June 11, 1998: Birth of a dance magazine

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“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world.”

— Margaret Mead, cited on the back cover of Issue #1 of The Dance Insider, Summer 1998

“Dance writing shouldn’t hide backstage, but should join in the wider cultural critical dialogue.”

— Dancer Z, inaugural issue, The Dance Insider

Please help us celebrate our 20th anniversary by subscribing to the DI today, for just $29.95 / year, or making a donation. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check. Subscribers get access to our DI Archives of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances, films, art exhibitions and more from five continents, as well as our five-year Jill Johnston and extensive Martha Graham archives, plus new articles. Subscribe by June 24 and receive a free photo ad.

On June 11, 1998, in SoHo, New York City, a new dance magazine was born, printed on 100% recycled paper paid for by the Eddy Foundation: The Dance Insider, with founding editor Veronica Dittman, founding publisher Paul Ben-Itzak, and a stable of professional dancers, journalists, and photographers, notably Jamie Phillips and Robin Hoffman. Features editor Rebecca Stenn provided the model of the dancer-writer and choreographer-educator Sara Hook the brain trust. Eileen Darby eventually became our senior advisor. Officially launched later that month at (and graciously hosted by) the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, the issue featured original cover and back cover photography by Phillips of Pilobolus Dance Theater performers Rebecca Anderson, Mark Santillano, and Gaspard Louis. (The Pilobolus connection having been secured by Pils alumna Rebecca Jung.) Our mission (besides going where no dance magazine had gone before):  To give a voice to dancers, to tell stories not told elsewhere, and to build the dance audience. The content included:

** Insider Picks of upcoming performances by the Hamburg Ballet, whose artistic director, John Neumeier, confided in the DI, “The most successful ballets, if they are stories…, are stories we cannot retell — just as it is very difficult to tell what you dreamt last night”; ODC / San Francisco; and, at Jacob’s Pillow and the ADF, respectively, Joanna Haigood and David Grenke, the latter of whom explained to the DI: “All of this stuff comes out of my body, and then it’s a matter of having it make sense to other people.”

** An Insider Forum in which Joffrey Ballet star and choreographer Christian Holder, American Ballet Theatre principal Ethan Stiefel, Joffrey alumna Hoffman (at the time in-house notator with the Paul Taylor Dance Company), Ben-Itzak, and moderator Veronica Dittman debated the question: “Is ballet irrelevant?” The article also featured interviews with Lines Contemporary Ballet director Alonzo King and Kennedy Center president Lawrence J. Wilker, and was illustrated with photography by Marty Sohl and Weiferd Watts.

** Insider News, illustrated with photography by Roy Volkmann of the Alvin Ailey Dance Company’s Mucuy Bolles and Don Bellamy, on personnel changes, promotions, guest appearances, and upcoming performances by the Ailey, Dallas Black Dance Theater, Mark Dendy, the Frankfurt Ballet, and Hamburg Ballet, plus labor strife at the Martha Graham Dance Company. Contributors to the section included recently retired Ailey star Elizabeth Roxas, the DI’s modern dance editor.

** “Fear and loathing with the fungus,” PBI’s inside report from Washington Depot, Connecticut, on the creation of Pilobolus’s collaboration with laureated jazz composer and big band leader Maria Schneider, who told the DI after one session with the dancers and the choreographic triumvirate of Robby Barnett, Jonathan Wolken, and Michael Tracy, “You get the feeling they all want something different….” The article was accompanied by a Pilobolus lexicon, more photography from Philips featuring Anderson, Louis, Santillano, and Trebien Pollard, and a first-hand report from an audition for Momix, the company of Pilobolus co-founder Moses Pendleton.

** An interview with Donald McKayle on the occasion of his 50th year in dance, illustrated with a photograph of McKayle and Carmen De Lavallade performing the former’s “Rainbow ‘Round my Shoulder” provided by fabled archivist Joe Nash and ADF. “When you find the linkage between dance and story,” McKayle told the DI, “you have found something very rich.” The article offered an exclusive excerpt of McKayle’s upcoming autobiography.

