In dance, few things are more fundamental than how you place your feet. But not all dances require feet placed in the same way. And so it is that in January, two weeks into rehearsal of her new work at the Dance Alloy Theater studios, acclaimed Zimbabwe-born choreographer Nora Chipaumire is asking her dancers for a little more sole.
One early passage of Chipaumire's work, titled "Becoming Angels," requires dancers to pound their feet flat on the floor, for a bass-drum thud. Simple as it may sound, it's an unaccustomed movement for performers trained to move quietly on their toes. And so Chipaumire must remind the five dancers -- from Alloy veteran Maribeth Maxa to newcomer Christopher Bandy -- "I'm still interested in the whole foot on the ground."
The theme of "Becoming Angels" is dauntingly large: how to be good in the face of mind-wrenching catastrophe. Thus, Chipaumire asks her dancers to grunt, howl or audibly breathe hard as they portray humans confronting disaster -- complementing the music and audio effects generated by her composer, Fabrice Bouillon. Again, no easy feat for performers schooled in the illusion of effortless silent movement. But "If you don't make that vocal accompaniment, you can't possibly match the physical [motion]," Chipaumire tells them.
Chipaumire's roots are in Zimbabwe's earthy, populist "township" style, an urban descendent of traditional village dance; she didn't study Western-style dance until she was past 30. "Becoming Angels" is the first piece that Chipaumire, a veteran of the famed Urban Bushwomen troupe, has ever set on an all-white company.
Dance Alloy is the city's oldest and most storied modern-dance troupe -- and since artistic director Beth Corning took it over in 2003, it's been the only one to regularly recruit widely known choreographers to create new work here.
The Chipaumire project is a stretch even by the group's eclectic standards, but Corning likes it that way -- new collaborators, personal expression, fresh art. On April 3-6, "Becoming Angels" will premiere at the New Hazlett Theater as part of Exposed, the Alloy's spring concert. The program also includes the premiere of Corning's own "4-2 Men," in which dancers portray both puppeteers and puppets.
Like most local arts groups, the Alloy works hard to build its audience, and Corning's affection for Pittsburgh is tinged with the knowledge that there are bigger stages to play on. But hosting world-class talents like Chipaumire is one way Corning announces that she's making big art in a small city -- and learning new steps along the way.
"Simple Is Hard"
Six years ago, collaborating with Chipaumire would have seemed improbable for Dance Alloy, which was founded as a dancers' collective in the 1970s. Following the resignation of longtime artistic director Mark Taylor, the Alloy had no performances scheduled and was near financial collapse. In mid-2003, the group's board of directors hired Corning, a Minnesota-based choreographer with an international resume.
Corning, 54, grew up in Washington, D.C. Artistically, her key formative years were spent mostly in Sweden, where she formed her first troupe, Corning Dances & Company, in the early '80s.
Her chief influence was modern-dance pioneer Doris Humphrey, a contemporary of Martha Graham whose student Ernestine Stodelle was among Corning's teachers. Humphrey emphasized personal expression and psychological insight -- or, as Humphrey's own iconic predecessor Isadora Duncan put it, "making visible the interior landscape," the intent similar to that of literary theater.
By the '80s, though, that approach was out of vogue. Moreover, Sweden itself had little modern dance at all, which left Corning, artistically, somewhat isolated. "The silver lining of that was I developed my own vocabulary," she says.
It was a time when work by American companies was becoming more abstract -- and more showily athletic. Such choreography "is involved with energy and cleverness, with feats of endurance and skill, and hard-hitting physicality," wrote choreographer Jan Van Dyke in her 1992 book Modern Dance in a Postmodern World.
By contrast, Corning combined her dance-theater roots with the contemporary European regard for detailed costuming and lighting and other production values. And even when Corning Dances relocated to New York, and later Minneapolis, she eschewed widely used tools like video projection. Corning says such multimedia displays distract from the movement itself -- from "the spare and the architectural" aesthetic.
Soon after arriving in Pittsburgh, Corning renamed the company Dance Alloy Theater, to reflect her approach: "Dance theater is about exploring the human condition," she says.
Just one dancer, Michael Walsh, remained from the company under the well-regarded Taylor. Corning began work in September 2003, held auditions in October and offered the retooled Alloy's first, informal performance in December -- before she'd even moved here with her husband, writer Marc Niesen, and their young daughter.
The transition from the Taylor years was tough for Walsh. "Mark and Beth are complete-opposite artists and choreographers," he says. But ultimately, he appreciated the change. While Taylor had his dancers help choreograph, and required them to teach classes, "Beth wanted us to be dancers," says Walsh. "I didn't have to teach class" -- but Corning did require her dancers to take classes, honing skills in ballet and modern techniques.
