POSTCARDS: Garen Scribner On "American Lyric," Premiering At Kaatsbaan’s Spring Festival On May 27
Hello from Kaatsbaan Cultural Park, an iconic and inspiring haven for world-class dance and arts in New York’s Hudson River Valley! I’m here to present my new work American Lyric, a world-premiere commissioned and created for Kaatsbaan’s Spring Festival, a collaboration between Hunter Noack’s IN A LANDSCAPE: Classical Music in the Wild™ and my production company, GarenMedia. Joining me are brilliant dancers Coral Dolphin (Madonna world tour, Oklahoma on Broadway), Or Schraiber (Batsheva Dance Company), ShanDien 'Sonwai' LaRance (Native American Hoop dancer, Cirque du Soleil's Totem), and Taylor Stanley (Principal Dancer, New York City Ballet).
We’re here because of the generosity and support of many, but none greater than the visionary and unrelenting creative energy that is Sonja Kostich, Kaatsbaan’s Chief Executive and Artistic Officer, who commissioned this work and has helped guide us through over two years of planning and development. American Lyric is Kaatsbaan’s first-ever solo commission in its 30-year history, and the significance of that is not lost on me. I am deeply honored and excited to bring this work to life, in front of a LIVE audience, as part of Kaatsbaan Cultural Park’s 2021 Spring Festival!
Garen Scribner performing in La Traviata at The Metropolitan Opera in 2020. Photo by Marty Sohl.
I’m Garen Scribner, a dancer, producer, and social entrepreneur. I was a soloist with the San Francisco Ballet and artist of Nederlands Dans Theater 1, before appearing as “Jerry” in the Broadway and National Tour productions of Christopher Wheeldon’s An American in Paris. In 2017, I turned my energy towards producing my own work, and since then, I’ve produced 28 episodes of broadcast and streaming Television for NY Public Media, earned an Emmy nomination, and more importantly, raised a bunch of money for some important relief initiatives, like Take The Floor with my buddies James Whiteside and Kim Giannelli.
Today, I want to tell you about American Lyric, taking place on Kaatsbaan’s sylvan grounds, a 150-acre arts paradise in the Hudson River Valley. American Lyric is an immersive experience that convenes an ensemble of diverse and multi-disciplinary dance artists to perform site-specific, self-choreographed dances, as live classical music, played by Hunter Noack (on a Steinway Spirio R Model D piano) is transmitted to audience members via wireless headphones. Audiences will experience both music and dance while wandering—safely distanced—through lush meadows that abut Kaatsbaan's old-growth forests.
The work's title, American Lyric is a nod to Amanda Gorman's inauguration poem, The Hill We Climb. Hunter and I wanted to celebrate a renewed American patriotism, holding with it the promise that new stories of hope, love, kindness and resilience have yet to be written. To me, dancers embody this ethos with an uncommon clarity, illuminating truths and physicalizing them into our collective consciousness. The past 14 months have been tumultuous—and nothing is as it was. It’s up to us to create a brighter, better future, and the time to reset is now. American Lyric is truly a manifestation of this reset.
The idea for American Lyric was born in the Spring of 2018, while I was performing with the band Pink Martini on tour in Palm Springs, CA. I was dancing in a work (along with former NDT dancer Brett Conway), created by choreographer Dana Genshaft, with new music by Pink Martini’s founder and bandleader, Thomas Lauderdale. There, I met another guest artist performing with the group, a world-class concert pianist and truly creative force: Hunter Noack. We hit it off right away, especially when he told me about what he was doing with IN A LANDSCAPE: Classical Music in Wild™, bringing classical music to the outdoors, and to communities who might never step foot inside of a traditional concert hall.
Immediately, I thought of bringing dancers into the mix, immersed into the landscape, performing with and on the land, connected directly to it, as opposed to performing on a traditional dance floor. What would that feel like as a performer, to dance in the grass? What would it feel like for an audience member, encouraged to wander amidst these dances, listening to this gorgeous live music on wireless headphones? These questions catalyzed our 3-year journey of bringing that idea to life.
We needed a location, and support. Instantly, I thought of Kaatsbaan and its lush, rolling green hills, nestled by the Hudson River in the shadow of the Catskill Mountains, less than 2 hours from NYC. As luck would have it, I had recently been introduced to Sonja Kostich, thanks to friend and former Associate Dean of UNCSA, Ryan Hill. Sonja had recently taken the top job at Kaatsbaan, tasked with revitalizing the organization and its programming. I pitched her the concept. I sent her all kinds of videos and blurbs about Hunter, and what kind of dancers I might be able to recruit to perform. We landed on a June 2020 date, perfect!. But then… Well, you know what happened next. March, 2020. Like everything, our project was put on hold.
After Kaatsbaan’s successful 2020 Summer Festival, the prospect of bringing our collaboration to life suddenly had new prospects: It takes place outside, and easily fosters social distancing. Since January, we’ve been feverishly planning every detail of this exciting offering. Joining me are some of my favorite dancers and humans in the world: Coral Dolphin, Or Schraiber, ShanDien 'Sonwai' LaRance, and Taylor Stanley. Our beautiful costumes are by Reid and Harriet Designs. My brother Justin Scribner is stage managing and associate directing. Hunter and I are directing together. I couldn’t be more excited to perform alongside this stellar team. It’s going to be wonderful. But I’m facing my own performance with a hint of nostalgia and reflection.
