Ratmansky’s Sly History Lessons

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

Sprinkling References to the Past

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


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

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

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

Soviet Innovators

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

Getting Back to Massine

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SFB in Shostakovich Trilogy by Ratmansky, photo by EricTomasson

SFB in Shostakovich Trilogy by Ratmansky, photo by EricTomasson

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

Massine's Gaité Parisienne at ABT, photo by MIRA

Massine’s Gaité Parisienne at ABT, photo by MIRA

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

And Back to Ratmansky

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

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




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Looking Back on 2014

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

Endings As Beginnings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Other Beginnings

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

Cathy Weis, photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou,  www.jjtiziou.net

Cathy Weis, photo by Jacques-Jean Tiziou, www.jjtiziou.net

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


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

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

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

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

What trends have you noticed in 2014?





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Wahoo! We’re Friends With Cuba Now

Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Don Q, with Viengsay Valdes

Ballet Nacional de Cuba in Don Q, with Viengsay Valdes, courtesy Valdes

Great news for the dance world! Obama just announced that the United States will resume friendly relations with Cuba. As Rachel Maddow pointed out, Cuba is good at producing ballet dancers, baseball players and…spies. This last of these professions is what led up to the exchange of political prisoners that made yesterday’s terrific news possible.

We will now set up an embassy in Havana and they will have one here. It will take longer for the embargo to disappear, but we’re on the right track.

There are many reasons that the U.S. should open up to our island neighbor just 90 miles off our shores, and music and dance are at the top of the list. Singing and dancing are so much part of their daily lives that theor professional performances are infused with a sense of ease and warmth, and shot through with sheer energy.


Carlos Acosta in class at BNC for international visitors. All photos by me in 2010 unless otherwise noted.

I was enchanted with the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (BNC) when I first went there in 2006 for the International Ballet Festival of Havana. The halls of the theaters were dimly lit during intermission, but the dancers lit up the stage and put everyone in a party mood. When the Cuban audience really likes something—which is often—they clap and cheer along.

Osipova & Vasiliev, 2006, photo by Margaret Willis

Osipova & Vasiliev, 2006, photo by Margaret Willis

I realized that BNC is loved all over the world and that it was only the U.S. that had bad relations with the country. (Our 53-year embargo was unilateral, meaning no other country penalized them in this way.) I met colleagues from Canada, England, Sweden, Italy, Argentina, and of course Russia while I was there. That’s where I first saw Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev (they were teenagers then), and Mats Ek and Ana Laguna. And of course, I met the legendary Alicia Alonso and her ex-husband, the late Fernando Alonso, who was responsible for dance education throughout the island.

Hallway of National Ballet School, Havana

Stairwell of National Ballet School, Havana

Later, in 2010, American Ballet Theatre, along with a posse of supporters, performed in the Havana festival, and Kevn McKenzie taught a class at the National Ballet School. That year, a small group of NYC Ballet dancers also had a great success.

These are fruitful exchanges—and necessary for the artistic growth of BNC. Although the Cuban training is excellent, the taste in choreography tends to be, shall we say, behind the times. The reason for so many defections, beside the poverty, is that the dancers rarely get to perform new works. Alicia Alonso, who is the force behind the strict training, choreographs ballets that look like they are from the ’50s—the same vintage as the cars in Havana’s streets.

Rehearsal at Danza Contemporanea de Cuba

Rehearsal at Danza Contemporanea de Cuba

At Danza Contemporanea studio

At Danza Contemporanea studio

Interestingly, contemporary dance in Cuba, though less heralded and less supported by the government, is more artistically sophisticated. I saw the fabulously gritty/sexy  Danza Contemporanea de Cuba in their studio. The drummers ignited passionate dancing and each dancer had individual flair. When they brought a program to the Joyce in 2011, though, their rep wasn’t as exciting as I knew it could be. But this brought up interesting issues, so I posed this question: How do you keep cultural identity without falling into clichés?

