When Queer Means More than Sexual Orientation

As participants in the Dance Studies Association conference at Northwestern University last weekend, we were getting acclimated to terms like transindividuated signature, Ashkenormativity, and socio-spatial tactics of de-familiarization. So you could imagine our relief when greeted by the drag hostess LaWhore Vagistan in full South Asian regalia at Links Hall in Chicago. She was brilliantly funny while flaunting non-binary gender as well as non-binary nationality. Her preferred pronouns, she announced, are “she, her, hers, and aunty.”  Bedecked in a glittering two-piece outfit and strutting in sparkly stiletto heels, she claimed that her aunties taught her that “sequins are for daytime.” She introduced the various acts of “Explode! Midwest Queer Dance Festival” with great generosity, and she applied Bollywood and Vegas skills to her own three numbers. (Check her out here. In the program notes she is identified as the alter ego of Kareem Khubchandani, assistant professor at Tufts University. )

All photos by Al Evangelista

 

Lee Na-Moo in Nostalgia

Not officially in drag but definitely androgynous, was Lee Na-Moo in his solo Nostalgia. Wearing a swirling ice-skating–type costume, he offered a display of astonishing articulation, combining filigree East Indian hands with ballet legs. A generous dose of pelvic bumps earned the genre name “contemporary bellydance fusion.” Lee Na-Moo seems not only a fusion of genders and genres but also a fusion of child/adult. There was something tender about this solo, both knowing and innocent.

Dedrick Gray performed aMoratorium: at the altar, it may not be my time, a deeply touching solo choreographed by JSun Howard. Starting on a chair, with his hand palpitating his heart, Gray allowed the movement to grow and evolve, punctuated by jolts like pouncing on top of the chair. He seemed so lost and desperate — not in a theatrical way, but in a way that made you feel you were right there with him. He staggered across the space, sometimes murmuring something like, “Why can’t you let me be myself.” After dragging himself on the ground, he clung to the chair with such a great need for touch, for warmth, that it brought tears to my eyes. This solo was a rare example of choreography and performance being unified as one.

Dedrick Gray in aMoratorium: at the altar, it may not be my time

When Jennifer Monson airs her absurdist side, all is right with the world. This supremely impulsive master improviser has met her match in Nibia Pastrana Santiago, a young dancer/scholar from San Juan. In Choreographies of Disaster, Installment 3, Monson posed the conundrum, “Is it possible to dance without referencing dance?” Santiago launched into a series of almost-nothing moves that were so sneaky and self-sabotaging that we erupted in laughter. Later Monson and Santiago, both topless, smashed into each other’s body parts with awkward aplomb. The next day, when scholar/dramaturg Katherine Profeta, in her paper titled “The Promise of Common Creation in Contact Improv and Improv Comedy” quoted Ishmael Houston-Jones’ pledge to “fuck with the flow,” to interrupt the flow, I thought of this duet.

Jennifer Monson and Nibia Pastrana Santiago

Pop Refuge, choreographed by Joel Valentin-Martinez, involved two young women, Keila Hamed-Ramos and Maddy Veitch, trying on different gender identities. The duet was notable mainly for the extravagantly, richly colored ground cloth (by Jeff Hancock) that wrapped around one woman or the other, allowing their fantasies to blossom.

We saw two habitually male Africanist forms taken over by women: a new one and a traditional one. In the former, MurdaMommy and Diamond Hardiman showed us the crazy fast scissoring of Chicago footwork. The latter was represented by the Chicago-based Ayodele Drum & Dance in Guinea Suite, choreographed and directed by artistic director T. Ayo Alston. This powerful all-woman group pounded out a storm of beats, with percussive dancing and beaded costumes to match. In the West African tradition, sometimes the drummers danced and the dancers drummed—another non-binary aspect for this LGBTQ celebration.

Ayodele Drum and Dance in Guinea Suite

I close with a quote from Clare Croft, founding curator of Explode!. In the book she edited, Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings, she writes:
“Dancing queerly, when we respect it as a politics that…eludes clear definition, challenges us to think of queer as social action consciously entangled with fantasy, desire, and physical practice. As we dance, dreaming and doing are not separate.”

 

Like this Featured Uncategorized Leave a comment

11 Notable Dance Books of 2018

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 


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

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

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

 

William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects
Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 Other bon mots:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Books received:

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

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

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

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

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

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

1 person likes this Featured Uncategorized Leave a comment

Are Women Dancers Still Discriminated Against?

