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This article by Nicole Plett was prepared for the March 7, 2001
edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Through the Dance Ceiling: Susan Hadley
When Graham Lustig addressed his audience before an
American Repertory Ballet in open rehearsal last week, he was
the latest issue of Dance Magazine — the one with Twyla Tharp
on the cover. The magazine reports that, despite the seismic shift
in our culture since Tharp founded her first company in the 1965,
a study of women’s careers in dance by the Gender Project indicates
that men are more likely than women to land the best jobs.
Lustig, artistic director of ARB for 18 months now, is making his
own effort to right the larger wrong with a concert featuring three
new ballets by three women choreographers. "Dancing through the
Ceiling" — "that’s the glass ceiling," he notes, in
case there was any doubt — is the title of the company program
of three premieres that takes place at McCarter Theater, Thursday,
March 15. The 8 p.m. concert is preceded at 6:30 p.m. by a panel
with Lustig and the three choreographers.
"While women choreographers have made great strides in the area
of modern dance, they have been overshadowed by male choreographers
in classical ballet," says Lustig, whose own career suggests more
gender parity than most. Early on he was a member of London’s Sadler’s
Wells Royal Ballet, directed by the legendary Dame Ninette de Valois,
who founded her first ballet company in 1926. Lustig now directs a
company that grew out of the Princeton Ballet School, also founded
by a woman — Audree Estey — in 1954.
All three of the featured choreographers selected by Lustig carries
an impressive dance lineage, two from ballet and one from the world
of modern dance. All three began as performers and began
from three to fifteen years ago.
Canadian dancer and choreographer Dominique Dumais created her first
work, "the weight of absence," in 1998, for the National
of Canada, where it was greeted with wide acclaim. Working in a
highly articulated movement vocabulary, she has made four more pieces
since ’98 and will premiere a new work for the Stuttgart Ballet this
Elaine Kudo, who premieres "Eye of the Storm," is ballet
at ARB and a former soloist with American Ballet Theater. From ABT
she went on to join the Twyla Tharp Company where she was Mikhail
Baryshnikov’s partner in the stupendously popular "Sinatra
Since then Kudo has staged Tharp’s work for companies around the
Fairly new to choreographing, this is her fourth work and third ARB
Susan Hadley, the only modern dancer of the trio, began making dances
in 1985. That was also the year she joined Mark Morris’s first company
where she became a signature dancer in such acclaimed works as his
"Mythologies," "Gloria," "Dido and Aeneas"
and "L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato," the latter
the centerpiece of Morris’s retrospective season featured this month
at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Before joining Morris she was a
member of Senta Driver’s iconoclastic modern dance company of five
— that went by the inscrutable name of Harry — for five years.
Active as a choreographer throughout the 1990s, her most recent
include modern works for Hubbard Street Dance Chicago and BalletMet
in Columbus, Ohio.
"The questions around gender have been the hallmarks of our
work," says Hadley, who began showing her dances in New York,
often with her husband, a composer and jazz musician, as her
"I grew up in a field that was founded by women who were
for themselves," she says. "We were trained to be dancers
and dancemakers, part and parcel. Ballet is a field where men were
choreographing images of womanhood for men to watch.
"Ballet companies are hierarchical and patriarchal. The people
in positions of power tend to be men. Ballerinas look up and don’t
see many women artistic directors, so they don’t aspire to that. They
see ballet mistresses. So these things are self-perpetuating. It’s
very normal for a guy who’s dancing to be asked to try out
And I’m sure that the guys also go and ask to choreograph — I’m
surmising this — women may not think it’s their entitlement."
"Corps" is the title of Hadley’s new work for a
of eight soloists. Corps de ballet is a centuries old
meaning the whole body of dancers of a ballet company. Traditionally
comprised exclusively of women, it has always meant, "working
together as one," and is now perceived as both ballet’s blessing
and its curse.
"What I’m doing in my new work for ARB is to frame the ballerina
as all the things I didn’t know she was when I was 12," says
The dance is about acknowledging that `the ballerina is this, too.’"
Her dance features the corps as community of women who dance without
"I have made a ballet blanc that celebrates large groups
of women dancing together, an absolute vehicle for dance for 150
she says. In the tradition of the ballet blanc Hadley’s women
wear tulle, but just a single filmy layer; beneath are up-to-date
white Lycra bike shorts that focus attention on the dancer-athletes’
"Corps" references some well-known moments in ballet, with
allusions to the great 19th-century works, "Giselle," "La
Bayadere," and "Swan Lake" that are bound to be recognized
by dance lovers. The work is set to Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s (a living
American woman composer) "Concerto Grosso," a set of
variations on Handel’s violin sonata in D in which, she says,
of baroque theme are intermixed with Zwillich’s contemporary
"I take as my point of departure some 19th-century core moments
that I use as springboards to where the dancers did not go
then, in movement — but where they are going today," she says.
Whereas feminist dance critics once rejected the traditional ballet
canon, today they are more likely to argue about why they find the
stories so intriguing and the form so utterly appealing.