Osniel Dalgado with Malpaso, photo by Roberto Leon

Osniel Delgado with Malpaso, photo by Roberto Leon

Osnel Delgado, a terrific wildman of a dancer who emerged from Danza Contemporanea, is bringing his own company, Malpaso Dance Company to the Joyce in March and Jacob’s Pillow in August. My guess is that both Danza Contemporanea and Malpaso will be upping their number of touring weeks.

Big thanks to Obama for ending a ridiculously one-sided policy of squashing a small country’s economy—but not their spirit. I’m excited, as are various key people on social media (see below) to witness the cultural exchanges that blossom because of this. Many Cuban defectors have been enriching ballet companies around the world with passionate, technically adept dancing—not to mention superhuman turns and balances. (Click here to read Alicia Alonso’s statement on defectors.) And now our dance artists can give back to Cuba.

Viengsay Valdes rehearsing Swan Lake in BNC studio

Viengsay Valdes rehearsing Swan Lake in BNC studio. Homepage photo of Valdes by Matthew Karas.

All photos by me in 2010 unless otherwise indicated.

This new detente is a wish come true for Viengsay Valdes, the superb dancer who is now the prima of BNC. At the end of this feature story on her, she says it would be fantastic if the White House opens up cultural exchanges. But she also admitted in a later issue that she is well aware that the Cuban company is behind the times. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if the opening of relations also opens up the choreographic possibilities for BNC?

Here are some quick reactions to my question on Twitter and Facebook, What good dance news do you think will come of opening of relations with #Cuba?

Eduardo Vilaro, artistic director, Ballet Hispanico: “Loving Obama’s bold move. Excited by the possibilities.”

Robert Johnson, dance writer: “American ballet students will travel there to study. More artistic exchanges.”

Lourdes Lopez, artistic director, Miami City Ballet: “so excited to see more Cuban talent here and share artistic experiences.”

Judith Sanchez Ruiz, dancer/choreographer based in Berlin, former member of Trisha Brown Dance Company: “A big DAY for CUBA and US. Thank you Mr. President. It has been a long way but finally is over. Let’s meet in (mi Habana)….It is such an incredible news for Cubans all over the world….- it is the right thing to do…. “NO ES FACIL”. Just Obama could have done something like this. Incredible!!!!”

Jordan Levin, arts critic, Miami Herald: “More of cult xchange that brot us MalPaso & growth in Cuban dance world.”

Cynthia Bond: “I took US class w/AfroCuba de Mantanzas in 90s: more pls!”

Toba Leah Singer, author of Fernando Alonso: Father of Cuban Dance: “This is the biggest Cuban victory since the defeat of the CIA-engineered Bay of Pigs invasion, during which time Fernando offered to send the dancers back from their tour of Eastern Europe to participate in defending the island against the Yanqui attacks. He reasoned that they had great stamina and would make excellent marksmen. Fidel thanked him, but rejected the offer, saying, “Let them dance. It’s what they do best, and dance is also important in defending the Revolution.”




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John Cage’s Revolutionary Relevance

John Cage’s revolutionary idea: Dance (or any art) is not about something, it is something.

Cage watching Carolyn Brown in her dressing room at BAM, 1970

Cage watching Carolyn Brown in her dressing room at BAM, 1970

He lived this philosophy rather than preached it. His m.o. was curiosity, joy, and hard work, and it’s now been captured in John Cage Was, a big new book of photos taken by James Klosty between 1967 and ’72. Those were the years Klosty trailed the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, whose members included Carolyn Brown, Mel Wong, Sandra Neels (who has reconstructed Cunningham’s work), and Douglas Dunn (click here for his riddle-like tribute to Merce). Accompanying these masterful yet spontaneous photographs are quotes from dancers, composers, and visual artists, all incorporating the words “John Cage was.”

Cage was the architect of the ideas that made Merce Cunningham a renegade: the idea of creating music and dance separately but performing them simultaneously; the idea that there is no silence—there is always sound inside us or around us—and no stillness; and the idea of chance as an alternative to personal taste when composing music or dance.

