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.





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


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.




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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.


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Yoko Ono Rocks

What a revelation MoMA’s exhibit of Yoko Ono’s early work is! Just watching the film of her Cut Piece from 1965 is astonishing. She sits on the floor with a pair of scissors at her side. Audience members are invited to walk up to her and cut a piece of her clothing off—a simple task, laced with sexuality and danger. All the while she sits still, her face a mask of zen-like awareness—composed yet vulnerable, intelligent yet helpless, modest yet brazen. In using her own body as part of the artwork, she anticipates women artists like Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta. Click here for a YouTube clip of Albert Maysles’ film of Cut Piece.

Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (1964) Carnegie Recital Hall, 1965. Photo © Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York

Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (1964) Carnegie Recital Hall, 1965. Photo
© Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

The Dawn of Performance Art

Not unsurprisingly, Cut Piece was named by The Guardian one of the 10 most shocking performance pieces ever. . But I am interested in it less for its outrageousness and more for its connection to dance and performance art. It was not unlike some of Anna Halprin’s work of the ’60s, for example, the slow sequence in Parades and Changes in which the performers are dressing and undressing while focusing steadily on another person.

That kind of gaze became known as the downtown “neutrality.” I’ve seen a similar combination of guts and neutrality in work by Yvonne Rainer, and the combination of a simple structure with sensuality in Simone Forti’s work. Rainer and Forti (both of whom had studied with Halprin), were colleagues of Ono’s in the early ’60s, sometimes performing in the same shows.

Ono with Bag Piece (1964) At MoMA, photo by Ryan Muir

Ono with Bag Piece (1964). Homepage photo of Ono with Apple, both photos at MoMA by Ryan Muir

Another interactive performance piece, called Bag Piece (1964–2015) is based, touchingly, on her own shyness. The instructions are for two people to go under the bag, take their own clothes off, put them back on, then emerge from the bag. In the display type, she writes, “I didn’t know how to explain to people how shy I was. When people visited I wanted to be in sort of a box with little holes where nobody could see me but I could see the m through the holes.”

Talking About Crotch Aesthetics

Still shot of Film No. 4

Still shot of Film No. 4

I recently posted my musings about the new frankness of what I call crotch aesthetics. But I realized when I saw this exhibit that Ono was way ahead of today’s artists in her crotch derring-do. In Film No. 4, she filmed nude people walking away from her, one at a time, the camera trained on the lower rear end. You get to see how different people move their buttocks as they walk.

The John Cage Influence

Many of the artists in Ono’s milieu were inspired by John Cage, whose famous composition class at The New School she sometimes attended. He challenged the separation of music and theater and, even further, the separation of art and life.

In the early 60s, that cross-discipline spirit was fostered in Ono’s loft on Chambers Street, which soon became a hotbed of hybrid work by musicians, visual artists, and dancers. Forti created a landmark evening called “Dance Constructions” there in 1961. In it she presented her now-classic works like Huddle, Slantboard and Roller Boxes.

Just as Judson Dance Theater was an offshoot of John Cages’ teachings (via Robert Dunn), Ono was an offshoot in a different direction. Already possessed of an idiosyncratic imagination that knew both pleasure and pain on a cosmic level, she extended his idea that any sound can be music to any action can be art. In the new book John Cage Was, she acknowledged his influence by beginning her contribution with this claim:  “The history of Western music can be divided into B.C. (before John Cage) and A. C. (after Cage).” The respect was likely mutual. Cage, who himself was influenced by Asian ideas, had dedicated a piece of music to Ono.

A taunting kind of playfulness infuses the current exhibit, officially called Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971. That too is in line with Cage’s endearing optimism. You only have to go as far as Twitter to find further examples of that quality. She recently tweeted, “Be playful. Dance with your mind and body. It’s such fun that ‘They’ might start to dance with us, too!”

The Prank Became Real

Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, MoMA c. 1960–61. Photo © Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, MoMA, c. 1960–61, Photo © Minoru Niizuma, Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

Cut Piece was one of the few performances Ono made. More often she created suggestions for a performance or exhibit rather than the thing itself. Take for instance her semi-fictitious announcement of a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. She sent out publicity, took out ads, and made an elaborate catalog of a show that consisted only of a statement that a jar of flies drenched in Ono’s perfume had been released at MoMA and people were following the flies all over the city. Now, more than 40 years later, that ridiculous prank has led to a one-woman show. And it’s a spectacular, provocative, many-layered experience.


Her Rising Stature

Although I’ve always been dazzled by Ono’s gifts (I chose her song “Walking on Thin Ice” for my choreography once), this exhibit transforms her in my mind from a marginal music maker and conceptual artist to a major figure in 20th century art. The exhibit encompass 125 drawings, posters, objects (including a whole room in which all the furniture is cut in half) , audio recordings, films. Everything, whether an instruction piece or an object, are exercises in expanding the imagination.

