Monday, December 20, 2010

end of year insight

A reflection by Caroline Yost who is a senior in the School of Dance at GMU:

I feel there’s a progression the college level dancer endures over the course of their four years of study. When you’re a freshman, your main objective is to please your professor; if Professor X told you “Good, Caroline!” then you did your job for the day. Professor X is the authority figure and he or she already had a career so what they say must be true. In my freshman eyes, any words coming of any professor’s mouth were golden. I held no one’s opinion, not even my own, above any of my professors. When I was a freshman I whole-heartedly believed that if my professors thought I was talented, then I was. If my professors thought I was going to be a professional, then I was. I failed to take any responsibility for my craft or my career.

Naturally, when I received my first technique class “B+,” Intermediate Modern Dance, I was horrified. I couldn’t fathom how if I was doing everything correctly, attending class, and pleasing my teacher he could offer me anything short of an “A.” I found myself recalling all the verbal confirmations I’d heard in the semester, sizing up that number with the awful “B+” staining my transcript.

This class taking strategy lasted through my sophomore year. With a different palate of teachers I found myself hitting dead-ends left and right, trying to please those around me. And still, my mentality failed to change.

end of year lists

Over the weekend I was in New York City and picked up the "Arts & Leisure" section on Saturday night to see the annual list of highlights in performances and exhibitions.

Reading the critics' analysis I thought about a question I had put on a Dance Appreciation test a couple days before to motivate students to think about the conditions and reception of certain artists: "who is the greater dancer - Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?"

Some students wrote poetically: "Trying to choose between Astaire and Kelly is like trying to choose between day and night: we need both... They were excellent dancers and the best in their own right. Picking favorites is determined by the personality of the person being questioned. It cannot be denied that both dancers broke boundaries, set standards, and deserve their thrones in the kingdom of dance mastery."

Other students described their different approaches to choreography, the camera, and movement: "Gene Kelly used a variety of camera techniques... Fred Astaire was seemingly effortless and had a certain swagger... In my opinion the best dancer would be a fusion of the many great characteristics of both men... I think the greatest dancer is Michael Jackson."

The response that really made me smile was: "The answer to this question reveals the personality of the answerer. Fred Astaire was a representation of graceful aristocracy and Gene Kelly was slightly rougher around the edges. Myself being more of a jock, I prefer Gene Kelly."

So it comes as no surprise that in The New York Times a similar pattern occurred: Alastair Macaulay wrote about Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet, Alina Cojocaru and David Hallberg of American Ballet Theatre, and Matthew Renko of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet as performers who left lasting impressions. For notable choreographers, Macaulay cited Liz Gerring and Pam Tanowitz. For impressive collaborations, he wrote about Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz.

Critic Claudia La Rocco listed Keely Garfield, Wendy Whelan, Ralph Lemon, Alain Buffard, Rob List and Bruno Beltrao as "top-notch" artists. She also mentioned people who were creating in the 1950s and 1960s and whose works were revived, re-created, or shown on film in 2010: Trisha Brown's "Walking on the Wall," Yvonne Rainer's "Trio A Geriatric with Talking," the documentary "Simone Forti: An Evening of Dance Constructions," and Anna Halprin's tribute to her husband which was performed in September in Portland.

Looking at these two lists, it is not so much the differences in people but the massively different perceptions of performance that intrigue me. I am fascinated by how much our preferences expose our subjective understanding of the world, our desire for things to be a certain way, and our particular beliefs about the role of dance and the arts today.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The brouhaha set off by The New York Times review of “The Nutcracker,” the follow-up by the critic, and the eloquence of Jenifer Ringer’s reaction on The Today Show exemplifies the way communication has changed in 2010: an artist can not only respond to what a critic writes, but can use many avenues – the internet, print, and television - to transmit their messages. Does this reveal how criticism is no longer confined to an authoritative voice - the expert or arbiter of style - but can engage in a dialogue that includes multiple perspectives and responses? What does this mean for the future of dance and the role of dance criticism?

I am impressed by the insight Jenifer Ringer, a New York City Ballet principal, brings to the situation and her appearance reminded of other dancers who have articled their ideas through writing and teaching. Christopher d’Amboise, also a former New York City Ballet principal and now part of the faculty at GMU, wrote a book almost 30 years ago that contains beautiful revelations about the nature of artists, friendships, and dancing. Here is a passage:

“I have heard people try to describe the feeling of dancing, and it usually ends up sounding religious or mystic. One finds oneself unintentionally using phrases like ‘another world,’ or ‘the ultimate experience.’ The more sincere the attempt to explain, the more apparent is its ineffability. We do not have the proper words for it. It is as if all the senses were fulfilled, and all the desires realized. All fears and disappointments disappear, or rather they are blanketed by the overwhelming force of the positive…”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

December 2010 Concert at GMU

Watching Edwin Aparicio’s last week and the dancers of GMU last night I’m thinking about the visceral nature of dance. It challenges our notion that life can be captured and transmitted through images and recordings, and insists on experiences that are direct, immediate, and fleeting. I don’t think any recording of Aparicio’s dancers and musicians can replicate their energy or the electricity of watching their artistry take flight. I got chills. Last night, as the students who are majoring in dance at GMU presented choreography by their classmates and faculty, my eyes were bathed in different notions of beauty.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

absolutely gorgeous

Legs flicker in rapid rhythms that dive and cut between the singer’s voice. The contrast between the plaintive sounds and driving patterns conjures a feeling of mixed emotions, irreconcilable feelings that burn within each of us. Watching Edwin Aparicio’s concert “Alma Flamenca” today at the Gala Theatre, I was transported by the beauty and eloquence of the dancers and musicians. It was one of the best performances I have seen in DC and reminded me of a flamenco performance I saw just after September 11, 2001 when Noche Flamenca performed in Connecticut. I was living close to New York City at the time and the flurry of the dancers’ feet contrasting with the sinuous flow of their arms and backs seemed to capture the conflicting emotions in the audience, the sadness, anger, grief, and rage that was palpable at the time.

If the audience today seemed more subdued, the dancers on stage were not. The performance was transcendent. It opened with a trio of gorgeous women who commanded the stage with their footwork and fans, then shifted to a more somber solo choreographed and performed by Defne Enç. Dressed in black, she embodied a sense of calm strength as she stalked across the stage and poured passion into virtuosic phrases. The duet that followed, “Seguiriyas” by Edwin Aparicio and Genevieve and Guinn, brought out one aspect of flamenco that makes me cherish this dance form: the women and men take part in the dancing that is aggressive as much as they share the phrases that are more subtle and subdued. I was particularly impressed by Guinn’s performance because Aparicio is a stellar artist who makes it hard to watch anyone else on stage. She matched his power in her own exquisite way and their duet turned the stage into a richly woven fabric of music, dancing, and duende.

In a book I am reading about flamenco, Goethe is quoted as saying: “Duende… a mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained.”

It is the spirit that seems to overtake a great flamenco dancer and it was visible today. It is another element I love about this dancing and music: it’s not only mesmerizing to watch – as bodies and faces paint shapes and emotions on the stage – but it also deeply human and intimate. The dancers appear propelled by internal forces and allow for some play between control and risk, structure and freedom.

This may be why I find it so effective as communication. Although the performance was planned and choreographed it also valued creativity and spontaneity. The artists transmitted messages and ideas directly from body to body, dancers to musicians, and performers to audience. It was a moment that defies explanation. It must be felt and lived.

