Producer, educator, filmmaker, and performer: Daniel Gwirtzman is one of those rara avis who seemingly does it all. Trained at the University of Michigan, Gwirtzman grew up practicing Israeli folk dancing under Molly Shafer Rutzen, which to this day has influenced what the choreographer calls “the pedestrianism” or everyday accessibility of his work. This Washington Heights denizen first arrived on the contemporary dance scene in 1995 with Artichoke Dance Company. He co-founded the latter with Lynn Neuman and Amy Drum, at a time when the dance world was shrinking and funding difficult to come by. He also performed with Garth Fagan and Mark Morris, before starting the Daniel Gwirtzman Dance Company (DGDC) in 1999. The company presents eclectic pieces that range in themes from people’s need to connect with one another, to their interaction with nature and the environment.
But Gwirtzman wasn’t satisfied with simply dancing and choreographing. He identified an important issue in the public’s perception of modern dance and how it’s received outside the dance community. Hence his latest venture, the online platform Dance With Us, seeks to answer the seemingly eternal question “but what does it mean?” and in the process help to demystify modern dance. In spite of popular shows such as Dancing with the Stars and America’s Best Dance Crew, the art form has remained inaccessible to many, perceived as too esoteric, serious, intellectual.
Organized around the premiere of new dance films, Dance With Us launched at the end of June 2021 and has since gone live. The site features a guided tour by the choreographer himself. A smiling miniaturized version of the charismatic Gwirtzman appears as a video projected over the site. Arms outstretched, he talks directly to the viewer and invites you into his world: Gwirtzman becomes your own personal teacher. Dance With Us uses both filmed performances and original dance films to illuminate and illustrate concepts and composition. Each month, a new slate of dances is uploaded, to be enjoyed and analyzed. Essentially, Gwirtzman wanted to fight the perception that modern dance is too arcane or brooding: “Modern dance gets this rap of being full of angst and it's understandable that it's badly understood. The idea of this platform is to deliver the DCDG philosophy that everyone can join in.” Performers include company alumni Michael Novak, Jamie Scott, Stacy Martorana, Frances Samson, Christian von Howard, Cary McWilliam, and Oren Barnoy. For true aficionados, there are also extra treats such as rehearsal footage from Paul Taylor artistic director Michael Novak. While some choreographers begrudgingly admit that modern dance can at times seem cryptic, Gwirtzman goes one step further, placing the responsibility on the choreographer to create more transparent work:
Audiences should be empowered to trust their opinion…The onus is on the choreographer to demystify dance…It’s okay to be bored at a dance concert, or to not like something. But it’s also important to gain more information about the vocabulary and structure of dance and own the reaction one is having.
As previously mentioned, Dance With Us offerings are divided into two sections: existing performances that were shot in myriad places and contexts, and a “dance films” section with pieces created specifically for the screen. A personal favorite: Gwirtzman’s Tisket, available in three different versions—one narrated by Jamie Scott, another by Stacy Martorana, and finally one by Vanessa Martínez de Baños. They’re all strong, but the one presented at the Battery Dance Festival by Martinez de Baños sparkles. With boats passing by in New York Bay as a background, she improvises with a controlled, frenetic energy that perfectly translates her character’s mood swings. As with other dances on the site, you can choose between a narrated and unnarrated version. I like to watch the unnarrated dance first and make mental notes, then compare them to the dancers’ comments in the narrated version.
Dollhouse is perhaps the most surprising dance film, set to a sped-up version of Gershwin’s I Got Rhythm played by pianist Jonny May. The entire piece takes place on and around furniture located on the top floor of a barn that looks like a dollhouse, so outsized the dancers seem to be. The vignettes call into question our notions of proportion and perspective and how we view everyday objects. Willow is also powerful. Set to Scott Joplin’s ragtime piano piece Weeping Willow, it features an ensemble cast that moves in unison in various natural settings. Gwirtzman positions the dancers on lawns, surrounded by lush trees as they enact a series of movements meant to symbolize rebirth and transformation. One variation places the camera above the dancers: their shadows move along with them, a clever aesthetic device that creates a geometrical feast for the viewer. The Gwirtzman solo Dandelion playfully calls into question our perception of everyday objects and the dichotomous nature of our existence. Introduced by a light score of bells, it then transitions into what sounds like cars whooshing by in the background. Gwirtzman isn’t afraid to take on challenging projects: shot during the pandemic period, The Fantasyland Project involves 16 dances in 16 different locations.
Gwirtzman’s work has clearly been influenced by a host of modern choreographers, including Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Merce Cunningham. Dance With Us incorporates innovations that were important to Cunningham, such as working in different media and bringing everyday elements into choreography: “Merce’s work, aesthetic and style have resonated with me the most,” Gwirtzman notes: “My attention to line, design, and composition and the liberation of the performance space were all inspired by him.” Questions of style and influence aside, Dance With Us provides an original platform with something for everyone. Like a good book, you can come back to it often and discover new meaning. Each visit sheds light on your perception of modern dance and opens up critical vistas not previously encountered.