While performing arts organizations around the globe were decidedly hard hit by Covid-19 during the last 15 months, dancers and choreographers, whose physical bodies are literally on the line in their work, suffered particularly severe losses. Enter, then, Kristy Edmunds, executive and artistic director of CAP UCLA, a position she’s held since 2011, and one that has provided a platform for critical innovators in all disciplines of artistic practice.
Her abiding love for dance has always been integral to her presenting philosophy, with past offerings including some of the world’s stellar movers and makers: From staging a series of performances by Trisha Brown Dance Company in 2013 and a four-night retrospective of the work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker in 2015 to the extraordinary presentation, “Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event,” featuring the work of the late Merce Cunningham in 2019, Edmunds has been an undisputed champion of the terpsichorean arts.
When the pandemic was raging, then, the arts advocate/activist not only moved to an online season, commissioning films from artists such as flamenco guru Israel Galván, but also, through her belief in the power of collaboration, brought in the renowned print studio, the Lapis Press to create a source of income for choreographers. Indeed, the idea was to convert “The Choreographers’ Scores: 2020”—26 hand-made choreographer sketches—into fine art prints.
Curated and conceived by Edmunds, who is married to dancer/choreographer Ros Warby and together they have two sons, the scores were commissioned by CAP UCLA in collaboration with National Young Arts Foundation and Pomegranate Arts. The result, an edition of 40 (20 complete box sets/20 loose prints of each score), began with invitations to a wide range of US-based dancemakers in the spring of 2020.
Explained Edmunds: “I knew early on in the pandemic that concert dance would likely be facing the most acute struggle for returning in its live form and since dancers could not be in proximity to do their work—with no rehearsal space—I thought, ‘What on earth can I do?’ I used to be a printmaker, so I thought they could recreate these scores in order for me to give [them] small commissions.”
As the public rarely gets to peek behind the creative curtain that is essential to a choreographer’s practice, Edmunds pointed out that Lapis Press took the originals, did the scans and converted the dancemakers’ sketches or diary books into fine art prints. “Now,” she added, “they will all have a visual kind of language that lives on in this fine art print.”
With each score illuminating something unique and significant about the creative process, the 26 choreographers, including Lucinda Childs, Eiko Otake and Ronald K. Brown, all conceived works ranging from a flurry of shapes and lines to collages of inspiration or meditations on time.
For 78-year old Brenda Way, who founded ODC/Dance in 1971 and whose troupe of 10 dancers has performed for more than a million people in 32 states and 11 countries, the lockdown proved extremely difficult. “We were set to open our spring season two weeks after the shutdown and for me, personally, it was characterized by despair at the end of a career. I am not 25 and I thought, ‘Wow, this is it.’
“But Kristy calling was like a tiny miracle. It was an amazing gesture, the concept was enticing and I’m also interested in visual arts, printing and I love words. It was a fantastic uplift and an offbeat idea that was encouraging just by itself.”
And while ODC/Dance, located in San Francisco, has offered dozens of online classes and workshops, as well as having pivoted to showcasing its dance talents on film, the chance to create a fine art print was an offer Way couldn’t refuse. Her choreographic process, however, does not start with a drawing.
Explained Way: “I start by reading, keeping a journal of what I’m reading and the fact of its translation to a non-movement place seemed in keeping with how I work. My process was resonant with Kristy’s idea. They’re observations,” added Way, “that I think are powerful.
“Darwin’s theory of mate choice in the animal world is the source of the piece,” she added, “and [his evolutionary theory] with birds is not just based on the survival of the fittest, but what the species finds beautiful. Think of a peacock that is survival-worthy, but Darwin posits it’s the female of the species that decides. That was attractive to me in thinking about art—who makes decisions.”
To that end, the print, with a working title, “The Evolution of Beauty,” also includes a photo of a bird that she said, “must be a female, with very dull colors and to the right is a phylogenetic tree,” which meshes with Way’s feminist approach to her work.
