Best of 2018

What I’m noticing these days is the quality of attention that is invited (or demanded) by any given performance. Other than that very subjective standard, this list is, of course, limited by what I’ve actually been able to see this year.

Ailey’s 60th Knocks It Out of the Park
The company has stretched in many directions under Robert Battle while still preserving its heritage. During this 60th-anniversary season, they struck it rich with world premieres from Rennie Harris and Jessica Lang and a company premiere of Wayne McGregor. Ronald K. Brown made his seventh luscious ballet for the company, and the Robert Battle evening showed what how powerful Battle is as a choreographer—and witty too.

Rennie Harris’ Lazarus rises from utter despair to infectious joy. Hints of lynchings are rendered subtly, eliciting feelings that linger. The vocabulary seems to draw from a wide range of black vernacular—I thought I saw more gumboot than hip hop.

Lazarus by Rennie Harris, Daniel Harder in center, photo Paul Kolnik

In Jessica Lange’s EN, a circle is an eclipse, a moon, a pendulum, a gathering point, and a symbol of life cycles. Jacub Ciupinsky’s percussive score has unexpected spare moments that allow reflection, time for breathing and listening amidst the symphonic choreography.

Jessica Lang’s EN, photo Paul Kolnik

Wayne McGregor’s Kairos: If you could picture watching human fireflies through a musical staff, that’s the opening. This is a softer look for McGregor. The women are strong and the men are affectionate with each other. The choreographic flow is entirely engaging.

Kairos by Wayne McGregor, photo Paul Kolnik

More than that, this anniversary gave us a chance to reflect on the long-term effects of Ailey’s success. The company tours extensively, spreading seeds of inspiration all over the world. (At the recent Dance Magazine Awards, both Ronald K. Brown and Crystal Pite told stirring stories of how Ailey was the spark that made them want to dance.) The company continues to cultivate fantastic dancers, and the audiences are more racially integrated than at any other dance event. These are huge, ongoing gifts. Thank you.

Jane Comfort: Still Telling It Like It Is
The 40th-anniversary program at La MaMa showed that she’s been dealing with issues of race and gender—with directness and humor—for decades. A vibrant cast performed superb selections from her oeuvre, with co-direction by Leslie Cuyjet and Sean Donovan. Bravo for the artistic power of a woman of a certain age!

Magic Realism from France
Compagnie Accrorap in The Roots, choreographed by Kader Attou, at the Joyce: We’re in a funny nightmare where the timing is uncanny and everything is askew. The chair and sofa are tilted, the lamp twirls of its own accord. The choreography is sly, spectacular, sullen, sneaky, allowing the male cast to spin out hip hop and tap dancing feats in a surreal world.

Accrorap in The Roots, photo ©João Garcia

Most Drastic Storytelling
Akram Khan’s Xenos, at the White Light Festival: The terror of fighting as a colonial soldier, rendered with poetic swiftness. Khan’s final full-length solo (say it’s not true!), with the help of lighting, set design, story, and music, imprints on the memory. In a program note, he asks, “How can we, as humans, have such ability to create extraordinary and beautiful things from our imagination, and have, equally, our immense ability to create and commit violence and horrors beyond our imagination.”

Akram Khan in Xenos, photo Jean-Louis Fernandez

 

Best Religious/Military mix
Ka’et Dance Ensemble in Heroes, choreographed by Ronen Izhaki, at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. The four male dancers are Israeli yeshiva teachers and students who have served in the Israeli army. Splicing between interior moves and madcap aggression, the rough-edged Heroes shows the tug between the spiritual man and the fighting man. Their timing with each other is scarily precise, which makes the blessings, where one’s head seems to melt beneath another’s hands, so touching.

Most Poetic Minimalism
Latitude, by Dana Reitz, presented by Lumberyard at The Kitchen, is an exquisite distillation of three women entering into swaths of light and motion. Its painterly quality lets your eye rest on the images. The careful placement of sticks, the dancers’ patience in waiting for each other, and how they steer us to see specific light and shadows, create an oasis. During one duet, the soft humming made it feel celestial.

Bottle-hurling Sport Dance
Twelve by Jorge Crecis gave Acosta Danza’s debut at NY City Center an exhilarating closer. Hurling bottles of water around in game-like formations, sometimes jumping up to catch a bottle in the nick of time, the 12 (or was it 13?) men and women had the astonishing coordination of jugglers or acrobats. It’s a new form of sport/dance that was terrifically exciting. For the final scene, they all freed themselves into gaga-esque buggying that stole our hearts.

Acosta Danza in Twelve, photo Johan Persson

Art as Healing
Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs at BAM is mostly voice and film with bursts of dancing here and there. At 70+ she’s only slightly brittle, but still has the ability to project spiritual ecstasy. While singing the song “I’m a happy woman,” she radiates an intelligent happiness, as well as sorrow, anger, and fatigue. The film component gives the illusion of hands coming from all dimensions, making you feel you are held by the hands of a goddess. Only Meredith Monk can make peacefulness and cooperation into a major theatrical event.

Pointe Shoes as Percussive Instruments
Michelle Dorrance’s pièce d’occasion, Praedicere, for American Ballet Theatre’s Spring Gala, got the ABT dancers to concentrate completely on rhythm. This burst of purposeful sound making—pointe shoes jabbing the floor—had more impact than Dorrance’s more picturesque premiere later in the season. Praedicere (does it mean “before language”?) deserves a second run; it’s a refreshing break from the lavish, European-based ancient ballets that are produced by ABT.

Fabulously Funny Duos, Redux and New

David Dorfman and Dan Froot were at it again, with their physical comedy that is both hilarious and touching. This time, at the Jews and Jewishness in the Dance World conference at Arizona State University, they produced So You Think You Can Schmooze: Post-Future Jewishness in a Dancing World, where the conceit was that it’s the year 2030 and they are the grandsons of entertainers named  named David Dorfman and Dan Froot. This one idea triggered a cascade of jokes, both verbal and physical, ending in a waltz around the stage for everyone.

Dancenoise’s Lock ’Em Up at NY Live Arts: Lucy Sexton and Annie Iobst are as bawdy, transgressive, and chuckle-inducing as they were 35 years ago. With a cast of seven ready-for-anything helpers, they poked at issues like fracking and gun violence. Why is all that bright red blood smeared on their slips liberating? Why are they so damn comfortable, even now, in their 60s, sitting around chatting in the nude? I don’t know, but I am glad they exist and persist.

Lock ‘Em Up by Dancenoise, photo Ian Douglas

 

Show No Show, photo Hallie Martenson

Fab Funny NEW Duo
Show No Show at The Flea Theater: Gabrielle Revlock, from Philly, and Aleksandr Frolov from Russia, make a giddy cross-cultural pair. (You know that Russians never smile, right?) Discovering new and delightful ways to torment each other, they splice awkward not-quite-seductive encounters with scrappy movement jokes.

 

 

Orchestrated Chaos
Boris Charmatz’s 10,000 Gestures at NYU Skirball made me smile right away. Johanna-Elisa Lemke’s opening solo was like Rainer’s Trio A on speed amplified 20 times. Later I saw a sliver of the real Trio A done in an upstage corner, by Frank Willens, while 19 other crazy things were going on. I understand the objection some had to the in-the-face tromping over the audience. But at that moment, I was digging the brazenness of them clambering over the heads and bodies of us spectators. (Photo below by Tristram Kenton.)

 

Dipping Ballet into Black Culture
The Runaway, Kyle Abraham’s first piece for a ballet company, used music by Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nico Muhly to superimpose Abraham’s hip-hop–influenced ripples onto the bodies of New York City Ballet dancers. The Runaway cracked open the pristine whiteness of ballet to receive a bit of the black culture that is all around us. It was remarkable how well it all fit together.

The Poetry of Protest
Hadar Ahuvia
performed an excerpt of Joy Vey at the Jewishness conference. She was skimming the earth with folk dance shapes turned liquid. On recording, we heard her voice speaking a poem… “and maybe we didn’t shoot at them and maybe there is a people as righteous as us.” It slowly dawns on us that she is dancing to unwind the nightmare on the other side of the border with Palestine, to unwind all she has learned as an Israeli-American. (Disclosure: I co-curated the concert she was in.)

Hadar Ahuvia in Joy Vey

Caleb Teicher in Great Heights, photo Amanda Centile

 

 

Caleb Teicher Hits It Twice
At Tap City’s “Rhythm in Motion” program at Symphony Space, Caleb Teicher went from morose to clownish to draggish to poignant in his Great Heights solo. Wearing high heeled tap shoes and short shorts that reveal gorgeously muscled legs (costume by Marion Talan), he tapped up a storm on top of a narrow bar stool. Then, in Fall for Dance, he premiered Bzzz, again blasting us awake, this time with a kind of call and response with his group.

 

Taking the Improv Challenge

Timothy Edwards, photo Yi-Chun Wu

Timothy Edwards improvised split-second changes of intersecting, intercepting deep gesture for Nicole Wolcott’s This Man at Dance Now at Joe’s Pub. Emotionally exhausting and exhilarating, the solo is billed as a collaboration between Wolcott and Edwards.

 

Michelle Boulé’s quicksilver wanderings in Bebe Miller’s In a Rhythm at NY Live Arts captivated me. Her energy follows a naturally unpredictable path that is pretty exciting.

 

Switch, by Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener, in collaboration with six improv-savvy dancers, devised a score that was mysterious in its portions of observing and doing, orneriness and wit. In its wayward impetuousness, it reminded me of the legendary ’70s improvisation collective Grand Union. Performed as part of Quadrille, Lar Lubovitch’s reconfiguration of the space at the Joyce.

 

Reconstructions and Revivals
Merce Cunningham’s Signals (1970), part of Stephen Petronio’s Bloodlines series at the Joyce. Serious, spunky, playful. Sustained lines, solid balances, dancers holding up fingers to signal the choice of sequence. The Merce character is a magician who emits odd groans.

Molissa Fenley’s Mix (1979) at Danspace, in which four dancers clap and stomp their way into a manic euphoria of driving rhythms and geometric patterns. The street-wear costumes help to make it feel like today.

Kei Takei, Solo from Light, Part 8 (1974) at Lumberyard: She’s a cheerful madwoman determined to tie herself into knots. And you cannot look away as she does the inevitable.

Ishmael Houston-Jones, THEM (1985) at P.S. New York: slippery entanglements, self-punishing escapades…danger at every caress. Can you trust the person you’re attracted to?

David Gordon’s The Matter, begun at Oberlin College in 1972 as part of a Grand Union residency, has gone through various versions. This one, part of MoMA’s “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done,” is layered with start-and-stop actions, talking, and films, giving a sense of overlapping time lapping up on the shore. Wally Cardona and Karen Graham re-enacted the love-and-loss duet of David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, giving just the right touch of melancholy within precision.

Best Performers

Marta Ortega of Acosta Danza in Mermaid by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui at City Center: Liquid, as though she were both the mermaid and the water, she more than held her own beside the still charismatic Carlos Acosta.

Marta Ortega with Carlos Acosta in Mermaid, photo Johan Persson

Michael Trusnovec and Parisa Khobdeh in Paul Taylor’s Eventide: a controlled slowness expressing infinite tenderness. (Trusnovec just received a well deserved Dance Magazine Award.)

Parisa Khobdeh and Michael Trusnovec in Taylor’s Eventide, ph Paul B. Goode

Taylor Stanley, who is great in everything, ran away with Kyle Abraham’s Runaway, his spine swerving between upright ballet positions and the pelvic swagger of hip hop.

As Isadora Duncan, Sara Mearns danced with dignity, arms floating, body swirling. Staged by Isadora authority Lori Belilove, this version appeared on Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance as well as in Fall for Dance. Even if Isadora was earthly, Mearns was heavenly.

Rakeem Hardy was transfixing as the man climbing a mountain in (C)arbon by Andrea Miller and Gallim, at the Met Breuer. Totally exposed, he committed to every ounce of the trembling, staggering choreography.

Cailtin Scranton as Ursula, photo Andrew Jordan

Caitlin Scranton, luminous, mysterious…austerious, if you will, as Ursula in an excerpt of Christopher Williams’ Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins at Cathy Weis Project’s Sundays on Broadway. Her lethal-looking claws hovered near her tender, exposed flesh.