** “Inside Presenting,” sub-titled, “From the cradle to the grave, new ways to build your audience,” and featuring interviews with Wilker, ODC co-director KT Nelson, Pacific Northwest Ballet co-founder Francia Russell, Walker Art Center director Philip Bither, and many others, and illustrated with Keith Haring’s body painting of Bill T. Jones. The article was accompanied by a side-bar by Stenn recounting her experience performing for and teaching children on behalf of Pilobolus.

** A farewell to San Francisco Ballet diva Evelyn Cisneros, with a review by Aimee Ts’ao of Cisneros’s swan song and a tribute by Cisneros’s colleague (and DI education editor) Edward Ellison.

** An exclusive interview with flamenco legend Lola Greco on her controversial departure from the National Ballet of Spain.

** Dittman’s unique perspective on a performance by American Ballet Theater: “It is truly heartening to be reminded that there is still plenty in the world of dance, where lately I’ve seen only paucity.” (Harald Landers’s “Etudes” did not fare so well.)

** The DI’s inaugural issue terminated with a manifesto from “Dancer Z,” the nom de plum of a busy NYC modern dancer. Analyzing the current critical landscape, Dancer Z wrote: “The mere reportage of events which comprises most dance reviews seems directed towards the audience member who fell asleep and missed what happened on the stage, or for the viewer who seeks a poetic recapitulation.” Dancer Z terminated with an appeal and formula which the DI would adopt a year later when it began publishing online Flash Reviews of performances, most written by active dance artists:

“I want opinions, I want comparisons, I want meaning. Dance needs to be talked about not only in the context of its own history and trends, but in conjunction with trends in other art forms. I would like to read reviews which attempt to identify dance’s place in the constellation of ideological, economic, social, and aesthetic influences involved in its creation. Dance writing shouldn’t hide backstage, but should join in the wider cultural critical dialogue.

“I want to feel that writers are not only watching dance, but are asking the questions which need to be asked, drawing the parallels that need to be drawn, and fueling the wheel that struggles always to turn. In providing the push, the next challenge, or simply the truth, dance writers can be more involved in gathering and preparing the audiences of the future. Through writing which looks at dance in a larger context and acknowledges it as a citizen of the world capable of the responsibility which that invovles, dance can find the bridge to understanding itself and making itself understood, a connection imperative to its growth and ultimately, its survival.”

In other words, as Skoop Nisgar said: If you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.

Which the DI did.

Your turn.

— Paul Ben-Itzak

DI subscribers who would like to receive text versions of any of the above stories from the DI’s inaugural Summer 1998 print issue, please e-mail DI publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com . DI subscribers also receive access to the DI’s 20-year archives of more than 2,000 exclusive articles by 150 writers related to performances, films, and exhibitions on five continents. Not yet a subscriber? To subscribe, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros .

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

Returning to its roots as a Direct E-mail List — as the most effective, efficient way to serve our subscribers, writers, advertisers, and readers — the DI will heretofore make all new content, as well as reprints from our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances on five continents, plus news, commentary, art, and the Jill Johnston Archive, available strictly by e-mail. To subscribe to the DI and access both this new content and archived stories, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. (In the latter case, the payments will be directed to our European correspondents.) You can also contact us at that address to find out about limited, well-integrated e-mail advertising options.

