Big Red Dance Project: Age Is Just a Number

Saturday, May 11 & Sunday, May 12, various times, $12–$15

PSI Theatre, Durham

In a downtown Durham rehearsal room, dancer Jonathan Leinbach is carefully guiding Renay Aumiller’s legs, one at a time, through tentative steps forward. After her character reevaluates an embrace that constrains her even as it provides support, Aumiller starts pivoting between intimacy and autonomy, gently yet firmly pushing Leinbach’s chest until he’s prone upon a wooden bench at center stage. Later, Beth Seaton and Niki Juralewicz enter a dance of sisterhood, its boundaries underlined by the brief, indelible moments in which they make contact.

Both works, In Your Dreams and From Away, bear the nuances and cultivated grace of accomplished modern dance; neither would be out of place on the professional stage. Yet in most places, their public performances would be unthinkable in the current culture of contemporary dance. 

Why? The silver-haired Leinbach, who danced with legendary choreographer José Limón, is fifty-eight years old, and Juralewicz, who performed in Trisha Brown’s groundbreaking company, is fifty-three. Seaton is fifty-two. Both are well beyond the age usually associated with dance performance. And though their choreographer, Gerri Houlihan, is well known in Durham—and across the dance world—as a teacher of generations of professionals and the former dean of the American Dance Festival School, she turns seventy-four this year. 

In the theater, actors justifiably complain that roles get harder to come by with age. But in dance, the drop-off is even more precipitous, as those even slightly beyond a certain age, agility level, and body type find themselves permanently removed from the stage. As those body types are erased from ballet, modern, and other dance forms, the stories of the people in those bodies are erased as well. The ageist aesthetic is reinforced when it convinces dancers and choreographers that if their bodies are no longer at the top form of youth, they should not create or perform in public at all. 

If it can happen to Houlihan, it can happen to anyone. She’d stopped making new choreography more than a decade ago, in large part because she was accustomed to creating work first in her kitchen, with her own body, but she found she couldn’t access the triple turns and leg extensions in the way she had earlier in life. 

“I thought, ‘Well, I can’t be doing that anymore,’ and so I can’t be making work that looks contemporary, that looks innovative,” she says. “I wish I could say I intended to cross boundaries and push the envelope. But when I moved to Durham two or three years ago, I just thought I’d join a book club, delve into my Tai Chi studies, go to lots of movies, and make new friends.”  

But teaching a community dance class at ADF Studios sparked an unexpected turnaround. Houlihan recalls wondering if anyone would show up. A handful did, and in short order, Community Moves became the largest ongoing class at ADF Studios.

Then Houlihan saw Young@Heart on Netflix. The award-winning 2007 documentary captured the performance trajectory of a senior citizens’ chorus in Massachusetts whose covers of Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, Sonic Youth, and Coldplay have garnered them accolades and multiple worldwide tours.

“It was an epiphany,” Houlihan says. “I turned to my friend and said, ‘We could do that! There’s so much talent, so many stories, and something very inspiring to me in that room. I think I’d like to choreograph for those people!’” 

It helped that many of the students were early professional dance advocates in the area, before the time of the ADF. For decades, many of them had similarly felt locked out of the art form they loved, and they were eager to get back to it. 

“I didn’t come to that class to be a role model,” says Linda Belans, formerly the longtime dance critic at The News & Observer. “But we are, in terms of visibility and activism. The body on stage, in and of itself, is radical.”

Neurologist and dancer Glenna Batson concurs. “What’s radical about it is what it does to the audience. They come in with a certain expectation that they’ll be entertained, or told sweet, sentimental stories, and, quite frankly, none of that is going to be there,” she says. 

In Age Is Nothing but a Number, the program of works Big Red Dance Project performs three times at PSI Theatre this weekend, the choreography and narratives are challenging, as befits dancers long accustomed to performing the works of modern dance greats, including Limón, Brown, Lar Lubovitch, and Antony Tudor.

“This is not a recital, and these are not your grandmother’s stories—at least, not the ones she ever told you,” Belans says with a laugh. 

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