Every December I make a month-by-month year-in-review update to tuck into the Christmas cards we send to all our friends and family this time of year. Today as I dropped a nice, big stack of holiday cards into the post office box, I thought it would be fun to start a new holiday tradition celebrating another year of working with alight. I hope you enjoy our first annual alight year-in-review photo gallery. Lots of people like to do retrospectives things like this during that first week of January, but I think the holiday season is all about taking time to reflect on where you’ve been and we’re you’re headed. So, this is where we’ve been this year. We hope you enjoy taking a glance back with us as we are already busy preparing for our first performance of the new year on January 21, 8pm and January 22, 4pm at Dance Place. See you soon?
For a few more minutes, it is still 9.11.2011. Since I woke up this morning, I’ve been aware that I know what day it is. I know why this day matters, and, like so many others, I listened to President Obama, former President Bush and Mayor Bloomberg reflect on the weight of this day at this morning’s memorial service in New York City. I listened as the names of the victims of the 9.11 attacks were read aloud by loved ones who mourned them. As they paused for the first moment of silence at 8:46am, I wept. Really wept. Maybe you did too.
Like every American of over a certain age, I remember 9.11.2001 in quite vivid detail. Like you, I have my own story to tell of that day. I was on my way to teach dance at a small studio on the Upper East Side in Manhattan. I arrived at the studio and saw just what I expected–lots of eager little girls dressed in their pink leotards and tights ready for their first day of creative movement. But, I also saw something I didn’t expect. The mothers were all huddled around the small television in the lobby in stunned quiet. The first plane had just struck. I didn’t watch. They barely noticed as I took their little girls downstairs into the dance studio. When the second plane it, I was running and jumping with a room full of smiling, giggling little dancers.
I have lots of other memories from that day. The sky was so blue. I sat on some rocks in Central Park with my now husband, Ben, watching bomber jets circle overhead Manhattan. In the middle of the park, it was incredibly peaceful, too peaceful. That much quiet seems unnatural in a place like New York City. I remember a lot about that day, but it is the morning after that still unnerves me.
I couldn’t go to work. We weren’t allowed back into the Citicorp building yet. I couldn’t go to class. All the places I took class–Cunningham, Limon, Dancespace, Peridance–were all below 14th Street which was blocked off. You couldn’t get past Union Square. Like most, my life in New York was usually loud, exhausting, a bit on the chaotic side. Like today, I woke up on 9.12.11 still not understanding what had happened but knowing that it had happened and that it mattered. I felt restless. I should have been pushing my way onto a subway train, eating my bagel as I walked to class at the Cunningham studio and then racing uptown to get to my admin job at the Martha Graham Center. I couldn’t just sit at home.
Ben and I decided to go down to the Flatiron Building where he worked at the time. And, this is what I remember most about 9.12 The streets were practically deserted. We walked right down the middle of Fifth Avenue with hardly a person or a taxi in sight. It was the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday. It was a bit hazy and smokey, but otherwise in the valley of the streets, between the buildings, it was just quiet. And, I think that’s why the moment of silence this morning brought that flood of tears. That’s what I remember. Walking slowly down the middle of Fifth Avenue, not saying a word. There was nothing to say and, I just kept thinking, “So, what do we do now?”
“Thought of You” is a short 2-D animated film directed and animated by Ryan Woodwood. The work blends figure drawings, 2D animation, visual Fx, and contemporary dance to evoke the movement and emotion of an intimate relationship. Woodward has had a very successful career working on big distribution Hollywood films such as Spider Man 3, Iron Man 2 and Where the Wild Things Are, but this was a personal project, just something he’d envisioned for a while and wanted to make happen.
I discovered “Thought of You” when a dancer friend of mine, Sarah Anne Austin, posted it on her Facebook page, and I’ve been fascinated by it ever since. Usually, when I think of dancing animation, I get visions of Disney movies like Fantastia or Beauty in the Beast in my head. And, honestly, I am sucker for some good cartoon dancing of the sort where pink elephants prance and Bugs Bunny square dances. That said, “Thought of You” is something all together different because it actually evokes the delicacy and power of modern dance in a way that strikes me much the same way as a live dance performance.
