Lloyd Knight of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the “Moon Duet” from Martha Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians.” Photo courtesy Lake Tahoe Dance Festival.
Copyright 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak
(This Dance Insider Interview is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance. Like what you’re reading? Please show your appreciation today. You can donate to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager through PayPal by designating your payment to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. The interviewer dedicates this piece to Jamie, without whom it would not have been possible.)
Here in rural France — where the natural wonders certainly don’t leave us wanting for diversions — when it comes to onstage summer spectacles, the best we can hope for is tired family circuses starring lions that should have been retired long ago, subsisting largely thanks to regional funding. Back in my home state of California, meanwhile, straddling the frontier with Nevada, for eight years the denizens of Lake Tahoe have come to expect much more: a local festival with an international reach and historic scope, with Lake Tahoe Dance Collective Lake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, director of the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition, doing the archival work that many dance enterprises with much more resources have all but abandoned, and resurrecting forgotten treasures by the pioneers who made the American dance scene, coupled with new work. As proof of the loyalty they’ve engendered — and that rural residents and vacationers aren’t country bumpkins when it comes to art and will support profound work — they’ve done this with only 30 to 40 percent of the means coming from foundation and modest public grants, the remainder donated by individuals and local businesses. “That was of course different this year,” says artistic director Hanna, who performed with Oakland Ballet, Ballet New York, and Cincinnati Ballet and was a founding member of New Chamber Ballet, on whose behalf she returned to her native Tahoe City in 2006 to initiate a performance and summer workshop. “But we’ve seen our donors step up to make sure we stick around and can offer a wonderful program next year.”
For this year, given that the festival normally performs outside to a modest 400-person capacity audience, it might have been easy for Baecher and Hanna to justify continuing the live event, simply requiring masks and limiting admission to allow social distancing, perhaps making up for the budget shortfall by augmenting the modest $30 ticket charge. Instead, they took the only responsible route a festival operating in one of the areas hardest hit be the Corona virus can: While a Young Dancers Workshop will still be offered live — in a portable outdoor studio and ensuring strict social distancing (see below) — the festival is migrating online, broadcasting three nights of mixed programs from past years and newly recorded for this year by artists meant to feature in the 2020 edition, each interlaced with thematic artist interviews and introductions of the work. Broadcast live at www.laketahoedancecollective.org on July 22, 23, and 24 at 6 p.m. Pacific Daylight Time, the programs will remain accessible for 24 hours, with a requested donation of $25. ($75 donors receive a tee-shirt and a wine glass.)
Online or in-person, this event is a vital tonic for these times and for my home state and its neighbor. Perusing the photographs of past performances and of the jubilant hosts on the outdoor stage whose backdrop is the most magnificent, blue-est lake in the world, one can’t help but think of an episode of the t.v. Western “Bonanza” in which Hoss succeeds in calming a raging giant of a man by showing him his favorite spot… a rocky shore on this Lake.
Keeping with the electronic spirit of the event, I interviewed Christin Hanna via e-mail. Her answers, as you’ll see, reflect not only a dance pedigree that also includes training with Margaret Banks’s Nevada Festival Ballet, Joffrey Ballet School, and American Ballet Theatre’s summer school, but a combination of local investment and dance-historical awareness that, while not unheard of at the ‘regional’ level (such as Marcello Angelini’s Tulsa Ballet) or in ‘little’ New York companies (Diana Byer’s New York Theatre Ballet) is rare to find at this — or any — level of the dance eco-sphere.
Paul Ben-Itzak: Ballet companies (American and European) typically have a historical blind-spot when it comes to preserving and presenting indigenous choreographers of the first part of the 20th century, outside Balanchine and Graham. And for the few contemporary dance-makers they retain, it tends to be the same ol’ same ‘ol. (For example, for Agnes De Mille, “Rodeo.”) The Lake Tahoe Dance Festival, by contrast, features choreographers from this epoch rarely produced outside their own companies, where those companies still exist (Hawkins) or ethnically-linked troupes (Ailey for Horton). You seem to have chosen to focus on this slice of our history, rather than, say (given the preponderance of ballet dancers on your guest roster) an assortment of duets and divertissements from classical and romantic ballets, or even Balanchine or Robbins work (where you could profit from the several experienced dancers of their pieces among your performers, including Wendy Whelan, Stephen Hanna, Abi Stafford and Ashley Bouder). Why? (Feel free to disagree with my premise.)
