The following are excerpts from the transcript of the post performance discussion following the November 2, 2013, Counterpointe event at The Actors Fund Arts Center. Moderated by Karole Armitage of Armitage GONE! Dance the discussion featured Lynn Parkerson (Brooklyn Ballet), Julia Gleich (Gleich Dances), Nikki Hefko, Eryn Renee Young (XAOC Contemporary Ballet), Morgan McEwen (MorDance) and Sam Grymont (Arch Contemporary Ballet). Ms. Armitage was introduced by co-producers/choreographers Julia K Gleich and Lynn Parkerson and the transcript begins with Ms. Armitage giving a short background on her own journey as a choreographer. The conversation then opens up to all the choreographers.
ARMITAGE: In the mid 70s downtown dance was all about No: no to shoes; no to costumes; no to music; no to virtuosity; no to emotion; no – you know, it was this manifesto that Yvonne Rainier created which was all about bringing dance to a sort of liberated point where it could communicate directly with an audience. It didn’t need music, didn’t need story, didn’t need costume. It could just communicate anything you wanted through its own pure form. Well, I figured at that point dance had gained its liberation; we could put music back, we can put psychology back, we can put costume back, and we can really make it an art form that communicated a broader spectrum of a vision of what life looked like today. So, I was compelled, as I say, to experiment with choreography, once again to be more a part of my own times. And so I left [Merce] tCunningham, became a choreographer and there have been many facets to that (laughs).
I started basically doing what I call drastic-classicism… there was the ballet influence I had from my long ballet training and then performing with Balanchine and Patricia Neary in the Geneva Ballet but it was Cunningham influenced intellectually, with my added vision of a visceral, raw, rock-and-roll energy, and off-balance, kind of street influence which wasn’t done in dance then. And that led to being invited to tour a lot in Europe which led to being invited to the Paris Opera Ballet. Once again, I was immersed in this extraordinary world of, the most, kind of, refined pure ballet, 400 year-old institution. And I kind of fell in love with Ballet again, and started using it more and more, and really getting back into shape in a ballet way and starting to dance, myself, on pointe again. And actually, the first piece that I did was called the Watteau Duets, and it was kind of the idea of a love affair that went from interest to romance to eroticism to…kind of dis-functionality (laughs). And each piece had a different kind of footwear, from high-heels to pointe shoes to bare feet to boots to cowboy boots. I mean it really had everything. So I guess I would say I think of pointe shoes in many different ways, but one way is really as a tool. You can just do different things with the pointe shoe on than with bare feet, or with a different kind of shoe. Your balance is different, the rhythm is different, the amount of spinning you can do. So part of what’s wonderful about it is simply that it gives you…you know its pure physics, dance, and you just use physics in a different way. I also like them because they are very erotic; the exaggerated line. I think the interest of that artificiality, and yet something that is this pure human, raw, body that we all have. And we all know how to read body language. That’s what we do as people, we look at each other and we understand if people are sad or happy, or aggressive. We read body language all the time, so movement is something that’s very natural for us to read. And then when you add this artificial thing, I mean, there’s just an interesting contradiction that I think is a provocative image that is interesting to use. I remember one of my first ideas in these early punk pointe pieces was to think of pointe shoes as weapons. Anyway, I don’t know, I’m just talking on and on, maybe we can..
GLEICH: Shall I bring out the choreographers?
GLEICH: So we’ll start with the first piece of the program of the evening, which is Nikki Hefko. Next on the program was Sheena Annalise, but she was unable to be here tonight so one of her dancers, Sam Greymont will be filling in. Then we have Morgan McEwen, who choreographed Drum Toll. And I am Julia Gleich and I choreographed the piece that followed the intermission. And Lynn Parkerson, who choreographed the Snow Pas de Deux. And last but not least, Eryn Renee Young who choreographed the last piece. So I guess at this point, I don’t know, Karole do you want to talk to us and share expertise, or ask us questions about the pieces you saw? Maybe that will provoke some discussion…
ARMITAGE: Well, I will make a few comments and then it would be interesting to hear everyone’s thoughts about what they were doing. I have to say that one thing I love is when I look at a piece and I don’t know what someone was thinking. I love that mystery, and the discovery of something that is, you know… when I’m not quite sure exactly what the process was.
