The Disciplines Want Company

Power pirouette.
Power pirouette. // Erin Baiano

Spotlights illuminate soloist Taylor Stanley’s churning torso. His arms sway and torque like palm tree leaves when the wind picks up before a storm. Strings crescendo, then decrescendo. He spirals in and out of familiar ballet poses before cascading into a lyrical suspension. This is a graceful contortion — feet parallel, now turned out, a pirouette into a landing that unfurls, seamlessly, into the next développé.

His feet anchor the motion. In one moment, his port de bras nears fifth position, the negative space a full moon seventy degrees to the horizon. What might be a tondu retracts, suddenly: a hermit crab retreating. Stanley remains lithe, controlled. His energy electrifies each extension but magnifies the still moments. Music guides him and, though invisible, language seeps through the choreography:

“The dream of an ending/the reluctant swimmer returning — /in a space carved from shadow and air/dusk phosphorescent, a/moonshell/fish, dolphin, minnow bird, bright blue — /Shark.”

These words form the coda of the libretto “The Impulse Wants Company,” the poem instrumental to BalletCollective’s recent critically acclaimed piece by the same name. The dance premiered on August 14, 2013 in New York City as part of Ballet v6.0, a two-week festival for experimental companies at the Joyce Theater.

At the helm of the “Impulse” project were three collaborators from different artistic fields: poet and English professor Cynthia Zarin (author of the project’s namesake poem), composer and BalletCollective Music Director Ellis Ludwig-Leone ’11 and dancer and BalletCollective Director and Resident Choreographer Troy Schumacher.

Following the piece’s successful premiere at the Joyce Theater on August 14, 2013, The New York Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay wrote in an exclusive review of “Impulse” that Schumacher showcased “a completely fresh use of familiar ballet language.”

Schumacher, who founded BalletCollective in 2010 with a vision to engage with other art forms, says he views that sentence of Macaulay’s as a possible testament to the value of inter-disciplinary collaboration.

Last December, “Impulse” was featured among Macaulay’s Top Ten Dance Favorites of the year. The renowned critic had just one request: “More, please.”

***

Zarin and Ludwig-Leone met one another at the beginning of Zarin’s Yale career, in the first English 120 class that she taught on campus.

“I met Ellis pretty much on the first day of school,” Zarin recalls.

The two remained in touch, and in November 2012, they were brought together by Hurricane Sandy. Unable to return to his Brooklyn address following a rehearsal, Ludwig-Leone stayed with Zarin at her apartment in Harlem. At the time, Ludwig-Leone had been arranging music for an earlier BalletCollective led by Schumacher called the Satellite Ballet.

Zarin, who attended a performance on Ludwig-Leone’s recommendation, was immediately impressed by the quality of the production.

After the show, Zarin, who has done ballet in the past and has been a New York City Ballet enthusiast since she was a small child, learned that Schumacher was seeking a writer to join the company. By chance, a mutual friend on the Board of the Satellite Ballet in the audience that evening then connected the choreographer and poet. Soon after, Schumacher united his new artistic team in an initial production meeting, unaware of the connection that already existed between them.

From there, the triumvirate set about melding their respective art forms: literature, dance and music. Though previous works at BalletCollective have featured abstract librettos or textual foundations as points of departure for choreographic work, Professor Zarin’s poem “The Impulse Wants Company” provided a new platform.

“[Zarin] was able to distill conversations between herself, Ellis and me about concepts that were very interesting to us as artists individually and then combine them to create a work of art of her own — which in this case was poetry,” Schumacher says, placing “Impulse” in contrast to previous projects.

Though initial conversations began in November 2012, the project “gestated,” according to Schumacher, until the August 2013 premiere of the final twenty-two minute piece. Of his literary and musical collaborators, Schumacher noted their ability to communicate through an interdisciplinary lens.

During his undergraduate years, Ludwig-Leone worked with actors, painters and YaleDancers as the founder of the musical ensemble SicInc. The task of incorporating language in performance, however, was less familiar to him.

“Impulse” was the first time Ludwig-Leone would collaborate with a writer. Ultimately, he settled on using the poem as a “structural backbone.”

Ludwig-Leone separated his composition into five parts (Zarin’s poem also has five sections) and “mapped it out exactly as a series of little conversations, just like the poem was.”

