Barefootblogger: thoughts on dance

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Location: Minneapolis, Minnesota, United States

I am a dancer with Minneapolis based James Sewell Ballet, a small, contemporary ballet company. I also choreograph independently.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Brave New Torch Bearers

When a dancer sets out to redefine him or herself, my heart skips a beat in empathy.

I just returned from Dance USA in beautiful, sunny Portland, Oregon, and this is in my thoughts as the cream of the conference rises to the top.

I am thinking specifically about Peter Boal, Atristic Director of Pacific Northwest Ballet. He is at the end of his first season in this position after twenty two years dancing with New York City Ballet. He impresses me with his quiet, passionate articulation. It came as a surprise to find him so committed to a sense of political responsibility. His modest roots beget a leftist American perspective, and it will be interesting to witness how that might manifest in his new position at the top of one of our country’s major ballet companies.

During the last several years of his tenure with City Ballet he founded Peter Boal and Dancers, and I caught one of his programs a few years ago at the Joyce. It was a solo venture. He commissioned three choreographers to create three new solos for him that would fit nicely together as a complete program. The thought of seeing Peter Boal in the intimate setting of that “downtown” venue was almost like contemplating seeing a fish escape its water. Perhaps the reality was a little true. And perhaps because of that, the performance came across as very brave. I wonder what he would cite as the more intimidating: his first performance of a major role at the State Theater or this, at the Joyce? My guess is the latter. This is his bright idea; he soley is responsible, and he could fall flat.

He did not fall flat though the evening was flawed. The three works did not particularly speak to one another as was his hope. What I took away was a sense of pride in a fellow dancer (whose many friends were clearly supporting him in the audience) who dared to break out of his indidgenous environment.

(“Fellow dancer”- how presumptuous of me to say, but actually it’s true. Although our statuses and experiences are remarkably different, we are the same animal, cut from the same cloth; a dancer is a dancer.)

I think too about Christopher Stowell, Artistic Director of Oregon Ballet Theatre. When he retired from San Francisco Ballet after sixteen years, he initially wanted to get out of the field. He explored possibilities in the opera world, and I can imagine his generous curiousity taking him far. Awhile into that exploration the opportunity arose which led to his current position. Again, a brave and individual choice to break out, to redefine. It led back to dance, to directing a company, but perhaps that opportunity wouldn’t have arisen had he not distanced himself. He made room so that he could return.

As I heard him tell anecdotes about his work with his dancers, it became clear that he is most respectful and sensitive. It was disarming to hear how his feelings were hurt when a dancer began treating him differently after his casting choice for a particular role didn’t include her. I suspect his well-rounded sense of self keeps him grounded and able to negotiate the rocky terrain of inter-personal dynamics.

And I think about my own Artistic Director, James Sewell. After six years with Feld Ballets NY he broke away, daring to found his then pick-up company James Sewell Dance in the unstable (at best) environment that young companies are up against. I remember hearing about his maverick choreography. I knew of him through a mutual friend, and when an audition came along I jumped. Something about him and his work spoke to me that day, and this dialogue continues as I embark on my thirteenth season with the company, now James Sewell Ballet. I know him as a human and feel an affinity as a dancer. That break-away spirit continues, and I do my utmost as a dancer to encourage it, to be present in the moment when that spark ignites. What an honor to be choreographed upon by someone who wears his struggles on his sleeve.

It strikes me that these men are torch bearers. Dancers are following them into this next dance moment of the ballet world specifically. I am heartened that they wear their mantles of leadership out of a sense of rising to the occasion and not out of any egomaniacal motivation. I know with James this translates as a sense of collaborative respect in the room. We are all working toward the same goal and through that, we grapple with satisfying our individual ones. I hopefully suspect that an akin dymanic exists at PNB and OBT.

Finally, I think about my own urges to break out, to roll around on the floor instead of turning up on my toes. I am inexpressibly lucky that I have been able to do both these things and more. I am a self divided: a practicioner and lover of ballet (the definition of “amateur” is: lover of), an identifier with modern dance, a choreographer, a teacher and recently, a writer. How will this all ultimately fit together?