I co-wrote the article below forty years ago. Since the issue has come up again (actually it never went away) I decided to post it. This diatribe was useful back in 2000 when a group of choreographers called the Gender Project got together to address discrimination against women in dance. Reading this article from 1976, they were appalled at how familiar it sounded.

 Although I basically stand by what we said and the data we gathered, I now feel some distance from the strident tone. During the ’80s and ’90s, AIDS devastated the dance community. So many of my male colleagues were dying that I dropped all my anger about how hard it was for women to get a gig. At least we were alive. We were dancing, we were having babies. I’ve written about this change of heart in my book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer.

Back in the 1970s, Stephanie Woodard and I were collaborating on choreographic projects, and our rehearsal-break conversations led to a desire to expose the discrimination against women. Because we were both teaching at Trinity College in Hartford, we had ample opportunity to observe the difference in male and female student behavior. (At that time there were only two genders, nothing in between.) Stephanie, a dance ethnologist, knew about ballet history, so all the references to Taglioni et al are hers. Sorry for the lousy reproduction of the chart here; it’s from a xerox of a xerox. The chart is based on data we gathered, but I can’t vouch for the sources, because I just don’t remember. 

Reading this over so many years later, I don’t completely agree with all our statements. So, in the manner of Yvonne Rainer’s “A Manifesto Reconsidered,” I am inserting my current reactions and updates in double brackets.

∞∞ When a Woman Dances, Nobody Cares ∞∞

Co-written by Wendy Perron and Stephanie Woodard
Village Voice, March 1, 1976

“When a woman dances nobody cares. All women can dance. But when a man dances, now that’s something.” —a high school dance teacher in California in 1963

In the dance business, men are in the minority. But not the usual sort of minority. Instead of being abused and ridiculed in their attempts to be accepted, they are praised and encouraged. [[Whoa! Of course, male dancers were abused and ridiculed routinely by other boys when they were students.]]

Dancers and critics alike are proud of the ever-increasing numbers of men in dance because their presence has legitimized it. No art is recognized as an art until men do it, from cooking to medicine to dance. And then it becomes dignified, arduous, skilled.

From an artistic point of view, American modern dance is the achievement of women. Isadora Duncan and Loie Fuller discovered it, Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey explored it, and the excitement of it unfolds today through women like Trisha Brown and Twyla Tharp. Over the years women have pushed back the boundaries of dance, extending the movement vocabulary, creating new modes of performance, revolutionizing concepts of composition.

Dance critic Marcia B. Siegel recently wrote: “With the exception of [Charles] Weidman and [Ted] Shawn [[those are huge exceptions!]], men didn’t begin making significant choreographic efforts outside classical ballet [[what about tap?]] until the mid-1930s, when modern dance had attained artistic recognition, built its own audience, and begun training future dancers. Now that there is something to be won, more men are entering the field and taking over.” [[That’s a bit harsh—and I don’t agree with the sentiment.]]

Ballet has allowed women as well as men to hold influential positions as performers and choreographers. It is popular today to show disdain for ballet in the nineteenth century, when women were its focus. Contemporary critics are impatient with the contrived plots and the affected acting and are embarrassed to think that male dancers had only secondary roles and were called “porteurs” or “carriers.” Walter Terry, renowned ballet critic, lectured at Harvard Summer School Dance Center last year [[I was teaching there that summer]], extolling the ascendancy of men in dance—to a lukewarm student audience of a hundred women and eight men.

However, the technique of ballet, with its feather-light leaps, its long balances, its mercurial changes of quality from one kind of step to another, was developed by women largely to appear ethereal. Of course, it was sexism—ranging from a desire to idealize women as fairies and nymphs to a desire to watch women’s bodies—which allowed the ballerinas center stage. But once there, women, with their more pliant bodies, gave ballet its fleet, supple style.

Today an increasing dance audience goes hand in hand with increasing commercial success for men. Male dancers are getting hired and male choreographers are getting grants way out of proportion to their numbers.