As a choreographer, it was clear to me from watching the finished product that Woodward had collaborated with some real flesh-and-blood dancers to work this magic. I’ve posted above a short documentary of the process of making “Thought of You” (see the finished product HERE) because I loved seeing how this brilliant collaboration between the animator, the choreographer and the dancers worked. For me, seeing the process through which any is work developed almost heightens the sense of magic and mystery surrounding the final performance or product, and this was no different.
In my own work, as well in the work of artists I admire, there always seems to be a bit of alchemy involved. First there is the idea, the tiny seed of thought which becomes a vision and eventually evolves into plans with schedules and deadlines. People come together to work, think, create, fail and regroup and finally produce this thing that was once just a thought. In the process, the original idea remains both essentially unchanged and yet often radically altered by the touch of the particular artists working in concert. In the end, every work of art is a bit of miracle. Something as elegant as “Thought of You” is the sum of its parts and yet completely transcends the nuts and bolts of its components.
Most Wednesday nights and Saturday afternoons alight is in rehearsal at the Greenbelt Community Center Dance Studio. The studio is a lovely space with blonde hard wood floors, floor to ceiling mirrors on two walls and a bank of windows on another. Just outside those windows is this amazing
rose garden. The dance studio is located on the lower level in the back of the building, so the rose garden is sort of tucked away–not hidden but separated from the main walkways near the building. From inside the studio, through the old cloudy windows, the bright color presses up against the building,
a bit blurry like an Impressionist painting. When I’m alone in the studio choreographing, I like to open the side door and peek out at the color and texture and fragrance just outside. I love the contrast between the clean, open space of the dance studio and the overgrown, luxurious beauty of the garden. Set side by side, they both feed my creative process.
The empty studio just cries out to be filled with movement, energy, laughter and a good sweat. And, the garden is already so kinetic, so active, so complete in itself that it invites stillness. It is a eloquent reminder that stillness is as much a part of the dance as silence is a part of music. And, being the committed multi-tasker I am, it is a reminder I need.
A little over a week ago, D.C. area dancer and writer Amanda Abrams posted a rather hard-hitting critique of our local dance scene entitled “Work-in-Progress: What’s Wrong with D.C.’s Modern Dance Scene?” As a modern dancer and choreographer working in the D.C. metro area, I have to say that I honestly didn’t have much argument with the points she made. She praises some particular organizations and censures others, and compares the dance scene here to that of other cities, but the crux of her critique is this:
There are plenty of opportunities to make and see dance in D.C. But most local dancers are stuck depicting underdeveloped ideas in a movement style that was popularized several decades ago, one that’s muscle-bound and linear and draws heavily from the ballet vocabulary. Sure, it can be attractive—but what about original and smart? Modern dance has moved on, and choreographers elsewhere are developing new ways to present abstract concepts through the body. But you’d hardly know it by watching many Washington-area dance companies.
Having lived here for over four years, I’ve attended my fair share of dance shows, and I definitely get her point. Earlier in my career, I spent a few years living and dancing in New York City, and I have no illusions that the D.C. dance scene is as dynamic or as daring as what I experienced there. And yet, here’s the thing: Reading Abrams’ article didn’t make me feel justified, it made me feel defensive, a little protective of our local dance scene.
Sure, I’ve seen a lot of half-baked dances since I’ve lived here, but, honestly, I’ve seen a lot of equally crappy work in New York City, Atlanta, Houston, Milwaukee and Chicago. I’m not saying that failure elsewhere should make us complacent. I want to see a day when the D.C. area is known for making amazing contemporary work and supporting a strong, articulate community of modern dancers and choreographers. I want to see that happen so much that I decided to stay here, start a company here and build community with other artists here. I see the problems, but I also see the promise.
