I originally started this blog ten months ago as an Independent Study in my last year of graduate school at Hollins University. While earning my MFA in Dance, the amount of complexing and perplexing information packed into my brain and body is quite overwhelming; a few years will certainly pass before it all stops bubbling and settles in for, hopefully, good. But one thing I know for sure, in this moment, here at my desk in charming Main Hall on the steamy Hollins campus, is… I LOVE WRITING.
Like making dance, scribing about it has become a craft of curiosity; I rarely know what will happen when I sit down at my laptop or step in the studio, even if I have a small seed planted. What started out as a project has turned into a passion, and I must shout out to the incomparable Elizabeth Zimmer for igniting my spark. Creating this blog, curating its content, and navigating through the rocky terrain of being a dancer / maker / director / educator / critic / writer / generally friendly person in the cozy arts community of Charlotte, NC hasn’t been easy, but it has been a labor of love. Through conducting an assortment of dance reviews, previews, and interviews over last near year, I’ve collected a few gems, like…
Durham, NC is the bees knees – for dance and food co-ops.
A well-organized and -executed dance festival is NOT a mythological creature.
It’s hard to summarize the landscape of dance in Charlotte… it’s always shifting. Some days I’m super stoked to be a maker and a mover in the Queen City; other days I’m ready to throw in the towel and start a goat farm somewhere off the grid. But generally, I’m honored to be one cog in the evolving, learning, and growing machine of performing arts under the 704. We’ve gotten a bad rap over the past few years – what with that disgraceful HB2, the Keith Lamont Scott shooting and subsequent riots, and a (thankfully gone) douchebag of a governor and all. But if I can contribute just a little nugget of insight, intellect, and reprieve by making / performing / watching / talking about / writing about dance (especially on the days it’s REAL hard to be a Carolinian, much less an artist in the semi-deep South), that’s enough to keep me in motion.
I certainly plan on continuing this blog beyond this Independent Study, and I hope you continue to read. There will be a brief pause while I present my (yikes!) thesis in a few weeks and consume a lot of bier and brezels next month. In the meantime, do me a solid and keep watching / taking / reading about / thinking about dance as much as you possibly can. Catch CPCC’s Summer Theatre, go see a show at the American Dance Festival, or subscribe to the Dance section of the New York Times. You might just see something you like… or not.
On an uncharacteristically cool May morning, I took the short trip to Winston-Salem to take in part of On Site/In Sight, a three-day dance festival presented by Helen Simoneau Danse. The gathering of local, regional, national, and international dance artists premiered last year and includes movement classes, pop-up, rooftop, and courtyard performances, as well as site-specific works throughout downtown Winston-Salem. On Site/In Sight is collaboratively organized by Blakeney Bullock, Julianne Harper, Jessie Laurita-Spanglet, Caitlyn Swett, and Helen Simoneau, emphasizing a hands-on, low-tech model of presenting dance in new and unusual sites. After catching some videos and stories from HSDanse’s inaugural festival, I was super stoked about the opportunity to attend, play, observe, and write about a snapshot of this innovative and immersive experience.
I attended a movement class led by David Norsworthy, a Toronto-based dance artist, at Paz Studios. According to Norsworthy’s website, he is “interested in asking relevant questions. I work to cultivate situations that allow myself, students, collaborators and audience members to contemplate possibilities.”Given my recent research into the inquisitive work of Deborah Hay, I was immediately intrigued, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that he informed the class right away that he had only a slightly better idea of what was about to happen than we did. Basically, he had no plan. I was in.
Norsworthy’s class was wonderfully playful but not juvenile. We moved, explored, and sweat communally, without feeling hippie-dippie. The curious, mature, and warm energy in the room was palpable, even for me, the only participant not directly involved in the festival. He offered gems of inspiration without being too inspirational, and I hurried after class to jot down some notes before they escaped my brain: Do something you thought you wouldn’t do today. / What is the difference between IMPULSE and IDEA? / Get rid of composition and cleverness (and still be an artist)! Without divulging every detail, Norsworthy’s class was a fitting introduction to the On Site/In Sight experience for me (especially given my current tweaky neck thing) – cerebral, unassuming, and a lot of fun.
After class, the artists made their way on foot to 525@vine, a big and beautiful mixed-use office building located across the street from the charming Bailey Park. Admittedly, I overheard some of the discussion in preparation for the afternoon’s pop-up performance (the second of four in the festival) so had perhaps a slightly spoiled perspective of what was about to happen. Even so, I was strangely curious upon having a seat in the lobby of 525@vine and looking up into airy, five-story structure where Chanelle and Widow, music artists of the interdisciplinary collaboration Paideia, began making rumbling noises from the floor above. (I couldn’t see all their instruments, but they appeared to have a mix of electronic apparatus and meditative singing bowls.) I was in.
