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Pointe of Departure

Momentum: Loeb Mainstage
Sarah F. Choudhury

A bare stage is the birthplace of a dancer’s art—a space where emptiness is the presence preceding emergence, the incubator for stories narrated through movement. On a particular Thursday night, seven members of the Harvard Ballet Company mill about the Loeb Mainstage; with a few preparatory jumps, they gauge the pliancy of the marley floor before beginning rehearsal of a piece from the Company’s latest production, “Momentum.”

Turning his back to five hundred empty seats that will be filled this time next week, choreographer David F. “Ricky” Kuperman ’11 calls out instructions as the dancers mark individual movements and walk through formations. When Kuperman requests a full-out execution of a few eight-counts, the dancers unveil a spectacular range of movement, collectively brushing through a front “attitude” position into a stag leap and “chasse” effortlessly into two diagonal lines.

They work on fragments of Kuperman’s piece for an hour; Elizabeth C. Walker ‘11—one of the show’s directors and a performer—has a “cabriole” injected into her step sequence to smooth out a transition, while standardizing arm movements are added to an ensemble segment. Kuperman stops Kevin Shee ’11 to give him a pointer on the artistic delivery of his solo entrance: “This needs to be so grounded—like a mummy coming to life. Everything starts in the core of the body.” Shee follows Kuperman’s example, inhaling sharply to incorporate the tense, almost convulsive movement into his body language.

As the rehearsal hits its midpoint, Kuperman’s conclusion that “the main critique is that you’re too pretty,” draws a laughing assent from the dancers. After all, this dance does deviate from classically beautiful performances like Petipa’s “Giselle” and Balanchine’s “Diamonds”; like all six pieces programmed for “Momentum”—which will run from Nov. 6 to 14—it is an experiment in fusing the traditional with the contemporary, the familiar with the unknown, and the sure-fire audience pleaser with the black-horse hit. HBC’s production, though created in the hours between classes, aims to push beyond the mediocrity of convention towards an ambitious, innovative vision. As a student group undertaking, “Momentum” is reflective of how far Harvard dance has been able to come despite being an extracurricular program, but it also displays the limits HBC will continue to face until it becomes a full-fledged endeavor.

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Momentum: Harvard Mainstage Fall Production

Momentum: Harvard Mainstage Fall Production

Over the past 10 years, the Harvard ballet program has become one of the strongest among Ivy League schools, according to dance director Elizabeth Bergmann. During her tenure, a number of Dramatic Arts courses have been added, more and more accomplished performers have been visiting as guest artists, and in 2005, the Harvard Dance Center opened.

“I danced in the Program and with HBC when I was a grad student in ’03, and there is a palpable difference in the Harvard dance scene now,” assistant dance director Kristin Ing Aune writes in an email. “While the Dance Program has always attracted talented dancers, we have increased visibility for a number of reasons: our accomplished graduate-ambassadors, performances, roster of guest artists, the Task Force on the Arts, the internet, word of mouth... dance is alive and well at Harvard.”

The notable improvement of the Dance Program has attracted an increasing number of talented students, many of whom join HBC. Its current membership includes dancers who trained for nearly a decade at the School of American Ballet (the New York City Ballet’s feeder training academy), others who performed on national tours with professional dance companies, and a contestant on “So You Think You Can Dance Canada.”

“A lot of these students come highly trained,” Bergmann says. “In their form ballet, some of them are really, really good. Some of them are exceptional. Some of them were professional dancers before they came to Harvard.”

A roster of this caliber enables HBC to accomplish what many other student dance groups do not; supported by professional coaching and workshops with leaders on the Boston dance scene and beyond, HBC aspires to and is able to achieve world-class performance standards.

THE MAIN DRAG

HBC conceived “Momentum” as an eclectic, high-level dance production demonstrating the potential and direction of 21st century dance months ago, when it considered staging a follow-up to its 2006 showcase of 20th century dance, “American Grace.” Members immediately identified the Loeb Mainstage, home to the American Reperatory Theater and the largest theater space available on campus, as the Company’s ideal performance venue.

