TEDMED is the medical edition of the famous TED conference. It is dedicated to "ideas worth spreading" and held in two cities (Washington, DC and San Francisco, CA) each year. This past September, Art of Motion Dance Theatre (AOMDT) out of Ridgewood, NJ, was one of 50 organizations selected from a list of over 1,600 to perform during TEDMED. Originally, it was going to be just a single piece, but the dance troupe wound up playing a role throughout the conference, which simulcasted their performance to over 140 countries. And it all came about because a teacher made a memorable difference in someone's life.
AOMDT Artistic Director Lynn Needle had a Pilates and yoga student named Stacy Lu about 7 years ago. Lu had a little girl who was interested in ballet and began studying with the faculty at Art of Motion, Inc. Needle knew Lu was a freelance writer for the New York Times, but when she moved to Washington, DC, the two lost touch until Needle received a call from out of the blue.
Lu said she was the blog writer for TEDMED and had nominated them for the conference. Her boss had seen their sizzle reel and loved how their repertory programs were a good fit for the breakout sessions planned for the conference. With each connection, the two seemed to be an even better match. Needle decided to push the envelope and told Lu's boss, "These are basically pop-up performances. Why don't we just kind of pop-up and be a surprise throughout TEDMED?"
The gamble worked. TEDMED loved the idea of the unpredictability of the surprise performances. And then she surprised Needle by asking, "Can you perform at the Library of Congress as well? We have a party there and would like you to appear as butterflies."
Needle invited her to company rehearsal where she saw most of their repertory. The company's work includes classical, modern, and street dancers performing original theatrical works by Needle (former soloist of the Nikolais Dance Theatre) and Olivia Galgano, former Principal of Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo inspired by earthly and imaginary worlds. She was then offered the opportunity to curate and select the pieces that she wanted to be performed.
From the opening cocktail party on the roof of the Kennedy Center throughout the conference, it was an amazing experience for the company. At the opening party, they met Jay Walker, the curator and chairman of TEDMED who is best known as the founder of Priceline. The following night, they took part in an special dinner party for the TEDMED participants at the Library of Congress. Since this was on 9/11 in the Capitol, security was very tight so attendees had to go through the equivalent of an airport security check before entering. AOMDT members greeted attendees on line and performed as butterflies. This was to serve as a visual decoy to help people pass the time and enjoy the setting rather than get frustrated that they were simply waiting in line. Once everyone had entered, the dance members morphed and returned in their Shakti and praying mantis costumes and interacted with the guests as performance artists. The next day they performed at the Eisenhower Theatre.
They continued to play a role in the conference by teaching warmup exercises to calm down the scientists and doctors before they went on stage.
"Here are these people that work in the medical and research field and they have to have hair and makeup done and go out and speak with a 6 camera shoot simulcasted to 146 countries," explained Needle. "So, I did these little backstage exercises with them to try to help them be centered before they went on stage."
While the trip sounds perfect so far, Needle did encounter a stumbling block or two. Most noticeably when one of her street dancers slipped and fell off the stage during a performance the night before arriving. He tried hiding the accident from her, but his swollen knee gave it away. Thankfully, they were able to take advantage of the situation — they were in an area with some of the best medical people in the world.
"I had an acupuncturist show up out of nowhere and give him a treatment so he was able to get through the performance," Needle recalled. "It was pretty remarkable. I actually had to change a lot of the choreography the night before to accommodate his knee because he could not put weight on it at all."
The whole experience was very special to Needle, whose father was a doctor and who herself started college taking pre-med classes. She might very well have ended up on the other side of the stage if it wasn't for an internship she had as a sophomore. As a 19 year old, she interned in Colorado for three weeks working with paraplegics, quadriplegics, and inmates who had had strokes in prison. A mixup of paperwork had them believing that Needle was older and more experienced than she actually was. They thought she was already going into medical school, when she had already begun moving towards a major in dance.
"They exposed me to all of these things in a hospital setting; gun shot wounds and working with 17 men that had just lost their range of motion from the neck and waist down. I was overwhelmed at the enormity and the reality of working in a medical therapeutic environment as a dancer. I realized that I wanted to move more into the performing arts while I was still young enough to explore that and I could always move to the medicinal and healing component later on when I was older. So it was very close to me to have this opportunity at TEDMED to make an impact in the medical community as a dancer."
Photo by Jared Harris, TEDMED 2014.
Gary Wien has been covering the arts since 2001 and has had work published with Jersey Arts, Elmore Magazine, Princeton Magazine, Backstreets and other publications. He is a three-time winner of the Asbury Music Award for Top Music Journalist and the author of Beyond the Palace (the first book on the history of rock and roll in Asbury Park) and Are You Listening? The Top 100 Albums of 2001-2010 by New Jersey Artists. In addition, he runs New Jersey Stage and the online radio station The Penguin Rocks. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.