Soul Soil: A-List Choreographer Moses Pendleton and the Alchemy of Turning Human Bodies into Saguaro Cacti and Other Odd Things

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

When Moses Pendleton, the superstar co-founder of Pilobolus and dance maker extraordinaire, was a wee lad, one of his jobs on the family dairy farm was to feed the veal calves a nutritious milk supplement. The name of the supplement?

Momix.

Pendleton returned to this physical memory later when he choreographed a solo for the 1980 Moscow Olympics called “Momix,” the “mo” reportedly doubling as a reference to Pendleton himself, the “mix” alluding to the grab-bag of theatrical delights Pendleton throws into his dance-making stew. To call what Pendleton does “dance” is misleading, especially for someone who may associate the word with classical, recognizable forms like ballet, jazz or even contemporary or hip-hop.

It’s more like movement theatrics.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus comes to The Straz on March 23. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

As a co-founder of Pilobolus, his first movement endeavor with fellow Dartmouth dance student Jonathan Wolken and others, Pendleton and crew pulled another name from a family source. Wolken’s dad was studying a certain light-loving fungus called Pilobolus crystallinus, and the name, Pilobolus [pe-LOB-ah-lus], stuck. The women and men of Pilobolus were way more into upending expectations than presenting pretty works to show off technique (hey, this was the ‘70s, after all, so being far out was, well    . . . far out! . . . and most of them didn’t have any dance training, anyway).  What they created was a mad-cap theatrical spectacle that relied as much on brute strength and derring-do as it did on anyone’s ability to extend through the line.

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An early performance of “Pilobolus.” This is the seminal work from which the company evolved. (Photo: Tim Matson)

By the end of the ‘70s, Pendleton’s creative drive led him to form a new company, a sort of off-shoot of the Pilobolus idea but with more intentional stagecraft like lighting tricks, props, and soundscaping. The name he chose conformed to the earth-family ties of Pilobolus nomenclature. The name that stuck?

MOMIX.

Pendleton, whose rural, agricultural upbringing defined his world view, eventually bought a Connecticut compound complete with a rambling 22-room main farmhouse and a converted horse barn for the MOMIX movement lab. He meant to explore the human form in non-human worlds, blending his study of animals, plants and minerals into works of gorgeous, simple explorations of themes: seasons (Botanica), the moon (Lunar Sea), the four elements (Alchemia).

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MOMIX Lunar Sea. (Photos: Max Pucciariello)

Even now as a man in his late-60s, he follows the same routine that he has for decades: get up, swim, build fire, go on walk, work. These walks, from three to four hours in the woods around his home, include copious photographs, many of which inspire later choreography. His photos, which are quite stunning, have been on exhibit in the United States and Europe and serve, as one gallery curator noted, as tangible documentation of where his dances come from. Sunflowers, decaying foliage, trees, lichen, rock formations—these images compel Pendleton and his MOMIX dancers to work tirelessly in the horse barn animating the non-human world through the human body, “the greatest toy we have,” Pendleton says.

To connect his dancers’ souls to the soil, Pendleton invites them to his land, giving them good old fashioned chores like weeding, tending the sunflower fields and planting marigolds to build their personal connection to the living things they will embody. He demands his dancers possess acting and mimetic skills equal to their dancing ability because the work of MOMIX often requires dancers to become something other than human—especially in his work coming here March 23, a reboot of his 2001 ingenious depiction of the southwestern desert mystique, Opus Cactus.

Opus Cactus, perhaps one of Pendleton’s most critically-acclaimed works (and definitely an audience favorite), captures the desert garden world of the southwest. With the help of entrancing world music and a lighting palette worthy of Georgia O’Keefe, the dancers morph in and out of various splendors found in the sun and sand—including the sun and the sand. Cacti tableaux abound as Pendleton’s crop of muscular dancer-gymnast-illusionists take the forms of the iconic saguaro and the pretty, lobular prickly pear.

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MOMIX Opus Cactus. (Photo: Charles Azzopardi)

The trick to really enjoying MOMIX is to not think about it too much. Even MOMIX will tell you that most of the time it doesn’t “mean” anything. An evening with MOMIX is meant to bring satisfaction to the audience, in whatever ways works, whether it’s the deft use of props and costumes or the sensual architecture of human bodies morphing into fighting Gila monsters or mimicking the suspended-in-air radiation of desert heat.

