dance

A blank slate

A few months ago, after watching a group of my peers doing a light run of one of the pieces that will be performed for the very last time this evening, I jotted down these observations:

There’s something special about watching a group of dancers rehearse. But let me be more specific. There’s something about watching a group of dancers who love and support each other, who have worked closely together for a number of years. There’s something about taking a community with these sorts of relationships and putting them in an informal rehearsal setting, one where there’s nothing to prove, no one at the front of the room to impress, just the space and sound and moves and, most significantly, each other. Then there are sudden glimmers of smiles between friends, startled laughter over near misses, approving whistles when someone grabs a motion out of the void and makes it into something. There are quick bursts of conversation and inside jokes woven within the sequence of the choreography. And sometimes in the midst of the casual camaraderie the air is sucked right out of the room when the group spontaneously arrives together to create a moment out of nothing, coalescing and collapsing in the breath between the crash of one wave against the next.

My awe for the superhumans I work with every day has only grown since then, because they are all so beautifully flawed and human and brilliant. Now, four months later, we are a few hours away from our last performance together as a class. Some of my classmates have already booked their first jobs. Others are in the midst of final round callbacks. Others still have yet to make it past the first cut at any audition. Some of us have been auditioning since December; some of us are only just revving up. Some of us are looking into further education, or to forging our own paths. And that’s before I start thinking about my friends outside of the Department of Dance. The future, right now, is a wonderfully, terrifyingly blank slate.

Here is what I know: we are, all of us, going to be okay.

I have been thinking a lot about auditions this semester. Not just because I’m in the midst of trying to get a job myself, but also because I have been helping in the office at Tisch Dance with auditions for the incoming class. I can remember my own audition experience vividly for a lot of reasons, but the clearest is still the way I felt myself settle, somehow, once we started class. Was I nervous? Sure. But something about the faculty, the space,  made something in me calm. It felt right to be there. So I knew, if I were to be fortunate enough to be offered a place there, I would say yes.

Auditions are a frustrating process, and as anyone on the other side of the table will tell you, you cannot possibly get to know a candidate at the level you would like to in that kind of format. A lot of it is unfortunately based in quick decisions that have nothing to do with you or your value as a dancer or artist or person. There’s been a lot written on how to approach auditions, and I won’t bother reiterating all of it here–just the one thing.

The best piece of audition advice I’ve ever been given is this: you might be auditioning for them, but they are also auditioning for you. Artists, in my experience, tend to have pretty excellent instincts when we give them a chance. The same is true of most people, really. You will know when something is right. And remember that never, ever, are you out of options. There are so many choices for you to make. You just have to explore until you find the one that feels right.

Sitting in the Jack Crystal Theatre, getting ready for my final performance as a member of the Second Avenue Dance Company, I don’t really know what is going to happen next. But I look around at this space that has seen me change and fly and fail and live and I know that, regardless, this was my right choice.

I don’t know what will happen next. But I know that I’m going to be okay. And so are you.

 

Bye…à la Sylvie

For many in the dance world, late December is the season of endless, unchanging Nutcrackers. This season was particularly unusual, however, for the almost-unbelievable retirement of the legendary Sylvie Guillem from the stage. The performer who earned the nickname Mademoiselle Non (for her insistence on doing the work that she wanted to do on her own terms) did not go out with anything so predictable as the Sugar Plum Fairy variation but with an evening of contemporary work by her favorite collaborators: Life In Motion marked Sylvie’s final performances in Japan less than two weeks ago.

I was fortunate enough to see the program when it toured to New York City Center in November. Perhaps because of this, to me the final month of 2015 has seemed less the usual jumble and rush of the holidays than an opportunity to take a breath, look around, and think about what it means to let go and move on.

After all, December also marks the winter solstice, the holiday season, and the deep breath we all take before plunging into a new year. What are these if not opportunities to take a look around and maybe see about making a few changes?

The simple idea of letting something go has snagged my attention these past few weeks. How much time do we spend holding onto things that do not actually do us any good? Why continue to value ideas that are no longer serving us?

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Guillem in the final piece of her Life in Progress program: Mats Ek’s “Bye”

Sylvie became an étoile at the Paris Opera Ballet at age 19 (one of the most coveted positions in all of classical ballet) but left four years later to pursue something different. Her career as a guest artist at The Royal Ballet and all over the world as a freelance contemporary artist has been anything but predictable. I think if anyone understands how to let go of notions of the self that are limiting, it’s her.

