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Category — Dance

What Exactly Is Queens-Style Dance?

A piece by Neville Dance Theatre

A piece by Neville Dance Theatre

The Queensboro Dance Festival celebrates dance companies from across the borough

In dance reputation terms, Manhattan has made its mark with stalwart institutions like American Ballet Theatre and Lincoln Center, as well as 1960s-bred, avant-garde downtown companies. Brooklyn’s dancescape is known for Mark Morris, BAM, and even more experimental flavors. But do audiences ever think of—or even recognize—what could be called “Queens-style” dance?

Karesia Batan thought not, and she decided this was a problem she needed to address. That’s why she’s developed the Queensboro Dance Festival, where from October 20 to 26, audiences from all boroughs can enjoy 18 diverse, Queens-based dance troupes in a rotating bill at The Secret Theatre in Long Island City.

“My inspiration for creating [Queensboro Dance Festival] was the absence of a physical dance community in our borough,” says the Flushing-born and current Long Island City resident. “I knew from programs I’ve seen around Queens, and also from a ton of dancers I’ve worked with, that a lot of us live in Queens. But oddly, we don’t have a cohesive identity like Manhattan or Brooklyn.”

She continues, “In Queens, we don’t have anything that really connects us all. Queens is so, so diverse, from the culture to the food, and because it’s so large it tends to be disjointed and people stay in their own pockets. But a lot of artists live here, and it’s really an artistic hive. So this is my attempt to bring the Queens dance community together and discover: Who else is out there? What does dance from Queens look like? How can we create a platform for Queens dance?” [Read more →]

October 20, 2014   No Comments

Three Different Films in One Big Dance

Big Dance Theater's "Alan Smithee..."

Big Dance Theater’s “Alan Smithee…”

For its latest wild opus, Big Dance Theater goes to the movies

It sounds like the line-up for an especially eclectic film festival: Terms of Endearment, Dr. Zhivago, and the 1961 French thriller Le Cercle Rouge. Instead, those movies are the basis of Alan Smithee Directed This Play: Triple Feature, the latest adventure in the unexpected from Big Dance Theater.

Playing through October 4 at BAM, Alan Smithee is intriguingly difficult to categorize, and that’s long been a hallmark of BDT’s work. Founders Annie-B Parson and Paul Lazar have specialized in shows that draw on literary—and more recently, cinematic—sources, incorporating an often wild mix of elements to generate works that gleam with their own inner logic and often chaotic beauty. (New Yorkers might know Parson’s work as the choreographer of the Public Theater’s Here Lies Love, while Lazar, a busy actor who performs in Alan Smithee, is currently in rehearsals for the upcoming Theater for a New Audience production of Marlowe’s Tamburlaine.)

To that end, traditional narrative, or even specific characters, are not the focus of Alan Smithee, which was initially conceived as a theatrical triptych incorporating the film scripts. But once she, Lazar, and the performers began to work, Parson says, elements of the films “just started speaking to each other. I would say it was more an exercise in collage. This piece has taken a really long time to make. It’s sprawling.”

“Alan Smithee” is the pseudonym used by directors who are unhappy with the final outcome of a film. As Parson notes, though, she and Lazar consider a degree of creative chaos a necessity. (They’re co-directors here, and Parson is also choreographer.) For them “the title is like a wry joke,” she says. “The work starts to get out of control creatively, in a good sense. In terms of what we’re doing, we want it to do that—to have its own life. We want it to be something that we never ever imagined when we started.” [Read more →]

September 29, 2014   1 Comment

The Queen of Hearts Dances, The Mad Hatter Taps

Greta Hodgkinson

Greta Hodgkinson

Inside Christopher Wheeldon’s witty new ballet

It’s not often that a completely original three-act ballet is unveiled, but next week the National Ballet of Canada will perform something fresh, new, and quite ambitious. Christopher Wheeldon’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland translates the beloved Lewis Carroll tale into ingenious dance terms.

Given Carroll’s extensive (and often whimsical) cast of characters, Wheeldon’s ballet features numerous roles that he shaped with distinctive stylistic touches, blending the classical ballet vocabulary with elements of Broadway, music hall, pantomime, and acrobatics. The 41-year-old choreographer—whose next project is directing and choreographing the Broadway-bound An American in Paris—told the New York Times that he had more fun creating this work than any other in his already extensive career, and that seems true for the performers as well.

Robert Stephens, a first soloist who’s been with NBC for ten years, has been performing as the Mad Hatter since the ballet’s 2011 premiere in Toronto. (In New York, it will play September 9-14 at the David H. Koch Theater at Lincoln Center.) He added the White Rabbit more recently and will alternate the roles next week. “A lot of times, when you’re putting on a really big production, sometimes the fun gets lost,” he says. “With this ballet, the fun has definitely been there right from the beginning, and I think there’s a lot of fun inherently in the source material.”

Thanks to a vigorous tap routine, Stephens delivers Broadway razzle-dazzle, as well as a very specific flavor. “Christopher gave me some really great ideas and insight into the role,” he says. “He mentioned both Johnny Depp and Keith Richards in his descriptions of what I should be aspiring to show. I think he was inspired by the Tim Burton film, and he gave me a great sense that behind this Mad Hatter there is the whimsy, but there’s also a darkness.

“Of course I went back and looked at the original book. It’s actually a hilarious scene. The Mad Hatter is very mean, but also very funny and witty. There’s a lot of rhythm and wit in the words, and I think that translates really well into the tapping. I hadn’t done any tap dancing since I was about eleven. I reached back to my training at a recreational school in the suburbs and put the tap shoes back on”.