For more information about Edwin Aparicio, check out this terrific interview from DCist.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

24 hours

Between 7:30 Monday night and 7:30 Tuesday night there were three eye-opening events that made me question the role of arts criticism today. The first occurred at "Fly: Five First Ladies of Dance," a performance so stunning that there was collective euphoria afterwards as people smiled and greeted one another on their way out of The Kennedy Center. The second moment came in a class of Dance History when Dance majors asked pointed questions about dance writing and offered excellent observations about the role of critics. The last moment was the most disheartening: The Kennedy Center hosted a panel about arts criticism and Douglas McLennan, Editor of talked about how difficult it is for him to find decent dance writing to post on his site, then pondered if something should be done about theaters that restrict cell phone use since all the young people today only want to attend events where they can use their communication devices constantly. One of the panelists turned to him and asked "are you suggesting we twitter at the opera?" The discussion seemed light-years away from the brilliance of the performance I had attended the night before and the curiosity and insights of the GMU Dance majors that afternoon. Given the power and impact critics have in shaping discourse, I was dismayed by the disconnect between artists and editors. Fortunately there were some thought-provoking pieces published about "Fly" in City Paper and The Washington Post. And I include some thoughts I wrote for my own memory of the performance.

Only five dancers were on the stage of The Terrace Theater last night: Bebe Miller, Germaine Acogny, Dianne McIntyre, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, and Carmen de Lavallade. Yet they brought with them the legacy and accomplishments of 50 years of African-American artists.

Saturday, October 30, 2010

How Do We Define and Classify Dance?

The human body is amazing. I love this art form of dance because there is no end to what the human form can express. Tonight, I attended a performance of Companhia de Danca Deborah Colker at the Kennedy Center. The dancers were athletic, precise, musical, sensual, mechanical and superhuman, all in one evening. The concert titled Mix, was a little disjointed due to the nature of the performance, as the program consisted of a “mix” of sections from other evening length thematic concerts.

I appreciated Colker’s choreographic sensitivity to the creation of environments and theatrical landscapes through which the performers explored. I was particularly in awe of the final selection called “Climbing,” during which the dancers fearlessly propelled and repelled themselves up, down, across, upside down, turning and backwards along a huge climbing wall. In the small amount of rock climbing I have personally attempted, I have always worn a harness. These dancers scaled the wall surface, without any safety device, as though they were moving along the floor. In fact, there were times my mind was tricked into believing that I was looking down at the performers from above. They created a new dimension for dancing!

I once again found myself searching for a definition of how to classify dance. Colker’s company is as athletic as it is technical as it is theatrical. Some may say the work is circus, theater, performance art, visual art, sport or dance. I wonder, why do we need a definition?

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

an interview with Professor Jim Lepore

If I need to change my mood from stress to joy, I just have to pass by Professor Lepore's Afro-Cuban dance class and watch a room full of students soaking up knowledge like sponges take water. Their skin glistens with sweat, their bodies accent the rhythms and their minds explore the intersections of dance, religion and politics. It's a moment that perfectly captures the melding of mind, body and spirit. Here Professor Lepore answers questions about his education, teaching and unbelievably talented family.

1. what draws you to dance? and to teaching?
I graduated from high school in 1971, during the throes of an international counter-culture that challenged status quo values and celebrated the virtues of “finding oneself.” My undergraduate years, spent hop-scotching around the US and Europe when not enrolled at a university, were dedicated to doing just that. Before I ever took a dance class, I spent time majoring in philosophy, art history, and/or ceramics. None of these subjects, however, engaged me enough (or engaged enough of me) to keep a fire burning after my initial fascination faded.

Luckily, I had a younger sister who studied modern dance and she, inadvertently, opened that door for me. When I finally started taking dance classes, I realized that they rekindled the charge I got from kinetic sensations as a child. (I can still vividly recall being engaged for endless hours in some physical activity, and being appalled by how disconnected adults were from that world; if growing up meant sitting around and talking, then I wanted nothing to do with it.) Dancing also required that I engage my senses in the immediacy of the moment. To dance was—pardon the 60’s cliché—to “be here now.”

The senses, I believe, not only inform us about the world that surrounds us, they also dictate how we experience that world.

room to soar

"State of the art" may be so overused that the phrase has become drained of meaning, but the dedication of the de Laski Performing Arts Building last night made these words come alive.

This new structure on GMU’s Fairfax campus is a spacious home for the Schools of Dance and Music. As students, faculty, administrators, donors, and the architects gathered yesterday to dedicate the building, I was mesmerized by the glory of the design. It's a place where imaginations can soar. It is also a testament to both generosity -- a gift from philanthropists Donald and Nancy de Laski made it possible to build this center  -- and dedication. The long-term commitment of faculty like Linda Miller who have been stalwart in their dedication to state of the art training and performances for dancers at GMU has turned aspirations into manifestations. 

While I enjoyed hearing recollections from Donald de Laski, as well as the President of GMU, Dr. Alan M Merten, and the Dean of the College of Visual and Performing Arts, William F. Reeder, it was choreography by Susan Shields and Christopher d’Amboise that enlivened the occasion. Shields’ duet called “Displaced” was performed by Alejandro Alvarez and Kailee Combs, students who have a stunning purity. Dressed all in white, they melted and folded into one another as if made of rice paper. Shields’ choreography is distinguished by its clarity and emotional nuance; d’Amboise offered a more boisterous celebration. Set to an adaptation of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” played by GMU's Jazz Chamber Ensemble, his choreography featured 13 dancers grooving to the rhythms. Shields and d’Amboise are artists who imbue their students with discipline and grace. It seems fitting that they can now teach in a building that radiates creativity and innovation.

Friday, September 17, 2010

News from Maya in Brussels

It has been an eventful couple of weeks!
I am back from ImPulsTanz (Vienna, Austria) and have been taking classes at a studio in the center of Brussels and was babysitting in the evenings. Then I took a two-week workshop with Ultima Vez. The first week was taught by a German named Jauregui Allue and the second week was taught by Inaki Azpillaga. It was Monday-Friday from 10am-4pm with a 20 minute break. It was the most intense and physically demanding workshop I have ever taken. We were rolling and jumping and flying.

Sunday, September 5, 2010

flash of the spirit

Last night KanKouran West African Dance Company turned Lisner Auditorium into a house of celebration. The performance was aptly titled Circle of Praise: Blessings! and paid tribute to dance scholar Dr. Sherrill Berryman-Johnson who passed away earlier this year.

The first act ended with dollar bills strewn across the stage and the second act featured performers as young as 3 or 4 years old dancing rhythms and beating drums with a multigenerational cast. The walls seemed to shake and the floor bounce. The live music, vibrant costumes, contagious enthusiasm of the performers, the virility of their dancing, and the cheers of the audience created a fiery joy. People from the audience approached the stage to toss money to the performers, but these bills seemed trifling compared to the power of their bodies and drums. It was a manifestation of spirit.

A dedication to Dr. Berryman-Johnson at the beginning of the evening included her ideas about technique and the importance of clarity and conviction. Listening to her words about the role of an institution – a school or company – to give dancers the structure they need to hone their craft, I realized the link between her dedication to teaching and the beauty of choreographers like Ronald K. Brown. They share a commitment to both discipline and grace.

At the end of the evening, KanKouran's company director, Assane Konte, remembered coming to America in 1979 and being asked by Dr. Berryman-Johnson to teach a class at Howard. He laughed as he recalled his answer: ‘I don’t speak English and we don’t take dance classes in Africa.”

Today, 31 years later, he said he missed a dear friend and legend: his company honored her vigilance and her investment in dance with a gorgeous celebration.

Monday, August 30, 2010

The first day of school!

I love the excitement of the first day of school. This morning, The School of Dance at George Mason University was buzzing with fresh energy. Many students returned with wonderful stories of summer adventures, the freshman class took their first steps of their four year journey into the unknown, the faculty were inspired and the new addition to the Performing Arts Building created quite a buzz! GMU was already blessed with beautiful, sunlight filled, spacious studios. Now there are two new, gorgeous studios accompanied by a student lounge, locker rooms and a physical therapy room added to the mix. I look forward to teaching, creating and dancing in the inspirational spaces. Anything and everything seems possible...we are at the beginning of a new journey, a new school year!

In this photo: The advanced modern dance class on the first day of the Fall 2010 semester at GMU.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

den of discussion

Last night’s viewing of dance films and videos brought together a small group of friends at my studio apartment to watch This Is It as well as a documentary on Butoh called Piercing the Mask, a brief clip of an Yves Klein performance, a film by Ludovica Riccardi about the creative process of Pierre Droulers and work by Beijing's Living Dance Studio.