As Pendleton said in an interview, “we are nurtured by nature. It’s a muse, an inspiration. Which jumps right into the aesthetic of MOMIX. There’s a level of the surreal and dream, and making the connection with plant, animal and mineral.”

Fun MOMIX note: maybe you’re getting a certain familiar feeling looking at the MOMIX pix? Well, you may remember the company from a few commercials, like this one from Hanes:

Or Target:

Practice Makes Perfect

Inside Next Generation Ballet’s Nutcracker rehearsal

img_7571Dance rehearsal smells like feet and moist leotards. There’s nothing elegant about it. When the dancers work hard, improvising corrections on-the-fly from choreographers and ballet mistresses, there is a locker-room funk suspended in the air from sweat-dampened dance clothes, breath and many bodies moving in one studio classroom.

So it was the night we caught up with Next Generation Ballet midway through their Nutcracker rehearsal schedule (which started in September) in room 302 of the Patel Conservatory. We sat in on a first run-through of Act II: Land of the Sweets (you’ll know it as the dance-of-the-sugar-plum-fairy part if you’re not familiar with the ballet) where all levels assembled: the adorable tots performing roles of caterpillars, the beginning and intermediate dancers in corps de ballet roles supporting the advanced dancers in solos (you’re in for a treat with the technical skill of the female NGB dancers) and more challenging small group parts (as the quartet of males performing the knee-punishing “Russian Dance”).

Rehearsals highlight the behind-the-scenes grit and grind that comprise a dancer’s life. In rehearsal, we see the dancers fall out of a triple pirouette, spinning to their shins. They slip on their red ribbons, create slapstick traffic jams exiting the stage and grimace as ballet mistress Ivonne Lemus yells corrections over the music, pushing dancers to extend into a higher diagonal in a leap. Artistic Director Philip Neal, decked out in the official NGB Nutcracker t-shirt, bobbed his head in time, barely blinking as he assessed timing, execution, phrasing, and technique during the deceptively organized chaos.

img_7598The excitement of catching a rehearsal at this stage—the moves and sequences are there but not quite mastered to perfection—is witnessing the work it takes to make a dance, with its stories and characters carried on a platform of technical physical challenge, congeal. As patrons of the arts, we’re often privy to the finished product, the flawless execution of art at the point where the dancers make the moves look easy.

Ellie Borick, 16, dances the Snow Queen and Dewdrop. “I love doing these roles. It’s challenging artistically and technically, but I have to get the role right and look beautiful doing it,” she laughs. “I’m excited to see the whole ballet come together. There’s so much color and life. When we finally get to put on our costumes and see each other in costumes, it gets very exciting, and I can’t wait for that.”

Eliot Wallace, 15, performs as one of the Chinese Dancers in the international section. In NGB’s interpretation, they incorporate 7-foot long red ribbons, which they must also twirl in a separate choreography to match their ballet sequences. “At this stage, we are working out not getting the ribbons tangled with each other, to make sure we keep the ribbon moving,” he says. “Right now, we know everything we have to do. But we still have kinks to work out, and we have to add a layer of expression to our performances.”

“Tonight is our first night running through the whole Act II,” says 17-year-old ballerina Amy Wilson. “We’ll be working to make it smoother. Timing is a focus at this point, making sure people know when to go on, how to get off stage.”

The dancers, unflagging in their spirits about fine-tuning an exhausting and demanding full ballet, draw together as a company, often applauding each other for particularly tough sequences (gawd the fouettes and pirouettes), and erupting in amazement at the jaw-dropping tumbling passes by the Acrobats. (We, too, were agape. See video above.)

Luke Guiterrez, 11, takes on several roles throughout the ballet, and you will see him first as Fritz, the little brother, and later as a Soldier and as part of the Polichinelle, the children who scamper around the Mother Matroyshka Dolls, the always delightful life-sized Russian nesting dolls. He is something of a cherished younger cast member and sums up the experience rather well:  “When you have a bunch of practices together and work so hard, when the show ends you wish it would keep going.”

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Left to right: Amy Wilson, Ellie Borick, Luke Guiterrez and Eliot Wallace.

Leotard, Check. Make-Up Kit, Check. Valve Oil? Check.

The Patel Conservatory Gears Up for Another School Year

There’s no such thing as summer break for the faculty and staff of the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory. We spend the summer months steeped in a camps, classes, workshops, performances and pre-professional productions like this year’s impressive mounting of an almost full-scale Les Miserables. So, we have just enough time to clean the mirrors and sweep the floors before we welcome our next season’s spate of students when the official school year starts Monday, Aug. 29.