In the chart that accompanies this article, we compiled data on 1,900 students, scholarship students, and company members of six major New York City modern dance and ballet companies with affiliated schools (almost all asked not to be named). In addition we obtained data on 316 grants given by the National Endowment for the Arts (1974–1975) and the New York State Council on the Arts (1971–1974). We included only companies that depend on the choreographic influence of a single man or a woman, for example, the New York City Ballet or Dan Wagoner and Dancers. Grants to companies that featured several choreographers, e.g., American Ballet Theatre, or collaborative choreography, e.g., Grand Union, were omitted. The resulting data show a clear relationship between gender and success in dance.

Success in dance

Behind these figures lies a wealth of stories, like that of the dancer who counted only two women choreographers out of the fifteen he had worked with during his four years with the Joffrey Ballet. Or the woman who could run down a list of auditions where she’d been good enough but not man enough for the job.

We interviewed fifteen young professional dancers and choreographers to find out how this situation affects their careers, what happens when a man or a woman tries to get a performing or teaching job, how men and women are treated in class, whether there are separate standards for men and women, and whether both women and men contribute to the problem. Because of the sensitive nature of their disclosures, the interviews quoted below are pseudonymous.

Most dance companies are equally composed of men and women, which gives the impression that dance is one of those rare places where equality and fairness are the order of the day. But as the chart shows, many more women than men are competing for about the same numbers of places. At a typical audition ten times more women than men will appear. For example, at Rudy Perez’s recent audition, six men and fifty-five women tried out. All six men, but only fifteen (or less than one third) of the women, were called back. [[This was when Perez still lived in NYC, before he moved to Los Angeles. I was dancing with him a couple years before writing this article.]] 

Untrained men with a modicum of athletic ability tend to have a physical assertiveness that passes for performing skill. Such men are often accepted with barely a passing thought as to how they actually dance. One Connecticut dance company, whose women each had seven to twenty years of training, was forced to accept men with two or three years of training each because a female guest choreographer refused to do a large-scale piece only for women. We know of a young athlete, who, during one of his first dance classes in the Midwest, was spotted by a renowned choreographer and invited to dance with his New York company…Another was picked up at a discothèque. [[But there is something to be said for outsider dancers. Larry Keigwin was a club dancer before becoming a postmodern dancer.]]

The growing number of men has increased competition among them somewhat. An administrator in the school of one of New York’s leading ballet companies said, “Four years ago we would have given a scholarship to any boy who walked in the door.” He went on to say that nowadays they could be more selective, but were nevertheless still supporting boys with less training than their female scholarship students.

Now that we have men in dance, we have dance in the colleges, too. And college administrators are eager to preserve this connection, making sure that dance at their schools doesn’t slip back into being “women’s work.” “When are you girls going to hire a man?” the dance department chairwoman of a prestigious New England college was asked by a dean. [[This was at Trinity College, where Stephanie and I were both teaching; it was said to the director of the department in our presence.]]

Another dance department chairwoman felt obliged, since she had an all-woman faculty, to hire men to give master classes. She thought this would please the administration by making dance look more serious, and hoped it would attract more male students. One teacher, in telling a dean that dance enrollments were up, was asked, “But how many of them are boys?”

“Amy,” a charismatic performer and teacher who applied for a guest position in a college summer program, was rejected and then asked if she could suggest a good man. She says, “I tried to think of one who was available, but all the men I knew were knee-deep in jobs. They finally found someone. He’d been dancing half as many years as I had.”

Things look different through a man’s eyes. Every male dancer we spoke to vehemently defended the work he had put into his success. Ballet dancers point out that because present-day technique is heavily influenced by the characteristics of women’s bodies, they have a hard time mastering it. (Although men can generally jump higher, are stronger and have straighter torsos, women have the crucial advantage of being freer in the hips and upper back and having suppler feet.) [[This parenthetical statement may be irrefutable, but the generalizations still make me cringe.]] Also women have more often danced since childhood, giving them a head start in their technique. This may account for the feeling among many male dancers that they are victims in a “woman’s world.”

Despite this no one can deny that men have more opportunities. “Don,” a talented and vibrant modern dancer, admitted, “I couldn’t be where I am professionally if I weren’t a man.” He started dancing three years ago at the suggestion of a dramatic coach. With a little army discipline behind him and a natural ease of movement, he was asked to dance professionally after eight months. He quickly saw that there was more room for him in dance than in theatre. Much attention came his way in dance classes and although he knew the reason was simply a dearth of men, he made the most of it. “I get offered a lot of jobs,” he says. “I always take the one I can learn the most from.” He is fed up with women saying, “Oh, you’re a man, that’s different,” because he feels he chose his goal wisely and worked to make it happen.

