Best & Worst of 2015

Although I cut down a bit on my dance addiction this year, I still saw many terrific performances—and a few clunkers. I tried to stick to world premieres or company premieres but other things snuck into this list.

BEST CHOREOGRAPHY (in order of how strongly it hit me)

• Polaris, by Crystal Pite with 6 Kidd Pivot dancers and 60 NYU Tisch Dance students. Massive. Inventive. Shocking in its brutal beauty, masterful in its craft, it was part of “Thomas Adès: Concentric Paths—Movements in Music,” commissioned by Sadler’s Wells in 2014, brought to NYC by Lincoln Center’s White Light Festival in coordination with NY City Center.

"Polaris" by Crystal Pite, photo by Kevin Yatarola

“Polaris” by Crystal Pite, photo by Kevin Yatarola

• Andrea Miller’s Whale at the Joyce with her company Gallim. Almost unbearable cravings alternating with giddy flesh contact. Howling, dragging, hurtling through the air. A celebration of awkwardness. Yes, Miller is obviously influenced by Ohad Naharin, but she’s got her own unstoppable zing.

Andrea Miller's Whale, photo by Yi-Chun Wu

Andrea Miller’s “Whale,” photo by Yi-Chun Wu

• Birdgang Dance Company, an urban dance group from the U.K. in its U.S. debut, at the Breakin Convention at the Apollo (produced by Sadler’s Wells). Dancer/choreographer/actor Ukweli Roach created and starred in Vice, a searing depiction of addiction. The power and precision blew me away.

Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Kim Brandstrup's Jeux. Photo by Paul Kolnik

Sara Mearns and Adrian Danchig-Waring in Kim Brandstrup’s “Jeux.” Photo by Paul Kolnik

• Kim Brandstrup’s Jeux, for New York City Ballet, takes you from a cocktail party to film-noir creepiness. Haunting use of Debussy’s music and Jean Kalman’s eclipse-like lights.

• Michelle Dorrance on two occasions: First, The Blues Project, with Toshi Reagon and BIGLovely at the Joyce in April, with fellow tap stars Derick K. Grant and Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards. Delving into what the blues means individually, culturally and musically. And then, only months later, Myelination, a commission from Fall for Dance. Knockout rhythm and shape, spiced with weird and wonderful (partly improvised) solos and poignant duets. Dorrance has taken tap from being just “numbers” to being real choreography.

Alexander Ekman in Thoughts at the Bolshoi, photo by Jack Devant

Alexander Ekman in “Thoughts at the Bolshoi,” photo by Jack Devant

• Another choreographer who impressed me twice was Alexander Ekman. His cheeky, large-cast Tulle, mounted on the Joffrey Ballet, placed tutu-wearing dancers in everyday situations to hilarious effect, at the Auditorium Theatre in Chicago. In Moscow at the Benois de la danse, he dashed around the vast Bolshoi stage, charming the crowd with his witty words (translated into Russion on tape) and actions in Thoughts at the Bolshoi. Irreverent and reverent at the same time, this Swedish choreographer has the ability to see things from a fresh angle.

• David Neumann’s Noh-influenced dance/play I Understand Everything Better, at Abrons Arts. To see Neumann play the role of a delirious older man is to see him become more vulnerable as well as philosophical. Influenced by his work with Big Dance Theater, he created a dreamlike environment in which objects have their own choreography.

Louise Lecavalier in her "So Blue"

Louise Lecavalier in her “So Blue”

• Louise Lecavalier’s keenly focused So Blue, at New York Live Arts. Her famous fearlessness from the 1980s (when she was the star of La La La Human Steps) found a counterpart in her uncanny momentum as an older performer—one who happens to look like David Bowie. A beautifully shaped (mostly) solo concert, depending only on her singularity as a mover.

• Time It Was/116, an utterly delightful encounter between the scintillating New York City Ballet ballerina Tiler Peck and master clown Bill Irwin (who also happens to be one of New York’s greatest dancers). The performers co-choreographed this brilliant romp with Damian Woetzel, who commissioned it for Vail Dance Festival; the NY premiere was at Fall for Dance.

• Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, for NYCB. The kinetic thrill of people running at top speed across the expanse of the stage of David Koch Theater matched Peck’s brazenness at appropriating Aaron Copland’s famous music for Agnes de Mille’s famous ballet. In section after section, Peck’s inventiveness tumbled forth, with the merest hint of the original source.

• Dream’d in a Dream by Seán Curran Company at Brooklyn Academy of Music. A beautiful reimagining of Central Asia carried on the currents of the Ustatshakirt Plus, a traditional Kyrgyz music ensemble. Gently transporting, veering away from folk dances and folk tunes in a good-natured glow of camaraderie. No aggression to show or prove anything, just an immersion in a faraway world.

• William Forsythe’s Duo2015 is an exhilarating example of his crazy wild idea of counterpoint. Two guys (Brigel Gjoka and Riley Watts), enthusiastically caught in a spider’s web of repetition and distortion, as part of Sylvie Guillem’s farewell performance at NY City Center, produced by Sadler’s Wells. I’d love to see it right after the original two-women Duo of 1996.

Partita_2_smaller__Anne_Van_Aerschot_11 copy copy• Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz’s Partita 2 at Sadler’s Wells in London. Postmodern in the best sense: dance that creates structure and relationship from nothing but movement and squeaky sneakers. Energizing.

(photo by Anne Van Aerschot)

BEST REVIVALS

• The Snow Falls in the Winter, first made by Annie-B Parson on the short-lived Other Shore company, now set on the Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce. Co-directed by Paul Lazar, this piece uses lines from Ionesco’s absurdist play The Lesson to frame the piece. Parson and Lazar have elicited a new, ironic edge from these hard-working, virtuosic dancers.

• Rainforest performed by Stephen Petronio Company at the Joyce as the first in his “Bloodlines” series. The dancers got the quietly feral force of this 1968 gem of Merce Cunningham’s. Warhol’s silver pillows caused a lovely chaos onstage and in the house, where viewers either batted them back to the stage or held them down.

• The musical Spring Awakening, this time produced by Deaf West Theatre, most of whose members are hearing impaired. With American Sign Language crucial for communication, choreographer Spencer Liff found a dynamic way to express the urgency, defiance and sorrows of these young people of 19th-century Germany—and he expertly incorporated Broadway’s first wheelchair performer.

LOOKING BACK—WITH GUSTO

• Dancenoise: Don’t Look Back. Annie Iobst and Lucy Sexton brought back their wacky, anarchic duo with the full complement of fake blood and real nudity, dildoes and cowboy hats, now with the added “relevance” of appearing in a museum (the new Whitney building). We guffawed in mock shock, and tapped into that old feeling of madcap liberation.

• “get dancing,” a tribute to Andy De Groat organized by Catherine Galasso at Danspace (an earlier version at Fridays at Noon), revealing the richness and spirituality of “minimalist” dance of the 70s to a younger generation. Plus, it was heavenly to hear Michael Galasso’s music again.

• ABT’s 75th -anniversary gala, with glimpses from 23 ballets including Billy the Kid, Fancy Free, Push Comes to Shove, Rodeo and The Bright Stream. Spectacular dancing from Herman Cornejo, Marcelo Gomes, Maria Kochetkova, Xiomara Reyes, Daniil Simkin, Diana Vishneva, James Whiteside and others. We felt the weight and glory of ABT’s trajectory.

• Event, directed by Robert Swinston, former associate director of Cunningham’s company and current director of Compagnie CNDC (Le Centre National de Danse Contemporaine) in Angers, France. Presented at the Joyce with an intriguing set of flowy strips of art by French artist Jackie Matisse (yes—the granddaughter of Henri). Swinston was inspired in his choice of excerpts of Cunningham works from 1965 to 1990, and the French group danced it with verve, at the Joyce.

MIXING IT UP

• “Platform: Dancers, Buildings, People in the Streets,” dreamed up by Claudia La Rocco, at Danspace. A multi-week series that threw together ballet and postmodern, Balanchine and Judson Dance Theater, through the lens of legendary dance writer and poet Edwin Denby. Much food for thought.

• “The Hidden Erotic Body of Soviet Ballet: A Tribute to Leonid Yacobson” combined a talk with Yacobson scholar Janice Ross (see my book list here) with reconstructions of Russia’s radical choreographer who is little known in the West. His entwining Rodin duets were sensual and seamless and triggered debate. Fridays at Noon at the 92nd Street Y, Harkness Dance Center.

• Also at Danspace: National treasure Meredith Monk, whose music and dancing light up the soul, teamed up with poetry goddess Anne Waldman. From gutsy rhythms of suffering to giddy ghosts to transcendent vocals, they made us feel lucky to live in their times.

BEST PERFORMERS (roughly in the order I saw them)

• Xiaochuan Xie of the Graham company in The Snow Falls in the Winter, also as Eliza in The King and I at Lincoln Center. A piquant sort of vibrancy.

• Lloyd Knight in the Graham company: Physical strength, dramatic impact, and a sense of the human being underneath the dancer.

• Megumi Eda in On the Nature of Things by Karole Armitage at the Museum of Natural History. With her crystalline quality she embodies the sacredness of the music by Arvo Pärt, Philip Glass and others.

• Davalois Fearon in Stephen Petronio’s  Locomotor/NonLocomotor, mainly the second half when she engaged in brash, tough-love partnering with three guys, at the Joyce. A woman warrior in a bright turquoise leotard.

• Ballet West’s gemlike Arolyn Williams in Presto by Nicolo Fonte, at the Joyce.

• Natalia Osipova in Ashton’s The Dream, The Royal Ballet, at Lincoln Center, presented by the Joyce. Star wattage both before and after she fell on her behind.

"Trois Gnociennes" with Lopatkina and Yermakov. photo by Mikhail Logvinov

“Trois Gnociennes” with Lopatkina and Yermakov. photo by Mikhail Logvinov

• At the Benois de la danse, Moscow: The Mariinsky’s Uliana Lopatkina, transcendent in Dying Swan and dreamy yet precise in Trois Gnossiennes by Hans Van Manen.

• Alessandra Ferri in Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works for The Royal Ballet, playing the roles of an author and her protagonist with dramatic focus, making you care what’s going on in her character’s mind. Royal Opera House, London.

Diana Vishneva in Ratmansky's Cinderella for the Mariinsky Ballet

Diana Vishneva in Ratmansky’s Cinderella for the Mariinsky Ballet

• During the Mariinsky Ballet’s season at BAM, outstanding performances were given by Vishneva in Ratmansky’s Cinderella, Kondaurova in Robbins’ In the Night, Xander Parish as Siegfried in Swan Lake, and Kristina Shapran in Without by Benjamin Millepied.

• Olsi Gjeci of Vicky Shick Dance in Pathétique, Miniatures in Detail, 92Y Harkness Dance Festival. Springs up like a cat, dances like he has a secret up his sleeve.

• Marie-Agnès Gillot in Wayne McGregor’s Tree of Codes at the Park Avenue Armory. A creature-woman extending her legs like tentacles. Kinda scary but fitting what I imagine Tree of Codes to be about.

• Soledad Barrio in Antigona, a Noche Flamenca production directed by Martín Santangelo with choreography by Barrio. Her gradually building heat culminates in wrapping her anger around her while heels clatter amazing rhythms into the floor. At West Park Presbyterian Church, last summer and again now until Jan. 23.

• Okwui Okpokwasili, coolly provocative in her delivery of Kathy Acker’s sometimes porno script, in Scaffold Room, a performance piece by Ralph Lemon at The Kitchen.

• Daniel Staaf of Gallim Dance in Andrea Miller’s Whale. In a cast of individuals who allow themselves to be painfully exposed, he was the most extreme: desperate in expressing need, a rock in accepting those who need him. It must have been emotionally exhausting.

