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Cherylyn Lavagnino talks about her decision to leave university administration and pursue her own artistic career. 

After nine years as dance department chair for the NYU Tisch School of the Arts, Lavagnino is looking forward to spending more time in the studio.

The large, airy studio in lower Manhattan fills with the plaintive sounds of Franz Schubert’s Trio in E-flat Major as choreographer Cherylyn Lavagnino intently watches her 13 handsome dancers rehearse Treize en Jeu, in preparation for her company’s season at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church. “Be yourselves,” she calls out. “You are representing a community. Radiate.” As their movements soften and become more fluid, she smiles. Not only do they represent a community in the work, more than half of them have been her students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she has taught since 1987—serving as dance department chair for the last nine years. But beginning this fall semester, she will give up that position to devote all her time to teaching and running her company, Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance.

“I wished for more time to pursue my artistic vision,” she says. “I loved my job, but I felt it was time to delve more into my choreography and promote my company.” (Choreographer and director Seán Curran, a Tisch alumnus, is the new chair.)

For anyone to leave such a prestigious position to run a dance company is very unusual. Lavagnino knows the risks. “I have been thinking about this for about three years,” she says. “There was no urgency—just a thoughtful process as my creative aspirations began to take more focus. The biggest risk is sticking my neck out to promote my work and have that effort fail. Being a female choreographer is already a large hurdle to overcome in our profession. However, I have some very valuable support. I have developed a circle of professional colleagues who believe in my work and are helping me promote it.”

Among them is Jaclynn Villamil, who served with her as co-director of the resident Tisch student performance group, Second Avenue Dance Company, and now teaches at the Gibney Dance Center. “It is wonderful to see Cherylyn pushing her boundaries and her choreography coming to fruition,” she says. “She is steadfast in her passion.”

Founded in 2000, Lavagnino’s company has performed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, DanceNow/NYC Festival, The Joyce Theater’s Evening Stars series in Battery Park and at Inside/Out at Jacob’s Pillow, among several other venues. The reviews have been encouraging. Critic Deborah Jowitt wrote, “Treize en Jeu marked the musical high point of the evening . . . Lavagnino’s choreography captures the music’s 19th-century romanticism by molding ballet steps to convey moods and relationships, without the manners that are integral to the classical repertory and without the deliberate deformations that some contemporary ballet choreographers visit upon the traditional steps.” The New York Times critic Brian Seibert wrote, “Cherylyn Lavagnino’s new Triptych has many fine ingredients . . . It’s rich stuff, especially in the exalted setting of Danspace Project in St. Mark’s Church.”

From Ru, which premiered in June at Danspace Project in St. Mark’s Church

 

Lavagnino can look back on many achievements as chair at Tisch. Especially concerned about the health and well-being of students, she has made sure that the technique faculty teaches some kind of somatic warm-up—Pilates, floor barre or Feldenkrais—once a week. Moreover, she got a sprung floor for the theater, made sure that there is a physical therapist/Pilates teacher on staff and opened a permanent physical therapy room. She also created a dual degree MA/MFA with NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, which offers those interested an opportunity to pursue an artistic and pedagogical degree with a teaching certification for New York State K–12. It’s particularly well-suited to people like her, who want to both teach and pursue artistic careers.

But while Lavagnino liked being able to make a difference as an administrator, she won’t miss all the meetings involved, the huge influx of e-mails and the writing assignments tied to the dance department. Last year, for instance, members of the department had to create a narrative to support their budget requests. Called “Guiding Principles,” it was supposed to state the mission and goals of the department and request the budgetary and spatial support needed to successfully accomplish these directives. It was a hefty and crucial assignment to support the future of the department. In her position, she spent  35–40 hours a week on administrative work and 8–10 hours in the studio with students. Now, she can look forward to freeing up 30–40 hours per week, which will leave her able to devote herself to creativity and administering and networking for both her company and her own choreographic career, as well as enjoying extra time with her husband and 16-year-old son.

Over her life in dance, Lavagnino has been particularly fortunate in her teachers and mentors. Growing up in Whittier, California, she traveled to Hollywood to take classes from legendary teachers Stanley Holden and Carmelita Maracci, and  later had the good fortune to be mentored by former American Ballet Theatre principal Lupe Serrano as a member of the Pennsylvania Ballet for three years. Lavagnino also befriended Lawrence Rhodes, a major dance figure, dancer, teacher and former chair of the Tisch dance department who is now artistic director of The Juilliard School Dance Division. He eventually asked her to work with the Second Avenue Dance Company, when she returned to New York after stints with Arizona Ballet Theatre and Ballet Teatro del Espacio in Mexico City and with a philosophy degree from University of Southern California. Thus began her long, happy tenure at NYU.