Men are becoming a top attraction because they sell at the box office and they sell on stage. The Martha Graham Dance Company, whose repertoire traditionally features female protagonists, has begun to take in male dancers who have never even studied the technique. This is quite a change from the days when the Graham technique was sacred and a dancer was profane until she or he had spent years getting it under the belt.

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, 1920s or '30s

Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers, 1920s or ’30s

And if a man sells, an undiluted flock of them sells better. The American prototype is Ted Shawn’s muscular, spectacular all-male company of the 1930s. Today’s counterpart is Pilobolus, a group of gymnasts whose debut in 1972 as an all-male dance company was greeted with near-hysterical acclaim.

All-male groups are praised for their virility, whereas all-female groups are seen as somehow deficient. The insinuation, whether vocalized or not, is “Couldn’t they find a man?” [[I think this has changed. It seems to me that all-woman groups and works often attain some measure of acclaim.]]

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

Panorama (1935), choreographed by Martha Graham

Women have undeniably contributed to this syndrome. If resistance to women’s success did not exist, women would probably create it. “Sheila,” a beautifully sharp-featured woman who has danced for several well-known choreographers, has rarely chosen to dance for a woman. Looking back, she analyses it this way: “Women like having a man around…it’s like choosing a doctor. You want to be led by a man, get the attention of a man. Deep down inside, you think he knows something and you don’t.” [[Arrrgggghhhh.]]

Asked why success in dance comes more easily for men than women, one woman answered, “Both men and women have doubts. Women let their doubts stop them, and men don’t.”

We have both taught beginning dance classes. Time and time again, we’ve seen that, in a new and possibly intimidating situation, men will be generally more aggressive, physically and personally. As a dance teacher, you see the whole problem embodied before your eyes.

“Scott,” a contemporary danseur noble, has guested with several international ballet companies. He readily claims that women ballet dancers are, hands down, technically superior in almost every company. “Scott” resents the low standards expected of men. “They can always throw a man out there to hold a woman up and he’ll look good, but he can’t dance.”

“Scott” himself loves partnering women; he takes pride in being the catalyst, the gallant guy who assists her to new heights. But, as he says, “When you lift all day long, you tighten up—not just your arm muscles, but your legs and back also. When I don’t have to lift, I become freer in my musculature.” (A more bitter young dancer complains that he is being used as a professional weight lifter rather than an artist.)

After working with many choreographers of both sexes, “Scott” reached a conclusion that surprised even him. “I get the feeling that when women do something it’s almost like fighting…fighting for women’s rights. It’s do or die. Total involvement. We (men) have been conditioned to be the breadwinners and they have to fight to show they can do it. It’s more intense.”

What women dancers have been able to do all along is to be spectacular and subtle at the same time. The exquisite feats that audiences marvel at are accomplished not by strength alone, but with sensitivity and skill. From Camargo to Taglioni to Cynthia Gregory, and from Duncan to the best of our contemporary dancers—Sara Rudner [[who is still a terrific dancer]], Jennifer Muller [[she no longer dances but her company has been going since 1974]], Carolyn Lord [[a ballet dancer turned downtown choreographer who now runs the Construction Company space]]—women have achieved a formidable mastery of the art and a range any performer would aspire to.

However, the quality of the dancing isn’t always what catches the audience’s fancy. Sometimes it’s the (undeniable) sexuality of the dancers. In the right cultural milieu—and this is it—men can become sex objects as easily as women. As Siegel says, “The featuring of men in ballet has created a new theatrical meat market.”

The only way to remove dance from the realm of sex-objectism is to become more familiar with it, so that we are comfortable watching the dancers, and their sexuality is not the overriding concern, eclipsing all other pleasures. [[I wish we’d come up with a more activist ending. If you think of something, please write it in the comments box below.]]

Photo of Martha Graham on homepage by Imogen Cunningham.

 

Like this Featured Uncategorized 2

Martha Graham and the Asian Connection

I wrote this  in April 2014 for Dance Magazine’s website. Recently, when searching for it to recommend to a student, I noticed it was missing from the site, so I decided to re-post it here, on my individual site. These musings were prompted by the 2014 season of the Martha Graham Dance Company, but they had been brewing for some time. I thank the late Blondell Cummings for helping to jog my memory.

