Monthly Archives: July 2014

Music Moves at ODC

a work by Joe Goode, photo by Margo Moritz

Felipe Barrueto-Cabello and Melecio Estrella in a work by Joe Goode, photo by Margo Moritz

ODC Theater is planning a splash of dance and music events for its summer intensive students that will interest local audiences as well. In addition to favorite Bay Area choreographers like Joe Goode, KT Nelson, Brenda Way, and Randee Paufve, the Music Moves Festival brings the West Coast debut of John Heginbotham. The rising New York choreographer presents his group works Twin and Closing Bell, and will also dance a solo based on an “Air Mail Dance” score by the late Remy Charlip. (Heginbotham’s wonderful “Why I Dance”  was written just before he started making dances.) Plus, it includes Kate Weare’s collaboration with ODC/Dance which she mentions in her “Choreography in Focus.” Antoine Hunter, whose “Why I Dance” was particularly touching,  is also on board.

Dance Heginbotham in Twin, photo by Taylor Crichton

Dance Heginbotham in Twin, photo by Taylor Crichton; photo of Twin on homepage, with Lindsey Jones and Kristen Foote, is by Liza Voll

The festival intersperses dance fare with live music groups that highlight the physicality of creating sound. Keith Terry and Corposonic perform body percussion like “chest slaps, foot slides, cheek pops, clapping, stepping, and singing.” San Jose Taiko X The Bangerz combine taiko drumming and hip-hop.

Breathing Underwater, Brenda Way's collaboration with Zoe Keating, photo by Margo Moritz

Breathing Underwater, Brenda Way’s collaboration with Zoe Keating, with ODC dancers  Natasha Adorlee Johnson, Vanessa Thiessen, Anne Zivolich, and Yayoi Kambara, photo by Margo Moritz

Namita Kapoor, photo by Gundi Vigfusson

Namita Kapoor, photo by Gundi Vigfusson

The closing weekend goes global, splitting a program between local choreographer Namita Kapoor’s Hindu Swing and Rueda con Ritmo’s Cuban salsa.

July 31 to Aug. 24. Click here for more info and for tix.


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REDCAT’s NOW festival

Seeing dance in the context of other arts can stimulate us to make new connections. That is the hope of Mark Murphy, director of the enterprising REDCAT theater in the heart of Los Angeles. The New Original Works festival presents eight premieres in three programs, mixing and matching dance and music, film and performance. Murphy has stirred vibrant local performers into a pot “where disciplines are challenged and blurred.”

Wilfried Souly, photo by Andre Andreev

Wilfried Souly, photo by Andre Andreev. Homepage photo is also of Souly.

Program I, from July 24–26, features Wilfried Souly, whose dancing is like his name—soulful. Trained in African dance in his homeland of Burkina-Faso, he’s been studying with Victoria Marks at UCLA. I saw him in a duet of hers and was very moved by a quality that I would call emotional truth. In his solo Saana/The Foreigner, he creates a tapestry of dance, music, and spoken word to represent his search for a new life in his new land. Sharing the program are choreographer Rosanna Gamson and musical group Overtone Industries.

D. Sabela Grimes

D. Sabela Grimes

In the second program, July 31–Aug 2, D. Sabela Grimes, who began his career dancing with Rennie Harris Puremovement in Philly, challenges gender stereotypes in black culture in his Electrogynous. In The Singing Head, multi-media artist Carole Kim creates an environment out of live video imagery, scrims, and costumes in which butoh dancers Oguri and Roxanne Steinberg emerge as denizens. Completing the bill is Marsian de Lellis’ absurdist play, Object of Her Affection, which uses puppetry and “object theater.”

Concluding the series, on Aug 7–9, will be the new Israeli company in L.A., Ate9 dANCE company, directed by Naharin protégée Danielle Agami. When I saw them recently at Peridance, I loved the company (despite it’s trendy punctuation) for its waywardness and humor—and that willingness to be awkward that’s a special Israeli trademark. In her new piece, For Now, she collaborates with Persian hip-hop musician Omid Walizadeh. She shares the program with performance artist John Fleck’s Blacktop Highway, which promises to be an epic work of  the “gothic horror” genre. Click here for full info.


Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY, photo by Scott Simock


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Lincoln Center Out of Doors

For those of us who actually enjoy summers in the city, Lincoln Center Out of Doors is icing (ice cream?) on the cake. Because the concerts are free, audiences tend to be huge and wildly enthusiastic. So I advise you to get there early if you want a seat up front. But it’s also pleasant to meander toward Damrosch Park Bandshell later on and observe the crowd from the back.

