At the VelocityDC Dance Festival at Sidney Harman Hall this weekend, about ten different dance companies will perform each evening. So if modern dance isn't your thing, wait 10 minutes. Most performances last about that long, and something that's more your liking--Flamenco? Step? Ballet?--might follow soon.
"Even if you say, you know, 'This isn’t my cup of tea," says Samantha Pollack, director of programming for the Washington Performing Arts. "There are so many performances in one night. It can be a whole evening experience."
Last year, Dana Tai Soon Burgess was in Santa Fe visiting his ill father. The choreographer gazed at the pitch-black sky one evening, and his thoughts began to race—from man’s obsession with the heavens to the vulnerability of human life to the space race and his father’s ebbing generation. “We’ve all looked up into the night sky at one point and pondered existence,” Burgess says. “What does that mean in terms of our own human experience?”
When he returned to DC, he called NASA and made a bold proposition: He wanted to create a work based on that very question. The space agency jumped aboard, and Burgess quickly immersed himself in a world he knew little about. He interviewed astrophysicists, an astronaut from the Apollo program, and a medicine woman whose father had worked as a NASA engineer in the 1960s. To create the musical score, he combined those interviews with tunes from the late ’50s. “It’s been such a fascinating journey as an artist,” he says.
That journey culminates with “We Choose to Go to the Moon”—a piece premiering alongside three other repertory works in an evening titled Fluency in Four. Burgess’s father recently died, and he calls this work a tribute: “I want to honor that generation.” $28 to $45; Kennedy Center, September 19-20.
This article appears in our September 2015 issue of Washingtonian.
Backstage at the Kennedy Center on opening night of the Washington Ballet’s Sleepy Hollow, bewigged dancers line the walls, stretching their legs into unlikely shapes. Children dressed as fireflies and pumpkins giggle in buzzing packs. And bejeweled patrons push in through the double doors, ignoring them all.
The visitors are here to see the choreographer. Septime Webre accepts hand after hand, kiss after kiss, his hair swinging—layered from cheek to chin, thick and dark, streaked with silver. In his black-on-black tuxedo, Webre walks the halls alongside his partner, Marc Cipullo, himself in a knee-length black fur coat, blond hair hanging nearly to his shoulders—Prince Valiant but fierce. The couple moves through the crowd as though on water.
“That wasn’t ballet—that was theater!” a man gushes.
I don’t see Webre again until the after-party at the Ritz-Carlton, and even then only from afar. For hours following the show, a scrum of admirers surrounds him, the rock star of dance in the nation’s capital.
Webre is used to the adulation. The artistic director of the Washington Ballet is marking his 16th year at the helm. He was in his thirties when he arrived to exuberant press—an “Energizer bunny,” the New York Times boomed—ready to deliver a roundhouse kick to a sleepy ballet community. In a decade and a half, he landed a series of them: A tour to Cuba. World premieres. Radical changes to the choreographic repertoire.
Along the way, his local reputation grew. It was the kind of profile built by someone who—to put it in ballet terms—longs to break free of the corps into principal roles.
As a kid growing up in Silver Spring, Geoffrey Chang loved watching Michael Jackson and James Brown dance on TV. When he was 12, a VHS tape called Freestyle Session 3 introduced him to the gravity-defying head spins and handstands of breakdancing. Fifteen years later, Chang--stage name "Toyz aRe Us"--is one of the most notable figures in DC's breaking scene.
On June 20, Chang will be one of three judges at the Red Bull BC One b-boy competition at Blind Whino. Pitting 16 dancers against one another, including eight from the Washington area, this battle is a stepping stone to the North American finals in Orlando in August. From there, the winner moves on to the world finals in Rome later this year.
So what's the breaking scene like in Washington? What the heck is a "b-boy"? How do they learn this stuff? And most important, will Channing Tatum be at this event?
Tom Koerner and Debra Sternberg are on a mission: They want to make swing cool again. So far, they've been pretty successful. The duo runs Gottaswing, a dance group that teaches more than 4,000 students annually how to dance the jitterbug and lindy hop.