Stories not told Elsewhere: Bodies of famous dancers that don’t stay buried

By The Dance Insider
Copyright 2004, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

Today marks the 214th anniversary of the birth of Marie Taglioni, the first dancer to use pointe artistically. In 2001, the Dance Insider lead a world-wide campaign to place pointe shoes on the dilapidated Montmartre cemetery grave (in the shadow of the impeccably maintained tomb of Nijinsky) identified by the city of Paris as Taglioni’s final resting place. In October 2004, the DI capped the celebration of Taglioni’s bicentennial, of which it was the lead organizer, with a conference and performance co-presented by the Italian Institute and co-organized by Sophie Parcen of the Paris Opera Ballet.  As of May 2016, the city of Paris had yet to remove Taglioni’s name from the stationary maps of the Montmartre cemetery. Founded in 1998 by a collective of professional dance artists and journalists to build the dance audience, tell stories not told elsewhere, and give a voice to dancers, the DI is celebrating its 20th anniversary. For information on purchasing your own copy of our archive of 2,000 reviews of performances and art from around the world by 150 leading dance critics, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

PARIS — Officials at the Montmartre Cemetery this morning agreed to take Marie (also known as Maria) Taglioni’s name off cemetery maps after an Italian Institute-Dance Insider conference revealed that Taglioni, the first dancer to use pointe artistically, is not buried in the cemetery tomb which bears her name, but in the Pere Lachaise cemetery under the name of Gilbert de Voisins, the ex-husband she divorced after he turned her away from their home because she wouldn’t stop dancing, as confirmed by Edgar Allen Poe’s contemporaneous translations of French newspaper accounts of the divorce proceedings.

The startling turn of events began Thursday, shortly after the opening of the bicentennial homage to and conference on Taglioni in the ballroom of the Institute’s Hotel Gallifet, where Napoleon first encountered his nemesis Madame de Staehl. But that drama was nothing compared to what happened when Dance Insider publisher Paul Ben-Itzak began speaking about the Montmartre grave. As Ben-Itzak recalled first seeing Taglioni’s name on the cemetery map when he visited the cemetery to view Nijinsky’s grave in July 2001, DI webmistress and art director Robin Hoffman projected images of the Montmartre grave, which bears a cracked placard with the words “Marie Taglioni” and “a sa mere bien-aimee,” or “to his/her beloved mother.”

Seated in the first row of the audience was conference participant Pierre Lacotte, whose 1971 reconstruction of Filippo Taglioni’s “La Sylphide” is considered the authoritative version.

“I’m sorry but I must interrupt,” said Lacotte, who is working on a biography of the Taglionis. “It’s not her grave.”

To receive the complete article, first published on October 6, 2004, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI/AV Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances and art on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Sign up by April 30 and receive a FREE Home page photo ad.

Degas meets Valéry at the Orsay, 1

degas9 group of dancers smallTo commemorate the centennial of the death of Edgar Degas (1834-1917), through Sunday the musée d’Orsay has organized an exhibition that juxtaposes paintings, pastels, and drawings from the Impressionist artist and others with “Degas Danse Dessin,” published in 1936 by the art dealer Ambroise Vollard. Accompanied by 26 hors-textes reproductions of Degas’s graphic work, the luxury edition was written by French  poet Paul Valéry (1871-1945). “Degas is one of the rare painters to lend the floor its own importance,” Valéry noted. “He has admirable planks. At times, he views a dancer from high up, and her entire form gets projected on the plane of the plateau, like seeing a crab on a beach.” Edgar Degas (1834-1917), “Dancers,” also known as “Group of Dancers,” between 1884 and 1885. Pastel on paper, 78.3 x 77.2 cm.  Paris, Musee d’Orsay, RF 51757. © Musée d’Orsay Dist. RMN- Grand Palais / Patrice Schmidt. Courtesy Service Presse / musée d’Orsay.

Women aren’t just victims, III: How do you solve a problem like “Giselle”?

By Alicia Mosier Chesser
Copyright 2001, 2017 Alicia Mosier Chesser

(First published on the DI on May 22, 2001, today’s re-publication of this aesthetic tour-de-force — next time someone tells you ballet’s too old-fashioned, throw this one in their face — is sponsored by Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet,  Freespace Dance and and Slippery Rock Dance .)

