenting on how she is frequently mistaken for Rita Moreno: “Chita Rivera is not Rita, Rita Moreno is not Chita, Chita is Chita and not Rita, I would prefer you forgot Rita!”

Chita, A Memoir is a generous retrospective on a full life in the theater from someone who seems to have been everywhere and known everyone.


Banishing Orientalism: Dancing between Exotic and Familiar
By Phil Chan with Michele Chase
Yellow Peril Press, Brooklyn, NY
Available at Amazon.
Reviewed by Weichen Cui

Banishing Orientalism follows Phil Chan’s first book, Final Bow for Yellowface, published in 2020, and the launch of the pledge platform of the same name, cofounded with Georgina Pazcoguin. Continuing the discussion of Asian stereotypes in ballet, Banishing Orientalism elaborates on the tensions between the “Kingdom of Shades—Full of Ghosts of Ballets Past” and today’s increasingly diverse world.

Edward Said coined the word Orientalism in the 1970s to criticize the Western way to dominate, restructure, and have authority over the Orient. In Chan’s view, “Orientalism in ballet is not just a stylistic device/genre, but rather an integral aspect of what defines classical ballet itself.” Orientalism has fueled innovations in ballet technique, music, and spectacle—the ultimate fantasyland. It also serves as a safe space to transgress taboos, reinforcing Western moral superiority over the heathen mysticism of the barbarians.

Ballet’s Orientalism legitimizes empire-building, colonialism, and slavery onstage. The ridiculous plots, such as opium fantasies and irrational love and sacrifice, along with the portrayal of exotic archetypes like Pirates, Slaves, Geishas, Sultans, and Harem Girls, had given rise to a shared sense of symbols. These messages, rooted in distortion and bias, had been passed down, from Petipa on. By setting white European culture as the default, ballet perpetuates a fantasy that excludes or misrepresents people from other cultures. In today’s globalized and diverse society, such a path will inevitably lead to the decline of ballet.

“How can I be a participant in an art form that’s obviously not by or for people like me? These days why should an art form that excludes people like me be considered ‘high art’ for an entire society?” These poignant questions reveal the vulnerability and confusion experienced by non-White ballet enthusiasts. In response, Chan objects to culturally demeaning representations; he advocates for a reimagining of ballet that is more relevant to today’s diverse audience. For example, by asking, “What else could it be?”, for their 2021 version of Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, Pacific Northwest Ballet replaced the Fu Manchu-style caricature with leaping crickets, a symbol of luck with playfulness.

In order to create an “art for all of us,” Chan feels it’s essential to address institutional inequity, pigeonholing and tokenism. As examples of cross-cultural experiments that more or less evade those failings, he offers Maurice Béjart’s study of khatak in India to Sylvia Guillem and Akram Khan’s collaboration Sacred Monsters (2006).

The book probes power dynamics and cultural dominance in ballet’s history and present. (As a ballet lover, I yearn for its continued progress because it fosters cross-cultural dialogues.) As Chan advocates, by fostering respect and curiosity, ballet can transcend the boundaries of our individual experiences and connect with those who are different from us.


Illusions of Camelot, A Memoir by Peter Boal
Beaufort Books
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This memoir is mostly about the shy, tender, young Peter Boal, the privilege (living in a huge house, live-in caretaker, country clubs) that fails to make the family happy, and his father’s alcoholism that poisons all relationships. Boal is a natural storyteller; his elegant prose is full of insights and humor. His narrative, however, includes only a precious few dance stories, which may cause dancer/readers to yearn for more. His audition for the School of American Ballet elicits belly laughs. His description of the popular teacher Stanley Williams deepens our understanding of ballet—and of Boal’s love of the art form. His description of the meditative, healing space of daily ballet class is stirring.

Working with Jerome Robbins on Balanchine’s Prodigal Son and Robbins’s Moves is a highlight. Unlike the usual stories about how demanding and unreasonable the great choreographer was, Boal shows sensitivity toward Robbins and his effect on dancers. About Jerry’s coaching, Peter writes, “His words, however gruff and prodding, pushed me into finding my voice as an artist.”

The day that Peter gave his last performance in the SAB Workshop and his first performance as an apprentice with New York City Ballet happened to be the day the world learned that Balanchine had died. This coincidence sparked Boal’s memories of Balanchine, including a visit to him in the hospital when he was still a student.

Boal’s closeness to the tragic AIDS epidemic and his yearning for a relationship with his downward-spiraling father are deeply touching. He has a gift for leaving the reader with quiet joy and pain at the same time. (Disclosure: I’ve choreographed two solos for Peter and encouraged him in his writing.) Illusions of Camelot is a gentle story with unflinching detours into the epidemics of AIDS and alcoholism—dark streaks threading through this poetic reminiscence.