I’ve realized that for a long time, I have held onto the idea that being a dancer meant paring away everything that is not strictly related to becoming exactly what the dance world expects me to be. Sacrifice was a word thrown around a lot in my early training. I listened to dancers who claimed with earnest smiles that dance was their whole life and did everything I could to emulate that ideal. Even now, three and a half years into my college career with the hard-earned knowledge that to be an artist means to be a person first, I find myself thinking that I would be a better dancer if I cut out everything else. I still sometimes catch myself pushing away the people who remind me how important it is to have a real life outside of the studio, too.

Now, I am not one to make New Year’s Resolutions. I do, however, like the idea of setting themes, and this year’s has turned out to be more of a challenge to myself–something between a resolution and a theme. I am trying to shed the idea that I need to be anything less than the brilliantly flawed, three-dimensional person that I am in order to be successful. Maybe certain versions of success would demand that of me, but I do not find that path to be interesting anymore.

And if ever there was any doubt that refusing to simplify yourself to fit into someone else’s idea of perfection could work, remember Mademoiselle Non. Sylvie did it, and I think it’s fair to say that it worked out for her. So why not the rest of us?

Singing in the Shower (The Post Modern Dance Version)

On a rainy Friday evening, I walked into the lobby of a Manhattan apartment and was cheerfully checked against “the list” of guests to be admitted to the party. Once upstairs, I was handed blue, disposable booties to protect the floor from my wet shoes, ushered through the door, and then immediately plied with hors d’oeuvres. Finding a cozy corner in the swanky living room, I took on my usual party role of awkard-but-occasionally-clever-wall-flower. I chatted with well-dressed men and bubbly women, people-watching as introductions were made and the living room’s population grew to a small crowd.

Why am I describing a party I attended last Friday? Because this party was, in fact, an immersive theatre performance presented by This Is Not A Theatre Company. Many of the so-called guests were, in fact, members of the company who very convincingly cast doubt as to whether or not they were just there to see the show. Versailles 2015 is a meditation upon privilege, with scenes playing out in the close confines of a small kitchen, bedroom, bathroom–not to mention the specially commissioned dance performance created and performed by Jonathan Matthews within the confines of a bathtub.

Yes, you read that correctly.

_MG_5706Dressed in black slacks and a button-down, a knit vest thrown on top, Matthews moved with characteristic wackiness and sure technique, though the latter was explicity demonstrated only rarely. This seemed to be less a response to the challenges created by the potentially hazardous space and more a decision to look outside of any classical lexicon for material to fit the themes of the evening. Much like the actors’ monologues and dialogue that I encountered later in the evening, there is something exceptionally self-indulgent yet accusatory in the performance.

As I entered the cramped bathroom with three other party-goers, door shut firmly behind us, Matthews was already moving to the rap music blaring through a shower-safe speaker. His song choices, it should be noted, are eclectic in the extreme, firmly placing the work in the age of the playlist. The bathtub was decorated with rubber ducks, and Matthews found ever more inventive ways to arrange and rearrange them, once playacting a conversation between a pair, another time going nose to nose with one on the faucet. Here was perhaps where his musicality was most fascinating, maintaining an internal rhythm that would unexpectedly come perfectly into sync with the driving bass before slipping away once more.

_MG_5627A sudden grand plié in second, back to the viewers standing but two feet away, interrupted this manic redistribution. This moment of comparative calm gave the viewer a moment to breathe, as well as appreciate Matthews’ exceptional physical control as he steadily rose to relevé on beautifully arched feet before dropping his heels and crashing back into the beat.

Rubber ducks were not the only site-specific element utilized. Matthews swung himself in and out of the tub using a portable speaker, while at other times treating the handrail as his inanimate partner. At one memorable moment he throws his weight wholly off-center, relying on the handrail to keep him on his feet as he executes a devéloppé side and articulates through a flexed foot. At other points he twists himself around so much that his own grip on the handrail leads him into a chokehold created by his own arm.

When viewed as the centerpiece of Versailles 2015, Matthews’ work serves as the visual touchstone for the evening. A snippet of dialogue in the living room about the luxury of having a desk job and exercising in one’s free time immediately brought to mind Matthews’ insertion of a handful of yoga poses, playfully intense, throughout his bathtub dance. In a clever bit of staging, a character monologuing into the mirror the merits of her own vapidity as she carefully reapplies her makeup; this brought to mind Matthews’ purposeful ignorance of his reflection in the midst of an undeniably self-reverential piece of dance._MG_5704

I hesitate to say much more about the performance as a whole, as part of the delight of the evening was, for me, the element of not being entirely sure what I had gotten myself into, but I will say this much: Versailles 2015 made me think. It blurred the lines between audience and performer, ignored entirely the idea of a fourth wall, and managed to fit in some wonderfully crafted dialogue without (for the most part) losing its connection to reality. And, of course, it gave me a chance to see Jonathan Matthews, with all of the thoughtful wackiness and deliberately unstudied technique that I am coming to view as his signature, dance in a bathtub.

