C'mon, Get Happy
You trip and fall onstage, and the audience erupts into laughter. A total nightmare, right? Not if you're choreographer Monica Bill Barnes, who's made a career out of presenting delightfully funny contemporary work. “When the audience laughs, I know they're paying attention," Barnes says. “They're connecting with the piece."
From the competition circuit to the concert world, contemporary dance has acquired a certain reputation for angst, with choreographers regularly tackling heavy subject matter. But more and more artists are beginning to explore contemporary's uplifting potential. “I've recently found myself wanting to create things that are just beautiful to watch, and that make people happy," says Still Motion artistic director Stacey Tookey. In search of laughs, smiles and that good-all-over feeling, these choreographers have broadened the scope of contemporary dance.
Looking on the Bright Side
Pain can be a powerful source of inspiration. So why set heartbreak and loss aside? For choreographer Larry Keigwin, exploring happiness through dance just comes naturally. “If you think about the pure act of dancing—social dancing at weddings, a baby dancing—it's a celebration of the human spirit, an adrenaline rush," he says.
Choreographer Al Blackstone has found that creating uplifting work just requires a shift in perspective. His most recent full-length piece, Freddie Falls in Love, was inspired by a breakup—yet it was anything but sad. “I realized that a lot of my work revolves around being in love, and I wanted to explore how someone could see the beauty in the world on their own, and not through their partner's eyes," he says.
The Cheese Factor
While dances inspired by grief and sadness earn audience respect quickly with their natural gravitas, finding a non-cheesy happy place can be delicate work. “Showing happy pieces creates the same anxiety you get when you throw your own birthday party," Barnes says. “You want everyone to have a good time, because if they don't, you feel like you've failed in some way." Along with her partner, Anna Bass, she devotes months—sometimes years—to generating new movement before whittling it down for show. “We're thrilled if we get 15 minutes from four hours of material," she says. And the cutting process doesn't end when the curtains close on opening night. “We kill about 50 percent of a show after our first performance based on audience reception," she says. “It can be brutal, but not everything we think is funny or interesting is going to make sense to complete strangers."
(From left) Matt Doyle, Ricky Ubeda and Gaby Diaz in Al Blackstone's Freddie Falls in Love (photo by Matthew Murphy, courtesy Blackstone)
Blackstone notes that when you create uplifting work, you risk being labeled as cutesy. To avoid that trap, he focuses on staying connected to an authentic inner joy. Melanie Moore, a dancer in Freddie Falls in Love, finds it easy to immerse herself in Blackstone's happy work because of his commitment to story. “He keeps us thinking about why we're doing each step, like, 'What are you saying with that pas de bourrée?' " Moore says.
Keigwin accesses authentic happiness by keeping his creative process playful, inviting his dancers to use prompts and games to generate movement. Keigwin + Company dancer and rehearsal director Brandon Cournay remembers learning Contact Sport, a piece inspired by Keigwin's relationship with his brothers. “He told us stories about childhood games they used to play—pranks, trust falls, Red Rover," Cournay says. “By experimenting with all that, we found movement that was filled with a really honest joy."
So why all this happiness now? “The world is stressful these days, and dance can provide an escape from that," Keigwin says. But he thinks the shift also stems from contemporary's evolution physically. “Artists are finding more rhythm—and more playful, witty and daring ways to move their bodies," he says.
Cournay sees the happiness surge as less of a trend and more of an indication that the climate of the contemporary dance world is broadening. “Think about all the commercials and music videos showcasing contemporary dance right now," he says. “Choreographers feel like there's more room in the emotional spectrum for them to explore their creativity."
In the end, Blackstone thinks, the goal should be to keep that spectrum balanced. “If choreography is purely joyful, or purely sad, it loses effectiveness," he says. “People appreciate something sweet so much more after having something salty."
Get in, losers. We're going to Broadway.
OK, not losers, actually—more like the bajillion die-hard fans of Tina Fey's 2004 cult hit Mean Girls, who've been wearing pink every Wednesday since a musical adaptation of the film was first teased back in 2013.
