Dance Academy Students Present the World Premiere of Contour and Flight

Trudl Zipper Dance Institute’s Dean Margaret Tracey sought to infuse this year’s Winter Dance Celebration performance with a commissioned piece from L.A.’s rich local talent. Reaching out to Janie Taylor, a member of L.A. Dance Project and a former instructor for Colburn Dance, presented an exciting proposition to mix contemporary with classical ballet influences.

Dean Tracey expressed her appreciation for Janie’s “extraordinary artistry as a ballerina … and I support amplifying the female voice in the language of classical ballet and in the exploration of the use of the pointe shoe.”

At the age of 15, Janie studied at the School of American Ballet before she joined the New York City Ballet where she danced for close to 16 years. After some time abroad when both she and her husband worked at the Paris Opera Ballet, they returned to the States where Janie joined L.A. Dance Project, a company founded by Artistic Director Benjamin Millepied.

With a short timeline for the commissioned piece, titled “Contour and Flight,” Janie reached out to collaborate with composer, David K. Israel, who has a long history of writing scores for dance, such as for Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and the New York City Ballet. Having studied guitar in high school with Philadelphia-based jazz guitarist Pat Martino, David later studied composition with Leonard Bernstein while simultaneously studying dance history with the late Truman Finney, who had danced with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet.

In discussing the influence of performing arts, Janie said that dance is “something I’ve always had to do—it’s just inside me, a part of who I am. And it’s something you have to love because of how physically and mentally demanding it is. I always enjoy the effort it requires and the challenges it presents. Dance gives so much back to you.”

David recollected having started composing at the age of five, though his first “official” piece was written at the youthful age of 12, an homage to Jimmy Hendrix titled “Fly Through the Wind, Jimmy.” And in referencing the pull of the theatre, David said, “It is like a temple, and the experience is spiritual and nourishing for my soul. When I’m not in the theatre or creating for something that’s going to be in the theatre, I feel sort of empty.”

Turning to the collaborative process of composing and developing choreography for “Contour and Flight,” Janie listened to a few pieces David had existing and identified one that resonated with her vision. “The music itself had given me ideas about what I could do with it,” said Janie. However, there still needed to be an accompaniment, and David accepted the challenge to compose a piece in a compressed amount of time based on general direction from Janie, such as tempo, length, tone, and emotion.

“One thing I thought about a lot for this piece was that these students are studying the Balanchine style of ballet and what that means. And I wanted to make something where they would be able to showcase all of those skills that they’re learning from this technique, … and I wanted them to be able to exercise that very specific musicality that they’re learning. I think that David’s music lends itself very well to the dynamic and speed and musical changes that are also usually in the music of a Balanchine ballet. So, I thought it would be a really good fit to use his music for this.”

David shared that the first movement he started writing was based on Vivaldi’s Sonata for Violin and Harp. He wanted the new music to feel as homogenous as possible with the first movement already composed.

“I knew that it was going to have a slightly more modern feel to it, but not completely divorced from the sort of baroque inspirations. So, you get a lot of early baroque kind of chord progressions, but with syncopations and odd time signatures and all kinds of wonderful jazzy stuff that just wouldn’t have been possible in Vivaldi’s day,” said David.

For the choreography, the juxtaposition of Janie’s classical ballet training and the freedom and boldness that L.A. Dance Project provides has enabled Janie to leverage both in her choreographic process and decision-making for “Contour and Flight.”

“Different choreographic processes I have experienced, including those while dancing with L.A. Dance Project, have opened my eyes to how many ways there are to choreograph and that there are no rules at all as to what choreography could be. Whereas in my mind before, there was a very specific way that choreography would happen,” said Janie. “This was very illuminating and opened up my mind to endless possibilities.”

For “Contour and Flight,” which features eight Dance Academy students, Janie was excited to choreograph her first piece for Pointe, as this was a divergence from the type of work experienced at L.A. Dance Project.

“Pointe was a huge part of my life dancing and something that I love. So, it was exciting to get to have that be a part of what I would make,” said Janie.

In discussing her choreographic process, she said, “A lot of times, I hear steps. I think in some ways, I feel like the dance is there already. It’s like archeology, and I have to uncover it and figure out the puzzle…. I use a lot of imagery which can come from anywhere, from my everyday life or more fantasy type images and ideas.”

Working with the Dance Academy students to prepare “Contour and Flight,” Janie stated, “They were all really great and were open to trying things. They didn’t seem like students … they seemed like young artists who are ready to be in a company.” She further noted, “It was really exciting to allow them to have their individuality and include them in talking about the steps, letting them have a voice [such as] how do we make this smoother?” Overall, Janie hopes the students “gained valuable experience being part of a choreographic process. [Noting that], as a young dancer, you maybe don’t get a lot of that experience until you’re in a company.”

“I had so much fun with them, which was a big part of it too—for us to also enjoy ourselves. And I hope they gained experience that will help them wherever they go from here,” said Janie.

“Contour and Flight” receives its world premiere in the Colburn Winter Dance Celebration 7:00 pm performance on December 16.

Learn about all the events for the Colburn Winter Dance Celebration and purchase tickets.

Trudl Zipper Dance Institute Dean Margaret Tracey Brings Both Experience and Love for the Power of Expression Through Movement

This article has been lightly edited for clarity and space. 

