This latest ‘07 entry for Write on Dance is about changes that two dancers have recently faced. One is told in the third person, the other in first person. Dancers changing cities; one with success, the other with disappointment. But both overcoming physical obstacles with emboldened spirit. The spirit that ultimately is their reservoir of strength may very well be the same that dance embodies in the first place.
Hunting For The Right Moves
By Lewis Whittington
Last spring, Pennsylvania Ballet soloist Phil Colucci danced in Val Caniparoli’s ‘Lambarena’ portraying one of the hunter-warriors. Few in the audience were aware that this was his symbolic company bow out- He had been pursuing fresh territory as a dancer for three years.
The following month he was quickly adapting his training from ballet rep to contemporary techniques at Hubbard Street Dance Chicago, to prepare for a summer European tour. His decision to leave PAB was less of a quickly arranged defection, than the result of a shift in personal career goals. Before his tenure at PAB, he danced on both coasts with San Francisco, Boston and Pacific Northwest Ballet Companies and wanted to return to that journeyman dancer career arc.
Colucci , back from Europe in August to visit his family here, talked about his decision to change his career path. “Leaving wasn’t an issue, but being with the ballet company for eight years was appealing for many reasons. I was able to be close to my family. I didn’t miss out on seeing my little brother grow up. But, I’d been exploring moving on for a while.” He said his changing personal goals as a dancer and otherwise didn’t align with staying with PAB. He was even questioning if he would stay in dance at all.
It is a trend that many mid-career dancers now make a move at the top of their game instead of fading in the background with the same company. Colucci was enjoying his greatest success here and became a fast tract soloist at PAB. His soaring athleticism, stage presence and artistry distinguished him in modern works but PAB’s classical core syllabus limited his break-out physicality.
The dancer’s classical career had been jeopardized four years ago after he sustained a back injury landing a double tour split. He was laid up for eight months between two surgeries to repair a disc and had to contemplate loosing his contract with PAB. He opted out of a second surgery and slowly started to work his body back in shape with karate training, which in many ways was the antithesis to ballet training. It not only kept him in shape, it recovered him enough back to the ballet. His self-style reparative therapy built him into an even stronger dancer when he returned to the ballet.
Colucci was flawless in Jerome Robbins’ ‘Fancy Free’ executing huge double tours (the move that ko-ed him two years earlier) and he pumped blood into Ben Stevenson’s anemic choreography as the possessed Renfield in ‘Dracula.’ He employed a karate tactic of feigning instability to great comic effect as the soused spurned lover in Trey McIntyre’s ‘Blue Until June.’ “if I was just too wobbly it would look merely messy. It was all about balancing a woozy stability, not being a stumbling drunk.”’
He continued to excel in physically demanding roles such as Balanchine’s ‘Prodigal Son’ and his muscled sparring duet with Francis Veyette in Mat Neenan’s ‘Carmina Burana’ was mentioned as a highlight of the ballet in every review. He was also performing regularly in Neenan-Christine Cox’s neoclassical company Ballet X.
Colucci didn’t belie any professional problems leaving the company, but he was certain his body was starting to rebel against the rigors of classical training.
“Amazingly, my back gives me no problems, but last year I started to have nerve pain in my feet and my hip was locking up to the point where it felt like it was going to break.”
“When I first went out to audition for Jim Vincent (Hubbard artistic director) he wanted immediately to give me a contract, but their budget didn’t permit it.” Then this past year someone left and Vincent asked him to join again last winter. “The timing was awkward. Jim contacted me to see if I was still interested, that he didn’t need to see me again. I could have been 20 pounds heavier, but there was no hesitation on his part, but he needed to know if I could be there in May. He assured me that it would all work out.”
Meanwhile, Colucci had to negotiate out of his professional commitments with PAB. The timing wasn’t great for Roy Kaiser because of several personnel changes in the past year, but he didn’t stand in Colucci’s way. “He made it possible”, Colucci said to join Hubbard immediately. “My first show with Hubbard was on my 7th day of rehearsal. Life with Hubbard continues to exceed my expectations.” Even though he was learning six pieces at once instead of one or two he is completely healthy and he likes the ‘proactive environment’ that involves everybody. “They do a lot to cultivate individual creativity. We just did a series where we were able to contribute to the production in any way we wanted. The audiences loved it and we sold out.”
