When I was a professional ballet dancer I often felt penned in by a strange irony: although I’d been one out of crowds of thousands of dancers chosen to dance with Miami City Ballet, I found myself often questioning whether or not I was any good. I was also one of a handful of students chosen to study full-time at the School of American Ballet, arguably one of the top ballet schools in the world. But none of it mattered–at the end of the day I never could tell myself I was an exceptional dancer because I never quite knew–not with the kind of certainty that lives in your bones.
The business of ballet is not about handing out compliments, praise, or even the occasional pat on the back. It’s more about repetition and the constant quest for perfection, with the end result (a successful performance) being the reward. When teachers and directors give feedback they don’t use the “sandwich technique” of giving praise, criticism, and then more praise. Ballet directives are straight meaty criticism, no bread (which is bad for the figure, anyway). Dancers learn to crave attention–even if it’s critical–because it’s often the only indication of a dancer’s worth.
Even after I stopped dancing professionally I still wondered if I had been any good. That good old irony just wouldn’t get lost. There never were any answers, really. Only questions. Thinking about it was a fruitless exercise. The past was over.
I found a whole range of new ways to keep dance alive in my life: college dance companies, alternative nightclub performances, Sunday night World Beat Night with friends, African dance class in a church with jewel-box stained-glass windows. After a while I stopped worrying about whether I was “good” and just enjoyed these experiences.
Until last weekend.
I was headed into a Saturday morning dance class when I realized I had a shadow–a pig-tailed little girl in a polka dot dress. I smiled at her. “I like your pants,”she said. (Admittedly they are one of the groovier pairs I own). I thanked her and she continued escorting me down the hall. “Are you good?” she said, out of nowhere.
Ooo, kid, loaded question was my first thought. How to explain all of this stuff to her? But then I had to laugh because it didn’t matter anymore. So here’s what I said:
Now that dance is no longer my job I dance because I love it–for no other reason–and that is a huge relief.
This week I had the pleasure of interviewing Kat Roman, founder and Artistic Director of Copious Dance Theater. Founded in 2009, the company name is derived from the Latin adjective “Copiosus”, meaning plentiful or abundant. Ms. Roman shares the company philosophy and technique, based on the modern technique of Lester Horton, with students of all levels through regular classes and workshops. The Swiss native received her BFA in Dance from California State University Long Beach and holds a Horton pedagogy certification from the Ailey School in NYC. She currently teaches Horton Technique at Alonzo King Lines Dance Center in San Francisco. As the Artistic Director of Copious Dance Theater, Ms. Roman is charged with broadening the company’s reach by connecting with new audiences interested in dance. “My main goal is to make modern dance accessible to people,” she says.
Kat Roman in The Conference of the Birds Photo by Hemali Zaveri
1. Conference of the Birds was inspired by the Persian poem of the same name by Farid ud-Din. How did you discover this poem and why did you choose it as the basis of your new work? How do the central themes of the piece translate into choreography?
Four years ago a producer in San Jose approached me asking me “Hey can you choreograph to this story?” At the time I was very busy and involved in a different production so I couldn’t do it. I liked the story very much, and when I did some research last year, I found that there were many theater performances of this story but rarely any that were dance. I jumped on the opportunity hired a few more dancers in September and started to choreograph.
I chose it for the following reasons:
• A Story about Birds. Birds have interesting movement patterns on the ground and in the air. I thought it would be interesting to research them and included the specific bird mannerisms into our choreography: So each Dancer was assigned a character from the story. I embellished them by giving them some attributes. For example: The Hoopoe bird is the wisest of them all and is the “leader bird” of the group and also quickly gets annoyed and impatient when his flock of bird doesn’t follow directions or things to go her way. The parrot is cheerful and silly and the owl is our “goth chick”… dressed like one and acting like one and a bit slow overall. Some of the attributes are I made up, some are straight out of the original poem. I think they add depth to the story. It’s almost like placing an “easter egg” in a video game. If you look closely at the characters dancing you might figure out an entire new backstory about that bird.
• I like that it has many sections/valleys. In the story the birds must travel through many valleys to get to their ultimate destination. Here I have the potential to keep the audience engaged by changing the moods and environments the birds travel through constantly. Unlike more traditionally danced stories like Giselle where you look at peasants dancing for the first hour and the second hour one looks at the same forrest (no offense Giselle is a beautiful ballet). I am working closely with the lighting designer to create moods such as the scary valley of fire or a beautiful garden. In terms of music the audience will enjoy as similar roller coaster as well.
