After 25 Years Bowen McCauley Dance Company Takes a Final Bow

Local choreographer Lucy Bowen McCauley’s company is celebrating 25 years with one final performance at the Kennedy Center.

I wrote this for print in the Washington City Paper, and it’s online on their website here.

An upcoming performance at the Kennedy Center will be a unique chance to celebrate local dance legend Lucy Bowen McCauley as her company commemorates its 25th anniversary and takes its final bow. 

After 25 years, the Bowen McCauley Dance Company will present its final performance at the Kennedy Center’s Eisenhower Theater on Tuesday, Sept. 14, at 7 p.m. The Kennedy Center requires all patrons to submit proof of their vaccine status and masks are required.

Lucy Bowen McCauley moved to New York City to study with the Joffrey Ballet at age 18. Now 62, Bowen McCauley is perhaps the most consistent dance-maker in the D.C. region. She has choreographed multiple works for her company every year since its inception in 1996. Despite having a sizable catalog to draw from, this last show is typical of BMDC in that it includes multiple premieres. 

“Other companies, when they’re winding down, they go back into the vault and bring back the older pieces and great favorites,” Bowen McCauley said recently. “If I had a whole week at the Eisenhower Theater I certainly would do that … But we’re going to go out, I feel, with some of my very best work.”  

Bowen McCauley is known as a consistent collaborator and an artist’s artist; recent collaborators include former U.S. Poet Laureate Rita Dove and the Alexandria Symphony. One of the premieres in this show, “Insistent Music,” is set to a score by Turkish composer Erberk Eryilmaz, who Bowen McCauley describes as “a modern-day Stravinsky.”  

“My music has always been so strongly tied with the folk dances from Turkey and the region,” Eryilmaz says. “Pulse and rhythmic patterns shape my music. What I love about Lucy’s work is that she adds more dimensions to pulse and rhythmic patterns that exist in the music.”

Another premiere, “Image,” is set to music by German and Croatian composer Nikola Glassl, which will be played live by the composer’s grandson and pianist Nikola Paskalov, the company’s music director, with soprano Karin Paludan

Alicia Curtis, the company’s rehearsal director, says “Lucy’s choreography always has a strong connection to the music. I can feel that as a dancer when learning the choreography, and I think viewers can feel that as well.” Curtis is also retiring from the stage with this performance, following 13 years with the company. 

Along with the choreographic premieres by Bowen McCauley, this show will feature a premiere by Israeli choreographer Igal Perry—a solo for dancer Manish Chauhan. Chauhan was born to a poor family in India, and his life story inspired a recent film, Yeh Ballet, distributed by Netflix, and in which Chauhan stars. This performance will be Chauhan’s U.S. stage premiere.  

Chauhan is also subject of the documentary Call Me Dancer, currently in post-production, directed by local filmmaker Leslie ShampaigneCall Me Dancer follows Chauhan over a two-year period, and Shampaigne says she wanted to make the film “to show people that it doesn’t matter what economic background you come from—art can change a life.” 

Dance may have lengthened Bowen McCauley’s life: Nearly 20 years ago she was diagnosed with cardiomyopathy, which causes her heart to pump slowly and less efficiently. “What helps keep people from getting sick is exercise,” she says. “So my career probably made it that I developed this problem later … I didn’t start to see it till I was 40, whereas in my mother, it started much younger.” 

Bowen McCauley has had five heart surgeries, the most recent in 2019, and she says her health is an influence in the decision to shut down the company. “With the pacemaker, defibrillator, and the medicines, I actually feel pretty good most days,” she says. “I am doing well, but people with my problems don’t usually have the longest life in the world.”

Alison Crosby, a founding company member who directs the company’s outreach programs, said, “[Lucy] has battled chronic health issues that could have made someone else back away from the hard work it takes to maintain a dance company.” 

Bowen McCauley plans to continue her Dance for Parkinson’s Disease program. She also has some side projects planned in choreography, and looks forward to having “a little more free time to travel and you know read books and see friends and just take it a little more easily.” 

While we may see more of Lucy Bowen McCauley’s choreography, Tuesday night will be the last chance to see her choreography performed by the company that bears her name.

25th Season Final Performance. Sept. 14, 7 p.m., at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater, 2700 F St. NW. $50. kennedy-center.org.

With Webre’s Exit Washington Ballet Faces Challenges

Washington was abuzz this past weekend with the announcement Friday afternoon that The Washington Ballet’s longtime Artistic Director, Septime Webre, is leaving his post at the end of his current contract.

When asked to respond to the news, Webre’s former Board Chair and one-time Executive Director, Kay Kendall, wrote, “He put The Washington Ballet on the map, not only as a major player in the world of dance, but also as a household name in the world of performing arts entities in our town. One of his many gifts was introducing young people to the world of dance and that has been of immeasurable value. He will be greatly missed.”

Septime Webre (Photo: Dean Alexander)

Kay Kendall’s sentiment was echoed by Arthur Espinoza, recently Managing Director of The Washington Ballet and now Executive Director of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities. Mr. Espinoza wrote, “Septime Webre was a longtime colleague of mine at The Washington Ballet, and The Washington Ballet has been a long-standing grantee of the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities.