 

Megan Wright of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company, in Steve Paxton’s Goldberg Variations (1986–92) at MoMA’s Judson series. Sudden, quirky dynamics emanating from the center of the body. She applied whiteface, mimicking a mime in the sense of invisible forces pulling and pushing her, surprising her. She was led by the force of her body reacting to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach.

Megan Wright in Paxton’s Goldberg Variations, photo Paula Court

 

Three Crucial Exhibits

Arthur Mitchell with Allegra Kent in Balachine’s Agon, 1962, photo Fritz Peyer

The Arthur Mitchell exhibit, Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer, at Columbia University gave space to the many roles of the groundbreaking dancer/activist/leader. He broke the color bar at New York City Ballet and he started Dance Theatre of Harlem, which met with wildly enthusiastic audiences all over the world. The exhibit opened and closed last winter, just in time for Mr. Mitchell to enjoy it at the end of his life. The extensive online component, with interviews, photos and video clips, is hugely educational and inspiring.

 

The Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibit, Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, covers a wide swath of the milieu surrounding the break from modern to postmodern dance. The hundreds of items include rare films of work by Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, and Elaine Summers. Currently the exhibit is showing a slew of archival videos of Trisha Brown.

Concert #13, A Collaborative Event, Judson Dance Theater, 1963, photo Peter Moore

In conjunction with New York City Ballet’s Robbins centennial, The NY Public Library for the Performing Arts has mounted Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York. It reveals this monumental choreographer as a sensitive observer of life, a gatherer of material from the streets of New York. There are video and film clips of West Side Story and Dances at a Gathering that I never tire of. The surprise is Robbin’s overflowing creativity on the page—in writing and drawing. Luckily, the exhibit is up until March 30.

 

Most un-heralded racial reversal on Broadway
King Kong falls in love with . . . not a blond white woman but a young, street-wise black woman, played with great moxie by Christiani Pitts. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. Throughout movie history, it’s always a white woman who is the tantalizing object of adoration for men and animals. They roar for the pinnacle of sexual privilege. To cast the character of Ann Darrow as a person of color changes our assumptions about cultural desire. And Pitts has the charisma to pull it off.

Most Heartening News
Kyle Abraham decided that he will only agree to have his work performed on a shared program if a woman’s choreography is also on that program. Kudos to a male choreographer for having the consciousness to advocate for women in dance!

Most Disheartening News
Hearing that Amar Ramasar, one of the most humane dancers on the ballet stage, allegedly participated in a mindless activity that was demeaning to women.

In Anticipation
We await two announcements that could change the dance world: The appointments for new artistic director of New York City Ballet and new chief critic of The New York Times. In a field where women are routinely passed over for leadership positions, I’m hoping…

Good Reads
It was a good year for dance books, as you can see from my list of “11 Most Notable Dance Books of 2018.”

 

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11 Notable Dance Books of 2018

I love books on dance; they are my friends. They share my sofa and my night table with me. I make new friends each year, but I do not have time to read every page of every book. However, I did read enough to absorb the scope and style of these eleven books. Loosely speaking, I would say that they all reside in the space where art meets culture. Each book deepens our understanding of what dance can be, where dance can go.

The list contains three engaging autobiographies, three gorgeous exhibition catalogs, a pair of anthologies that look at dance in an inclusive way, a quick-digest version of Jerome Robbins’ life, a re-examination of Anna Sokolow’s work, and an elegant sliver of a book of Steve Paxton’s musings. Lastly I offer a short list of other books received.

 

Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir
By Halifu Osumare
University Press of Florida

A lifelong dance artist, activist, and educator, Halifu Osumare takes us through her early training in the Bay Area, her teaching of “jazz ballet” in Copenhagen and Stockholm, and her growing consciousness of what it means to be a black dancer in a white world—and a dancer in a militant black world. In New York, she danced with Rod Rodgers in the early 70s, during the period when he dedicated one of his pieces to the inmates killed in the Attica prison uprising. The company performed in the ingenious DanceMobile, a kind of portable theater that brought dance to inner city neighborhoods. Back in Oakland, Osumare got involved in transcendental meditation and participated in an early version of Ntozake Shange’s celebrated play “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” (It was Shange who gave her her African name: Halifu is Swahili for “the shooting arrow” and Osumare is Yoruba for “the deity of the rainbow.”) She also created a lecture/performance called “The Evolution of Black Dance” that she toured to public schools.

Osumare went to Africa in search of her dance ancestry. While roughing it in a Ghanaian village, she saw, up close, how “the secular and the sacred are interwoven” in their lives. Although she was called a white woman in Ghana, when she danced with people there, she felt a sure connection.

During 12 years at Stanford (active in both the dance program and the Committee on Black Performing Arts), she was inspired to become a scholar, thinker and organizer. She earned her PhD and formed Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, always promoting dance as a unifying force.

Evident throughout the book is Osumare’s belief in the power of dance to address social justice issues. At every juncture, Osumare asks clusters of questions—about the fluidity of tradition, about the role of dance in different cultures, about how racism affects the dance world. She gives props to the women she learned from, including Ruth Beckford (a force for dance in Oakland), Katherine Dunham, and Dianne McIntyre. Dancing in Blackness is Osumare’s third book, after The Hiplife in Ghana: West African Indigenization of Hip-Hop (Palgrave 2013) and The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop Power Moves (Palgrave 2008).

 

Ballet for Life: A Pictorial Memoir
By Finis Jhung
New York: Ballet Dynamics, Inc

Most dance books have too few pictures, so it’s a treat to take in the bounty of photographs—more photo pages than text pages—that tell the story of master ballet teacher Finis Jhung. Ballet for Life is part autobiography, part testimonial. A small boy, growing up in Hawaii of partly Korean heritage, is so fidgety that he earns the nickname “monkey.” He becomes infatuated with ballet and performs locally. He attends the University of Utah, where he gets solid training from Willam Christensen. Although Jhung is told by classmate Michael Smuin that he will never make it as a dancer because he is Asian and has bowed legs, he rises to the top ranks in the dance department. After coming to New York to dance in the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, he takes class at the Ballet Theatre school, where Mme. Pereyaslavec forces his turnout and destabilizes his technique. He joins San Francisco Ballet for a spell and dances in the Hollywood version of Flower Drum Song. Then he returns to New York to dance with the Joffrey Ballet.

Robert Joffrey, an excellent teacher, gets Jhung back on his center. After two years in the Joffrey Ballet (1962–64) he goes, along with many others, to the Harkness Ballet, where he stays until 1969. Along with Lawrence Rhodes, Helgi Tomasson, Brunilda Ruiz, and Lone Isakson, he dances a repertoire of works by Brian Macdonald, John Butler, Norman Walker and the company’s director, George Skibine.

After a while, his muscles get all knotted up, and he decides to listen to his massage person and become a Buddhist. He enters a less than passionate marriage, which produces his son, Jason Akira Jhung, who later helps him produce his popular dance videos. During the ’70s, while developing his craft of teaching, he founds Chamber Ballet U.S.A., a small company of excellent dancers that brings ballet to small stages and schools. It is immediately successful but lands him in debt after five years. He returns to teaching, now with a savvy business sense. One of his later projects is directing the “Billy camps” for the young boys of technical prowess who feed into the Broadway musical Billy Elliot. Ballet for Life is very readable, and the photos are a history in themselves.

 

Ballet Matters: A Cultural Memoir of Ballet Dreams and Empowering Realities
By Jennifer Fisher
McFarland

Let’s face it. Only a small number of ballet students ever become professional. We’ve seen lots of memoirs by famous dancers, but how does a ballet lover turn her less-than-stellar potential into an artistically fulfilling life? Jennifer Fisher, now a full professor at UC Irvine, had to re-examine her love for dance and transform it into a related career. The valuable idea here is that ballet is not always lovely and ethereal: “Ballet is not a way to escape life; it’s a way to negotiate life by learning a valuable practice, by offering complexity, depth, and beauty.” Fisher grappled with ballet as a “life force” even though it didn’t elevate her to a professional level. But even as a hobby, she says, ballet “strengthens the backbone and nourishes the soul.” The book details her encounters with ballet in Russia, her participation in Baryshikov’s PastForward project commemorating Judson Dance Theater, and her stint as a TV critic. The final chapter on “Finding My Religion” describes moments in works by Petipa, Balanchine, Ulysses Dove, and Alonzo King as windows to spirituality.

 


Invocation of Beauty: The Life and Photography of Soichi Sunami
By David Martin
Cascadia Art Museum

This catalog is a visual feast for those of us who care about early modern dance. Amidst a wide range of subjects are rarely seen, luminous photographs of historic dance figures, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Ted Shawn, Agnes de Mille, Harald Kreutzerg, and Helen Tamiris. It also includes lesser known, but still intriguing, figures. One is Michio Ito, the modern dance pioneer who returned to Japan rather than be sent to internment camps during World War II. Another is Edna Guy, the young black woman who served as Ruth St. Denis’ assistant but was not accepted into Denishawn because of her race. (She later choreographed and organized key dance concerts for black dancers.) Some of the photos, like the one of Graham in Lamentation, seem to float in space.

Soichi Sunami (1885–1971) was born in Japan and came to the U. S. in 1905. He started photographing dance concerts at the Cornish School in Seattle and then invited dancers to be his models. He moved to New York in 1922, later becoming a photographer for the Museum of Modern Art. Living on the East Coast, he evaded the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II. However, knowing of the government’s anti-Japanese policies, he burned his early nude studies just in case. Sunami’s photographs of landscapes are as dreamlike as impressionist paintings. His photographs of dancers make two-dimensional poetry of their dancing bodies. If you’re in Seattle, try to catch this exhibit before it closes on January 6, 2019.

 

William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects
Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston

Whether William Forsythe is creating movement, sculpture, video, or interactive environments, his work retains an edge of rawness. This catalog, with images that reveal that edgy sensibility, lends insight into the mind of this brilliant choreographer. Roslyn Sulcas’ lead essay explains how Forsythe’s destabilizing techniques for improvisation carry over into his installations, creating new possibilities of dance. Browsing the book will give you a multitude of ideas for choreography. If you go to the exhibit, which is up until February 21, 2019, you are sure to get pulled into these kinetically alluring environments. This choreographic playground has traveled to many countries but has a special place in Boston, now that Forsythe has embarked on a five-year partnership with Boston Ballet.

 

Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done
Edited by Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax
The Museum of Modern Art

Judson Dance Theater blasted the conventions of concert dance in the early 60s, expanding the possibilities for contemporary dance. This exhibit emphasizes the connections of Judson to the art world. It includes not only dancers like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, but also composers like Philip Corner and visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Carolee Schneemann. Essays by curators Thomas Lax and Ana Janevski lay out the various forms of experimentation, from outrageous to humdrum. Collaboration was in the air; so was the will to subvert authority.

The exhibit, which is up until February 3, 2018, shows the two main environments that gave rise to Judson: Anna Halprin’s workshops on her deck in California and Robert Dunn’s composition class at the Merce Cunningham studio in New York. Simone Forti’s dance constructions, bridging those two conceptual hotbeds, were a strong influence. Striking photographs from Peter Moore and Al Giese are evocative of the period, especially the sense of collectivity, the tolerance of chaos. The latter part of the catalog gives brief profiles of 34 participants and influencers, including people we don’t usually associate with Judson Dance Theater like choreographer Aileen Passloff and jazz composer Cecil Taylor. Although there are some factual errors, this catalog provides an excellent overview of a crucial period in dance history.

 

The following pair of books, which treats dance from different cultural points of view, is enlivening and enlarging.

