Entries in Dance (21)


Typehouse Literary Magaine

A lyric essay of mine, "Six Impossible Things Before Breakfast" appears in Typehouse Literary Magazine


From the Dancer's Studio: a new series

I'm excited to let everyone know that I'm working with the folks at BEACON, who support sustainable journalism, to present a new series called From the Dancers Studio.


Dance can feel elusive and mysterious to many, and my stories invite you into the private world of dancers.

As a former dancer I can give an insider’s view, while as a writer, I look for ways to connect what’s happening within the world of dance to both dancers and non-dancers, broadening the experience.

This project is exciting because this would represent the opportunity to tell stories from the world I love so well--dance--and present them as an ongoing series.

Beacon works sort of like a subscription and sort of like a crowd-funded project. People can "subscribe" to a certain writer, who is funded, but read all the work on the site. I've never done something like this, so it's a new adventure and learning curve for me. But if you're inclined, check it out. There are also some other really interesting and talented writers on BEACON you might want to look up as well.



Master Class with the Pils


Most students start the first week of a semester with syllabi and new classes and figuring out when to get lunch. The dance students at WVU, however, started Spring Semester 2013 with a master class by the Pils, the affectionate nickname of the modern dance company Pilobolus.

(Above, video from TED Talks featuring Pilobolus)

As a tried-and-true bunhead, the Pils are about as opposite from the kinds of things I did as a dancer as it gets. However, watching their master class showed me once again how much crossover there can be within dance forms. The class focused on communication between dancers—how, in essence, to dance with others. In fact, what the Pils presented didn’t focus on technique at all. And I mean that in a good way.

Spatial awareness became the focus of the warm up, which started with simple walking and escalated to a full run around the Falbo Theatre space. As the dancers in the class moved, they were given directions about being aware of how their decisions—where they moved in space—affected others in the class. At the end of this portion of the class, the Pils instructed the dancers to stand in a tight group without touching, like a school of fish. This, too, established a sense of spatial awareness and awareness of the other dancers.

The Pils continued with partnered exercises. The first one dancer would lead another around the Falbo. The dancer being lead had to keep his or her eyes closed. The speed of their movement, or the level of their movement was changed as they continued to lead or be led. The idea was to communicate through touch, making the exchange between dancers like a conversation. The exercise also established trust between partners.

This resonated with me, as I’ve worked with ballet dancers in partnering situations. Sometimes dancers who are supposed to dance together are really not communicating as they do so. They are separate but together. The best partnering, whether in modern improv settings or classical pas de deux relies on the constant exchange between dancers. If the dancers can’t relate to each other, they won’t relate to the audience. The exercise presented by the Pils addressed this relationship quite effectively, and is something that could be used in partnering classes across dance disciplines.

The students in the class didn’t always relate to each other. In another exercise where the dancers were asked to stand still and simply look into his or her partner’s eyes, without giggling or talking or such, many dancer struggled to keep composure. They resisted simply being with a partner, and establishing a connection. Later, a similar thing happened in improv, where the dancers tended to hide their faces, rather than relating to other dancers or the audience.

The improv provided a very interesting set of challenges. The Pils expressed the need for the dancers to create shapes together that also had a relationship to the audience, to “build an aura.” They stressed how simple changes could affect bigger changes. Again, they stressed communication—through both touch and intention. The Pils also stressed how simplifying  movement or shape could pull the audience’s attention. Continually they stressed being clear. It put in mind a saying from many a ballet class: no one argues with clean dancing. It means to strip the affectation out of the dancing, focusing on the clarity of the steps and presentation.

The members of Pilobolus were some of the most athletic dancers I’ve seen. Watching class, I was struck between the differences between the professionals and the students. The pros held themselves up and open, all the time, while the students tended to slump when they were just standing. Even just that aspect had a huge difference in watching the two groups, making the professionals more pronounced as dancers. It is something I hope that the students take in and emulate. It made the Pils look comfortable in their own skin, radiating a quiet confidence in their bodies.


Bunheads is Back

When we last left the ballet students of Paradise Dance Academy, they were standing on chairs Dead Poet Society style, O Captain-ing the weary Michelle who had just maced them all by mistake. In the most recent episode, we visit the aftermath of the mace-filled Nutcracker. Michelle returns to Vegas only to find work in a fourth-rate magicians act in Henderson, Nevada, and living on the couch of a dancer-friend who has a sugar daddy boyfriend. Fanny has closed the studio until she's ready to re-open and enlists Truly to help her redecorate. The girls languish with summer activities--helping their parents, looking after siblings and grandparents--clearly missing their ballet studies. Sasha has returned from her stint at the Joffrey School, hiding out with her friends so that she doesn't have to go home.

So, you know, same old crazy hijinks. 