Although the Graham season this weekend emphasized Martha’s Greek connection, it got me thinking more about her Asian connection. From the legendary Yuriko in the 1940s on down to the latest star, PeiJu Chien-Pott, these dancers have each been breath-taking interpreters of Graham’s vision.

OeuHu Chien-Pott in Depak Ine, photo by Yi-Chun Wu

PeiJu Chien-Pott in Depak Ine, photo by Yi-Chun Wu

I’ve read that Graham cultivated an Eastern look herself and that she felt flattered whenever anyone mistook her for Asian. It’s possible that, since she had a long torso and short legs, her close-to-the-floor technique was particularly suited to Asian bodies. And of course, she had a great affinity with sculptor Isamu Noguchi, whose sets for many of her pieces gave them a spare, Eastern look. About the relationship between Graham and Noguchi, Takako Asakawa once said, “In art, they were like husband and wife.”

Whatever the reason, more Asian dancers have found a home in her work than in any other modern dance company—and many of them have been brilliant. By the way, Graham’s interest in Asian forms goes back to Michio Ito, the early modern dancer with whom she had studied.

Here are the Asian dancers I remember:

Yuriko, Dance Magazine Archives

Yuriko, Dance Magazine Archives

Yuriko Kikuchi — Known simply as Yuriko, this legendary dancer started as a seamstress for Martha. As Japanese immigrants during World War II, her family was forced to live in an internment camp. (These camps were recently brought to light in the Broadway musical Allegiance.) Yuriko danced with Graham from 1944 to 1967 and continued to appear as a guest artist. As a stager, she  set the glorious stampede known as Panorama (1935) on the company. (She also played Eliza in the original Broadway musical The King and I (1951) as well as in the movie (1956), both choreographed by Jerome Robbins.

Takako Asakawa — As the woman in red in Diversion of Angels, she would cross the front of the stage, relevé with one leg lifted, and contract in a spasm of joy at the peak of the relevé. I’ve never seen any dancer, in a modern or ballet company, perform this passage with the same slicing, gripping electricity that Asakawa had.

Yriko Kimura as Clytemnestra, 1970s, photo by Max Waldman

Yuriko Kimura as Clytemnestra, 1970s, photo by Max Waldman

Yuriko Kimura — Known as “Little Yuriko” and also from Japan, she danced with the company in the 1960s and 70s. Onstage she was both vulnerable and strong, with exquisite sensitivity, like a filament in a light bulb—unforgettable! I believe she still teaches in Japan.

Dawn Suzuki — A strong and rooted dancer, she used to demonstrate for the classes I took at the Graham studio in the 60s.

Miki Orihara — As a mainstay of the company from 1987 until just recently, she has excelled in lead roles in Appalachian Spring, Errand Into the Maze, and Satyric Festival Song. She teaches in Japan and the U. S. and has also served as Yuriko’s assistant.

Miki Orihara, photo by John Deane

Miki Orihara, photo by John Deane

Rika Okamoto — She had a keen sense of drama when she danced with the company in the 1990s. She also danced with Pearl Lang and later became one of the original Tharpettes in Come Fly Away. Her charisma led to her stealing the show of Tharp’s 50th-anniversary tour.

Feng-Yi Sheu, photo by John Deane

Feng-Yi Sheu, photo by John Deane

Feng-Yi Sheu — Around 2004, when it seemed the Graham company would go under, Feng-Yi became the reigning star, galvanizing the public with her forcefulness and uncanny Martha-like presence. Trained in Taiwan by former Graham dancer Ross Parkes, she graced the January 2005 Dance Magazine cover as a “25 to Watch.” She has also worked with Christopher Wheeldon, Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, and Akram Khan, and co-founded her own company in Taiwan. You can see her on the big screen in The Assassins.

Xiaochuan Xie, Dance Magazine cover, NOvember 2013, photo by Nathan Sayers

Xiaochuan Xie, Dance Magazine cover, November 2013, photo by Nathan Sayers

Xiaochuan Xie — Trained in China, “Chuan” is another powerhouse dancer who can be as delicate as she is forceful. Although she has the visceral fire in her belly that marks a Graham dancer, she can also radiate sunshine and sweetness in roles like Creon’s daughter in Cave of the Heart. In November 2013 she landed on Dance Magazine’s cover. Last season she followed in Yuriko’s footsteps, dancing a radiant Eliza in The King and I at Lincoln Center.

