Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the June 20, 2001

edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.

Leaping Forward

Sometimes you have to step away from something to see

it clearly. This was the process that brought Stuart Loungway, who

enjoyed a 10-year career as a ballet soloist, back to "terra

firma."

Less than two years after turning his back — or so he thought

— on dance, Loungway is launching Terra Firma Dance Theater, a

brand-new, New Brunswick-based nonprofit performing arts

collaborative.

Terra Firma gives its inaugural performances at George Street

Playhouse

on Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23, at 8 p.m., with a program

of three premieres by three emerging choreographers. The concert

features

"Chamber," a contemporary ballet by Loungway,

"dance/rant"

by James Graber, and four sections from "If you leave the curtains

open" by the Cleo Mack Dance Project.

In an interview from his home in New Brunswick, Loungway describes

his vision for Terra Firma Dance Theater and how it grew out of a

dark moment in his artistic and professional life.

"I saw a need within the community for a meaner, leaner version

of a dance company, one that’s accessible and that has touring

capacity,"

he says. His company’s mission is to provide cutting-edge, accessible

dance through public performances, community outreach, dance

education,

lectures, residency programs, and the development of new choreography.

"We want to provide the community something that it’s not getting:

first-rate, accessible, cutting-edge dance as an art form. We’re

trying

to develop a multi-media company in the tradition of European dance

theater. But we’re built to serve the community. We’ve set our ticket

prices at the lower end of the scale, and we’ve begun to implement

our first school programs."

On a personal level, Loungway describes how, after 10 years in a

profession

he loved, he became disillusioned with the creative opportunities

available to him. Loungway was a principal dancer for American

Repertory

Ballet under the direction of Septime Webre. Prior to that he danced

as a soloist for the San Francisco Ballet in works by George

Balanchine,

William Forsythe, James Kudelka, David Bintley, and Mark Morris, among

others. He started his career as a member of the Joffrey Ballet and

participated in its landmark reconstruction of Nijinsky’s "Rite

of Spring."

"In ballet, you’re not encouraged to develop a voice of their

own, you’re a tool — a piece of meat. I sometimes call ballet

the last legal monarchy," he says willfully. "As a dancer,

I had pretty much seen the whole spectrum and danced it. I didn’t

feel like I had any autonomy in my career or in my art form any more.

So I had turned my back on dance and decided to go into the field

of physical therapy."

Loungway went to work as a fitness trainer and had made plans to enter

a two-year physical therapy training program when he was invited by

Sherri Alban to teach ballet for Rutgers University’s Mason Gross

School for the Arts.

"Through teaching, and in the role of mentor, my love of this

art form was revivified and came back into my life," says

Loungway,

who is preparing to begin his third year as a part-time Rutgers

faculty

member. It was also at Rutgers where Loungway presented his own

choreography

for the first time, a duet that was performed on a student-faculty

concert program in May, 2000. "The academic environment seems

so right for me, and I’ve received a lot of encouragement in my work

from other faculty," he says.

Aging is another concern in the dance profession that workships youth.

It’s hard to grow up in a world where male and female dance artists

are customarily referred to as "boys" and "girls."

Many of these same dancers find themselves coming into their psychic

and emotional maturity — and the height of their interpretive

powers — when they are expected to retire. Loungway has just

reached

the daunting milestone of age 30.

"Dancers so often have a difficult time transitioning from this

career because of the discipline and tunnel vision that the profession

itself requires. So many dancers do little to develop viable job

skills,"

he says. "Although I thought I’d dance for five more years, I

also wanted to use what vestiges of youthful vitality that I had left,

to push something proactive and to develop this company. It’s a labor

of love first and foremost. There’s no payroll as yet. It’s about

having autonomy over my artistic voice." His present goal is to

develop a national and international audience for Terra Firma within

three to five years.

Among the companies that Loungway points to as models for his own

is the Hubbard Street Chicago (seen in concert at McCarter Theater

last November) a repertory company he admires for its ability to move

from one genre to another, from a ballet by Jiri Kylian to an

astonishing

barefoot tour-de-force by Ohad Naharin. He also names Kylian as

"one

of my heroes choreographically speaking" and admires Kylian’s

Netherlands Dance Theater.