The dancers emerged, not as if they couldn’t be seen before, but as dancers, hanging and undulating their arms, heads, and legs from the balconies of the floors above. They made their way down the metal winding stairway in a single file line, but doing nothing the same as each other. Indulgently, the artists slithered (individually and in their collective pathway) to the bottom floor in no less than twelve minutes. They continued writhing on the floor of the lobby (not sexually or creepily, but like deliciously gooey amoebas), which must have looked spectacular from the balconies above. The music and movement momentarily subsided and Norsworthy stood up, taking a moment to thank the audience, venues, and sponsors for making On Site/In Sight happen and to promote the upcoming evening’s performance.
Movement and music resumed, both picking up the pace and energy. The dancers revisited a partnered improvisational task we practiced in class, and I felt special to have an “in” as to what was going on. But my bubble was soon popped, as the artists began inviting spectators to play along, both as movers and conductors, in the context of this particular improv game. Two dancers invited two men (one kind of tubby and the other kind of balding) to participate, and they both enthusiastically obliged. Wearing different blue plaid shirts and obviously on their lunch break, the new movers unabashedly joined the seasoned dancers, along with other men, women, and children. Everyone had fun and nobody felt weird or embarrassed (at least not outwardly) about dancing with strangers or being put on the spot. Certainly there was the occasional passerby who hurriedly shuffled her heels through the crowded lobby, trying hard not to be seen or be seen watching. But overall, the tone of the room (building?) was delightful and welcoming, devoid of the cynicism and oh-those-weirdo-dancers-attitude that too often accompanies public or immersive performance art. I was in, as was everyone else.
The pop-up culminated with the dancers riding two glass elevators up and down, showcasing different actions or tableaus for the giggling and cheering audience. I think most of the cheers were directed at the occasional lay-person who actually needed to change floors, but ended up posing or playing along, enjoying their five seconds of fame. The artists trickled out of the elevators and made their way back to the stairway, retreating to the balcony above and eventually drifting out of sight as the music also dissolved. The spectators applauded and went about their day – back to work, or maybe newly inspired, outside to dance in the cool sun.
According to the On Site/In Sight press release, “At the heart of the festival is an interest in creating many entry points for local community participation. In this way we hope to create a festival that is accessible to everyone, free to all, and which builds a deeper understanding and appreciation for dance as an art form within the Winston-Salem community.” That’s right, all the events (classes, pop-ups, and performances) presented by the festival are FREE to the public, but not at the expense of the artists. Let me repeat that: NOT AT THE EXPENSE OF THE ARTISTS. Through the generous support of Millennium Fund, Wake Forest Innovation Quarter, and Wexford Science + Technology, as well as community partners, On Site/In Sight is proud to say that the majority of funds sponsoring the festival go to the people making it happen: the organizers, artists, tech person, videographer, and photographers. What?!? A FREE, locally organized, community centered festival that PAYS (not just reimburses) its artists, some coming from New York, Mexico, and Canada? On Site/In Sight is not only an inspiring experience for its content, quality, and accessibility, but is a model of professionalism and organization for any festival creator or coordinator, current or aspiring.
As the pop-up wrapped up, my two blue-plaided friends high-fived each other and the tubby one joked, “I guess we were just meant to dance!” The balding one lamented, “Well, back to work.” As they plodded away, Tubby replied (I like to think with stars in his eyes), “What if work WAS performance?” I feel you, Tubs. I feel you.
Yeah, that’s right. I’m writing about a show that I’m in. (OK, technically I was in the UNCC Faculty Show; this time I’m presenting – and previewing – my own work.) But it was bound to happen. Even when one ventures out of the bustling metropolis of Charlotte (kidding) to the smaller, artsier city of Durham (not kidding), the pool of dancers and dance stuff is still relatively small. Also, this show is really freaking great, so… yeah.
Last summer, in Frankfurt, Germany wrapping up my second summer in the MFA Dance Program at Hollins University, I think I was a little homesick and happened to check the NC Dancers Facebook page. I noticed a call for submissions by Tobacco Road Dance Productions and the deadline was in a day or two. Having only planted the seeds of my final thesis work over the preceding weeks, I quickly composed a submission based on a dance I had not even started and just an inkling of a vision (which ended up changing all together in the following weeks). Shortly after returning home, I was surprised and elated to receive an email of acceptance to the showcase, especially since I had very little idea as to what I was doing.
