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Celebrating Process

Works & Process has been part of the New York dance ecosystem for 35 years—championing performing artists and supporting their creative process from studio to stage and beyond. Commissioning new projects and funding creative residencies in partnership with fourteen residency centers, the program has evolved to provide a net of support for artists creating new work. Particularly crucial were its initiatives pioneered during the pandemic: Works & Process Artists (WPA) Virtual Commissions that provided fees for over 250 artists and “bubble residences” utilizing health protocols and providing 24/7 work and living support during the summer of 2020 that supported over 200 artists.

Performance

Works & Process: Underground Uptown Dance Festival at the Guggenheim

Place

The Guggenheim, New York, NY, January 2024

Words

Karen Greenspan

Stephanie Batten Bland's “Embarqued: Stories of Soil.” Photograph by Tony Turner

The performance series provides a presentation platform (frequently at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum) to illuminate the creative process that goes into the making of new works. The format typically includes excerpts from the work in process along with a discussion involving the creator and performers, and always kindles interest in what is yet to come. In this spirit, I attended three of six nights of the recent Guggenheim Works & Process Underground Uptown Dance Festival to see what is currently percolating. This report only deals with the programs I attended. Respecting that this platform presents works that are unfinished and yet “in process,” I will refrain from critiquing and confine my comments to reporting and noting what was memorable about them. 

Company SBB/Stefanie Batten Bland performed highlights from “Embarqued: Stories of Soil.” The work grew out of Batten Bland’s discovery of the African American Heritage Trail on Martha’s Vineyard. This encounter sparked an interrogation of voyage, arrival, soil, water, and the search for self within the complexity of her American identity. 

The work evokes an ocean journey as five dancers dressed in “designed” tattered rags arrive onstage carrying pieces of a ship’s mast. They huddle together as if to protect themselves from a new and difficult environment. The body language of twitches, shudders, and offered gestures of solace to one another give a sense of hardship and mutual care. Particularly poignant is the act of forming a circle with the arms around another person’s head or other body part. The encircling arms remain even after the recipient of the gesture leaves the space. Fabric—carried, treasured, waved, and tied into a dress—invites curiosity, drama, and tension, as does the creative use of the mast poles. The dancers arrange them as the outline of a house, wield them as spears of aggression, and unfurl and zealously wave them as flags of arrival or victory.

Left: Lloyd Knight in “The Drama” by Jack Ferver and Jeremy Jacob. Photograph by M. Sharkey. Right: Company Stephanie Batten Bland in “Embarqued: Stories of Soil.” Photograph by Maria Baranova

During the discussion, Batten Bland commented that her intention was to create a “living monument” like the memorialization iterated through the African American Heritage Trail. She views fabric as a kind of tissue that connects, and props are a meaningful way to transform and connect. 

Lloyd Knight, principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company, in collaboration with choreographer Jack Ferver and filmmaker Jeremy Jacob offered a glimpse into their collaborative project of creating a one-person show performed by Knight. The multidisciplinary work called “The Drama” is a marathon collage that as the program explains, “lays bare what it takes both physically and psychologically to pursue a life in dance and explores Knight’s youth, upbringing, and what drew him initially to Graham.” The work, still in its early stages, includes both purely spoken as well as danced scenes. The most affecting of these combines a video projection as backdrop to Knight’s live performance of Ferver’s Graham-derived choreography. Adding to the mix is a soundtrack of Martha Graham speaking her memorable wisdom and a compelling score by Julius Eastman. The filmed backdrop encompasses the entire back wall of the stage as it zooms in on Knight’s gesturing hands or other body parts. The expressive hands continually repeat in slow motion a select set of gestures. Downstage, Knight dances a solo expressing the same emotional content as the hands—folding, clenching, pressing, reaching. The dance and the projection poignantly align with Graham’s repeated words: “Dance is communication.”

Left: “Indian Letters” by Preeti Vasudevan and Amar Ramasar. Right: Passion Fruit Dance Company in “Trapped.” Photograph by Diego Quintanar

Tatiana Desardouin and her all-female Passion Fruit Dance Company level up their bold street and club dance skills with a sophisticated composition for stage “Trapped.” The work, initiated in a Works & Process bubble residency during the pandemic, deals with overcoming personal struggles—particularly social issues faced by women—and finding joy. Referencing modern dance predecessors (Graham and Nikolais), a group of dancers encased in individual tubes of red, stretchy fabric become sculptural forms that animate with struggle and tension. A protruding arm stretches upward resembling a periscope casing the territory. The fabric tubes are manipulated into long skirts so that the dancers are seen as women, their arms freely gesturing a stream of emotions. When the dancers shed their fabric constraints, they emerge to explore their freedom and take off with a combination of athletic and expressive dancing. 