He was also Cunningham’s musical advisor, driver of the VW tour bus, and the father figure who made touring fun for the dancers. His hobbies—playing chess and hunting for mushrooms—were legendary.

Cage on right, dancers, from left are, Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Susanna Haymen-chaffee, Mel Wong, Chase Robinson

Cage on right, dancers, from left are, Carolyn Brown, Sandra Neels, Susana Hayman-Chaffey, Mel Wong, Chase Robinson, 1971

Many well-known people have colorful ways to describe Cage in this book. Baryshnikov calls him a “wicked genius.” Twyla Tharp calls him a “gentle anarchist.” Robert Wilson contributes a visual poem about his “renaissance mind.” Carolyn Brown (whose own book on Cage and Cunningham is passionately complex ) says Cage was “the heart and soul of the Cunningham Dance Company, making the experience of dancing with Merce an ever-surprising, vital, life-changing voyage.” The composer John Luther Adams writes, “Cage’s music is all about…the experience of listening.” You will find other quotes by Yvonne Rainer, Mark Morris, Stephen Sondheim, Gavin Bryars, and Yoko Ono.

Merce and Carolyn Brown rehearsing Suite in Westbeth Studio, 1972

Merce and Carolyn Brown rehearsing Suite in Westbeth Studio with Cage at the piano, 1972

Klosty’s photos reveal Cage to be an impish, spontaneous person. (I remember when he “played” the cacti at Danspace in 1977, with utter glee at the sound of each pluck of the prickly plant.) He was always up for a photo op, unlike Cunningham who, it may be apparent in these pages, was less eager to cooperate with the camera.

Cage with Carolyn Brown and Chase Robinson, 1971

Cage with Carolyn Brown and Chase Robinson, 1971

As Klosty writes in his introduction, he hopes that readers will find here “glimpses into an always searching, unfailingly playful, uniquely beautiful spirit.” And those glimpses abound in these pages. And if you want to find out why Ain Gordon, son of David and Valda, at the age of 5 or 6, called John Cage his best friend, well, buy the book.

I love the clarity of Cage’s idea that art or dance is something in itself rather than in the service to something else. And yet I still hear people struggling to define what a dance is “about,” assuming they’ll find a theme or “meaning” if they dig under a pile of form or pattern. Yes, sometimes there is a theme that can be identified, but other times there may be a focus, not necessarily a theme.

I think Cage liberated us from certain stale expectations and conventions. He accomplished that with his gusto for life as much as with his groundbreaking ideas. Thank you, James Klosty and Wesleyan University Press (which has published seven of Cage’s books, starting in 1961), for reminding us of his presence with this profusion of beautiful, at times poetic images. Click here to order the book.

Merce and John at Westbeth, possibly looking into the makings of Cage's "prepared piano," 1972

Merce and John at Westbeth, possibly looking into the makings of Cage’s “prepared piano,” 1972. All photos by James Klosty




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Giving Thanks for Eccentric Dancers

I was recently wowed by a YouTube of Buddy Ebsen as an eccentric dancer. And another one with Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker. And another by Ray Bolger.

Buddly Ebsen

Buddly Ebsen

All these men were  top-notch dancers, but they were weird, crazy, eccentric. They were even labeled “Eccentric Dancer.” They were not dreamboats like Gene Kelly or Fred Astaire but marginal objects of fascination.

However, if you look at their dancing in these clips, you’ll see astounding virtuosity and originality. They don’t do split-leap acrobatics like the Nicholas Brothers, but movements that are insanely specific to their bodies. Similar to the idea of traditional clown acts, they go deeply into who they are as individuals. They may look drunk, but what they are doing in their legs is extreme. It’s serious, soul-deep silliness.

For starters, take a look at the glorious goofiness of Buddy Ebsen in Born to Dance from 1936. His legs look too long for his body, and his shoulders sometimes creep up to his earsh Bot he’s completely lovable.