While I felt the episode spent a lot of time getting Michelle back to Paradise, Bunheads continues to have its virtues. While Michelle is often a difficult character to fully like--she's self-involved and sometimes too sarcastis--the truth of her situation--a dancer of her caliber can only find really demeaning performing opportunities, and she doesn't see her own better qualities--as well as Fanny's ongoing acceptance of her make her more sympathetic. Fanny, for all her outrageous behavior, turns out to be more of the good, old fashioned mothering type than we expect. The quirkiness saves her character from being stock.

I personally also felt for the girls who clearly felt out of sorts without ballet class. That's very authentic for ballet students. 

Having made ammends for the macing--Fanny choreographs a funny tribute to the event and viral YouTube like video that comes out of it--I'll be interested to see where the show goes from here. I liked the choregraphy and dancing a bit more in the mid-season return, so we'll see if that continues, too.


To Dance, Again: Aging, Misha, and Place

Our culture’s approach to aging is problematic, because our focus is so often youth-facing. A dancer’s response to aging becomes even more complex; not only is there an absence of support from the general culture, but the world of dance, particularly ballet, is often fetishistic towards youth.  Since the days of the Ballet Russe, in the early 1900s, the idea of the baby ballerina has become a mainstay.  With exceptions like Dame Margot Fonteyn of the Royal Ballet, and the Soviet ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who danced until ages 58 and 72 respectively, most dancers are plucked from schools while still in their teens and have short careers that, according the Bureau of Labor Statistics, often end in a dancer’s late thirties.  Aging dancers are often cast in new roles: teachers, choreographers, and artistic directors, to name a few. Given this, a new short dance film, Place, staring the 61 year old Mikhail Baryshnikov and 54 year old Ana Laguna takes on aging by showing older dancers still full of vitality as performers.

Mikhail Baryshnikov—known to fellow dancers as Misha—is most remembered as the blonde-haired defector that wowed Western audiences with his pure classicism, endless pirouettes, effort leaps, and famous partnerships with ballerinas.  He embodied the vigor of youth, our romantic notions about Russian ballet, and was, quite frankly, just sexy. Baryshnikov, who could be considered “the most famous dancer in the world,” shook things up for himself artistically when he turned to acting and played opposite Sarah Jessica Parker in the hit cable TV show, Sex in the City. Returning to his medium, dance, in Place, choreographed by Mat Eks (also the husband of Ana Laguna), directed by Jonas Akerlund, with music by Fleshquartet, would be a risky venture for any dancer with a past reputation, especially one of Baryshnikov’s acclaim.



I remember Misha’s appeal well.  1985. White Nights.  Too many pirouettes to count, in Reeboks, no less. I remember renting the 1977 flick The Turning Point, with an even younger, more virile Misha. As a dancer coming of age in the late 1980s, Misha had mystique, influence, even his own leotard line. He was everything a young dancer wanted in a prince; everything she might hope for in an artistic director. His appeal crossed the boundaries of the art, and people who knew nothing about classical ballet new the name Baryshnikov.

In short, Misha had star power. He had defected. He wooed the most beautiful—and technically proficient (the later mostly an important fact only to little bunheads in the making)—ballerinas in the world. Natalia Makarova and Gelsey Kirkland fought over him. Leslie Browne became a star after The Turning Point. Dance movies only made ballet more romantic and the idea of becoming a ballerina more tantalizing.

Misha’s name is linked to the memories of my youthful ambition. He embodied the promises ballet had to offer. Perhaps this convinced me that he’d never get old.


The rewards of Misha’s risk-taking are numerous. Though thoroughly Modern dance, Place gives Baryshnikov opportunity to reconfigure the effortlessness of his classicism, such as low, continuous turns, not quite the pirouettes from Don Quixote or Coppelia, but in context, as perfectly performed.  Paired with Laguna, Baryshnikov’s challenge in this choreography includes grappling with intimacy, both with his partner and the audience. As well, Place is imbued with an overarching sense of domesticity, aided by a bare stage with two props: a table, not unlike one that might be found in a small kitchen, and a large, off-white tarp, which serves as a floor covering, a blanket, and a tablecloth at different points within the piece.

Domesticity is hardly ever portrayed in classical ballet. Aging, likewise, is not acknowledged. Dancers stay forever young.

Place, which previously toured as choreography meant for the stage, exploits both the sense of live performance and the constraints of film.  It opens with footage reminiscent of government surveillance films, showing the dancers entering, preparing in their dressing rooms and practice areas.  In some sections of this early footage, the screen is filled with several grainy, rectangular, black and white images playing at once, as if on a panel that might be used for security purposes. This enhances the sense of the dance as well as the film as a voyeuristic activity, and increases as the audience is shown entering the theatre in much the same way, but sped up, manipulating the sense of time.  The dance begins with the traditional curtain down, and the viewer of the film experiences the clapping of the audience, as one would sitting at an actual performance, as the curtain rises and the dancing begins.  Through the filming, the sensation of artifice is intentionally heightened.




