Liz Gerring, Pam Tanowitz, and Michelle Dorrance, photographed by Matt Karas.
At City Center, what you see onstage is just the beginning. Behind the back wall of the theater is a hive of creative activity: nine stories of rehearsal rooms, offices, and dance studios that were inaugurated by Balanchine in the 1940s. You might find the likes of Twyla Tharp, Wendy Whelan, and Kyle Abraham rehearsing there on a given afternoon. This season, three acclaimed choreographers will take up residence, thanks to City Center’s Choreography Fellowship program: Liz Gerring, Pam Tanowitz, and Michelle Dorrance.
“Their work couldn’t be more different, but Liz, Pam, and Michelle are all important artists,” says City Center President & CEO Arlene Shuler. “We’re thrilled that City Center will be their home for creative exploration this year.” Founded in 2011, City Center’s Choreography Fellowship provides dance artists with 200 hours of free studio space, a generous stipend, and administrative support from City Center staffers with fundraising, marketing, and touring—in short, all the behind-the-scenes activity involved in keeping a dance company afloat. The 2016-2017 Choreography Fellows recently met at City Center for a conversation with writer Nancy Dalva, who works with the Merce Cunningham Trust on our seventh floor.
When did you first see a performance at City Center?
PAM TANOWITZ: I was in high school, and it was the first time I had come into the city from the suburbs. My mother took me to City Center to see Martha Graham. At the end I got to see her bow. She had the white gloves. I’ll never forget it.
MICHELLE DORRANCE: That’s amazing. In the late nineties, I saw American Ballet Theatre and Ailey here. I was up in the nosebleeds.
LIZ GERRING: I saw either Merce Cunningham or Trisha Brown, at least twenty years ago. I think City Center has had a huge impact on all of our lives—and on American dance.
PAM: There was nowhere else. In the heyday, you were able to see Paul Taylor and ABT and Cunningham.
Liz Gerring in Lichtung/Clearing (2010), photographed by Julieta Cervantes.
What about presenting your own work here? When did that happen?
LIZ: A section of Lichtung/Clearing was presented at Fall for Dance [in 2011]. I had done it in a 100-seat black box theater at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, but at City Center everything was exponentially raised: the size of the audience, the size of the stage, the amount of time it took to get from your dressing room to the stage. (laughs) The whole thing was beyond anything I had ever experienced.
MICHELLE: The first time I was here was not that long ago—Fall for Dance 2013—and I’d never had my sound and movement communicated to that many people at once. The grandeur and scale of the theater is exceptional.
PAM: Throughout my entire career, I used to make dances in my head for the City Center stage. Privately. Because I didn’t think I was ever going to get here. (laughs) Then, twenty years later, I got to make a work here [for the 2015 Fall for Dance Festival]. That was amazing. I basically made a site-specific piece. Everything on the City Center stage was exposed: the white walls, the red pipes. The door was open; I had a ballet dancer in the hallway. Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung made costumes that matched the theater.
Calvin Royal III, Tyler Maloney, and Devon Teuscher in Pam Tanowitz’s One Last Good Chance (2015), photographed by Julieta Cervantes.
All of you have a ballet background. Did anything stay with you?
MICHELLE: The year I was born, my mom started a ballet school in North Carolina. (laughs) I don’t know what she was thinking. Of course things stay with me: my understanding of my body, and the discipline of it. I was really humbled by ballet, because I was so bad.
LIZ: That’s why we do something else. (laughs) We can’t do ballet.
MICHELLE: My mom knew immediately. She would say, “Oh, honey. You have your father’s feet.” I knew by age ten that I wasn’t going to be a professional ballet dancer. I wasn’t a natural. Whereas I was in advanced tap class when I was nine, with 18-year-olds.
LIZ: On some level, you start developing your own movement vocabulary because you can’t fit into what exists. When I was thirteen, I was dying to be a ballerina, but it didn’t happen. When I was at Juilliard, I was just trying to get into Paul Taylor. But the doors that close end up leading you down this other path.
PAM: Can I just be on the record as saying I never wanted to be a ballet dancer? (laughs) I was always a modern dancer. I’ve taken ballet, and I love Balanchine and New York City Ballet—but I come to it from an outsider’s point of view. I never auditioned for any company; I was never dying to get into anything. That wasn’t me at all. I was just trying to figure out how dance would play a part in my life. For the first fifteen years, no one even knew who I was. Which was great; no one was coming to review, and I got to experiment. It was a gift—but it was also hard. Even though you want to feel like you’re not making your dances “for” people, you are.