Teaching What You Want to Learn: A Guidebook for Dance and Movement Teachers
By Bill Evans
Reviewed by Janis Brenner

The widely respected dancer/teacher/choreographer Bill Evans has written a thoughtful, thorough, and wonderfully readable book. In Teaching What You Want to Learn, Evans journeys through his five decades of pedagogical research and practice. He also writes that the galvanizing moment in our country over the murder of George Floyd was a catalyst for reflection of his own ways of contributing to the world.

With a foreword by Selene B. Carter, the book has ten chapters with titles like “Language,” “Guidelines and Strategies,” and “Converting Theory into Action.” The chapters are divided into smaller modules such as “Remind Yourself That You Love to Teach,” “Embrace Evolving Values,” and “Never Work Harder Than Your Students.” These clear and concise modules add up to 94 different explorations. In addition, each essay is accompanied by a small box entitled “For Your Consideration,” where he asks us artist-teachers questions to contemplate: “When are you at your best as a teacher? Please relate how a teacher, mentor, or colleague, who believed in you at a crucial juncture… helped you understand yourself better and/or achieve success. How have you served in a similar role for someone else?”

Evans is a master teacher of Laban/Bartenieff Movement Fundamentals (L/BMS) and is founder of both the Somatic Dance Conference and Performance Festival and the Evans Somatic Dance Institute, headquartered in Washington state. The entire book is infused with this lineage and its applications to understanding a wide range of movement experience.

For long-time, seasoned dance teachers, some of his simple statements may seem obvious, but they are gems for the younger generations and good reminders for those of us who may need a dose of someone else’s perspectives besides our own! Evans also credits mentors and colleagues who have been of significance in the development of his practice—an important lesson for upcoming teachers and choreographers to remember “from whence you came.”

In later chapters, Evans delves deeply into “Anatomical Imagery,” including diagrams of specific body parts and functions, for instance, “Open-Chain Pelvic-Femoral Rhythm/Thigh Lifts and Leg Swings.” The final chapter, written by Bill’s spouse Don Halquist, explores Howard Gardner’s “Theory of Multiple Intelligences” through a movement-based lens.

As a long-time teacher of improvisation and composition, originally through the pedagogical theories of Alwin Nikolais/Murray Louis and Hanya Holm, I was surprised that the Nikolais heritage is never mentioned in relation to L/BMS, its origins and its direct connection to Laban/Wigman. However, I found that Teaching What You Want To Learn is a valuable guide into the creative side of dance education.


Dancing Black, Dancing White: Rock ‘n’ Roll, Race, & Youth Culture of the 1950s & Early 1960s
By Julie Malnig
Oxford University Press
Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

Julie Malnig, author of Dancing Till Dawn: A Century of Exhibition Ballroom Dance, has considerable expertise in exhibition ballroom dance as an expression of American history and culture and the place it holds in American society.  That knowledge informs Dancing Black, Dancing White, which explores the many teen television dance shows that proliferated in the two decades following World War II, the best-known of them being the American Bandstand. These programs featured exhibition ballroom, or social dancing, for a mass audience, white and Black. Malnig devotes a chapter titled “Movin’ and Groovin” to four Black teen shows, broadcast in the South. Like everything else in that period, the shows were segregated. But not for musicians. The groups performing on American Bandstand, for example, where the dancing teens were white, were often Black, and they sold a lot of recordings of such artists of color as James Brown, the Temptations, Chubby Checker, and Aretha Franklin. White musicians who owed much of their their fandom to these shows include Elvis Presley, and, following their first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964, the Beatles.

Racial segregation is just one lens through which Malnig, Professor of Dance and Theatre Studies at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at NYU, examines these programs. Others include capitalism, social conformity, the country’s attitudes toward teenage girls, and dancing itself in mid-century America. Her many sources include books written by Thomas DeFrantz, Brenda Dixon-Gottschild, and LeRoi Jones. Malnig’s interviews with the young dancers who appeared on these shows—and some who were excluded—and her descriptions of the shows themselves, offer the most compelling evidence for her thesis.

She points out that John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray is one of several films and musicals that reimagine the TV teen shows, carrying them into the future.

(For more on John Waters’ 1988 film Hairspray, check it out on YouTube. The heroine, performed by overweight Ricki Lake, whose dancing is fantastic, is shunned by all but a few. One character is subjected to electric shock “deprogramming” by her bible-thumping, dance-hating parents; this is satire that can make your stomach churn.)

In the chapter called “Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Africanist Aesthetic” Malnig concentrates on Black dance, its origins, and its popularity with white kids. They loved doing the Madison, which is rooted in the plantation ring shout, as is the Big Apple, popular with adults in the 1920s.

Malnig’s descriptions of these “rock ‘n’ roll” dances also serve to illuminate the work that current choreographers like Caleb Teicher are doing now, specifically his terrific “Swing Out” show and its blending of tap, swing and the Lindy Hop.

But, as short as it is (220 pp) Dancing Black needed some pruning of repetitions and was so sloppily copyedited and proofread there are errors on almost every page. Nevertheless, those pages contain an enormous amount of valuable information about these shows, the dances themselves, and the context in which they were aired.


