In celebration of her birthday (August 30th) we are reposting this interview
our then intern, Daniel Foner, did with tap dancer Lisa La Touche.
Orginally posted on 11/05/2013 here.
Recently, I had the opportunity to talk with Lisa La Touche, an internationally renowned tap dancer. Her career highlights, as she writes on her website, include "New York and North American touring casts of STOMP, the Sophisticated Ladies at Harlem's legendary Cotton Club with Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, A.C.G.I with Emmy Award winner Jason Samuels-Smith, Rumba Tap with Max Pollak, Co-Director and guest artist with the Chicago Human Rhythm Project, faculty member of the School at Jacob's Pillow, and guest artist at The American Tap Dance Foundation and The Vancouver Tap Dance Society." If you're interested in learning more, you can visit her website.
By Daniel Foner
DF: How did you start learning tap? What about it made it so interesting to you?
LLT: I started taking tap lessons when I was 8 years old. I had amazing parents, dedicated to finding me a fun extra-curricular activity as a kid. After soccer and piano and gymnastics, which I didn't love, tap dance stuck. My mom also took lessons as a kid, and would sometimes show me steps and I always got a kick out of it. So upon my first class on my own, I was hooked immediately. The fact that I could make sounds and music with my feet thrilled me, while also being able to dance and express myself.
DF: Many dancers and other artists are inspired by their predecessors. Are there any tappers that inspired you to pursue your passion? What do you admire about them?
LLT: Oh man... there are so many that it's hard to narrow down. I've been really blessed and honored to have many mentors and their inspiration and wisdom is timeless and endless. Some to mention: Jason Samuels Smith, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, Max Pollak, Barbara Duffy, Martin "Tre" Dumas III, Brenda Bufalino, Dianne "Lady Di" Walker... they are all such lions and lionesses in their craft. They all, to this day, dedicate themselves deeper daily in their contributions to the art form and the community. They teach me so much about what honoring your craft means and what transpires from staying focused and connected to your own passion. Jason Samuel Smiths inspires me always to see how the level of execution can always increase, and to never get comfortable. I'm always hearing "reach" when I think of him. Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards... I never have words... not only the execution but profound wisdom and grace in her dancing and teaching, and also a truly resilient woman and a divine lady always on and off stage. Max Pollak... a prime example of the possibilities of what one can achieve while branching out and simply staying true to investing in what inspires you. He's the pioneer in incorporating Afro-Cuban music and it's legacy as a tap dancer. He has created and mastered his own technique with his in-depth endeavors to study and hone the Afro-Cuban music and culture and earn respect from its homegrown artists.
DF: On your website, you write that you like to stay connected in the NYC jazz music scene. How does your experience with tap dancing influence your appreciation for jazz? Are the two connected in any way?
LLT: To me tap dance is another component of jazz. It's the same language, but different instrument. Tap is to dance as sound is to movement. It goes hand and hand to me. You have to learn how to dance and you have to learn how to play music. I've had the honor of working with some incredible musicians and they have influenced me deeply as much as my dance mentors have. Sometimes it can be a barrier to break through to have musicians be open enough to really work with a tap dancer and respect them on the same level as a musician. But upon meeting those that really do that, it's really fun from both parties to see that we really do walk the same walk... Jazz to me means a freedom to improvise and to push boundaries always in the "music," so to speak. We are composers as well - that would be the musician's term for us as "choreographers". One of the biggest highlights of my performing experiences: being on the band stand as a tap dancer with the Revive Da Live big band directed by Megan Stabile and Igmar Thomas. Having Igmar compose and arrange a song for us tap dancers with a 22-piece big band and then coming up with our own choreography composition within it was the best. And the reaction from the crowd felt like we were rock stars. This craft is truly so powerful and the advantage we have, so to speak, is the fact that we do get to dance while making our music, so music lovers always lose their minds.
DF: You belong to a tap group in New York called Tap Phonics. Can you tell me a little more about that? In other words, what does Tap Phonics do?
LLT: Tap Phonics started as my own "pick-up" company. Right now pick up companies are mostly how dancers function with their own groups. We get dancers together that we like working with on a project basis. This started for me with moving to New York in 2008. I met Brooklyn singer-songwriter Maya Azucena and she invited me to present my own group and open for one of her concerts. So I had to come up with a name, and [Tap Phonics] stuck. From then on, as different gigs came up, I pulled dancers together that I needed and it grew from there. Tap Phonics now, to me, is more of a project than a group.