Rennie Harris Puremovement

Rennie Harris Puremovement, Courtesy RHPM. Photo on homepage @ Christopher Duggan

Pam Tanowitz Dance Photo ©Christopher Duggan

Pam Tanowitz Dance, photo © Christopher Duggan

This year, you can soak up the power of hip-hop culture on July 24, when Rennie Harris Puremovement—with three NYC premieres—shares a program with a Brazilian hip-hop group called A Batalha do Passinho. On July 25 you can see the clean ballet/Cunningham blend of Pam Tanowitz, who is paired with the music group Eight Blackbird.

Mr. TOL E. RAncE Photo ©  Christopher Duggan

Mr. TOL E. RAncE, photo © Christopher Duggan

Next week brings Camille A. Brown with her dance-theater work on race, Mr.  TOL E. RAncE, which was just nominated for a Bessie. A highly theatrical performer herself, Brown is both fearless and charming (see her Choreography in Focus). She is passionate about her chosen themes. On August 2, she shares the evening with another daring artist, the singer/songwriter Stew, who calls his current group The Negro Problem. So get ready for a smart, irony-drenched challenge to racism from two artists who have something to say.

For complete info on this series, click here.

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Where are the Women Leaders? Try California.

We often complain that the leadership positions in dance are occupied mostly by men. And yes, that’s true in many places. But I have come to realize, after my short visit to the Bay Area and Los Angeles last month, that the women in California are the ones who have made the dance scene there.

Anna Halprin, photo by Kent Reno

Anna Halprin, photo by Kent Reno

Let me start with the Bay Area and its three matriarchs: Anna Halprin, Brenda Way, and Margaret Jenkins. Halprin, the great forerunner of postmodern dance, settled there more than five decades ago, where her brand of improvisation, healing, and anarchy caught fire. (Click here for an update on her rituals, and here for info on the documentary on her.) She still gives classes and “performance labs” in her Mountain Home Studio, and her works have earned a flurry of popularity in Europe.

Brenda Way is the force and mastermind behind ODC Dance Commons, the buzzing hub of dance that offers a wide range of classes, plus the ODC Theater and the collaborative ODC Dance Company. Her intellectual curiosity is in evidence everywhere, from the design of the Commons, to the festival programming, to the choreography of the dance company, which she co-directs with KT Nelson and Kimi Okada.

ODC Dance Company, photo by RJ Muna

ODC Dance Company, photo by RJ Muna

Margaret Jenkins

Margaret Jenkins

Margaret Jenkins is a Cunningham disciple whose warmth and insights have encouraged many in the dance community. Her company, which just celebrated its 40th anniversary, collaborates with dance artists in China and Israel. She’s developed a mentorship program, CHIME, that helps nurture the next generation of choreographers.

The beautiful, haunting site-specific works of Joanna Haigood have won acclaim on a national scale. Another inspiring presence is Sara Shelton Mann, the dancer/educator who formed Contraband, a collaborative group of interdisciplinary artists. The dance departments of colleges and universities in the area, like Stanford and Mills, are also run by strong women.

The Smuin Ballet has not only been kept afloat by Celia Fushille since Michael Smuin’s death in 2007, but has opened up to many new choreographers. And Amy Seiwert’s Imagery, a contemporary ballet company, is going strong. Her annual SKETCH series (which happens to be at ODC Theater this week) encourages experimentation and collaboration while using the ballet vocabulary.

Other choreographers who thrive in the Bay Area are Hope Mohr, Nina Haft, Randee PaufveKatie Falkner,  Abigail Hosein, and recent transplant from NYC (and an old friend of mine) Risa Jaroslow. Amelia Rudolph with Bandaloop, is a leader in the aerial dance constellation. Krissy Keefer’s Dance Brigade, still resolutely rebellious/rambunction/revolutionary, is resident at the Dance Mission Theater, which offers tons of classes from ballet to Bhangra to Voguing. Being in the Mission District, the mural on the front of its building reflects San Francisco’s appealing craze for street art.

Mural on the front of the Dance Mission Theater building

Dance Mission Theater building


Lula Washington

Lula Washington

Moving down to Los Angeles, where it’s been notoriously hard to sustain a company in the shadow of Hollywood, two longterm leaders have trained generations of dancers. Lula Washingon, emphasizes the legacy of black culture in dance, and Debbie Allen’s Dance Academy embraces cultural and aesthetic diversity.