But I thought the range here was just so wonderful to see, in a way this very pure piece to this beautiful piece of Bartok that was just a joyful evocation of the feeling of that music and, you know, it was just a delight to see. And I think it was the next piece that had this amazing women climbing each other on pointe, I mean its like, you know, so fabulous that someone did that. It’s just truly incredible. And the skirt in front of the face of the dancer…you know, just seeing the turn-out and the foot work, and the head being hidden, was just such an extraordinary image. And of course you had the dancer who could do it. Which it does need – someone with incredible skill and refinement. And your piece (to Julia) with the radical idea of using space as a field in such a profound way is key to a contemporary sensibility. I feel like that is something choreographers need to think about a lot, and more than they do. If you are telling a story, you do have to make sure that the focus goes where you need it. And by story I mean really, a kind of linear story. A psychological or emotional story can be told without the need to tell the audience where to look. What’s so wonderful about dance is that it is so much an interactive experience; that your imagination joins with the audience. And it is in that dialogue that one can contemplate and feel and see one’s self, one’s experiences, or a portrait of society today, I mean, that’s what’s so wonderful about it.
So anyway, I’m digressing again. For me, again, seeing that kind of partnering (I’m really thinking about) in Snow, and how you can use that in turning the dial in new ways is fascinating. And then you were just rocking it out which of course I obviously adore. And the kind of counterpointe that you were using as well as the odd ball, asymmetrical gestures, I mean, to me this is where dance is at now. If you just see everybody doing constant unison, you know, we know that and it doesn’t make much of an effect. And I think it is important that the arts reflect the world we live in. You can do that in so many different ways, and I think all the pieces did that, which was why it was such an exciting evening. So, I don’t know, I would just be curious to hear maybe what each of you were thinking about, and what you think the pointe shoe does that is interesting. And then I had one other thing I wanted to ask each person, but lets, go with those two for now.
HEFKO: I’m Nikki Hefko. So, I’ll start with the point shoe. I loved pointe shoes like every little girl that takes ballet…”I can’t wait to get my pointe shoes!” Then you get them and you put them on, and it’s like “oh crap, they hurt. Nobody told me this.” But despite that, the love affair with pointe work stayed. And it’s sort of a deciding factor for certain kids, I think. You know, that’s when you draw the line. You have the kids who stick it out – even though it hurts – and then you have the people who stay with it because they love it. I love pointe work because they are pretty – it’s sort of like high fashion. I think of it as like Coco Chanel for Ballet, or Christian Louboutin. You know, you’re up there, and it’s so great. When you just pointe the foot the line of it looks so fabulous. And so that’s why I like to work in pointe. I never stopped loving it. With this piece it started with the music. I listened to the music and I loved it and I was like, “oh, this is really great I can just see people dancing around, you know, having a good time with each other.” And we started and I was like, why did I pick this music?…It’s so crazy because it’s really difficult to count sometimes.
ARMITAGE: Yeah, I have my Bartok experience too! Its very very challenging music, because its structure is so eccentric.
HEFKO: It is! It slows down when you least expect it, and then it speeds up and so, I tried my best and the dancers were really great and we had a lot of fun with it. And so that was basically it, I guess I can’t really explain what its about, I love the music.
ARMITAGE: Well, I think that’s another point that’s important, actually, that dance can just be the beauty of watching bodies move just like we like to watch a bird fly, or an animal in nature, I mean it is an act of nature, the pure pleasure of it. That’s enough meaning. Lets enjoy life and have pleasure!
HEFKO: Yeah that was it.
GREYMONT: Hi I’m Sam Greymont, I am speaking on behalf of Sheena [Annalise] tonight. I know that we definitely started our process with the idea of the color white. And we were kind of discussing all the different, I guess, ideas that go along with the color white. We were thinking about the vacancy, its infinite nature, as well as boundaries and a springy, playful kind of idea. So we started working with that, and also started connecting with each other on a level where we were all women and we were lifting each other, and we were on the pointe shoe, so that difficulty definitely came into play. And I think that because of the difficulty it made the work so much more guarded and, yeah, put up some boundaries for us. And from there we had a composer come in, and made a piece of music, set, to what we had. Which was kind of a work in progress at this point. And then going forward, working with the music definitely changed the structure, and the way that we executed the piece once we had that music set in place. So it was interesting to see the shift from where we were before the composer came in to where we ended up, which was really rewarding. And definitely the pointe shoe to me would be, as you were saying earlier, a tool. Because there were a lot of things that we would not have been able to do.