Ray Bolger

Ray Bolger

We know Ray Bolger as the boneless scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz. He is perhaps the first proponent of release technique. But take a look at those legs in this amazing clip from The Harvey Girls (1946). He’s expertly wayward and the utmost in self-effacement. And yet it takes a superlative dancer to go that far off center. (By the way, he was Balanchine’s first tap dancer in On Your Toes in 1936.)

Earl "Snake Hips" Tucker

Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker


Earl “Snake Hips” Tucker (1905–1937) was one a famous act during the Harlem Renaissance. Also known as the “Human Boa Constrictor,” he acquired the nickname “snakehips” via the dance he performed in the 1920s. In this clip, you can see him  collapse his hips, falling way over to the side. You can’t believe he could support himself…kind of like Lil Buck on his ankles.

OK, now take a look at Dick Van Dyke’s penguin dance from Mary Poppins (1964). He has hyperactive knees, rubber legs, and a blithely innocent face. (This clip has a sharper image but the wrong music has been overlaid.)

Closer to home for New Yorkers is Bill Irwin. He’s the Eccentric Dancer of our time, with a spectacular command of both clowning and tap dance. In this clip of Irwin’s own 1983 piece, Largely New York (after a Broadway-style intro by Angela Lansbury), you get a taste of these skills.

Ailey's Samuel Lee Roberts in Naharin's Minus 16, photo by Paul Kolnik.

Ailey’s Samuel Lee Roberts in Naharin’s Minus 16, photo by Paul Kolnik.

I started thinking, Who else would be called Eccentric Dancers today? One answer came when I saw Ailey’s Samuel Lee Roberts in the opening solo in Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16 again. In this role he improvises as the audience files in after intermission, or, in the case of Fall for Dance, just as a prelude to the rest of the piece. He’s been given instructions to play with the audience, and he does this in a delightfully legible way. As the curtain behind him slowly rises, he sinks underneath it and spreads out as though being pulled upstage. When the music changes, he suddenly pulls himself together, gets debonair, and dances really small. When he bounds in a circle around the stage, he lets us see how the bounding becomes twisting, then thudding. We’re with him. We laugh at his exploits. He’s not showing off; he’s showing us his story—or stories. Like a mime, or like a clown. (Happily Minus 16 returns for the upcoming Ailey season at NY CIty Center, which opens December 3.)

As we head into Thanksgiving, I give thanks for these crazified dancers who don’t even try to be exquisite or romantic or technically dazzling. But they are somethin’ wonderful, and I can watch these clips again and again.



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Birds With Skymirrors

“Mysterious” and “cataclysmic” were the words I used to describe Lemi Ponifasio’s Tempest: Without a Body four years ago. I remember strange ceremonial scuttling in front of floating, blood-stained walls. I remember an apocalyptic ending of thrashing and crashing. (Click here and scroll down for my review.)

MAU Lemi Ponifasio "Birds with Skymirrors".

Birds With Skymirrors, photo by Sebastian Bolesch

Now, with his New Zealand–based group MAU, Ponifasio brings Birds With Skymirrors to BAM for its U. S. premiere Nov 19–22. This is a rare chance to see an artist who transports us far beyond our everyday concerns. Or….maybe the end of the earth as we know it is an everyday concern. Many of the MAU dancers are from low-lying atolls where it’s said that the effects of climate change are felt before other parts of the world. The title is based on something he witnessed while working in the Micronesian Islands. He saw birds soaring through the sky carrying strips of videotape in their beaks. Struck by the beauty of this image, he also felt it as a kind of omen for the end of nature.

Photo by Sebastian Bolesch

Photo by Sebastian Bolesch

A multi-disciplinary artist, Ponifasio has designed the set as well as the choreography. The dancing is gestural and interspersed with chanting. Expect a dark vision, highly theatrical and at times emotionally shattering.

For tickets, click here. http://www.bam.org/theater/2014/birds-with-skymirrors

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Are Political Dances Getting Less Strident?