• Meg Weeks in Andy de Groat & Catherine Galasso’s “get dancing” evening. Specifically in get wreck (1978), fan dance (1978) and notes on de groat, the new work by Catherine Galasso. Athletic freshness and buoyancy.

• Jennie Somogyi in Liebeslieder Walzer in her farewell performance with NYCB. This is how it’s done: melding emotion with strength and fluidity. We’ll miss you, Jennie.

• Rika Okamoto in Tharp’s Preludes and Fugues: a delicious sense of style. But even better in Yowzie, where she reveled in the crazy fun of it, morphing from a drunk to a pothead to a gorilla to the Iron Lady too heavy to lift. Astonishing go-for-broke performance.

• Edivaldo Ernesto in Sasha Waltz and Guests’ Continu at BAM’s Next Wave Festival. Sharp, puppet-like, dense, riveting.

• Tendayi Kuumba in Walking with ’Trane, by Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Urban Bush Women at BAM, incorporating crazy sick vocal scatting into dance improv.

JamarSquare• Jamar Roberts in the Ailey company, magnificent in works by Robert Battle, Paul Taylor and Ron Brown and more. (photo of Roberts in Aszure Barton’s LIFT, by Paul Kolnik)

 

THE YEAR OF MISTY COPELAND

She shone in works from the Graham company gala to Ivy in On the Town, from Tharp’s Brahms-Haydn Variations to Swan Lake. In this last, she took her time to feel surrender and to let the anguish of Odette be expressed through her exquisite lines. She showed grace and humility in every public appearance. And she brought public attention to the dearth of female African-American ballet dancers.

A SLEW OF OTHER ABT DANCERS

Other breathtaking performances: Stella Abrera in Ashton’s Cinderella, Kim Kimin as Solor in La Bayadere, Maria Kochetkova and Sarah Lane in The Brahms-Haydn Variations,  Jeffrey Cirio in AfterEffect by Marcelo Gomes, Evgenia Obraztsova as Juliet.

PERFORMERS IN MUSICALS

• Tommy Tune: long, lanky and loving in the Gershwin musical Lady Be Good, NY City Center’s Encores! series

• Leanne Cope in An American in Paris. Gorgeous, breathy dancing, an open expressive face, and a voice that makes her a true triple threat.

• Alex Brightman in School of Rock: whether fidgeting, bouncing to his own music, or exploding, he’s a buoyant hurricane of energy.

• Making the most of a small cast: the six players of Dames at Sea all act, tap dance, and sing terrifically. The show is as much fun as some of the bigger, flashier musicals. Choreography by Randy Skinner.

BEST TRENDS

Wendy Whelan in David Michalek's "Hagoromo," photo by Julieta Cervantes

Wendy Whelan in David Michalek’s “Hagoromo,” photo by Julieta Cervantes

• Great dancers continuing to perform into “advanced” age: Wendy Whelan, Eiko, Ana Laguna, Carmen de Lavallade, and, as mentioned, Louise Lecavalier and Alessandra Ferri, are deepening their artistry every year. Audiences want to see them because they know they will see not only a great performance, but maybe they will learn something about life.

• Broadway Musicals Take on the Immigrant Debate: Not only the blockbuster Hamilton, but also the dance-crazy On Your Feet and the moving Allegiance tell complicated stories of racism and resistance. Hamilton highlights how international and multi-cultural the founding of the United States was. On Your Feet tells how brazen Gloria and Emilio Estefan were to bring the Cuban beat to American pop music. And Allegiance lays bare the disgraceful treatment of Asians during World War II. Of course, Fiddler on the Roof, which premiered in 1964 and has just opened as a revival, may have been the first to dramatize the painful trek from the Old World to the New. [And a friend just reminded me, duh, of West Side Story from 1964!]

MOST DISAPPOINTING

• ABT’s remake of The Sleeping Beauty with choreography by Alexei Ratmansky based on the original versions. Fascinating to ballet historians, it looked to me like everything got smaller: dancers taking up less space, being coy rather than daring, and our multi-cultural world shrinking back to the precious courts of Europe. Only the budget was large—six million dollars.

• Mark Morris’ After You at ABT. Pedestrian in the most banal sense. Morris’ usual wit and sense of form eluded him, not to mention his intuitive understanding of ballet line.

• The Age of Anxiety by Liam Scarlett, danced by The Royal Ballet, presented by the Joyce at Lincoln Center. Sturm and Drang overlaid on a plot that looked like Fancy Free and even had music by Leonard Bernstein. Dreadful portrayals of four supposedly typical New Yorkers, all of them belligerent.

• Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor by Doris Humphrey, presented by Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. A great classic of the modern dance canon, it felt lost and faraway in the Koch Theater. The Limón Dance Company performed it well, but the organ sound was thin and the narrative felt incomplete.

But let’s not end on that note. Scroll back up to the things I was excited about, or click here to browse through my list of books published this year.

 

 

 

 

2 people like this Featured Leave a comment

New Dance Books of 2015

A flurry of new books arrived on my doorstep (so to speak), just in time for the gift-giving season. I’ve made a list of the ones that you might find especially engaging. I have not had the time to read them all the way through, but have dipped into each one, sometimes just enough to cull a key quote. The list includes memoirs or musings that I find illuminating and edifying. It does not include uber scholarly books, textbooks, or manuals on technique. Most of these books can be bought on Amazon, but it’s more PC to buy directly from the publisher or distributor, so I’ve inserted links. Enjoy.

DilleySmallerThis Very Moment: teaching thinking dancing
By Barbara Dilley
Published by Naropa University Press
Available through Contact Editions
The radiance of Barbara Dilley, as both a dance artist and spiritual force comes off every page. She danced with Merce Cunningham, was a sweet, mischievous presence in the legendary improvisation group Grand Union, and went on to teach at Buddhist-centered Naropa University, where she started a dance program and eventually led the institution. Each chapter combines memoir and practice.
Quote (about performing with the Grand Union): “Intuition becomes a survival skill. It takes me forward through the unknown. I find companionship. In this environment an imagistic world explodes. I become part of stories bursting forth like Surrealist images.”

Layout 1Rhythm Field: The Dance of Molissa Fenley
Edited by Ann Murphy and Molissa Fenley
Published by Seagull Books London Ltd
Fenley’s exotically torquing movement vocabulary and exhilarating momentum marked her as a new, exciting dance artist in the 1980s. She continues to choreograph today. This slim volume has contributions from Elizabeth Streb, Philip Glass, Richard Move, Tere O’Connor and others.
Quote: “She appeared as if the movement was bursting out from her body without her permission, just streaming out, before the idea of streaming was coined for the Internet.”  —Elizabeth Streb, on working with Fenley

whattheeyehearsWhat the Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing
By Brian Seibert
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan) 
This author has a witty, appealing writing style that you can see in his reviews for The New York Times. The book is chock full of stories, loving descriptions, and accounts of shifting aesthetics since the inception of tap. Here’s what Elizabeth Kendall said in her New York Times review: “It…offers passion about its subject, deft evocations of dance action and a narrative mischief suited to tap’s trickster mentality.”
 

LikeBombCover1Like a Bomb Going Off: Leonid Yakobson and Ballet as Resistance in Soviet Russia
By Janice Ross
Published by Yale University Press
An unabashed provocateur, Leonid Yacobson (1904–1975) was one of the leading choreographers of Russia for decades. He was a favorite of both Plisetskaya and Baryshnikov, but his work was considered too sexy (close embraces were called pornographic), too modernist, or too Western for the Soviet authorities. That he survived the Stalin purges was amazing. In the ’70s he created many inventive works for his company, Choreographic Miniatures, but the troupe was forbidden to tour. The Soviet strikes against him were constant, and Ross highlights his heroism in standing against the totalitarian regime. A must-read for anyone interested in the development of Soviet ballet.

OsipenkoCoverAlla Osipenko: Beauty and Resistance in Soviet Ballet
By Joel Lobenthal
Published by Oxford University Press
Another book about the resistance of a ballet artist in the Soviet Union. Alla Osipenko, with her beautiful lines and rebel spirit, left her job as one of the top ballerinas of the Kirov (Mariinsky) Ballet to dance with renegade choreographer Leonid Yacobson (see Janice Ross’ book, above) and later Boris Eifman. Along the way are descriptions of the young Baryshnikov, the great pedagogue Vaganova, and Nureyev. In fact, the description of  Nureyev’s defection in Paris, right after performing with Osipenko and the Kirov, is one of the most harrowing passages.

RadioCitySaving Radio City Music Hall: A Dancer’s True Story
By Rosemary Novellino-Mearns
Published by Turning Point Press
As dance captain of the Radio City Music Hall Ballet Company (yes, for many years there was a ballet company that performed as often as the Rockettes—four times a day), Rosemary Novellino-Mearns loved the stage, the theater, and its mission to entertain. But in the late 1970s, the choice of movies went downhill, audience numbers started falling off, and Radio City was slated for demolition. Alarmed, “Rosie” gathered some dancer friends together to protest what seemed like mismanagement. It turned into a long battle that cost her and her husband their jobs. She didn’t realize she was a David to the Goliath of the Rockefellers, who had planned to doom the theater in order to build something more profitable. Click here to see a review and vintage videos of the fight to keep “the showplace of the nation” open.

Dancers As Diplomats: American Choreography in Cultural Exchange
By Clare Croft
Published by Oxford University Press
Interviews with dancers who served as ambassadors for the U.S. while touring internationally during the Cold War and after.

Rebel on Pointe: A Memoir of Ballet & Broadway
By Lee Wilson
Published by University Press of Florida
When Lee Wilson saw the Slavenska-Franklin Ballet in the 1950s, it sparked a passion to dance. She studied at Ballet Theatre School with Madame Pereyaslavic and danced with the companies of Rosella Hightower, Eric Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev, Maina Gielgud, and with Alicia Markova at the Metropolitan Opera Ballet.
Quote: “I sensed that ballet, like church, could be a transcendent experience. As the lights dimmed, instead of one solitary organ, an entire orchestra began to play. When the curtain rose, the dancers leaped onto the stage, which was far more exciting than the predictable slow march of a clergy and choir.”

Chronicle_Lois Greenfield  coverLois Greenfield: Moving Still
Photographs by Lois Greenfield; text by William A. Ewing
Published by Chronicle Books
(In Europe, Thames & Hudson)
From a master photographer, a book of spectacular images that see the dancing body through the lens of Greenfield’s imagination. Reflecting surfaces, yards of silk, and other objects extend the performers in beguiling ways.
Quote: “Rather than capturing peak moments of a dance… Greenfield instead seeks unusual, enigmatic moments that perturb our reading of the image. We find ourselves wondering: Can a body really be doing what I think it’s doing? Where did he come from? Where is he going? Is she rising? Is she falling? Are those bodies about to collide, or are they flying apart?”

Girl Through Glass
A novel by Sari Wilson
Published by HarperCollins
A former dance student of both ballet and experimental dance, Wilson has set her novel in 1970s NYC. The two main women characters are a ballet dancer and a dance history professor.
Quote: “The mirror lies. We know this. Its secret smiles are the images that match our own dreams. But it persists, categorical and seductive. How often have I learned this? Still, the desire to trust the image persists.”

Isadora Duncan in the 21st Century: Capturing the Art and Spirit of the Dancer’s Legacy
By Andrea Mantell Seidel
Published by McFarland
Written by a dancer who has reconstructed and performed Isadora’s choreography, this book has chapters with titles like “Dancing Innocence and Awakening,” “Apollonian Form, Beauty and the Natural Body,” and “Women Warriors.” A serious study of the influential Duncan oeuvre, the book discusses training, aesthetics, religious aspects, and the actual experience of dancing these historic dances.

FOR CHILDREN
RupertCanDanceCoverRupert Can Dance
By Jules Feiffer
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux (Macmillan)
The unstoppable cartoonist who famously lampooned a fictitious serious-&-silly modern dancer, has now come out with a story about a girl and her cat who get the dance bug. See a video of Feiffer talking about his new venture here.

