News: A Monumental Culmination

It was a monumental undertaking, “the biggest, most complex version we have ever done,” said Merce Cunningham at the time. The remounting of Cunningham and John Cage’s Ocean in September 2008, at the bottom of Rainbow Quarry in Waite Park, 70 minutes northwest of Minneapolis/St. Paul, was an event for the dance-history books. Captured on film by Charles Atlas, Ocean, the documentary, aired in September at the Walker Art Center and will be shown January 10 in New York at Baryshnikov Arts Center.

 

Ocean debuted in 1994 in Brussels and was performed several times on proscenium and circular stages. But for the 2008 version, which Cunningham, then 89, mounted and watched from his wheelchair, the dancers were sited on a stage erected 150 feet below ground at the bottom of the quarry, surrounded by 1,200 audience members (each of the four performances were sold-out) and 150 musicians.

 

The 360-degree configuration formed a dramatic structure of three concentric circles, the structure Cage originally conceived for the piece. As such, recalled Philip Bither, performance curator at the Walker Art Center (one of the work’s presenters), the production of Ocean was the most “ambitious and audacious in the Walker Art Center’s history.” Another of Cage and Cunningham’s longtime collaborators, filmmaker Charles Atlas, was there, of course, documenting the work for posterity.
Atlas’ film had its world premiere almost two years later to the day, September 15, 2010, at the Walker. While Atlas initially planned to film the 90-minute dance work using five cameras in order to create a five-channel installation piece, rain during many of the performances scotched that idea. He also considered shooting two different films: One would simply document the performance; in the other, he’d cinematically interpret the work.

 

Instead, he made one 100-minute film. “An epic,” he called it, at its screening. The result is a largely straightforward document of the performance as it happened, in real time. The large digital clock, ever-present during the live work as it counted down the minutes to zero, is in nearly every frame of the film as well.
Atlas opens his film with close-ups of granite and expansive images of the quarry, with shots of stagehands assembling the platform and oboes tuning. He inserts split screens from time to time, which juxtapose one dancer’s pose or phrasing with another’s. About 50 minutes into the film, Atlas homes in on details of the dancers’ bodies in motion. Throughout the film, David Tudor’s electronic score pings, rumbles and twangs with the sounds of what could be seals barking, waves crashing or whales singing.

 

Ocean lacks the cinematic innovation of Cunningham and Atlas’ pioneering “film dance” collaborations, which occurred primarily from 1974 through 1983 (when Atlas was the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s filmmaker-in-residence). As the last film Atlas made with Cunningham before his death, however, Ocean captures the performance of Cunningham’s monumental work, and pays tribute to the culmination of their 40-year collaboration.

 

Camille LeFevre is a dance critic and arts journalist based in Minneapolis/St. Paul.

 

Photo: MCDC’s Andrea Weber at Rainbow Quarry (by Cameron Wittig, courtesy of Walker Art Center)

Music
Mary Malleney, courtesy Osato

In most classes, dancers are encouraged to count the music, and dance with it—emphasizing accents and letting the rhythm of a song guide them.

But Marissa Osato likes to give her students an unexpected challenge: to resist hitting the beats.

In her contemporary class at EDGE Performing Arts Center in Los Angeles (which is now closed, until they find a new space), she would often play heavy trap music. She'd encourage her students to find the contrast by moving in slow, fluid, circular patterns, daring them to explore the unobvious interpretation of the steady rhythms.


"I like to give dancers a phrase of music and choreography and have them reinterpret it," she says, "to be thinkers and creators and not just replicators."

Osato learned this approach—avoiding the natural temptation of the music always being the leader—while earning her MFA in choreography at California Institute of the Arts. "When I was collaborating with a composer for my thesis, he mentioned, 'You always count in eights. Why?'"

This forced Osato out of her creative comfort zone. "The choices I made, my use of music, and its correlation to the movement were put under a microscope," she says. "I learned to not always make the music the driving motive of my work," a habit she attributes to her competition studio training as a young dancer.

While an undergraduate at the University of California, Irvine, Osato first encountered modern dance. That discovery, along with her experience dancing in Boogiezone Inc.'s off-campus hip-hop company, BREED, co-founded by Elm Pizarro, inspired her own, blended style, combining modern and hip hop with jazz. While still in college, she began working with fellow UCI student Will Johnston, and co-founded the Boogiezone Contemporary Class with Pizarro, an affordable series of classes that brought top choreographers from Los Angeles to Orange County.

