Modern dance is the only American art form originated solely by women. These pioneers founded an expressive, floor-centered movement, subsequently grounding the airy ballet. However, modern dance has been taken over by men.
Three years ago, a group of female choreographers organized Sugar Salon to confront the reality that male choreographers have surpassed their female peers in grants, patronage, media attention, and professional opportunities. Since then, with partners WAX (Williamsburg Arts neXus) and Barnard College, the group has produced a mentorship and residency program, culminating with performances, to challenge the notion that women make work of lesser value or quality than their male counterparts. Sugar Salon’s model is to showcase the work of one established and three up-and-coming choreographers each year. (Program alumni include Susan Marshall, Ivy Baldwin, and Yanira Castro.)
No sooner had I settled into my seat for a performance this January at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, than I realized Mikhail Baryshnikov was sitting directly behind me. After the initial stomach flutter, I fought to regain focus. Speaking of dominant male dance figures! However, I willed myself to tune him out and concentrate on the women. After all, the point of the evening was to recognize their efforts. And once I settled down, I found their works to be even more stimulating than my celebrity sighting.
The evening began, not unusually, in utter darkness, with Anna Sperber’s my imagination lives in the dark, but charlotte’s lives in the forest. However, the lights remained off for some time as the dancers performed a repetitive routine on foot. Sperber then brought onstage large flashlights, which the dancers carried with them to highlight different parts of their bodies. The effect was at first captivating, but ultimately I craved variety and brighter lighting. I sensed Sperber was trying desperately to do something new and refreshing, and though she achieved this through the work’s uniqueness, the net effect was somewhat gimmicky.
Sperber’s piece did contrast nicely with in the river, choreographed by Heather Olson. While Sperber’s work dug through Earth’s many layers, to its core, Olson’s piece was surface, watery—complete with lily pads and cool colored costumes. Though the inclusion of a human factory line and an ironic pas de trois—mocked by the classic Swan Lake instrumental—provided some energetic neuroses, a froggy feel dominated the piece, a real Kermit-like feeling of the blues.
Established choreographer Jane Comfort’s lively and animated An American Rendition was danced to dialogue spoken by the performers. It was a literal piece; a woman enters a government agency, desperate to file a missing person’s report for her husband. She runs into long lines and red tape, where government employees ask incessant questions with little regard for her panicked answers. The piece was quirky, surreal, and beautifully rendered, with robotic lifts and a jeering musical theater feel.
Mirroring Comfort’s tone, Deganit Shemy’s piece Arena, the final selection, also portrayed anger and frustration. A boxing ring unveiled itself center stage and fierce women cycled in and out. As a battle ensued, the highly physical nature of the dance and experimentation with complex and intense lifts added a palpable layer of conflict.
In all, Sugar Salon’s 2008/2009 resident choreographers again drove home the message that women choreographers will be seen and heard. They may at times be overlooked, but they have earned a place in modern dance’s spotlight, and will not stop fighting for it.
Simone Larson is an Evanstonian living in Brooklyn.