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Building a Niche: The Birth of ad hoc Ballet - Installment #1

by Ilona Wall
March 29, 2007
New York, NY
I was recently reading about a panel discussion that explored how American dance is perceived by other countries. The overriding criticism seemed strange to me at first. Artistic directors from dance companies all around the world complained that most American dance is "too physical." "It's dance," I thought. "Isn't it supposed to be physical?" But as I read through more of the commentary, and thought about the work of Canadian and European choreographers, I realized that this perception of contemporary American dance is not completely amiss. Dance in other countries has maintained a sense of physicality while taking on a larger conceptual identity. Choreographers like William Forsythe are not only breaking down the barriers between classical ballet and modern dance, but also between dance performance and theatre.

With this concession, an important distinction must be made. Conceptual dance does happen in America. The issue is that the overwhelming majority of these conceptual pieces are not ballet pieces. Enter Deborah Lohse, a young, bubbly dancer turned choreographer who showcased some of her new ad hoc Ballet company's work at Dance New Amsterdam as part of their "Raw Material" series. I use the term "preview" because their inaugural ad hoc ballet season is coming up this May 11th and 12th at the Clark Theatre in the Samuel B and David Rose building at Lincoln Center. While many choreographers claim to be blurring the line between ballet and modern, Lohse approaches this fusion from a refreshingly unique perspective. As one who considers herself part of the "downtown" modern dance community, Lohse uses legitimate ballet dancers, on pointe, to achieve something very seldom done through the medium of ballet. Lohse considers downtown dance as "low budget… Usually it is dance that is very open to presenting new ways of looking at dance. Downtown is all about risk." As a result, ad hoc Ballet uses what is stereotypically considered the most elite and other-worldly form of dance to force her audience to confront topics people normally choose to ignore.

The ad hoc Ballet season this May is called "The Lucy Poems," and is largely an exploration of madness. Lohse's fascination with this topic generates directly from her experience working for Hospital Audiences, Inc. Through this organization she worked for over two years as a dance teacher in the psychiatric wings of nursing homes. She said that she had some patients that had been there for 30 years. As heart-breaking than the fact that many of them were "warehoused" (a term coined by one the mentally ill reisdents) and forgotten, was that so many of them were such amazing people. This realization gave Lohse her motivation for the project. Rather than teaching dance to those who are institutionalized, she is now using dance to tell other people about this, and bring awareness." In a broader context, Lohse's work is about forcing her audiences to "look at things we like to ignore."

Lohse's motivation is firmly rooted in real experience, but she admits she is still struggling to achieve realism in her work. Part of the problem might stem from her work's foundation in balletic vocabulary. Lohse conceded that her use of ballet dancers and pointe shoes has made it difficult to find a niche for her company in the world of downtown dance. Likewise, her refreshing approach to music, and her use of stillness (where most contemporary choreographers seem to be packing in an increasing number of minute movements) have made it difficult to fit neatly into New York's ballet community. But the company is young and one hopes that a voice this determined will carve itself a place neatly straddling both communities.

For more information about ad hoc ballet, see www.adhocballet.com

Preview: Installation #2 will bring more details about Lohse and her dancers, how she visually interprets her subject matter, and the financial logistics of creating a ballet company in New York City.
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