But that’s how TRDP founders and co-directors Stephanie Blackmon Woodbeck and William Commander like it. They don’t want polished pieces that have been tried, tested, and performed out the wazoo; TRDP looks for raw material, or works to rework. Six selected choreographers participate in four choreography workshops from September to March, during which three panelists (this year Jessi Knight, Amy Love Beasley, and Anjanée N. Bell) “offer critical feedback on the work so far, and the entire TRDP community [discusses the] process, results, and the experience of each dance.” Woodbeck and Commander have crafted an inspiring and ingenious way of curating a diverse, yet cohesive professional dance concert. The integrated feedback process ensures a high-caliber show without making it homogenous. The TRDP format “translate(s) into more thoughtful, developed dance makers within our growing Triangle dance community.” I’m honored to be sort of a satellite cog in the Triangle dance network, being the only choreographer not living in the Raleigh / Durham / Greensboro area.
Another great thing TRDP does is hold auditions for choreographers who need bodies, and this year’s open call rendered dancers for two group pieces on the bill. Marsha Thomas’ Over and Next is “a study of life as we, the dancers, see it, feel it, and live it in the moment.” Thomas and I danced together in Queen City Jazz Company years ago, and I was delighted to once again see the fluid, risky, and whimsical physicality of her work. Set to an earthy selection by Michael Wall, this pattern-oriented piece is the largest in the show with nine dancers. Thomas says that Over and Next “waits, holding steadfast to its creation and then quickly flows infinitely towards its own destruction. It pulses by enfolding and unfolding through the entire body and through the dancers’ physical relationship individually and as a whole being.” Whoa.
Jade Poteat’s quintet, I am deliberate, “explores the moment when you can no longer hide your identity, your politics, or yourself.” Created in response to recent personal and political events, Poteat’s work is “about knowing when your identity makes you more or less privileged than those around you, about making safe spaces for folks who are targeted with personal and systematic hate and violence because of their identities.” The deliberate dancers exude sass, strength, and support to music by Jude Casseday and their own recorded voices offering a poem by Mary Oliver. According to Poteat, “It’s about banding together when our lives and livelihoods, rights and freedoms are threatened.” Preach.
Hypnagogiacs, a duet between The Bipeds artistic director Stacy Wolfson and Banjo player Curtis Eller, is not the typical girl-dances-man-plays-music collaboration. Wolfson sings and Eller moves, both with the confidence and craft of seasoned double threats. The haunting duet “deals with the mysterious threshold between sleeping and waking,” and their curious cat-and-mouse relationship creates a “space where phenomena such as lucid dreaming, sleep paralysis and hallucinations are apt to transpire.” Watching it, I don’t want to wake up.
The third annual TRDP concertfeatures two solos, both utilizing text in very different ways. Dana Livermore’s The Ogre’s Wife: for love of features music by Edith Piaf and Judy Garland, but don’t let the cheery connotation fool you. Livermore is wonderfully gross and purposefully unsettling, conjuring an alter-ego who spits at the notion of demure femininity and unconditional happiness. Anna Barker, a mover who I could watch for days, has made a dance about making a dance. Her recorded voice all too familiarly narrates the stream of uncertainties, revelations, and distractions that any choreographer experiences. Both solos are deliciously funny-not-funny.
Oh, and my piece, Moving In, is an exploration of the potentially interconnectedness of dance and meditation. For months I’ve been researching the intriguing and multifaceted relationship of movement & stillness, experience & performance, and sensation & spectacle. Hopefully this quartet version of my thesis work (the final piece will have six dancers) yields an interesting and accurate representation of what has been consuming my life for the better part of a year. Obviously I’m not very good at describing it, so I’ll just leave the cliché but fitting words of Rumi here: “In order to understand the dance one must be still. And in order to truly understand stillness one must dance.”
Tobacco Road Dance Productions: In Concert 2017 is a really freaking great show, and the being a part of the culminating process makes it all the more gratifying. Triangle friends, I hope to see you there (and for drinks!) and Charlotte friends, Durham is just over two hours away. Get out there, check out some amazing dance by some amazing people you may not know, and walk the talk of supporting North Carolina grown art.
Tobacco Road Dance Productions: In Concert Friday, April 14th at 7:00pm | Saturday, April 15th at 2:30 pm & 7:00 pm.
$15 General Admission | $13 Students & Seniors
Durham Arts Council’s PSI Theatre (120 Morris St. Durham, NC 27701)
The title of Charlotte Dance Festival‘s professional concert, Dance Charlotte, is a little misleading, as only one choreographer in each of the two shows presented last Saturday lives in Charlotte. I attended the 8:00pm performance at the Duke Energy Theater and got a taste of some of the dance being made not just in the Queen City, but all around the country. A few pieces were sweet and satisfying; others could have used a palette cleanser.