There are  other major players who have been leading their companies for about a decade: Colleen Neary, co-director of Balanchine-based Los Angeles Ballet; Ana Maria Alvarez, whose urban Latin dance theater CONTRA-TIEMPO does major outreach; Jennifer Backhaus, director of the modern dance group Backhaus Dance; Judith Helle, a former ballet dancer with aerial chops who runs the  Luminario Ballet; and Michelle Mierz and Kate Hutter, co-directors of the L.A. Contemporary Dance Company.

A handful of women-led companies have recently burst on the scene. BODYTRAFFIC is led by a team of two: Lillian Barbeito and Tina Finkelman Berkett. Melissa Barak, one of the very few women who has ever been commissioned by New York City Ballet, recently formed Barak Ballet. (At the moment, she’s making a solo for the sublime ballerinal Hee Seo.) And Danielle Agami, who emerged from Batsheva with that famous Israeli rawness intact, has gathered a group of terrific dancers for her Ate9 dANCEcOMPANY.

Ate9 Dance Company, photo by Rebecah Goldstone

Ate9 dANCE cOMPANY, photo by Scott Simock

Then there’s the new and delightful fact that Jenifer Ringer will head the new Colburn Dance Academy, which is part of the reason I posted last month about L.A. becoming a destination for dance students.

Women as presenters or administrators have enlivened the L.A. dance scene enormously. Judy Morr at Segerstrom Center for the Arts insures that great touring companies visit Costa Mesa. (This month the blockbuster ballet duo of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev premiere their out-of-the-box contemporary program at Segerstrom.) Renae Williams is vice president of programming at the Los Angeles Music Center,  which just presented National Ballet of Canada’s production of Ratmansky’s fascinating Romeo and Juliet. The savvy curator of the Center for the Art of Performance at UCLA, Kristy Edmunds, is bringing top-level artists like Batsheva Dance Company and Kyle Abraham to Royce Hall this season.

On a smaller scale, Showbox L.A. is co-directed by Meg Wolfe, a dancer/choreographer transplanted from NYC. Tonia Barber as the new executive director of Dance Camera West has added a live performance component to its programs. (It was exciting to see Jason Samuels Smith and Chitresh Das dance together after the screening of the excellent documentary about them.) Also at Dance Camera West, Bonnie Oda Homsey, whose Los Angeles Dance Foundation  carries the torch for modern dance, showed her documentary on historical figure Michio Ito.

Slews of choreographers who cross over between concert dance and commercial dance depend on Julie McDonald, founder of MSA Associates, as their agent. She guides the careers of many choreographers and dancers like Dance Magazine cover girl Tyne Stecklein.

Simone Forti, photo by Gary Leonard, Courtesy LA Library Foundation

Simone Forti, photo by Gary Leonard, Courtesy LA Library Foundation

For anchors in the postmodern community, the legendary Simone Forti still performs her touching and witty solo improvisations. Victoria Marks, whose recent work has taken on a new gravitas, teaches at UCLA. (I had the honor of sharing a program with those two last month at the L.A. Library Foundation.) Heidi Duckler has been showing her ingenious site-specific works (I saw a fun one in the Mission Bowling Alley in San Francisco in June) regularly for the last 30 years.

Local critics who advocate for dance are also mostly women: Debra Levine of, Victoria Looseleaf, Sara Wolf, Laura Bleiberg. A few years ago, a group of five women got together to start an alternative publication called ITCH. Former dance critic Sasha Anawalt runs the arts journalism degree program at University of Southern California. Also at USC is former Forsythe dancer Jodie Gates, who, with the help of dance philanthropist Glorya Kaufman, is taking making USC a hotspot for dance.

The entire California dance world is bolstered by brainy feminine presences, too abundant to name, in the University of California system. That includes UCLA, UC Irvine (which hosts Molly Lynch’s National Choreographic Institute), UC Santa Barbara, UC Berkeley, UC Long Beach, and UC Riverside.

Of course any dance scene in the U. S. has plenty of women as movers and shakers. But it strikes me that California has an unusually high proportion of them. Maybe this is not surprising—after all, the sunny state was the home of both Isadora Duncan and Martha Graham!

