May 22, 2023

Abigail Yager’s contemporary dance work creates a catalyst for change in her artform

Associate Professor of Contemporary Dance Abigail Yager remembers the evening she accepted the 2022 New York Dance and Performance Award (popularized as "Bessies") for Outstanding Revival. Yager had directed "Set and Reset/Reset", a generative project that re-choreographs Trisha Brown's seminal 1983 work "Set and Reset" for Candoco, a London-based dance company composed of dancers both with and without disabilities. As she and co-director Jamie Scott accepted the award for "Set and Reset/Reset," she spoke with gratitude for the changing landscape of the artform:

"[This ceremony] bears witness to the rightful inclusion and immense beauty of those dancers whose physicality defies convention and expectation within the dance world," she said from the stage while also acknowledging the many collaborators who made the work possible.

Abigail Yager (left) accepts Bessie Award for Outstanding Revival with co-director of "Set and Reset/Reset" Jamie Scott. / Photo: Maria J. Hackett

For Yager, the Bessies ceremony was a culmination of more than a decade of work with "Set and Reset/Reset"—a project that complements her eight years as a Trisha Brown Dance Company member. "The richness of information that lives in me comes from working with the people who came before me," Yager explains, "people who for nearly 30 years have been continually informing my practice."

"I was just always dancing," says Yager, reflecting on her childhood. "I never thought I wanted to be a dancer; I just knew that I would be one." One of her earliest memories was that of seeing famed dancer, choreographer, and teacher, Pearl Lang, take the stage. "She and her husband, Joe Wiseman were my mother's godparents. I remember first seeing Pearl dance and sitting with her afterwards when I was just two or three. I was smitten and the intensity of her beauty has lived with me always…I never doubted that that's what I wanted to do."

This early love of dance led to studying dance composition, art history and philosophy at Mount Holyoke College. After graduating with a degree in Compositional Practice, she leapt into professional dance work and found her way to Trisha Brown Dance Company.

Yager directed Trisha Brown's M.O. Expert for Spring Dance 2022. Dancers: Claire Schiffer (B.F.A. ’24) and Madisyn Montgomery (B.F.A. ’23) / Photo: Rosalie O'Connor

Yager describes working in the Company as conducting an archaeological dig: "You never went in and were simply taught your role—this is what movement you do and when you do it," she says. "Trisha developed unique vocabularies for each of her pieces through an improvisational practice that would often last several months.

"Dancers working with Trisha in this process would "catch" small nuggets of material and explore where they might lead, then receive more, building and discarding repeatedly as the new vocabulary emerged.

"So much was discarded," says Yager. "But the nuggets that remained were like distillations of everything that came before. So, that when learning one's role, even in repertory that had been created years prior, we always went back to the 'building tapes' studying the layers of the discarded material for insight and perspective into the movement that remains." "Set and Reset" and, later, "Set and Reset/Reset" follow a similar iterative process.

"Of course I danced in ‘Set and Reset," Yager says, smiling, adding that she performed two of the seven roles in the signature work during her time as a Company member. She describes the piece as exciting, like a kaleidoscope with multiple pathways to explore. Its continuous re-construction now allows for even greater pathways to emerge for new and diverse troupes.

The "Set and Reset/Reset" project long predates Yager's work with Candoco. It was developed by UNCSA alumna and current Associate Artistic Director of Trisha Brown Dance Company Carolyn Lucas (H.S. Dance '80) and Lance Gries, both former Company members, for the curriculum of the Research Cycle at P.A.R.T.S. contemporary dance school in Brussels. "Set and Reset/Reset" isn't technically considered a revival in the dance industry because it does not teach an established piece of choreography to a new set of dancers. Instead, the piece is re-built and re-made with new choreography each time. Therefore, each iteration is an original work and a new opportunity for directors and dancers alike.

Yager remained a steward of Brown's work long after her time as a Company member, embarking on a teaching career with Taipei National University of the Arts, American Dance Festival, Korean National University of the Arts and, later, UNCSA. She first directed a "Set and Reset/Reset," project at the Taipei National University of the Arts, and subsequently worked on several different iterations of "Set and Reset/Reset," at P.A.R.T.S co-directing with Gries. In 2011, Candoco invited her to work with their dancers and the piece was ultimately re-choreographed four times over the last decade as dancers left the Company and new dancers took their place.

In Candoco's first iteration of "Set and Reset/Reset," one Company member, Dan Daw, a standing dancer with hypertonic/spastic cerebral palsy, was eventually replaced in the Company with Joel Brown, a seated dancer in a wheelchair, who is paralyzed from the fourth thoracic vertebra (T4) down.

Describing the iterative process, Yager says it's not about slotting a new person in and adapting what they do to what the previous dancer did: "All of a sudden we have someone who moves with circular wheels in a square chair…how the physical weight of his body, in partnership with the architecture of the chair, responds to external impulses is going to yield very different possibilities."

Yager's most recent iteration of "Set and Reset/Reset" for Candoco was performed at Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in April 2022, the same venue where "Set and Reset" premiered in 1983. It was this full-circle performance that garnered the subsequent Bessie nomination and win.

Yager joined the contemporary dance faculty at UNCSA in 2012 after connecting with Associate Dean of Contemporary Dance Brenda Daniels at the American Dance Festival. The dichotomy of history and the present is a hallmark of her teaching practice:"We’re answering the basic question of why history is important. It isn't something to learn about that was in the past," she says. "History remains embodied within us in the present. We all study many different forms, and how we practice and how we teach is an amalgamation of that."

Yager joined the contemporary dance faculty at UNCSA in 2012. / Photo: G. Allen Aycock

Success, to Yager, isn't a student simply looking at what their arm is doing in a particular piece of choreography, but rather understanding why their arm is doing that and how it was informed by past experience and knowledge.

She also draws from her years of international travel and living abroad in Taipei to create opportunities for students: "I see the value of going away as perspective on yourself and home," Yager says.

For seven years, she led an international study abroad trip for UNCSA Dance students to attend the Kyoto Festival and Movement Lab Taipei, followed by a four-day retreat to reflect and realign. Each year, students from Japan traveled to UNCSA for Intensive Arts. This exchange ended in 2019, yet opportunities abound for the future as Yager strives to encourage conscious artists who draw from their lived experiences to steer their artmaking.

She received a 2020 UNCSA Excellence in Teaching Award, for which a student nominator wrote: "Abby taught me not only what it means to be a dancer in the modern world, but also to be a conscious artist and an advocate of kindness and social awareness… She knew when to teach and also when to listen. I can say without a doubt in my mind that what I have learned from Abby Yager—about dance, humanity, and life as a greater existential theme—will stick with me for the rest of my life."

Will "Set and Reset/Reset" be performed at UNCSA in the future? "Maybe," says Yager. She has brought other Trisha Brown works to the School of Dance in the past, such as "From Within and Beyond the Cube: Variations on Locus" for Spring Dance in 2021, which offered a fresh take on Brown's iconic work, "Locus."

Reflecting on her experience with Candoco and how it continues to inform her work with students, Yager says it taught her not only about working with disabled dancers but also about working with typically-abled dancers. "It made me fully appreciate how each and every one of us moves differently, processes information differently and has something valuable to offer," says Yager.

"When we embrace those differences, when we see them as opportunities rather than as departures from the norm, we open the door to incredible possibilities."

by Hannah Callaway


June 05, 2023

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