Interview with Keith Saunders, Ballet Master of Dance Theatre of Harlem

Keith Saunders

by Julie Gervais

Dancepanorama had the opportunity to talk with Keith Saunders, Dance Theatre of Harlem Ballet Master, in advance of the Company’s arrival in Detroit for performances at the Detroit Opera House Feb 1, 2, and 3.

 

DP: It was shortly after the company’s visit to Detroit in 2004 that Dance Theatre of Harlem went on hiatus, suspending operations of the professional performing company. When dancers get injured, and rehabilitate, and then return to work, it’s an exciting time but a dancer is also changed by that process. Does the company feel something like that?

KS: It’s an interesting analogy – yes – we are changed by that process; we are strengthened by that process. There’s a renewal. We feel very much alive and excited to return to the national and international landscape. And the new Dance Theatre of Harlem is not the company of 2004. Almost all of the dancers are new, of course because eight years is almost an entire generation in the life of a ballet company. And there are other differences: one of the biggest being that the size of the company has gone from 44 dancers to 18, now. These dancers have been hand-picked from our second company, the DTH Ensemble, which has been touring nationally since 2009 [and visited Detroit during that time]. Some dancers have also been brought into the company from our national auditions.

DP: How many of your current 18 dancers remain from the pre-hiatus days?

KS: There are a couple of dancers on the current roster who were with us before, including one of our leading dancers, Ashley Murphy, who was an apprentice with DTH in 2004.

Ashley Murphy. Photo (c) Rachel Neville.

And Taurean Green was with us in 2004. He danced with other companies in the intervening years and now he’s back with us.

DP: What changes in repertory have resulted from the decreased size of the Company?

KS: Our Artistic Director, Virginia Johnson, did a very smart thing. Over the last three years, as we worked toward the return of the Company, and we’ve known for a while now that we were planning to go with 18 dancers, Virginia instituted a choreographic development program that she called ‘Harlem DanceWorks 2.0’. She invited choreographers in to develop, working with dancers we hired, new works that would form part of the rep of the new company. We are bringing one of the ballets that came out of this project to Detroit. It’s called ‘Far But Close’. It’s a narrative ballet, a contemporary love story of two people who meet in Harlem. Some of the other ballets we’ll be performing in Detroit have been developed just this season – world premiere ballets specifically for the company, or company premieres. We will be performing Alvin Ailey’s ‘The Lark Ascending’ – the first time any company other than the Ailey company will perform it – and this is the first time it’s being performed on pointe. We’re bringing two Balanchine ballets, his masterwork Agon [which was in Dance Theatre’s rep prior to hiatus], plus a lesser-known work: Glinka Pas de Trois, which dates from the 1950s and is a small gem of a work. We’re also bringing a Donald Byrd ballet called ‘Contested Space’, which was made on our second company last season and has been brought forward. Obviously right now we won’t do Giselle, or Serenade, or Four Temperaments…some of those bigger ballets that were staples of the former company, the size difference means we’re unable to do those now. So what Virginia has done is to develop ballets for this company at this size. We do retain some ballets from our previous repertoire.

‘Return’

‘Return’, by Robert Garland is one of these that we’ll be bringing to Detroit. It’s very popular and set to songs by James Brown and Aretha Franklin.

We’ll also be bringing the world premiere that Robert choreographed for us for this season, called ‘Gloria’ – a full-company ballet set to Francis Poulenc’s Gloria.

‘Gloria’ Photo (c) Matthew Murphy.

It was the first ballet seen when the company returned to the stage in October. We’re also bring the Swan Lake Act 3 Pas de Deux. So it’s a carefully selected balance; there are two complete programs. There are original ballets made on these dancers, there is repertoire from the former company, and there are company premieres. This is the Dance Theatre of the 21st century. We’re interested in continuing to grow and develop our dancers of course, but also interested in exploring the idea of what ballet in the 21st century means.

DP: In a recent interview, Virginia Johnson discussed the ongoing disparity between the diversity in our population and the diversity represented in ballet companies. How does DTH’s original mission fit into the 21st century?

KS: It’s still a necessity for DTH to have this sensibility. We’ve been having the same conversation for as long as I’ve been involved in ballet. I don’t that anyone has ever had a satisfactory answer, but if you look at ballet companies across America, it’s not really that different from what it was years ago; it’s frankly not that diverse. Dance Theatre’s mission to continue to provide opportunities for black dancers remains unchanged, and remains relevant.

DP: The fact that we’re still having this conversation – is it good, in a way? In the sense that, if we’re talking about it, we’re acknowledging that there remains work to be done.

