Havana ended abruptly with a hug from Pontus but no set plans for future work. After some silence and one cancelled visit to Stockholm (mine) to see the premiere of a new Raymonda for The Royal Swedish Ballet (his), I was relieved to find a message from pontus@lidberg in my inbox, inviting me to join his company once again for a brief tour in April followed by a weekend at The Joyce Theater in June. We would bring four dancers to three cities with two dances and one puppet.
Rehearsals resumed in February as I was fighting major burnout: I had just completed my first three weeks of rehearsal with Twyla Tharp and her dancers and had then barreled straight into classes for my final semester as an undergraduate student at Columbia. I taught uptown, danced downtown (at St. Mark’s Church, mostly) and resented what felt like a constant and inefficient commute. I still never said “no” to any and all gigs that came my way, stubbornly scheduling events 30 minutes apart and arriving for nearly every obligation fifteen minutes late and frazzled. Frigid late-winter weather necessitated a large, puffy coat that allowed me to keep my bizarre but efficient wardrobe choices to myself while in transit. And, while I was out—always—the March issue of Dance Magazine had arrived in the mail. There I was on the cover: a “renegade freelance star” wearing my ribbon-less Capezio pointe shoes, a sexy midriff top, and a large hat of teased curls.
For my first day of rehearsals with Pontus, I arrived in my more familiar freelance uniform: sweatpants, thick socks, baggy shirt, and cap-flattened hair. I first greeted my old colleague Christopher Adams. He was already digesting new phrases, and I watched as he spun and dropped gracefully to the floor before bounding quickly to his feet again to give me a hug. I was glad to be in the studio again with Chris, an always thoughtful, positive, and well-paced partner. Pontus would dance with the new kid.
[Enter “new kid:” the young Barton Cowperthwaite. Kaitlyn introduces herself, shakes his hand, and the dancers all gather around Pontus’s laptop, where they watch the choreography they will reconstruct that day. When they have seen the movement only once, Barton gets up to try it; Kaitlyn follows his reflection in Pontus’s computer screen, immediately wary of his enthusiasm. Pontus sees too, and he is impressed. He shows Barton the rest of the phrase. Barton parrots it with ease and finishes with a flourish, adding a goofy body roll, a wink, and a theatrical flip of his long hair. Everyone in the room is laughing, Kaitlyn more reluctantly than the others as she goes to
We learned the sequences of Snow methodically but not sequentially, as the composer Ryan Francis completed a new score to stand in for the piece’s original inspiration, Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. We first drilled group phrases, me always lagging behind the boys in the movement and its retention. Every day I would manage to forget my kneepads or pack the wrong socks, too thin or too coarse to slide well. Who knew I would become as picky about socks as I once was about pointe shoes? It would take only one unfocused thought re: wool vs. cotton to interrupt my concentration, and I would be left stranded and confused in the center of the room as the boys somersaulted into the opposite corner.
Snow included more complicated floor work than I had ever attempted, even with Pontus, and I studied as carefully as I could the tricks that would make all the tumbling seem less daunting. For some particularly weighty phrases we would wear large cloaks over our costumes, and to make matters more difficult, we donned masks for the entirety of the dance. In mid-March, I went for my first ever “face casting,” where I spent a mellow hour under layer of goop with two straws up my nose. This faux facial produced a mask that I was sure hardly mirrored my face, with tiny eyes, a very crooked nose, and a slightly curled upper lip.
The most obvious and immediate obstacles we faced with the masks were restricted peripheral vision and partially obstructed breathing, so Barton, Christopher and I spent hours on the first few minutes of Snow to negotiate traffic and stamina. As the dance begins, we appear initially as children do, cannoning and weaving skips, playful shoves, and twists to the floor. But as our romp increases in intensity, we are soon also teasing, taunting, and even violent as we test each other’s strength. Characters pair off into teams; some alliances become friendships, boisterous rivalries, or romantically charged partnerships that blossom and fade in the midst of a relentless, season-less snowfall. My character shares a beautiful and sad trajectory with her partner: throughout Snow their chemistry changes from playful, flirtatious, and contentious to tired, tender, and resigned.
The masks presented another challenge as Chris and I explored how our movement might communicate the emotion, mood, and energy that our expressionless and featureless faces could not. Often I find that my favorite partners are those who will really look at me—rather than beyond me—on stage, and despite the practiced intimacy of our duets, my partner here became a stranger again with his eyes obscured and face unchanging. Rediscovering the tension in our duets required preternatural awareness of the other’s timing and breath.
Snow’s star is a Bunraku puppet manipulated by the four dancers hidden under hoods and heavy cloaks. As puppeteers we are figures of fate (I think!), and in Snow the action moves quickly between the childlike puppet’s solitary and futile battle with seemingly supernatural forces and the doll-like dancers’ embodiment of human adventure and encounter – these dancers could be the puppet or they could be any person, really, animated and sentient but also at times tragically, pathetically unaware of their powerlessness.
Nicknamed “Frostie,” the puppet traveled with us to our two tour stops, Pittsburgh and Ontario, in a big blue bag on Pontus’s shoulder. He occasionally caused a bit of trouble with the T.S.A. and almost always gave the stagehands a good scare as he sat in his chair backstage, waiting for his masters. And by masters I mean amateurs, for the most part. I’ve always been clumsy with props, and Snow had a lot of them. Frostie was much more than a prop – he was another partner and a crash course in kinesiology. With the help of our teacher Kevin Augustine (a master for sure) we attempted to make human a lifeless body, carefully analyzing what proceeds or impels movement: an idea? A breath? As we controlled his head, chest, legs, and arms, we all had to think and behave as one to animate a single being. Sometimes collective breath coordinated our efforts; sometimes I found myself rushing Frostie’s feet toward his destination before he had even registered the possibility of movement.
In both Pittsburgh and Ontario, audiences responded very vocally to performances of Snow, especially eager in the post-show Q&A’s for Pontus to explain the puppet and its larger presence within the dance. Ever mysterious, he would neither confirm nor challenge their capacity to “correctly” interpret his work, suggesting that what they saw would always be partly of their own creation.
It is spring in New York as we walk together to our first rehearsal at the Joyce. Frostie has a nearly severed hand, I have a bum knee again and a badly broken heart but a new friend in Barton, on whose shoulder I have cried almost daily for all of April and May. The company is tired, as each of us travel from gig to gig and then from studio to studio to find minimal rehearsal time. I have talked with Pontus on each tour stop—at each subway stop—about the need to simplify and reassess: to accept fewer projects, to invest more wholeheartedly in those I choose, to stop with the school nonsense for a while, to take time to really consider where I want to go beyond up or down on the 1 train.
We arrive at The Joyce where we will dance Snow, along with Written on Water, on my birthday. I recall my seventeenth, now over a decade ago, when I received a coveted NYCB apprenticeship and an award from Peter Martins, accepting predictions of future ballet-career glory delivered on an auspicious date. I am not the ballerina they suggested I might be, but I have still been so fortunate. Stubborn, too: I have worked very hard to get where I am, wherever that is. I am imagining, perhaps overdramatically, that my career looks a bit like a scene from Snow where the dancers brace themselves against a blizzard, refusing to give up on their chosen path despite winds that repeatedly knock them back to where they started. As I head to the stage I pass young Frostie, frozen in his chair as fate takes five. I guess I’m just glad I’m still moving.