Monday, September 20, 2010

The Wing

Saturday, September 18th, 2010
Grodno, Belarus

Paul Taylor's "Esplanade"

Sometimes the most fun place to shoot a concert is from the wings. Its an angle the audience never sees, a perspective the choreographer doesn't build a dance to. As such its always fresh and surprising, partly because you see what the dancers see, not what the audiences sees. From the seats in a theater you are taken into the magic of a performance and a dance. From the wing you see everything else as well. The sweat, the mad, exhausted breathing, the smile from a dancer whose back is to the audience even for a moment before she turns, dead serious, around, back in character once more. 
Kathryn Pilkington in Christopher K. Morgan's "+1 / -1"

The light is different as well. Side lighting makes for dramatics that are absent from the front, as well as enormous technical challenges for a photographer. Your light meter is useless -- worse than useless, really, because if flat-out and constantly lies to you. There's not way it can balance the different light sources and so you have to go with your gut. 
Alice Wylie and Maleek Washington in "+1 / - 1"
Personally I love the challenge of getting a dancer between me and the side-light on the other side of the stage. It creates incredible silhouettes and shadows, lens flares and light-burn. 

Grodno is a special theater for many reasons, and so it was great fun to shoot the concert from stage left -- which, by the way, is completely different from shooting it from stage right. Its a wholly different show. 

Here are a few of my favorites from Grodno of two dances --- Chris's "+1 / -1" and Paul Taylor's "Esplanade."
Alice Wylie in "Esplanade"
Maleek Washington in "Esplanade"
Liz Gahl in "Esplanade"
The signature image of "Esplanade" from the wing

Sunday, September 19, 2010


September 18th, 2010
Grodno, Belarus

Every dance has a story of some sort that lies behind it. Those stories can be from an almost infinite number of sources and experiences, be they lived in or read about, heard first-hand or simply imagined from the ether. They carry different weight for a choreographer depending on so many variables. 

For me the most personal, and the most important, is "Falling." Its a dance I came to in an odd way in that I initially set out to just take a duet that I had built over a number of years with people I really treasure, from Bobby Sidney and Melissa Greco to Morgann Rose, and adapt it to two other people I treasure, Bruno Augusto and Kathryn Pilkington. But in the first hour of the first rehearsal for "Falling" back in the spring of 2008 it changed, morphing from a recapturing of a dance to one that told a story of a love of my own which had not, in the end, worked out. That love was the singular one in my life, and I was hard pressed to imagine I'd ever tell anything about it in a dance, even though the woman it was ultimately about was one I had known through dance on an endless number of levels. Even a few years after its failure the story behind it was not something I easily spoke about, much less dove into the way you have to in making a dance. 

But there it was. 

After Bruno left CityDance for Graduate School in New York I put "Falling" away for a bit. It was hard to imagine someone else dancing the part as we'd developed it. But Jason is a special artist and a trusted friend, and Kathryn, he and I put it together again last season. 

As we prepped for the tour we're on now I knew I wanted to take "Falling" on the road. Cheles, our TD, had found some great material for the "drop" that is just upstage of them as they dance in a single shaft of light that runs from stage left to stage right. They appear and disappear through it periodically in this version of "Falling." 

We'd planned to premiere it in Minsk, but the theater couldn't accommodate the black fabric, and its not a dance I like to do without it. But that wasn't a problem in Grodno, which had a wonderful and rich theater. 

So we put "Falling" into the program and ran it before the show. I had, finally, a chance to shoot it from the right vantage point in the right theater. 

These are a few of the images from Saturday. 

The road to Grodno

Friday, September 17th, 2010
On the highway from Minsk to Grodno, Belarus

There's this very strange pattern that emerges in touring. You see the country you're visiting through the polarized glass of a van -- or at least more often than not I do. My visits to these countries tend to be more "Holiday Inn" tours. The kind where you go from the airport to the hotel to the meeting to the hotel to the theater to the hotel to the reception to the airport. That's not a complaint, just a reality. 