An eclectic group of ideas and artists – what could possibly be shared among creators as diverse as Michael Jackson, Yves Klien, Tatsumi Hijikata, Kazuo Ohno, Wen Hui and documentary maker Wu Wenguang, and Pierre Droulers? What emerged over and over in the lively conversation that followed each film/video were distinct approaches to the body, to movement and to creation. Although the friends gathered are all curious about dance, we came to the discussion from different places; our unique perspectives included those of a writer, a massage therapist, a choreographer and performer and someone passionate about improvisational comedy. It was inspiring to listen to how each of us responded differently – and profoundly - to what we saw.

I thought of this again today when I went to see Mao’s Last Dancer (photo above), a film based on the true story of Li Cunxin's childhood and career. Much has been written about one of the first scenes when Li almost misses his chance to pursue dance, but it was a later incident that really impressed me. A ballet teacher gives Li contraband: a videotape of a performance by Baryshnikov (who has been dismissed in an earlier scene as a filthy defector…). Li is mesmerized and from this glimpse of what dancing can be, dedicates himself wholeheartedly to becoming an artist.

These glimpses we are given of other approaches, other performers, other ideas can be truly transformational. I strongly recommend Mao's Last Dancer as a film or the book and if you have never seen Klein's creations, there is a retrospective at the Hirshhorn until September 12.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Kayak and Choreography

On July 29, 2010, Karen Reedy Dance performed a site-specific dance at the Torpedo Factory, inspired by resident artists Marsha Staiger and Alison Sigethy. For me, the artist’s joint exhibition in the Torpedo Factory’s Target Gallery, titled “Art in Balance: Rhythm and Repetition,” evoked images of water, summer, relaxation and playfulness. Marsha’s bold use of color was both playful and mesmerizing. As I stood in front of her work, I was taken on a journey and transported out of reality into a magical space. Alison’s three dimensional work continued the layers of depth in theme. Her “Water Wall” (which looks exactly as it sounds) created a serene atmosphere, while her colorful “Fireflies” again referenced the ease and joy of the summer season.

I enjoyed witnessing the artistic process and collaboration leading to the art exhibition “Art in Balance,” while being a part of the collaboration that led to the performance of KRD. From both visual artist’s work, I drew inspiration for the dance. Marsha’s use of bold color and sense of play, combined with Alison’s sensitivity to natural elements such as water, provided ideas as to how the dance might interact. The performance began in the water, continued outdoors on the waterfront, led the audience inside and came to completion in the Target Gallery.

There were many exciting and experimental aspects of this performance for me as a choreographer. The first involved a dance for kayak. Alison Sigethy provided inspiration and expertise not only as a collaborating artist, but also a highly ranked kayak competitor. Not being experienced with kayaking myself, I was challenged and thrilled to learn about how a kayak moves.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

from Maya in Vienna

After graduating from the School of Dance this spring, Maya (pictured above with choreographer David Dorfman and his son) embarked on an adventure: she has been living, dancing, creating and meeting artists in Europe. Most recently she was at ImPulsTanz, an international festival of performances and workshops in Vienna, Austria. Here is her update:

"Just got back to Brussels from ImPulsTanz in Vienna and it was amazing! I went to ImPulsTanz because David Dorfman said I could be his assistant and take free classes so I took his composition class, Trisha Brown repertory with Shelley Senter, technique with Ori Flomin and I took class with Lisa Race. The next week I took class with Kenji Takagi and Francesco Scavetta. I also auditioned for a dance program in Venice run by Ismael Ivo and made it really far and find out in September if I get in! I saw performances by David Zambrano, Benoit LachambreDD Dorvillier, Les ballets C de la B/Alain Platel and Frank Van Laecke. David introduced me to Keith Hennessy, Risa Steinberg, Davis Freeman among others. I also met Meg Stuart and she asked to borrow a euro! (which she returned to me the next day) Also I was talking to a dancer and choreographer Abhilash Ningappa (pictured below), who I met in Brussels, and he invited me to be involved in his project in October and November!!! He already has the residency at an artist workspace in Brussels. Now I'm back here taking dance classes. I'm living with dancers I met at P.A.R.T.S., and Monday I have an appointment with the embassy to extend my visa!"

Thursday, August 19, 2010

David Leventhal

Some dance companies establish a relationship with an undergraduate program as a result of repertory set on students - or a graduate who lands a job with the company - or frequent performances on a particular campus. The special connection between Mark Morris Dance Group and GMU's School of Dance comes from all three of these factors – plus faculty like Dan Joyce and Karen Reedy performed with MMDG and a recent graduate, Shanleigh Philip, works administratively with MMDG. Such connections reveal the multifaceted ways MMDG has inspired students at GMU as well as the diversity of careers School of Dance graduates can pursue.

When MMDG performed at GMU's Center for the Arts in June, I enjoyed watching dancer David Leventhal onstage and was surprised to hear he was transitioning away from performing. I asked if he could share his plans with the dancers-in-dialogue blog and I hope you find his thoughts as inspirational and meaningful as I did. The photo above of Leventhal (right) and Brooklyn Parkinson Group member Martin Thall was taken by Katsuyoshi Tanaka at the Mark Morris Dance Center.

 1. When we spoke after the performance of MMDG at GMU you mentioned that you are transitioning away from full-time performing to dedicate more time to a new project. Can you describe this project and your decision to limit your performance schedule?

About nine years ago, my colleague John Heginbotham and I started teaching dance classes for people with Parkinson's disease. The Brooklyn Parkinson Group's executive director, Olie Westheimer, had approached MMDG with the idea about offering a customized dance class, and we decided to collaborate with BPG to offer free classes for people with PD, their spouses, caregivers and friends. Nine years later, the program has blossomed, so that in addition to teaching 50-60 participants a week at the Mark Morris Dance Center in Brooklyn, there are more than 40 classes around the world that are based to varying degrees on the MMDG/BPG model. Dance for PD has become an internationally acclaimed program and movement, and we've seen a sharp increase in demand from dance teachers who want to be trained by us, and from people with Parkinson's who want classes in their local communities. In response to this growth, the program needed someone to manage it day-to-day. Over the past two years, I had been teaching and networking on behalf of the program, and slowly--in spite of having a full-time performing career--I started taking on more of the logistical activities involved with replication and expansion. It made sense for me to become program manager because I believed passionately in the work of the program, knew everyone involved and was interested in developing a new skill set that was quite different from anything I'd done before. At the same time, I knew I was ready to stop performing full-time for a variety of personal and professional reasons. I'd been thinking about winding down my performing career for a long time. So everything just seemed to come together at once, and before I knew it, I had a plan. Mark Morris and MMDG's Executive Director, Nancy Umanoff, have been extraordinarily supportive and open to this transition, and Nancy in particular has worked very hard to put together a combination of administrative time, teaching engagements, and MMDG performing engagements so that I can earn a living as I begin this new venture.

2. What makes dance so attractive for people with Parkinson's? I just read an article on the website that said "Sustained repetitive dance movements strengthen muscles and keep the body supple, which is of particular  importance for people who suffer the relentless contractions that characterize Parkinson's." Can you explain more about how you teach and how the teaching benefits people with Parkinson's?