Dance Charlotte featured three solos, the first by Sarah Todd Emery, a long time Charlotte dancer and director who relocated last year to Atlantic Beach, FL and then Atlanta, GA. Most will remember Emery’s impeccable technique and precision from her work with Moving Poets Charlotte; “The Moment that Is”, presented under her new company name Watershed Dance Theatre, was no exception. Clad in fitted a black top and pants complete with black pointe shoes and paint on one side of her face, Emery moved spritely with her usual cleanliness and direct intention. Two white squares laid in tape on both sides of the stage juxtaposed the darkness of her costume, but complimented her angular dancing. Over the course of the piece she messed up one square and bundled it up, leaving the other one intact, suggesting the power choice or (according to the program notes) “Regret… a decoy of the mind driven by ego.” I certainly don’t regret catching Emery’s homecoming performance and look forward to what her new Hotlanta residence will push her to whip up next.
Marlene Skog, Assistant Professor a the University of Wisconsin-Madison, presented “Passages”, a solo danced by Mary Patterson, also dressed in all black. Her costume and movement were more fluid than Emery’s, but technique not as sharp. Patterson emoted beautifully, and I was refreshed to see a dancer convincingly acknowledge the audience in a concert of contemporary work, where the stoic, deadpan face is all the rage. But watching her hop through double pirouettes and do some okay barrel leaps kept me from fully believing her and joining Skog and Patterson on their passage.
Tamara Williams, the lone 704 resident on the bill, performed an African Diaspora solo to the live percussion and vocal accompaniment of Luciano Xavier. Williams, a new Assistant Professor of Dance at UNC Charlotte, danced “I RUN m.o.l.e.” with light in her steps and flirt in her eyes. Seeing a genuine smile on stage (I know, crazy!) warmed my heart, and Xavier’s music perfectly matched Williams’ energy (as it should. They are married.) I felt a little uneasy watching her exhaust herself, and what appeared to be an unfortunate lighting snafu mentally took me out of the dance for a second. Still, by the coda I wanted to clap and yip her along, but the subdued audience in Spirit Square’s black box theater didn’t feel like the right company. I’m glad Elsie Mufuka disagreed and raised her voice in support of Williams and Xavier’s effervescent performance.
The strongest course of the night was “Gifts for the Void” by caitlin+dancers of New York City. Marion Helfenstein, Jean-Pierre Lemire, and Jenna Purcell effortlessly weaved in and out of, over and under, and through each other in Caitlin Dutton’s lovely work set to the music of contemporary dance favorite Michael Wall. The movers partnered with ease and guts, catching, falling, and tossing in ways only found at the most delicious contact improvisation jams. Separately too, they all danced with equal parts grace and risk, and several times I vocalized under my breath and tilted my head hard to the left, what I do when dance really touches me, or I enviously want to get up and join. Sure, modern-dance-faces abounded, it got a little long, and I have mixed feelings about men in gaucho pants, but even as the lights eventually faded on the still weaving trio (after another weird lighting mishap), I could have easily taken a break and come back for seconds from caitlin+dancers.
The final piece of the night was “Encore” by Daniel Gwirtzman, also of NYC. Selected dancers of varying age, experience, and levels made up this year’s Charlotte Dance Festival Repertory Ensemble and tried valiantly to embody the “high spirits and skill” for which Gwirtzman has been praised (The New Yorker). Perhaps better in theory, or on a group of performers equally trained in technical dance and musical theatre, “Encore” presented the old behind-the-scenes / dancers-warming-up / rehearsal-before-the-show schtick. CDF director and founder Caroline Calouche held a clipboard and yelled notes to the dancers and booth, who all obliged. They pretended to diligently practice and edit sections of a big performance until (oh, no!) time finally ran out and the curtain had to go up. The dancers magically transformed from a hodge podge of warm-ups to a hodge podge of shiny costumes, which would have been more convincing had we not seen the sequins peeking out of their track jackets. They smiled, kicked and turned; they shook jazz hands and did semblances of swing dance; they cheered each other on in a semi-circle as a few took the center to attempt pirouettes, leaps, and sass. The nine dancers’ commendable and at times cute stab at humor, ensemble work, and a worthy finale mostly fell flat and tasteless.
Nonetheless, the crowd enthusiastically applauded at the end, but I can’t help but wonder if the hoots and hollers were more from relief THAT it ended, as much for the audience as the uncomfortable dancers themselves. What was meant to be a refreshing dessert tasted more like that episode of Friends when Rachel makes a trifle and mistakenly puts a layer of ground beef in the middle. What started with a good idea should have been promptly remedied, revised, or scrapped the moment it started looking and feeling not… quite… right.