I'm focusing on new arrangements and compositions and always collaborating with other artists or musicians. I think of it as "phonetically speaking." We are a group that can represent essences of the tradition and legacy of the tap dance art from, yet push past the "straight ahead" regime and find new ways to keep it contemporary. I've worked with spoken word artists, R&B musicians, MCs and electronic sounds in my projects. I'm currently working on curating a show while I'm here temporarily in Vancouver in support by the Vancouver Tap Dance Society. New works are being created as we speak which will funnel into the next Vancouver International Tap festival and I'm really excited about it!
DF: You've performed in dance festivals and on tours all across the world. What's next?
LLT: Next is working on my own conceptualized show as I mentioned before. Taking time to "be still and create." I'm very inspired lately and am composing more than I have in a while and it feels good. I've worked with so many amazing artists worldwide and only hope this will continue. In the meantime it really does feel good to take the time to work out my own ideas and build new platforms for myself and for others as well. I'm working more in Canada as of recently and am trying to bridge more of the gap between my home country, its dancers and the American tap dance scene. New York still resonates as home to me, and my roots ignited also in Chicago. It means more to me than I can express to be considered a contributor and to be respected by my American peers.
DF: And one just for fun: if you could do just one step for the rest of your life, which would you choose?
LLT: Funny as it sounds, you'll find cramp rolls and 5 count riffs in so many of my phrases. But all in all, I think in terms of musical patterns and then let that determine what vocabulary I should use.
Eva Yaa Asantewaa celebrates her birthday on August 26th. In celebration we are reposting and interview our then intern, Daniel Foner, did with her on 08/15/2014.
Orignally posted here.
By Daniel Foner
I recently had the opportunity to ask a few questions to Eva Yaa Asantewaa, an acclaimed dance writer based in New York City. If you’d like to learn more about her, I encourage you to visit her blog, InfiniteBody. For now, however, I’ll leave you with our conversation, which speaks for itself better than any introduction could.
DF: What first interested you in writing about dance?
EYA: I was always a writer, from childhood, writing poetry and satire and creative versions of the television shows I loved (what today might be called fan fiction). I read a lot and wrote a lot, training myself to write, and I was always very good at it. I was one of those introverted kids who expressed herself best in writing--and perhaps I still am!
I have also loved dancing since I was a kid--at family parties with lots of Afro-Caribbean and Black American music and, later, rock and soul and the like. It's only now that I realize that not only was I a talented dancer at that time, I was a choreographer! I'd had limited exposure to ballet classes when I was young but, in the coming years, I would pick up folkdance, modern (Graham, Ailey, even Isadora Duncan), jazz dance and Middle Eastern dance classes but never with a serious thought of becoming a professional. I didn't really have a role model for that, and I had absolutely zero family support for that as a career option!
When I graduated from college, I needed something to relieve the depression that I'd fallen into, and I remembered how good and healing it had always felt to take dance classes. So, I went back--to jazz dance, to Afro-Caribbean--and took up bellydance, which is probably the dance form that I studied for the longest. And it was great feeling to get my authentic energy and my body back. That same summer, I discovered two courses in dance criticism were being offered, and it just made sense for me to put these two interests together. I wanted to share my observations and thoughts and feelings about an art that had meant so much to me as a student and a fan.
At first, it was a complicated task to write about dance performances. As a newbie, I think I overcompensated, struggling to capture too many details, not sure of my authority--especially in a field dominated by white writers, as it still is. A friend said, "You are working way too hard." That stuck with me, and I eventually trained myself to relax, to be discerning about what information was significant and sufficient to tell the necessary story, and to allow the keen observer and the poet in me to come through. Writing for non-conventional outlets like The Village Voice and Gay City News was also incredibly freeing. As I went along, I felt more and more permission to be exactly who I was and to express myself on the page. In fact, I think I caught that kind of courage from the art that I was seeing, and I still do.
DF: Dance is heavily dependent on visual and audio aspects. To face this challenge, what's your process for translating these into prose?