Movement at the Still Point: An Ode to Dance
Photographs by Mark Mann
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

These striking photos, covering 142 dance artists who are diverse in genre, gender, age, and race, are all shot in black and white, lending a timeless quality. Many of the dancers are presented with a portrait shot as well as a full, luscious body shot, pairing intimacy with theatricality. You can spend hours, days, leafing through this book, savoring the images of dancers you know and getting a glimpse of dancers you don’t know.

The Irving Penn–inspired backdrop lends a rich, grainy texture, inviting a sense of visual depth. Mark Mann’s camera captures the sumptuous strength of Rena Butler, the drama of Terese Capucilli, the bejeweled mystery of Soraya Lundy, the breathy lift of Jonatan Luján, the jauntiness of Ephraim Sykes, and the playfulness of Miki Orihara and Stephen Pier as a couple. I especially appreciate the inclusion of dancers who are no longer young like Desmond Richardson, Michael Trusnovec, Janet Charleston, and Jodi Melnick. The portrait of Gus Solomons is so haunting that it made me wonder: Did he know he was nearing death? The last shot, with Sondra Lee and Carmen de Lavallade, makes reaching one’s 90s look like a fabulous time of life.


Remembering a Dance: Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019
By Yvonne Rainer, Emily Coates, and Nick Mauss
Published by Performa
Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and Lenz Press,
Reviewed by Wendy Perron

This book was so exciting to me that I jumped the gun and wrote about it here.





Chino and the Dance of the Butterfly: A Memoir
By Dana Tai Soon Burgess
University of New Mexico Press
Review by Lisa Traiger

The early chapters of Washington, DC–based dancer, choreographer, and now author Dana Tai Soon Burgess’s life reveal the ingredients—a love of movement, an inquisitive mind, immersion in art and reading, and determination—that have shaped his productive dance career. His company, now in its 30th year, has toured the world for the U.S. State Department and recently was invited to serve as a Kennedy Center Social Impact Community Partner.

The son of visual artists—his mother, a Korean American; his father of German and Irish stock—Burgess grew up Santa Fe, New Mexico. An outsider, he wrestled with his visible Asian identity, humble family circumstances, and sexual identity. Bullied and lonely as a child, he created a rich internal life. Art—painting, weaving, sculpture, sketching—along with movement became significant avenues for young Burgess to translate, and ultimately transform, his world.

As a freshman at University of New Mexico, he wandered into an old gymnasium and observed a jazz dance class in progress. He later wrote, “My meandering had delivered me my destiny, a secular temple where dancers were tempered into competitive, professional-level performers.” He set his course to dance.

With determination and serendipity, he forged a path encountering significant figures along the way. Among them, sculptor/Martha Graham set designer Isamu Noguchi was in his parents’ art circle, while he was briefly an errand boy for an aging Rudolf Nureyev during a tour stop. Burgess collected an oral history from mid-century modern dancer Eleanor King and connected with Hamburg Ballet’s John Neumeier on choreography. And he immersed himself in researching and resuscitating the contributions of Japanese-American choreographer Michio Ito.

Burgess’s vivid descriptions of movement, as he re-shaped his karate-trained body, provide insight into his choreographic proclivities, which entwine balletic linearity with modern dance techniques. In Washington, DC, he built a company reflecting his Asian American and multi-hyphenate identities, which became his calling card on State Department tours worldwide. He also collaborated with visual artists and became the first choreographer in residence at one of the Smithsonian museums.

Lauded as the “poet laureate of Washington dance,” with this account Burgess proves himself as graceful on the page as he and his dancers are onstage. This self-portrait of an artist is penned with perceptive self-insight and evocative, lyrical language, painting a vivid picture of his journey to dance.


Why Dance Matters
By Mindy Aloff
Yale University Press
Reviewed by Martha Ullman West

Why Dance Matters is part of Yale University Press’s publication series “Why X Matters”. These are highly idiosyncratic, deeply personal, book-length essays about why a subject—poetry, architecture, composer etc. matters to the author.

Mindy Aloff has put a lifetime of experience of watching dance, writing about it, teaching its history, and editing the articles and books of other writers into why dance matters to her and to the world at large. Densely researched and conversationally written, it’s an excellent read for both those who know little and for those who live and breathe this art form as professionals in the field.

The seven chapters of this compact survey of dancing all over the world—as cultural expression, theatrical art, religious ritual, the kind you do and the kind you watch—are replete with all kinds of references, reflecting Aloff’s obsessive delving into all things dancing, including music, visual arts, and film. These are invariably interesting, but what really fascinates me is how she connects various forms of locomotion and dancing. Chapter One, e.g., “Child’s Play”, begins with an analysis of the book’s sole photograph, taken c.1940 by Helen Levitt, of young kids, one white, one Black, dancing in a Harlem street.