 

My Story, My Dance: Robert Battle’s Journey to Alvin Ailey
By Lesa Cline-Ransome
Foreword by Robert Battle
Published by Simon & Schuster
As a child, Robert Battle had to wear leg braces to stabilize bad alignment. But he fell in love with dance, attended Juilliard, performed and choreographed professionally, and is now the inspired artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater.

BOOKS BY DANCERS, NOT ABOUT DANCE
The last books are not about dance, but if you love these two dance artists—Kenneth King and Dana Caspersen—you may want to read them.

The Secret Invention and Red Fog
Both by Kenneth King
Both published by Club Lighthouse Publishing
Kenneth King, a choreographer/improvisor who enjoyed a special niche as “the dancing philosopher” of the experimental dance world, came out with two novels this year. He endows his characters with a richness of marginality—and usually a healthy dose of gender bending. The Secret Invention involves twins—a poet and an inventor—who get caught up in the swirl of New York nightlife. The plot involves an invention that makes clean energy freely accessible but the CIA claims it threatens our democracy. Science fiction with a sprinkling of sexual encounters. In Red Fog, one character is based on Frances Alenikoff, who danced wonderfully sensual duets with King when she was in her 80s. The topics of the characters’ conversations range from Wittgenstein to sex to crime to nutrition.

DanaCaspersenCoverChanging the Conversation: The 17 Principles of Conflict Resolution
By Dana Caspersen
Published by Penguin Random House, A Joost Elffers book
Dana Caspersen, whose dazzling technique and acting skills distinguished her in William Forsythe’s work for decades, has added mediator to her resumé. Her book presents short bits of advice emphasizing ways to calm things down, possibly learned in a rehearsal studio. Here are two examples: “Develop curiosity in difficult situations,” and “Acknowledge emotions. See them as signals.” Listening is paramount, and Caspersen’s principles build on all the ways that dancers listen.

RE-ISSUED
Some of my favorite books have been re-issued in paperback or new editions. All of them have given me much pleasure and food for thought.

Balanchine and the Lost Muse: Revolution and the Making of a Choreographer
By Elizabeth Kendall
Oxford University Press

Dancing Through It: My Journey in the Ballet
By Jenifer Ringer
Penguin Random House

Life in Motion: An Unlikely Ballerina
By Misty Copeland
A Touchstone Book, Simon & Schuster

Hiking the Horizontal: Field Notes From a Choreographer
By Liz Lerman
Wesleyan University Press

The Choreographic Mind: Autobodygraphical Writings
By Susan Rethorst
Now available from Contact Editions (which, by the way, is currently offering signed copies of my book here)

Night’s Dancer: The Life of Janet Collins
By Yaël Tamar Lewin
Wesleyan University Press

Dance to the Piper
By Agnes de Mille (1951), with a new introduction by Joan Acocella
Published by New York Review Books

OTHER SOURCES FOR DANCE BOOKS
Dance Horizons, Princeton Book Company
Human Kinetics

 

 

 

 

 

Like this Featured Uncategorized 3

Sara Rudner on Early Tharp

In light of this being the 50th-anniversary year of Twyla Tharp’s choreographic life, we asked Sara Rudner, who was deeply involved in Tharp’s early dancing-making, to come to NYU Tisch Dance (where I am an adjunct) to talk about working with her. Rudner, who is now the director of dance at Sarah Lawrence College, imbued her dancing with light and depth and helped create the Tharp style. Rudner’s talk, which focused on Tharp’s work but also touched on her own choreography, took place in one of the NYU Tisch Dance studios on September 25, 2015. Luckily, one of our sharp grad students, Donald Shorter, turned on the voice memo of his cell phone and recorded the event. I transcribed his recording and edited the interview slightly, then got Sara’s input to clarify some sections. To learn more, go to the Tharp website. 

Wendy: How did you first start working with Twyla?

Sara: My friend Margy Jenkins  was working with her. We were neighbors on Broome Street. Twyla was doing a show and she needed another dancer, and Margy said, “I know someone.” And Twyla wanted to see who I was before she didn’t pay me—before she didn’t pay me. [laughter] No one was paying anybody, there was no money, but I did receive $50 for the first performance of Re-Moves.

Wendy: The NEA [National Endowment for the Arts] didn’t start till later in the 60s.

Sara: There was no New York State Council on the Arts. Anyway, so Margy took Twyla to see a performance I was doing at Judson Hall. Barbara Gardner had done a piece and someone got injured and I stepped in and I learned the piece. Margy said that Twyla came in [to see me dance] and stayed for a few minutes and said, “She’ll do.” [laughter] That was the beginning.

Wendy: And boy did she do! Sara defined Twyla’s work for 20 years.

Sara: We came from very different backgrounds—I was a New York City kid, born and raised in Brooklyn. I had no art training. I ran around and swam.

Wendy: And you didn’t do ballet training.

Sara: I had a little bit of baby ballet. I knew what that was, and then nothing. But our energy was very similar. So one of the first times we met [in the studio], I saw her rubbing her hands, saying Ah, you’ve got a lot of energy.

Sara Rudner and Twyla Tharp in The Bix Pieces (1972), photo by Tony Russell

Sara Rudner and Twyla Tharp in “The Bix Pieces” (1972), photo by Tony Russell

Wendy: She was probably thinking, Ooh what I can do with this girl!

Sara: I was really almost a blank slate. The first time Margy told me that she was studying with Merce Cunningham, I said, “Who’s she?” I had no idea. I had a degree in Russian studies from Barnard College, I was 20 years old and I knew nothing. So it was a perfect opportunity because I was a blank slate and had a lot of energy. I’d been a swimmer and a runner, so I was strong and well coordinated.

Wendy: That’s so interesting because now, one of the people she likes is John Selya, who was a surfer. Twyla always liked someone who looks like a person onstage rather than a dancer with this kind of I’m-dancing-for-the-balcony-seats projection. And you were definitely that person.

Sara: In the beginning experimentations she chose to work with Margy Jenkins, who’s a statuesque woman, and then with me and then with herself. So she was not into the cookie-cutter thing, she was experimenting with the kinds of people. When I say experiment, I mean she experimented like crazy. We did all sorts of things that most people if they look at them now they would say, That’s not dance. The first thing I ever did with Twyla was with a stopwatch; it was at Judson Church. My part was [gets up and walks a straight line, the long side of a rectangle]. Then I got to a corner and I returned to where I began to give the stopwatch to Margy, maybe Twyla, and she walked the diagonal; and Twyla, or maybe Margy, walked the short side of the rectangle.

Wendy: Was that Re-Moves?

Sara: Yes, Re-Moves, 1966, was task-based. Twyla was looking at stuff from the bottom up. She had done all this dancing; she had done a lot of ballet. There are pictures of her in a tutu, wearing a tiara.

Wendy: Do you think she was influenced by the other stuff going on at Judson? Yvonne Rainer and Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs were also very task-based.

Sara: Yes, task based. She was also very influenced by the minimalist painters.

Wendy: Of which her husband, Robert Huot, was one.

Sara: Yes. Those early pieces had props, objects, were spatially very structural. They were circles, squares, oblongs. They [minimalist painters, sculptors and dancers] were all hanging out together. Twyla was in that group of people who went to Max’s Kansas City and drank a lot and ate ice cream. That’s what I remember about Max’s Kansas City is the ice cream sundaes Sundays. But eventually—Twyla’s a dancer. She loved movement; she loved complicated things, she loved a great physical challenge. And the physical challenges in those early pieces were really intense. In the same piece, Re-Moves, there’s a balcony at Judson and she hung a ladder, a rope ladder down, and I climbed down the rope ladder backwards. I was wearing black leotard and tights—we all were—and a white felt hat.
Wendy: Yeah, you looked like nuns in the photos.

Sara: The hat was a triangle, and the tip was in the middle of the forehead.

Wendy: And Robert Huot probably designed it.

Sara: He designed it, yeah. The thing she asked me to do was to walk backwards on relevé after coming off the ladder and make zig-zag patterns. So if the ladder was there, the pattern was [demonstrates in the space] zig-zag zig-zag all the way down till I ended on the floor. The entire time I had to slowly lower my arms and head, flex my spine, bend my knees until I was lying supine on the floor. It took about 10 minutes.

Wendy: Were there other people doing other things, or that was it?

Sara: I was supposed to give a cue in performance but I went so slowly that the cue I was supposed to give was late. Technically I was not so great, and the task took a lot of control and concentration. It might have been easier if I had gone faster.

Wendy: Most of these pieces were in silence, right? Was there music?

Sara: No but she would choreograph to music. We would dance to Beethoven, Mozart. We didn’t perform to music until Three Page Sonata for Four (1967), with music by Charles Ives. She was extremely musical, even to the point of translating musical scores to lines. She would set up a straight line, I followed the rhythm of one musical line, she the other. We would take the rhythms and go back and forth on the lines. Something like that [demonstrating]. It never looked like music; it was just us translating those musical phrases.

In Judson basement, rehearsing for Three Page Sonata for Four (1967); left to right: Margery Tupling, Rudner, Tharp, Wright; photo by Robert Propper.

In Judson gym, rehearsing for “Three Page Sonata for Four” (1967); left to right: Theresa Dickinson, Rudner, Tharp, Margery Tupling; photo by Robert Propper.

Wendy: In her later work, one of the things she’s known for is her range of music—classical, rock, jazz.

Sara: Wide ranging, big appetite for dance art. Huge. Huge energy; questioning all the time. Very intense intellect. She brought extreme passion into our work together. She was also a monster mover. This woman …she was unbelievable,…watching her dance was really extraordinary.

Wendy: My eye always went to Sara, because Sara, in addition to being an incredible mover, has a kind of sweetness. [To Sara:] Your whole body was in every movement. Whereas Twyla gave off a different energy like, “I’m getting through this.” It was more belligerent.

Sara: She was fierce. She was hyper-mobile in her joints. She had strong muscles so could keep all that together and she had great power and reach. She also had a personality. What happened was, because we had a range of personalities and physicalities, it gave the work a more everyday look, less like a corps de ballet.

Wendy: Rose Marie Wright was six feet tall. She told me in one interview, “When I was dancing in Pennsylvania Ballet, they didn’t know what to do with me. They just couldn’t cast me in anything.”

Sara: In toe shoes, she’s like 6 foot 3 inches.

Wendy: And she said, “When I got to Twyla, Twyla knew what to do with me.” And Twyla put her to work. It was the three of them: Twyla, Sara and Rose were like the three goddesses for years.

Sara: We did a lot of work together, a lot of hours. What I learned from Twyla besides the amazing experiences she gave me, was how to work, how to be in a studio and just focus on what I was doing. Let’s do it again. Let’s do it again. Oh, maybe we should do it again. One more time—17 more times later—one more time. Let’s do it one more time.

Wendy: Because the work was so intricate.

Sara: It was very intricate, and to put that into your muscle memory so that you could then be fairly accurate. There were pieces I never did correctly. I never did it the way it was written. We were a team so we could pick up and be where we needed to be.

Wendy: But she also wanted a little freedom in there, didn’t she?

Sara: Not in The Fugue.

Wendy: How much movement did you contribute?  The Fugue (1970) had certain variations; did you make your own variations?

Sara: No, that was a set piece. The time we started doing things individually was in Medley which was created before The Fugue. Medley was danced outdoors in 1969 on the great lawn and at American Dance Festival when it was in New London, CT, and this was a real experiment for her. We were all working down in Kermit Love’s studio on Great Jones Street. There was a studio and she’d take us in one by one and she would do something, and the others didn’t know what she was doing in there. She would say, Don’t tell the others what we did. She had made some phrases and then she just did them and said, What do you remember? So we each came up with something different. She started working more improvisationally with us. She also worked with each of us separately in different ways. She wrote down words that were prompts, and then she’d string whatever we did together. That’s the first piece she didn’t dance in. So that piece led me to be an individual dancer.

