Corrections or additions?
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
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
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
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
— Nicole Plett
Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick, 732-246-7717. $15.
Friday & Saturday, June 8 & 9, at 8 p.m.; Sunday, June 10, at 3
Corrections or additions?
This page is published by PrincetonInfo.com
— the web site for U.S. 1 Newspaper in Princeton, New Jersey.