NeXt Choreographers: Emily Sulock

“If the basic human nature was aggressive, we would be born with animal claws and huge teeth—but ours are very short, very pretty, very weak. That means we are not well equipped to be aggressive beings. Even the size of our mouth is very small. So I think the basic nature of human beings should be gentle.” – Dalai Lama

Each piece that I have ever choreographed has introduced itself through many different ways of inspiration. Sometimes it’s an image, sometimes it’s music, sometimes it’s a quote, sometimes it’s from life experiences, etc. I could go on forever. My inspiration for this piece actually came to me in three phases, which was an amazing yet challenging experience. 

Phase 1: The first phase was an image that randomly popped into my head, which was very angular and animalistic. I envisioned a dancer in very low lighting lying on the floor creating these strange angles, making it appear that a creature were there instead of a human being. After thinking about this image for a few weeks I realized this image was introducing my theme very clearly: our own animal instincts. However, I didn’t want to focus on the aggressive side, but rather the gentle and compassionate side of being animals, which introduces the next phase.

Phase 2: Last year I owned a 365-day calendar entitled “Insight from the Dalai Lama.” It was also my first year out of college and I was finding life to be incredibly confusing, un-inspirational, and just feeling lost. I bought it hoping to find some redirection. After a few months of feeling all of this, I finally happened upon the quote above and I was so relieved to get my life as a choreographer back on track. I felt this quote helped clarify the image in my head, opening the path to phase three.

Phase 3: As a choreographer, I tend to find music as one of the difficult processes of making a piece. There is an infinite amount of music out there to choose from, so narrowing down all of the choices is always challenging for me because it helps set the tone of the overall piece. I originally had a different song in mind when I decided I wanted to choreograph. Unfortunately, the original song uses lyrics and it was the beat of the music I focused on. I sought for an instrumental version but nothing compared to the original. I ended up finding “Prawnkus” by Clinton Shorter and “escape 700” by The Chemical Brothers. I felt that with the blend of the two songs I could still get my theme across, I just had to go about it in a different way than I originally envisioned.

Similar to my inspiration process, my choreography process varies each time. One thing that does not change is the amount of athleticism I ask of my dancers. I tend to choreograph in my room, so I’m fairly limited with space and I never set anything until I’m in the studio. I also like to wait until I see how the dancers interpret my organic movement. This is one of my favorite processes of choreography! Everyone has their own unique style and to pass off your own to a new group of dancers is always exciting (I tend to find inspiration in this as well).

“The world always seems brighter when you’ve just made something that wasn’t there before.” – Neil Gaiman

“The one thing that you have that nobody else has is you. Your voice, your mind, your story, your vision. So write and draw and build and play and dance and live as only you can.” – Neil Gaiman

NeXt Choreographers: Chantal Doucett

For this work I was inspired by Boston’s up and coming bar/club scene. I find it fascinating how people’s relationships and interactions change with a little liquid courage. Selecting music for this work was easier for me than in past experiences. I love really intricate pieces of music with quirky sounds and this track was just so perfect for this work. I had heard it on an electro-dance station on the radio and knew I wanted to work with it. My choreographic process is a bit of a mix of doodling X’s and O’s on a pad of paper to experimenting in my bedroom. If it works then great and if not it’s back to the drawing board. This work is definitely an extension of my style of choreography. I did a previous work that has very similar movement qualities to this one; upbeat/quirky is my thing and it’s what I do best.
Some Inspiration:
The link below is of a Steve Aoki show.  He is the artist I’m using for my piece and I think this video really captures the energy and feel that I’m going for with the work.  I studied how the people moved and then interpreted it through my own movement vocabulary.
This second link below is a video of a section from the broadway show Blast!  I saw this show as a kid and absolutely loved it.  I specifically remember being inspired by this one particular section.  I love they way they were able to move and incorporate their instrument as a prop.  Much like the trumpets, the dancers in my work use their cups as their prop.
To see Chantal’s piece, get your tickets for NeXt soon! They’re selling fast.

