Optimism shines through in LaGuardia High School’s graduation dance concert

June 20, 2020

David Mead

La Guardia posterIn these strange times it is all too easy to get depressed, to stare into the future and see only the worst possible outcomes. But then along comes New York City’s Fiorello H LaGuardia High School of Music & Art and the Performing Arts; the school that inspired Fame! and a school like no other. The coronavirus pandemic may have put paid to the Class of 2020 celebrating their talents on the live stage but they and their teachers were not about to be beaten, instead putting together a diverse and entertaining 90 minutes of dance online.

There has been a lot of dance streamed over the past three months but I found this a rare beacon of hope. It’s a show that breathes optimism; that looks forward rather than back. A welcome dose of dance sunshine, it is very uplifting and a wonderful tonic.

The show is a mix of specially created dance film and film of live performance, into which are worked some beautiful tributes and best wishes from teachers and musicians, and some surprise special guests including Misty Copeland and Mikhail Baryishnikov.

As the title suggests, the opening dance film, (a)part by Nathalie Matychak, edited by alumnus Isabella Pagano and to music by Julia Kent, shows the students apart but still part of something; not together physically but very much so in other ways. They dance in their homes, backyards, the street, the park, by the riverside and on the beach. The overwhelming sense is always of confinement and wanting to break free, even in those snatches filmed in wide open spaces. I found it incredibly appealing, in no small part because it allows each student to be seen as an individual, something rarely possible in the usual group choreography for the stage. What really hit me, though, were the close ups of faces staring into the camera.

Two further dance films take up the same idea. Here We Are Together by Amanda Krische to music by JS Bach is another neatly edited compilation of students at home and elsewhere. The film runs through emotions with humour and despair a split second apart. The clips flow into each other beautifully as we move from small spaces to large. A dance on a deserted beach, waves breaking in the background, feels the most alone of them all.

LaGuardia, (a)part

Two moments from (a)part by Nathalie Matychak
Apart, alone, but together
Two moments from (a)part by Nathalie Matychak

Alone Together, a full-class improvisation directed by Greg Sinicori has a more upbeat feel, thanks in part to movement but also the music: a score created by school musician Andy Monroe using the 1932 jazz standard of the same title.

Still on film, the questioning Check the Time Stamp by Anja Tempel, makes powerful reference to current events and the Black Lives Matter protests. After opening with archive film of racial confrontation, it abruptly switches to a peaceful setting and her picking a flower off a tree. The immediate suggestion is that things have changed. We know differently. For all the film images, most potent are the calmly spoken but forceful words of a greying man that closes it. “You always told me it takes time. It took my father’s time, my mother’s time, my uncle’s time, my brothers and my sisters’ time, my nieces and my nephews’ time. How much time do you want for your progress?” Hard-hitting stuff.

Students of LaGuardia High School dance Class of 2020 in Its a Mans World by Travis Wall
Students of LaGuardia High School Class of 2020
in It’s a Man’s World by Travis Wall

There is plenty of impressive work in film of live performance too. Of the group pieces, I especially took to the penultimate piece, a rehearsal of It’s a Man’s World by Travis Wall. I suspect it had been building through the show but found so powerful emotionally that I caught myself shedding a tear.

A dance for six men and a woman, she at first seems part of their world, but as a unison section breaks apart, she becomes a target: manhandled and even apparently slapped across the cheek. I learned afterwards that had I have seen it in costume, this was all part of the men ripping off her man’s suit and hat to reveal a red dress. The ‘slap’ was actually the pulling off of a false moustache. Which all goes to show how differently things can be perceived in a different context.

As she is cornered by the mob, James Brown gives way to Beethoven. It may be a man’s world, but it also “wouldn’t be nothin’ without a woman,” as the lyrics say, and it is the woman now very much at the centre of the piece. She is still carried, dragged, tossed and thrown in excellent multi-dancer partnering, but she’s also held high and there is more care as if, deep down, they recognise they need her to be who they are. When she finally leaves, they do look bereft. It is startlingly beautiful.

A moment from New York, New York by Travis Wall
A moment from New York, New York by Travis Wall

Wall also gave us a film, New York, New York, a tribute to the city and it’s essential workers. A super opening duet, filmed in a deserted side street, soon gives way to a multi-screen celebration, all to Liz Minnelli singing what else but ‘New York, New York’.

The ensemble piece, The Radical Self, by Tommy Tibball, is at its best in the tight ensemble sections where the choreography picks up nicely on the intonation of accompanying text. Repeated throughout is the phrase, “I did it.” Indeed you did.

LaGuardia students spend most of their time on ballet and contemporary dance but that’s not the end of their talents. Jazz, tap, hip-hop, musical theatre, they can do it all, as six senior solos showed. Filmed in October 2019, two stood out particularly.

Atticus Dobbie is remarkably light on his feet in a beautiful jazz number to Sammy Davis Jr singing ‘Bye Bye Blackbird’. An early delicious slow turn in a low arabesque is soon followed by a yearning extension to the front that seems to send the toes way out into the space beyond. As the music picks up there’s some lovely turns and high leaps too.

2020 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts Nouhoum Koita in his senior solo
2020 U.S. Presidential Scholar in the Arts Nouhoum Koita in his senior solo

Nouhoum Koita is one of just two dance students among the twenty 2020 U.S. Presidential Scholars in the Arts, one of the United States’ highest honours for high school students for academic excellence, leadership qualities and community service. His solo created by Shamel Pitts to music by Nils Frahm showed him to be a dancer of remarkable control with a graceful and pliant upper body. It’s a solo of ever changing choreographic and pace. As everything seemed to come from inside, I very much sensed meaning, even if I couldn’t quite put my finger on what it was. Sudden bursts of energy are met with pauses, most notably an early arabesque where time seemed to stand still.

LaGuardia is a school like no other, has never seen a graduation concert like this one. The school and students should be very proud. But for all the creativity and innovation shown, for all the great dance and film, I’m sure I’m not alone in hoping that the Class of 2021 finds itself back on the live stage.

“Keep your dreams and work hard, that is what dancers do,” said Baryshnikov. Too right. I know all too well that it can be hard, but we must believe. It will be alright.

The 2020 Graduation Dance Concert of LaGuardia High School for the Performing Arts can be watched on Vimeo.