Colucci said that he is apprenticing with a physical therapist at Hubbard and is already cross-training in martial arts disciplines Karate, Aikido, Kendo (sword) and Zen meditation. In September he updated his Philly colleagues via email: “I am overwhelmed with new perspectives and loving every minute of it.”
Will Move For Love: A Transplant’s Transformation
By Melanie Miller
Since 1998, I nurtured Junction Dance Theatre like the baby I’ve presumed I’d never have. What began as a grass roots ideal developed into a respectably big budget non-profit. Seven years into its existence, and just as my company was beginning to thrive in its founding city of Pittsburgh, I moved myself and Junction Dance Theatre to the city of brotherly love for that very reason−love, or rather marriage, or perhaps both. So this year, this so-to-speak anniversary celebration, I am writing a personal story of dual-city existence in commemoration, frustration, and reclamation.
In the Fall of 2005, three months after B.* had moved to Philadelphia we were married. I loved our wedding both of us dressed in midnight black. The ceremony was conducted by a Buddhist monk in the sculpted garden of The Mattress Factory, an installation art museum in Pittsburgh, where B. and I had both performed for various events. As we were setting up for the ceremony, we ran into the director of Dance Advance, and the director of the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival, who had presented my company in 2001 when it was just the Fringe. They were in town for a Pittsburgh Dance Council event. I interpreted the interconnectedness of this moment as fate. B. and I were meant to be together as artistic collaborators and partners living blissfully ever after in the fifth largest city in the country. I decided to make the move.
With rain water on our foreheads, tears in our eyes, and surrounded by our closest friends, family, and the smoky calm of incense we exchanged our vows in the form of music and poetry. The next day he returned to his Philly job. Conceivably, it could have simply been the great turnpike divide, those paved and mountainous 300 miles laying the path between Pittsburgh and Philadelphia that antagonized my relationship with B. during those months apart. So, in the words of the physicist and theorist David Bohm, I was ready “to discover and create something new that is whole and total, harmonious and beautiful.” I was ready to expand bilaterally−my work from one to two cities and my relationship from forced separation into a propitious marriage.
June 2005: “Pick the Right Mover, or Pick the Right Marriage Counselor.With the help of a few dear friends and a few amply pierced and tattooed hired hands, we loaded the Junction Dance Theatre office, costumes, and props, as well as, a few suitcases of clothes, boxes upon boxes of art work and art supplies, 20 boxes of CDs, 30 boxes of books, 70 musical instruments, a handmade dining room table, and “the throne”, an antique and very uncomfortable yet aesthetically pleasing two-seater. And there was still just enough room in the 26-footer for my cats, B. and me.
Moving is tough work. It’s rough on the hands, hard on the soul, even more taxing on an already rocky long-distance marriage, and it makes your mind go whacky. If you Google™ “moving and stress”, you’ll find more than 50 pages of links to articles, resources, and companies that purport to provide a stress-free move. The elusive trick may be to exercise your search engine before, not after, you pack your bags.
2005-06: Who says a non-profit can only exist within a 5-mile radius?
Within a few days of my relocation, my company’s new home at the Kumquat Dance Center in West Philadelphia’s Community Education Center (CEC) was unpacked and ready for business as usual. We had a full season planned in Pittsburgh with more than 50 stage, site-specific, and public realm performances. We were ready to take on the new non-profit template of “dual-city residence”, and most importantly, advocate and promote a Pittsburgh-Philly artistic dialogue.
I had known about this move for one year, so my company was prepared. Two business volunteers for the arts****helped us craft a 5-year strategic plan focusing on dual-city expansion, development, and marketing. My company manager and I had sent letters of inquiry to a handful of Philadelphia foundations, compiled mailing lists of local public schools and senior centers, sent a press release announcing our arrival, submitted a grant proposal to the 5-County Arts Fund, and scheduled an audition for the second week in July. We were planning our first three-city tour of i.e., Harmony, a dance theater play that I was restaging for an engagement at Penn State University Berks.