NeXt Choreographers: Emily Mayer

The purpose of art, if I may endeavor to make such a generalization, is to inspire emotion in an audience – whether that be one person admiring a painting or a crowd of hundreds experiencing a live performance. Granted, some artists don’t have a particular intention when it comes to what they want their audience to feel, but others meticulously craft their work to give their audience a very specific experience. I like to think that I fall into the latter category, and therefore I spend a great deal of time thinking about how dance can inspire emotion: more generally, the relationship between emotion and dance.

Before we tackle that big question, we must first discuss the “intermediary” art of music. It is my experience that many of my colleagues, both in the dance world at large and here at Urbanity, view dance and music as inseparable. This is most evident in their process when creating a piece. There are two main processes that I have observed over my now two seasons with the company:

1)    The choreographer starts with an idea for a piece – a story or a theme – and then finds a corresponding piece of music that fits that theme, mirrors the emotions or scene they are trying to convey.

2)    The choreographer finds a piece of music they really like and simply says, “I want to make a piece!” Often a theme emerges, but sometimes that’s the extent of the depth of the piece.

I find the first method to be somewhat admirable – they at least have a vision for what they want their audience to experience. This is an element of what I like to call “macrochoreography”: the overall vision, composition, and intention of a piece. The second method simply bores me as an artist; it’s just a meaningless string of “microchoreography” (the movement itself – phrasework). Sure, people are still going to derive emotion from such a performance, but I find myself asking, “What’s the point?” They’re effectively rambling on with nothing to say. Regardless, both methods produce the same result: dance that is so intertwined with and dependent on the accompaniment that it wouldn’t have a leg to stand on by itself. When a choreographer starts with a piece of music, the rolls are reversed: the music holds all the emotion and the dance itself becomes the accompaniment.

But why than are so many choreographers drawn to music as the emotional foundation of their dance? What is it about music that moves us? As for most big life questions, I turn to science for the answer. Dr. Thalia Wheatley and a team of colleagues at Dartmouth College provided evidence that music inspires emotion, because it mimics human movement. Please, please check out these links:

Scientific paper (Sievers et. al, 2012):

Youtube (Why Music Moves Us):

It all comes back to movement: this is why I regard music as an “intermediary.” My process removes this unnecessary middle man. Why not go straight to the source – give my audience an emotional experience derived entirely from raw movement?

I see my process when making dance as analogous to writing a philosophical essay: starting with an idea, making an outline, and then finally writing out the words. My method involves a similar three layer, top-down approach:

1)    Idea – I start with an overarching theme that will govern the entire piece. What do I want to say to my audience? What do I want them to feel?

2)    Structure (Macrochoreogaphy) – I determine the overall trajectory of the piece, dividing it into sections which each accomplish different goals within the theme. How many dancers do I want to use? Are they specific characters or abstractions? How do they interact? Is there a story? What is the tone within each section (aggressive, peaceful, creepy, joyful, etc.)?

3)    Movement (Microchoreography) – I develop phrasework and partnering to fill out the sections, using levels, tempo, character, quality, etc. to set the tone.

The result is movement that ties directly back to the theme. The piece is self-contained and self-reliant; it can stand independent of music and carry its own emotional weight.

I often take the additional step of adding music after the dance is completed. For my piece in our Fall 2013 show – The Sun Queen – I collaborated with an amazing live percussionist, Martin Case. He created an entire score based on the movement – an interesting reversal of the typical creative process. “319,” my piece from last year’s NEXT, ends with a solo based on a raven; the movement is intentionally creepy and dark. On top of the solo, I layered a recording of a joyful Sacred Harp hymn. The result was a degree of emotional dissonance that only deepened the unsettling nature of the movement itself. (Check it out:

For Inside Thoughts, my piece in NEXT 2014, I’ve decided not to add music. Instead, the soundscape will be created entirely by the dancers – their breath, body percussion, and stream-of-consciousness vocalizations. The idea for the piece came from an improv exercise I developed for my contemporary class inspired by Bill T. Jones’ Floating the Tongue (youtube: In the third phase of his piece, the dancer does a phrase while saying out load every thought that passes through his mind. My exercise simply takes this stream-of-consciousness and layers it on top of improvisation rather than set movement. While practicing this in class, my students and I found it to be quite therapeutic – cathartic even. When I processed this experience, I found that most of what was said was in response to the unasked question: “How are you?”

