From the moment that dancers took off their ballet slippers and went barefoot, the challenge for modern dance choreographers has been to think up movement that is new, never seen before, movement that is all their own. The second challenge — for the pioneers of the 1920s and all their successors — has been to attract an audience for their work.
When Mary Pat Robertson moved from New York to Princeton in 1980, she met both challenges — even though, at that time, modern dance was only a subculture here, running a poor second to ballet.
Trained in ballet in Oklahoma and schooled in the technique of modern dance pioneer Merce Cunningham in New York, Robertson and her husband, Michael, a dance critic, was immersed in dance, attending New York concerts five or six nights a week.
She had never done her own choreography. But then it was time. Robertson staged her first concert, entitled “Field and Stream,” in September, 1981, in what is now the Jimmy Stewart acting studio at 185 Nassau Street. She found skilled female dancers, among them Janell Byrne, who had recently graduated from Juilliard. But here in New York’s backwater there weren’t any men. So she recruited actor-athletes, taught them the basics, leveraged their naive energy, and called her company Teamwork Dance.
“Working with untrained men allowed all of us to be very exploratory in a very old tradition of modern dance,” says Robertson. “We didn’t have a shared language. It forced me to really dig in and articulate what I wanted.”
Teamwork Dance’s combo of energy and sophistication brought new audiences to modern dance in Princeton. Perhaps due to new funding from the state arts council, or maybe just because it was `in the air,’ several other companies were founded in those years, and they performed separately and together. It was a heady, exhilarating time.
Among those who have been “incubated” at Teamwork Dance are Sean Mahoney (now with Paul Taylor Dance Company), Erin Mahoney (now with Washington Ballet and the Suzanne Farrell Project), and Tim Acito, (formerly with Momix and currently writing and composing for Broadway).
Spin forward to today, and Robertson is the director of Princeton Ballet School. She and Byrne have grown children, each of whom has a daughter who dances. Though Teamwork was inactive, Robertson continued to choreograph for the Opera Festival of New Jersey. Now she is reviving Teamwork at a time when the entire modern dance scene, which had dwindled in the 1990s, has been invigorated by a fresh crop of newcomers who claimed the Yvonne Theater at Rider University as their stage. And Teamwork Dance, after a long hiatus, will perform again.
Robertson will be joined by three other choreographers in an evening of new choreography to live music on Friday, June 23, at the Yvonne Theater at Rider.
Two decades later Robertson did not need to start from scratch to train her male dancers. Far from it. For instance, Douglas Martin and his wife, Mary Barton, both former Joffrey Ballet principal dancers who retired from the American Repertory Ballet, will be featured. “Not only have we spent a lot of time together as colleagues, but I have choreographed for them before, in the Opera Festival of New Jersey,” says Robertson.
Barton will present her solo, “Minuet,” and a new duet set to Chopin. Helena Froehlich will return from Boston to perform a solo to a Purcell score and two duets, one to a Bach suite for unaccompanied cello to be played by Eva Kuhn. Byrne, who directs the Mercer Dance Ensemble, will contribute, from her most recent concert, “Rapt,” featuring Barton and Darby Wilde.
As for Robertson’s newest dance, like “Field and Stream” it can be described as a “humorous pastorale.” Called “A Day in the Country,” it is set to sections of Haydn’s “The Seasons,” with Jonathan Benjamin accompanying singers from Westminster Choir College. In a case of the wheel coming full circle, the troupe will include Emily Byrne, one of the “dancing daughters.”
An Evening of Dance, Friday, June 23, 8 p.m. Teamwork Dance, Yvonne Theater, Rider College, $25, available only at the door; $15 students. 609-896-5303.