Conn College associate professor of dance Lisa Race presents a night of her choreography
Members of the Connecticut College dance department faculty often choreograph for their students. But the professors less regularly showcase what they are each working on outside of school — and that’s something they’ve been talking about changing.
And so associate professor of dance Lisa Race will be doing public performances of a newer work she co-choreographed and an older one in the college’s Myers Studio on Thursday and Friday.
The idea, she says, was for it to serve as an entry into autumn and a welcome to returning and new students.
It’s also good timing in another way: Race is taking a leave of absence for the fall semester, as she gets a knee replacement. She has been in a fair amount of pain because of arthritis, which at times has put a damper on her wanting to make work.
“One thing I’ve gotten very good at it is working in the ranges where my knees still work,” she says, noting that she performed a few weeks ago in Los Angeles. “I can find that space, especially if I’m improvising, where I can do what works on my body. And (there’s) adrenaline and Advil …”
Before moving to New London, Race was a performer, teacher and choreographer in New York City for years. She was artistic director of her own company, Race Dance, with performances around the U.S. and abroad.
She was also a member of her husband David Dorfman’s troupe, David Dorfman Dance, from 1989 to 2000. The couple came to New London in 2004, when Dorfman started teaching dance at Conn College. They have a son, Sam, who is now a senior at Williams School in New London. Race showed her work less often after she settled here. She joined the Conn College faculty in 2007.
In 2008 or 2009, she recalls, she choreographed a piece for a couple of the Conn College dance department’s graduating students that was well-received. Race remembers that the students “said, ‘Come on, Lisa, do more!’ So that kind of started that engine back up. That said, I’m still pretty comfortable about really taking time between making work. I like to have an understanding of where they’re going. I love movement, I love big, kinetic, driving, in-the-floor, upside-down movement.”
Theatergoers will see that in action during this week’s performances, which will feature two dances. One is the more expansive “Mid-Tide.” The other is a piece Race and friend Ginger Gillespie made in 1991 in New York and performed at the Dance Theater Workshop.
“I had been thinking for a while about reviving something older, to have the opportunity to show our students some different work than I’m making now and to showcase students at Connecticut College,” she says, noting that the dancers include a 2016 graduate, Sasha Peterson, and current student Emma Benington.
The piece has a good deal of partnering, and there’s a lot of low-level action. It is appropriately titled “Floored.”
The newer “Mid-Tide” is something that Race started about five years ago with a trio of other women: Rachel Boggia, who was on faculty at Bates and has just joined the Conn College dance department; Annie Kloppenberg, who is on faculty at Colby; and Kendra Portier, who just finished her MFA and used to perform with David Dorfman Dance.
They didn’t have a concept when they started, except that they wanted to work together.
Race says, “Something that has always been important to me is figuring out my family’s stories. … I think part of it is because the generations in my family are so spread out, so we have my almost-98-year-old mom; David and I, 60 and almost 60; and a 17-year-old son. My mom was 39 when I was born, so I’m quite a bit younger than all my siblings. So I’ve always had this sense of (wondering) what were my mom and dad like when they were younger?
“I’ve kind of threaded in some stories (in ‘Mid-Tide’) about both my dad, who passed away seven years ago. He had Alzheimer’s … Within the piece, I’m expressing a little bit of my fear about going that way. My mom is still very lively and clear, but (I’m) sort of imagining them as their younger selves. So I’ve been kind of putting together a couple stories around that.”
In the work itself, she says, “there’s a lot of this swirling energy, and I think for me it’s abstract but it does relate to life … There are all these shells that we use along the floor, creating these pathways and stuff, and they sometimes get exploded apart and then formed back into lines. (It reflects) how life is chaotic at times in that way, so that’s kind of one thread of the piece, of this world that shimmers and swirls and stops and then moves on. The trajectory is not linear — or maybe at times it is, but not always.”
Finding her way in dance
Race grew up in New Jersey, where her first dance teacher was Fred Kelly, Gene Kelly’s brother. He was, she recalls, “an incredible, incredible tap dancer.” She started learning ballet when she was 5 or 6 years old and then kept adding different forms of movement and dance — acrobatics, tap, modern, jazz.
She stopped doing ballet in eighth or ninth grade and delved more into gymnastics. Race went to college, and then, in 1978, her mother saw an ad for auditions for dancers and acrobats in Atlantic City, as casinos were first opening there.
“I didn’t know what I was doing with my life. I didn’t know if I was dancing, I didn’t know anything. But I went, and basically they were, like, ‘Well, you’re not quite tall and slender enough for our Atlantic City show, but we’ll send you to our show in the Bahamas,’” she recalls, noting that the production involved lots of “crazy acrobatics.” “I’d never been on an airplane. I was 19, packed my suitcase and lived there for a year on a houseboat.”
After that year, Race decided it was time to move on. She went back to school for dance at Rutgers.
“Even when I graduated, I didn’t really have a sense of what I was doing, so that’s when I worked at NYU, I took some classes … It was when around 27, 28 when it started to click — this is what I really want to do be doing,” she says.
She says that her time working with Sara Pearson — taking a class and then dancing with Pearson/Widrig & Co for four years — “was really crucial for me. There is this other world, there is this downtown dance world that made sense to me in a way that I had not yet found in other dance realms.”
She says that “something finally felt right” with that dance world.
“I didn’t feel like I was trying to be somebody else but be myself in that place … It was new for me to be introduced to this more collaborative way of making dances, which has become very important to me. With Sara, it was really using improvisation as a way to make dances. With David, it was kind of collaborating on process. Those two pieces, I think, were the things I didn’t have a knowledge or awareness of that were really, ‘Oh, this is the thing, this is the place,’” she says.
Race danced with dancer/choreographer Ronald K. Brown in the early 1980s. She apprenticed with now-renowned choreographer/director Bill T. Jones for a little while, after taking a class with him at Wesleyan in 1986; she said it was “a really extraordinary experience.”
Later on, she herself taught for a semester at Wesleyan and earned her MFA through a program jointly offered by the American Dance Festival in Durham, N.C., and Hollins University in Virginia.
She has been on the faculty at festivals including the American Dance Festival and Bates Dance Festival in Maine. She has taught and choreographed at a number of universities as well.
The process of re-staging “Floored,” she says, “has been delightful for me, but probably safe to say somewhat grueling for the performers, Sasha and Emma. The contact dance-based partnering that the dance employs looks quite a bit easier to do than it is to physically accomplish. There is much labor involved! … It’s an all-out dance-till-you-drop kind of piece.”
Race says that collaboration continues to be important to her process. With “Mid-Tide,” her collaborators “will take any idea or movement prompt that I give and run with it, and though we initially began with me teaching movement phrases, they continually improve upon them and bring such intelligence and thoughtfulness to the process. That collaborative aspect expanded in this past week with all the collaborators on hand, as we threaded together the different sections, bringing together the video element Shawn Hove has created, Sam Crawford’s musical expertise, and integrating David (Dorfman’s) presence into the dance. Though threaded with a couple of stories that are personal to me, it is for sure our dance, not mine, and would not exist without everyone’s input. That said, after day one, I was pretty terrified, wondering if I’d made a mistake trying to mash the different parts into a single form, but by the end of day two, really excited.”
Looking forward to the performances Thursday and Friday, Race says, “I’m excited, nervous, scared, yet happy and ready to share our work.”
“Mid-Tide: An Evening of Dances by Lisa Race,” 7:30 p.m. Thursday and Friday, Myers Studio, Connecticut College, New London; $10, $5 for students; (860) 439-2787.