A New Palette

Sarah Skaggs performs during The New Ecstatic

Sarah Skaggs breaks ground in “The New Ecstatic.”

Skaggs breaks ground in “The New Ecstatic" 

by MaryAlice Bitts-Jackson

The New York premiere of Director of Dance Sarah Skaggs’ latest work, “The New Ecstatic,” met with packed houses at a contemporary-dance hotspot, Danspace, and favorable national reviews. This spring, Skaggs will share excerpts from the 45-minute piece with the Dickinson community, with help from professional dancer Cori Kresge, who performed with Skaggs during the October premiere, and students in Dickinson's Dance Theatre Group.

Audience members will inhabit three distinct moments in Skaggs’—and America’s—psychic journey from ebullience to trauma to contemplation and hope.

‘A new era’

That journey begins in the 1990s, when Skaggs burst onto the New York dance scene with a joyful signature style that melded the energy contemporary dance with politics, spiritualism and the democracy and ebullience of a block party. Then came the moment that altered her life and career. She was living in lower Manhattan on Sept. 11, 2001, and she witnessed the second plane’s crash into the Twin Towers from just a few blocks away.

Like many Americans, Skaggs felt her life had been segmented into two distinct halves: before 9/11 and after. The question was: How to respond?

“We think of dance as something entertaining, joyous and free, but that’s not necessarily what I was feeling, as an artist after 9/11. So I was grappling with the question of the role of the arts in this age of perpetual disaster, perpetual mourning,” she says.

Skaggs pinpointed her answer in 2010 when she marked the 10-year anniversary of the terrorist attacks with potent performances at the three 9/11 crash sites. Soon after, she realized that her time of immediate recovery from the trauma had quietly passed and a new era—calling for a new way of expression—had tentatively begun.

The New Ecstatic

The concert takes us through America’s transformation from pre-disaster to disaster and beyond. It begins with excerpts from Skaggs’ 1990s signature piece, “Higher Ground,” followed by a short documentary of Skaggs’ 9/11-anniversary dances and finally, with Skaggs’ new dance, which portrays two generations’ responses to, and embodiment of, the current age.

“It’s very athletic; you will see us dance almost to the point of exhaustion,” Skaggs says of the new work. “It’s also poignant, harsh and beautiful—and as in all of the work I do, there’s a hopeful message rising out of the ashes.”

Last month Skaggs performed “The New Ecstatic” side-by-side with Kresge, a member of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company and a postgraduate fellow in dance at Dickinson, and enlisted three other professional dancers to perform excerpts from “Higher Ground.” They include Emie Hughes '13, a past member of Dickinson’s Dance Theatre Group and recipient of the 2012-13 Weiss Prize for the Arts, who is pursuing a career as a professional dancer in New York.

Hughes will perform in a second Danspace concert next month as a result of this pivotal opportunity in a budding career. But she says that the concert was more than just a big break. It also was an opportunity to see her mentor at work in a non-academic setting and in new light. “I didn’t realize just how recognized and respected Professor Skaggs is until I saw how many people were excited to see her work,” Hughes explains. 

For Skaggs, the experience was about fully realizing her ongoing growth as an artist—and as a thoughtful person finding her place in an ever-evolving world.  “I wanted look forward—to make a dance that was political and aesthetic and finely crafted, but that also had a message that is relevant to the time we’re living in,” she says.  “I think the result is more nuanced than the [choreography] I created before. I feel more comfortable with creating more shades, more nuances. There are just more colors on my palette.” 

Published November 18, 2013