Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Christina Jane Robson: A Bud in Bloom

Christina Jane Robson
(photo by David Gonsier)

Christina Jane Robson: A Bud in Bloom

by Sarah Elizabeth Lass

I first saw Christina Jane Robson dance when we both took Alexandra Beller’s intermediate modern class at Dance New Amsterdam (DNA) in March 2013. Her strong body and languid movement captivated me but, more than that, I was struck by her delightful, friendly energy and joyful spirit. She warmed not only the room but the people in it. I left with a big smile and a light heart and, glancing around, I’m sure I was not the only one.

I had heard from a close friend of mine--who had met Robson at Bates Dance Festival's Young Dancer’s Workshop--that Robson had recently joined the ranks of DNA’s permanent faculty and had a regular advanced modern technique class. “You have to take her class,” my friend insisted, “It’s amazing.” 

Eager for more time with Robson and intrigued by the powerful, yet fluid dancing I had seen in Beller’s class, I suited up and headed to the studio.

Almost ten months later, I am hard-pressed to miss a single one of her classes. She has steadily gathered a devoted group of students, addicted to her high-energy, physically-challenging classes, all of which Robson cheerfully leads with compassion, a sense of humor, and an eclectic, ever-changing playlist.

Robson in action
photo by Ben Wolk

She has also grabbed the attention of critics and theatergoers, a standout in the work of a large number of notable dance makers, including Séan Curran, Monica Bill Barnes, David Dorfman, Alexandra Beller and Kendra Portier. Rachel Rizzuto of Dance Teacher magazine recently commented, “It is nearly impossible to watch anyone else when she is on stage. Her presence commands attention and relaxes an audience member at once.” For Rizzuto, Robson is the “modern dancer to watch of this next generation.”

I am similarly in awe of Robson’s dancing but also curious about her path into the world of teaching and how, by the end of every class, she has people shouting, cheering, and laughing. I want to get to know the person who, time after time, creates a room where anything feels possible, and who has woven together a warm, supportive community that has grown steadily larger thanks to these uplifting, inspiring two-hour treats.

After one such class, we met to chat over a couple of jumbo iced coffees–her acknowledged and happily-indulged vice. I invited Robson to share more about herself, her life, and her approach to her own practice and the one she shares with her students. Notorious for her sense of humor, I was laughing out loud from the moment we sat down. 

At my suggestion to start “at the beginning,” she happily launched into the story of her birth, and ticked off her vitals upon delivery. Weighing in at almost eleven pounds, the very large infant Robson joined just one older brother, rounding out her small family in the Tewksbury, Massachusetts, a “blue collar, working, football town” of around 30,000 people, just north of Boston.

Since childhood, she has considered herself a bit of an odd duck among her older brother--a “computer science genius,” she says--who was always the academic of the family; her father, who custom fabricated hotrods; and her mother, one of the most personable, good-humored people. A typical day in her household consists of “my dad watching TV, my mom failing to bake something, and my brother taking something apart.”

Despite her “odd-duck” status, Robson can see a bit of herself in each of her family members. “I am like the artsy, social butterfly,” she says, “but I think I got my mom’s sense of humor.” As for the creativity that is now apparent in her dancing and teaching, Robson traces this back to an unlikely culprit: her father. Robson’s admiration is clear as she speaks of his careful, detailed construction of car engine models, a process in which she sees an amazing amount of artistry.

As for childhood activities, Robson acknowledges that she just wanted to do everything her older brother did, much to his annoyance. So, when he took up hockey, she followed suit, really her first taste of movement. “I was so bad at it,” she recalls. But, she adds, “I would skate as fast as I could and slam into the boards, just because it felt good.”

A concerned parent, watching Robson in practice, approached her mother and suggested that the girl take dance classes. Robson’s mother enrolled her in a local school–Tammy’s Dance Connection–in the same shopping center where the family owned Toon Town, a record shop. “I lived in that store,” Robson reflects, thanking the family business for helping her memorize, by age six, all the words to Salt-n-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”

When it was time for dance, Robson’s mother would close up shop for five minutes and walk Robson over to Tammy’s. Beginning in ballet at age four, Robson soon added jazz and tap, and began competing regularly. Despite mixed feelings about dance competitions, she acknowledges their benefits. “You learn how to perform at a very young age,” she says. You can perform anything and everything.

While she was exposed to a variety of dance styles, tap most captured Robson’s heart. “I was big time into tap dancing. Like all my time tap dancing. I did a lot of conventions and jams and had private lessons and competed in competitions,” she explains. Now, fully immersed in and focused on modern dance, she says, "Tap still really influences my moving body. I think I still strive to find shading and tone and rhythm in my body in any full-bodied movement phrasing.”

