I had to wait until I left college, after my sophomore year, before i saw my first live dance performance. Not that I had any awareness of waiting. The primary stage for my physical expression until just about that time had been the hockey rink, where that year I had skated an erratic center for the Fordham junior varsity.
Still undecided on an academic major, I decided to take a sabbatical. I fell in love over the following summer with an RPI architecture undergrad who dragged me to see a traveling show featuring stars of the Bolshoi Ballet. The next performance we attended included Alvin Ailey’s "The River"; music composed by Duke Ellington, and the die was cast. Eventually, I lost the girl, but gained a world.
At right: Caitlin Conlon & Jacob Warren in Christopher d'Amboise's "Opus 81" at Marymount Manhattan
photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Dance in an academic setting became a staple of the next half-decade of my life. I ultimately left Fordham, abandoning my quest for an Urban Studies degree, to begin serious study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center. At the end of another summer, I landed back in Providence, RI, where the lost romance had begun. There I joined the RIC Dance Company, found myself awarded a series of dance scholarships, and eventually finished a self-designed degree in Dance and Dance Criticism, only the second dance degree (by five months) ever conferred by the College.
So, when I began this blog at the beginning of April, the cruelest month, it seemed appropriate to go back to school. Four viewings of the NYU’s Second Avenue Dance Company’s “Retro” Spring show at Tisch School of the Arts made me curious as to what else might be out there. I began my Dantean descent into college concert dance as presented in rings around the city of Dis, 2009, serving as my own Virgil.
But the subway ferried me uptown, and I arrived one May night at The Alvin Ailey “Citigroup” Theater to see the Eugene Lang College of the New School’s Spring Dance Performance. A few nights later, the steel snake carried me up the East Side to Marymount Manhattan to take in that school's Spring Repertoire concert.
In both cases I found houses full of receptive and supportive friends and family, faculty and staff with an allegiance to the dancers onstage. Both concerts featured a few dancers whose artistry and charisma in performance made them stand out. Each program included a different piece by Takehiro Ueyama, as well as its own unique choreographic offering created by one other artist from among the group of dancemakers whose collaborations with the Tisch dancers I had seen weeks earlier. And each offered a vision of the place of concert dance, dance training and dance literacy distinctive from the conservatory model exemplified by schools such as Tisch.
The Lang showcase greeted its audience with one of the most interesting and beautifully produced program booklets I have ever seen. An opening page juxtaposed a long paragraph about “Dance at the New School in the 1930’s” with one describing the approach to “Dance at Lang Today.” The following five pages related to the William Forsythe “residency” which enabled Forsythe company alumni Jill Johnson and Mario Zambrano to create, in collaboration with the Lang dancers, “27 for 17,” the concert’s closing work. The last two of these pages simply list Forsythe’s honors and awards from 1986 through 2008. If you have to fork over a Lang tuition, I guess you had better be impressed.
The most intriguing and illuminating parts of the booklet, however, followed the formal program credits, and displayed excerpts from student journals and literary and graphic responses from them ignited by their participation in the preparation and production of the concert. These highlighted and reinforced the Lang approach of fusing contemporary formal dance training with courses in history, theater and related arts in a holistic mind/body liberal arts modality. In “27 by 17,” and in the greater part of Ueyama’s “Crowded Sky,” this approach produced exemplary results onstage. In Eric Jackson Bradley’s “Love and Synesthesia,” Karla Wolfangle’s “In Motion,” and Rebecca Stenn’s “Stride,” the latter two choreographed especially for dancers from the sophomore and freshman Lang academic classes respectively, the outcome seemed less convincing.
below: Lang dancers in Karla Wolfangle’s “In Motion,” ` ` ` photo by
Inspired in part by the movements of flocks of starlings over Rome, “Crowded Sky” sends flights of 11 women careering around the stage to music by Philip Glass. Its designs gracefully evoke both the natural beauty of its inspiration and the pure joy in motion of its dancers.
That joy, tempered by fierce commitment, became even more palpable in “27 by 17.” This performance compared favorably to Johnson’s similar Forsythe adaptation for the Tisch dancers. Accompanied by a recording of Thom Willems’ music for Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, the Lang dancers dig in and squeeze the sweet nectar out of everything they touch and taste. In twisting, slashing, off-balance dancing shot through with runs, leaps, and turns they break off and feast upon spatial reality both within and beyond the limits of their skin. Their passionate execution of this piece provides the best and most meaningful validation for Lang’s philosophy as it relates to its student dancers.
In the course of the evening, Yuki Fukui, Jesse Hart, John Malaya,
Above (bottom to top): Emma Hoette, Emily ` ` ` Emily Skillings, and Penelope
Skillings (in green sleeveless), Jillian Hervey` Wendtlandt tended to cut strong
(in lavender top, Nadia Mathys (2nd woman in` memorable figures in their dancing
green) & Jesse Hart (in red)in "27 by 17"` ` ` ` ` across many pieces. Skillings
photo by ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` stood out especially in “27 by 17.” But the evening seemed to belong to freshman Emma Hoette, whose extraordinary presence lit up the stage in each of the 3 pieces in which she appeared. And all of these students also made fine contributions to the student writing include in the program booklet.
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The Marymount Manhattan program seems to occupy a middle ground between the conservatory and Lang’s liberal arts approach. In general, the technical level of the dancing and the assurance of the performances follows suit.
