In the Hudson Valley: Live dancers, real sweat, natural beauty

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In the Hudson Valley: Live dancers, real sweat, natural beauty
Stella Abrera, Kaatsbaan’s artistic director, in Tivoli, N.Y., June 1, 2020. This summer, as stages around the country lie empty and unused, Kaatsbaan, in Tivoli, N.Y., will be something precious and rare: one of the few places in America where dancers will be performing live, in person, in front of a living and breathing, if well-distanced and masked audience. Mohamed Omar Sadek/The New York Times.

by Marina Harss

TIVOLI, NY (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- This summer, as stages around the country lie empty and unused, Kaatsbaan will be something precious and rare: one of the few places in America where dancers will be performing live, in person, in front of a living and breathing, if well-distanced and masked audience.

From Saturday through Sept. 27, Kaatsbaan is planning an outdoor dance festival — the first festival in its 30-year history. Performances will take place on weekends on an outdoor stage in the middle of a field, built from scratch over the past few weeks.

Kaatsbaan’s bucolic expanse of forests and fields along the Hudson River — it was originally a farm belonging to Eleanor Roosevelt’s grandparents — has been a haven for dance since 1990. It has airy studios surrounded by trees and a small theater devoted to training, workshops and creative residencies.

The festival, a response to the depressing lack of performance opportunities facing American dancers, is the brainchild of Stella Abrera, the center’s artistic director of less than a year, and Sonja Kostich, executive director since 2018. As spring approached, Abrera, who retired as a principal dancer from American Ballet Theatre in June, had an idea. “I looked out over the fields,” she said in a recent phone call, “and said to Sonja, can we please build a stage?”

Foremost in her mind, she said, was the knowledge that dancers around the country were sitting idle, even as their colleagues across the Atlantic were beginning to return to work. “It was important to do what we could to get the dance community to a place where they could slowly, safely begin to re-emerge into their performing life, even if it was going be in an unconventional way,” she said.

The national soul-searching touched off by the killing of George Floyd in police custody further intensified the sense of urgency. “How can we not respond to what is happening in our society?” Abrera said. “Art helps us be part of our world, to process what is happening around us, to grieve.”

She and Kostich saw a need, as well as an opportunity. To make the festival inclusive and as responsive to the moment as possible, they invited a trio of distinguished Black dancers to develop the programming with them: Alicia Graf Mack, who also runs the dance department at the Juilliard School in New York; Lloyd Knight, of the Martha Graham Dance Company; and Calvin Royal III, of American Ballet Theatre. Their input influenced all aspects of the festival, from the curation of programs, to the selection of dancers, and the inclusion of new works by Knight, Royal, and others.

“This is a great example of how Black voices don’t have to be siloed,” Graf Mack said. “Their voices can be woven through the work of different artists of various backgrounds. It doesn’t have to only exist within historically Black companies.”

For Royal, who programmed the first evening of the festival and is choreographing and performing in it as well, the chance to re-immerse himself in dance came at just the right moment. The summer has been difficult, he said. A ballet dancer just on the cusp of stardom, he saw several important debuts melt away with the cancellation of Ballet Theater’s spring season. “I’ve been trying to navigate what the future is going to hold,” he said.

Then came the killing of Floyd, and the ugliness it revealed. “The news is so depressing and so negative,” Royal said. “I wanted to really show the beauty that’s out there, honoring Black and brown artists.” His evening includes performances by Courtney Lavine and Melvin Lawovi, colleagues from American Ballet Theatre, and a tap solo by Leonardo Sandoval, accompanied by bassist Greg Richardson; the pair have performed with Michelle Dorrance’s company, Dorrance Dance, and have their own tap ensemble.

In a sense, Kaatsbaan is filling the void left by the larger, more established festivals, which were forced to cancel live performances this year. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, the American Dance Festival North Carolina and the Vail Dance Festival in Colorado, all had made the decision to go virtual. Designed to draw dancers and choreographers from around the world, those festivals found themselves stymied by the logistics of travel in a pandemic, and financially unable to radically downsize.