Christin Hanna: Well, we were actually able to add Balanchine, but you’re right. When we founded the festival in 2013, we wanted to create a program that would educate an audience about dance, and you can’t get a real sense of what dance is without knowing where it came from, and also attract dance aficionados for the unique programming. Additionally, I returned to my home of Lake Tahoe to create culture here in the performing arts, inspired by my time performing at Jacob’s Pillow. Growing up here, I had only a 4-hour drive to San Francisco to see world-class dance, and locally we are a community of Olympic athletes — ski racers, mountain climbers, and ultra-marathon runners.
A great example you recognize is the work of Erick Hawkins, which is relatively unknown compared to Graham and Taylor. Hawkins was actually a member of Balanchine’s Ballet Caravan, before marrying Martha Graham and becoming one of her first male dancers, then breaking off on his own. To see this lineage in his work is absolutely incredible, and to be able to present the three to show the audience this context is vital.
We also have a Lester Horton work, and many don’t know that Lester Horton was a prolific choreographer in addition to developing a modern dance technique, known the world over. He actually ran the first multi-ethnic dance company in the United States, in Los Angeles, and when he passed it was the dance critic and writer Frank Eng who sent Horton’s dancers, Alvin Ailey and Carmen De Lavallade among them, east to Jacob’s Pillow in a car to perform!
Paul Ben-Itzak: As a supplementary question to the above, the conventional wisdom would be that in a resort community like Tahoe (if not year-round, at least during the summer period) not necessarily ‘educated’ to ballet and just expecting extravaganza or “pretty,” one would present more known, popular, or ‘spectacular’ works. Your programming seems to owe more to the type of ballet-archeologic ‘curio’ curating one might find at, say, New York Theatre Ballet, which (while fascinating to notators and ballet eggheads like me) might be more interesting to the Ballet and Modern ‘insider’ than the general public. Why this choice? And how do your audiences respond?
Christin Hanna: One of the things we didn’t necessarily plan, but that I’m extremely pleased with, is that the feeling of the festival is one that is quite intimate, an up close and personal experience where the audience can hear the dancers breathe. As most locals and visitors usually find themselves in Tahoe because of the outdoor recreation, everyone is an athlete, and can identify with that visceral, physical sensation, even if they are new to viewing dance. Part of the reason we show a range of styles is for those new audiences to start to understand what their own personal taste is as they come to watch more dance. For most of our audience, that may just only be the performances we put on year after year.
Paul Ben-Itzak: And an ancillary question to the last: Who is your audience? Is it as typically ‘gray-headed’ (as a former Kennedy Center president, Lawrence T. Wilker, once put it to me) as that of many ballet companies? (Feel free to question my premise here too; it’s been a while since I’ve attended a live ballet performance.)
Lake Tahoe Dance Festival founders Christin Hanna and Constantine Baecher, at home in their kingdom.
Christin Hanna: The very first performance we held was a spring showcase at the high school auditorium (we have no other indoor performance space) with seven young dancers and four guest professionals. The next week a man wearing full work gear stopped me in the aisle of the grocery store. He said, “You’re that ballet lady!” and I wasn’t sure what was coming next, but he continued, “My son has a crush on one of your dancers, so he dragged us all to the performance last week. I’ve never seen anything like that and I was really blown away!” This is the perfect example of why I’m doing what I’m doing, and that moment was such a wonderful affirmation following our first show. This person was not someone who was going to spend his vacation going to New York and attending a performance at Lincoln Center. Our organization gave him the opportunity to be welcomed into a new experience that he might not have had otherwise.
Our audience is quite diverse, and of all ages. Naturally, in the summer in Tahoe we have a variety of visitors, so this group is really looking for a special evening on vacation. Our locals have been tremendously supportive of the festival and our organization in general; they see the quality of what we’re bringing in and are thankful beyond imagination. In general, the fact that we bring such big names is what may attract those who have not come before, because it’s someone from NEW YORK CITY!
