After I posted my Monday Dance Magazine blog about the amazing Asian women who have danced with the Martha Graham Dance Company, I received a message informing me about the other gender. David Hochoy, longtime director of Dance Kaleidoscope, Indiana’s premiere contemporary dance company, told me of the Asian men who danced for Martha: Henry Yu in the mid-70s, Young-Ha Yu in the late 80s, and himself, from 1980 to 89. It was Hochoy’s specialty to impersonate Martha at the company’s annual “Graham Follies” gathering—more on that later.
Hochoy in El Penitente, 1980s, photo by Martha Swope
Hochoy also filled me in on the topic of her liking to be mistaken for an Asian, which I had only heard about second-hand. Here is what he said:
“I’ll tell you a story that she told me one afternoon in her apartment. She was young and on tour with the Follies. She was in Atlanta and walked into a Chinese restaurant. The waiter, who was Chinese, said to her ‘You Chinee!’ Martha shook her head. ‘Yes, you Chinee!’ the waiter insisted, and brought her special food. Martha delighted in being taken for Asian. Which is not surprising because at Denishawn they worshipped the Orient and all things Asian. I think she thought of herself as Asian.”
And of course, there was the Asian man Isamu Noguchi, whose spare set designs did so much to complete her vision. Actually performing with those austere works of sculpture, though, was a different story. Artistic director Janet Eilber has written a humorous article revealing that dancing on them was “teeth-grindingly, bone-achingly uncomfortable.”
David Hochoy as Martha, Halloween, 1988, photos courtesy Hochoy
Someday, I hope to see David Hochoy do his rumored-to-be-wicked Martha impersonation. In this photo from Halloween 1988, it looks like Martha finally got to be Asian.
The tappers of New York know how to band together to put on a terrific show. An invigorating tour of different tap styles, the five-day Rhythm in Motion is split into two halves. Program A, sporting work by Chloe Arnold, Michelle Dorrance (who just won an Alpert Award), Derick K. Grant, Jason Samuels Smith (a 2009 Dance Magazine Awardee), runs April 8–10. They are all crazy good, but I sometimes take Derick’s basic tap class at Steps so I’m especially curious to see what he’s doing. But I gotta say, Michelle Dorrance has blown me away with her choreography and I’ve been enthralled by Jason Samuels Smith’s improvisations.
Program B, April 10–12, includes Brenda Bufalino, Felipe Galganni, Michela Marino Lerman, Max Pollak, and Cartier Williams. The Tap City Youth Ensemble pays tribute to Gregory Hines and Dizzy Gillespie. Produced by American Tap Dance Foundation, at the Theater at the 14th Street Y. For more info, click here.
It started as local activism around Florida water issues, and in a mere three years has grown to be nationwide, with 80 institutions in 30 states participating. From Alaska to Arkansas, from Maine to Florida, the National Water Dance aims to raise awareness about the politics of access to safe water. Students as well as professional dancers will gather around a body of water, be it a lake, river, ocean, or creek on April 12 at 4:00 EST. United by a single cause, divided by geography, they will participate in “movement choirs,” a form originated by Rudolf Laban, to urge us all to be more responsible about the water we use. Part of a larger global effort, the U. S. portion is masterminded by choreographer/teacher Dale Andree and producer Daniel Lewis, longtime director of New World School of the Arts. To see the list of schools and companies participating, click here. To get involved, contact Dale Andree at firstname.lastname@example.org. Up next: Anti-Fracking Dances (we wish).
The Grand Union was a pivotal improvisation group that was unforgettable for downtown dancers in the 1970s. This short-lived collective broke every rule in the book, opening up a chaotic field of possibilities for any adventurous performer. It was an amazing collection of individuals—Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Douglas Dunn, Barbara Lloyd Dilley, among them—and maybe it was inevitable that the group would be pulled apart by the force of such strong voices.
I recently heard a sideways crack belittling the Grand Union that sent me into a tizzy of wanting to mount a defense. It was made at the last “Bill Chat,” and later I realized that not much is known about this group that, from 1970 to ’76, gave the most daringly unpredictable performances around.
Last month I watched some videos of the Grand Union at the Getty Research Institute that confirmed for me how groundbreaking they really were. (Another set of the same videos is lodged with the Fales Library and Special Collections at NYU’s Bobst Library.) The wit, the hedonism, the way absurdist motifs accumulated, the uncanny sixth sense the performers had about each other, the sheer imagination spurred by spontaneity, have not been matched since.
Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, photo by Robert Alexander
The Grand Union grew out of a group piece that Yvonne Rainer was working on with fellow dancers from Judson Dance Theater. At a certain point she decided to forego her leadership role and make the group into a collective.