From here Aloff moves to her Philadelphia childhood, when as a 5-year-old she was placed in a class taught by a refugee from Nazi Germany and told to “be” a snowman: “snowfolks are round, roly-poly I figured; and so I lay down and rolled around on the floor.”  This memory leads her to the “Snow scene” and a discussion of ballet, the form that matters to her the most, especially as choreographed, modernized, and made relevant in the last century by George Balanchine.

That said, she does pay attention to modern dancers and choreographers Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham; the uncategorizable Merce Cunningham; Paul Taylor; and post modernists Trisha Brown, Twyla Tharp, and David Gordon; tap dancers Honi Coles, Brenda Bufalino and Jane Goldberg connecting them all in interesting ways, drawing on the reviews of their work by other critics, her own interviews with some—specifically with Gordon, whom she talked with not long before he died, and obviously a lifetime of watching, writing and thinking about their work.

Dance matters, she concludes, because it connects: movement with music, dancers with each other, dancers with the audience, and audience members with dancers. About the last, she cites of all things Jewish philosopher Martin Buber’s book I and Thou, sending me to my underlined copy to see if that made sense, which it did.

(Disclosure: Aloff and I have been colleagues and friends since the late seventies, when she was editing Portland’s Encore Magazine and writing incisive, historically based dance reviews for Willamette Week, the city’s alternative paper. She includes material from my own book, Todd Bolender, Janet Reed and the Making of American Ballet [see Notable Books of 2021], which she edited.)



Books Received or Announced

Behind the Screen: Tap Dance, Race, and Invisibility During Hollywood’s Golden Age
By Brynn W. Shiovitz
Oxford University Press

Broadway Bodies: A Critical History of Conformity
By Ryan Donovan
Oxford University Press

Astaire by Numbers: Time and the Straight White Male Dancer
By Todd Decker
Oxford University Press

Dance Works: Stories of Creative Collaborations
By Allison Orr
Foreword by Liz Lerman
Wesleyan University Press

Ed Watson: A Different Dance
By Sarah Crompton
Prestel Publishing

Sharpening Dance Canons: Criticism, Aesthetics, and Equity
By Kate Mattingly
University Press of Florida

The Color of Dance: A Celebration of Diversity and Inclusion in the World of Ballet
By Takiyah Wallace-McMillian, founder of Brown Girls Do Ballet
Hachette Book Group

New York City Ballet
Choreography & Couture
By Mark Happel
Photography by Pari Dukovic
Foreword by Sarah Jessica Parker

You the Choreographer: Creating and Crafting Dance
By Vladimir Angelov
















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Remembering Rudy Perez

Perez in Countdown, ph Steve Sbarge

I will never forget Rudy Perez performing Countdown in 1968. If the word “riveting” did not exist, it would have to be invented for that performance. Sitting in a chair, his feet rooted to the ground, his focus unwavering, he took a super slow-motion drag on a cigarette. He slowly stood up, and without breaking his tempo, streaked his cheeks with green paint. Were they tears? Were they war paint? The recorded music of the “Songs of the Auvergne” transported us to a faraway place. Rudy was perhaps remembering something beautiful that arrested his everyday action. Countdown was also an example of radical juxtaposition, a term I didn’t know then, which describes a dada-esque collision of opposites that forces the viewer to create their own cogency. (It was a term Yvonne Rainer borrowed from Susan Sontag.) His work also had a whiff of satisfying absurdism. Of course Rudy never used such terms to describe his choices.

Barbara Roan, Anthony LaGiglia, and Perez, Ph Jack Mitchell

The place where I saw Countdown was the old Dance Theater Workshop, which was Jeff Duncan’s living space on West 20th Street. Later, in the fall of 1969, also at DTW, I was showing a solo of mine to Jeff Duncan for a program of what is now Fresh Tracks. Rudy had just finished rehearsing and decided to hang out and watch my solo. A few weeks later, I ran into Rudy in a local supermarket on the Upper West Side, and he invited me to join his tiny company. Having been knocked out by Countdown, I said Yes. I danced with him for a year, enjoying performing with the magnificent Barbara Roan, the delightful Anthony La Giglia, and being challenged by Rudy’s sturdy movement and uncompromising vision.

Me “picking flowers, to Mozart,’ in one of Rudy’s works, Ph Ted Wester

In 2019, the Stephen Petronio Company revived Rudy’s Coverage, a solo he made during the time I was dancing with him. When Siobhan Burke wrote an advance article for the New York Times, she asked me to describe what was unique about Rudy’s work. She quoted me describing his approach: “He had this instinct for what would work next to each other. We’d be doing something rigid and stiff, then suddenly we’d be bending down and picking flowers in a dreamlike slow motion…There was something very sure and magical about what he did onstage.”

Although Rudy was a strong and energetic dancer, he did not have what was considered a dancer’s body. He told me that he realized he’d have to make his own work if he wanted to dance. This, I think was a strength: He created his own aesthetics.

