Chances are you’ve heard of Sleep No More, the blockbuster production loosely based on Shakespeare’s Macbeth. But Sleep No More is more than just a performance: It takes place throughout a five-story building in NYC, with audience members exploring the space on their own terms. If you attend the show, you’re part of it—and that’s what sets immersive performances apart.
Immersive productions can be incredibly rewarding for dancers. But how do you prepare when all of your stage experience has probably been in a theater, with the audience planted firmly in their seats? Dance Spirit spoke to artistic directors and performers to find out what to expect when you book your first immersive gig.
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Rachel I. Berman as Alice in Then She Fell. (Photo by Darial Sneed, courtesy Third Rail Projects)
There’s a rich history of site-specific choreography—dance pieces made with a particular, non-theater space in mind—that set the stage for immersive shows. Iconic postmodern choreographers like Trisha Brown and Yvonne Rainer made site-specific work to challenge people’s preconceived ideas about what dance could be, and helped inspire today’s immersive choreographers to let their imaginations run wild.
NYC–based choreographer Noémie Lafrance has created a number of experimental works based in audience participation. “I feel that a controlled environment (like a theater) isn’t reflective of how we live. It’s isolating. In the same way, I don’t want to isolate the audience from my work,” she says. One of her most notable works, Agora II, took place in an abandoned swimming pool in Brooklyn, NY, and featured dozens of dancers. Certain audience members received text message cues about when to join the performance. In this site-specifc and immersive work, Lafrance made sure the audience had opportunites to change the direction of the piece.
Former Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet member Vânia Doutel Vaz debuted in Sleep No More last summer. She has extensive experience performing in immersive theater, and she says that no two shows are the same.
Nicholas Bruder as Macbeth and Sophie Borolussi as Lady Macbeth in Sleep No More. (Photo by Yaniv Schulman, courtesy O+M Co.)
For one memorable performance, Vaz danced in Laura Perez-Harris’ Belly of the Beast at Tomato House in Brooklyn. “Audience members crawled down a pitch-black velvet-lined maze and eventually fell into the ‘belly,’ where I and two other dancers performed,” Vaz says. “I think Laura was trying to get people way, way outside their comfort zones.”
“We call it ‘world-making,’ ” says Tom Pearson, co-artistic director of Third Rail Projects and one of the creators behind immersive productions like The Grand Paradise and Then She Fell, which was inspired by Lewis Carroll’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. “The edges of the real world are invisible.”
It might seem pointless to prepare for a performance where anything can happen, but it’s not. Vaz suggests attending immersive performances whenever possible, to build your familiarity. She also credits Ohad Naharin’s Gaga technique for teaching performers how to develop their awareness. “All your senses need to be enhanced,” she says. “You have to be able to see in 360 degrees.” And if you’re successful, she says, you’ll be so “in it” that you can practically predict audience members’ movements.
Vaz’s ultimate rule for performing in an immersive show? Don’t break character! She cautions that your worst-case scenario might happen, but you have to trust your fellow performers to help you—and that comes from rehearsing and performing together. “No matter what, never apologize for anything,” she says. “Everything that happens is supposed to. Don’t let the audience feel guilty, in your way, or uncomfortable. As a performer, you become the audience’s guiding eyes, so it’s all about being confident and secure in what you’re doing.”
As a student at Wayne State University, Sonya Tayeh had one of those experiences that seem to change everything: She saw Martha Graham’s seminal solo, Lamentation. Fast-forward a decade or so, and Tayeh is revisiting that defining moment. Fresh off another groundbreaking season on “So You Think You Can Dance,” Tayeh was one of four choreographers chosen by the Martha Graham Dance Company to create a new addition to Lamentation Variations—a series of four-minute pieces inspired by the original.
Several other choreographers, including Larry Keigwin, Aszure Barton and Yvonne Rainer, have made their own Lamentation Variations in the past, and this year’s crop of commissioned dancemakers are Tayeh, Kyle Abraham, Michelle Dorrance and Liz Gerring. Each choreographer is given just 10 hours to complete his or her piece and must start from scratch—pre-planned ideas aren’t allowed.
Dance Spirit caught up with Tayeh to talk about her Variation, which premieres this month at the Joyce Theater in NYC.
Sonya Tayeh working with Martha Graham dancers (photo by Brigid Pierce, courtesy Martha Graham Dance Company)
Dance Spirit: Can you talk about the first time you saw Lamentation?
Sonya Tayeh: My dance history teacher Georgia Reid showed me a video in class. Seeing all the restriction, grief and constraint in the piece—along with its pounding aggression—made me cry. I felt such a visceral connection to the work and to Graham’s idea that dance should make you feel something.
DS: What are you trying to convey in your variation?
ST: This year, I’ve lost two close friends. I’ve been feeling a sense of intense anxiety about getting as much done as I can before everything ends. I’m inspired by the moment when you’re in mourning and you feel stifled, but you tear away all that constraint and say, “Enough is enough.” I see it as a Part 2 of Graham’s Lamentation—if she tore away the fabric and all that weight lifted, what would happen? It’s like being shot out of a rocket.
DS: What is the music?
ST: I’m using a piece by Meredith Monk that consists of all these crazy breathing sounds. When I watch Graham’s original, I feel myself making those kinds of sounds, like my body can’t breathe and I need air. I want my piece to feel like the dancers are out of breath from the beginning. They’re exhausted, running around, trying to get so much done. I’ve been telling the dancers to let the music drive them.
DS: Everyone fell in love with your “SYTYCD” piece for Ricky Ubeda and Jessica Richens, which used Meredith Monk’s “Vow.” What’s your connection to Monk?