In 1976, I wrote this about them: “We follow their triumphs, disappointments, dares, and frustrations almost too keenly to be bearable. We feel the challenge of spontaneity, the chaotic assortment of possibilities as we do in our own lives. We know that there is no plan. We witness the trust that allows them to bring their personal doubts into play.” (The whole review appears in my book.)
Even better, listen to what Trisha Brown said about performing with the Grand Union in Sally Banes’ book Terpsichore in Sneakers:
Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, David Gordon
“It was my intention to deliver an unpremeditated performance each time. The blank slate approach.…There was no way to do something wrong in the Grand Union, improvisation includes error. In the beginning, we were raw and the form unformed and I never knew what was coming next. Steve Paxton arriving with a burning candle installed on his hat symbolizes that period for me…Subversion was the norm. Everything was fair game except fair game. We were ribald…Hilarity pervaded…There were time lapses, empty moments, collusion with the audience, massive behavior displays, pop music, outlandish get-ups, eloquence, bone-bare confrontations, lack of concern, the women’s dance, taking over, paying deference, exhilaration, poignancy, shooting one’s wad, wadding up one’s wad, making something out of nothing, melodramarooney, cheap shots, being oneself against all odds and dancing. Dancing and dancing and dancing.”
David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Trisha Brown, Douglas Dunn aloft, photo by Babette Mangolte
Because Trisha and the others broke from the group to develop their own work, it petered out in 1976. There are no big anniversaries of the Grand Union to celebrate their accomplishments. Just those videotapes…and whatever people can recall. So I asked some Facebook friends for their memories:
Stephanie Skura I remember admiring the way they’d spontaneously set up a situation & courageously stay with it so it became honest high drama of a sort.
Lisa Kraus They were like high-wire artists. Quite fearless and utterly committed. Something interesting was that they reviewed their shows by watching the video afterward. They studied the choice-making—there was method in the madness!
Irene Borger Yes. The wit of them. The slowed down playful family feeling of them.
Jody Oberfelder I remember sitting up in the balcony of La Mama, legs dangling over the edge, marveling at the quick-witted choices made in the moment. There seemed to be no leader, but humorous and bristly attempts to take over. Situational, yet non-narrative. Familial, and like families, functional and sometimes dysfunctional.
Margaret Eginton I remember laughing out loud and wondering how you got to be so good at improv. We had improv twice a week [at Sarah Lawrence College], but not quite like that!
Cathy Appel I was an older student at SLC, but tuned in to the Grand Union around the same time Meg did and was blown away! Fell in love, too. I would run out immediately to see them tonight if the Grand Union was miraculously performing again!
Lois Welk I remember going to a performance of the Grand Union, smiling through it, enjoying the playfulness. I remember dry humor, great freedom, and lots of props.
Pat Catterson Off the top of my head, seeing Becky Arnold with a papier-mâché globe over her belly when she pregnant at the Whitney in Continuous Project—Altered Daily, the piece that led up to the Grand Union.Seeing Barbara Lloyd and Steve Paxton crawl through a very long tube of pink material at Eisner Lublin Auditorium and emerging at the other end naked having removed their clothes along the way. Their slapping on a Dylan song on a phonograph player and, arms around waists, Nancy and David jogging in a circle to the music around the space. Yvonne, I think she was pretty stoned, being passed along the laps of the audience prone I think at the 14th street Y. It was toward the end of her time with them. I remember the performances they did while Yvonne was in India, and I was in one in which David had a bunch of us who took Yvonne’s classes on Greene Street do his “sleeping” piece. I remember a show at 112 Greene when some pals began playing harmonica and the GU frolicked to it. I remember the kids Ain Gordon and Maia Garrison, whose mother Roberta Garrison [who had danced with Elaine Summers] was often at those shows and Barbara’s son Benji sometimes wanting to get in the act. I remember a bit when David kept saying “I’m going down” and doing a slow-motion fall…and lots more….
L to R: Barbara Dilley, David Gordon (on floor); Douglas Dunn (standing); Nancy Lewis, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton (sitting). All photos courtesy Douglas Dunn.
I heard these words spoken by a venerable black choreographer in reference to the Grand Union, that groundbreaking, influential improvisation group of the early 1970s. The full sentence was something like, “The only reason the Grand Union was more successful (or more avant-garde) than my group was because they were white.” The claim, uttered during the “Bill Chat” at New York Live Arts last Sunday, met with a nod of agreement from Bill T. Jones. I’ve gotten used to his role as provocateur and can take it in stride, but I was surprised by Dianne McIntyre’s statement.