From left: Perez, Summit, Roan, Ph Herbert Migdoll for Dance Magazine

When Don McDonagh’s book The Rise and Fall and Rise of Modern Dance came out in 1970, I was excited because he highlighted dance artists from Judson and DTW—people I had danced with—as the ones who were raising modern dance up again in the Sixties. In his chapter on Rudy, he described the choreographer’s “vibrant stillness.” He also wrote that Rudy was “the most emotively charged dance maker of his generation, but his emotionalism is strictly controlled and measured out in carefully placed spurts of movement.” The elements of his choreography were “meticulous workmanship, unusual juxtapositions of visual and aural material, and a weighty intensity.”

Rudy was the first person I heard talk about Judson Dance Theater. He had attended some of Robert Dunn’s workshops and had participated in Judson concerts from day one. Judson became a huge topic of interest to me. Just hearing the name Judson helped me trace where Rudy got his exquisite simplicity from. When I started teaching at Bennington in 1978, I wanted to expose my students to the experimental spirit of Judson. I created a multi-year project called the Bennington College Judson Project, part of which is archived at the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts. (I also gave a “Dance Historian Is In” presentation on it. If you’re interested, the recording is viewable at the Library.)

Although Rudy is not often mentioned when Judson is discussed, he is one of the few of that collective who went on to have a multi-decade career in dance. (Others were the obvious names of Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, David Gordon.) I’m glad he found his niche in Los Angeles, but he drifted away from New York consciousness. Our loss was L.A.’s gain. Marcia B. Siegel called him “one of the quiet experimenters in whose hands I think the future of dance will rest.” At least two of his students there went on to create their own dance worlds: Victor Quijada of RubberbandDance and Chris Yon, now at Appalachian State University.

Conga line in one of Rudy’s pieces, c. 1971, led by Wendy Summit. Find Jane Comfort, ninth from the end. Ph unknown

In an article in the June 1971 issue of Dance Magazine, Rudy explained his process: “My work begins as a col­lection of images, but when it is finished it must be a whole, loose parts of exper­ience making up a whole. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, trying to fit things together so that when it’s finished, it’s complete.”

Thank you, Rudy, for your completely remarkable work.

And thanks to Sarah Vox Swenson for setting up the memorial page of the website devoted to him.


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Revisiting Yvonne Rainer’s Mattress Monster

Front cover*

Back cover**

Yvonne Rainer’s epic task dance from 1965, Parts of Some Sextets, was given new life in 2019 when Emily Coates decided to reconstruct it. And now it has been given a third life as a luminous book collaboration between Rainer, Coates and designer/performer Nick Mauss. Remembering a Dance: Parts of Some Sextets, 1965/2019, was just published by Performa, Wadsworth Atheneum Museum of Art, and Lenz Press. It invites the reader to dive deep into Rainer’s many-layered work and the ideas that generated it—and the feelings stirred up by the reconstruction 54 years later.



Coates, a dance artist, researcher, and Yale professor who has danced with Rainer for more than 20 years, got the idea that Parts of Some Sextets was “the missing piece in the puzzle of Yvonne’s thinking.” She flew to the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles, where Rainer’s archives are stashed. Coates’s journey of searching, finding, not finding, emailing with Rainer, is the (re)birthing story of the second iteration of what Rainer calls My Mattress Monster. With some puzzles still unsolved, Rainer and Coates gathered a new, more diverse group of eleven dancers and non-dancers. Commissioned by the Performa 2019 Biennial, they performed the new version at Gelsey Kirkland Academy of Classical Ballet in DUMBO. This version was a bit longer, had only ten mattresses instead of twelve, and gave the dancers more freedom in the second half. But it kept the 31 tasks (e.g., bird run, bent-over walk, fling, rope duet, crawl through below top mattress) as much as possible. Curiously, it was more warmly received than 54 years earlier, perhaps because seeing a full-evening work by Yvonne Rainer has become a rarer event than in 1960s downtown.

Rainer and Emily Coates studying xeroxes of archival photos. Mary-Kate Sheehan at right, Baryshnikov Arts Center, 2019, Ph Simon Gérard.

The book Remembering a Dance is both an archive and an art object. It contains Rainer’s original essay about Parts of Some Sextets (PoSS), her notes and charts, detective work by Coates, five pithy essays, Jill Johnston’s summary of Rainer’s oeuvre up to 1965, archival photos, and—for a perverse kind of balance—a negative review from Jill Johnston. As an art object masterminded by Mauss; it offers gorgeous new photos mostly by Paula Court, a three-way conversation between Rainer, Coates, and Mauss; and inspired juxtapositions and overlappings of color photos with vintage photos.