Welcome to the Colburn community! As dance has been a part of your life for quite some time, would you share some of your background in the field? 

As a professional performer, I was at the New York City Ballet for 16 years where I danced as a principal until my retirement. After that chapter, my post-performing career led me into teaching, and in 2007, I accepted the position of school director at Boston Ballet where I held that post for 14 years. For the past two years, I served as a freelance artist predominantly working in three areas: as a stager for the Balanchine Trust, as a guest faculty, and doing project-based work in consulting across North America and Europe. My consultancy engaged with dance education institutions both nationally and internationally.  

Going back even further, how did you become involved in the life of dance? 

As a young girl, I fell in love with the art form of ballet specifically and dreamt of doing something with it. But adolescence is when I fully committed to pursuing it vocationally. By the time I was 15, I was awarded a scholarship to attend the School of American Ballet, and that is when I started my professional training that led me to New York City Ballet. So between training and performing with the company, I was in New York with that institution for 20 years. 

What was it about dance that you were so drawn to commit your life to it? 

I remember my very first dance class; the empowerment I felt through the embodiment of movement without words was a transformative experience for me as an extremely shy little girl who never liked to open my mouth. And for the first time, I felt the strength and power of communication in a different form. And to this day, I can remember that sensation of when I was six like it was yesterday. 

Is there a specific form of dance that is your favorite or that you tend to be drawn toward? 

I get asked a similar question, what was your favorite ballet to dance? Or what’s your favorite ballet to watch? And it was whichever one I was doing at the time. And I obviously have spent my life committed to the art form of ballet and have a deep, deep affinity for that form. But I can be equally as inspired, motivated, and moved by any number of forms of dance. I’m just a fan of dance! 

What are some reasons that compelled you to join Colburn and the Trudl Zipper Dance Institute?  

Timing is one of the biggest drivers of life, I think. On a personal note, as I had mentioned, I had been freelancing for the past two years knowing that I would eventually want to find an organization to call my home. As much as I loved the traveling that I did over the last two years—the knowledge I gained, the people I met—I truly missed having a home base, building a team, and working with others. I’ve known of Colburn for a number of years. I have personally known the last two deans of the dance here at Colburn, and I taught here maybe five or six years ago for the Dance Academy. I was familiar with the work here, so I was excited about the growth possibilities more than anything. And specifically with the new building, knowing that the expansion is on the horizon and what that could mean for the Dance program. How will we further fulfill the School’s mission around dance? That was intriguing to me. 

Furthermore, the model of Colburn is different than any organization I’ve worked with to date. I’ve worked predominantly in professional programs that are associated with a major company. At Colburn, there are other performing art units, the Community School, Music Academy, and Conservatory, along with the strong Dance Program. I was fascinated by a new model and working within a new structure. I’ve also learned that Los Angeles has quite a rich dance community, and I am anxious to get to know it and discover how to continue to grow and elevate the programming here.  

If you can put this into words, what is your personal philosophy for dance? 

My personal philosophy for dance is first and foremost that it is another form of communication. You can think of music and dance as some of the most primal forms of communication: sound and movement. Every human being born in this world can understand that in some capacity.  

I love the work that I’ve done as a dance educator that isn’t only focused on training future artists, but sharing this art form with a broad student body for the simple value of how it touches and transforms our lives. Art is not a luxury. Art is a necessity in the fabric of our lives, and I can’t imagine a world not doing what I do and making sure that dance is a part of as many people’s lives as it can be. Dance is for all. 

What are some key takeaways that you hope those in our youth and adult dance receive by being in our program? 

I hope that every student walks into our space and our dance community with a sense that they belong—that fierce sense of belonging. One of our deepest needs as human beings is to feel as if we belong. Also that they discover something new about themselves in the process of learning dance. I am interested in students discovering the artistic genius that is within them. Not necessarily so that they become a star, but for however their dance journey ends up: Whether they land in politics advocating for arts, end up at Harvard discovering the next medical device to support knee replacements for dancers, or on the stage of the New York City Ballet.  

Extending this to the Dance Academy, are there other takeaways you have for these students? 

One of the things that is unique about the community of Colburn is that Dance Academy students are living, training, and communing with artists from the music world as well as the dance world. I hope what all of our students get through these collaborations is an appreciation for and an opportunity to be inspired by students in other disciplines. This is another really exciting aspect that drew me here to Colburn as I also studied classical music and I’m incredibly grateful for my musical education and how that informed my dancing.  

What are you looking forward to during your first academic year as Dean? 

I’m personally looking forward to a new work being done by a friend of mine, Janie Taylor, who is a revered former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and currently works with LA Dance Project. I saw one of her pieces this summer and was so inspired so I asked if she would create a piece for the Dance Academy. I’m also super excited about our Amplify artist, Michael Montgomery from Alonzo King Lines, who will be coming to create a piece for our Dance Academy students as well. Our Tap Faculty performance in November is going to be an incredible showcase, and then of course Misty Copeland’s going to be here next month. I’ve had a sneak preview of her film, Flower, and she’s done so many extraordinary things through dance to address social issues that we’re all facing. I really applaud how she is showing a new generation of Black Americans that they belong in ballet. I simply look forward to meeting each of our students across our multiple programs as they discover their own journey in dance here at Colburn!