“We got very creative”: Alicia Graf Mack on Juilliard dancers in a new era

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The diversity in Graf Mack’s mind spans “experiences, talents, body types, races and people from all parts of the world, making it a much richer cohort.” Visiting teachers make it a point to ask for names and pronouns, to foster a welcoming environment for non-binary dancers. Even ballet, long known for maintaining traditional gender roles with its storytelling repertoire, eschews the gender divide at Juilliard. First- and second-year students have the option of choosing the appropriate technique class: either pointe (after ethereal shoes, so punishing), or allegro (renamed “men’s class” and focused on turns and big jumps) . For Graf Mack, it’s about creating a “sense of belonging, so that the dancers have an ‘in’ for the ballet.”

The program also offers an “exit” from ballet, away from structured rules and towards chameleon-like flexibility. “When I was training, I was told – and I totally believed it and that suited me very well – that you are a tool for the choreographer and the director,” Graf Mack says of the top-down hierarchy . Since then, more and more choreographers have asked dancers to contribute to the process, generating movement in the studio. “I had to learn in my professional years how to intervene, otherwise you are left behind,” she recalls. Juilliard’s evolving curriculum is designed to nurture this creative fluidity, with contact improvisation, hip-hop and West African dance; fundamental modern techniques (Graham, Limón, Cunningham, Horton); and a class they formed in the studio called Ballet Lab. She points to recent commissions at NYCB by Andrea Miller, Pam Tanowitz, and Jamar Roberts as examples of what blooms when there are more tools in the toolbox.

Gaga, the self-exploring movement style developed by Ohad Naharine, who runs Batsheva in Tel Aviv, is another class in the rotation. When he came on board during the pandemic to create small-group “pod” work (a pre-vaccination fix for returning to studios), students were already speaking his metaphorical language. “In the theatre, he was [displayed] on those huge monitors, so it felt like it was in the room,” says Graf Mack of the surreal COVID-era workaround. Getting an in-demand choreographer to commit to six weeks of in-person rehearsal would have been an impossibility; the virtual surrogate, though imperfect, paved the way for a one-of-a-kind exhibition.

Yet the pandemic has scuttled the best-laid plans. The Spring 2020 dances, scheduled to premiere a few weeks after the lockdown, have been erased from the calendar. The students returned to homes around the world. “How do you teach contact improvisation on Zoom? Like really?” asks Graf Mack, grateful that he no longer has to think about the question. They first narrowed down movement offerings to a virtual ballet barre, suitable for tight spaces, and conditioning classes to stay in form. When fall came, “we got very creative” – ​​with small groups of dancers coming in and out of the studios. In the spring of 2021, “the vaccine allowed us to be able to touch each other, to associate”, says she said, “We are dancers. We want to sweat with other people.”

The effects of disrupted education have reverberated throughout the country, from kindergarten to higher education, but especially in a curriculum focused on a physical art form – mirrors, bars, suspended floors. Fortunately, says Graf Mack, the school had already launched its first new media composition class in 2019, led by an alumnus named Yara Travieso. “So when COVID came around, we had a handful of students who could script, understand perspective and lighting, understand how to edit.” The pandemic has accelerated this adoption of technology. But rather than deflecting the dancers from their course, says Graf Mack, “I think every student here has figured out their own internal motivation, what drives them to want to dance.” The feeling of an audience, the camaraderie inside a studio, the attentive coaching of a legendary teacher: “These things are so visceral that it’s just hard to imitate them. »

Leading students through a ballet barre during Juilliard’s 2019 Summer Intensive.

By Rachel Papo.

Graf Mack continues the tour: A sophomore Horton class with a longtime Ailey teacher Miles Hilton, followed by a room full of elders led by Jonathan Alberry, which features a Assur Barton work for the Spring Dances. “I don’t think the former Juilliard dance director would know that song, by the way,” smiles Graf Mack, as Alsberry blasts Acraze’s “Do It To It” over the speakers. Her relatability and recent ties to the performance world are among her tangible offerings, but she has also brought her lived experience into guest lectures: one on Ailey’s influence, a second on Arthur Mitchell, who brought the ballet in Harlem. (The former Balanchine star had an eye for talent, spotting Graf Mack as a 13-year-old college student.) Another lecture series explored “the influence of black culture in American dance in general, ranging from slavery to minstrelsy and vaudeville, which is really hard information to cover,” she says, emphasizing the need to put “anti-racism at the top of our value system.” History demands a multiplicity of perspectives.

Graf Mack stops at a Graham Technique class, filled with first-years who have been fully accepted by video. “We weren’t even in the building when it was time to audition,” she whispers as she settles into a chair at the front of the room. Therese Capucilli, a seasoned dancer under Martha Graham herself, engages a student in a reflective exercise. “Joey, where do we want to go today?” she asks, and her response sounds like a COVID escape: “Paris. I want to be on the big lawn under the big Eiffel Tower. Capucilli nods approvingly, describing simultaneous feelings of height and grounding. “All these high-rise buildings have to move a bit, even though we don’t know it,” she says of the engineering sleight of hand. It seems that such micro-movements – an ability to adapt, even in the face of unforeseen disruptions – are what could make this generation of dancers the most resilient to date.

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