I must also say that we have steadfastly kept ticket prices to performances below $30. It’s my personal feeling that performing arts organizations, commercial or non-profit, have to really keep an eye on who it is who can actually [afford to] come to the theater; I’m talking pre-Covid of course. And there are certainly a number of outreach programs, etcetera, but I’d rather sell 400 tickets at $30 than 75 tickets at $150. The point of this art form is to share it and to touch people’s lives. Someone who makes minimum wage should be able to come to the ballet.
Paul Ben-Itzak: How have the directors you’ve worked with influenced you in this ‘preservation’ optic?
Christin Hanna: Those who have influenced the preservation side of things are actually my collaborators, starting with Constantine Baecher, my best friend and co-founder of the festival. We both see the landscape of dance as deeply inclusive of the past, in addition to simply [being aware] that DANCE can mean a lot of different things to different people, which brings us around the world stylistically and more.
Our teacher from when we met as students at American Ballet Theatre, Daniel Baudendistel, is a treasure of historical information, and he joins us for a portion of the online presentation as well. Also, we’re just old enough to have come up as students before YouTube, and I still have all my VHS tapes from when I recorded PBS broadcasts of performances. We were so hungry as young people to see and know more. Kristina Berger, who brings the Horton and the Hawkins, also comes every year and her connection to those entities is a profound part of her artistry and teaching. I guess you can really just say that we’ve all gravitated to one another with the shared interest of keeping the past alive.
Paul Ben-Itzak: Tell me about Agnes De Mille’s “The Other,” one of the works which will be featured.
Christin Hanna: As you mentioned earlier, I feel like De Mille is one of those from whom we don’t get to see the treasure trove past “Rodeo,” or her work on Broadway. My friend Stephen Hanna actually had the idea, and at first we were looking at “A Rose for Miss Emily,” however that one is quite dark and we didn’t think it would work excerpted out of doors. Anderson Farrell of the De Mille working group sent us “The Other,” and we fell in love with it.
The composition of this photograph — and thus the achievement of photog Jen Schmidt in capturing this moment of Abi Stafford and Stephen Hanna performing the duet from Agnes De Mille’s “The Other” at the Lake Tahoe Dance Festival in 2019 — is not so banal as it might at first appear. Au contraire, it makes a profound statement about the most fundamental gift of the true Danseur Noble. First, Hanna had to transcend the potential distractions in this outdoor performance: The most luminous lake and most legendary trees in the world in the backdrop; the dude in the baseball cap in the front row. Next there’s the standard challenge to the male partner: to make it look easy and effortless. Then there’s the challenge visible, or palpable, only to the ballerina: in two hands he needs to communicate not just “I won’t drop you” but “You’re free to fly”; the only physical concern of that woman should be the precision in her limbs and fingers. Most (good) ballerinos only get to this point. What Hanna achieves here — besides freeing his partner to achieve grace — is his own form of grace. Don’t yet see it? Hint: Feets, don’t fail me now!
Paul Ben-Itzak: What if any Antony Tudors will you be presenting?
Christin Hanna: We’re thrilled to be presenting the opening section of “Jardin aux Lilas,” which pairs beautifully with the De Mille as it was she who suggested Tudor to founder Lucia Chase in the early days of Ballet Theatre, in addition to the fact that both works explore that timeless theme of unrequited love!
Paul Ben-Itzak: For the De Mille and the Tudor, who will be staging, and to what degree will they or you be referring to Labanotated scores of the works?
Christin Hanna: Diana Gonzalez-Duclert staged the “The Other” on Stephen and Abi [Stafford] last spring before the 2019 Dance Festival; we’ll be showing archival footage of that. Diana was De Mille’s rehearsal assistant and originated the role Abi danced. As for the Tudor, we have graciously been lent footage by Diana Byer at New York Theatre Ballet from a performance in 2013. NYTB has presented many of Tudor’s works, as well as De Mille’s.
Paul Ben-Itzak: Any other works or choreographers on the programs to be presented you’d like to highlight?
