The Dictatorship of Youth

Three middle-aged dancers retake center stage for the Glue Factory Project

A lone figure stretches out in the back of a theater, his head nestled by his knees, breathing in slow measures, sighing occasionally as he sinks deeper, imagining his hamstrings loosening like soft taffy. Danny Buraczeski has probably done this exercise every day for the past 30 years, yet he approaches his task on the floor of the new black-box theater at the University of Minnesota's Barbara Barker Center for Dance with a sense of purpose. Meanwhile, Beth Corning balances Gigi, her curious two-year-old daughter, on her hip and begins to work through an unfinished phrase of her choreography, singing softly to herself as she notes each step, breaking in on her thoughts only to give the baby sitter last-minute instructions. Soon Bonnie Mathis enters the space, worrying aloud whether her lithe body has "any electricity this morning." She quickly puts this fear to rest as she settles into her own internal warm-up, unfolding her legs with textbook precision into full extensions ending with feet pointed like bows ready to fire arrows.

The quiet time when dancers wake up their joints and bring their minds into focus is a familiar place for the three members of the Glue Factory Project, an endeavor designed to respond to the presumed fate of older dancers who, like the aged workhorses the name recalls, are led away from their life's commitment because youth and beauty are prized over experience and maturity. But don't expect a pity party from the likes of Buraczeski (artistic director of Jazzdance), Corning (artistic director of Corning Dances & Company), and Mathis (codirector of Ballet Arts Minnesota). At ages 51, 45, and 57, the trio have spent more than 100 years in dance and they figure, in the spirit of the late Martha Graham (who danced off and on into her 90s) and now Merce Cunningham (still going, albeit slowly, in his early 80s), that the urge to move, and indeed to move well, really has no age limit. stumbling towards hindsight, an evening-length performance choreographed by Corning and inspired by the careers of all three Glue Factory dancers, proves this theory quite convincingly while laying the groundwork for what will become an annual event for performing artists over the age of 45. Call it a well-choreographed revenge of the baby boomers over generations X, Y, and Z.

As the time draws near for a videotaped run-through, Buraczeski, Corning, and Mathis, along with three Corning Dances & Company members, gather near the front of the stage. The dark-haired Buraczeski is rummaging through his dance bag for a pair of acceptable jazz shoes that don't smell too bad. Mathis, whose sense of poise is such that she always seems to be lit by a soft light, floats in and out, modeling various billowy costumes, still fretting a bit about her stamina. Later, during a section of the work meant to resemble a post-show wrap-up, Buraczeski jokingly accuses Corning of being "the Martha Stewart of dance" as she painstakingly hangs her garments on a rack.

Methuselah awaits? Bonnie Mathis (left), Danny Buraczeski, and Beth Corning
Methuselah awaits? Bonnie Mathis (left), Danny Buraczeski, and Beth Corning

"I'm just neater than you are," she retorts triumphantly, tossing her dramatic tousle of reddish hair. Mathis snickers shyly in the background.

The group slips easily into a typical kind of family dynamic, with its members alternately at odds and in league with one another. The complex interaction makes sense: The close physical and emotional proximity unique to dance can be the foundation for lasting, or entirely dysfunctional, relationships. For Buraczeski, Corning, and Mathis, each of these scenarios is all too familiar, and, perhaps in recognition of the clear potential for ego meltdown among three people used to being in charge at all times, they've attempted to make their collaboration as forthright and judgment-free as possible. Such hindsight, however, as the program's title suggests, doesn't always come easily.

The Glue Factory came into being at a choreographers' retreat offered by the Brolly Arts Festival in Park City, Utah, during the summer of 1998. In between breaks spent gasping for air at the high altitude, Corning fashioned a solo for Mathis, who kept reporting that she was nervous about dancing in public. On the plane ride home, the reason for Mathis's panic came to the surface. "She hadn't performed in 20 years!" exclaims Corning, who has directed and danced with her own modern-dance company for nearly two decades in both the United States and Sweden. "I hadn't a clue. I felt myself crumpling up into a ball. If I had only known, there would have been mutual fear."

Corning's awe is the product of Mathis's inspiring history. Her Aunt Grace wanted the young Mathis to be, as Mathis recalls, "more graceful," so she enrolled her in ballet classes. "I spent my time walking around the edges of the room," she says, recalling youthful boredom. Her own passion for the form emerged eventually, and she left her hometown of Milwaukee for Juilliard in New York. She had always adored Anthony Tudor's Lilac Garden and soon found herself in the ballet legend's classes learning her favorite roles. The faculty also included modern-dance pioneer Jose Limón and composition master Lucas Hoving. "They were all strong personalities," recalls Mathis, who went on to star as a principal dancer with Netherlands Dans Theatre, Harkness Ballet, and American Ballet Theater. "When I got older I realized these people were something, but at first I just thought they were my teachers. Now I'm teaching people who don't know who I am, or who I was. That's the way it goes," she adds casually, referring to her classes for children, adults, and professional dancers at Ballet Arts in downtown Minneapolis.

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