Perspectives in American Dance: The Twentieth Century
Edited by Jennifer Atkins, Sally R. Sommer, and Tricia Henry Young
University Press of Florida

This anthology of 13 essays looks at social aspects of various phenomena in dance in the United States. The entries include Julie Malnig on the racial aspects of ’50s TV shows like American Bandstand; Dara Milovanović’s connecting Fosse, fetishism and Fascism in the film Cabaret; Sara Wolf’s comparison of Isadora Duncan’s use of the flag in 1917 with Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A With Flags (1970); and Joellen A. Meglin on Ruth Page’s debt to African American jazz dance. An in-depth essay on Alonzo Kings’ LINES Ballet, by Jill Nunes Jensen, emphasizes the spiritual and global dimensions of his work. This collection reminds us that dance is everywhere—not just on a stage—and is often connected to world circumstances. Though most of the contributors are academics, they do not write in that overly pedantic way that is so annoying.

Perspectives in American Dance: The New Millennium
Edited by Jennifer Atkins, Sally R. Sommer, and Tricia Henry Young
University Press of Florida

In this second volume of the series, noted dance scholars have contributed interesting essays that are somewhat anthropological. They include Kate Mattingly on flash mobs, Hannah Schwadron on the intersection of Judaism and porn, and Patsy Gay on the Brooklyn hipster aesthetic in the club scene. The only chapter that discusses an actual choreographer is Sally Sommer’s on site-specific dancemaker extraordinaire Noémi Lafrance. Sommer analyzes two of her major works: the beautifully haunting Descent in Tribeca’s Watchtower, and Agora, which invaded the massive abandoned McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn with a wild imagination.

 

Honest Bodies: Revolutionary Modernism in the Dances of Anna Sokolo
By Hannah Kosstrin
Oxford University Press, 2017

Note: This book was published in 2017, but it slipped past me last year.

Anna Sokolow was a fierce, uncompromising dance artist. Combining Martha Graham’s modernist technique, Louis Horst’s compositional rigor, and Stanislavsky’s method of inner motivation, she created dances of haunting intensity. A Jewish dancer from an immigrant family, Sokolow naturally participated in the pro-labor, anti-fascist, socialist movement of the ’30s through the ’50s. Sokolow’s dances, says Hannah Kosstrin, were equally revolutionary and Jewish.

Sokolow’s dissent was veiled rather than blatant. Kosstrin feels that “the thematic alienation of Lyric Suite, Rooms and Opus embodied criticism of anticommunism, anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia.” Beyond Sokolow’s own productions, she also supplied dances for communist events and pageants. “These projects evidenced her broad appeal as a communist artist who could move public masses.” She enjoyed long associations with Mexico and Israel, solidifying her alignment with the International Left.

Sokolow’s work was visceral and rebellious. As Kosstrin puts it, “Sokolow’s choreography disrupted 1950s quietism like sandpaper against a smooth surface.”

Her choreography came “from the gut.” Her endings were not final, as she wanted to allow the audience to finish the dance themselves. Says Kosstrin: “Her dances’ unresolved endings reflected Jewish modes of teaching through questioning.”

Honest Bodies is part of a recent surge of dance scholars exploring Jewishness that includes the writers Naomi Jackson, Rebecca Rossen, Judith Brin Ingber, and Hannah Schwadron. Kosstrin plunges us deep into the politics of Sokolow’s times, showing how her Jewishness is part of her idealism. I find the voices of Sokolow’s dancers are missing in this book. But Honest Bodies will acquaint you with this brilliant choreographer and the forces that shaped her.

 

Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance
By Wendy Lesser
Jewish Lives Series, Yale University Press

Writer and editor Wendy Lesser has produced a short, engrossing biography of Jerome Robbins in this year of the Robbins centennial. Relying heavily on Deborah Jowitt’s Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (2004), this slim volume is more psychologically oriented. Your heart goes out to this master choreographer who often felt terrible about himself. Lesser makes a case for him being the equal of Balanchine (which some of us had already figured out), and of his ballets being as good as his phenomenal work on musicals (that, too, is no surprise). Lesser’s descriptions of ballets like The Cage, Dances at a Gathering, and Goldberg Variations make you crave to see them again. But she comes down hard on some of his greatest ballets, like Glass Pieces and In the Night. (I’m wondering if perhaps the videos she had access to just didn’t do the choreography justice.) The quotes from Emily Coates, a dancer who worked with Robbins at New York City Ballet the last six years of his life (and who went on to dance with Twyla Tharp and Yvonne Rainer) are terrifically insightful. If you don’t have time to read Jowitt’s excellent biography, then Lesser’s book is a good short cut.

 

Gravity
By Steve Paxton
Edited by Baptiste Andrien and Florence Corin
Contredanse Editions
Also available in French, tr. Denise Luccioni

This slim collection of Steve Paxton’s haiku-like writings hints at the poetic roots of Contact Improvisation. At the age of 6, he rode in a small airplane with his father, “looping and rolling in the air over Antelope Valley, Arizona.” He could see a herd of antelope below, but with the movement of the airplane, they appeared to be above or around him. Thus began the seed for the idea of spherical space that is so key to Contact Improvisation.

Paxton poses questions about the physics of the body in motion as well as the mystery of the unconscious. “I tried to catch myself behaving unconsciously, but…the perception was ruined by turning my consciousness to it…I was spying on myself. Self-hacking.” Dancers, he says, “must hack their basic movement programs in order to adapt to new movements.” One must let sensation, rather than rote memorization, be the teacher. In the Small Dance, well known to CI practitioners, he says, “Let the organs down into the bowl of the pelvis, let the spine rise to support the skull…”

 Other bon mots:

On awareness: “The consciousness can roam within the body.”

The essence of CI: “Two bodies leaning and sharing mass create one center.”

Paxton’s gentle humor: After his one and only dancing/flying dream, he writes, “If such dreams were to become common, I would reduce my working schedule and nap more often.”

A reason for activism: “I diagnose the societies of the 21st century as mad. Collectively we seem to be helpless to stop the slaughter and the degradation of the very planet on which we live.”

Alighting on a definition of gravity: “Your mass and the earth’s mass calling to each other.”

 

Books received:

Third edition of Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History, by Jack Anderson. Originally printed in 1986 and re-issued in 1992, this book is valuable because Jack Anderson is a dependable source of dance history. Princeton Book Company.

Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, by Kevin Winkler. Oxford University Press.

The Profitable Artist: A Handbook for All Artists in the Performing, Literary, and Visual Arts, edited by Peter Cobb, Felicity Hogan, and Michael Royce. New York Foundation for the Arts.

Writing and the Body in Motion: Awakening Voice Through Somatic Practice, by Cheryl Pallant. McFarland.

Lastly, this is not only a book received but a book I wrote for:
The Next Wave Festival
Edited by Steven Serafin and Susan Yung. Brooklyn Academy of Music. Available at Greenlight Bookstore at BAM and
Brooklyn Academy of Music in association with Print Matters Production

This book celebrates 35 years of the groundbreaking Next Wave Festival, with essays on dance, theater, music, and visual art. I had a great time digging into the rich past of Next Wave Festival. I wrote about the work of Pina Bausch, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown, Ralph Lemon and other dance artists who have exploded our ideas about dance in many directions.

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Fevered States: “Naharin’s Virus”

Intro: When Batsheva Dance Company brought Naharin’s Virus to Brooklyn Academy of Music in spring of 2002, it seemed to explode onto the NYC dance scene. We had seen Ohad Naharin’s intriguing choreography before, but this raise his work to a different level of human ferocity. I wrote this review for the August 2002 issue of Dance Magazine, but it is not accessible online. So I am now posting it here because Batsheva — The Young Ensemble is performing Naharin’s Virus at The Joyce Theater July 10–22, 2018. It is also collected in my book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer. In my introduction to that version, I say that Ohad Naharin’s wife, Mari Kajiwara, who had been a force of nature in his work, had died of cancer in 2001. I hope you get to see Naharin’s Virus, but if you don’t, this will give you some idea of it.

Naharins Virus Gadi Dagon

 

Sixteen dancers line the front of the stage and stare at the audience. Each possesses a different torque, an asymmetry in the torso that gives them a slightly damaged look. One person dances in place with a fast, wrenching fury, as though trying to rid herself of a clinging nightmare. She stops, then another dancer enters into a similar fury, while all the rest are still. Then the whole row, in unison to music by Arab-Israeli Habib Alla Jamal, pound with fists on invisible walls with high-powered African-style chest contractions, and the cycle begins again. There is energy, there is unity, there is rhythm, and there is rage.

Naharin’s Virus is not the most beautiful or imaginative dance that Ohad Naharin has choreographed. But its visceral force is unforgettable. We cannot turn away from these young people of the Tel Aviv–based Batsheva Dance Company, most of whom have probably been soldiers, fighting for their survival.

One performer wearing a man’s suit, perched atop a stage-wide wall that doubles as a blackboard, recites the script of the absurdist play Offending the Audience by Peter Handke. The words wedge an insidious distrust between the performance and audience (Handke’s virus?). “No mirror is held up to you. Because we are speaking to you, your awareness increases. You become aware of the impulse to scratch yourself.” But what saves the evening from verbal overload is that, quietly he slips out of his suit and emerges wearing the same strange unitard the other dancers wear. The suit remains standing exactly where it was, without the hands and face of the dancer. This moment, repeated later, perfectly separates the dance with text from the dance with music. It provides the irony necessary to put Handke’s rebellious declarations—by turns sophomoric, contradictory, and merely clever—into perspective: the speaker is just trying something on. So, toward the end of the play, when Handke hurls insults at “us,” we are more delighted by the word play (“you bubbleheads, you atheists, you butchers, you deadbeats ”) than hurt or shocked.

The costumes make the dancers look uncomfortable, paralleling how the text makes us feel. Naharin may be hinting at the discomfort of living in a country where hostilities are so out of control. The unitards extend to cover the hands, giving the dancers unnaturally long arms, and the thigh-high black leg warmers give them short legs. In the first section, the dancers drift toward each other in small groups as though to sniff each other. Their arms hang long and they curl their hands like simian creatures, ready to scratch themselves or to grab food. Some of the couplings are also animal-like, as though lizards were mating.

Naharin's Virus, ph Gadi Dagon

Photos by Gadi Dagon

But the message on the blackboard is very human. The word “you” gets scrawled on one side, and “atem,” the Hebrew for the plural form of “you” on the other—the two languages being very separate. Kristin Francke, who begins the piece by drawing on the blackboard, drags the chalk behind her, around her elbow, echoing her tracings with her body parts, all while her body is distorted with tension. Throughout the evening, dancers go upstage to draw on the blackboard, sometimes adding a soothing sound element. Toward the end two dancers madly etch a blood-red asterisk shape that takes on a glow. Is this the source of the virus, an angry nucleus of hate? Or is it a burst of the heart’s emotion?

Occasionally a single person dances to a taped voice, presumably about that person’s life. During Inbar Nemirovsky’s solo, we hear a young woman’s voice telling us that, as a child, she liked to take off her clothes but would get punished for it. “I would get naked, and my mother would beat me. I found I liked it.” (Her mother also beat her because she questioned the existence of god.) This and other moments of dark humor contribute to the compelling strangeness of this U.S. premiere.

There are occasional leavening moments, as when a microphone is dropped down to a dancer who squeals, barks, sighs, and meets her own sounds with similarly unpredictable movements.

Naharin started out with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and what seems to have carried over is that the movement motivation comes from a deep core in the center of the body. But his style, he has said, owes more to Pina Bausch and American experimentalists like Gina Buntz. Therefore, the Batsheva, which was formed by Martha Graham and Bathesbe de Rothschild in 1964, went through an overhaul in both choreography and dancers when Naharin took over as artistic director in 1990.  His repertoire for the company includes funny, joyous works as well as difficult ones.

Naharin’s Virus is infectious, but not everyone will respond to it. The experience is comparable to reading Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, with its fevered self-questioning, or seeing the work of German painter Anselm Keifer, which leads one into a depth and complexity rare for an American artist. If you have gone to that well of darkness, the experience is familiar and even satisfying. If not, it can be frightening—or offending. But there is something vital and bracing about artists who delve into difficult areas, into the darkness of our souls. Artists like these possess an undeniable courage, and this is the virus of the title, for the Batsheva dancers have caught Naharin’s courage.