No, I won’t be getting over that bit any time soon.

Versailles 2015 continues on Friday evenings through October and November.

Photos by June Xie. Courtesy This Is Not A Theatre Company.

On the Other Side

I can remember sitting down at the end of my first year at Tisch Dance to write this post. There were so many pieces of advice that I wished I could have travelled back in time to whisper in my younger self’s ear—so many, in fact, that I had to do some serious editing in order to get the information into a bloggable format (It’s still a little long. I’m not sorry.). Now, on the tail end of my undergraduate career, I’ve realized that what I have learned about myself through my adventures as a second year Tischie is far simpler.

On headset with one of my most favorite friend/colleague/collaborator.

On headset with one of my most favorite friend/colleague/collaborator.

I think that there’s an idea that by the time you’re my age (21, beginning my senior year of university), you ought to have some concept of who you are and where you stand in the world. And I also think that in a world that can be obsessed with categorization, it’s easier than we realize to slip into the roles that we perceive—not necessarily a denial of self or anything so extreme as that, but perhaps a settling in to the person we believe ourselves to be. “This is who I am, and this is what I do,” we say, and we find our way forward following the pattern that emerges. And, speaking as someone who has declared to anyone who would listen that I was going to move to New York and be a professional dancer since I was thirteen years old, that is not a bad thing.

But how strange would it be to define ourselves, for the rest of our lives, solely by what we studied in college or the job we chose to do? This is who I am, this is what I do. There’s the dancer, the finance bro, the English geek, the anthropologist, the art historian.

At the historic Judson Church, waiting to watch a dress rehearsal of Dusk & Melon (the first time a colleague ever asked me to write for them).

At the historic Judson Church, waiting to watch a dress rehearsal of Dusk & Melon (the first time a colleague ever asked me to write for them).

So many of the craziest cool experiences I’ve had in the last eight months have happened because a part of me said, “Yes, and maybe I could be this, too.” I have been a dancer, yes, but also a choreographer, a collaborator, a sound tech, a stage manager, an office assistant, a writer, a fact checker. I have brainstormed and problem-solved with a team of designers over a giant, three-dimensional Rorschach-inspired set and sat with a string quartet in performance to help align musical cues with visual ones. I’ve talked to students considering entering the mad world of Tisch Dance, scribbled impressions into my notebook when invited to review a colleague’s work, and dug through the photo archives of Dance Magazine as a summer intern. This, I am beginning to think, is what it means to have a life in dance, not just be a dancer—performing a new contemporary ballet at an outdoor festival in Queens in the afternoon and then calling cues for a friend’s new work that night, plus an infinite number of possible variations thereof.

Accepting that I actually do not know everything there is to know about who I am and what I am capable of was admittedly a terrifying realization. I had, for years, been able to say with relative certainty what I was and what I was not, where I fit and where I never would. And then I was proven wrong on many counts, so much so that I scheduled a meeting with one of my teachers to explain (read: freak out) that I had no idea who I was as a dancer anymore.

Thinking back to this time one year ago, if I could say one thing to myself it would have been this: You know who you are, but you are also so much more than you realize.

Now this is obviously veering into dangerously corny territory. Which, okay, I sometimes live in. I’m not saying I don’t have limits. But I will say this: I have far fewer than I once believed.

So this is what I say to you, the dancer, the economist, the writer, the curator. Whoever you know yourself to be today, brilliant. But this isn’t everything you are.

ChristinaNoel and The Creature in Ash & Honey Part 1

Rise from the ashes and make sweetness from the rubble.

Standard black on black paint to cover the walls and support pillars, a small stage set up at the back of the space hosting instruments and sound equipment, four small sections of seating to the left and right. In contrast, a gleaming floor, enchanting chandeliers, lighting that seems simultaneously both warm and cool. Based on the decor in the Flamboyan Theater at The Clemente, I could have been attending a punk concert as easily as a Gothic-themed ball. On May 22, however, I was there to see the 2015 Spring Season of ChristinaNoel and The Creature, a collaborative company whose work resists any simple categorization other than performance. Everything, from the larger than life portraits of the performers in the lobby to the chandeliers I admired on my way to my seat, was designed by The Creature to create an atmosphere.

ChristinaNoel and The Creature is a passion project, and I knew this before the performers had taken a single step. It’s in the way that ChristinaNoel Reaves interacts with her company manager, in the way she speaks about the work and her collaborators, in the way she explains the notion of The Creature–the projects and the people and things that are adored even through the challenges they create. One also gets the sense that The Creature cannot be ignored; this is the work that cannot remain undone, the ideas that cannot be denied.

