Hristoula Harakas finds her spotlight.
Thu Nov 8 2007
Photo: Georgios Kontos
[Ed note: This story has been extended with online bonus content.]
In Donna Uchizono’s recent Thin Air, there were a few moments in which the sight of Hristoula Harakas—angelically still on top of a ladder, or knitting a pattern of complicated footwork with plush efficiency—simply made your jaw drop. Strange as it seems, the longer she dances, the stronger and silkier Harakas becomes. Born in Connecticut, the dancer, now 33, grew up in Athens, where her then–newly retired father transplanted Harakas and her two older brothers. After extensive training, she moved to New York in 1996 and began studying at the Merce Cunningham School, where she has also served as a faculty member since 2002. At P.S. 122 this week, Harakas resumes her ongoing relationship with choreographer Maria Hassabi in GLORIA, their fourth show together. The hypnotic evening-length work employs Hassabi’s usual method of collage; the result, oddly peaceful, proposes the body as sculpture as the dancers move from one pose to the next. In an e-mail, the choreographer writes, “When we first started working together, we used to walk next to each other through the city without talking to each other. But it felt really good. A togetherness beyond words. Like dance.” Harakas, who won a Bessie in 2006 for her work with Hassabi, spoke about her career over lunch in the East Village.
Does anyone in your family dance? Have your brothers ever studied dance?
Oh my God, no. I’m the artistic blood of the family. Though my father used to be really famous as a dancer and a singer and musician—but in the folklore tradition. During the summers, we would travel around the village where my father is from, and older people would say, “Oh, I’ve seen your father dance! He’s amazing!” The most incredible story was when we went to a village and this guy had a coffee place that turned into a taverna at night. He took my brothers and me to the attic and he showed us this table that was covered with dust. At the edge of it were teeth marks—from where my father would lift the table as he was dancing. Crazy. When I first started dancing he wasn’t supportive at all.
He said, “Why do you want to do this? You’re choosing something with no money that is a lot of work.” So it was tough for a while. The first year I paid for my tuition; then, I got scholarships throughout the rest of my education. I told my father: “You cannot really say anything to me, because you’re not paying anything!” [Shrugs] That was the only thing I could say.
When did you begin dance training?
I think I was eight, and I started with ballet. I didn’t have any modern dance until I was 13, and that was once a week—ballet was at least three times a week. It was kind of ridiculous because I was dripping with sweat. I was traumatized that I was the only child who had a towel on the side of the barre. I was trying so hard. But I think about having the concentration and the dedication of enjoying something and really trying to master it—I wasn’t thinking that way back then, but now [I can see] that’s what I was doing. After I was 13, I danced with the company of the school [Niki Kontaxaki’s Modern and Classical Dance Ensemble] in small roles like Little Swans from Swan Lake. It was the one company in Greece, other than the national opera, that actually gave performances in ballet. It was really hard training.
Why did you move to New York?
I got a scholarship from the Onassis Foundation, and I think I had had enough with ballet. I wanted to do something different. For me, there was something that didn’t feel true to me to be dancing ballet—maybe I was just stuck in the superficiality of, “Oh, it’s so hard, my toe needs to be there, my finger needs to be there.” For my scholarship, I had to have a specific institution that would offer proof of study, and the first place I went was the Cunningham studio, where there was a certification program. After saying that I had had enough of ballet, I feel that the Cunningham technique was more demanding. Basically, what really interested me in modern dance was going to your physical limits: being off-balance, trying to find out what it feels like to be out of balance today or tomorrow or later, after I’ve learned a couple of things. So it was that sensation of going for it and taking risks. Ballet wasn’t the same. I like falling, and we would never do that really. [Laughs] It’s always lifted. And Cunningham was great. I learned a lot. I got stronger. I just loved being in the studio; being in his presence was quite amazing.
Did you want to join the Cunningham company?
