Thursday, August 21, 2014
Age is the ultimate enemy of most athletes and others who depend on physical virtuosity. When arms can’t throw balls hard enough any longer, or legs can’t make the body move fast enough, it’s time to hang it up.
Some might think the same trajectory applies to dancers. But members of the Dance Generators beg to differ.
The Northampton troupe, now in its 17th year, is made up of dancers ranging from their 20s to their late 80s, all of whom confidently make the case that age is no barrier to dancing. Members say they dance for heir love of the art — but along the way, they also hope to change preconceptions about dance and make the case for more intergenerational creativity.
“My graduate research was in how dance can be part of a larger social conversation,” said Kristin Horrigan, the group’s artistic director. “I think there’s a general assumption that dance is for young, very fit people — there’s kind of a narrow definition of what a dancer should look like. ... What we do is show dance is an art form for many different ages and many different body types.”
Horrigan, who teaches at Marlboro College in southern Vermont, adds that the close bonds between members in Dance Generators also help the group build improvisational pieces and other work based on cooperation and understanding of people’s abilities.
“We really care about each other, we have real relationships, and it shouldn’t be radical to see real cooperation and joy between people of different generations,” she said.
The Northampton-based group, a regular at First Night performances, presents its annual concert this week at Smith College’s Scott Gym. The shows will feature dances with the entire 11-member company as well as pieces with a smaller number of performers; the works are created by Horrigan and other company members, and by outside choreographers.
Though its emphasis is on accommodating dancers of different ages and abilities, Horrigan stresses that Dance Generators is above all “a professional dance company in which we make art and perform art.” Most members all have had previous experience in dance and are selected after auditioning and training with the group for a time — though sometimes the gap between their past performances and their current ones can be extensive.
Constance Leslie, 73, studied dance as a young woman with Merce Cunningham, a seminal dancer, choreographer and teacher of modern dance. Leslie eventually became a psychotherapist — a practice she still maintains — and by the time she was near 60, she had become largely sedentary and didn’t feel good physically.
“My body wasn’t doing great,” Leslie said with a laugh. “I started doing yoga, but something was still missing.” Then she caught a performance of the Dance Generators at Amherst College. “There were two women with white hair [in the company] and I thought, ‘Oh! I can do that!’ ”
Leslie has been with the group for 13 years now — taking one year off for other activities — and says the experience has been “lifesaving in terms of moving.” During her time with the group, she’s also pushed for more physical challenges in her roles, like learning to throw other dancers (and be thrown herself).
Ronald Meck, 60, got involved with dance as a college student, as he looked for ways to recover from lingering high school football injuries and develop different ways to move. Then, several years ago, he ruptured an Achilles tendon in a fall from a roof, and nothing seemed to help much in repairing the damage until he met a physical therapist who’d been a dancer.
“She opened up a whole new world of rehab to me,” he said.
Meck also saw the Dance Generators perform at Marlboro College, where Horrigan teaches, and began taking community classes with the group; he joined the company last year. Dancing again has given him a new means for creativity and a broader understanding of how the body can move, he says: “I realized how many things had been wrong [physically] with me for a long time — I really had a limited range of movement.”
On a recent Tuesday, company members warmed up in the dance studio at Scott Gymnasium, then took to the floor to rehearse one of their upcoming pieces, an improvisational dance based on the work of Peter Schmitz, a choreographer and actor with Valley ties. Much of it was built around contact improvisation, in which dancers use a single point of physical contact to explore varied movements together.
Twenty-something Joshua Sugiyama, who studied dance at Hampshire College in Amherst, worked with Susan Waltner, who retired a few years ago after teaching dance at Smith for 40 years; Sugiyama slowly lowered Waltner to the ground as she let her arms fall to the side. Nearby, Horrigan rolled across Susan Boy, who in turn embraced Noel Raley.
After several minutes, Horrigan called for a break and told members they’d need to keep something in reserve during the upcoming shows. “It’s two hours of performance. We’ll need to be careful with our energy, so think about how to pace yourself.”
Dance Generators started in 1997 under original director Aime Dowling, who had worked with the Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, a pioneering program in intergenerational dance/theater. Dowling established residencies for the Northampton company in area schools, arts spaces, senior centers and other spots in the Valley before moving to San Francisco in 2006, where she organized a Dance Generators-West program.
Horrigan, who’s 36, joined the Northampton company a few years before that and became director after Dowling left. Her goal has to been to continue the community performances and workshops the group does in schools and other settings while also building in more contact improvisation work. As a choreographer, she adds, she’s interested in creating dances that play to the group’s collective strength, rather than working around perceived limitations because of age.
“I think of movements that we all can do fully,” she said. “I know this group of dancers very well, so I know if I want handstands I can have certain people do it — it’s not by age, it’s by who does what well.
“It’s not only young people who can jump or roll on the floor,” she adds. “If we all held back to the least common denominator, that wouldn’t get us anywhere.”
Horrigan says the group’s work generally falls within the definition of post-modern or contemporary dance, with performances usually balanced between improvisation and choreographed pieces. Improvisation is particularly appealing, she notes, “because it allows people to stretch within their capabilities, it allows us to communicate with each other.”
For members, one of the biggest appeals — aside from the actual movement — is the bond they feel despite their age differences. Noel Raley, 40, danced in college but didn’t do so again until joining Dance Generators about three years ago when her young children started school. For her, the performances “are so inclusive — they really illustrate our purpose, to shake up people’s perceptions about who can dance.”
At 89, Seymour Rosen, the only charter member remaining with the group, is also its oldest performer. His wife, Laura Pravitz, is part of the group, and the couple’s son, Theo, joined his father in a duet several years ago when he was a member of the group as a Northampton High School student.
“I’ve always felt very comfortable with these dancers,” Rosen said. “I took several years off to do some playwriting, but I came back and I’m glad I did.”
Steve Pfarrer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Dance Generators will perform June 5, 6 and 7 at 8 p.m. at Scott Gymnasium at Smith College. Tickets cost $15; $10 for seniors and students; $5 for children under 12. To reserve, and for more information, visit dancegenerators.org.