Cassie Nordgren and Virgil Gadson Headline as Choreographers of United Palace of Cultural Arts Inaugural Series
Summer in New York City is hot, humid…. and FULL of Dance Festivals. Kicking off this festival season is the Washington Heights based United Palace of Cultural Arts— a non-profit arts and cultural center based in a 3000 seat and nearly 100 year old theatre— and with its new Danza Series, it’s living out its very own dance residency dreams.
Photo: United Palace Cultural Arts
The Danza Series, according to UPCA, strives “to raise the profile of dance uptown and
introduce new audiences to the art form… through narrative-based performances.” Four annual events, including a free festival in High Bridge Park, The Hip Hop Nutcracker, a performance by a world-class artist, and the debut of commissioned work by emerging choreographers, all make up the annual series.
The commissioned choreographic works, entitled Danza Debuts, debut this Friday at 8pm and will be the inaugural performance of this aspect of the series. Danza Debuts allows two New York City based choreographers the opportunity to utilize the United Palace’s recently refurbished dance studios, and to build an original full-length dance piece to be performed in the theatre’s grand and ornate space. This season’s commissioned choreographers are Season 12 of So You Think You Can Dance’s Virgil Gadson and the artistic director and curator of The Danza Series, Cassie Nordgren.
Cassie Nordgren, whose piece is called The Last Bite, has worked with Broadway’s with Josh Bergasse and Al Blackstone, set the movement to the film Waiting In The Wings and Waiting In The Wings II, and has also created a non-profit dance initiative called ThruLines. ThruLines, which according to a statement from Nordgren, strives to, “develop original dance narratives that are relevant and approachable to today's diverse audiences. We are curious artists interested in exploring narrative dance in a variety of mediums…[and providing] diverse communities isolated by cultural differences or language barriers with access to unifying and thought provoking artistic experiences. Through our stories, we seek to incubate a new audiences and start a new wave of dance lovers and supporters.”
Dance Network had the opportunity to speak with Nordgren while she was preparing for a rehearsal last week. We chatted about her dance background, what it means to her to work in the Washington Heights neighborhood, and what drives the artistry behind her choreography.
DANCE NETWORK: Cassie, thanks for taking the time to chat with us! Before we get into the festival performance itself, tell us a little bit about how you found your way to dance?
CASSIE: My mom is a dance teacher and she owns a big dance studio in Northern California with over a thousand students… So, ‘not-dancing’ wasn’t really an option for me, and I’ve been dancing for as long as I can remember. I started to take dance a lot more seriously when I was about twelve or thirteen— I didn’t really like it all that much before that, and so, I tried a lot of other things. I wasn’t very good at sports, I played piano, the cello, and a lot of instruments — my dad is a musician— but, in end, I thought, I think I’ll stick with dance.
DANCE NETWORK: You’ve done a lot of work with United Palace Cultural Arts, how did you get started there?
CASSIE: Well, I started working with Dance Project of Washington Heights* two years ago. Dance Project of Washington Heights isn’t related to the Palace, but rents space there, and they run their classes in the studios there. At the time, the dance classes were happening on carpeted floors in these large rooms — it looked liked Steps on Broadway, but, with carpet— and I would go in there and think, ‘What a shame! These amazing rooms are carpeted and people can’t rent them’. Back then, the Palace wasn't set up to rent space out, and it was a really big deal when DPWH did.
I’d been there about two years, when I found out the head of the non-profit at the [United Palace Cultural Arts], Mike Fitelson’s, daughter was in my dance class. So i went up to him and I told him they should really have a dance residency there— these spaces were essentially open all day long and there are dancers and choreographers who would want to use them. I explained that certain dancers wouldn’t mind to dance on carpet, or they could put marley down— anything to sort of make the space available.
He initially responded by saying he wasn't sure there was really a need. Three months later, though, once we performed the first and very successful Hiphop Nutcracker, he called me back into his office and said, “So, what did you have in mind?”
I told him about some of the other dance residency’s in the city, so we began to use those as a base plan to design our own. Our big brainstormed idea was that we’d have a headlining dance company and an up-and-coming artist debut in the same show.
Ultimately, that idea actually fell through. So, we later decided to do a festival— one where we’d select a certain number of choreographers, see how long their pieces would be, and then put up shows in the High Bridge Park emptied-out swimming pool**. We decided we’d put marley down in the empty pool for the performance, and we’d offer these choreographers free space to build up their pieces in the Palace.
My ideas for what I wanted for our festival choreographers stemmed out of my frustration of submitting my own works to showcases. In order to submit, I was paying not only just to submit the work itself, but also paying my dancers, paying for space, costumes— everything— and, ultimately providing the content for the showcase itself- and that’s if you got into it. Being an independent artist and coming up with close to $800 and then, maybe not even get into the showcase… that was something I had a real issue with. So, I wanted to build our festival around the way I wanted to be treated as a choreographer.
We contacted people who worked in a variety of styles, gave them free space to built whatever they wanted— like, I wouldn’t even see their piece until the dress rehearsal— and did it the way I’d wanted to be treated.