Corning's approach paid off rapidly. In April 2004, she got the troupe back on stage, performing Resurrection at the Alloy at the Kelly-Strayhorn Theater. The program included guest performances by three of the women who'd founded the group.
Resurrection "went far beyond the primary colors one might have expected from a group that has been dancing together for a little more than a year," wrote Pittsburgh Post-Gazette dance critic Jane Vranish, who called the show "nothing short of stunning."
Corning's touchstones include Schakt ("Shaft"), a 1983 work by Per Jonsson, a colleague in Stockholm. It features three dancers, each set in a shaft of light and upon a long rectangle of dirt, at the far end of which hangs a big length of sheet metal. Each dancer wields a sledgehammer. Foreboding music accompanies the dancers' literally parallel evocations of dread, isolation and debilitation. (Jonsson would later take his own life.) Schakt is an important work of contemporary European dance, but Corning's Alloy -- which has staged it twice -- remains the lone U.S. company to perform it.
Other internationally known artists who've set new work on the Alloy include Joe Goode, Marina Harris and Susan Marshall. Members of the acclaimed Pilobolus troupe have restaged a work here with the Alloy's dancers.
Corning's own work here, meanwhile, has ranged from the whimsical Circus of Time (which featured a stage clown) to her lyrical "Flight" (inspired by birds) and 2008's surreal Feed Your Head. Dark humor is common. An evening-length work, Feed Your Head Café features Corning herself, dressed to evoke both Lewis Carroll's Alice and a middle-aged diner waitress a la Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore. It opens with her sitting wearily to produce first a cigarette lighter ... and then a stick of dynamite.
Corning's style is much more deliberate than is usual in American contemporary modern dance. "She pares it down to real basic movement," says Susan Gillis-Kruman, a University of Pittsburgh dance instructor and Alloy co-founder.
Corning often quotes ballet icon George Balanchine: "If you have a really good group of dancers, give them something simple. If you have mediocre dancers, give them something complicated." She adds, "Simple is hard."
"It's work that's not being seen a lot in the U.S. by U.S. artists," says David Shimotakahura, a former Pittsburgh Ballet Dancer whose work the Alloy has staged. "It's almost a European style.
"My sense is, she's really blown the lid off in terms of what the company will perform," adds Shimotakahara, who runs GroundWorks Dance, in Cleveland.
At the same time, much of the Alloy's work has local connections. Donald Byrd's 2007 "No Consolation," for instance, was inspired by the death of a Pittsburgh high school student. Corning has also sought to make dance accessible without diluting it. One year, for the Three Rivers Arts Festival, she choreographed an outdoor dance whose lunch-hour performances incorporated the fountain at PPG Plaza. Starting with Corning's tenure, the Alloy became perhaps the first local stage company to make the price of one performance of each production "pay what you can."
Corning also consolidated the group's finances. She eventually became the Alloy's executive as well as artistic director, and the group has now been in the black for three straight years.
Corning can rub people the wrong way. In Pittsburgh, she says, she once sent an angry e-mail berating a reviewer for mentioning that a dancer had fallen during a performance.
"Beth's a very straightforward person," says Shimotakahara. "She doesn't play games and she doesn't beat around the bush."
But the troupe's stable roster of performers is no small accomplishment in a modern-dance world marked by transience. When Corning makes work, it's for this group of bodies. "To me, it's about getting to know each other," she says. "There's a huge question of trust when you create work" for both choreographer and dancer.
Corning has been solidly supported by local foundations, and project-specific funding has included a $10,000 National Endowment for the Arts grant that helped pay for Chipaumire and the third Exposed choreographer, Victoria Marks. But dollars are tight lately, and Corning recently cut the group's $650,000 budget by 8 percent, laying off two part-time staffers.
"I'm past denial" about the economy, says Corning. "I now have five dancers who are really the best they've been here so far ... What comes first? Me and my five dancers in a space. And we'll go from there."
"That's the Rhythm"
Nora Chipaumire, 43, grew up in 1970s Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia), during the strife-filled late-colonial period prefacing the end of white rule. Though trained as a lawyer, she came to the U.S. to study filmmaking in 1989. ("I knew Spike Lee had gone to NYU," she says, laughing.) Later she moved to the San Francisco area, stumbled upon a community-college dance class, and realized that dance could tell stories too.
In 2003, she joined Urban Bushwomen, a U.S.-based modern-dance company heavily influenced by African culture. Chipaumire says that company founder Jawole Willa Jo Zollar "was a black woman who told black stories."
