Sunday, October 19, 2008


If there were ever a moment when the word "team" takes on a special meaning, it's been the one that has spread out over the past 48 hours. There was no time to make the concert at Terrace a success.

But it was.

That's because of Julie Dobo, our lighting designer and technical director, who engineered a miracle. It's because of Christopher Morgan, who has day-in-and-day-out run the studio in a way that perfectly positioned the company to be at their best -- not just in dancing, but in the psychological space that is every bit as important as technical skill. It's because of Tish Hays, who every day handles all the details that no one ever sees and ever knows about, but without those details being handled everything falls apart. It's about the 10 people who danced, and our three guests, actor James Denvil and John and Andrew, who played beautifully tonight. It's about Marija, Kristina and Kyle, who created exceptional costumes. It's about Rebecca, who in her first gig with us as our production manager kept everything on the rails.

I could, and should, go on, because, in the end, it's about everyone associated with CityDance. It takes a team and that team has to be at it's best through and through. It is, and this weekend it was.

It's a remarkable thing to have your expectations exceeded day after day. And that's what's happening. A great moment.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

NEXT stop: Terrace

CityDance at the Kennedy Center.
Saturday, October 18th at 7:30
Terrace Theater.

The last rehearsal is done. The choreographers changes complete (barring the chaos of the "five minutes before curtain" change that so often creeps into dance). The show is tight and ready and in the top 2 or 3 the company has ever staged. Friday is a day of madness getting into the Kennedy Center in far too little time for far too much money. As great as it is having one of the world's most famous venues in your hometown, they don't make it easy for anyone to present there. But we've built the show to be technically simple (which is the only way it's remotely affordable) but highly sophisticated in the dancing we're doing.

It really bears considering that one of the main reasons there is not more dance in the great venues in Washington -- a city replete with them -- is that the costs of
getting into them is just this side of completely impossible. That's a mistake, and it's something a place like the Kennedy Center needs to consider as it asks what kind of venue, and what kind of support, it wants to be and provide.

Selling out guarantees only a smaller loss at the box office.

Regardless, the show will be something to remember. The company has never looked better, danced better or worked better together. The credit for that lies with each of them and with Christopher Morgan, the rehearsal director and glue behind it all. Gonna be a blast come Saturday.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008


By Paul Gordon Emerson

I write often in this column about the need to think outside the box. Mostly that's about art, but sometimes it's about things which, on the surface, have nothing at all to do with art. Most of the time, those are actually the most important places to think. Staying inside "what's comfortable" is exceptionally limiting, particularly when that comfort zone is pretty darned small (which it is by definition when your comfort is contemporary dance).

The same thing holds true in business. The traditional ways, the comfortable ways, have led us to some of the most damaging practices in our treatment of the environment. Changing how we do that is of paramount importance. It's also hard, hard, hard. So when the Washington Business Journal, a bellweather publication in the private sector, decided to create an award celebrating Green Business practices I had two thoughts: 1) it's a great way to motivate good work in the business community; 2) I wanted in.

Thanks to great nominations from our good friend Lee Poston at the World Wildlife Fund and K. Williams at the Harman Center, CityDance was named a finalist in the First Annual Green Business Awards. Our category was education. The list of businesses nominated as finalists reads like a who's who in DC business. Akridge, Pepco, WC Smith Group and many others. We were the only arts organization even nominated. Tonight, CityDance came home with the plaque naming us a winner. That's an exceptional honor, and also remarkable to be in such distinguished company with these great businesses. It's a testament to the WBJ that they took us seriously, and also that they reached out to recognize the impact art can have on awareness and education in how we change the way we live on this planet.

This Friday the WBJ is publishing a Special Edition on Green. We'll be right there in it.

There are two reasons: a great staff of people dedicated to the issue (Betsy, Asanga, Tish and Dina in particular) and having a belief that we belonged with that group of A list businesses.
The next steps are to build on the partnerships made possible at the reception, and to team up with forward-thinking businesses to raise our impact, our opportunities and the synergy which should exist between art and business. It's a remarkable honor.

Monday, October 13, 2008


By Paul Gordon Emerson

The October edition of Washingtonian Magazine was a giant shout-out to the arts.

Among the features was one called "Showstoppers -- 20 artists not-to-miss." CityDance's Jason Ignacio was named one of those 20, an exceptional honor for him and for us. We're very proud of Agent I, as we call him, and heading into our season debut this Saturday, October 18th at 7:30pm at the Kennedy Center we thought we'd share his video profile with you.


Saturday, October 11, 2008


By Paul Gordon Emerson

Doors and windows. As in opened and closed. The old saw "when God closes a door he opens a window." Religious allusions aside, I've always seen that metaphor by noting that walking out of a door usually lands you on a threshold. Stepping outside a window....

This probably has something to do with growing up on the 11th floor of a Manhattan high rise. The flip side of course is you can see a lot further looking through the window than the door.

For whatever reason this is basically what went through my head when I picked up a message about two weeks ago from the Director of Education of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra. It was hard to tell if she had been thrown through the door or out the window, but it wasn't pretty. But the call for help opened a window to a chance to dance with one of the great orchestras in the world. Two new dances, both for a kids program, to the music of Tchaikovsky and Ravel. Not much money, but enough. Not much time, but....but...but...enough?