“I’m interested in what that means and the thing about contemporary dance is that those of us who are older have been here for most of the history of modern dance. Who determines what’s beautiful seems that it’s a dominant strain of female determination. I have a couple of themes in my life and that’s one of them.”
Another purveyor of feminist work is Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, who founded Urban Bush Women in 1984 as a performance ensemble dedicated to exploring the use of cultural expression as a catalyst for social change. Dividing her time between New York and Florida, where she has been Florida State University’s School of Dance professor since 1996, Zollar recently received a seven-figure award for UBW from the Ford Foundation as part of an initiative to recognize Black, Latinx, Asian and Indigenous arts organizations negatively impacted by Covid.
When Edmunds reached out to Zollar, the 70-year old who has made dozens of works for UBW as well as for, among others, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and has teamed up with such troupes as Senegal’s Compagnie Jant-Bi, admitted she was puzzled.
“Huh, what?” was her immediate response. But as a believer in collaboration and since Zollar was already working with associate choreographer Vincent Thomas and visual artist Ausar Johnson on an untitled opera with renowned composer Jake Heggie—put on hold, however, because of the pandemic—she decided to make Edmunds’ offer part of that work.
Like Way, Zollar’s process also starts with research. “I do a lot of reading, make notes, sometimes little scribbles, but I never start with drawings. I’ve done a little bit of doodling of scores, but this [commission] was a first and I loved it.”
The untitled print, which is about the Civil War and is character-driven, called for numerous citations and is based on different kinds of writings, including, said Zollar, “from ancient Africa where they drew with graphics.”
Created in pen and ink, the print is laid out in the form of a brightly-colored quilt, with Zollar, who is keen on the collage form, explaining that it’s based on a Kongo cosmogram that depicts the divisions of the day.
“First, I was on the phone with Vincent, talking about the quotes I had for the different characters and [about] the four moments [which] are sunrise, sunset, noon and midnight, 24-hour cycles that we move through metaphorically. In this cosmogram, the living are on the top part and the ancestral realm is below.”
And while Urban Bush Women is now being co-directed by Chanon Judson, who also contributed to the drawing, and Samantha Speis, Zollar, whose awards include a 2009 fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial, as well as a 2017 Bessie Lifetime Achievement Award, said she has not stepped down from her position, but has, instead, transitioned, with her title Founding Artistic Director and Chief Visioning Partner.
Zollar, like most of her colleagues, also made the most of the lockdown. “The pandemic forced us all to be still for a moment and reflect, ‘Why am I doing what I’m doing? Is it what I want to do? Can I do it better? Am I doing it the best way for me and my organization?’ We were all on the go button. With email and social media, we were moving with such speed, this slowing down wasn’t what we wanted, but it’s allowed us to say, “Okay, let me just examine this.’”
Zollar’s choreographic score is testament to this, as is the score by Shamel Pitts. Choreographer, conceptual artist, dancer, spoken word artist and teacher, Pitts was a member of Batsheva Dance Company for seven years before leaving the troupe in 2016. Striking out on his own, Pitts, now 36, won a 2018 Princess Grace Award in Choreography, became a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow in Choreography in 2019 and a Guggenheim Fellow in Choreography in 2020.
And as the artistic director/founder of TRIBE, which was formed at the end of 2019, the Brooklyn-based group of 12 multi-disciplinary artists had a big 2020 planned. Recalled Pitts: “Covid was scary and confusing, but luckily a lot of my collaborators thrive in the virtual world. But for me, nothing upstages live art, so it was a lot to consider what to do with this newly-formed arts collective during a time when everything stopped.
“What happened, though,” added Pitts, “was that I formed new relationships with partners, presenters, foundations. But I didn’t have a connection to Kristy, so when her email came, I thought, ‘What is this?’ because it’s unusual. It was so thoughtful, somehow mysterious and it was so sensitively crafted that at that moment, I thought, ‘Hey I’m interested in choreographic scores’ and since everything else was taken away for that year—a lot of offers were coming in, but everything virtually—this was hand, body, thoughts and creative process for me.”