When she wasn’t in Toon Town or tapping at Tammy’s, Robson’s childhood consisted of “neighborhood-wide” football games, dodge ball, and street hockey. “I grew up in a suburban neighborhood chock-full of families with several children of all ages,” Robson recalls. Probably because of this, Robson has always loved kids, and has worked as a nanny since arriving in New York in 2009. She even credits one incredibly supportive and generous family, with whom she lived and worked for several months, with allowing her to continue dancing throughout a time of financial hardship.

“There is a playfulness and a love of sharing time with people and kids that is very much a part of me,” Robson says, thinking back on these neighborhood activities and the small, family-based community she calls home. Séan Curran--the seasoned New York choreographer and Robson mentor--acknowledged, “She’s great with kids. She’s a kid herself.”

Christina Jane Robson
photo by Yi Chen Wu

Sitting with her in Think Coffee, I am also struck by her childlike enthusiasm. It’s contagious. She is animated and engaging—her passion for movement clear in her voice and body—moving and gesturing in her seat, still energized after giving a challenging, two-hour class. Apparently, she’s always been this way. 

“I couldn’t sit still in high school,” Robson admits. She got good grades, but school, she says, was never really her thing.

When I pressed her to talk more about her teenage years, it surfaced that she had been a high school cheerleader. “I can’t believe it either,” she joked. She looked for any excuse not to wear her uniform on games days. That uniform included a fake curly ponytail--“not my best look." But she did enjoy the movement. “I never said the cheers. I just did all the moves. The stunts were fun too.”

As high school drew to a close, Robson’s parents had made it clear that not going to college was never an option. Looking for places where she could continue moving and dancing, she auditioned for the dance department at Roger Williams University (RWU) in Bristol, Rhode Island, charmed by the intimacy of the program, with everything housed in one barn.

Asked to present a short solo, she chose one of her competition tap routines. Robson remembers the performance well, laughing good-naturedly at her own naivety at the time. Wearing a purple leotard and black bootie shorts, Robson dove into her routine, fully committed and enthusiastic despite the RWU dance program’s distance from the competition dance world.

The modern dance class that came afterward was, in fact, the first modern dance class Robson had ever taken. She remembers the foreignness of the positions and the vocabulary and, more than anything, the breathing. 

“I just remember thinking, ‘Why are you guys breathing like that?’”

Upon her acceptance, Robson was immersed in the intense and diverse training offered at RWU, and met “the most important person to date” in her life: Kelli Wicke Davis, then head of the dance department. 

“She had this philosophy of ‘throw them in, let them figure it out,’” Robson recalls, speaking of the whirlwind of styles that students in the department encountered thanks to short and intensive residencies from a wide range of visiting artists and choreographers.

Did her perception of her own dancing, and dance in general, changed once at RWU after so many years of dancing in competitions? It wasn’t so much that she noticed that her understanding of dance had changed, she says, but that she felt her body changing. “I remember my body morphing because it had to. How my body moved changed, and I felt that.” This seems indicative of the way Robson connects with her world: from the inside out. “I feel like I dance like I talk,” she laughs.

After four years at RWU and a semester studying abroad in London, Robson began thinking about life after graduation, assuming this meant a return to Tewksbury. Davis, however, had other ideas, and it was thanks to Davis that Robson was introduced to Séan Curran. In fact, when I asked Curran when he first met Robson his answer was 1979: the year he himself met Davis, who had then only just started the dance program at RWU and who encouraged Curran to audition for New York University’s Tisch School dance program.

“Kelli would recommend someone all the time,” Curran explained. “One of these people happened to be Christina.” Not thinking about hiring a new dancer, Curran still encouraged Davis to send Robson to New York upon her graduation in 2009, where she could take his class and he could offer any help or advice needed. 

“I was happy to meet this person,” he says, “but I didn’t think it would amount to much. And then it was Christina Robson.”

Christina Jane Robson
photo by Ben Blumenfeld

Robson had no intention of living in New York. She remains surprised by the series of events that led to her move here. After Curran’s suggestion to just “get here and try it,” Robson packed a backpack and boarded a Megabus. She spent that first summer rehearsing with Curran’s company. Almost five years later she’s still here, and still dancing for Curran along with a plethora of other dancemakers.

Robson, Curran says, has changed his life. What makes her so special? 

“It's her humor, her sense of wonder,” he explains. “She’s easy to laugh and she’s easy to cry.” He calls it her willingness to “sit in her emotions,” and that makes her an essential presence in the studio. “You know the saying, a lesson learned with humor is a lesson remembered? Christina embodies that,” he says.