The last time I danced here at Kaatsbaan was almost 20 years ago, in 2002, as a 16 year-old student in Kaatsbaan’s summer program Extreme Ballet for young ballet students. I’ll save you the math: I’m 36 years old! I’m about to dance again, for an audience—exciting! But the truth is, I’m scared. I haven’t performed in over 14 months, the longest break of my career. My body isn’t the same as it was. At the tail end of February, 2020, while dancing with Sara Mearns in La Traviata at The Met, I injured my foot and immediately underwent a successful surgery (Thanks Dr. Bauman!) to repair it. While I recovered on my sofa during the second week of March, the world around me began to retreat into their homes, too. Enter pandemic. And everything changed.
And I had time to think. A lot of time. I’ve realized that a dancer’s life is a unique combination of reflection and physicality. We reflect on, and breathe new life into ballets that are generations old, or others that have been created to mark life’s most urgent moments—love, loss, death, and joy. The mental and physical space dancers occupy is deeply collaborative and mutually supportive. The pandemic has been, of course, one of the most urgent moments of our generation, and that mutually supportive environment I mentioned? The thing that dance has been for me throughout my life? With the pandemic, coupled with my injury, that mental and physical space evaporated in the blink of an eye. Grappling with that loss has been hard.
Like all dancers, this time has forced me to recalibrate not only my relationship to dance, but my relationship with myself. Those two things are, of course, inextricably linked. I've been dancing since I was a child, when at 7 years old, I performed for the first time in The Nutcracker at the Washington Ballet. Since then, dance has helped define my life, shaping my character and worldview in equal measure. Without the community, ritual, and rigor of regular dancing (class, rehearsal, performances), I was faced with myself, with nothing to distract me.
A flood of questions emerged. I called my therapist. What is dance to me? And who am I without it? Add to that, trying to recover from my foot surgery amidst the limitations of the pandemic, without access to in-person physical therapy, studios, ballet class, gym, body work, gyrotonic, etc., not to mention an almost complete loss of income. I moved out of my home in Brooklyn. I’ve floated, living in 16 different places temporarily over the past 14 months. Everything has been flipped upside-down.
This past year has been full of tragedy and reckoning. I need to acknowledge that, and honor those we have lost, and the families and friends left behind. It has been a crucible, but what has forged out of this time, for me, has been transformational.
Amidst the pandemic (and moving around the country, including 3 New York to California road trips), I created short films like Shelter, and Corps-en-tine and I am Spartacus for The Australian Ballet, and Swan Lake: Cancelled for University of North Carolina School of the Arts. I consulted on Wooden Dimes, a film by Danielle Rowe, created for San Francisco Ballet. I continued to develop long-term film projects, like the documentary I’m producing about the ballerina Tiler Peck. Lastly, my big reach, and something I’ve wanted to do for years: I applied to graduate school. To do this, I connected deeply with my mentors, including Christopher Wheeldon, Debra Bernard, and Sally Glaser, who encouraged and advocated for me during the application process. After an exhaustive, rigorous, and clarifying process, I submitted my application in December of 2020.
In March 2021, I was accepted into my dream program at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. In a matter of months, I’ll be a full-time student, living in Cambridge, MA, pursuing a Master in Public Administration (a leadership, management, ethics, and policy degree). After graduation in May ‘22, my aim is to re-enter the performing arts world with a broader view, and the skills and relationships to help me be of service in the arts and culture sector. For me, building a meaningful and interesting life means connecting my passion for the arts beyond performance, and into philanthropic, civic, and humanitarian spaces. I’m confident that my time at Harvard will be an illuminating experience, and one that will help me in cultivating a meaningful and impactful life and career.
But for now, I’m joyfully in the studios and fields of Kaatsbaan, working through the last-minute details of this exciting premiere. I’m thrilled to be performing again, but there’s a lot on my mind. Producing and performing in your own work is stressful and challenging. I have a million things on my to-do list. I have a team of people to manage and support. I’m not in the kind of shape I used to be. I can’t do the same things I’m used to doing, like big jumps, pirouettes, or extreme floor work. My foot isn’t all the way better, and my back hurts. But I’m beyond grateful to share my work, and my dancing, as it is today. So much goes into the production of a project like this, especially with the infinite and unruly pressures of a global pandemic, but it makes this moment that much more profound for me.
I hope you can join us! But, if you can’t make it in person to Kaatsbaan, don’t worry, we’ve got you covered. Visionary director Jeremy Jacob will be capturing the spirit of the work in a short film, which will be available soon. Stay tuned to Kaatsbaan for more information.
This new work is being created thanks to a Kaatsbaan residency, made possible in part by a generous grant from the Howard Gilman Foundation. Steinway & Sons is generously providing a Spirio R Model D piano for American Lyric. I’d also like to thank Sonja Kostich, Stella Abrera, Richard C. Barker, Anne Kenner, Sally Glaser, Ben Maddox, Tim Dattels, Kristine Johnson, and Sitrin Capital for their outsized generosity and encouragement.
Here’s to a safe, loving, and bright year ahead.
Signing off with love,