Half-A-Room (1967)

Half-A-Room (1967)

One could view her 2013 music video of Bad Dancer, in which she’s not a bad dancer at all (at the age of 80), as an update of her ’60s ideas. It combines painting, costume design, music and dance, and has garnered over a million hits.

Capsules of Infinite Imagination

What we take away from Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, is a restless, curious mind that puts fantasies in the form of challenges, riddles, or haiku. Many of the verbal riddles and instructions come from the pages of her book Grapefruit, which was written between 1961 and ’64. I will leave you with three examples from this collection of enigmatic instructions.

One page was written for Robert Morris, who was married to Simone Forti at the time.

“Find a stone that is your size or weight.

Crack it until it becomes a fine powder.

Dispose of it in the river.

Send small amounts to your friends.

Do not tell anybody what you did.

Do not explain about the powder to the

Friends to whom you sent it.”


Another page was written as “Voice piece for soprano”:


  1. against the wind
  2. against the wall
  3. against the sky”


Lastly, Dawn Piece:

“Take the first word that comes across your mind. Repeat the word until dawn.”



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My Tribute to Wendy Whelan

On May 2, the Danspace Project gala honored Wendy Whelan and Eiko Otake. I was happy to be asked to make the presentation to Whelan. Here is my tribute to her, and…really to both of them:

Fifteen years ago, I was watching a Balanchine piece at New York City Ballet. It was not one of my favorite Balanchines. I do love some of  his ballets, but this one was orderly and symmetrical and courtly. And then this wind blew through the stage, rustling up the air and changing everything. The wind was Wendy Whelan.

This is what I wrote about her at the time:  “Wendy Whelan, dancing the lead for the first time, makes her entrance — luxuriously, energetically, extravagantly billowing thither and yon… She is an impetuous creature… edgy, not quite human, threatening to elude the grip of her escort at every dive.” [This quote is in my book.]

Whelan wih Josh Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whelan wih Josh Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan. Homepage photo by Nisian Hughes

She brought a modernist sensibility to NYCB. A simple passé became a revelation of the body’s architecture. She’s the epitome of what Annie-B Parson calls “fact-based choreography.” No frills, just the facts, like what Merce Cunningham demanded. She bypasses pretty and goes straight to beauty, a cut-glass kind of beauty, a beauty that elevates clarity to something spiritual.

She was a favorite of Jerome Robbins. She was fabulous in his woman-as-man-killing-insect ballet The Cage. “Jerry let me go with that one,” she told me. “I could use my weird assets.” You know, most ballet dancers don’t talk about themselves like that.

Whelan and Craig Hall in Wheeldon's After the Rain. Photo: Erin Baiano

Whelan and Craig Hall in Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Photo: Erin Baiano

And she became a muse for Christopher Wheeldon. Her active participation in the making of his dances allowed him to be geometrically complex, at times supremely simple, and unexpectedly tender. Every time I saw her dance his After the Rain duet, I would get psyched to see my favorite details, like hands pressing together behind the back. Nobody else did it the way she did it. Watching Wendy, I understood the saying God is in the details.

Her quality of lightness is especially hard to describe. It’s not a feminine lightness. She’s not the typical balletic Sylph. It’s a lightness of the mind, a readiness to levitate, an affinity for the air.

Outside of NYCB, one of her gigs was with Peter Boal’s small company, which I had made a piece for. When Peter asked her to choose someone to choreograph on her, she did not pick a ballet choreographer. She chose Shen Wei. Later on, she worked with Stephen Petronio.

Whelan rehearsing the Kyle Abraham section of Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whelan rehearsing Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

And then, still feeling restless, she came up with an idea to delve into contemporary choreography even more: She asked four very different dance artists to make a duet—and dance with her in that duet. They are Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Josh Beamish. The project is Restless Creature, which you can see at the Joyce later this month.

Wendy has become a leader in dance, not by making dances or by running a big company, but by being an interpreter of great depth, a co-conspirator in making new work, and a catalyst to bring ballet and modern dance together.

Since Danspace was started by a poet, as Claudia La Rocco reminded us in her Platform this spring, I want to pay tribute to Wendy Whelan and Eiko Otake for the poetry they have given us in dance. So I am going to read from—it’s not actually a poem, but—two sentences from my favorite essay by Merce Cunningham, “The Impermanent Art.” It’s from 1952 but he could just as well be talking about Wendy and Eiko.

“Dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along, and its life and vigor and attraction lie in just that singleness. It is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.”

This tribute is also posted here on the Danspace blog site.




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Are Crotch Aesthetics Changing?

