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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 26, 2003 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Can the Sky be the Limit for Women in Dance?
When a journalist interviews somebody by phone, it’s
not altogether rare to hear the sound of barking dogs or chattering
parakeets on the other end of the line. What is rare is when the person
being interviewed, in this case Graham Lustig of American Repertory
Ballet, apologizes for the interruption with the comment, "Sorry
about the howling. It frightens the finance department when the dancers
bark like that."
These sporadic sounds of howling dogs prefigure American Repertory
Ballet’s upcoming concert, "Dancing Through the Ceiling,"
presented by CAPPS at Peddie School’s Mount-Burke Theater on Saturday,
March 29. The program of highlights from ARB’s program of commissioned
ballets by up-and-coming female choreographers features a reprise
of Dominique Dumais’ unconventional and engaging dance piece, "A
part between parts."
The Canadian-born Dumais created her dance two years ago after 100
hours of intense improvisational work with ARB dancers. The result
is a highly structured and evocative dance work about identity and
relationships that manages to maintain an air of free-spirited happenstance
and whimsy — barking dogs, meowing cats, and diving body rolls
are among its unexpected features. "This unique dance work reflects
where the art of ballet needs to be venturing," says Lustig, "it
is the new territory that is mapping out our future."
Also featured on the Dancing Through the Ceiling program are two equally
ingenious and irreverent works — Amy Seiwert’s "Monopoly"
and Susan Hadley’s "Corps." Lustig’s recent ensemble work,
"Urban Tangos," completes the program.
"ARB has received such positive feedback from these works, that
a reprise evening was in order," says Lustig, who launched the
annual "Dancing Through the Ceiling" series in 2001 to address
the under-represented of women as choreographers for the ballet. "These
new works have quickly become an important part of ARB’s repertory
and the program is an important part of how we fulfill our mission
to present the best of contemporary ballet."
To date, the program has produced six new works by five choreographers,
including two commissions by Elaine Kudo, former American Ballet Theater
member and now ARB ballet mistress. Dumais’ "A part between parts"
has been one of the project’s most warmly received new works. Featured
in the company’s 2001 New York season at the Joyce Theater, it was
staged again last year.
As a ballet professional who has made a career accommodating both
his talents as a performer and as a choreographer, Lustig is keenly
aware that women have had only limited opportunities as ballet choreographers
in the past and also today. Lustig, who became artistic director of
ARB in 1999, knows what women can accomplish. Early in his career
he was a member of London’s Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet, directed
by the legendary Dame Ninette de Valois, who founded her first ballet
company in 1926. The company he now directs grew out of the Princeton
Ballet School, also founded by a woman — Audree Estey — in
Lustig designed the ARB "Dancing Through the Ceiling" program
to address the creation and presentation of new work by women; its
mission is to educate both within and outside the dance community,
and to incorporate works by women into the company repertoire. Because
of ARB’s versatility, choreographers are invited to create works in
whatever genre they find appropriate. "One of our intentions has
been to have a company where each dancer is like having five dancers,"
says Lustig. "Our dancers can perform classic, neo-classic, and
contemporary works. That’s the kind of range of dancer here, they
really are all-around artists."
Financial hard times that began to impact ARB last year, as they did
so many small and mid-sized arts organizations, scaled back the project
somewhat. The 2002 "Dancing Through the Ceiling" concert offered
three new, albeit shorter commissioned works: "Monopoly" by
Amy Seiwert, to music by Henryk Gorecki; "Flirtation Variation"
by Elaine Kudo, to music by Antonio Bertali and Johann Schmelzer;
and "Hush" by Ginger Thatcher, to music by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby
McFerrin. The concert also included a reprise of Dumais’ "a part
This year the financial picture is even more bleak,
but Lustig has no qualms about bringing back works from prior seasons.
It is, he says, a credit to the project that the new works make such
a good fit for his dynamic young company.
