DanceWatch Weekly: Tap, flamenco, modern and Tom Gold on ballet

Choreographer Tom Gold talks about Twyla Tharp, ballet marketing and his work for The Portland Ballet

I recently sat down with choreographer and former New York City Ballet soloist Tom Gold to talk about his work Festival Russe for The Portland Ballet’s upcoming Spring show, which opens Friday.

The evening features four works representing the stylistic changes in classical ballet from 1909 to today. They are Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides; excerpts from George Balanchine’s Who Cares?, staged by John Clifford; Festival Russe by Gold; and Abandon All Plans, a commissioned world premiere by former BodyVox dancer Lane Hunter.

Gold and I discuss everything from his choreographic process, to working with renowned choreographer Twyla Tharp, to politics in the ballet world. That conversation unfolds below.

But first, in other Portland dance news…

Dancing In The Rain!, a multigenerational performance directed by Harriet Cuttler in collaboration with the Hollywood Senior Center’s Funky Grooves dance class, uses movement to engage in ideas of release, resilience, and resistance in the body over time, opens Friday.

Also opening Friday is the New Expressive Work’s residency performance, a program that takes place twice yearly, showcasing the work of four new choreographers each time, directed by Subashini Ganesan. This round will feature choreographers Dora Gaskill, Jessica Kelley, Stephanie Schaaf and Michael Galen.

The N.E.W. residency is an invaluable component to our community and the support of dance making. I wrote about it extensively in December 2016, and you can read all about it here.

PDX Dance Collective, a revolving collective of dance artists ongoing since 2009, presents an evening of dance works by six of its company members alongside six guest artists from Portland’s larger dance community. The artists showing work will be: April MacKay, Hannah Downs, Ismael Soñanes, Katelyn Kollinzas, Rachael Singer, Zahra Garrett , Alicia Cutaia, Amelia Unsicker, Dar Vejon Jones, Kya Bliss, Olivia Camfield and Vitality Dance Collective.

The Portland Tap Dance Festival, founded in 2015 by Pamela Allen, Erin Lee, and Kelsey Leonard, will feature classes and a performance by faculty members and leading names in tap from Portland and beyond. The faculty—Dianne “Lady Di” Walker, Brenda Bufalino, Ted Louis Levy, Terry Brock, Derick Grant, Joseph Webb, Sarah Reich, Karida Griffith, Jessie Sawyers, Danny Nielsen, and Charles Renato—will be accompanied by the Josh Rawling Trio and Farnell Newton.

And lastly, Espacio Flamenco Portland and La Peña Flamenca de Portland finish out their season with La Peña: ¡Baila, Canta, Toca!, features dancing from Portland flamenco dancer Brenna McDonald with guest guitarist Jed Miley (Seattle), piquant cantaor Pepe Raphael, and Espacio Flamenco Portland’s Christina Lorentz, Lillie Last, and Nick Hutcheson.

It’s going to be a marvelous weekend. Enjoy!

Performances this week

Dancing In The Rain!
Hosted by Portland State University Art and Social Practice
6:30 pm May 26
Hollywood Senior Center, 1820 NE 40th Ave.

6×6: A PDX Choreographers Showcase hosted by PDX Dance Collective, May 26-28. Photo of Vitality Dance Collective, courtesy of PDX Dance Collective.

6×6: A PDX Choreographers Showcase
PDX Dance Collective
May 26-28
The Headwaters Theatre, 55 NE Farragut St.
An evening of dance works by April MacKay, Hannah Downs, Ismael Soñanes, Katelyn Kollinzas, Rachael Singer, Zahra Garrett, Alicia Cutaia, Amelia Unsicker, Dar Vejon Jones, Kya Bliss, Olivia Camfield and Vitality Dance Collective.

Who Cares?
Spring Concert – Tribute to the Ballets Russes
The Portland Ballet
Featuring work by Michel Fokine, George Balanchine, Tom Gold, and Lane Hunter
May 26-27
Portland State University, Lincoln Performance Hall, 1620 SW Park Ave.