This conference got me thinking, and as yet I don’t know where it will lead. I am glad I went, though I am dissatisfied. I walked around Portland and I felt half present, half capable, like my brain couldn’t settle on the appropriate word for something. On the tip of my tongue. This is how it begins I know. Soon I will break away again, and I have many examples paving the way.

Wednesday, June 21, 2006

Home Too

A couple months ago I wrote a piece called “Home” wherein I recapped James Sewell Ballet’s recent performances at the Joyce Theater and mused about NYC and Minneapolis, the primary places where pieces of my heart reside.

As I face the necessity of moving from my house back into an apartment due to separating with my husband, I reexamine the question of home and as always, how it relates to dance.

Home is where the heart is. Indeed. And so my home is at the barre, on the floor of a studio (preferably wood), in my house that soon I will be leaving (along with its wood floors), in my new apartment that is perfect and has a balcony, back in Ohio where several of my family buoy me from afar, down in Charleston, SC where others of my family do the same. My home is always with my mother (currently of the Charleston crew). My home is NYC: walking the streets, knowing the grid and the train lines like the back of my hand. My home is the back of my hand and my palm and my fingers and their nails, not so well kept these days as I pack and organize and stress. My home is this computer: my documents, my email account; it is a life-line certainly. My home is my Buddhist practice. My home is my cat. It is my backyard and my bathroom and my bed. It is my husband.

And all these things change. From the barre to the studio floor to the relationship, life has the power to shift our terrain when we least expect it. Good thing I’m fast on my feet.

I’m fast on my feet, lighter than air, smoother than silk. I can sing out of tune and dance to make you cry. In this process of (re)defining home I uncover hidden skills and lean into them like safety nets. I am creating a new cocoon, a new regime. My home is shifting and shapeless and these are the new order.

So what to hold on to? Well, still the barre. Sometimes the bar. My feet plant on the studio floor and will soon sink into the carpet of my new place. I will dance on the tiles of my new kitchen and get splinters from my new balcony.

Home is my past as I unearth many papers in my effort to pack. Myself appeares to me, and I’ve been here all along: in a zipped-up suitcase that I haven’t been brave enough to open. Reading my own words and those of others, I discover that I struggle with the same old issues, but from a slightly more elevated perspective as I move around the spiral of experience. I’m dizzy from so much rotating. My goal becomes to let go anyway, to allow the motion sickness to set in; it’s better than stagnation. As I’ve said before, stillness is the scariest thing for a dancer.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

I Thought This Was Over

Late the other night I received an e-mail from a friend and colleague about a fellow dancer from our salad days in NYC. He is dying of AIDS.

I thought this was over. I am of the generation just past the one where everyone died, or so I thought.

G was a puppy. We auditioned for Michael Mao Dance together and that’s where we met. We made eyes at one another in an I’d-like-to-dance-with-you kind of way. In the smallish warm-up studio, filled with dancers, G literally broke into a ménage of coupe jetes (big, huge leaps in a circle) by way of a warm up. No kidding. He was that eager and green.

We danced together for almost two years. He was hyperactive and highly nervous. He couldn’t keep still. He had a huge laugh. He was president of our club of folks whose boyfriends had been to or were in jail. (Again, no kidding.)

He got into Mark Morris Dance Group and I just saw him perform last winter here in Minneapolis. Before me was the same bounding puppy but older and physically integrated in the way that happens when a dancer is always working and performing.

This news puts life into perspective. As I negotiate my first real tragedy, my divorce, I look to G and whisper a promise to do it well, to live life large. I am exhausted from operating from a place of fear; I am tired of only feeling open hearted onstage.

That T-shirt saying is true: Life is not a dress rehearsal. I want to wear all my best clothes and stop keeping them in the back of the closet. Every occasion is a special one.

As G lies dying in a NYC hospital bed I reach across time and distance, extending my two hands and my one heart toward his easy passing. As the promises of my wedding day melt upward to reside in the ether I make another one here. It is to myself, to always love, honor and obey my own heart.