This is the real root of my piece:

“How are you?”

“I’m fine. You?”

“I’m fine, thanks.”

What if people really cared when they asked? What if you were allowed to give a real response? If we’re asking these questions, why does this interaction exist in the first place? We would have so much to say, and yet we’re too self-obsessed and self-absorbed to even consider the inner workings of another being.

I want my audience to leave the theater and go have a meaningful conversation with an acquaintance. I want them to stop hating the guy who bumps into them on the sidewalk. I want them to look up and smile.

 To see Emily’s piece, get your ticket for NeXt, March 7 and 8.

NeXt Choreographers: Glenna Clifton

“You save yourself or you remain unsaved.”
― Alice Sebold

Let me apologize in advance for being intentionally vague. I prefer not to reveal too much of my inspiration for my choreographic works. I hope that each viewer can find his or her own meaning.
The inspiration for my piece for Next comes mostly from current events and numerous newspaper articles. Over the past year or so, I’ve become interested in barriers and the interaction of internally- and externally-imposed barriers. My piece for Next explores this theme, diverging from the playful nature of most of my recent choreographic works.
Form/Reform, Harvard Ballet Company. Photo by Deepak Mishra.
Can’t find the words, Harvard Ballet Company. Photo by Shelbi Russel.
After deciding on the general theme of the piece, I sought out music that I thought encapsulated the feel of the piece. I had recently watched a great music/dance video on youtube and was introduced to a new artist, Chet Faker. Chet is an Australian electronica musician, best known for his cover of Blackstreet’s “No Diggity.” When I explored some of his recordings, I found a few live tracks that he had released as a teaser for his upcoming debut album. I was immediately drawn to the first track on this release, “Archangel.” I think it suits the piece perfectly!
My actual choreographic process is a bit of a whirlwind. I try not to progress through the piece linearly, but instead draw inspiration from the music, my dancers, my feelings, and outside sources (journalism, visual art, dance performances). A lot of my movement stems from gestures, which I extrapolate to larger scales. The initial stages of choreographing usually occurs in the small open floor space of my bedroom. Sometimes, I’ll try out partnering moves with my stuffed panda, named Panda, to see if they’re feasible. Needless to say, this is not a fool-proof method. I try not to set the timing of movements until I’m in studio. I like to see how the dancers “wear” the movement and interpret its coordination to the music.
 Panda in his warm Let It Snow sweater.
I’m very excited about how the piece has come together. I’m thrilled to have had the opportunity to choreograph for Next and work with the supremely talented Urbanity dancers. I can’t wait to share with you what we’ve been working on!
To see Glenna’s piece, buy tickets now for Urbanity’s NeXt March 7 and 8 at 7:30 at Green Street Studios in Cambridge.

NeXt Choreographers: Ayako Takahashi

Stay tuned during this ten-part series profiling our Urbanity dancers whose choreography will be featured in NeXt.

The following is a series of quotes and images from the rehearsal process of Ayako Takahashi’s NeXt piece “In the Park”

“We can remember everything, but we sometimes need to forget something so that we can believe and sustain ourselves.”

Ayako and dance partner Brian Washburn rehearsing
Ayako and dance partner Brian Washburn rehearsing

“Everyone has their own world, like this even though we all live in the same planet, we all have our different worlds, because we have different perspectives. We choose the information that we want to take in.”

Ayako’s notes for the piece.

