Nearly 40 years ago, Dianne Walker walked away from her job as a staff child psychologist at Boston University Hospital to become a tap dancer. This month, "Lady Di" will be honored by her peers and tap family at The Big Apple Tap Festival in New York City. "I feel a tremendous sense of accomplishment," Walker says. "Deep down inside I want to scream with joy because I feel so excited about what I—and we as a community—have been able to accomplish over these years. I feel really good about where we are as a tap-dance community."
"I was born doing this," says Atlanta native Dawn Axam of her career in dance. Her older sister wished for a baby sister who danced, and Axam grew up doing just that. She began her formal training as part of her high school's dance program and went on to earn her BFA from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts and her master's in art education from Lesley University. For the past 25 years, she's taught at a variety of schools and studios, including the Tri-Cities High School in Georgia, Las Vegas Academy of the Arts and in Senegal on a Fulbright Scholarship. Today, she directs the lower school (grades 4–6) at the Atlanta-based Woodward Academy, where her goal is to foster young choreographers and their creative voices.
With a career spanning nearly six decades, Liz Lerman has been questioning and testing the boundaries of dancemaking and education her whole life. She is known for building communities, working with dancers of all ages and abilities and creating works that explore topics like the human genome, particle physics and the defense budget.
Earlier this month, at The Jacob's Pillow 85th-anniversary season opening gala, Lerman was honored with the festival's 2017 Dance Award. This summer she'll also be honored as American Dance Festival's 2017 Balasaraswati/Joy Anne Dewey Beinecke Endowed Chair for Distinguished Teaching.
You've seen enough “So You Think You Can Dance" dance-for-your-life moments to know that improvisation is a powerful tool for a professional dancer to possess. By introducing it to your students at an early age and establishing a dedicated practice, you'll see benefits at the studio level, too. Your dancers will shine onstage despite choreography blank-outs or costume malfunctions, stand out in improv rounds at competition and explore their own choreographic impulses, secure in the knowledge of how their bodies move.
Jawole Willa Jo Zollar directs a new program on improvisation at Jacob’s Pillow this summer.
The founder of Urban Bush Women (below) brings her expertise to Jacob’s Pillow.
Ring shout and hard bop likely aren’t techniques offered at your dance studio, but this summer Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, artistic director of Urban Bush Women, will bring these styles of movement and other African-American improvisational traditions to Jacob’s Pillow.
Improv Traditions & Innovations: From Ring Shout to Blues to Jazz is part of Jacob’s Pillow’s 2016 Professional Advancement series. The 24 dancers—selected through auditions for this program—will help drive how the week unfolds. “I always work from who is in the room,” Zollar says.
The program will dive into various types of music and the dance forms that emerged from each style, such as blues, ring shout (a traditional African rhythmic circle dance), bebop, early R&B and hard bop. “I’m looking at these artforms, where you bring your own individual style and point of view. I won’t be teaching a certain technique; I’ll be asking people to listen to the music and find how they enter into that musical space through the historical perspective of who they are,” Zollar says. She’s most excited to “look at the historical lens of dance’s relationship to music.”
Both her mother and brother are jazz musicians, and Zollar grew up with an appreciation for improvisation. “For anything you’re raised with, you don’t even realize how much or how it’s seeping in. It’s just a normal part of your life,” she says. “It gave me a profound love of jazz music.”
Each day Zollar and the teaching artists will lead a range of movement classes (such as somatic, strength training, vernacular and modern dance) as well as seminars, based on a curriculum that includes readings, film screenings and discussions. Each day will end with a rehearsal with Zollar in preparation for sharing these artistic practices with the Jacob’s Pillow community.
“J.R.” Glover, Jacob’s Pillow director of education, asked Zollar to be the 2016 program director because “she is a connector for what has and is occurring in our communities and how that is voiced through the body in society, in the studio and on the stage. Her presence will charge the Pillow’s air with why embodied inquiry is important and the generosity of spirit we share as a community when dance unites us.”
The program runs June 27–July 10. Dancers will showcase experiences from the program on July 2 and July 9, as part of the free outdoor Inside/Out performance series. DT
For more: jacobspillow.org
Emily Macel Theys writes on dance from the Pittsburgh area.
Photos (from top): by Julieta Cervantes, courtesy of Urban Bush Women; courtesy of Jacob’s Pillow
In a month when New York City’s stages are full of Nutcrackers, the American Dance Guild (ADG) offers an alternative—a wide array of contemporary dancemakers at its Annual Performance Festival. In addition to four days of performances, ADG honors three game-changers of modern dance: Doug Varone, Alice Teirstein and Liz Lerman.
Gloria McLean, president of ADG, says that its role is “both promoter of the new and preserver of the living history of modern dance as an artform,” and this year’s honorees are representative of this vision. Each honoree has pushed boundaries and had an impact on the field of dance—and beyond.
Doug Varone—a choreographer of work for contemporary dance, opera, Broadway and film—created his company Doug Varone and Dancers in 1986 and has toured the world and performed in more than 100 cities. “Doug Varone and his company are at a peak of vibrancy,” says McLean. “He certainly is a mature leader in the field and a choreographer/performer/teacher who came upon his own vision early and has persisted with it brilliantly over many years.” His company performs Lux during the festival.
Alice Teirstein, an 86-year-old dancer, choreographer and dance educator, recently received a Bessie for distinguished service to the field of dance. Her Young Dancemakers Company, now in its 20th season, will perform. “Alice is, in a sense, one of our own,” says McLean. “She was a founding member of the American Dance Guild when it formed in 1956 at the 92Y as the Dance Teachers Guild, and she has mirrored the mission of the Guild in her own life work, spreading the benefits of modern dance as education, creation, performance and cultural heritage.”