I think the combative tone that Bill T set during this panel, the last of three “Bill Chats,” fostered a kind of reverse racism. I hasten to add that the first two Bill Chats were more driven by Bill T’s curiosity than his determination to “prove something,” and the whole series has served the dance community in that it has sparked both conversation and agitation.
In the first one, titled The Decrepitude of Art, Bill T. sincerely asked Damian Woetzel why Lincoln Kirstein trashed Merce Cunningham and John Cage—along with all of modern dance—in a 1971 letter he wrote that was reprinted in James Klosty’s book Merce Cunningham. Here’s an example of Kirstein’s lambasting: “I am personally very fond of Merce and admiring of John, but I think they are self-restricted to an audience which is both blind and deaf to the orthodoxy and apostolic succession of four centuries…I feel they have missed the big boat and console themselves with charming hand-hewn yachts.”
Woetzel was articulate and impassioned in explaining Kirstein’s embrace of “orthodoxy” as the one true path. And it was moving to witness Bill T earnestly trying to understand. When the talk was over, I saw Woetzel, Heather Watts, and Robert LaFosse showing Bill how Balanchine’s preparation for pirouettes differs from other methods. (You plié only on the front leg.) Of course, there are many true paths in dance, which I tried to say in this posting.
The second Bill Chat mulled over the question, When was the downtown established? Clearly Bill T wanted to open up what could be considered “downtown”: Was Clark Center on 51st Street, where Ailey sometimes rehearsed, downtown? The Cubiculo (which was open to dancers of all colors, including myself)? Could Harlem be considered downtown? Or was “downtown” only the Kitchen, Danspace, and DTW and assorted loft spaces? In my mind, “downtown dance” started with Judson Dance Theater in 1962 at Judson Memorial Church on West 4th Street. (Members of Judson became the nucleus of the Grand Union.) But Bill had specified that he was focusing on the years from 1965 to ’85, so I didn’t bring it up.
By the end of this discussion, Bill T declared that he’d like to ban the term “downtown.” I don’t see the menace in this word because I never felt that downtown excluded anyone who was interested. And certainly many professional dancers had no interest in downtown—then or now. In any case, during this second Bill Chat, I learned a lot about the other pockets of dance around the city at that time.
Bill Chat on When did the avant-garde become black? L to R: Ishmael Houston-Jones, Bebe Miller, Adrienne Edwards, Bill T Jones, Dianne McIntyre, Charmaine Warren, Ralph Lemon, Brenda Dixon Gottschild
The third and last Bill Chat, which posed the question “When did the avant-garde become black?” became belligerent as Bill T goaded people both on the panel and in the audience in an unpleasant way. I was the only “white person” who spoke up voluntarily. I will leave it to Eva Yaa Asantewaa to say frankly how the discussion veered off into a domineering, goading dare-fest that was far from the constructive dialog it could have been.
Now, back to Dianne McIntyre and her remark, which I interpreted as denigrating to a group that was consistently mind-blowing during its six-year existence. I feel that the Grand Union’s anarchistic performances caught the feeling of the times, but broke up because the strong individuals within it—David Gordon, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn—wanted to go their own ways. Without the benefit of longevity and anniversary shindigs, the Grand Union only lives on in what people say about it.
Since most of the dance artists on the panel, including Bebe Miller, Ralph Lemon, Ishmael Houston-Jones, Charmaine Warren, and Bill T, arrived in NYC after the Grand Union fell apart in 1976, I’ve written a simultaneous posting for them and anyone else interested in the heyday of experimentalism in New York dance. Click here to find out more about the legendary Grand Union.
We know it ain’t easy for a woman to keep a dance company going. So kudos on the 40th anniversary of the Margaret Jenkins Dance Company. With her experimental spirit, nurturing presence, and dance-body wisdom, Jenkins has helped make San Francisco a hub of dance. As a master teacher, she started the CHIME program to pair up mentors with emerging dance artists, a much needed service. As a choreographer she has expanded globally to work with dancers in China and India and, most recently, Jerusalem. Inspired by Israeli and Palestinian poets—and her own Jewish roots—she’s made a new work for the occasion, The Gate of Winds, in collaboration with the Kolben Dance Company of Israel. Also on the program is Times Bones, a look back on her past work performed to live music by the popular Paul Dresher Ensemble. The anniversary is April 3–6 at Yerba Buena Center Forum and Theater, and will also tour to Connecticut, Louisiana, and Jerusalem. For more info click here.
