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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

1954.

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

between parts."

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

events.

"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

message across.

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

School.

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

each year.

"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

Dancing Through the Ceiling 2003, American Repertory

Ballet , Mount-Burke Theater, Peddie School, Hightstown, 609-490-7550.

$20 admission. Saturday, March 29, 8 p.m.

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