I feel like I’m seeing a new frankness about the dancing body in performance. Some choreographers are shedding the conventions of decorum to reveal different angles of the crotch area, either clothed or unclothed. Perhaps the “private parts” no longer need to be so private. Perhaps they can just be part of the performing body like the feet, face, shoulders, or hands. It’s not about nudity per se. (Nudity itself is nothing new onstage, and I could never emulate the brilliance of David Parker’s treatise on the “epidemic of naked performances” he wrote in Dance Magazine nine years ago.) And I’m not talking about porn or exhibitionism. I’m talking about aesthetics.

In the past, as a choreographer in rehearsal, if you saw a maneuver that exposed the crotch area, you automatically said, Oops, we better do that from a more discreet angle. But times have changed, and what we see of the world has changed. Of the many choreographers who embrace the new frankness, I am choosing three to highlight: Andrea Miller, John Jasperse, and Luciana Acugar.

Andrea Miller: “Real, cinematic, or provocative”

Gallim Dance founder/director Andrea Miller does not accept certain conventions that still hold sway over many professionals. She recently told me that when she was choreographing for a well known repertory company, the dancers weren’t comfortable with their butts facing the audience. “They always had to cheat how they would get up or how they would move or crawl. They were like, ‘If I get up this way that means my butt’s to the audience.’ They were trying to warn me of a standard they thought I would uphold. I would say “Yes, that’s true. But I’m not concerned about that; it’s a direction we have to face sometimes.’

Andrea Miller's Sit Kneel Stand (2011), with Mario Bermudez Gil and Arika Yamada, photo by Franziska Strauss

Andrea Miller’s Sit Kneel Stand (2011), with Mario Bermudez Gil and Arika Yamada, photo by Franziska Strauss

She explains the difference in outlook this way: “They have a very proscenium, frontal projection so everything they perform is informed by the audience’s perspective. For me everything they perform is informed by the experience that is being captured in this world that the audience is having the opportunity to view. Sometimes I really want to see a body outside the aesthetic canon of entertainment dance and make it more real or cinematic or provocative.”

Miller cited the visual art world as an influence, particularly the famous Courbet painting The Origin of the World, which depicts a nude woman lying on her back with her legs open. “Just studying about that, seeing other artists, contemporary or not” was an influence.

She went on to say, “I sometimes get this feeling that when you train as a dancer it almost feels like you’re learning how to be a geisha—a sophisticated entertainer that dabbles in sensuality and sexuality but doesn’t explicitly do anything. That’s something I play with, but when I recognize it I push the other direction.”

John Jasperse: Sliding Perceptions and Shedding Taboos

John Jasperse also plays with that line. When I interviewed him for Dance Magazine before the revival of Fort Blossom, with its famously nude male duet, he said he viewed the dancing body as “an aesthetic construction, an estheticized puzzle.” As part of this choreographic puzzle, the groin area is exposed almost haphazardly. “But then there’s that moment where the slightest thing shifts and suddenly you see a sexualized body and you have to ask, What was it that suddenly changed it? And then, Why suddenly when I look at it I’m really aware of things like defecating and urinating and getting sick and dying, that’s largely a medical relationship to the body? My perception continues even now to slide around.

John Jasperse Fort Blossom Revisted, photo by Chris Taggert

John Jasperse’s Fort Blossom Revisited, photo by Chris Taggert

“In every art-making experience that involves the public, you’re handing over this space of perception and you aren’t in control of it. And the interesting thing is the way in which it slides from one axis to another. For some people I think the men’s duet still holds a kind of trangressive taboo, which is curious to me because we all have a butt and we all go to the bathroom. Those are universal things that bind us together.”

Luciana Achugar: The Anarchic Body

Revealing body parts for Luciana Achugar is more about “getting out of your head.” Last year she was interviewed by Gia Kourlas in Time Out New York before her premiere Otro Teatro (2014), which was explicitly about pleasure. “That’s why my work has moved more toward this kind of animal, primal place,” she said. “I feel like dance in contemporary culture has a power to connect us differently to our being and…part of that is to take power away from directing with your head …So the practice of being in pleasure is partially the practice of finding an aesthetic of how my body wants to move without any notion of good or bad or pretty or not pretty. An undoing of what I’ve learned.”

In some of Achugar’s work the dancer’s head is hidden—either out of sight or draped in cloth or massive wigs—while the naked crotch is exposed. “I want to have an anarchic body where there’s no place that’s more important than another,” she told Kourlas. “You can be in your bone, in your tissue, in your muscle—where making a shape is where you want to be, or you can be flowing or grounded or curled up.”

Although her work is clearly within the art realm and not the porn realm, she says, “When I’m onstage a lot of my sexuality comes out. There’s almost a desire to seduce. And for a woman to do that with her body could be objectifying herself. When I do it, I feel that I’m empowering myself. I feel strong when I’m sexual. I don’t want to be an American Apparel ad, but I don’t want to apologize for feeling my sexuality. I feel like there’s a Puritan thing in this society and I become rebellious against that.”

Part of a Larger Shift?