 

¶¶¶

 

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Best Dance Books of 2017

Each of these nine books is a treasure for a different demographic of the dance population. I did not have time to read every page, but I dipped into each one enough to give you the gist and scope of it. The list includes the best autobiography I’ve seen in years (from Hallberg), two noteworthy academic books (on Dunham and on queer dance), two delightfully unorthodox presentations (Ten Huts and 95 Rituals), two much-needed comprehensive resources (on world dance and somatics) and two picture books.

A Body of Work SMALLA Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back
By David Hallberg
Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

This book is a page turner. Ballet superstar Hallberg writes with rich powers of observation, emotional immediacy, and openness to his own vulnerability. As a child, he taped nickels to the soles of his shoes so he could dance like Fred Astaire. His passion was set early in life, and no amount of bullying could stop him. As an 11 or 12-year-old, he fell in love with another boy and had to come out to his parents—which, luckily, went smoothly.

With lively prose, he takes the reader through Ballet Arizona’s Nutcracker, the grueling private lessons from Kee Juan Han that instilled a heroic work ethic in him, his lonely year at Paris Opera Ballet school, his appreciation of coaching at American Ballet Theatre, his rocky first ballet partnership, and the high-pressured debut at the new Bolshoi Theater. It reaches a height of euphoria dancing Romeo and Juliet with Natalia Osipova at the Bolshoi and the depths of despair during his injury and long recovery.

We follow him as he grows as an artist. For most of the story, his pre-performance mantra to himself is “Don’t fuck this up.” But as he becomes aware of true artistry, including watching Wendy Whelan’s tendus at the barre, this changes to “Risk it all and potentially fuck this up.”

The book is also a travelogue through various countries as well as some of the world’s top ballet companies: ABT, The Bolshoi, Paris Opera Ballet, Australian Ballet, La Scala. Every page reflects his curiosity, resolve to learn from every situation, and outsized commitment to dance.

 

Dunham coverKatherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora
By Joanna Dee Das
Oxford University Press

No matter what angle you look at Katherine Dunham from, she was a titan. Artistically,
sociologically and morally, she courageously broke ground. A previous book published in 2005, Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham, appears exhaustive, but there is always more to say. And dancer/scholar Joanna Dee Das says it in a scholarly tone, proclaiming Dunham’s significance as an activist figure in the African diaspora.

Dunham famously explored her African roots in Haiti and the Caribbean Islands, bringing back traditional dances for the stage. While some looked down on Dunham’s colorful, seductive revue shows, Das feels she was “normalizing black lives” as opposed to the caricatures of minstrelsy.

Das makes the point that Dunham has been disregarded by Harlem Renaissance scholars because of the mind/body division whereby they did not take the body (dance) seriously. That is just one example of how Dunham has not been given her due by history.

For those of you who don’t know, Dunham’s career was vast and she herself wrote many books; her prose is sensual and her sense of purpose inspiring. But her stature in American dance tends be overshadowed by white pioneers of modern dance like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. But Dunham’s influence was global. It was her performances in countries like Guinea, Senegal, Mexico and Peru that inspired the burgeoning of national companies based on indigenous dances. Her domestic performances inspired many, including the young Alvin Ailey.

Dunham was a warrior — against segregation, against censorship, against the separation of high art and popular art, and for the merging of art and social justice.

 

Ten Huts coverTen Huts
By Jill Sigman; foreword by Pamela Tatge
Wesleyan University Press

Do you ever pine for choreography that cares—really cares—about the environment? If so, Jill Sigman is your woman. Her Ten Huts series, built and performed between 2009 and 2014, tracks her devotion to found objects as sources for art. Part Marcel Duchamp and part Rachel Carson—with a dose of ’60s happenings thrown in—Sigman aimed to create “a charged space that could function like theater without the exclusivity of one.” In locations from Brooklyn to Oslo to Sarasota, she assembled each hut magpie-style, scavenging discarded objects that glimmer with possibility. She danced in the huts, slept in them, talked to strangers in them, showed films, hosted dance parties.

Sigman offers a manifesto whose first order is “…that we find beauty everywhere.” With contributions from esteemed cultural critics Eva Yaa Asantewaa and André Lepecki, the book interrogates consumerism, capitalism, and dance as theater.

Clearly a devotee of John Cage’s edict to blur art and life, she says the huts are a “way of re-seeing or re-envisioning.” For Hut #6 in Oslo’s opera house, she held a five-day performance. She made Hut #8 at The New School out of 2,845 plastic bottles. For Hut #9 in Denmark, she built a canopy of 19 bicycle wheels. With hundreds of color photos that illuminate Sigman’s process, Ten Huts is like an immersive performance that lasts.

 

World Dance cover

World Dance Cultures: From Ritual to Spectacle
By Patricia Leigh Beaman
Routledge

A longtime dance history professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts (where I also teach), Patricia Beaman never found a textbook that spanned all the cultures she covers in her World Dance course. So she simply wrote her own. The breadth of World Dance Cultures is staggering: 27 regions of the world are grouped into eight chapters. Each section comprises an overview, ideology, key points, case study, costuming and makeup, discussion questions, and current trends. Beaman connects the development of each form with that region’s history and traditions. The Japanese section takes us through Noh theater, Kabuki, and butoh. She frames flamenco as a global phenomenon with roots among Arabs, Jews, Africa, and North Indian gypsies who converged in protest against persecution. She writes about how the Spanish Civil War sent dancers like Carmen Amaya into exile. The pages are jammed with photos and text blocs that help the reader travel this world journey, and resonant proverbs are scattered throughout. This book is a resource to consult often; it will no doubt find its way into many a classroom.

 

Mindful Movement coverMindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action
By Martha Eddy
Intellect, Bristol, UK

This book traces the evolution of somatic education, which has changed—deepened—the way we train in dance. A somatics movement therapist, Martha Eddy has taken 15 years to gather this cornucopia of information. She begins with “founders” of somatic education like Irmgard Bartenieff, Charlotte Selver, Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, Mabel Elsworth Todd, and Frederick Matthias Alexander, showing where strands of practice cross over between the U. S. and Europe. She moves on to current techniques like Body-Mind Centering, Laban Movement Analysis, Skinner Releasing, Continuum, and Anna Halprin’s Life/Art Process. Her beliefs in the “body as mind,” the healing power of somatic practice, and the power of dance to “refresh,” permeate the book.

Eddy contends that, through the integration of mind and body, somatics expands consciousness. Her references stretch to include international thinkers like American educator John Dewey, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire.

This book is more than an explanation of the various somatic practices and how they can free up students from rigid habits. It also connects these practices to the lineage of modern dance, explaining how Judson Dance Theater and Contact Improvisation emerged along with somatic practices. (The section on the under-recognized Elaine Summers, who developed the “ball work” aka kinetic awareness, helps.) With the addition of guest writers like Rebecca Nettl-Foil and Kate Tarlow Morgan, Mindful Movement also offers activist and spiritual dimensions. The final section suggests how somatics can be applied to action and social change. Eddy has even invented a term for this: somaction.
This book is a gift for anyone wanting to delve deeper into the healing aspects of dance and the methods of healing dancers.

 

95 Rituals cover

95 Rituals
Compiled by Shinichi Iova-Koga & Dancers’ Group
Introduction by Wayne Hazzard, published by Dancers’ Group. On the Internet. 

A multi-faceted tribute to pioneering dancer/choreographer/healer/activist Anna Halprin, this book tracks the day-long performance ritual that celebrated her 95th birthday in 2015. Ranging from profound to light-hearted, the long day of celebration culminated at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. The book is a collage of loving contributions written by Iova-Koga, Ann Murphy, Mary Ellen Hunt, and many more; vivid photos by Pak Han; inspiring quotes from La Halprin; and wonderful, fanciful examples of the 95 rituals. As Iova-Koga has written, “Anna is the stone, the rock. This rock drops into the pool and we’re all the little ripples that move out from the impact of the rock on the surface of the water.” Ann Murphy asks Iova-Koga how he met Halprin. “Anna called me up, saying: ‘Shinichi, all of my collaborators are dead. Will you be my collaborator?’ ”

Among those who contributed the 95 rituals (or scores) are Jo Kreiter, Joanna Haigood, Keith Hennessy, Daria Halprin, and Ruth Zaporah.

Here’s a sample quote from Halprin: “I want to integrate life and art so that as our art expands our life deepens and as our life deepens our art expands.”

This book oozes love, imagination, humor, and celebration.

Related: my experience with Halprin’s Planetary Dance. My conversation with Halprin, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer as part of Radical Bodies.

 

Queer dance cover

Queer Dance: Meanings & Makings
Ed. by Clare Croft
Oxford University Press

Clare Croft has gathered 17 recent essays on queer dance, written by dance artists, scholars, and dancer/scholars. The anthology “resists a single narrative. Queer as it is danced here is a process, a series of actions, a desiring at the edge of visibility; and a feedback loop of violence and survival.” To counteract the tendency for queer theory to be overly academic, Croft says queerness emerges in action, in protests, and on stages. The book includes essays by Thomas de Frantz, known for his writing on racism in dance; drag performer Lou Henry Hoover; and wild New York improviser Jennifer Monson on the intertwining of an erotic/creative relationship with DD Dorvillier that spills over into their improvised partnership. Doran George (aka Dee Dee Gee), a UCLA based performer/scholar who, sadly, died in November, contributes a commentary on Monson and Dorvillier as well as other East Village denizens John Jasperse and Neil Greenberg. His essay turns out to be a complex ride through the hair-splitting distinctions of various gender critiques. The title of his (or “their”) essay, “The Hysterical Spectator: Dancing with Feminists, Nellies, Andro-Dykes, and Drag Queens,” gives you an idea of the feisty multi-gender spirit of this collection.

 
Eichenbaum-Inside-Cover

Inside the Dancer’s Art
By Rose Eichenbaum
Wesleyan University Press

Once again, Rose Eichenbaum has come up with a dancer friendly book of photographs, most of them in gorgeous color. Some are full-on, caught-in-the-act dance shots; others are sensitive portraits that bring out the artist within the dancer. But what makes this a full 360-degree experience are the inspiring quotes. Here are three examples:
Judith Jamison: “To me, the highest compliment…is to be called a dancer. A dancer is someone who is God-like.”
Desmond Richardson: “It’s only when you’re willing to show yourself openly as an artist that you truly begin to share with others.”
Chita Rivera: “All I’ve ever wanted was to touch that one person out there in the dark.”
If you’ve enjoyed Eichenbaum’s previous books of dance photos—The Dancer Within and Masters of Movement—you will want to add this to your collection.

 

Dancing Over 50 - final_front cover copy

Beauty Is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond
By Emmaly Wiederholt
Photographs by Gregory Bartning
Click here for more information.

Celebrating the vitality of older dancers, this book involves a diverse group of practitioners up and down the West Coast. Emmaly Wiederholt’s interviews are warm and friendly, emphasizing the need and desire to keep going. Gregory Bartning’s photos, while not concerned with beautiful line, capture the essence of each participant in their surroundings. The 54 subjects include Mark Haim, Anna Halprin (below), Heidi Duckler, Kim Epifano, Linda Austin, Randee Paufve, Naomi Gedo Diouf, and Frank Shawl.

Anna-Haprin-photo-by-Gregory-Bartning-002 copy

 

 

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Visiting El-Funoun Dance Company in Palestine

Ever since I learned about El-Funoun, the oldest dance company in Palestine, I felt drawn to go there. Last spring I had the opportunity to visit the company with four NYU colleagues in music and dance. I got to see with my own eyes why this group has captivated audiences the world over.

Our driver took us from Tel Aviv to Ramallah. As we crossed into through Qalanida, the Israeli checkpoint, the scenery quickly became quite bleak. Rocks, stone, and dirt were everywhere, as though piles had accumulated on the way to building something that never got built.

Roadside shot, taken from the car window

Roadside shot, taken from the car window

Palestinians are living in occupied territory; their rights are trampled on and their access to water and electricity is limited. (Click here to see what Amnesty International characterizes the Israeli blockade and treatment of Palestinians.)

And yet, El-Funoun has survived for 38 years. When we arrived at El-Funoun’s dance center, Noora Baker, the young woman whom I had e-met through choreographer Yoshiko Chuma, welcomed us. As the director of training & productions, Noora described their situation with both grace and frankness. She took us into the office of executive director, Khaled Qatamesh.