That quote is accurate, but it doesn't capture the whole picture. I think there's so much more to the class than the mechanics of dancing. Some people with Parkinson's do some kind of physical therapy and exercise. But the basis of our class--and the thing that drew BPG's Executive Director Olie Westheimer to the idea--is that professional dancers are movement experts who have lots of valuable information to share with people who have a movement disorder. And the best part is that the delivery of this information is done in an enjoyable, social, stimulating environment with live music. If you think about everything that dance training develops--precise rhythm, strategies for balancing, advanced coordination skills, use of the imagination in the service of movement, knowledge of where all parts of the body are in space, physical confidence and grace--you start to realize how closely those elements correspond to what people with PD have trouble with. Dance training seems to pinpoint the very things that PD attacks, and so there's the potential for a very powerful transformation from rigidity and unease to musicality and flow. The fact that dance is a cognitive and aesthetic activity, and not just exercise, is especially important. Participants learn to think like dancers, and can find ways around some of the physical blocks they experience when they're not in class. I'm reminded of British neuroscientist Semir Zeki's statement that all artists are instinctive neuroscientists. Although I think he's talking primarily of visual artists, I think the same could be said of dancers and choreographers, especially in this kind of setting. But I must add that we don't teach the class as neuroscientists (because we're not--not even close) or as therapists (which we're not). We teach a real dance class because we trust that the elements of dance training are in themselves enormously beneficial to this particular community, and because the classes are a great way to help people with PD think about movement having the potential to create joy and confidence, rather than frustration.

 3. And the third question, the flip side, is: how does this teaching enrich your own career and life outside the studios?

It's hard to list all the ways, but teaching this class has entirely changed the way I view teaching and dancing. I grew up as a serious ballet student at Boston Ballet, and then threw myself into modern dance in college. I think this route is fairly typical--perhaps not for a male--but for many of my colleagues. Along the way, you develop very set ideas about what dance is, and who does it, and if you're not careful, your perspective can become very narrow once you enter a professional company. You live and breath your career, and rehearsals and performances take place in a rarified environment in which everyone is highly trained, and everyone is operating at the highest professional level. Mark fights this--his aesthetic and world view is not elitist at all; he's a great humanist at heart and is fascinated by a multitude of non-professional dancing cultures--but it's inevitable in any performing dance institution that the actual working environment is quite cloistered. It has to be.

At a dinner party a couple weeks ago, the question: "What dancer left the most lasting impression on you?" ignited a storm of discussion. Barabra Korengold spoke about people and places in DC that played a crucial role in the development of dance in this city and I asked if she could share some of these memories here on dancers-in-dialogue:

"We talked a little at dinner about Nureyev. I really feel that in my life (so far) he has been the one dancer who has advanced the art more than anyone else. It wasn't just the advance in technique that he inspired, but I think the force of his personality on stage was just as revolutionary. It was the first time (I never saw Njinsky, so I can't compare the two) that a man had command of the stage as an equal to the ballerina. It really was astonishing. He also showed us so much of the classic repertoire that was unfamiliar to us in the west. Ballet in Washington grew up when The Kennedy Center opened [in 1971]. The first time I saw the Royal Ballet... was at the old Washington Coliseum (which was where the circus performed). When I danced with the Bolshoi when I was 12, the performances were at an old movie theater on F Street that has been torn down. The major companies just didn't come. ABT and NYCB sometimes came to Carter Baron in the summers, but there was always the risk of a rain out. When I danced in the Washington Ballet's Nutcracker it was at Constitution Hall (with the National Symphony).... For a long time Mary Day was the only game in town. Freddie Franklin worked with her for a while, but he left and started National Ballet.

Monday, August 16, 2010

any experience worth having...

The more I teach the more I find that there are three key things I hope students will grasp in a course like Dance History or Appreciation: first, the confluence of events that creates great artists and masterpieces; second, the diversity of people who have shaped our definition of dance in 2010; third, the arts, and dance in particular, are essential forms of communication and wellsprings of meaning. I know that a course has planted - or nurtured - that seed of curiosity in a student when I receive an email after they attend a performance that touches upon material we watched and discussed.

Yesterday I opened a message from Jeremiah, a student in the summer Appreciation course I taught at GMU. He attended a version of Macbeth that used elements of capoeira in some of the battles, and I had seen this production when it was part of the Capital Fringe festival in DC and wrote about it for DC Theatre Scene. I mentioned it one evening to the class because I found the show fresh and captivating. Its run was extended after the festival, and the performance that Jeremiah saw took place in McLean at 1st Stage. It makes me smile when I open a message from a student who has taken a course and wants to share his/her perspective on what artists are making today. I asked Jeremiah if I could include his email here on the blog and he wrote: "any experience worth having is worth sharing..." So here are his insights:

" was nothing short of fantastic. I did have a little shred of an unrealistic anticipation of how much capoeira would actually be incorporated, but I didn't let it detract from the performance in any way. I haven't been to a play since I saw Romeo and Juliet nine years ago, but I definitely recognized the taste of classical Shakespearean genius while being privileged with an intelligent and refreshing contemporary vision of it. I'm pretty familiar with the play itself and it's one of my favorites, so seeing it performed so well in a new way was extremely rewarding....

Sunday, August 15, 2010

onstage tonight

About 60 dancers – ranging in age from elementary to high school – turned the Millennium Stage of The Kennedy Center into an acoustic surface. They had spent one week learning the rhythms and percussive patterns of stepping, taught by members of Step Afrika, one of DC’s dance gems.

In a stellar program moderated by artistic director Jakari Sherman, four teams of steppers divided by age performed polyrhythmic phrases punctuated by sharp freezes. They included boys and girls, which is somewhat unusual since traditionally stepping is performed by university students grouped in fraternities or sororities. Step Afrika is a cultural jewel because it preserves and presents the history, artistry and athleticism of the dance, and provides a phenomenal show.

Friday, August 13, 2010

this weekend

Just received a message from a student who took the Appreciation course I taught this summer:

“There is a smoke dance competition on my reservation this weekend “

When Ashley shared with the class her experiences of life on a reservation, we were fascinated and inspired.  She described differences between the Onondaga Nation, which retains its customs and a form of government that includes a traditionally-selected Council of Chiefs, and other Native Americans. As Ashley stated when asked about powwows:  "Nations that have reservations maintain traditions on their reservation... These Nations are able to practice their religion with religious dancing within their own communities. Other Native Americans who do not have reservations of their own gather at powwows to share similar traditions and religious practices. It is a place where people share culture, dancing, food and clothing.” If you are near Syracuse on Saturday or Sunday, I strongly recommend a visit to the Onondaga Nation Arena. More information about the events and dancers can be found here.

Thursday, August 12, 2010


Going somewhere new mixes a little stress with a lot of excitement.

Last minute details, things to pack, arrangements to make… all balanced by the experience of elsewhere - sights, people, the possibility of experiencing life from another perspective. Perhaps best of all when I return from such a trip, I see anew what was once familiar.

A friend of mine talks about living life like a traveler: meeting everyday events with the mindset we have when we are in faraway places. We tend to be more curious, more energized, more open when we are away from the familiar – and this energy attracts conversations with people and encounters that rarely happen when we are immersed in our regular routine. What would happen if we brought a traveler’s approach into our daily schedule? would we see familiar sights in different ways? strike up conversations with the people we didn’t notice or take the time to engage?

Teaching Dance Appreciation at GMU is a little like a global tour. We look at and discuss dances from around the world, and the students enrich this experience by introducing their own stories of living and traveling in different countries. As I think about this, I find myself looking forward to the start of classes at the end of this month.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

unique power and melancholy

Just heard from Maria Ambrose who was in New York City this summer and who will soon begin her senior year in the School of Dance at GMU: "I went to the 'Haunted' exhibit at the Guggenheim this past weekend. It was so interesting and inspiring. It had the coolest combination of film, performance art, and portraits. Merce Cunningham was involved with one part that had 6 screens with a projected image of him sitting in a chair all from different angles and distances. It was called Stillness. I'm glad I caught it before I left and I hope people get a chance to go!"

Stillness (2007) is by artist Tacita Dean and I saw a version of it in Philadelphia when it was part of the "Dance with Camera" exhibit at the Institute of Contemporary Art. It evokes John Cage's 1952 composition 4'33": in the films Cunningham sits in a chair and is viewed from different angles.

More information about the exhibit "Haunted: Contemporary Photography/Video/Performance" is available here.

Reality Quest

Saw Step Up 3 in 3D yesterday. Movies like this make teaching courses in dance a total joy. The acting may be pretty awful, but the film acknowledges the reasons why people dance, the sacrifices they are willing to make and the sense of belonging that they acquire.

