Lake Tahoe Dance Festival: American Classical Ballet, Mid-Century Modern, and Dance Now: Contemporary Works, July 22-24, 2020
Straddling Northern California and Nevada at 6200 feet, Lake Tahoe is a natural wonder but hardly an artistic hotbed. Christin Hanna grew up as a culturally isolated “bunhead” there, on the north rim of the lake. She trained in Reno, and at American Ballet Theatre’s summer program, and made the leap to New York in her twenties, taking class at STEPS on Broadway with Willie Burmann and eventually dancing with the New Chamber Ballet at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival. The Pillow was revelatory to this dancer with a keen sense of history and a deep respect for the importance of intimate personal mentorship and legacy in dance. In July 2013, having moved home and built nearly everything from the ground up—including a lakeside stage—Hanna and her old friend from ABT’s school, Constantine Baecher, presented the first Lake Tahoe Dance Festival. I regret to admit that I have lived a few hours away since the festival’s inception and never attended. That will certainly change after watching the festival’s online 2020 edition.
At a time when many may be wearying from the Covid necessity of viewing dance on the small screen, Hanna upped the game. She didn’t merely patch together past highlights—instead she and Baecher produced a richly educational series of fresh interviews. For every five or six minutes of dancing in this online festival, we were given 15 to 20 minutes of introductory conversation, all of it illuminating. Neither was the footage limited to past festivals. Thus, in one of the festival’s strongest highlights, Wendy Whelan “Zoomed” in on one side of the screen while Martha Graham Dance Company member Lloyd Knight spoke from the other, describing their work together learning Graham’s “Moon Duet” from “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” followed by footage of their performance provided by the Graham company. Another example of keen resourcefulness: Kristin Draucker, the last female dancer personally selected by Paul Taylor for his company, spoke from her patio in Manhattan about dancing his “Cascade;” we then watched the company finale of “Cascade” in a clip courtesy the Taylor company, followed by Draucker’s luminous performance of her “Cascade” solo beneath the pines in the 2018 Lake Tahoe festival.
The format worked especially well for the festival’s second evening, “Mid-Century Modernism.” Lester Horton’s influence may live on strong in Alvin Ailey’s “Revelations,” but how often does the general public get to learn about Horton, a polymath choreographer/composer/visual artist who was the main force for dance in 1950s Los Angeles? Kristina Berger, who teaches modern for Hanna’s Lake Tahoe Youth Ballet (lucky students), spoke passionately about learning Horton dances from Don Martin, who still lives in West Hollywood not far from Horton’s Melrose Avenue studio, and who instilled in her an appreciation for Horton’s insatiable multicultural curiosity, and the radical welcome of his classes. That context was crucial for viewing a clip of Berger dancing Horton’s “Sarong Paramaribo,” originally choreographed for none other than Carmen De Lavallade. Today such a solo, dressing the dancer in Balinese-inspired wrap and headdress, and giving her Balinese gestures for the upper body and African-inspired roiling hips below, raises questions of cultural appropriation and exoticism. In context, it was part of the progressive spirit of American modern dance. Wide-eyed and solidly muscled, Berger danced it with precision and gusto.
In a clip filmed especially for the online festival and staged at the lake, Berger also gave us an ethereal performance of Erick Hawkins’ “Greek Dreams,” first explaining Hawkins’ importance to the Pillow (Pillow history was all over this festival) and how he aimed to create a technique that seemed natural to the human body but required at least a decade of training. This performance was beautifully shot, first capturing Berger from overhead in her floating green gown among the pine trees, then zooming in to highlight the delicacy of her seeming to walk on a highwire, a flute lilting through Debussy. In another recording made especially for the online festival, New York City Ballet principal Adrian Danchig-Waring danced the final male solo from Balanchine’s “Apollo” on the lawn of his Shelter Island home; it was the first time I have seen an “Apollo” in sneakers, but it lost nothing in dignity and length of line.
Most of the clips from past Lake Tahoe Dance Festivals were not so artfully recorded (the sun tended to wash out detail), but the build up to each was worthwhile. In addition to “Apollo,” the first evening, “Classical Ballet in America,” gave us an Agnes de Mille rarity, “The Other;” an excerpt from Tudor’s “Jardin aux Lilas” (courtesy New York Theatre Ballet), and New York City Ballet’s Ashley Bouder showing everyone how it’s done in an archival clip of “Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux” and a recording of her 2018 festival appearance in the solo she commissioned by Lauren Lovette, the swingy “Red-Spotted Purple.” Bouder’s pre-clip interview, when she spoke with such ease and confidence of using her platform to promote the work of female choreographers, composers, and costume designers, was a bright spot of hope at a dark moment in history.
If “Classical Ballet in America” was the warm-up and “Mid-Century Modern” the history lesson, the final night of the festival, “Dance Now: Contemporary Works,” was the surreal, sensorial spectacle. I don’t know that any of the interviews here helped to clarify “contemporary dance” as a genre, as Hanna and Baecher set out to do, but I appreciated Marco Pelle’s comments that “the dance language is so evolved—not much new is left but there is so much vocabulary available to us” and “we are witnessing a moment . . . where everybody is becoming more personal in the way they convey their artistic message.”
His “T + I,” a capsule version of Tristan and Isolde set to the Wagner, was most traditionally balletic, especially in its partnering, punctuated with grand theatrical effects like the dancers’ arms forming the shape of a heart. Traci Finch and Stephen Hanna, dancing lakeside two years ago, were all passion and flowing hair. But the two jaw-droppers of the night, for me, were Bryan Arias’ “Notice” and an excerpt from Jacopo Godani’s “Al di La.” In the former, Rachel Fallon and Arias, who sent a video introduction from the Bolshoi Theatre where he is currently choreographing, slid in socks and black pants and slipped in and out of each other’s suit jackets, in expressionist movement that seemed to derive from a Nederlands Dans Theatre line of influence. The push-pull dynamic shifted with exhilarating precision, the two clutching each others’ faces and moving through gestures with impossible speed, like a film on fast-forward. In the latter, former Dresden-Frankfurt Dance Company members Daphne Fernberger and Ulysse Zangs, nearly naked, were hyper-real shape shifters, both angular and unfurling, in a busy piece that nonetheless felt spacious in its response to the Arnold Schonberg score.
Zangs and Fernberger was especially inspiring in their pre-clip interviews, telling young dancers, “We need more of us on this earth, people who are changing their emotions into art” and “If you follow your curiosity, you will almost always find yourself where you’re meant to be and where you’re happiest. Keep going.”
Thank you, Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, for founding this festival of living dance history, and for keeping going. You are keepers of humanity and hope.