In all, the 11th annual Dance Charlotte was actually a pretty accurate representation of dance in Charlotte; some sweet, some savory, some sour, but all with heart. The CDF has been pumping along for over a decade, at times stronger than others. I hope that this year’s performance is simply a lull and finer, more consistent, quality in choreography and dancing is yet to return. Better attendance would be nice too. Perhaps if Charlotte’s own dance festival offered more from the widely loved, homegrown variety of movers and makers, the lines to get in (on stage and in house) would once again be out the door.
I feel weird that I am friends with nearly every choreographer or company I have profiled so far on this blog. But what can I say? The dance community of Charlotte is small and my friend pool is large. So I had a lovely and leisurely time talking with Camerin Watson, who I have known for many years as a colleague, co-producer, fellow dance maker, and friend. We met for chai Sunday afternoon and talked about dance and dreams (past and future).
Watson graduated with a BFA from UNC Greensboro in 2007, after which she briefly lived in Washington DC, working at the dance hub Dance Place. Out of love and logistics, she followed her boyfriend (now husband), Sean, to Charlotte in 2009 and, like most dancers in a new city, found challenges connecting to the arts community. She was working a lot and couldn’t find classes that fit with her schedule and movement aesthetic, but ended up taking class with Martha Connerton at Spirit Square (hey, me too!) and was part of her Kinetic Collective. Watson showed the early stages of her solo about racial tensions, wake (v): to become roused from a tranquil or inactive state atFieldworks, an informal platform for dancers to show work and receive feedback. She continued making and presenting work at the Asheville and Greensboro Fringe Festivals, and in Atlanta. Watson also took classes with Justin Tornow at Open Door Studios and eventually took over her classes when Tornow relocated. Like many dancers, she originally had no desire to teach, but dreamt of dancing professionally with an established company (me too, girl). But fortunately, and out of necessity, she discovered her love of choreography and dance pedagogy while living in DC and carried it down South.
Watson formed The Wake Project, a springboard for larger works examining issues of racism and reconciliation. She created a piece about working together and reaching across the aisle, which first performed in a tennis court at Midwood Park and later during the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The soundscore for a piece called Stir consists of interviews with people about when they became aware of race.
The Wake Project later transitioned into TAPROOT, a multidisciplinary collaboration, which Watson co-founded with Brianna Smith and Alexander Windner Lieberman. The ensemble’s most widely performed piece, Ophelos, is an evening-length work fuzing text from Shakespeare’s Hamlet with movement and live music. The show is raw, intriguing, and slightly unsettling (what TAPROOT does best), but even more impressive is that the whole thing is one long structured improv. Utilizing improvisation and spoken word are hallmarks of Watson’s work, along with weaving social or political themes through movement and dialogue, overtly or subliminally. A recent TAPROOT work, Dinnerbell, performed last year at Petra’s in the inaugural BOOM Festival. It’s a funny-not-funny mashup of storytelling, physical theater, live music, and Sunday dinner about Southern stereotypes. I got to sit at one of my favorite bars, laugh a lot, and eat a biscuit – a good show in my book.
Did I mention that Watson was six months pregnant (with her second child) during last year’s BOOM (for which she is the project manager)? Like many female dancers (not me!) family has thrown a beautiful, but challenging curveball into her artistic endeavors. As a wife and mother of two boys, Caelan (2 years) and Ean (6 months), she has learned how to smartly rearrange her creative outlets. She has stepped back from TAPROOT, and is focusing on being a damn good dance educator and festival organizer. While she’s sad about not presenting a full show in BOOM 2017, she’s excited about being an integral part of Charlotte’s own fringe festival. Watson always wanted to create a space for “guerrilla style art and weird things happening,” and now it’s happening for the second year in a row. Again, not a role she thought she would take on, but that’s the cool thing about Charlotte. “You find something you want to make happen, and the potential is there,” – something not so easy in larger, more competitive cities.
She’s not done performing, far from it. In fact, she performed her signature solo, wake, nine times last year. After the Charleston church shooting in 2015, she felt it was time to bring the piece back to life in the context of current events. Watson kept the original self-written text, revised the movement, and set out on a mission to show the work once in honor each victim of the shooting. She performed at the Beatties Ford Road Library, at the Loose Leaves Showcase, with the ASC’s Culture Blocks project, in my front yard for Yard Art Day, and five other venues. After she danced at the Beatties Ford Road Library, a woman wearing a hijab approached Watson, teary faced, unable to speak, and overcome with emotion. Watson remembers, “If no one else heard (my piece), that would have made it worth it.”