From Treize en Jeu (left); Triptych

Wearing white pants and a blue-and-white checked shirt, her hair fashionably short, Lavagnino continues the rehearsal, taking brief breaks to consult with her lighting designer, Kathy Kaufmann, to make sure the three dances on the upcoming program, Treize en Jeu, Triptych and Ru, are in good shape. Every work is characterized by a striking sense of musicality. The dancers’ enthusiasm is palpable. “You always feel you are in good hands with Cherylyn,” says dancer Travis Magee. “She’s very knowledgeable and has a clear understanding of movement. She’s invested in seeing us grow.” Dancer Claire Westby adds, “She stresses a sense of gravity and simplicity and encourages our expressiveness.”

For Ru, Lavagnino uses a score by Scott Killian, a composer she has collaborated with for years. Often inspired by her travels and books, she created the work after reading a novel by Kim Thuy, about the author’s voyage from a childhood in strife-torn postwar Vietnam and her time as a refugee to a new beginning in 1970s Quebec. (“Ru” means lullaby or river in Vietnamese.)

One of her costume designers, Christopher Metzger, also a Tisch student, arrives, bringing the costumes for the dancers to try on after the rehearsal. He has designed them to be reminiscent of traditional Vietnamese clothes: for the women, washed-out red dresses, and for the men, khaki pants. Lavagnino holds up the costumes to get a good look. “They’re perfect,” she says. “Just right for the movement and mood of the piece. And flattering. I always want the dancers to look as wonderful as possible and feel natural and comfortable. I like things simplified.”

Lavagnino may be leaving her administrative post, but she will continue as an associate arts professor—which is a full-time position—and teach ballet, mentor the students’ choreographies and create work on the students, as well as other departmental duties such as helping with auditions, production and scheduling. “I will always teach,” she says. “Teaching supports the choreographic process and vice versa. Working with dance artists and finding a way to lead them to their individual expression is exactly what interests me as a choreographer. Working deeply with dancers on performance values informs my teaching and keeps the artistic expression present in technique class. These two processes support and feed each other.”

She started preparing for her new role last spring, creating a comprehensive plan for fundraising to support her future goals and signing up for workshops through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to develop her skills and explore fundraising resources. “The biggest challenge will be setting up a board of advisors and learning how to develop relationships with donors and presenters,” she says. “I frankly have never had the time to do promotion for my company and choreography—this will be a challenging new directive.” She is especially thankful to the dance department for providing her with wonderful resources for her creative work—dancers, space, collaborators and mentors—the resources she has relished all her time at Tisch and will continue to enjoy as associate arts professor. “It’s a rich and thriving creative environment to work in,” she says. “It makes it a lot easier to make this huge move.” DT

Valerie Gladstone has written about dance for The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and has published a book on Balanchine and most recently A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student, with photographer Jose Ivey.

Photo (top) by Annemarie Poyo Furlong, courtesy of NYU; all others by Ella Bromblin, courtesy of Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance

Featured Articles

Choreographers and their music

“Music chooses me,” says Jennifer Weber, founder of the all-female hip-hop group Decadancetheatre.

Music turns choreographers on. They listen all the time, looking for inspiration. From Bach to rap, there are more than enough choices to satisfy even the most particular. But it’s not simply a matter of choosing what they like. When selecting music for movement they have to find something that complements and enhances the work. Music and dance should correspond perfectly. As Balanchine most famously said, “Dance is music made visible.” And, “See the music, hear the dance.”

Choreographers meet this challenge in a variety of ways. DT spoke with three popular concert dancemakers who’ve coincidentally tended toward music from the past rather than the current Top 40. Learning how—and why—they choose music makes it easier to understand how they develop their work.

Choreographer Monica Bill Barnes loves old music, favoring tunes from before the ’90s for her troupe Monica Bill Barnes & Company. “I like the sense of nostalgia that it evokes,” she says. She grew up with her grandparents’ record collection and lived with that older music for a long time, developing a close relationship with it. She sees her job as transforming it into something new. To accomplish this, she tries out a selection of music in the studio, seeing what works with the dancers. “There’s a lot of trial and error,” she says. “The choreography can’t reiterate the sound; there has to be a reason to put them together. The dance should help get out the rhythmic patterns. Sometimes I don’t decide on the music until a week before a performance. It has to fit as well as the costuming.”

