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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

How-To

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

How-To

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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