It comes as close as I have seen to simulating the feeling of watching dance without a screen separating performer and observer, and it steers clear of the sexually aggressive tone of prior movies like You Got Served (check out its opening scene here).

It creates the possibility for students to come into a class like Dance Appreciation curious about parkour, freerunning, capoeira, the power moves of b-boys, popping and locking - all of which are represented in the film. In one scene where water is spilled on the dance-floor, the 3D technology intensifies the impact, making me wonder how many people in the movie theater know this has been done by artists like Pilobolus (in Day Two) and Dave St. Pierre (in Un peu de tendresse bordel de merde!) - and the effect is even cooler when it is seen live?

My question is: do movies that replicate the experience of seeing dance without a screen encourage people to buy a ticket and see dance in a theater or at a dance-battle, to participate in this unique experience?

Then again, there is a way to enjoy dance on screen without it being turned into a competition or spectacle: The Legion of Extraordinary Dancers, a web series directed by the same man who directed Step Up 3 Jon M. Chu.

orchestrating emotion

Students in Dance History at GMU select and develop a research topic during the semester-long course. It's a fascinating project when it engages students' creativity, their ability to explore sources beyond  books and publications, and to interview artists, scholars, and experts in a variety of sectors. Many projects uncover ways in which dance both impacts and instigates changes in cultures, politics, and history.

Last semester Maria Ambrose looked at the relationship between Mary Wigman and the policies of the Third Reich, and a month ago I received this message from her: "I was just browsing the itunes trailers online and this was one of the most recent ones. I thought you might find it interesting because of the propaganda lesson in class. A little late for my research paper, but still cool!" The film opens August 18.

Today I visited the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum where the exhibit "State of Deception: The Power of Nazi Propaganda" is on view. Although there is no mention of Wigman and only a brief mention of the "Entartete Kunst (Degenerate Art)" exhibit, there are other examples of the extent to which ideology permeated everyday life: a board game in the exhibit called "Der Siegeslauf des Hakenkreuzes (The Swastika's Victorious Course)" and Joseph Goebbels' plans for regular television service (Germany in 1935 was one of the first nations to introduce it). The exhibit says "Goebbels saw the great propaganda potential... but believed it was best viewed by groups." An interesting comment about the power of mass spectacle and the party's determent of independent thinking. I encourage artists to see the exhibit: it made me think again about intersections between politics, art, and how beliefs can be manipulated.

Friday, August 6, 2010

more about music - and love

Those who have taught (or been in) a Dance Appreciation course may be familiar with the “Dancing” video series and the episode about “Dance at Court.” In it Albert Opoku, Dance and Art Historian at the University of Ghana, says: “If you are taught dancing and you know it properly, when you hear the drums – I don’t know exactly how to describe it, I think the Americans say: it does something to you.”

He emphasizes “does” with a gesture, and adds, “the nearest English equivalent is that inside the head [becomes] sweet, like tasting sugar. There’s a certain kind of pride that you belong to a great people. You are not conscious of it, but it makes you move.”

As someone who loves music – and sugar - this makes a lot of sense. The response is visceral and contagious. It infiltrates the body. And it makes me think of two passages from a book called “We: Understanding the Psychology of Romantic Love” which a friend encouraged me to read. I admit I was skeptical: another new agey/how-to manual for relationships, but some of the first chapters made me curious enough to continue: it takes the story of Tristan and Iseult as metaphor for how we respond to people and expectations.

One passage describes the difference between learning from experience and learning from books: “The bells and music of Christendom have been the only voices by which the West told of the spirit without getting lost in concepts, abstractions, and words; the bells send forth a sound that is pure feeling, that darts past the mind and sets up an involuntary reverberation in the soul. [The bell] has the power to reveal the Dionysian side of spiritual existence, where truth is felt with the senses, felt in the images that flow from the unconscious, felt as a living encounter…”

Here I am reminded of Professor Opoku’s sweetness which bypasses words and explanation. "We" continues:

Monday, August 2, 2010

a music monday

Much of Sunday was spent watching dance and thinking about relationships between music and movement. The day started when I opened an email from a friend that had this quote:
"An ecstatic moment in music is worth the lifetime of mastery that goes into it, because it can be shared."
-Keith Jarrett

Then I saw Urban Artistry perform their "silent" piece, and in the evening I went to the movies to see the story of Coco Chanel and Igor Stravinsky.

The afternoon performance took place outdoors at Meridian Hill Park (aka Malcolm X Park) and advertisements for the free event came with BLUEBRAIN's score available for download. About 100 people were there at 2pm. We received instructions to push play on our personal listening devices at the cue. (Initially it was announced “Get Ready to push play on your iPhone” to which one audience person responded “Droid!”) The dancers were full of energy – popping and locking, grooving and b-boying. Since I like John Cage’s view of the world’s music, I do not own any device for listening with earphones and prefer to hear the sounds that surround us. As earphone people around me bopped and danced to the music, I wondered if the dancers (who were also wearing earphones) could hear the audience when they whooped and hollered or broke into applause for a particularly virtuosic solo... I enjoyed it all but it made me think of how isolating personal devices can be and how much more chance there is for interaction when we share the same sounds. It was sponsored by Pink Line Project, Honest Tea, Ear Peace, and Rogue Squirrel. 

Coco Chanel & Igor Stravinsky” is a glimpse of the passionate affair between two 20th century greats. Chanel (the stunning Anna Mouglalis) gives new meaning to the phrase fiercely independent. Stravinsky, played by Mads Mikkelsen, seems to be tormented by his desire for her and his music, and at the same time holds onto his male chauvinistic views. It is a gorgeous film: the actors are stellar, the slice of history that it highlights is fascinating and fertile – changing the course of music and fashion in the decades to come. All the adjectives I use to describe Stravinsky when I teach Dance History: ground-breaking, revolutionary – are just as apt to describe Chanel’s designs and scents. Even the opening montage of images that appear to melt and intersect are mind-bending. I highly recommend this movie, especially if you love to think about intersections of dance and music - onstage and off - as much as I do.

Saturday, July 31, 2010

our first interview

Clarence Brooks. the name that may be familiar to you already.

I met him in the mid-1990s when he was dancing with the Nikolais/Louis company. Our paths crossed frequently in NYC and again in 2005 in Boca Raton, Florida where he is the Director of Dance at Florida Atlantic University.

This spring, while teaching Dance History at George Mason University, a video of Nikolais' work included Clarence as one of the dancers. When he appeared on the screen, a student shouted out "That's my teacher!" She had taken his classes at Bak Middle School of the Arts in West Palm Beach. The point I am trying to make: Clarence has been invested in dance for decades and the impact of his thoughtful teaching and dedication to this art-form is widespread. Here's the interview:

Question 1: Why do you teach?

Clarence: I started teaching dance shortly after I started training to become a dancer - which is not something I would recommend. It is something that I really enjoy doing. As a highly kinetic and spatial learner, I obtain a great deal of sustainment observing others challenge their bodies, their imaginations, and their use of space and environment. Watching others learn enables me to have a deeper understanding of what I am doing as a dancer, teacher, choreographer and as a student.

Question 2: During your dancing career you have performed in virtually every state with a range of ballet as well as modern companies, what advice would you give to aspiring dancers?

Clarence: I am so very grateful to this field for the opportunities it has afforded me.
Always educate yourself; place yourself in a learning environment; what you learn can never be taken away from you; learning is never a waste of time, energy or money;
Study the other art forms and the relationships between them;
Study more than one dance form and see as much dance as possible;
Document as much of your training and career as possible; collect a program from each performance you participate in; get a video/DVD; collect photographic images of you in rehearsal and performance as well as you with your peers and teachers; write down your recollections of classes, master classes and performances;
Audition for the sake of auditioning; you are not entitled to get everything you audition for (or apply for) but you should open yourself to the possibility of a new experience as well as to the inevitability of rejection;
Don’t be afraid to fall/fail because the ground is not that far below us;
Don’t be afraid to get up/fly again – do it with grace and humility;
Unfortunately, Life and dance are roses with thorns; things are so much better now than they were and if the youth put their shoulder to the wheel it will get even better; but you have to get involved, and do the right thing, and keep forging newer, better paths for those who will follow behind you;
Above all, be a good person and try to do no harm;

Respect yourself; take real good care of your instrument; treat it well and responsibly.