Since three student productions are selected to grace the Mainstage each year, the Company had to complete a rigorous application process—which included a 50-page document detailing the vision and merits of the show—to secure the space. Met with success, “Momentum” is now one of only four dance productions in Mainstage history, the last of which—“American Grace”—was three years ago.

HBC then proceeded to recruit a host of choreographers and dancers of an artistic caliber befitting the Mainstage’s prestige. Walker and co-director Merritt Moore ’11 commissioned professional choreographer Josie Walsh, whose work blending commercial dance with ballet and circus arts has electrified the Los Angeles dance scene, to create an original piece for the company.

“We were looking for [someone with] an interdisciplinary, forward-looking approach to dance, and Josie was really the perfect person,” Walker says. Walsh’s piece promises an extravaganza of movement that combines the daring technique of a Cirque de Soleil production, the throbbing musical energy of a rock concert, and the exhilarating drive of a hip-hop battle.

“Composer [Paul Rivera] will perform with us on stilts, singing and playing guitar, along with a chamber ensemble of Harvard student musicians. Harvard alum[na] and aerial silk artist Marin Orlosky will be suspended eight feet in the air as dancers, a stilt-walker, and musicians perform on the stage below her,” Walker elaborates.

Recent Harvard graduates Larissa D. Koch ’08 and Claudia F. Schreier ’09, both of whom are currently pursuing careers as professional choreographers, are returning to stage two pieces for “Momentum.” Schreier’s work will feature live piano accompaniment and inventive costuming. In a similarly unique fashion, Koch—who performed with HBC throughout her undergraduate career and currently directs her own dance company—has collaborated with electroacoustic specialist and Harvard Music Professor Hans Tutschku to create a piece tailored to Tutschku’s original, HBC-commissioned score.

“I was incredibly lucky to be paired with [Tutschku],” Koch says. “He’s a really responsive composer, so I wasn’t just creating a dance to music that already existed.”

“We made this together, and we got to have an artistic dialogue. That is not something you get every day.”

STEPPING IT UP

Professional work will share the Mainstage with student choreography in “Momentum”, which will feature original pieces by Ricky D. Kuperman ’11, Nina K. Stoller-Lindsey ’10, and Patrick H. Quinn ’10.

Quinn, a computer science concentrator, reiterates the multidisciplinary dimension of the show by melding technology with dance. His piece will employ a video installation onstage to complement the energetic movements of his dancers.

Kuperman’s piece “tells the story of a sculptor whose creations betray him and the frustrations that accompany... the [realization] that the statues’ allegiances don’t lie where he thought they did.”

“As a choreographer, [I] want to walk a fine line between mime and dance,” Kuperman says, describing his approach to staging a narrative dance. “I find myself abstracting many of these plot points.”

“It’s amazing how explicit you need to be for an audience to catch on, but I [still] think it’s refreshing to have a story,” the Psychology concentrator continues, expressing hope that the combination of his choreography, complex lighting effects, set design, and use of props will help the audience bridge the gap between movement and its underlying chronicle.

Stoller-Lindsey set her work to three pieces of music by percussionists Tigger Beford and Peter Jones, whose contemporary dance compositions highlight funky, eccentric sounds from prepared piano. “My [choreography] is not that balletic, though a lot of my dancers are ballet-trained,” says Stoller-Lindsey, whose choreographic background is rooted in modern dance. “It’s theatrical, gestural, and athletic.”

Stoller-Lindsey explained the challenges and rewards of the rehearsal process: “There’s always a struggle for choreographers to take something [they] create on [their] own bodies and put it on someone else.” During the first rehearsal, Stoller-Lindsey asked her dancers to improvise to “get a sense of the way they move and respond to the music.”

“I try to be really aware of the ‘accidents’ that happen, the things that people do wrong that actually wind up working really well,” Stoller-Lindsey says of her decision to incorporate some of these accidental movements into her final choreographic scheme.

While these students, unlike their professional counterparts, do not have the luxury of spending all their days dancing, their Harvard education informs their work for the better. “I think any creative process is an aggregate of one’s experiences,” Kuperman says of his two-plus years at Harvard. “I don’t doubt that the shows I’ve seen here, the museums I’ve been to, and the people I’ve met, have influenced what I think about and how I translate those experiences to the stage.”

