By Leslie Gordon
I spend a lot of time following dance. I study it, watch it, read about it and present it at Georgia State University’s Rialto Theater, yet I’ve rarely written about it. But now, offered this opportunity, I am happy to share what I feel are some of the most important and influential dance makers, companies (and even one presenter) that in my opinion are causing ripples far beyond their particular spheres through the choices they make. They are inventive, gutsy, dynamic, surprising, sometimes beautiful, and usually downright brilliant. I have limited my choices to companies that I’ve seen numerous times in multiple venues; they have all been in existence long enough to have received international acclaim. So here is my list of eight companies, one presenter and one choreographer. Hopefully this might pique your interest and encourage you to see their work when you can!
I will begin with my favorite presenter of dance. There are many notable seasonal dance festivals (Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts, Vail Dance Festival in Colorado, American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina) but more important in my opinion are the presenters who showcase dance and only dance year round. Dance programs are a difficult sell –presenting dance is a risk – that’s why I am so thrilled that we have an amazing committed couple who does nothing but take those risks – in Portland, Oregon.
Walter Jaffe and Paul King began their careers as presenters after a move to Portland in 1996, forming a non-profit called White Bird (named after their cockatoo Barney). They have actively showcased some of the most adventurous, risk-taking companies from around the globe. White Bird is the reason many companies even perform in the States. After Paul and Walter see the group abroad, White Bird brings them to the United States and shares the opportunity with other presenters. In the past two decades, White Bird has presented well over 200 dance companies and commissioned 35 new works. Walter and Paul deliver the unexpected. They have guts and tenacity, not to mention great taste.
So now for my “dream” season of dance, dance, dance, and more dance.
First, there is amazing work coming from a tiny country – Israel, whose impact on the international dance scene has been seismic in scope.
At the top of my list is Batsheva Dance Company. Under the leadership of artistic director Ohad Naharin, Batsheva has been shaking things up nationally and internationally for years. A noted choreographer and a former Batsheva dancer himself, Naharin returned home from New York to head the company in 1990. Naharin developed a movement method he named Gaga that evolved over many years of dancing and working with other people. He says that Gaga is “about giving dancers a sense they can go beyond limits [and] work without fears.” Gaga is “…something about the soul - about the connection between your demons and fantasy and action… about making the body listen.” His dancers work without mirrors, usually required in the dance studio because Naharin wants them to look inside of themselves instead of at themselves.
Naharin’s Virus, the piece in the video, features a mix of unusual but precise group unison movements as well as a signature fluidity of dance motion reflective of his Gaga technique.
Next on my “Israel” list is Vertigo Dance Company. Based in an eco-village outside of Jerusalem, Vertigo was formed by husband-and-wife team Noa Wertheim and Adi Sha’al. Although the Batsheva influence may be noticeable (Adi performed with the company), Noa, the choreographer, has a singular voice.
Vertigo 20, shows the athleticism of the dancers along with Noa’s tender and inventive choreography. Sets are often a character in Vertigo performances and this one, constructed of brushed stainless steel is no exception. Observe the confident way the dancers undertake extraordinary steps, leaps and falls, and how they use the set in many ways.
Although there are many Israeli companies I love, I will only mention one more: Barak Marshall Dance Theatre. Think music theater, opera, and fever dream all in one performed by accomplished dancers who talk and sometimes sing. Marshall was born in L.A. but splits his time between Tel Aviv and California. He creates stories that have elements of fairy tales, novels, and plays, all performed in a highly inventive movement style. Marshall’s work is in great demand – many companies perform his pieces, so if you see him mentioned as a choreographer, see it, even if it isn’t his company.
The piece I have chosen is from Monger, a dance play with music about ten servants trapped in the basement of a house. The demanding mistress keeps calling to them over a loudspeaker and they answer her.
Like Marshall, choreographers quite often create their own dance companies. One favorite choreographer of mine who had a company for five years is the man-of-many-talents Trey McIntyre. McIntyre made headlines by headquartering the Trey McIntyre Project in the unexpected but up-and-coming city of Boise, Idaho. In the five years of the dance company’s existence, they impacted their community of Boise and on tour, became ambassadors for the city worldwide. McIntyre is currently making films, but remains in demand as a choreographer. He is as at home with classical ballet as he is with contemporary dance. He will put a dancer in pointe shoes, have her dance to a pop song and make it beautiful. His work is accessible, but more multi-layered than it appears on the surface.
This excerpt is from The Sun Road. The National Park Service commissioned McIntyre to create a work on/in Glacier National Park. McIntyre chose to focus on a road that bisects the park, named Going to the Sun Road. This segment shows the skill of his dancers, his inventive and gutsy choreography, his ability to design a work for film, which he directed and edited.