The trick to making dances for kids is that you can't be afraid of them. And that, in turn, means being willing to let them laugh. It also means romance and beauty. Or, as Liz put it the other day, Disney by Numbers. That might sound cynical, but it's not. We love Disney films for a reason. How many of us are to this day traumatized by Bambi's mother being shot off camera, or the forest fire? We see things through 5, 6 and 7 year old eyes with such wonder.

It's far too easy to get complicated when you make dances "for adults." I still don't know what that's about, though I fall prey to it just as much as the next person. But when it's about kids you get to strip that away and remember that honesty, leavened with a bit of slapstick, is what you need.

Welcome to "Beauty, the Beast...and the three ducks." Take Jerome as the handsome prince, Liz as Beauty, put them in elegant and classic costumes. Add in Kate, Maggie and Daniel, and put them in....well...yellow unitards with orange feathers and big butts. Any guess what it means to ask professional dancers who spend years training to be graceful to go out on stage in front of a world class orchestra and a couple thousand kids looking like a cartoon? Yeah.

But they nailed it. There's really nothing like the sound of laughter from little people. It powers a room even if you turn off the lights. Jerome walked out and there was a collective sigh from the girls. Liz entered and there was more. The ducks came out, and Daniel bounded onto the stage and crashed to the floor and there was....laughter; which went on until he left the stage 5 minutes later.

It's what you live for. Something you can hear for days. Through an open window and a closed door.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

WAR: Entry Three

In the last of CityDance's video series on Austin McCormick's War, Ludovic Jolivet talks with Mr. McCormick about his motivations in making the dance, and on the questions that he hopes it may raise.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

WAR: Entry Two

Videographer/choreographer/documentarian Ludovic Jolivet's behind the scenes look at CityDance's choreographers for Next continues with his second entry for War by Austin McCormick, who is joined here by his colleague Yeva Glover.

Monday, October 6, 2008

A talk with Christopher K. Morgan

CityDance Rehearsal Director and Choreographer in Residence Christopher K. Morgan sat down with Ludovic Jolivet and talked about art, choreography and the path to DC. Mr. Morgan is staging his Ties That Bind for CityDance's season opening concert Next on Saturday, October 18 at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Showtime is 7:30. Tickets are available on the Kennedy Center website (

WAR: An Introduction

As CityDance heads towards it's 2008-2009 season opening concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (Saturday, October 18 at 7:30pm in the Terrace Theater) we're posting video documentaries with our choreographers. We start with Austin McCormick, whose work War has it's Washington premiere with us at the Terrace Theater.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Mass Transit

By Paul Gordon Emerson

So, buses.

Scarce marketing dollars. Getting the word out. Market differentiation. Visibility.

The conventional marketing wisdom is that, for dance and dance concerts you advertise in the Washington Post on the weekends or, if you really muster the monetary muscle, on an extended four or five day run.

The premise is simple: buy ads in a place where people are already predisposed to buying in the general area (or market segment) of what you are selling. Makes sense. Except that ads in the Post are madly expensive, and dance, even when you are as successful as CityDance is, has a very limited concert run, and that means limited ticket revenue to compensate for the costs of those ads. By definition, you lose money on major advertising. But you have to do something, right?

Yes, but what?

That depends on your outcomes. Yes, if you want to hold concerts you want an audience at those concerts. To get that audience you have to make sure people, you know, know, you're having a concert. But they also have to care that you're having a concert. Teeny tiny ads in the Washington Post don't do that just 'cause they're there in print. People have to know who you are, think what you are doing is cool, or interesting, or at least worth a look. And in dance the core beginning to that level of interest lies in visuals. That's what the art form is: visual. An ad in the Washington Post that's large enough to have a real photograph at a significant size in it can cost as much as the concert does to produce. That's not simply impractical, it's impossible.

One of the great problems with dance in DC is it's inability to think outside the norm, the box. We try too hard to fit inside the conventions of what we think works. We don't get on television because we don't think we can. We don't do radio because we don't think we can. But those reasons are exactly why we have to. Find the unexpected way to get noticed, because that, in and of itself, can generate interest.

So, buses.

If you want a very large place to put photographs -- really large photographs -- you need something equally large. Those are hard to come by. And if you want something that people are looking for, well, buses are something a lot of people look for -- or look out for.

In and of itself that's not enough unless you can buy a whole lot of buses. We couldn't. But thanks to a donor we could buy some. Five to be exact. You need to build the buzz around those buses if they're going to have more value than a random drive-by.

So today we're launching our collateral campaign. "Have you seen the bus?" We're all camera phone obsessed these days. We can take a picture anywhere at a moments notice. So anyone who sees the bus, and gets a photo of it, gets that shot on the CityDance website and gets a chance to win two tickets to our January show, Entangled. It's about building buzz overall, buzz for the upcoming show at The Kennedy Center but, more important, building brand that carries over. Everyone is out in September and October when the weather is warm. No one is out in January when it's cold. So the decision to put the buses on the street in September and October had to carry-over to the key concert to promote -- January.

So, between now and the end of October keep an eye out on Wisconsin Avenue for the CityDance bus. Grab a shot, or send in a sighting to, and get a shot at tickets to a show.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Arts on Foot

by Paul Gordon Emerson

Street festivals -- a mixed bag to be sure, but when they work they're a complete blast. Arts on Foot, September 13th, 2008 was a blast. As we did last year the company performed. But this year we were outside on the street, on a raised stage at the end of 6th and F streets, NW. It was a ton of fun for us, and, also as we did last year, after we danced the first show we jumped out to do some shooting on the street.

