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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the June 6, 2001

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

Randy James: Wing & a Prayer to a Sparrow

Randy James’s dance company began life on a wing and

a prayer. Founded in 1992 by the eight-year member of the Dan Wagoner

Dance Company, the company gave its first concert at the Cunningham

Studio in New York in 1993. Now, as Randy James Dance Works prepares

to celebrate its eighth "home season" with a three-day


at George Street Playhouse, it also bids goodbye to the company’s

veteran founding member and fledgling mother, Elizabeth Spatz.

In a concert entitled "Sparrow," James is showcasing the world

premiere of "Sparrow," a biographical solo he has


for Spatz to perform before she leaves to start her family in August.

Danced by the seven-months pregnant Spatz, the work is accompanied

by an original score for voice and piano composed by Michael Wall,

and performed live by Wall with singer Ereni Hrousis. Performances

take place Friday through Sunday, June 8, 9, and 10. The company also

celebrates the occasion with a Gala Benefit Dinner, preceding the

performance on Saturday, June 9, at 6:30 p.m. (call 732-247-2653).

"Sparrow" will be accompanied on the four-work program by

the premiere of "Without Direct Contact," a piece for four

dancers set to Robert Maggio’s "Two Quartets." This music,

scored for two flutes and two cellos, will also be performed live.

Also featured is "Waves at My Back," a work for seven, filled

with buoyant optimist, and performed to Bach’s "Concerto No. 1

in D Minor" for three pianos and string orchestra. Rounding out

the concert is a company favorite, "With Alligators in the Bayou

(you waterski real good)," James’s powerful 1996 story dance set

to the propulsive beat of music by Buckwheat Zydeco.

Dancing on the program, along with Elizabeth Spatz, is the company’s

other remaining founding member Missy Pfohl Smith, and Greta Parsons,

Jessica Chisam, Irazema Rivera, David Boyd, Richard Santiago, Aaron

Draper, and Dwayne Worthington.

Speaking from New York between rehearsals, James


how, after more than nine years working together, "Elizabeth is

leaving the nest to start her own family." Married for six years,

she and her lawyer husband, Sean Cogley, are moving to Newport,

Rhode Island. He says her solo is inspired by many aspects of her

life events, "beginnings, endings, birth, rebirth, and


"Elizabeth has been working with me for more than nine years,"

he says. "We met at Dan Wagoner’s studio where she studied and

auditioned for his company three times." Wagoner never hired her,

but when James left Wagoner to found his own company he invited Spatz

to join. "I use her story to encourage dancers who are

auditioning, because you never really know where one thing, like an

audition, may lead," he says. An important opportunity arose for

this couple

when Cogley received an attractive job offer last December that


moving to Newport. This was the same month his wife found she was

pregnant. "The two things happened together and they decided to

make the break," explains James. "She won’t be dancing for

a while, but she may come back. You never know where life may


In January, when Spatz let James know she was pregnant, she told him

she also wanted to be part of the George Street summer season. "We

thought it might make people — particularly her husband —

nervous to see her performing our regular repertory — you know,

jumping and being thrown around — so we decided to make this dance

for her," he says. The title of the dance comes from the company’s

1994 European tour where they quickly discovered that "Spatz"

means "sparrow" in German.

"Now, at seven months, she has a bit of a belly, but I’d say she

just looks like a normal woman," he says. "It’s a funny thing,

but people keep asking me how she can manage this. But this didn’t

all happen at once. She’s been evolving for seven months now. Being

pregnant, you start shifting your weight differently and you just

keep dancing."

James says choreographing for the expectant mother fits into his

overarching concept of what a dancer can and should be. He notes how

in classical ballet, the very idea of `the dancer’s body’ is remote

and rarefied. But not so in modern dance.

"That’s what I love about modern dance, it’s inclusive, not

exclusive," he says. "I want my company to look like my real

life, with people

of many different shapes, sizes, and colors — my life is filled

with lots of diverse people. And I love my women to look like real

women, whether or not they’re skinny."

Commissioned scores have become one of the hallmarks of Randy James

Dance Works programs. He has collaborated with some of the best and

brightest musicians in the region, such as Michael Wall and Robert

Maggio who are on this program.

"Without Direct Contact" is another premiere with original

music that is featured in this concert. Bart Feller, principal flutist

for the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra and an original RJDW board


(who now serves as its president), recorded this score with Maggio

and thought it would suit the James company. Although Feller is away

on tour this week, James says he may perform one of the flute parts

when the company performs the work in New York later this year.

