“We Have a Lot of Creativity”: Alicia Graf Mack on Bringing Juilliard Dancers Into a New Era

The diversity in Graf Mack’s mind encompasses “experiences and talents and body types and races and people from all parts of the world, making for a much richer cohort.” Visiting teachers insist on asking names and pronouns to foster a welcoming environment for non-binary dancers. Even the ballet, long known for upholding traditional gender roles with its repertoire of short stories, circumvents the division between men and women at Juilliard. Freshmen and sophomores have the opportunity to choose the appropriate technique class: either pointe (after ethereal shoes, if punishers) or allegro (renamed “men’s class” and focused on spins and big jumps). For Graf Mack, it is about creating a “sense of belonging, so that the dancers have an ‘in’ with the ballet”.

The curriculum also offers a “way out” of ballet, away from structured rules and toward chameleon-like flexibility. “When I was training, I was told, and I totally believed it and was very cool with it, that you are a tool for the choreographer and the director,” Graf Mack says of the top-down hierarchy. Since then, choreographers are increasingly likely to ask dancers to contribute to the process, generating movement in the studio. “I had to learn in my professional years how to jump, or else you’re left behind,” he recalls. Juilliard’s evolving curriculum is designed to fuel that creative fluidity, with contact improvisation, hip-hop, and West African dance; foundational modern techniques (Graham, Lemon, Cunningham, Horton); and a class they’ve worked on called Ballet Lab. She points to recent commissions at NYCB for Andrea Miller, Pam Tanowitz, Y jamar roberts as examples of what flourishes when there are more tools in the toolset.

Gaga, the self-exploring movement style developed by Ohad Naharin, who runs Batsheva in Tel Aviv, is another class in the rotation. When he came on board during the pandemic to create a small-group “capsule” job (a pre-vaccine solution to getting back to school), students were already speaking his metaphorical language. “In the theater, he was [displayed] on these huge monitors, so it looked like he was in the room,” says Graf Mack of the surreal COVID-era fix. Getting a requested choreographer to commit to six weeks of in-person rehearsal would have been impossible; the virtual substitute, though imperfect, paved the way for a unique exhibition.

Still, the pandemic scuttled the best-laid plans. The 2020 spring dances, which were scheduled to open a couple of weeks after the lockdown, were removed from the calendar. Students returned to their homes around the world. “How do you teach contact improvisation on Zoom? Like really?” Graf Mack asks, grateful she doesn’t have to ponder the question further. In the fall, “we got very creative,” with small groups of dancers going in and out of studios. By spring 2021, “the vaccine allowed us to touch, associate,” he says. “We’re dancers. We want to sweat with other people.”

The effects of disrupted education have reverberated across the country, from preschool to higher education, but especially in a program oriented around a physical art form: mirrors, bars, floating floors. Fortunately, says Graf Mack, the school had already launched its first new media composition class in 2019, led by a student named Yara Naughty. “So when COVID hit, we had a handful of students who could storyboard, understand perspective and lighting, understand how to edit.” The pandemic accelerated that embrace of technology. But instead of leading the dancers astray, Graf Mack posits, “I think all the students here understood their own inner drive, what drives them to want to dance.” The feeling of an audience, the camaraderie within a studio, the attentive coaching of a legendary teacher: “Those things are so visceral that it’s hard to imitate.”

Leading students through a ballet barre during the 2019 Juilliard Summer Intensive.

By Raquel Papo

Graf Mack continues the tour: A Horton sophomore class with Ailey’s long-time teacher miles Hilton, followed by a room full of seniors led by jonathan alsberry, who is staging secure barton work for the Spring Balls. “By the way, I don’t think the former Juilliard dance director knows this song,” smiles Graf Mack, as Alsberry plays Acraze’s “Do It To It” through the speakers. Her relationship and recent connections to the acting world are among her tangible offerings, but she has also brought her lived experience to invited lectures: one on Ailey’s influence, a second on Arthur Mitchell, who brought ballet to Harlem. (The former Balanchine star had an eye for talent and saw Graf Mack when he was a 13-year-old student.) Another series of lectures explored the “influence of black culture on American dance in general, going from slavery to minstrelsy to vaudeville, which is really hard information to cover,” he says, stressing the need to put “anti-racism on the front burner.” the top of our value system.” History demands a multiplicity of perspectives.

Graf Mack stops by a Graham technique class, filled with freshmen who got accepted entirely via video. “We weren’t even in the building when it came time for the audition,” he whispers, sitting in a chair at the front of the room. Theresa Capucilli, a veteran dancer under the direction of Martha Graham herself, is engaging a student in a thought exercise. “Joey, where do we want to go today?” she asks, and her response feels like a COVID escapism: “Paris. I want to be on the big lawn under the big Eiffel Tower.” Capucilli nods approvingly, describing simultaneous sensations of height and groundedness. “All those tall buildings have to move a little bit, although we don’t know,” she explains of engineering sleight of hand. It seems that those micro-movements, the ability to adapt, even in the face of unforeseen interruptions, are what could make this generation of dancers the most resilient yet.

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