KS: I don’t want to say it’s exactly the same as years ago – there is some more diversity now, but change is slow. There are so many factors that go into it. So yes, perhaps the fact that we’re still talking about it is good, in that we need to continue to make people aware. Particularly people who serve on Boards of Directors and as Artistic Directors, it’s important that they know that there is still an issue of inclusion.

DP: Thank you so much for carving time out of a busy schedule, and we’re looking forward to seeing you next week!

KS: We’re looking forward to being there!

 

 

 

 

 

SYTYCD, Season 9, Episode 2

By Debra Schreiber/Pittsburgh

“So You Think You Can Dance” took viewers to the paradise of Los Angeles in last night’s audition episode.

Nigel Lythgoe and Mary Murhpy were joined by “Modern Family” star Jesse Tyler Ferguson, and Murphy laid down the law, which included “no booty shaking.”

First to audition was Alexa Anderson, 19, who made it to Vegas last year but was cut in the top 20. This year she was back again, and hoping her time to explore dance and learn to relax would earn her a place in this season. She channeled a unique energy in to her powerful moves. That got her a ticket to Vegas, with no comments at all from the judges. But will it earn her a place in the top 20?

Jontel Johnny “Waacks” Gibson, 20, a waacker was up next, with an outfit as bubbly as his personality. Gibson had been waacking for almost one year, inspired to take up this odd dance form by watching videos on YouTube, and also told the judges he had experience with contemporary and hip hop. He managed to do it without looking crazy, one of his goals, to a disco song – maybe he’ll be one of the first to do well with disco should he make it onto the show – and impressed Lythgoe with his musicality. He was sent to the choreography round.

Next up was Eliana Girard, a contemporary dancer who attending the Joffrey Ballet School, and also danced and did aerial pole with Cirque du Soleil. She blew Lythgoe away immediately with her long legs. She certainly used them effectively, stretching through in her leaps. She received thunderous applause from the audience.

“I felt as though you felt your music, and it was just beautiful to watch…one of the best girls this year,” Lythgoe pronounced, with Murphy adding that Girard is definitely top 20 material.

“We’re like Paris Hilton and Nicole Richie… [except] we’re broke” – The Ninja Twins “with attitude” were about to take the stage. Nick and James Aragon dedicated their contemporary performance to their first dance teacher who passed away this week. The two were like synchronized swimmers on the stage, taking on Michael Jackson’s “Man in the Mirror” with coordination and flair. There were chants of “Vegas,” but since the twins were over 30, they were sent home, chilling the crowd.

“We aren’t dead, dang!” said one, ever optimistic.

“Everything is going to end up good in the end” was the story of the next dancer’s audition. Six months ago when Sam Lenarz, 18, came home from dance, she found her mother had kicked her out. It dealt her a blow, but best friend’s mom, Mary, brought her in.

“You can always believe in yourself,” Lenarz said, with Mary cheering her on in the audience.

The judges agreed she was a beautiful dancer, but needed to find freedom in her movement, and placed her in choreography.

“This is your destiny, to be a beautiful brilliant dancer…I am so sorry…your family wasn’t here,” said Ferguson to a teary Lenarz.

Surfer/tap dancer Caley Carr, 25, was up next. Tap was the perfect medium for his ADHD as a child, he said, especially when he realized no one was telling him to stop making noise. The judges certainly weren’t about to tell him to stop, with a brilliantly witty audition to “Somebody That I Used to Know,” immediately sending him to the choreography round.

“You have a mustache, you surf, and you tap…I’m bored,” yawned Ferguson jokingly.

Next was Megan Branch’s audition. Murphy said she cared about Branch from the get-go and Ferguson commented on her likeability.

“You’re a fire cracker aren’t you?” Lythgoe said. “I felt your joy.” Branch was sent to Vegas.

Martial artist and dancer Cole Horibe was ready to bring his shaman to the stage, with powerful moves and music, eliciting a “wow” from the judges.

“That was absolutely stunning to watch,” said Lythgoe.

“You have major presence,” added Ferguson.

“You know what, you know how to dance,” said Murphy, noting that she was skeptical when Horibe began. Horibe was on his way to Vegas.

Hoops and fire? Just another day in the life of David Matz, 27. Matz provided the most unique audition of the season, dancing in his hoop, demonstrating his strength and balance.

“I have never seen that before,” Murphy commented to Ferguson during the audition.

“It’s amazing what you can do with one of Cat Deely’s old earrings,” Ferguson said when Matz was done.