When he performs as the White Rabbit—who in the ballet’s pre-Wonderland prologue is Lewis Carroll himself, a family friend of Alice Liddell—Stephens plays a more integral dramatic role. “It really is a different show for me when I dance the White Rabbit. Each entrance is very short, but my character really is one of the only ones who carries all the way through the ballet. I’m leading Alice on her journey. I feel very protective toward her—and proud of her by the end. It’s a nice growth that I’m able to experience, in relation to her.”

Greta Hodgkinson, a veteran principal dancer with the company, performs the juicy role of the Queen of Hearts. Initially seen in the prologue as Alice’s none-too-maternal mother, she gets to cut loose with Wheeldon’s spirited, often hilarious version of the Queen. “He conceived her as an amalgamation of a lot of ballerinas that he’s worked with over the years, some of them diva-esque,” she says. “She’s a dual figure. I think he really wanted to see the difference between the mad, crazy Queen, but also this elegant ballerina. He wanted both of those sides to show.”

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September 4, 2014   No Comments

Dancing the Bard

Cory Stearns in 'Romeo & Juliet'

Cory Stearns in ‘Romeo & Juliet’

ABT’s Cory Stearns brings Shakespeare to life without words

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at performers and how they create their roles

Cory Stearns has played Romeo, Prospero, Oberon, and Iago—all without ever speaking a line.

A tall, elegant principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, Stearns has portrayed these major Shakespearean characters in ballets based on the Bard. Among his extensive repertory are the leading roles in four works—three celebrated classics, and one created just last year—that in very different ways attempt to bring Shakespeare’s characters and dramas to life through movement alone.

Next week, as part of its eight-week season at the Met, ABT presents four performances (June 30 – July 2) of its Shakespeare Celebration program, a double bill of ballets based on A Midsummer Night’s Dream and The Tempest. Both are substantial one acts, condensing their source plays in very different ways. Both are also set to incidental music that major classical composers created for productions of the original dramas. And both, as it happens, will star Stearns. He’ll perform as Oberon in The Dream and Prospero in The Tempest.

The Dream, an acknowledged masterwork by Frederick Ashton, the leading British ballet choreographer of the 20th century, is set to Mendelssohn’s well-known score. It captures the sylvan atmosphere, human folly, and mischievous magic of the Bard’s celebrated comedy with most of the major characters represented. Now 50 years old—but eternally fresh—it was created for The Royal Ballet, but has found a welcome home (and multiple fine interpreters of its challenging roles) at ABT.

The Tempest, meanwhile, was created last year by Alexei Ratmansky, one of the most admired and prolific classical choreographers working today. The music is Jean Sibelius’ expansive 1925 score, composed for a Danish production. Ratmansky, who excels in creating vivid dramatic ballets as well as bracing abstract works, describes the piece as “at once a fragmented narrative as well as a meditation on some of the themes of Shakespeare’s play.”

Stearns worked closely with Ratmansky as the ballet took shape for its premiere last October. (He and Marcelo Gomes alternate as Prospero). Although he had tackled Romeo and other demanding Shakespearean roles, The Tempest was the first for which he was present at the creation. And being asked to portray an older character—one with a very specific backstory, and complex motivations —provided plenty of challenges.

“Some of the steps in Tempest are ones an older man could never do,” says the Long Island native, who joined ABT in 2006. “I definitely had questions about the motivations for some of the steps. I think Ratmansky felt that Prospero was old, but he had this power coursing through him. He tried to show that power through the choreography.” [Read more →]

June 26, 2014   No Comments

How Do Dancers Recreate the Cotton Club?

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards (center) and co-stars

Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards and co-stars

Inside the lives of two After Midnight stars

Welcome to Building Character, our ongoing look at actors and how they create their roles

Since previews began last October, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards has danced and sung her way through almost 250 performances of After Midnight, the Jazz Age revue at Broadway’s Brooks Atkinson Theatre that celebrates the legendary Cotton Club. Whether she’s tap dancing on a set of rotating stairs or belting the apartment-life blues in “Raisin’ the Rent,” she’s channeling the essence of the iconic Harlem nightspot.

But it takes serious work to conjure that spirit. For one thing, Sumbry-Edwards isn’t often asked to deliver the same show eight times a week. “In my line of work, a lot is improvised,” she says. “When I go tap dance [at] places, I very rarely have a set routine. I sometimes don’t even go in for a sound check. ‘I don’t want to see the band. I don’t even want to know what kind of band it is. Let me just go and feel it out.’ But this is not that kind of party.”

Instead, After Midnight, whose seven Tony nominations include a nod for Best Musical, is a consciously sculpted tribute. The setlist zips from classic songs (“Stormy Weather,” “On the Sunny Side of the Street”) to splashy dance numbers to spoken excerpts of Langston Hughes poems, and the onstage band (better known as the Jazz at Lincoln Center All-Stars) serves every riff like polished pros.

That’s not to say the show feels stodgy—quite the opposite, in fact—but it does feel precise. It’s clear we’re watching a crafted event, not a free-form improvisation.

“But it’s wonderful to be able to work this way, too,” Sumbry-Edwards says. “We’ve settled into the characters and the storytelling, and of course the camaraderie that we have with each other is growing.”

Desmond Richardson echoes that idea. Another of the show’s featured dancers, he solos during a seductive ballet set to Duke Ellingston’s “The Mooche,” and when the band performs a ditty called “Peckin’,” he’s part of a fully synchronized quintet. It’s hypnotic to watch the five men move in unison with each other and also in time with the music, and it’s no wonder Richardson’s connection with his fellow performers has grown so intense. “It’s so spontaneous and so real,” he says. “We tend to listen to the band, and they listen to us. It doesn’t matter how tired you are. When they’re up there with you, you can find the energy you need.” [Read more →]

May 29, 2014   1 Comment