What does 'post-emerging' look like in today's dance landscape?
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What does 'post-emerging' look like in today's dance landscape?
Symara Sarai, Fraley, Julia Antinozzi and Liony Garcia in New York on Friday, April 26, 2024. Fresh Tracks, at New York Live Arts, showcases early-career dance makers. This year’s talented crop wonders about next steps. (Lanna Apisukh/The New York Times)

by Siobhan Burke

NEW YORK, NY.- Bill T. Jones still remembers warming up backstage for one of his first New York City performances, in 1977: a solo at Dance Theater Workshop in Chelsea, as part of a series for up-and-coming experimentalists.

Jones was 25 and visiting from upstate New York, where he belonged to a small countercultural dance collective. He would be sharing that evening’s program with five other choreographers, including Baroque dancer Catherine Turocy, Merce Cunningham acolyte Kenneth King and postmodern-ballet iconoclast Donald Byrd. To be suddenly surrounded by so many different aesthetics, he said in an interview, “was exhilarating and terrifying.”

“Quaintly, that was the big time,” he said. “A very important rite of passage. We felt that we had arrived.”

In the nearly 50 years since, a lot has changed at the institution formerly known as Dance Theater Workshop, where Jones is now the artistic director. In 2012, the theater merged with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company to become New York Live Arts. But that right-of-passage series has endured. It has gone by a few names since it began, the year Dance Theater Workshop was founded, in 1965 — Studio Series, Choreographers Showcase and, since 1984, Fresh Tracks. But it remains a place, as Jones said, “to see where new ideas are just breaking the soil.”

On May 17 and 18, Live Arts presents the latest edition of Fresh Tracks, featuring works by Julia Antinozzi, Vinson Fraley, Liony Garcia and Symara Sarai. Selected through an open application and interview process, these choreographers join a long, star-studded roster of past participants that includes contemporary dance trailblazers like Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Molissa Fenley, Reggie Wilson and Tere O’Connor. In the tradition of eclectic shared evenings, theirs is diverse in its themes: the allure of ballet (Antinozzi), the possibility of rest (Fraley), the unpredictability of social media (Garcia) and the power of Black women’s autonomy (Sarai).

While continuing a distinguished lineage, today’s Fresh Tracks artists, who must be in the early stages of their choreographic careers, face a rockier financial landscape than generations past. They are billed as “emerging,” which has always been a nebulous label. But the linear path it implies — a step on the way to midcareer, then established — has perhaps never been so illusory.

In New York, dance artists are finding their way in a harsh post-pandemic economy, with a soaring cost of living and dwindling funding. A 2023 dance industry census, conducted by the service organization Dance/NYC, found that “the dance industry continues to navigate the effects of the pandemic with fragility” — exacerbated by a drop-off in pandemic relief funds — and that “dance is not financially sustainable for most of its workers.”

“We haven’t figured out what is a sustainable career for a dance maker or a dancer,” said Janet Wong, the associate artistic director of Live Arts. What she hopes Fresh Tracks can do is give artists “some tools that they may not have had beforehand.”

Originally a stand-alone performance showcase, the series has evolved over the decades into a more robust residency and professional development program. Over the past eight months, this year’s artists came together for workshops on topics like grant writing and communications, as well as dialogues about the creative process with the program’s artistic adviser, Nia Love. Each received 50 hours of studio space and a $5,000 stipend to make a 15-minute work.

Fresh Tracks is just one of many opportunities for early-career choreographers around the city; others include residencies at Triskelion Arts, Movement Research and Abrons Arts Center, as well as shows at the resourceful new space Pageant. But its strong emphasis on pragmatic skills sets Fresh Tracks apart. Antinozzi, 27, who recently also had a residency at Triskelion, described the workshops as “kind of like school, but in a nice way — like extremely practical.”

O’Connor, a professor of dance at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, who showed his first-ever work at Fresh Tracks in 1984, sees the program as “a guiding hand” in a “financially dire” moment. “It’s really easy to make a big impact with your first work,” he said. “But then to keep it going — second, third, fourth — it’s a rough terrain. It’s good to have help with it.”

The prospect of “arriving” through Fresh Tracks might be more elusive than it once was, but this year’s artists still see the performance as a special opportunity. They talked about how they got here, what they’re working on, and where they hope to go next.

Julia Antinozzi

Antinozzi grew up studying ballet in New Haven, Connecticut, and began choreographing as a student at Smith College, where she drifted away from her classical training. But lately she has been rekindling a love affair with her roots after becoming “obsessed” with going to see New York City Ballet. (She learned she could buy $30 tickets, a discount for patrons under 30.)