ChristinaNoel Reaves (center) with Mark Willis and Mary Kate Hartung in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

ChristinaNoel Reaves (center) with Mark Willis and Mary Kate Hartung in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

And, as it turns out, this passion project has a lot of craft and skill to back it up. Ash & Honey Part 1 served to demonstrate not only Reaves’ compositional skill set, but also the highly versatile dance technique, musical ability, and personality of the performers who comprise The Creature. I recognized highly technical modern dance movement alongside steps that might be danced by a teenager to their favorite song on the radio, hints of flamenco serving to segue into pedestrianism. The performers (of whom Reaves was one) spoke, sang, and played the trumpet, french horn, or piano, accompanied by an original sound score by Aeric Meredith-Goujon.

Mary Kate Hartung and Mark Willis in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

Mary Kate Hartung and Mark Willis in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

The opening is an aural assault–three keening voices, purposefully dissonant, sound as the lights almost imperceptibly raise the theater from darkness. The impression is one of arriving in slow motion to a strange elsewhere before everything slams into action with a duet that is more than half conflict. My primary critique of the work came here, as I found that the abrupt shifts between highly physical movement with elevated speed and syrupy slowness did not sit well with the overwhelming sound score; pauses like these have to be earned and did not seem to fit this early in the piece.

Jonathan Matthews in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon

Jonathan Matthews in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon

If the opening served to create a darker, stranger world, the second introduces a feeling of surreality as a sense of playfulness overtakes the performers in the midst of a rhythm study that evolves into the dancers standing in line, shaking their hips in unison. Jonathan Matthews soon begins a solo section that was easily one of the highlights of the evening. As he executes a highly technical movement phrase involving complex floorwork, Matthews monologues with a meandering logic that only someone with his odd brand of charisma could make convincing. Words evoking distance and closeness run into each other without ever becoming specific, never ceasing even as Matthews falls to the ground or stands on his shoulders. Mary Kate Hartung has a similar solo later in the piece, her voice trailing in and out as she runs not just through the designated dancing space but the entirety of the theater.

Jasmin Simmons in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

Jasmin Simmons in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

Jasmin Simmons, a long-legged standout throughout the work, dominates the final section. Her movement slows to an agonizing melt, arms weakly embracing the space as she repeatedly intones, “I will pray for all you motherf***ers.” Half song, half moan, Simmons moves sinuously through exhaustion as the rest of The Creature moves around her; when she is alone, the ensuing breakdown feels all too real, Simmons shaking as she continues to sing into the silent space. The piece closes with a now-familiar interruption, juxtaposing  rhythm and movement sequences seen earlier in the work that culminate in The Creature moving together, turning and turning past the end of the sound and the light. The cheers and applause that greeted the end of the piece were well earned, as was the individual introduction of each dancer to the audience with which Reaves closed the evening.

Ash & Honey Part 1 succeeded both on the individual merits of each performer and on what was mostly a compositionally strong structure. The movement and music were neither traditionally relational or purposefully contradictory; rather, both used repetition of rhythms in sound and in motion to provide a clockwork and touchstone to keep the world moving. The work excels when there are multiple focal points within the space or when a single focal point is fought for by a performer and earned by the audience’s emotional engagement. The utilization of text and the performers’ perspectives without ever becoming bogged down in a concrete plot line was impressive, as was the work’s ability to suggest ideas to the audience’s intuition rather than their reason. It ranges from strange and unknowable to strangely relatable, from humorous to painful to wacky to somber. ChristinaNoel and The Creature created a beguiling, intriguing world, and I am already looking forward to next season.

The Creature at work. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

The Creature at work. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.


Featured image: ChristinaNoel Reaves in Ash & Honey Part 1. Photo credit: Anastasia Meredith-Goujon.

 

Eclectic Impossibilities: Dusk and Melon at Judson Memorial Church

I will be the first to tell you that what is affectionately (or not) referred to as downtown dance is not my usual scene, but when one of my classmates invited me to see Dusk and Melon at Judson Memorial Church, of course I had to check it out. The hour-length piece was born from a collaboration between Franklin Barefoot (BAREFOOTHAUS) and Tara Lynch, both of whom graduated from Tisch School of the Arts Department of Dance (the program in which I am currently enrolled). The work is described as “a retrospective on the presentation of societal roles, human development, and relationship dynamics.” What I saw was an engaging and eclectic work created for four dancers in a way that feels sprawling yet is delightfully compact in the completeness of its composition.