Rehearsing at the Metropolitan Museum, 1970. Rudner at left with braid.

Rehearsing at the Metropolitan Museum for “Dancing in the Streets of London and Paris, continued in Stockholm, and Sometimes Madrid,” 1970. Rudner at left with braid.

 

Wendy: How were you earning a living? You were spending hours and hours in the studio with Twyla, not getting paid very much. What else were you doing?

Sara: I worked for a slumlord in his office. In 1965–66, I worked for the Free Southern Theater. It was an integrated group of actors who went down south and blew everybody’s mind. And then I started working for Merce Cunningham, in Merce’s office at Brooklyn Academy of Music. I did clerical work; I typed. (I learned typing in my high school.) Rose babysat. Theresa Dickinson did administrative work for arts organizations and proofreading for science textbooks. Margery Tupling had her own source of money. I could work for half a day; I could leave work at noon and take a class, then go to rehearsal.

Wendy: When did you start choreographing yourself?

Sara: The first thing I did was the program with Douglas [Dunn] in 1971 at Laura Dean’s place. I started with Twyla 65-66 and then I stayed with her until ’74. In the early ’70s I started working with you guys [Wendy Rogers, Risa Jaroslow and Wendy Perron] and I started doing other things on my own. Twyla was amazing because she insisted at some point that the dancers she was working with get paid 52 weeks a year. We didn’t have a lot of money. Part of my curiosity about being in dance was Let’s take responsibility for your artistic ideas: Rehearsals, going on tour, the bus, the airplane, whatever. I wanted to learn more about the business of making dances, putting them on, working with dancers. So in 1974 I said I think I need to do other things,, and she said, Are you gonna have a baby? [laughter] What could you possibly wanna do…and she was right in many ways. (I did have a baby many years later.) But I was hanging out with other dancers, and people were talking about what they were doing. I was 30 years old and I was thinking, Yah maybe I should find out about other things. So I went off and made a couple solos, and danced with Wendy P. and Risa and Wendy Rogers, we did marathon dances. Five hours at St. Mark’s Church.

Wendy: You had a whole philosophy about that, so talk about that.

Sara: As far as I was concerned, dancing happened whether someone watched you or not. Dancing was always going on. So the idea behind this was, we were dancers and this is what dancers do – dance. I had initially asked for seven hours, but Barbara Dilley [director of Danspace at the time] and the people at Danspace, said six, five maybe. So we bargained. But the idea was, we’re just gonna keep on dancing. You [the audience] can come and go whenever you want. We started at 5:00 pm and we ended at 10 pm. We worked our way up methodically. We created all this basic material that we all danced together, the phrases we made together then we set up improvisations.  “Brain Damage,” one of the sections, was the hardest concept to realize.

Wendy: I can’t forget “Brain Damage.”

Sara: “Brain Damage” was one pattern in the arms and another pattern in the legs, it was like a five against a seven, so nothing fit together.

Wendy: And there was running in circles, and slightly different versions of it, which I extricated myself from because I didn’t have the stamina to run. [This clip from “Running” section, as performed in 1975 at Oberlin (without Sara), is mostly with Wendy Rogers and Risa Jaroslow.]

Sara: We were running around, and did some improvisation, we didn’t have music.

Wendy: Didn’t we have a fan making noise?

Sara: Yes, we had a backdrop, which was painted with floral designs by visual artist Robert Kushner; it was hung across the altar at St. Mark’s. At that point, St. Marks’ Church had fixed pews, a big wooden cross, and a red linoleum floor. Bob hung curtains in panels, and he had fans that blew these panels. When we weren’t dancing we were hiding behind the panels.

Rudner in her own work, photo by Nathaniel Tileston

Rudner in her own solo, “33 Dances on her 33rd Birthday,” 1977, photo by Nathaniel Tileston

Wendy: There were just four of us.

Sara: Just four of us for five hours. It was intense. And my mother asked why we didn’t shave under our arms. [laughter] We were making a statement. “It’s not nice,” she said. But she came and watched. And people did come and go.

Wendy: Carolyn Brown stayed the whole five hours, and so did Kenneth King. The whole thing was to have dance be a continuum [to the students] not like a thing that had a beginning, middle, and end. You guys read the Merce Cunningham essay “The Impermanent Art.” Very much along those lines: Dancing is as impermanent as breathing.

Sara: It’s just what we do. [to the students] I know you guys have the same experience. You come here in the morning and you work all day. So we just put it all together. I couldn’t get to do that kind of thing with Twyla because her aesthetic was really to be in theaters and make those pieces and that’s what she wanted to do.

Wendy: And she changed more towards the theatrical. The things you were describing with the stopwatch, in the beginning…

Sara: That was open spaces. That was very simple. And then we had our hair done, and put on beautiful costumes.

Wendy: The haircutting was a big deal. In 1972 all dancers, whether ballet or modern, had their hair in a bun. And all of a sudden, Twyla and her two main dancers had their hair cut at Sassoon and they were stylish-looking. And then everyone went, Why do we have to have our hair in a bun? For women in downtown New York, it was a landmark influence; we started wearing our hair in more the way we might want to rather than like ballet girls. Onstage it made it even more that thing of They’re people rather than “dancers.” It made the performers closer to the audience somehow.

Sara: They could identify more. Especially during the ’70s, in hippie land, and feminist land. And we all were different. Twyla had a blunt bowl cut. Rose had longer hair, shaped, and my hair was layered into curls.

Wendy: And this was during the feminist time, and it had to do with what Twyla was doing onstage because her women were very athletic, they could do a lot physically. The first company was just women, and they were so strong and they didn’t have to relate to a man. It’s the way Martha Graham’s company started too: it was all women at first.

Sara: And then things progressed. Wendy and I were talking about the dichotomies of Twyla’s work: the Apollonian and the Dionysian. There were these very methodical pieces, and then there was a piece called Jam. Jam was premiered at Barnard College in 1967 and we were just throwing fits. We wore thick plastic costumes, full body suits and if you just blew on them, they made a horrible noise. You know those lights when you’re driving and you need flashers because your car is breaking down? One side is a spotlight and the other side is the flasher. So these spotlights were in our faces and we were in these noisy costumes. We had these fits and we would shake. Twyla choreographed it to James Brown. We would stop while Margy was doing something very serene. It was really pretty wild.

Wendy: But that sounds like Deuce Coupe. She had the ballet person being serene and then all you guys were doing crazy stuff. [To the students] Deuce Coupe was in 1973, and it’s when she brought her own dancers to the Joffrey’s ballet dancers. The music was the Beach Boys, so that was already a kind of sacrilege. In the first version, what she had for a set was about five kids who were already doing graffiti on subways. There was a scroll upstage, and they would come in spraying the graffiti, and the scroll would go up and they’d spray graffiti on the new stretch of paper. So she had two kinds of dancers, Beach Boys music, and the graffiti kids, and the whole thing made a statement of smashing high art and popular art together.

Sara: And this tour [Tharp’s 50th-anniversary tour] is Bach and Yowzie.

Wendy: Apollonian and Dionysian, two different halves.

Sara: She started that with Bad Smells and Sinatra Songs (both 1982). Bad Smells was everybody wearing rags. It was an intense dance. That was the first time she used a big screen. SONY had this big screen and Tom Rawe was filming it while it was going on. No one was using video that way. She was pushing the envelope early and hard.

Wendy: That takes a lot of courage. Where do you think she got that courage from, or how did that manifest in your work with her?

Sara: When we got in the studio we just worked. Twyla never came in and started talking about “It was a horrible review, I don’t know what I’m doing, I’m feeling lousy today.” Nothing like that. If you read her book, Push Comes to Shove, she had an early childhood full of schedules. Wake up. 6:30: Work on my English composition. 6:45: Practice my viola. All through the day. In her family, she was the first child; she was the genius child. She did it with hard hard work. As hard as we thought we worked, she worked twice as hard. I can remember being on our first tour in 1967. We were in Germany and we were dancing on some crap floor, and she cut her foot and I went up to her and said, “Twyla your foot,” and she said [loud, stern voice], “Go back to the dance!” It was just another world for me, being in the presence of that kind of energy and ambition and determination. Thank god she had the brilliance to carry this on. In seven years she made 35 pieces.

Wendy: When I met you, you had that same kind of determination in work, and that was a new world for me. The focus: just keep working working working.

Sara: That’s what we do. Things do shift as you get older. I would hear her coaching dancers, going back to Deuce Coupe, I would hear her saying things to them that she never said to us.

Wendy: Probably because you just did them intuitively.

Sara: And she also then thought about her work. Sometimes you make something and don’t know what you’re doing until you perform it, and finally you start understanding what was coming out, what that intuition was.

Wendy: I remember one thing she said, when I was in one of her “farm clubs,” which is when she had a bunch of people working, when we were doing almost like a tendu, and she said, “You must feel personally about every move.” I understood that because I already felt that and I loved hearing that from her. It’s a really simple statement but instead of saying “You must do it correctly,” she said, “You must feel personally about it.” I think that’s a key to how she brought personalities out.

Rudner in Eight Jelly Rolls (1971)

Rudner in Tharp’s “Eight Jelly Rolls” (1971)

Sara: Twyla was extremely generous in the studio, fun and intense to work with, so you wanted to meet the challenges. And she did it herself; it wasn’t like she was sitting back. It was great because you didn’t have eyes on you so you could do what you had to do. You weren’t being scrutinized by a master. She is fun to work with. She’d say, “What can you do?” and she’d laugh and giggle. She takes what the dancers can do and pushes them to do more. I think that’s why people love working with her. After I took time off—for three years I went out and had a company and did all kinds of things—I went back, which was a real gift to me because I had an injury, a detached retina. At that time in the early 80s when you have a detached retina, they didn’t do laser surgeries yet. You were in bed on your back for weeks on end. I had a lot of time to think, to think about who I was: I was about 37. What do I want to do now? I’ve had a company, I’ve done this touring thing. Managers wanted me to do things I don’t want to do. They would never let me do big open pieces.

Wendy: They’re gonna force you to be on a stage!

Sara: Yeah, to be on a stage, with three pieces on a program, and this and that. So I went back. As a dancer I could appreciate all the work that went into creating the choreography, creating the touring schedule, the company structure. It was like, “Oh, you’re gonna do all that for me and I can dance?!?! Fabulous!” So I truly appreciate how hard it is to make those structures and make them work.

Wendy: What pieces was she making then?

Sara: Baker’s Dozen (1979). She made Catherine Wheel (1981) during that time; she made Sinatra Songs. She made Bad Smells.

Wendy: [to the class] If you see the video of The Catherine Wheel and the “Golden Section,” Sara is really the goddess in it. You just can’t imagine anyone moving more beautifully.

Sara: Well that whole section of the dance was about transcendence/heaven. Like In the Upper Room (1986), it was the aspirational, heavenly place as opposed to the hell that was the main body of that dance. Saint Catherine was martyred at the wheel, the human family was fighting with each other, the father fucking the cat; it was horrible stuff. She meant it to be hell, malicious. Then came “The Golden Section.” It was all early David Byrne, the Talking Heads. He made the score for this piece.

¶¶¶ Questions from the students were not recorded. ¶¶¶

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

1 person likes this Featured Uncategorized 4

PUNC Amok

Could everybody please calm down about naming your company or your choreography? Sure, it’s fun to play around with the punctuation marks on your keyboard. But invented punctuation doesn’t guarantee inventive choreography. It’s just punctuation run amok.

For some people, the regular flow of upper and lower-case font doesn’t project the CONFIDENCE they feel about their enterprise. The solution? All CAPS. We’ve seen it in Alonzo King’s LINES Ballet and MOMIX. Now we’re seeing it in MYOKYO, iMEE, and T(H)RASH, not to mention FULL.STILL.HUNGRY.