NEW YORK — Absurd, incoherent, misogynistic, hopelessly outdated: thus do many dance lovers of today describe the story of “Giselle,” written by Vernoy de Saint-Georges, Theophile Gautier, and Jean Coralli, and choreographed in 1841 by Coralli and Jules Perrot. You know how it goes. Act I: Young girl with a love of dancing and a weak heart (or, in the opinion of some dance historians, a bun in the oven) falls for a count disguised as a peasant, who falls for her too but turns out to be engaged to a high-falutin’ prince’s daughter, which revelation sends girl to a frenzied demise. Act II: slightly creepy “ballet blanc” idealization of ghostly virgins, who dance their former fiancees to death in revenge for the fact that they (the virgins) have died before their wedding day. (Or something.) And here’s the worst of it: the girl actually spends the whole second act defending the guy who deceived her and ends up saving him from death-by-exhaustion. Almost every newcomer to dance whom I’ve taken to see “Giselle” has no patience for Act I — all that pantomime! — but the chilling purity of Act II (in which, in today’s productions, there’s very little story left) always leaves them breathless. Is it possible for viewers today — especially, perhaps, for feminist young women — to appreciate “Giselle” as a whole?

That’s really a question about how we look at art. We generally expect art to reflect our political and ethical values, or at least to express the artist’s individual, uncompromising point of view. This approach makes an artifact like “Giselle” very hard to swallow (although, ironically, this approach is just as much a part of our inheritance from the Romantic movement as this ballet is). It may seem an obvious and somewhat banal suggestion, but I’d propose that “Giselle” be taken as the artifact it is — that is, as the embodiment of Romantic values in a fully integrated dance-drama. Taken that way, the ballet can still have two different effects on an audience. It can excite only the most antiquarian sentiments, as American Ballet Theatre’s Ashley Tuttle and Angel Corella showed in their performance last Tuesday at the Metropolitan Opera House. Or, as Julie Kent and Jose Manuel Carreno showed on Thursday, it can shoot us deep into the enduring mysteries of drama, dance, and life on earth.

Tuttle’s “Giselle” was a confused girl-child from the start, a little thing whose lack of personality made it easy to see how she could be so taken in by Albrecht. In the Mad Scene at the end of Act I she became an overwrought 12-year-old with quivering arms, grabbing her head and shuddering on the floor. (Much of “Giselle,” it’s true, is ridiculous. Arlene Croce once described the Mad Scene as “an extended absurdity that an incurably cultish sentimentality has elevated to the status of a touchstone.”) For all the meltingly sweet balances and brisk hops on point Tuttle executed in the famous Act I solo, I couldn’t see that this Giselle had anything in her — any fire — that would make her go crazy from betrayal. She projected a sort of mild blankness and nodded her head in the same dumb way every time someone asked her a question. Albrecht would really have been a lout to take in a child like her — except if, as in the case of Corella, he was just as much a kid. When Corella came on at the beginning of Act II with a cape two sizes too big, stepping around “aristocratically” with toes so pointed he could hardly get one foot in front of the other, it was the perfect image of his undercooked interpretation.

With Kent’s Giselle, Albrecht faced a more complex situation. Act I can only make sense if Giselle is a fully fleshed out woman. From the beginning Kent had a mind of her own, a distinctive private life. We saw her imaginary world (centered on the hunter’s cottage, out of which she daydreamed a handsome gentleman emerging); her self-regard and smart self-protectiveness at the advances of the manly, magnetic Carreno; and most of all her sense that love was almost too beautiful for her to bear. In this performance it was Giselle’s love, and her loving nature, that defined her. She took love so seriously that it could literally kill her. In Kent’s lush Act I solo, it was as if love was coming out through her toes. (Love and dancing — and the love of dancing — are magically knotted together in this ballet; it’s a 19th-century instance of meta-narrative.)

Carreno wanted to come into this Giselle’s light; here the high and low of castle and village was transformed. When Kent invited him to join in a little peasant dance, it took him a moment to learn the dance (he’s used to doing the allemande, at court), but he picked it up quickly and thus entered into the heart of Giselle’s world. Kent’s Mad Scene continued the modern sensibility that marked her whole performance. She began to yank the petals from her invisible flower as if bitterly remembering Albrecht’s first deception, when he secretly pulled off the petal that would have said “he loves me not.” You could almost hear her clenching her teeth and saying, damn him, damn him, I love him and he dares to play games with love! Her death is his indictment.

