At 23 years old, Brooklyn-based dancer and choreographer Austin McCormick is in possession of a body of knowledge and a skill set that few dancers of any age possess: the ability to read notation for Baroque courtly dances and to reconstruct them. Born and raised in Santa Barbara and now working in New York, McCormick brings his six-member Company XIV to Center Stage Theater this weekend to share his new take on an old tradition.
The relatively modern technique of ballet has its roots in 16th-century Europe, and was popularized in 17th-century France, where the Sun King, Louis XIV, was known for his admiration of and participation in early ballet. It was during this period that the positions and movements of the art form now known as classical ballet were codified and notated. Today, there are few ballet dancers familiar with the complex notation of Baroque ballet-fewer still in the younger generation.
While most boys growing up in 1990s Southern California were preoccupied with surfing, skateboarding, and grunge bands, McCormick was busy learning to read 350-year-old manuscripts of courtly dances. If that seems a little odd, that’s because it is. McCormick’s Baroque dance teacher, Regine Astier, is the first to admit it. “As far as I know, Baroque dance is not taught to children anywhere in the world, only here in Santa Barbara,” said Astier, who founded the Conservatory of Baroque Dance Theater here in 1993. “I started it as an experiment, and the fact that it has lasted so long means that children really like it, which is bizarre. It’s a 17th- and 18th-century dance technique, and most children are more interested in hip-hop, or whatever other dance style is contemporary.” Nevertheless, Astier’s success in Santa Barbara continues, while McCormick’s ongoing fascination with the form is taking new directions.
Today, McCormick uses his background in antique dance techniques to inform his own choreography, which blends contemporary dance, theater, and film with elements of classical ballet and the complex foot patterns of Baroque dance. “Not all my dances are Baroque, but I always have a quasi-Baroque approach to making dances,” the recent Juilliard graduate explained. “I still do a lot of ballet construction-I read the notation-but what I’ve been doing is taking it and modernizing it, bringing in a theatrical aspect and the element of character. Baroque dance has tons of rules, and what’s fun to do with the dancers is to break the rules.”
Although McCormick also works as a freelance dancer in New York, he will not appear in his own choreography. “I thought it was important to have that outside perspective and to be able to conduct the dancers,” he said. In addition to presenting two evening performances at Center Stage Theater, McCormick will be working with UCSB summer session students to create a new piece he hopes will be used in the repertory of the student company. Never a UCSB student himself, McCormick took classes at the university in high school-he knows the department’s faculty well, and looks forward to sharing his work with them. “I’ve never done a show in Santa Barbara before-I’m very excited,” he said. “It will be the first time a lot of my old teachers have seen my choreography, and I’m calling all my old friends I was in school with. It’s a little nerve-wracking, but I’m mostly excited.” If his credentials are anything to go on, he has little to worry about-he’s the recent recipient of the Susan Braun Award, a cash grant given through the Dance Films Association in New York to support one young choreographer each year to adapt a piece from the stage to the screen. The material created at UCSB will provide the material for adaptation, which takes place on the company’s return to New York.
Like all those who remember McCormick’s younger days as a dancer in Santa Barbara, Astier is excited to see how his work has developed. “It’s exciting as a teacher to see that someone is doing something with the material instead of repeating or copying,” she said. “I’m terribly interested that the work takes all kinds of directions I never even thought of.”
Company XIV will perform at Center Stage Theater on Friday, July 20, and Saturday, July 21, at 8 p.m. For tickets, call 963-0408 or visit centerstagetheater.org. For more information about the company, visit companyxiv.com.