Of course these days people are exposing themselves in all kinds of ways on social media. Maybe no parts are “private parts” any more. So, is the downtown dance world in tune with the mainstream on this matter? Welll, maybe it’s distantly related. Then again, this new openness may go even further back. The sexual revolution of the 1960s, the feminism of the ’70s. the punk style of the 80s, and the culture wars of the 90s set the stage, as it were, for the current forms of liberation. So perhaps this is another phase in that direction. But also, this new frankness could be seen simply as exploring new territory—the territory of the body that, as Jasperse said, is universal.


Below is a photo of the work of Melinda Ring, who gives a workshop at Movement Research May 2.

Melinda Ring's Forgotten Snow (2014), photo © Paula Court

Melinda Ring’s Forgotten Snow (2014), photo © Paula Court


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What Is Genius…A Certain Too-Much-Ness?

When I moderated a panel called “Deconstructing Genius” last week at the 92nd Street Y Dance Center, I kept away from trying to define genius. All four panelists—Martha Clarke, Eiko Otake, Michael Moschen, and Elizabeth Streb—have received MacArthur fellowships, commonly called the “genius award” in the press. But the MacArthur Foundation never uses that word, and some of the panelists found the term less than useful.

STREB’s Human Fountain at the London Olympics. Photo by Julian Andrews

STREB’s Human Fountain at the London Olympics. Photo by Julian Andrews

What I see in these four amazing artists is a strong vision that allowed them to be utterly individual. More than that, they have each forged a path that eludes existing categories. They are the explorers of our time.

Now that the panel is over and I don’t have to worry about burdening anyone with that term, I want to name a few things that could qualify an artist as a genius—or at least an extraordinary artist.

But first the clichés

One cliché is that a genius is set apart from the rest of us, as the other, or somehow exotic, someone with a mind that’s beyond our understanding. Another one is that a genius is crazy. I just heard a radio voice refer to “crazy geniuses.” Those two words seem to go together in the public view. It’s unfair, and yet there’s a tiny germ of truth in that pairing. As Eiko said during the panel, “The line between genius and crazy is paper thin.”

Real attributes of extraordinary artists

But if there are geniuses among us, here are some attributes I would say mark such an artist.

• The first thing is vision—not necessarily a eureka moment, but a dawning over time. As Michael Moschen emailed me before the panel, “The world does not make sense, so I have to recalibrate in my own sensibility and make something that’s more truthful.”

• The second is curiosity—aimed curiosity. As each of these artists talked about their attraction to the unknown, they sounded to me like the great explorers—Marco Polo or Lewis & Clark—people who see a path that no one has taken, who have a sort of lusting for the unknown. Each of these artists have transgressed passed boundaries and transformed our idea of the performing arts.

• The third thing is plain hard work. As Eiko had said when I invited her onto the panel, “I am peculiar and a workaholic, but that doesn’t make me a genius.” I agree that those two criteria are not enough. But what Eiko doesn’t realize is that she—as part of the duo Eiko and Koma, and now on her own—has a third thing that is indefinable, and that is what makes her utterly unique. There’s no doubt that sheer hard work plays a role in bringing that uniqueness to light.

A Body in Fukushima, a series of photos taken by William Johnston of Eiko in Fukushima, a city irradiated and abandoned

A Body in Fukushima, a series of photos taken by William Johnston of Eiko in Fukushima, a city irradiated and abandoned


But when Eiko was describing the late Kazuo Ohno, whom she does accept as a genius (to read Eiko’s beautiful obit on him, click here and scroll down) she talked about his “too-much-ness” and then admitted she also has this too-much-ness.

And that’s what rang true for everyone on the panel.

Alessandra Ferri & Herman Cornejo in Chéri. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

Alessandra Ferri & Herman Cornejo in Martha Clarke’s Chéri. Photo by Christopher Duggan.

When Martha Clarke described her piece Endangered Species, with Flora the elephant, a few monkeys and a horse, it sounded like too much. When Michael Moschen described the Chinese jugglers he learned from, their devotion to a single skill seemed too much. And Streb talked about the willingness to be impractical and “underground.” Although certainly her above ground actions—often high above ground—are wonderfully impractical. When you see Streb’s dancers leaping from great heights and making a pattern in space, that’s “too much”—meaning, overwhelming.

Michael Moschen, multi-exposure photo by Wayne Sorce

Michael Moschen, multi-exposure photo by Wayne Sorce

I think too-much-ness is the ability to go all out in one direction, to throw caution to the winds, to be totally immersed in your idea. Of course there are genius criminals too. And there are artists whose too-much-ness is merely “over-the-top” tastelessness.

But as Eiko pointed out, when the MacArthur Foundation sends a letter of congratulations to its chosen fellows, it thanks them for their contribution to humanity. So maybe genius is a too-much-ness that in some way elevates humanity. And then, and then…you have something to give to the rest of us.