"We were trying to bring the hip-hop and contemporary communities together and keep creating work for our friends," says Osato, who has taught for West Coast Dance Explosion and choreographed for studios across the country.

In 2009, Osato, Johnston and Pizarro launched Entity Contemporary Dance, which she and Johnston direct. The company, now based in Los Angeles, won the 2017 Capezio A.C.E. Awards, and, in 2019, Osato was chosen for two choreographic residencies (Joffrey Ballet's Winning Works and the USC Kaufman New Movement Residency), and became a full-time associate professor of dance at Santa Monica College.

At SMC, Osato challenges her students—and herself—by incorporating a live percussionist, a luxury that's been on pause during the pandemic. She finds that live music brings a heightened sense of awareness to the room. "I didn't realize what I didn't have until I had it," Osato says. "Live music helps dancers embody weight and heaviness, being grounded into the floor." Instead of the music dictating the movement, they're a part of it.

Osato uses the musician as a collaborator who helps stir her creativity, in real time. "I'll say 'Give me something that's airy and ambient,' and the sounds inspire me," says Osato. She loves playing with tension and release dynamics, fall and recovery, and how those can enhance and digress from the sound.

"I can't wait to get back to the studio and have that again," she says.

Osato made Dance Teacher a Spotify playlist with some of her favorite songs for class—and told us about why she loves some of them.

"Get It Together," by India.Arie

"Her voice and lyrics hit my soul and ground me every time. Dream artist. My go-to recorded music in class is soul R&B. There's simplicity about it that I really connect with."

"Turn Your Lights Down Low," by Bob Marley + The Wailers, Lauryn Hill

"A classic. This song embodies that all-encompassing love and gets the whole room groovin'."

"Diamonds," by Johnnyswim

"This song's uplifting energy and drive is infectious! So much vulnerability, honesty and joy in their voices and instrumentation."

"There Will Be Time," by Mumford & Sons, Baaba Maal

"Mumford & Sons' music has always struck a deep chord within me. Their songs are simultaneously stripped-down and complex and feel transcendent."

"With The Love In My Heart," by Jacob Collier, Metropole Orkest, Jules Buckley

"Other than it being insanely energizing and cinematic, I love how challenging the irregular meter is!"

For Parents

Darrell Grand Moultrie teaches at a past Jacob's Pillow summer intensive. Photo Christopher Duggan, courtesy Jacob's Pillow

In the past 10 months, we've grown accustomed to helping our dancers navigate virtual school, classes and performances. And while brighter, more in-person days may be around the corner—or at least on the horizon—parents may be facing yet another hurdle to help our dancers through: virtual summer-intensive auditions.

In 2020, we learned that there are some unique advantages of virtual summer programs: the lack of travel (and therefore the reduced cost) and the increased access to classes led by top artists and teachers among them. And while summer 2021 may end up looking more familiar with in-person intensives, audition season will likely remain remote and over Zoom.

Of course, summer 2021 may not be back to in-person, and that uncertainty can be a hard pill to swallow. Here, Kate Linsley, a mom and academy principal of Nashville Ballet, as well as "J.R." Glover, The Dan & Carole Burack Director of The School at Jacob's Pillow, share their advice for this complicated process.

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Teachers Trending

From left: Anthony Crickmay, Courtesy Dance Theatre of Harlem Archives; Courtesy Ballethnic

It is the urgency of going in a week or two before opening night that Lydia Abarca Mitchell loves most about coaching. But in her role as Ballethnic Dance Company's rehearsal director, she's not just getting the troupe ready for the stage. Abarca Mitchell—no relation to Arthur Mitchell—was Mitchell's first prima ballerina when he founded Dance Theatre of Harlem with Karel Shook; through her coaching, Abarca Mitchell works to pass her mentor's legacy to the next generation.

"She has the same sensibility" as Arthur Mitchell, says Ballethnic co-artistic director Nena Gilreath. "She's very direct, all about the mission and the excellence, but very caring."

Ballethnic is based in East Point, a suburban city bordering Atlanta. In a metropolitan area with a history of racism and where funding is hard-won, it is crucial for the Black-led ballet company to present polished, professional productions. "Ms. Lydia" provides the "hard last eye" before the curtain opens in front of an audience.

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