Usually political dances are not high on artistry. They tend to blare their messages for the sake of emphasis rather than subtlety. But recently I’ve seen a number of pieces focusing on social justice or the environment that moved me, not so much with their message but with artistry: Liz Lerman’s Healing Wars, Kyle Abraham’s When the Wolves Came In…, and Jill Sigman’s (Perma)Culture. Also, via the screen, Eiko’s A Body in Fukushima. They speak to us gently rather than stridently. (The first three have made more explicit socially-minded works in the past.) Yes, it’s mostly preaching to the converted, so they are not going to change many minds. But it is less about preaching and more about creating a poetic experience out of something they passionately believe in. And that’s inspiring.

Paul Hurley in Healing Wars, photo by Marina Levitskaya

Paul Hurley in Healing Wars, photo by Marina Levitskaya

When Healing Wars came to Peak Performances in Montclair, NJ, a few weeks ago, the audience entered the theater through backstage, coming upon scenes that prepared us for Lerman’s onstage story about the civil war. We saw a woman in a hoop skirt change into a man’s military uniform. (Many women disguised their gender so they could fight.) We saw an Iraqi war veteran on a bench talking casually about his prosthesis. When we took our seats in the house, those characters were fleshed out in greater complexity and poignancy. A narrative on the history of wartime healing guided the flow of the action, text, and visual design. The most moving section was when Paul Hurley, the amputee, relived the attack in which he lost his leg and his best buddy. The pairing of Hurley with Keith Thompson, a former Trisha Brown dancer, as the buddy, in a slow-mo re-enactment was a highpoint.

The Gettin', photo by Ian Douglas

The Gettin’, photo by Ian Douglas

In Abraham’s “Gettin’,” the third piece in his trilogy When the Wolves Came In… at New York Live Arts, I felt only distantly aware that this was about civil rights and apartheid. The projections on the backdrop showed images like a “Whites Only” sign, and the music by Robert Glasper was based on “We Insist!” (Max Roach’s Freedom Now Suite). But it was Abraham’s slippery/strong movement amalgam that claimed my eyes. (Siobhan Burke has a great description of it in her review.) It was only when singer Charenee Wade let out some serious hollering that the sense of struggle reached the pitch of rage.

Sigman's (Perma}Culture at Danspace, photo by xxxxx

Sigman’s (Perma)Culture at Danspace, photo by Eric Breitbart

And in Jill Sigman’s (Perma)Culture at Danspace, the dancers improvised within a structure, allowing their individuality to surface. No text, no speechifying about the virtues of sustainability. But at the end, when they started placing small clay objects on each other and invited the audience to join them, the trust between performer and audience member made you feel part of a community of people who care about the environment.

Eiko in Fukushima, Photo © William Johnston

Eiko in Fukushima, Photo © William Johnston

And finally, Eiko’s online A Body in Fukushima, a series of chilling photographs by William Johnston, reminded me about the devastation of radiation—in the most poetic way possible. Eiko put her body in danger to bring attention to the environmental catastrophe that the explosion at Fukushima brought on. A title card reads, “By placing my body in these desolate places, I thought of the generations of people who used to live there.” Meaning the thousands of people who now live in refugee camps far from their still irradiated homes. (The work was originally shown as a photo exhibit earlier this month in the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art. You can find updates on this project here.)

None of these dances heralded surprising messages. But they encouraged us to be more conscious of—and maybe do something about—the social and environmental injustices in our midst.

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Kontakthof For the Ages

I was fascinated and appalled by Pina Bausch’s Kontakthof when I saw it in 1983. As I wrote at the time, “The work was amazing in its craft, its looniness, its integration of movement, text, acting and film—and its brutality.” The topic was heterosexual attraction, but each budding romance came up against a wall of stubbornness—bullying, actually—but with that special Bauschian obsessiveness that somehow turns it into art.