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Downtown Learns Balanchine’s Serenade

With the help of Tchaikovsky, my body got swept up in the glorious sequences of Serenade. This was last Friday, when Kaitlyn Gilliland taught part of Balanchine’s choreography to a bunch of downtown types at the Danspace Project. The workshop was part of Claudia La Rocco’s brainstorm, Platform 2015: Dancers, Buildings and People in the Streets.

The platform and the workshop

I think Edwin Denby would have been happy. The platform was inspired by Denby’s three-point dance interest in the ’60s: Balanchine, Cunningham, and Judson Dance Theater. La Rocco’s curiosity led her to pair Balanchine dancers with post-Cunningham dancer/choreographers.

Gilliland at St. Mark's Church, photo by Ian Douglas

Gilliland at St. Mark’s Church, photo by Ian Douglas

Gilliland, a beautiful young dancer who couldn’t quite fit in at New York City Ballet, is now freelances with smaller groups. But during her years with NYCB she danced Serenade many times, often as the Dark Angel.

Gorgeous torso movements, like a big side bend or an undulation in parallel that travels up the spine, are what give the ballet its wind-blown look. Although my legs don’t work like they used to and my feet cramp up when I try to point my toes, my upper body felt those shifts as pure pleasure. As you opened your sternum upward to the stained glass window in the dome of St. Mark’s Church, you felt like you could touch divinity—or at least George Balanchine.

Kaitlyn Gilliland teaching at Danspace, St. Mark's Church, photo by Ian Douglas

Kaitlyn Gilliland teaching at Danspace, St. Mark’s Church, photo by Ian Douglas

But wait—I’m a modern dancer

Kaitlyn demonstrating, me with hands on waist, photo by Ian Douglas

Kaitlyn demonstrating, me with hands on waist, photo by Ian Douglas

However, I am (or was) a modern dancer and choreographer, and although I grew up training in ballet, there were some things in this workshop that my body/mind refused to do. One is what I call icky fingers. Kaitlyn explained that all fingers in ballet should be separate. Well, I spent enough time as a teenager at the School of American Ballet sticking the pinky out, that my adult hand just wouldn’t do that. Also, I think icky fingers are a gender thing: most ballet men hold their fingers loosely together rather than feathering them prettily.

At another point Kaitlyn advised us to squeeze — I think that was in relation to the legs having to suddenly open from parallel to first. I blurted out, “We don’t squeeze downtown.” As Janet Charleston put it later: “We don’t squeeze but we engage.” It’s a different way of articulating muscle usage, and a different aesthetic.

Common ground between ballet and modern

But there were other aspects of Kaitlyn’s workshop that a modern dancer could relate to. When she described being centered as making constant adjustments, and showed us how she keeps moving even when standing in place, I thought, That’s Steve Paxton’s “small dance.” When she waved both arms to the left, seaweed style, it looked like an Isadora Duncan movement that found its way into Michel Fokine’s Les Sylphides. (Fokine was influenced by Duncan at the time he made that famous ballet).

The seaweed step, photo by Ian Douglas

The seaweed step, photo by Ian Douglas

Surprisingly, since so much of Serenade is in unison, Kaitlyn taught the steps with leeway so you could decide certain details for yourself, like the exact the moment you change your focus from your hand to your lower left. She was more interested in us having a sense of purpose than being in perfect unison. (Yay!)

When answering our questions, Kaitlyn had a quiet wisdom. She kept everything fluid, whether it had to do with shifting direction from flat side to éffacé, or how she felt about working in a hierarchical company. Her answer to the last question was, It changed every day.

More Serenade stories

When I think about Balanchine ballets, Serenade is never far from my mind. I once moderated a panel on the ballet for SAB, and I collected quotes from Suki Schorer, Wendy Whelan, Brian Reeder, Lourdes Lopez and others. Earlier this year, when I posted “Start the New Year with Serenade,” I had no idea that I would actually be able to learn some of it.

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Serenade © The Balanchine Trust, photo © Angela Sterling

Pacific Northwest Ballet in Serenade © The Balanchine Trust, photo © Angela Sterling

Last year, for added ghostliness of Serenade, I concurred with Elizabeth Kendall’s hunch that the ending (when one dancer, lifted high up, opens her arms to the heavens) was inspired by the mysterious drowning death of young Balanchivadzes’s dance partner at the Imperial School.

That theory didn’t come up in the workshop, but the grandeur of those steps to that music could easily stem from some deep spiritual questions. The choreographer came to this country in 1933, nine years after the drowning and his departure from Russia. Couldn’t that tragedy have had a lingering effect?

Everyone has a story about Serenade. Kaitlyn read an email on her iPhone from Sterling Hyltin, a principal at NYCB, that painted a lovely picture of the ballet as an ocean setting.

Now, after learning a few of the steps and hearing more stories, I can’t wait to see Serenade at New York City Ballet again.