“I don’t know what else you can do dance-wise,” Lythgoe said, and sent Matz off to wait for the choreography round.

Stephen Jacobsen was up to show the judges what not classical ballet looked like. They did not like what they saw. Lythgoe was especially upset: Jacobsen had danced for 17 years and worked with the Cincinnati Ballet. Lythgoe offered him a redo, and, after, a ticket to Vegas.

“I used to be, I guess, like, cocky,” said Jonathan Anzalone, 25, who first auditioned for SYTYCD four years ago.

“You just have to keep going,” he said. “Life is beautiful.” He was ready to show the judges the real him.

Murphy said Vegas. Lythgoe said choreography. It was up to Ferguson to break the tie. He agreed with Lythgoe.

Jasmine Mason and Marshea Kidd were ready to dance again, after recovering from a car accident that happened six weeks ago. Kidd was pronounced dead on arrival and in a coma for two days. Both would give beautiful auditions. But would both get tickets to Vegas? Yes.

Robert Roldan and Courtney Galiano, former SYTYCD contestants, were ready to take the remaining dancers through the choreography round. Many of the dancers sent there, including Matz and Anzalone, decided it was just too much. But Lenarz got her ticket.

Roldan and Galiano/Courtesy of Examiner.com

Next week SYTYCD hits the South.

“Can Nigel handle the heat?” Deely mused.

Spotlight On: Katherine Alexander

By: Debra Schreiber/Pittsburgh

From prima ballerina to founder of Exhalations Dance Theatre, Katherine Alexander has come a long way.

Katherine Alexander during Exhalations' "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber.

When the 21-year-old pharmacy student began ballet she stuck to it. “I was a very strict ballerina in high school,” Alexander said. She would practice between 24 to 26 hours per week.

When she began to look at colleges, Point Park University was definitely in mind; but Alexander chose Duquesne University for pharmacy. There was a dance team at Duquesne, but no dance theatre, so Alexander began Exhalations Dance Theatre.

Exhalations broke the ballerina from her mold. “I never thought as a strict ballerina I would be performing some of the things I’m performing,” Alexander said. She has now added contemporary, modern, Fosse jazz, tap, ballroom and hip-hop to her repertoire. She described the experience as, “Oh my gosh, I’m wearing foot thongs.” She has also studied Martha Graham contemporary, as well as Greek, Ukrainian and Bulgarian folk dancing.

Alexander, front, with Brandi Salter, during an Exhalations' modern number/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber.

Alexander also dances with the Junior Tamburitzans, focusing on Croatian dance and music, and plays an instrument called the brač, which belongs to the tambura family. The instrument is, “like a little guitar that sounds like a mandolin,” Alexander described. She enjoys performing with the Tamburitzans for, “celebration, carrying on traditions,” she said.

Alexander performing "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber

“Anytime I am on stage…that is happiness for me,” she said of her dancing, choreography and teaching.

Alexander taught and choreographed Exhalations' beginngers class for "Expressions"/Photo Credit Debra Schreiber.

Alexander has been fortunate, with no serious injuries holding her back from what she loves. However, she does have to be careful to avoid dislocations, as her extreme flexibility can sometimes cause them.

When asked if she had any regrets about not attending Point Park, her answer was no. Alexander is, “excited about being a pharmacist, and would not have been able to start Exhalations,” had things gone differently. She is grateful to her family, who has given her great support with her Exhalations venture. Her mother supplies costumes and food for the shows, and her aunt and brother help out as well.

Alexander also performs with Spotlight Musical Theatre Company and Encore Show Choir, and belongs to KE and ASP.

Detroit, Dance, and the Fela Frenzy

Fela Kuti, the Man

Written by Marcus R. White

Detroit is obsessed with FELA!  The dance-packed, theatrical musical  performance showcases some of the best and brightest in the industry.  My initial response to the production was “WOW, that was incredible.”  As an “informed” audience member, however, I wanted to take my analysis beyond the simple obvious amazing dance, theater, and musical excellence of the cast of FELA and show how Fela’s story is transformative for Detroit and the human experience abroad.

Detroit “Gets” FELA!

Institutions throughout the city have dedicated exhibits and mentions of the musical, creating a consistent “feel good” sentiment throughout many levels of our community.  The story of the man, Fela Kuti was presented in an accessible way to help connect the community, at least on the surface.  The Music Hall Detroit should be extremely proud of their ability to be the center of huge mobilization for the arts and culture in Detroit.   Beyond the actual performance the bringing together of so many community members cross class, culture, and race was inspiring to me and made me extremely hopeful for the city.