“The first inspiration for this piece is that I used to work as a psychotherapist in Japan and I worked with people with dementia, I had one woman who, she lost all of her short term memory, so she doesn’t remember what she ate for dinner, she was always telling me “my husband is waiting for me so I have to go, my husband is waiting in the park.” But her husband had actually passed away five years before. I don’t know if it’s the same in the US but we had a manual about how to deal with people and it says that because the dementia patients  – agree with them, because they’ll forget again.”

Ayako in her own “sphere”

“Humans are living in their own spheres of influence, and sometimes our spheres brush up against other spheres. Sometimes those spheres are incompatible.”


“I don’t have any sort of narrow opinion about dance, so I can be open to anything.”

To see Ayako’s piece, In the Park, get tickets now for NeXt at Green Street Studios March 7th and 8th.

NeXt Choreographers: Wisty Andres


Stay tuned during this ten-part series profiling our Urbanity dancers whose choreography will be featured in NeXt.

I’ve been wanting to do a “funny” piece for quite a while now, and I figured NeXt is the perfect opportunity to see what I can come up with. I was walking down the street, watching the hustle and bustle of the people around me, and I had an idea for the dance to takes the viewers on a journey, like a mini movie of how crazy and silly life can be. I wanted to show the contrast of different situations and emotions that we experience as humans from day to day.

I feel like music is always the root of the inspirations and ideas behind my choreography. When I was thinking of this idea of a crazy life journey, I thought of Mr. Bungle, because his songs really take the listener on a journey into a world far from here. Goodbye Sober Day was my favorite and most familiar song from Mr. Bungle’s album “California,” and i thought this song would be perfect for what I am trying to convey in this piece. I thought to myself, “if I can pull this off, it would be AMAZING! But if I don’t…it will probably be very confusing for people and they are going to think I am crazy.” Actually, even if it turns out to be successful, I am sure people will think I am crazy anyway. I’m ok with that though, this piece isn’t meant to be serious and I want to remind people through this work that life isn’t meant to be taken so seriously, because we are all just humans experiencing life and learning with trial and error. In a way, this work is a reflection of my crazy understanding of the Universe and this physical world at this point in my life. People can get so caught up in the busy chaotic life, but also able to find moments of connecting with people, connecting with the world, and feeling peace within themselves. However, usually, as soon as you feel balanced and at peace with life, something happens to throw you off again.  That’s how the Universe works, constantly pushing you off the balance and giving you opportunities to learn and grow. I wanted to make a piece based on that idea but with fun colors and silly feelings mixed in.

My choreographic process has been a little different each time I have an opportunity to choreograph. After several experiences to figure out what works best for me, I found that for me, I am most productive if I come up with an idea/concept that I want to convey in the choreography, as well as a song picked out that is really inspirational to me. Then I listen to the song on repeat and come up with a structure for how the work will be shaped, and usually making a written outline of the piece. Once I have a game plan of the work, everything else pretty much flows out freely, and I write down whatever I have in my head. Usually, if I listen to the music on repeat long enough, the ideas and movements come to me quickly and I am most satisfied with works that flow out all at once. If I prepare my work like this before I step into the rehearsal space, I can just teach my cast the choreography I have in my head, or play around with certain movements that I am not sure is humanly possible until we try it out. I am usually open to changing the choreography to fit the dancers better, showing their strengths and going with what works for them. Establishing an open connection between the dancers is very important to me, because I want my choreography to be as organic as possible to the dancers. I want my dancers to feel connected with my choreography and enjoy the experience, because it is an exploration and collaboration with them and I want them to enjoy the process!

I have been choreographing since high school, but my works from the past year or two have been the most meaningful to me. I have not done a humorous piece, so I feel like this work is not related to my other choreographic works, but I do feel like it is a big reflection of me as a human being. My last piece that I choreographed before this one was very serious, dark, and intense, so this is a completely different direction. However, if this work is a “success,” then I might be open to exploring more ideas in a comical way. Who knows! I feel like this rehearsal process has been the easiest process I’ve ever had with a cast and I feel really blessed to have the dancers in my cast. They are able to pick up the choreography quickly and also understand that my intentions with this piece is not serious, but also are able to be professionals during rehearsal. I have had very little to almost no stress with this work, which I am very thankful for. I am very excited for the show and see how the audience receives and interprets my work!