(Thanks to Lisa Bush and Debra Levine for filling in the gaps of my knowledge. If I’ve left out any major women leaders, please use the comments box below.)

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Ballet Superstars Go Gaga

You don’t usually see a pair of ballet superstars delving into the odd, the strange, the experimental. When they go out on a gig, they are more likely to assemble a program that is sure to elicit the wildly enthusiastic applause they are used to. But Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev, who have been thrilling audiences from New York to London to Moscow, are breaking from their ballet zone and entering new movement languages. Next week at Segerstrom Center for the Arts in Southern California, the pair (who are no longer a couple offstage), are taking a chance by being decidedly unclassical, even awkward.

Osipova & Vasiliev rehearsing in Tel Aviv, photo by Gadi Dagon

Osipova & Vasiliev rehearsing in Tel Aviv, photo by Gadi Dagon

The program they are bringing to Segerstrom, “Solo for Two,” will not satisfy the fans who pay money to see them jump and turn, flirt or swagger. With the three chosen choreographers—Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Arthur Pita, and Ohad Naharin—we will see very little of her incredible speed or his sky-high leaps (I called their Don Q “superhuman” last year)—at least not in the context of ballet loveliness. They will be celebrating instead Osipova and Vasiliev as artists in a contemporary dance genre.

Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui tends to create liquid movement, and Arthur Pita is known for his dance-theater brilliance. 

Osipova, photo by Gadi Dagon

Osipova, photo by Gadi Dagon

Naharin has the capacity for both liquid and bizarre. When I was in Tel Aviv two weeks ago, I got a chance to watch him rehearse with the two Russians. At times the contrast between Vasiliev’s earthiness and her lightness is used poignantly. For instance, after they trudge around the perimeter to a steady beat, she suddenly hurls herself toward him at neck level. Other moments bring out a strange intimacy as when he smushes her face with his hand, or when the delicate Osipova staggers on a diagonal while carrying Vasiliev on her back.

Osipova, Batsheva dancer Eri Nakamura, Naharin, photo by Gadi Dagon

Osipova, Batsheva dancer Eri Nakamura, and Naharin, photo by Gadi Dagon

In order to immerse themselves in Naharin’s language during their 10-day sojourn in Tel Aviv, they took the morning gaga classes with the Batsheva dancers. In gaga,  people are encouraged to feel every sensation of motion in every body part without a prescription for shape or line.

Naharin rehearsing Osipova and Vasiliev, photo by Eri Nakamura

Naharin rehearsing Osipova and Vasiliev, photo by Eri Nakamura

During rehearsal in the light-soaked studios at Suzanne Dellal Center in Tel Aviv, some of Naharin’s notes to the two Russians were more psychological than technical. “You really want to be running here but you can’t.” Or, “Take the time to feel what she is about here.” Often Vasiliev translated the comments to Osipova. Other Batsheva dancers and former dancers who knew the material also gave comments.

However “successful” these brazen ballet heroes will be, “Solo for Two,” which is produced by Sergei Danilian of Ardani Artsits, is part of a larger trend that is changing the face of ballet. Ballet companies are learning to trust modern dance. Back in 2006 The Royal Ballet appointed Wayne McGregor resident choreographer. The Paris Opera Ballet has invited modern choreographers Emanuel Gat, Sasha Waltz and others to set pieces. And other companies, e.g. Atlanta Ballet and Finnish National Ballet, are doing works by Naharin.

Osipova & Vasiliev, photo by Gadi Dagon

Osipova & Vasiliev, photo by Gadi Dagon

But next week is a chance to see today’s most celebrated ballet couple spurred on by three of our greatest (un-ballet) choreographers. July 25–27, Segerstrom Center for the Arts, Costa Mesa. Click here for more info. And you can keep tabs on the “Solo for Two” tour here.

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Batsheva Dancers Take Cover

For Americans, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to dance under threat of rockets. But this is what’s going on in Tel Aviv right now. Performances in the Varda Studio at the Suzanne Dellal Center, Israel’s main hub of dance, have been disrupted by warning sirens. This is where Batsheva Dance Company is performing Ohad Naharin’s astonishing The Hole twice a night.

