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Dance Students Take On Three Masterworks

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They are, indisputably, three of the 20th century’s greatest American choreographers. Merce Cunningham, Jerome Robbins, Paul Taylor—each name immediately evokes a repertory of enduring, distinctive dances that embody each man’s very personal, often idiosyncratic vision. Works by this trio provide the particularly challenging repertory that is being performed by 58 Dance Division students this month. Two of the works—Cunningham’s Summerspace and Robbins’s N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz—were created in the same year, 1958, while Taylor’s Last Look had its premiere 25 years ago. 

Members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company were seen in a 2001 staging of Summerspace, which will be performed at Juilliard this month.

(Photo by Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company)

Members of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company were seen in a 2001 staging of Summerspace, which will be performed at Juilliard this month.

(Photo by Photo courtesy of Merce Cunningham Dance Company)

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Taylor, a Juilliard alumnus whose dances range from the luminous to the profoundly disturbing, is going strong as he approaches his 80th birthday later this year. His remarkable company is performing a large repertory, including two premieres, at City Center this month. Cunningham, boldly creative right up to the age of 90, died last July, and both his company and the dance world are still adjusting to the shock of that monumental loss. Robbins died in 1998, but his works continue to be performed regularly by New York City Ballet and staged for numerous troupes worldwide. 

The crucial work of communicating the essence of these choreographers’ works to a new generation of dancers requires highly specialized talents. Each of the three dances for this program—which features live music performed by the Juilliard Orchestra under George Stelluto, and Juilliard Jazz musicians—is being staged by a former dancer who worked closely with the choreographer. Rehearsing with the students since mid-January, they are responsible not just for teaching the correct steps so that an accurate version of the dance is performed, but also for helping these young dancers understand the more subtle intricacies that contribute to the individual choreographer’s approach and give the dance its unique identity. 

Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace is one of the earliest of his works that his company has kept in repertory. Banu Ogan, who danced with the company from 1993 to 2000, first encountered it early in her career, as an apprentice. “We did a lot of those old pieces that Merce made when he had six company members,” she said in a recent interview. “We worked on it quite a lot and Merce worked on it with us. It felt very different from the works he was making during the 1990s, when he was using computer software in his choreography and it got very complex, involving a lot of arms. This was one of the most balletic pieces that I performed with Merce. It’s pretty vertical, there’s not as much use of the spine. There are lots of turns, lots of jumps.” 

Ogan, who has been a Dance Division faculty member for five years, is staging this delicate, atmospheric piece for Juilliard, working with two casts. Subtitled “a lyric dance,” Summerspace incorporates complex patterning within its deceptively open, expansive choreography. Writing to Robert Rauschenberg, the artist who was his longtime collaborator and designed the work’s scenery and costumes, Cunningham said, “I have the feeling it’s like looking at part of an enormous landscape and you can only see the action in this particular portion of it.”

During an early rehearsal with Juilliard students in late January, Ogan was teaching the two men performing Cunningham’s original role a passage marked by fleet, space-devouring jumps and fast, precise footwork. The dancers worked in silence. They would not hear the Morton Feldman score, Ogan explained later, until technical rehearsals, shortly before the performances. One of Cunningham’s many innovations was creating his dances independently from the scores that accompanied them. “What they’re doing has nothing to do with the music. We always rehearsed in silence,” Ogan said, noting that the dancers rely on the choreography’s inner rhythms and on cues from each other.

Even at this early stage of the process, Ogan sounded impressed. “It is a highly technical piece, and the dancers here are just phenomenally trained, and have enormous capability. So I knew that they would be able to do it well. Being off-balance in the transfer of their weight is something new for them, too. They were excited for a new challenge, a new way of thinking.”

The same year that Summerspace premiered at the American Dance Festival, Jerome Robbins launched Ballets: USA, a troupe of youthful, versatile dancers who toured Europe with bracing new works that exemplified American verve and contemporary sensibilities. In N.Y. Export: Opus Jazz, Robbins also used an original score—a tense, punchy, jazz-flavored one by Robert Prince—and had a distinguished visual artist, Ben Shahn, designing his sets. But otherwise, these two contemporaneous dances are worlds apart.