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Ratmansky’s Sly History Lessons

Embedded in Alexei Ratmansky’s ballets are history lessons for us. When watching American Ballet Theatre dance his Shostakovich Trilogy (2012), I saw a keen attention to shape, a gravitas in the surging masses, that reminded of Léonide Massine’s symphonic ballets. Massine was the top choreographer of the 1930s but is now all but forgotten. (More about Massine later.)

Sprinkling References to the Past

If you watch Ratmansky’s ballets closely, you’ll see images of previous ballets tucked into his choreography. In Pictures at an Exhibition, which he made for NYC Ballet last year, the first scene borrows the formation of the nine goons (drinking companions) of Balanchine’s Prodigal Son. And later the dancer in yellow, a role created by Wendy Whelan, quietly touches the floor. It calls to mind the end of Jerome Robbins’ Dances at a Gathering when the man in brown touches the floor, letting us feel that all the dancers are a community standing on one ground. Whelan also stoops to the floor in Ratmansky’s 2006 Russian Seasons, so that gesture was some kind of farewell to her on that stage. (By the way, in this clip Amar Ramasar, who is terrific in Pictures, talks about the choreographer’s impetus.)


Ratmansky’s Pictures at an Exhibition for NYCB with Gonzalo Garcia, homepage photo of Adrian Danchig-Waring and Wendy Whelan, photos by Paul Kolnik

In Ratmansky’s Cinderella (2002), which the Mariinsky brought to BAM last month, there’s a moment in the first act when the stepmother and stepsisters, during their slapstick “dancing lesson,” land on the floor in the final position of Fokine’s Dying Swan. It’s only a split second but it prompted a chuckle to realize that these images are at the choreographer’s fingertips.

Did you ever look for the “Ninas” hidden in the drawings of theater caricaturist Al Hirschfeld? That’s a little what this has become for me. There are many reasons to see Ratmansky’s works more than once, but his version of “finding the Ninas” is definitely one of them.

Soviet Innovators

Ratmansky has not only quoted Balanchine, Fokine, and Robbins, but he’s made us aware of the pioneers of Soviet ballet like Gorsky, Vainonen, and Lopukhov. In my 2010 interview with Ratmansky, he mentions that he based his new Don Quixote for Dutch National Ballet on Alexander Gorsky’s version. Gorsky was the Bolshoi Ballet director who steered the company through the rocky Russian Revolution. Ratmansky’s remakes of Bolt and The Bright Stream pay tribute to Fyodor Lopukhov, one of the first great innovators of Soviet Ballet in St. Petersburg. And his recent staging of Flames of Paris honors Vasily Vainonen, whose 1934 Nutcracker is still performed by students at the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Until now, Flames of Paris was known to us only as a vehicle for pyrotechnics at galas.

Getting Back to Massine

Massine with Moira Shearer on the set of The Red Shoes, 1948

Massine with Moira Shearer on the set of The Red Shoes, 1948

Massine made more than a hundred ballets for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes and the companies that followed. He also danced in, and choreographed for, Hollywood movies. You’re most likely to know him as the Cobbler in The Red Shoes or the choreographer of Gaité Parisienne (1938). His symphonic ballets, starting with Les Présages in 1933, were a breakthrough.

Irina Baronova as Passion with David Lichine in Les Présages (1933), sets and costumes by Andre Masson, photo by Studio Batlles

Irina Baronova with David Lichine in Les Présages (1933), sets and costumes by Andre Masson, photo by Studio Batlles

In the new book about Irina Baronova, the famous baby ballerina describes Les Présages, in which she played the role of Passion—at age 13. “It was a sensation when it opened in Monte Carlo and then Paris. Some musicians thought that it was a sacrilege to try and interpret a symphony that was a complete work of art in itself. The art world had never seen an abstract symbolist ballet set before, making no attempt to represent reality. The dance world was shocked by the modernity of the work coming from a classical ballet company. Les Présages immediately established Massine as an important choreographer.”

As I mentioned, Massine’s symphonic ballets surfaced for me when I saw certain pieces by Ratmansky. So I wasn’t surprised when I learned, at the Sundays on Broadway last week, that Ratmansky is an admirer of Massine ballets. Léonide Massine’s daughter Tatiana, who was the guest that night, told us that when Ratmansky was director of the Bolshoi Ballet, he presented an evening of three Massine works: Three-Cornered Hat, Les Présages, and Gaité Parisienne. In 2008, in The New York Times, Alastair Macaulay wrote, “I find it fascinating that at a time when it has become unusual to see a single Massine ballet anywhere, Mr. Ratmansky presented a Massine triple bill at the Bolshoi, thus bringing honor in Moscow to the most celebrated choreographer ever to come from that city.”