EYA: I don't really see a distinction between perceiving, processing and documenting movement and doing the same for visual and audio aspects of a production. I've been "raised," if you will, on interdisciplinary approaches in the performing arts and feel not only able to process and express the intersection and interaction of multiple elements in a performance but excited by that challenge. I have to weigh the relative impact of each element in the overall context and effectiveness of the piece, but I also have to keep all of my senses open for whatever's incoming. I also do something else, on a professional basis, that's similarly complex--divination using imagery from Tarot and other card oracles, the kind of thing that can be intimidating in its complexity, because there's just so much going on in and around these visual images and symbols--and yet I relish this challenge, too!
DF: What are your favorite styles of dance to write about, and why?
EYA: When I got into this field, I was seeing a wide variety of work--from Ailey and other Black American choreographers to ballet to Graham and various forms of dance from other cultures. Also lots of postmodern dance. So my head was opened up to a lot. I never got stuck in one mindset about what dance could and should be or who the sacred cows were. My first review editor--Tobi Tobias at Dance Magazine--insisted that I stay open to covering many kinds of dance. That was exciting and empowering, and I'm grateful for Tobi's insistence.
I'd say my range was bigger than than it has been in more recent years, since I don't really cover ballet anymore. I consider New York's rich slate of progressive, contemporary dance to be my beat. That world, in itself, is pretty big and diverse. But I also love opportunities to see and cover traditional dance forms from a variety of world cultures because that most often speaks to my spiritual values as well as my love of travel and a broad range of music from around the globe.
DF: You've been writing on dance since 1976. In your view, how has the art and the community changed through the years?
EYA: There are so many valid answers to that question, but the one that most haunts me concerns the impact of money--or, rather, lack of money--on the field. When I started out, there was much more funding available. It was a great time to be in love with dance. I think, in this society, you always have to have noble courage to stand up for dance and dancers, but things were a little easier then. Since the funding has dropped off, I think it's just harder for the individual dance artist or small dance organization--and even some big ones--to stick their heads up and take big risks that could impact their careers and opportunities for funding and presentation. Certainly, it's hard to be the kind of artist who speaks truth to power--and I don't just mean political power, although I do mean that, too. I also mean the power of all those who hold control--the funders, the presenters, certainly the critics and journalists, even arts administrators and individual teachers. There's too much fear of consequences for saying what you're thinking.
I have a triple heritage--Black, feminist, lesbian--from kickass communities with solid histories of not only speaking truth to power but also banding together, hanging tough and building our own resources for the common good. (I should add that the women in my immediate family were all union women in the garment industry.) I especially saw that and participated in that kind of activism in the lesbian community in the 1980s, and I kind of miss that communal energy and determination and get a little impatient when I don't see it around me with the people I care about. But I have to remind myself that a dancer is usually working overtime not only to make excellent work but also to just plain survive on the daily as a human being, especially in an expensive city like New York, to have a viable life. And dance artists give us their very best, for which I remain respectful and grateful every single day.
In 2014 Monkeyhouse interviewed many of the participants in the CoolNY Dance Festival, including Jordan Rosin of the Ume Group, who celebrates a birthday this month! Originally posted here on 01/28/2014.
By Nicole Harris
Our next interview in the CoolNY 2014 Dance Festival series is with Jordan Rosin of The Ume Group. You can see his work on Friday, February 7 at 9:00pm & Sunday, February 9 at 6:00pm. All performances are held at the WHITE WAVE John Ryan Theatre, 25 Jay St., Brooklyn, NY and are FREE! -Nicole.
N: Butoh is such a distinct movement style. How do you find it blends with the other movement styles you experiment with? Are there things that you struggle to meld due to the nature of Butoh?
JR: While from the outside eye it may appear that there is not much in common between butoh and some of the other physical disciplines we practice (like gymnastics or kung fu), there hasn't yet been a movement style we've hands-down failed to meld with Butoh. Mostly, I think this is because of the fact that we view Butoh more as a philosophy and as a physical / spiritual discipline than as a movement style in and of itself. There are certain characters and situations in drama where our most self-sacrificial Butoh practices may seem out of place in performance, but things like embracing the physical hardship of a choreography or offering our dance to the benefit of others can really only deepen the resonance of a given performance (in any style).
