Last night I attended another Works & Process performance at the Guggenheim. Always insightful and entertaining, the program often includes conversation and discussion along with dance. This time it was "Ethan Stiefel and His Students" who were in the spotlight, with moderator Matt Murphy and guest Larry Keigwin. The evening centered around Stiefel's new position as Dean of the University of North Carolina School of the Arts.
Opening the night was "Tangled Tango" choreographed by contemporary faculty member Dianne Markham. Two dancers appeared chic-ly as black silouettes against red. their feet suspended as if they were on a swing. They move slow in near silence. As the lights come up a clear bench is revealed, which they returned to and rotated between music cues. The two students seemed to work well together in this dicy tango.
It was more interesting to hear the conversation that followed. Matt did a great job as moderator. He danced in ABT alongside Ethan, and throughout their conversation they had almost a brotherly congeniality. It would be like me interviewing my mother for my dance blog - I could probably answer my own questions for her. It was good to see both of them so comfortable.
Ethan spoke about the application process involved in becoming the new dean, and how he had sent a letter withdrawing himself from the pool on the same day he received the job offer. "You can't expect perfect timing for every next step in your life," he explained, but he knew it was something he wanted to do. He said he normally takes class himself in the mornings ("waking up at 6:30am took some getting used to") before teaching about 2 classes a day.
He also spoke about the culture of UNCSA that he's trying to create, which sounds inspiring from a potential student's perspective. He implemented a series of 8 initiatives that he described to create not just trained dancers but human beings. This concept is largely lost in today's rigorous technical training. He described other forms like improv, martial arts, and theater that he has added to his curriculum.
"We keep things in perspective. I owe them more than just training them to become professional dancers," he explained, especially because it is a boarding school situation. As Matt attested to, it's very easy for dance to become a one-dimensional life, for serious students particularly. Matt added, "Life and art fuel each other." Beautifully said.
A series of short performances followed. Two ballet students performed the pas de deux and coda from "Le Corsaire." Understandably, it seemed that nerves got to them in a few visibly shaky spots, but like professionals in training they continued on fluidly. Matthew Foley's entrance and coda series of jumps stood out for his line and strength.
Next was the all-too-familiar "Little Swans" dance from Act II Swan Lake. Before they danced Ethan mentioned that the ballet department had been eager to put on a full length production, which few schools are able to do nowadays. This excerpt demands precision and the four students danced quite cleanly.
Compared with those traditional works students often learn early, the next was a treat rarely seen. August Bournonville's "The Jockey Dance" is a sweet duet for two men dressed as...jockeys. Ethan spoke about working with legendary teacher Stanley Williams on the piece when he was at SAB and danced it with Damien Woetzel. It's a playful, brotherly dance where the two compete with fast footwork and chase each other with their whips. The two students had great timing, but I'd much like to see maybe Ethan do this with his host Matt someday (haha)!
After that choreographer and joker Larry Keigwin joined the discussion. He and his company participated in a 3-week residency at UNCSA and he spoke about the creative process of working with the students. He definitely added spice to the evening. Matt asked something along the lines of "what was the day to day like during the residency?" and Larry replied, "We did laundry. We did laundry in our washing machines and we were being domestic." He joked about how our small New York apartments were so different from being down in Winston-Salem, NC.
What was important about his actual work was the process and the mentoring aspect, which both he and Ethan commented on. Ethan made a remark about the old fashioned idea of being a "diva" and thinking that no students or anybody can talk to a teacher because of his status. This is not the most effective way to work, he believed - and I couldn't agree more.
The program ended with a piece Keigwin worked on with the UNCSA students during his residency, called "Natural Selection." He explained it was someone influenced by the theme of survival of the fittest, and that was clear in the animalistic movements and aggression of the dancers. It was in this movement language the students appeared most comfortable.
The piece is filled with choreographic intrigue. At one point two men support a woman who runs perpendicular to the back wall. Later she runs up and climbs atop a pyramid of people to reach the wall. At another point, the dancers make a bridge, one after the other lining the front panel in backbends as someone crawls underneath. It's a great game of strength and the students played well, doing their dean and their school proud.
Afterwards I enjoyed the lovely reception with Tonya (who wrote about the program here) and Doug. Oh and apparently there's more from the UNCSA students coming this weekend...