And so was born “Touch of Red.” An extension of Pitts’ “Black Box” trilogy that he first began in 2018, performing solo in a confined space in nearly pitch-black darkness, the work featured recordings of his ruminations jotted down during his travels with Batsheva, as well as obliquely referencing an airplane’s flight data recorder. An ardent journal writer, Pitts was with TRIBE at Jacob’s Pillow in a “bubble residency” in November, 2020, when the theater caught fire and all but two pages of his score burned.
Those two pages were a segment of “Touch of Red,” a dance piece that will premiere in 2022 and that is now part of the Choreographers’ Scores. The print, consisting only of words, including “Still . . . and still, through the sameness the times are changing . . . ” leaves an indelible mark on the reader/viewer.
“I’ve always enjoyed playing with words, trying to make words dance, journaling a lot,” recalled Pitts. “If I come into a studio, if I have ideas about a work or something to say conceptually, I start by writing things down. They don’t necessarily lead me into the room, but through this prompt of Kristy’s [although] I had an idea brewing before she got in touch, I used that to address the new work I wanted to create.
“So when I was able to get out of bed and not be so depressed,” added Pitts, “I started to write different texts and draw different [ideas] of, the stage space, lighting, the relationship between audience and performers. Kristy’s prompt became so much a part of my creative process for this work.”
Then there’s Pam Tanowitz. An in-demand, critically-acclaimed choreographer known for her abstract treatment of classical and contemporary movement ideas, she has been commissioned by, among others, New York City Ballet and Paul Taylor Dance Company and was named the first choreographer-in-residence at the Bard Fisher Center in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York.
Tanowitz, born in 1969 and whose celebrated work, “Four Quartets,” was seen at CAP UCLA in mid-February, 2020, is a maker who actually does begin her dances with diagrams.
“When Kristy asked me, I was thrilled and it seemed like an amazing idea—almost like an idea you would think, ‘How come no one else is doing that?’ Kristy has foresight and it was a perfect fit because I didn’t feel like I had to do any extra work. I really do draw and all of my notebooks, that’s what they look like,” adding, “I use different ways to go into dances. I research different things that pique my interest that lead me somewhere else.”
Tanowitz’s drawing, “Neither Drums Nor Trumpets” or “I Love You So Much I Do Everything Backwards,” is a dance she’d thought about since 2014, although, she explained, “it doesn’t exist. It’s never been done but I have it in my head and already had this [sketch]. I was able to look through what I had and make little changes. They were all real diagrams and I redesigned it and went even deeper.”
Tanowitz, who also turned to filmmaking during the pandemic, collaborating with Jeremy Jacob on a short film for American Ballet Theatre that starred David Hallberg, pointed out that she “draws the composition and what I’m interested in doing is on the stage first, not the steps. I do a separate area of steps and I have some steps in my head when I’m drawing.”
The elaborate illustration, which consists of numerous squares within two main squares, also features handwritten notes, along with her depictions of theater wings. There are also, she remarked, “two people on stage, starting in a stationary position. Then the lights come up on the two dancers and they end on a specific shape.”
In addition, there are photos at the bottom of the print, which, Tanowitz said, are a “Satie diagram and a ballerina who’s falling and then the same ballerina covered up. I like these colors and maybe they’ll be the colors of the costume.
“The other thing I will say,” Tanowitz added with a laugh, “is that the dance never turns out how I exactly draw it.”
That kind of thinking can also, no doubt, apply to life, especially during Covid, when nobody has been sure of anything. But as we begin to emerge from one of the most devastating global events in recent history, we can be optimistic that dance, in all of its beauty, grace, strength—and, yes, even angst—will prevail, at the same time managing to heal us, teach us and, ultimately, imbue us with gratitude that we are alive.
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