A dance festival for short attention spans


By Sara G. Levin

Can a dance become art in seven minutes or less?

Usually, a person can look at a painting, walk away, and decide within one minute whether or not he or she thinks it should be considered art. But the same is not true for dance. Many times audiences are baffled by long performances, lost in abstract intentions or insensitive to technical prowess.

So the DanceNow/NYC festival, running Sept. 6-16 at Joe’s Pub and Dance Theater Workshop, attempts to make contemporary dance more user-friendly. Meant to introduce audiences to a variety of eclectic but palatable works, the festival encompasses over 80 short dances. Under categories including “DancemOpolitan,” the cabaret nights at Joe’s Pub; “Base-Camp,” which showcases young and emerging artists at DTW; and “40up,” which is strictly for older DTW performers, each night presents nine to twelve dances geared to satisfy our attention-deprived minds.

Like TV ads, movie coming attractions, music videos, and pop radio hits, not one lasts longer than seven minutes. And so it’s up to the audience to decide, is it still art?

Wallie Wolfgruber, who used to be part of the Lar Lubavitch Dance Company, is choreographing a trio for herself and two of her former colleagues in the company, Rebecca Rigert and Dirk Platzek, to be performed at DTW.

“The first part of the piece is physically extremely challenging, fast paced, very “virtuoso”, not at all the kind of thing you’d expect from 43-year-old dancers (all three of us are 43),” wrote Wolfgruber in an email. She and her dancers are participating in the “40Up” segment of the festival.

“I accept and make the most out of whatever I am offered — in this case it’s seven minutes maximum, so that’s what I’ll do…” Wolfgruber commented. “Personally, if you give me an entire evening, I’ll take that too.”

“You can do a serious work in six or seven minutes,” Co-Founder and Director Robin Staff said. “We program everything from burlesque cabaret to fun and highly physical works to experimental [ones]. And truthfully, we’re a society right now that has no attention span, particularly with dance. I think that it helps the public to not have to be so burdened, to get a taste and to see if they might want more.”

Judging from the growth of the festival over the last 12 years, it seems that others would agree. Staff and Tamara Greenfield began the vignette shows in 1995 as a way to promote modern dance to non-modern dance audiences within the SoHo Arts Festival. So they staged events in unconventional places like the Carmine Street swimming pool, SoHo galleries and the Chelsea Piers boxing ring. Last year they produced shows for over 130 artists in ten days across the City. While they continued performing on many haphazard stages, their acceptance that year into DTW was seen as a major step up.

Now, the performances have moved for the first time completely out of the outdoors and onto more conventional stages at Joe’s Pub and DTW. But their structure and intent remain intact. Leigh Garrett, the upcoming host for a series of cabaret nights at Joe’s Pub called DancemOpolitan, said dance cabaret is extremely accessible because it strips down the “fourth wall” between performers and onlookers.

“To me dance cabaret [is] a little bit more intimate between the performers and the audience,” Garrett said. “And that makes the audience feel like they’re participating in something which is exciting.” Garrett will be emceeing this year as a “vavavoom ex-cruise ship dancer named Peggy,” she said.

Experienced dancers performing who often have humorous works suited to cabarets include Monica Bill Barnes and Larry Keigwin. Others like Ellis Woods are more traditional modern dancers.

Even with so many performances, however, Staff and producer Andrea Sholler, have sized the festival down this year, relatively. To focus on higher quality rather than quantity as the festival’s profile rises, they’re working with a total of 85 dancers and have whittled down the performance venues to two, said Staff.

“I think the artists love that we’ve been able to show at these two venues,” Sholler said. “Because we’re reaching a whole range of people we haven’t reached before.”