[Originally published by Calvin Wilson on the front page of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch on November 15, 2013 ]
Dance Company pays tribute to track star Joyner-Kersee: Entertainment
Track and field star Jackie Joyner-Kersee earned quite a few honors in her career, including three Olympic gold medals. But the East St. Louis native is poised to be recognized in a whole new way.
Joyner-Kersee is the inspiration for “Seven,” a dance piece to debut this weekend at the Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center.
“I’m very honored, and I’m also very humbled,” Joyner-Kersee said after watching an excerpt from “Seven” in September, when it was still a work in progress.
“It’s just really phenomenal,” she said.
Named for the heptathlon — the seven-part track and field event at which Joyner-Kersee excelled — the piece celebrates the skill and perseverance that made her a sports icon.
Along with music, the soundtrack to “Seven” includes audio snippets of Joyner-Kersee and sports commentators.
“I come here to take care of business,” she can be heard saying at one point. “And when I get in those starting blocks, I’m ready to go.”
New York-based choreographer Jennifer Archibald created the piece for “Uprising,” the season-opening program of the Touhill’s resident dance company, MADCO.
Stacy West, executive and artistic director of MADCO, said that basing a dance piece on a living person posed “a huge challenge.”
“There’s always the risk that the person you’re basing it on won’t like it,” she said. “I think we were all nervous when Jackie came to the studio to see it. Would she like it? Would she ask us to change some things?
“We were all pleasantly surprised when we saw tears and smiles.”
Joyner-Kersee said her reaction to the piece was, “Wow.”
“It was emotional for me,” she said, adding that at first she “didn’t quite understand” why anyone would want to create a dance about her. But “Stacy stayed with it, and I’m so glad she did.”
“The great thing I love about dance is that it helps you to visualize the movements you’re asking your body to do,” said Joyner-Kersee, who as a young girl studied modern and African dance. “It was very important to me, growing up and wanting to be a really great track athlete.”
Archibald, who has a background in sports, spent time in St. Louis honing the piece with the company’s dancers.
A Toronto native, Archibald is founder and artistic director of the Arch Dance Company in New York. West said she considered other choreographers for the assignment, but was impressed with Archibald’s enthusiasm and ideas.
“On pieces like this, some choreographers would tend to make up movements that border on pantomime,” West said. “But I was pretty confident that I had the right person before we started.”
Archibald said it was important to her to get to the essence of Joyner-Kersee’s story.
“Anything that I could find about her was definitely essential to me creating movement that was truthful,” she said. “I read her autobiography, and I made sure that I did a lot of research online.”
As part of the process of creating the piece, the choreographer also conducted an interview with Joyner-Kersee, who retired from sports in 2001 and in recent years has been involved in philanthropic work.
“There’s a softness about her,” Archibald said. “But she’s such a hard-core athlete. I wanted to pick up those nuances in her personality and bring them to life.”
“Seven” was commissioned by R. Scott and Robbie Van Nest, owners of the Sports Medicine and Training Center.
“I’ve always thought that the true tribute to (Joyner-Kersee) would be somehow capturing the grace and beauty of what she did on the athletic field, and putting that to music in some sort of dance,” said R. Scott Van Nest, who has been a physical therapist to both Joyner-Kersee and MADCO.
Dance is similar to sports, Archibald said, in that “it can be emotionally draining when you completely dedicate yourself to the art.”
“I used to play competitive basketball before I moved to New York City, and the athletic world was a huge part of my childhood,” she said. “The idea of walking into a gym, the level of competition and the physicality — I ‘get’ that. I think a lot of people underestimate how physical dance is.”
Joyner-Kersee said she sees no difference between the demands made on athletes and dancers.
“I see the same determination and work ethic,” she said. “The ups and downs, the highs and lows, are all in trying to be the best that you can be. You see that gracefulness in the dancers, and you know that that movement is flowing, just like water running down a river.”
Involved in sports from an early age, Joyner-Kersee, 51, has been called the greatest female athlete of all time. Last year, she came in at No. 3 on ESPN’s list of “40 greatest female athletes.”
That’s a lot for a work of art to live up to, but Van Nest said that for him, “Seven” more than meets expectations.
“We really want this to be something that Jackie can be extremely proud of,” he said. “She has always been a class act, and we want this dance to reflect that.”
The “Uprising” program will also include works by choreographers Lindsay Hawkins (a former MADCO dancer), James Robey and Mikey Thomas, along with a Pilobolus piece called “Land’s Edge” that MADCO recently performed as part of “New Dance Horizons II” at the Touhill.
But “Seven” is the main event.
“This piece is not only an inspiration to me, but, hopefully, it will be an inspiration to many who will come and see it,” Joyner-Kersee said.
When • 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday
Where • Blanche M. Touhill Performing Arts Center, University of Missouri-St. Louis, 8001 Natural Bridge Road
How much • $25
More info • 314-516-4949 or touhill.org