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This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on October 6, 1999. All rights reserved.
Moving Across Ballet’s Borders: Graham Lustig
After nine weeks at the head of American Repertory
Ballet, choreographer, former principal dancer, and new artistic director
Graham Lustig is experiencing pangs of homesickness. At the Princeton
rehearsal studios where he is overseeing the company’s upcoming season
debut, Lustig is hankering for a cup of tea — preferably in London,
and preferably with his mum and dad.
Clad in slacks and a striped blue-and-white T-shirt, the compact,
muscular Lustig gives the impression that he would just as soon be
climbing the rigging of some 19th-century sailing ship as perching
on the edge of a rehearsal studio full of dancers. At 45, he’s personable,
confident, and voluble.
A career-long member of the international ballet community, Lustig’s
homesickness is only metaphorical. And he’s confident about making
a home in the New World. As a member of England’s Sadler’s Wells Ballet,
his job sometimes kept him on the road 33 weeks out of the year. He
has worked as a choreographer in residence for companies around the
world, but American Repertory Ballet is his first artistic directorship.
Lustig opens his first ARB season with his 1995 ballet, "Borderlines,"
a debut that audiences and critics are awaiting with keen anticipation.
Opening night at the State Theater in New Brunswick is Saturday, October
9, at 8 p.m. The program also features George Balanchine’s neo-classical
"Concerto Barocco" to the music of Bach, Kirk Peterson’s "The
Eyes that Gently Touch" to music by Philip Glass, and Elaine Kudo’s
"Children of the Drum" to the beat of Japanese Kodo drum music.
ARB currently boasts 22 dancers, more than half of whom are new this
season. Many faces at the rehearsal are familiar, including principal
dancers Mary Barton and Douglas Martin. Two members, Erin Mahoney
and Jason Hartley, have left to join ARB’s departing artistic director
Septime Webre at the Washington Ballet. And there are lots of new
faces and forms. Lustig gestures to the international group that includes
dancers from Australia, Jamaica, South Africa, Argentina, and Brazil.
"We’re like the United Colors," he says, " — a phenomenal
group of performers who come from many different backgrounds and may
speak different languages, but share the common language of ballet."
After a long career onstage, where his leading roles included Balanchine’s
"Prodigal Son," Fokine’s "Petrushka," and the Profiteer
in "The Green Table" by Kurt Jooss, as well as a sheaf of
leads in ballets by Frederick Ashton, Lustig comfortably made the
transition from dancer to dance maker.
A denizen of the dance studio since age six, and one of two sons in
a family with no previous ties to dance whatsoever, he says he is
grateful today that his childhood teacher at the Pamela Howard School
of Dancing got him involved in dance making.
"At 10, I was encouraged by my teacher to make up a dance. I humbly
chose Dvorak’s `New World Symphony’ and performed a solo as a refugee
child," he says with amusement. Was he a pathetic refugee? "No,
no. I was a strong, strident refugee child in tattered shorts. I designed
the costume myself with a pair of scissors," he replies.
His ballet "Borderlines" will be an equally challenging debut.
Lustig credits British composer Steve Martland and his 1991 score
for a double-string orchestra, "Crossing the Border," as the
genesis of the work’s inspiration. Martland, who will travel from
London (as will Lustig’s octogenarian parents) to attend "Opening
Night" in New Brunswick, is a young British composer who works
in the tradition of Ralph Vaughan Williams and Michael Tippett.
"The dynamic set of two string orchestras playing against each
other and together creates a propulsive quality that seems as if it
can’t be stopped," says Lustig.
The ballet features one principal couple and five other couples, all
clad in skin-tight, flesh-colored unitards. Initially, a black gauze
scrim divides the stage space, setting up layers of light and shadow,
also enhanced by a flowing lighting design by Alex Nichols. The movement
is sensuous and at times strident, with a powerful emphasis on striking
pictorial compositions. There is a give and take of power and support
between the couples, and a . And Lustig says all the couples may reflect
different facets of the same relationship. Commissioned by the Sacramento
Ballet in 1995, "Borderlines" has also been performed by BalletMet
and the Singapore Dance Theater.
Lustig graduated from the Royal Ballet School and joined
the Dutch National Ballet, a big classically-based company, at 18.
Here he met and became friends with a young dancer from Singapore,
the then-23-year-old Choo San Goh. Three years later, Goh was invited
by Mary Day of Washington Ballet to become its resident choreographer.
Goh became acclaimed as a choreographer before his untimely death
in the mid-’80s. Lustig is now a member of the board of the Choo San
Goh Foundation where his responsibilities include reviewing more than
80 applications a year from established and emerging choreographers.
Lustig also began his choreographic career in earnest in Holland with
a dance set to the music of Edward Elgar. Critics have noted the flair
for visual design he shares with Goh, an attribute that is displayed
to advantage in "Borderlines." In 1980 Lustig returned to
London to join the Sadler’s Wells Royal Ballet where he also contributed
four works to the company’s repertoire.
A turning point in Lustig’s artistic development came when he was
awarded a Winston Churchill Traveling Fellowship in 1987, a professional
development grant that he designed as a 10-week, coast-to-coast overview
of American dance. He observed the New York City Ballet, San Francisco
Ballet, Paul Taylor, Cleveland Ballet, Mark Morris, and David Parsons.
Rarely given to artists or performers, Lustig set a precedent. Churchill
has since added a theater and dance category.
Among Lustig’s other American experiences was a residency at Barbara
Weisberger’s Carlisle Project, which enabled him to brainstorm with
five other choreographers. "I feel entirely at home in American
dance culture and the culture of dance studios, which is different
from England," he says. "Despite America’s funding difficulties,
this company’s dance energy and commitment at every level, from board
member to performers, is impressive."
In 1991 Lustig stopped performing to focus on choreography and teaching.
As choreographer in residence at the Washington Ballet, he created
three new works over three seasons. He also made works for the Hartford
Ballet, the American Ballet Theater Studio Company, and Sacramento
Ballet. His first months as artistic director of ARB represent a whole
"I didn’t need to become an artistic director," Lustig
explains, pointing to his eight years as a freelance choreographer.
"And yet I burn for this profession. It’s the flame that keeps
me alive. And it doesn’t have to be my own performance any more. I’m
filled with wonder by the creativity around me."
— Nicole Plett
Theater, New Brunswick, 732-246-7469. Graham Lustig’s "Borderlines,"
Elaine Kudo’s "Children of the Drum," George Balanchine’s
"Concerto Barocco," and Kirk Peterson’s "The Eyes that
Gently Touch." Website: www.arballet.org. $14 to $32. Saturday,
October 9, 8 p.m.
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