(photo of Ethan Stiefel by Richard Calmes, from NYTimes)
Last night the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process event centered on Ethan Stiefel’s new dean-ship of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts (which is both a high school and now a university as well). Stiefel is of course a famous ABT principal, star of both Center Stage movies, and ran the summer program Stiefel and Students / Stiefel and Stars, out on Martha’s Vineyard, which my friend Alyssa and I went to a couple of years ago. It was hosted by blogger / dance writer and photographer (and former ABT dancer and NC School of the Arts alum) Matt Murphy, and also included choreographer Larry Keigwin (artistic director of Keigwin + Company), who was the recipient of the school’s first residency under Stiefel.
It was a fun evening. Discussion centered around Ethan’s decision to take on the position, in light of the fact that he’s still dancing (he’d had several surgeries on both knees, knew he wanted to do something like this at some point but stressed about when was proper time to do it), his new schedule (now waking at 6:30 — as opposed to 11 am when he use to wake as a dancer — to take class, then teach a couple of classes, then do all manner of administrative / financial / directorial things – -not easy tasks in light of current economic crisis, and still try to find time for his own rehearsals), and just generally his teaching and directorial aesthetics (he’d come up with eight “initiatives” to instill a culture and sense of identity in the school, the last of which Matt read — which was to encourage students to be inspired by both art and life.) Gia Kourlas has a good article in the Times that summarizes all of this as well.
Keigwin joined Matt and Ethan for the last quarter or so of the panel, and he spoke about his residency, how he’d choreographed a new work both on the students and his own company simultaneously, what it was like to work with students, and what it was like to be out of NY. I’d never heard him speak before and he’s very personable, fun, and chatty with a good sense of humor (which doesn’t surprise me — his work is largely humorous and accessible as well). He talked about the company being beyond thrilled with the washing machines and the cooking space (if you don’t get out of New York much, this kind of surprise happens!) and so enjoyed performing a lot of domestic activities. He was cute! And Ethan was his usual self — his completely understated, deadpan style of talking oozing with sexiness and manly charm. Before introducing one of his students’ performances — of the Four Cygnets in Swan Lake – he explained the girls wouldn’t have the swans’ usual hairpieces: “We got a lot going on and … we just didn’t get that done in time,” he said with a smile and a shrug. Somehow the way he said it just gave everyone the giggles, which, honestly, often happens when the man speaks.
Anyway, we saw Tangled Tango, a modern piece by Dianne Markham, a contemporary choreographer at the school, the pas de deux and coda from Le Corsaire, which Ethan staged, the Four Cygnets from Swan Lake staged by Nina Danilova, and August Bournonville’s The Jockey Dance, also staged by Ethan.
Finally, we ended with Keigwin’s Natural Selection (a modern piece), which totally blew me away. The Keigwin was based on Darwin, survival of the fittest and all that, and was so stunning, filled with very difficult partnering, lifts, students crawling around on the floor, clawing at the ground and each other, lashing out, really having at each other. (So, not quite his usual humorous piece) A guy crawled around with a girl wrapped around him, underneath him. At one point, it slowed, several dancers huddled around each other in a group, each kind of resting, momentarily, putting his / her ear to the back in front of them, perhaps comforting the other, perhaps trying to determine whether his / her heart was still beating, lungs still rising, to determine whether they’d “won”. Then a girl came rushing at them, climbed right over the huddle and jumped right onto the wall in back of them. Someone crawled after her and pushed her back to the ground. Keigwin’s signature move then ensued: a group of male dancers lifted her and she bent sideways, and ran alongside the back wall. The audience was wowed. But more importantly, I think, it was such a wonderful piece for students. I mean, what better way to teach them partnering, how to work with each other, how to be dramatic, how to make the meaning of a work come alive. I loved it!
(other dancers performing that move, photographer unknown, image taken from MySpace, here)
My other favorites were: the Four Cygnets — whoa, that was PERFECTLY done! Those girls — Tessa Blackman, Maya Joslow, Amy Saunder, and Lauren Sherwood — should be so proud of themselves; and Le Corsaire — but of course I’m a sucker for that kind of bravura dancing. I was really afraid, holding my breath the whole time with that one — I mean that stage is soooo small for all that leaping and those insanely high lifts. The two dancers — Claire Kretzschmar and Kristopher Nobles (who looked like a young Gillian Murphy and Jose Carreno respectively!) did splendidly on their own. I couldn’t help but giggle during Nobles’s huge, stage-encompassing leaps and Kretzschmar’s beautiful continuous fouettes and the gorgeously high lifts — all wonderfully executed — except because of said miniscule stage, her hand almost took a light out on one such spectacular lift. There was a tiny bit of fumbling on some of the partnering — the assisted pirouettes and the promenade, but I was actually glad for the audience to understand how insanely hard those things are. People think that’s the easy stuff — and the lifts are the hard parts — but the assisted pirouettes and promenades, when the girl is totally off her center of gravity and the guy has to help keep her centered, are some of the hardest aspects of partnering. Now maybe Met orchestra peeps will not be so confused when the young dance students in family circle go wild for Marcelo the great’s ten bizillion one-handed turns with Julie Kent
Here’s a video of the Four Cygnets, here’s some classic Corsaire (they didn’t do all of this insanity, but you get the idea), and here is The Jockey Dance (it was performed last night by two boys, Devin Sweet and Shane Urton).
The Jockey Dance was fun too — one of those dances that looks deceptively easy, but you can tell is really hard, with all the bouncing jumps, playful competitiveness– using a whip no less, and fast footwork.
Gillian Murphy (ABT prima ballerina, Ethan’s girlfriend, and NC School of the Arts alum) was there too. Poor thing had to sit in the critics’ section! Luckily Sir Alastair was not there… The program repeats tonight, but is sold out.