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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 6, 2002

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Dancing Through the Ceiling

George Balanchine, the effective father of 20th-century

ballet in America, once famously pronounced that "Ballet is


And looking across the vast landscape of metropolitan and regional

ballet today, and at the legions of ballet students, his dictum holds

true. But delve a little deeper into the structure and administration

of ballet companies, and to the artistic direction, and you’ll find

mostly men calling the shots.

Graham Lustig, the third in a succession of male artistic directors

at American Repertory Ballet, wants to tip the balance in some small

way. Last year he initiated "Dancing Through the Ceiling,"

a major concert of three new commissioned ballets by three women


— a group almost as rare as women CEOs.

Lustig’s innovative 2001 concert comprised premieres by former Mark

Morris dancer Susan Hadley, Dominique Dumais of the National Ballet

of Canada, and Elaine Kudo, former American Ballet Theater member

who now works as ARB’s ballet mistress. As a ballet professional who

found his way to a career that has accommodated both his talents as

a performer and a choreographer, Lustig is keenly aware that women

have been under-represented as ballet choreographers and remain so

today. He has designed his "Dancing Through the Ceiling"


to address the creation and presentation of new work, education within

and outside the dance community, and incorporating works by women

into the ARB repertoire.

This year’s "Dancing Through the Ceiling" concert takes place

Tuesday, March 12, 8 p.m. at McCarter Theater. It offers three new,

albeit shorter works: "Flirtation Variation" by Kudo, to music

by Antonio Bertali and Johann Schmelzer; "Monopoly" by Amy

Seiwert, to music by Henryk Gorecki; and "Hush" by Ginger

Thatcher, to music by Yo-Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. The financial hard

times that have hit ARB, as they have most arts organizations, is

reflected in three shorter commissioned dances this year. The concert

will also feature a reprise of last year’s highly successful


from Dumais, "a part between parts," and a performance of

Lustig’s own modern ballet, "Borderlines."

Elaine Kudo describes this year’s premiere, "Flirtation


as candid peek at a group of dancers caught in a moment of playful

flirtation rituals. Sometimes formal, often silly, the rituals are

guided by the changing moods of the 17th century music for violin

and continuo by Antonio Bertali and Johann Heinrich Schmelzer. The

pieces range from slink sensuality, to lyrical romanticism, and


rhythmic syncopations

Raised in New York CIty, Kudo attended the School of American Ballet

and the American Ballet Theater School, and studied modern dance at

the High School of Performing Arts. A member of American Ballet


from 1975 to 1989, the list of choreographers with whom she worked

directly, including having roles created on her, is a pantheon of

20th-century talent. Antony Tudor, Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, Glen

Tetley, Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Eugene Loring, and Kenneth

MacMillan are all included. She also worked and toured with Jerome

Robbins’ Ballet USA, Baryshnikov & Co., and the Twyla Tharp Dance


Asked what led her from performance to choreography, she quickly


that, "it was more about what kept me from choreographing in the

first place."

"Most people who have the urge to choreograph start early. But

I came to it relatively late," says Kudo. She choreographed her

first ballet in 1995, when she was working as ballet mistress and

instructor of advanced students at New Jersey Ballet. Her choreography

for ARB has included last year’s "Opposites Distract" and

"Children of the Drum."

"I felt very intimated by the incredible choreographers I had

worked with," says the former ABT soloist, widely remembered as

Mikhail Baryshnikov’s partner in Twyla Tharp’s "Sinatra


"Although I was interested in the choreographic process and


it very carefully — I didn’t feel I was worthy. But after I broke

into teaching and working as a ballet mistress, I gained


She says setting movement on students in the studio and receiving

feedback on her particular way of working with music gave her the

confidence to branch out into choreography.

"I think a lot of people believe in women ballet choreographers

in theory, but I think it’s hard for someone like me in particular

to make that move," she says. "Ballet is a very submissive

type of career. You do what you’re told. You often have to mold


into roles that have already been done by others. And there’s always

the choreographer or ballet master telling you how to look. Modern

dancers are more pliable and can move more readily from performing

into choreography."

Having performed Twyla Tharp’s work as a member of American Ballet

Theater, and later touring with Tharp’s company, Kudo had the


to watch a strong woman and a choreographer up close up. Yet she


that, although Tharp has choreographed widely for America’s major

ballet companies, her roots in modern dance gave her more latitude

than she would ever have had in ballet.

"Yes, she choreographs classical ballets for classical ballet

companies, but she comes from modern dance. The hardest thing to


is to bring dancers from classical ballet training into choreography.

Twyla is a forceful and driven person, and she has been a good force

for women in dance."

For last year’s "Dancing Through the Ceiling," Lustig


his selected choreographers to create works that actually commented

on the professional lives of women dancers. Susan Hadley’s muscular

"Corps," which quotes directly from famous passages for the

"corps de ballet," was a prime example. This year, however,

there was no such direction.

Kudo says she and Lustig were interested in shorter works that would

be useful in complementing the company repertory. "We had very

few pieces that were light and up and fun," she says, which is

why she decided to create her 17-minute "romp," titled


"I was inspired by the adorable women we have in the company and

all the cute little flirtations that go on in the studio. Although

the music is from the 17th century, it’s fun, and up, and


Amy Seiwert’s ARB premiere represents a homecoming for the dancer

who 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


roles are some of ballet’s most memorable. They include Kitri in


Quixote," the Sugar Plum Fairy in "The Nutcracker," and

the pas de deux in Balanchine’s "Rubies."

Seiwert’s description of her new work hinges on how women "play

the game" in professional dance. "Raised to believe the


field — or the game board — is level. 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. Wanting

you to be simple, one sided, so you can easily be put into a box and

understood. So you pick up a different Monopoly piece, put on a


costume, try to live on their terms. Try to change the structure from

the inside, say what you want in a language they will accept.


losing yourself in the translation."

The evening’s third choreographer, Ginger Thatcher, is in the


this season, working on Broadway as assistant to director Susan


on the revival of "Oklahoma!" An accomplished classical and

modern dancer and choreographer, she is a former member of the Lar

Lubovitch Dance Company. Among the 10 companies for which she has

made dances are Louisville Ballet, Oregon Ballet Theater, and the

Minnesota Ballet. She has been a five-time choreographer for the


Carlisle Choreographers Project in Pennsylvania.

Thatcher’s new work, "Hush," set to music by Yo-Yo Ma and

Bobby McFerrin, is a sketch of impressions of life before and after

September 11, from carefree, to fearful, with a final movement that

presents images of support, help, and survival.

With or without this season’s brooding themes of fear and terror,

"support, help, and survival" sounds like a good prescription

for building American women’s choreographic presence.

Dancing Through the Ceiling, American Repertory

Ballet ,

McCarter Theater, 609-258-2787. Graham Lustig’s annual showcase for

women choreographers featuring three premieres, a reprise of last

year’s work by Dominique Dumais, and Lustig’s "Borderlines."

$20 to $32. Tuesday, March 12, 8 p.m.

Nicole Plett is the Preview editor of U.S. 1 Newspaper.

She will participate in a pre-performance symposium at 6:45 p.m. on

March 12 in the McCarter lobby with Graham Lustig.

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