The Pennsylvania Ballet will be the first American ballet company to learn Trisha Brown’s O zlozony / O composite (performances June 9–12 tickets/info), a 2004 trio made for the Paris Opera Ballet. These essays, written by long time Trisha Brown Company dancer Neal Beasley, detail the experience of setting Brown’s work on the Pennsylvania Ballet dancers.
The Louise Reed Center for Dance is currently undergoing a facelift. The building, which houses the rehearsal studios of the Pennsylvania Ballet and the classes of its associated school, begins halfway down a block in a somewhat liminal corner of Philadelphia. Wandering north on Broad Street en route to the studios, after passing through the portal of City Hall, one gradually feels Center City give way to more industrial spaces: cranes, sidewalk closures, and hospitals erode the tourist’s bubble of shops and restaurants; the sensation is that of moving away from, rather than towards. My first day of rehearsal, when I finally found the building number on a plastic tarp hanging from the side of a construction trailer, I pulled out my phone, confused. But by peering just past the muddy corner of the construction site—one among many in this neighborhood—the words Pennsylvania Ballet, perched high on the side of an otherwise nondescript brick building, confirmed that I had indeed found my destination.
A small collection of tables and chairs form a cozy waiting area near the entrance, where Tara Lorenzen—another Trisha Brown dancer who has been here assisting with the rehearsal process—and I sit and have lunch, occasionally joined by a few of the company members. Alongside rehearsals for O zlozony / O composite, the company has been preparing an entirely different program of works that will premiere in May. The studios are peppered with brightly colored romantic tutus—worn in rehearsals for George Balanchine’s Serenade. Once we chuckled as a long, neon pink bundle of tulle, worn over a pair of Uggs and under a blue polar fleece, flew out the front door in a screeching attempt to protect her moped from being damaged by sanitation workers. “Ugh, this place is so ghetto,” another dancer remarked, referring to both her ensemble and the gruff timbre of her dealings with the men. “I mean, look at studio A,” he said, gesturing to the muddy construction pit. “We don’t even have a studio A.”
Our rehearsal process is happening in the midst of transition—and it isn’t just the building. Just this past week, the company received (mixed) press about a changing of the guard being initiated by (and in response to) the arrival of a new artistic director, the former American Ballet Theater star Angel Corella. One headline read “Nearly 40 percent of PA Ballet dancers leave or are let go”—a group of words that, even being aware of the news, made me wince. While none of this affects me directly, at times I can’t help but feel the tension thick in the air, or notice the whispered conversations tucked into studio corners. I also can’t help but think of Ballet Preljocaj, a French company with whom I danced from 2007 to 2009, who lost 17 of its 24 dancers in one fell swoop only a few short years before my arrival. The dancers who lived through that time remember Preljocaj’s deep sense of abandonment, and often attributed the peculiar remove he exhibited in rehearsals to that mass departure. It had become difficult for him to trust his dancers now that he had felt the fragility of working relationships. Part of me wonders what kinds of dynamics will emerge in response to the change here at Pennsylvania Ballet, and if there will be a similar reticence that creeps into the work lives of those who remain. While no one’s employment is ever guaranteed, I’ve never experienced a fear-filled work environment that was conducive to people doing their best. We need to be able to trust one another.
Teaching O zlozony / O composite to these dancers has reminded me exactly how much trust is required in creative partnerships, perhaps nowhere quite like in the quiet of a dance studio. The act of watching and being watched, the critical eye turned towards the body in the search for the often-elusive aha moment, demands that the people in the room, all of us, contend with our vulnerability. So much of what I personally face during the hours in rehearsal is the nagging sense of being a fraud: that I actually don’t know how to impart to these bodies the things that my eye sees in their dancing, the lessons that my body holds in a way that is mysterious to me—the qualities that make this dance, and so much of Trisha’s work, what it is. There was a day when one dancer, while working one-on-one on the solo section he will dance—a long and quiet, geometric phrase—seemed to retract as we spoke. His arms crossed, he stared down at the floor, and I knew we had reached a critical, if uncomfortable, threshold. While he heard the things I was saying—about gravity, about falling, about releasing the muscularity in the way he used his arms—and understood, there was the very real frustration of not being able to integrate the information, to feel something different, to actually experience, rather than just hear, what I was saying. And I, too, felt at a loss. I’d said the same things, day after day, but was afraid I had not yet found a way to offer him—any of them, really—an experience as opposed to simply an idea.
So I had to trust: that time and patient persistence might deliver things that my words failed to encapsulate; that perhaps I was saying enough, and that the process of change and integration might not be entirely mine to manufacture, but also theirs to discover; and that it is sometimes best to walk away when something isn’t working, and to return to it anew. Sometimes “sleeping on it” does something magical to the body, integrating things that seemed like roadblocks only a day before.
At the end of our last day of rehearsal (for this initial three-week period) was an event titled “Nuts and Bolts,” held at Drexel University and open to the public as an opportunity to “peel back the curtain,” as Lisa Kraus would say, of the process of transferring this material to the dancers. After sharing some of our rehearsal with an audience of approximately fifty, we sat to discuss our experiences, moderated by Lisa and joined by former Trisha Brown dancer Stephen Petronio. While listening to the dancers talk, I had my own little aha moment: it occurred to me that they too had been working to trust. While I had certainly seen their dancing grow in ways I found rather incredible, hearing in their own words what they had come to understand as the value of the our work together was unexpectedly moving, and deeply rewarding. Lisa asked them about which things had stayed with them from what I had been saying, and so I got to hear our work played back to me from a perspective other than my own. They have come to see a beauty and usefulness in moving with efficiency, with thinking of surrendering to gravity, and the ways that movement performed in its integrity often delivers the relationships we are seeking without needing to manufacture them. Best of all, they seemed to be enjoying themselves. They seemed to trust me.
I didn’t fully appreciate how much I had come into this process with my guard up, with a lot of ideas (read: fears) about how this might go, or how many assessments I had made prior to even beginning rehearsals. I have been so pleasantly surprised by the way this process has felt, by the way it has unfolded, and by the quality of the work we’ve been able to do. While I have returned to New York for the three weeks that they’ll spend performing within an entirely different universe of dance, I look forward to my return, and the time that remains for us to live in the lessons we’ve learned thus far—namely, that trusting the process is always the best option.
Photos by Johanna Austin
Photo (top) L to R: Lillian DiPiazza, Neal Beasley (back), Ian Hussey, Aaron Anker.
Photo (middle) L to R: Aaron Anker, Lillian DiPiazza, Ian Hussey, Neal Beasley (back).
Photo (bottom) L to R: Lisa Kraus, Stephen Petronio, Neal Beasley, Ian Hussey, Aaron Anker, Lillian DiPiazza.