Transformations through “African” Dance Aesthetics

The movement vocabulary presented drew on experiences of contemporary African dance traditions. I am interested in the company’s ability to capture a unified understanding of “African” (more specifically Fela’s) aesthetics while being placed within the context of the American musical.  Fela’s music as presented in the musical helped shaped new dance forms or improve older dance traditions. It could be argued that his amalgamation of different sounds helped shape a new understanding of movement vocabularies.

I am most amazed at Bill T. Jones’ capturing the life and legacy of Fela Kuti through dance.  The strong connection to many of the original folkloric forms catapulted this musical as being one that is deeply rooted in African and African-American traditions.  This seems like an obvious understanding of Fela’s life and role in helping to develop the sounds in Nigerian and global music history; However, this compelled me to think about movement vocabulary and bodies within the Black diaspora.

Is FELA: The Musical limiting? 

Packaging the life of Fela within a two and a half hour production I imagine was a challenge for the creative team and introduced interesting choices about how to present his life.  Some of these choices may have been limiting and not truly capturing his life story.  I could agree with this point and even argued this point, but isn’t a strong skeleton of his legacy more productive to telling his story than no body of work at all?  Whatever your position the themes of struggle, resilience, and group thought were prevalent and stuck with me as messages I can think about in my own understanding of current socio-political issues.

Mr. Jones’ involvement in the project makes sense to me.  His sensibilities around political action could match closely with Fela Kuti’s in that both demonstrate that art can be the center of action to improve the way of life for humans throughout the globe.

Congratulations Cast of FELA and Good Luck to You for Future Shows!

The cast of FELA! in action

French Choreographer Julie Bour graces Wayne State University with her Fairy Tale

By: Megan Drabant

Once upon a time, there was a French choreographer who brought her European flair to a lucky school in the United States. That choreographer just so happens to be Julie Bour, artistic director of Compagnie Julie Bour, and the lucky school is our very own Maggie Allesee Department of Dance at Wayne State University (WSU). Bour graduated from the Conservatoire National de Paris and followed her career to work with a variety of renowned choreographers around the world including Angelin Preljocaj, Inbal Pinto and Cave Canem company. As assistant to the French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj, Bour has re-staged his repertory in New York City and Bordeaux, France. Also, she had the pleasure to work with director Julie Taymor on the Opera “Grendel”. She received a Bessie Award for “Best performer of the year” in New York City.

Bour does not feel restricted by a style, a history or a technique. As a choreographer, she is driven by the need to question, mix and share. By exploring the dynamics of contemporary culture through the prism of who she is now, on any particular day, she creates work which resonates in the cultural moment. The key to Bour’s creative process is to work consistently with dancers who are committed to movement invention and to develop a technique and language over time. Bour founded The Flying Mammoth with Loic Noisette in 2006 as a bridge between the different arts, cultures and countries they have encountered over the course of their careers. The unorthodoxy and internationality of both her professional and personal paths are strongly present in her choreographic process.

As the Fall 2011 Allesee Artist in Residence, Bour worked for a week with the talented dancers of WSU through teaching morning modern technique classes and then rehearsing in the evening with the dancers selected to be in her piece. The dancers found Bour’s choreographic process to be quite refreshing and different than any other residencies they have experienced before. Senior, Jordan Holland describes Bour’s movement to be “Deep, visceral, and organic; everything has intention.” The work is very detail oriented; yet Bour’s process of developing movement directly on the spot with the dancers is different for many of the WSU students.

In setting her new work entitled “Rouge,” Bour found inspiration in the classic tale of Little Red Ridding Hood. However, Bour’s rendition of the story is twisted with a modern spin of three different endings. The multiple endings relate to the concepts of defeating, being defeated, and indecision. All three endings can be witnessed at one time during the piece as the whimsical, yet contemporary music strings the story along. Bour pushes the dancers to be strong characters and precision movers with musically, pedestrian movement. Overall, Bour’s new version of Little Red Ridding Hood is pleasantly enthralling with an underlying parallel between real life and fairy tale.

Come see “Rouge” performed at the informance on Monday, October 31, at 12:30pm in the Maggie Allesee Studio Theatre, 3317 Old Main Building, 4841 Cass Detroit, MI 48201.

This is a free event and seating is limited so please arrive fifteen minutes early. Also, “Rouge” will be performed at the December Departmental Dance Concert on December 1-2 at 7:30pm and December 4 at 2:00pm and 7:00pm in the Maggie Allesee Studio Theatre, where other works choreographed by both students and faculty will be premiered.