Tuesday, December 19, 2017

A Body in Motion

Stephanie Saland in her NYCB years
You’re never too old to dance.

That’s what former New York City Ballet soloist Stephanie Saland says.
Actually, she never used that phrase in conversation with me; that's the attitude, and the reality, I saw when I sat in on a class she leads most Wednesdays at Seattle’s Velocity Dance Center.

Saland shies away from calling this a ballet class, but the ten women who were there were quick to tell me that, of course, it IS ballet. They focus on ballet technique, and execute it to the best of their abilities.

All of these women are over the age of 30; a couple are over 50. Most have been part of Saland's Wednesday group for several years at the very least.
 
Stephanie Saland leads a workshop at Velocity Dance Center
I think of Stephanie Saland as a ‘dance whisperer.’ I was assigned to profile her for Dance Teacher magazine, and as soon as we met I felt a spark of recognition. Although we have led vastly different career paths, Saland is, like me, une femme d’un certain age.
(That translates into ‘middle aged woman” for those of you who don’t speak French. Actually, we have both ascended into early senior status, but that’s another story.)

Saland danced with NYCB for more than two decades. After she retired in 1993, she swore she was done with ballet. But after she moved to Seattle with a romantic partner, Saland was tapped to teach classes at the Pacific Northwest Ballet school. Although you’d think that would be a perfect fit for a Balanchine-trained ballerina, you’d be wrong.
 
George Balanchine with Stephanie Saland
Saland discovered she was less interested in traditional ballet teaching methods, and more interested in developing the skills she needed to help her students discover their inner artists. Not to say that she doesn’t understand and teach great technique, just that she’d rather help her students unleash their love of movement and self expression.

Which leads me back to the Wednesday class.

Saland started things off with a slow warm up done to music that you might hear in a yoga studio. Yes, it’s true, older bodies need more time to stretch stiff muscles. 

This class doesn’t work at the barre; Saland wants the women in the center of the room because she feels its the best way for them to work on core strength and balance.

That said, one woman spent most of the 90 minute class dancing while seated on a wooden stool. Her arms and upper body glided to the music, which Saland had switched to more traditional ballet accompaniment. Another woman steadied herself by placing her hands against the studio’s brick wall. Like their classmates, they focused intently on the combinations Saland set for her students. Everyone smiled, everyone was thrilled to be there.
 
Stephanie with student
I sat and watched from the floor in the corner of the studio. And wished I was up dancing with the rest of the women. Unlike most people who write a lot about dance, I was never a dancer. I just love the art form, so I spend a lot of time watching dancers.The last time I took ballet I wound up herniating a disk and aggravating the arthritis in my knees and hips. I was never very flexible, but grand plies after 50…in my experience not the best idea.

 Stephanie Saland’s class was the first one that made me think, oh, maybe I CAN dance, despite my age and my physical limitations.

That glimmer of possibility is something to hold onto in these short dark days at the end of this challenging year.



Monday, December 11, 2017

Kate Wallich Dreams Big


Tom Weinberger and Kate Wallich in "Dream Dances"
photo by Stefano Altamura
A few years ago I asked the inimitable Amy O’Neal which young choreographers she had her eye on. O’Neal rattled off a list that included Kate Wallich.

It just so happened that Wallich and her dancers, a fledgling group called the YC, were set to perform a short piece as part of that year’s Bumbershoot festival. I went to check it out and was most impressed (in all ways) by the dancers’ unbridled energy.

I finally met Wallich in 2014, before the premier of “Super Eagle” at Velocity Dance Center. I was struck by her intelligence and her self-confidence and by her vision for herself and the YC. I was less impressed with the dance, although it did whet my curiosity about where Wallich would take her art. Each of her subsequent works for the YC tantalized with moments of originality, and with the talents of her troupe. But I left each performance dissatisfied, sure that Wallich had more in her.
 
Cast of "Dream Dances" at On The Boards
photo by Stefano Altamura
Fast forward to 2017, and “Dream Dances,” which Wallich and the YC performed December 7-10 at On The Boards. This work for five dancers and two live musicians has been more than a year in development, and it reveals that the promise O’Neal saw in Wallich was not misplaced.

“Dream Dances” begins unobtrusively; so unobtrusively that it takes the audience a while to realize the performance has begun. We’re lit by bright white strips overhead, while the stage is left in relative darkness. So we don’t immediately notice the young man lying on his side, gently moving his extended arm across the floor. The other dancers enter, one by one, and lie down as well, taking up his movements.

Arms and legs brush across the floor. A leg is bent at the knee, the foot lifted. A dancer arches her back, in yoga’s cobra pose. Another rises into downward dog. None of these movements is done in unison; it's more like the movements reverberate across the bodies on the stage in a very slow, dreamy, wave.
 
"Dream Dances"
photo by Stefano Altamura 
As the dancers rise up to their feet, the music shifts from a gentle drone to a louder throb. The lights over the audience (I hesitate to call these house lights) dim and the stage lights come up. Individual dancers step forward, most notably Wallich’s longtime collaborator Lavinia Vago. This tall, lean woman seems made of rubber rather than skin and bones. Her body bends in every direction with, to me, astounding flexibility and control. She is mesmerizing. But her fellow dancers, David Harvey, Thomas House, Tom Weinberger and Wallich herself, are equally skilled.