I had thought about it. I loved taking classes with the company; it was super hard and exciting. Foofwa d’Imobilite and Banu Ogan and Tom Caley and Glen Rumsey and Maydelle Fason. Watching Foofwa dance was quite remarkable. [Pauses] I didn’t think that I was amazing enough to be able to dance the way I wanted to do. It’s not about executing—it’s about keeping the integrity of yourself—staying a face, a personality as well as performing the steps. That’s something very rare. Even now when you watch [Cunningham veteran] Robert Swinston move, you see this amazing plasticity and the technique behind the work without the need to see him jump high or to lift his leg as high as everyone else’s. I was taking so many classes; my feet were hurting, my body was hurting; I don’t think that was a situation I would have loved. At some point, Robert was like, “You need to push a little bit further.” Joining a company is also a matter of timing. I never really went after it. I had friends who really wanted to be in the company, but I didn’t really care. Not that I didn’t care; I didn’t want it. I love the technique, and I’m still there. And I’ll be glad if I can get back to taking more classes because it’s been a while, and that’s not good for me.
How did you start teaching at the Cunningham studio?
We had coaching sessions where students would come in and ask questions about the technique. It used to be that company members would do that before teaching regularly and Robert would be the one to say, “You do it.” He approached me to take over some of those coaching sessions; I had already been kind of doing it without realizing—people would ask me for help. So that was my first step into teaching. Then, when I was on vacation in Greece, I got an e-mail about teaching class. Robert said, “If you have any questions, let me know. Take it easy—you have the knowledge, and you can do it. Just keep it simple.” Teaching sounds easy—in a way, it might be easier teaching someone else’s technique just because it’s not yours—you just obey and go by the rules and guidelines of someone else’s work. But really trying to stay true to that while also bringing in your own spirit is kind of tricky. Teaching an elementary class when you have advanced students or mixed students is challenging. I know that Merce has said that he believes he’s not a good teacher, but I think that he is an amazing teacher. He makes simple things interesting. I’m not there yet; I feel if I do something simple, it’s just going to be too boring. Sometimes people come to class, and it’s not just about improving their technique—you want them to move in space. So it’s challenging but great.
How has teaching affected your dancing?
In the beginning, just because I had to explain it, teaching clarified the technique a little bit. But that was specific about Cunningham. For my dancing, sometimes it makes me analyze the way I move in a way that I wouldn’t usually think about. Or I think about moving fuller. You get a lot back from your students and from watching other people dance. It’s useful to watch people do what you’re about to do; you learn from what you see, and you are most likely to make the same misstep. Or you might not even think you’re doing it, but you are. Watching others makes you clearer. And you have to be clear to teach.
What were your early New York dancing experiences?
I did some random projects and student shows at the Cunningham Studio. After getting to the “professional level,” I ended up being in a student dance show doing stupid work.… I think, out of all the years, those were the worst days of my life. I danced with Jeremy Nelson, who was one of my mentors; while I was taking classes at Cunningham, I was also studying from a bunch of people—Becky Hilton, Wally Cardona, Lisa Race and Jeremy—at Movement Research. For my scholarship, I had to go to Cunningham—that was replacing my ballet technique—but the rest was a new experience that I really wanted to discover. Later, I was in a piece by Amanda Loulaki, and Maria was showing a dance on the same program. We started working together after that, and I don’t remember how. I think she approached me? [In 2003], we did a duet at the Kitchen: A Forest Near Chelsea.
Now you’re performing Hassabi’s GLORIA, which is another duet?
It’s funny. We made Forest Near Chelsea in the space above the studio where we are working right now. The process of working with Maria was so easy. She does the work as the choreographer; she has the whole outline of the piece in her mind. It wasn’t set all the way; it wasn’t like I was learning a part, but the basics were there, and we figured it out really smoothly and easily and fast, so it was kind of painless. Sometimes process can be too long. It was just a nice way of working—and different. I told her from the start, “I feel like this is one of the easiest jobs I’ve ever had.” In [2006’s] Still Smoking, I knew what she was going after, and it was easier for me to get into what she was thinking. That happens with people you’ve worked with; it’s like, “I know what you mean.” It’s not because you’ve done it before, but because you see the vision.