She uses live recordings so that her audiences can hear the reactions of another audience to the music. “They act on one another,” she says, “and the work becomes a sum of many parts, the music’s history embedded in the dance.” She recently reworked Suddenly Summer Somewhere for summer festivals in Tarrytown and Chatham, New York. As music, she used recordings of Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin at the Sands Hotel in Las Vegas in 1963. “They were so funny, so cool, with perfect timing. I study their performances endlessly,” she says. She’s currently experimenting with Janis Joplin and Puccini operas.

Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass

David Parker, founder of The Bang Group, is a huge fan of vaudeville, musical theater and Hollywood musicals. Trained as a tap dancer, he brings joie de vivre and humor to his pieces. “I think I have a natural sense of rhythm,” he says. “It’s part of my nervous system. I can naturally organize around time and rhythm.” He sometimes looks to ’70s and ’80s popular music for inspiration, tunes he recalls from his teen years. He chooses dancers who can assimilate the music, taking it into their bodies. Having worked with Amber Sloan, Nic Petry, and his co-director, Jeffrey Kazin, now for many years, he hardly needs to explain what he wants.

Though his pieces are humorous, they aren’t easy, being based on cerebral musical structures with latent associations. They function on three levels at once. The rhythmic level must be fulfilled first, but the movements used to create the rhythms are often loaded with meaning. They may include kissing and slapping sounds, percussive embraces and rebuffs that are also affecting on a psychological or emotional level. Thirdly, they involve large body movements, which are atypical of percussive dance forms, making the physical level very demanding as well.

David Parker (far right) and The Bang Group

Parker chooses music only after he has developed a substantial amount of movement material. This gives him time to find the work’s intrinsic musicality. “I want the dance and music to bounce off each other like Tracy and Hepburn,” he says, “sparring partners and lovers both, to strike sparks as well as jibe.” Occasionally the choice of music isn’t up to him. In 2008, Robin Staff, director of DanceNOW NYC, asked him to create an all-dance version of the old Broadway hit Annie Get Your Gun for her Modern [Dance] Musicals series at Joe’s Pub in New York. He called it ShowDown. He listened to a lot of recordings, eventually finding that the score recorded by Judy Garland and Howard Keel for the MGM movie version was the most congenial to dancing. “It’s a good challenge when I’m given the music,” he says. “I learned a lot from choreographing to this piece.”

“Music chooses me,” says Jennifer Weber, founder of the all-female hip-hop group Decadancetheatre. “I might hear it on a podcast, at a club, a show or at a friend’s house, and I immediately have a vision. It has to tell a story.” Ultimately, the music must fulfill a lot of requirements. It must be emotional, full of variety and cinematic. She often works with DJs and she likes improvisation. “A dialogue has to develop between the dancers and the music,” she says. “It creates a kind of tension that’s very exciting.”

Although hip-hop music makes up most of her repertory, Weber also uses classical pieces to see what happens when she breaks tradition. One element that defines hip-hop dance is how strongly the movement matches the specific beat of the song. And in hip-hop music, the beat is often very predictable—accenting on the downbeat—and therefore the audience can anticipate where dancers are going to hit an accent even before they move. Although she likes connecting the performers and the audience in this way, she wanted to see what happened when she used a different kind of music. She choreographed to Stravinsky’s Firebird in 2004 and to the “Summer” concerto from Vivaldi’s The Four Seasons in 2012.

Jennifer Weber, Decadancetheatre

“Since there are no lyrics in the Vivaldi, words weren’t there to impose meaning,” she says. “I don’t like the movement and lyrics to say the same thing anyway. It’s redundant. I’ll often choreograph a fight to a love song. The juxtaposition makes you see things differently. I don’t want to tell audiences what a piece is about; I want them to read their own feelings into them.”

She chose The Four Seasons because the music gave her a lot of visual ideas to play with. “We started with the ‘Summer’ concerto,” she says, “and talked a lot about how summer feels, where the sun was onstage and the energy of that last party of the summer when you let everything go before the weather gets cold again.” As they started putting hip-hop moves to the classical score, they began noticing a strong connection. The way that they danced allowed them to amplify certain sounds and hidden rhythms that the audience might not have noticed right away.

“We tried to stay true to the sounds we heard,” she says, “and use our bodies as translators of the music, interpreting the almost 300-year-old score into the language of today. The dancers loved the challenge. We found the music inspiring, because we were never able to say the usual counts 5, 6, 7, 8. Instead, we had to really listen in a new way and develop our own vocabulary for each section.”

