Funny, You Don’t Look Dancerish

By Claudia La Rocco


The press kit is a crucial weapon in the arsenal of any media-savvy choreographer. A sort of all-purpose calling card, it includes photographs, biographical information and favorable reviews. As a popular choreographer in the middle of his career, David Dorfman has no problem supplying rave notices. But one year, fed up with a certain pattern of description, he flirted with the idea of using less flattering press descriptions: those calling him chunky or stocky, or — his favorite — saying that he looks like the owner of a hardware store.

Mr. Dorfman, 51, looks like many healthy men his age. He has, in varying degrees throughout his life, carried a few extra pounds. Never mind the quality of his movement, which is silky and quick; for many audience members and critics, apparently, he simply doesn’t look the part.

“Of course there’s always room for a Danny DeVito or a Lawrence Goldhuber,” said Lawrence Goldhuber, the 300-plus pound actor who came to prominence in dance in 1985 as a member of the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, one of the few major troupes to embrace some variety of bodies.

Mr. Goldhuber, who just presented work by his company, BigManArts, at Dance Theater Workshop, has made a name for himself as, in his words, “the only fat guy in dance.” But, he added, “I think for the most part, in all the performing arts, paying customers want to look at beautiful people, people more beautiful than us.”

It is tempting to believe that people’s deeply ingrained expectations about how dancers — like movie stars and models — should look apply chiefly to ballet. But contemporary dancers are also held to rigid physical standards, which generally have little to do with ability or health, let alone art. “Like most issues that appear to be aesthetic,” Mr. Jones said, “they are in some ways social, in terms of time and place.”

Performers who deviate from the norm are often treated cruelly in school; deemed physically unacceptable by university deans, they are told they will never make it professionally because they aren’t thin enough. Once out of school, they often face typecasting and disdain from their peers and, sadly, even from themselves as they struggle against the same social conditioning.

“Teachers who thought I was a great dancer and would put me in the front of the class and would cast me in the lead roles were still discouraging me from making a career out of this,” said Gina Bashour, a full-figured dancer who graduated from Adelphi University in 2000. “Those stereotypes are very much alive inside the dance world.”

When the choreographer Larry Keigwin envisioned Bolero NYC, he said, he imagined performers of “different shapes and sizes.”

“My objective is to mirror New York,” he explained last fall. “I’m not going to put a bunch of ballerinas on stage imitating that.”

But neither did he look to his peers; instead he held open auditions. The final group, which danced with his company last month at the Skirball Center at New York University, might have been a snapshot of the foot traffic on any given city block.

Differences for civilians are one thing. Bolero NYC shared a program with two other Keigwin works, including Natural Selection, performed without one of its original dancers, Hilary Clark. Reviewing the show in 2004 in The Santa Barbara News-Press in California, Ted Mills took issue with Ms. Clark’s body, drawing unfavorable comparisons with the “unceasing athleticism” of the other dancers. “Not that you’d know from the publicity or, from what I can tell, most reviews,” Mr. Mills wrote, “but Ms. Clark is a plus-size dancer, and her inclusion in this last work raised questions about Mr. Keigwin’s intentions.” Mr. Mills saw “old-fashioned shock-the-bourgeoisie” tactics at work.

Ms. Clark’s membership in the company ended shortly after that review. When rehearsals resumed on the company’s return to New York, she said, she was not informed. Mr. Keigwin said that the break had stemmed from “a combination of things,” but Ms. Clark is skeptical. She heard through a friend, she said, that Mr. Keigwin wanted “a more classically modeled company.”

Ms. Clark, who now performs with Tere O’Connor Dance, found her dismissal, she said, to be “a result of the larger issue” that “the unfortunate and superficial assumptions of who and what type of body should be dancing diminishes dance’s very potential and range of experience.”

Many dancers and choreographers echo Ms. Clark’s sentiment, tying the bias to America’s problematic relationship to fitness and to a misunderstanding of what it means to be a contemporary-dance artist. The virtuosic ideal of major touring companies, they suggest, has become the only standard by which many judge contemporary dance. And those big companies are well aware of what their audiences want.

“Looking as good as you can look is a plus,” said Moses Pendleton, the artistic director of Momix. “Not just a plus, we demand it. It’s part of the image. The repertory I have now does not require a character who is 10 pounds or 20 pounds or 50 pounds overweight. They would stand out in a negative way.”

The conceptual and intellectual elements of contemporary dance are often lost in the sheer physicality of various dance genres, which have reached new heights of athleticism in recent decades, as many dancers have been swept up in America’s fitness obsession. The idea of going to a gym, the choreographer and dancer Neil Greenberg pointed out, would never have occurred to a modern dancer 20 years ago. Now dancers have avidly embraced that culture, even though, as Mr. Greenberg noted, a performer’s mobility can actually be hurt by overzealous gym work.