Next on my list is Urban Bush Women (UBW), a Brooklyn-based troupe founded in 1984 by choreographer Jawolle Willa Jo Zolar. Part of their mission is to bring “the untold and under-told histories and stories of disenfranchised people to light through dance.” UBW consistently focuses on the unique individuality of the dancer, often in defiance of expectations of what a dancer-body looks like or how it should move. The organization DanceUSA once credited Zolar with “liberating the pelvis” – many of her movements are rooted to the earth and she is not afraid of isolating and focusing on parts of the female anatomy that aren’t usually front and center. Batty Moves is one of their signature pieces that focuses on moves that start, end or involve the female rear end.
Unlike the other companies mentioned here, which perform primarily the work of one choreographer, Hubbard Street Dance Chicago is committed to presenting works by a range of top international contemporary choreographers, challenging their terrific dancers with very contemporary work.
Great dancers migrate to Hubbard Street. For one thing, the company, unlike most US troupes, performs year-round. For another, the dancers learn from the most creative choreographers on the planet. Recent programs have included work from Jiri Kylian, Nacho Duato, Ohad Naharin and Alejandro Cerrudo (their resident choreographer who has created 15 works for the company to date).
Shantala Shivalingappa is a master of Kuchipudi, one of India’s classical dance forms, originating in the 10th century in southern India. Shantala is capable of transmitting subtle gestures and even eye movements across the footlights. She performs her traditional dances with live music, essential to Indian classical dance. But Shantala is not at all limited to the classical form. She has paired with contemporary dancers and choreographed very modern pieces herself. She seems to accomplish everything she undertakes with a grace that is hard to describe. She is a most lyrical mover, clearly one with her musicians. The stories told through Kuchipudi, about Krishna, require the dancer to perform numerous characters, and these transformations must be clearly expressed for the audience. Shantala does this beautifully, as seen here in her most recent traditional piece Akasha.
Mark Morris Dance Group is another of my favorites. His choreography is witty and thoughtful at the same time. He, like Zollar of UBW, challenges the traditional ideas of what people expect of dancers. In an early piece he put the traditional male dancewear (tights with nothing else but suspenders) on women and put the men in full upper-body-covering leotards. Of course this meant that the women were topless, and I heard an early Spoleto Festival USA (Charleston) audience member say, on seeing the piece, “What’s the matter? Can’t they afford costumes?” This was in a small theater with maybe 150 seats. A few years later, Morris’s troupe sold out Charleston’s Gaillard Auditorium – several thousand seats. In a couple of years, Morris went from being the risky company presented in the smallest theater at a major festival to a very well-known artist that everyone wants to see in the biggest space.
Of the companies and persons I’m suggesting here, Morris is the one with the longest career. He’s set work on major companies all over the world, been awarded eleven honorary degrees, and won many prestigious awards, including a MacArthur “genius” fellowship. He’s a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and is the subject of three books. Morris is also a conductor and opera director who insists that his dancers be accompanied by live music.
The selection I have chosen here, although only 30 seconds long, gives you a feel for the fun and the innovation in his work and the craft of his company.
Compagnie Hervé Koubi is based in France. Koubi, the founder/choreographer, learned only accidentally from his father that his parents emigrated from Algeria – the family was not French as Koubi had been raised to think. This discovery took him to Algeria. He decided to make dances surrounding this search for identity as well as what he sees as the fraught relationship between his two countries.
In 2010, Koubi chose to audition Algerian street dancers, selected twelve (of the over 100 who showed up to audition) and then moved them to France to work together over a period of almost 3 years. The company developed a movement style based on street dance moves. The result, What the Day Owes to Night feels almost like a watching a tapestry being woven, with lyrical, flowing, sometimes gentle, sometimes forceful acrobatic movements where the dancers fall, rise, jump, move around and over each other, and sometimes as one. There is an almost hypnotic state induced by these astounding men who take and command the stage and perform what at times seems like a type of prayer and at other times, a death and resurrection but always creating a sense of community and even of love.
I'If you are finding consistencies in what I have chosen (unpredictability, innovative music and sound design, extraordinary movement ability), you’re right. That’s what I look for in a company. They surprise me; I hope they surprise you.
Leslie Gordon is director of the Rialto Center for the Arts at Georgia State University. She regularly engages artists from around the globe - not only to perform at the Rialto but also to reach out into the metro Atlanta region for residencies, classes, discussions and other community engagements. Before taking up her position at the Rialto, she worked for the National Black Arts Festival, the Arts Festival of Atlanta, and the Cultural Olympiad of the 1996 Olympic Games. Prior to her time in Atlanta, she headed the City of Savannah’s Office of Cultural Affairs after serving as Artistic Director of the Savannah Theatre Company.