Last Saturday the audiences in the Varda Studio had to evacuate twice before the 9:00 show, due to two sirens—with rockets booming in the distance. I emailed one of the American dancers in the company, Ian Robinson, to ask what it’s been like from his point of view, and he sent me this message:

Hi Wendy,     It’s true, the tensions have been rising this week. The siren warning of rockets en route make me ask, how much adrenaline can I produce? At the moment this is reality. I am not in fear, but should I be? It looks like normal here in tel aviv except for those moments a few times a day of hearing a siren and taking cover. It’s difficult to articulate emotionally from this perspective, so I will give you facts…

Inside shelter, Ian Robinson with hand on wrist, photo by Batsheva dancer Shamel Pitts
Inside shelter, Ian Robinson looking to left, photo by Batsheva dancer Shamel Pitts

One show this week is especially unforgettable. Hamas reported they would send rockets at tel aviv at 9pm, the same time the second show was supposed to begin. The audience was in ‘the hole’ when the siren went off about 9:15. They evacuated to the safe room downstairs in the costume department, as did the dancers. We sat. The atmosphere was both rational (what are the chances of a rockets hitting right here?) and fearful (what if?), experienced and fresh, trying to keep the morale positive and alert; selfies were taken….We heard a few loud booms outside, presumably the iron dome intercepting the projectiles, and the sirens stopped.

Most of the audience returned to their seats and our company manager told us to take a few moments before we would start the performance. We did. I think it was a good show.

I believe I have discovered something more about ‘state of mind’…how to control/manage mood, fantasy, effort. It is something dancers constantly work on.

All in all, this situation sucks. What sticks with me is my passion to dance.

Regards, Ian

For a hot minute, it looked like a cease-fire would be possible. But that didn’t happen, so the rockets keep coming. My heart goes out to everyone living in Israeli cities and everyone in Gaza.

When I saw The Hole on July 2, just before the violence escalated, it was completely riveting. I felt I was experiencing each moment intensely but found myself at a loss to describe it. I was thunderstruck. Now, somehow, I found a framework for it in an essay I read (thank you Lisa Preiss) about the psychological effects of the ongoing hostilities between the Israeli government and Hamas.

In “On Hope and Despair in the Middle East,” David Grossman, suggests that Israel feels defeated, not by Hamas, but by its own despair, its certainty that no peace process will work. I think that Ohad Naharin’s work with Batsheva is an antidote to that despair—not answering it with simple “hope,” but with a complex kind of hope. A hope that is not born optimism but of sheer vitality.

The dancers in Batsheva are curiously, individually, undeniably, vital. Fierce would be the word if it weren’t so over-used. Their vitality is revealed in a kind of interior life, whatever is the opposite of showiness. In The Hole, this interior life explodes into a kind of animal hunger, with dancers facing their own clawed hands in one sequence. They have an uncanny ability to slip from soft to explosive without forcing it, with no forethought, just with a deep connectedness.

The Hole

The Hole, photo by Gadi Dagon

The Hole can only be performed inside Zohar Shoef’s set, created for the occasion: an octagonal platform, the audience in the round, a grid above. When the lights go up, instead of dancers appearing on the platform in the center of the space, eight women stand behind the audience on the periphery—more like a planetarium than a theater. They do small, soft gestures until, all at once, they whack the wall behind them.

The men bound onto the platform as if shot from a cannon, prowl the perimeter, and settle in a lounging pose on the edge, close to the audience. Keeping a steady gaze on audience members, they each slowly open up the left leg, knees still bent, as though to invite you into their very center. This kind of work relies on our vitality too, our ability to be open to it.

The Hole, Robinson third from left, photo by Gadi Dagon

The Hole, Robinson second from left, photo by Gadi Dagon

The genders are separated, which I don’t usually like when it’s a ballet tactic—give the men the jumps and the women the pointework—but in this case it lends more power to same-sex groups. They find a pleasure in proximity that you can see in their faces and feel in their breathing.

Every move the Batsheva dancers make, every sequence, has purpose and yet is open to multiple interpretations. You gradually see/feel a stirring in the grid above the platform. Perhaps we’re in a rainforest, with soft earth below and tree canopies above that are alive with motion. Or maybe it’s a battlefield with survivors on the ground despite threats from above.

You wait for the men and women to connect and when one man and one woman do, nothing is simple. The two start waltzing together. From above—an air strike—the women throw down tiny bang snaps, those harmless fireworks that give off a satisfying little explosion upon contact. Hundreds of these things rain down on them, but they continue dancing together. (Love endures. Is that not hope?) Swings drop from above; the men sit and happily swing out over our heads…Hard-earned innocence.