There are a lot of opportunities here for young dancers to get fantastic training and performance opportunities at places like Maryland Youth Ballet, Dance Place and Joy of Motion just to name a few. And, there are active modern dance programs at many colleges and universities in the area. Where I grew up, just outside Lexington, Kentucky, there was nothing like these kinds of opportunities. To major in dance, I had to leave the entire state. So, we’ve got a lot going for us.
The way I see it what’s right with the D.C. dance scene is also what’s wrong with us. There are lots of opportunities to get started as a modern dancer, but very few opportunities to grow as an independent artist once you are one. Engaging in the creative process takes a real sacrifice of time and energy without any guarantee of “success.” Part of the magic of the NYC dance scene is the sheer number of choreographers making all kinds of work–good, bad, ugly, strange, shocking, mundane. This commitment to just making work and taking risks, not just putting on a show, is sort of in the air. When I was dancing in NYC, I spent a lot time just talking with other artists.
And, I think that’s key to moving forward. Those of us who are here need to be listening to each other, supporting each other, forging collaborations, making more opportunities for each other. The NYC dance scene thrives because the artists within it are its engine, and so everyone one of us making dances in the D.C. area are both part of our problem and our only solution.
While I can’t say I disagree Abrams’ assessment, I do want to say that that I am more excited about the possibilities here than discouraged by the limitations. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be here. To Peter DiMuro, I say, “Love the Greenhouse idea…more info please.” To Dance Exchange, I say, “Thursday nights sound great. How do we get involved?” And to any “homeless” modern dancers out there looking for a place to grow through the creative process, I say, “You’re invited to alight. We’re not perfect, but we’re trying to be part of the solution.”
I love color. It makes me want to move. This kind of bright, vibrant, so electric it is almost offensive color, just energizes me. It is like seeing music, like the intoxicating beat of techno music blasting silently, texture instead of sound. Maybe it is the 64 Box Crayons syndrome. As a kid, opening a huge box of new crayons was always sort of magical, filled with the possibility and joy of densely packed color. The work of mixed media artist Agata Oleksiak gives me that same feeling.
Agata grew up in industrial Poland and graduated from A. Mickiewicz University with a degree in cultural studies. After moving to New York City, she rediscovered her ability to crochet and just started wrapping everything around her chains of color. She describes her creative process this way:
A loop after a loop. Hour after hour my madness becomes crochet. Life and art are inseparable. The movies I watch while crocheting influence my work, and my work dictates the films I select. I crochet everything that enters my space. Sometimes it’s a text message, a medical report, found objects. There is the unraveling, the ephemeral part of my work that never lets me forget about the limited life of the art object and art concept. What do I intend to reveal? You have to pull the end of the yarn and unravel the story behind the crochet.
Her process is one of accumulation, an overflowing of soft, chaotic color. To me, it is excessive and obsessive in the best way possible. And, it reminds me again of the power of art to surprise and delight us.
Preparing for Wednesday night rehearsals with alight, I often find myself thinking about how I can use our finite time together most effectively, most efficiently, most productively. That’s all a necessary part of the director gig i.e. managing time and resources thoughtfully. And yet, Agata’s work reminds me that my most primary responsibility is be an artist that delights, surprises, challenges, evokes and celebrates. Now, I feel like dancing!
I’m fascinated by the history and ritual of holidays. According to History.com, Our country’s observation of the Memorial Day traces its roots back to 1868 and the Civil War era tradition of honoring the dead by decorating their graves. This weekend many people will visit lay wreaths at a memorial, maybe even participate in a parade or rally, to honor loved ones and strangers alike who died in military service to our country. But, just as many people, maybe more of us, won’t.
Lots of us, myself included, see this long weekend as a time to rest, catch up with friends and family and hit the sale racks. Honoring the sacrifices of the dead, particularly those distinguished in battle, is an ancient and worthy practice, but it can also be an uncomfortable reminder of our own mortality. On this soft, sunny day, I admit I’d rather be sipping lemonade and picking out strawberries at the Greenbelt Farmer’s Market than mediating on the death of thousands whose sacrifices made these moments possible. I’d rather be dwelling on the beauty, joy and possibilities of today than focusing on the brokenness and violence that make such sacrifices necessary.
