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"Suspended Women" Premieres at Ailey: A Conversation with Choreographer Jacqulyn Buglisi

by Bonnie Rosenstock
December 3, 2014
New York City Center
130 West 56th Street
(Audience Entrance is on West 55th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
(Entrance for Studios and Offices is on West 56th Street between 6th and 7th Avenues)
New York, NY 10019
212.247.0430
Whoever inadvertently took choreographer Jacqulyn Buglisi's working bibliography for "Suspended Women" at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater (AAADT) School on West 55th Street on November 11, please return it, as she doesn't have a copy. After Buglisi gave a talk to a small audience who attended the rehearsal of her iconic work, she noticed it was gone.

It's a reading list worth pinching. Buglisi referenced "The Metamorphosis of Apuleius" (late 2nd century AD), a Roman text rich in magic, wanderings and tales; the female philosopher, astronomer and mathematician Hypatia (370-415 AD), renowned for her eloquence and learning; Sor Juana Inés de La Cruz, a 17th century Spanish Catholic nun and self-taught scholar; the Mexican artist Frida Kahlo; and "from Hecuba to your great grandmother's mother," she said.

In a phone interview some days later, Buglisi spoke at length about how literature, history and myth have informed every work she undertakes. "I bring in a lot of books, photographs, art," she said. "It's always an inspiration and collaboration that comes out of study, research and my life experience." The dancers, too, go through a transformative process. "They have to go into themselves. They even have to think about how what they ate for breakfast affects the work."

"Suspended Women" is Buglisi's first work to enter AAADT's canon, premiering on December 12 for seven performances. (The season runs from December 3, 2014 to January 4, 2015.) It is a haunting work that expresses the lives of women throughout the ages: their obstacles, challenges, despair, strength and courage. Four male dancers intermittently enter and exit, altering the emotional landscape. It was first performed at Juilliard in 2000, where Buglisi was teaching Graham technique; many of the original cast was also teaching there. Robert Battle, then a Juilliard grad and now AAADT's artistic director, saw it and has never forgotten it. He said at the rehearsal, "It resonated with me, and I had been thinking about it and brought it into the repertory."

"I am filled with gratitude that Robert remembered it, loved it and wanted to do it," said Buglisi. "For me it's such a great gift."

She went on, "I can't say enough about having this tremendous opportunity to put my ballet on his beautiful dancers in one of the greatest dance companies that we have in America and in the world today."

The original staging featured 12 female dancers and four men. For this production Buglisi is using all 15 of the female dancers. (She did it with this many women once before.) "Having Ailey's incredible women, the passion, dynamic and diversity they bring to the work, it's quite powerful and exciting to see," she said.

She related that she brought in books on the Rape of the Sabine Women (traditionally dated to 750 BC), depicting how Roman men acquired wives from a nearby village; in other words, rape and pillage. "It's a community of people moving in a certain way, and then a crack in the earth," she said. She read them love letters between Napoleon Bonaparte and his wife Josephine, "so the men would have an idea of their characters or use that as an inspiration," she said. "She's having an affair while he's on the battlefield, professing his love and jealousy." (She has also choreographed a work called "Love Letters," based on this correspondence.)

"Look at the end of Hypatia's life," she observed. On her way home, a mob of Christians, incited by the bishop of Alexandria, stripped her and killed her with pieces of broken pottery. "Do you know many female philosophers?" she asked. "I don't. Make of it what you will."

Then there is Sor Juana, who was part of the court, then became a nun and was dominated by the church. "She put down her writings and died in silence. So tragic," she lamented.

Buglisi, a prolific choreographer, has created more than 100 ballets for her Buglisi Dance Theatre, including a piece called "Frida"; Kahlo also appears in "Suspended Women." "I have been really lucky to have a company for 22 years, but it's gotten very, very difficult in this economic climate to sustain," she admitted.

"Suspended Women" is a dialogue, Buglisi explained. "It's an episodic story. It's telling in my imagination how I see us moving through time and how all these things still relate back, whether it's biblical times or the beginning of time. It's the human condition that exposes these relationships of women and men for various reasons. So there is the beautiful part of the women, how they move as a community. It's tension, release, tension. It's the space between the notes. It's romantic."

She added, "I guess I am a romantic."

"Suspended Women" has been performed more than a dozen times in numerous venues since 2000. "Over the years it has only become richer, deeper and deeper into discovering the vastness of the archetype in the everyday unsung heroes that are represented within this work," she said. "I think it becomes even more poignant today that we are doing a work about women suspended in time, as we see again how they are being terrorized by groups that feel they should be covered up and not educated."

The 18-minute piece is set to Ravel's "Piano Concerto in G," with interpolations for piano and violin composed by Daniel Bernard Roumain. "One would be hard-pressed not to listen to that Ravel and let your imagination and heart go," she said. "I never touch any of the music. I only make my choreographic commentary to tell the story I want to tell. DBR worked with me while I was choreographing to make interpolations. We did them live in the studio over the course of several months and then recorded it. Although we are not doing this live, we have done it, with the interpolations played by Daniel."

Buglisi was a principal dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company for 12 years and maintained a 30-year-long association with the legendary Graham. "All my work is Graham-influenced," she acknowledged. "It's only natural. It is part of my education, and I love it. We always researched every ballet we were doing and always wrote things down. A lot of my ballets have structure that I learned while sitting in the studio and working with her. I couldn't have had a better teacher."

Buglisi herself is a beloved master teacher and has taught Graham technique for 45 years both here and abroad. She is Chair of the Modern Department at the Ailey School, where she has taught since 1988. "I teach it because I believe in it," she said, "and I love my students."

Buglisi feels quite at home in her multi-layered career. "I am not thinking of growing up anymore and getting a real job. I like living on the edge."

AAADT will perform "Suspended Women" on December 12 (premiere), 14, 18, 20, 26, 28, 2014, and January 4, 2015. For complete programming information, visit www.nycitycenter.org, www.alvinailey.org or www.buglisi-foreman.org.
The Company rehearses Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women.

The Company rehearses Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women.

Photo © & courtesy of Naya Samuel


AAADT's Artistic Director Robert Battle and choreographer Jacqulyn Buglisi at a Suspended Women Rehearsal.

AAADT's Artistic Director Robert Battle and choreographer Jacqulyn Buglisi at a Suspended Women Rehearsal.

Photo © & courtesy of Naya Samuel


AAADT's Linda Celeste Sims rehearses Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women.

AAADT's Linda Celeste Sims rehearses Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women.

Photo © & courtesy of Naya Samuel


The Company rehearses Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women.

The Company rehearses Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women.

Photo © & courtesy of Naya Samuel


Jacqulyn Buglisi, Artistic Director Buglisi Dance Theatre.

Jacqulyn Buglisi, Artistic Director Buglisi Dance Theatre.

Photo © & courtesy of Bill Biggart

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