What we hadn’t prepared ourselves enough for was the distrust, in both Pittsburgh and Philadelphia, of our dual-city dedication. As the months rolled forward, my inbox began to fill with form letters of rejection. Undaunted (I’m a poet and fiction writer as well, so I’m very accustomed to rejection), I moved onward with the grant applications, banking my entire next season on Body Blog, a new community project of video dance diaries posted on the Internet. I had no concept that anyone couldn’t believe that the Internet could be a valid stage for dance and community work. I was wrong.
When I realized, nine months later, that expanding to Philadelphia for love, actually meant starting over as though I was twenty-three, crazed, and driven beyond the need for sleep. I was daunted, even dejected. Did I still have that passion, that focus, that naïve vision of infinite possibility that was necessary to go back to square one? Maybe. Maybe not. No, definitely maybe.
But the difference between an eight-year-old company starting over and a new company just beginning, is that the latter can get away with−both (somewhat) conscientiously and within the community−not paying its performers. I had worked very hard to pay my dancers a fair fee per performance, which considering the amount of performing we had been doing, was small indeed. But I wasn’t ready to change this or the production level of my work. And beginners again can’t and shouldn’t be choosey.
Junction Dance Theatre was my child, and I had to provide for it everything in my facility. I felt the pressure of losing my footing, my audience, and my momentum. I didn’t take into account that I was miserable. Reestablishing oneself and one’s moderately established company in a new city is challenging enough , but simultaneously try to salvage a marriage was doubly difficult. I felt as though I was failing at everything. It was very difficult to be responsive to my dancers’ wellbeing on top of all this.
2006-07 was a diminishing season. Junction Dance Theatre had little new funding or touring engagements. I was earning little. I was exhausted and rapidly losing weight, which I attributed to aging. But at a routine doctor’s visit in summer 2006, revealed high levels of protein in my urine. If I weren’t a dancer, and if I thought non-dancers would be reading this, I probably wouldn’t write so freely about my bodily functions. But we are dancers, and from my experience, it goes with the territory. By September, I was diagnosed with Stage II Chronic Kidney Disease caused by auto immune disease.
Over the next few months, I saw doctors more than friends. The medication felt as though I was living behind a scrim. I couldn’t understand a word anybody said to me, much less carry on company business or choreograph. That “maybe”, turned itself on its diligent heel into a definitive, “maybe not”.
When healing is the focus, one sincerely knows life is short to be as unhappy as I was, too short to spend it as an executive director and not an artist, too short to not have love that makes you want to propel yourself into the world unhinged and unguarded, and much too short to not experience life as art.
”That present moment”
In my two years in Philadelphia, I’ve learned how to find my way around the many neighborhoods, and how to reclaim my life and my artistic work in all of their impermanence from their own designs.
On July 3, 2007, my Philadelphia anniversary, I am honoring the moment, potential, the city, which now I love more than I loved my marriage, and I am celebrating myself. A new nephrologist who has taken away the dooming diagnosis of auto immune disease. I am accustomed to my kidney medication and low-protein diet. Both Junction Dance Theatre and I are broke. But hopefully not for long. I’ve started a freelance writing business, to supplement my subsistence-level artistic income. I’ve re-discovered my lifelong project, Bodiverse***** and I’m experimenting in new media, which feels like the artistic home I’ve been searching for but hasn’t had the market until now. I’m writing grants every day and questioning the viability of dual-city status. And I am happily divorced.
With the confluence of my physical and marital challenges, I separated myself from the world around me and existed in a state of flux during that year of unexpected changes. I felt as though there was never enough air to breathe. Today, I have returned to the now, that present moment of being that is necessary to create and relate. Conceding to my own life designs, I am making up new ways of creating, thinking, being. Philadelphia has become home, an artistic ground, a place of loss and rebirth, the topography of my movement.
*Names have been changed for anonymity
**Anne Hendershott, A Moving Story for Spouses (Psychology Today, September, 2005).,
*** Business Volunteers for the Arts® (BVA) awards intend to help non-profit arts organizations improve business practices. Junction Dance Theatre received a BVA award through the Greater Pittsburgh Arts Council.