Choreographers may gravitate toward the coasts, but Chicago can claim some excellent dance makers too—and Autumn Eckman is one of them. She’s had a ton of commissions in the Midwest and has branched out to Maine, California, and Florida. But her home company is Giordano, for which she serves as assistant artistic director and resident choreographer. Her piece JOLT, which she worked on with artistic director Nan Giordano, races through a crazed morning routine to jolt you awake with wit, humor, and imaginative use of props. It’s performed with the blazing energy of the Giordano dancers. But she’s also capable of more lyrical, sweeping choreography, and her new Mist, with live music by Eric Whitacre’s choral chamber group Bella Voce, is bound to be slightly more romantic. March 28–29 at the Harris Theater. Click here for info and here for tickets.
Above: “JOLT” On previous page: “Sabroso”, with Ashley Rockwood & Sean Rozanski, choreography by Del Dominquez & Laura Flores, Photos by Gorman Cook
One of the most gripping pieces I saw at Arizona State University last week had no music. Of the 47 works presented in the West region of American College Dance Festival (I was one of three adjudicators), only this one was in silence, while many were performed to music that overwhelmed the dance.
This was a duet called Alpha, made by two guys from Grand Canyon University who looked more like wrestlers than dancers—Adam Astorga and Christopher Biles. Each decision about their contact points was crystal clear. The silence allowed you to see first how they leaned against each other back to back in visual harmony, then how they engaged in an ambiguity that mixed combativeness with affection, and finally all-out brutality, butting and crushing each other. The times when they stared each other down, nose to nose, were intense because you could see hostility mingled with affection…maybe even love. None of the complexity was lost or blurred. And in the end, the winner, after defeating his opponent/friend, slowly lowered his head in…doubt, shame, and maybe reflection. Thankfully there was no music to sentimentalize or dramatize that moment.
Susan Rethorst’s “208 East Broadway,” performed at Bryn Mawr, photo by Johanna Austin
Back in the 1970s when I was making dances with Susan Rethorst, we often chose silence. Today she is one of the few choreographers who can carry it off and create a mood without music. I think it has to do with the everyday-ness of her gestures, done at just the right moment to reveal something about the performers and their relationship to their environment. I think that music, any music, would impose itself too much on such subtle moments.
Of course, we know from John Cage’s book Silence that pure silence doesn’t exist. “There is always something to hear. In fact, try as we may to make a silence, we cannot.” So, even if there is no music, we are hearing ambient noise, and that is the accompaniment.
Trisha Brown’s “Glacial Decoy,” photo by Babette Mangolte
I also worked with Trisha Brown in the ’70s, and almost everything she made at that time was in silence—or the ambient noise of us murmuring reminders or stage directions to each other. Once, during a lec-dem on tour, someone asked, “Why don’t you use music?” Trisha answered with another question: “When you look at a piece of sculpture in a gallery, do you ask, Where’s the music?”
That gave me a clue to how Trisha thought of her dances: as equal to visual art works. Even when she started choreographing for the proscenium stage, she regarded her dances more as art than entertainment. For her first stage work, Glacial Decoy (1979), she enlisted the help of visual artist Robert Rauschenberg. He projected a panel of ever changing photographic slides that moved from stage left to right across the backdrop. The dance also shifted from side to side, spilling out laterally. Together, the art and the dancing created the illusion that the piece kept going beyond the proscenium frame. If there had been music, you might not be able to discern this brilliant, convention-breaking concept. Not to mention that the shifting projects gave it a definite rhythm. As for the audience response, usually you can hear a pin drop during this piece. Some presenters think their audience won’t sit though a silent piece. But the Paris Opéra Ballet took a chance with Glacial Decoy, which was set on them by Lisa Kraus—and the French audience did not riot.
NYCB in Robbins’ “Moves,” photo by Paul Kolnik
In the ’80s the Joffrey Ballet acquired Jerome Robbins’ Moves (1959), which is now in NYCB’s rep. The silence seems to put every wrist rotation, every stomp, every bit of partnering into high-definition. By the end, you almost feel exhausted—but exhilarated. You feel like you know so much about each dancer and and the relationships between them.
Mark Morris, known for honoring his chosen composers through dance, recently revived his 37-minute composer-less Behemoth (1990) at BAM. As with Moves, I felt the sound of silence allowed the details to be sharply etched in space. I was so continually intrigued by this piece that it made my “Best of 2010” list.
Mark Morris’ “Behemoth,” photo by Gene Schiavone
Yes, we all love music; it’s a bone-deep, basic pleasure. When a child hears music she or he bounces or sways along. As dancers, it is music that spurs us to move, engages our muscles, and carries us on its momentum. As choreographers, our work is immeasurably enriched by music. But I do enjoy the stark clarity that silence can bring to what I am seeing onstage.