While other school years start with a backpack full of composition notebooks, the Conservatory school year starts with small duffel bags stuffed with leotards, hairpins, dance shoes, make-up kits, music, reeds, valve oil and water bottles. No matter what class you’re taking, everybody needs a reusable water bottle. Our students also need plenty of traditional school supplies: paper for notes, pencils and three-ring binders.

In case any of our incoming students forgot what they’ll need for dance, theater or music class, we asked the tireless faculty to let us publish the must-haves for your first day of school.

So, scan these handy checklists to make sure you’re prepared for another exciting year of friends, rehearsals, creative challenges and unforgettable moments.

 

DANCE

  • Dance bag
  • Appropriate dance attire*
  • Appropriate dance footwear*
  • Personal hairbrush and hair spray (boys and girls)
  • Personal bobby pins, hair net (to match your hair color), hair ties (girls)
  • Performance make-up (refer to handbook for make-up suggestions)
  • Water bottle

*See your specific class information sheet

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Did you sign up for ballet? Or tap? How about jazz? Maybe Flamenco? There’s a shoe for that.

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You can never have too many bobby pins. Ever.

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Our handbook has lots of helpful hair and make-up suggestions to get you show-ready.

 

THEATER AND MUSICAL THEATER

  • Performer bag (small duffel or backpack)
  • Pencil w/eraser
  • Folder or binder for sheet music & script storage
  • Highlighter
  • Scrap paper for notes
  • School appropriate movement/gym clothes
  • Jazz shoes or sneakers
  • Water bottle (healthy snack for classes/rehearsals longer than 2 hrs.)
  • Recording device (phone or tablet)
  • Personal hairbrush/comb & hair ties
  • Make-up kit for productions
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A highlighter will make marking your script much easier.

theater - movement clothes

Make sure you are dressed ready to move.

theater - make up

Bring your make-up kit for dress rehearsals and performances.

 

MUSIC

  • Black, 3 ring binder (preferably with a matte finish that does not reflect light on stage)
  • Pencils (many!)
  • Water bottle, especially for singers
  • Extra paper for notes
  • Extra reeds for woodwind players
  • Valve oil for brass players
  • Rosin for string players
  • New set of strings
  • Scale and arpeggio sheets
  • Method books
  • Make sure your concert attire is clean and ready to go
Music - binder_crawford long

A black, 3-ring binder keeps all of your sheet music neat and tear-free.

music - Strings, rosin, pencil

Extra strings, rosin and a pencil are very important to have in your string instrument case.

music - method books, scale and arpeggio sheet, practice sheet

The one day you don’t have your book is the one day your teacher will ask you to take it out and use it in class.

For life-long learners in the adult classes, you can find similar information on the Straz Center website.

If the notion of arpeggio sheets, jazz shoes or two hour rehearsals get you as excited as it does us, know that it’s never too late to sign up for Patel Conservatory classes for yourself or your family and friends. View classes and register here.

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Okay, Ladies, Now Let’s Get in Formation

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Former Next Generation Ballet Trainees. (Photo: Michelle Revels)

Ballet conjures images of tutus, tights, impossible-looking turns on tips of toes and gravity-defying mid-air leaps. If you’ve never taken a ballet class or had a little ballet beginner, then you may not realize those tricky combinations of flicks, kicks, twists, tippy-toe steps, glides, bends and hops emerge from a seriously old set of schematics precise and infallible enough to impress the most demanding engineer.

And those schematics depend on five simple foot positions.

“The ballet positions not only create a foundation for technique but are crucial for the linking of movement, so ballet appears seamless,” says Philip Neal, Dance Department Chair and Artistic Director of Next Generation Ballet.

Poster, New York City Ballet, 19601980

When skill at European court dances (ballet de cour) became so popular in the 1500s, instructors needed a technique. The court dances relied on the dancer being nimble, with the hip rotators turned so the feet shifted from face-forward to out-to-the-side. With feet and toes pointed outward and the hips rotated, dancers had a greater, more controlled, more fluid range of motion. They created, with this simple adjustment of hips and feet, something quite titillating: possibility for moving and moving across floors.

Eventually, a Parisian choreographer, Pierre Beauchamp, codified “turnout” of the hips and the five basic foot positions to improve strength and flexibility in turnout in the 17th century. Beauchamp’s boss, King Louis XIV, appointed Beauchamp and twelve others to set the artistic standards of classical ballet as we know it today. And did they.