From there, conjuring “Impulse” involved a series of artistic conversations between choreographer, poet and composer. Zarin describes the dialogues as “free-flowing” and emphasizes the liberty each artist was given to bring his or her interests to the collaboration-room floor. Her concept of the beach as a locus of movement, a real-world stage characterized by relationships between people, projected the piece forward.

“It was only with [Ellis’s and Troy’s] input that I began to write,” Zarin reflects. “The first draft of the poem took about a month and it was unlike anything else I had written. I’ve never written in collaboration with anyone.”

Rehearsals progressed as flowing interchanges between all involved. Rather than present finished products to one other, the artists influenced each other as the work progressed. For Zarin, sharing a back-and-forth with her colleagues allowed for gaining a different perspective of her craft.

“I hope I did something new,” she says. “I think the idea of BalletCollective is that as separate artists we come together to expand and extend our thinking. It would be awful if what resulted was what was in my head. I think it’s wonderful to be surprised.”

***

At Yale, students explore these same interdisciplinary questions through a variety of courses. “Moving Texts,” which was co-taught by dancer and writer Emily Coates ’06 GRD ’11 and playwright Deborah Margolin in spring of 2013, specifically analyzed the relationship between language and movement.

Earlier this week, the two creative forces shared their artistic philosophies over lunch in the Pierson dining hall. Their conversation resembled a class session in miniature, as two waves of thought met and sometimes collided. Their differences of opinion, though, only led to deeper questions.

Coates galvanized the creation of the dance studies curriculum in 2006, and “from the very beginning, it was always to foster cross-disciplinary dialogue,” she says. Those conversations, such as the ones fueling “Impulse,” have collaboration as an underlying education tool, Coates believes: “Ellis and Cynthia are speaking to each other and to Troy Schumacher, finding common ground from each of their disciplinary perspectives.”

A mutual respect for one another’s unique abilities is mirrored in the relationship between Coates and Margolin.

In response to Coates’s praise for her “writing muscle,” Margolin said, “I appreciate your saying that. I have tried to communicate to you how absolutely articulate I feel your movement is when I have the honor of watching you work.”

Both professors echoed the idea of the arts as “research.” In “Moving Texts,” the students collaborated on a single final project, rather pursuing individual ones.

Amymarie Bartholomew ’11, founder of the Yale Undergraduate Ballet Company and a former “Moving Texts” student, has carried questions from the classroom dance “lab” with her to Harvard, where she is currently pursuing a doctorate in chemistry. Last fall, Bartholomew was accepted to the Harvard Dance Center’s Emerging Choreography Residency.

In “Moving Texts,” she says, “the doors just opened up.” Her final piece, which dealt with issues of memory and space, was based on the layout of the Broadway Rehearsal Lofts on Elm Street, where Bartholomew took the course, practiced ballet and participated in projects such as Yale Dance Theater, among others.

Exposure to language in that course and her experiences working with composers in other inter-disciplinary courses inspired her to foster growth through group dialogue.

“Whenever you widen your frame a little, you start to see the limitations of where you were working before,” Bartholomew said. “That’s part of the experiment.”

Aren Vastola ’14, a theater studies major who has taken several dance curriculum courses, believes that experiments like BalletCollective’s “The Impulse Wants Company” may “indicate that in both college environments and in the artistic world there is a strong, renewed interest in this kind of inter-disciplinary work.”

Just as Coates and Margolin’s thoughts may be ongoing discussions of questions rather than answers; just as Schumacher’s choreography continues to evolve post-performance; and just as Yale student choreographers reprise issues for further analysis in their own work, so too will the BalletCollective collaboration soon go back — to the drawing board, the page or the studio — for a pas de deux project.

Both Ludwig-Leone and Zarin are looking forward to working with one another again. In the wake of talks related to “Impulse,” they have come to view their respective disciplines a little differently.

Ludwig-Leone said the joint effort has allowed him to look at his music through a more global viewpoint, with less attention to specificity.

And in her course “Writing the Contemporary Essay” this spring, Zarin thinks she has been “speaking more than usual to the shape that prose makes in your mind, to how we can actually chart and draw different kinds of shapes in which narrative and reflection intertwine.”

Margolin believes these threads will continue to be unraveled in the realm of the performing arts — that they will, in fact, never reach a coda.

“It’s the future,” she says. “It’s what’s happening; we might as well study it.”

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