Ellen Cornfield and Brian McCormick in Conversation
Each season, Baryshnikov Arts Center invites writers into the studio to interview BAC Resident Artists. The resulting essays offer an intimate behind-the-scenes look at the creative process. Ellen Cornfield was a Spring 2019 BAC Space Resident Artist.
Portal begins with an eruption — male, upward thrusting — a percussive, rolling rat-a-tat-tat of drums explodes out of the movement. Andreas Brade’s music, composed for the dance, responds to the action, from minimal and soothing to cacophonous, as needed.
The seven strong, blithe dancers of Cornfield Dance devour the space in the John Cage & Merce Cunningham Studio, fully committed to the athletic demands of the choreography, powered by their vigorous joy for the craft. It’s the kind of imprimatur that signals a master at work, and Ellen Cornfield’s reputation precedes her.
The choreographer, who danced for Merce Cunningham from 1974-1982 and taught at Cunningham Studio for 30 years, may fit diagonally on some dance genealogy tree, but she has also made her own distinct mark. There is a brand identity to the technique that is unmistakable. However, fresh eyes, like those of the students in the BAC After School program, see it on its own merits. In a visit with Cornfield during her residency, the teens watched her company rehearse. They saw, “formalism with flair, and flights of fancy. Quirky, rhythmic, gestural phrases woven into broadly abstract works with exciting choreography. Cute moments that hint at a story.”
Cornfield developed Portal, her latest work, during her BAC Space residency this spring at BAC, while also working on spacing and refinements for two other works (Close Up and Pas de Detour) for the company’s performances at the Harkness Dance Festival. In the second part of her residency, Cornfield worked with collaborators Glen Fogel, Mark Brady, and Jordan Strafer to create a video version of Portal, featuring the architecture and spaces of the BAC building. The costumes for Portal, by Karen Young, visually reflect the space and the surrounding cityscape through their patchwork design of angular shapes in a narrow range of gray shades. Cornfield described the natural light streaming down in shafts through the closed shades of the studio on bright afternoons as “magical.”
A new version of Close-Up (2017), presented at Cornfield’s BAC Space showing and reworked during her residency, was inspired by her company’s performance at the Yale Center for British Art in 2018, where the company performed the dance in five separate gallery rooms simultaneously. “Experiences have taught me to embrace the unexpected,” Cornfield said. This new version, performed in decades-old unitards, is her homage to Merce’s “Events,” which were made up of bits of material from different works put together for a unique performance. At BAC, she and her dancers rearranged the original stage work into a condensed version, presented side by side at the same time.
Cornfield said she saw her dancers perform “deeper into the work and more confidently with their own gifts and abilities,” at their BAC studio showing — a result of “the supportive physical environment and the level of saturation in the work that was made possible through the residency.”
Brian McCormick is part-time Assistant Professor at The New School teaching graduate courses in Media Studies, and an adjunct lecturer at CUNY Lehman College teaching Theater. He is contributing editor at Gay City News, and has written for The New York Times, The Advocate, Dance Magazine, Dance Studio Life, and BAMbill. Since 2003, he has taught for Arts Connection’s Teen Reviewers and Critics (TRaC) program, and in 2019 received the Linda LeRoy Janklow Teaching Artist award. He leads the BAC After School program, established in 2012. Brian served on the New York Dance and Performance “Bessie” Awards selection committee from 2002-2012, and is currently on the Board of Directors of Pentacle/Dance Works, Inc.