Monday, September 1, 2008


By Paul Gordon Emerson

Han is a Korean word for which there is no literal translation. It means, roughly, "a state of sorrow so deep there are no tears, yet there is still hope." It's a word I didn't know when the dance company traveled to Sarajevo, the Capital of Bosnia & Herzegovina, to perform in the summer of 2006. I found it only after we had come back, and for me it defined the city I had long been in love with without ever entering. 

Sarajevo was a symbol of the ability of people to get along, to cooperate, to find common ground, common purpose and love across religion and ethnic diversity for 800 years. While it seems a long time ago now, all that was strained to, and beyond, breaking during the wars which consumed Yugoslavia as it disintegrated in the early and mid 1990s. Sarajevo, as the capital of the republic with the greatest ethnic diversity, and with by far the largest muslim population of the core republics which made up Yugoslavia, became the nexus of a series of power struggles over independence and control. For those within it that war was not simply a war to prevent an occupying power from taking over. It was a war which ripped apart the sinews of the city, house by house, neighbor by neighbor, family by family. The difference in Sarajevo was that, unlike so many other parts of the Republic, Sarajevans kept trying to preserve the common identity of being just that -- a Sarajevan. They tried to hold onto what was best, not what was worst, in us, and they did so under sniper fire from former neighbors who now nestled into the houses in the hills with rifles, picking people off as they cued for bread, or ran for water. They did so under mortar fire which devastated entire crowds standing in line for bread. They did so when a walk by the river in the fog was the only safe time to step outside. 

If you're looking for a bit of symbolism about what sort of city Sarajevo was and is, look to the treasure of the National Library. The Library held 1.5 million volumes and was the repository of a history of intellect, wisdom, inquiry and identity. In 1992, as a part of a systematic campaign to wipe out the common history of the Republic, Serb national forces hit it with incendiary grenades, setting it on fire. Instead of watching it burn, Sarajevans cued up and formed a fire line, hauling everything they could save out of the building -- a book, a manuscript, a paper at a time. All under sniper fire from the hills which took the life of one of the librarians. The death of knowledge, and of common history, was very much on the minds of the Serbian nationalists. 

The picture above is of a cellist from the Sarajevo Opera and Sarajevo Philharmonic. His name is Vedran Smailovic. Mr. Smailovic became a symbol of courage and passion in Sarajevo by playing at funerals and in public spaces in the heart of the seige of Sarajevo. Music was a healing tool. His cello was his rifle, and he used it in ways that resonate every day there still. After the fires had finally gone out in the National Library, he played there, atop the rubble. 

It is unclear to me whether dance can ever suggest the depth of what we experienced in Sarajevo. Perhaps in more capable hands than mine. But Han, the dance, is a reflection on Han the word and Han the life of a people who have endured. 

Sunday, August 17, 2008

We're Back

by Paul Gordon Emerson

Two months have passed since the last P3 entry. Hard to believe. Yet while normally that span, occurring in the middle summer, would suggest a vacation or a break, the reality is the opposite. And that's a good thing.

Any entity which is going to thrive over the long-term has to take on a momentum of its own, independent from the ideas of one or even a few people. Critical mass is not in a single concept or goal, but in the realization of many people's ideas and goals. That is, in and of itself, transformational, because instead of trying to find a way to execute AN idea, and building momentum for it, they key shifts to finding synergy and balance in many ideas. Sustainability, especially in an organization with the word Ensemble in its name, is in the strength of the web which is woven. It's a classic case of the whole being more than the sum of its parts.

That's what this summer has been about. When there is too much afoot for any one person to be at every event, and yet where each event has a major and fundamental value, its a good thing. Summer education programs have taken center stage, and done remarkably. New programs with the DC Public Schools and the realization of the first truly elegant summer session at Strathmore have come through new leadership and ideas. They have come through change which exists in empowering those new ideas and new voices. While we typically talk about this from the standpoint of empowering students, it is no less true at a staff level. The job of the people "in charge" is to realize that and facilitate it while keeping the overall organization on track and administratively healthy. That's not easy all the time. It requires an adaptability and flexibility and a conscious desire for change.

I remember the endless stories about NASA at the end of the Moon missions. Those stories were about the loss of an entrepreneurial spirit and the institutionalization of the Agency. The budget became more important than the mission. Creativity, whether at a multi-billion dollar agency doing the impossible or at an arts organization still in its youth, is about being open to the possible. The genius of NASA was not simply that it did the impossible, it was that it did it through synergy. Literally hundreds of thousands of people put the 12 people who walked on the moon there. They did it through understanding discreet roles framed in an overall purpose. They did it because they listened to each other and trusted each other, and because people at all levels of the pipeline has the ability to offer an idea or a methodology. They did it because everyone was inspired to a purpose. And therein lies a challenge. When the purpose ends, as it did with the Moon missions, what replaces it?

What this has to do with CityDance, and, more specifically with the words Power, Passion and Purpose, is this: This summer told me about the energy and elegance generated by empowering people with ideas. Two week summer camp sessions, student performances and all are commonplace in this field. But these weren't treated by the people running them in common ways. And so they became inspired. And in being inspired at an organizational level, they became inspired at a student level. And that loop, between student and teacher, teacher and administrator and administrator and student, became more than the sum.