But the weird thing is that, as the "in-house" photographer most of my images of the world tend to be of the snapshot through the window variety. That, too, is not a complaint. Sometimes you see the world in fascinating ways through a car window. Its something of a great equalizer because in traveling every country what you see through the window is something of the commerce, and in a way, the life, of a country. Its a little like seeing someone through their arteries if that makes any sense. 

So, here's a little travelogue of images along the highway to Grodno on a Friday afternoon in September. I particularly like the grain flying off the back of the truck transporting it to wherever, and of the kitten -- and Chris and William and Irina's reaction to it -- a little road stop where we found ice cream. 

I also loved the just "in the moment" of this man on his bicycle. He stopped in for a beer at this restaurant where we had an amazing meal for $4 (and felt gipped when it turned out that the other van containing the rest of the company had found a great meal for $3). These are so often the moments I treasure -- the random image of this fellow in his army fatigue pants, his beret and the - "where the Hell did he come from. There's NOTHING around here, sense of things."

The woman in black

Domododevo International Airport, Moscow, Russia
Sunday, September 19, 2010

In transit to Almaty, Kazakhstan

In Minsk on Friday our last program before leaving for Grodno, a small city on the western border of Belarus, was a second Master Class, this one at the Choreography College at the Belarusian State University of Culture and Arts. Walking up the stairs from the street, with the weather cool and damp, an occasional mist drifting through the air, there was that classic sense of being in an environment of young artists. It’s a different vibe than a normal college campus; at once more intense but in that way of everything being immediate. And the fashion…I don’t typically notice the way people dress all that much, but here, everyone, the women especially, are so utterly and carefully put together.

Of course the fact that we were at a State run University whose sole focus is Culture and Arts was exceptional in and of itself, another reminder that in this part of the world art is respected in profound ways, ways which open doors otherwise locked in the search for exchange between Belarusians and Americans. Here its not, as someone said to me at the Embassy event the other night “what happened to your law degree” when you tell them you are an artist. It’s a bit like being a rock star and an intellectual rolled into one. There’s really no comparison to it at home. At the Airport on Tuesday as I was clearing Belarusian customs the young agent behind the glass asked me what my purpose was in coming to Belarus. She asked the question looking down at my passport, as I suspect she did with almost everyone coming through her line.

When I told her it was to perform at Philharmonic Hall with my dance company she transformed from bored bureaucrat to art lover. Looking up from my passport her face changed, her manner changed -- she changed. "Oh!" she said under her breath. The smile on the other side of the glass told me all I needed to know. "Welcome to Belarus. I hope you have a wonderful performance." 

If you can find that in someone whose job is theoretically to make you a bit nuts trying to get into the country, what does it tell you about the power of art. 

The major ballet school interviews 3,000 students for its incoming class (mind you the entire population of the country is around 11 million), out of which they pick something like 30. The Choreography College students train for six years – six – to become professional artists.

We were met at the entrance by the Choreography College’s Director, Svetlana Gutkovskaya, an exceptionally elegant and attractive woman with a sparkle in her eye about art, and about life, which just holds your gaze. Exactly the way you think of a performer whose image stays in your mind for those long moments after the lights are gone from the stage.

We came to the hallway leading to the studio, a few more moments of conversation and logistics between our colleagues at State and Svetlana. Svetlana stood at the edge of her studio, waiting. I trailed behind in the tight corridor. The hallway was full and quiet.

Out of the corner of my eye, over my right shoulder, a young woman caught my attention. She was perhaps 5’5” with enormous, exquisite blue eyes, deep brown-black hair in a French braid along her shoulder, high cheek-bones that cut along her face in an elegant, Kate Moss kind of way. She was anxious.

She angled her way to Svetlana and you could tell immediately what she wanted – she wanted to come to class. And the answer was no. You know how that is when you clearly want something so much you’d do just about anything to get it, but that when the boss says no you’re done? That’s what this was. But she persisted anyway. That’s how much she wanted this.