Which gets us into another area of Punc Amok: dots gone wild. In the old days, you knew you reached the end of a sentence when you saw a period. Now these dots are scattered willy nilly. Observe Chu. This. , piece.piece, and Kara•Mi.

Marie Chouinard's piece with the complicated title

Marie Chouinard’s piece with the complicated title

Back to the wayward CAPITAL letters. It seems some people are using them as a design element. See the San Jose–based company sjDANCEco, the all-woman company ChEckiT!Dance; Lauri Stallings’ group in Atlanta, gloATL; and possibly the most perfectly patterned use of CAPS,

bODY_rEMIX/gOLDBERG_vARIATIONS, a 2005 piece by Marie Chouinard (or should I say, mARIE cHOUINARD)

 

Then there’s the opposite: those who insist they are too modest to use capital letters at all. Thus we have NYC choreographer luciana achugar, whose name is spelled “correctly” by presenters like New York Live Arts and Danspace but not by publications like The New York Times or Time Out New York that have to stick to style codes.

Some are pushing the envelope of those two vertical dots that are intended to introduce a particular example. I have to list these vertically or else it will upset my colon.

:pushing progress, a company/a workshop

MOVE: the company, in Vancouver

Lang: Music + Lang: Dance., a piece by Jessica Lang

Then there’s the breakthrough discovery of the double colon by Chafin Seymour for his seymour::dancecollective.

One company that’s had to eat its words, or non-words, is Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal. They thought it would be cool to abbreviate their name and put it in brackets. But apparently nobody recognized [bjm] as a dance company so they had to change the name back again.

Justin Peck's Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, photo @Paul Kolnik

Justin Peck’s Rodeo: Four Dance Episodes, photo @Paul Kolnik

The latest zinger is the title ‘Rōdē,ō: Four Dance Episodes, Justin Peck’s premiere for NYCB last season. It sends writers and editors scurrying to find obscure marks on a keyboard or on the internet. Of course one could refer to the ballet like so: “Rodeo, with long marks on all the vowels, a single quote mark before the R, a comma after the E, and a colon after the O.” By that time, no reader would want to see this ballet, which is actually quite fabulous.

Deborah Jowitt called Peck’s title “diacritically enriched.” So…to feed my ongoing Punc Amok obsession, what’s YOUR favorite diacritically enriched title?

 

 

2 people like this Featured Uncategorized 8

“Dance Was Dead” in the 1980s — — Whaaat?!?

Did I read that right? The New York Times’ chief dance critic, Alastair Macaulay, talking about the decade when Balanchine, Tudor and Ashton died, wrote “Dance was dead.” I re-read those three words that appeared in the new online preview called “Dance This Week,” hoping I had mis-read it.

Actually, dance was bursting with life in the ’80s. Performances were bristling with creativity, guts, challenge, inventiveness, and passion. That decade gave us three enduring classics of postmodernism: Trisha Brown’s Set and Reset (1983); Twyla Tharp’s In the Upper Room (1986); and Bill T. Jones’ D-Man in the Waters (1989). These are momentous works that yield revelations every time we see them, but they came from scrappy environments—the loft spaces, gymnasiums, and churches of downtown Manhattan.

Stephen Petronio and Trisha Brown in Set and Reset, photo © Lois  Greenfield

Stephen Petronio and Trisha Brown in “Set and Reset,” photo © Lois Greenfield

At New York CIty Ballet, Jerome Robbins made the wondrous Glass Pieces in 1983 plus a bunch of other ballets that are still in the rep. He took a collection of his Broadway numbers and created Jerome Robbins Broadway, which won a Tony for best musical.

The Joffrey Ballet was mounting works from Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Their revival of Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring by way of Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer was earthshattering; it triggered much debate.

It was the decade when William Forsythe blossomed in Germany, essentially redefining ballet and spawning scores of young choreographers.

"In the Upper Room" with Pennsylvania Ballet, photo by Candice De Tore

“In the Upper Room” with Pennsylvania Ballet, photo by Candice De Tore

In 1982 Cora Cahan and Eliot Feld established The Joyce Theater, which has presented a different dance company almost every week since then. Brooklyn Academy of Music started its Next Wave Festival, bringing in Pina Bausch regularly since 1984, filling the house with audiences from all walks of life.

The ’80s was when African American dance artists realized they could extend beyond the Ailey mold. People like Bill T. Jones, Ralph Lemon, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Garth Fagan, Jawole Willa Jo Zollar and Bebe Miller created searing and/or subtle works that sometimes delved into cultural identity.

Other choreographers who emerged in the ’80s were Stephen Petronio, Ohad Naharin, Mark Dendy, Elizabeth Streb, Pat Graney, and Dancenoise. Dancenoise! Their recent reunion show at the Whitney Museum was so brilliantly uproarious that it could make anyone pine for the ’80s. It was a great decade for feisty women choreographers.

Merce Cunningham began experimenting with video in works like Channels/Inserts and Points in Space while continuing to make remarkable works for the stage. (I loved Pictures and Fabrications.)

Cunningham and Trisha Brown toured Europe, stimulating a vibrant scene in several countries. In England Richard Alston and badboy Michael Clark ignited a whole scene; in France Philippe Deconflé and Maguy Marin and many more were blasting forth with their own style of dance-making.

Dance was everywhere. Site-specific performances brought dance to people in parks, on bridges and at Grand Central Station via dance artists like Stephan Koplowitz and Joanna Haigood.

Sure, a lot of great ballet dancers retired. But we continued to swoon over superstars like Gelsey Kirkland, Martine Van Hamel, and Julio Bocca at ABT; Darci Kistler and Kyra Nichols at NYCB. Sylvie Guillem, with her extreme technique, was ascending to a new level of celebrity in Europe. In the Soviet Union, one of the most supreme/serene/sexy ballerinas of all time, Altynai Asylmuratova, was with the Mariinsky and guesting with ABT.

Yes, Balanchine died in 1983, but Miami City Ballet was formed in 1985 with Edward Villella as director, and Helgi Tomasson took over San Francisco Ballet the same year. Francia Russell was setting Balanchine ballets on Pacific Northwest Ballet, as was Arthur Mitchell on Dance Theatre of Harlem.

Yes, Frederick Ashton died in the ’80s, but he hadn’t made anything of note for quite a while. His signature works date from much earlier: Cinderella in 1948, La Fille mal gardee in 1960, The Dream in 1964, Monotones in 1965, and Enigma Variations in 1968. For Tudor too, it had been a long time since he choreographed his most enduring works: Lilac Garden (1936), Pillar of Fire (1937), and The Leaves Are Fading (1975).

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in "D-Man in the Waters," photo by Paul B. Goode

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in “D-Man in the Waters,” photo by Paul B. Goode

The ’80s was the decade that catapulted street dance onto the concert stage. Toni Basil brought Don Campbell’s Lockers and the Electric Bugaloos to The Kitchen, usually reserved for experimental dance and video. And Michael Jackson’s Thriller—hello!—was released in 1983. Everyone wanted to dance like MJ.

In 1985, tap dancer Gregory Hines hunkered down alongside of Baryshnikov in the blockbuster movie White Nights. Hines was a mentor to child prodigy Savion Glover, who, in 1989 starred in Black and Blue, a kind of precursor to Bring in da Noise Bring in da Funk.

I know that journalists like to make bold statements. But to claim that dance was dead in such a dynamic decade, even as an aside, undermines our understanding of how dance came to be what it is today. Whether one feels enlivened by any particular strain of dance is a personal matter. But dance as an art form is unstoppable. In many parts of the world, it continues to unfold in all its kaleidoscopic beauty and diversity.

12 people like this Featured Uncategorized 26

How Misha and Twyla Made Ballet American

I used to say that Twyla Tharp’s 1976 Push Comes to Shove is the ballet that made Baryshnikov an American. Its slinky displacements, Vaudevillian showmanship, and casual sexiness, were all buoyed by Joseph Lamb’s ragtime music. It’s uncanny how completely Misha took to this quintessentially American idiom, slipping between classical pirouettes, the isolations of jazz, and the de-centering of postmodern. Nothing in his Vaganova training could have prepared him for this role, yet he intuitively understood every shift deep in his bones. (Check out a clip here.)

Baryshnikov in PUsh Comes to Shove, photo by Max Waldman, http://www.maxwaldman.com/

Baryshnikov in Push Comes to Shove, photo by Max Waldman, http://www.maxwaldman.com/

But I also think that Misha helped make ballet American—for our generation—in other ways too. As director of American Ballet Theatre from 1980 to ’89, he commissioned Tharp often and invited some of her dancers to be company members. He also commissioned David Gordon, Mark Morris and Karole Armitage. Tharp’s In the Upper Room, to transcendent music by Philip Glass, premiered with her own group in 1986 and entered ABT’s rep in 88. Her Bach Partita and Sinatra Suite also premiered at ABT during that decade. Together Misha and Twyla built an American repertoire for American Ballet Theatre. In case you need reminding of how glorious Upper Room is, here’s a clip.

Yes, Yes, Lucia Chase had brought in the first American ballets— Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid, Agnes de Mille’s Rodeo, and Jerome Robbins’ Fancy Free. (We were happily reminded of this at ABT’s 75th anniversary gala.) But there’s been a lot of Tudor, MacMillan, Fokine, and Ashton. I’m not saying I object, I’m just noticing that Misha’s reign embraced American dance artists. It’s a different time now, and I’ve enjoyed the full rep of ABT this season.

Of course another famous Russian had made ballet American for a previous generation. George Balanchine stretched the lines of ballet, sped up the allegro, and thrust his dancers into space. But Balanchine used mostly European and Russian composers, whereas Twyla went with Jelly Roll Morton, Randy Newman, and the Beach Boys.

Juilliard students in Deuce Coupe, 2007

Juilliard students in Deuce Coupe, 2007, photo by Nan Melville

Talking about the Beach Boys, Twyla’s Deuce Coupe (1973) was something of a precursor to Push in that it combined ballet steps with everyday gestures and social dance. In the original version she joined her own (post)modern dancers with the Joffrey company. (It’s interesting to note that Wayne McGregor’s latest work, which comes to the Park Avenue Armory in September, also mixes his own modern dancers of Random Dance with Paris Opera Ballet dancers.)

When Twyla made Push Comes to Shove for Baryshnikov, it had all the pyrotechnics he learned in his pure Russian training and his individual charm as a performer, but with a touch of insolence too. Think Marlon Brando in The Wild Ones or James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause. Adding a dollop of witty playfulness makes her ballets less brooding and more Dionysian.

ABT dancers in Push Comes to Shove, photo by Nan Melville

ABT dancers in the finale of In the Upper Room, photo by Nan Melville

What’s American too is the melting-pot finales in Tharp’s ballets like Push, Deuce Coupe, and Upper Room. She throws everything and everybody together in a wash of onstage anarchy, all repeating phrases they’ve done before but newly recycled because everyone’s onstage, all peacefully co-existing. In Push it was Vaudevillians and classicists, Russians and Americans. In Deuce Coupe it was ballet dancers and modern dancers, rock and classical. In Upper Room, it’s the stompers, the bookend girls, the pointe shoes girls and everyone else. These endings sometimes make me cry because they speak of active acceptance of all kinds of people—still a challenge in our American democracy. These big, unruly, energetic free-for-alls are Twyla’s vision of harmony…an onstage, perpetual-motion rainbow.

 

 

1 person likes this Featured Uncategorized 3

Aging Dancers: An Alternate Vision

Dare I say it? From what I am noticing internationally, we are in the midst of a new wave of appreciation for older dancers. At the moment several superstars of dance are crashing the age barrier. But I think it goes beyond those extraordinary artists to dancers who are less well known. This post includes examples of both types, quotes from observers and practitioners, and Pat Catterson’s (somewhat humorous) list of roadblocks for those dancers trying to beat the odds.