And yet, sitting in church this morning, I was reminded of this phrase “offer your bodies as living sacrifices” which is found in Romans 12:1. My art and faith have always been in conversation with each other, and this idea of being a living sacrifice has resonated with me for years. My body is my instrument. While I don’t train as intensively now as I once did, I usually dance five or six days a week. As a young dancer, I abandoned many other interests, possibilities and even relationships to pursue my art. It didn’t all end up exactly the way I imagined, but, those choices still shape me today, for better and for worse. So, the body “as a living sacrifice” makes sense to me.
On this Memorial Day weekend, we are called on to remember the men and women died in service of the ideals of justice and freedom. While their bodies are laid to rest, their sacrifices live on through our memories. Today, it occurred to me that like those before us we all sacrifice our bodies, our days, our finite time on this earth to something or someone. Just out of college, I thought I was to give up anything to be a professional dancer in New York City, but, eventually, I left the city and chose a creative life that I could share with my husband. No doubt, I would be a different person–physically, emotionally, spiritually–if I had chosen differently. This weekend has reminded me that my body is a breathing memorial to my past choices and, like the nation I call home, I can only move into the future upon that foundation.
I know it seems like a cliche, like some Martha Stewart marketing ploy, but there was a time when “spring cleaning” actually meant something. In the past, homes were heated by burning coal, wood or oil which made for some pretty dingy interiors by the end of a long, cold winter. By the time spring came along the whole house was ready for a good, thorough scrubbing. Of course, today our homes and our lives are so different that throwing open our windows at the first sight of spring actually creates the cleaning problem. At my house, that glorious fresh breeze blows in a thin dust of pollen and then sends my allergies into fury.
Thanks to my crazy allergies, I’ve lost my voice which has seriously disrupted my previously scheduled programming. Instead of teaching, I spent today at home knocking out piles of laundry and catching up on emails…and now finally blogging again for the first time in almost two months. This time last year I was writing five days a week and working two less jobs. I’ve been scattered in so many directions lately that being home today feels like the beginning of a mental spring cleaning for me.
While I’d rather be running about, being my usual “productive” aka chatty self, I am willing to admit, albeit reluctantly, that it is a relief to be forced to rest. Truth be told, I am not very good at resting. Part of my problem is that I really love what I do. Like anyone, I have off days when I’m tired and crabby and less grateful than I should be, but most days I can see so clearly just how fortunate I am to do the work I do.
Just this past weekend, alight worked with film student, Lauren Burke, to shoot a promotional video for our current project, Truth Be Told. It was supposed to rain all day, but it didn’t, and we had a great time. In contrast to their diva alter-egos above, the dancers of alight are a goofy, hard-working bunch, and our rehearsals are often the highlight of my week. It is hard to want to rest when there’s so much good work to be done, and most of the time I enjoy it so much.
And yet, sitting here writing, listening to birds chirping in the distance and taking the time to savor the weekend’s accomplishments, I have to admit that it feels good to stop doing. Like a dusty, cluttered house, my life has been in need of some spring cleaning for weeks. I love what I do, but, honestly, I’ve been a bit run-down and uninspired lately which is not so great for the creative process. Walking into rehearsal tomorrow night, I may still not be able to speak over a whisper, but I am excited to return to the studio with a little more space in my brain for the work I love so much.
By the age of eleven, I had some regrets. Ever since I could remember I had wanted to be ballet dancer. By third grade, I had read every single book in my elementary school that even mentioned word dance. No exaggeration. The librarian told me that herself.
All that reading had taught me three very important things. First, ballet dancers were ideally between 5’4 and 5’6 so that even on pointe they would not be “too tall” to be partnered. Secondly, ballet dancers had to start very young at about the age of seven. And, finally, they needed to train everyday, preferably somewhere like New York City or Moscow. Though I kept praying to be no taller than 5’6, I kind of already new I wasn’t going to make it in the world of ballet.