One can see the command of surging groups that was a signature of Massine’s symphonic ballets reflected in Ratmansky’s Snow Scene in his Nutcracker, Concerto DSCH (2008), and the Shostakovitch Trilogy (click here for a clip of San Francisco Ballet in this great work).

SFB in Shostakovich Trilogy by Ratmansky, photo by EricTomasson

SFB in Shostakovich Trilogy by Ratmansky, photo by EricTomasson

This 1936 clip of the original Les Présages, shot in Australia when the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo was on tour, shows how grounded, how focused on mass motion  Massine’s symphonic ballets were. (Unfortunately you cannot hear the Tchaikovsky music.)

Massine's Gaité Parisienne at ABT, photo by MIRA

Massine’s Gaité Parisienne at ABT, photo by MIRA

There’s a bit of a warrior feeling, especially when the dancers shake their fists at the heavens. You can see why Michel Fokine, on seeing another one of Massine’s symphonic ballets, quipped, “Choreartium is Mary Wigman sur les pointes.” (Wigman was the counterpart to Martha Graham in Germany). This is the complex, earth-bound side of Massine, as opposed to the frothy, silly side displayed in Gaité Parisienne, which returns to ABT this spring.

And Back to Ratmansky

In a way, Ratmansky is a one-man peace branch between the U.S. and Russia. In a previous posting, I wrote, “Maybe, after bringing us The Bright Stream and On the Dnieper, Ratmansky has made it OK for the American ballet world to look back on Soviet times with something like curiosity rather than dread.”

We can thank Ratmansky for dipping our toes in that history. And while I’m at it, I want to thank Barnard’s Lynn Garafola for organizing an excellent symposium at Columbia University last week called Russian Movement Culture of the 1920s and 1930s. It revealed to me a wealth of experiments that mingled modern dance and ballet.




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More Fokine Please

The Mariinsky Ballet is bringing two Fokine ballets on tour, but I wish they would bring more. We will get to see Chopiniana (Les Sylphides) at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Jan. 24–25 (although the season starts the 15th), and the Kennedy Center audience will see Le Spectre de la Rose and The Swan Jan. 27 to Feb. 1. But I wish somebody would do Petrouchka again—or how about The Firebird?

THe Mariinsky in Chopiniana, photo by N.Razina

The Mariinsky in Chopiniana, photo by N. Razina

The Royal Ballet's Leanne Benjamin as The Firebird, photo y Dee Conway/Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet’s Leanne Benjamin as The Firebird, photo by Dee Conway/Royal Ballet

About two years ago I saw The Royal Ballet dance Fokine’s magnificent Firebird. I was blown away, not only by the haunting music, the clarity of the storytelling, and the spectacular visuals (they use Goncharova’s designs from 1926), but also by the glimmers of Fokine’s influence on Balanchine. You know all those arm entwinings in Balanchine works when the dancers thread through or under someone else’s arm? It’s there in Fokine’s 1910 Firebird. You know the squats of the “goons” (drinking companions) in Balanchine’s 1929 Prodigal Son? That’s there too.

Karsavina in the original Firebird, costume by Golovin and Bakst

Karsavina in the original Firebird, costume by Bakst

Every choreographer is influenced by those who came before. As great and prolific as Petipa was, his ballets had become formulaic by the turn of the century. Fokine brought a fresh wind by emphasizing artistic cohesion instead of displays of virtuosity. His revolutionary platform is documented in a brochure sponsored by New York Community Trust (among other sources).

In it Fokine declares that the movement, music, and costumes must all aim harmoniously toward unity of expressiveness, toward “the freedom of artistic fantasy.” He was the first choreographer Diaghilev worked with and Balanchine was the last. (In fact, it was Fokine’s Pavillon d’Armides that inspired the impresario to dream up a ballet company to take to Europe.) There is no doubt that Fokine, in his zeal for expressive unity, was a precursor to Balanchine. Just look at Les Sylphides (Chopiniana) and then look at Serenade. They are both ethereal, both exquisitely poised on the line between form and narrative. They both depict a poetic, windblown vision of musicality and sisterhood.

Oxana Skorik in the Mariinsky's Chopiniana, photo by N. Razina

Oxana Skorik in the Mariinsky’s Chopiniana, photo by N. Razina

Fokine was not only a bridge between Petipa and Balanchine, he was also a bridge between modern dance and ballet. Smitten by Isadora Duncan when she first came to Russia in 1905, he too did away with the corsets of tutus, he too insisted on classical music rather than designated ballet composers. He wanted ballet to have artistic integrity, not merely entertainment value.

Le Spectre de la rose, with the Mariinsky's F. Stepin and S. I vanova, photo  by N.Razina

Le Spectre de la rose, with the Mariinsky’s F. Stepin and S. Ivanova, photo by N. Razina

He brought that integrity to Ballet Theatre (now American Ballet Theatre) when it started in 1940. Unfortunately he died just two years later at 62, and the new ballets he was working on couldn’t be finished. But in this 75th anniversary year of ABT, the company will bring back Les Sylphides for its spring season. Of course I wish they would deliver more than one Fokine ballet….