First the Superstars

Alessandra Ferri, Wendy Whelan, and Carmen de Lavallade are each totally unique dancers, a world unto themselves, and that is part of the reason their artistry has endured.

Ferri in McGregor's Woolf Works © ROH, phoo by Tristram Kenton

Ferri in McGregor’s Woolf Works © ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

As seen in Martha Clarke’s Cheri, the exquisitely dramatic Ferri, 52, can still transport us from rapturous joy to utter despair. (See Gia Kourlas’ cover story for Dance Magazine from last fall.)  And just last month, she performed at Covent Garden as the muse for Wayne McGregor in Woolf Works at The Royal Ballet. For me, as I posted in “Alessandra’s Ferri’s Knowing Body,”  the ballet completely relied on Ferri’s ability to create a passionate yet vulnerable protagonist.

At the Joyce in April, Wendy Whelan, 48, danced with all the fullness and thrust she always had in “Restless Creature.” And last weekend, in a Works & Process program at the Guggenheim, she showed a sassy theatricality in Arthur Pita’s Tango that I hadn’t seen before. (In case you aren’t familiar with her glorious dancing, what I wrote about her in my recent tribute to her at Danspace still holds true.)

Brian Schaefer, posting in OUT.com, wrote that Whelan’s age “allowed for greater possibilities in interpreting the relationships and interactions on stage. It also added something soothing and serene to each work—maybe we can call it wisdom.” He went on to say, “Especially in ballet, young love still reigns. But with Restless Creature, Whelan…steps beyond ballet’s suggested expiration date and demonstrates that lifelong curiosity and experience are as valuable artistic tools as pirouettes and penchée.”

Wendy Whelan with oshua Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by XXYYZZ

Wendy Whelan with Joshua Beamish in Restless Creature, photo © Yi-Chun Wu

The legendary Carmen de Lavallade,  at 83, knocked ’em dead at Jacob’s Pillow last year in her show As I Remember It. She also became an object of desire at Huffington Post. Brian Seibert of The New York Times called her dancing terrific. And Erin Bomboy of the Dance Enthusiast described her as “mesmerizing and silky.” NPR also jumped into the Let’s-discover-Carmen act with this segment on her.

Carmen de Lavallade, photo: ©2011 Julieta Cervantes

Carmen de Lavallade, photo: © 2011 Julieta Cervantes

Ageless in Europe

As it happens, venerable superstars of Europe are performing in Rome on June 24 and 25. In a presentation of Daniele Cipriani Entertainment http://www.dancemagazine.com/blogs/admin-admin/6468 the Swedish choreographer Mats Ek and his illustrious wife, Spanish-born Ana Laguna, will perform two of the most sparely poetic works I’ve ever seen: Memory and Potato. He is 70 and she is 60. The program, entitled “Quartet Gala,” also includes well known Tanztheater choreographer Susanne Linke, who turns 71 this month, and Bessie-award-winning Pina Bausch dancer, French-born Dominique Mercy, 65. For more info on the program, which has choreography by Ek, Linke, and Pascal Merighi, click here.

Ana Laguna and Mats Ek in Ek's Potato, photo © John Ross

Ana Laguna and Mats Ek in Ek’s Potato, photo © John Ross

Postmodern Forever

Simone Forti at 80 still performs. Though she’s not quite as stable as before, her earthiness and wit are still accessible to her. In an online Fjord Review about Forti’s recent shared performance in Los Angeles, Victoria Looseleaf described her as “Monumental in her simplicity.”

Another historic figure who helped redefine dance in the 1960s, Yvonne Rainer, also 80, brought her premiere Dust to the Museum of Modern Art this month. Rainer supposedly doesn’t dance any longer—though she slipped in a quick chassé and a hovering relevé during the June 13th performance. In an advance story in The New York Times, Siobhan Burke quoted Rainer saying, “My preferred mode of self-presentation is ‘existence.’ I love to exist on stage. I no longer ‘dance.’ ” Later in the article Rainer claimed a right for the aging dancer to exist without judgment: “The aging body is a thing unto itself and need not be judged as inadequate or inferior if it can no longer jump through hoops.”

Stephan Koplowitz and Heather Ehlers in Connor's The Weather in the Room, photo © Scott Groller

Stephan Koplowitz and Heather Ehlers in Connor’s The Weather in the Room, photo © Scott Groller

Choreographer Colin Connor cast two dancers over 50 for his work The Weather in a Room that premiered at CalArts last year. They were faculty members Stephan Koplowitz (dean of the School of Dance) and Heather Ehlers (of the School of Theater). He believes in age diversity onstage. Partly because, like Schaefer, he is interested in the relationships that older dancers can inhabit. “In our time,” he wrote in an email to me, “dance tends toward youth, to newness, and to the illustration of things youthful. Here I was drawn to the idea of a relationship that is not new but lived in, to a landscape of ongoing experience and the expressiveness of maturity, and to revealing a palpable physical intimacy between people of an age where this is less noticed or considered.”

Another choreographer interested in age diversity is Vicky Shick, who at 62 still dances in her own work. I happen to be on the receiving end of her largesse and have performed in two of her recent pieces. We’ve danced in each other’s work before so she knows my body and won’t overextend. In rehearsals, I loll around, slowly warming up my body, while she works with the other dancers until it’s my turn.

And just last week I participated in American Dance Guild’s tribute to Frances Alenikoff, who danced into her 80s. I am 67, and my dancing partners were Deborah Jowitt, 81, and Ze’eva Cohen, 75. On performance days, I would go through my daily exercises more thoroughly and add extra time for balancing on one leg. I widened the stance of some of the moves in an effort to be more stable. In performance, I sometimes had the thought, Whew, I got through that bit without keeling over!

Nothing New

Of course the interest in older performers is nothing new. Liz Lerman started using older people in her dances in the 1970s; the Dance Exchange in Takoma Park, MD, carries on her tradition in some of its programs. Choreographers like Stephan Koplowitz and Risa Jaroslow have chosen to work with older performers. Naomi Goldberg’s currently active Dances for Variable Population gives performances and workshops throughout the summer. These kinds of explorations ask the question, Who gets to dance?

Almost twenty years ago Gus Solomons, along with Carmen de Lavallade and the late Dudley Williams, started Paradigm Dance Company, which challenged choreographers like Dwight Rhoden and Kate Weare to make work for these storied but limited performers. Valda Setterfield, 80, whose stage charisma grows with each decade, has danced with Paradigm as well as with her husband David Gordon.

Between This World and the Next

When I wrote about older dancers for The New York Times 15 years ago, I quoted Eiko Otake saying, “Because their bodies are not young, older performers carry something that is almost between this world and the next, that itself is artistic and transcending.’”

Eiko in A Body in a Station, photo © William Johnston

Eiko in A Body in a Station, photo © William Johnston

Now in her early 60s, Eiko has been illustrating that idea with her haunting current project, A Body in a Station.

About a year ago, I was fortunate to see butoh artist Ko Murobushi in Yokohama, who embodied a certain brute strength as a man in his late 50s.  But this work too, with it’s sudden falls and its offering of lilies, hinted at death.

Alternative Vision

To return to Rainer, she sees the acceptance of age as an “alternative vision.” Here’s an excerpt from an essay she wrote last year for Performance Art Journal (PAJ 106):

“The evolution of the aging body in dance fulfills the earliest aspirations of my 1960s peers and colleagues who tore down the palace gates of high culture to admit a rabble of alternative visions and options. Silence, noise, walking, running, detritus—all undermined prevailing standards of monumentality, beauty, grace, professionalism, and the heroic.”

PatCat’s Nine Lives, or, How to Dance Full Out at 69

But maybe older dancers are a new kind of heroic. Enter Pat Catterson, a dancer/choreographer/teacher who dances full out as a member of Rainer’s group—at 69 years old. (The other members are not far behind: they are all over 40.) She never stopped taking daily class. I asked her to tell me the hardest thing about keeping her body in dancing shape, and she came up with nine hardest things. The rest of this post is direct from Pat Catterson’s lips—or rather email.

From left: Yvonne Rainer, Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, and David Thomson in Dust, photo © Julieta Cervantes

From left: Yvonne Rainer, Pat Catterson, Patricia Hoffbauer, and Keith Sabado in Dust at MoMA. Rousseau’s painting of The Sleeping Gypsy is in background, photo © Julieta Cervantes

1. It is difficult to walk the fine line between challenging my body and not overdoing. I can so easily inflame something if I do too much repetition or work past muscle fatigue or not give myself enough recuperation time. When to push and when not is hard to gauge. And the balance is always changing. What I could do two years ago in terms of endurance, I cannot do now.

2. Doctors are dismissive. Oh it is arthritis they say and treat me like I am some kind of crazy person who thinks she can still dance. I try to convince them that I take full class six days a week and am performing and intend to continue but most of them do not take me seriously. It infuriates me. But then I wonder if I am a fool. I find physical therapists more encouraging and helpful than doctors.

3. My brain does not work as quickly as it used to. One of my strengths was always that I picked up quickly. I got the steps fast and often led across the floor. It may not be noticeable to others but I do not pick up as fast now and I have to work at it. Sometimes just as we are to begin a combination, my mind goes blank and I cannot even remember how it starts. The brain does age.

4. I am ignored when I take class. I am used to it now. I am very self-disciplined but I could use a correction now and then, an outside eye. (An exception: Rachel List always gives me corrections.) It is really strange to feel so invisible. And it makes me a little angry, frankly. I am paying for the class like everyone else!

5.  I need to rent some ballon! I still could do convincing jumps one year ago but then it ended. I am in shape and I jump every day but I do not go up! I am strong. I stretch. I practice jumping. But the ballon disappeared! I still love leaps and jumping steps anyway even though I look quite unimpressive doing them.

6. My joints are stiff, particularly in my hips. It is very hard to get up and down from the floor. I can only do it in certain pathways.  I try to cover it up as best I can by the choices I make. The body just does not fold easily in the joints anymore. Grand plié is now not so grand. Annoying. I am so envious of the ease of the others as I struggle to do things that used to be so easy.

7. Dance clothes. Clingy does not look good on saggy skin! I am bony and I have muscle tone but the skin is saggy. I cannot wear the biketards or the skin-baring tops or leotards the others wear in the summer. I want to wear something sleek and contemporary looking but most regular dancewear just looks ridiculous on me. My age group is not the focus of dancewear companies.

8. In class, I used to love just barreling into everything but that is not possible now. I usually start a big or fast combination a little under in energy to pattern it first in my body so that I don’t strain myself. I can build up to a good energy but I have to start soft. I look at the young ’uns and I remember well that agility and energy. But I do take the full class. Use it or lose it as they say. I try to push past what feels completely comfortable, but just how much is a continual negotiation. Friends who are in their 40s or 50s think I am crazy to continue to take full class, especially Cunningham technique. One says that Cunningham is for young bodies and that I shouldn’t be putting my body through it. But it is my “home” technique and I love the physical and mental challenge of it.

9.  In the end I love to dance and perform as much as I always did. The adrenaline of performing still carries me beyond what I think I can do. I have a lot of energy, but I do not want to end up crippled or in a wheelchair. I have to be able to know when to stop demanding too much of my body. And only I will know because the doctors do not know.

 

3 people like this Featured Uncategorized 16

A New Sleeping Beauty——But Why?

What does it mean that American Ballet Theatre has come out with a big new Sleeping Beauty? The production of Ratmansky’s new/old staging cost six million dollars (half of which is to be covered by the co-commissioning company, La Scala Ballet). I know I’m not supposed to think about money, just art. But while watching this production (twice), I couldn’t help but notice how extravagant it is—400 costumes and 210 wigs—compared to how little relevance the ballet holds for us today.