Yvonne’s nature is to resist the status quo. The very title of her original essay, reprinted here in full, flouts the conventions of a title: “Some retrospective notes on a dance for 10 people and 12 mattresses called ‘Parts of Some Sextets,’ performed at the Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford, Connecticut, and Judson Memorial Church, New York, in March, 1965.” She is-hell bent on undermining the usual virtues of grace and fluidity in dance. Just as John Cage, a big influence on her (and almost everyone in the art world at the time), rejected melody in favor of noise, she rejected flow in favor of bluntness. Cage didn’t want his pieces to be easy to listen to; she didn’t want hers to be easy to watch. She wanted changes to be “as abrupt and jagged as possible…So I resorted to two devices I have used consistently: Repetition and interruption.…both factors were to produce a ‘chunky’ continuity, repetition making the eye jump back and forth…” In case her dissenting voice was not perfectly clear, she added a brief postscript: “NO to spectacle no to virtuosity no to transformations and magic…” You know the rest. In the recent interview toward the back of the book, Yvonne explains that she never expected this list of refusals to stick. It was intended to be provisionary, “never meant to be a set of principles to live or create by.”

Rehearsal, 2019. From left: Nick Mauss, David Thomson, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Rachel Bernsen, Emily Coates, Liz Magic Laser, Patrick Gallagher, Ph Paula Court.

Yvonne Rainer, Lucinda Childs, Sally Gross, Judith Dunn, Judson Church 1965, Ph Al Giese

The 2019 performance certainly had that “chunky” continuity. A mashup of task-with-objects, robust dance phrases, and various mattress pilings, the actions changed every 30 seconds. This haphazard-looking commotion coexisted with the sound score of Rainer’s monotonous reading of 18th-century New England minister William Bentley’s diary. In the book too, people and mattresses look randomly scattered on the page. (Rainer has said that she liked to compose dances with the look of randomness.) And yet there is form and shape: One person might be hurtling toward a mattress, another tying a knot with rope, a foreground figure too blurry to distinguish, but there’s a cogency anyway. (You may notice that the cogency of the cover image has been knocked sideways…as in, perhaps, “No to uprightness.”)

While digging into the archives at the Getty, Coates leaves no stone unturned. But she becomes “addicted” to the archive and starts reading other notes of Rainer’s, written under the influence of hallucinogenics. The words were so sensual, so much about the body, so unguardedly poetic that Coates admits to falling in love with the 30-year-old Yvonne’s trippy prose. Perhaps Coates’s wildest idea is the proposition that “we accept these reflections as another kind of theory. And why not? They are as revealing of her artistic production as her published writing.” As someone who is often frustrated by overly academic theories of dance, I second that emotion.

Rehearsal, 2019. Foreground: Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Brittany Engel-Adams, David Thomson. Background: Mary-Kate Sheehan, Liz Magic Laser, Timothy Ward, Patrick Gallagher, Emily Coates, Nick Mauss, Ph Paula Court.

The most grippingly relevant theme is broached by David Thomson in his raw and articulate essay “It Takes a Village.” A longtime Rainer dancer (and freelance dancer/choreographer), he writes unflinchingly from both the inside and the outside, refusing to ignore the racial gap. Calling Parts of Some Sextets 1965/2019 “an ephemeral memory palace,” he reacts sharply—twice—to the presence of race in Bentley’s tale of mundane life in 18th-century Massachusetts. “Hearing the word Negro in his diary reverberated within me. It named me, called me out, and threw my body back into a difficult historical frame…And yet, simultaneously, it comforted me, in knowing that a person of color was noted in the archive in a benevolent way.” In the second instance, just as Thomson was performing a gestural solo downstage right, a Black servant named Jack surfaced in the recorded narrative. Bentley was lauding Jack, a wholly honorable person who had unexpectedly died. Thomson writes, “All at once, the past and present merged. I was locked in him and history. I became a living avatar for Jack… His life became tangible, and, personally, I embraced this meeting, feeling the power and necessity of the moment. I became his ghost manifest.”

Steve Paxton doing Fling, 1965, rehearsal at Judson Church, Ph Phil MacMullan.

The book is full of ghosts. Looking at the black-and-white images of a time gone by, we might recognize some of the people in the original PoSS (listed below). Paula Court’s vibrant color photos bring it back to this century. Occasionally the recent photos are converted to greyscale, nicely blurring the distinction between the two eras. For a moment, 1965 and 2019 merge.

While chunky discontinuity reigns in some of Rainer’s works, there is continuity in her work over time. For example, mattresses appeared in her previous piece Room Service (1963) and her later work Carriage Discreteness (1966). Her idea of interruption can be seen in many works. Jill Johnston, in her 1965 summary of Rainer’s oeuvre, identifies “irresponsible noises” as a kind of interruption: “Barking, grunting, mumbling, stammering, wailing.” One of the interruptions in the 2019 version (when Rump was still in office) was Rainer’s recorded voice suddenly calling out terms like “F^%#ing moron!”  “Shameless demagogue” or “Cynical asshole.”

