When the pandemic hit in March 2020, Elisa Clark stopped taking dance class. She had retired from full-time dancing when she left Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater in 2017, after a career that included dancing with the Lar Lubovitch Company and the Mark Morris Dance Group. Since then, her career has shifted more broadly to teaching, coaching, and directing rehearsals, with scattered freelance performances in between. Her last time on stage was in February of 2020 and, like many dancers during the uncertain days of dark theaters, she thought that maybe that’d be it. She was in her 40s, pursuing new endeavors, and why would she want to do pliés over Zoom if she didn’t have to?
But in November 2021, she accepted an unexpected invitation to return to the stage with the Mark Morris Dance Group for their March 24-27 run of Morris’ L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato at BAM – a role she hasn’t danced in ten years. The Problem: she was out of shape. L’Allegro is Morris’ opus – a two-act piece with an hour and forty-five minutes of dancing – and Clark was going to be hopping into rehearsals with dancers who had been taking Zoom and in-person classes every day for the past two years. The solution: Clark connected with trainers Andrew Schaeffer and Antoine Simmons who happened to be pursuing a case study focused on how strength-training can help prolong a dancer’s career. They trained her for free, three days a week, from December 30-March 4, tracking her progress along the way.
This was no simple endeavor to take on, emotionally or physically. Observer spoke with Clark, as well as with Schaeffer and Simmons, to hear about the lengths it takes to get back in performance-ready shape at her age and at this stage of her career for a piece as challenging as L’Allegro.
Why did you decide to return to L’Allegro?
Clark: This was the first work of Mark’s that I ever learned and performed, and it was also one of the first works of his that I had ever seen live – it’s what made me want to join his company. It’s not always the case that a dancer has the opportunity to perform a work early in their career, and then the chance to revisit that same work towards the end. This is a full-circle moment for me for which I am very grateful.
Did you have any hesitation about agreeing to do this?
Clark: I wasn’t sure. I had these questions of “Can I physically even do it?” “Wouldn’t it be great to just sit back and watch the show?” But I was hired by the company to help with an audition, and revisiting the material and being back in the studio with my colleagues, that made me really want to do this. Once I agreed, I started to get excited and I had time to plan how to get back in shape. But it also felt daunting.
What kind of cross-training have you done to stay in shape in the past?
Clark: Mostly yoga, I would find a yoga studio to take class in every city we ever toured.
Why did you decide to do strength-training?
Clark: I talked with one of my physical therapists, Marissa Schaeffer [Andrew’s wife], about getting back in shape, and she got me to consider strength-training. I knew I needed to get back into a routine of taking class, but also that I needed a lot more than that.
Andrew and Antoine, why did you want to work with Elisa?
Simmons: Andrew and I have talked a lot about the culture of dance and how to introduce what we do into that culture. We really thought it would be interesting to work one on one with a dancer, particularly someone who hadn’t danced in a long time or was at the tail end of their career, and introduce strength training to them and see what the outcome would be. Our belief, backed up by extensive research, is that strength training can prolong a dancer’s career, as well as prevent injury.
Schaeffer: We also think that there will be performance benefits. From a research perspective, it’s a ways away from finding out if we can quantify what we consider “performance” to mean and then to see if strength training helps one perform better. But we do believe that if dancers are stronger, they will perform better.
How did the training work?
Simmons: We started with an assessment to set a baseline. We made her do a single-leg hop test to see how far she could jump on one leg, we measured her vertical jump height, had her do a squat endurance test, and a single-leg relevé endurance test. Then in training, I focused more on unilateral, single-leg work and core work and Andrew focused more on basic strength-training – adding heavy loads and seeing how she could handle it.
Schaeffer: We know the injury rates for dancers – lower-extremity, knees, ankles – so we knew we were going to do more lower body than upper body. We based our training on what research tells us is the most helpful for dancers.
What were the results?
Schaeffer: Elisa added 8 inches to her right leg hop, 7 inches to her left leg. She added about ¾ of an inch to her vertical jump. She also added three reps to her relevé endurance test.
Elisa, what was training like for you?
Clark: The lifting of weights was exciting to me because it was different. It was a completely different entryway into my body – deadlifts, squats holding a kettlebell, back squats with a barbell. And it was helpful that there was so much communication with Antoine and Andrew about how all of this supports dancers, and an overall emotional well-being approach to it all.
What is your take away from this experience?
Clark: Strength training has helped me feel connected and organized, and, similarly, returning to perform in L’Allegro also allows me to feel connected and organized. Feeling the connection to others – to my wonderful cast mates, crew and staff at MMDG, and to the audience; and feeling organized as it relates to living fully in my purpose and being a part of something greater than oneself. I have no doubts that the brilliance of L’Allegro will provide some much needed healing to everyone who experiences it, whether it is euphoric, transcendent, fleeting, or life-changing.
What’s after this for you?
Clark: I hope to return to the show I was doing in February of 2020, Happy Hour with Monica Bill Barnes and Company. But this training has been incredibly beneficial to my body and my health overall, not just for the strength and endurance it takes to dance L’Allegro, but for teaching and for daily life. I feel differently just walking to the train. I’m not sure it’s sustainable to keep training this way if I’m not dancing full time, but I’m feeling really good physically, and it’s just great to know that people are interested in wanting me to dance with them.