Untitled Work in Progress by Jessica Kelley, performed by Suniti Dernovsek and Noelle Stiles. N.E.W. Residency performance, May 26-28. Photo courtesy of N.E.W.

N.E.W. Residency performance
Dora Gaskill, Jessica Kelley, Stephanie Schaaf, and Michael Galen
Directed by Subashini Ganesan
Fieldwork sessions facilitated by Katherine Longstreth
May 26-28
New Expressive Works, 810 SE Belmont St.

Portland Tap Dance Festival
Presented by the Portland Tap Alliance
Faculty Performance
8 pm May 28
Lewis & Clark-Evans Music Hall Auditorium, 0615 SW Palatine Hill Rd.

La Peña: ¡Baila, Canta, Toca!, 8 pm May 27. Photo of Nela McGuire, courtesy of La Peña Flamenca de Portland.

La Peña: ¡Baila, Canta, Toca!
Hosted by Espacio Flamenco Portland and La Peña Flamenca de Portland
8 pm May 27
Artichoke Music, 3130 SE Hawthorne Blvd.

Interview with Tom Gold

My conversation with Tom Gold began with learning about his connection to Portland, which began in 1999 when then-Oregon Ballet Theatre artistic director James Canfield invited him to guest in “Romeo and Juliet.” When Christopher Stowell took over the company Gold was invited back to create a piece on the second company and stage a Twyla Tharp work. This is when he met Anne Mueller, who now directs The Portland Ballet alongside co-founder Nancy Davis.

I was immediately curious about what his experience had been like working with Twyla Tharp. Gold said that he danced with Tharp when he had free time from New York City Ballet. “Mostly I just liked to go into the studio with her and have her make new material on me cause that was fun.”

What was that like?

Crazy, insane. Really exciting because it’s more cerebral than actual pleasure. I don’t know if that’s the right word. Basically, you’ll go into the studio and she won’t speak and she’ll just start moving and go…( Tom is wildly gesticulating at different body parts) like mime, look at my feet, look at my head, no, you’re not doing it right. And then she’ll be like, “What did you think of that” after three hours of no speaking. And you’re like, “Yeah, I like this, and I like that.” And she’s like, “Come back tomorrow.” And she just starts creating these pieces.

I always had a good relationship with her because I think she’s really funny, she’s really smart. [ ]… She’s a very demanding person and not always the easiest to work for. But I always just enjoyed the work, and pleasure, and never got caught up in the other stuff. And also it wasn’t my primary job, so I wasn’t depending on her for my main salary. So I think that took a little of the pressure off.

Twyla has always loved classical ballet. That’s always been her interest, her love, her passion. Her first company, which was very contemporary, ballet was the basis for what became the Twyla Tharp movement. Where she took all of that movement and started putting it all on pointe and adding more ballet vocabulary within it. She was building ballet pieces on us for other companies or for her to sell or for her group, because we went on tour a couple of times. Whenever she needed bodies to create on, I was always available. It was really fun, we had a great time.

Could you tell me about your new work for Portland Ballet?

This piece, “Festival Russe,” was created originally for Ballet Academy East in New York. They had a program called “To Russia With Love,” and all the pieces had to have a Russian theme.

My process is that I usually start with the music, so I basically Googled Russian composers and all of this glorious classical Russian music came up and that inspired me to make a piece as an homage to the original Ballets Russes with my own contemporary movement in it. So each movement is kind of reminiscent of some old classical warhorse ballet that you’ll see but with more syncopation and some jazzier movements and some kind of modern ballet steps in there.

What is your ballet-making process?

Usually I look at who I have in front of me, and I try and create a piece for them because in the end they are going to be up there on the stage and they have to be comfortable but it also has to be something that the audience is going to connect with and engage them. First and foremost, what we do is entertainment, and if you are not entertaining an audience, whether that’s making them laugh or cry, I think your mission is kind of gone. So, I take all of this into consideration and then my voice is in there, too, the kind of movement I like, the kind of dancing I like, the kind of dancers I like to see do it, so it’s those three components come together. So when I go into the studio, I have an idea of what I want to see, but I never really know until I start working with the dancers to see what they are capable of and what they can do.

