B allerinas dance with their feet, balancing on pointe shoes with their limbs elongated to expose the intricate workings of muscles, or leaping across stage, leaving only a slight noise on the floor. But this week at the Vineyard Arts Project, they were dancing with their hands. Wrists became entangled, thumbs circled other digits, and knuckles discovered unexplored crevices.
For the next five weeks, dancers from the New York contemporary ballet company Morphoses will be exploring these uncharted territories, challenging themselves to take on new ranges of dance all while creating two pieces to be performed at the Guggenheim Museum’s Works and Process, a season of new works, in October. Choreographers Jessica Lang and Pontus Lidberg each are creating full-length pieces for Morphoses to present in October, but tomorrow Vineyarders will catch a special glimpse of the works in process at a rehearsal open to the public.
Company members are not used to these new movements, foreign to their strict regimen of classical barre and floor exercises. Part of their time on the Vineyard will be spent studying under William Forsythe protÃ©gÃ© Jill Johnson, as they were earlier this week, in the cavernous studio filled with light and air.
“They’re cultivating the dexterity of collaboration in dancing,” Ms. Johnson said before she began to work with a few company members one afternoon. “The gesture of a hand is where your ego lies,” she told the dancers, extending her fingers as her body pulled the other way. The dancers were captivated. “The body has a rotational quality to it, like a tumbleweed. You need as much vocabulary expressed through a hand as possible.”
“I wanted this because choreographers now are not as straightforward as they used to be,” company director and former principal dancer at the New York City Ballet Lourdes Lopez said. “Dance has really spread and it’s almost like the boundaries and the limits of specific styles have radiated into other airs as well.”
Ballet is known for its straight lines; Morphoses explores the curves. Founded in 2007 by Ms. Lopez and former City Ballet soloist and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon, Morphoses is known for pushing the boundaries of ballet, emphasizing collaboration in the art form. The pieces created on the Vineyard will be performed as About the Music of David Lang Interpreted, a part of the Works and Process series; the choreographers are setting pieces to music by the Pulitzer Prize-winning composer, a minimalist composer in the classical tradition.
“We wanted to have two different choreographers from different styles choreograph to the same pieces and witness the artistic response that they would have to the same piece of music and the dancers response,” Ms. Lopez said, describing Ms. Lang’s style as contemporary and Mr. Lidberg as a modern choreographer with an aesthetic of classicism.
For the next month or so, the 12 company members will be collaborating in the studio and in the house they share, congregating in the large kitchen for group meals or relaxing on the couches in front of the television.
Ms. Lopez said the dancers are taking very well to the new movements and described it as a food they don’t get enough of but need it to survive in the dance world. “I was joking the other day that a dancer has to walk into an audition with their tap shoes, jazz shoes, barefoot and pointe shoes, and you have to as a dancer now be able to do anything and everything that they ask you,” she said. “I also believe that everything informs everything else. Anything you’ve learned outside the dance floor adds layers to them.
“Classical dancers are oriented horizontally and vertically, that’s how they work. That’s the only way they work,” she added. “It’s that ability to explore past your own classical vocabulary, what was taught, to understand that moment to use your mind differently.”
After dancing professionally for 16 years, company member Laura Feig is still learning new things everyday. “It’s kind of intimidating because I feel like I’m a beginner. You get in your head a little bit. But it’s phenomenal that this is something completely new,” she said taking a break from Ms. Johnson’s class. “It feels kind of strange [to my body]. There are moments when all of a sudden it clicks and it feels great. The biggest block for me is not letting myself feel intimidated and judging myself.”
The company has ballet class in the morning for two hours, followed by a workshop with Ms. Johnson, and then work with Mr. Lidberg and Ms. Lang. The Vineyard has often been a haven for visiting artists to concentrate on their work, and the Vineyard Arts Project is no exception. “It’s an extraordinary place to be able, as an arts organization, to come out and have a real sense of community and come together as a group,” Ms. Lopez said of everyone working and living under one roof. “Being able to have all your meals and then walk across this rose garden path and go to your studio, it removes all the other stresses in your life in both the dancers and choreographers life and all you have to do is concentrate on the work.”
“I think in New York you’re always aware that you’re in New York,” company member Rachel Sherak said. “It’s really nice to be up here and experience this quiet.” Ms. Sherak was working with Mr. Lindberg yesterday on partnering, but Mr. Linberg isn’t using any music just yet. “You were watching these bodies moving and there was no sound, and that’s amazing; you can’t find that in the city. It draws out a part of your artistry that you forget is there, it’s like, oh my gosh you can relax and do this.”
Ms. Sherak started with Morphoses last fall when they had their first residency at the Vineyard Arts Project. “We hit a rocky place earlier this year and a few people had to say as much as we love it we have to find something else,” she said, referencing the abrupt departure by Mr. Wheeldon in February. “Even though Chris seemed to be finished in a way, I wasn’t. There’s more to be accomplished here. That’s what makes this second go-round on the Vineyard feel so different, which is really cool.
“I love this company,” she added. “There’s something so special here.”
Ms. Sherak and her fellow dancers have loved every minute of their time on the Vineyard so far, even after six-hour rehearsal days. “Any situation that makes you slightly insecure and break into a sweat and get out of your comfort zone is a challenge and challenges are incredibly important,” Ms. Lopez said. “For this generation, it is really the cultural change. This generation presses a button and gets a reaction, whatever it is. They’re loving it, because they understand this is information that is being given to them and they are relaxed enough to absorb it.”
Tomorrow, viewers will have a sneak peek into the skeleton of the full-length pieces that Ms. Lang and Mr. Lidberg have created over the past few days. “I want [viewers] to understand that a lot of the movement that the dancers are learning here they don’t understand naturally because they don’t do it every day,” Ms. Lopez said. “It’s almost as though they’re reading a completely different language during these five weeks.” Each choreographer will rehearse and present their work for about 30 minutes and then switch, giving the audience the chance to see both choreographers.
Ms. Lopez also hopes people recognize how challenging the creative process is; Mr. Lidberg had five days to create something for Saturday’s viewing, and Ms. Lang only three. “I want the viewers to understand that this is all brand-new to them and how they’ve assimilated that in less than a week,” she added. “It’s fascinating. The dancer has to observe it with their eyes, take it into their mind and translate it to the body, and it’s all movement that they haven’t seen and are not familiar with.”
Morphoses’s open rehearsal is at 6 p.m. Saturday at the Vineyard Arts Project, 215 Upper Main street in Edgartown. Admission is free and will include a wine reception, but e-mail email@example.com to reserve.