Back when Yvonne Rainer was saying “No” to all those things in the postscript-turned-manifesto, what was she saying “Yes” to? In the images in Remembering a Dance, one can glean hints of Rainer’s “Yesses”: intimacy, effort, community, the unadorned physicality of functional movement, awareness of one’s environment, a challenge to the audience’s way of seeing/absorbing, and the readiness to accept change. All time-honored aspects of life and art…and yet also an invitation to look at the ordinary with fresh eyes.

Timothy Ward and David Thomson in rehearsal, Ph Paula Court.

* Front cover, bottom to top: David Thomson, Emily Coates, Timothy Ward, Patrick Gallagher, Liz Magic Laser, Shayla-Vie Jenkins, Ph Paula Court, 2019.

** Back cover: Back row from left: Robert Morris, Steve Paxton, Tony Holder, Robert Rauschenberg. Front row from left: Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, Deborah Hay, Sally Gross, Judith Dunn, Joseph Schlichter, Ph Peter Moore, 1965.

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Looking Back on the 2022-23 Season

While everyone else is looking forward to the new season, I want to take a moment to savor the NYC season just passed. I found the following offerings absolutely exhilarating. (I wrote a shorter, earlier version of this for Tanz magazine in Berlin.)


Encantado by Lia Rodrigues Ph Julieta Cervantes

Lia Rodrigues brought a seething, constantly shifting world titled Encantado to Brooklyn Academy of Music. Her performers, at first burrowing under colorful blankets, evolved from root vegetables to lumbering animals to preening and prancing humans. The illusion of total spontaneity veiled an undergirding of a highly choreographed ecology. The final scenes were like a big gay pride parade for every species.





Copland Dance Episodes, Ph Erin Baiano

Justin Peck’s new Copland Dance Episodes for New York City Ballet at first seemed daunting: Twenty-two sections with no intermission, no story. But Peck’s passion for Aaron Copland’s music drove this juggernaut to an inspired place where there was not a dull moment. Simple actions like leaning and falling transformed into complex patterns that cast a witty, formalist spell. A celebration of ballet as a non-narrative form.


Catherine Hurlin in Like Water for Chocolate, Ph Marty Sohl

Another huge premiere, this one in the narrative mode, was Christopher Wheeldon’s Like Water for Chocolate for American Ballet Theatre, co-produced by The Royal Ballet. The magical surrealism of Laura Esquivel’s novel gleamed in the glorious visuals—a front drop of Mexican tile designs, a row of old woman knitting with flashing needles, mountains in the distance—and in Wheeldon’s storytelling expertise. The music by Joby Talbot incorporated sounds of Mexican instruments like the ocarina. One big plus was the feisty strength of the women characters—which does not always happen in ballet narratives, old or new.



Weathering, Ph Maria Baranova

A surreal experience, Faye Driscoll’s Weathering at New York Live Arts was both sensual and drastic. It began as a tableau in utter stillness, eleven people crowded together as if frozen on a sinking ship. With imperceptible slow motion, they started smashing together, getting tangled in each other’s body parts and clothing. Picking up speed, they went from remote to heated to feverish and, finally, to a giddy sense of freedom. That ship, a large rotating platform, was like a magnet that the dancers were compelled to race away from but also stay connected to—even as the ship itself started drifting from side to side. Like some of her previous work, Driscoll was asking, What happens when the ground underneath you is destabilized? The entire  experience was both shocking and satisfying.


Broken Theater, Bobbie Jene Smith at left, Ph Steven Pisano

Bobbie Jene Smiths’ Broken Theater, a collaboration with American Modern Opera Company, was a clamorous yet elusive theatrical experience. It filled La MaMa’s Ellen Stewart space with absurdist interactions, dramatic texts, and isolated songs. The men engaged in a kind of tortured visceral dance; the women had a strange, veiled sisterhood. No scene was finished; no scene was spared from brokenness. Yes every moment was charged with emotional intensity.






Camille A. Brown brought her masterwork Ink, based on Black dance forms like the lindy and the hustle, to the Apollo in Harlem. It had been a hit at The Joyce in 2019, but it was exciting to see it again at the Apollo, where there is such cultural resonance. The sensual solos, explosive interactions, and choreographic brilliance rocked the house.




Swing Out, Caleb Teicher at right with arms raised, Ph Grace Kathryn Landefeld

Another joy ride was Swing Out, led by the exuberant non-binary tap dancer Caleb Teicher, at the Joyce. His rhythms, humor, and the push-pull partnering of the lindy were thrilling.  The Eyal VIlner Big Band added to the feeling of celebration.





on the other side, Ph Madeline Windland

On a more intimate scale, two Russian postmodern dancers—former Trisha Brown dancer Elena Demyanenko and Berlin-based Tarik Burnash—came to the Bohemian National Hall. In on the other side, the two were obviously troubled by the current war, expressing their disconnection with their families back in Russia through an existential sense of isolation. They sometimes clung to each other, holding each other back from rage. Songs from their childhoods  came through their vocalizing; so did the growling sounds of wounded animals.