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2015 Next Generation Ballet Summer Intensive dancers in class at the Straz Center. (Photo: Stormy Sea Studio)

Thus, ballet begins—not with 5, 6, 7, 8!—but with first, second, third, fourth and fifth. These five basic positions of the feet on the floor relative to the dancer’s body serve as the building blocks for every subsequent step, combination of steps, phrase, leap and combination of leaps and phrases. Next time you’re at a classical ballet, watch: every movement and pose begins and ends in one of these five steps.

Lest these simple-looking positions—feet together, feet apart, feet apart at a different angle, feet together again—belie their difficulty, first let us talk a little about what a dancer is going for in these basic positions. The trick is interior mastery of muscles and groups of muscles, connection with one’s center of gravity, execution of proper alignment and stance in which the pelvis and shoulder girdle must be in line with invisible vertical, horizontal, saggital (left/right) and frontal (front/back) planes. And, she or he must remember to “hold” the body with these particular but unnoticeable-to-the-audience forces:

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So, when you practice these positions in your class or you see dancers “working through the positions” in warm up or catch a glimpse of these building blocks in your next viewing of Swan Lake, know that there is much more than meets the eye. In fact, simply standing in first position using proper technique engages more than 20 muscles: the gluteus medius, gluteus minimus, tensor fascia latae, adductor magnus, adductor longus, adductor brevis, pectineus, adductor gracillis, gluteus maximus, deep six lateral rotators, sartorius, rectus femoris, biceps femorus, quadriceps vastii, spinal extensors and transverse abdominus.

Plus you have to do all this while breathing and keeping a pleasant look on your face.

First position:

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Balls of the feet turned out completely, heels touch. Dancer attempts to create a straight line, or a 180-degree angle. “At barre, we begin with first position to establish turnout in the hips. It’s important not to force turnout from the knee down but rather at the pelvis,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Second position:

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Similar to first, but the heels separate by a length of 1 1/2 times the dancer’s foot. “Second position, a wider open stance, helps prepare stability and strength for jumps and larger scale movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Third position:

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Here, one foot is in front with the front foot touching the middle of the back foot. “Third is hardly used anymore, except perhaps in character movement,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

 Fourth position:

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Same as third, but feet are apart by a space of the dancer’s foot-length. Neal says, “It’s crucial as a preparation for turning.” (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Fifth position:

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Both feet touch with the toes of each foot reaching the heels of the other foot. “Fifth is the most valuable position of all, and the hardest to perfect,” says Neal. (Photo: The Ballet Companion by Eliza Gaynor Minden)

Tip from Neal: “I teach that fifth position should be like a Ziploc bag. Each leg is color-coded like a sandwich bag, one leg is yellow, the other is green. In fifth, a tightly closed position, yellow and blue seal to make green, to seal in the freshness of the position! Think of the legs like crossed beams in a structure providing stability to a building.”

 

In any given classical ballet class worth its salt, instructors take dancers through several series of exercises working the feet, legs and hips through these positions. These building blocks define the placement of the feet on the floor and, eventually, define the placement of the dancer in the studio and on the stage. Proper technique from these five positions makes pushing from the floor for leaps and turns possible, and the extensive vocabulary of ballet begins with learning these five simple—but not easy—steps. To get ballet, you’ve got to get in formation.

Paper + Glue + Satin = Athletic Equipment

You Can Tell A Lot About A Woman By Her Shoes

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Photo by Soho Images.

Ballet, with its emphasis on gracefulness, classical music and tutus, is subject to a bevy of cultural misunderstandings, one of the most glaring is the conception that ballerinas are fragile dancing fairies, or Queen Faeries, depending upon the role. Not so. Just take a look at their only required equipment: the pointe shoe.

Let’s get this straight: Ballerinas are not nymphs, no matter how they appear in all those layers of twittering tulle. They are physical ninjas, gliding along the stage in endless bourres or whipping around silently in such things as Odile’s legendary 32 fouettes for Swan Lake (and then American Ballet Theatre’s Gillian Murphy insanely mixed it up with additional pirouettes, as if it needed to be more challenging?).