• It’s a beautiful story. I believe it’s the story of all of our lives. We all search for something bigger, fulfillment and happiness. Some travel, some go do drugs, some buy expensive things to find happiness. Yet, the ones who realize happiness and fulfillment is a choice they make every day… those are the richest people on earth. I realize this is not what Attar (the Author) wanted me “to get” from his poem. But the fact that I understand it this way and someone else might get something else that is valuable for them, makes this such a beautiful story.
2. Can you tell us a bit more about the high fashion costumes?
Ok, not sure how high fashion they are after all (I am smiling while writing this). I handcrafted and designed each and everyone of them even though I am not a costume or fashion designer but I like to sow and be creative. Instead of dressing all the birds into feathers and bird outfits, I chose to dress them like well dressed fashionable adults who have clothing attributes that point to what kind of bird they might be. To keep a common thread – I chose to dress them in military style coats and dresses – (do a google search for military style fashion images – so I am not talking about camouflage pants and boots here
By dressing the birds like humans, who experience human things and desires but still carry out their bird mannerisms in their movements I blend the fine line between human and bird. Just like the original poem: It’s a parable about birds but it really tells a story about humans. By not dressing them in bird costumes I also feel that the work is less likely turn into a children’s circus act.
Angela Dice Nguyen, Harper Addison in The Conference of the Birds Photo by Hemali Zaveri
3. Part of the mission of Copious Dance is to connect new audiences with dance. What are the most effective methods you’ve found? What do you hope audiences will experience?
I hope the audience won’t get bored. I want them to understand what they see on stage and be able to enjoy watching modern dance. Now days, “regular people” – meaning non-dancers, are often alienated by experimental modern dance. They don’t understand whats going on on stage. By adding fashion, lots of scenery changes, a clear story line and (of course) good choreography, I am hoping to keep the audience engaged. For those audience members who are not familiar with the story, I will have it printed in the program to follow along for those who like. I firmly believe it’s not good to let the audience walk out the door confused. I hope of course they that they will enjoy my work, but even if they don’t, at least they are not confused.
4. Anything else you’d like to share?
The story is for adults. Kids are welcome but they might not “get it”. If they are able to sit through a 90 minute program with only one intermission then by all means bring them.
Copious Dance Theater’s 2nd Home Season will headline the world premiere of Conference of the Birds and new work by Erik Wagner entitled, Glass Slippers. The evening will also include a reprise of the 2009 hit Taka and an energetic piece from Roman’s Horton Technique students entitled Bleuphoria.
As February draws to a close there’s no reason to stop that loving feeling. This year brought about a change in perspective for me regarding February; since I’ve never been wild about Hallmark Holidays, why not celebrate love–in all of its forms– for the entire month? Love feels good, doesn’t it? In the spirit of keeping love alive for all of February, I’ve searched for new dance-related things to love. This week we’ll close out the series by looking at 5 Dance Exhibits to Love. Enjoy!
Love Sky/Cielo del amor by CosasdeKike
Making Art Dance: Backdrops and Costumes From the Armitage Foundation. Karole Armitage, the “punk rock” ballerina, shares a new retrospective of her costumes and set pieces for the ballet, theater and film. Curated by former Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art director Jeffrey Deitch, the collection highlights innovative choreographer’s collaborations with fashion designers like LaCroix, Jean Paul Gaultier and Donna Karan’s Peter Speliopoulos, as well as with artists and filmmakers including Donald Baechler, Alba Clemente, Jeff Koons, David Salle and Philip Taaffe. Housed at Jersey City’s Mana Contemporary’s Glass Gallery, the show is a short PATH train commute from New York City — and a chance to check out this 50,000 square foot exhibit space designed by Richard Meier that opened last year. It’s also home for Armitage’s current troup, Armitage Gone! Dance. The company took up a residency in Mana Contemporary’s main building adjacent to the gallery.
Through March 13 at Mana Contemporary, 888 Newark Avenue, Jersey City, New Jersey;manacontemporary.com
National Museum of Dance: Jacques D’Amboise. This exhibition pays tribute to 2014 Hall of Fame Inductee, Jaques d’Amboise, whose determined spirit saw him through years of ballet training and countless hours of rehearsals with choreographic luminaries such as George Balanchine. His positive outlook has led him to become one of the premiere dance educators in the country. While you’re visiting the museum, take in other ongoing exhibits, including Dancers in Film, a retrospective of some of cinema’s finest footwork, and Richard Calmes’s Dance Magic photography exhibit.