Sounds simple. It isn't. But when it works, its something to see.

The fall is a few weeks away. Carrying the momentum of the summer into it is the challenge and the opportunity. Should be fun.

Sunday, June 8, 2008

Folksay video entry 07

Folksay video entry 06: The Music

The Grant

The scene: 

Washington, DC. Wednesday, June 4th, 2008. 5pm. The conference room of Dance/USA and the offices of CityDance Ensemble. 

The cast: Paul, Dina, Betsy and Mother Nature (soon to play a starring role). 
The plot: Assemble and deliver a major grant request for funds for a specific effort in Washington, DC to the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. The deadline: 7pm.

Fade in video: A table layered 3 inches deep in paper. Hands assembling frantically, someone jetting into and out of the room with more materials. Staplers flying. The mood: efficient. We've done this before. 

Fade in audio: Over a 60s Dragnet score. "Grant writing is an art. Its complicated, involves an absolutely byzantine set of steps, words, documents, signatures, support forms, paper clips, staples and sweat. Its also the life-blood of most arts organizations. This is particularly true for new projects, where grant money awarded makes the difference between a project going forward or grinding to a halt. The stakes are high, planning essential. You never know what can happen."

Camera pull-back: The process is winding down. Cut to the clock showing 5:15. Things are good. The last pieces are being assembled. The cross-check is being done. High-fives all around. 

Dina: Who's delivering this thing?
Paul: I can.
Dina: I thought Alexe could drive it there.
Paul: She's gotta get Natalie and I'm going that way anyway before getting the kids. 
Dina: Got it. Thank God its not raining anymore. That would be a mess. (fade in slight undertone, an ominous score, the harbinger of act II {note to producer: use live instruments if possible, go Midi and sampled if not -- can we get John Williams?}).
Betsy: Good job. Dina - great work getting all this together. 
All: Yeah, this is a good grant. Its exciting. Now we just have to get it delivered.....

Narrator: "Earlier in the day it had rained and rained hard. Sheets of water and torrents of rain, knocking out power around the DC area. But the sky had cleared and the streets dried. As the clock ticked towards 5:30, all was in hand."

New scene: Paul, standing by the window, looks out (exterior shot from across the street showing him looking) and sees dry streets. He looks down at the big blue umbrella --"Nah, I don't need that. Its not going to rain again and that thing is ridiculous. I'm going to feel like an idiot carrying that thing." 

Dina meets him in the hall with a box to carry the 10 copies, each over 60 pages, with the original, signed in flair, on the top. On the desk is a plastic bag in which to wrap everything. {shot lingers on the plastic bag}.

Dina: Here, use this.
Paul: Nope. Waste of a box. Don't need the plastic either. Gotta be conscious of all this waste -- I can just carry this stuff. Its just a bus ride and a two block walk to the Commission. What could happen? 
Dina: OK. You SURE? 
Paul: Yup.
Paul: Yup.

Shot at street level: Paul departs 1111 16th Street, crosses the street and arrives exactly in time to catch the bus up 16th. Money is tight, time is good. No need to grab a cab. Getting on, he looks up at the sky and smiles.....

Wide shot: In the distance, the sky is turning green.

Scene 3: Crowded bus. Wall-to-wall people. Everyone is grouchy. Paul keeps banging into people with his back-pack. He holds his 10 copies like a $100,000 newborn. Anything could happen if he gets jostled and drops them. Disaster. "You know, I should have just taken the bag. Or a cab."

Mid-way through the journey, up the hill at Meridian Hill Park, the sound of thunder rumbles over the engine and traffic. People start looking out the window. The anxiety level increases (fade in score).

Paul: "Uh oh." (definitely award winning dialogue here)

Wide shot: Exiting the bus, Paul steps onto a dry street. Two blocks to go. 
Sound: Thunder. Close. Very close. Surround sound calls thunder from two directions. The storms are converging.

{with a backpack containing a 17 inch laptop and assorted electronic equipment, and 10 loose copies of a grant, running is not an option}.

Heading down Harvard street, the Commission offices are only two blocks away. Dodged a bullet.

Cut to: One drop of water, tracked from the clouds, falls, slowly, endlessly down, zeroing like a buzz bomb on the cover page of the grant. Slowly descending. Slowly like a smart-bomb. It falls and falls and then splashes onto the page. Slow-Mo: Paul looks down at the dot of water. Then up. Then....The sky begins to open. At the mid-point between 16th and 15th the rain starts. No wind. Just straight down. Droplets the size of golf balls (artistic license here). Ducking under a tree, Paul takes all 10 copies of the grant and stuffs them under his very thin white linen shirt (good planning). "No problem. I'm so close what could happen."

At 15th street Neptune turns on the faucet. Think flood. Deluge. Sea World. Flipper. 

Scene: Paul, hunched over like an 85 year old with advanced osteoporosis. Save the grant at all costs. Crew expendable. Laptop expendable. Save the grant. 

He hits 14th street, the Commission in sight. He steps towards the curb. Closer. Closer. And misses the light. And the rain has a sense of humor. Forget flood. Hurricane. Noah -- "What's an ark?"