Question 3: We both admire and miss Kathy Grant (in the photo above with Clarence). How did she contribute to your growth and success as a professor?

Clarence: Kathy Grant was a teacher and mentor and friend to me.
When we were introduced to each other after a performance she noted that because I was the only black person onstage and she was the only one in the house, other audience members thought I was her son. She said since I knew what I was doing she did not disown me nor did she set the appreciative-but-mistaken audience members straight. She guided me through other moments of racism that were not as endearing as our initial greeting.

Friday, July 30, 2010

epiphany in the shower

The summer course I was teaching at George Mason University ended on Wednesday. Called “Dance Appreciation” the class fulfills a fine arts requirements and students often include those who have danced all their lives as well as people who have never attended a dance class or concert. The diversity of perspectives makes it a fascinating experience. On the first day I ask students to write down their answer – between 2 and 4 sentences – to the question: “What is dance?” I collect these and look at them alongside their answers on the final exam when they are asked to describe at least five different roles that dance can serve. Here is one student’s answer (the same student who had been in Iraq and wrote the review posted 2 weeks ago):

“to act as intermediary between physical and spiritual worlds, which we saw in Native American rituals; to showcase a place in society – as we watched in the courts of King Louis XIV; to tell a story, which we saw in Romantic Ballet – offering ways of showing narrative without speaking words; to teach social graces – as we saw in the documentary Mad Hot Ballroom; to preserve and define a culture as we saw with Flamenco and with Gumboots when people who were disenfranchised used dancing to retain a sense of power and worth; to connect to the spiritual realm – as we saw in the snake ritual in Kerala when the girls destroyed the mandala when they were in trance”

I am posting this today on National Dance Day because people in Congress (Eleanor Holmes Norton) seem to equate dancing with aerobic exercise: Congresswoman Norton states

Thursday, July 29, 2010

On view tonight

Nestled between today's storms Karen Reedy Dance, artist/kayaker Alison Sigethy, and musician Jeff Franca brought rays of light and calm to the waterfront of Alexandria, VA.

Taking place in front of and through the Torpedo Factory, their collaboration offered sounds and sights akin to gentle breezes. There were poetic images and graceful lyricism in the dancers, percussionist and kayaker as they intertwined themes of waves and tides. The creation made me think of a beautifully tuned string instrument: not too tight, not too loose, just right.

Sigethy began the performance in a kayak, coming towards the crowd that stretched along the dock. Rolling in her boat, she turned upside down and right-side up. It was playful and soothing. Ducks passing by seemed to be perfectly choreographed into her swirls and twirls.

Dancers on the dock picked up the curving shapes of Sigethy’s choreography and the waves that enveloped her. Making patterns with their bodies, there was a sense of exploration and harmony: synchronization between the dancers, the warm evening, the crowd that gathered to watch.

The performers were distinguished by their all-white outfits: shorts, dresses, capris. They were stunning: Constance Dinapoli, Karen Dunn, Bobby Sidney, Noelle Snyder, Alexis Thury, and Rachael Venner. Their different ages and body types reflected the diversity of people in the crowd and added to a sense of balance and coexistence (I discovered after the show that Sigethy’s exhibit in the gallery is called “Art in Balance: Rhythm and Repetition”)

guest blogging: Kelly Bond's "Elephant"

Since this is a site about dialogue, it is great to include responses to performances from other people. Here John Lanou creates his own work of art - a poem -  inspired by Kelly Bond's performance "Elephant" which took place in the Capital Fringe festival:

by John Lanou
"I tend to get quite hungry, without even knowing it. Then I taste food and realize I'm starving." ~ my friend after the show.
Naked. Acting. On display. Naked. Exposed. Like a gorilla. For all to see. With nowhere to hide.


Karen Reedy Dance takes part in a collaboration at the Torpedo Factory. This is one of the essential paths of performance today: sharing ideas and creations between different disciplines. I am also excited to see this event because it is live and site-specific. When I talk to people about dance today they think that what they see on television - So You Think You Can Dance - is all there is. I am not knocking the show - it does a lot to open the eyes of viewers and get them interested, but it does not acknowledge the diversity of dance and performance styles that exist in our world. And I think it makes little to no effort to acknowledge the sources and people who have pioneered these styles and ideas. While I am on this topic, has anyone heard about National Dance Day happening on Saturday?

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Since Sunday

Here is the full review of Sunday's event at Castleton Festival on a site called Widening the I.

The Washington Post sent the classical music critic to review the event (article here). Since the performance featured stunning choreography it would have been valuable to read a review from the dance critic. I often wonder why we hear so little from DC's writers for mainstream publications about next generations of choreographers and performers....

There are some great up-and-comers in this area: on Monday I visited the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange. I had been invited to speak to the International Teen Institute about the intersection of architecture and dance - my two favorite subjects - as they relate to site specific performance and flash mobs. I spoke about Bill Wasik and where/how flash mobs originated: interesting to see how something that started as a comment on consumerism has been overtaken by commercials and advertising (look at the T-Mobile mob here). After the talk, John Borstel, Humanities Director for the Dance Exchange, told me about this hilarious event by Improv Everywhere at Abercrombie.

Unexpected interventions are not a 21st century creation: in 1963 Robert Rauschenberg created a performance called Pelican  in a DC roller-rink. His work evokes the idea "Attack Complacency" which could also be applied to flash mobbers. Trisha Brown in 1971 created "Walking on the Wall" at the Whitney: on view again this September. And Bill Shannon makes performances out of his daily travel. These are some examples of fascinating work that brings us into contact with what attracts us to today's flash mobs: spontaneity, engagement, democracy, participation, and new ways of seeing the world -- and people -- around us.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

more from Maya in Brussels

Just heard more from Maya who graduated from GMU this spring: "I've been taking morning classes at P.A.R.T.S. (I even saw Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker on Friday!), so that has been great and I've been meeting a nice group of dancers. I met this artist/composer David Helbich who is a part of the arts scene here and he took me to this opening of a new shop called shop residence. The gallery that started this is nadine. Also David Dorfman said I could be his assistant and take his class at ImPulsTanz so I'm thinking of going to Austria for a week in August."

igor stravinsky and faye driscoll

Today I discovered a jewel in the boonies - Rappahannock County - which is an area of farms, vineyards and fields for miles. A wealthy and generous conductor, Maestro Lorin Maazel, and his wife Dietlinde, invite young musicians and artists to develop performances which are made into a festival called Castleton during the month of July. Today's program was Stravinsky's “A Soldier’s Tale” conducted by Maestro Maazel with choreography by Faye Driscoll. It was fantastic. The cast was Philip Taratula, Sean Donovan, Mike Mikos, and Toni Melaas. Also on the program was Manuel de Falla's "Master Pedro's Puppet Show" conducted by Han-Na Chang and created with New York City's Puppet Kitchen. I've written a review which I hope is posted on a website soon so I can share it with everyone here... it was an incredible afternoon.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

open minds

Tonight I saw Kelly Bond’s Elephant at the Fringe Festival and I finally understood why so many of my friends have raved about this performance. Was it dance? Not in the traditional sense of shapes and lines transforming in and out of each other to intentional sound. It was much deeper than that. Seeing Elephant caused me to journey into its peculiar world and get lost in moments on stage and in my head. So often I see dance that simply regurgitates the practices that have been handed down since the time of Isadora Duncan causing a disconnect between me and what I am watching. The world is very much the same since the time of Isadora, but we are different people. We strive to remain the same but we push for change. Elephant is about change.

