Frost Amphitheater

By Chiara Giovanni

Stanford Live will present its latest commissioned piece Transverse Orientation, an experiential new work by Greek director Dimitris Papaioannou. Photo by Julian Mommert 

After over a year of isolation, three dance commissions premiering at Stanford Live next season seek to transform narratives of death, loss, and human physicality.

The last 14 months have been deeply traumatic, leaving an impact on the lives of ordinary people in the United States like few other events in living memory. As the COVID-19 pandemic slowly but steadily draws to a close in this country, with vaccination rollouts expanding and states easing their social-distancing restrictions, we are left with the task of reckoning with what it means to return to an existence unconstrained by fear of illness. Collectively, we have experienced so much trauma and loss that any process of easing back into the life that existed for us prior to the onset of the pandemic will be a slow journey of reconciliation, particularly with the idea that some facets of everyday life will be irrevocably altered. As we simultaneously grieve and hope, it will be essential for us to practice forgiveness of ourselves and of one another if we are slower than expected to “return to normal.”

In light of this paradoxically somber and hopeful moment in our country’s history, Stanford Live’s commissioned programs—new works that receive support from numerous organizations and funders throughout the pieces’ development—premiering in the 2021–22 season are especially apt in their examination of reconciliation and death. These concepts also run through the entirety of Stanford Live’s current curatorial praxis, from the statement of land recognition in the 2020–21 season brochure to the commitment to uplifting artists who center an engagement with reconciliation and forgiveness in their work. The discourse relating to oppression over the last year has demonstrated the need to empower artists who reckon with not only current stories of racial marginalization but also long-standing violent legacies of colonialism and globalization. Reconciliation, in the case of these artists’ work, is not solely about engaging in dialogue with communities whose voices are often unheard in mainstream art spaces: it is also about acknowledging the grief that accompanies great loss, whether of individuals, civilizations, or creative memory. Just as our country now must come to terms with the suffering and struggle of the last year, the commissions that will at last come to fruition on stage invite us to consider how the concept of reconciliation can be both deeply painful and profoundly healing.

The first show to be canceled due to COVID-19 in February 2020, Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring is scheduled for winter 2022 at Stanford Live. Photo courtesy of Sadler’s Wells

More strikingly still, for a nation emerging from a year of not being able to access physical touch and intimacy, many of these commissions will spotlight embodied movement as a mode through which to explore these ideas: three major dance commissions will all see their U.S. premiere at Stanford in the coming months. Executive director Chris Lorway acknowledges the irony of dance’s centrality to the first season after the pandemic. “Dance is such a physical medium, often involving bodies intertwining with one another. It’s something that we, as humans, are afraid of right now and are going to have to relearn. Seeing bodies coming together and interacting with one another is a model for how we, as a society, come back and interact.”

Nowhere is the embodied tension between death and rebirth more explicit than in Chinese dance legend Yang Liping’s Rite of Spring. Visually spectacular and sensorially luxurious, this Buddhist reimagining of Stravinsky’s masterpiece places the theme of reconciliation with the cyclicity of life and death front and center. While most versions of The Rite of Spring emphasize the victimhood of the sacrificial maiden, renowned choreographer Yang’s fierce adaptation chooses instead to highlight her power and agency. Though the performance operates at a grand scale, dancers’ bodies writhing together to represent animals and seasons, it also speaks at a deep level to universal themes of the individual human experience, like self-sacrifice and desire. For Lorway, Yang’s production is fitting for Stanford Live’s first postpandemic season both for this thematic universality and because this work was the first to be canceled due to COVID-19. Rite of Spring’s premiere (tentatively in January 2022) at Stanford Live looks to be a healing experience for artists and audiences alike.

Dance company A.I.M.’s artistic director Kyle Abraham and pioneering music producer Jlin also tackle themes of death and rebirth in Requiem: Fire in the Air of the Earth, a work co-commissioned by Stanford Live, Lincoln Center’s Mostly Mozart Festival, and the University Musical Society of the University of Michigan. This choreographic reimagining of Mozart’s Requiem in D Minor is scheduled to premiere at Stanford Live in December 2021 following the company’s one-week residency on campus. Abraham, a choreographer and MacArthur Fellow, cleverly sidesteps any literalist fixation with the requiem—as a mass for the dead or a harbinger of Mozart’s own death—to engage more radically with concepts of emotion and afterlife. Together with Jlin, he deconstructs a piece that remains a perennial favorite of classical music lovers to transform it into an electronic dance score that centers ritual, mourning, and rebirth. In keeping with the theme of reconciliation, Abraham and Jlin honor history and tradition while creating fresh, embodied opportunities for new generations of spectators to experience classical music as a mode of Black storytelling.

MacArthur Fellow Kyle Abraham and his dance company A.I.M (Abraham in Motion) will be at Stanford with electronic musician and composer Jlin for a two-week residency ahead of their reimagined performance of Mozart‘s Requiem in D Minor at Stanford Live. Photo of Kyle Abraham (left) courtesy of A.I.M and photo of Jlin (right) by Madhumita Nandi

Just as Abraham’s reenvisioned Requiem is distinct from but nonetheless contextualized within the past year’s mass mourning for Black victims of state violence, so too is it impossible to extricate Greek stage director Dimitris Papaioannou’s Transverse Orientation from the isolation and disruption of the COVID-19 pandemic. This meditation on the childlike vulnerability of the human body from one of Europe’s most enigmatic and experimental choreographers eschews any desire for easy answers, prizing visual poetics over clean plotlines. Lorway describes the experience of seeing Papaioannou’s playful, experiential work as one of the rare moments in which he has encountered an artist who has a completely different way of looking at the world. “I don’t want to say that we become jaded as programmers, but there are very few times where I walk into a theater space and walk out feeling as though I’ve seen something new for the first time. That’s how I felt [with Papaioannou] and knew he was an artist we wanted to work with.”

In the face of so much fear and isolation as we have moved through the pandemic, Stanford Live’s upcoming dance commissions provide a much-needed combination of comfort and risk through thematic universality and aesthetic splendor. As we continue to negotiate what our engagement with the outside world looks like and begin to grapple with the trauma of the past year, these artists’ focus on reconciliation, vulnerability, and loss can help us come to terms with what we have collectively experienced.


Chiara Giovanni is a writer and PhD candidate at Stanford University. She is working on an essay collection about desire, intimacy, and care. You can find her at @carambalache.