Tchaikovsky’s music is lushly beautiful. With its danceable waltzes and big dramatic bursts, it expresses the clash between anger and harmony that drives the narrative. But the tale is about an ancient kingdom that has only one worry: to make sure the daughter doesn’t get hold of a spindle. It’s not a ballet that stirs complex emotions or stimulates a train of thought about life’s dilemmas.

ABT in Ratmansky's Sleeping Beauty.  Photo by Gene Schiavone.

ABT in Ratmansky’s Sleeping Beauty: a 6 million dollar tab. All photos by Gene Schiavone.

The other ABT classics are perennials because they each have something that speaks to us today. The violence between the warring factions of Romeo and Juliet is always painfully relevant. Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake is searching for something that’s more spiritual than his materialistic upbringing; and Odette, who feels trapped, has to rely on a man’s faithfulness. We learn from Giselle that class differences can forbid one from marrying for love, and that recognizing your mistakes can change your life.

And then there’s The Sleeping Beauty. Sure, it’s about the battle between good and evil, but what’s the message? Be careful not to incur the wrath of a powerful person? Of course no ballet can be reduced to a single message—but this one comes close.

I applaud Ratmansky for immersing himself in the Stepanov notation and drawings of Petipa’s original 1890 version. It’s interesting that he was guided more by his passion for ballet history than his personal choreographic desires. I also applaud the dancers, especially Diana Vishneva and Marcelo Gomes, who imbued the leading roles with a shared spirituality. (Similar, as I wrote in 2011 in Dance Magazine, to the partnership of Alina Cojocaru and Johan Kobborg when they danced these roles in ABT’s last version.)

Diana Vishneva as Princess Aurora and Marcelo Gomes  as Prince Désiré. Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Diana Vishneva as Princess Aurora and Marcelo Gomes as Prince Désiré: shared spirituality.

But at a time when people around the globe are plagued by violence, racial issues, and environmental degradation, a story that focuses solely on the aristocracy can only serve as an escape. But is there some undercurrent to this type of escape? Is it also some kind of reinforcement of complacency? The audience can get swept up in the glory of Tchaikovsky’s music and the detail of Petipa’s steps, as researched by Ratmansky and his wife Tatiana. But in the end the ballet represents a very privileged population.

One of my colleagues suggested taking pleasure in the precision and communicative aspects of the dancing. But I find the predictable structure of the choreography a deterrent. When I see the many repetitions in the Garland Waltz, I imagine Petipa saying to his dancers, “Do three of these and one of those.” In steps as well as story, The Sleeping Beauty doesn’t measure up to the other classics.

In her Dance Tabs review, Marina Harss writes, “The real challenge isn’t replicating the steps but bringing them to life, and through them, channeling the spirit of the age. In this, it seems to me that Ratmansky has succeeded, producing a ballet that glows from within.”

I agree that the dancing is stamped with the spirit of the times. ABT has given us a piece of history, and there is value in that. Ballet historians are soaking this moment up. But for some of us, it’s like seeing lithographs of dainty ballerinas come to life. In this Sleeping Beauty I missed dancing that extends into space; I missed the directness that Balanchine has given us. Dance evolves for a reason. It adjusts to how cultures and bodies change.

Maybe I’ll get used to this Sleeping Beauty as one flavor in the pack of ABT’s repertoire—the old world flavor. But if this reconstruction was intended to be the centerpiece of ABT’s 75 years, it seems a misstep to me.

Finale of The Sleeping Beauty

Finale of The Sleeping Beauty, with Lilac Fairy and Carabosse in background.

I can’t help but point out that the previous, equally anticipated new Sleeping Beauty for ABT premiered only eight years ago. It was assembled by esteemed dance artists Gelsey Kirkland and Kevin McKenzie, along with Michael Chernov, none of whom is a choreographer. It kept some traditional things and changed or condensed others. It created some beautifully tender moments that propelled the story. (Again, I cite my posting from 2011.) To my mind its worst mistake was not giving the prince a physical struggle to reach his goal. He did not have to fight to arrive at the castle.

And the Ratmansky version makes the same mistake. It’s too easy for Prince Désiré to find the love of his dreams. If he had to overcome the barrier to the castle, if he had to work hard and sweat, if he had to shed his princeliness for a few minutes, the ballet would offer some sense of a catharsis. In the New York City Ballet’s version, the prince whacks away the choking vines that have encrusted the castle for a hundred years. By the time he reaches Aurora, we feel he has earned her love.

Isadora Loyola and Sean Stewart as the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, Photo by Gene Schiavone.

Isadora Loyola and Sean Stewart as the White Cat and Puss-in-Boots, Photo by Gene Schiavone.

But Petipa/Ratmansky’s Prince Désiré has no such grit. He has technical grit, e.g. difficult petit allegro, but no emotional grit. He sails easily, guided by the Lilac Fairy, from his vision of Aurora to the bedroom of Aurora. All the royal characters retain their royal calm in every scene. This production seems to say that beauty and harmony only reside in a smoothly running aristocracy.

That said, I was delighted that Ratmansky reinstated the storybook characters that add such fun to Aurora’s Wedding. The White Cat and Puss-in-Boots are particularly welcome, with their witty clawing and flirting.

So….will there be another Sleeping Beauty in eight years?

 

1 person likes this Featured Uncategorized 14

Trisha Brown: Dance-maker, Leader, Humanist

On the occasion of Dance/USA honoring Trisha Brown, I was asked to write a tribute from my point of view. It was originally published by Dance/USA’s From the Green Room and is reprinted with permission.

Trisha Brown is becoming more sacred to us every year. Not only is she a great artist who pushed the boundaries of contemporary dance, but she is also a fine human being, an example of compassionate leadership. While dance legends like Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins were notoriously “difficult” to the point of occasional cruelty, Trisha was always respectful, nurturing and generous. She fulfills the promise of a new, feminist way of being an artistic director.

Having danced with Trisha in the 1970s, when the company was just five women, and having followed her choreography since then, I have felt close to the work aesthetically and emotionally. On this occasion I would like to talk about the two categories of gifts she gave us: as an artist and as a leader.

Redefining Dance

Walking on the Wall, 1971, Whitney Museum, photo @ Carol Gooden

Walking on the Wall, 1971, Whitney Museum, photo @ Carol Gooden

Who would have thought that a dance could consist of the audience lying on their backs and looking up at the ceiling to imagine seeing what Trisha’s voice is telling them? (That was Skymap, 1969.) Who would have thought that two people surprising each other with what direction they would fall toward could be a piece of choreography? (That was Falling Duets, 1968.) Who would have thought that the optical illusion created by people walking on walls could hold the attention for a good thirty minutes? (Walking on the Walls, 1971.) Not me. But when I saw her concert at the Whitney Museum in 1971, these three actions were thrilling—kinetically, intellectually, perceptually.

Now, years later, I can rub my chin and say Ah yes, I see the influences of Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, Yvonne Rainer, or Steve Paxton. But at the time, this event gave me a pleasant shock that brought me up close to Trisha’s singular imagination. I wanted to dance that way—with an alert mind and a relaxed, pleasurable body.

She has said she felt sorry for spaces that weren’t center stage—the ceiling, walls, corners, and wing space. Not to mention trees, lakes, and firehouses. She caused a revolution by simply, sweetly, turning to spaces that other dance-makers don’t. But she also caused a revolution in the space of the human body. She rejected the pulled up stance of ballet and the inner torque of Martha Graham. She loved Merce Cunningham’s work but she had no wish for dancing bodies to be so upright. She was going for something else, something more yielding, more off-balance, a way for the energy to flow on unusual paths through the body. In her choreography the pleasure of surrender coexists with the willpower of adhering to a rigorous structure. (For a full bio of the choreographer, click here.)

Starting with Improvisation

Trisha’s earliest works were improvised. She had learned to deploy simple structures from Halprin when she studied with her in California in 1960. In Trillium (1961) she took a basic improvisation exercise to choose when to lie down, sit, or jump, and did it her own way. “I made my decision about lying down and jumping at the same time,” she said in a 1980 interview. By all accounts, Trillium was a wild solo that made people believe she could be suspended in the air.

Trisha in Water Motor, photo © Lois Greenfield

Trisha in Water Motor, photo © Lois Greenfield

Trisha often asked her dancers to improvise based on either a loose idea (e.g. “Line up” or “Read the walls”) or quite tight verbal instructions. She wanted the look of improvisation, the feel of not knowing what you were doing until you did it. That aesthetic reached its apex in Water Motor (1978). Babette Mangolte’s film of that exhilarating solo has become essential viewing for students of postmodern dance.

When she taught us a choreographic sequence, her movement was so elusive that I remember thinking, “She teaches it as a solid but she dances it like a liquid.” The key to attaining that liquid quality was to know in your own body how one impulse triggers another, to know exactly what and when to let go. While Trisha rejects the term “release technique,” the dancers have to be precise about utilizing release as well as strength.

Lines vs. Chaos, Rigor vs. Sensuality

The lovely paradox is that she also insisted on containing this sense of discovery within a rigorous visual or mathematical order. In Line Up, which we made collectively in the mid 70s, lines of people would materialize and dissolve—like following one’s own thoughts.

She brought nature into the studio. She loved her home territory of the Pacific Northwest and, come summer, she often returned there to take her son backpacking. While teaching one phrase of “Solo Olos” (part of Line Up) she said, “Imagine you are seeing Puget Sound in the distance and are tracing the length of it with your fingers.”

But it wasn’t landscapes alone that captivated her; it was the human body in an environment, for example the inevitable sensuality of the body up against the absoluteness of lines.

In Group Primary Accumulation (1973), four or five prone women move the right arm from the elbow down, then repeat that, then go on to the second move of raising the left arm from the shoulder, repeat both and so on, up to 30 moves. The pelvis lifts softly on move # 7—in a meditative way of course. The dance is incredibly sensual to do and to see, and yet the accumulation score keeps the mind strictly focused. (Click here to see a 2008 performance of it in Paris.) While we were on tour, Trisha once said, “When I am doing Primary, I’m thinking, ‘This is all there is.’ ”

Spanish Dance in the 1970s. I'm the second from the right. Photo @ Babette Mangolte

Spanish Dance,1970s. I’m second from the right. Photo @ Babette Mangolte

And then there’s the delightful “Spanish Dance” (1973), wherein five women tread slowly across the stage, accumulating one at a time to form a crush of bodies that hits the proscenium wall on the last note of Bob Dylan singing Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.” While nothing much happens, each woman is sandwiched by others, flesh on flesh, swaying pelvis on swaying pelvis. The audience can see where the line of women is heading but the physicality of it still elicits chuckles of delight.

Simplicity to Sublime Chaos

Over the years—Brown has created about 100 works including operas—I felt I was seeing a progression from simplicity to complexity, from clear strategies to hidden strategies, from orderliness to a sublime chaos. Set and Reset (1983), with is freeform look and lids-off sense of play, definitely qualifies as sublime chaos. With music by Laurie Anderson and set by Robert Rauschenberg, it’s a masterwork that bears repeated viewing. It offers a sense of possibility, a sense of the dancers being ready for anything. While jogging from upstage to downstage, Stephen Petronio suddenly gets pulled offstage by Trisha grabbing his neck. Another time, Trisha dives into the arms of another dancer who seems to be looking the other way. Set and Reset is so overflowing with possibility, with unpredictable interactions and close calls, that it took me three times of seeing it to realize that simple walking and running are also woven into the dance. She is teaching us to see things that are not obvious.

Trisha with Stephen Petronio in Set and Reset, 1983, photo @ Lois Greenfield

Trisha with Stephen Petronio in Set and Reset, 1983, photo @ Lois Greenfield

Her trajectory of simplicity to chaos is paralleled by the trajectory of earth to air. Just as she managed to catapult herself to be prone in the air for Trillium, and horizontal while walking on the walls of the Whitney, she set dancers above the ground—floating with help, one might call it—in Planes (1968), Floor of the Forest (1970) and Lateral Pass (1985). And then, in the opera L’Orfeo (1998), she created an extended passage for Diane Madden to be airborne, floating as the demigod Musica, rigged by the ultimate professionals, Flying by Foy.