My eventual height wouldn’t change the fact that by eleven years of age I was still living in Kentucky and had only taken a few YMCA dance classes. My parents couldn’t afford fancy lessons, and, even if they could, there weren’t any distinguished schools of dance in my hometown. As if that wasn’t enough, I had flat feet. The books were very clear; flat feet were not ideal for a ballet dancer.
Now, fast forward to last Friday when I performed an excerpt from Speechless for the Women’s Day at Springhill Lake Elementary. Sitting in the audience, at a school cafeteria table, I am nibbling at the breakfast food provided and waiting for the program to begin. Onstage already are the two fifth grade girls who are serving as the hosts of the show. One is very out-spoken, quite confident and the other a quieter girl with a big smile.
In addition, there are about 25 other fifth grade girls ready to deliver biographies of famous women and/or sing with the “selected girls” chorus. They are dressed up in their best clothes which ranges from very trendy fare to classic Sunday-best dresses. They were all fresh-faced, on their best behavior and acting impossibly proud of themselves. They all looked so young, so unmarked by life, just full of future promise and potential.
And then, my eleven year old self chimed in. These girls aren’t waiting to start living in some distant magical future. Everyone of them already has hopes and dreams, maybe even some regrets. They still look like children but inside they are already little women who are starting to work out who and what they want to be. As I watched them sing Mariah Carey’s “Hero,” I stopped thinking about their “potential” and began to appreciate all they had to offer the world already.
The fifth grade girls of Springhill Lake Elementary reminded me that becoming a women, being a woman, is about how you live each day as it comes. In this Women’s History Month, I am inspired by the hope, spirit and seriousness of purpose those young ladies demonstrated. They reminded me that my eleven-year-old regrets have faded away, but the passion and perserverance of my childhood have helped me survive many disappointments. They also reminded me that the women who have served me best in my journey have treated me like the woman I wanted to be rather than the child I was at the moment.
Kate Jordan is a friend of mine and one of the co-founders of Eureka Dance Festival. We were chatting recently, comparing schedules and trying to find a time to bring Kate in to teach alight Open Company Class. In the meantime, we also got to talking about a common ailment affecting young choreographers: application-phobia.
Every year Eureka Dance Festival selects a group of DC-metro area dance artists to create new works for the festival. In order to be considered for this opportunity, choreographers must submit an application. The deadline was recently extended to March 25th, so, if you are application phobic but interested in this opportunity, you still have time to apply.
As I am writing this, I am in middle of working on several applications for funding and performance opportunities all which are due in the next couple months. From experience, I know that applications like this are a lot of work and, of course, there is no guarantee that they will pay off in terms of real money or opportunities. For young choreographers, I think it can be particularly daunting to put forth the effort to complete and submit such applications because all that work could just lead to rejection.
Last year, I was awarded the Kennedy Center Local Dance Commissioning Grant to create alight’s most recent work, Speechless, but, when I sent in the application, I just assumed I would not receive the funding. I’ve applied for many things in the past with no results, but I kept trying. As dancers, we know we have to hone our craft in class and rehearsals on a weekly basis if we’re going to improve. Writing grant proposals and festival applications may not be as exciting as a good technique class, but those skills take practice too. You can’t expect to improve if you’re not trying.
If you’ve been thinking about applying for the Eureka Dance Festival or any other opportunity, don’t hesitate and just do it. My advice is to take the risk. Applications are a lot work, but they can also lead to amazing things…but only for those who actually meet the deadline!
P.S. Kate Jordan will be teaching alight OPEN COMPANY CLASS on Wednesday, April 13th, 6:30-8pm. Class is free and open to all intermediate / advanced dancers. All alight classes and rehearsals take place at the Greenbelt Community Center Dance Studio located at 15 Crescent Road, Greenbelt MD 20770. Free parking. Public transit accessible: Take Green line to Greenbelt Station & transfer to the G12 or G14. UMD-College Park students can take Shuttle 106 to Greenbelt.