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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 6, 2002
U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
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
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
"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
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.
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.
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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