Her Fresh Tracks piece, “Third Variation,” is the finale of an evening-length work for four dancers; she showed the first two sections at Triskelion.

Though not obvious on the surface, the dance is an attempt “to figure out what it is I’m so attracted to about going to the ballet,” she said. She has been inspired by George Balanchine’s “La Sonnambula,” “Tarantella” and “Swan Lake,” as well as dancers’ autobiographies, subtly folding these references into her lush, ornate compositions.

As she wraps up a busy spring of dance-making — balanced with the arts administration jobs that support her financially — Antinozzi finds herself “in a strange middle ground,” unsure of what comes next.

“I’ve had these great opportunities,” she said. “The next jump would be, what, like Chelsea Factory? The Joyce? Things that feel too far away.”

At Live Arts, she hopes to get some new eyes on her work. “It’s exciting that a lot of new people might see it,” she said. “It’s validating. Like, ‘Look, someone has let me do this, you should let me do more.’”

Symara Sarai

Sarai, 29, dreams of showing her work internationally, and her training has already taken her around the world. She studied at Oregon Ballet Theater in Portland, where she grew up, then in Trinidad and Tobago, where her mother is from, and for a year at the Beijing Dance Academy.

In 2019 she graduated from Purchase College, almost straight into the pandemic. She used the time of isolation (and collecting unemployment) to develop her solo practice. For the past two years, she has danced with Urban Bush Women, a job she finds both financially and artistically sustaining. Eventually, though, she wants to strike out on her own.

“The desire is to be fully employed by myself in my choreographic work,” she said.

For Fresh Tracks, Sarai is making “Batty Juice,” a trio for herself and two other dancers “that tries to bring us in proximity to our authentic autonomy,” she said. “In other words, how do I create a work in which three Black girls can do whatever they want?”

Sarai is a daring solo improviser, and her uninhibited spirit infuses this project, too. “I’m trying to offer this space of, like, the furthest you think you can go, you can go further,” she said.

Sarai sees “Batty Juice” as the start of a longer work, and she hopes Fresh Tracks will open doors to expanding it.

“The thing that scares me the most is, like, what is post-emerging?” she said, noting the relative abundance of opportunities for early-career artists. “It feels like you have to start making it up a little bit, after the emerging pot closes.”

Liony Garcia

Garcia, 38 and originally from Cuba, moved to New York last year from Miami, where he had lived for most of his life. Still getting his bearings in a new city, he was surprised to be accepted to Fresh Tracks — an unexpected opportunity, he said, “to introduce myself and my work to the community here.”

In Miami, Garcia danced with contemporary choreographers Rosie Herrera, Brigid Baker and others. His first evening-length work, developed over three years, was an ambitious project responding to the city’s Art Deco architecture through movement.

For his Fresh Tracks piece, “Fantasy Punctured,” he tried to keep things simpler. Interested in the implications of scrolling on social media, he used the video editing app CapCut to string together short, idiosyncratic clips of his dancers improvising, the basis for a series of solos.

“I wanted a process more in line with the kind of life I’m living, which isn’t a very settled life — it’s all over the place,” said Garcia, who also teaches dance to teenagers and works at a hotel’s front desk. With CapCut on his phone, he could choreograph “on the fly,” he said.

More than any specific opportunity, Garcia is working toward cultivating a slower, more focused practice. “I have conversations with my cast about it,” he said. “We all want to feel really settled in the work we’re making, and not have to jump around so much.”

Vinson Fraley

A model and singer as well as a dancer, Fraley, who grew up in North Carolina and Atlanta, describes himself as “fashion adjacent.” You might have seen him in a recent Pandora Mother’s Day ad (with his mom) or campaigns for Apple and Calvin Klein.

While pursuing commercial work, he has also danced for choreographers like Kyle Abraham and Bobbi Jene Smith and, for four years, Bill T. Jones. At 29, he characterizes his dance-making journey so far as “little dabbles here and there.” One of those, not so little, was a duet with New York City Ballet principal Sara Mearns at the Joyce Theater in 2022.

His Fresh Tracks work, “Alluvium,” digs deeper into a solo he performed last year outdoors at Lincoln Center, what he calls a “ritual that is basically a procession toward rest.”

“I’ve been trying to do less and really pare down the gestural language into something more minimal, that can really be taken in,” he said.

For future projects, he envisions interventions of dance in public space: “That’s a dream for me, to expand the idea of what dance is on a mass level,” he said. “It isn’t just, like, a cool Gap commercial.”

The Fresh Tracks workshops have helped him appreciate what such a project might entail, logistically. “What has become really apparent from all of the sessions,” he said, “is how much work you are doing as the choreographer or director of something. It really is no joke.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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