ARMITAGE: Good, let’s pass the mic down.
MCEWEN: Um, I enjoy choreographing on pointe because I think that there’s a finesse and a refinement that comes from working in the pointe shoe that you don’t get when you’re, say, in ballet slippers, or socks, or other types of shoes. And I think there is something so beautiful about the pointe from being flat, to going up, to actually being on pointe. So often people think of pointe shoes as you’re up or you’re down, and I think the most beautiful part of watching people on pointe is that actual articulation up to pointe and I look at dancers and a dancer who does that well dances differently than everyone else. There is definitely a bar that sets a dancer on a higher level than another dancer by that refinement of rolling through the shoe.
ARMITAGE: It’s very difficult.
MCEWEN: It’s why we have big calves. Um, so that’s a huge part of why I love choreographing on pointe. And then – with the inspiration behind my piece – back in May, after my company’s premiere, I was really interested in working with percussion music. I feel like there is such a grounded weightedness in especially hand drums. And point shoes, I feel like, are completely different. There is not really that weighted earthiness when you think about the point shoe. So I liked the idea of the juxtaposition between being on pointe and feeling the hand-drums and being grounded and having a more modern sense within the ballet. That was kind of my impetus behind creating this piece. And I know that the big thing that everyone was commenting on last night was Iza [Szylinska] when she starts and has her skirt up, I love that your main focus was just her legs and her feet; it takes away from the distraction that sometimes your upper body brings to dancing and to being on pointe. I think a lot of times people are drawn to looking at dancers from the waist up and when you can’t see her face you’re forced to just look at her legs. That was kind of my thought process about that.
ARMITAGE: It’s interesting, this issue that everyone is bringing up: Beauty. And of course beauty is pretty taboo in the 20th century as an idea, or was even earlier discounted, because philosophers talked about how this idealized way of thinking about the world has been discredited. Yet its such a part, I think, of dance. And I am also incredibly drawn to pointe shoes and to ballet because it is beautiful. But what I also think is interesting is that we are in some way re-defining the idea of beauty as not this sweet, sacred, idealized thing, but, you know – you were talking about percussion because its got something rougher. That grittier side. And so it is, I think, one of the things that is interesting tonight is: what is this new kind of contemporary beauty? It was definitely one of the themes I was feeling.
GLEICH: Ok, well, The Solitude was begun last summer. Norte Maar collaborated with Socrates Sculpture Park to present a 4 week-long residencies at Socrates Sculpture Park outdoors. We were surrounded by trees, the East River, wind, sun, rain, and there was this kind of experience of just… when people stood on the stage there was a different energy. They stood differently. In the theatre somehow the energy changes, it closes off. Outdoors they were present but not performing, not holding themselves. Because there was so much, I guess, environment around them. So I made this piece with Malcolm – he had composed a piece called Solitude, though he improvised some of the work. But it was an interesting challenge to bring it then into the theatre and try to find that outdoors environment again. I’m not sure we ever really did. But I think if I had to say if I am obsessed with anything it would be about seeing the dancer, I really want to see the person. Then I say, ok, we want Neutral – no,no!…because neutral is another imposition. So I am looking for the individual within the dance movement. And then, yes, I am obsessed with space. I have these issues, like rules, about where people can go, and I’m trapped in the rules and I have to figure out how to get out of them. And that related to The Solitude, not sadness, just each dancer is a person, an individual with their own inner life.
PARKERSON: Yeah, I mean, I am just at the very beginning of a scene, a snow scene. Brooklyn Ballet is at a moment where it is time to do a Nutcracker. It’s like every ballet company has to do their Nutcracker, and there are some exciting venues starting to percolate in Brooklyn and I think I want to make a Brooklyn Nutcracker – the Brooklyn Nutcracker. So I’ve done some different segments of it that really draw from a lot of people in our community – the different dance forms and genres. But the Snow scene is actually a little bit of a pure kind of scene for me… the music and all… and I wanted to take it away from the nobility, and put it into the ecstasy of it. The nature and ecstasy and abandon. And then tomorrow I have twelve snowflakes from the school coming to join. (General Laughter) Yeah, so there’s lots of little snowflakes coming to join so the scene – this is just sort of the first couple of beats, you know, and I will build from there the scene, so it’s a little bit different. Maybe a piece that explores something else, but I enjoy being part of it.