Christin Hanna: We’re always particularly excited to show works being made today by budding choreographers, so we’ve selected our favorites from past festivals to showcase. One of these is “Red-Spotted Purple,” which is danced by Ashley Bouder, who commissioned the work for her Ashley Bouder Project performance at the Joyce in 2018 and then brought it here that summer. Ashley’s company is dedicated to furthering the inclusion of women and marginalized people in leadership roles in the performing arts world, and this work was an all-female collaboration with composer Stephanie Ann Boyd and Lauren Lovette, a principal dancer with New York City Ballet and a budding young choreographer. In our third night, we highlight contemporary works that have previously been shown here in Tahoe. One of note is by Bryan Arias, whom I knew when he was a student, and who has become a phenomenal dancer (Nederlands Dance Theater, Kidd Pivot) and choreographer too. In 2014, he brought his dance partner Rachel Fallon to perform a section of his work “Notice,” which had won the Copenhagen International Choreography Competition that spring, which my co-director Constantine Baecher founded. His career has blossomed; he’s currently making a work at the Bolshoi!
Paul Ben-Itzak: Any chance the festival will eventually produce any of the ten ballets by Martha Graham which belong to the public domain (thus, no royalty costs, no Graham trust to go through): “Appalachian Spring,” “Night Journey,” “Chronicle/Steps in the Street,” “Lamentation,” “American Document,” “Heretic,” “Flute of Krishna,” “Frontier,” “Panorama,” or “Celebration”? “Appalachian Spring,” with its grand score and evocation of mountains, would seem particularly appropriate.
Christin Hanna: We would be thrilled to present any of those…. We are happy to be working with Lloyd Knight of the Graham company, performing opposite Wendy Whelan in the “Moon” duet from Ms. Graham’s 1952 “Canticle for Innocent Comedians,” still as relevant today as when it was created. This duet can be held up against anything choreographed today by anybody! The piece has an emotionality that is hard to state in mere words. The Graham trust generously gave us the rights for this performance free of a charge. As a young and small company, we have a limited budget in the number of professional dancers we’re able to bring in, and in the summer the additional challenge is housing, as it’s the height of tourist season…. So the pieces in the festival tend to be [for] smaller groups. “Appalachian Spring” would certainly be wonderful!
Paul Ben-Itzak: And any chance of presenting the work of Katherine Dunham?
Christin Hanna: Certainly. We’re also interested in some of the Ted Shawn solos he did later in his life. Our bucket list is long!
Paul Ben-Itzak: I note that in addition to the guest artists, you have a larger number of local dancers. How and where do you find — and nurture — them in the Tahoe/Truckee area? (Are you also a native of the region?)
Christin Hanna: Yes, I train dancers and work with them throughout the year, and bring in guest teachers and choreographers to work with them. I was born and raised here in Tahoe, and there was no professional training available, so my parents drove me to Reno for classes and rehearsals seven days a week (an hour each way!), and where I trained with Margaret Banks at Nevada Festival Ballet. The idea of creating a mecca for dance in Tahoe was inspired by my time at Jacob’s Pillow, and my desire to be able to offer our community the highest level of dance possible. It’s always bothered me that more rural areas don’t have as much culture as big cities, and that’s why the Pillow in particular was so inspiring. The dancers who come to work with me do so at a time when they are making the decisions in their lives about what they’d like to focus on, and they’ve chosen to take dance more seriously and can therefore dedicate themselves to being in the studio every day after school.
Paul Ben-Itzak: Who are the artists who will actually be in place — present there
this year — and thus (if I understand correctly) teaching, live, the Young Dancers Workshop?
Christin Hanna: Kristina Berger, Damien Johnson, and Erik Wagner, in addition to myself, are here teaching at our Young Dancer’s Workshop. We own our portable stage, so we set that up as a studio in late May and have been able to have completely safe classes with a limited number of students in masks and maintaining social distancing.
Paul Ben-Itzak: In the press release, you opine, “When faced with the inability to have a festival, we knew we had a unique opportunity.” Recognizing that we all wish the tragic crisis which has prompted these opportunities (others in the arts and other sectors have also made this observation) happened, how can art, specifically, and dance, specifically, if you like, make an opportunity (or find an opportunity) out of crisis and tragedy? How is art and how are artists particularly equipped to spot and ‘exploit’ these opportunities?