And it worked.

Some people are born into a dance studio. They’re rare, but when you see them, when they enter a room, its as though they were day-glo painted when everyone else was left in the dark. She’s one of those. Every moment in that room was precious to her. She stretched every movement and every exercise, looking for the extra grace in a stretched muscle or a lingering drag of the foot as it slid around in a simple arc. The floor-work for her felt like a discovery even though she’d done it who knows how many times before. Her English was good – good enough that she caught the nuance in Chris’s directions, the inner monologue between he and Alice and William. Every time a movement phrase was finishing, she’d be the last to complete it, pulling every moment out of it. It was so clear that the world just went away for her in those moments.

Those are the moments that stay with me – the ones where you realize that something you are a part of extends around the globe, and that wherever you are there are people like this woman, who fight to get into a simple class, who hold onto an entire two hours and absorb them in every way they can. I guarantee you those exercises are still playing in her mind and coursing through her body today.

She wasn’t the best dancer in the room technically. She’s still working through the connections within her own body. But she has the facility and the musicality.

I asked Svetlana about her during one of Chris’s combinations. “She’s from Poland,” she said. I thought about what could happen to her dancing if she had Chris to be her guide through the connecting of all the dots of modern and contemporary movement. She seemed so right for the aesthetic of Eastern European dance right now – that instinctive and immersive exploration of self through movement that you see there. But mostly I thought about the hunger that brought her into the room. That hunger is what truly drives an artist, and especially, to me at least, a dancer, to pass all the things which bind us and keep us from the physicalisation of our lives, the discovery that we can pull all our experiences and emotions together into a single, sinuous stretch of an arm, and that the interior feedback-loop which every dancer has can light us up in ways the rest of the world just can’t comprehend. There’s an ecstasy to it, and endorphin and self-awareness rush, a “past your own skin” relationship to the world.

To see that in someone who passes into, and then right out of, your life in a simple two-hour period is to be invited into it even though it wasn’t for me. I doubt seriously she even knew I was in the room. That’s the magic of it – the people who moved together, and the bond they formed with Chris, with Alice, with William, was for them. Yet each of us on the outside got to share it. It has a way of filling a room that nothing else I’ve ever experienced does. It’s a preternatural thing, which is how it should be.

We are so much more than our words.

Friday, September 17, 2010


Thursday, September 16
Minsk, Belarus

Why is it that jet lag always has about a 24 hour delay? And why is it that said jet lag always shows up on the first critical day in a program? Tonight is Opening Night in Minsk at the Philharmonic Hall. Sold out show. Embassy sponsored event. Lot of fun. Lot of pressure. Excellent time to be narcoleptic.

"Good evening and welcome to our concert. I'm Paul......" (sound of gasping audience as the AD falls off the stage and into the audience sound asleep. Not the impression you necessarily want to make on the dignitaries in row one - lasting, but....)

So, class. Funny the endless connotations of that word. In this case its what it would suggest itself to be in a dance blog. The working part of the company's tour began as it should. 

In a studio. Well, almost a studio. More of a stage really. A really, really big, Gi-normous stage. A "are you kidding me?" Gi-normous stage. OK, a theater. With an audience. A big audience -- like 300 people size audience. A dance school audience that knew what it was looking at and looking for. At the lead ballet academy in the country. 

You know, that kind of normal. 

One thing about the road -- you learn in a big, big hurry that no matter what you plan, and what you think you know, its never what you'll encounter. Sometimes its harder than you anticipate. Most of the time its far, far more magical. 

This was one of those. 

Take all the stereotypes you can imagine for a Ballet Academy out of a former Soviet republic. The Director is uber-proper and very formal. She's point your feet NOW formal. The beginning is a welcome to her office and a bit of back-story about the Academy and the great artists to emerge from it (totally true, by the way). A sense that they have something to prove to us and for real a sense that we have something to prove to them. A "show me" moment just ahead and over the hill. 