The Eastsiders opened with a suite of 3 duet excepts drawn from two Martha Graham masterpieces of the 1950’s. The “Stars” and “Dancer’s World” duets from "Canticle for Innocent Comedians" followed the “Helen and Paris” pas de deux from Clytemnestra. In addition to showing off some fine dancers, and serving to introduce the audience to the remarkable Jacob Warren, the inclusion of the Graham works epitomized a reverence for dance tradition that the remainder of the dancing seemed also to embody. The suite traced Graham’s classic period love moods from the dramatically passionate through the ecstatic to the lyrical.
Right (l to r): Kayla Shanahan, LuLu Soni, Sarah Haarman (in attitude) & Caitlin Conlon in Christopher d'Amboise's "Opus 81"
photo by Rosalie O'Connor
Christopher D’Amboise’s balletic 14 minute long "Opus ’81," set to a recording of the 2nd movement of Franz Schubert’s Trio in E-flat major, Opus 100, received its premier on this program. Making use of the andante section of the piano trio, famously adapted for the downfall montage in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, "Opus ’81" served as a transitional piece after the suite. It mixed movement recalling Graham’s heroic modern style with closing music from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings that served as the basis for George Balanchine’s timeless "Serenade". The dancing highlights the soulful lyricism of Sarah Haarman, Kelly McCormack and Kayla Shanahan among a cast of 8 in which the over six-foot-tall Warren also stands out.
Act I concluded with an excerpt from Takehiro Ueyama’s 2006 “One,” a two movement dance for eight that showed the choreographer’s muted lyricism as well adapted for college dancers on the East Side, as it had been on the West.
Another excerpt, from The Most Dangerous Room in The House, Susan Marshall’s dark 1998 dance play evoking desire and domestic discomfort, opened the second half. Here the action involves a section in which many of the 11 dancers find themselves repeatedly smashed against the onstage wall of the set designed by Doug Stein & Zhanna Gurvich. An interesting challenge for the young cast, the excerpt does not adapt as satisfyingly as the same choreographer’s poignant “Name by Name,” presented in its entirety, had for the Tisch dancers. Perhaps the context of the full work might have allowed this cast to flesh out the immediacy of the heart wrenching human dilemma the piece seeks to interrogate. But the urgent relevance of the inquiry to a population of this age might paradoxically lie within easier reach of a more seasoned troupe.
At left (l to r): Jere Hunt, Kelly McCormack & Jacob Warren in Edgar Zendejas' "Azadi"
photo by Rosalie O'Connor
The program closer, created specifically for its undergraduate dancers, proved the piece de resistance at Marymount Manhattan just as the similarly commissioned Johson/Zambrano led work had at the Lang concert. Edgar Zendejas’ "Azadi" sets 19 MMC dancers into a two-part invention against recorded music by the baroque Henry Purcell (part I) and the contemporary Michael Gordon.
Zendejas has thrown down a gauntlet for his cast, daring them at the limit of their technical and performance level. Mixing groupings of various sizes in a shifting array of spatial designs he creates a series of small personal dramas and relationships within a depiction of larger community. Titling his opus with the Persian word for "freedom" or "liberty" that doubles as the post-revolutionary name of the tower marking the symbolic entrance to Tehran, he seems prescient in his tilting lunges, lifts, and polymorphous partnerships for these Manhattan dancers. Warren might as well be the Freedom Tower himself sharing his strength of presence and precision of technique with several fellow dancers in the course of "Azadi." Among these, Adam Gold, Haarman, Rachel Hall, Jere Hunt, and McCormack merited special attention.
It stands to reason that dances created in direct collaboration with the dancers who will perform them seem to succeed artistically and theatrically with greater frequency than pre-existing repertory that requires adaptation for student dancers. Fresh creation’s value as an educational vehicle in drawing the passion of the dancers into the work seems apparent. Yet the most compelling performance in the Tisch concert came in a Marshall piece originally constructed on Juilliard students.
Intimate knowledge of the techniques and artistic concerns underpinning the work of great artists of the near and more distant past also has its place in rounding out an appreciation of an art form that seems to depend more on an informed and unintimidated audience. But in spite of the robust health of the college dance concert 2009, as evinced by those I attended, I see cause for concern in a cultural and economic climate of retrenchment.
Without specific statistical knowledge of the demographics of the student populations for each of my 3 schools, I found the number of participating non-Caucasian dancers, and of men of any ethnicity still distressingly low. Can these college dance programs, given their size and considerable resources, be seen harbingers of the shape of the rising generation? And while choreographers who have both the inclination and ability to adapt or create work with great success for student dancers may not be common, I feared that I might have sensed in the preparation and presentation of these events the inadvertent curdle of the safe choice and the most recognized name.
At every dance community conclave I attend these days, I hear people lament the depletion, fragmentation and aging of audience. College dance programs themselves may now face these challenges, after years of unprecedented expansion. But crisis and opportunity often appear as alternate faces of the same coin.
Does Marymount Manhattan’s inclusion of dances from the decade before the upheaval and explosion of the sixties and seventies contribute to the preservation of a living legacy and provide a critical context for these young dancers and their audience? Given the institutional carapaces that have grown up around both, can Lang’s recollection of the New School’s 1930’s outreach to the fledgling field of modern dance inspire a correspondingly creative contemporary initiative? The way forward rarely seems clear but in harnessing the relative fearlessness and energy of youth, it sometimes can become determined.