Pointe shoes!…..pointe shoes. You guys have said great stuff, you know. You can do lots of turns, you can do 29 finger turns instead of, you know, one. So hey…. put them on.
YOUNG: Um, I had a couple different ways that I approached my piece. The first was straight musicality. Its very complicated drumming music, and drums are very rarely used in Ballet. I really wanted to explore rhythms and counter-rhythms. Which didn’t have as much to do with pointe work. But I also, when I made this piece, was thinking a lot about when I started my company – its called XAOC Contemporary Ballet – XAOC comes from the ancient Greek word for chaos but it means explosive creation, and I really wanted to use that to really represent the dancers that I had — have. They are really, really powerful, strong, vivacious women and men that really have a lot to bring to a performance and I really wanted to showcase those strengths and show how they can represent the musicality. I use point work exclusively, but specifically in this piece I feel that they can reach extremes that can’t be achieved in a flat shoe or barefoot or a different shoe. For example a jump, or a big arabesque is bigger on pointe because you are higher on your foot. Or small footwork is more precise because you can use the end of your shoe instead of rolling down onto your toes.
ARMITAGE: So with the partnering, your off-balance positions are more extreme, which you used, of course.
YOUNG: So I really wanted to use that in my exploration for this specific piece.
ARMITAGE: Are you Greek? Greek background?
ARMITAGE: Just Greek name, huh? Ok…curious. (In response to Julia) Please, please say something.
GLEICH: I have a problem with…I, I don’t really know why I use pointe work, to be honest. People ask this all the time and I think, well, I have work that isn’t on pointe but I somehow keep being drawn back to the pointe-work. Maybe – as we were talking, and listening to you all saying interesting things – I’m thinking, maybe it is that juxtaposition between the person and the pointe shoe, which is a sort of artifice. Like it has to extend an idea. And yet I am still trying to find the real person within that. I agree with everything everybody said so it’s kind of hard to isolate one particular reason. Yeah, yeah, I put stuff on pointe, or off pointe, yeah.
ARMITAGE: Well I feel very fluid about it too. You know, to me they are both equally interesting – on pointe or off pointe. That’s why partly it’s a tool…I think the artificiality of it, and then the individuality, is a big factor in why I like it also. I like these kinds of contradictions, and how that makes you look different. And also, people have an image of what pointe is, and so you can really use that and go against it and reveal other kinds of content, because of people’s expectations, which I think is another interesting reason for using it. What about men on pointe? I was going to say, I had one interesting experience with that. When I made a ballet in Berlin, and there was one guy who could really dance on pointe, he took class everyday in pointe shoes. And he did pointe work as well as the women. That’s the only person I’ve ever seen like that. I mean, he could go through the foot in that incredibly refined way. And he had feet that could point beautifully so it actually didn’t look like a mistake, you know. It extended his line, it didn’t get chopped by it. Which often happens just because men’s feet aren’t as often as flexible. So what was interesting is suddenly you had this, you know, men….we’re not supposed to say this, but I just think there is a biological difference between Men and Women, and Men tend to be stronger. You know, it’s just how it is. So here was this guy, who could dance on pointe, and he really could do, for example, ten turns – you know, pirouettes – or other kinds of things. So it was a way of expanding, actually, the potential of what the body could do in a new way. So it was really pretty interesting. Just because his strength allowed him to do these different kinds of things. Just a little odd-ball fact in my life.
PARKERSON: Yeah we get that question sometimes. In fact, the audience has asked that before, and before we finish we would like to know if you had any questions, comments. Or anything you’d like to share with us.
AUDIENCE MEMBER: I would like to hear about the challenges you face as a woman choreographer in sort of a male-dominated, um, choreographic world. A lot of men are contracted and presented more often than women. And I’m just wondering about how that feels. The challenges – simple challenges, complex challenges, facing a woman choreographer.
PARKERSON: That’s why I started a Ballet Company.