El-Funoun Palestinian Popular Dance Troupe began as a small dabke group (dabke is the Arab circle dance native to the Middle East) and grew into a large group that tours internationally. The many awards and trophies from all around the world, crammed into one shelf in Khaled’s office, attest to their popularity.

A performance of El-Funoun, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh

A performance of El-Funoun, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh

In order to give us an idea of the hardships they face, Noora told us that most of the dancers in the company had been held in prison, some of them multiple times, often with no explanation. I tried to imagine living with that kind of constant threat.

Noora and Khaled are both passionate about El-Funoun’s mission, which they laid down for us in forceful language. I am going to quote some of the things Khaled said. (I am relying here on my scant notes as well as more thorough notes taken by a member of our group.)

“El-Funoun is about keeping the culture alive, when it’s constantly threatened to be erased. It’s an existential struggle. The organic growth of dance in Palestine is built on traditions. With our dancing, we connect with our past, with the land of our ancestors that has been taken away from us.

Noora is in green, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh.

Noora is in green, photo by Nida Haj Ali-Qatamesh

“Our work is about our freedom. Everything we work toward is to resist any oppression. We work with our society to instigate change in behaviors that do not serve today’s Palestinian society and are related to religion and outdated social norms. We work for justice and equality. We feel that each artist has a political responsibility.”

Khaled made it clear that he thinks the role of artists, everywhere in the world, is to stand up for the oppressed. I understand that. It brings to mind the famous saying of Fannie Lou Hamer: “Nobody’s free until everybody’s free.”

In my mind, however, art has many possible goals and methods, and we should each be free to live and work as an artist in the way we choose. Although…if I lived under the difficult circumstances the Palestinians face daily, I too might feel that art should have the single goal of fighting oppression.

In reply to Khaled, I gave the example of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, which built its repertory on the Black experience. However, the Ailey rep only occasionally hints at discrimination or oppression. A recent example is Kyle Abraham’s Untitled America for Ailey, which has a soundtrack of people talking about relatives who are incarcerated. In the U. S., mass incarceration one of the major issues of social justice.

Noora joined El-Funoun when she was 7, so doing the dabke steps is like home for her. In this YouTube clip, she says, “We try to be not the victims, but the ambassadors of this art… The dabke has given me a way out of helplessness.”

Noora explained that there are about 20 dabke steps and all of El-Funoun’s work is based on that. As with tap and ballet, the choreography comes in how the steps are put together, and each choreographer does that differently.

“We are one of the rare organizations in Arab world that depend on volunteer work. We bring people together who believe music and dance can liberate us from our oppressors. We do one new production every three or four years. Every production has a theme based on social justice.

“We try to set a good example, to be role models in society, to show how to stay positive and effective. Folklore is a living thing that we are part of. Folklore is not sacred for a museum. El-Funoun is part of regional networks, viewed as an important issue in Palestine. We ask everyone, ‘What are you doing in your community?’  ph by Rana Khalil square

After these explanations, Khaled and Noora led us to a studio—the same studio you see in the YouTube clip above—where we watched choreographer Ata Khatab working on a new piece. Ata’s father, Mohammad Ata, was a co-founder of El-Funoun. About 25 dancers ranging in age from about 19 to 40, were raring to go. They are mostly volunteers, but some have jobs in the building, maintaining the facilities or helping with administrative chores. One young man had performed dabke as a guest with Yoshiko Chuma at LaMama a few years ago, and I remembered him in that performance.

As part of the rehearsal, Ata led the dancers in a discussion, asking, How are you a warrior in your everyday life? Each one spoke up in a strong, clear way. (Noora quietly translated for us.) I felt, in that room, that everyone wanted to be there, that this opportunity to dance was essential for their well-being (though what I came to understand is that even the mere concept of well-being is a privilege).

We saw terrific, direct, forceful choreography. The dancers were bursting with spirit and energy. There is an undeniable collective power in their work. In one section, they stand and eye the audience while the percussion kicks in, then lift shoulders in time to the beat. In another section, they are circling each other in pairs, hands vibrating as though electrifying each other. As Noora had said, “Culture is in the body itself. We are the result of our own experience.”

Choreographer Ata Khatab

Choreographer Ata Khatab

As we watched, Ata made a new section. About 10 dancers slowly put a hand on another’s shoulder, then lower themselves to the floor. From a squatting position, they thrust their legs out in a few rhythmic dabke steps. jabbing the floor with their feet. Then they slowly rise and drop their hands away from each other.

After working on the new choreography, they showed us one of their signature dabke dances—and blew us away. They tore across the floor in full throttle with joyous camaraderie. This was not a “folk dance,” but an amped up, fierce celebration of their own power. Their lack of consistent training was irrelevant; they danced with great fervor, knowing they were reclaiming the dance of their culture. It was kinetically and choreographically exciting. As I watched them throw themselves into the dancing, I was thinking of what their lives were like. While witnessing this tremendous heart and spirit, I was choking back tears.

After the rehearsal, Noora, Khaled and his family, and Ata brought us to a terrific restaurant, where we all had a great time. And I realized that all my favorite Israeli foods are actually Arab foods. We went from having a wonderful, celebratory time with our new friends, to a desolate, Kafkaesque border-crossing experience on our way out of Ramallah. (But that’s another story.)

Noora and me outside restaurant

With Noora in the restaurant

In any case, Khaled’s question, “What are you doing in your community?” lingers with me.

 

 

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A Tornado of Music & Dance Hits MOMA

It wasn’t a dance performance. It wasn’t a music concert. It wasn’t an art exhibit. But Work/Travail/Arbeid combined elements of all three to create a rousing, immersive experience.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker took her magnificent Vortex Temporum, to the late Gérard Grisey’s gorgeously textured music of the same title, and stretched it out over five days, six or eight hours a day, for the installation at the Museum of Modern Art from March 29 to April 2.

From above the atrium, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

Work/Travail/Arbeid, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

Her original Vortex Temporum, which was a smash hit at BAM’s Next Wave Festival last fall, sent dancers and musicians careening around in crazily intersecting orbits. It was such a tour de force that it topped my “Best of 2016” list.

I was skeptical that this choreography, now broken up into many parts, could generate the excitement of the original stage piece. But it did—even more so because of the unpredictability of being in the museum environment. Grisey’s “spectral” music, as performed by seven members of the band Ictus, filled the second-floor Marron Atrium. On entering the museum, one could hear the plaintive sighs, the ominous washes of sound, the fairytale plucking sounds, coming from above.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker “Work/Travail/Arbeid” The Museum of Modern Art New York, N.Y. March 29, 2017 Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Rosas dancer, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

Once inside the Atrium, you were swept up at peak moments by dancers from Rosas, De Keersmaeker’s company, dashing around, activated either the chalk circles on the floor or by the soundings of a specific instrument. Or you might be sitting in the path of the piano as it came rolling along its arc.

Viollinist of Ictus, at MoMA, photo by WP

Violinist of Ictus, at MoMA, photo by WP

In quieter moments, you could see the curiosity of the dancers and the musicians about what their instruments could do. A single male dancer seemed to be impulsively speeding up and slowing down, winding into and out of intricate knots of movement, loosely following the circles drawn on the floor. Meanwhile the violinist reversed the usual action: He held the bow steady while lifting and lowering his instrument to contact the bow. Sometimes the wind players just blew into their reeds.

Grisey wanted to both expand and condense the experience of time and space. He wrote that his three temporal modes were “the time of humans…the time of whales…and the time of the insects.” The MoMA brochure explains these as “relating to breathing and heartbeat…a sense of expanded time…a sense of contracted time.” Likewise the dancers expanded and contracted space. Sometimes they loped around in large, carefree circles, other times they made circles within their own bodies, corkscrewing in place with flashes of furious energy.

The interplay between dancers and musicians became more intimate, more in-you-face, than it had been at the opera house at BAM. I’ve never felt the heartbeat of dance in a museum the way I did with Work/Travail/Arbeid.

Rosas dancers re-drew the chalk circles evey hour at MoMA, photo @ Julieta Cervantes The Museum of Modern Art New York, N.Y. March 29, 2017 Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

Rosas dancers re-drew the chalk circles every hour at MoMA, photo @ Julieta Cervantes

The stimulating crossover of sound and movement, listening and watching, caught people’s attention. As curator Ana Janevski said while introducing a talk between De Keersmaeker and MoMA’s associate director Kathy Halbreich on March 29, an exhibit’s success is too often measured by the numbers of viewers who show up. But a better measure may lie in the quality of attention paid. And for Work/Travail/Arbeid, people were captivated.

Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker “Work/Travail/Arbeid” The Museum of Modern Art New York, N.Y. March 29, 2017 Photo Credit: Julieta Cervantes

From above, MoMA, photo © Julieta Cervantes

The sense of interdisciplinary contagion, of energy whipping through the dancers’ circles and musicians’ circles, and the visibility of fellow visitors as part of the configuration, part of the show, contributed to the attraction. So did the knowledge that these dancers, who sometimes had to thread their way through the crowd, have been at it for hours.

Endurance has long been a signature of De Keersmaeker’s work. As she said at the MoMA talk, doing something for a long time changes the body. Halbreich described the endurance of the dancers this way: “Exquisite precision gives way to exquisite fragility.”

De Keersmaeker dedicated the MoMA performances to Trisha Brown, who died just before the run. (Here is my farewell to her.) It’s easy to see the affinity. They both have a faith that formal elements can stand alone, without the overlay of narrative, character, or theatricality. And Trisha’s work has always fit comfortably in museums, in terms of both artistic milieu and design. One could say Trisha did lines and Anne Teresa did circles. Both of them have taught us how to see. And with Work/Travail/Arbeid, we also learn about hearing.

 

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The Halprin-Forti-Rainer Postmodern Sweep

The “Radical Bodies” weekend at UC Santa Barbara turned out to be a profound experience for everyone involved. I am flooded with thoughts and feelings about the exhibit, performances, and conference. This was a momentous conclusion to a three-year project—and it’s not over. The exhibit comes to the NY Public Library for the Performing Arts on May 24 and will be up until September 16.

Yvonne, Anna, and Simone come together at UCSB.

Yvonne Rainer, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti come together at UCSB. All photos by Ellen Crane unless otherwise noted.

“Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972,” opened on January 27 at the Art, Design and Architecture Museum of UC Santa Barbara, kicked off by a full-day conference. The museum director, Bruce Robertson, is one of the curators; another is dance historian Ninotchka Bennahum, and the third is me. Bruce and Nina are both professors at UCSB and I was brought in because of my knowledge of the period.

The Exhibit
For me it was a revelation to realize, through our research, how much influence Anna Halprin had on Judson Dance Theater, widely known as the incubator of postmodern dance in the early 1960s. Her improvisations in nature, task dances, and use of scores—all these things were embraced by her student Simone Forti, who transported these ideas, contained—concealed?—in Forti’s own luscious dancing and dance-as-art concepts, to New York in 1960. Yvonne Rainer (along with Trisha Brown and Steve Paxton) was enthralled by Forti’s improvised dancing. Working on this project, I gained an appreciation of the sweep from West Coast to East Coast of some of these ideas.

The exhibit includes more than 150 photos, drawings, scores, and objects, plus rare footage of ’60s rehearsals and performances. Visitors can glean how each of the three dance artists redefined performance. The boldness of Halprin’s outdoor experiments, Forti’s affinity for animals in motion and her Zen-inflected drawings, and Rainer’s will to mess up the stage with boxes, mattresses, and human labor are all visible. Different styles of simplicity and different styles of defiance arise from these photos.

Yvonne Rainer in Three Seascapes, 1963 at Judson Church, photo © Al Giese

Yvonne Rainer in “Three Seascapes,” 1963 at Judson Church, photo © Al Giese, in the exhibit.