Unlike male dancers, who perform in ballet slippers, ballerinas must perform en pointe in a shoe constructed of little more than paper, glue and satin. In this shoe, she will balance all of her body weight on the tips of her toes, mostly between the big and second toes. She will endure bunions and broken nails, blisters and stress fractures, possible osteoarthritis and tendonitis and any number of wonky injuries to the Achilles tendon complex. She will execute a force up to 10 times her body weight on the platform of the shoe. Why? Because pointe shoes create the illusion of floating, of magic, of a lithesome otherworldly spirit who simply cannot remain earthbound, of the impossible being possible. Thus: ballet.

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To be fair, the early ballerinas, the ones emerging in the dance courts of Catherine de Medici and, later, of the impresario of France’s Royal Academy of Dance, Louis XIV, did not wear pointe shoes. In fact, they wore heels. After the French Revolution, the heels disappeared, but it wasn’t until a pivotal moment in 1795 when Charles Didelot invented a “flying machine” with wires to lift dancers to their toes that the first inklings of en pointe emerged. Audiences responded so strongly that choreographers began to incorporate more toe work into their dances until they and the dancers wanted to be uplifted wire-free.

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Marie Taglioni as Flore in Charles Didelot’s ballet Zephire et Flore. Hand colored lithograph, circa 1831.

Then, it happened.

Marie Taglioni, Italian ballerina extraordinaire, danced La Sylphide in 1832. During parts of her solo, through nothing more than the strength of her feet and legs, she lifted herself to the tips of her satin slippers, exhilarating the audience and causing European ballet-philes to receive her with Beatles-esque verve. So beloved was she of the Russians that they reportedly cooked her slippers and ate them with a sauce. Regardless, she changed ballet forever.

At the end of that century, the late 1800s, the “box” (the sturdy square tip) was added to satin slippers, and the basic pointe shoe design was set. Today, there are several tried-and-true makers of pointe shoes, and most of them make every single pair by hand. Yes, by hand. This attention to craftsmanship means that no two pair of pointe shoes are the same, and each set varies depending on the size and strength of the craftsman’s hands and the amount of glue he or she used. Freed’s of London makes more than 250,000 pairs of pointe shoes a year, each of these constructed individually.

When a ballerina receives a new pair of pointe shoes, the shoes are not yet fit for dancing nor do they come with the ribbons attached. Ballerinas must sew on their ribbons themselves to accommodate their ankles and foot shape, and they must “break in” the shoe, which means softening it just enough for dancing but not too much. Dancers can flex the shoe with their hands, slam the box in a door or pound it with a hammer, and scuff up the platform. However, when the shoe becomes too broken in, it is then “dead,” and the ballerina must use a new set of shoes. Some professional ballerinas may even use several pairs of shoes during one night’s performance. Pittsburgh Ballet Theater notes that a professional ballerina can go through 100 pairs of pointe shoes in one season, and their company spends at least $100,000 on pointe shoes per year. That’s astounding, but not as shocking as London’s Royal Ballet, whose pointe shoe budget averages $400,000 per year for around 8,000 pairs of shoes.

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An afternoon pointe class at the Patel Conservatory. Photo by Rob/Harris Productions, Inc.

Barefoot Dancers, Reaching, Emoting

The Relevé of Contemporary Dance

… but what is it?

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Shaping Sound was co-founded by dancers seen on So You Think You Can Dance and Dancing with the Stars.

The meteoric rise of the hit television show So You Think You Can Dance created a new generation of dance fans, young and old alike, bringing a surge of attention to the many genres of the art form. Ballet, recognizable. Hip-hop, easy to spot. Ballroom dance, simple to define.

Yet it seems as if every other number falls into the ‘contemporary’ category … but what is contemporary dance? Where did it come from? Is it the same as modern dance even though it kind of looks like ballet and jazz had a love child?

Why are there so many barefoot dancers reaching and emoting?

Members of Parsons Dance, coming to Tampa on January 14. Photo by Lois Greenfield.

Dance, like all art forms, flows and evolves, shaped by dancers and choreographers, ideas and social, cultural and political trends. Usually, labels for types of dance styles emerge – such as “court dances,” “Lindy Hop,” “line dancing,” “popping,” etc. Oftentimes, historical eras of transition or definition end up with labels as well, which is how we ended up with modern dance, postmodern dance and this strange term, “contemporary dance.” Humans like to invent neat categories for things to keep up the illusion of order, so visual art may have Impressionistic periods, Classical or Baroque eras. When dance changed radically at the end of the 19th century with American modern dance, the trajectory that would lead to the style we know as contemporary dance began.

