Is this any time to start a dance company?
Financially speaking, probably not. But when critically acclaimed choreographer Graham Lustig departed his longtime position of artistic director at American Repertory Ballet last spring, he knew he didn’t want to break the many connections he had made during his 11 years on the job.
The break from ARB, which is now headed by former dancer and Princeton Ballet School teacher Douglas Martin, is not something Lustig wants to talk about (both he and executive director Marvin Preston left during an overhaul of that company’s finances). He is focused on moving forward.
Maintaining his ties, however, meant starting over. Lustig has taken the bold step of creating a new, 10-member company and affiliated school, based, ironically, in what was once ARB’s studios in New Brunswick. On Friday, October 22, lustigdancetheatre will debut at Middlesex County College with a program of works choreographed by Lustig and former ARB dancer Laney Engelhard. The company will make further appearances at Ramapo College and will do educational outreach in the Highland Park public schools. Future plans include appearances in Monroe Township, at the Rutgers/Camden campus, and next June in the annual Princeton Festival.
Joining Lustig in this new enterprise are former ARB dancers Engelhard, Peggy Petteway, Kristin Scott, Rachel Schatz, Jennifer Cavanaugh, and Niall Lessard — again, a testament to his strong legacy with ARB — and four new hires. Bat Abbit, who was ballet master at ARB, is lustigdancetheatre’s ballet master and artistic associate. The company has a full-time staff of five and an eight-member board of trustees.
“I have a very nice connection with these artists,” he says, speaking during a break in rehearsals for “Luna Mexicana,” his new work inspired by the Mexican Day of the Dead festival. “There is a very positive atmosphere in the studio. This is a brand new contemporary classical company, and I’m very lucky to be able to do this at this particular time. Of course, it’s always challenging in the arts.”
Lustig will also find time to stage his version of “The Nutcracker” next month and a repertory program in the spring for the Oakland Ballet, the 45-year-old California company of which he was recently named guest artistic director. Lustig choreographed his version of “The Nutcracker” for ARB in 2000, replacing the company’s older production with one that was more visually elaborate and set in a different era. Instead of the traditional Victorian setting, Lustig chose the Edwardian period. Costumes and sets by award-winning designer Zack Brown reflected that vision in the opening party scene, which takes place in an early-modern chalet with a giant picture window. Children in the ballet dance as giant snowballs, lollipops, and bon bons as well as the traditional angels and toy soldiers.
Incredibly, Lustig had never appeared in a production of “The Nutcracker” when he took on the assignment just after joining ARB. While it originated in Russia, the ballet is less of a phenomenon in Europe, where he danced in different companies, than it is in this country. He did extensive research on the E.T.A. Hoffman story and Tchaikovsky score before coming up with his own version, which has a few ominous touches including giant rats (instead of the traditional mice), which he feels make this production more engaging.
“I think nowadays people are more open to a slightly dark touch,” Lustig said during an interview before the 2000 premiere. “I wanted to balance all the sweetness of everything else. Because all of the confectionery of Act 2 (the Land of Sweets) can get a little saccharine.”
In addition to his work with the Oakland Ballet Lustig is choreographing a new work to music of Philip Glass for advanced students in the dance program of Princeton University’s Lewis School of the Arts, to be debuted in February. Talk about multi-tasking.
“It’s really not that much,” Lustig says, playing down the demands of his schedule. “In my former employment, I was often staging my ballets on other companies. So this feels normal to me, a bit like an orchestra conductor working as a guest conductor for different orchestras.”
Lustig is enthusiastic about “Luna Mexicana,” which is a collaboration with Middlesex County College. The college is exhibiting a visual art show about the Day of the Dead, through Thursday, November 4. Also involved is Regina Marchi, a Rutgers professor whose book “Day of the Dead in the USA: The Migration and Transformation of a Cultural Phenomenon” recently won the 2010 James W. Carey Media Research Award. Marchi and Lustig will give a pre-performance talk to ticket-holders at 6:30 p.m. on Friday, October 22.