It takes courage to dance slowly and Beth Gill’s New Work for the Desert is slow from start to finish. Slow enough to feel the light change, quiet enough to not see entrances from another direction, sad enough to remind you of death. In an interview with Gia Kourlas, Gill is up front about being influenced by Trisha Brown, particularly her 1987 Newark—though I also saw glimmers of Trisha’s Locus (1975) and Set and Reset (1983). Gill has incorporated specific partnering moves from the genius last section of Newark, in which a very conscious sort of gravitational pull happens between people, e.g. hooking a foot around the back of another’s neck, clasping hands around the neck and rocking that person. The partner has to be passive enough to make these neat maneuvers possible, and Gill extends that passivity to its ultimate endpoint. What happens next is morbidly, bizarrely, beautifully tender. Thomas Dunn’s lighting creates the illusion of sky, earth, and distance. Till March 22. New York Live Arts. Click here for more info.
As a judge in any competition, you are expected to be “objective.” But I think there is no such thing as pure objectivity, since we all come to an event with our own set of past experiences. I am aware of my personal biases and try to move beyond them, but part of the value of my—or anyone’s—feedback is in the passionate personal response. And let’s face it, if we know a person from our past, we see more in their performance than if we never laid eyes on them.
This is why the American College Dance Association requires that its adjudicators be kept away from the participants— “sequestered.” All the planners take pains to keep each choreographer’s name and school hidden from the judges so they/we can form opinions on a level playing field.
Scotty Hardwig and Breanne Saxton in Eric Handman’s Disappearing Days, photo by Chelsea Rowe
In the West region hosted by Arizona State University, for which I served as adjudicator last week, ACDFA board member Brent Schneider and regional rep Catherine Davalos, as well as ASU organizer Cari Koch, cheerfully accomplished this goal. There were more than 25 schools from California, Arizona, and Utah. I don’t know the West Coast too well, but I do have a number of colleagues at some of these universities. And I admit, if I had known which schools the contestants were from, I might have unconsciously favored them. So I was glad to go into it blind and uphold the frustration of not knowing. (“Endure uncertainty,” wrote Dostoevsky.)
But it does make for a strange situation. First of all, when you’re all staying in the same hotel, you can say hello to the dancers but you are told not to have any more conversation than that. And if they are wearing a sweatshirt with a school name emblazoned on it, you have to avert your eyes. In the feedback sessions, the groups sit together and sometimes it’s obvious what piece they’ve performed.
They are not allowed to ask or answer questions. There’s no discussion, no back-and-forth with the people who showed the work. You can discuss among the two other adjudicators, but you’re all in the dark about identities.
Me, Rachael Leonard, & David Shimotakahara, photo by Lorelie Bayne
The upside of this is that you bond with your fellow adjudicators immediately. You end up hanging out as a threesome and finding connections to each other’s past dance lives. I enjoyed getting to know David Shimotakahara, director of GroundWorks in Cleveland, and Rachael Leonard of Surfscape Contemporary Dance Theatre in Florida. In the feedback sessions, we bounced off each others’ energies. No fireworks in terms of sharp disagreements, but we came to the table with decidedly different slants.
Inevitably, when you finally learn who made which pieces and what school they were from, you realize that some of your hunches were wrong. I thought I recognized a Crystal Pite influence in Disappearing Days and guessed it was made by her former dancer Peter Chu. Lo and behold it was made by Eric Handman, who had danced with me early in his career! Now teaching at the University of Utah, he’s developed an approach called “feral torque” that yields terrifically complex choreography. How did I feel? Surprised and proud.
Another stunner, RUSH, I had figured was the work of a Forsythe disciple, like maybe Helen Pickett, who loves to ricochet between deconstructed épaulement and the ballet vocabulary itself. Wrong again. It was made by Robert Sher-Macherndl for the Dominican University LINES Ballet BFA program. How did I feel? Like I discovered a new program and a new choreographer.
Watching the zany Neanderthal versus Cyborg, I laughed through it while having a lingering feeling that the charismatic female dancer was someone I should know. When she turned out to be Laurel Tentindo, whom I recently danced with in Vicky Shick’s Everything You See, how did I feel? Like I had forgotten what my own home looked like—but also exhilarated to see another side of this magnificent dancer.
And when I learned that the poignant solo-with-talking My Mother and I by Cambodian student Chankethya Chey had been coached by UCLA’s David Rousseve, who has made an art of autobiographical talking solos, how did I feel? Like I should have known all along.
So it’s a guessing game. Frustrating at first but delightful in the end. The payoff wouldn’t have been so filled with surprises if we had known their identities beforehand.
Warming up for the big vote. Photo by David Shimotakahara