By 2006, when she and Corning met at a dance conference in Germany, Chipaumire had moved to New York, drawing international attention as a choreographer and solo artist. Corning helped bring her to Pittsburgh the following year; Chipaumire performed Chimurenga, an hour-long multimedia evocation of coming of age during Zimbabwe's second war of liberation. The piece begins with Chipaumire -- tall and striking, her head shaved bald -- staring confrontationally at the audience, and explodes into scenes of rock-throwing (mimed) and other expressions of defiance and despair.
"Becoming Angels," her work for the Alloy, was inspired by an unlikely source: Into Great Silence, the rigorously contemplative, largely speechless 2007 documentary about life at a Catholic monastery in the French Alps. Chipaumire says she was "profoundly moved" by both the film's genesis -- filmmaker Philip Gröning waited 16 years for permission to shoot -- and the quiet commitment with which the monks themselves confront "everydayness."
Her Alloy collaborators included wiry, red-bearded Walsh, a 10-year Alloy veteran and intense soloist; Maribeth Maxa, a 6-foot-tall South Hills native who studied at Julliard; Stephanie Dumaine, a compact figure and especially empathetic performer who has danced with Corning for years; Adrienne Misko, at 25 the company's youngest member; and Christopher Bandy, who transferred from Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre last fall.
Working with Chipaumire, the dancers seek to evoke neither Zimbabwe nor the Grand Chartreuse monastery. Though Chipaumire is indelibly stamped by her still-troubled homeland, she's aiming for something universal. She's been reading Hiroshima survivor diaries, for instance.
Like Corning, Chipaumire rejects the abstract for the emotive. "I like to make dances that my grandmother would understand," she says.
In one scene, the dancers all face the same direction and react to an unspecified horror, a looming Something, from which they retreat, trembling, backs arched, arms raised, breath coming harshly, while the soundtrack rumbles loudly. Later, Bandy and Walsh shoulder the limp forms of Dumaine and Misko. In another scene, while the other four turn their backs on the audience, and begin charging upstage in frustration against some unyielding force, Misko begins a striking solo. She's folded at the waist, hands stretched before her like supplicating wings as she slowly walks forward; she climaxes it on her toes, arms cruciform, as if she's preparing to vault from a precipice.
The idea is "seeking the better side of us," Chipaumire says. "'I want to be good.' ... A pedestrian sainthood -- what could that be?"
Chipaumire must communicate to, and through, dancers who move differently than she does -- and who lack firsthand experience of armed conflict. Racial differences would seem a factor, too: Corning mentions that Donald Byrd, an African-American choreographer who's twice set work on the Alloy, called her company "pink."
Chipaumire downplays talk of race, but does note important cultural differences. Modern dance has long incorporated Asian and African influences, but Chipaumire believes it remains deeply informed by the industrial society that birthed it. In the West, she says, unlike in largely rural Africa, "People don't really have to touch the ground."
The difference is most obvious compared to ballet, with its upright posture. "You're always constantly fighting gravity for this erectness," says Chipaumire. "The dance that I will call my mother tongue gives in to gravity."
"Becoming Angels" incorporates earthy gestures, as when a dancer sits with legs splayed out straight: Her curved right arm describes a slow circle with index finger pointing into her open mouth, while her left arm tracks a similar course directed toward her crotch.
And while most Western works require performers to count to themselves to keep time with the music, Chipaumire employs vocal rhythms. "Ahhhh-deee ... rah-key ..." she says as Misko rehearses her solo, which incorporates an exhausting series of hops, spins, hip isolations and one-legged poses. "You have to say those sounds, because that's the rhythm."
Still, two weeks into rehearsal, Chipaumire seemed less concerned with technique than with actor-style motivations.
"You're the only one who survived," she says, coaching dancers how to vocalize during one passage. "Can you imagine being the only one left? What kind of sound is that?"
Among the dancers, Bandy struggles most. When he came to the Alloy, his initial adjustments included a totally new basic position -- slightly bent at the waist, rather than ballet's tall spine -- and also simply dancing barefoot. "Becoming Angels" was another whole new ballgame. "He was learning another language," Chipaumire says.
But Bandy says working with Chipaumire was fulfilling. By emphasizing the psychological motivation behind the movements, he says, she "keeps peeling away layers of protection that we put up in our daily lives."
Addressing the audience at a Jan. 21 sneak preview of "Becoming Angels," Dumaine recalled Chipaumire and Bouillon's approach. "So often as dancers, we're just bodies," says Dumaine. "You tell us to do this, we do this. It was really exciting to work with these two people who are like, 'Who are you?'"