The Hole

The Hole, photo by Gadi Dagon

That’s the 7:00 scenario. At the 9:00 show, the genders are switched, with the men starting on the periphery and the women in the center….as if to say, Whatever you get comfortable with can be changed. But the couple who dance at the end, they keep their own parts, no switching. For me, it was a heavenly moment to watch this couple express their attraction for the second time.






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There’s more to Gene Kelly Than…

The first dance Gene Kelly made for the movies was a duet with a mop. He flirted with it, stroked it, bent over it in a kiss. Then he moved on to a whiskbroom and a soda fountain, and with each prop, his steps were full of invention and humor.

This number from the 1943 film Thousands Cheer was just the first taste that his widow, Patricia Ward Kelly, gave us in her inspiring program “Gene Kelly: The Legacy,” at Symphony Space during Tap City Week. The dancer/choreographer/director was not only a beloved Hollywood star but also a major multi-disciplinary artist who helped created the American genre of movie musicals.

Patricia Ward Kelly at Symphony Space, photo by Amanda Gentile, courtesy Tap City

Patricia Ward Kelly at Symphony Space, photo by Amanda Gentile, courtesy ATDF

Ward Kelly’s one-woman show started with the exuberance of meeting a fellow word-lover, sharing the last 10 years of his life, reveling in the lore and luminosity of his vast career, and it ended with wistful readings. Her tone was loving but not maudlin, witty but not catty. When recalling his admiration for Judy Garland in For Me and My Gal (1942), she said, “She taught him how to angle the face for the camera, and how to kiss—for which I was grateful.” (Have you ever seen Garland dance better than in this clip from that movie?)

Ward Kelly said their 46-year age difference—she was 26 and he was 73 when they met—didn’t matter to her. “He never seemed old to me,” she said. “He was so young at heart and his mind was going 100 miles an hour.”

Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh

Gene Kelly in Anchors Aweigh (1945)

As a dancer and choreographer, Kelly combined meticulous planning with spontaneity. He insisted on shooting the more adventurous scenes—swinging across a Spanish-style inn on a drape, careening atop a ladder that swayed from one end of a building under construction to another—all in a single take, just to show that he did not have a stunt double. He laid down his own taps after each number was shot, matching the sounds exactly to what he had danced in his trademark loafers.

When you see one clip after another of astonishing feats or breezy dance/acting, it’s not surprising to learn that Kelly had studied Russian-descended ballet, modern dance with Doris Humphrey and Martha Graham, Spanish dance with an uncle of Rita Hayworth, acrobatics, and tap. He pulled out whatever style was necessary for the role and the milieu.

Familiar scenes like the one in Anchors Aweigh with Jerry the (animated) Mouse, and clips from An American in Paris and The Pirate, allowed you to see how the intention of every part of his body—not least, his eyes—communicates a big feeling like love or joy or sheer fun. He was a working class kid from Pittsburgh who got beaten up by other boys for taking dance lessons. Instead of a top hat and tails, he often wore his own clothes for his characters.

Kelly directing Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly, 1969

Kelly directing Barbra Streisand in Hello Dolly (1969)

What I didn’t know was that he directed films like On the Town and Hello Dolly, and was the first American to choreograph for the Paris Opera Ballet. When contemplating how he wanted to be remembered, he enlisted Ward Kelly to write his biography. Five years into the process of his talking and her note-taking, they married.

When they met, Patricia Ward had been a scholar of American literature studying Melville and Hemingway; she’d never heard of Gene Kelly! She is still a scholar of American culture, but her subject is no longer Melville, but an American of possibly equal stature, Gene Kelly.

Toward the end of her presentation, Ward Kelly read some choice pieces of nostalgia, like his funny Valentines to her and an encouraging note from Fred Astaire to him when he returned to Hollywood after the war.

After enthralling us with the range of his genius, Ward Kelly addressed the young people in the audience. “Gene didn’t want you to imitate him,” she said. “He wanted you to go beyond him.”

Kudos to American Tap Dance Foundation for bringing Gene Kelly: The Legacy to Tap City.

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My “Spartacus”

The Bolshoi Ballet is bringing three of its most traditional ballets to Lincoln Center Festival July 12 to 27. Of course audiences like seeing timeless classics like Swan Lake and Don Q. But Spartacus—that old warhorse from the Soviet era? The early pinnacle of Yuri Grigorovich’s endless career? Hasn’t the Bolshoi moved beyond Spartacus with artistic director Sergei Filin’s internationally savvy outlook?