HANGING IN THE BALANCE

Given the pure scale and complexity of “Momentum,” it is easy to forget that the show is run entirely by full-time students whose responsibilities match those of any other undergraduate on campus.

“It’s definitely a challenge when you bring in professional choreographers like Josie Walsh who are used to working with dancers who rehearse eight hours a day for a living,” Walker says regarding the difficulty of rising to HBC’s professional dance standards while balancing a full course load and other commitments.

“Since the choreographers are used to such a high level of talent, we really feel like we have to be on top of our game,” Walker continues, pointing out that the short residency of most guest choreographers often necessitates a grueling sequence of six-hour rehearsals on weekends that spill into four-hour sessions on weekdays. Two Sundays ago, Company members remained at the Loeb from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., going home exhausted and sore after a marathon session of hanging lights and setting up the theatre.

With days as long as these, excelling in both school and dance becomes a challenge. “[It is] incredibly difficult to keep my body in good shape for dance when [I] am forced to replace ballet technique class with last-second problem sets or papers,” says Kevin Shee ’11, who has danced professionally but plans to pursue a medical career.

Still, Shee believes the benefits of dancing with HBC are well worth the physical and academic sacrifices. “It’s been hard on my body, but it really makes me appreciate the joy that comes with every dance step–it makes all those late nights more bearable,” Shee says.

Co-performer Samantha C. Cohen ’12 (who is also a comper on The Crimson’s arts board) echoes this sentiment, citing the value of bonding with fellow dancers, working with world-class choreographers and staging state-of-the-art performances. “It can definitely get a little stressful during intensive rehearsals, especially... as it gets closer to performance time,” she says, “but in the end, those are the amazing experiences that we get to share as a company.”

THE TIPPING POINTE

Though members of HBC balance their commitments as students and dancers gracefully, there are inherent limits to what they can achieve at a liberal arts college with little curricular focus on dance.

“[HBC] is run by students, so they try and work really hard,” Bergmann says. “But they’re also trying to study; they have another concentration.”

The Harvard Dance Program, also limited to the extracurricular realm, shares similar constraints. “I think our Harvard students come in and are very prepared and smart so they can pull it off,” says Bergmann, who is not considered a full-fledged faculty member. “But at administrative levels there’s no faculty representation. I’m not privy to the decision making here in dramatics, theater and dance. We don’t have a voice at the table. And we need one. We’re still an extracurricular activity and viewed that way and not as important as a field study.”

For Bergmann, until dance achieves a status equal to academic departments on campus, the program, despite its improvements, will stagnate. “I think we’ve gone as far as we can go until we move into more curricular focus,” she says.

But back at Kuperman’s rehearsal, curricular reform is far from the dancers minds. Getting ready for a full run-through of the piece, they focus their energy on delivering a performance that effectively conveys the choreographer’s artistic concept and exceeds the standards upheld by the Company.

Shee tries a hands-free cartwheel, primarily to get his blood flowing again and secondarily to entertain his fellow dancers, whose movements maintain a hint of grace even as they laugh and make fun of their own mistakes.

The music begins, heightening as each of the “statues” is brought to life with powerful “fouette” jumps and fluid promenades on black boxes-turned-platforms. The subdivisions of the beat are inaudible, but the dancers move with a rhythmic cohesion built on a collective understanding of musicality and awareness of each others’ bodies.

Shee comes to life with a triple piourette into a few more turns in “coup de pied,” tacking on a double tour jump just for kicks. The other dancers flood center stage and crowd around him, relegating Kuperman’s frustrated character (the sculptor) to stage right.

Though at this moment the choreographer stands off to the side, there are hopes that his work, and all others featured in “Momentum,” will bring dance into the spotlight at Harvard.

“Will we get more money? Will we get more courses in dance? I don’t know,” Bergmann says of the show’s potential ramifications. “That depends on who comes, who might get influenced, who has a voice. I think that we can hope for some changes.”

—Staff writer Monica S. Liu can be reached at msliu@fas.harvard.edu.

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