45 seconds later he hits the steps of the Commission. Water tracks into the door. Pigpen done in a pool. Drowned rat. 

Laughter -- he's friends with all these people. 

He realizes he cannot get the grant out of his shirt. So he unbuttons it. Oatmeal. The grant is the consistency of oatmeal. Peeling it away, layer by layer, he gets to the original, pressed close to his chest. The cover page is last. And half of it sticks to his chest as the other half separates. He looks down. Alexe's signature, in marker, has bled onto his rib cage. The first CityDance tatoo. Very romantic. 

"Umm...yeah. Here's the facilities grant." 

"What's it for?"

"The new space on 14th. Dance floors. Lighting. Walls......


Sound of thunder. Laughter. Fade to black.

Narrator: "Grant writing is an art....."

Friday, June 6, 2008

More than the sum....

By Paul Gordon Emerson

What makes a dance company work? What are the intangibles of success -- the things that don't show up in the box score? For me the most fundamental ingredient lies with the people in the studio, in the company, being far more than the sum of their individual parts. There are lots of ways that that can be realized and expressed, but one that isn't talked about enough is the "extra mile" ethic. Today was one of those days. 

Here at the end of the season, 7 days from the 2007-2008 season's last major public event, everyone is tired. Everyone is nursing injury. Some of those injuries are more significant than others, but every nagging knee and aching ankle affects our ability to get things done, and when you're a week out getting things done is absolutely essential. You don't take the stage at the Music Center at Strathmore half prepared. You got all in or you don't go in at all. But you also have to be smart about what that means. Its easy to say "I don't care how much it hurts, I have to dance full-out." Wrong. You have to dance smart and, sometimes, you have to dance not at all. Kathryn whacked her neck totally out of place, and while she would have fought through it she did the right thing -- she went home to take care of it. That's actually the epitome of teamwork and of professionalism -- know your limits and adhere to them. 

But that's not what this is about. This is about Gisele, who is the newest member of the company. This is about someone who has walked into an established culture and done so carefully and quietly. But more, its about this -- today, after Kathryn left to take care of herself, Gisele stepping into ALL of Kathryn's parts in "Folksay" having never rehearsed them with the cast. She watched in the back. She studied. She observed and she learned. And suddenly, instead of a crippled rehearsal things got done. And while we were working on "Ghost of Tom Joad" I spotted her in the back, in the corner, learning Kathryn's movement. I didn't ask her to do that. I didn't even THINK to ask her to do that. But I damned sure saw her doing it -- out of sight. It wasn't for my benefit. She wasn't trying to impress anyone. She was being a teammate in the the very best sense of the word. 

If I were to give a young dancer a word or two of advice about how to make it in a dance company, I would recall today. I would remind them that dance companies are a team. They make it collectively or they fail collectively. And they succeed when people do things without being told to do them. They step up. They make sure that, in a moments notice they can walking into a part, or onto a stage, and keep the company running at its best. You'd think this would be obvious, but its not. 

My respect is earned by many things, but one of the most fundamental ways to earn it comes from the intangible -- and that is in the recognition that a successful company is more than the sum of its parts. I've watched this season as Ja'Malik has made sure he knew parts that weren't his, just as, in years gone by Eileen Mitchell would stay in the studio sometimes right through lunch to be absolutely sure she was ready to nail her parts. Those things matter. Deeply. They are about caring for the people with whom you work -- all of them. Not just because someone might get injured and you need to step in for them; for the other people on the stage whose work has to be honored and respected. And they are about respecting the audience and the stage. For me that's motivating. It makes me work harder because I know that people are in there doing more than you ask. 

Christopher, who isn't even supposed to be dancing, is in the entire concert. He's the Rehearsal Director. But he was needed and, wrecked knee and all, he's on stage. I could run down the entire list of dancers in the company and give you an example of where they are going beyond. Today was a specific, but special, illustration. Today was something that sets a tone, sets a standard, and does so without calling attention to itself. Things done for the right reasons are usually done quietly. You just set out to do them and that's the end of it. 

What could have been a wreck of a day became a very good day. That's what makes a company work. That's what makes a team. And today was a reminder of how rich, remarkable and unexpected that can be. 

Saturday, May 31, 2008

An Appreciation: Part One

by Paul Gordon Emerson

Late spring is always a time of transition. Usually it surrounds a graduation or a wedding, but dance companies live on something of an academic calendar as well, and as we head into June there are people of exceptional grace, talent and, honestly, brilliance preparing to make changes that will take them out of our day-to-day CityDance lives. The loss each departure will bring is enormous, and I wanted to take a moment to offer an appreciation for them as those days get closer. 

The most vital contributor to this blog has been someone whose name, until now, has appeared nowhere on it. Every bit of video -- the stuff that has made this something special -- has been filmed, written and edited by Ludovic Jolivet. The magic of seeing dance on a blog, as opposed to just reading about it, has been conjured by him. His understanding of how to tell a story is rare under any circumstances, but in dance, and in dance on film, its unique to my experience. Ludovic has always understood that what matters is life, the heart and the spirit, and that dance is a vehicle for our humanity. He is a choreographer, a dancer, a visual artist and perhaps the most deeply honest person I have ever met. His work has an unfettered genius to it that has made several of his dances all-time favorites at CityDance concerts for 9 years. 

