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
the response is only just beginning to find voice.
"View from the Hudson," a new 40-minute work for seven
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
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
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
"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
Dance and music were brought together a week before the show.
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
the choreography. "She worked with the dancers to develop
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
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
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
modern dance in New York. He successfully landed a job with Dan
dance company and spent eight years dancing with Wagoner before
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
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
the work last September, reworked it several times. This was
in part, when James spent performances watching the audience instead
of watching the stage. "I started watching the audience
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
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.
is 33. He’ll be retiring at the end of this season to become a
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
"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
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
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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