Monica Bill Barnes, another New York dancer and choreographer who first met Robson at Bates Dance Festival in Maine in 2009, speaks with similar enthusiasm and admiration. 

“She is a complete treasure to work with,” Barnes says. Asking Robson to work with her was one of the easiest choices she’s had to make. “She is hilarious and she is good-natured,” Barnes notes. “She has the right heart and grit to not just make it, but to enjoy the process, and it takes a certain level of grit.”

Listening to Robson talk about her dance career, though, “grit” doesn’t even seem to factor in. Joy bubbles in her voice, and her amazement and gratitude that she gets to dance everyday completely overshadows any fatigue or frustration that might surface naturally with such a physically, and often emotionally challenging profession. “She would go without sleep,” Curran notes. “She is so hungry to keep moving and keep dancing.”

And others are hungry for more of Robson. “I’m not the only one who loves her. Everyone wants her, and she wants to do everything,” Curran says. “She wants to dance and she dances for everyone who asks her. I’m always afraid I’ll lose her.”

Robson’s days are usually full of dancing, but that's not all. Her escape is as delightful as it is unexpected: flowers. 

“Sometimes it's so easy to get tunnel vision dance eyes,” she says. “I definitely crave another perspective or another creative medium when I find I'm drowning in dance moves.”

Robson traces her love of flowers back to the garden her mother and father kept when she was a child and, while growing up, her occasional assistance with her church's flower arrangements. In New York, Robson continued exploring the art of floral arrangements and learning the business.

“I love to work with my hands, and I loved visual arts,” she explains. (At RWU, she had initially pursued a double major in Dance and Visual Arts and had experience with painting, drawing and sculpture. When, during her first year in the city, she passed the Flowers of the World's studio, her interest was piqued. “I loved their spare, minimalist floral design. So I wrote them.”

“I wasn't looking for pay, just knowledge. They wrote me back and told me to come learn. So I went a few times and got a few skills under my belt.” 

As her dance career picked up, time for flowers faded away, though Robson remained very much fascinated by them and interested in their design. It wasn’t until last year, when she saw a Groupon deal for flower arranging classes at Studio Sweet Pea in the East Village, that Robson was able to jump into it again.

“My hands were itching to get back to work, and dance was slow at the moment.” She wrote the studio owner, Lisa Fireman Dorhout, and interviewed to apprentice. “We hit it off immediately. I learned so much about the business as a whole as well as details of design and event work from Lisa. She became a very good friend and mentor.”

“It is so satisfying to create pieces with a live, natural medium. Each stem is unique in its color and shape,” she explains. 

Robson finds countless similarities between her work with flowers and dance. “There are so many similarities in how we shape choreography and how we shape a floral piece: They both work with shape and color and dynamics, how the different stems play off one another or blend, how to balance the energy, how to draw the eye through the piece.”

“I absolutely love it,” she says. “If I weren't dancing I would have my own shop, one hundred percent. Maybe just not in New York. Too much speed and too much pressure.”

Christina Jane Robson
photo by Melody Ruffin Ward

I am struck by how applicable these words about flowers are to Robson’s approach to her own dancing. 

“I see the body as an overflowing vessel of ever-changing qualities,” she explains. As she dances—the curve of her long limbs in a legato phrase dropping into a grounded, punctuated step, her strong controlled balances offset by moments of juicy release—she shapes the space around her, just as she might shape an arrangement of hydrangeas. It’s dynamic and surprising, with a curious phrasing and exploration of rhythm that undoubtedly comes from her tap days.

As a teacher, Robson is also in the midst of shaping a unique class sequence. Though she did not begin teaching regularly until about a year ago, her class already has a distinctive flow and feel to it. Barnes, who has taken Robson’s class, sees maturity in her class sequence that one would not expect from such a young dancer and teacher. 

“I really feel like it was one of the most clearly articulated, thoughtful, intelligent classes that I’ve taken in a long time,” Barnes says. “I think she’s quite extraordinary as a teacher.”

Robson’s first taste of teaching–in 2010 at her alma mater–was a bit terrifying, she admits. She was surprised that anyone wanted to hear what she had to say. Davis was present and Curran was in attendance, and Robson remembers her meticulous lesson notes, which she checked constantly throughout the class.

Since that class Curran has continued to act as a mentor to Robson in her teaching, and for that she is incredibly thankful. “I think that discourse between old and new teachers about how to teach is so important,” Robson says. It seems that this discourse is paying off. “She is becoming a fabulous teacher,” Curran affirms. “All the NYU kids just want Christina!”