The view inside the theatre at the United Palace in Washington Heights/UPCA
It was also great for the UPCA to see there was a need for space and a need for dance in Washington Heights— I think they had 250 people attend the first High Bridge Park show— and, it wasn’t necessarily the dance community, it was the neighborhood community that came! That was really cool. (Laughing) And, after the success of that festival, it began the relationship where they sort of looked to me and said, “okay, you know how to do this… we’ll keep you around”.
In February, some very exciting news came when they called to tell me they got a grant to fix their studios. They told me, part of the deal with the grant money was that they had to show, very quickly after, what they were doing with the renovated studios, and that they wanted to do the residency now… with me as a choreographer! …— and, I thought, wait? with me?! Oh, okay! Wow, this sounds really good!
DANCE NETWORK: Wow! Congratulations, that’s so great! Since you helped them develop the program, it makes so much sense that you should be apart of the inaugural residency. So, where does this performance fit into the season?
CASSIE: Well, their goal for 2017 was to do four major dance events. For the first event, they brought in Ballet Hispanico back in March, and Danza Debuts— which consists of all new works commissioned and created in their studios— will be the second. The third will be the same festival event at the High Bridge pool, which I get to take charge of, and the fourth will be the HipHop Nutcracker. The goal will be to expand and grow and to keep doing a new residency each year.
DANCE NETWORK: So, lets chat about the piece a little bit. One of your dancer’s, Alicia Albright, who Dance Network fans know from a spotlight piece we featured her in back in March, told us a little about the piece. It’s a full-length thirty minute piece, right? What’s the story, and what’s it like to choreograph a full-length piece?
CASSIE: Yeah, it’s been really, really exciting. (Laughing) I’ve sort of moved into the Palace at this point.
As a choreographer, this piece is the longest length of time I’ve had to think about the life of a character onstage. Usually when you’re creating something for a showcase, you’re capped at eight minutes, but here, we’re working and I’m like TWENTY eight minutes in, and we still have to finish the storyline up.
A big thing for me, too, was when I first got this opportunity, I realized that all the story lines I’d created in the past were for men… and I don’t know why. All my protagonists have been men. Like to a crazy degree. For instance, last year for the ACE Awards, I did a piece about five men in the waiting room of a maternity ward. I think, in part, it has to do with the idea of building and setting partnered choreography scares me a little bit— so I’ll work with all males or all females. I think, too, working with how men experience life, allows me to feel less vulnerable.
It started making me think— I just marched in the Women’s March, I’m a big feminist, and I was like, ‘I’m part of the problem! I’m not bringing women’s issues to life!’… so I decided I was going to create a show about women and certain social issues we deal with. I began to focus on ‘social norms’ that people may not think about— for instance, when I was creating the show, I was listening to the radio, and on the air the DJ said, “this is for all those single ladies out there, you’ll get that ring one day!”… and I thought, what?! You’d never say that to a man! In the past, I’ve catered as a side-job, and to see the way single women can be treated at weddings versus the way single men behave— it can be very uncomfortable and pressured. Or, online dating…. these are all the different social situations I want to bring to life. So, the two female protagonists in the piece deal with these sorts of issues, and it’s all told through dance.
Alicia Albright (on the shoulder) in rehearsal with the cast of Nordgren’s The Last Bite/Maljpet Photography
DANCE NETWORK: So, we’ve got to ask you, the other headlining choreographer is So You Think You Can Dance’s Virgil Godson— how’s it been to work with him?
CASSIE: Virgil is very nice, but I haven’t had the opportunity to spend that much time with him. He is doing a lot of work in the studios at night, and we have been rehearsing during the day. We were in a meeting together though, and I definitely had one of those “moments” where you realize you’re sitting in the same room with someone really cool— I really enjoyed his performances on SYTYCD.
DANCE NETWORK: You also worked with Josh Bergasse on On The Town and you’ve done a lot of work with Al Blackstone, too… tell us about your time with those two guys.
CASSIE: I love both Josh and Al both, so much. I think you can see both of their influence in my work.
I met Al when he was working on his first narrative piece— I volunteered to work backstage after taking one of his classes, before I really knew him. From all my projects with him, though, I know that I know how to do all of this because of him— not just the “in-studio” stuff, but also all of the “out-of-studio stuff”— …the stuff that makes the “in-studio stuff” work.
You can catch Danza Debuts on Friday June 16th at 8pm at the United Palace at 175th Street and Broadway in New York City. Tickets are $10 online and $15 day-of. There’s also a scheduled talk-back, so dancers interested in chatting with Cassie, Virgil and the performers can meet them afterward. You can also get more by visiting the website here.
Special thanks to Cassie Nordgren for chatting with us. Follow her Facebook and Instagram @Cassie_Nordgren_Choreo and @ThruLines. You can also check out a reel of some of her work on youtube by clicking here.
*Dance Project of Washington Heights is a community based dance program for kids up to thirteen years old. Dance professionals provide high quality training to the students in a revolutionary ‘pay what you can’ policy. The program welcomes families of all income levels, and cultural and religious backgrounds.
**This idea was based on a dance series called Danza Washington Heights when, in the early 2000’s, a few loosely associated northern Manhattan dance companies arranged a dance performance together with some Columbia University graduate students in the empty High Bridge Park swimming pool—the program, however, faded out when the students graduated.