During his tenure, the Ballet saw a significant level of growth, contributing greatly to the artistic landscape of the District and to the careers of many artists. I wish the best of future successes for both Septime and the Ballet.”

Sarah Kauffman writing on Monday in the Washington Post about what the Ballet should look for in its next artistic director, wrote, “The ballet doesn’t need a radical change, but a firm hand to fine-tune, streamline, and aim for high points not yet reached.”

It’s hard to not agree with her, and the Ballet’s Board of Directors should also look back and consider the challenges Septime Webre faced, as some of the conditions a new Artistic Director will have to address may remain beyond his or her control.

For instance, in 2005 Washington went from being a “one ballet” town to a “two-ballet” town with the Kennedy Center’s underwriting of the Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Balanchine repertoire, which had been a strong part of The Washington Ballet’s offerings, nearly disappeared from their concerts in response as suddenly The Washington Ballet had to contend not only with the Ballet companies presented by the major local arts Center, but a Ballet company sponsored by the major local arts center.

The early 2000’s saw a building boom in dance academies competing for students with The Washington Ballet, most notably with the opening of the southern home of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the City Dance Center at Strathmore in Rockville. The Strathmore dance center was able to lure away one of the leaders of The Washington Ballet’s dance academy, and suddenly parents in upper northwest and Bethesda had a choice about where to send their children for high quality weekend and after-school classes. In addition to the Strathmore center, the dance academy at the American Dance Institute in Rockville (under the direction of retired Washington Ballet star Runqiao Du), and new dance centers in Arlington and Capitol Hill help explain why one studio (Maryland Youth Ballet) had to briefly close its doors before stabilizing in a large new suite of studios in downtown Silver Spring.

The Washington Ballet’s company and education facility on Wisconsin Ave in upper Northwest D.C. has been far from competitive for some time, and plans for a major upgrade and addition have languished for a decade. While Shakespeare Theatre, Woolly Mammoth Theatre, Studio Theatre, and Arena Stage completed major new buildings, the Washington Ballet remains on an under-sized parcel in Tenleytown, and renting performance space. The school has acquired surrounding parcels but it will require policymaker facilitation (and some zoning exemptions) to get the ballet into the kind of facility able to attract the dancers appropriate for a touring company.

Septime was hired to run The Washington Ballet in part because he had taken a struggling little-known New Jersey-based dance company (the American Repertory Ballet) and turned it into a thriving institution. Taking over from Mary Day in D.C., Septime immediately faced intense competition from closer-in neighbors in an overall smaller market, and yet has done the same thing here. While Washington National Opera was absorbed by the Kennedy Center five years ago, there continues to be active competition between the Washington Ballet and the Kennedy Center. Can a Washington Ballet really thrive without a strong partnership at the largest local arts center?

Congratulations are due to Septime Webre not only for shepherding hundreds of beautiful performances, and educational opportunities, but for the creation of ballets for the Company by modern legends including Trey McIntyre, Christopher Wheeldon, and Edward Liang. It’s interesting to note that following multiple commissions from The Washington Ballet both McIntyre and Wheeldon launched full time touring and performing companies, neither of which made it to a fifth anniversary.

This article was published here on DCTheaterScene.

Art History = Human Nature History

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I was at an art event last night with some friends and we wandered into discussion of sex and dating and the human relationship to our animal selves. I’m particularly interested in this conceptual divide between our human and animal selves. I chimed in with a simple central premise from my book, which is:

Separation of the empowered from the object sanctions subjugation

In history, subjugation of women, Africans, and nature have all been/are all sanctioned by “our” understanding that “we” are not “them”. This is not my insight. I stole it from the Ecofeminists (including at least Carolyn Merchant) and am applying it to body theory. In my book I explore how our human concept separate from nature developed within western culture, responsive to religious and scientific influence. There are relationships between our self-conception, self-expectations, cultural constructions and behavior.

My book is not a work of philosophy. It’s an academic treatise relating the human relationship to the body to the human relationship to the natural world. To write the book I had to marshal research into evidence. There are several areas of research that could have been used (and can be used) toward the same argument, and one is art history.

Images from Western art history display cultural constructions of deviance, and beauty, inside artists relationships to the form. What is hidden? What is displayed? What is partially covered? What is central, and what is on the edge? Within these constructions, visible in our artwork over centuries, are displayed the evolving human relationship to the human body. This video for example, is a visual compendium of cultural interest in the naked human body. The special interest in the naked body relates to the very human relationship to the body, and conceptions of beauty and deviance that we project onto that conceptual field. In an abstract, natural, or scientific sense, the human body has no particular interest for our experience of it (as in the ape’s experience of its body.) Our personal and cultural constructions are part of how we’ve constructed our humanity, and are captured in their evolutions in art history.

By understanding the human conception, and the ways we exist within our own constructions, we can free a whole relationship to the non-human world. With this greater self-awareness we may be able to find the human not separate from the animal, but whole-ly inclusive of the animal. [For the whole story, read the book.]