Giselle’s defense of Albrecht in Act II, then, is two things at once: mercy for the sinner (with a little heaping of ashes on his head), and justice for the true love who was true of heart too late. Kent does not interpret Giselle simply. In Act I she is both wily and easily moved, generous and covetous, trusting and proud. Her entrance in Act II is terrifying. Whereas Tuttle appeared to be spun around by the wind in that whirling opening dance, and only took off around the time of her traveling entrechat quatres (making up for her limitations in the meantime with bizarrely elongated phrasing), Kent was wild and wraithlike, spinning out a continued perplexity that might never be resolved.

A big part of that perplexity is caused by the presence of Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, danced by Michele Wiles on Tuesday and Gillian Murphy on Thursday. Wiles’s Myrtha was chillier (those wide, bone-white shoulders, that forthright presentation, those tall arabesques), Murphy’s more authoritative and more exciting. Murphy brought to the part the dramatic power that is crucial for a coherent Act II. When Kent covered the deeply pensive Carreno at the grave, we saw Murphy trumped for a moment; she bowed slightly as she turned away to come up with another plan to get Albrecht out in the open. Murphy’s Wilis had absolutely no love left (behind her, they had personalities, whereas Wiles’s crew were mere shades). In front of them, Kent’s Giselle stood out all the more. There were a few shaky moments in her deft-as-a-spiderweb solos, but I didn’t care. I was listening, with Carreno, to her otherwordly, very present voice.

A few words about the ballet’s supporting characters. The role of Berthe, Giselle’s mother, centers on one bit of pantomime in which she tells about the Wilis: they get awful little wings, she says, and spend eternity tormenting men who get lost in the woods. Erica Fischbach did her duty by this moment on Thursday, but Karin Ellis-Wentz made my skin crawl Tuesday night as she sank into her terrible reverie, made more terrible by the knowledge that it could happen to her own daughter. As Hilarion, John Gardner was good and bitter, Ethan Brown more sturdy and more mocking in his scenes with Albrecht. I liked Xiomara Reyes better on Tuesday as Moyna, Myrtha’s first deputy, than in the Peasant Pas de Deux she performed with Joaquin de Luz on Thursday. Although her natural love of risk worked splendidly in the pas de deux (a big difference from the floating, serenely classical interpretation of Ekaterina Shelkanova and Gennadi Saveliev), her love of rubato brought a surprising richness to the part of Moyna. Carmen Corella, with her perfectly straight pointes and thoughtful port de bras, did the same for Zulma (Deputy Wili No. 2) on Thursday.

For sheer high excitement, almost nothing in classical ballet can match the dance of the Wilis at the beginning of Act II. The audience always applauds the long sequence of traveling chugs in arabesque, partly because it’s famous, but mostly because of the way it builds and builds as more Wilis take the stage and the music’s tension rises. I always wish there were about eight more dancers in the pack, and that it would go on about two minutes longer than it does. It’s a dance of death — as all of “Giselle” is, in a way — which Giselle turns into a dance of life-sustaining love. Giselle and Albrecht dance all night; they dance *through* death; and the love that remains in the morning of this ballet is as charged and haunted as any you or I have ever known.

Flash Focus, 10-25: Think Globally, Act Regionally — Angelini Builds New Home for New Dance; Lustig Smashes Glass Ceiling

