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Two Tough Dance Choices

This article by Nicole Plett was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 18, 1998. All rights reserved.

Princeton dance enthusiasts are bound to be both delighted

and dismayed to find two world-class dance events going head to head

on the evening of Tuesday, March 24. At McCarter Theater, dance maverick

Twyla Tharp returns to the town she conquered with two company performances

and a riveting and ingenious solo lecture demonstration last year.

At Richardson Auditorium, the public is offered a rare opportunity

of a glimpse inside Toni Morrison’s Princeton Atelier, with a free

workshop showing of a new work by American Ballet Theater’s ballerina

and choreographer Martine van Hamel, created with and for ABT’s Studio

Company and a cast of Princeton University students.

The Atelier is the brainchild of author Toni Morrison, who brings

top artists to the campus as a catalyst for the creative process.

Experimentation is the name of the game for the program that began

in 1994 and bridges the worlds of professional art and academe, offering

a haven and a crucible for artists and students alike.

"The creation of the Atelier seminars has been an important project

for me personally," says Morrison, "for it assumes not only

that art is central to a liberal arts education, but that artistic

creation is necessary to intellectual life, and critical to the survival

and health of the community that nurtures it."

Should anyone doubt the Nobel Prize winning-author’s personal engagement

with this experimental baby, she sat in on a rehearsal last week at

the Princeton Ballet School. Here was Morrison in the spacious, upstairs

studio watching van Hamel compose a new ballet in the same week the

Nobel Prize-winning author had attended Time Magazine’s 75th birthday

dinner, taught "Paradise" to a class of 22 adults on the Oprah

Winfrey show, and made appearances of CBS "60 Minutes," the

PBS News Hour, and the "Today" show.

Hard at work counting out for the dancers the beats of Shostakovitch’s

"Concerto for Piano and Trumpet," to which her as-yet unnamed

ballet will be set, was guest artist Martine van Hamel, a mythic figure

in her own right. Awarded the gold medal in the International Ballet

Competition in Varna in 1966, she joined ABT in 1970. Promoted to

principal dancer in 1973, she has conquered the art form’s leading

roles from Odette-Odile in "Swan Lake," Nikiya in "La

Bayadere," Princess Aurora in "Sleeping Beauty," and the

Siren in "Prodigal Son." She also created leading roles in

Twyla Tharp’s "Bach Partita" and "Push Comes to Shove,"

David Gordon’s "Field, Chair and Mountain," and Glen Tetley’s


Throughout her performing career, van Hamel has made dances and led

her own touring company, the New Amsterdam Ballet. She has also achieved

recognition for her part in Jiri Kylian’s acclaimed company, Netherlands

Dance Theater 3, that features dancers over the age of 40, each committed

to a performing career that lasts into maturity

On this day, in the second-floor studio nestled among treetops, dressed

in ruddy brown knit pants and shirt, her red-brown hair drawn up in

a chignon, the slender van Hamel is developing a ballet passage for

four couples to the fast, complex sound of Shostakovitch’s thumping

piano and abrasive brass. While the couples circle each other with

staccato steps and regal bearing, a male soloist comes tumbling into

their midst and comes to rest in the center of the floor.

Supervising the dancers is John Meehan, director of the ABT Studio

Company. These dancers, pre-professionals ages 16 to 20, are in residence

for the month of March, he explains. They live and work with 12 Princeton

undergraduates who are also trained ballet dancers, auditioned by

van Hamel last fall. The residency includes two hours of dance class

each morning and as many afternoon rehearsal hours as schedules permit.

The six to eight hour dance days extended through Princeton’s spring


After the rehearsal, van Hamel talks about the pleasures

and challenges of being selected to create a new work here. "Never

having gone beyond high school, I’m a bit intimidated by the Princeton

students," says van Hamel. "Sometimes I suddenly ask myself,

how can they possible dance and study and do exams!’ Most of them

have left ballet but they’re happy to revisit it."

Typical is Deborah Way ’98, who had considered dance as a career,

and for whom ABT would have been a dream company to join. Way did

not become a dancer, however, but an economics major instead. She

now has a job waiting for her on Wall Street when she graduates. Another

cast member, Katherine Johnson ’99, had been taking 25 hours of ballet

each week at Princeton Ballet School in addition to her undergraduate


While van Hamel and Meehan agree that an Ivy League residency for

young ABT dancers is a rare, horizon-expanding experience, neither

think that the young professionals will be tempted away from their

career path. Most, they say, are single-minded about their ballet;

one will leave the company to begin college next year.

"If you’re a dancer, you’re looking at your whole life ahead of

you, 15 or 30 years of performing," says van Hamel. "The focus

of these dancers increases as they move up in a highly competitive

environment." She says this time next year, some will be members

of ABT, and some will be dancing with other New York or regional companies.

The van Hamel ballet is only one component of "Dance: States of

the Art," an extended American Ballet Theater residency that began

in February with a series of free lectures, open to the public, on

"The Management of Dance," "The History of Dance,"

"The Choreographer’s Practice," and "The Dancer’s Life."

Still to come in April are sessions on dance criticism and stage design.

Van Hamel’s only regret was not having found any Princeton boys with

enough training to join the workshop performance. Yet at the university’s

250th anniversary program in 1996, returning male dance alumni outnumbered

the women. That’s partly because men can "discover" dance

in college and still have a successful career, whereas women dancers

focus on their goals much earlier. As van Hamel says, when your heart

and soul is dedicated to performing, and your performing life may

not extend as long as hers has, you spend those years dancing.

— Nicole Plett

American Ballet Theater Studio Company, Richardson Auditorium,

609-258-3697. Free tickets at Richardson beginning at noon. Tuesday,

March 24, 8 p.m.

Tharp!, McCarter Theater, 91 University Place,


$33 & $36. Tuesday, March 24, 8 p.m.

Still to come in the ABT residency:

The Dance Critic, Princeton Atelier, Woodrow Wilson

School, Bowl 5, 609-258-3697. With Anna Kisselgoff, New York Times,

and Deborah Jowitt, the Village Voice, and Richard Philp, editor of

Dance Magazine. Free. Monday, April 6, 7:30 p.m.

The Design of Dance, Woodrow Wilson School, Bowl 5. With

costume designers Santo Loquasto, Anne Hould-Ward, and lighting designer

Jennifer Tipton. Free. Tuesday, April 14, 4:30 p.m.

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