They organize classes everywhere from Reston to Germantown and perform all over the place, whether it's at the recent Arsenal of Democracy Flyover or their upcoming gig on June 6 for the Kennedy Center's tribute to Frank Sinatra, Let's Be Frank. Most important, they make it clear that swing isn't just for grandparents.
"Swing was really unhip in the '60s and '70s. It was an old-people dance," Koerner says. Now, he says, it's on the rise--and part of that has to do with the younger generation's desire to go beyond the boom-boom beats of David Guetta. "Contemporary music is pretty awful. When you see young kids digging Benny Goodman, I guess Usher didn’t work so well for them," he says.
Koerner first started dancing in the late '70s while studying at the University of Virginia. "The girls in my dorm said I wouldn’t get a date until I learned to dance, and I said, 'I'll be right back,'" he jokes. Once he caught a glimpse of some folks dancing the jitterbug, he was hooked. In 1987, he performed with Doc Scantlin's Imperial Palms Orchestra, where Deb was working as a cigarette girl. "I saw [Tom] dancing and thought that was pretty groovy," she says.
They dated for about a year before deciding they were better off as friends. Soon, they began performing together and teaching people how to dance swing.
Now Koerner, who is 57, works as a criminal defense attorney in Fairfax County by day and swing dancer by night. Sternberg is 61. Together, the pair is doing aerials like they're still in their early 30s. That might not seem too crazy compared to Jean Veloz, a 91-year-old swing dancer. ("I can still flip Jean over my shoulder!" Koerner says.) But for those of us in our twenties who can't even muster up a simple waltz, Koerner and Sternberg's moves are very impressive.
What might be even more impressive is how they've managed to do aerials for all these years without any serious injury. They've banged heads, bumped into each other, gotten a few black and blues, but that's about it. "We’re pretty injury-free!" Sternberg says.
Their secret? According to Koerner, people get hurt because they think aerials look easy. The trick is getting Sternberg to jump up and using momentum instead of lifting to do the moves.
Whatever they're doing, one thing's for sure: It most definitely looks cool.
Twenty years ago, C. Brian Williams merged two art forms that were created thousands of miles apart--stepping and the South African Gumboot dance. Though the origins of stepping trace back to African-American fraternities and sororities, Williams—an Alpha Phi Alpha member—discovered similar moves when he traveled to Africa. So he decided to combine the two.
“When I saw the South African Gumboot dance... I was amazed at how similar that was to stepping,” Williams says. “Normally you put on a great song, and your body will tell you what to do. In stepping, you have to be both the dancing and the music. That’s the major difference [between stepping and dancing]. In stepping, you move to the music that you create."
Anyone strolling down Thomas Jefferson Street, Northwest, in Georgetown this past Sunday night, would have heard nothing unusual--humming street noise at most. And yet not far above the sidewalk, on the roof of the Graham Hotel, about 150 people were jamming out at a disco party.
Sandro Kereselidze, owner of Art Soiree and sister company Silent Dance Society, launched his Silent Disco Sundays this week. For $15 ($20 at the door), attendees had access to mixes by three different DJs, a bar, entertainment, and lounging area.
