From Presenters to Presented: Shifting Traditional Roles of Male Dancers
10 Hairy Legs at the Crossroads
“At the end of the performance, I don’t want the audience member to ask, ‘Where are the chicks?’ – I just want them to have seen good dance and take from that what they wish.”
That’s what Randy James, founder and artistic director of the 10 Hairy Legs dance company, told me when we spoke recently. In case you’re wondering, no the company doesn’t feature well-trained dancing spiders. The name refers to the fact that the company is made up entirely of male dancers – originally five dancers (hence the reference to 10 legs), but since its founding in 2012 has grown to about 11 members.
On Sunday, March 29 at 3:00 p.m., 10 Hairy Legs performs at the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick. Following the performance will be a panel discussion on the stage with Artistic Director Randy James, choreographer Cleo Mack and company member Kyle Marshall.
10 Hairy Legs is more than a gimmick. The mission of this all-male, repertory modern dance company is to advance the understanding of the male role in dance through the creation, acquisition and performance of exceptional work. What’s kind of fascinating about the company is that while it focuses on male dancers, it doesn’t aim to make a statement or project a certain point of view about the male experience. Rather, it seeks to display the tremendous emotional and technical range of the male dancer.
“Historically, male dancers haven’t perhaps been as technically proficient as women,” said James. “Women often start dancing when they are 4 years old, but men sometimes don’t start until they’re in college, because of the stigma often associated with boys and dancing.”
James tells me he was lucky – his parents didn’t try to make him play football growing up, but instead encouraged his dancing. (“They were hippies,” he tells me.) But James says that the old stigmas are dissolving and male dancers are more likely to start younger and are gaining that necessary technical expertise early on. So we are seeing an increase in the number of male dancers with deep technical prowess.
I’ve been a dance lover my whole life (OK, admittedly mostly ballet, but still). I clearly remember, when I was younger, many years when the “boys” in the party scene and the toy soldiers in New York City Ballet’s Nutcracker were in reality danced by girls with their hair tucked under their caps. But in the last few years, the caps have gone by the wayside as NYCB’s School of American Ballet has grown its boys program. Don’t believe me?
What fascinates me about 10 Hairy Legs is the shifting spotlight from female to male. In much of dance (OK, again, coming from my ballet-centered background), the role of the man is to support and present the woman. He partners her, lifts her, steadies her and showcases her. Yes, he gets to showcase his talent in his portion of the pas des deux, but it doesn’t seem to take precedence. With 10 Hairy Legs, the man is both the presenter and the presented – traditional roles and definitions taking a backseat to the talents of each dancer. It becomes less about categories and more about the individual.
As a professor of dance at Rutgers University’s Mason Gross School of the Arts, Randy James is a creator of modern dancers, in addition to his own career as a dancer and choreographer. Many of the dancers in his company are former students of his. It’s really a best-case scenario – the dancers and James have had years to learn each other’s strengths and personalities – really being able to trust each other as artists and people. “Relationships are at the heart of everything for me,” James says.
And James’ desire to develop a new generation of dancers doesn’t begin and end with Rutgers. 10 Hairy Legs has a broad range of programs for all ages of children – not just to develop future dancers, but using dance to shape the children’s lives.
On Sunday’s Program
First up on the program is a work by David Parker called “Friends of Dorothy.” It’s a duet that will be performed by dancers Alex Biegelson and Nicholas Sciscione. The piece was originally created in 2003, but has been reimagined here to highlight these artists in the prime of their artistry. It features a recorded musical score of selections from Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (the Barn-Raising), “Why Not Me” as sung by Debbie Reynolds and “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” as sung by Jane Powell. This piece features a depth of intimacy and the kind of detailed partnering that audiences rarely see with male dancers.
Next will be “St. Petersburg Waltz,” choreographed by Seàn Curran and performed by Robert Mark Burke. It was originally created for Danspace Project’s gala honoring Meredith Monk in 2012 and reflects Monk’s imaginings of her grandfather’s life in Russia during the tumultuous years between the World Wars. As a devout cantor, the piece reflects the grandfather’s unshakeable, faith despite overwhelming repression.
New Jersey choreographer Cleo Mack’s “Bath Tub Trio for Three Men” is next. Originally choreographed in 2002 for three women, here it is danced (of course) by three men: Alex Biegelson, Nicholas Sciscione and Will Tomaskovic. The choreography features gestures and postures that might be considered feminine, but are here presented by male dancers. For me, this seems like one of the more fascinating pieces on the program and raises all kinds of questions: are gestures or steps inherently male or female? How does the meaning of a piece change when performed by a gender other than the one originally in mind during choreography? What new insights can be gained when seeing the work as performed through that other lens?
Next on the program is “Rook” choreographed by Randy James and performed by Kyle Marshall, set to a score by New Jersey composer Robert Maggio. It premiered two years ago, and was a central work in the company’s first performances. I would imagine that this piece, choreographed by the company’s founder and artistic leader, created at the time of his company’s birth, is an important statement of the company’s vision.
Closing the show is “Trouble Will Me” by Doug Elkins, performed by Alex Biegelson, Robert Mark Burke, Kyle Marshall, Will Tomaskovic and Derek Crescenti. Crescenti is making his public debut as an apprentice here with the company. This, James informs me, is the rousing, crowd-pleasing number that the audience will love. It reminds us that while dance has important things to say, it can still be a fun, pleasurable experience. What better way to close the program?
For a peek into what 10 Hairy Legs has in store for you, check out this State of the Arts feature:
10 Hairy Legs performs on Sunday, March 29 at 3:00 p.m. at the Crossroads Theatre, located at 7 Livingston Avenue in New Brunswick. Tickets are $25 and $20 for adults, $22.50 for Seniors and $15 for students and children.
The performance is made possible by grant funding from the Middlesex County Cultural & Heritage Commission, Middlesex County Board of Chosen Freeholders, and the New Jersey State Council on the Arts, and by a Technical Assistance Grant from Johnson & Johnson and The New Brunswick Cultural Center.