Andrew Palermo (l) and Taye Diggs, founders of dre.dance. The company will be presenting new work this Friday and Saturday, the final weekend of the Tribeca PACs Work & Show Festival.
Taye Diggs and Andrew Palermo create a new dance
By Harry Newman
For years, whenever Taye Diggs would hear from his friend Andrew Palermo, he would get jealous. Despite his considerable professional success as an actor including performing in the original cast of Rent on Broadway, featured roles on television (Ally McBeal) and star turns in films like How Stella Got Her Groove Back he would always be left with a sense of dissatisfaction after they spoke.
The two met at the School of the Arts, a performing arts high school in Rochester, New York, where they grew up, and remained close while studying musical theater at different colleges in different parts of the country. While Diggs came to New York and concentrated on acting after school, Palermo focused more on dance, establishing himself as a dancer, teacher and choreographer for theater and television.
He would tell me of his teaching situations and I would become envious, Diggs explained at a rehearsal last month at the Tribeca Performing Arts Center, where he, Palermo, and the dance company they founded, dre.dance, are part of this seasons Artists-in-Residence program. And I was doing fine. Id been very lucky. But whenever he would talk with me about his teaching, something would bubble inside me. Ive always been more passionate about dance as far as all the arts are concerned. Dance has always been my first love.
He was dancing before he was acting, Diggs says. He started studying dance in his teens ballet, show dance, and, most significantly, modern dance with Garth Fagan, the internationally-recognized dance innovator (and later choreographer of the musical, The Lion King) whose company is based in Rochester. This is where his friendship was cemented with Andrew Palermo, who was taking many of the same classes.
Dance always was a part of our friendship, said Palermo as they sat together to talk about the company. We did a summer stock show of 42nd Street together and he didnt know how to tap so I gave him tutorials. Then we both went to a ballet summer camp together around the same time. It was sort of like as we remained friends, we remained friends in dance, too.
Palermo began inviting Diggs to teach with him as opportunities allowed and slowly the idea of creating work together arose. The company was formed officially at the end of 2004 for a benefit for Dancers Responding to AIDS (DRA). We had the idea to try to do a full-blown performance for the first time, Palermo recalled. And I went to DRA and said wed like to do this as a benefit and they said, Great. But if youre going to do that, we need you guys to have [more of] a name than just Andrew and Taye. So, hence, dre.dance began. (Its pronounced dray, from a combination of Drew and Taye.) They performed their first full evening of work March 2005 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater and a second full season there February 2006.
They show a great warmth and comfort with each other as they speak, listening closely, commenting in agreement, at times finishing or expanding each others thoughts. Theres a complete sense of openness between them. And this quality of their friendship, now nearly 20 years old, sets the tone for the company and comes through in how they talk about their work, their approach to creating work, as well as the work itself.
They often choreograph dances together, sometimes to the point of trading off with each other from phrase to phrase, something they did first in Cold Water, one of their original pieces. Literally, we would go back and forth, Diggs said in describing the dance. Andrew would choreograph a certain amount of counts on a specific dancer and then I would choreograph [the same number of counts]. Or, in a work thats still in progress, consisting of duets, each of them creates movement for one dancer of the duet for a while and then they switch dancers. We come from the same root [creatively], he said, but we move completely differently. So, its really interesting.
Its something weve been lucky with, continued Palermo. We have very similar tastes, even though we express ourselves differently... So, it works well. You end up having a broad variety in the piece. Its more than just one vision. But like Taye is saying, they come from the same place, so theyre not wildly different [either].
The dances theyve created range from frenetic expressions of pure movement to elegiac explorations of piety and passion. Intimate balletic duets and trios, perversely disjointed postmodern solos, house music-inspired full ensemble pieces all display a canny blending of influences that span 20th century dance from Martha Graham to Jerome Robbins to hip-hop. The movement itself is characterized by a graceful muscularity, combining sprints, somersaults, and other athletics, forms from ballet and traditional modern dance, and everyday, pedestrian gestures. The six women and two men who make up the company are strong, vibrant, and consistently surprising.
Their ways of working, however, can be extremely different. Palermo tends to work things out in advance and usually starts from some kind of outline or theme or concept. Diggs is purely spontaneous and relies on the help of two members of the company, Jennifer Parsinen, the assistant choreographer, and principal dancer, Karen Moore. Weve developed this style, he said, where I can just move. Hardly anything is spoken at times I will move and they will mimic me and I can stand back and they will finish the phrase. They memorize it on the spot. Its gotten to the point where I cant remember my own movement... I cant remember an eight-count phrase because Im so in it.
For the residency, Diggs and Palermo have been working on me, myself, and lie, a new thirty-minute piece examining the intricate balance between personal and social identity, which will premiere Friday and Saturday, March 30 and 31, as the closing performance of the Tribeca Performing Arts Centers Work & Show Festival, the annual presentation of works-in-progress by their resident artists. Now in its tenth year, the Artists-in-Residence program was started to give emerging artists and artists setting off in new directions a whole season to explore creative possibilities away from the pressures of production.
The residency has been an opportunity for them to regroup and recharge. In dre.dances first two seasons, the co-choreographers created more than two hours of new material together in little more than a year. We wanted to scale it down, Diggs admitted. We said, were very fortunate here, so lets take a time out. Because weve been given this opportunity, lets only say stuff that we know we want to say and lets only create things we want to create... I dont want to squander [it].
Its also been a chance for them to experiment with new ways of working. For Palermo that means trying to be freer in his approach, to think less and be more spontaneous, and Diggs is trying to become more deliberate in how he works. Were trying to glean from each other, he said. Its another reason I think we work well together. We can learn from each other as well.
When we got this residency, added Palermo, it was the biggest blessing. They very much reminded us that this is for us, its not for them, its about process. And they really meant that... They dont want anything from us except to come and work.
Having their own company and the response theyve been getting to their work is clearly something they never expected and theyre not taking it for granted yet. Were brand new, Diggs said. Were finding our way. I feel like we just kind of tripped in through the door and the door is still remaining open and as long as theyll have us, were here.