“Luna Mexicana” will be danced to live music, which Lustig describes as a blend of hip-hop, new music, folkloric, and vintage music, including crooners from the 1950s — all Mexican.
“This has been a fascinating journey for me, culturally and musically,” he says. “I didn’t know that much about the Day of the Dead. But there are so many people who celebrate it in their own way. It grew out of a harvest festival. The root of it is a celebration of the dead. But it’s not morbid, it’s nothing like a wake. It’s very colorful. It’s a way of remembering those who lived before us.”
Two other works by Lustig are on the upcoming programs. “Torch” is “about love gone wrong,” the choreographer says. “It’s about how new musicians talk about love gone wrong, and all of the songs, which are by James Blunt, Amy Winehouse, Regina Spekter, Melody Gardot, and Andrew Belle, will be performed live by guitarist Steve Jones and vocalist Ereni Sevasti.” Lustig’s “Infinitum” is a quartet, “a spiritual exploration of space and time,” he says, inspired by the 15th century composer Cristobal de Morales. It will also include live music, in the form of a jazz saxophone player improvising over the medieval text.
Engelhard’s “Truth and Grace” is a work for eight dancers to the Chaconne by 17th and early 18th century composer Tomaso Antonio Vitali. “I found two graduate students (from Rutgers’ Mason Gross School of the Arts) who will play live, so there is live music for the whole program,” says Lustig. “I’m very pleased about that.”
The British-born dancer was trained at London’s prestigious Royal Ballet School; he then began his performing career at the Dutch National Ballet, where he danced many lead roles and was coached by such luminaries as Rudolf Nureyev. His father was an engineer, among the team of designers at DeHavillands, who developed the Spitfire airplane engine, used to great effect in WWII. In the 1950s he worked for the British film company Rank (later acquired by Xerox), among the team of engineers that developed the first Xerox copiers. His mother was an assistant to the CEO at De Havillands, where she met her husband, and later in the same job capacity for the Royal Masonic Hospital.
Back in England, he appeared with the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet before embarking on a career as a freelance choreographer, working with the Washington Ballet, Pittsburgh Ballet Theater, Ballet West, Singapore Dance Theater, Northern Ballet Theater, Hong Kong Ballet, Ririe-Woodbury Dance Company, and Sacramento Ballet before taking the job as artistic director at ARB in 1999.
During Lustig’s tenure at ARB, he choreographed 11 works and the company performed at New York City venues the Joyce Theater and Symphony Space. He presented an annual series promoting female ballet choreographers, somewhat of a rarity, called “Dancing Through the Ceiling.”
Working with a draft budget that he choses not to reveal, Lustig is busy promoting the new company. Key to the enterprise is its connection to a dance and wellness studio, where ballet for all age groups, hip hop, jazz, contemporary dance, Pilates, stretch yoga, and even Zumba for seniors will be taught. “The idea is that fitness is for everyone,” says Lustig. “It’s a very broad-based school. We’re trying to take the approach that it’s all about doing it safely. We will also have an educational component, going into colleges and public schools to teach about the value of dance but also wellness. We’ll talk about dietary issues, about looking after your body. That’s the way we’re weaving ourselves forward.”
Lustigdancetheatre is the result not just of his own ideas. “Members of the community came to me and made suggestions about continuing what I was doing, here in New Jersey,” he says. “Right now, my main priority is getting the studio and the company established. You have to put it out there. It came from the community, and this is what I’m giving back.”
First Public Performance, Lustigdancetheatre, Middlesex College, 2600 Woodbridge Avenue, Edison. Friday, October 22, 7:30 p.m. “Truth and Grace,” choreographed by Laney Englelhard, “Torch” and “Luna Mexicana,” both choreographed by Graham Lustig. All pieces performed to live music. $30; $50 includes the post show meet the artists event. Pre-show event focusing on the Day of the Dead Festival, hosted by Lustig and Regina Marchi, at 6:30 p.m. for ticket holders. 732-246-7300 or www.lustigdancetheatre.org.