Monthly Archives: October 2014

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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Jump Rhythm Jazz Project

The jazz dancer Billy Siegenfeld is celebrating the 25th anniversary of his Jump Rhythm Jazz Project. Four years ago, I wrote in Dance Magazine that “Billy Siegenfeld is one of a kind.”

There is no other dancer who gets as low and growly, who infuses his body with jazz rhythms that burst out of him, sending emotions in different directions.

Billy Siegenfeld, Justin Barbin Photography

Billy Siegenfeld, Justin Barbin Photography

Siegenfeld has enriched the jazz dance and tap communities in Chicago for a quarter century. He has combined the rhythms of both by making the body a percussive instrument. And it’s got to have that Swing, as opposed to rock’s steady downbeat. With the polyrhythms of true jazz, he has written, “These accents are voiced at moments when the ear least expects to hear them.” That sense of surprise leads to an explosiveness—at least when Siegenfeld himself is dancing. (You can see that in this short clip of him dancing—and vocalizing—alone.)

In true jazz, Siegenfeld wrote in the new book Jazz Dance: A History of the Roots and Branches, the dancer combines two different rhythms into a unity “that allows each to have its own say.” When this happens, the accents “pop off the ground with the stunning unpredictability of a perfect accident.”

Some of those perfect accidents are sure to surface in JRJP’s 25th-anniversary concert, Oct 24 to Nov 2 at Stage 773 in Chicago. The program  includes the very moving duet Poppy and Lou, revivals of No Way Out and Too Close for Comfort, a work by company member Kevin Dumbaugh, and guest artists.

For tickets, Click here  or here.

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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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Jodi Melnick at BAM

Melnick, photo by Stephanie Berger

Melnick, photo by Stephanie Berger

Jodi Melnick, the tantalizing dancer who brings a sense of glamour to downtown dance, has created a new work for her first BAM performance, Oct 8–11. Titled Moment Marigold, it’s a trio with Maggie Thom (read her Why I Dance) and EmmaGrace Skove-Epes, with music by Steven Reker of People Get Ready.

Though Melnick has brought her brilliance to works by Twyla Tharp, Sara Rudner, Vicky Shick, Susan Rethorst, and has collaborated with Trisha Brown, she has an aesthetic all her own. Quirky yet elegant, intense yet cool, she’s the kind of performer you can’t stop watching.

Moment Marigold, photo by Maggie Picard

Moment Marigold, Melnick at left, photo by Maggie Picard

Moment Marigold is, according to the press release, “an exploration of the stories within our bodies.” I’ve caught several of Melnick’s moods in her own choreography, from a poignant sense of loss to an exploration of zany partnering with David Neumann. 

JodiMelnickCOverIn the Dance Magazine cover story on Jodi, Gia Kourlas calls her dancing “full of delicacy, lucidity, sensuality, mystery, and ferocity.” (Cover photo by Matthew Karas.)

Enough said. Click here to find out how to see her.

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