Aging in Dance

by Lily Kelting, Aug 20, 2016

"Those specks of dust" DANCE ON ENSEMBLE | Credit: Dorothea Tuch
In ballet, when a former beautiful dancer who became a director of a company or a ballet director, when he is honored and he comes back on stage at the age of 50 or 60, they will always perform “The Old Man and Me” by Hans von Manen. It’s a kind of tradition. Because there’s a bench. There’s the old man, which is the choreographer, and then there’s a younger woman. It’s a beautiful little piece. But the question is: is there a future? When you look in the future, what is there? That’s an open question.

This is Madeline Ritter. She never intended to become the producer for the only over-40 dance company in the world. A coworker at her production company, Diehl+Ritter, floated the idea by her: why is no one focusing on the topic of aging and dance? Years of conversation, some major funding, and the addition of Christopher Roman as the artistic director: Dance On was born.

Their production schedule is, frankly, ridiculous: for their 1st edition, they have planned 6 premieres in a row. 7 Dialogues invited six performance artists to develop solos with the six members of the company, arranged into a cohesive evening by Matteo Fargion…or not so cohesive, but nonetheless delightful. Christopher Roman’s collaboration with Bulgarian artist Ivo Dimchev is a real highlight.

Rest on the heels of this demanding and wide-ranging evening? No. The group commissioned Rabih Mroue’s first foray into dance, which premiered at Kampnagel in April. Kat Válastur’s Those Specks of Dust is a Tanz im August world premiere. William Forsythe will choreograph a duet in the fall. And then, to quote Christopher Roman, they’re “going to tour the shit out of them.”

Which means, basically, that the Dance On dancers are working just as hard as anyone in the business. The company isn’t built for dancers in their 60s or 70s (or 80s or 90s), dancers who want to explore the relationship between their aging bodies and movement through performance. It’s about extending the upper age limit for working dancers. Just to work past the age of 42, in a landscape with strict age cut-offs within state institutions and few choreographers looking to hire dancers over 40—it’s as simple and difficult as that. 

That is, I suspect you will like Those Specks of Dust or 7 Dialogues about as much as you like the work of Kat Válastur or Matteo Fargion. Whatever I might say about the dancers would be an adjective-laden version of “they did their job.” Statements like, “the ensemble can really move!” riddle Dance On’s press page, but feel a bit ridiculous to repeat. Who am I (writer-not-dancer) to praise their physical abilities? Of course 46 year old former Forsythe dancers have “brilliant technique, body control and charisma.” I mean—what is this? You wake up at 42 and your stage presence is all used up? I’ve taken enough yoga classes from beaming, dewy-faced, limber Los Angelenas to know that 50 is the new 40 is the new 30. But maybe contemporary dance just needs to catch up.

And fair enough. Over 230 dancers applied for the Dance On ensemble, which is an indication that the time around 40 is an emotionally difficult and economically precarious one for many dancers. It’s easier for choreographers who stage their own work to stay in the game past the arbitrary glass ceiling at 40—Deborah Hay, for example, who began her career challenging normative distinctions between “dancer’s” and “non-dancer’s” bodies—between ordinary actions and dance, for that matter—continues to make innovative and well-received work. It’s ironic, maybe, that for Hay, pushing the boundary means seeing her choreography on young, professionally-trained bodies in Figure a Sea.

While there’s some language in the Dance On mission statement about embodied knowledge and the wisdom and experience that older dancers carry with them on stage, the project is much more pragmatic than ideological. When I ask about the ways in which Dance On’s work provides a commentary on aging, Ritter, Roman and Válastur steer back to the fact that age isn’t really an issue for the Dance On dancers.
Ritter adds that they selected the six 1st edition choreographers because they felt their work was open-minded, fresh, and excellent—and the company emphasized to each choreographer that the piece they developed didn’t have to be about age. “Whenever I see older dancers on stage, it’s always in the framework of them being old,” Roman complains.

To draw a more pointed comparison, Dance On isn’t about putting an 81 year old Valda Setterfield on stage and asking questions about embodied knowledge. “Leave that”—I hear in the subtext—“to Eszther Salamon.” Salamon and Wavelet do put the very question of aging and dance at the heart of the Monument 0.1 and 0.2 performances. These pieces showcase two incredible dancers with long and prestigious careers behind them. And because they are at the center of the performance, their presence and experience become an unavoidable point of meditation—what Kat Válastur calls “the deep architecture of the body.” Monument 0.1 Valda & Gus ends with the two performers downstage center, listing the things they have become—both roles they’ve inhabited and positions they’ve held in the field. In the repetition, it becomes a commentary on sexism and racism—the limited roles available for women and people of color as Gus and Valda began their careers—as well as the blurring between life and art for a professional performer looking back on decades of work. I’ve been King Lear. I’ve been Othello.

Still, the two Dance On pieces are both, in some sense, about what it means to be a dancer: as the little ditties in 7 Dialogues about the early dance experiences of each artist attest. Or the sense of wonder at discovering movement—set in a ballet studio-- in Those Specks of Dust. I asked Válastur what her piece was about—and she responded simply, “wow.” This is shorthand, I now realize, for “the wow of doing something for the first time that will eventually become your life, your work, and your passion.” Or maybe “the wow of discovering movements that will transform and inhabit your body forever.”

Judith Butler has an idea of virtually queer and critically queer (stick with me here). The virtually queer person is anyone who fails to perform heterosexuality (potentially, everyone). They stand outside the norm. Full stop. A critically queer person, on the other hand, mobilizes this failure to critique heterosexuality itself. The power of the norm becomes the very fault line from which marginalized groups create resistance. “The failure to approximate the norm,” Butler writes, “is not the same as the subversion of the norm.” This idea has been taken up by those who write about disability, too—and I kept thinking of this concept when talking to the Dance On artists and watching Salamon and Wavelet’s work. Sure: of course, let’s create work for older dancers. Let’s create work for older dancers that let’s them be just “dancers” and not “older dancers”; let’s put the artistry first and identity second.

But. It feels both politically and artistically important to use older dancers onstage to dismantle the systems which stress physical ability over presence, youthfulness over experience. Salamon works towards a “critically old” series, a monument to older performers. Sure: Monument 0.1 could have put less emphasis on recreating the expressive movement and long lines that mark Valda and Gus as ‘able’ dancers. By the same token, it could have given them more: more movement, more fine-tuned and magnetic choreography. But the performances themselves are fact enough that Valda and Gus are here. Still making work. Is there a future for dance that insists on and celebrates the very age of its performers? It remains—as Ritter notes—an open question.
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Lily Kelting Born 1986, Stage editor, Exberliner magazine. Works internationally as a freelance dramaturg, writer, and editor. She holds a Ph.D. in Theatre from the University of California, San Diego. Postdoc at the Freie Universität, Berlin. Originally from New York City, she lives in Berlin.

Nina Branner is a freelance cultural journalist from Denmark, based in Berlin. She has studied at the University of Copenhagen, Berlin University of the Arts and at Copenhagens Academy for Music, Dance and Performance with awarded choreographer Kasper Ravnhøj. She writes about theater, performance and music for publications like Weekendavisen and Gaffa. Writing for Exberliner since March 2016.
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