Kontakthof,  photo by Oliver Look

Kontakthof, photo by Oliver Look

The review is in my book of collected writings, page 69. In describing the piece further, I had written in the New York Native: “It consists basically of ten straight couples going through a cycle of seduction, molestation and separation with a few ghastly pleasures in between.”

So, am I recommending that you see Kontakthof when it comes to BAM Oct. 23 to Nov. 2? Yes, for two reasons. First, because Bausch’s work in the last decade of her life was so full of sensuality and delight—I’m thinking of pieces like Nelken and Bamboo Blues (which graces the cover of my book)—that we sometimes forget what an unflinching vision of male-female mayhem she could project. Second, because after Bausch’s death in 2009, the company can still fill the stage with many stories at once.

DancingDreamsFilmAnd maybe, just maybe, that edge of brutality has softened a bit. After all, Bausch chose this piece as a lens through which to look at two other age groups. A beautiful documentary (Dancing Dreams) was made about teenagers learning Kontakthof—with the brazen Josephine Ann Endicott as coach. (Click here for an amazing clip of that film.) And in England, Bausch made a version for people over 65.

Photo by Oliver Look

Photos by Oliver Look

So, how did it happen that I reviewed Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch a year before it first came to BAM in 1984? I had been invited to perform a solo at a gallery in Basel, Switzerland, and it turned out to be the same week her company appeared at the city’s Kunsthalle. I had a kind of love-hate reaction to it, but of course ambivalence is a time-honored position from which to write. Now I feel fortunate that my Bausch viewing stretches back that far, and I hope it stretches into the future too.

Talking about stories, when she received the Dance Magazine Award in 2008, Pina told a beautiful story about coming to New York as a Juilliard student. This was just a few months before she died, and we caught it on video. 

To get tickets to Kontakthof, click here. 

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Sightings of the Sixties

Interest in the 60s seems to come in waves. Anna Halprin, Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Lucinda Childs, Trisha Brown—these are artists associated with that glorious decade who have never stopped working. At the moment they all are very active, and I can just feel that 60s wave of influence come rolling in. Dance artists of that decade taught us about collaboration, non-conventional structures, and cutting down the theatrics of heroism to the human scale. Below are some of the recent and upcoming events showing the work of these artists.

Steve Paxton in Music for Word Words 1963, a precursor to Physical Things, photo by Al Giese

Steve Paxton in Music for Word Words 1963, a precursor to Physical Things at Nine Evenings, photo by Al Giese

• In SoHo, Cathy Weis has set up “Sundays on Broadway,”  a series that shows documentary films about the notorious “Nine Evenings: Theater and Engineering” in 1966. These have included fascinating screenings and discussions, led by Julie Martin, on John Cage, Robert Rauschenberg, Yvonne Rainer, and Steve Paxton. (I helped moderate the discussion on the Rainer piece.) The Oct 5 episode focuses on Robert Whitman, who created interdisciplinary pieces that were a cross between theater and happenings. Among his performers were dancers like Simone Forti and Lucinda Childs. Some of the films shown are available through ArtPix DVDs.

Billboard of Rainer exhibit at Getty Center

Billboard of Rainer exhibit at Getty Center

• This week in L. A. a work in progress by Yvonne Rainer titled The Concept of Dust, or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? is being performed at the Getty Center, co-commissioned with Performa, It’s paired with last year’s Assisted Living: Do You Have Any Money? (2013). Both combine Rainer’s austere yet humorous juxtapositions of movement material with texts drawn from many sources. These performances, Oct 3–4, come at the tail end of the excellent exhibit Yvonne Rainer: Dances and Films, which is at the Getty till Oct 12. Her work also recently enjoyed a retrospective in London’s Raven Row.