Chloe Arnold owes a lot to Beyoncé. More than ten years ago, the tap dancer from Takoma joined forces with her sister, Maud, and launched the Syncopated Ladies--an all-woman tap dancing group. Their big break came a few years later in 2007, when Chloe worked as a director's assistant in Beyoncé's music video for "Upgrade U." The sisters followed by recording a sort of tap dancing tribute to the R&B star, and Beyoncé hit them back by sharing the troop's video with her 65 million Facebook fans. The video went on to get more than half-million views. That's when the Syncopated Ladies really took off. They went on to appear in the HBO show "Boardwalk Empire" and on FOX's "So You Think You Can Dance." Their newfound success, however, made them realize they wanted to be more than dancers; they wanted to give back to the community. "I want to rock out in tap shoes and get women in tap elevated to another lever of respect, skill level, and appreciation," Chloe says. This weekend, the sisters will be doing some of that. For the seventh time this year, they are hosting the DC Tap Fest, an event that puts local kids in lockstep with internationally renowned tap dancers for a week of lessons, competitions, and performances. The sisters know they owe their success to the mentors they met while growing up in the area--and they hope to do the same for others. Chloe began tap dancing when she was six, but it was at the age of nine that she was officially initiated with Chris Belliou's DC Rhythm Ensemble. From there, she joined Savion Glover's DC residency, a summer program organized by the Washington Performing Arts Society, and even scored a performance at the Kennedy Center. "That really inspired me to want to tap dance," she says. After watching her sister's rehearsals, Maud landed a small appearance in one of Glover's shows. Her role? It involved walking across the stage in tap shoes holding a sign. Year after year, as the sisters continued their journey in tap, they encountered people who were willing to lend a helping hand. At one dance school, the office manager let their tuition slide because she saw their potential--and because she knew the girls' mother couldn't afford to pay for lessons. "We were always on scholarship growing up. Or we cleaned the studios, we always did something," Maud says. Both sisters went on to earn film studies degrees from Columbia University and land roles in acclaimed DC choreographer Debbie Allen's dance musical, "Brothers of the Knight." But it was when Chloe came back to DC for a performance at the Kennedy Center that she realized it was time to do more. "[I got] this full circle feeling," she says. "We need to recreate that for the next set of kids." In 2009, the sisters launched the DC Tap Fest. Every year since, they have brought in celebrity tap dancers to teach Washington kids--of all backgrounds and levels--how to dance. Since its debut, the charity has granted more than 275 scholarships. This year's festival culminates tonight at the University of the District of Columbia Theatre with a performance of 25 students, who have all completed a four-day intensive class. As for the soundtrack, it wouldn't surprise anyone if a Beyoncé song just happens to make an appearance. DC Tap Fest March 23 to March 30 The all-star concert will take place tonight at 8 PM at the University of the District of Columbia. Tickets are sold-out, but email firstname.lastname@example.org to be put on the waiting list.
Seven years into her run as a soloist with the American Ballet Theatre, Misty Copeland has already transcended the bounds of the profession. With a viral Under Armour commercial and a starring role in a Prince music video under her belt, Copeland is now the kind of celebrity who gets recognized on the streets on New York--not exactly a typical experience for a professional ballerina. What makes Copeland’s catapult to fame even more remarkable is that she is one of the few black dancers occupying a high-ranking role in a major company.
Next week at the Kennedy Center, Copeland will break down another wall when she stars with Brooklyn Mack--one of the few black male leads in the industry--in a Washington Ballet production of Swan Lake. It’s a pairing that will make history, with two black dancers in the lead roles of the classic, beloved ballet for what's considered the very first time. If Copeland’s dominance in roles such as the Firebird are any proof, she’s sure to put in a groundbreaking performance.
Even then, ballet will still have a long way to go before it achieves anything resembling true diversity. Michaela DePrince, the star of the ballet documentary, "First Position," left the country to dance with the Dutch National Ballet, saying in an interview with the Guardian: “I struggled with the fact that I was black and there weren’t a lot of black dancers at the studio with me.” One American black ballerina in Russia, Precious Adams, was even asked to bleach her skin and "try and rub the black off" and subsequently left the Bolshoi Academy for the English National Ballet.
But complex situations are nothing new for Copeland, who was one of six children and spent a portion of her childhood living in motels. She only began dancing at the age of thirteen--in an industry where most pros were dancing in kindergarten--when a local teacher took notice of her grace, power, and innate ability to mimic the movements of others. Her proportions, however, aren’t necessarly considered ideal for ballet. With an athletic build and five-foot-two frame, Copeland doesn't match the standard of the long, lean, and willowy ballerina.
Even after all her recent success, she hasn't been considered the paradigm of a classical ballerina. Her breakout roles were primarily in modern works, especially those by choreographer Twyla Tharp. “I have to remind them that I was trained classically and this is what I want to do—the classical roles,” she told DANCE magazine. “So that has been one of the biggest struggles for me here [at ABT].”
Mack too has often been typecast as a “powerful” dancer; the Washington Post described him as "the go-to guy when artistic director Septime Webre wants to wow the crowd.” He told the paper, “I like to jump, and I love the bravura roles, but I like everything else just as much. It’s another side of me, and that side of me has to be fed.” As Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake, he’ll have the chance to show off his power and his grace.