Although original scores are not unusual for James, his method of

working with his composers is. Essentially he prefers to choreograph

in silence and then have a composer create music around the dance,

a method designed to offer freedom to both composer and choreographer.

"Some people expect to see dance as a visualization of the

music," says James, "but for me, the movement is what’s

important. I want to create dance that has its own rhythm and life.

One that can be

performed without music, sets, costumes, or lighting. Music can


the dance but not dominate it."

When James invited Wall to compose the score for "Sparrow,"

the two had been working together for three years. "I don’t say

this often, but I think he’s a genius," he says. They met at

Rutgers, where James teaches and where Wall plays as an accompanist

for dance

department classes. Wall earned his BFA in jazz performance at Rutgers

in 1999, where he studied with Kenny Barron.

"Elizabeth and I started working together on `Sparrow’ and created

the dance in three rehearsals," says James. "Michael [Wall]

came in after the first rehearsal to see some of the movement images.

He had already told me he wanted to use piano and female voice.


is so musical that when he came back with his eight-minute score,

she performed the movement as an eight-minute dance."

When Wall picks up the story, in a separate conversation, the account

of the collaboration takes a slightly different slant.

Wall recounts how, as a Rutgers freshman, he met Robert Tigger

Benford, a percussionist who he describes as "well-rooted in the

music for dance community," and who organizes musicians who play


dance at Rutgers. "I wanted to study percussion with him, but

he told me he didn’t take students. He told me that if I’d play for

dance, I’d learn. So instead of having a job at the dining hall, I

began playing as accompanist. I found that making music for dance

came easily and was very rewarding. And the more people I’ve


for, the more people I compose for."

Benford recommended Wall as an accompanist at the American Dance


in North Carolina. He’s currently preparing to return for his third

summer there. This has further enhanced Wall’s ties to dance. The

choreographers for whom he has composed include David Grenke, Wally

Wolfgruber, the Jose Limon Dance Company, Heidi Latsky and Lawrence

Goldhuber, and Patrick Swayze. He recorded with Barron, as a


on an album that won two Grammy nominations this year.

Wall’s path to his work as a pianist and percussionist

is far from conventional. He started playing trumpet at age nine.

"I couldn’t afford lessons and I taught myself trumpet


he says. "I was practicing 8 to 10 hours a day, and by high school

I had ruined my embouchure. After that I just started to pick up other

instruments." He immediately took to the piano, he says.


struggling to make a sound with the trumpet, with a piano, you just

touch a key and you get a sound. It’s great."

Wall is the first to note that, in writing music for dance, every

project is different. "Every choreographer has a different way

of bringing the musician in. With Randy, the last two pieces I’ve

worked on with him have come out really well." For


he recalls how, months ago, "I told Randy that there were two

things musically I wanted to do: I wanted to write for piano and voice

— a song, almost like a lieder. It seemed a perfect match for

the quiet solo Randy said he was going to be working on."

Wall still had his doubts about how much freedom each artist could

have. "When you’re dealing with text, the timing of the text can’t

follow the dance. I have to establish that. So I told Randy the music

had to come first," he says. "But after he choreographed the

dance, it locked up perfectly."

A lifelong New Jerseyan, James grew up in East Brunswick, and now

lives in Highland Park. His early interest in athletics was followed

by an ambition to become a show dancer. At 22, James headed to


City and spent five years working as a show dancer. But at 27, he

tired of it, and joined the Dan Wagoner company.

Now, in addition to running his own company, James is assistant


at Rutgers, where his full-time teaching load includes four courses

per semester. Working in a progressive and busy dance department in

a university that includes a top-flight music program, has served

the choreographer well.

"I don’t have a policy that I have to have all live music, because

that could stifle me, stop me from using something like the Bach music

that is on this program," says James. "But I think it’s


to me to use original and/or live music somewhere in each program.

It costs more, but sometimes you just have to bite the bullet. Every

bit of growth in my company, I couldn’t afford. Each time I’d have

to go back to my board and they’d help me find the money."

"It’s not like it all comes flowing to me. My board of directors

works hard. And I’m out on the pavements selling ads and getting


items, too."

— Nicole Plett

Sparrow, Randy James Dance Works, George Street

Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $15.

Friday & Saturday, June 8 & 9, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 10, at 3


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