Dana Reitz: The Silent Innovator Comes to the Bay Area

By Mary Carbonara


Quick, name the top three dance performances you’ve ever seen. Mine come to mind easily. They are, in reverse order:

3. Rudolph Nureyev in Valery Panov’s The Idiot based on the Dostoyevsky novel;

2. The first time I saw Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater perform Revelations;

1. Dana Reitz performing solo at The Kitchen in New York.

I was at the Dana Reitz performance on assignment to write a critical essay for my college dance writing course. Those assignments were tedious affairs of trying to watch while writing notes in the dark, feeling disassociated from the viewing experience while anxiously anticipating how I was ever going to craft a coherent essay later.

I don’t recall whether or not I wrote a competent paper on Ms. Reitz’s performance, but I will forever remember how that one performance transformed how I looked at dance and equally galvanized my own dance making process. I remember Ms. Reitz’s hands and arms and how she moved them in ways I’d never seen a dancer articulate those limbs. Her gestures went from accusing and authoritative, to self-deprecating, embarrassed and so very sad. As the lights faded for what seemed like forever (courtesy of Ms. Reitz’s long-time collaborator Jennifer Tipton), I felt caught in a time warp, watching as a life-force seemed to be ebbing straight off the stage and so very slowly into the blurry darkness.
I kept watching Reitz’s arms and hands. They held such meaning and nuance. There was detail in her arms, re-writing everything the rest of her body did. I was captivated by the subtly, simplicity and yet the utter complexity of her movements. Meaning was spilling out of her and for me dance was forever changed.

I recently thrilled to the knowledge that Ms. Reitz had accepted the invitation from Margaret Jenkins to serve as the 2014 CHIME (Choreographers in Mentorship Exchange) Across Borders Chair, which means she will be in the San Francisco Bay Area working in mentorship with three selected local choreographers over the course of the year. In May, I was delighted to interview Ms. Reitz about her work and her upcoming stint with CHIME. I started by telling her how much I was transformed and transported by that performance so many years ago.

She responded humbly, “I’ve always gone into the work with curiosity. I fell into a career out of a desire to know something that I don’t know. That’s always been there.”

She talked of how, by their own example, consummate innovators like Merce Cunningham and John Cage always encouraged her to be herself. She recounted how her good friend Edwin Denby, the great dance writer, would say to her, “What do you think about gesture anyway?”  It catalyzed her thinking. “I’ve been thinking about it for the last 20 years,” she says. “My whole history is about exploring a sense of place on stage and the development of work that has an understanding of the whole environment and what it means to internally sense that and externally view it so we can understand both points of view.”

Ms. Reitz has been making work since 1973, producing dances for such luminaries as Sara Rudner and Mikhail Baryshnikov, touring a program of solos with Baryshnikov and his White Oak Project in 1996. On her own and in her collaborations with lighting artists such as Beverly Emmons, James Turrell, David Finn, Richard Martin and extensively, Ms. Tipton, she has pioneered the use of light as a physical partner. Ms. Rudner calls her, “an exquisite improviser who creates unique worlds through rigorous and poetic attention to the details of form and ambience. Her dances are collaborations of light and movement, the personal and the universal.”

Ms. Reitz is a founding member of the Center for Creative Research, the recipient of two Bessie Awards, and has been commissioned and produced by the Festival d’Automne in Paris, the Hebbeltheater in Berlin, the Brooklyn Academy of Music Next Wave Festival, The Kitchen and PepsiCo Summerfare, among many others. She has toured as a performer and mentor throughout Europe, Asia, Australia and the US. While always continuing to choreograph and perform, for the last 18 years Ms. Reitz has been teaching at Bennington College in Vermont, where she has developed a wide variety of interdisciplinary initiatives.

While her work has influenced many, Ms. Reitz herself has remained somewhat off the grid. She is what Dana Whitco, founding director of the Center for Creative Research, calls “a quiet innovator.” Yet, although audiences in the Bay Area may not have had many opportunities to view Ms. Reitz’s work (she last performed in the Bay Area in the late 1990s), her impact is unquestionable. CHIME Founder Margaret Jenkins sums it up: “Dana is one of a number of unsung heroines in our field whose choreographic majesty and subtlety have been affecting audiences and dancers for decades. Her quiet quest for clarity, light and abandon as well as her unique improvisational skills are legendary. The Bay Area will be privileged to have her in residence and I feel certain that the interactions between artists and Dana will resonate for years to come.”

Ms. Reitz will begin working with selected San Francisco Bay Area choreographers in January 2014. (See news box below for information about CHIME guidelines and application deadlines.) She’ll start, she says, “By figuring out what [the choreographers] are up to, what their interests are, how I can help them, how they define their curiosity and where they think they need another set of eyes, and go from there.”

A critical purpose of CHIME and CHIME Across Borders is to reduce the isolation felt by so many choreographers who often generate their work alone or with only a small number of dancers present in the studio. Ms. Reitz says that this kind of isolation can be felt anywhere, even when an artist is not entirely alone. “I think artists everywhere can feel isolated if they don’t have a constant group around them,” she says. Speaking to the potential impact of the CHIME process, she adds, “I think you can’t go wrong by getting people together and dealing. More is not necessarily better, but the quality of more can be better, by focusing on questions and seeing evidence of these questions in the work.”
Ms. Reitz says that sometimes perceptions can become distorted when one works in seclusion immersed only in one’s own work and in one’s own thinking. To break from that, she says, “I ask, ‘are you getting what you want, are you yourself hijacking it?”

She goes on: “Any choreographer who is struggling to find his or her voice needs permission to ask questions and try things. I imagine I can challenge and support just by watching and asking. The question is so helpful because it’s so simple, not simplistic. Honing it to a baseline, a simple quest, to merely help thinking and focus the work. I enjoy working with other people because I enjoy seeing how people think.”

I asked Ms. Reitz what keeps her involved in dance making and what motivates her to work with other artists after all these years. She replied, “To me the process of making work is fascinating and the process of moving your mind is fascinating. How do you change your mind? How do you see what’s in front of you with fresher eyes? Sometimes we can get trapped in ideas of what it should be.”

For me, Ms. Reitz’s performance nearly 25 years ago was key, breaking open my expectations of what dance should or could be. Deeply schooled by that performance long ago, I can only imagine what new revelations will come of Ms. Reitz’s work through CHIME next year.

This article appeared in the July/August 2013 issue of In Dance.

Mary Carbonara is a teacher and choreographer based in San Francisco since 1991. She teaches absolute beginners through professionals at Alonzo King LINES Ballet Center, dance pedagogy through the LINES Ballet Training Program, and creative movement for children age 3-11 in public schools as well as through her own independent program, Hamster Dance Academy. She was recently hired as the Outreach and Teen Program Manager at Alonzo King LINES Dance Center where she is thrilled to be introducing a new Teen Program this fall. She can be reached at mary@linesballet.org.