You know that somethings not quite what you anticipate when the first process question is "when would you like to begin your performance?" 

"Did she say performance?"



Yes, sure enough. But we had been asked to prepare an excerpt for class. And Chris, in his way, found the magic and music inside the challenge. Alice and Maleek were there as planned, but so were William and Noelle and Kathryn, giving us the people we needed to make anything that had to happen happen. And you know, that's what it takes on the road. 

So after the formal welcome we went downstairs to the "Studio." Rounding the corner, past the images of the dancers who had gone before, and crossing the threshold past the ubiquitous grand piano (I've seen more concert grands here in four days than I think I've ever seen cumulatively in my life outside the Steinway store in NY), you heard noise -- conversational noise. A lot of it. And, sure enough, as you stepped into the light, you realized that noise was coming from the assembled Academy in their theater seats ready to watch the class. 


23 students were invited to the stage to take Chris's class. And the other zillion, including ALL their teachers, to watch it. Talk about pressure. Not just for us. Try being one of those kids. "Hello, thanks for volunteering to take class with everyone you study under and train with watching in a new discipline with people you've never met and who will show you movement you've never tried." Could have been Friday the 13th Part 40 for them.

But it wasn't. 

These kids were amazing. And not simply talented and well trained. Curious. Open. Risk-taking. Especially the girls. The boys, well, as Maleek put it, when you're a teenage boy the worst thing in the world is to appear incapable, and that can be inhibiting, which for most of them it was. But the girls -- wow. They just grabbed onto it. And Chris didn't pull any punches. He had them tied up in pretzel shapes in yoga, on the stairs for alignment and spinal training, doing mad things with their arms that, in less capable bodies, turns you into a Philly pretzel. 

And laughing. 

You want to talk about when you know its working. Try the laughter meter in your head and heart. They had fun. 

Amazing how he does that. Doesn't speak the language, is in a totally strange environment and you hear, halfway through class --- laughter. As in "this is fun and really cool laughter."

If the past year and half of road work has taught me anything its that there's a new generation coming up in the world that is not defined by its elders issues and the circumstances under which they grew to adulthood. The Cold War is gone. For these kids it never existed. And they're not bound by the formalities, by the stereotypes, by the fear, that their parents and especially their grandparents were. We're not staring across a divided Germany at each other anymore. Yes, there's endless tension between East and West in other ways, especially on a Governmental level between Belarus and the US. But not between us as artists. We all dance in that room. And the magic of seeing students learn, of seeing them thrive, broke every boundary and melted all the ice in a two-hour time of magic. Its the most profound reminder that there is so much more which unites us than divides us. I say it so often its a cliche. But one borne of truth. 

To stand in that room and see what unfolded reminded me that on a human level nothing really separates us. Person-to-person, artist-to-artist, spirit-to-spirit, its about what we share. 

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Frankie FilmWORKS: The Sony page

Thursday, September 16th
Minsk, Belarus

OK, so we're on tour and there's an endless amount of great stuff going on here. But something amazing is happening Stateside too. 

Our uber-film-maker, Francisco Campos-Lopez (Frankie) has been making fabulous work for us for two-years now. He's also a rock-star (literally and figuratively) music-video guy. You don't get from Chile to DC as an upstart film-maker by lacking ambition, and Frankie submitted his reel to Sony. We use Sony equipment for all our FilmWORKS projects, and that qualified Frankie to strut his stuff to them. And they liked it. 

A lot. 

Frankie is the featured artist on the Sony VideoON page starting today. Check out the screen capture of his crazy-great commercial for CityDance's "Alma" by Rachel Erdos. The dancers are Giselle Alvarez and Jason Garcia Ignacio. 

And the dapper dude in the lower left -- who looks like a 50s movie star and a guy running for office at the same time is Frankie FilmWORKS. 