So here is why I liked it. They were beautiful to watch, there was a non-sexual nudity that spoke to a feeling of deep humanity. We are a mostly hairless ape and yet hair was significant as a differentiating factor on nude bodies. They told us stories, I have been told not to tell stories in dance since I started choreographing but good stories are entertaining and they make us use our imagination. It was theater but it was interactive, they talked to us and expected us to talk back and we did. It was self-reflective in that they performed and revealed that they were performing so that no moment was outside of us but everything that happened kept us as participants in the journey.

They made me laugh and they made me scared. They made me question things that I thought were true, which opened my mind and caused me to grow as a person. That is the power of art.

two quotes

Recently came across two passages that resonate with one another: one from Osho, author of "Zen: the Path of Paradox" and the other from "Miles Beyond" about Miles Davis, written by Paul Tingen, and recommended to me by Reuben Jackson who has an impressive knowledge of music, the arts, and for a long time was the archivist of the Duke Ellington Collection for the Smithsonian Institution.

From Osho: "Art has nothing to do directly with enlightenment, but enlightenment has much to do with art. When many enlightened people exist in the world, they create a different kind of world, they create different kinds of things, naturally. Zen art has a quality of its own. Watching a Zen painting you become meditative; watching a Zen painting you are transported into another world. Listening to an ancient song like Bhagavad Gita, just listening -- even if you don't understand, even if you don't know the language, the Sanskrit language -- just listening, just the tonality of it, just the timbre of it, just the music, the melody of it, and suddenly you feel great silence arising in you, flowers showering inside you, something opening, something blossoming. The world needs enlightened art. But that cannot be managed by teaching people how to create more art. That can be managed only if people start moving towards their inner core of being."

From Miles Beyond: "Great art has more chance of emerging when artists are acutely aware of their strengths and limitations. As an improvisational, here-and-now musician pur sang Miles did not have the inclination, the patience, or the skills to get deeply involved in the time-consuming,  laborious post-production process. Moreover one of Miles's main strengths was the freedom he allowed the musicians with whom he worked..."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Onstage today

one of the beauties of a blog is a chance to write on any topic, any event, any person, particularly those items not covered in mainstream publications. Today I was the Washington School of Ballet to see a performance by students after their Summer Intensive. It was inspiring and full of delight, with 3 highlights being the opening choreography by Kristina Windom, the last piece on the program for the highest level of students by Carlos Valcarcel, and the students’ own choreography. The first piece, which Kristina choreographed for younger dancers to Mendelssohn’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, was airy and magical: in long tutus and leotards the performers swirled through the steps. A young soloist was dedicated and winsome with her long arabesque lines.

Valcarcel’s choreography for the older students was a stunning closer. Set to Beethoven, his choreography masterfully enlivened the music, spotlighting its canons and peaks. The students rose to the challenge of the creation's speed and intricacy. It would be fantastic to see what Valcarcel could make for the company, The Washington Ballet, and other professional troupes.

Last but not least, the students themselves offered their own choreography, beautifully designed with interesting formations and patterns. And it was a great idea to have different groups of dancers use the same music so that when we, the audience, saw the variety of ways we hear music and create movement to its textures.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Onstage last night...

The Paul Taylor Dance Company performed at Wolf Trap, bringing back a wave of memories and thoughts about the future of this art form. The company was buoyant and energetic; the repertory included 1988’s Brandenburg, Phantasmagoria (a DC premiere), and 2008’s Beloved Renegade. It is impressive to see a span of 20 years of choreography, and tonight when I teach at GMU the students will be looking at other Taylor works dating back to the 1950s. How many choreographers in the United States have been able to sustain careers and companies for 56 years? Of the performers last night, Michael Trusnovec was particularly stunning. The purity and calm strength of his dancing reminded me of a favorite former company member Patrick Corbin.

But what other dance offerings are available at Wolf Trap this year? Students from the summer Appreciation course I teach have attended Cirque Dreams - Illuminations and Riverdance. This September they have a chance to see Chinese acrobats. When did these spectacle-extravaganzas become such a prominent part of dance programming? If it is economic, meaning the need to fill almost 4,000 seats (The Filene Center at Wolf Trap can accommodate 7,028 total: 3,868 in-house; 3,160 lawn), what impact does this have on the repertory that used to appear at such large venues… where do these companies go?

I remember in the early 1980s – maybe 1981? – seeing The Joffrey Ballet perform at Wolf Trap. The program included The Green Table and it left an indelible impression. It didn’t seem like a ballet from 1932, it was fresh and captivating. I think something is lost when dance history becomes a story of videotapes and DVDs, and live events are about catering to mass entertainment.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010


A photo from Caroline Yost who is a student in the GMU School of Dance and spending her summer before senior year in Jakarta. More about her adventures can be read here on her blog. The above photo is the Borobudur Temple - which is a 9th-century Mahayana Buddhist monument near Magelang, Central Java, Indonesia. The monument comprises six square platforms topped by three circular platforms, and is decorated with 2,672 relief panels and 504 Buddha statues.... Below is Prambanan Temple, Yogyakarta. More images coming soon.... 

Monday, July 19, 2010


Performers leaping on cars and rolling on cement may not be the first images that come to mind when you hear the phrase "dance concert," but Liz Lerman Dance Exchange made these images part of an event Friday night in DC. When I reviewed it, I used the word "fearless" to describe the artists, and thought about how any new venture requires risk and courage. Fearless is a word that also comes to mind when I hear about the plans and projects of recent GMU graduates like Maya Orchin.

During her summer before senior year, Maya was in France working with David Dorfman and becoming inspired by the people and ideas across the Atlantic. After graduating this spring, she flew to Europe, first working with an artist at PAF (the incubator for theorists and artists) located in France and run by Jan Ritsema, then traveling to Brussels.

She writes: "So i made it to Brussels!!!! PAF was amazing - an unbelievable place. They turned a huge convent into a performing arts retreat. The rooms have been transformed to studios with unbelievable views. Here's a picture (above) of the PAF inner courtyard from my room...  When you walk the halls you hear a mixture of dancers rehearsing, musicians playing, and you see writers and poets outside and painters usually would be in the bell tower. At night there were showings and I saw bizarre dance pieces where a woman just moved her head for an hour and a half. There was a group from Australia working on dance and visual art and combining the two. There was a great Norwegian group who were editing films. I met these fabulous scientists from Paris and I met a dancer from Amsterdam who sat me down and told me everything about the dance scene there. PAF is run by Jan Ritsema-a prominent European choreographer who has taught at P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels. When the Laban school came I was invited to take their movement, vocal, and Alexander class a few times so that was a great experience. I met some great dancers from Italy and will see their show in London in October.

New York City

Trisha Brown is someone who consistently triggers a stimulating conversation whether it is a Dance History or Dance Appreciation class. I will usually show her Whitney Museum piece "Walking on the Wall" from 1971 and ask "Is this dance?" or "Is this art?" which leads to an intense "What is art?/What is dance?" conversation. Brown inspires us to consider how we define these ideas through the radical way she shifts our perspective, changes the surface of the stage, and uses pedestrian action and actual time. So to walk into the Whitney Museum on Sunday and to see Brown's "Walking on the Wall" projected on a gallery wall was very cool. It was part of the exhibit: "Off the Wall - Part 1" and I recommend it to anyone interested in performance, art and communication through movement. I also made my first visit to the 92nd Street Y in Tribeca, a beautiful multidisciplinary venue where I saw Reverend Billy and the Life After Shopping Gospel Choir. Really fantastic, smart and a lot of fun.

Friday, July 16, 2010


When a picture is this stunning, I think it is okay to post it twice. Plus there is more to the story: Nora Hickman graduated from GMU in 2009. She is the dancer directly below the arch with her feet apart, leaning to the left and the whole project is viewable here. Nora says of the experience: "we rehearsed outside in
December from 8am to 10am, 3 days a week for a month. So it ended up being a really beautiful event and a bunch of people were there, but we rehearsed in the rain and ended up getting sick. I've learned that it's great to audition and try everything... once."