Christin Hanna: We’re mostly excited that anyone around the world [will be able to see the performances], which is why we wanted to keep it free, with a suggested donation. It also offered us the opportunity to use this format of the three nights — to weave together the connections between Balanchine and Graham and Hawkins and share these insights with our audience. Every piece is introduced by either the dancers or choreographer giving unique insight, which we feel keeps that feeling that the audience usually has at the [live] festival. Last year, an audience member wrote to me and thanked us for creating the kind of event where one could walk up to a dancer after the final bows and thank him or her personally. That is the connection to this art form that I believe we need to nurture — the personal connection.
Paul Ben-Itzak: Dance — or live dance performance — can seem flat (and two-dimensional) captured on film or video. Realizing that you’re not the only performance company facing this dilemma in these times, and of course the health necessity to go this route (instead of performing in front of a live audience in a closed or constrained space), how, specifically, will the video-taping or filming be handled / produced to mitigate against this potential flatness?
Christin Hanna: Most of the video being shown is [archival footage of] our past performances or performances elsewhere. In my opinion, there’s really no way to have as vital an experience on a screen as you would at a live performance. However, two of the works filmed specifically for this are the final male solo from Balanchine’s “Apollo,” which Adrian Danchig-Waring and his husband Joseph Gordon filmed outdoors in Shelter Island, New York, and Hawkins’s “Greek Dreams,” filmed right here on our outdoor stage/studio this past week. We are incredibly lucky to be going through this time with the technological advances we have today that make advanced camera work and file sharing possible.
Paul Ben-Itzak: If I understand correctly — but please correct me if I’m wrong — all the pieces presented here are from previous years’ festivals. Thus perhaps this issue has not yet come up for you. But how do dancers confront the real health threat of continuing to rehearse and perform at such close contact (often breathing hard from exertion) in such times (assuming working with a mask would be physically trying as it constrains breathing when one is exerting oneself)?
Christin Hanna: We are at 6,200 feet of elevation and wearing masks daily in our outdoor classes. It’s not ideal, but like anything else, you get used to it, and it’s so much better than being in your kitchen on Zoom! The staff I have here has all been tested and quarantining together, so we are able to work safely. I imagine that until there’s a vaccine, we’ll be seeing more companies following this kind of model, which is really like an artistic residency, but now it’s just a matter of also quarantining.
(Observation added by PBI, upon re-reading this response while transcribing our e-mail interview: What Hanna expresses here is a quintessential part of the working ethos of the dancer; is any artist more adaptable? Here we’re talking about the artistic metier which, in Covid conditions, is most exposed to risk — the one metier in which the practitioner puts her instrument and her body on the line every time she steps out on stage or into a class or rehearsal — Covid or no Covid — and which, for most forms of the art, already has a ‘perishable by’ date stamped on it; and yet the dancer, as always, just adjusts.)
Paul Ben-Itzak: How does your magnificent setting — I assume that when there are live performances, they are outdoors, with the lake as a background? — contribute to the experience, for performers, presentation, and audience?
Christin Hanna: People who attend our festival for the first time are completely mesmerized, because yes, Lake Tahoe is our backdrop, and we perform with the sunset as our lighting. Programmatically, not everything works when having to compete with this environment, but other than that it’s a dream. When dancers have performed here they always tell everyone how magical the setting is!
Paul Ben-Itzak: Does the Lake Tahoe Dance Collective organize year-round activities, and if so, for example….?
Christin Hanna: Our Spring Performance is usually a mixed evening, but with more focus on our local dancers and with just a few guests.
Paul Ben-Itzak: You might not necessarily have a comment here, as this is more about my observations on the subject based on one of the photos we’re going to use (from De Mille’s “The Other”) with this story — pertaining to certain evident skills of male partnering indicated by the photo — but do you have any thoughts or observations on the subject of the male partner, and/or Stephen Hanna (husband? brother? I ask because your familiarity enhances your qualifications as an observer)’s partnering skills and values particularly?
Christin Hanna: As far as we know, we are not related, but I do think we may have a distant connection somewhere — I guess we’d have to do one of those genealogy kits! Stephen is an exceptionally kind human being and a wonderful partner — we were actually going to dance together this summer for the first time in a new work. But yes, “The Other” is heavy on partnering. What reads to me when I watch Stephen’s partnering skills, from the front of the room in the director’s side of things, is that it’s so solid that you almost forget or don’t realize what an amazing feat he’s pulling off. Because of that skill, the ballerinas he works with always look effortless.