This isn’t the first time I’ve complained that we don’t see enough Fokine. Back in 2008 when I felt we were seeing loads of Petipa with a smattering of Nijinsky and Massine, and hardly any Fokine, I posted this diatribe.

Michel Fokine is a central part of our dance DNA. I encourage everyone who will be near BAM or the Kennedy Center to go to see these wonderful ballets danced by the Mariinsky.








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Looking Back on 2014

(Note: For my annual list of “Best and Worst of 2014,” click here.)

Endings As Beginnings

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks rehearsing Restless Creature, photo by Erin Baiano

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks rehearsing Restless Creature, photo by Erin Baiano. Homepage photo of Danza Contemporánea de Cuba, by W. P.

Wendy Whelan’s farewell turned out to be a joyous event. She radiated happiness that lit up the whole stage, and the other dancers basked in her sunlight. Even in the spontaneous moments she was utterly natural in her movement, accepting the waves of love from her audience graciously. When Jacques d’Amboise stepped onstage to pay his respects, he swept her up in a brief waltz. It was a wonderful sendoff to her new career as impresario, innovator, and modern dancer.

• After four decades as a duo, the famed Eiko & Koma are going their separate professional ways (for now). Eiko has embarked on a solo project, the haunting Body in Place series. (Koma is delving into visual arts; they are still together as a couple.)

• Obama’s pledge to open relations with Cuba will end the standoff and begin a new era of friendship between the U.S. and dance-rich Cuba. I’m not the only one who was celebrating at this news. Perhaps more U.S. dance companies will perform there, and maybe American students wanting to get Russian-style technique will study at the legendary National Ballet School in Havana. It’s tantalizing to think of the cultural exchanges that may ensue.

• So sad to see the last show of ABT’s magnificent, psychologically satisfying Nutcracker at BAM, with excellent choreography by Ratmansky. Next year the company will begin performing it annually at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in California, with whom ABT is also partnering to establish a new ballet school. 

• DNA on Chambers Street went under, but their building was awarded to Gina Gibney by the Department of Cultural Affairs. The new Gibney Dance Center has gotten off to a roaring start, with many ideas for making it a hub of activity.

• The Trey McIntyre Project fell apart (here’s my guess why), allowing McIntyre more time for other projects. This news added fuel to the argument that the single-choreographer company model is simply outmoded.

Other Beginnings

• CUNY Dance Initiative: Someone figured out a win-win solution to the fact that choreographers need space and the 14 or so colleges in the CUNY system have studio hours to spare. The result is that a diverse group of dance have been awarded space on campuses in all five boroughs. While in residence, these dance artists may just unlock a love of dance in some students along the way.

Cathy Weis, photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou,

Cathy Weis, photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou,

• The inimitable Cathy Weis has introduced a salon series called Sundays on Broadway in her SoHo loft. The videographer/choreographer welcomes her guests with drinks, a carpet to lounge on, and friendly discussion. The series launched with documentaries from the 60s (works by John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg and Yvonne Rainer and more). Sundays on Broadway has also presented works-in-progress by dance artists like Jennifer Miller and Jonathan Kinzel. It’s free, so take a look at the current calendar—in a couple weeks because the 2015 lineup isn’t posted yet.


• Ballet to gaga: Top ballet dancers are flocking to gaga as a way to expand their range—and maybe having a little experimental fun as well. Osipova and Vasiliev went to Tel Aviv to learn a work by Ohad Naharin and took his gaga sessions to get in the mood. Diana Vishneva invited Danielle Agami to teach a gaga workshop in her festival in Moscow, and I heard that Benjamin Millepied wants to import gaga for the Paris Opéra Ballet. Naharin is ready for this: He has said that gaga is a tool for ballet dancers as well as for modern dancers.

• California Women: When I traveled to the West Coast in June, almost everywhere I looked, both in the Bay Area and L.A. dance scenes, women were in charge. Long live the women’s movement!

• More transgender dancers: At Danspace, the Museum of Modern Art, and Baryshnikov Art Center, I’ve come across really good dancers who happen to be transgender. For a while it seemed to me that Seattle was leading the way on this, but now I realize that crossing gender borders is happening all over. I have no doubt that this particular kind of courage enriches the field.

• Profusion of reality shows: Seems like everyone from NYCB to Condé Naste Entertainment is producing reality shows on dance. I was even filmed for one of them (“Dance School Diaries” on the Dance On network), when I served as a judge in the Los Angeles YAGP. (I don’t think my footage was in the final episode but I didn’t have the patience to find out.) I suppose this is a good avenue by which kids all over the country learn about our field, but it’s not my favorite way to see dance.

What trends have you noticed in 2014?





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