ST: I’ve been a huge fan of hers forever. And when my friends passed away, I just kept listening to one of her albums with “Vow” on it. I knew I wanted to use the song for “SYT,” and the producers agreed. I was also looking for music for my Graham piece, and I wrote a letter to Meredith explaining my situation and how I’d love to use her music. She gifted me the two scores. I’d love to work directly with her one day.
DS: What’s next for you?
ST: When I moved to NYC, my plan was to start anew, pay my dues and build my voice as a concert and theater choreographer. So this project, and being mentioned in the same breath as people like Kyle Abraham and Michelle Dorrance, is amazing. I also have a crew of dancers I’ve been working with, and I’d love to get some work commissioned. I’m just really honing in on the NYC dance environment.
Ahh. Visually striking dance movies—there's nothing like them. From the 3D, Academy-Award nominated Pina to the probing, New-York-City-Ballet-behind-the-scenes, Ballet 422, movies that take the awesomeness of dance to a new visual level are always the best ever. Well, dance-on-camera fans, rejoice! There's a new film coming out this month that promises to be extremely bold and beautiful.
Members of STREB Extreme Action performing "Sky Walk," as part of the London 2012 Cultural Olympiad.
(photo by Esy Casey)
Born to Fly: Elizabeth Streb vs. Gravity comes out next week, after rave reviews at the SXSW Film Festival this spring. Following Streb and her STREB Extreme Action
dancers movers, the film highlights the choreographer's contributions to dance, art and the quest for human flight—though sometimes at the cost of her company members' safety. But as Streb (aka the Evel Knievel of dance) says in the film, "Anything too safe is not action." Plus, it's insanely exciting—talk about a serious adrenaline rush—to watch the dancers bounding from incredible heights, spinning in a human hamster wheel and rappelling from buildings. Take a look at the trailer below—we promise, you'll be hooked:
Dying to see Born to Fly? Click here for a list of showtimes.
Photo via pbs.org
By now, you might have heard that the legendary Dr. Maya Angelou passed away last night at 86. And while you're probably most familiar with her work as a civil rights activist and an American author (with masterworks like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings), you might not have known she was also a celebrated dancer and singer.
In the 1950s, Angelou was pretty entrenched in the American modern dance scene. She studied modern dance in San Francisco with Anna Halprin—where she met another legend: Alvin Ailey. The two became dance partners and formed an act called Al and Rita. Angelou also performed in a Calypso revue in 1957 Brooklyn, NY, produced by modern dance great Geoffrey Holder—alongside Ailey and Donald McKayle. (Years later, Angelou read her poem "When Great Trees Fall" at Ailey's funeral in 1989, and when McKayle received the prestigious Scripps/ADF Award in 1992, Angelou was there to present the award.)
In 1957, Angelou produced a solo album titled Miss Calypso, and that same year she appeared as herself in the film Calypso Heatwave. You can see a piece of it in this clip from Oprah's "Super Soul Sunday," starting at 1:54.
Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzac in "Beloved Renegade" (photo by Tom Caravaglia)
You already know how much we're inspired by Paul Taylor. But if you couldn't catch the Paul Taylor Dance Company's NYC season this year, never fear: You didn't miss your chance to enter inspiration station. In fact, PTDC is about to come right to your living room.
Tonight at 9 pm EST, PBS will broadcast a recording of one of the company's performances at the Theatre National de Chaillot in Paris. It's a great program, too: We kick things off with Brandenburgs, an elegant pure-dance piece set to excerpts from Bach's famous Brandenburg concertos, and then conclude on a thoughtful note with Beloved Renegade, set to Francis Poulenc's Gloria and inspired by the life and work of poet Walt Whitman. Beloved Renegade is one of my all-time favorite Taylor works—not least because it features the mysterious, magnetic duo Michael Trusnovec and Laura Halzack in its leading roles.
Take a peek at the two works in the trailer below—then click here to find out more about the program.
Taylor photographed by Paul Palmaro
What choreographers inspire you? My list goes on forever, but Paul Taylor has always been at the top of it. Taylor started out dancing for pioneers like Martha Graham and later became a visionary craftsman, making more than 100 dances and winning numerous awards.
New Yorkers can catch the Paul Taylor Dance Company in action this month at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater. Here are the top five reasons why Paul Taylor inspires me.
1. He keeps it fresh.
Taylor continues to create new experiences for both dancers and audiences, even though there's something uniquely “Taylor” about his movement style. You may recognize signature phrases in multiple dances, but they evoke different reactions and emotions in each one.
2. His dancers are amazing.
Every strong, beautiful, technically proficient Taylor dancer is hand-picked and home-grown. All of the company's members studied at The Taylor School or worked their way up through Taylor 2 before making it into the main troupe. From petite powerhouse Parisa Khobdeh to the mesmerizing Michael Trusnovec, each dancer represents a different part of Taylor, and together they make an impressive whole.
PTDC in "3 Epitaphs." Photo by Paul B. Goode.
3. He has a sense of humor.
I love a man who can make me laugh. In Offenbach Overtures, Taylor makes fun of the French court with choreography that still shows off his dancers’ technique. And though his 3 Epitaphs is set to music traditionally played at funerals in the South, you can’t help but laugh as his dancers—covered from head to toe in Robert Rauschenberg's mud-brown unitards—lope absurdly around the stage. (3 Epitaphs actually helped generate choreographic ideas for one of my own projects.)
4. He’s a Renaissance man.
Paul Taylor is also an author. His autobiography, Private Domain, was published in 1999, and he has just released a new book of essays, Facts and Fancies, which gives you a backstage pass into his quirky mind.
5. He knows it ain’t over ’til it’s over.
Taylor will turn 83 in July, but earlier this month he unveiled his 138th dance! We tend to put an expiration date on dance careers, but Paul Taylor has demonstrated that age is just a number.