“The music drives the work,” Weber says. “It keeps us fresh. The more we listen, the more we find in it and the better we dance. It’s the heartbeat of what we do.” DT

Valerie Gladstone has published Balanchine’s Mozartiana and A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student with photographer Jose Ivey. She also curated “Dance Under the Influence” at the Museum of Arts and Design in NYC.

Photos from top: courtesy of Decadancetheatre; by Christopher Duggan, courtesy of Monica Bill Barnes; courtesy of The Bang Group; courtesy of Decadancetheatre

Robert Battle teaching a master class at Texas Christian University

Robert Battle leapt into the spotlight as a member of the Parsons Dance Company in 1994. Already a budding choreographer, he soon began setting works on the sparkling troupe, alerting audiences to his multitude of talents. Since founding Battleworks Dance Company in 2001, he has been honored by the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts as a “Master of African-American Choreography,” and with the Princess Grace Statue Award for choreography. Battleworks has toured the world, and his work is included in the repertory of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Hubbard Street Repertory Ensemble, River North Chicago Dance Company and Ballet Memphis.

This month, River North kicks off its 20th anniversary by performing Battle’s Train at the Annenberg Center in Philadelphia. Created for the troupe in 2008, Train is a powerful, abstract dance to a driving, percussive score. Though the company is more accustomed to less propulsive choreo-graphy, the dancers enthusiastically took to Battle’s fast-paced style. “Working with them,” he says, “was a highlight of the year.”

 

Dance Teacher: Several River North dancers have said they think of Train as yours and not as a piece of company repertory. Is this the ultimate goal, hoping set works remain as you made them? Or do you want them to eventually develop into the company’s style?

Robert Battle: I choreograph my dances so that they’ll keep their original raw edge. I give them moments so fast that there are no ways dancers can overly polish or simplify them. I want my dances to be like jazz music—happening in the moment.

DT: Your works are extremely physically demanding. Is there a reason for this?

RB: I took a page from David Parsons, whose works are very athletic and bold. I grew more confident and got to a place where I loved the catharsis that comes with that kind of movement. I think audiences make a visceral connection with dancers pushing themselves to the limit.

DT: What do you look for in dancers to fulfill your vision?

RB: I like what you might call a dancer’s dancer—a person who loves the sweat, energy and sheer physicality of dance.

DT: Your work has been called a “unique outlook on the future of modern dance.” How do you achieve this?

RB: I think about Martha Graham, José Limón, Ailey, Merce Cunningham and how they risked everything. You’re always insecure, but you have to follow your instincts. That’s the only way you’ll make honest movement.

DT: What effect, if any, has success had on your creative process or how you run your company?

RB: I remember Benjamin Harkarvy, who was artistic director of Juilliard’s dance division, warning me not to overextend and to remember that one is only as good as their next work. I don’t forget this. My process stays the same. I search for music and work out my movement on my dancers for inspiration; it’s like a running conversation between us.

DT: Who were your earliest teaching influences and why?

RB: First, Adelaide Munoz, my ballet teacher in Miami. She showed me classic films of great dancers and insisted I read dance history. Second, Gerri Houlihan, also in Miami. She gave me the sense of moving like liquid gold, of extending myself. Then, there was Carolyn Adams at Juilliard. She has an incredibly intellectual way of approaching dance, such as explaining that when you lift your arm into space, it is a way of connecting with the universe. DT

Valerie Gladstone writes about the arts for many publications, including The New York Times and Dance Magazine.

Photo by Milton Adams, courtesy of Robert Battle

Valerie Gladstone, who has been writing about the arts for more than 20 years, is the co-author of Balanchine’s Mozartiana and A Young Ailey Dancer, with photographer Jose Ivey, which will be published in the fall of 2009.

 

Few people in the performing arts can match the accomplishments of the supremely elegant Carmen deLavallade. Over her nearly 60-year career, she has starred in ballets, modern-dance works, plays, films and Broadway musicals. She has choreographed and directed dance and opera, and taught and performed at the Yale Repertory Theatre. By setting no limits and fearlessly choosing groundbreaking projects, she has mastered roles in Shakespeare and Lorca, the operas Samson and Delilah and Aida, and dances by Alvin Ailey, John Butler, Agnes de Mille, Glen Tetley, Bill T. Jones and her husband, Geoffrey Holder, among many others. Currently, she is a member of the dance trio Paradigm, with Gus Solomons jr and Dudley Williams.