Haint Blu, Ph Bee Lively Photography

Back in Harlem, this time at St. Mary’s Episcopal Church, Urban Bush Women co-directors Chanon Judson and Mame Diarra Speis created an immersive production called Haint Blu. Starting in the “healing garden” of the church, they led us through a community ritual of storytelling, dance, song, a bathtub, and percussion. Every member of UBW possesses a fierce individuality, making for an exciting ensemble of defiance.



Liz Roche Company came to the Irish Arts Center with Yes and Yes, which marked the centenary of James Joyce’s Ulysses. Using the famous text only minimally, Roche highlighted the rawness, arduousness, and sometimes outlandishness, of Joyce’s words. In one arresting section, the four dancers took on the four valves of the heart in an astonishingly intricate pas de quatre.

Pardes, Ph Maria Baranova

Vertigo Dance Company from Israel returned to Baryshnikov Arts Center, with Pardes, by artistic director Noa Wertheim. The dancers set up a repetitive side-to-side stepping, one foot hitting opposite ankle each time. Within that steady rhythm, which was both punishing and mesmerizing, the dancers wove in and out of each other. One woman seemed to go crazy…was she tormented or rescued by her fellow dancers? The duets in this work, as in other works by Wertheim, are full of mutual challenge and caring, out of which grows a painful beauty.



Props to Susan Stroman, who choreographed and directed the joyful New York, New York. Every dance was staged magnificently. Not since Jerome Robbins have I seen a Broadway choreographer who can build a scene until you think they can’t top themselves and then they do. The manic scene where Jimmy Doyle tries out every instrument is priceless. With spontaneity and humor, Stroman surprises her audience; with her range of moods she gives a full experience in the theater.

For supreme standout dancers on Broadway, there were two: J. Harrison Ghee, who, as Jerry/Daphne, was the heart of the updated, non-binary story of Some Like It Hot, directed and choreographed by Casey Nicholow. And Jared Grimes, as Eddie in Funny Girl, who shared his astonishing, almost recklessly inventive number “I Taught Her Everything She Knows” the night of the Chita Rivera Awards, to waves of ovations.

Kyle Abraham’s MotorRover, a subtle duet in silence, was the modest premiere of his season at the Joyce. It was performed by two men the night I saw it, but by two women on other nights. With its scooping, extending, curving phrase slipping in and out of unison, it sets up a pure-movement mode. But at certain moments—a look, a preening gesture, a sauntering towards or away—it shifted into seductiveness. With sly wit, Donovan Reed and Jamaal Bowman captured that subtle flirtatiousness. The silence allowed us to pick up the switching of intension with knowing delight. (I wish I could’ve returned to see Tamisha A. Guy & Catherine Kirk perform it too.)

For Four Walls

CCN Ballet de Lorraine came to the NYU Skirball with a double bill, the first half of which was the intriguing For Four Walls, choreographed by Petter Jacobsson & Thomas Caley. In a space that was mirrored to multiply the dancers’ images, it started with almost pristine barre work while onstage pianist Vanessa Wagner played the first movement of John Cage’s Four Walls. As the music became more irregular, so did the dancing, revealing the origami-like ways those mirrors repeated and refracted the choreography. The foldings and unfoldings eventually exploded into wildly bounding partner work. It was postmodern bliss.



Revival: What a time travel experience it was to see Robert Whitman’s American Moon at the Pace Gallery! This was a 1960 happening brought stubbornly to life by Pace Live. We sat in little compartments, surrounded by debris of paper, burlap, and ropes. It was like being inside a child’s tree house or toy attic. Figures encased in in crudely painted paper mâché objects waddled or swayed or got hoisted or dropped. We could see the person pulling the ropes. No theatrical illusions here. It was funny, but no belly laughs, just maybe a wry smile. This video gives you an idea of the experience. The most vigorous human activity was two people furiously rolling toward and away from each other. (Simone Forti originally did this part with Whitman.) A huge plastic encasement gets inflated as scraps of paper float down from above—a man-made snowstorm. Dream on.

A Trend: In three works, I saw dancers disrobing themselves or each other in an almost random way, while continuing to dance wearing only scraps of clothing. This happened in Lia Rodrigues’ Encantado, in Faye Driscoll’s Weathering, and in Miguel Gutierrez’ Cela Nous Concerne Tous (This Concerns All of US), the second half of Ballet de Lorraine’s show at NYU Skirball. These scenes were not driven primarily by seductiveness or sexual desire—although that was there—but by a compulsion to bare the body, to shed the outer layers of comportment. I would call it an urgency of exposure, perhaps related to what we see on social media (the postings that say “I’m available” or “I’ve achieved a gorgeous body”). On second thought, what these three pieces shared was a compulsion toward freedom—even if a dose of despair infiltrated that freedom.

Miguel Gutierrez’ Cela Nous Concerne Tous




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