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Tulsa Ballet’s Daniela Buson and Wang Yi in Ma Cong’s “Blood Rush” on the opening program at the company’s intimate Studio K theater. Christopher Jean-Richard photo copyright Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Author’s Note, 10-25-2016: In processing my interview with Marcello Angelini in 2008, I was so focused on the immediate picture in front of me – the Tulsa Ballet artistic director’s investment in creating infrastructure, as one of the rare young directors of mid-sized ballet companies who wasn’t using it as merely a stepping stone to something bigger – that I under-emphasized the importance of Angelini’s vision about ballet’s larger role as a cultural and even historical vector. Beyond pointing to paragraphs six and seven below, I can only add here an element of Angelini’s trajectory which no doubt helped forge his global vision and historical appreciation for ballet’s role in reflecting and advancing the larger culture in the same way that his very Italian manner of finding a suit influenced his designs for the new theater. Before turning to directing ballet companies, he danced for many years with Rudolph Nureyev’s touring company, frequently alternating with the star in principal roles. On the day I write these notes, we’ve just learned of the death of the activist, author, and politician Tom Hayden two days earlier at the age of 76, after a long illness. Hayden is remembered for co-founding, in 1961, Students for a Democratic Society, an early agitator  for civil rights and free speech, and against the Vietnam War. In 1968 he was tried as a member of the so-called Chicago Eight after protesting outside the Democratic Convention. The last time I saw Hayden was in Sacramento, California, during the 1992 government shut-down in a squabble over the state budget. Sitting in a subdued legislative chamber, the goatee’d Hayden was profiting from the lull to immerse himself in a new book about “Generation X.”  No fossil he. But fundamentally, Hayden’s importance was that he refused to accept business as usual. Ballet has far too few of these  — another reason to celebrate agitators like Marcello Angelini.)

Recently I received the Royal Ballet’s programming announcement for next season. I had trouble keeping my eyelids open. The same old dinosaurs being trotted out, whether in tired versions of classics or tired names of supposedly original modern ballet choreographers. Fortunately, where many of the large ballet companies have failed to imagine, the companies we big-city types used to condescendingly refer to as “regional” (as in, ‘not bad for a regional company’) have come through, commissioning new work with traction from choreographers not named Wheeldon, encouraging original voices to work in the ballet idiom without sacrificing classic values or, like many European ballet companies (Lyon comes to mind) resorting to extra-dance elements like text and ‘technology.’ At the top of this list are Marcello Angelini’s Tulsa Ballet and Graham Lustig’s American Repertory Ballet.

Angelini and Lustig have one other trait in common which is revealing itself in the level of talent and support they’ve been able to build. Neither see their companies as simple necessary stepping stones in ambitious trajectories whose ultimate goal is to land them a job with a bigger company. As a result, rather than the flashy programming which garners short-term attention but leaves no legacy (or, worse, the legacy of a deficit) that we often see from directors whose ambitions are confined to their own careers, they are actually building structures, community infrastructures,  and patron relationships from which their companies and audiences will reap benefits long after they’ve departed.

In Angelini’s case, the most visible evidence is a capital campaign which, over the past five years, has raised $17 million, $8.9 million of which has been directed towards a building expansion and renovation which sees its first fruits Thursday with the opening of Studio K – Kivisto Hall, a 300-seat theater designed expressly for the performance of new work in an additional fifth series for the Tulsa home season. (For this inaugural edition, three tango-themed works by Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, Young Soon Hue, and Tulsa Ballet principal dancer Ma Cong, on a program running through May 4. See Alicia Chesser’s review, elsewhere in these DI Archives.) The facility, named after Tulsa supporter Tom Kivisto, will serve for performances and education, and be available for community rental.

“This is a theater built to suit a new program, a new series that we are starting this year, rather then the other way around,” Angelini explained to me earlier this week. “This series has been in the making since I first came to Tulsa 13 years ago. In fact, it was one of the first projects I presented to the board of directors. It was all part of a plan, a three-fold plan with this series dedicated to creation being the last part of the plan. First I wanted to build a company that was able to dance everything, from the classics to the most contemporary work. Then I wanted to build a repertory that was truly international, allowing the people living in our community to experience here, in their homes, the same works they could see in New York, Paris, London, Milan or Moscow. Then, once the international repertory was built, I wanted to take the company internationally and give us a true test of our value, as assessed by reviewers and audiences that had never seen us before and would never see us again. Lastly, I wanted to add a series dedicated to creations.