What strikes me, first, is that he has—gasp!—wrinkles. When did Baryshnikov age? I remember the talk, about the time he collaborated with modern dance’s bad boy du jour, Mark Morris. The White Oak Project. It was 1990 and I had begun to come unto my own as a young dancer. It seems so long ago—was so long ago. Back then, there were those who said White Oak signaled the beginning of the end.

Age isn’t kind to dancers, especially female dancers, who aren’t Fonteyn or Plisetskaya.  The whole idea of aging is unpalatable. The body needs to stay fresh and youthful. That’s the ideal. It has been since at least the Ballet Russe, probably before that.  Alicia Marks became Alicia Markova at age 13. Balanchine had his baby ballerinas.

Baryshnikov was in his forties when he danced in the White Oak Dance Project. Not too old, but old enough.  Modern, it turns out, was going to be more forgiving in terms of the age of its dancers. Misha left American Ballet Theatre, and made appearances only with the upshot White Oak group.

My friends and I, not yet in our twenties, could make no sense of this. We were inculcated to the ways of ballet.  Extending a career by dipping into modern dance seemed blasphemous. Only now, not even a month to my own fortieth birthday, can I understand the allure.


On the near-bare stage, Laguna enters first, plain-clothed in a long skirt, fitted shirt, and ballet-style flats.  Her long hair, silvery gray, is pulled into a French braid. She exits as Baryshnikov, in slacks, a tank top, and a sports coat and also wearing oxford-style shoes, enters. This choice in costuming is deliberately pedestrian. Where the earlier, pre-show footage is in black and white, the performance is full color, replicating what the audience in the theatre experiences.  As well, the choreography follows a rough symmetry of the exchange principal dancers often do in classical ballets: a pas de deux, a man’s solo, a woman’s solo, and a coda where the two dance together again. Both inclusion of elements of classical dance and the opposite effect in costuming and staging creates an intersection of expectations and fresh approaches.

Laguna and Baryshnikov exchange a tender, if not perfect, intimacy on stage.  At one point, Laguna rests her head on Baryshnikov’s shoulder, the way a couple in a park might while standing or sitting together.  It’s gentle and affectionate, and this relaxed interplay is continued as the two dancers follow each other through movements in cannon.  Later, the table is used, giving heightened domestic connotations.  As well, sweeping arm gestures, which aren’t quite classical, convey the same sense of line and grace, are interspersed with more pedestrian movement—scratching and twitching. Not everything is presented at perfect, making the moments that are lively, such as a deconstructed pas de chat jump performed by both dancers. Others include fluid moments reminiscent of classical pas de deux, demonstrating the full emotional range and capabilities of Laguna and Baryshnikov. These two may be older, but they are far from finished.

Interestingly, Place does not limit itself to only the tranquil domestic moments.  In fact, it exacerbates many emotions, including a sense of youthfulness and play, such as running like children on a playground. Another section simulates an argument full of combativeness and rage, including sound effects of shouting.  In short, Eks has created choreography celebrates the range of human emotions, and the dancers commit themselves to all of them.  Baryshnikov, whose fair hair has grayed but whose eyes retain a familiar steeliness until they soften into a genuine smile, seems unafraid to be vulnerable, shirking the bravura of his younger days as a classical prince, and taking up this dance that requires him to inhabit emotion and interplay more than the high-flying spectacle of tours en’lair and grand jétés. Sure, we, his audience, loved the flying leaps, but we can reveal in this new emotional exposure.

There is no attempt in Place to hide or disguise age, which is refreshing, not just in dance—which has now entered the popular culture through trick-centered, so-called reality programming: So You think You Can Dance, Dancing with the Stars, and the worst offender, Dance Moms—but as a response to a youth-centered culture. The overall effect is to reveal, and to reveal what may not be perfect, but what is still quite beautiful or arresting.  It is most evident than in the ending gesture, one that implies looking back.  While both dancers make this gesture, the piece ends with Baryshnikov leaving the stage, while Laguna lingers. It makes one think about what, exactly has happened here, in this dance, or in this life. What do we linger for?

During the curtain call, also part of the film, the dancers exchange genuine smiles, and deservedly so.  In Place, these dancers have given us a glimpse how to make maturity matter, and why the simplicity of movement done well can be more significant than the robust technical feats of youthful dance.  Here, we, as the viewers, are privy to a space where the affects of aging are an integral part of the creative and interpretive process. It’s not just about what they can do, but what they, and by association we, can feel, proving that takes experience, perhaps a lifetime of it, to express and expose.