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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

new experience.

"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

Opening Night, American Repertory Ballet, State

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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