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Limón Dance Company in José Limón’s “Mazurkas” from 1958.

Wild-hearted dancers such as Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, Ruth St. Denis and Ted Shawn (founders of Denishawn, the famed modern dance company), José Limón and Lester Horton rebelled against classical technique and strict forms of ballet, forging a new way of moving that wasn’t known as modern dance until after the fact. When Graham dancers like Paul Taylor and the great pioneers like Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey created new works expanding on the foundations of modern dance, then the word “post-modern” netted these styles into an easy-to-recognize form that clearly created something new from the influences of Graham, Limón, Horton and Denishawn.

In a sense, a fusion of dance languages occurred in the mid-20th century. Phrases of jazz, ballet, modern, postmodern, lyrical, spectacle and tribal/folkloric melded into a commercially viable dance style that also had the dancers communicating emotions of the dance or song: this thing called contemporary happened. Add to that the street dance dialect that blew up with breakdancing in the ‘80s, hip-hop in the ‘90s, and the “music video” dance slang of MTV and “contemporary dance” eventually became a term used to describe any sort of dancing happening now, in the times in which we live.

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Dancers training at the Straz Center’s Patel Conservatory performing in On The Edge dance showcase. Photo by Soho Images.

To muddy matters a bit more, contemporary dance has several faces. The commercial side – a popular form exemplified by the kind of extend-emote gymnasium choreography characteristic of So You Think You Can Dance – works best for television and the competition circuit. The concert side, a more modern-rooted, high-art dance form is embodied by fusion dance companies like Kibbutz Contemporary Dance or Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. If you like the contemporary style on SYTYCD, you may be confused by what you see at a concert of Miami Contemporary Dance Company or any of these companies using movement to challenge ideas of what dance can communicate and how it is supposed to look. Other angles on the face of this dance form include contemporary ballet and contemporary jazz, both influences that find their way into the other types of contemporary dance.

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Travis Wall, co-creator and artistic director of Shaping Sound, was the 2015 Emmy Award winner for Outstanding Choreography. Photo by Rob Daly.

Travis Wall, perhaps one of the hottest young contemporary dancer/choreographers to sprout from the wellspring of SYTYCD, brings his company, Shaping Sound, to Morsani Hall on November 18 in a thrilling exhibition of the popular contemporary form. Shaping Sound, an extra-physical troupe of dancers with multiple dance backgrounds, spends up to nine hours a day in rehearsals setting a new show. These dancers are lean, limber, daring and examples par excellence of Wall’s ingenious ability to craft crowd-pleasing contemporary movement.

In truth, as of now there exists no codified contemporary technique as there does for modern styles (contract/release, suspend/fall), ballet or jazz. The form continues to shape-shift as it encounters other influences and new dancemakers bring their individual flavor to the infinite pot of contemporary gumbo. For many reasons, defining contemporary dance remains difficult but, like other things, you usually know it when you see it.

New NGB Artistic Director and Dance Department Chair Philip Neal Brings Legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine

In June, Philip Neal officially joined the Patel Conservatory as the artistic director for Next Generation Ballet and chair of the dance department, the position formerly held by Peter Stark.

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Jerome Robbins in rehearsal for West Side Story.

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell

George Balanchine and Arthur Mitchell in rehearsal.

George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins were to American dance what Babe Ruth and Joe DiMaggio were to baseball. Heavy-hitters, game-changers, larger-than-life personalities, Balanchine and Robbins hold some of the world records of great dance: Apollo, Slaughter on 10th Avenue, Jewels, Fancy Free, Afternoon of a Faun, West Side Story … their list of works goes on and on.

Dancers who emerged from New York City Ballet, where Balanchine and Robbins heralded the dawn of American ballet as an international artistic achievement, included Tanaquil LeClercq, Maria Tallchief, Suzanne Farrell, Gelsey Kirkland, Arthur Mitchell, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Jacques D’Amboise and Edward Villella.

A few generations later appeared a young, focused 12-year-old at NYCB’s training school, School of American Ballet (SAB), named Philip Neal.

During a master class at School of Richmond Ballet, Edward Villella hand-picked Philip for SAB. Philip, who trained at Richmond Ballet until he was 16, cut his teeth in SAB summer classes with the legendary teacher Stanley Williams. Often, Philip found himself in class surrounded by NYCB principals including Baryshnikov.