What is classical ballet? Why do ballet companies differentiate between contemporary work and classical work?

In the end it’s a gimmick, it’s a selling point really. It’s all classical ballet. Whether you are moving to contemporary music or you’re doing more contemporary movements on point, it’s still classical ballet vocabulary and steps. I think it does make it easier when someone is sorting through a program—“oh, this is going to be classical, Swan Lake, “oh this is going to be contemporary Billy Forsythe”—to help you if you maybe don’t know a lot about dance and what your particular taste is or what you might be geared towards. You could say classical is more narrative and contemporary is more abstract, but that doesn’t really hold up either. It’s just ballet in the end, it really is. We’re all doing the same steps, we are all speaking the same languages. And that’s why ballet dancers can do all of these different styles because there is that basis of language and vocabulary to work from.

Ballet companies are trying to perform a broad range of styles which includes ideas from modern dance, but the dancers don’t train in modern dance, and it makes the pieces look less authentic to me. What do you think about this?

That’s a very good question. At City Ballet I think I worked with every contemporary modern choreographer because modern and contemporary choreographers are drawn to ballet: one, because you can make more money working with these companies because there’s more money in classical ballet, but two, the technique is so strong and different. It’s not that I want to downplay modern or contemporary dance because they have such beautiful movement qualities, but with ballet you get those shapes as well, the pointed toes, the articulation of the legs. Where I do see a difference—and it’s not all modern, because Cunningham wasn’t like this,—but a large part of modern contemporary is more about the movement and feeling, and they’re not so concerned with what your feet look like or what your arms are doing. It’s really about expressing a feeling along with the movement.

I do think a big important thing is the choreographer themselves. When they come into the room, they need to show the dancer the style that they are working in. A lot of times it can be very intimidating going to these ballet companies, if you are a contemporary modern choreographer, and just bring something you would do for your company and put it on a ballet company. And I think that’s kind of wrong, too, because what does it have to do with ballet? Where is your voice in this experience? The process should be about you doing something new, and the dancers doing something new. Instead of going “I’m just going to slap this onto you.”

That happened a lot at City Ballet. These modern choreographers would makes pieces and just set them on us. And then there’s this whole part that’s missing where you don’t even get to really experience what it’s like working with that choreographer or them making something in their style and taking your style into consideration, too. I am always aware of that when I’m working with people because that’s why I want it to be about them and express who they are as well as expressing my voice.

Yeah, I do think that’s what missing a lot of times. It’s exciting to get a Forsythe, or a Martha Graham or a Cunningham or some of these great things, but if there’s not someone there to work with the dancers to make it look the way it should, then it’s kind of a wasted experience. And I think the audience goes, “Well, I think this kind of looks fraudulent, it doesn’t feel authentic to me.” I mean, they get that.

The dancers are so hungry they want to work with these legends and these people, and then when they miss out, it’s kind of like they go, “Then why am I doing this?” And then their energy is bad and then you see that on the stage because their not really committing the way they should. It’s like a circle.

How do you feel about the ideas in the classical ballets that are no longer accepted in society?

That’s why people like Matthew Bourne are making an all-male “Swan Lake” or they’re taking contemporary themes and incorporating them into these old standard warhorse ballets—because we do live in a different time. And you know women are empowered, they’re not swans, they’re not sylphs anymore; they have a voice and we need to express what’s happening in the world, on the stage as well.

What are your thoughts on the lack of women choreographers in Ballet?

It’s true; there really are no female ballet choreographers. I think they do need to encourage more. But, also, if you look at a woman who is going to become a ballerina, she focuses on that 100 perfect. She’s not thinking, Oh I’ve got 5 minutes; I’m going to go choreograph something. Until that kind of mentality changes…

I would say 90 percent of the women that work in ballet world are coming from the modern contemporary field. Like Twyla, Pam Tanowitz, Molissa Fenley, Aszure Barton, Crystal Pite, she’s the big one, they are all coming from the contemporary field because they don’t have that “I’m a ballerina and this is what I do.” You know?