Buy tickets to see Wisty’s piece March 7 and 8 here.

Notes From A Music and Dance Laboratory

by Sarah Darling of A Far Cry

“Everyone’s nervous. No one is in their comfort zone” – Betsi Graves, Urbanity choreographer

Well, that’s true enough. Here are twelve of A Far Cry’s violinists and violists, lined up across a room in four rows of three, like pieces on a well-spaced chessboard. We’re trying to keep the memorized music of Bach’s Capriccio BWV 826 in our heads as dancers rush around us in all directions, like currents of water. As we reach the end of the opening section, each one of us finds ourselves paired with one particular dancer. Suddenly, there’s a vast amount of kinetic energy directed straight at us. Eyes meet when they can, between the athletic motions going on around us and the concentration we summon up to remember just where the inner voices of the Capriccio lead next – is it the third, or the fifth? Was that a rest? No, that’s in the cello line. OK. Remember that for next time.

Now our eyes meet more meaningfully – it’s the part of the movement where musicians and dancers improvise physically together – and there is an utterly fascinating sense of connection. And disconnection. It’s as if we’re reading passionate poetry to each other in an utterly foreign language. Behind my dancer’s eyes, I sense a vast physical intelligence, and a burning intensity. The gaze would be overwhelming, if I didn’t – somewhere in my poor whirling brain – remember that I, too, am projecting this intensity towards her in a completely different medium. And that it’s as delightfully weird for her as it is for me.

Musicians and dancers – we’re at once more similar and more different than we care to admit. Right now, the musicians of A Far Cry and the dancers of Urbanity Dance are finding out just how true that is, as we rehearse for “Chemistry” – a collaborative project that will hit Jordan Hall this coming Saturday. Urbanity choreographer Betsi Graves has created two brand-new works for this show – one set to a personalized collection of Bach dances, one an utterly fresh take on Stravinsky’s iconic “Apollon Musagete.”

“The Stravinsky… that was a lot of listens” – Betsi

Apollo Belvedere
Apollo Belvedere

In the first rehearsal for Apollo, I’m treated to a vision of just how subversive of a vision Betsi is willing to explore. Her god has become a goddess – and even has scored a new name “Ayallo” (a nod to Aya Takahashi, the dancer who is playing the part.) Ayallo moves across the stage with feverish purpose, writhing, snaking, and twisting; at one point, during concertmaster Omar Chen Guey’s extended cadenza, she nearly wraps herself around him.

When A Far Cry asked Betsi to choreograph Apollo, it was a difficult process. “Almost freeze-worthy. My body freezes when I think about this music.” She’s intimately familiar with the Balanchine version of the ballet, and wondered: should she reference the original – or step in an entirely new direction? In the end, she decided to honor it by taking it somewhere else entirely. Her three muses are all male, and not just that – they all have serious break-dancing cred. Aya spends a lot of time in the air, being lifted by them when they’re not executing eye-popping movements from the dance floor of the hottest club you’ve ever seen. It’s definitely a different vision of what it means to have a muse. “It’s hard… because every time they lift her” says Betsi, “I ask myself – how does that read? Are they supporting her, are they inspiring her… or does it look as if she needs them, because they’re strong?” (In fact, many of Urbanity’s women dancers also regularly lift each other. “Beast mode!” Betsi calls it.)

As the work continues towards its final apotheosis, Ayallo’s role as a tortured creater of art, “a kind of composer” says Betsi, starts to align itself more naturally with the world surrounding it. In the final movement, the musicians stream away from their standard positions, walking in unison with the dancers, inhabiting their world while still playing the music that creates it. This is also, to put it mildly, an extremely difficult task for the players, but a beautifully rewarding one, as our own halting steps begin to reflect Stravinsky’s slow rhythmic uncoiling.