This summer

Teaching Dance Appreciation this summer at GMU has been eye-opening. Among the students in the course is Jeremiah Howdeshell, who was an enlisted infantryman in the Active Duty portion of the Army for 4 years. He writes: "my first unit was the 1/24 Infantry Regiment, 25th Infantry Division in Fort Lewis, Washington from January 2006 - June 2006. Our unit reflagged and we changed to 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment and moved to Vilseck, Germany from July 2006 - August 2007. We deployed to Baghdad and Muqdadiyah Iraq from August 2007 until October 2008. I returned to Vilseck until August 2009 when I was awarded an ROTC Scholarship to end my service early to start the path to become a commissioned officer. This picture is from Muqdadiyah; we don't have a lot pictures from Baghdad because we were shot at on a daily basis and when we were back at base we were too tired to do much beyond sleep, eat and call home. This is a group of us from 'Mustache March' where most of us affirmed that we need to not grow a mustache ever again."

One reason I enjoy teaching Dance Appreciation is because it brings people together to discuss not only different ways of dancing, but also cultural identity, how we express values and beliefs, and how we respond to other cultures and ideas. Jeremiah has been able to broaden our perspectives on what is happening today in Iraq, and is also a gifted dance writer. He attended "Ballet Across America" at The Kennedy Center last month. Portions of his review are here. He says "I chose to see the ballet because I had never seen anything like it before, and as a part of my love of traveling and exploring I always try to give new experiences a chance, and more often than not it has been rewarding." An excerpt of his review:

"The third movement, Shindig, initially surprised me based on the name, and did not disappoint me in being a surprising performance. Dancing to the music of a blue-grass band, six couples burst onto the stage hooting and stomping, the men in jeans and short sleeved shirts and the girls in summer dresses with knee length skirts. The atmosphere of this movement was completely different from the other two [performances by Houston Ballet and The Suzanne Farrell Ballet], but still contained the basic elements and feel of a ballet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010


Norton Owen, director of preservation at Jacob’s Pillow, recently used a provocative image to capture the importance of dance heritage: in Avatar, there are characters who receive nourishment from a Tree of Souls which is fed by their ancestors. It is a magical, glowing place which director James Cameron says was inspired by bioluminescence that he encountered during night diving. Why is it important to dance? Dance draws it power and creativity from human interaction: this legacy continually nurtures and motivates artists, students, and audiences around the world. Awareness of our Tree of Souls is essential not only for dancers, archivists, and scholars but also for students and our next generation of choreographers.

I thought of this a couple days ago as I was having lunch with a friend who was recently promoted to the role of Projects Manager for Liz Lerman Dance Exchange – Ellen Chenoweth. She is a colleague I admire for her curiosity, her exploration of ways of expanding awareness for dance, and her ability to promote events and ideas that call for recognition and support.

When we met we got on the topic of broader perspectives. She shared a story about Sarah Gamblin, Associate Professor of Dance at Texas Women’s University, who was a member of Bebe Miller Company from 1993-2000. What Ellen recalled was the way that Sarah’s long-time association with Bebe Miller gave her a point of view on creative process and research that enriched the community of artists in Texas – people who may never have encountered Bebe Miller’s performances.

We had been talking about how much of the dance we see fits into a rather small vocabulary of shapes and ways of choreographing. When a college or university brings in people who have had rich experiences with choreographers, company directors and artists, the students’ learning is expanded, their perspectives broadened. When I think of the dance history gathered in the faculty of the School of Dance at GMU, I see how vital - and generative - it is for departments to bring in faculty who have learned from, performed, and worked with accomplished artists, choreographers, and company directors.

Monday, July 12, 2010

in response...

Thinking about Amanda’s awesome comment below – and before I start sounding like one of those people who never attends performances that I appreciate – here is a list of 10 things I have seen recently which left indelible impressions.

These artists offer vital statements about performance as shared experience - particularly Tino Sehgal’s “This Progress” at the Guggenheim Museum and Marina Abramović’s “The Artist is Present” at the MoMA - and also create vocabularies for the body, mind, spirit which are unforgettable "Fela!" by Bill T. Jones on Broadway, Akram Khan and Sidi Larbu Cherkaoui in zero degrees – particularly for its use of dance as path to identity and communication (a great review is here) , Karen Reedy’s "Path of Attraction," Shen Wei Dance Arts at The Kennedy Center, Kelly Bond’s "Splitting the Difference," at the DC Fringe Festival 2009, Zoe Knights' “Death in the count of 9” for its extraordinary integration of movement, choreography, music, lighting and costume and Les SlovaKs Dance Collective “Opening Night” (these last 2 performances were part of the festival in Salzburg, Austria in 2008 where I worked as a dramaturge), and finally the unclassifiable and unforgettable "Cornfield" by Nancy Bannon at Transformer Gallery in DC.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

7 in 48

Over the last 48 hours I have attended 7 performances and reviewed them for the DC Theatre Scene website.

It is Fringe season in DC so there are about 130 shows between now and July 25. The ones I saw were creative and inspiring: a merger of Shakespeare's Macbeth and Capoeira that was fantastic - and The Sleeping Beauty told by puppets - also clever. It is refreshing to see and write about theater as well as dance. I think the borders between these categories are dissolving, and it's interesting to see how the productions categorized as theater tend to be more focused in their intent and design.

I find myself reviewing dance performances and being left with questions like how did the choreographer connect that movement to that topic? As someone who loves dance, studies it, teaches courses in it, watches it, I am surprised by 2 things: how frequently dance is used as decoration - what I call visual display - rather than honoring the intelligence and communicative power of the body's movement. Second I am surprised by the sameness of the movement - whether the topic is multiculturalism, depression, or loss, I see similar steps, phrasing and shapes.

When Karen and I talked about starting this website we hoped to hear from you, from people who read about dance, dancers, artists, and performance. What I have noticed writing for this theatre website is that the choreographers themselves respond to what I write - this is great! They often write to explain the choices they made choreographically and sometimes I find myself wishing their performances contained the clarity of ideas written in their comments. Why is it so rare for dance to be used as its own unique discipline - unlike words or painting or music - that conveys something about knowledge, emotion, and relationships - rather than something used to illustrate a text or fuse some catchy shapes?

In an ideal world, I see dance as a communicative medium, capable of sharing insights, and performances as events where there is a reason why the choreographer invited us to come. I am most inspired by the artists who have ideas about what they intend to present and choose movement and dancers that make these statements perceptible.

What inspires you?

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Close to the Glass

In 2008 I was in NYC and there was an exhibit called "Close Encounter" about Chuck Close and Philip Glass at the Met. While I did not see the works I did take a moment to make a dance a day about it. I don't usually hold the camera as I dance which is exactly why I decided to hold it for this particular video. Sometimes its good to do things another way even if you know the outcome won't be very good. What I found interesting about the video is the connection between me, the glass, the portrait of Philip Glass, my breathing and the sense of mirroring that happened. The portrait is both inside and outside, I am outside but my reflection is inside.

cultural hegemony

In this episode of So You Think You Can Dance? two contestants perform a Bollywood number, then the judges analyze their dancing. They compare the movement to hip hop, to “African” and to Georgian State dancers without mentioning any dance form from India such as Bharatanatyam or Bhangra. I posted this a week ago, but then got into a conversation (argument?) with a friend who saw nothing unsettling about the comparisons made by the judges. My questions remain: why do the judges assume they are experts on dance when their comments make the performances into sport-like entertainment and fail to acknowledge any of the cultural history embedded in these dance forms? When one judge compares the ankle bells of the dancer -- in Bharatanatyam they are used to accent the rhythm of the feet and called ghungroos -- to Santa Claus sleigh, his comment makes me think this show is about championing consumption rather than honoring the knowledge that is embedded in these forms. The judges sound amazed by how similar the duet looks to hip-hop, when it is performed by two dancers who have probably had more classes in hip hop than dances of India. Is it really surprising that the routine ends up looking like hip-hop?