“I always felt that creations need a special surrounding to be appreciated to the fullest. So, rather then creating a work and trying to fit it into a theater, I did the opposite. And that’s when being Italian helped in the thought process…. In Italy, we don’t just buy a suit and then fit it on our body. We go to the tailor, we get the fabric we like and we ask him to build it on our body…. I believe we are the only company in the U.S. that has spent $5 million to build a theater entirely dedicated to the creation of new works and, thus, to the progression and growth of the art form. This is the statement I wanted to make with Kivisto Hall.”

Angelini broadens the scope of his intentions with a credo that should serve as a guidepost for all guardians and cultivators of this art: “We enjoy an introspective look at the sociology and emotions of our ancestors from the 19th century through the art they created,” he says. “Better yet, with dance, this art comes alive in front of our eyes. We artistic directors need to commit to create a body of works that will withstand the test of time and will represent, a century or two from now, who we were at this time in the development of the human being.

“Another reason for creating art is that we, the arts organization, differ from the entertainment industry insofar as we have a responsibility toward the cultural growth of the community that supports us. Yes, we have to entertain, but we also have a responsibility to push the cultural boundaries of our people, challenge them to think, to accept progress, to expand their vision beyond the boundaries of the community they call home. Our job is to both please and make people think. Kivisto Hall will allow us to continue this commitment by creating works that are leading edge, while still entertaining and never infringing on the artistic integrity of the art form.”

Speaking of boundaries, for an art form that owes most of its historical stages of physical invention and development to women — from Taglioni’s enabling the articulation of Romanticism (see elsewhere in these DI Archives), to Farrell’s articulating and even inspiring Balanchine — ballet has a lousy record when it comes to allowing women creators *equal* access. It was in part to correct this that, several years ago, artistic director Graham Lustig started the Dancing through the Ceiling commissioning program at American Repertory Ballet, based in the working-class and university central New Jersey town of New Brunswick. But he didn’t stop there. The problem with sex or race-centric programs is they risk ghettoizing the very group they seek to promote. An all-female, all-Black, all-gay program carries the unfortunate subtext, “not bad for (women, Blacks, Gays).” It can even imply that the works will be of little interest to anyone outside that group; that they’ll speak only to an identity constituency. What Lustig does, however, is to integrate these works into his general programming. So even though three of the four works making up ARB’s program at New York’s Symphony Space May 8 and 9 are by women, the program is not being marketed as “Three Girls and Graham” but under the more universal rubric “Sinatra, Shadows, and Stars,” the ballets in question being inspired by the crooner from Hoboken, Balanchine, three Van Gogh paintings including “The Starry Night,” and the diary of Anne Frank.

The program starts with a work from that giant of male and female choreographers of the late 20th century, Twyla Tharp, in her Balanchine homage “Octet,” only the second time in 17 years the work has been programmed in New York. (Seeing the piece earlier this year in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger’s Robert Johnson called it “the most thrilling Tharp revival anywhere this season.” (And there have been a lot of them, notably at American Ballet Theatre; see elsewhere in these DI Archives.) Tharp also contributes “Sinatra Suite,” in a staging by Elaine Kudo, who created the duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Dancing through the Ceiling commission is “Starry Nights,” one of more than 80 ballets created by Lisa de Ribere, and which takes its inspiration from Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights Over the Rhone,” “The Cafe Terrasse, Arles, at Night” and “The Starry Night.”

Even the one work on the program created by a male, Lustig’s “Shadows in the Attic,” owes its source to a young woman, reflecting the last night diarist Anne Frank, her family, the van Daans and Mr. Dussel spent in the Secret Annex before being discovered and before they were hauled off to the death camps by the Gestapo, all but Anne’s father Otto perishing. Bringing it back home to Angelini’s point about the potential of art to reflect a time and of dance to do it in real time, reviewing this ballet, Johnson wrote, “Such unusual works do more than underscore the empathic function of art; they place art within the realm of civic duty.”