Musings on modern dance

The modern dance of Bill T. Jones is heading to ASU Gammage (Photo: Russell Jenkins)

I got a wistful feeling talking one morning with a couple in New York City who work with a modern dance company that’ll be performing here in early March.

Jennifer Nugent hails from Florida, while Paul Matteson hails from Maine. They collaborate, perform and tour with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, a Harlem-based company with a truly diverse repetoire.

I was a modern dancer for a few brief years early in my college career, and our conversation left me pining for a love I rarely pause long enough to remember that I’ve lost.

I’m plumper now than I was then. Less responsive to the world in physical ways. More sedentary and stuck. Less connected to those parts of us beyond spoken and written word, and the moments we communicate in more subtle but perhaps more profound ways.

You wouldn’t know, by seeing me dance today, that it had once been such a part of me. But it’s clearly a part of Matteson and Nugent , though I suspect they long ago moved past thinking of dance (or life) in terms of separate parts.

Nugent started ballet, tap and jazz lessons at the age of seven, and began dancing on cruise ships at age 17. It wasn’t until age 20 that she met her first modern dance teacher — Barbara Sloan.

Scene from Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray (Photo: Russell Jenkins)

Nugent exudes gratitude while sharing a long list of esteemed dance teachers and mentors, including Bill T. Jones — whose work she’ll be performing with fellow dancers as the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company presents “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” at ASU Gammage for a single March 5 performance.

Matteson did “a lot of sports in high school” before finding his bliss “by accident” after signing up for an “Introduction to Dance” class in college. He left college for a time, but went on to earn a dance degree.

Modern dance, reflects Nugent, is “sometimes execution, sometimes improvisation” — making it sound like a beautiful blend of passion and precision. “In modern dance, you can be a ballerina, a clown, cool, pedestrian, primal.”

I’m especially intrigued by Nugent’s love affair with modern dance knowing that so many parents rush their young daughters off to ballet, tap or jazz dance lessons with nary a consideration of other dance forms. (Or the lure of movement for their sons.)

Scene from Fondly Do We Hope...Fervently Do We Pray (Photo: Russell Jenkins)

She speaks eloquently of modern dance as a means to “being engaged with other people in a more grappling way.” Nugent clearly relishes the “variety” afforded by modern dance — and enjoys merging its “human quality” with its “highly technical quality.”

Matteson sounds equally smitten with his craft. “I love that there’s a collaborative component to modern dance,” he muses. He describes the piece they’ll soon perform in Tempe as “gorgeous movement material.”

Of course, we’ll only enjoy the work if we manage to let go for a time of those slight but familiar movements from couch to fridge, from remote control to laptop.

Matteson describes “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” as “a meditation on history” — which sound infinitely more intriguing than the sound bites of selective memory we too easily settle for in other mediums.

Still, it’s a far cry from one man’s interpretation of past events. Nugent says the piece “looks at what is going on in the world today” — including all the rights so many are still fighting for.

Some of its content, notes Matteson, is very literal. Yet much, including the words of Walt Whitman, is poetic. I suspect that the layers of language, movement and ideas inspire audience members to consider their own ways of thinking about and being in the world.

Scene from Fondly Do We Hope... Fervently Do We Pray (Photo: Paul Goode)

You’ll likely leave the performance pondering your own movements of meaning. Who are we? How are we similar? How are we different? How would we be shaped in a different time? How are we shaped now? These questions, shares Nugent, confront artists and audience members, alike.

We settle too often for ordinary. Works like “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” invite — even demand — that we do more. The artistry and atheleticism of modern dance have much to offer in a day and age that so glorifies the gadget.

Matteson and Nugent agree that “Fondly Do We Hope…Fervently Do We Pray” is appropriate for audiences of all ages. Their five-year-old daughter Mieke, whose career aspirations have included being a ballerina, teacher and scientist — has already begun watching the work.

Something tells me she’ll grow up to be all three — and much more.

— Lynn

Note: Several Valley dance companies and schools offer modern dance training. Click here to learn about the work of Frances Cohen and Center Dance Ensemble, the resident modern dance company of the Herberger Theater Center in Phoenix.

Coming up: Seeing double, Ps and Qs, Oh the horror!, Of cats in hats


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