“I really feel” says Betsi,” that in the twenty-first century, we’re moving away from Descartes, away from “I think, therefore I am.”” We’ve gotten more adept, she feels, at inhabiting a negative space, a creative space, together. “Let’s be open, let’s see what happens… By the end, Aya is one among many; she’s in an entire forest of people.”

“It was so beautiful it was hard for me to choreograph” – Betsi

Saturday’s program begins with a Bach suite – or to be more precise, a patchwork of suite elements; a personalized collection of movements plucked here and there from the keyboard works and re-imagined for string orchestra by composer Erik Nathan. Betsi has choreographed this in a completely different style, using Urbanity’s strong complement of female dancers as a real group unit. This is the work that begins with that chaotic Capriccio, with musicians and dancers thrust into each others’ spaces. (Everyone’s learning curve has no choice but to skyrocket.) But the rest of the Bach relaxes and allows the musicians and dancers chances to make the most of their usual roles, albeit with wistful gestures towards each other from time to time. At the end of one movement, the dancers pivot towards the musicians with hands shaped like hearts – a private moment of communion, or a “little “Chemistry” moment,” as Betsi puts it. In another moment, bassist Erik Higgins emerges from the group of musicians to play a cavalier Gavotte in the center of a bubbling knot of dancers.

“I feel more at ease with Bach” says Betsi, and her choreography here reflects a sense of fun that plays with a stylized baroque sense of grace – when it suits her purposes. In one movement, an estranged, bitter, couple ignores each other and scowls over breakfast. But even the chairs (long-suffering Urbanitarians who don’t mind being sat upon) begin to conspire to get them back together, and by the end, they are happily toasting. In another movement, she examines the differences between eighteenth-century courtship and today’s Internet dating scene, moving back and forth between early and modern gestures, including the soloist’s physical repertoire of gestures with her smartphone. (“The butterflies are now electronic.”) Finally, she finds a connection with someone – and the phone is put away. “We had some good laughs creating this one.”

A fascination with baroque dresses also flows through this vision of Bach. (Anyone who’s seen the works of Jiri Kylian recently in this town, as of course Betsi has, knows exactly why) In my favorite movement, one dancer “wears” a living dress , a sort of hoop skirt made of all the other dancers that gently moves with her. Alas, in the B section it develops a mind of its own and falls off, leaving the perturbed individual to make the best of it.  All of that support returns, however, in the final Andante (the beloved BWV 964, originally from the Violin Sonata BWV 1003) which is shot through with images of embracing and shaping. In the last moments of the piece, the dancers turn to the musicians for a “massive hug that brings the two worlds together.” When we saw what that gesture looked like for the first time in rehearsal, my stand partner quietly melted. I did, too.

“I want to dance to live music forever and always” – Lisa Cole, Urbanity dancer

Photo by Lisa Cole.
Photo by Lisa Cole. Dancers Melenie Diarbekirian and Wisty Andres. With Sarah Darling (author) and fellow A Far Cry musicians.

Not every moment in this production forces musicians and dancers to breathe each others’ air. But I think it’s completely fair to say that there is never a moment when we’re not exquisitely aware of each other. When the principal players in A Far Cry started to visit the Urbanity space, we encountered a feeling of breathless anticipation. I was personally a little surprised by it – until I became aware, in that first rehearsal, of the intensity of the dancers’ relationship with our music. (It was as if we were little gods of music ourselves!) We had sent a recording of us playing the music months earlier, so that they had time to prepare. Several moments in the work that we had taken little liberties with had been lovingly worked into the choreography and the character. Spontaneous moments had become a reality that expressed itself exquisitely in the dancers’ movements. Playing Bach with/for my dance partner for the first time, I realized that in many ways I’d found my favorite listener, or perhaps, my favorite mode of listening.