Watson is a white woman with red hair and freckles who makes work largely about racism. When I asked her what that’s like, she recalled her mother, who “was always very aware of white privilege” and instilled in Watson a desire to not live in a divided community. She chose not to take all AP classes (which were all white) in her high school (which was mostly black); she joined the cheerleading squad (which was black) instead of the dance team (which was white); at UNCG she was part of a multicultural sorority. All of these choices “helped me see how my experiences were affected by the color of my skin.” She also speculates that being married to a black man and having children who are not white gives her a unique perspective. She doesn’t claim to know what it feels like to be a black mother, but “my fear for my brown children is significant and similar to that of women of color.”
wake is inspired by Watson’s story, about being a white woman in a racially divided world – a potentially touchy subject. But if you’ve ever seen Watson dance, you know she is a risk taker. She doesn’t have the answer to social divisiveness, but knows that starting a conversation is part of it. She’s willing to be wrong, and corrected, and possibly offensive, if it means people will have an uncomfortable or charged dialogue. Her fear of being silent is greater than the consequences of not addressing the issues at all. Watson asserts,“If no risks are taken, we can’t ever really talk about it.”
Watson talks about it (race, sexism, domestic violence, etc.) the best way she knows how – through dance. She claims that she didn’t choose to be a dancer, but it was what she could do, and has somehow turned it into a way to make a living AND a statement. Watson now has a dream of performing wake in all fifty U.S. states, perhaps in the next ten years, or over a lifetime. Having two young boys and dance teacher’s salary make that a lofty goal, but she’s hopeful. She’d also like to see more unity within the arts community of Charlotte, creating more platforms for critical feedback and collaborative work. She’s an advocate for just MORE dance, as “Any dance supports all dance.” Watson is, thankfully, an active and integral part of Charlotte’s dance community as it continues to grow, as she hopes, with less divisiveness and more communal support. Me too, girl… me too.
After much controversy, the Radio City Rockettes did indeed perform in conjunction with the Presidential inauguration. In the weeks leading up to the big day, the the long legged ladies drew much attention, first with news that they were being forced to perform at the inaugural ball, and then a revision was released stating that they would be dancing voluntarily and had the choice to decline if they so wished. In either case, for many of the Rockettes, their hopes for the outcome of this debacle were not nearly as high as their kicks.
Three days before Christmas, while the Rockettes were in the midst of their most popular and demanding show of their season, the Madison Square Garden Company (parent to the Rockettes organization) released, “The Radio City Rockettes are proud to participate in the 58th Presidential Inaugural.” The announcement, however, hit the media before reaching the dancers’ ears or eyes, and many learned of the news through screenshots and text messages from friends and family. Even so, like the pros they are, the Rockettes completed their world-famous Christmas Spectacular string of shows with grace and pizzazz, albeit sometimes with tears in their eyes. In an interview with Marie Claire, one of the few Rockettes who publicly spoke out about the situation explained that they felt they were “being forced to perform for this monster.”Another dancer wrote to the others in an email, “I wouldn’t feel comfortable standing near a man like that in our costumes.”
Most of the controversy revolved around whether the Rockettes were being forced to perform or had a choice. In the end, both were true. Thirteen dancers work year-round and are under contract to perform at all events, aside from vacation days. Eighty dancers are contracted only for the holiday season, and had the option to perform at the inaugural events (technically the Liberty and Freedom Balls, not the actual inauguration). Yet the question of whether the performance was mandatory or voluntary complicated matters further, as many women felt their position, ranking, or level of respect within the company was in danger, one way or the other.
The executive chairman of the Madison Square Garden Company, James L. Dolan, is a long time supporter and friend of President Trump. In a meeting two days after Christmas, Dolan finally sat down with the Rockettes and mansplained, “This is a great national event. Every four years we put in a new president. It’s a huge moment in the country’s history. It usually signifies a whole change in how the government is going to run. The fact that we get to participate in it…we are an American brand, and I think it’s very appropriate that the Rockettes dance in the inaugural and 4th of July and our country’s great historical moments.”
No one in the performing arts needs to be told how hard a lucrative and fulfilling job is to find in the professional field. In an interview with the New York Times, a former Rockette remembers, “You get six months of pay for three months of work, and it is six months’ worth of work in three months because it’s so incredibly intense.” Even for those who live elsewhere in the warmer months, “You have insurance for the year, you have a great paycheck, you do all these fun gigs and side things, and you’re doing the show and dancing on the great stage… It’s amazing.”