Anna, Simone, and Yvonne visited the UCSB dance department to prepare students to perform their work. Everyone was bristling with the awareness of this historic reunion. Some of the students said that this opportunity was the high point of their four years in college. After seeing the exhibit, Yvonne, who was famously influenced by Merce Cunningham and John Cage, said she never realized how much she had learned from Anna. We curators had been realizing the same thing—and how instrumental Simone was in intermingling Anna’s West Coast ideas with John Cage’s East Coast ideas. (Then again, Cage himself was from Los Angeles.) Actually, and uncannily, some of Halprin’s and Cage’s renegade ideas were very close, for instance, that art and life should be inseparable, and that everyday tasks have their own aesthetic and need no decoration.

I’ve been fascinated for decades with Judson Dance Theater. But when I embarked on the Bennington College Judson Project as a teacher 35 years ago (a project similar to “Radical Bodies” that included an exhibit, reconstructions, and a series of video interviews) I did not realize the huge influence of Anna Halprin. “Radical Bodies” balances out my former assumptions. It was Anna who immersed her students in improvisation, introduced speaking while dancing, and thrust the dancing body into natural and public spaces—very free-love, very California. When Simone came up with her breakthrough dance constructions in 1961, she was drawing on elements of both Halprin and Cage. (For more on Simone, see my essay on her in the Radical Bodies catalog/book co-published by UC Press.)

Students in Forti's Slant Board, at the opening of Radical Bodies exhibit, photo by WP

Students in Forti’s “Slant Board” at the opening of Radical Bodies exhibit, photo by WP

Judson in a Nutshell
In 1960 Robert Dunn, a disciple of John Cage, started teaching a course in choreography at the Merce Cunningham studio. His assignments were based on Cage’s notions of indeterminacy and chance. Among his first students were Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton. Not long after, Trisha Brown (along with Lucinda Childs, David Gordon, Rudy Perez and others) joined the class. Dunn was midwife to an explosion of experimental work that defied the rules of modern dance and became…postmodern dance. (To get an insight into Judson, read this article by Jack Anderson, written for The New York Times on the occasion of the Bennington reconstructions.)

However, “Improvisation was not on the grid in New York,” Trisha Brown observed. “Bob Dunn thought it was not acceptable as an answer to a compositional assignment.” (See page 32 in Susan Rosenberg’s new book, Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art.) It was outside of class that Simone and Trisha got together to play. Or Simone and Yvonne and Nancy Meehan. Or Simone and Steve Paxton. When the exploratory improvisation à la Halprin came up against John Cage’s chance procedures as introduced by Bob Dunn, the encounter erupted into Judson Dance Theater.

Concept of Dust: Continuous Project–Altered Annually, by Rainer, with, left to right: Rainer, Patrici Hoffbauer, Pat Catterson, David Thomson, Keith Sabado (falling), and Emily Coates

Rainer’s “Concept of Dust: Continuous Project–Altered Annually,” with, left to right: Rainer, Patricia Hoffbauer, Pat Catterson, David Thomson, Keith Sabado (falling), and Emily Coates

The two nights of performances at UCSB included several works by Yvonne and her “Raindears,” a News Animation by Simone, and the students performing Chair Pillow by Yvonne and Anna’s Paper Dance from Parades and Changes. This last was utterly beautiful and deeply moving. (More about this later.)

The Conference
The daylong conference, conceived and organized by Ninotchka, began with a conversation between Anna, Simone, and Yvonne. I was over-the-moon happy to serve as moderator for these three extraordinary dance artists. I cannot give you the arc of the conversation, but I will say a few things I remember.

Talking about the 1960 workshop on Anna’s deck on Mt. Tamalpais, Simone recalled how very particular Anna was in guiding exploratory activity. The famous moment when Trisha Brown was sweeping the deck and suddenly thrust the broom out until she was almost flying in the air, stemmed from an assignment on momentum. (Again, see Susan Rosenberg’s book, page 23, to read the vivid memories of both Simone and Yvonne about Trisha’s low-flying episode. Also I’ve written about how this moment on the deck engendered many more instances of what I call Trisha’s Horizontal Dreaming.)

Anna, me, Yvonne at conference

Anna, me, Yvonne at conference

When I asked each of them if they felt they were pre-feminist (since feminism didn’t surge until the 1970s), Yvonne allowed as how she and Simone had, over the years, an ongoing argument about this. Yvonne said she embraced feminism but didn’t feel she had the right to call herself that because she wasn’t an activist. Simone, on the other hand, said she did not feel drawn to feminism. Her father had told her she could be whatever she wanted, and her first husband, minimalist sculptor Robert Morris, had encouraged her and helped her become an artist.

radbodscoverPrompted by something in Simone’s poignant letters to Anna, 1960-61, which are published for the first time in our catalog/book, I asked whether ideas circulated differently on the West Coast and East Coast. I suggested that perhaps in New York artists were more concerned with “owning” ideas than people in California.

Simone at conference

Simone at conference

In response, Simone said she felt New York was more influenced by Duchamp and Europe, whereas California was more influenced by Suzuki and Zen. (This is a major insight that some scholar should follow up on.) And Anna blurted out, “I was annoyed. People from New York called me ‘touchy-feely,’ and what’s wrong with that?” Yvonne said something like, “That’s because Minimalism was against all that!” I pointed out that Anna’s sense of touch in dance—touching the earth, touching other bodies—infiltrated NYC via Simone, influencing Steve Paxton and Trisha Brown, and leading to Contact Improvisation.

My last question to our three graces was, What can an artist do in this new world disorder? Anna expressed outrage that the White House is now telling women what to do with our bodies. She also described her annual Planetary Dance, which originally led to the capture of a killer on Mt. Tamalpais. Simone said that in her News Animations she tries to bring in an awareness of politics. In her performance the next night, she made sly references to both Trump and Mussolini.

Simone in her News Animation at UCSB

Simone in her “News Animation” at UCSB

In other conference presentations, Janice Ross, author of Anna Halprin: Experience as Dance, called Anna’s use of nudity “silent unpeeling.” She traced the use of nudity back to 19th-century Germany’s physical culture, and to Anna’s teacher, Margaret H’Doubler, who took her University of Wisconsin students to a lakeside where they danced nude. Scholar Peggy Phelan zeroed in on words, for example comparing Trump’s use of “move on her” in the infamous lewd sound bite from 2005 to a military sense of the phrase. “Moving on” as conquering, raping.

My co-curator Bruce Robertson juxtaposed Yvonne’s Parts of Some Sextets (1965) with the 1959 musical Once Upon a Mattress starring Carol Burnett. Although there were also scholarly nuggets about Rainer’s influence on the art world, it served as an apt prelude to Yvonne’s talk, “What’s So Funny? Laughter and Anger in the Time of the Assassins.” In this hilarious and scholarly lecture, her main point was “One person’s funny bone is another’s yawn.” In one part, Yvonne read, verbatim, a wondrously incoherent rant from Trump on his good genes. She concluded her lecture by showing, on video, the section of her dance Assisted Living (2012), in which Pat Catterson instigates a laughing fit that is seemingly uncontrollable and contagious. You can’t help but giggle when you see it.

Ralph Lemon, flanked by Ninotchka and me

Ralph Lemon, flanked by me and Ninotchka

Ralph Lemon’s presentation blew me away. In his talk, “Circling around post-modernism like weather,” he put our slice of dance history into context by saying how much he’s learned from the “white women” of modern dance. He started the talk by showing an archival video of Mary Wigman’s fierce 1913 Hexentanz, onto which he superimposed Carol Jones’ 1968 funk-soul song “Don’t Destroy Me.” The pairing was perfectly, uncannily synced, beat for beat. It was like he was saying, “This is how I locate myself in postmodern dance.” A brilliant juxtapositon. By labeling the lineage of modern-to-postmodern dance “white women,” he underscored the homogeneity of the early years of the genre. His first modern dance teacher was Nancy Hauser, who studied with Hanya Holm, the star student of Wigman who brought her technique to this country.

Wigman's Hexentanz

Wigman’s “Hexentanz”

How does Ralph, who was recently honored by President Obama with a National Medal of Arts, fit into this lineage? The answer is through his work with Hauser, then with Meredith Monk, then starting his own company with dancers who had studied the same somatic techniques that Trisha Brown relied on. But for Geography, his monumental, poetic trilogy that spanned ten years, he went searching for dance roots in Africa, Asia, and the American South, while keeping aspects of his unique blend of postmodern improvisation intact. His last work at Brooklyn Academy of Music, How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? (2010) went so far beyond the decorum of concert dance in its physical and emotional exhaustion that it was its own No Manifesto—at least in my eyes.

After listening to Ralph’s Circling lecture and thinking back to his work of the last 20 years, this is what I realized: Ralph is taking postmodernism where it needs to go. It started as a formalistic stripping down to essentials at Judson Dance Theater in the ’60s; it opened up to complexity of movement and narrative in the ’80s and ’90s, and it has evolved to explore cultural and racial terrain.

And another thing: Hexentanz means “Witch Dance.” In some way, Halprin, Forti and Rainer are witches—the good kind of course. But also the kind that make people uneasy. Watching their performances at UCSB, it occurred to me that, had they been in Europe in the Middle Ages, they all might have been burned as witches. They all possess a certain divine madness. (See addendum* for Eva Yaa Asantewaa’s definition of witch.) Anna’s ability to create a healing kind of beauty out of something as mundane as paper; Simone’s luminous presence and slippery pathways between movement and words in her News Animations, and Yvonne’s refusal of performance conventions in Trio A, the screaming fit Three Seascapes, the droll humor and random readings in Concept of Dust: Continuous Project—Altered Annually, would have gotten them into trouble.

Patricia Hoffbauer in Rainer's Three Seascapes

Patricia Hoffbauer in Rainer’s “Three Seascapes”

And one could say they put a spell on the students. We heard over and over how much the students were enchanted by working with them. (They had learned Simone’s dance constructions Huddle and Slant Board, Yvonne’s Chair Pillow, and Anna’s Paper Dance.) One said she wished Simone could be her grandma. Another who was taking Ninotchka’s course on Dance As Social Protest said she’s become obsessed with Halprin. Another said the experience changed her life. Many students as well as outsiders thronged to see the exhibit, which is up at UCSB’s AD&A Museum until April 30.

For me a heart-stopping moment came when Yvonne, in the middle of Concept of Dust (which I had seen twice before) suddenly cut loose and improvised an eccentric, top-speed, self-interrupting solo that thread through space. All I can say is, at 82, she’s still got it.

Yvonne rehearsing UCSB students in Chair Pillow

Yvonne rehearsing UCSB students in “Chair Pillow”

The Paper Dance
When the UCSB student dance company performed the Paper Dance from Halprin’s Parades and Changes (1965-67), we all realized this went way beyond an educational experience. The dance is an artistic experience that cuts across dance, sculpture, and the human condition. Anna dedicated this edition to North Dakota Pipe Line struggle.

In Anna’s ritual pacing, the 12 dancers entered from the back of the auditorium, walking and whistling. After making their way to the stage of the Hatlen Theater, they slowly removed their clothing while keeping their eyes fixed on a point of their choice. Once they started ripping up rolls of brown paper, we hardly noticed their nudity, so blended were their bodies with the shapes of the paper.

Paper Dance, performed by UCSB students

Anna Halprin’s “Paper Dance,” performed by UCSB students

The sound of the tearing, the melding of skin and paper, the floating quality of the paper wafting in air, all made a living sculpture of great beauty. Add to that the ceremonial quality, the sensitive timing of the group, the exquisite vulnerability of these young people exposing themselves—well, it made some of us cry.

They built to a climax of tossing shreds of paper high into the air with whoops of glee—from solemnity to exuberance in 12 minutes! Then they gathered up clumps of torn paper, held them close to their bodies almost like shields, and stepped downstage. Returning to the ritual pacing, they spread out in a long line, and—still holding the clusters close to themselves—they slowly bowed to us. We in the audience were stunned by the humble beauty of the whole sequence.

Students bowing in Paper Dance

Students bowing in “Paper Dance”

Anna told me later that this was a symbolic bow, asking forgiveness of the Native American water protectors for destroying their environment. Brooke Smiley, the young woman who staged the Paper Dance, had just been at Standing Rock. She led the dancers through the rehearsal process, guided by her sense of responsibility of the body in the environment.

Stay tuned, because the Radical Bodies exhibit** comes to the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts at Lincoln Center from May 24 to September 16. We will have a slate of related events including the UCSB group repeating Paper Dance and Chair Pillow.