Chipaumire uses a sculptural analogy to describe how she accommodated the dancers' styles. "They are the material ... they can only bend this far," she says. "I was very happy to accept this approximation. ... It makes this hybrid their own language."
"The Full Picture"
The Alloy's attendance, in small-arts-group terms, is solid: About 650 patrons, for instance, saw the four performances of December's show, filling an average of 160 of the New Hazlett's 200 seats. Its Behind the Curtain series -- a sneak-preview program in which dancers perform and discuss work -- regularly draws 60 rapt fans to the studio. In February 2008, the group was one of five U.S. companies highlighted in a Dance Magazine article titled "Great Troupes Come in Small Packages."
Still, Pittsburgh can seem small for Corning, whose work has been the subject of TV documentaries in Sweden and the U.S., and who was once an invited choreographer at Robert Redford's Sundance Institute film/video lab. In January, for example, Corning visited Robert Wilson's famed Watermill artists' retreat, in New York. "It's a national, international playing field. And I miss that here," she says.
True, she once left a promising stay in New York for Minnesota because she couldn't pay Manhattan rent, and she appreciates Pittsburgh's affordability. It's the reason Alloy can employ its dancers full-time for 28 weeks a year, with health benefits. But Pittsburgh lacks the dance community of even a Minneapolis or Chicago. "Dancers don't want to come to Pittsburgh," she says.
Corning lauds the Pittsburgh Dance Council for its years of booking world-class touring companies. Partly because of how the Dance Council has enriched the scene, she says, "I've never felt a resistance from the audience I've had in Pittsburgh."
When she first came to town, she trod carefully with a company that was nearly three decades old: "Pittsburghers don't like change," she says. Today, however, Corning says her lone concession to Pittsburgh's personality is a reluctance to stage nudity. While Dance Council guests have gone nude (as have local theater troupes), Corning squelched her impulse to have a solo in her new work, "4-2 Men," performed naked. "If I were in New York or Europe, I would have said, 'Strip down to nothing,'" she says. "I'm conscious of being in a place where that might have been a distraction."
No such distractions in "Dancing to Music," the 1988 piece by choreographer Victoria Marks on the Exposed program: The performers wear overcoats. Marks, like Corning, spent formative years in 1980s Europe, and has a penchant for theater: "Dancing," to be performed by Dumaine, Maxa, Misko and Corning, suggests four people waiting at a bus stop who have a subtle but transformative interpersonal experience. The dancers' feet barely move for much of the work, which depends on precisely timed gestures and convincing acting.
Corning's contribution to Exposed is"4-2 Men." It's a series of vignettes inspired by bunraku, the Japanese art of manipulating life-size puppets with onstage puppeteers clad head-to-toe in black. Much of it is set to cellist Yo-Yo Ma's thrilling "Appalachia Waltz." There's also a gender-based twist, one that suggests a commentary on a modern-dance world where male choreographers dominate, and where male dancers do most of the lifting. Corning's puppeteers, Dumaine and Maxa, are women, while the puppets themselves -- outfitted with harnesses, with dorsal handgrips -- are danced by Bandy and Walsh.
The piece concludes with a solo by Dumaine. (It's the sequence Corning considered having her dance naked.) Dumaine is arguably the troupe's best actor -- in Byrd's "No Consolation," she was indelible as a grieving mother -- and she has a special relationship to Corning. In Minneapolis, Dumaine danced for her for seven years before retiring; four years later, at Corning's request, she moved to Pittsburgh. Corning says that in 35 years of choreography, Dumaine, 41, is one of three muses she's had -- "people I go to bed and think movement for."
In "4-2 Men," Dumaine solos while Bandy stands, affectless and unmoving, behind her. She begins the passage squatting, legs wide, while appearing to dig in the earth with both arms; she proceeds to a series of imploring, regretful gestures.
The scene is wrenching, and seems very personal to Corning. "My husband came and took one look at Stephanie's solo and said, 'Sorry,'" she says during one rehearsal.
On some level, the intensity of the emotion seems to link "4-2 Men" to "Becoming Angels." It recalls something Chipaumire said of her work months earlier: "It's about joy, it's about love, it's about loss, it's about pain. ... I want the full picture. ... It's the extremes."
Dance Alloy Theater performs Exposed Fri., April 3-Mon., April 6. New Hazlett Theater, Allegheny Square East, North Side. $25 ($20 students/seniors; the April 5 show is pay-what-you-can). 412-363-4321 or www.dancealloy.org