“Indian Letters,” a collaboration between Preeti Vasudevan, Artistic Director of New York–based arts organization Thresh, and Amar Ramasar, a former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet, forges a refreshing hybrid expression drawn from these two confident performers, who hail from different dance styles. Vasudevan is a choreographer and cultural storyteller steeped in the classical Indian form Bharatanatyam. Ramasar is a polished exponent of classical ballet and has also featured on Broadway in leading roles. The multimedia project incorporates film and live performance telling the personal stories of these two performers and their investigation of connection to their Indian heritage. Vasudevan and Ramasar traveled to India together to deepen those connections and refine their working narrative. Travel footage to sites of spiritual import forms an immersive backdrop to the danced narrative.

Left: “The Reckoning” by Francesca Harper. Photograph by Titus Ogilvie-Liang. Right: “Caged Birds” by Kash Gaines. Photograph by Lafotographeuse

An excerpt opens with Vasudevan dancing a section of percussive Bharatanatyam footwork. Ramasar enters from the opposite side with a balletic walk and meets up with Vasudevan taking a classical pose. They dance together using mostly a balletic contemporary vocabulary that occasionally veers into Bharatanatyam—all of it energized by a piano score that incorporates the initial rhythm slapped onto the floor with Vasudevan’s footwork. A contrasting section has Vasudevan positioned directly behind Ramasar. We see nothing of her body except for her arms wrapped around his chest. Ramasar mimes a series of facial expressions as Vasudevan gestures a correlated choreography of mudras at his heart. They eventually dance together and conclude walking upstage together arm-in-arm with their heads bobbing. 

The final evening of the festival was dedicated to the intersection of dance and law enforcement. Some may recall the lively tradition of performance on New York City subway platforms. Street and subway performance has provided opportunities for many early career performers to hone their craft, perform, and earn. With variable interpretation and enforcement of the city’s public performance laws, there is always the possibility of confrontation and arrest. These stories form the point of departure for “Caged Birds,” a project in its early stages by performer/documentarian Kash Gaines and his cast of performing artists. 

The work makes an impactful start as six dancers, wearing orange jumpsuits and handcuffs, procession about the stage in a stylized walk with heads bowed and wrists pinned together in front of their bodies. After they strip out of the jumpsuits and reveal their black sweats and t-shirts, they perform solos and group scenes showcasing their street dance chops while narrating intimate stories of perilous encounters with law enforcement. Some scenes employ video footage projected onto the backdrop. But the ones that make the strongest impression are those that focus on well-crafted movement in relationship to the spoken narrative. The stories opened my eyes as they broke my heart. 

The festival concluded with “The Reckoning,” choreographer and director Francesca Harper’s response to the 2010 killing of seven-year-old Aiyana Mo'Nay Stanley-Jones at the hands of Detroit law enforcement. The work, a collaboration between Harper and composer Nona Hendryx, crafts an expressive record of injustice and brutality against bodies of color. Originally created as a film commissioned by Array’s Law Enforcement Accountability Project (developed by writer, director, and producer Ava DuVernay and founded by Array Alliance, to pursue narrative change around the police abuse of Black people), the work now has a second life as a live dance performance incorporating projected clips from the film. The balletic contemporary choreography, costumes by Elias Gurrola, and sensitive dancing with well-drawn characterization by the dancers from Ailey II and Francesca Harper’s FHP Collective give a nuanced portrait of the painful incident.

All the works presented provoke and inspire conversations of this moment and are beacons of promise. Thank you to Works & Process for creating the space for dancers and dancemakers to breathe, collaborate, and grow the garden.

Karen Greenspan


Karen Greenspan is a New York City-based dance journalist and frequent contributor to Natural History Magazine, Dance Tabs, Ballet Review, and Tricycle among other publications. She is also the author of Footfalls from the Land of Happiness: A Journey into the Dances of Bhutan, published in 2019.

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