PeiJu Chien-Pott — An astonishing performer, Chien-Pott, originally from Taiwan, is the current star of the Graham company. Not only is she powerful in the Graham classics, but she has mastered the fluid, whipping-around choreography of Andonis Foniadakis in Echo and the animal-like strangeness of the lead solo in Nacho Duato’s Depak Ine. She is so animalistically heroic in this last piece that she reminds me of Little Yuriko.

Other Asian women serving Graham’s artistry have been Kazuko Hirabayashi, Akiko Kanda, and, currently, Xin Ying. Did I miss anyone?

Equal time for male dancers: When I first posted this almost two years ago, one reader pointed out that females were not the only gender of Asians in Graham’s company over the years. Click here to read my post-posting on Asian men in the group.

 

 

1 person likes this Featured Uncategorized 2

Big Dance: Short Form

“The ensemble of dancers is like a band.” So says choreographer Annie-B Parson; she should know—she’s worked with David Byrne on a number of projects. Her group, the tiny (six-member) Big Dance Theater, performs a New York premiere called Goats as an ensemble at the Kitchen, and I’m sure it’s gonna rock.

Goats with, left to right: Enrico D. Wey (foreground lying), Elizabeth DeMent (in wheel chair), Tymberly Canale (background sitting), Jennie Liu (kneeling), Aaron Mattocks (standing with stick)

Left to right: Elizabeth DeMent, Enrico D. Wey, Tymberly Canale, Jennie Liu, Aaron Mattocks

Known for its multi-media scenarios where narratives intersect with a certain frisson, Big Dance Theater makes you sit on the edge of your seat with wonder and bemusement. Co-directors Parson and Paul Lazar decided, this time around, to create concise, vivid distillations instead of an evening-length work. They say they’re inspired by forms like “novellas, folk tales, diary entries, pencil drawings, thumbnail sketches, and the single page of a notebook.” Each performer has a certain responsibility to shape the work. As Parson continued her comparison (in this “Choreography in Focus”): “They have to figure out who they are in the band.”

Tymberly Canale

Tymberly Canale

In addition to Goats, the extraordinary dancer/actors of BDT will perform other New York premieres that are solos and duets. The audience is invited to party with the band during intermission, when they celebrate their 25 anniversary. January 6 – 9 and 13 – 16 at The Kitchen. Click here for tickets.

Aaron Mattocks, all photos by Liz Lynch, courtesy ADI

Aaron Mattocks, all photos by Liz Lynch, courtesy ADI

 

1 person likes this In NYC Uncategorized what to see 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

Ponydance at Abrons Arts

For groups that dip into the lusciously ludicrous, I vote for Ponydance. When I saw this zany quartet’s Anybody Waitin? in a tiny upstairs bar in Dublin four years ago, they crashed every idea of what good choreography is. In some ways it was more like a play, with characters who dare each other to break social barriers. But their dancing is full-throttle, top speed and, well, maybe a bit haphazard. But after a while you feel certain themes underneath. For one, the theme of waiting—although they spend no time at all standing still. This is not Waiting for Godot by that other Irish institution, Samuel Beckett.

Anybody Waitin? Photo by Brian Farrell

Ponydance’s Anybody Waitin? Photo by Brian Farrell

Ponydance, directed by Leonie McDonagh, is two women and two men, or, to divide it another way, three thin people and one charmingly chunky person. They pair off into same-sex duets more often than hetero; they relish interrupting each other—and the audience. In their brazenness and seeming anarchy, they remind me a bit of DanceNoise of a couple decade ago.

Ponydance, photo by Brian Farrell

Ponydance, photo by Brian Farrell

The aggressive manner in which they coax the audience to be part of the show could be irritating but is so bold that you find yourself laughing in disbelief. They grabbed my friend and encased him in a tiny portable tent, from which he emerged wearing a scant flowery outfit.

I’m curious to see how the barroom-brawl effect in Dublin will translate to Abrons Arts Center, October 7−10. Click here for tickets.

Anybody Waitin, which is co-presented by the Irish Arts Center, is part of Abrons’ Travelogues dance series, curated by Laurie Uprichard.

 

Like this In NYC Uncategorized what to see Leave a comment

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