“My first day at the school, I knew,” Philip said in a recent interview with Caught in the Act. “I wanted New York. I wanted New York City Ballet. I realize a lot of 12-year-olds don’t know what they want to do with the rest of their lives, but I did.”

Philip continued to train at SAB during the summer, attending another school during the year, with his eyes always on a spot with New York City Ballet. At 19, he joined the company, immediately thrown into principal roles because his height matched the rather tall ballerinas suited to Balanchine’s style.

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Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal in Albert Evan’s “In a Landscape.” Photo by Paul Kolnik.

His first rehearsal was with Jerome Robbins. “We were working on a piece of his called Ives, Songs. He put me in a demi-solo role, but I couldn’t do lifts. I was really skinny then. Jerry was hard on me in that rehearsal, so I went to Pumping Iron, a gym in El Barrio on the very Upper East side of New York and started working out. He was hard on me, but he pushed me to be better. I was 19, so in no time I was beefed up, lifting the girls, and like, ‘Jerry, look! I’ve been working out!’ and Jerry got a kick out of that.”

Philip arrived at SAB in the very last years of Balanchine’s life. Philip and his cohort group were the last generation of dancers to grace the halls while Balanchine still worked. When “Mr. B” emerged from a rehearsal room, Philip recalls, dancers silenced, the space filling up in reverential awe. “But, by the time I started with NYCB in 1987, he was gone. Even as a 12 year old, when I got to SAB, I could feel it in the walls, the creative power. The work he created was all around, living inside the place. I got to know Balanchine through the people, and we were the first ones to receive the choreography as it was being passed down.”

Philip Neal_NYCB (Paul Kolnik)

Philip Neal in George Balanchine’s “Who Cares?” Photo by Paul Kolnik for New York City Ballet.

Philip performed for two decades with NYCB, touring the world and training constantly in Balanchine’s and Robbins’ styles. “Jerry called me in on almost all of his rehearsals, so I was able to study, to train in his work. He was direct, he was always like “no, it is this way” whereas Balanchine was more of a figure-it-out-for-yourself choreographer, more open to his work adapting to different dancers. Balanchine has a little wiggle room, but Jerry? No.”

The yin-and-yang dynamic between Robbins and Balanchine is well-known in the dance world and often cited in historical accounts of the wildly prolific and popular era of NYCB during the duo’s heyday as the company’s artistic powers. In fact, it’s legendary. So, it is no small honor for Philip Neal, who began his career with NYCB in a Robbins rehearsal, to have performed in the choreographer’s beloved Dances at a Gathering at Robbins’ funeral. “The last thing Jerry worked on was a piece for [NYCB principle ballerina] Kyra Nichols and me, before he died. I know how lucky I am. I know how blessed my career in dance has been, how charmed. Of course there were struggles, and challenges and all that stuff you hear about, but I was so in love with ballet that I had blinders on for any drama that was going on around me. I lived for the dance. I felt more comfortable performing than doing anything else.”

When Philip left NYCB, both the Robbins and Balanchine Trusts engaged him as trust holder of the great choreographers’ works, what is known as a repetiteur, or, someone who has been approved by the choreographers’ trusts to set their works on other companies. Philip joined the direct lineage of these master dancemakers, and, now, he brings this legacy to the dancers studying at the Patel Conservatory. While it remains to be seen whether or not either trust will approve NGB in the lengthy process to get Robbins and Balanchine work staged, the gift of their technique and inspiration has found its way into the exceptional Patel Conservatory dance program.

Philip Neal with student - photo by Mike Munhill

Philip Neal working with a student. Photo by Mike Munhill.

“I think it’s important for people to know I’m not turning this into SAB,” Philip said. “I’m kind of an if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it guy, and so much is in place here already. So much is really good. Bringing the Balanchine and Jerome Robbins influence into the program here will help us be better at what we’re supposed to be doing. We’re a preparatory school. When dancers leave here, they should feel comfortable picking the company they want to go into because they’ve been technically prepared. Peter did an extraordinary job building this program, so my transition has been simple. The Popular Dance program is also fantastic. I want to bring more of the dance world here, giving the students as much information as possible. This is a very exciting time as we evolve.”

Truly. We welcome the legacy of Jerome Robbins and George Balanchine to Tampa, to the Straz Center, and we are honored to have the living history of these legendary choreographers shape our dance students at the Patel Conservatory.

Philip, Neal, NGB students

Next Generation Ballet dancers with Peter Stark and Philip Neal.