Essay: On Performing in ‘Rite of Spring’ / August 22 / artLabJ

By Harriet Berg

There is an ancient saying: “Tell me what you dance and I will tell you who you are.”

Last week as part of the Detroit City Dance Festival, I participated in worldwide celebration of the 100th birthday performance of Igor Stravinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” the seminal work of modernism of the 20th century.

As I stood on stage with the incredibly talented dancers of the Art Lab J Company as the brilliant choreography of Joori Jung unfolded, I felt the magnitude of the music, the images it evoked with the wild percussive sound, trumpets blaring, flutes singing. Nijinsky’s radical choreography, Nicola Roerich’s costumes and scenery based on ancient Russian legends. I felt the presence of the all the other companies who have participated in this yearlong celebration, whose choreographers chose to create their personal vision of this Rite, all linked through time and space to this company on the stage of the Boll Theater at the YMCA in downtown Detroit.

In her choreography, Joori Jung challenges the nature of male-female relationships and acquiescence to injustice in taut, articulate, gymnastic contemporary dance executed by a confident, well-trained company of Detroit dancers. At a time of so much bad news around Detroit, this “Rite of Spring” shows the city’s artists pushing up through the frozen ground of despair to celebrate their deep connections, not only to dance history, but to the regenerative power of the community of dance worldwide.

Detroit Dance History: The Detroit Metropolitan Dance Project aka “Dance Power”

By Harriet Berg

My recent interview with Monica Mercer for the Hour Magazine article was an evocative experience. It helped me recall the halcyon days of the Detroit Metropolitan Dance Project where every major art institution in metro Detroit was involved with bringing modern dance to the city. Nicknamed Dance Power, and funded by the National Endowment for the Arts, it brought together a cross section of public teachers, administrators, private studio owners, and socialites who cooperated to make American Modern Dance known to the public through workshops, lecture demonstrations, and performances.

The motivation for the NEA was the realization that American modern dancers were the leading cultural ambassadors, influential and admired, in Europe, Asia, and South America. They were not, however, known in the American Heartland. Through Dance Power, with government support, we were able to develop a brand new dance audience in a wide cross section of the population.

The major aspect of the program was that the dance audience got to know the dancers and choreographers personally–not just in performance. At lecture demonstrations and workshops in neighborhood community centers they had the opportunity to ask questions directly of the artists and get up front and personal at after parties with food, drink, and lively conversations.

People like Delia Hussey, head of dance and physical education in the Detroit Public Schools, and Dance Studio owners Norma and Robert Taynton, arranged busloads of dance students to travel to the musical hall, orchestra hall, and high school auditoriums. College dance department heads like Ruth Murray, Carol Halsted, and Dominic Missimi, planned master classes in their college studios. And dance aficionados like Maggie Allesee, Mary Dennison, Ellen Kahn, and Eve Cockburn organized parties and driving pools with professional efficiency. Women from the UAW Sally Brown, and Mae Reuther, served on committees, sold tickets, and made telephone calls.

Those were the days when we had actual dance critics in the local newspaper and this contributed to the heavy atmosphere of excitement about this unique and engaging American art form.

Dance Power is an example of how citizens working with their government can make the arts a vital and effective force in every day life. Today we are fortunate to have Karen and David DiChiera and Carol Halsted at the Detroit Opera House, who are carrying on the traditions of Dance Power. As well as Vince and Meg Paul, and the dedicated board of Directors at the Music Hall.

This movement was so strong and supported by so many major institutions. Today We all need to get behind these individuals who still support and work so passionately for all forms of dance in Detroit.