"Can we love stuff that came out of a different era just because
we don’t buy into its politics?," asks Hadley. "The women
were not passive. The corps had a great deal of agency. We’re talking
about a corps that exacted consequences. It can’t get reduced to a
Hadley grew up in the Midwest, in Columbus, Ohio, with
what she describes as "a richness of opportunity." One of
four children, her father is a third generation life insurance
and estate planner. Her mother was a housewife who, after the children
were grown, went on to get her doctorate in adult career development
and embarked on her own 20-year career in that field. Dance was not
particularly singled out, says Hadley, "it was one of our many
fabulous activities." Yet she was not "one of the few
children" for whom creative activity in dance making is part of
their dance experience.
"In second grade, I finally got to go to Miss Cate’s. Every
morning for an hour we had ballet, jazz, tap, and acrobatics, baton.
We even had a year when we learned a lariat routine. I started on
pointe in third grade (too young!, she cautions) — and this was
all in one hour. It was pure love, but it was mostly changing our
"I was a high-energy child and Miss Cate infused me with the
of movement. I loved ballet and adored tap and did it for many years.
But for me, pointe was like entrapment. All of sudden dance was no
longer about movement. So I ended up delving into athletics and
Hadley quit ballet at age 12-1/2. "Given my lust for high-energy
movement, I also had started to realize that the kind of girls who
were attracted to ballet weren’t like me. They were obedient and
to do everything just right," she says.
"I thought, `I’m not pink and I’m not chiffon and I’m not
she recalls today. "What a shame that girls like me at that time
saw this as the choice we had to make. At that time, good strong
dance training was hard to find for children. It was not an option
until I got to college." Hadley put her energy into sports and
musicals. She also grew up playing guitar and singing, not
since her early years in New York included a vocal and movement role
in a revival of Meredith Monk’s "Quarry."
She also recalls one of the most devastating remarks delivered to
her during her college years by a male instructor. "He told me,
`You have an unfortunate anatomy for dance’ — meaning that I was
built like a woman." Now she recognizes: "I’m a Mark Morris
woman in terms of my size, I’m not a fading violet in terms of my
Hadley matriculated at Colorado College fully intending to become
a doctor, eventually graduating from University of Colorado at Boulder
in 1978 with a major in biology. But at Colorado College she also
met one of the titans of modern dance, Hanya Holm, who gave a summer
course in modern dance and composition there for 40 years. In 1977
she studied technique, improvisation, and structured composition with
"Women were the backbone of contemporary dance in this country.
They brought it into the universities [although in the early years
it was based in physical education departments] and they have allowed
contemporary dance to stay alive," she says.
Out of college, Hadley still wanted to give dance a serious try. Why?
"I don’t want to wake up when I’m 40 and think I should have
tried that." To do so, she found herself back in Ohio, in the
master’s program at Ohio State University, then and now one of the
nation’s most progressive dance programs.
In her final year, alumna Senta Driver, a cutting-edge dancer who
had been a member of the Paul Taylor company, came back as a visiting
artist and was attracted to Hadley’s movement style. "I was pretty
much tailor-made for her work." She went to New York the day after
graduation, and within weeks was asked to step into an injured company
"Senta’s work was iconoclastic, very much about strength, and
very rhythmic" says Hadley. "She was the first to have women
lifting the men. She was also devoted to developing dancers, to making
work that came out of dancers’ sensibilities and capabilities. During
my four years there I grew up as a dancer by talking to Senta. She’s
astute watcher of dance. It was a company of five of the dialogue
Married since 1983 to musician and composer Bradley Sowash, with whom
she has collaborated throughout her career, Hadley says music and
rhythm are important components of her dance thinking. After
to Belgium with the Mark Morris Dance Group in 1989, the couple
settled back in Ohio. They are parents of daughters age 10 and 7.
At ARB’s open rehearsal, the company presented part of Hadley’s
that features four "little swans" performing the familiar
steps from "Swan Lake." As a modern dancer and choreographer,
all her previous ballet company commissions have been for
dances." Now she’s premiering her first piece on pointe.
"Pointe for a while for many of us was not politically
she says, sounding surprised by her own choice. "We saw it as
immobilizing, akin to Chinese foot binding. It stood out for us like
a symbol — like the corset for the first generation modern dancers
— as something that kept the body entombed or entrapped."
"It would be easy for someone of my feminist inclinations to go
at ballet from all that’s wrong about it. You could go at it from
a thousand points of negativity, but I chose to go at it in a
point of view," she says.
The results of her choice have proved thrilling. " Women who are
on pointe are phenomenally accomplished athletes. It’s like a piece
of equipment, and if you choreograph for it well it can give the body
a different kind of range."
Thus "Corps" celebrates and exposes the strength, stamina,
and female empowerment that has existed in ballet over centuries.
"When Marie Taglioni first got up on pointe, it was an act of
sheer strength, but the effort was masked with tulle," says
"I want to celebrate the effort."
— Nicole Plett
McCarter Theater, 91 University Place, 609-258-2787. Pre-performance
symposium, at 6:30 p.m., features Graham Lustig with the
$26 to $38. Thursday, March 15, 8 p.m.
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