Ludovic has transformed CityDance, and the lives of the people he touches, subtly, and as a colleague I have never had anyone in this field from whom I have learned more. Ludovic understands the camera as a voice, not as an end. He crafts art through experience and through a well-earned combination of hope and sadness that transforms mops into people and people into props of larger societal machines. His art is the story, and inside that story, the love he bears for the things he speaks to. 

We live in such a process-oriented, outcome-based society. Life in America in the 21st century is predicated on deadlines and deliverables. Dance companies are no different. We set goals and milestones and then step on the gas (or bio-diesel) to get to the other side. We make dances on deadline because that is the nature of our world, and we do so knowing that those deadlines may upend the very art that is the reason we are here. Some things cannot be done by 5pm. Ludovic not only understands that risk, he rejects it. Faced with a choice of making work for us on a deadline and locking in to office hours he simply said "that's not me," and left the cushion of CityDance's regular employment. Normally that's just a change in daily destination. But for Ludovic, who is in the US on a CityDance visa, it meant, potentially, a change in continent. He chose the change in country. Rather than surrender a sense of what it means to make what he believes in, and knowing that his inspiration doesn't work on a calendar, he stepped onto an immigration ledge. It drove me nuts. But opportunity, and obligation, are different for every person, and what I saw as his opportunity he saw as his obligation. 

If art is about integrity, and about inspiration, then the leavening agent in it is courage. Ludovic has shown me, and all of us who know him, have seen his dances, watched his films or just encountered him at random, an unrestrained, and deeply personal, courage for as long as I have known him. It is something I am reminded of every day, and far too often found myself wanting in. 

We rarely come upon people who change our worlds by their quiet determination to be who they are regardless of the risks. Most of us do not face the choice of a job in a country they want to be in or a ticket out because they cannot be the artist they are by having to live under deadlines and objectives. CityDance has been graced by one such person since a crazy June day in 1999, and we are richer for it in ways that permeate everything we do. 

Fortunately, the world is such that, even from France, Ludovic Jolivet will always be a part of our world here, whether in the form of return trips to make dances, videos made across the internet or detailed guides on the right technology for the right moment. But that distance will be felt deeply by all of us, and by me most of all. Moral compasses cannot be bought in stores, and integrity comes in unexpected ways. We are at our best when those stand close by. Ludovic's departure in just over a week will make more distant these things. Its on us, his colleagues and friends, to impart what he shares and to take it in and then give it back to others. But you can never replicate an original, and that is Ludovic. 

Take a moment and scroll back through those videos below. There's an artist behind them.  

Thursday, May 29, 2008

The Directing Process

By Greg Halloran

I set dances via the Labanotated score. Labanotation is the written language of movement. I interpret the symbols from the written page into movement for the dancers. Directing via Labanotation is a unique art form. It takes years of study, just as becoming fluent with any other language, and can sometimes become time consuming interpreting the score. I have always enjoyed both my analytic and artistic sides so early on I enjoyed my Labanotation training. I enjoy choreography but I will never be known internationally for my own works. In directing from the score, I can play a major part in bringing world renowned choreography to life.

The process of reconstructing (or restaging) dances from the written score is different for each director. I personally don’t like to restage dances that I am not familiar with or from choreographers I am not accustomed to in their styles. I have reconstructed dances from choreographers such as Doris Humphrey, Ted Shawn and Charles Weidman to more current choreographers as Clay Taliaferro and Victoria Uris. I am more prone towards the Humphrey/Limon style but having danced in Folksay in 1989, and having the privilege experiencing Sophie Maslow in her coaching of this production, I felt comfortable in restaging this work. I am experienced in interpreting the older styles of modern dance from the 1930’s to the 1950’s. I find this a fascinating time in modern dance history as American choreographers strived to develop modern dance accessible and about the average person. It is also a very different way of moving which can be beneficial to current dancer’s training. Current choreography often doesn’t tilt or twist the torso the same as historic modern dances.

I guess what I enjoy most about reconstructing dances from the Labanotated score is the insight a score can bring to a particular choreographer. I can’t think of a more intimate way to understand a choreographer’s life than reading one of their dances. I can read history book after history book but to fully live a choreographer’s dance from the Labanotated score brings me closer to a choreographer than any other written material can. I always experience a personal bond with each choreographer I reconstruct. I know I am responsible for bringing their love, choreography, back to life. This is something that can’t be taken lightly.

In conclusion, I find directing from the Labanotated score a fascinating research field. I have directed an average of one dance per year for the past nine years. I was lucky enough to study Labanotation and directing with my mentors Odette Blum and Lucy Venable before they retired from teaching. I guess, in my little way, I am keeping historic modern dance available to today’s audiences and am happy society appreciates all generations of modern dance today.

Wednesday, May 28, 2008


By Paul Gordon Emerson

Barring a set of devastating changes on the planet or society, someone, somewhere is going to be looking at what dance to reconstruct for the 2042-2043 season sometime in 2041. Chances are they'll look at the archives of works designated American Masterpieces (on their implanted servo-LIB [for library] that connects them to the world database through a thought-link). They'll come upon "Folksay," because it will meet the centenary criteria. And they'll see...?