It’s so easy, in classical music, for the musicians’ movements to get swallowed up in the sublime stillness of the audience. But it’s something entirely different for our practical movements to achieve a level of poetry when expressed through someone else’s dynamic body. And the Urbanitarians say that the reverse is true as well; their expressive capabilities blossom when they have living contact with us. Looking for the ideal “Chemistry” between musicians and dancers might seem somewhat quixotic, but the quest is alive and well, frustrating and utterly fascinating. We’re all searching for that moment of transcendence that comes and goes, the one that Stravinsky experienced years ago when he saw the work of Balanchine and exclaimed:

“Finally, I can hear the music with my eyes!”

Urbanity Dance/ A Far Cry
Urbanity Dance & A Far Cry rehearse the pas de deux with “Aya”llo and Terpsichore.


About the performance: A Far Cry with Urbanity Dance presents “Chemistry” at Jordan Hall, January 11, 8 PM, featuring Dancing with Bach, a keyboard suite newly orchestrated by prize-winning composer Eric Nathan, and Stravinsky’s evocative ballet Apollon Musagète.

About the author: Guest contributor, Sarah Darling, a violist with A Far Cry, pops up anywhere and everywhere around town in early, classical, and contemporary circles.

Get Your Tickets Here:

Conversations with ‘Chemistry’: revisiting the classic work of Stravinsky and Balanchine

by Rossi Lamont Walter

“Oh heyyy!” giggles Betsi, as she inches her little car through a large traffic intersection. With stop lights all broken and a car full of tired dancers, all eyes were peeled as she motored safely across the lanes. We all laughed. “That is so something you would say Betsi.” “Oh? Well, what’s a new word I can use?”

That was Tuesday night, the week of the debut of Chemistry. Though quaint, this short narrative embodies rather well the entire process of making the dances for the show, which will premiere on Saturday night at Jordan Hall in Boston. In the story there is the nucleus, or the dancers and their director; the mode of transportation, in this case the legendary score from Stravinsky; fatigue and yet focused attention from all; laughter; distinct personality; new vocabulary. All of these features reflect the ambition and hard (and fast!) work for Chemistry.

Some background: Chemistry is a collaboration between Urbanity Dance, a contemporary dance company, and A Far Cry, a string ensemble, both Boston-based and highly acclaimed. Featured in the show are historic works from two musical powerhouses Johann Sebastian Bach and Igor Stravinsky. Although all the choreography for the evening is original, developed by Betsi Graves, founder and artistic director of Urbanity, in close collaboration with the dancers, the Stravinsky work has some weight on its shoulders– Balanchine did it first. Yes, it was 1928 in Paris when George Balanchine, a celebrated choreographer for the New York City Ballet, with a legendary repertoire that is fiercely protected by his ballerinas as well as his posthumous foundation, a man for whom the rights to the now-famous score were in fact reserved by Stravinsky himself, premiered the ballet Apollon Musagète. But, in the new year 2014, what is all that when the score is on the table and a dance must be made? With only a month to work, some might call the project insanity. Instead, Graves called on Urbanity. Wasting no time, Graves gathered a cast of four dancers, set steps and offered ideas–taking breaks only to fly across the country to host auditions for the highly-anticipated Urbanity Summer Intensive–all while pouring over Stravinsky’s music, which she describes as simply “hard”.

The story of Apollo evolves over a tableau of ten dances, from the birth of the ignorant divinity to the lessons of the muses and finally the apotheosis. In Balanchine’s ballet blanc, Apollo (Ayako Takahashi) receives guidance from three muses, Calliope the muse of poetry (Rossi Lamont Walter), Polyhymnia the muse of gesture (Brian Washburn) and Terpsichore the muse of dance (Ryan Valente), who together instruct the young divinity in art and art-making. In a way, the story is one to which most of us can relate. We realize our creativity, we struggle with it, suffer because of it, learn to cultivate it and ultimately, on the best of days, transform it into something tangible and meaningful. For Graves and cast, however, there is much more at stake. “Why are muses never male?” demands Graves, who finds it irksome that muses, which are magnificent sources of knowledge, insight and inspiration, are not only always depicted as female but also as airy, whimsical and incorrigibly passive. “To give inspiration takes work,” Graves insists “and no one said that muses cannot be male.”