Unlike European festivals like Salzburg, the Rossini Opera Festival in Italy, and the Festival Internacional de Música y Danza de Granada in Spain — all of which are holding live events this summer — they aren’t backed by state and local governments; they need to preserve their resources in order to survive.

Kaatsbaan, by contrast, has no precedent to live up to. And an advantage of being small is the ability to keep things simple and costs down. “This is a fairly bare bones operation at the moment,” Abrera said. There are just seven employees, including her and the two men building the stage.

“People have been doing things online” Knight said, “but to have an actual festival, where you’re going to see performers live, and it’s going to be done safely, surrounded by so much beautiful nature, is really exciting.”

All the performances will be free, paid for by benefactors and small donations, 25% of which will go to the NAACP and other Black Lives Matter-related organizations. People planning to come must register online ahead of time. (Some of the content will later be shared via Kaatsbaan’s social media as well.)

The rate of new coronavirus infections in the Hudson Valley has remained low since mid-May. On July 7, the area entered Phase 4, allowing museums to reopen for a reduced number of visitors, restaurants to serve a limited number of diners, and gatherings of up to 50 people to take place, with proper distancing. On a recent visit to Tivoli, the few people milling around downtown wore masks. The vibe was respectful and relaxed.

Back in May institutions like the sculpture park Opus 40 and the performing arts center PS 21 began to make plans to reopen and host a few small-scale performances. This, too, encouraged the Kaatsbaan team to move forward, Kostich said.

Kaatsbaan also has the advantage of being self-contained, with studios, living areas and the newly built stage, all on site. And of being only two hours from New York City, home to a large number of dancers, who can travel there with relative ease and safety. The dancers will drive up after quarantining for 14 days, during which time they will take two coronavirus tests. They will stay secluded on the property in the days preceding each week’s performances.

Programs will be kept short, between 20 minutes and a half-hour, and audiences small, with no more than 50 people viewing from benches (or from cars). As Abrera pointed out, that brevity will reduce the number of audience members needing bathroom breaks (they’re hoping for very few) and discourage people from traveling long distances to attend.

The idea is to keep things local — the festival grounds are right off Tivoli’s main street — and low-key. “We wanted to provide something for this amazing community where we are located,” Kostich said, “from whom we’ve received overwhelming support and encouragement.”

That communitarian sentiment was echoed by Joel Griffith, the mayor of Tivoli, who is also a painter. “Dancers are going to dance, painters are going to paint and restaurants are going to serve food,” he said in a phone conversation. “That’s the human spirit. You just have to blend it all with the necessary discipline.”

The programs, made up mostly of solos and socially distanced duets, will be refreshingly eclectic, ranging from ballet to flamenco to tap to Broadway to postmodern dance. (Only people who live together will be allowed to touch onstage.) There will be new works by Royal and Knight, as well as by the postmodernist Jodi Melnick, the tapper Caleb Teicher, and Emily Kikta and Peter Walker of New York City Ballet.

Anchoring it all will be a light and sound installation, a meditation on police violence and the disproportionate effect of the coronavirus on minority groups. “In light: of the time” contains images projected onto the ceiling of a barn near the property’s entrance designed in 1895 by Stanford White’s firm. The public will walk through on its way to the benches.

The artist behind the project is Brandon Stirling Baker, a lighting designer who is working as part of a collective that includes Jamar Roberts and Hope Boykin of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the poet and playwright Carl Hancock Rux, and the lighting designer Alan C. Edwards. Boykin and Rux have written text, while Roberts, who has a background in visual art, provided drawings.

“Generally I’m a hopeful person,” Roberts said in a phone call, “but at this moment I just don’t know how I feel. If you allow yourself to really take in what’s happening, it’s all sad. All of it. In every way.”

The gravity of the moment is lost on no one. It seems to animate the festival, providing the organizers with the drive to push forward, despite the complications of organizing a festival in a time of great anxiety. As well as a certain humility before the enormity of events. “I just hope,” said Kostich, “that we can provide a fleeting moment of relief or joy. We’re just trying to do our job as best we can.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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