As a company devoted to history and reconstruction, something we have to take into account in re-staging dances is that we too are historians -- on both sides of the timescale. What we do today becomes the archive for tomorrow, and how we document what is taking place right now determines the success of what someone very likely not born yet does in 2042 to say "here's a bit of America 100 years ago." No one dancing that dance in 2042 will be able to talk to Sophie Maslow or any of the original cast members. The video that we are referencing today will have long-since deteriorated to a point where its useless -- and the only chance of finding a VHS player will be in the Museum of Video and Film in Shanghai (no, there is no museum of Video and Film in Shanghai --- at least not yet) and there's no chance it will work (they don't work now, why should they work then). And besides, the video we are referencing today, which was shot in the 1980s, looks like bad Star Trek footage just after Kirk flips open is communicator and says "beam me up Scotty." 

So, what will they find when the decision to do "Folksay" comes up at the artistic staff meeting? These questions should determine the processes we use -- and it must inform the way we look at how we conduct interviews, what camera angles we use, how many cameras we use, how the footage is catalogued, how the video is stored and to whom it gets sent. They must guide how we manage long-term media -- right now that media is the DVD, but these things will be frisbees in 5 years, and in a decade or so there won't be computers with them or players for them available at Circuit City. The best prospect right now is all-digital storage, archiving footage on a server which migrates data each time an operating system is updated or a drive system is upgraded. It has the advantage of ease of access across the internet. 

But the irony here is, in part, that what is written will remain vital. Words, in print or online, will likely last. So will the paper on which the Labanotation is stored. But someone has to continue to understand how to read that notation, and that takes study. But words don't translate into dance. Images do -- but they have to be images that move. And, most fundamental, people who have "been there" have to stay involved. When I look at the room today, the process of constructing "Folksay" is succeeding because Lynn, Greg and Abby have a life-history with this work and with this artist. Greg noted that he danced "Folksay" many dozens of times. Who in CityDance will assume that mantle -- to get so far inside the work that they are qualified some day to coach a reconstruction? 

When Alice's head rings in 2041 and some 25 year old on the other end says "we're thinking about reconstructing a dance you were in in 2008," how much will someone who will then be in her mid sixties remember? Will we establish a chain of people who, like the great oral historians and the great cultures of our past, will hand down the actual experience of these dances to one another, preserving history as it has been preserved throughout time? And if so, who will start that process? It lives in the Graham Company, and in the Ailey Company, and it lives in the long-storied ballets. But what about all the rest of the work? 

We can, and maybe we should, be putting all our dancers in motion capture suits and creating fully realized 3D versions of all these works -- things that you can go to and watch at every angle -- from the ceiling to the floor, the front to the back -- to understand all the spacial relationships. But it is still a human art, and Gollum, Iron Man and the Panda notwithstanding, it needs to be seen as a human art. 

These are questions we are obligated to ask, and obligated to answer. Its too easy to get caught up in the "what we have to do today and tomorrow" and forget that tomorrow is just over the hill -- just like 1942 is just behind the last hill -- and that its on us to be the next conduit to preservation. If we don't, we've just satisfied ourselves, and forgotten our descendants. And that's not the point behind dancing. 

Folksay video entry 03: Labanotation

Folksay video entry 02

Thursday, May 22, 2008

Keeping it Live

By Paul Gordon Emerson

Music first, dance second? Music second, dance first? 

Most of the time its not that important, because the music is on a disk (or tape, or computer or what have you) and is therefore the same every time. That sameness is very important, because the body gets accustomed to tempo, tone and timing. A lot of the time dancers will tell you that "getting movement into their bodies" is also about getting the music into their bodies. The dancers equivalent to circadian rhythms. 

If you're going to dance on stage to a disk, then its simple. But live music on stage transforms a performance. Its compelling, charismatic and often breathtaking. But its also problematic. Most of the time though the live music comes into rehearsal long after a dance is finished and usually just a few days before the premiere, putting a strange burden on both the musicians and the dancers. The musicians either have to turn in a performance that is almost identical to the recording -- which hamstrings the musicians -- or the dancers have to adapt to the musicians changing timing, tempo and/or inflection -- hamstringing the dancers. 

For "Folksay" one of the cardinal rules established by the reconstruction team was that the music for the work had to be live from the beginning. That's expensive, and at first I was skeptical about being forced down that path. Four days into rehearsal its clear that this was the smartest thing that could have happened. 

Today -- Thursday -- I sat in on the first part of rehearsal, which was done to CD. It was one kind of rehearsal -- productive, but in some ways predictable. Then, in the afternoon, the musicians were in the room and the dance was transformed. Musicians watched and responded to dancers and dancers to musicians. And Folksay came alive.  Greg Halloran, who is leading the restaging, made a great decision, and that was that some parts of the dance wouldn't even be run without the musical team in place. 

Had "Folksay" been done in the normal manner where the re-staging took place to tape, the dance would not have succeeded. It is a remarkable reminder that wherever possible you bring in the entire artistic team from the start. Its more important given that the music is folk, where part of the point is the freedom of interpretation. The dancers get used to that, and learn to that, and thus are positioned to succeed to that. 

Part of the making of this particular masterpiece clearly was the involvement and investment of the musicians --- and that this dance is always done to live music. A remarkably smart decision in 1942 and ever since. 

