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A step apart 

2012 Nazareth Arts Center Dance Festival

The third annual Nazareth College Arts Center Dance Festival begins this week and lasts through next weekend, bringing a diverse range of dance forms to both stage and lawn. The Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra kicks off the festival Thursday evening with a Dance Festival Overture led by Jeff Tyzik; the evening will include accompanying dance performances. Over the course of the festival's 10 days, audiences will be exposed to a vast array of dance genres, including traditional Native American, high-voltage Latino, jazz-based modern, ballet, fusion, and cutting-edge contemporary.

This year's headliners are Martha Graham Dance Company, Beth Gill Dance, Luna Negra Dance Theater, LehrerDance, Rochester's own FuturPointe Dance, and the RPO, a welcome addition to the festival. The festivities will include a free outdoor performance of Phoenix Project Dance on the Memorial Art Gallery grounds, lectures, master classes, and the popular Dancing on the Grass programs featuring Daystar: Contemporary Dance-Drama of Indian America and Flower City Ballet. Ticketed evening performances take place in the recently renovated Callahan Theater and in Studio A48, the Arts Center's intimate black box theater with limited seating. See the sidebar for a full schedule of events.

The big name at the festival this year is the Martha Graham Dance Company, an icon of contemporary dance since its founding by Graham in 1926, right after she spent a pivotal year teaching at the Eastman School of Music. Women from her Rochester dance class were, in fact, part of her original company in New York City.

Undisputedly the mother of modern dance, Graham influenced generations of choreographers and dancers, including Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. In 1998, Time Magazine named Graham the dancer of the century.

Graham died in 1991, but "she was an icon upon whose shoulders we all still stand," says Rochester's Christine Fendley, artistic director of Park Avenue Dance.

Fendley studied for several years under Ethel Butler, one of Graham's first generation of dancers. "Her movements resonate with people in a very visceral way," Fendley says.

Those movements are grounded, angular, sharp, elemental and violent. They are emotionally evocative, depicting the buoyancy of being in love or the slumped-over posture of depression. Graham sought to express emotional, spiritual, and sexual truths without compromise at a time when demure grace was the norm in dance.

Janet Eilber, artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company since 2005, and a principal dancer under Graham for many years, recently spoke with City from her home in Los Angeles, and shared some insights.

"She wanted to find a way of moving that evoked inner landscape," Eilber says. "It was still the era of escapism in dance — swans and princesses and all that. Martha was the first to utilize the physical vocabulary that already resides in the body."

"Emotion rides on the breath. When you laugh or cry, that comes from the center of your body. Martha focused on that. Her famous 'contract and release' is all about breath. When you inhale, your body opens, expands, and you experience release. When you exhale, your body coils back in on itself and you experience contraction," Eilber says.

"Her core idea was that all physical vocabulary generated from the power of the torso. I like to say that Martha discovered the pelvis way before Elvis," she says.

As for Graham's legendary tempestuous personality, "Martha could be funny and she could terrorize you," Eilber says. "She used whatever it took to draw what was needed for the performance without batting an eye. She herself was anything she wanted to be at any given moment. A theatrical genius."

Graham's father was a psychiatrist who worked out of their home. According to Eilber, Graham learned from those childhood encounters that the patients' mental and emotional challenges were shown in the way they moved.

"The essence of her genius was that she could read people so well," Eilber says. "She possessed an innate understanding of who was in front of her. And then she turned that body language into theater. In a nutshell, that is why she was so earth-shattering."

Eilber leads the company today by continuing to showcase Graham masterpieces while commissioning Graham-inspired work from top contemporary choreographers; look for a Doug Varone piece to be premiered by the company later this summer.

Rochester audiences will have the chance to see two different, full-evening programs as part of the Nazareth Dance festival. Program A, taking place Friday, July 20, includes "Prelude and Revolt," a suite of dances connected by narration and digital media that illustrate the evolution of Graham's unique dance theater and distinctive movement vocabulary, and which underscores Eilber's efforts to enlighten the public as to Graham's weighty influence on contemporary dance.

"Embattled Garden" (1958) and "Appalachian Spring" (1944) will also appear in Program A. "Garden" is a steamy tragicomedy examining temptation and betrayal in the Garden of Eden, while the masterpiece "Spring" is Graham paying homage to optimistic young love. In this perennial favorite, a newlywed couple reverently constructs its home. The rousing score is by American composer Aaron Copland, one of the many top artistic talents Graham collaborated with throughout her career.