ARMITAGE: Well, it’s a pretty depressing reality. I think, strangely enough, the dance world is so – I guess the word is sexist. You know it used to be that one of the careers you could aspire to, as a woman, was being a dancer, glamorous and independent, or a teacher. And now it seems it has stayed frozen in time in this very disturbing way. I mean, you know, or maybe it’s just a cliché. You get a lot less money in grants, you get a lot less money in every single conceivable way. You know, with the whole system of boards, you know, men like giving to men, they don’t really like giving it to women. Because it’s kind of like this business relationship, like you don’t quite fit in. And I don’t think about it very much, because it’s really very depressing. And absolutely true that – how many women are leaders of companies?…Incredibly few. How many women are presented, again, at the big institutions, because they have the responsibility of leadership, and when they present women, or innovative work or whatever, it’s symbolic and it means something. And they don’t do it. They do not hire women and they don’t do innovative work. And why does the U.S., which used to have the most exciting dance culture in the world, why is it become so mediocre? Well, its because the leadership has been incredibly poor. On all of these fronts.
PARKERSON: Does anyone have anything to add, or anyone disagree?
MCEWEN: I definitely think that maybe there haven’t been as many female choreographers out there, and I know I joined a ballet company when I was 18, and I was in the corps, I was taught to blend in, not to stand out. Because you’re a corps dancer, and guys don’t really experience being in the corps, I think there’s more room for them to express themselves, to be individuals. And I think, as a female dancer, we’re taught to always blend in and as a choreographer, that’s not going to promote yourself if you’re constantly blending in and doing what everyone else is. I think as a choreographer you have to push the envelope, you have to be innovative. And so often young females join ballet companies or are in companies, and are dancing with groups of other women, and we’re supposed to blend in. So, to me, that’s why I feel that women have not made as much progress in choreography, in running ballet companies because we – since I was a little girl I was taught to dance just like the girl next to me. And that is not going to make me be a better, stronger artist.
GLEICH: Connected with that, at the English National Ballet (I think), they were talking about how the men have fewer demands on them in terms of their time. They are not cast in as many parts, they are not rehearsing as much. So they tend to have a little bit more time to actually be pulled out to make work, or to experiment, and so they are supported in that, and nurtured in a way that the women are not, because the women are on call all the time. Probably so often because the women are in a corps de ballet. And if you are in Swan Lake corps de ballet then you spend a lot of time rehearsing that, but what are the guys doing through the Swan Lake corps rehearsal? I mean, they don’t have as much to do, so they might be choreographing.
ARMITAGE: Questions? Comments?
AUDIENCE MEMBER: Where’s your next season Karole?
ARMITAGE: Well, it’s been ten years of extreme discipline and, kind of living in a tunnel. You know, when I came back to the U.S. – 2003 starting and 2004 really got going – so I decided to give myself a few months of a sabbatical. So I am now in a great mood, am going to renew and think about all these kinds of issues. First of all, where is culture going?…I think we would all acknowledge: we are in a very transitional moment culturally. Business is changing how it operates, the performing arts…it’s harder and harder to get audiences to actually go to a theatre at a certain time, people are living on their devices. There’s just a lot of really big questions to ask and to reflect upon. And the economy, though it’s clear that the very wealthy are doing extremely well, now they just decide to hold onto all the money – they don’t want to give any of it away anymore is what I’m seeing. And there’s just, you know, it’s hard to know what the form for dance is that can actually nurture ideas and dancers. Because to have a dignified life, you should be paid a living wage, and you should dance all day because that’s what it takes to do it, and no one seems to want to pay for that. And I think it’s unethical. I don’t know, I’m just very disturbed by all these things, so I’m just taking some time to hibernate.
PARKERSON: And I think it’s really important to do that, as a woman. And I want to thank Karole for being with us and for being so articulate, and just giving us everything she has and what she’s learned over the years. We’re just really glad you’re here. And, you know, it’s hard, but the Actor’s Fund Arts Center is a great new space that, for a small amount of money people can at least get to those first experiments and start –
ARMITAGE: As I said, to me this was a very, very inspiring evening it gave me the feeling like I want to get back in there, I want to go work. So, you know, this was a wonderful evening and, as I say, it did me personally a lot of good.
PARKERSON: Great, Great. So thank you all for coming.