N: Your company, The Ume Group, is called a physical theatre company. Can you talk a bit about what that means and how it differs from dance or dance theatre?
JR: Primarily, our core ensemble has come from the world of theatre. All of us have trained in method-based acting and a realistic approach to telling stories onstage. The word "physical" comes in because we aim to train our bodies and to practice our art with the self-discipline and dedication characteristic of athletes or dancers. Every 2nd & 4th Tuesday for example, our core ensemble and community of followers join together in a free & open-to-the-public event known as "Open Training" where 3 teachers share 3 radically different approaches to training the physical body of a performer. I'm excited that in February we'll also begin our first weekly "Company Classes" which will focus (at least initially) on tightly goal-oriented training in gymnastics, yoga, and butoh for our most frequent performers. Many would say that the work we do is like dance, but not coming from that world myself, I wouldn't really know.
N: It looks like your work is a very intense and hands on. How do you find the people you work with? How much say do they have in the creation process?
JR: In the last year or so we instituted a physical training program known as the Training Ensemble, where for three months at a time one day each week a group of 6 artists gather to learn a variety of physical disciplines, create new work together, and practice their own skill as teachers. From this program - now in its third quarter - most of our principle dancers have emerged, including Marie Putko and Dave Herigstadwhom you will see perform when you join us at the CoolNY Festival on Feb. 7 and 9. In our first two years as a company, membership was all about participation in our flagship martial-arts / butoh-dance epic, BUTOH ELECTRA which we produced at numerous venues and for which casts of actors and actor/dancers selected from extensive rounds of auditioning trained and rehearsed for months at a time. That's how we met Yokko and Hannah Scott, who still teach and dance with us on a regular basis. Now we've begun - through the Training Ensemble - to develop a more formal, but still remarkably organic way of initiating new artists into our creative process. As far as that creative process is concerned, it is always truly varied and highly ensemble-based. As a "choreographer", I pick a few of the landmarks (sometimes themes, music, words; occasionally the body positions) which I think will render the most interesting or resonant journey for the artists to undergo in front of an audience and then I ask the artists to practice that journey, discovering their own landmarks with sometimes similar, sometimes different destinations. Their commitment to moment-to-moment honesty with themselves and with the universe around them is more important than any combination of poses or words, which I think of as part of that final destination.
N: People in the arts often develop strong mentor/mentee relationships. Did/do you have a mentor throughout your career? Do you have a person or people that you have taken the mentorship role for now that you're a more established artist? How do you feel those relationships change your work?
JR: Awesome question. I believe that mentor-ship is fantastically important. I was lucky enough when I was in acting school to have a teacher by the name of Steven Cross who truly pushed me to explore alternate ideas of what "theatre" could mean. As one of the school's two "movement" teachers in the acting program, he not only advised all of my directing work, but was also the first one to introduce me to the tools-of-the-body I use on a regular basis today... yogic asanas, whole-body listening, handstands (which are a fabulously useful trick for anyone to explore), and centering myself with breath. From these seeds I developed a whole variety of interests in disciplines as diverse as butoh and competition-style gymnastics, but perhaps more importantly, he helped me develop an awareness of my body as a playground and a temple, across which my spirit is thrilled to dance and play in new ways every day. That's what I aim to cultivate in the artists I mentor when I am blessed to teach in The Ume Group's workshops and Open Training sessions.
Happy Birthday to all our friends who celebrate in August!
Alexandra Caporale, Alyssa Harris, Andrea West,
Angelina Benitez, Bril Barrett, Courtney Blanch,
Denise Sao Pedro, Derek Roland, Dorothy Christian,
Drew Jameson, Ed Ryan, Elana Furtado,
Elizabeth Powers, Emma Foley, Enid Beaton,
Erin McDonough, Eva Yaa Asantewaa, Felipe Galganni,
James Gant, Jeremy Wechsler, Jessica Muise,
Jillian Grunnah, Jilly Richcrick, Jordan Rosin,
Joseph Maimone, Joshua Legg, Kelly Long,
Laura Neese, Laurie Sales, Lisa La Touche,
Madonna, Michael Jackson, Michael Wonson,
Mikki Shoji, Olivia Blaisdell,
Samara Seligsohn, and Sarah Duclos
Monkeyhouse Loves You!