Dance aesthetics percolated: Deployment of choreographic methodologies into dance works at University of the Arts


Photo: "Snow" choreographed by Netta Yerushalmy  Credit: THEYbkyln

by Gregory King, Visiting Assistant professor of Dance at Swarthmore College

Modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones’ multi – media work “Still/ Here” (1994) – based on the video recordings of people with life threatening illness, is just one example of the use of media and how contemporary choreographers have honed in on exploring the realms of storytelling through other mediums.

This was true for Brittany Davis’ “Eyes Wide Shut”. A dance film that used the environment as its stage, the film began with an empty barn with wooden beams. Themes of baptism and rebirth were present as the film switched from the barn to dancer Jessica Adams standing in a body of water. From one environment to the next, her sustained quality echoed the musical composition of Icelandic guitarist and vocalist, Jonsi. A strong display of cleanly articulated lines, Adams became an extension of her environment mirroring the calmness of the water as she stood still, and striking the space to mimic the geometric structure of the barn as she used her body to create beautiful shapes. Davis directed Adams to lather her hands with mud and in another scene, pick bark from a tree in the forest. There was no clear narrative, nevertheless, commendation to Davis for presenting dance in a different format from the typically used dancing bodies on a proscenium stage.

The social landscape of America was in great upheaval in the sixties. The sexual revolution, feminism, burgeoning anti-war voices, and the intensification of the civil rights movement, gave artists of that time a plethora of subject matters to explore through their choreography.

In an article for the Encyclopedia of Activism and Social Justice, Jesse Phillips-Fein explains how dance not only contributed to activism but how choreographers use dance as a vehicle for making political statements. Political issues such as race, HIV/ AIDS, gender identity, sexuality and freedom have been the theme for many choreographers. Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and her company, Urban Bush Women, have been committed to using dance theatre as a catalyst for social change through telling the stories of disenfranchised people in pieces such as “Hair Stories” and “Batty Moves”.

A political statement was made when Jacob Van Horn tackled the issue of masculinity in his piece “When I Become a Man.” The men demonstrated solidarity, unity, strength, and resistance, with arms lifted and fists clenched. Danced exquisitely by Kleionne McDavid, James Mertz, and Dexter Christopher Carter, the choreography showed variation in energy dynamics as their quick paced acrobatic feats transitioned seamlessly into moments of walking, then stillness. Abound in its virtuosic offerings, one young man threw himself into the air and stayed air bound for what felt like minutes, only to be cradled by his two brothers. The gasping audience rewarded that moment with finger snaps and cheers. They danced to text by Clayton Jennings and what started as a colony of togetherness, loosened as each dancer claimed the space as if to tell his own story. As they introduced themselves in brief solos, their athletic, agile bodies each described different aspects of the same man; The vulnerable man, the caring man, the oppressed man, the lonely man, the supportive man, the defiant man, the resilient man, the angry man, the fighting man. The men performed grounded movements that worked well with the gestures akin to any reference of political uprising.

In the wake of the senseless shootings of Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, the sensibility of ‘artistic politics of the times’, which was echoed in Amanda Edward’s “Silence is The Noise of the Differed Dream” followed a similar methodology. She choreographed a piece that sent a message about rejecting set formulations in order to “rise above.” From the Maya Angelou quote of desiring a brighter tomorrow to the spoken hip-hop references in Edward’s text, the piece unveiled a highly radical message of integration and cultural co-existence. Edwards was successful in establishing a vocabulary that revealed a mass in motion, a march, a war worth fighting, a cause worth defending. One male, six females gave activism a physical presence as they rallied around each other to show support. At one point in the piece the group moved upstage, forming a metaphoric barrier, a wall, an impenetrable structure of stability and permanence. In an essay titled “Dance in Hip-Hop Culture” by Katrina Hazzard-Donald, she argues that hip-hop dancing aggressively asserts male dominance. Although there was no direct reference to hip-hop dancing in terms of whaacking, breaking, popping or locking, the piece had a hip-hop sensibility in context. The piece ends with the sole male standing upright with his arm raised while his six female cast mates cascaded to the floor. One might ask if this was a deliberate display of the male dominance addressed in Hazzard-Donald’s essay.

Dominique Stanfield’s “Translucent” had four words wrapped all around it; minimalism, humor, chaos, and eclecticism. These four words can be used to describe works from the Judson Church Choreographers. Wearing black tights and an oversized grey and black long sleeved shirts, the dancers entered the stage with the female dancer straddling the shoulders of the male dancer.

He stomped onto the stage with a directly aggressive strut that was both dominant and robot-like. Veronica Krysa and Montay Romero came to life in this well crafted duet. To a musical composition by Alva Noto, Romero lowered Krysa into the delicate space that eventually erupted into chaotic frenzy of detailed arms gestures and intricate partnering. There was tension in the dancers arms and upper bodies when Montay manipulated Krysa as if trying to throw her off her axis.

She acquiesced and melted into his initiations by responding calmly to his touch.

They generated an energy that sent the audience in an uproar by the end of piece and you were left with the image of Krysa, returning to the shoulders of Romero, as he slowly exited the stage.

Experimentation, individuality, and freedom allowed choreographers to push the trajectory of dance and in so doing have set the tone for a new generation of dance artists.

A link, a reference, a connection to the past.

Done before; to be done again.

Technology, improvisation, activism in motion.

History does repeat itself; this time, with the volume turned up.



About Gregory King

Gregory King received his MFA in Choreographic Practice and Theory from Southern Methodist University. In addition, he is certified in Elementary Labanotation. His dance training began in Washington DC at the Washington Ballet and later at American University. He went on to participate in the Horton Project in conjunction with the Library of Congress. His training continued at the prestigious institutions such as The Dance Theatre of Harlem and The Alvin Ailey School. Gregory has performed with The Washington Ballet, Rebecca Kelly Ballet, Erick Hawkins Dance Company, New York Theatre Ballet, Donald Byrd /The Group, The Metropolitan Opera Ballet, New York City Opera, and Disney’s The Lion King on Broadway.

His desire to integrate social activism into his choreography began with his graduate thesis, where he used the platform to push the conversation about homophobia and heterosexism. He is a lover of movement exploration and describes his aesthetic as a classical base with a theatrical flair.

He has taught at Boston Ballet, Boston Conservatory, Boston University, Bowdoin College, Dallas Black Dance Theatre and Texas Ballet Theatre. Additionally, he has served as a teaching artist in public schools in and around Dallas, as Resident Guest artist at Temple University and Assistant Professor of Dance at Dean College. Recently, Gregory received the Excellence in Teaching Award from the National Society of Leadership and Success. He is currently a Visiting Professor of Dance and Consortium on Faculty Diversity Fellow at Swarthmore College where he teaches Modern and continues to use his choreography as a means for social change.

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