Dance and Visual Art

Part of Trisha’s vision has to do with giving dance the same seriousness accorded visual art. That means bestowing it with intellectual attention. It also means, in the balance of art and entertainment, tipping more toward art and less toward entertainment. When we gave lecture-demonstrations and the question came up, Why don’t you dance to music, she would counter with, “Do you walk around a piece of sculpture and ask why there is no music?” Now that we are engulfed in a wave of dance in museums, I feel it’s still Trisha’s early work, the silent pieces oriented around lines, that fit so nicely into the museum milieu.

After all, she is a visual artist too, and her drawings have been shown in galleries in the U.S. and abroad. It was natural to her to collaborate with some of the best artists of our time, including Robert Rauschenberg, Nancy Graves, Donald Judd, and Elizabeth Murray.

Going Back to the Beginning

Her vision also had to do with going back to the beginning, questioning the assumptions that have built up and figuring things out for yourself. In clearing the air of “modern dance” histrionics, of course she had comrades in Judson Dance Theater like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton. Yvonne ran or screamed, Steve walked, and Trisha fell. While that’s a gross exaggeration of the ground-breaking experiments at Judson, it shows how committed they were to getting down to basics, how much they aimed for the “ordinary” (to use their teacher Robert Dunn’s term).

For Trisha that meant channeling the radical into an ordinary container. In the 70s she wrote a statement on “pure movement” that included this: “I make radical changes in a mundane way.” (Click here to read her full statement on Pure Movement)

Glacial Decoy with left to right: Lisa Kraus, Stephen Petronio, Trisha Brown @ Babette Mangolte

Opal Loop, with, left to right: Lisa Kraus, Stephen Petronio, Trisha Brown @ Babette Mangolte

When she started making works for the proscenium stage, she started at the beginning again, asking herself what was essential about the stage. She  enlisted Rauschenberg’s help in questioning the conventions of the stage. In Glacial Decoy (1979), they both envisioned the dance extending beyond the proscenium, creating the illusion that the dancers did not stop at the wings. For Set and Reset (1983), he made the stage wings transparent, blurring the difference between performing and not performing.

Her Influence

Trisha Brown’s influence is larger than we can ever know. Young dancers see her work in a studio or in performance and learn how good it feels on their bodies. They may incorporate a version of her style, which tends to fold the body along different lines than in “modern dance.” There’s a respect for the plainness, the sensuality of simple movements framed by rigorous scores (structures). Even if they haven’t seen it first-hand, her way of moving is now in the air. It’s like a Trisha Brown mist that dancers all over the world are breathing in.

Do you remember the beginning of Set and Reset, when several dancers hoist one in the air so she can be horizontal and walk on the wall? I’ve seen this echoed many times in the work of others, most recently last month at Sadler’s Wells in London, during Partita 2, a collaboration between Anne Teresa de Keersmaeker and Boris Charmatz.

Beth Gill's New Work for the Desert, photo @ Cherylynn Tsushima

Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert, photo @ Cherylynn Tsushima

And then there are those who imitate Trisha very deliberately. Last year Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert borrowed liberally from Brown’s 1987 Newark (Niweweorce). At the end of Newark there’s is a double duet made of new and strange ways of leveraging each other’s bodies: holding or pulling by the neck and hooking an ankle—almost animal-like—though again, within strict lines. In this interview with Gia Kourlas of Time Out New York, Gill says that she studied this section on video and incorporated it into her work.

Of course it’s fair to study an older artist’s work, but appropriating it is another story, maybe even a legal one. However I think the fact that Gill paid Brown tribute in this way speaks to how iconic Trisha’s work has become. It’s like Rauschenberg erasing a drawing by de Kooning, or Van Gogh copying whole scenes from Hiroshige.

Her Generosity

Trisha was always generous in her encouragement to dancers like Stephen Petronio and me who were choreographing on our own. She once hosted a small gathering for possible funders to see my work, and she gave Stephen access to studio space in her building.

Steve Paxton and Trisha, Bennington College, 1980 photo @ Tylere Resch, courtesy Bennington College Judson Project

Steve Paxton and Trisha, Bennington College, 1980 photo @ Tyler Resch, courtesy Bennington College Judson Project

But most of all, she was generous to the dancers within her work. I spoke on the phone with Diane Madden, who has been a member of the Trisha Brown Dance Company since 1980, first as a dancer then rehearsal director and now co-associate artistic director. “She created a clear space that allows people to have lots of room,” Diane said. “You felt trusted by her, which allowed you to take more risks and give more. … She would give us very clear guidelines, whether working around the perimeter of the space, or keeping close proximity to the floor, working in slow motion, but wouldn’t over-define or over-direct…She would challenge you to go beyond your comfort zone because she was always challenging herself. We all were challenged.”

In 1984 she asked Diane to become rehearsal director. “There would get to be a point,” Diane told me, “where the managerial role of taking care of the dancers’ needs had to be separate from the creating process. Things would happen that would turn her off or piss her off, and she didn’t want that to sully her creative relationship with the dancers.”

I always felt that Trisha had an awareness of herself as a woman leader, and Diane agrees. “It was important to her to lead well, to make sure she was making all the right choices,” she said. “She wanted to be a good role model for other choreographers and dancers.”

One choreographer who has been outspoken about her influence is Stephen Petronio, who danced in the company from 1979 to 1986. “The air of democracy in the room—I emulate that,” he told me. “I learned to be inclusive and democratic from her. She always made me feel part of the team, not her slave, and that made me want to give everything I have.”

Endings Are Beginnings

I’ve noticed that in some of Trisha’s most beautiful works, for instance Opal Loop (1980), Lateral Pass, and Newark, the last segment ushers in an entirely different sequence from what came before. These non-conclusive endings break so clearly from the rest of the piece that they could be the beginnings of something else.

Trisha Brown Dance Company in "Eights" from Line UP, on tour last year

Trisha Brown Dance Company in “Eights” from Line Up, last year at Museum Navarra in Pamplona, Spain

In that spirit, I am going to end with a beginning. The Trisha Brown Dance Company has just initiated a new series called In Plain Site. For medical reasons Trisha withdrew from making new work in 2011, and the company took on a three-year legacy tour of the proscenium works under the direction of Diane and the other associate artistic director, Carolyn Lucas. Now, the company will perform in non-proscenium spaces; the rep will include not only the early works that fit so well in museums, galleries and outdoor areas, but also snippets from the proscenium works. It will be a bit like Merce Cunningham’s “events” and it will be tailored to each different space. This month In Plain Site comes to New York City’s River to River Festival, to Jerusalem, and more. (Clear here for calendar.)

The education projects of TBDC continue apace in colleges and dance centers in the U.S. and in Europe, where Trisha is especially lionized. As an alumna who occasionally leads these classes, I can say that students everywhere continue to find the keys that open doors to personal discovery within the vast and challenging oeuvre of Trisha Brown.

≠–≠–≠–≠

 

Resources:

Website: http://www.trishabrowncompany.org/

DVD: ArtPix DVD: Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966-1979

Books:

Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue 1961-2001

“Trisha Brown: Gravity and Levity” in Terpsichore in Sneakers, by Sally Banes

And lots of things online.

 

 

 

3 people like this Featured Uncategorized 1

Alessandra Ferri’s Knowing Body

Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, his first full-length for The Royal Ballet, has been controversial. It’s neither a fairy tale ballet nor an “abstract ballet,” and that can be puzzling. But it does have the McGregor brilliance all the way through—and something more: Alessandra Ferri. Here’s my report from London.

If you could drop the expectation that piece is a linear narrative, you could fully appreciate the dancing, the music by Max Richter, and the astonishing visual elements. You would immerse yourself in light, sound and motion the way Virginia Woolf immersed her readers in words and phrases.

Ferri as Virginia Woolf, @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

Ferri as Virginia Woolf @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

But most of all, you could soak in Alessandra Ferri’s portrayal of this famed British writer. In Dance Magazine’s recent interview with Wayne McGregor  about his new full-length story ballet, he said, “She has such a knowing body, that synthesis of amazing acting talent and brilliant physicality.”

First, a brief summary of the ballet: Woolf Works is really three ballets, each based on (or perhaps more accurately “inspired by”) one of Woolf’s novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Ferri rules in the first and third sections, and the middle one is pure McGregor, with lashing out kind of dancing between androgynous beings, sans Ferri.

She first appears standing still, center stage. We have just heard Woolf’s voice deliver a treatise on the power of words and seen a scrim full of words flooding in, narrowing into columns and then becoming a fine mist. The scrim lifts and Ferri is revealed, embodying Woolf herself. This section, subtitled “I Now, I Then,” is about her memories; it’s softer in tone than anything I’ve seen of McGregor’s. He is letting Woolf and Ferri lead the way. There is a sweet duet with Federico Bonelli as her husband, and a kiss with a young woman, presumably Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had had an affair. But in general Ferri seems detached from these scenes. [Update 5/26: As you can see from the comment below, I was dead wrong about  the characters in this section. I guess I should’ve read up on my Mrs. Dalloway!]

The second section (after a 30-minute intermission, enough time to establish a whole new look) crashes in on us with light beams, thunder, and wild slashing duets. Titled “Becoming,” it takes us through changes of centuries and of genders, with extravagantly gold-hued Elizabethan dresses and ruffs de-composing bit by bit. A projection of fascinatingly etched blue clouds encroaches from stage left while the dancers tilt, twist, push and snake their way through McGregor’s typically aggressive partnering. (My only quibble with the choreography is this: as the music builds, and the costumes drastically deconstruct, and the lights get more preposterously inventive—at one point a huge, tilted sheet of light seems to intrude into the audience—the dancing stays at the same level.)

Last section, with Camille Bracher, Marcelino Sambé, Sander, and Blommaert. ©ROH, Photo by Tristram-Kenton

Last section with Camille Bracher, Marcelino Sambé, Sander Blommaert ©ROH, Photo by Tristram-Kenton

By the last section, subtitled “Tuesday,” we are happy to have Ferri back. But it’s clear that we are at the end of Woolf’s life. We hear a voice speak the words of her suicide note. She loves her husband, has had a happy life, but is plagued by her “disease”—which could only mean her suicidal depression. A huge black-and-white photo of waves hangs in the upper reaches of the stage space. But wait—it’s not a still shot but a video of slow-moving waves. We know they will eventually swallow her up, as is her wish. Two by two, the other dancers ebb downstage and flow upstage. The projected waves move a bit faster as Bonelli dances a melancholy duet with Ferri, finally lowering her down, beneath the now roiling waves.

Ferri with Federico Bonelli @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

Ferri with Federico Bonelli @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

For me, the last section was the most moving because it was emotionally the clearest—and saddest. But in both the first and third sections, Ferri held me in her thrall. The elegant way her head sits atop her spine, looking around with a soft alertness, seemed just right for this literary figure. Although Ferri is known for her outsized passion in roles like Juliet, Manon, and more recently Lea in Cheri (see footage of her  ravishing role in Martha Clarke’s piece in this clip), in McGregor’s ballet she plays a woman whose passion is for words—and for death. When she extends that beautiful foot toward the ground, she isn’t displaying her exquisite lower limbs; she’s indicating what she wants to focus on. A simple tendu becomes like a pen set toward paper.

McGregor said, in that same interview, that he chose Ferri because he knew he would learn from her. I think he may have learned about simplicity. With a turn of her head of a leg pointed toward the floor, she expresses a lifetime of experience—her own as well as the character’s. In a ballet that’s more about mood than a clear story line, that’s a lot.

 

Like this Featured 2