A dance to the future

Artist Next Door:
Choreographer Sydney Skybetter embraces the Web

Sydney Skybetter works with dancers. Photo by Kokyat.

Sydney Skybetter works with dancers. Photo by Kokyat.

Hank Hoffman

Dance has been in Sydney Skybetter’s blood from an early age. When he was young, his family moved around a lot, but Skybetter’s mother was “sure to find the best ballet studio – anybody with a direct lineage to the Ballets Russes was acceptable!”

From “Martha Graham expatriates in Michigan” to a “tumbling class in Florida,” Skybetter had a very diverse education in dance prior to entering the conservatory. His training, he says in an interview at his New Haven apartment, “was very broad and then very, very narrow.”

Skybetter studied dance at the Interlochen Arts Academy, Columbia University, and New York University, where he received his MFA in dance performance and choreography.

Eveningland, his most recent work, was premiered at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., in October of last year. Skybetter moved to New Haven last fall with his wife and toddler son and now divides his time between New Haven, New York City, and Washington, D.C.

These days, Skybetter spends “zero percent” of his time dancing, feeling that role is much more ably performed by the dancers of his company, Skybetter and Associates. Having made his name as a rising young choreographer, Skybetter also keeps busy producing and curating dance programs in New York and Pennsylvania (and perhaps Connecticut in the future) for the DanceNOW Festival. With a business partner in New York, he consults extensively with organizations – both cultural nonprofits and for-profit companies – on issues relating to institutional change and the integration of technology.

Sydney Skybetter. Photo by Ramon Estevanell.

Sydney Skybetter. Photo by Ramon Estevanell.

Skybetter gravitated toward choreography early on. Speaking with puckish self-deprecation, he says, “I’ve always been an elitist, pompous aesthete. Even from my teenage years, I was very cranky at what I viewed from my very myopic, puberty-laden prism – I found it very difficult to find work that resonated with me or that I respected.

“The germ of the creative practice was, on the one hand, snobbery. On the other hand, it was the belief that we could do better, that I had something to contribute,” says Skybetter. “Who was I to complain about the state of the art without trying to contribute to it?”

The results, according to Skybetter, are a working method grounded in both a depth of feeling and an appreciation of formalism.

“The depth of feeling was the puberty speaking. But the creative process that emerged around that was one of gradually abstracting and distancing away from that feeling,” says Skybetter. “The resulting works are abstract but contain a kernel of deep feeling that is not legible but palpable.”

As an example, Skybetter offers his recent work Eveningland, which was inspired by his son’s inability to sleep – and hence Skybetter’s and his wife’s inability to sleep. But, Skybetter says, the dance “is not about my son and not about insomnia and not about the day your kid finally sleeps through the night and you feel like a human being again.”

“That would be cathartic in the truest and most classical sense, but I can’t permit that,” says Skybetter. “It’s not my place to tell people having a child is hard. That is not interesting. As such, we undergo a process where I try to stay true to this impulse to express that my First World child-rearing experience is hard but also abstract away from that as much as possible.

“I think of dance more as a means to create a terrain through which an audience can experience their own emotions or narratives or ghosts rather than me expressing some thing,” explains Skybetter.

Mathematics undergirds Skybetter’s formalist approach, an important characteristic of his choreography.

“I had a number of teachers early on who impressed upon me that mathematics is itself a creative form,” he says.

His choice of music is another distinguishing characteristic.

“I only work with scores that affect me in an emotional way but also have complexity undergirding that emotional kernel,” he says. (For Eveningland Skybetter chose David Lang’s Pulitzer Prize-winning The Little Match Girl Passion.)

This is limiting, he acknowledges. “I make very specific dances to very specific pieces of music.”
Skybetter embraces a collaborative creative process, in part as a way to layer the meanings of his work but also “to allow my dancers’ humanity to shine forth from their dancing.” His dancers “do not ‘act’ on stage and do not wear overly theatrical costumes…they are dancers moving in that moment.”

This collaborative process is enabled by contemporary digital technology. Because of the Internet and the ability to visually share ideas in the moment, Skybetter explains, “There are many ways of working that are possible now that weren’t possible five or 10 years ago.” Among the “collaborative, creative tools” available on the Web is Pinterest, a social bookmarking service that Skybetter and his associates – along with fans and followers of the company – use to share creative inspiration.

Technology has facilitated Skybetter’s relocation to New Haven, which was occasioned in part by his wife taking a teaching job at Wesleyan University. Online tools afford the ability to easily interact with colleagues in New York, Washington, D.C., and elsewhere along the Northeast Corridor. But Skybetter contends that New Haven could be a burgeoning dance hub in its own right, citing the efforts of Emily Coates at Yale and several of her colleagues to birth a salon movement.

“New Haven is a bit of a hybrid place, one that’s still emerging,” says Skybetter. “I hope it will be conducive to a kind of future-building, to a kind of utopic thought and action that would be very difficult to accomplish in New York City.”

Skybetter tells me that efforts are afoot to create a new dance venue in New Haven. To do that in New York would involve “bureaucratic hassles” and an “astronomical amount of funding.” In New Haven, on the other hand, “we have the flexibility and latitude to create the kind of spaces we need to make dance relevant to today as opposed to further reifying our own dance history.”

“From every angle every working day, I’m trying to get at this question of dance’s future, and the cultural sector’s future,” Skybetter tells me, “and not passively let that be decided by other interests or by the crappy economy or by the Republican leadership or by my grandmother not understanding what I do for a living.”


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