Like some others, I’ve been grumbling about this conservative array. But to tell the truth, I have a secret reason for wanting to see Spartacus—actually two reasons: nostalgia and curiosity.

Back in 1962, when I was not quite 15, I was an extra in the Bolshoi’s previous production of Spartacus at the old Met on 39th Street. Yes, that’s right. Grigorovich’s famed version was not the first one. Experimental choreographer Leonid Yacobson created it for the Kirov (Mariinsky) in 1956 and restaged it expressly for the Bolshoi’s tour to the U.S. in 1962. And it was a disaster. I know. I was there, onstage with Plisetskaya and Vasiliev. The audience booed, the critics panned it. The last three performances of the eight scheduled were cancelled and replaced with Giselle.

Maya Plisetskaya as Phyrigia and Dmitri Begak as Spartacus in Yacobson's Spartacus

Maya Plisetskaya and Dmitri Begak in Yacobson’s version

But I have great memories. I remember being onstage at the old Met before the curtain opened, watching Plisetskaya warming up with a thousand knee-high prances. I remember the scale-like sequence of the brass players as they tuned up for Khatchaturian’s passionate, sensual, Eastern-tinged score—music that got under my skin. I remember the beautiful American-Russian corps dancer, Anastasia Stevens, who translated for us. And I remember the Bolshoi dancers singing songs from West Side Story backstage. (I’ve written about this whole experience in the memoir section of my first book.)


Who Was Yacobson?

In the brochure for the Bolshoi’s 1962 tour (under the aegis of Sol Hurok), it says, “Yacobson is one of the most ‘restless’ of our modern choreographers. He argues boldly and sharply about art and evokes violent arguments around himself…In his works not everything is precisely regulated or in proportion, for the irrepressibility of his characters hinders him from being patient, artistically ‘calculating.’ On the other hand, his work is always interesting for the audacity of his conception and… the boldness of his imagination.”

Natalia Ryzhenko as Aegina

Natalia Ryzhenko as Aegina in Yacobson’s version

Well, that boldness got him into trouble this time. Yacobson, who died in 1975, was in line with the Soviet regime in wanting to pry ballet away from the elitism of the Czarist times. But his method of popularizing the art was to incorporate acrobatic and gymnastic moves. And, in the case of Spartacus, blatant sex scenes. In his depiction of degenerate Roman times, he staged Crassus’ feast as a huge orgy scene, the better to contrast with the purity and courage of Spartacus’ slave uprising.

But Soviet authorities didn’t want sexy, they wanted heroic. According to Christina Ezrahi in her book Swans of the Kremlin, some officials judged certain scenes to be “repulsively erotic”…hmmm, a precursor to the current Russian prudery? Think of the recent ban on discussing gayness, and the even more recent ban on obscenity. 

Dance scholar Janice Ross has written that Yacobson was basically an artist of resistance. “One of the subversive, radical things in Spartacus . . . is that he makes it a very intimate, personal tale. At the core of it is a tragic love story about loss and longing.” Because of that very personal approach, Maya Plisetskaya, in her autobiography, declared him one of her favorite choreographers.

Not catering to good taste

In my teenage eyes, Yacobson’s Spartacus had many peak moments. Here are descriptions from my diary of September 11, 1962, of two of my favorite scenes.

CIrcus scene in Yacobson's Spartacus

CIrcus scene in Yacobson’s Spartacus

1. “The circus scene when men fight to entertain the people. It’s so exciting—just like the rumble in West Side Story—only in dance form. The choreographer, Yakobson, really did a good job on that. There are some more fighting scenes with Spartacus where they really use their shields and swords.”

2. “In the orgy scene a glamorous courtesan (played by the beautiful Natalia Ryzhenko) tempts Vladimir Vasiliev, as a slave. He’s blond and wears a red shirt and black tights. He’s cute as all hell and boy—can he dance! He does about eight arabesque turns which slowly change into attitude turns and his arms are behind his head. He starts feeling her up and everything, but when the courtesan doesn’t accept him, he goes wild and has these fits. In one part he jumps about five feet up and crashes down.”

At first, I was cast in the orgy scene. You were supposed to lounge around on bleachers, make out with your partner, and every once in a while tilt your head back and dangle a bunch of imaginary grapes above your mouth. Yacobson gave us instructions, through a translator, to be “sexy…oversexed” and to “make love, make love, make love!” I’d never had a proper make-out session in real life so I was very nervous. When my partner was reassigned to a different scene, I was excused from the orgy. Phew!