“Rossi Lamont Walter in the dance of Calliope, the muse of poetry.”
“Rossi Lamont Walter in the dance of Calliope, the muse of poetry.”

Other big ideas inform the work, too. Traditionally, the ballet is performed with three female muses and a male Apollo, and different performances can ignite very different perceptions of gender-dominance on stage. The reversal of gender roles in Graves’ vision prompts not for the first time questions about gaze (what is gaze? what does it mean to gaze?) and, more specifically, the male gaze, thus welcoming into the conversation the remarkable tradition of feminist literature to-date, from legends like Sylvia Plath to contemporaries like Clare Pollard, including modern advertisements made to counteract the so-called “leering male gaze” in India.

And so it was: Graves sought to build new muses, muses that were male, strong, courageous and yet somehow vulnerable. “There is a certain softness, a tenderness to you all,” Graves reminds us in rehearsal, “You are working hard to inspire Ayallo [Ayako and Apollo] but ultimately this is her struggle.” This is one of many lessons in the show, that inspiration does not come easily, and, when it does, that it will not take away struggle– so if you have it, then you had better work hard to use it. (Twyla Tharp would agree.) In Urbanity’s main studio at 280 Shawmut Avenue, Graves puts this philosophy to practice through how she works with the four dancers. She offers steps and “wonky angles” but, much like Twyla Tharp, that historic American choreographer, Graves expects the dancers to offer something in return. As a result, Graves’ choreographic process is as much an invitation to the dancers to work as artists as it is pre-arranged steps. This process, however, does not come without pressure. As for any practicing artist, there is the fear of of failure. Fortunately for the dancers, one of Graves’ biggest successes as a choreographer is her ability to cultivate an environment where one feels safe to fall down, safe to take risks that really might not work– precisely because much of the time they do. The entire show, then, is a culmination of fierce steps and daring leaps as well as wonky angles, vivid personalities and sincere contributions to a larger social and philosophical conversation about gender roles, gaze, suffering and inspiration.

Four days before the premiere, in a studio flooded with sunlight and filled with artists working in anticipation for a full house this Saturday evening at Jordan Hall, Graves encourages her dancers. “Get to the ‘oh yay’ moments faster– those ‘oh yay I’m dancing in space, whoa!’ moments”. The room laughs. That is so something she would say.

Get your ticket here:

Check out the Urbanity Summer Intensive here:

‘Chemistry’ in this week’s Boston Globe:

The Sun Queen: A few photos

Looking for a mid-week pick-me-up? Take a look through some of the gorgeous photos of the first weekend of the Sun Queen! Want to see everything live? We have three more performances this coming weekend, but Saturday has already sold out! If you want to be a part of this incredible journey, grab your tickets while you can for the Thursday and Sunday shows:

The Glamazon Villagers in the Mirror Clone Room. Dancer Genny Mudd. Choreography by Meghan Anderson. Photo by Gus Hoiland.



Our Young Sun Queen Ava with some of our Junior Apprentices. Photo by Gus Hoiland.



The Villagers await the birth of the Sun Queen. Choreographer by Aya Takahashi. Photo by Gustav Hoiland.



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Dance Party at Urbanity! The House of the Rising Sun!



The Sun Queen Has Risen!

The first weekend of the Sun Queen has come and gone, but there are more performances starting this Thursday! If you missed the opening of this stunning production, be sure to grab your tickets for next weekend; Saturday has already sold out, but we have tickets available for Thursday and Sunday.


Betsi has managed to show us that no matter how programmed and computerized/machine-like we think we’ve become (and maybe have), that we remain animal in movement and instinct. This is more than a cliche or a passing nod to our humanity; it’s what’s going to save us.

Thomas Kaplan-Maxfield


The first weekend of Urbanity’s show “The Sun Queen” is over and it was awesome. Very talented and out of the box director Betsi Graves has once again WOWED the dance community. Bravo to her company for taking us all on a journey from one place to another while keeping us eager to see how the story ends.

Rose Flynn


All photos by Gustav Hoiland