Liz Lerman, a pioneer for her work with intergenerational dancers, has created multidisciplinary stage works that build bridges between the arts and sciences, like her Ferocious Beauty: Genome, The Matter of Origins and her most recent work, Healing Wars, which looks at war’s impact on medicine. She founded Liz Lerman Dance Exchange in 1976, leaving it in 2011 to pursue her own work. On being an ADG honoree, she says: “I think some younger artists may be struggling with the same questions that I did. I hope that the presentation of my work can help them to see that it can be done. You can break rules.”
This year’s ADG festival features the work of 35 artists and/or companies. It takes place December 3–6 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater. DT
For more: americandanceguild.org
Emily Macel Theys writes on dance from the Pittsburgh area.
Photo (top) by Julie Lemberger; all photos courtesy of American Dance Guild Festival
Sankai Juku gives dancers an opportunity to explore butoh.
Sand gently cascades down, covering a stage where dancers with shaved heads and talc-covered skin move with a calm, hypnotic intensity. They move as if they themselves are grains of sand that emerge from the set to create a moving mosaic before sinking back to the floor. At times they reach out—in painful discomfort or inquisitive searching. This is a scene from a butoh performance—an avant-garde Japanese form filled with slow-motion illusions.
This month, as part of its engagement at Brooklyn Academy of Music, the internationally known butoh dance troupe Sankai Juku offers a three-hour master class, What Makes a Body Move.
Semimaru, a founding member of the company and dancer for 37 years, teaches the class, open to dancers of all ages and experiences. “I believe that this sense of feeling inside and outside is essential to any butoh exercise,” he says. “It is to have a third-party point of view toward your own body, toward people around you and the air around you.”
Dancers can expect to collaborate with each other during the master class. “In the most basic exercise, the participants work in pairs; you help your partner move and then observe their movement. When you yourself move, you feel and observe your own movement,” Semimaru says. “In another exercise I ask several participants to walk together at the same speed—they walk together not only by sight; you try to feel your own senses and others’, as well.”
Imagery will also play an important role to help dancers, whether new to butoh or experienced in the form, find a way to connect to it. “The image I may suggest is that you have a ball in your body or that your body is filled with water,” Semimaru explains. “So, when you move, it also moves. And, you may also need to feel the existence of air around you.”
Sankai Juku founder Ushio Amagatsu considers himself part of Japan’s second-generation of butoh dancers. The form was developed by Tatsumi Hijikata and Kazuo Ohno in the 1960s in post–World War II Japan and passed along to their students, such as Amagatsu, who founded his company in 1975 and has performed in more than 700 cities worldwide.
The master class is co-presented by BAM and Mark Morris Dance Group and takes place October 30 at the Mark Morris Dance Center. Sankai Juku performs Umusuna: Memories Before History at BAM Howard Gilman Opera House, October 28–31. DT
For more: bam.org
Emily Macel Theys writes on dance from the Pittsburgh area.
Photo courtesy of BAM
Third Coast Rhythm Project celebrates National Tap Dance Day and fosters the Texas tap community.
San Antonians can get their fill of tap this month when an intergenerational lineup of dancers convenes onstage for the National Tap Dance Day Celebration, an event that kick-started Barbara Phillips’ Third Coast Rhythm Project 17 years ago. The yearly performance has brought visibility to tap in San Antonio and statewide.
“No one even knew there was a National Tap Dance Day,” Phillips says. “I talked with Gracey Tune, who runs National Tap Day in Fort Worth, and she helped me start the event. We did it just as a community thing, bringing studio groups together and forging collaborations. Now we bring youth and adult groups from across the state to come together and do this concert.”
Third Coast Rhythm Project began in 1998, when Chicago Human Rhythm Project founder Lane Alexander encouraged Phillips to make the artistic leap and start the company. “I had been going to Chicago for the CHRP, and Lane and I forged a friendship and dancing collaboration,” she says.
Phillips launched the Third Coast dance festival, which consisted of classes around the city at different dance studios and culminated in a gala performance. Nearly two decades later, the festival has 60 master classes and world-renowned faculty (Max Pollak, Sam Weber and Sarah Savelli, to name a few). Tap dancers from across the globe travel to San Antonio each July. “We have anywhere from 200 to 300 students. What started out as a community effort quickly grew to a national effort, and now it’s an international event,” Phillips says.
She also runs an active and popular studio, the Tap Academy. “We offer the only community-based adult classes in San Antonio. There are hundreds of studios in the city geared toward children and young adults. My passion is teaching adults,” Phillips says. The studio’s growth over the years has been largely due to the interest in her adult classes (dancers range in age from early 20s to 80s).
But Phillips has a knack for fostering young talent, too. RPM Youth Tap Ensemble, Third Coast’s performing youth tap company, is now in its 14th season. “The ensemble provides an opportunity for young dancers who want to continue their training after high school, those who are making decisions about college and scholarship opportunities,” she says. One of her recent success stories is New York City–based dancer Karissa Royster, who joined the ensemble in 2006 and has gone on to perform in Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards’ Sophisticated Ladies.
This year’s Third Coast National Tap Dance Day Celebration takes place May 17 at the Jo Long Theatre for the Performing Arts at the Carver Community Cultural Center. DT
For more: thirdcoastrhythm.com.
Emily Macel Theys is a former Dance Magazine editor and writes on dance from the Pittsburgh area.
Photo courtesy of Third Coast Rhythm Project