If their performance is as riveting as many expect, it may lead to yet another professional coup for Copeland. “My goal is to become the first African-American principal dancer with ABT,” she told Rivka Galchen at the New Yorker. And at the end of this spring season, she may very well get her chance. Three principal ballerinas will retire from ABT--Julie Kent, Paloma Herrera, and Xiomara Reyes. Perhaps that will open the door for Copeland to assume their mantles and make new, historic strides for American ballet.
The Kennedy Center
April 8 to April 12
$45 to $145
Tickets for Copeland’s performances are unfortunately sold out on the Kennedy Center’s website, but at publication time there are plenty of available seats on StubHub.
The Head and the Heart
DAR Constitution Hall
The Seattle folk-rockers released their second album in October 2013, featuring songs inspired by travels they embarked on after their self-titled 2011 debut. $34.
The singer/songwriter’s 2014 self-titled album is her first collection of entirely original tunes in 13 years. Never one to shy away from exploring the boundaries of her sound over her long career, she’s nailed what might be her most fully realized work. $55.
Some of the TV projects she’s been involved in have been panned (Smash; Sean Saves the World), but her musical talent (Broadway’s 9 to 5) has never been in doubt. Hilty applies the latter to Christmas music from the Great American Songbook. $65.
Zion’s Muse: Three Generations of Israeli Composers
The Ariel Quartet explores Israel’s relatively young but rich musical legacy, stretching from the 1930s work of composer Paul Ben-Haim to contemporary pieces by Menachem Wiesenberg. $44.
Guaranteed you’ve heard at least one of their electric-guitar-driven holiday tunes—now watch them perform their “rock opera” The Christmas Attic live for the first time. $42 to $73.
He’s shed the impressive beard but not the eclectic reggae sound that earned him a Grammy nomination. Hear tracks off Akeda, Matisyahu’s fifth album, which came out in June. $35.
Chuck Brown Band
Bethesda Blues and Jazz
The backing band of the late Godfather of Go-Go performs some of Brown’s greatest hits. Frank “Scooby” Sirius, formerly of the local band Lissen, joins the lineup. $25.
December 28 (December 27 sold out)
After six studio albums, the gypsy-punk band sounds more raucous than ever. Same goes for its frenetic live show, which has been known to involve crowd-surfing. $35.
The Brooklyn duo of Alex Frankel and Nick Millhiser gained a following for their synth-soaked remixes of tracks by Cut Copy, Moby, and LCD Soundsystem, among others. Holy Ghost’s original tracks are equally worth a listen, as their sophomore effort, September’s Dynamics, proved. $20.
The Rhett Miller-fronted Dallas band celebrated its 20th anniversary this year by releasing its 16th album, Most Messed Up. The new tunes reflect on two decades in the music biz. $35 to $85.
Ballet West’s The Nutcracker
This version of the holiday classic—created by the Salt Lake City company’s founder, William Christensen—is a Washington favorite. $56 to $165.
Cirque de la Symphonie
A kind of Cirque du Soleil designed specifically for concert halls—with acrobats, jugglers, and cortortionists performing feats choreographed to the music of the NSO Pops. $20 to $98.
Observe the weeklong holiday with this event featuring dancers from the contemporary West African company Coyaba and its related academy, along with other special guests. $25 to $30.
The Moscow Ballet’s Great Russian Nutcracker
Hailing from the same country as The Nutcracker’s composer, this company has brought the production to Washington regularly since 1993. $28 to $88.
If you’re a fan of The Daily Show’s early years, there’s a good chance this Georgetown Law grad wrote some of your favorite lines: He won an Emmy for his work with the show’s original writing team. Hear him deliver his jokes his own way. $17.
A John Waters Christmas
Not to be confused with the 2004 album compiled by Waters, this show gives the kooky director a platform to poke fun at holiday memories and traditions. $49.50.
Good for the Jews
Writer Rob Tannenbaum (I Want My MTV: The Uncensored Story of the Music Video Revolution) and David Fagin of the indie band the Rosenbergs team up for this tongue-in-cheek show of musical comedy. $20.