Dance Theater of Harlem’s 40 Years of Firsts. Originally an exhibition at The New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in 2009, the exhibit is still just as relevant today….and available to travel. Highlighting Dance Theatre of Harlem’s 40-plus year history, this magnificent exhibition celebrates the history and art of dance with 22 costumes, set pieces, videos, photographs and tour posters from four staged ballets including: A Streetcar Named Desire, Creole Giselle, Dougla and Firebird. This multi-media exhibition captures the majesty of the choreography, the beauty of the costuming, and the dancers who defied gravity and stereotyping, and celebrates the history of Dance Theater of Harlem, a company that began when Arthur Mitchell –inspired by the death of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.–wanted to make a difference; by doing what he knew best. He brought the art form of ballet to Harlem. With a modest beginning, holding classes in a warehouse on 152nd Street, the school has greatly expanded and since grown into a multi-cultural dance institution. Visit the official website of the Dance Theatre of Harlem for further information.
Dancers Among Us. Jordan Matter made headlines when he became inspired to search for serendipitous dance moments out in the world. He photographed dancers in showers, snowbanks, New York City streets…even subways. This project became a passion and eventually a book, Dancers Among Us. Matter’s exhibits have since toured the world, most recently Seoul, Korea, and he’s now at work on a book about circus performers. Stay tuned.
JR. In 2007, (with Marco), he did Face 2 Face, the biggest illegal exhibition ever. He’s known for creating “Pervasive Art” that spreads uninvited on the buildings of the slums around Paris, on the walls in the Middle-East, on the broken bridges in Africa or the favelas in Brazil…. although he isn’t really known: French street artist JR prefers to remain anonymous. He’s come a long way from his humble beginnings– he got into photography after he found a camera in the Paris subway.
JR was a featured resident artist at Lincoln Center where he photographed the NYCB, and went on to continue working with ballet dancers, this time on the roof of the famous Palais Garnier, one of the homes of the Paris opera in a photo-shoot for the French magazine Madame Figaro. The spreadfeatures 40 dancers, over 180 feet above ground, the poses remininiscent of the classic musicals of Bubsy Berkley.
Most recently, in the three years after he called for a “participatory art project” at a TED conference in Long Beach, California, his Inside Out Project has become one of the most ambitious and appealing art projects in the world. The art project has expanded from the streets and villages across the globe, to installations in places like Lincoln Center, Times Square, Ellis Island and the Paris Pantheon.
Feeling intrigued? Inspired? Awesome! JR wants you…There’s an open call on his website where anyone can get involved.
Continuing with the theme of love in the month of February, I’m pleased to present more new things to love this week!. These 5 dancers–turned–authors to went from rocking it on the stage to rocking it on the page– Hope you enjoy learning about them and find new books to love in the process.
Zippora Karz. A former soloist ballerina with the New York City Ballet (1983–1999), Zippora Karz performed numerous roles choreographed by George Balanchine and Peter Martins, among others. In her memoir, The Sugarless Plum, Zippora shares how she was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes just as she was being featured in solo roles, yet found a way to continue to live her dream despite her illness. Her children’s picture book Ballerina Dreams shows kids how to live with diabetes. She is now a diabetes spokesperson and educator who regularly addresses major diabetes conferences and organizations worldwide. She also serves as a teacher and repetiteur for the George Balanchine Trust, rehearsing and staging Balanchine’s choreography for a host of national and international dance companies. More about Zippora here from a recent interview.
C. Leigh Purtill. In her own words, Leigh choreographs books and writes dance. A dancer since she was a little girl, she’s the author of Jennifer Aniston is My Best Friend, and the Fat Girls in L.A. series. Dance is still a big part of her life–she’s a ballet instructor in the Los Angeles area and regularly blogs about ballet at FitBallet. She’s currently putting the finishing touches on a zombie ballet.
Misty Copeland. While most people may know her from her recent viral video for Under Armor, Misty Copeland has been making headlines while changing the course of ballet history. Copeland recently debuted as American Ballet Theater’s first black Swan Queen, performing Odette/Odile, Swan Lake’s quintessential role. She is the third African-American soloist and first in two decades with ABT and author of Firebird, a picture book for young girls promoting self-confidence, and Life in Motion, her memoir, a story of her rise from incredible poverty to stardom despite all odds.
Miriam Landis. By eighteen, Miriam Landis was dancing soloist roles with Miami City Ballet; by twenty-two she was ready for a change of direction. While traveling abroad for multiple study programs, Landis turned to writing. She’s since become the author of Girl in Motion, Breaking Pointe and Behind Barres (a collection from Landis and fellow authors Amanda Brice and Leslie DuBois).
Terez Rose. Terez is a former ballet dancer who returned to the studio as a student. Her debut novel, Off Balance will be coming out in May 2015…more on that closer to the actual date! In her own words, she’s a lover of all things classical, including ballet and classical music. She’s also an adult beginner on the violin. You can read her musings on all things classical on her blog, The Classical Girl. Her essays have appeared in Literary Mama, Espresso Fiction, the Philadelphia Inquirer, and the Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel.
Hope you find some new books to love by these great authors!