 

Born in 1931 and raised in Los Angeles, deLavallade grew up wanting to be an actress, inspired by her cousin Janet Collins, who was the first black ballerina at The Metropolitan Opera. At 16, she won a scholarship to study with modern-dance pioneer Lester Horton. While performing with his company at the 92nd Street Y in New York and at Jacob’s Pillow in Massachusetts, she was discovered by stage and film producers and offered roles in movies, including Carmen Jones, and the Broadway musical House of Flowers, where she met Holder. She followed these successes with leads in Agnes de Mille’s The Four Marys at American Ballet Theatre and John Butler’s Carmina Burana at City Center.

 

In the late ’60s, acclaimed theater director Robert Brustein asked deLavallade to teach at Yale, where she taught Henry Winkler, Sigourney Weaver and Meryl Streep, among others, and starred in such Yale Rep productions as The Tempest and A Midsummer Night’s Dream. She went on to perform with jazz masters Benny Goodman at Carnegie Hall and the Bill Evans Trio in Detroit. DeLavallade still takes to the stage today, often performing her one-woman show, Journey, and her children’s show, The Enchanted Isle of Yew. This spring, she will be honored with a National Visionary Award in Washington, DC, along with Quincy Jones, Jr., and Eartha Kitt. 


Dance Teacher: Who were your earliest inspirations?

 

Carmen deLavallade: Without question, my cousin Janet. To have someone in your family make it into the Metropolitan Opera Ballet showed me that it could be done. It wasn’t just something other people did; it was something I could do. Especially then, when blacks rarely made it into mainstream companies.

 

I was also greatly inspired by Lester Horton. In his classes, you learned far more than steps and counts—you learned the essence of movement and what it could express. He was so imaginative. He always described what a step or sequence should look like. With him, we learned the ballets of José Limón, Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, and all of those wonderful choreographers taught me the importance of acting in dance, of putting real feeling into everything you did onstage. 

 

Then, of course, Alvin Ailey. He was so brilliant, so full of life. But I did warn him that after Revelations he might be typecast as a “black choreographer” who had to do certain themes. And I was right. That’s what the critics did: stereotyped him. If he didn’t do something “black,” they admonished him.


DT: What do you think of classifications like “black artist”?


CD: I think they are useless and confining. The works of Alvin, Garth Fagan, Bill T. Jones, Lester, Gus Solomons jr and other so-called “black choreographers” have little, if anything, in common. Why put us all in the same cubbyhole? I’ve played Shakespeare and Lorca heroines. At the very least, it’s demeaning. What’s wonderful is the great mixture of people, and that’s what we should celebrate.


DT: What gave you the confidence to move around in so many fields?


CD: Curiosity, I guess. I wanted to try many different things. I saw that they were all connected—dance, theater, movies, music, teaching—so I thought, “Why separate them?” When Robert Brustein asked me to come to Yale, I’d never taught acting. But I thought if he thought I could, it was worth a try. Bless his heart. And it was such a great place to learn—to teach and to act. I had a small voice. It was scary. But I just worked until it got better. Once you master something that frightens you, it makes the next challenge much easier.


DT: How did you do as an actor at Yale?


CD: At first, I was rather timid. The male actors thought I was very straightlaced. Then I was given a role playing a hard-bitten, foul-mouthed woman. It was very liberating for me. The guys would stand in the wings and crack up and fall all over the floor when I let loose. They couldn’t imagine that I had it in me. Something else took over. That’s the kind of thing you don’t forget. 


DT: What is your choreographic process?


CD: I start with an idea and then expand on it, trying different movements on myself. Gus, Dudley and I are very collaborative; we know each other’s strengths and weaknesses. The important thing is always what’s underneath—the meaning, the feeling—not the physicality on top. 


DT: How do you feel about the way dance is taught today?


CD: I think there’s far too much emphasis on counting, and not, as I said, on what’s underneath. You see these dancers with incredible technique and yet they don’t seem to be enjoying themselves. You have to think about the texture and the poetry or there’s no beauty. I also fear for them when the physicality becomes all. I think choreographers can be to blame there, too—asking dancers to do incredible things that in the long term will cripple them, [like] those extensions that mean nothing except that your leg is very high. It’s kind of ugly.


DT: What are you working on now?


CD: I’m developing a character that I’ll soon take on the stage. She’s kind of political. I’ve been trying out sketches with my family. At my age, I don’t care what people think. I can explore anything. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t matter. I love the process, and I’m having so much fun. DT



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