The Dictatorship of Youth
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.
"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.
Mathis retired from performing in her late 30s when prime roles, relegated in the ballet hierarchy to ingénue dancers, stopped coming her way. As for making a "comeback" with Corning, Mathis was reluctant at first. "I trusted you and the project," she says, turning to her collaborator. "But I wasn't sure I could do it physically. It was me I was worried about."
Corning furthered her commitment to the Glue Factory idea after her experience with Mathis, and she decided to invite Buraczeski into a project that would spotlight the singular skills of older performers. Buraczeski, who began his career on Broadway performing in such musicals as Mame with Angela Lansbury and Liza Minnelli's star vehicle The Act, created his own nationally acclaimed jazz-based company in New York in 1979 and moved to the Twin Cities shortly thereafter. "Danny didn't want to do it at first," explains Corning, reflecting all three artists' desire not to create a lament for their fading physical abilities. "He said, 'I just don't want this to be sad, no woe is me, woe is me.'"
After some convincing, however, Buraczeski joined the group and Corning took up the challenge of shaping a piece for two seasoned dancers, both choreographers themselves. "We had to get to know each other, and it was a difficult process," she says, recalling an initial reluctance to give corrections to her colleagues. "The reason why I formed my own company was so I could have dancers who spoke my language; they understood the vernacular. So [with Buraczeski and Mathis] I had to take individual style into consideration. Styles are like a different language. It's like speaking French with a Minneapolis twang. I had to find out where their accents were."
Even more broadly, Corning continues, she needed to coordinate the different demands of modern, ballet, and jazz aesthetics with her dancers' personal preferences. It's no mean feat to get a ballet body, used to a light touch, to go down low with a jazz groove; or to make a hyperrhythmic jazz body adapt to the sweeping motions and quiet spaces found in modern and even postmodern dance. Wisely, Corning gave each dancer an opportunity to hew to the comforts of her form, while making choreography that focused on the common elements found in all three. "It's like living alone for so many years and then someone moves in with you," says Corning. "Now they're cooking in your kitchen. We had to have trust, because the process was frustrating on a daily basis. For example, I don't count [dance phrases]. Danny does count. He'd say, 'Do I go on count two?' I don't know! My dancers always tell me to stop counting. I sing phrases."
After several weeks of rehearsal, stumbling towards hindsight began to assume the form of a scrapbook brought to life--without the cloying nostalgia and heartfelt advice that form might suggest. The collage of experiences recounts the many stages of a life in dance, leading to the present where Buraczeski, Corning, and Mathis are in the process of discovering where they've been and where they're heading. Each performer clambers over and around three 15-foot chairs that resemble ladders (career ladders in this case). These provide literal platforms for storytelling, prompted in most cases by provocative questions from a taped voice: "Where are you on your journey?" "Do you deserve more?" "Who do you want to get out of your system?" Each night a different set of queries will be used, allowing the performers an opportunity to improvise answers based on their histories. Slides of the artists from their early days will further personalize the evening, as will excerpts from cherished works in their own and others' repertories, including Buraczeski's Ezekiel's Wheel, Doris Humphrey's A Day on Earth, and Tudor's Lilac Garden and Pillar of Fire.
Watching Buraczeski, Corning, and Mathis dance together proves a study in contrasts. Mathis moves with the ineffable radiance of a prima ballerina, while Buraczeski covers the floor with ground-hugging steps. Corning comes in somewhere between the two, sliding through the space in grand arching movements. When the trio moves in unison, the sense of ease found only in mastery of a craft is readily apparent. They gradually become attuned to their environment, their partners, and the music, which ranges from classical to experimental instrumentals, employing great sensitivity and intelligence in the process.
The aches and pains are omnipresent, without a doubt. Who wouldn't be tired after years of classes, rehearsals, and performances, and tours spent crammed into buses, trains, and coach-class airline seats? What comes as a surprise to the Glue Factory members, however, is the sense of confusion created by the merger of ever-energetic souls that believe nothing has changed and bodies that have been thoroughly used. "As a dancer I can't do what I used to do," explains Mathis. "It's different every time I wake up. The leg goes up, just some or not at all."
One of the Corning Co. dancers, Sarah Schneeberger, who with her dark hair and lighter-than-air body appears onstage as Mathis's younger self, immediately jumps in: "How intimidating is it to do tendus [ballet extensions] onstage with Bonnie!?"
Mathis replies with a hint of envy in her genial tone: "How about me looking at you?"
For Buraczeski the changes have resulted in occasional lapses of confidence. He recalls a recent crisis involving a favorite solo. "It made me want to stop dancing. I started to question whether my leg was high enough. Every step of the way I was outside looking in, which is the worst place to be. It was so frightening. I called Daniel Nagrin"--another veteran dancer of Broadway, now in his 70s--"and he told me to get someone I really trust to watch. I got [former Jazzdance member] Cathy Young. She reminded me of all the initial impulses. I truly thought this was the end. I can deal with the pain. It was the lack of being able to be present that scared me."
"My hope for this project," says Corning, a sense of righteousness entering her tone, "is that a younger person can see that things don't end at 30. In dance you're surrounded by mirrors, metaphorical or not. We aren't allowed to age gracefully. We're inundated by youth. I just hope the audience looks at us and says--"
Buraczeski interrupts, "What are they, nuts?"
Corning laughs and tosses back her retort: "No, look at the beauty. That's part of being in a continuum."
It's Mathis, however, who delivers the philosophical parting shot: "You never know you're part of a continuum until you get older."
stumbling towards hindsight runs Thursday through Sunday, February 10-13 at Theatre de la Jeune Lune; (612) 333-6200.
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