Corrections or additions?

This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the May 15, 2002

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

Randy James on 9-11: `View from the Hudson’

Where were you on September 11? It’s a tired question,

yet one we are compelled to keep asking. And for America’s arts

community,

the response is only just beginning to find voice.

"View from the Hudson," a new 40-minute work for seven

dancers,

is choreographer Randy James’s first response. The dance will have

its New Jersey premiere, performed by Randy James Dance Works, on

Friday, May 17, at Raritan Valley Community College. The work is

performed

by a five-member music ensemble to a commissioned score by Robert

Benford. The culmination of the company’s year-long RVCC residency,

it’s a dance James says he never intended to create.

"I was in my apartment in Highland Park but I was supposed to

be in rehearsal three blocks from the towers. I was working on my

computer when I saw the headline `Eyewitnesses say planes crashed

into twin towers.’ Then a friend called and told me to turn on the

television. I watched for probably two hours. After that I shut off

the television and went to sleep," he says. "I did not watch

television again and I did not go to Ground Zero."

The following week, the Randy James company left for a residency at

Skidmore College. "It was impossible to ignore the circumstances

of what had happened on September 11," James recalls. "We

talked together, we cried together, and at Skidmore we created the

movement phrase that is still in the piece."

"View from the Hudson" has been performed only once before,

on the company’s New York program in mid-February. "It got an

incredible response and I haven’t changed a thing," says James.

Writing about that performance, Star-Ledger dance critic Robert

Johnson

observed that "James has captured the strangeness of life after

the September 11 disaster with poignant images of dislocation."

"There’s no story, even though people will feel there is, because

this is a story that everyone shares. It’s a chronicle of individual

experiences, reactions, segments. The challenge is that the historical

event is in the past, but everybody had this experience — there

is no one who was not involved," says James.

For New Jerseyans like James who regularly take New Jersey Transit

into New York, the view of the towers was a powerful and familiar

landmark.

"To tell you the truth, I never liked the World Trade Center,"

James confesses. "When it got built, I felt bad for the Empire

State Building, when it wasn’t the tallest building any more. But

now it feels very strange. Because of course it’s much more than the

building. It’s the people."

"It’s called `View from the Hudson’ because I’m a New Jersey-based

company, even though I rehearse in New York and many of my dancers

live in New York," says James, from his Rutgers’ office, where

he is an associate on the dance faculty. "Most of the dancers

lived through it. One was literally two blocks away. He heard the

first plane fly by and watched the second one hit. Many of them live

in the Village and had their homes quarantined. They lived with the

chaos, the dust, and the smell."

Dance and music score were created independently. James worked with

his company, and Benford came to watch and to work on his own

contribution.

Dance and music were brought together a week before the show.

Benford’s

score, which James describes as vibrant and eclectic, uses saxophone,

electric guitar, accordion, percussion, flute, drum, also, on tape,

some spoken word and jet noise.

"I was so afraid to trivialize it. I wanted to be as honest as

possible," says James. "At first I had thought of using text

and the pictures, but I cut them out as too literal. It’s about not

just the World Trade Center, it’s about issues we have dealt with

before — terrorism, sexism, the feelings we have to dominate each

other, to oppress each other, to promote our religious beliefs."

Earlier last year James invited dramaturg Bonnie Andrews

to begin working with the company on their expression beyond

performing

the choreography. "She worked with the dancers to develop

different

characters, to be more physically involved, facial expression, how

the movement is feeling."

Work on the new piece was already under way when the Dodge Foundation

announced its emergency grant program for New Jersey arts

organizations

working on art or events that addressed September 11.

"A $20,000 Dodge Foundation grant allowed us to commission a score

from Robert Benford, as well as the set and lighting from John

Lasiter.

We would have done the work no matter what. But to have that support

was so incredible," James says.

James, who celebrates his 44th birthday on the day of the concert,

is a lifelong New Jerseyan who grew up in East Brunswick. His early

interest in athletics was followed by an ambition to become a show

dancer. At 22, James headed to Atlantic City and spent five years

working as a show dancer. But at 27, he tired of it, and began

studying

modern dance in New York. He successfully landed a job with Dan

Wagoner’s

dance company and spent eight years dancing with Wagoner before

leaving

to form his own company in 1992.

The company has been in residence since September at RVCC, teaching

and choreographing. The company performed in the student concert in

December; company members worked with about 100 students and led

community

outreach classes for another 1,000 younger children in neighboring

schools, from kindergarten through high school. James has just been

given the New Jersey Governor’s Award in Arts Education by the state

Department of Education.

Also featured on the May 17 concert program is "Guitar Man,"

a suite of dances to six songs by Elvis Presley, some early songs

from the Sun Studio recordings and two much later tunes. James

premiered

the work last September, reworked it several times. This was

accomplished,

in part, when James spent performances watching the audience instead

of watching the stage. "I started watching the audience

reactions,"

he says. "I watch to see when they are looking at their programs,

and when are they looking at their watches." Now he is satisfied

that the latest version, presented two weeks ago at a dance festival

in Ulster County in New York, is unlikely to find the audience looking

at programs or watches.

Rounding out the concert will be two sections from James’s

"Moonlight

Sonata," a solo and a duet choreographed to Beethoven’s sonata

for piano. A pianist will accompany the dancers onstage.

Missy Pfohl Smith, a former company member who left

the company two years ago to go to graduate school in dance at Sarah

Lawrence College, will return to dance the work with David Boyd.

"David

is 33. He’ll be retiring at the end of this season to become a

personal

trainer," says James. "These are mature dancers who spent

six and nine years dancing with the company. It’s like the company’s

old guard is gradually moving on, to be replaced with younger dancers.

Soon the oldest dancers in my company will be only in their late

20s."

"The `Moonlight Sonata’ is my favorite piece of music in the whole

wide world," says James. "When I was growing up, my mother

played piano and she used to play this all the time. It holds a lot

of memories. I think my mother played the piano to purge herself of

her anger and frustration, especially after my parents had a

fight."

While conflict remains a constant in human affairs, James believes

art is ever essential. Although he feared trivializing the September

11 tragedy, he is satisfied that the work fulfills a vital need.

"It’s hard to understand how you go about creating something of

beauty after such a horrifying act," he says. "Making the

dance really purged a lot of feelings. We spent many days together

weeping and talking. Now the dancers love performing it. I’m sure

it’s going to be in our repertory for the rest of my life."

— Nicole Plett

Randy James Dance Works, Raritan Valley Community

College ,

Route 28, North Branch, 908-725-3420. The New Jersey company presents

the premiere of "View from the Hudson" to a commissioned score

by Robert Benford, performed by a five-member music ensemble. $15

& $20. Friday, May 17, 8 p.m.


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