Program B, taking place Saturday, July 21, includes "Witch Dance" (1926), "Every Soul is a Circus," "Lamentation Variations," and "Diversion of Angels" (1948). "Witch Dance" is an innovative contemporary dance created by the German choreographer Mary Wigman, featuring a masked dancer who leads us to contemplation of our inner and outer selves. "Every Soul is a Circus" is true dance theater, a comedy whose main character is a ballerina who sees herself as a star.

Eilber points out that Graham's depiction of this character watching herself, so to speak, is an example of simultaneous narration and a parallel to the way Abstract Expressionists used this concept in their art work.

"It was total genius for her to put simultaneous narration on stage in a dance that way, and another way that she crossed artistic boundaries," Eilber says.

Eilber combines genres herself in this evening's program by including a film of Graham in the presentation of "Lamentation Variations," an ode to Graham's iconic solo in which the company dances three different variations created by contemporary choreographers of note. "Diversion of Angels," a lyrical ensemble work that joyously explores the infinite aspects of love, will complete the evening's program.

Another choreographer highlighted at this year's festival is Beth Gill, the first recipient of the new juried New York State Dance and Performance Award, more commonly known as a Bessie Award, created in partnership with Nazareth College to honor the most interesting and exciting dance in New York City today. Gill also won the 2011 Bessie for Outstanding Emerging Choreographer. The piece Gill will be showcasing, "Electric Midwife," was chosen by Time Out New York as Best Dance of 2011. Gill also holds the distinction of being listed as one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch" in 2012.

Gill has been choreographing since graduating from New York University's Tisch School of the Arts in 2003 and currently works out of Brooklyn. Her pieces have already been commissioned by such renowned dance organizations as The Kitchen, Dance Theater Workshop, and The Chocolate Factory Theater.

Gill is known for the formalism of her style, in particular, for her exploration of the structural concept of symmetry through almost mathematically concise arrangement of her dancers — and even the audience — in any given performance space. "Electric Midwife" features three sets of female dancers conveying three-dimensional mirrored symmetry through the execution of the same movements using opposite limbs.

The 45-minute long piece premiered in New York City last year to enthusiastic reviews and wait lists for tickets. Seating was extremely limited; the piece was only shown to 12-person audiences. In Rochester, each of four showings (two times on both Saturday, July 14, and Sunday, July 15) will allow for an 80-person audience to view the dance within the intimacy of Nazareth's black-box theater.

"I'm interested in providing the visual structure for people to create their own experience," Gill said recently from her studio in New York City.

As for the title of the piece, Gill's great-grandmother was a real-life midwife and her great-grandfather was an electrician; the union captured her imagination. "The name conjures an energetic quality I wanted the piece to hold," she says.

If you want to go that extra step and think analytically about the dance you're experiencing, don't miss the choreographer conversation between Beth Gill and Janet Eilber on Thursday, July 19. It will be moderated by Heather Roffe, known to Rochester audiences as one of the main dancers in Futurpointe Dance, as well as collaborating director/resident choreographer of that upbeat, urban company. Beginning in August, Roffe will also be an assistant professor of dance at Nazareth College, and will be largely responsible for implementing dance as a major at the school (currently, Nazareth students can only choose dance as a minor).

Last week, Roffe spoke to City about the contrast between Gill and Graham, and their work. "It's intriguing just how different they are in so many different ways," Roffe says. "In terms of longevity and time frame, Beth Gill is just emerging while the Graham Company is the longest-running company in dance today."

"Their theme and movement styles are wildly different, too. Graham is very theatrical while Gill creates within a post-modern dance aesthetic, employing simple gestural movement and a neutral body, genderless attitude — not portraying male or female characters, or even animals."

"Graham is rooted in her technique. She was one of the first to successfully codify a modern movement vocabulary — much like ballet has a vocabulary — which dancers still use today," says Roffe. "If you took a Graham class in New York City, L.A., or Beijing, you would encounter the same Graham movements, techniques, and aesthetics."

Also performing as part of this year's festival is Luna Negra Dance Theater. This Chicago-based company combines ballet, contemporary, and Latin/Afro-Caribbean forms with killer results. Founded in 1999 by Cuban-born dancer and choreographer Eduardo Vilaro, the company exclusively presents the work of Latino choreographers. Gustavo Ramirez Sansano was appointed artistic director in 2009. This year he joined the coveted ranks of being listed as one of Dance Magazine's "25 to Watch in 2012."

Meanwhile LehrerDance's niche lies in its cool combination of modern and jazz. This eight-member company from Buffalo, directed by Jon Lehrer, comments humorously on the human condition while engaging audiences with powerful athleticism. Futurpointe Dance, founded here in 2009 by N'jelle Gage and Artistic Director Guy Thorne, produces eclectic, multi-genre work enmeshed in contemporary/urban culture. Thorne was a principal dancer with Garth Fagan Dance for seven years, but has already shown that he's got what it takes to make it on his own. But decide for yourself; come to the festival.

