A New York City Ballet principal dancer and an award-winning choreographer merge artistry and experimentation in their performance of “New Bodies.”
For both classical ballet dancer Sara Mearns, 32, and post-modern choreographer Jodi Melnick, 54, stripping themselves of previous body formations and allowing for unrestricted movements is what they envisioned for the five Spoleto Festival USA performances June 7-10 at the Emmett Robinson Theatre.
Melnick will open the program with a 9-minute solo number, “One of Sixty-Five Thousand Gestures,” which is a dance she and the late choreographer Trisha Brown created in 2011.
Mearns, a Columbia native, brought her idea of experimentation within dance to Melnick outside of New York City’s Lincoln Center, and while discussing the body, new positions and vulnerability, the two agreed to collaborate with a pair of other NYCB dancers, Jared Angle and Gretchen Smith. For this performance, Taylor Stanley will dance in Smith’s place due to an injury.
Mearns said devising the piece “was not all about dancing; it was about the conversation, video and bonding with the other artists.”
Typically, Melnick works through the choreography herself before teaching it to the dancers, but for “New Bodies” she produced the work in collaboration with Mearns and the other ballerinas. She embraced experimental dance as a way to allow dancers to find new movements during their 2015 Jacob’s Pillow dance residency in Becket, Mass.
“It was a huge experiment for her and a huge risk for her as well,” Mearns said of Melnick. “The different types of material that we came up with, were just sort of natural with what we do and what we felt like doing that day.”
Although the quartet of dancers first performed this body of work in November 2016 at the Guggenheim’s Frank Lloyd Wright theater in the Guggenheim Museum, this will be their first performance outside of New York City.
“Works & Process,” the performing arts series of the Guggenheim, was founded “to explore the creative process” so Melnick’s “New Bodies” was perfect, said Caroline Cronson, Works & Process producer.
“(Jodi) … is really obsessed with the body and the process of creating art with the body,” Cronson said.
While working through the piece, Melnick’s non-narrative, experimental work included dancing barefoot, rolling around on the floor, walking, standing and talking about the anatomy of the body.
“We bring our own individuality to it, and it’s not linear all the time,” Melnick said. “It has the quality of abstract movement which is its own kind of profound expression.”
Mearns is used to a structured ballet number where the dancer portrays a character, but for Melnick, ballet does not require narrative; expression comes from within.
And before throwing herself into the work, Mearns knew that she would not be able to dance like Melnick because of her years of classical training.
“It wasn't about trying to get us to do something that we can't do,” Mearns said. “Melnick wanted to see how our bodies move and how we can challenge ourselves. Sometimes it wasn't her just telling us things to do, she was there with her praise, and she would say, ‘Okay, now do what you want with it.’ ”
For classical dancers like Mearns, experimental dance is challenging. It requires not only a different artistic approach but often the abandonment of an immense theater in favor of a more intimate setting.
“It’s a completely different way of moving, and just getting down to the bare bones of how your body moves and the aesthetic of your body, and that you don’t need all the extra stuff put on top,” Mearns said.
The experience has been enlightening for her.
“Your body is designed to work in a very specific way and using it in a way it’s not supposed to is really kind of eye-opening,” Mearns said.