I don’t know why that is, I don’t know why these companies aren’t pushing them more or trying to find those voices because it is a strong voice and it is nice to see that side. Because women have different perspectives and different views, it should be out there. I think about this a lot because people ask it all the time about the whole sexism (in dance) thing. […] It’s all about marketing, and money and business. Nobody’s thinking, I want to encourage and nurture this. That’s kind of the last thing. How are we going to make the most money. What can we exploit and market. You know, it’s frustrating. It’s about the art, but without the money you can’t have the art.

How did you become a choreographer?

I was fortunate enough to go to a high school for the performing arts [in Chicago]. There were classes in dance composition. I was very fortunate to have that kind of experience— dance history, dance theory, dance composition—where I was able to explore at a very early age, improvisation, different styles of movement. Having that freedom without having a mass critical audience coming at you. And then I came to New York, I put that on the back burner because I wanted to focus on my dancing. And then I started picking it up again because it was a strong voice in my head. I would see things, I would hear music and I would have a response, and I thought, “I want to express this through music.”

So in 1998-99, I would start to make small pieces, and that grew into more experiences and people started to hear about it and I got little opportunities here and there. And then when I left NYCB[..] I thought, just make your own company then you can make the work you want and you can work with the kind of dancers you want and have the environment you want. It’s very nurturing and loving and wonderful and serious.

I’ve been really lucky. People have given me great opportunities. I’ve choreographed some operas, some theater, some television. I do love having all of these vehicles to do choreography in. I think it makes me a more well-rounded choreographer. Especially working with people who are not trained dancers, because you have to think in a different way about how they move, and that’s really interesting to me.

Performances next week

June 1, Jefferson Dancers Spring Recital, Jefferson Dancers
June 2-4, Interum Echos, PDX Contemporary Ballet
June 2-17, The Goblin King, A David Bowie and Labyrinth Tribute, Trip the Dark Dance Company

Upcoming Performances

June
June 8-10, Summer Splendors, NW Dance Project
June 9, Kúkátónón 2017 Showcase!, Kúkátónón Children’s African Dance Troupe
June 9-11, Jazz Around the World, Presented by Wild Rumpus Jazz Co
June 10-11, Dance Out Loud Choreographers Showcase, Directed by Oluyinka Akinjiola and Donna Mation
June 14-15, SHUT DOWN: The Final Performance from PSU Dance Students
June 23-24, Risk/Reward Festival Of New Performance, Produced by Jerry Tischleder
June 27-July 2, Cabaret, Presented by U.S. Bank Broadway in Portland
June 29-30, Choreography XX, Oregon Ballet Theatre
July
July 8, Ten Tiny Dances, Beaverton Farmers Market, Directed by Mike Barber
July 14-16, Apparatus, by Danielle Ross
July 15, Pretty Creatives Showing, NW Dance Project
July 29, Hafla, Portland Bellydance Guild
August
August 3-5, Galaxy Dance Festival, Hosted by Polaris Dance Theatre
August 11-13, JamBallah Northwest ’17, Hosted by JamBallah NW
August 24-September 6, Portland Dance Film Fest, Directed by Kailee McMurran, Tia Palomino, and Jess Evans
August 24-October 8, Kurios: Cabinet Of Curiosities, Cirque Du Soleil

One Response. Have your say.

  1. Jeff Friedman says:

    I am concerned tha Tom thinks it’s all ballet. No. It’s not. He doesn’t take into account all the ways classical modern and contemporary dance (not contemporary ballet) are different from ballet. Not to mention flamenco, hip hop, butoh etc etc etc. The “shapes” are not the same because many non ballet choreographers aren’t that interested in shape. How does one classify an Ishmael Houston Jones improvisation score in those terms let alone contact improvisation. Too partisan for ballet for my taste.

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