Curators Ninotchka Bennahum, me, and Bruce Robertson. All photos by Ellen Crane unless otherwise indicated.

Curators Ninotchka Bennahum, me, and Bruce Robertson at reception for “Radical Bodies.”

Addenda
*Definition of witch, as given to me by dance writer extraordinaire, Eva Yaa Asantewaa: “A witch is someone grounded in ancient and worldwide philosophies and practices of connection to the forces of nature and Spirit, ways of being, thinking and relating that predate monotheistic religion and critique it. A witch is someone who loves and respects the power of forces outside of and within the self, someone capable of awe and instructed by it. Someone who works with all these ideas and energies through physical, mental and spiritual means, using physical or metaphysical tools and symbols. A witch might be trained in a tradition, a lineage, but is often self-identified, self-trained, self-directed and self-determined. There are many traditions and lineages—Celtic, Strega, Norse, Afro-Atlantic; old and tied to specific cultures or contemporary or hybrid. A witch is confident within a certain marginal, outsider status, can be skeptical, heretical, does not need the hierarchical structure or physical structures of patriarchal religion. Can acknowledge one or any number of god/desses or none at all, really. A witch is nobody’s cult member or slave. Is mobile and crafty. Makes, heals, blesses, nourishes, teaches, dances, sings, protects, speaks, challenges, celebrates.”

** Radical Bodies is organized by the Art, Design & Architecture Museum, UC Santa Barbara, and generous support is provided by the May and Samuel Rudin Family Foundation, Inc., the Ceil and Michael Pulitzer Foundation, the Metabolic Studio, and Jody Gottfried Arnhold.

I couldn't resist: Here I am with old dance pal Wendy Rogers climbing the Slant Board. Photo by Linda Murray

We couldn’t resist: Here I am with old dance pal Wendy Rogers climbing the “Slant Board.” Photo by Linda Murray, Curator, Dance Division of NYPL for the Performing Arts

 

 

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Best Dance Books of 2016—and Others

 

This list is in two parts: first, the books I think are of high quality, and second, the books I’ve received that seem to be noteworthy but I haven’t read them.

bolshoiconfidentialBolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today
By Simon Morrison
Liveright, a subsidiary of W. W. Norton

Prompted by the acid-throwing nightmare of 2013, Princeton musicologist Simon Morrison has researched the history of mismanaged and vengeful acts since the Bolshoi’s beginnings 240 years ago. From a British magician’s pet project in 1780s Moscow to the lavish restoration of its theater in 2011, the Bolshoi has been through many reincarnations—some ridiculous, some sublime. You will learn how Ekaterina Sankovskaya in the mid-1800s was compared to Tagioni, how Adam Glushkovsky fled Moscow with his students in a cart during the Russian Revolution, how Alexander Gorsky’s exuberant Don Quixote brought in a new audience, how dancers were fined for infringements as far back as the 1920s, how the now-powerful Yuri Grigorovich was accused of fomenting gay activities in the 1970s, and how the KGB plagued Maya Plisetskaya. All through it the Bolshoi represented national identity and something more elusive—“Russian soul.” Morrison, a wonderful and witty writer, gives political context to every triumph and defeat of the Bolshoi. Bolshoi Confidential is a fun, quick, and informative ride through Russia’s past.

 

trishabrowncovreTrisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art
By Susan Rosenberg
Wesleyan University Press, distributed by University Press of New England
A long awaited analysis of Trisha Brown’s work, this book discusses her process and thinking in detail. Rosenberg’s research has yielded a plethora of insights into the work of this great American choreographer. Rosenberg bridges the gap between Brown’s early work in galleries and museums and the later work in theaters. For instance 1977’s Line Up (which I was in and helped to create) laid the conceptual foundation for her masterwork Set and Reset (1983). Rosenberg, an art historian, highlights the role of drawing in Brown’s choreography and her affinity with artists like Robert Rauschenberg, Donald Judd, and Sol LeWitt. She takes you on a tour through Brown’s improvisational pieces, equipment pieces, accumulations, artistic collaborations, and scores. Aided by quotes from former dancers like Steven Petronio, Diane Madden, and Vicky Shick, the writing is serious and detailed without being overly academic. A terrific resource for anyone who is curious about Brown’s vast oeuvre or about the ideological connections between art and dance.

 

cagecoverThe Selected Letters of John Cage
Laura Kuhn, editor
Wesleyan University Press, distributed by University Press of New England
Possibly the most influential artist-philosopher of the 20th century, Cage is revealed here as a normally harried but playful person. As a composer he cracked open the idea of what music could be (sounds and silence) and how music and dance could be created independently of each other. His partner in this was, of course, Merce Cunningham, and Cage’s devotion to his work and life partner comes through in many letters. This generous volume includes letters to Yoko Ono, Robert Rauschenberg, Marcel Duchamp, Marshall McLuhan, Leonard Bernstein (to raise funds for Cunningham’s company!), composer Pierre Boulez, and many others. Mixed in with everyday, practical considerations are thoughts about silence, Buddhism, and the composing of music. But of course we are most interested in Cage’s letters to Merce—love letters, some of them. In 1943 he writes, “My whole desire is to run up and down the sea coast looking for you.” (For more on Cage, see my 2014 posting about the book John Cage Was.)

zadiesmith-swing-timeSwing Time
By Zadie Smith
Penguin, Random House 

I have not yet read this novel, so I offer this quick quote from a colleague:

“Zadie Smith’s wonderful Swing Time—about two English girls who dream of dancing professionally—isn’t a dance book per se. It covers a lot of ground, including race and class divisions, and the perils of young womanhood in 1980s London and beyond. But Smith uses dance as a thread to stitch these themes together, and memorably makes the point that even if you don’t stick with dance, dance never really leaves you.” —Heather Wisner, managing editor, Dance Studio Life.

 

At the risk of shameless self-promotion, I include this book/catalog, which I co-wrote and co-edited:

radbodscoverRadical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955-1972
By Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson
University of California Press
In this book we expand the story of the birth of postmodern dance to include Anna Halprin’s huge influence on the West Coast. Her approach to improvisation was ferried to New York by Simone Forti, who then influenced Yvonne Rainer, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton. As co-curator, I wrote the essay on Forti, who was a catalyst in the creation of Judson Dance Theater. Her earthy, poetic letters to Halprin from 1960-61, when she is still dreaming of California while transplanted to New York, are printed here for the first time. Essays by dance historian Ninotchka Bennahum and art historian Bruce Robertson, plus brief memoirs by Morton Subotnick (composer of Halprin’s 1965-67 Parades and Changes) and critic John Rockwell (who worked with Halprin in the 60s) complete the writings. A catalog for the Radical Bodies exhibit, the book has more than a hundred rarely seen photographs.

 

Books Received

This was a breakout year for academic writers on Asian-American dance studies. I begin this part of the list with three of them:

flowerscrackconcreteFlowers Cracking Concrete: Eiko & Koma’s Asian/American Choreographies
By Rosemary Candelario
Wesleyan University Press and distributed by University Press of New England
An account of four decades of that formidable artistic duo, Eiko & Koma.

 

 

Chinese Dance: In the Vast Land & Beyondchinesedancecover
By Shih-Ming Li Chang and Lynn E. Frederiksen
Wesleyan University Press and distributed by University Press of New England
Includes interviews with current Chinese dance artists in the U.S. like Nai-Ni Chen, Lily Cai, Yin Mei, and Jin-Wen Yu.

 

wong-contemporary-directions-in-asian-american-dance-cContemporary Directions in Asian American Dance
Edited by Yutian Wong
Essays by or about artists familiar to Americans such as Shen Wei, Kun-Yang Lin, Yasuko Yokoshi, Eiko & Koma, Maura Nguyen Donohue, and Roko Kawai.
University of Wisconsin Press

 

 

concretebodycoverThe Concrete Body: Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Vito Acconci
By Elise Archias
Yale University Press
Focuses on the crossover between dance, visual art and performance art of the 1960s.

 

cover_showingangelasterlingphoto_rgb_72Out There: Jonathan Porretta’s Life in Dance
By Marcie Sillman, photography by Angela Sterling
Seattle Scriptorium
Available at Amusements, the Gift Shop of Pacific Northwest Ballet
A photo book focusing on longtime PNB principal dancer, with some commentary and a list of leading roles. Porretta’s Prodigal Son made my Best of 2016 list.

 

For other 2016 picture books, see my posting at dancemagazine.com. 

 

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My Tribute to Deborah Jowitt

My presentation to Deborah Jowitt on the occasion of her receiving a Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2016 Martha Hill Awards Gala, held on November 21, 2016.

One quality that is harder and harder to come by in our world is trust. And this is what I find in Deborah Jowitt. I felt it when I was a dancer in her choreography. I felt it when I took the workshop in dance writing from her and Marcia Siegel. And I feel it every time I read her writing—or have a conversation with her.

When I read most dance critics, I either agree or I disagree. But with Deborah Jowitt, I learn something. She notices things—little things, big things— that had escaped me. She enlarges it, she makes it more relevant. She ties each detail to an image that helps you picture it.

Photo by Tony Powell. 2016 Martha Hill Awards Gala. November 21, 2016

From left: Vernon Scott, president of the board; Deborah Jowitt; me. Photos by Tony Powell.

Deborah has been a beacon of light for dancers like me, who wanted to write. But she has also been a beacon to the whole field. Her current blog a ArtsJournal.com; her two collections of reviews; her decades of writing for the Village Voice that many of us grew up on, her book Time and the Dancing Image, which is like no other book because it tracks changing ideals over time; and her comprehensive biography of Jerome Robbins, are written from love and from curiosity. That’s why she is essential to our field. She has grace, courage, experience, and wisdom. I wish some of the other critics would listen to her words in the introduction to Dance in Mind, one of her collections of reviews: “Long ago I decided that it was pointless to use heavy artillery on small targets.”

Her writing style is conversational, yet also poetic. About Kate Weare’s Marksman, she wrote: “Julian De Leon shapes his body around her, against her, intersecting with her, as if trying—in a dreamy yet probing way— to sense what she’s like.”

Deborah lets you know how perceptions of something onstage change during a performance. Reviewing John Jasperse’s Remains at BAM, she sets up the mood with a lone figure in dimness and then says: “Now in the silence, we see a small miracle. In the muted beam of light, the figure onstage—lying on its side, one leg crossed over the other, its face hidden—begins to glitter with tiny, erratic points of light. What had seemed like a discarded object becomes a treasure.”

Deborah doesn’t announce her opinions. She doesn’t say, “This is bad gender politics.” But the way she writes it, you catch her drift. About Danish Dance Theatre performing Tim Rushton’s Black Diamond, she wrote: “There’s a scene in which Alessandro Sousa Pereira and Stefanos Bizas get Lucia Pasquini between them and start pulling her around—lifting her, swinging her, dragging her. A couple more men arrive to help. There’s a puzzle built into this kind of a scene. The men are nominally in charge, but the woman—while looking desperate and unhappy—actually has to run to them so they can maul her some more.”

She can write about strong emotions with exquisite detail. Here she talks about the dawning of jealousy and revenge in Christopher Wheeldon’s A Winter’s Tale, with the National Ballet of Canada: This is about the dancer portraying Leontes: “When he beats one foot against his other ankle in ballet’s frappé, the move is almost sinister. He crouches and slithers… His fingers creep up his body like spiders ready to infiltrate his brain.”

And she lets the real world in. This is from a very recent posting: “Being at the Joyce the day after the election was an unsettling experience. There were more empty seats than you’d expect at an opening night. I hope Kate Weare understands that many were out protesting or at home mourning, and that those of us in the audience felt our spirits lift a little.”

Deborah’s knowledge of dance is so vast that she can easily link a dance artist to the past, giving us a sense of continuity. Whom or what period does this hark back to? For that reason, and all of the above, she is beloved by choreographers. When Ohad Naharin accepted the Dance Magazine Award in 2013, he wrote an off-the-cuff “Advice to critics” list. Included is this piece of advice: “Make sure you have lunch with Deborah Jowitt at least once in your lifetime.”