"This is not an egocentric project — that’s why I’m not

calling

it the Stuart Loungway company," he says. "It’s going to be

a repertory company and a collaborative effort amongst the artists

and among the patrons. My goal is for more of a collective voice and

a collaborative process in dance. We’re also interested in listening

to the voices of different demographics, of audiences that aren’t

being served."

Loungway describes his ballet "Chamber," a new

contemporary ballet for five dancers, as "a story of love, loss,

and redemption." Contemporary and neo-classical in style, it’s

performed on pointe to a collage of music by Antonio Vivaldi, Marin

Marais, 20th-century composer Lukas Foss, as well as some ambient

sounds and Techno music. "Choreographically I strive to evoke

some type of emotion from my audience," he says. "To quote

Balanchine, if you put a man and a woman on stage — or a man and

a man or a woman and a woman, for that matter — there’s a story

there. I’m not interested in entrapping my audience, but my intent

is to make them think. And I want to bring back a little of the

romanticism

in dance that has been lost in some of the things I’ve seen

lately."

Loungway is married to dancer Gianna Russillo, also a former member

of American Repertory Ballet, who is one of the company of dancers.

Russillo is currently one of eight dancers in the cast of "Phantom

of the Opera" on Broadway. She will take a leave to perform the

lead pas de deux, with David Pittenger (also an ARB alumnus)

in Loungway’s ballet "Chamber."

Sharing the first half of the concert program with "Chamber"

is James Graber, who has danced professionally with ARB and the

Hartford

Ballet. Graber will premiere an interdisciplinary performance art

piece titled "dance/rant" that work combines choreography,

improvisation, vocalization, and addresses socio-political themes.

With a bent toward multi-media performance, Graber has created more

than 20 works, the most recent presented at the Broome Studio in New

York.

Featured in the program’s second half is the Cleo Mack Dance Project

performing four sections from an evening-length, work-in-progress

titled, "If you leave the curtains open." The Mack company

plans to stage the full work next spring. This new company is led

by artistic director Cleo Mack and dancer Kim Barkhamer who is also

the company’s co-founder and administrator. Both women graduated with

BFA degrees in dance from Rutgers in 1998 and are on their way to

realizing a "five-year plan" for the emerging company.

Mack has already won a Capezio/Dance Magazine award in choreography

and a Turner Award for Choreography. Her work was presented by Dance

Theater Workshop this spring, part of its "Fresh Tracks"

series,

and presented last fall by the Mulberry Street Theater. Mack, who

has danced with John Evans and Dancers, LKB Dance, and Rhombus Dance,

is also a teaching artist for American Repertory Ballet.

"If you leave the curtains open" has been sponsored by the

New York Foundation for the Arts. In it, Mack uses household icons

such as a bathtub, matress, trash can and television set to comment

on the intricacies of human behavior. Performers include Mark Fucik,

Kelly Grigsby, Melanie Kramer, Courtney Viar, Kathleen Flynn, and

Stephanie Laipis, most of whom are intimate with Mack’s distinct

movement

style having performed in her works at Rutgers. Fucik, however, will

leave the ensemble in August for his new job as a member of the famed

Pilobolus company.

Barkhamer says the group is delighted to help fulfill its mission

to support new work and new artists. "It also helps Cleo maintain

her terrific momentum as a choreographer," she adds.

Loungway, too, is brimming with optimism for his new company. And

his choice of its name reflects his hopes for the future. "Terra

Firma is Latin for `lasting earth’ or `solid ground.’ I wanted the

name to have a twist, a sense of ritual. I also wanted a name that

would bring good tidings and suggest a foundation, roots, and

permanency

in years to come."

He calls his current path a vision quest. "Sometimes you have

to step away from something to regain your objectivity. I just needed

to be able to look at what I had given my life over to and see it

in perspective."

— Nicole Plett

Terra Firma Dance Theater , George Street Playhouse, 9

Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717.Adults $15; students

$10. Friday and Saturday, June 22 and 23, at 8 p.m.


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