There will be no dying swans, no fluffy tutus, no dancing snowflakes. There will be techno, body sculpture and moving lights. And there will be history made, as for only the second time in 21 years, a dance production occupies one of the two coveted undergrad slots on the Loeb Main Stage this theatrical season.
Against the Grain, directed by Shelby Braxton-Brooks ‘03 and Anna Weiss ’03, is what the Harvard Radcliffe Dramatic Club (HRDC) has chosen to kick off its fall season. The production features four pieces, three of them original: “Still Rising,” choreographed by Braxton-Brooks; “Into Emptiness,” choreographed by Ryuji Yamaguchi ’03; “Warning: This May Cause,” choreographed by professional guest choreographer Derrick Sellers; and excerpts from George Balanchine’s “The Four Temperaments,” directed by Weiss.
Performing in the 556-seat Loeb is a big step for Harvard’s dance community, which for years has struggled to find both visibility and adequate space on campus. Venues such as the Adams Pool Theater, the Agassiz, Lowell Lecture Hall, the Pudding and even the soon-to-be-revamped Reiman Dance Center all lack the spatial dimensions and technical capability necessary for rehearsing and performing large dance productions.
“Loeb is the only proscenium theatre in town that is appropriate for dance,” says Elizabeth Bergmann, Director of Dance at the Office for the Arts (OFA) and senior lecturer in the Folklore and Mythology department.
The problem, Bergmann says, is not lack of interest, but that many supportive administrators don’t seem to know how to address the difficulties facing the dance community. They must wonder, she explains, “How do you help get more space when there’s so much demand for space?”
Last year, a group of six Harvard undergraduates thought they had found a solution. Encouraged by the immense success of the first main stage dance show in 1999, Perpetual Motion, which amassed a collective audience of over 2000, these students, who comprised the Steering Committee on Dance, took action.
In May of 2000, the Committee presented college administrators with “Dance at Harvard,” a proposal illustrating the plight of the dance community and requesting the addition to the season of a fifth main stage reserved for dance. According to Yamaguchi, who is a Steering Committee member, though administrators at first rejected the proposal, the matter may still be under consideration.
In the meantime, as some members of the dance community are reluctant to request a permanent slot in the HRDC’s limited two-show main stage season, directors of potential dance productions continue to seek access to the mainstage through the application procedure.
Though Kathleen A. Agresta ’02, Main Stage Coordinator and Vice President of HRDC, concedes the present situation isn’t ideal, she is confident that, like Perpetual Motion, Against the Grain will succeed in not only making dance more visible on campus, but also bringing the dance and theatre communities closer together.
Weiss believes Against the Grain is particularly well suited for its task because it challenges what some students find unappealing about dance. “People in general often think that dance shows are boring,” said Weiss, who is Director of the Harvard Radcliffe Ballet Company. She maintains, however, that each piece in the show will defy typical complaints about old-fashioned presentation and traditional gender hierarchy.
In “Still Rising,” a text-in-movement piece, choreographer Braxton-Brooks allows her dancers to break the speech barrier by delivering poetry with words as well as dance. The piece is constructed from four poems by Maya Angelou on the theme of perseverance.
Weiss’s piece, “The Four Temperaments,” was originally choreographed by Balanchine, the Russian-born ballet dancer and choreographer who moved ballet away from fairy tales and fluffy tutus and instead emphasized balance and angular, technical movement.
“Into Emptiness” promises to challenge the same dance stereotypes that its choreographer, Yamaguchi, once shared. As a high school jock, Yamaguchi says, he had a prejudice about men dancing—that is, until his wrestling coach suggested he learn as a way to enhance his athletic performance.
“My concept of dance,” Yamaguchi said, “is very much like wrestling, or martial arts; what can you do with the space and with other people, and time, and what possibly that you can make out of that.” Yamaguchi also hopes that the male-male lifting and female-female lifting in his piece will work to debunk sexual and gender-based stereotypes.
Finally, Derrick Sellers’s “Warning: This May Cause” rebels against static views of dance with daring style and eclectic sound. A rock ballet, the piece features music by Björk and techno artist Aphex Twin.
While the directors hope Against the Grain will challenge the audience, the show will certainly challenge them. With casting now concluded, the dancers face the daunting task of putting up a main stage show in two weeks.
But Yamaguchi and Bergmann have faith in the abilities of Harvard dancers, maintaining that the caliber of dance on campus is very high. Many student dancers, including the production staff of Against the Grain, have professional experience with companies such as The School of American Ballet and the Martha Graham School.
And while it may be some time before Harvard dancers find a permanent home, for the moment the main stage is all theirs.
“The Loeb is a dream come true,” said Braxton-Brooks. “It’s perfect.”
Read more in ArtsReconstructing the Past