Elizabeth Hepp, Lauren Kravitz, Jonathan Matthews, and Holly Sass are four Tisch alums whose individual levels of wackiness are only matched by just how beautifully they are trained. Both qualities are put to the test repeatedly throughout the piece, from the Cunningham-esque balance series deftly handled by Sass to open the show to the three women decked out in sequined ballgowns throwing themselves around the space and into Matthews like a glamorously deranged version of Macbeth’s witches. The juxtaposition implied here is present throughout the piece: Steve Reich preceding Peggy Lee, linear simplicity against bombastic partnering and manipulations, Strauss followed by Curtis Mayfield, the grandiosity of the space surrounding four humans moving without pretension.

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Holly Sass, Jonathan Matthews, and Lauren Kravitz; Photo credit: Daniel Stein

Repetition and accumulation were oft-utilized tools throughout the evening, beginning with what I mentally tagged as the second movement. Angular, weaving walking patterns to the beat of New Paradise’s “I Love Video” repeated almost to the point of uncomfortability. I say almost because the walking, in its simplicity, served to open up the space, drawing our attention to how it seemed to embrace the dancers even as they moved to fill it. It also served to draw attention to the details as the movement became homolateral and gradually increased in complexity.

This repetition, however, was not always accomplished with ease. Much of the work, in contast to the ease in locomotion displayed early in the piece, became a source of obvious physical exhaustion as movements and sequences were performed over and over again. A running leap off a stool set center stage begins as a charming moment of near-flight from Sass but quickly evolves into a compulsory attempt at the impossible as it is repeated by the entire cast, harsh breaths echoing through the cavernous space as they are pulled back to the earth again and again.

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Lauren Kravitz; Photo credit: Daniel Stein

What is the task here? Is it to achieve the impossible and take flight? Or is it to exhaust oneself in the attempt? These questions and the tension they created resounded throughout the piece: Kravitz emerges dressed liked a starlet from an earlier era, impossibly and untouchably elegant; Matthews dances a solo in which it seems his body is throwing him around without his consent (his right foot seemed quite determined never to touch the floor). There are moments when the dancers purposefully place each other in space, only to have to continuously return to make adjustments when their colleagues prove less than compliant. One might wonder why they do not just give up on these impossible tasks. The answer, I should think, is the fact of someone watching, more often than not one or more of the other dancers in the piece. Requisite roles and given tasks, whether they can be completed or not, refuse to be ignored, and there is something so very familiar and human about the earnest/exhaustive/unwilling striving these artists put on display. Seducing, flying, walking, longing, falling, colliding. Perhaps, I muse, to be human is to attempt the impossible: fitting into a role proscribed by society, leaping and hoping to fly, becoming exactly what you think another person wants.

Compositionally, the work was lovely. The sections danced in silence were often beautifully rhythmic in a way that can be difficult to make clear to an audience, and the music selections were eclectic enough to keep the audience from taking repetitions of material for granted. I particularly appreciated the reappearance of Sass’ solo from the opening of the piece in the middle and at the very end. The former involved balancing on two stools at center stage, Sass assisted by her colleagues (this was, for me, the most beautiful and interesting section of the performance). In the latter, Sass emerged in a translucent black ball gown. She seemed to be dancing for Matthews, seated in the corner, as she made the attempt and failed and fell and got up to try once more. The dress surrounds her like a shroud after a long moment, from which she emerges exhausted, perhaps defeated, from trying so very hard.

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Holly Sass and Jonathan Matthews; Photo credit: Daniel Stein

It was funny, disturbing, heart-breaking, and odd in all the best ways. I wasn’t sure what to expect, and I wasn’t ever entirely sure of what I was seeing, but the beautiful dancing and composition won me over entirely, as did the striking uniqueness of each individual involved. 

 

(Top image: Jonathan Matthews and Holly Sass; Photo credit: Daniel Stein)

On the Nature of Things (#underthewhale)

I am very, very excited to be performing at the American Museum of Natural History for the next three nights (March 25-27) as a student guest artist with Armitage Gone! Dance. If you happen to be in the New York area, I absolutely encourage you to check it out–the company members are beautiful and fierce, the concept exudes intellectual passion, and yes, we really are dancing underneath the giant whale.

I am a huge believer that dance can help us to articulate and understand things that we cannot always put into words. When academic and intellectual endeavors are added to the mix, I think the conversation between reason and intuition that occurs creates something that is deeply evocative. Even from my vantage point in the wings, On the Nature of Things creates this dialogue in a meaningful and beautiful way.

Event info and tickets here. (P.S. There’s a student ticket deal if you phone the box office.)