Fresh from the triumph of West Side Story, Robbins had his finger on the pulse of the period’s restless, territorial, alienated youth. While Opus Jazz—which has a cast of 16—is an abstract work, it pulsates with the contemporary tension and edgy social encounters that mark the West Side Story dances. 

“I always think of this as being Jerry’s concert version of West Side,” said Gary Chryst, who is staging the ballet for Juilliard, during a post-rehearsal interview. After a stellar career with the Joffrey Ballet—where he danced in Opus Jazz as well as Robbins’s Interplay and Moves—Chryst had an active, varied freelance career and performed on Broadway in Guys and Dolls and A Chorus Line. He remarked on how the ballet reflects its era. “The coolness, and being exact in your movement, being very clear, without it being forced. One thing Jerry said was, ‘It’s not a jazz ballet. Don’t dance it like you’re dancing a jazz ballet.’ Because it really was a contemporary theme, presented in abstract movement of that time.”

Shortly before the interview, Chryst had been in the midst of five male dancers, urging them along—and grinning happily when they “got it”—as they absorbed the aggressive flavor of the second section, set to driving percussion. The dance he first performed 35 years ago was clearly still in his muscle memory. The Joffrey dancers had learned it from Wilma Curley, an original cast member of Opus Jazz, just as Ogan’s generation of Cunningham dancers worked closely with Carolyn Brown, also an original cast member when Summerspace was revived for the company in 1999. Brown, the artistic advisor for the Juilliard staging, will be coaching the dancers shortly before the performances.   

“It’s harder than I thought, to stage this,” Chryst said afterwards. It’s not about doing ballet steps—a lot of it is based on the personalities. It’s important for the dancers to feel that they are a community, because that’s what it is about, a total communal feeling, all dancing together. All different, but dancing as one.” 

There’s a communal pull at work in Taylor’s Last Look as well, but these nine people are united in their desperation and futility. Arising from a pile of slumped bodies, only to return there at the end, they never leave the stage, and their activity—taking place in between, or in front of, eight mirrored panels—reeks of violence and self-loathing. Set to an original, evocative score by Juilliard alumnus Donald York, it is one of Taylor’s most powerful and unique works, and the Juilliard production is only the second to be staged outside of his own company.

The students could not be learning it from a more authoritative source. Linda Kent, a Dance Division faculty member since 1984, danced with Taylor’s troupe for 15 years and was in the original cast of Last Look. She began staging his works in 1977 and has traveled worldwide to set dozens of productions. Often, she stages in-demand Taylor favorites that she has worked on many times. Since this is her first staging of Last Look, she prepared by studying various available filmed records, as well as the Labanotation score, to prepare her own urtext—a notebook of meticulously neat and detailed descriptions and diagrams. One short section alone merits an intricate chart that indicates which dancer flings his or her body in what direction, from what place on the stage, and on what count. Kent estimates that preparing this complete notebook for the dance required between 75 and 100 hours. But now she is armed and ready, should another dance company be brave enough to attempt the work. 

She knows many of her dancers well (there are two alternating casts), having taught Taylor technique to the third- and fourth-year students. “And they also worked with [dance faculty member] Carolyn Adams. The way we want them to learn to move here is from the inside out, not just make pictures—and they’re able to do that,” Kent said. “Last Look is not about steps. He wanted the piece to have no unison, no partnering, and it was going to be very angry and different. He juxtaposed two ways of moving: heavy and lethargic, and then frenzied and frantic. We were supposed to not be able to stand to look at ourselves.”

Less than two weeks into rehearsal, Kent was teaching a section toward the end of the piece. Notebook often in hand, she nonetheless was also busy getting down on her knees and in the midst of a cluster of bodies to demonstrate a movement. “Don’t get comfortable!” she urged. She never mentioned the names of dance steps, but rather identified moments as “the freakout,” “electric shock,” and “sacrificial circling.”

The studio throbbed with energy and discovery, as dancers who had not been born when Taylor choreographed Last Look recreated its essence through the guidance of one of its original interpreters. Speaking after rehearsal, Kent expressed satisfaction with the progress she’d seen, and said, “Yesterday we put this huge chunk together, and I was sitting there, and going, ‘Oh my gosh—they’re getting it!’ They were investing in it in the way they have to.”

 

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