You see the person thinking?
Yes. Even if the aesthetic isn’t the same.
Tell me about GLORIA.
It’s for two people. David [Adamo] was part of the process from the beginning, so it still feels like a trio. We had a rehearsal the other day, and he came and watched the piece and was moved by it. It seems like we could perform different versions of it. This duet is interesting; the idea of it is two separate solos—but it doesn’t feel like a solo to me. There are moments when I’m on my own, but the sense of a duet remains.
The dance features you and Hassabi moving through a series of timed extensions and positions. How exact is it?
It is so specific. But you get lost in the images of the piece, even as you’re in it. It works with the idea of space and the body; also, as an audience member, I think you might doze off in parts, but I think that’s really good and part of the piece, actually. You stay with the image and, visually, you almost get sucked in. I also feel the choreography is so restrictive that I can’t let my personality out; but this is not about interpreting anything in a specific way—it’s about feeling free to go further or not. The personality or the feeling is going to come out from that specificity, and that’s really challenging for me. It’s like a ballet in a way—in a downtown sense. [Laughs]
Is it a return, in any way, to A Forest Near Chelsea?
It started from a different place, but now it’s going there. It’s emotional for us a little bit, too. By the time you get to the performance, everyone gets stressed out about the show so you kind of stay tied together. And both of us are a little bit injured. We have to take care of ourselves, but at the same time push further in. It’s kind of tricky. [Pauses] I don’t think there is anyone left in our field who is not dedicated to what they do. Even if dance is hard and difficult and there is little funding—I’m not really interested in that aspect of the work anymore. It’s a fact, and it’s a given, but it’s about people sticking behind what they do no matter what the conditions. It’s about dedication and having a vision at the same time.
Are you working with anyone else?
No, I have no plans. After this, I really need a break. I’m looking forward to it and you never know—there’s always something coming up even if you don’t plan something. I’m available, but I’m just not advertising.
You recently performed in a trio by Donna Uchizono with Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jodi Melnick as part of Hell’s Kitchen Dance. What was that experience like?
Misha’s the best. He has been so generous and kind to me personally. In rehearsals we were equals—it’s naïve to say that, but I think he appreciates you being up front and direct and honest. He likes that more than anything else. We would be rehearsing, and he would do a movement and I would say, without realizing how blunt I was, “What are you doing? That doesn’t exist. Did you just make that up?” And everybody would turn and look at me. And he would laugh and turn to Donna and say, “She just told me that what I am doing doesn’t exist.” [Laughs] In Madrid, which wasn’t part of the Hell’s Kitchen tour, Mats Ek choreographed a duet for him and Ana Laguna. We did Donna’s trio, the Mats Ek duet and a film by Jirí Kylián’s film—that was the evening, and I was kind of stressed out for a couple of days. I was going to be sharing the stage with Jodi and Ana Laguna, who is so gentle and open. But it was great from the beginning. I felt like I was the youngster of the group—I thought, Okay, I’m not going to complain about anything! [Laughs] I was so thrilled and honored to be part of it. It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.
What is it like dancing with Hassabi? You both hold your own in very different ways.
I feel like I used to be more like Maria in terms of the movement: being precise and clear with positions and flexibility. I’m not as flexible as Maria anymore, definitely. I guess it feels easy. It doesn’t feel challenging or like I’m competing with her—definitely not. The solos that we do are set, but we are connected. You just cannot ignore the person who is dancing next to you. We are related in a way, like two different souls being in the same place. It’s kind of internal, and it feels very comfortable. Walking together and not talking, as she told you. Maybe that’s it. Maybe that’s the piece.