I don’t know if the booing was prompted by the “oversexed” treatment of the story, or, as my friend Rosemary Novellino-Mearns suggests in this posting, the fact that some of the world’s greatest ballerinas were wearing sandals and tunics rather than pointe shoes and tutus.

Put in context, the 1962 engagement of the Bolshoi in NYC was a month before the Cuban Missile Crisis—the scariest moment of the Cold War, when it really did seem like the U. S. and the USSR might destroy the world. Weirdly, it seems like there was some kind of offbeat mutual trust that the Bolshoi could bring this oddball extravaganza to our shores.

Grigorovich’s collaborative approach

Ekaterina Maximova as Phyrigia and Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus in Grigorovich's Spartacus, photo by Serge Lido

Ekaterina Maximova as Phyrigia and Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus in Grigorovich’s Spartacus, photo by Serge Lido

In any case, the powers that be in Moscow discontinued Yacobson’s 1962 version (though the Kirov kept his 1956 version in their rep). The quest for an uplifting revolutionary ballet  (“the great truth of Soviet realist art”) escalated in urgency as the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Soviet Revolution approached. The Bolshoi decided to ask the young Yuri Grigorovich to try his hand at a Spartacus with less sex and more heroism. At first, according to Ekaterina Maximova’s memoir, he didn’t want to do it. But he complied, involving his four main dancers as collaborators: Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus, Maris Liepa as Crassus, Maximova as Phyrigia, and Nina Timofeeva as the courtesan Aegina. “We would discuss Yuri Nikolayevich’s ideas together with him, put forward our own, argue over them,” Maximova wrote. “He would listen to us and accept our suggestions.” This sounds so collaborative, so democratic, so not how Grigorovich is known to be now!

Love It or Hate It

Nina Kaptsova and Mikhail Lobukin, currently in Grigorovich's Spartacus, photo by Elena Fetisova

Nina Kaptsova and Mikhail Lobukin, currently in Grigorovich’s Spartacus, photo by Elena Fetisova

Together the choreographer and dancers created the image of male heroism in the Soviet Union. Grigorovich became the figurehead of the “golden era” of Soviet Ballet. Larissa Saveliev, the former Bolshoi dancer who co-founded and directs Youth America Grand Prix, told me that it was Spartacus’ emphasis on sheer male energy that was so captivating. Grigorovich was less interested in specific steps than the story as a whole. In my conversation with Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director Sergei Filin last April, he explained the ballet’s success to me by pointing out that it has a strong narrative flow and the “monologues” of the four main characters move the plot forward.

When it last came to NYC in 2005, New York Times critic John Rockwell called it “a grand cinematic spectacle, full of leaps and loves and betrayals and brilliant tableaus.”

Although no one has booed Grigorovich’s version as far as I know, it’s controversial in the sense that Americans and Russians react to it differently. American dance writers tend to find it propagandistic. Jennifer Homans, in her book Apollo’s Angels, describes it as the epitome of Soviet bravura—in both good and bad ways. “The Bolshoi kept going but after Spartacus, it was running on old energy, recycling past glories, fighting old ideological battles.” She clearly has no respect for the choreography. Although she says Vasiliev was thrilling in the lead role, she calls Spartacus a “degraded form of art” compared to Balanchine, Ashton, and Robbins.

Ivan Vasiliev in Grigorovich's Spartacus

Ivan Vasiliev in Grigorovich’s Spartacus

Others praise the achievement of this enduring Spartacus but say the performance relies on a superstar like Vladimir Vasiliev in the 60s and 70s, or Ivan Vasiliev in the last few years. (Unfortunately Vasiliev the younger cannot dance it this month as he will be performing with Natalia Osipova at Segerstom Center for the Arts in California. View a YouTube clip of the elder Vasiliev in the role here, and the younger Vasiliev here.) 

And then there is the view of Ezrahi, who believes that the ballet’s artistry trumps its original purpose as a government mouthpiece. I hope she is correct when she says the following:

“In the final analysis, ideological demands never managed to completely stifle the power of artistic autonomy. After the collapse of communism, Spartacus has survived the death of the political system that had provided the context of its creation. Today the ballet stands as a reminder that despite the political-ideological demands…artistic imagination proved to be remarkably resilient, creative, and enduring.”

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