I was lucky to inherit Deborah’s Graduate Seminar at NYU Tisch School of the Arts. She has built this course to last. The assigned readings and actions—in a variety of different modes —stimulate the students to be critical thinkers. I always keep in mind, the goal, as she stated it to me: to have the students see deeply into dance.

I will end by quoting from Deborah’s landmark essay “Beyond Description: Writing beneath the Surface.” This essay suggests that you don’t have to superimpose ideas on top of description, that description itself can contain ideas. She writes: “Analogy is rooted in observation—as fluid as the transactions between pond water and fish. In such an ecosystem, everything nourishes everything else. And ideas spring like water lilies.”

Thank you Deborah.

All awardees and presenters at Martha Hill Fund gala. Standing: Jowitt, Terhesa Dickinson, Reed Hansen, Jacqueline Z. Davis, Ann Hutchinson Guest, Tina Curran, Matthew Rushing. Kneeling: Me, Fredrick Earl Mosley, Matthew Rushing2016

Awardees and presenters at Martha Hill Fund gala. Standing: Jowitt, Terese Capucilli, Reed Hansen, Jacqueline Z. Davis, Ann Hutchinson Guest, Tina Curran, Matthew Rushing. Kneeling: Me, Fredrick Earl Mosley, Eric Parra.

 

 

 

 

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A Fresh Breeze: Galassos and de Groat

On the occasion of get dancing being nominated for a Bessie, I wanted to say why this evening, by Catherine Galasso and Andy de Groat, prompted thoughts and reveries. Well, now it turns out that it won’t actually win a Bessie (the revivals category winner has already been announced, pre-event). So I will just thank the Bessie committee for the nudge and go ahead with these thoughts anyway.

Andy de Groat, photo © Lois Greenfield

Andy de Groat in Rope Dance Translations, late 1970s, photo © Lois Greenfield

The evening, a combination of reconstructions of Andy de Groat’s work and a new work by Catherine Galssso, captured something elusive about the ’70s. The only way I can describe it is that things at that time were unforced. There was a sense that people were finding ways to let choreography happen rather than willing it to happen. This was reflected in all parts of her program last December at Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church. Catherine’s new piece, notes on de groat, was in tune with that spirit but with an added dose of athletic energy. The experience was like following a string back through time and finding some sort of treasure. What she found wasn’t flashy or transgressive, but an enchanted meeting of movement and music, so different from the high-concept or technology-laden performances I sometimes see today.

Autosave-File vom d-lab2/3 der AgfaPhoto GmbH

Catherine Galasso, photo by Jacob Burckhardt

Catherine Galasso’s father, Michael Galasso, was a composer of such intriguing, beautiful music that I’m surprised it hasn’t been used by more choreographers. He died in 2009, and get dancing is his daughter’s collaboration with de Groat, the choreographer most associated with his music. They worked together in the ’70s, at first under the direction of Robert Wilson. This was before the days of the Joyce and BAM’s Next Wave Festival, when downtown choreographers weren’t thinking in terms of proscenium. Andy was a regular at Danspace, where lighting genius Carol Mullins was in residence even back then. Luckily, Mullins, who toured with de Groat before coming to Danspace in 1982, was on hand to light Galasso’s evening too.

The rebuilding of de Groat’s work brought a fresh breeze into Danspace. Simplicity, visual beauty, and the spirituality of minimalism were all there to be savored. The performers ranged from Charles Dennis and Frank Conversano, two heroes of “pedestrian dance” who were in the original works, to current freelance dancers Meg Weeks, Madeline Wilcox, Chris deVita, and Kristopher K.Q. Pourzal.

This project grew from Catherine’s love, curiosity, and a wish for continuity. In a posting on the Danspace website, she says about these works, “I felt that if I didn’t bring them…de Groat’s history with this city might disappear. This is archiving through re-performance. It’s my way of passing this choreographer’s work on to a new generation.”

Film and Reconstruction
The 1979 black-and-white film of Rope Dance Translations, with Michael Galasso’s spiraling violin music, set the tone. Each of the five spinning dancers had a three-strand rope that whipped outward or looped overhead depending on their arm and torso movement. To my eye, they had an affinity with Simone Forti’s 1961 “dance constructions,” wherein the movement and visual objects were inextricably bound. Watching these sculpture-dancers in John Meaney and Andrew Horn’s film, spinning with slight variations in how the rope extended the body, gave a focus to our senses and our thoughts. The union of motion, object, and sound was hypnotic. Toward the end, the two-dimensional film expanded into three dimensions when four dancers stepped into the space for a live rope dance. We had just seen three of them on screen, 36 years younger: Ritty Ann Burchfield, Frank Conversano, and Charles Dennis.

Fan Dance—Good for Mental Health
Michael Galasso’s music for fan dance (1978) is hauntingly beautiful—celestial really. De Groat paired it with purposeful walking and simple gestures, fans in hands. According to Weeks, he had counted the music in an odd way.

“That music is counted in a traditional 4/4 timing, but Andy came up with this really different time signature for it, which was two 4s, two 5s, two 6s, two 7s, two 11s, two 4s, and two 11s. It’s that set repeated four times. The music is this sort of sweeping grandiose music for strings and it’s uplifting. At first the counting sequence was difficult to learn…but after a while I didn’t have to count anymore. It just kind of worked…That dance is really special, I feel like everyone should do it for their mental health.”

MEg Weeks and Kristopher Purzal in Fan Dance, all photos by Victoria Sendra

fan dance, all current photos by Victoria Sendra

That night in December, I felt my own mental health infused with peace, just watching and listening to it.

get wreck
Another piece, get wreck (1978) had an intergenerational cast. Older dancers like Kathryn Ray, Burchfield, and Conversano, who were part of the original cast, commingled with younger dancers. They all possessed the unmannered, gently energized demeanor necessary for negotiating the complex patterns. At that time, downtown people were challenging the virtuosity of concert dance with pedestrian movements, just as Andy Warhol challenged the ideal of artistic beauty by presenting everyday soup cans as art. The aesthetic of the ordinary permeated much of downtown.

Part of the inspiration for get wreck sprang from artist and wordsmith Christopher Knowles. Sometimes considered autistic in his early years, he started working with Robert Wilson when he was 13. (For a New Yorker article on Knowles click here.) De Groat also worked with Knowles and took the title get wreck from a poem of his that was set to music.

a section of the original get wreck poem by Christopher Knowles, courtesy Carol Mullins

a section of get wreck poem by Christopher Knowles, courtesy Carol Mullins

For Knowles, repetition was about rhythm and pattern. It seemed like he’d get lost in the words and find his way through. Viewers had to pay close attention to perceive each small change—not unlike Trisha Brown’s accumulation series. Knowles figured out his own way of accumulating words.

Bridging Past and Present
Catherine’s new piece is specifically about the process of reconstructing. I usually don’t like dances that explain themselves, but her notes on de groat was done with such clarity, love, and sly wit that it won me over. You felt a tug from the past, but more than that, an exchange with the past.

While Catherine speaks at a microphone, Weeks, deVita, and Pourzal pass through a limited vocabulary of spins, jogs, and crouches with their own personal flair. Reciting her text, the narrator (now switched to Pourzal), says, “This process, while partly about re-creation, is also about how the dancers and I find our own voices within Andy’s aesthetic in an attempt to bridge past and present.”

Pourzal, Weeks, and deVita in Note on De Groat

Pourzal, Weeks, and deVita in notes on de groat

The text, which you can hear in its entirety in this Vimeo, includes passages from her correspondence with de Groat. For instance, she let him know that she didn’t like his idea of starting the evening with the film. “Your proposal for program order is making less and less sense to me,” she wrote. She thought that starting with a long and uninflected film might put people to sleep. She was torn between honoring his wishes and her own theatrical instincts. But in the spirit of cooperation, she told him, “I’m ready to get behind it and will embrace it as an experiment.”

“Catherine,” he wrote back, “life is an experiment….If I was doing what I do for people who zap [change the TV channels quickly], are in a hurry, don’t have time, I would’ve stopped a long time ago…Looking for what is considered success is so totally smoky and subjective as to be dangerous.”

This is kind of a key to that unforced thing. De Groat had a clear progression in mind and refused to force it into a format that might be more convenient for the audiences.

There’s a point, after Andy is quoted saying “Explications can be misleading,” when Galasso’s music surges into circular riffs (a bit like Philip Glass, but the two were contemporaries, not one following the other) that carry the dancers into their next, more rambunctious section. Together the music and dance seem to be saying that they don’t need any explanations.

Repetition Then and Now
In my memory, the use of repetition by New York choreographers during the 70s—de Groat, Laura Dean, Barbara Dilley, Meredith Monk, Trisha Brown, Harry Sheppard (who danced in the original get wreck)—invited viewers into a meditative state of mind.

These days the repetition I see is more like a display of endurance. The energy is often pushed. I admire the stamina of the dancers and the boldness of the choreographic mind behind it, but it makes me wonder, When did the tone of repetition change? Maybe Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker was a transitional figure. Influenced by Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs, her dancers also have to count a lot, but there’s more force in her repetitions. With her intricate gestures and fierce physicality, she gave repetition a certain drama. And now I’m seeing a trend that’s even more hard-edged—generating drama from sheer stamina.

I am indebted to two dancers from Galasso’s evening for shedding light on this trend. In my phone conversation with Weeks, who also danced with Donna Uchizono, she compared today’s attitude with that of de Groat:

“I feel like an interest in duration today has to do with exhaustion and rendering physical exertion legible to an audience…It’s maybe redefining virtuosity, independent from a ballet context, where virtuosity is defined by the ability to do tricks, obviously stylized and in context. Maybe some of the contemporary interest in examining virtuosity is from a more pedestrian angle.”

Weeks and Pourzal in Fan Dance

Weeks and Pourzal in Fan Dance

Madeline Wilcox performed in the final reconstruction of the get dancing evening. It was an excerpt of de Groat’s Swan Lac, which was the last show de Groat produced in New York before moving to France. The dancers’ aerobic phrases reminded me that by 1982 Andy was speeding up his pacing (the music is the Talking Heads). Wilcox said the cardio workout was the most challenging part of performing it. But she said that, naturally, she has a more complex engagement when she is part of the making process. When talking about her work with current choreographers like Sarah Michelson and Jillian Peña, Wilcox said this:

“It’s more about research of each movement, asking questions inside that movement so that it is fresh every time, even though to the outside eye it might just look like repetition… looking at the complication inside the task of what we’re doing so that it is no longer the old repetition. You work on it for a year and you form an attachment to it.”

The emotional aspect of repetition, for both the dancer and the viewer, can range anywhere from meditation to obsession. I think the tone of it, the timbre, the state of mind it induces, changes according to the heartbeat of the choreographer—and of the times. And the feeling of today’s arts and media is definitely more bombarded, almost under siege, and therefore more forceful in its counterattack. Maybe that’s why the Galasso/de Groat/Galasso evening was such an oasis.

Michael O'Rourke and de Groat in the first Swan Lac, Aix-en-Provence, early 1980s, photo by Christiane Robin

Michael O’Rourke and de Groat in the first Swan Lac, Aix-en-Provence, early 1980s, photo by Christiane Robin

Spinning… in between
In notes on de groat, Catherine describes seeing an archival film of Andy spinning in Iran in 1972, “nonstop, light on his feet, as if floating in the air.” She continues: “Spinning seems strangely transporting, both virtuosic and pedestrian, spiritual without being religious. It so perfectly encapsulates that era…”

And then Catherine quotes Andy: “Spinning and all dance concerns the mind state between waking and sleeping, life and dreams, the conscious and the unconscious. With spinning, all movement is generated from a basic walk around in place, like taking a walk with nowhere to go.”

There is something about that in-between place that means to me an acceptance of where you are. It’s about giving yourself the time to dwell on one thing. And I would translate “nowhere to go” closer to, having nothing to prove.

For Catherine, this project began as a way to enter de Groat’s work and to find a balance between her voice and his. In following her personal quest, she revealed a whole different aesthetic, an aesthetic of task lifted by beautiful music, of circles of the mind, of patience and poetry.

 

 

 

 

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