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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
609-258-3697. Free tickets at Richardson beginning at noon. Tuesday,
March 24, 8 p.m.
$33 & $36. Tuesday, March 24, 8 p.m.
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.
costume designers Santo Loquasto, Anne Hould-Ward, and lighting designer
Jennifer Tipton. Free. Tuesday, April 14, 4:30 p.m.
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