"We made the decision to have no new works this season in order
to get our financial house in order, which we have been doing aggressively
and to great effect," he explains. "We now have a solid team
working with our executive director David Gray, reducing debt and
building our infrastructure. For the first time since I arrived in
1999, the company now has a comprehensive and well-qualified staff
of 10. For the first time, we have fully-functioning marketing, finance,
development, and education departments."
Lustig attributes the company’s current deficit to a range of cumulative
"Two years ago, our expensive new `Nutcracker’ production took
a hit because of a single snowstorm. That seems benign now in comparison
to what happened later, on September 11, 2001," he says. The company
opened its 2001 season on September 22, with both performers and audiences
in a state of shock. The next jolt was the anthrax scare that kept
people home for the remainder of the 2001 season, including its holiday
"Nutcracker" performances at the plush Patriots Theater of
the Trenton War Memorial.
"With the economy down and people laid off work, there’s simply
less money for seeing performances or attending classes," says
Lustig. "Corporate dollars are also stressed, foundation giving
is down. Everyone is feeling the pinch. We’re a lean machine, running
on a tight budget. We don’t have buckets of money to dip into, so
even small cuts cut deep."
Amy Seiwert, choreographer of "Monopoly" is a home-grown success
story. She was a Princeton Ballet apprentice in 1990 under artistic
director Dermot Burke. She danced with the Sacramento Ballet for eight
years, and currently dances for Smuin Ballets/SF in San Francisco.
Her featured roles are some of ballet’s most memorable. They include
Kitri in "Don Quixote," the Sugar Plum Fairy in "The Nutcracker,"
and the pas de deux in Balanchine’s "Rubies."
Seiwert’s description of "Monopoly" ties into Lustig’s mission;
it hinges on how women "play the game" in professional dance.
"Raised to believe the playing field — or the game board —
is level," she writes in her program notes. "That we all start
at Go with $200. Raised to have faith that hard work and discipline
are the tools needed to acquire your dreams. Not knowing that there
are those who will only let you have their version of your dreams.
. . So you pick up a different Monopoly piece, put on a different
costume, try to live on their terms."
Susan Hadley, who created "Corps," is a modern dancer and
former member of the Mark Morris company who chose to showcase eight
ARB women in a variant of the traditional "ballet blanc."
Corps de ballet is a centuries old expression meaning the whole
body of dancers of a ballet company. Traditionally comprised exclusively
of women, it has always meant, "working together as one,"
and is now perceived as both ballet’s blessing and its curse.
Performed in white tulle skirts over modern Lycra bicycle shorts,
the dance references some well-known moments in ballet, with allusions
to the great 19th-century works, "Giselle," "La Bayadere,"
and "Swan Lake." Hadley eschews the image of the dancer as
fragile, powerless, and isolated for a vision of strength, athleticism,
and community. "What I’m doing is to frame the ballerina as all
the things I didn’t know she was when I was 12," she says.
Despite its innovative programing, ARB is now faced with a total cut
in New Jersey State funding. Although Lustig says he is encouraged
by recent reports that the governor may reconsider the cut, he feels
that artists and audiences must continue to work together to get their
Keeping the arts alive is imperative in hard times, he says, particularly
for children and young people. Dance education has been the linchpin
of the ARB mission which began life in 1954 as the Princeton Ballet
In addition to its multi-campus Princeton Ballet School, ARB’s Dance
Power program, now in its 17th year, has become a national model for
innovative partnering between arts and the schools. More than 650
students in the New Brunswick public schools receive free dance training
"We deliver Dance Power classes to every second and third grader
in New Brunswick regardless of disabilities," says Lustig. The
program continues for qualifying fourth and fifth graders, and.students
who complete the program are offered full scholarships to continue
their study at the Princeton Ballet School. The lessons are free and
include dance clothing and shoes — what Lustig calls the students’
"kit" — as well as free tickets to company performances. This
year’s Dance Power celebrates its annual benefit concert on Monday,
June 9, at the State Theater.
— Nicole Plett
Ballet , Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550.
$20 admission. Saturday, March 29, 8 p.m.
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