Now their world is like a cake filled with rainbows and smiles, because Mean Girls the musical, which had a trial run in Washington, DC, last fall, is set to open at Broadway's August Wilson Theatre April 8. And in a very grool twist, it turns out the show—with direction and choreography by Casey Nicholaw and a book by Fey herself—is delightfully dancey.
"A dancer's body is her instrument"—we've all heard the saying. But for steppers, who use their bodies to emulate rhythmic drumming, that saying is everything.
Step swept the U.S. last summer with the release of the documentary STEP, which followed three members of the Baltimore Leadership School for Young Women step team. The team also made it onto the "So You Think You Can Dance" Season 14 stage, after member Blessin Giraldo's audition ended in an invite from Nigel Lythgoe himself.
For dance fans, it may have seemed like the summer of step. But this art form has been around for well over a century. What is it, where did it come from, and why is the wider dance world taking notice?
We've all seen the videos on Instagram: a professional ballerina, casually perched atop a BOSU ball, développé-ing like it's no big deal. When done properly, BOSU ball exercises are both insanely impressive and incredibly effective for strengthening your core, ankles, and overall stability. Dance Spirit turned to Joel Prouty, a NYC-based personal trainer and injury prevention/exercise-conditioning specialist, for his top three BOSU ball moves, ranging from easy to hard.
Photos by Erin Baiano. Modeled by Lauren Post, dancer with American Ballet Theatre.
A few years ago, 16-year-old Kayla Gonzalez found herself dancing alongside a mean-spirited girl. “She could be so rude," says Gonzalez, who trains at The Dance Zone in Henderson, NV. “It got worse at competitions. She'd make up lies, saying my teammates and I were doing things we weren't. She was always trying to get ahead." Sound familiar? A competitive environment can bring out the very worst in some dancers' personalities. When put in a stressful situation, students can become bossy, overdramatic or downright mean. Here, DS breaks down four toxic types you might encounter, and offers tips on how to respond.
So WHY isn't there more video evidence of this hidden talent?
Brian Friedman is not only a legend in his own right—he's also worked beside the biggest legends in the business. Growing up a Scottsdale, AZ, comp kid, Friedman was soon dancing behind Michael Jackson, Celine Dion, and Paula Abdul, and as an OG Newsie in the 1992 film. Now he calls the shots: He's choreographed and been creative director for icons like Britney, Cher, Beyoncé, and Mariah. Nominated for five MTV VMAs, two Music Video Production Association Awards, and four American Choreography Awards, Friedman's won an Industry Voice Award for best choreography, and a World of Dance award. Dance Spirit talked to Friedman to find out what inspires him. —Helen Rolfe
Let it gooooo! The much-anticipated musical version of Frozen, with choreography by the fabulous Rob Ashford, opens on Broadway tonight. And to get you even more excited about this latest dancy Disney venture, the show's team just released a brand-new trailer—a sneak peek at how they've translated the film's special magic into perhaps-even-more-impressive stage magic.
Dance competitions are where great memories are made. But—between the traveling, the challenging routines, and the bazillion costume changes—they're also the source of many, many #struggles. If you're a comp kid, you'll 100 percent be able to relate to these 10 problems.
Veteran Brooklynettes dancer Asha Singh knows what it takes to get a crowd pumped: This NBA season marks her fifth year on the squad. And as team captain, she's also well-versed in the art of keeping a team looking picture-perfect. An Overland Park, KS, native, she trained in ballet, modern, jazz, hip hop, and tap as a child, and later majored in dance at the University of Missouri. Since then, she's danced with music legends, including Beyoncé and Alicia Keys, and performed in commercials for big brands like ESPN and T-Mobile. Catch her courtside cheering on the Brooklyn Nets—and read on for The Dirt.
Odds are you already know the photography of Omar Z Robles, whose images of dancers in striking natural settings mesmerize his hundreds of thousands of Instagram followers. Recently, Robles paid a visit to his native Puerto Rico for the first time since it was devastated by Hurricane Maria. And the images he captured of its resilient dancers, finding beauty in the ruined landscape, will bring tears to your eyes.