Demi Remick, Caleb Teicher, and Warren Craft in ETM: The Initial Approach (2014), photographed by Jamie Kraus.
Michelle, you have a burden of expectation in your audiences, because there is so much popular appreciation of tap dance.
MICHELLE: That’s the thing: we’re constantly reaching audiences that only have Fred Astaire or Shirley Temple as a reference point—and they don’t know the Nicholas Brothers or Bill “Bojangles” Robinson. I’m always thinking about the cultural whitewashing of a form with black roots. [When I choreograph,] I want audiences to identify the history of the form inside of a work that simultaneously pushes it forward. That’s a big thing to do in every work, but I always want to do it. I also want people to see the possibility of tap as an art form. People still walk up to me after shows and whisper, “I get it. It’s like music.” (laughs) Like they’ve just discovered the elbow-nudging inside scoop about tap dancing.
What does the Choreography Fellowship mean to you?
LIZ: There is no space to rehearse. In the last ten years, there’s been an alarming decline in the availability of space in Manhattan. Artists may be able to perform here, but soon there will be no place for us to create. To me, nothing is more personally terrifying than the idea of not having a place to work.
PAM: It’s true.
LIZ: And I love the fact that as part of the Fellowship, City Center will give us some help with the administrative [aspects of running our companies].
PAM: I don’t have admin. I don’t have any staff.
LIZ: That’s the thing: none of us have it, and none of us can afford it. It’s a critical issue: how do choreographers create an infrastructure to support their work?
MICHELLE: That’s all I’m raising money for right now.
Brandin Steffensen and Jessica Weiss of the Liz Gerring Dance Company in she dreams in code (2011), photographed by Julieta Cervantes.
I’m sitting with three formalists. But what is formalism to you?
PAM: It’s a romantic idea to be a formalist, you know?
MICHELLE: It’s crazy that it is.
LIZ: It’s about coming out of a tradition. You might reject certain aspects of the tradition, but you have an awareness of it—and that awareness pervades your work.
PAM: From what I’ve gathered, we all start with movement. I start with movement and try to find out the meaning inside the movement instead of placing an idea on top of it. Instead of adding, I try to keep going inside.
MICHELLE: A lot of what I create is rooted in emotion, but I’m rarely conscious of the emotional narrative at first. I create something, and the doing of it feels a certain way, and I learn from that. Then I put the movement on people whom I want to communicate that feeling, even if it’s an abstraction.
LIZ: It’s always how the step is executed. That’s really what the step becomes.
PAM: Viola Farber came to one of my rehearsals when I was at Sarah Lawrence, and afterwards she said, “Make sure you’re seeing what you’re seeing and not what you think you see.” I bring that into the studio all the time: this hyper-awareness of the gap between your intention and what the dancers are doing. Maybe what they’re doing is better. Sometimes when I look at certain dancers, I think, That’s not my choreography. That’s all them. It’s very moving.
Pam Tanowitz Dance in Heaven on One’s Head (2014), photographed by Christopher Duggan.
What will you be making in City Center’s studios this year?
PAM: I’m doing a new work to the Goldberg Variations—which to me is a risk, because it’s been done. So what can I bring to it? I was working with a female pianist, Simone Dinnerstein, and I started thinking, Female…female…this has to be all-female. The other versions are solos by men: Mark Haim and Steve Paxton. I think it’s a little ballsy to do it with women. (laughs)
MICHELLE: I’m making a fleshed-out version of Myelination, the fifteen-minute
piece that premiered at Fall for Dance [in 2015]. I really wanted to explore non-traditional dance partnering. After Fall for Dance, it could not have been more obvious to me [that I had more to say]. Even my lighting designer said, “Oh, this is a full-evening work that you’ve done a little 15-minute version of.” The fact that City Center is helping it come to life is awesome.
LIZ: Choreographers develop things in our heads—but until you go into the studio and start making it happen, it doesn’t really exist. You need somewhere to go; you need other people. City Center is a great place to rehearse: it’s in the center of the city, and the studios are beautiful. So this Fellowship is huge; having the space problem solved frees your mind to focus on actually making things.
Warren Craft and Emma Portner in Myelination (2015), photographed by Julieta Cervantes.
This conversation has been condensed and edited, and is reprinted courtesy of Playbill.