Montclair State University’s Peak Performances Showcases New Works

Stephan Crump, Vijay Iyer and Marcus Gilmore of the Vijay Iyer Trio. Photo by Jimmy Katz.

By Susan Wallner
State of the Arts

Peak Performances is Montclair State University’s series of music, theater and dance productions and it is unlike anything you can find almost anywhere, including New York. For one thing, there are nine commissions of new work on their calendar this year, from modern dance and opera to jazz and musical theater. This weekend at MSU’s Alexander Kasser Theater, Peak Performances presents “Fold Here” by Gallim Dance Company; next weekend is “Open City” by the Vijay Iyer Large Ensemble Project.

Vijay Iyer (pronounced Eye-er) is a 41-year-old jazz pianist and composer in the news this week for winning a 2013 MacArthur Genius grant, worth $625,000. It’s the first time many people have heard his name, and it’s a perfect example of Peak Performances supporting emerging artists before they become big names. On hearing about Iyer’s MacArthur Fellowship, Peak Performances producer Jedediah Wheeler said, “Everyone wants to know who I was talking to — nobody! But it’s in the air, it’s in the ether. These are creative people.”

Wheeler prides himself on having the pulse of the next wave. In fact, his experience with the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s “Next Wave” festival is what brought him to the attention of MSU President Susan Cole. Cole’s vision was to “create a performing arts research unit” much as a university would have a science R&D department. When she realized that many of the new works she had seen and liked at BAM’s Next Wave had been produced by Wheeler, she knew she had found the right person to be the executive director of MSU’s Office of Arts and Cultural Programming.

Emily Terndrup of the Gallim Dance Company performs. Photo by Tom Caravaglia.

This guiding philosophy of research and development is at work in this weekend’s world premiere of “Fold Here” by Gallim Dance (pronounced Ga-leem). The artistic director and primary choreographer of Gallim is Andrea Miller, a 31-year-old Brooklynite (and new mom). Vogue describes her work as a blend of “wild-child dynamism with quiet emotional resonance.” Miller, her dancers, a composer, a projection and video designer and a dramaturg were all in residence for three weeks at MSU during the summer of 2013 as they developed “Fold Here” through trial and error. Being able to spend time creating a work in a performance space is extremely rare, and it is one of the primary benefits artists commissioned by Peak Performances receive.

“This is a young, emerging American choreographer,” said Wheeler. “She has, and will continue to have, a singular vision. In many ways she’s inventing and discovering herself at this stage in her life.”

“Fold Here” is an ambitious piece, inspired by a Raymond Carver short story about a blind man guiding a sighted man’s hand as he designs a cathedral, and by Eadweard Muybridge’s 19th century photographic studies of human motion. Simple cardboard boxes are the impetus for ideas that range from the formal and abstract to theatrical storytelling. “A lot of what this piece is about is describing what a box is,” said Miller, “and the goal is to get the magic of what we eventually understand about these boxes and what it reveals about what is contained inside us.”


Gallim Dance choreographer and artistic director Andrea Miller on her new piece “Fold Here.”

Ticket prices are kept low for Peak Performances as an invitation for audiences to take a chance on the new works, often by unfamiliar artists. “We charge $20 for every seat in the house,” said Wheeler. “It’s part of the university’s mission, it’s part of bringing people in and having people feel that the reason they’re there is to understand the creative vision of, in this case, Andrea Miller.”

“Fold Here” is at Montclair State University’s Alexander Kasser Theater through Sunday, Sept. 29. Peak Performances continues its season of world and American premieres with Iyer’s “Open City” on Oct. 4 and 5. New works of dance, music, opera and more are on the schedule through June 2014.

Susan Wallner is an award-winning producer with PCK Media. She is a long-time contributor to State of the Arts, now airing on NJTV Sundays at 8 p.m. and Thursdays at 11:30 p.m.