Folksay video entry 01

Friday, May 16, 2008

Reflections on Reconstructing a 60 Year Old Dance

by Lynn Frielinghaus

Dance reconstruction brings into play so many aspects of recreation; previous knowledge of the piece from performers and audience viewpoints, labanotation, musical scores and last but not least the memories of the rehearsal process in which the dancers were involved. This includes the manner in which the choreographer worked, the rehearsal atmosphere and, most importantly, the choreographer's discourse on the intent and meaning of the piece. What is the idea that is behind the movement and how does that chosen movement reflect the idea? To be able to understand the intent of a dance, it is best if one can work with the original choreographer, but in dance reconstruction that is usually not possible. We have tools available to us to recreate the movement... videotapes, dance notation, musical scores etc., but the essence of the choreographer is often lost.

As a dancer who worked decades with Sophie Maslow, my job in reconstructing her dance "Folksay" is to keep her vision alive. I must bring to the dancers learning her choreography for the first time, a picture of who Sophie Maslow was and how she approached her work and her life. I need to show the history behind her dance and why its topic concerned her. It is important to point out the subtle and simple way she moved, the integrity behind each and every movement and why she never wasted a single moment with superfluous gestures. In short, if the dancers can understand where the dance came from and a little of who the choreographer was, the reconstruction will have a heart and soul to it and won't look like movements dredged up from decades past that have been pasted on to today's dancers. To understand the dance and feel it's purpose, breathes life into the reconstruction.

I don't think the aim in reconstructing a dance is to "get it right". That is to recreate every movement as it was. Taking into consideration the different way that dancers train today in comparison to 60 years ago, "getting it right" would be almost impossible. No, better to understand the intent, the idea, the motivation behind a dance, learn the basic style and technique of the movement and then bring it together with today's dancers contributing their own experiences. In this way a reconstruction will not only enlighten an audience to the past and give dance a historical context in which to be viewed, but also bring a fresh dimension to the piece. Dance is an art that is alive in time and space, and to deny the present time in reconstruction would be to deny an integral part. In my experience, an understanding of motivating factors in the creation of a dance, a respect for the past, accompanied with an excitement in the present and a balance between old and new all combine to make a successful reconstruction.

Sunday, May 11, 2008

The Photo Shoot

By Paul Gordon Emerson

OK, so if you're going to promote concerts, sell tickets and get buzz, you need photographs. Dance companies take pictures of dancers doing insane or elegant or elegantly insane things to get people to go "oooh, I gotta see that." The question is, how insane?

Till now insane was defined this way: August 17, 2007 - Take two highly trained professionals, one house (supplied by Teri and Larry, who had no idea what being on the Board would end up meaning), four one gallon buckets supplied by your local hardware story, one hose spitting water add one extremely expensive camera with a high level of intolerance to things like, oh, water. Go into the back yard of said Board Members house on a steamy Sunday (when most people are eating in their back yard). Get your Director of Marketing and Board treasurer so stand on opposite sides of one or both of said dancers -- either on a chair, a stair, a ladder or some other reasonably unsafe platform). Fill buckets with water. Yell "go." Throw water. Hard. Take photos as dancers get drenched. Watch as, out of the frame, said Marketing Director and Board Treasurer get similarly soaked (not part of the plan but definitely at least as much fun). End result: great and unexpected photos. 

Fast forward to May 1, 2008. In the best traditions of "one-upping" think about the best image for the show "Warmer: Carbon," the follow-on show to the first Global Warming concert (for which the aforementioned water shot was taken). Well, carbon is black. And dirty. And an image about the impact of carbon emissions, which of course is tough since co2 is invisible, has to convey that. OK, so how? Idea found while waiting in the lobby of a hotel: black silica sand like the stuff you used to find in commercial ash trays. Go online. Find said "sand." Order, oh, 300 pounds of it. Have it delivered to the studios at Strathmore. Wait for the emails to come in from the front desk --- "ummm, there's a delivery of, well, sand, at the front desk and its, you know INSANELY heavy. Did you order this and, if so, why? And, if you did, could you please get it off the front desk so we can do work?"

The idea -- pour the sand from a high place on a dancer (better word: victim) and capture all that dramatic bouncing and stuff. Now, when one thinks of sand one thinks of beach sand. But this stuff is more like mica, so it shines. Very cool stuff. Probably insanely toxic, but hey, its art, right? 

Now, the sand really should stick on the dancer (who will now be known as Alice, cause she was crazy enough to say "yes" to the request, which came during her vacation). Hmmm. What should be use for that? Well, oil or something, of course. Nah. We went with vaseline. You know, something that is impossible to get off after you're done. 

This is one of those things you can only do outdoors. Except it was raining Thursday. Hard. While that would have been great for "Warmer," for carbon, not so much. So, you cancel the shoot, right? And reschedule, right? Nah. We moved it indoors. Into the studio. Where we rehearse. 

Cover the entire room with black paper. Put up an elegant screen for lighting, which takes 30 minutes to set-up and which, after its done, you decide not to use at all. Bring in Alice, cover her in vaseline till she looks like a science experiment. Put Betsy -- that Marketing Director I was talking about earlier -- and Dina, our Marketing Associate, on expensive black chairs. Hand them big containers filled with really heavy sand. Have Alice make a crazy set of shapes while all that sand is being poured on her from over her head. Yell "go" (I have a tough job here -- really. Yelling go is exhausting). Take pictures. Of someone being covered in sand --- you know, with all the dust kicking up everywhere around everyone. 

Then clean the whole thing up in about 30 minutes so you can have class. 

Never dull.