“When I talk to people who are not in the dance world and I say I make dances, they immediately assume that I’m in a constant state of exercising,” said Miguel Guttierrez, a New York choreographer. “People think dancer equals person who moves, not artist.”

There is a sense in America “that it’s irresponsible or shameful, somehow, if you’re a mover and your body doesn’t look a certain way,” Mr. Gutierrez added. “That must point to a defect like laziness, or a genetic shortcoming.” In a recent review of Mr. Gutierrez’s Retrospective Exhibitionist in The Burlington Free Press in Vermont, Lauren Ober described his “physical softness.” “Underneath his roly-poly exterior,” she added, “Gutierrez is clearly a trained dancer.” Ms. Ober, who is not a dance critic, said in an interview that she had “never seen anybody who looked like Miguel” in ballet or in the big touring troupes like Pilobolus or the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.

In American dance, Mr. Gutierrez said, “skinny and beautiful and strength and power are the universal standards.”

“The notion of a body that deviates from that is only articulated as being different,” he added. “Then the conversation ends. There’s no acknowledgment of that initial assumption.”

And these standards, he noted, are absurdly narrow. “I have a 34-inch waist,” he said, laughing. “It’s not like I’m making an appointment for stomach surgery any time soon.”

The choreographer Stephen Petronio says he has often received commentary on his dancers’ bodies, mostly the women, despite the unstinting athleticism required by his aggressive vocabulary.

“How would they know what a modern dancer looks like?” Mr. Petronio said, referring to audiences and reviewers. “I don’t even know what one looks like till they step out in front of me.”

Mr. Dorfman tells of a post-performance discussion in Arkansas, in which a man asked him, “Why do you keep so much weight on?” Mr. Dorfman, whose father was in the audience, was wounded by the remark, he said, but he also found it mystifying.

“The thing that people love about dance is that it’s bodies on stage, doing it live,” he added. “But then why can’t we really own that, that they can be all bodies on stage?”

The choreographer and critic Gus Solomons Jr. is unapologetic about describing dancers’ bodies. “The bottom line is: Can they cut the cheese?” he said. “Can they dance? If someone were too thin, you would not hesitate to say they couldn’t keep up, and the opposite is fair game as well. It’s nice when reviewers can stick to the issues in the choreography. But to the extent that the performers affect the vision, that needs to be noted as well.”

But whose vision are they affecting, the choreographer’s or the viewer’s?

“I think there’s something about a denial of death in all of this, and connected to that a denial of change, that our bodies change and decompose over time,” said the San Francisco choreographer Eric Kupers, a co-director of Dandelion Dancetheater, which has, since 2001, run the Undressed Project, featuring nude performers of all ages, sizes and abilities. Mr. Kupers said he had been dismayed by the number of colleagues who had dismissed his work and by the sense that he must “prove myself in a different way than I used to” since ceasing the punishing regimen necessary to maintain a streamlined body.

“A lot of these standards that people try to measure up to are trying to freeze us in time,” he said. “In dance, fashion, the movies, we want people to look like adolescents, basically — men and women. We don’t want wrinkles, cellulite. We don’t want to see the indications of our own mortality.”

The choreographer Alexandra Beller, who danced with Bill T. Jones from 1995 to 2001, has had abundant opportunity to ponder, she said, “what makes people so scared to see someone who does look like them onstage or doesn’t.” “I was probably the first woman in a major company with a body that was not the ion,” she added. The press coverage, overwhelmingly focused on her body, was devastating. “For all the attention, I felt very unseen,” she said. She described finally losing her cool at a post-performance discussion, after a woman lavishly praised her for being able to dance like everyone else despite the 40 extra pounds on her frame: “I was like, you know, 60 years ago, somebody would have said: ‘I can’t believe you’re a doctor, and you’re black. You’re as intelligent as the white people, I guess, congratulations.’ It’s not a compliment, it’s a crazy statement.”

Ms. Beller continues to suffer such treatment. A recent interviewer for Dance Magazine, puzzled as to why she wouldn’t want to talk, pressured her to serve as a role model for the plus-sized community.

Bristling, Ms. Beller noted that even creating such a category was marginalizing. What, she asked, “makes a woman who’s a size 12 different from a size 4, unless you say she’s different?”

She got no answer. Before the phone call ended, she said, the reporter managed to ask if she was dieting. All she could do was laugh.

This article appeared in the July/August 2007 issue of In Dance.