The large, airy studio in lower Manhattan fills with the plaintive sounds of Franz Schubert’s Trio in E-flat Major as choreographer Cherylyn Lavagnino intently watches her 13 handsome dancers rehearse Treize en Jeu, in preparation for her company’s season at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church. “Be yourselves,” she calls out. “You are representing a community. Radiate.” As their movements soften and become more fluid, she smiles. Not only do they represent a community in the work, more than half of them have been her students at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, where she has taught since 1987—serving as dance department chair for the last nine years. But beginning this fall semester, she will give up that position to devote all her time to teaching and running her company, Cherylyn Lavagnino Dance.
“I wished for more time to pursue my artistic vision,” she says. “I loved my job, but I felt it was time to delve more into my choreography and promote my company.” (Choreographer and director Seán Curran, a Tisch alumnus, is the new chair.)
For anyone to leave such a prestigious position to run a dance company is very unusual. Lavagnino knows the risks. “I have been thinking about this for about three years,” she says. “There was no urgency—just a thoughtful process as my creative aspirations began to take more focus. The biggest risk is sticking my neck out to promote my work and have that effort fail. Being a female choreographer is already a large hurdle to overcome in our profession. However, I have some very valuable support. I have developed a circle of professional colleagues who believe in my work and are helping me promote it.”
Among them is Jaclynn Villamil, who served with her as co-director of the resident Tisch student performance group, Second Avenue Dance Company, and now teaches at the Gibney Dance Center. “It is wonderful to see Cherylyn pushing her boundaries and her choreography coming to fruition,” she says. “She is steadfast in her passion.”
Founded in 2000, Lavagnino’s company has performed at the Baryshnikov Arts Center, the Kaatsbaan International Dance Center, DanceNow/NYC Festival, The Joyce Theater’s Evening Stars series in Battery Park and at Inside/Out at Jacob’s Pillow, among several other venues. The reviews have been encouraging. Critic Deborah Jowitt wrote, “Treize en Jeu marked the musical high point of the evening . . . Lavagnino’s choreography captures the music’s 19th-century romanticism by molding ballet steps to convey moods and relationships, without the manners that are integral to the classical repertory and without the deliberate deformations that some contemporary ballet choreographers visit upon the traditional steps.” The New York Times critic Brian Seibert wrote, “Cherylyn Lavagnino’s new Triptych has many fine ingredients . . . It’s rich stuff, especially in the exalted setting of Danspace Project in St. Mark’s Church.”
Lavagnino can look back on many achievements as chair at Tisch. Especially concerned about the health and well-being of students, she has made sure that the technique faculty teaches some kind of somatic warm-up—Pilates, floor barre or Feldenkrais—once a week. Moreover, she got a sprung floor for the theater, made sure that there is a physical therapist/Pilates teacher on staff and opened a permanent physical therapy room. She also created a dual degree MA/MFA with NYU’s Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development, which offers those interested an opportunity to pursue an artistic and pedagogical degree with a teaching certification for New York State K–12. It’s particularly well-suited to people like her, who want to both teach and pursue artistic careers.
But while Lavagnino liked being able to make a difference as an administrator, she won’t miss all the meetings involved, the huge influx of e-mails and the writing assignments tied to the dance department. Last year, for instance, members of the department had to create a narrative to support their budget requests. Called “Guiding Principles,” it was supposed to state the mission and goals of the department and request the budgetary and spatial support needed to successfully accomplish these directives. It was a hefty and crucial assignment to support the future of the department. In her position, she spent 35–40 hours a week on administrative work and 8–10 hours in the studio with students. Now, she can look forward to freeing up 30–40 hours per week, which will leave her able to devote herself to creativity and administering and networking for both her company and her own choreographic career, as well as enjoying extra time with her husband and 16-year-old son.
Over her life in dance, Lavagnino has been particularly fortunate in her teachers and mentors. Growing up in Whittier, California, she traveled to Hollywood to take classes from legendary teachers Stanley Holden and Carmelita Maracci, and later had the good fortune to be mentored by former American Ballet Theatre principal Lupe Serrano as a member of the Pennsylvania Ballet for three years. Lavagnino also befriended Lawrence Rhodes, a major dance figure, dancer, teacher and former chair of the Tisch dance department who is now artistic director of The Juilliard School Dance Division. He eventually asked her to work with the Second Avenue Dance Company, when she returned to New York after stints with Arizona Ballet Theatre and Ballet Teatro del Espacio in Mexico City and with a philosophy degree from University of Southern California. Thus began her long, happy tenure at NYU.
Wearing white pants and a blue-and-white checked shirt, her hair fashionably short, Lavagnino continues the rehearsal, taking brief breaks to consult with her lighting designer, Kathy Kaufmann, to make sure the three dances on the upcoming program, Treize en Jeu, Triptych and Ru, are in good shape. Every work is characterized by a striking sense of musicality. The dancers’ enthusiasm is palpable. “You always feel you are in good hands with Cherylyn,” says dancer Travis Magee. “She’s very knowledgeable and has a clear understanding of movement. She’s invested in seeing us grow.” Dancer Claire Westby adds, “She stresses a sense of gravity and simplicity and encourages our expressiveness.”
For Ru, Lavagnino uses a score by Scott Killian, a composer she has collaborated with for years. Often inspired by her travels and books, she created the work after reading a novel by Kim Thuy, about the author’s voyage from a childhood in strife-torn postwar Vietnam and her time as a refugee to a new beginning in 1970s Quebec. (“Ru” means lullaby or river in Vietnamese.)
One of her costume designers, Christopher Metzger, also a Tisch student, arrives, bringing the costumes for the dancers to try on after the rehearsal. He has designed them to be reminiscent of traditional Vietnamese clothes: for the women, washed-out red dresses, and for the men, khaki pants. Lavagnino holds up the costumes to get a good look. “They’re perfect,” she says. “Just right for the movement and mood of the piece. And flattering. I always want the dancers to look as wonderful as possible and feel natural and comfortable. I like things simplified.”
Lavagnino may be leaving her administrative post, but she will continue as an associate arts professor—which is a full-time position—and teach ballet, mentor the students’ choreographies and create work on the students, as well as other departmental duties such as helping with auditions, production and scheduling. “I will always teach,” she says. “Teaching supports the choreographic process and vice versa. Working with dance artists and finding a way to lead them to their individual expression is exactly what interests me as a choreographer. Working deeply with dancers on performance values informs my teaching and keeps the artistic expression present in technique class. These two processes support and feed each other.”
She started preparing for her new role last spring, creating a comprehensive plan for fundraising to support her future goals and signing up for workshops through the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council to develop her skills and explore fundraising resources. “The biggest challenge will be setting up a board of advisors and learning how to develop relationships with donors and presenters,” she says. “I frankly have never had the time to do promotion for my company and choreography—this will be a challenging new directive.” She is especially thankful to the dance department for providing her with wonderful resources for her creative work—dancers, space, collaborators and mentors—the resources she has relished all her time at Tisch and will continue to enjoy as associate arts professor. “It’s a rich and thriving creative environment to work in,” she says. “It makes it a lot easier to make this huge move.” DT
Valerie Gladstone has written about dance for The New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times, and has published a book on Balanchine and most recently A Young Dancer: The Life of an Ailey Student, with photographer Jose Ivey.