Totally cool. Don't miss the page. 

The Road: Beginnings (part one)

September 14, 2010
Minsk, Belarus

OK, let me start by saying this -- the people at the US Department of State are the most resourceful and helpful people I've ever known in all my life. They're relentless, tireless and somehow always come up with answers to the most challenging situations. 

They don't come into this story until the next entry, but lets just give away the ending at the beginning.

Dulles Airport. 5:10pm. September 13.

The kick-off was one of the more unusual at the start of a major tour. 10 of us took the planned itinerary. I took the road less travelled (with apologies to RF). As one would expect when the travel Gods opt to have fun with you, the lone first-time traveller in our delegation, Noelle, was the only one United denied a seat when the plane filled. An 11 member delegation under the sponsorship of the US Department of State, and, well, sorry, no, no seat.  So she took mine and I took a flight that United guaranteed me was open and available. 

Except it wasn't. 20 minutes into the line at Customer Service the CSR looked at me quizzically and said "how were you thinking you could get on this flight?"

"The agent at the counter told me I could."

"Did he bother to tell you it's sold-out?"

So, everyone else was in the air. I had, at that moment, no connecting flight. Oh, and I also had all the contact information for the tour in my bag at my feet. That's what happens when the decision not to put Noelle on the flight happens 6 minutes before it departs. If we were into hazing that would have been the ultimate -- "good luck kid, see you in Minsk." 

As the plane taxied to the tarmac Christopher and I exchanged emails with things like phone numbers for our contacts in Minsk, assurances that I'd get an itinerary to him electronically for the, you know, 80 minutes they were on the ground in Moscow making a connection. That would be the one where, despite endless research it turns out they had to reclaim their bags, clear customs and still make their connection. And it cost them a visa -- which in this case is more complicated than you might imagine. 

Speaking of bags.....(more on that in a moment). 

OK -- cut back to the United counter. So my CSR turned out to be incredibly resourceful. After a zen-like 10 minutes staring at her terminal (at least I think that's what she was staring at), she looks up, then tilts her head, looks away, picks up the phone, puts it down, goes back to her screen and....

"How about..."

So to get to Minsk, if I absolutely, positively, had to be there overnight (how is it that every good phrase has been taken already? Where's the creative option nowadays?), we could -- go from Dulles to Munich, (in a couple of hours), Munich to Vienna (55 minutes between flights) and then Vienna to Minsk (65 minutes between flights). I'd have to clear customs at every stop, change terminals and reclaim my lugg....."wait" the CSR said. "We can check you luggage all the way through.

"Where is your luggage?"

"Its on the plane."

"No its not. There's no way its on the plane. They must have pulled it. That's fine because we'll have it sent along with you."

Does the phrase famous last words ring any bells?

OK -- I take the deal offered. It's September, the skies are clear, no volcanoes are going off anywhere, and the chances seem -- good. OH, and I get $1k in free ticket vouchers to fly anywhere I damned well want. 

Time for a glass of wine, lots of email, a relaxed flight over. All goes well. When I get to Munich I get through customs quickly (amazing how many security officers in airport terminals are camera geeks. I spend more time talking about the D3 than anything else). I get to the counter, where another crazy nice person helps me and says "do you have any bags?" 

"Nope. They're being checked through."

"No they're not."

"Meaning they are...."

"I have no idea."

"They were..."

"No they weren't"

"But the CSR said..."

"He was wrong."

Ah well. 

All this time I've been sending updates and emails to colleagues and to Christopher. At the top of the first one I wrote them to tell them I had my bags and he shouldn't worry about this, because when last we left off he had them on the plane and would see them through to Minsk for me. Except they weren't on that plane and I didn't want him looking for them in his mad dash through Moscow. 

Except they were. 

"Hey. I have your bags. No worries." He says from Minsk as I'm sitting on the tarmac in Vienna.

"How the Hell...."

"They're right here."

"But they said..."

I love modern technology.