Even if being a Rockette is not every dancer’s dream, conditions like that are nothing to guffaw at, which made the decision of to-dance-or-not-to-dance more difficult than one might think. For many young girls and much of mainstream America, the Rockettes are a symbol of strength and success, embodied in a quintessentially female form. To dance at an event kicking off the reign of a man who brags about sexually assaulting women would undermine the image of feminine power that the Rockettes, in their own way, defiantly represent. The new president’s treatment of minorities and immigrants as second class citizens and the fact that his administration is stacked with white supremacists deepened the dilemma even more for the VERY few African-American dancers in the company. Mary (not her real name), the Rockette interviewed by Marie Claire, stated, “This is not a Republican or Democrat issue—this is a women’s rights issue,” she continues. “This is an issue of racism and sexism, something that’s much bigger than politics.”
When asked about the possible damage of affiliating Rockettes with a Donald Trump presidency, Dolan, the executive of the troupe’s managing organization stated, “I don’t believe it’s going to hurt the brand. And nobody is more concerned about that than the guy sitting in this chair. I’m about to spend $50 million remounting this summer show. I’m going to spend a similar amount remounting next year’s Christmas show. I gotta sell tickets.” Certainly his concern lies more in the pockets of the Madison Square Garden Company, the Radio City organization, and yes, in some strange trickle down dynamic, in the financial stability of the individual dancers themselves. But was it worth it?
For one (now former) Rockette, Phoebe Pearl, it was not. When the news broke of the scheduled performance, Pearl wrote in an (initially private, later leaked) Instagram post, “I am speaking for just myself, but please know that after we found out this news, we have been performing with tears in our eyes and heavy hearts.” She publicly continued in an interview, “We are a group of women that is encouraging young girls to be strong, independent women, to fulfill their dreams, to go for it.” Even after the Rockettes and press learned that the performance was not required, Pearl felt she could not idly stand (or kick) by, knowing that her compliance could translate as support for a man whose speech, demeanor, actions, and policies are bolstered by misogyny, racism, and patriarchy. She resigned her position with the Rockettes, an action that has been widely lauded as courageous and admirable in the arts and entertainment community.
But not everyone agrees, as evident in messages to some dancers like, “Just shut up and dance.” Most of the Rockettes’ fan base is white, upper class, Christian, and conservative, so the notion of putting your high heel down at the thought of performing in an event celebrating the beginning of Donald J. Trump’s presidency seems ridiculous. It’s their job! or What are you complaining about? some might say. And true, while the Rockettes might not be the most cutting edge, avant-garde, or politically charged dance ensemble around, they are still DANCERS. They are artists in their own right and damn good at what they do. Some of hardest working women in the entertainment field (at least for three months a year), the Rockettes’ unmatched ability to craft precision and unity, build camaraderie, sustain the test of time in a difficult climate for any arts group, and just bring some freaking joy into the hearts of people all over the world is staggering. Their stamina, as individual dancers, as an ensemble, and as an organization is uncanny, which makes the bravery to step out of line and take a stand for what you believe in even more spectacular.
In the end, eighteen Rockettes took the stage at Washington Convention Center Friday night. After earlier reports that no African-American dancers had volunteered to perform, there was, in fact, one black dancer, shining bright and kicking high with the rest of the group. (The lack of diversity within the Rockettes is always glaringly apparent, but Friday it seemed even sadder and more symbolic.) Needless to say, they looked amazing, smiled and danced with the utmost sparkle and spunk, because that is what Rockettes do. Whether they all, or any of them, were actually enthused to be there, we may never know. The American Guild of Variety Artists, the company’s union said they had, “more Rockettes request to participate than we have slots available,” which, if true, would have somehow nullified the whole controversy. But the impassioned and risky outspokenness of “Mary” and Phoebe Pearl, and the shared outrage of many Rockettes (past and present) makes it hard to believe that all eighteen smiles on stage were truly genuine. Nonetheless, they did a knockout job, and brought at least a glimmer of joy and hope, even in a creepy ironic way, to a day full of darkness and gloom for so, SO, many Americans.
As a faculty member at Charlotte Ballet, I enjoy the perk of getting comp tickets to all of the academy and company shows throughout the season, including The Nutcracker. The Christmas classic got $1 million total makeover this year, promising grand new sets and dazzling costumes. Even so, I gave my tickets to a friend to take her daughter, just as I do every December. The Sugar Plum Fairy, Drosselmeyer, and the rest of the sparkly (albeit blatantly appropriated) candy cane land are just not part of my holiday tradition, and they’ll enjoy it more. However, there is another, slightly less glamorous, wintertime show that I never miss – The Birth by Starving Artist Productions.