• On October 11, Fall for Dance presents a pre-show DanceTalk titled “The Last Seismic Shift: How Did Judson Dance Theater Choreographers Challenge Modern Dance?” Panelists are Lucinda Childs, Yvonne Rainer, and Diane Madden of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. (The companies of both Lucinda Childs and Trisha Brown are performing in Fall for Dance.) Lucky me, I am moderating it.BeastCroppedJulieta Cervantes_

Rehearsal of Yvonne Rainer's Chair Pillow at Raven Row, photo by Eva Herzog

Rehearsal of Yvonne Rainer’s Chair Pillow at Raven Row, photo by Eva Herzog

The Beast by Steve Paxton, premiered at Baryshnikov Art Center, 2010, photo by Julieta Cervantes

The Beast by Steve Paxton, premiered at Baryshnikov Art Center, 2010, photo by Julieta Cervantes

• “Steve Paxton: Selected Works” at Dia: Beacon Oct 17–26 offers a rare chance to see four of his most uncompromising pieces. The program includes the absurdist Flat from 1964, the dance with the one action of its title, Smiling of 1969; the surreal ordeal of Bound (1982), performed by Jurij Konjar; and The Beast from 2010. When he premiered this last piece in 2010, I wrote, “A daunting, awesome stubbornness takes over and he seems possessed.” This program continues Dia’s commitment to showing Paxton’s work. Last year Dia: Chelsea presented the Night Stand, the spare, haiku-like collaboration between Paxton and Lisa Nelson. (I posted my thoughts about it here.) On the subject of Paxton in the 60s, there is no better voice than that of his compatriot, Yvonne Rainer, as reflected in her tribute to him last spring. For full information, click here.

• Anna Halprin’s ground-breaking workshops of the period are the subject of an exhibit in Chicago called “Experiments in Environment: The Halprin Workshops, 1966–1971.” You can see that Halprin’s teaching was a precursor to the current craze for site-specific work. The exhibit resides at the Graham Foundation in Chicago until December 13.

“Building Environments Score,” Kentfield, CA. Experiments in Environment Workshop, July 13, 1968. Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, The Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania

“Building Environments Score,” Kentfield, CA, 1968. Experiments in Environment Workshop. Courtesy Lawrence Halprin Collection, Architectural Archives, University of Pennsylvania



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This Dancing Life

Whether or not you’re familiar with Ira Glass’s pitch-perfect storytelling on This American Life, you’re in for a treat if you can catch his act on its 30-city tour. Instead of asking other people questions, he’s talking about his own life. And instead of just talking, he is dancing too.

The famous radio personality has teamed up with two dancers who are as funny and curious—and goofy—as he is: choreographer Monica Bill Barnes and dancer Anna Bass. Three Acts, Two Dancers, One Radio Host is a delicious show, an excuse to tell stories embellished by dance, and a chance for general audiences to see into dance.

Anna Bass, Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes, photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz

Anna Bass, Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes, photo by Adrianne Mathiowetz

The boyish, wonder-full side of Glass that we hear over the radio blossoms when he joins Barnes and Bass in step-kicks and baton twirling. How can an untrained person join two professional dancers and not make a fool of himself? First, he laughs at himself before anyone else does. Second, it’s the timing. He’s learned a thing or two from orchestrating his show for almost 20 years. When he’s telling us a story, he plucks the iPad as though it were a harp, tapping it with a flourish to usher in some music or another voice at just the right moment. That sense of theatrical timing enables him to join Barnes & Bass in some of their numbers—and to boost their theatricality.

In his Act II monologue, he is nicely awestruck by the commitment and passion of dancers. After noting that Monica and Anna started lessons at ages 7 and 5, he asks the audience: “How old were you when you starting training for your job?”

The cleverly told stories alternate with dancing, and all three seem to be bursting at the seams to bring you this fun stuff. As jolly as all this is, the show slows down and dips into something deeper.  When Glass was talking about a husband taking care of his dying wife, Barnes & Bass stood on a table set with dishes, not moving. Suddenly one would fall toward the other, allowing the dishes to clatter to the floor.

Naturally, the show ends with a big show number, blasted confetti and all.

Click here for the complete info on the tour, which continues next Saturday in Houston and travels to points west, Midwest, and Miami.

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