About a year ago, Kendra Portier, another Robson mentor and for whom she often dances, let the young artist substitute teach some of her classes at DNA, the beginning of Robson’s regular teaching commitment. When her nerves started acting up, or attendance was low, Portier offered steady support and encouragement, remembering that it took months before she, Portier, had gathered her own regular group of students.

Now, with a weekly class at Peridance Capezio Center and occasional stints at Gibney Dance Center, Robson has collected a loyal group of admiring students. One of them, Michelle Rose, who first met Robson through her administrative work with Barnes, says, “I know I have a lot to learn from her. I think she has a real gift for being able to explain something and have it make sense, without becoming too ‘teacher-ish.’”

Robson believes that she, too, learns a lot from her own teaching.

“I feel like I’ve had the most growth since college,” she says. “You need to be so clear, and show what you’re trying to convey through both metaphor and physicality.”

It has also been a humbling experience. “I’m letting people witness failure in my own body,” she explains. Now she feels more comfortable about improvising and being watched. Robson dances throughout her classes, feeling that because of this experience—of being “inside” the class with her students—she can lead the group thoughtfully and intelligently through each physically challenging and creatively stimulating sequence. “I’m physically experiencing class and then relaying that information live,” she says.

Curran notes, “She’s in her body. Not all dancers are in their bodies the way she is.”

Of the class sequence itself, Robson admits that it often feels a bit like “ping pong.” Always sporting a track jacket zipped up to the chin--Curran lovingly calls this the “ragamuffin chic kind of rehearsal look”--Robson begins her class with around 30 minutes of non-stop movement, jumping from guided improvisations, to something closer to fitness conditioning, then to yoga, then to ballet. She follows this with a handful of smaller, more technically-focused exercises. Everything ends with a gigantic, full-bodied phrase that sends student flying through the space, letting them draw on all the sensations gathered in the previous hour.

Robson--a dancer from no specific school or lineage and one who has skipped from hockey, to tap, to cheerleading, and to modern dance--knows the importance of being, as she calls herself, a “keeper of all sorts of languages.”

“Nobody can just dance for one person anymore,” she explains, “And there’s something kind of gritty and awesome about being a mutt.”

“I’m trying to figure out how many different ways I can challenge my body instantaneously,” she elaborates. Her classes, therefore, are structured just as she might structure an intricate flower arrangement—lots of different shades, colors, textures, and details all woven together to create a vibrant, unified whole.

That said, Robson is not interested in any kind of final product when it comes to class, rehearsals, or life, for that matter. 

“She is very into the process, whether she’s in the class or teaching the class,” Curran explains. “Christina is a dancer who is interested in the making and doing.”

Just as flowers whither and fade, a dance exists in one moment and is gone in the next. Robson, however, is unfazed by such a dilemma. 

One day, while guiding a class through a sensory-based improvisation, Robson stopped everyone and encouraged us to live in each movement, find something new and surprising in each moment, to let go of deciding, to not think ahead to our next choice. 

“Now, now, now,” she chanted like a mantra as she sailed through the air.

Being around Robson, it’s easier to let go of the stresses of everyday life and of the expectations we have for each other and ourselves, and to just find a childlike joy in and fascination with the present. Robson reminds us to live fully aware and conscious in the “now,” because, although moments pass, and what was strong and vital inevitably wilts, something new and wonderful always blooms afterward.


Christina Robson began her dance training in her small hometown of Tewksbury, Massachusetts studying with Tammy Aspell of Tammy's Dance Connection. She graduated Summa Cum Laude from Roger Williams University in 2009 where she studied Dance Performance and Visual Arts. In the Fall of 2007, Christina studied abroad in London and trained at The Place. Christina currently has the joy of working with folks like Seán Curran Company, Monica Bill Barnes and Company, Alexandra Beller Dances, Heidi Henderson/Elephant Jane Dance, Kendra Portier | Band Portier, David Dorfman Dance and an artist's collective called The Space We Make.

In addition to continuing to pursue her professional performance career, Christina has also started making her own work., creating her first two original works on students at Colby Sawyer College and at Roger Williams University, where she will be returning this Winter 2014 to premiere her first evening of works.

Christina is thrilled to have most recently had the opportunity to teach at Dance New Amsterdam (DNA), Roger Williams University, Gibney Dance Center, New York University Tisch School of the Arts (SADC), Hofstra University and Peridance Center.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Thanks for submitting your comment! We screen comments before posting them on our site but hope to have yours approved and posted within the next 24 hours.