One signature of Wallich’s work which continues to perplex me is the isolation of her dancers from one another. Even when performing duets, often they don’t look one another in the eye, and rarely do they acknowledge the audience. I’ve often wondered what this says about contemporary America and our increasing reliance on social media and virtual community.

This social isolation is again apparent in “Dream Dances,” with two notable exceptions. First, Wallich has created an intimate sexual duet for herself and her newest dancer, Tom Weinberger. And she’s choreographed haunting, extended unison work for the other two men in the YC, Thomas House and David Harvey. These two men move together toward the audience, as a bright white rod of light lowers to bisect the wall behind them. They seem like ghosts, partly because they're dancing in front of the white light and my eyes had a hard time focusing on them. That served to make me concentrate even harder on them, though.
 
Lavinia Vago in "Dream Dances"
photo by Stefano Altamura

“Dream Dances” can be tightened a bit; a section with a spray hose and a misshapen wading pool felt interminable. But this work is Kate Wallich and the YC’s most sophisticated to date. I am partial to movement-driven dance, and this piece delivers that. It also doesn’t wallow in trendiness, or take aim at a meta-message for the audience. By eschewing those paths, Kate Wallich succeeds in delivering a more nuanced piece of art, one that allows each audience member to to take it on on their own terms. 

Tuesday, December 5, 2017

In Pursuit of an Idea: The Zoe Diary, part 1

excerpt from Zoe/Juniper's "A Crack in Everything"
If you love contemporary dance in Seattle, then you already know Zoe/Juniper, the artistic duo of Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey. Last year they presented their evening length dance “Clear and Sweet” at On The Boards. In addition to some amazing dance plus Shuey's video projected on long strands of material, a group of shape note singers performed live, creating an all together other worldly experience for me, at least. The show gets a New York debut this month. If you live near there you should go see it. 
Zoe/Juniper's "Clear and Sweet"

Zoe herself is in the middle of a couple other big projects. She recently got a Princess Grace Fellowship to collaborate with choreographer Bebe Miller on a dance about how we see and perceive people (and things). They’ll work long distance, and then convene next spring at Jacob’s Pillow.

Zoe is also the recipient of the inaugural Kawasaki Artist Residency at the University of Washington Dance Department. She’s creating a work for more than 20 undergraduate dance students. The three-year residency project continues next year with another Northwest choreographer; the third season brings an artist from out of the region.

Zoe’s (and Juniper’s) work fascinates me, and this seemed like a perfect time to commit to follow her creative process. I’m going to try to document it for this blog, and maybe other outlets. So, voila installment #1!

On a rainy Saturday I went over to a UW studio to watch Zoe work with the students. It’s not a totally novel experience for her (she’s worked with students at both Velocity and Cornish, I believe), but perhaps not for such an extended period of time.

Given her hectic pace, it’s not surprising that Zoe was felled by the nasty upper respiratory virus that’s been circulating around town. So she showed up that morning still coughing and with very little voice. Somehow, she summoned the energy to corral the young women and start rehearsal.

Every choreographer I’ve watched has a different studio method; Zoe is incredibly analytical, even studious. She keeps detailed notes, including some drawings and movement notation. Some choreographers stand up and move through their ideas, a very kinetic approach. If that's part of Zoe's practice, I didn't witness it that morning.

Just before the students were set to run through the piece, Zoe and Juniper gathered them together, to remind them that movement is only part of a performance. Intent, attitude and approach are just as important and for this work, the young women needed to own their power. Some of the young women seemed doubtful, but most looked ready to tackle the work at hand.

This dance begins with the full cast standing, spread evenly across the stage. Zoe has started a digital metronome; she’s still weighing music possibilities, and will bring in what she calls 'ballet music' at some point, to judge how it fits with the movements. This was interesting to me; some choreographers draw their inspiration directly from a musical composition. Others collaborate in real time with composers. Another way to approach movement!

The students start slowly, shifting their weight from foot to foot. There is a distinctive “Zoe” foot that I’ve seen in some of her other dances. It’s flexed, rather than pointed, with toes splayed. Some of these young women have it down; a few others still point rather than flex. Here's that photo from "A Crack in Everything" so you can look at the feet again.
I'm putting this photo back in: look at the dancer on the left, who may or may not be Zoe. Check out those toes!

Zoe isn’t focused on anybody's feet, though. She’s looking at the spacing, counting movement repetitions, talking to Juniper and UW Dance Department Director Jennifer Salk about musical options.

I can’t help but be reminded of a scientist in her lab, carefully monitoring experiment results. Especially when she put on a pair of horn-rimmed glasses. So studious!

This dance is still very much a work in progress, but you get a sense of what she sees in her mind’s eye. There is power in the sheer number of dancers; there's also a raw emotion in the movement, and a sophisticated syncopation that emerges as the run-through unfolds. Zoe has crafted a section of overlapping solos; each soloist is carried onstage by two of her classmates. One particular entrance amazed me: the soloist is perched atop her colleagues’ shoulders. She looks like a carousel horse. That image gave me chills.

And it made me excited to follow the progression of this work. The students will perform it for an audience, and I plan to go see it. But I’m also eager to watch this artist create, the collaboration with Bebe Miller, and to try to get a glimpse inside Zoe Scofield’s amazing mind.

 
oh yeah, Zoe has received a zillion honors, including a Guggenheim and a Stranger Genius Award.