Last night I saw The Birth for I belIEVE the sixth year in row. Local actor/director Nathan Rouse conceived, developed, and adapted the writings of of Fredrick Buechner for the stage eleven years ago, and has been producing The Birth at the Duke Energy Theater for most of the last decade (after a few years of performing in homes and churches). The cast consists of two actors (Rouse and James K. Flynn), a handful of musicians, and one dancer, Kate Micham (Rouse’s sister, who has also been part of The Birth since its inception). In full disclosure, Micham is one of my bestest friends and company dancers, and I may have had a hand in choreographing her Birth solos a few years ago, so I’ll try to be as objective as I can (and not feel weird about calling her by her last name).
The Birth is a barebones production. There are no sets, just some chairs on the stage for extra seating or audience members who want to get closer to the action. The whole cast wears simple black shirts and jeans or a dress, and there are no microphones or electric instruments. The intimacy of the Duke Energy Theater perfectly houses the welcoming warmth one immediately feels upon walking into the space, accompanied by the sounds of Jonsi (thanks, Kate). The players and content of the show are what fill the space, and sometimes they they overflow. All three components of The Birth (acting, music, and dancing) are polished, genuine, and unassuming.
I won’t spoil too much, but it’s about the birth of a certain baby boy in a certain manger a long time ago, as told by three different auxiliary characters. Flynn sets the tone as the grandfatherly storyteller and Rouse exquisitely delivers all three monologues. Music and dance weave throughout the tale, one element never overshadowing the other two, but each one shining brightly in its own time. Flynn speaks as if he is old friends with everyone in the room, and Rouse is powerful as he is adaptable (kudos for keeping character while that pesky fire alarm went off, brah). Kate, I mean Micham, moves big in the small space, effortlessly balancing strength and sweetness, per usual. The music, played by Seth Dresser, Chris Pittman, Westley Renner, and Jessica Hahn, is lovely and lingering. All songs are original to The Birth, except one Christmas standard at the end, which still feels contemporary enough to not feel like Contemporary Christian music. My only wish would be to bring back some of the spirited volume of Births past, as the tunes got a little too soft at times. Namely, I missed the vocal prowess of Sarah DeShields, one of the original music writers and performers.
There’s not much more I can tell you about The Birth that you don’t 1) already know or 2) shouldn’t know before going, but I can tell you this… it’s beautiful. I don’t use that word to describe much, as beauty is such a subjective beast. But if this girl – an atheist with Buddhist tendencies, whose ties to Christianity boil down to doodling and giggling with my sister in the pews, attending church retreats for the sole purpose of getting into trouble with my friends, and the reminiscently sweet taste of communion holding me over till lunch. If someone like me giddilylooks forward to The Birth every year, I think you might like it a little. And I don’t go just to support my friend (although that would be reason enough); I delight in the week it rolls around because for any Birth regulars, and certainly the cast, the holiday season has not started until Flynn and Rouse walk out on that blackest of black box stages and hug. I love this show because AND despite the fact that I get a lump in my throat and try to hide my wet eyes like the too-cool-for-school Grinch I am EVERY FUCKING TIME. You don’t have to believe in, know anything about, or love Jesus to enjoy The Birth. You don’t have to go to church, but you should be comfortable sitting in a theater full of nice, decent people who happen to be churchgoers. You don’t have to have faith in ANYTHING, except maybe art and humanity, and I think we could all use a resurrection of that, especially now.
At the talkback after the show, I asked Nathan (’cause we’re friends too) what changed over the last twelve months. In the program notes last year, it sounded like The Birth might not live on past its tenth anniversary, in a tired and swan-songy voice. This year he wrote:
I know we need this. If you’re here, it would seem you did as well, whether you knew it or not. I won’t spoil the mood by openly reflecting on the troubles of 2016, but if Art has any meaning, if Faith is to have any meaning, then they mean something in relation to the world outside our front door. And to the world on the other side of our own little worlds. It all means something. It all matters.
Yes, Nathan, Kate, and all the Starving Artists, past, present, and future. It matters that we make art when times are not just tough, but downright tragic. It matters that we create when the nights are so long and dark we can even imagine the light of tomorrow. It matters that, as Nathan pointed out, you performed on the evening of the Sandy Hook shooting four years ago, and honored the memorial in parking lot of Spirit Square last night. Thank you for the gift of The Birth this and every December, although I know you won’t take full credit for it. Thanks for welcoming me, a cynical and jaded realist, to your beautiful production season after season. Cheers to next year’s show, and getting through whatever lies before.. together.
Until then, you’ve got two more chances to catch The Birth this year:
Friday & Saturday, December 16 & 17 @ 7:00pm
Duke Energy Theater at Spirit Square BUY TICKETS HERE (looks like they’re going fast!)