2012 Dance Festival Schedule

Unless otherwise noted, all performances take place at Nazareth College, 4245 East Ave. For tickets and more information visit

Thursday, July 12

Dance Festival Overture: RPO Jeff Tyzik conducts the Rochester Philharmonic Orchestra in a survey of American dance music with performances by West Coast dancers. Callahan Theater, Nazareth College Arts Center. 8 p.m. $35-$50.

Saturday, July 14

Community Dance Event w/Phoenix Project Dance The Phoenix Project focuses on re-inventing one's self through dance. Outdoors, Memorial Art Gallery Grounds, 500 University Ave. 11 a.m. Free.

Beth Gill "Electric Midwife" See description in feature. Studio A-48, Nazareth College Arts Center. 2 p.m. & 6:30 p.m. $20.

Master Class w/John Lehrer of LehrerDance Limited to 25-30 participants. Elizabeth George Hall Dance Studio, Nazareth College. 5:30-7 p.m. Free, but preregistration required: 389-2180.

Luna Negra Dance Theater Company performs works by Latino choreographers that mix Latin and Afro-Caribbean feels with ballet and contemporary dance. Callahan Theater, Nazareth College Arts Center. 8 p.m. $35-$50.

Sunday, July 15

Beth Gill "Electric Midwife" See description in feature. Studio A-48, Nazareth College Arts Center. 2 p.m. & 5:30 p.m. $20.

Lehrer Dance Troup performs modern, athletic dance styles with a jazz feel. Callahan Theater, Nazareth College Arts Center. 7 p.m. $15-$25.

Monday, July 16

Community Dances All dances held 6-8 p.m.; free, no registration required. Modern square dancing (no experience necessary) will be held at the Robert A. Kidera Gymnasium, Otto A. Shults Community Center; Latin American dancing (beginner skill level) will be held at the Cabaret, Otto A. Shults Community Center; Broadway dancing (beginner skill level) will be held at The Forum, Otto A. Shults Community Center.

Master Class w/Beth Gill Class in contemporary dance style; class limited to 20 people. Elizabeth George Hall Dance Studio, Nazareth College. 5:30-7 p.m. 5:30-7 p.m. Free, but preregistration required: 389-2180.

FuturPointe Dance Local dance company that features aspects of Caribbean and African dance, ballet, and reggae, inspired by Rochester's urban culture. Callahan Theater, Nazareth College Arts Center. 8 p.m. $15-$25.

Tuesday, July 17

Master Class w/Beth Gill Class in contemporary dance style; class limited to 20 people. Elizabeth George Hall Dance Studio, Nazareth College. 5:30-7 p.m. 5:30-7 p.m. Free, but preregistration required: 389-2180.

Dancing on the Grass I: Daystar: Contemporary Dance-Drama of Indian America. Nazareth College Outdoor Stage by Golisano Academic Center. 6-8 p.m. Free.

Wednesday, July 18

Master Class w/Beth Gill Class in contemporary dance style; class limited to 20 people. Elizabeth George Hall Dance Studio, Nazareth College. 5:30-7 p.m. 5:30-7 p.m. Free, but preregistration required: 389-2180.

Dancing on the Grass II: Flower City Ballet. Nazareth College Outdoor Stage by Golisano Academic Center. 6-7:30 p.m. Free.

Thursday, July 19

Master Class with Rosalie Jones and Daystar Class on Native American dance; limited to 20 people. Elizabeth George Hall Dance Studio, Nazareth College. 5:30-7 p.m. Free, but preregistration required: 389-2180.

Choreographer Conversation with Janet Eilber and Beth Gill Conversation moderated by Heather Roffe, collaborating director and resident choreographer of FuturPointe Dance and Nazareth's new assistant professor of theatre in dance. Peace Theater (A14), Nazareth College Arts Center. 8 p.m. Free.

Friday, July 20

Master Class with Martha Graham Dance Company Class on the Graham Technique; limited to 25 people. Elizabeth George Hall Dance Studio, Nazareth College. 4-6 p.m. Free, but preregistration required: 389-2180.

Martha Graham Dance Company Program includes "Prelude and Revolt," "Embattled Garden," and "Appalachian Spring"; see feature for details. Callahan Theater, Nazareth College Arts Center. 8 p.m. $50-$65.

Saturday, July 21

Martha Graham Dance Company Program includes "Witch Dance," "Every Soul is a Circus," "Lamentation Variations," and "Diversion of Angels"; see feature for details. Callahan Theater, Nazareth College Arts Center. 8 p.m. $50-$65.


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