Monthly Archives: May 2015

Alessandra Ferri’s Knowing Body

Wayne McGregor’s Woolf Works, his first full-length for The Royal Ballet, has been controversial. It’s neither a fairy tale ballet nor an “abstract ballet,” and that can be puzzling. But it does have the McGregor brilliance all the way through—and something more: Alessandra Ferri. Here’s my report from London.

If you could drop the expectation of a linear narrative, you could fully appreciate the dancing, the music by Max Richter, and the astonishing visual elements. You would immerse yourself in light, sound and motion the way Virginia Woolf immersed her readers in words and phrases.

Ferri as Virginia Woolf, @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

Ferri as Virginia Woolf @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

But most of all, you could soak in Alessandra Ferri’s portrayal of this famed British writer. In Dance Magazine’s recent interview with Wayne McGregor  about his new full-length story ballet, he said, “She has such a knowing body, that synthesis of amazing acting talent and brilliant physicality.”

First, a brief summary of the ballet: Woolf Works is really three ballets, each based on (or perhaps more accurately “inspired by”) one of Woolf’s novels: Mrs. Dalloway, Orlando, and The Waves. Ferri rules in the first and third sections, and the middle one is pure McGregor, with lashing out kind of dancing between androgynous beings, sans Ferri.

She first appears standing still, center stage. We have just heard Woolf’s voice deliver a treatise on the power of words and seen a scrim full of words flooding in, narrowing into columns and then becoming a fine mist. The scrim lifts and Ferri is revealed, embodying Woolf herself. This section, subtitled “I Now, I Then,” is about her memories; it’s softer in tone than anything I’ve seen of McGregor’s. He is letting Woolf and Ferri lead the way. There is a sweet duet with Federico Bonelli as her husband, and a kiss with a young woman, presumably Vita Sackville-West, with whom she had had an affair. But in general Ferri seems detached from these scenes. [Update 5/26: As you can see from the comment below, I was dead wrong about  the characters in this section. I guess I should’ve read up on my Mrs. Dalloway!]

The second section (after a 30-minute intermission, enough time to establish a whole new look) crashes in on us with light beams, thunder, and wild slashing duets. Titled “Becoming,” it takes us through changes of centuries and of genders, with extravagantly gold-hued Elizabethan dresses and ruffs de-composing bit by bit. A projection of fascinatingly etched blue clouds encroaches from stage left while the dancers tilt, twist, push and snake their way through McGregor’s typically aggressive partnering. (My only quibble with the choreography is this: as the music builds, and the costumes drastically deconstruct, and the lights get more preposterously inventive—at one point a huge, tilted sheet of light seems to intrude into the audience—the dancing stays at the same level.)

Last section, with Camille Bracher, Marcelino Sambé, Sander, and Blommaert. ©ROH, Photo by Tristram-Kenton

Last section with Camille Bracher, Marcelino Sambé, Sander Blommaert ©ROH, Photo by Tristram-Kenton

By the last section, subtitled “Tuesday,” we are happy to have Ferri back. But it’s clear that we are at the end of Woolf’s life. We hear a voice speak the words of her suicide note. She loves her husband, has had a happy life, but is plagued by her “disease”—which could only mean her suicidal depression. A huge black-and-white photo of waves hangs in the upper reaches of the stage space. But wait—it’s not a still shot but a video of slow-moving waves. We know they will eventually swallow her up, as is her wish. Two by two, the other dancers ebb downstage and flow upstage. The projected waves move a bit faster as Bonelli dances a melancholy duet with Ferri, finally lowering her down, beneath the now roiling waves.

Ferri with Federico Bonelli @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

Ferri with Federico Bonelli @ROH, photo by Tristram Kenton

For me, the last section was the most moving because it was emotionally the clearest—and saddest. But in both the first and third sections, Ferri held me in her thrall. The elegant way her head sits atop her spine, looking around with a soft alertness, seemed just right for this literary figure. Although Ferri is known for her outsized passion in roles like Juliet, Manon, and more recently Lea in Martha Clarke’s Cheri, in McGregor’s ballet she plays a woman whose passion is for words—and for death. When she extends that beautiful foot toward the ground, she isn’t displaying her exquisite lower limbs; she’s indicating what she wants to focus on. A simple tendu becomes like a pen set toward paper.

McGregor said, in that same interview, that he chose Ferri because he knew he would learn from her. I think he may have learned about simplicity. With a turn of her head or a leg pointed toward the floor, she expresses a lifetime of experience—her own as well as the character’s. In a ballet that’s more about mood than a clear story line, that’s a lot.


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Yoko Ono Rocks

What a revelation MoMA’s exhibit of Yoko Ono’s early work is! Just watching the film of her Cut Piece from 1965 is astonishing. She sits on the floor with a pair of scissors at her side. Audience members are invited to walk up to her and cut a piece of her clothing off—a simple task, laced with sexuality and danger. All the while she sits still, her face a mask of zen-like awareness—composed yet vulnerable, intelligent yet helpless, modest yet brazen. In using her own body as part of the artwork, she anticipates women artists like Cindy Sherman and Ana Mendieta. Click here for a YouTube clip of Albert Maysles’ film of Cut Piece.

Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (1964) Carnegie Recital Hall, 1965. Photo © Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive, New York

Yoko Ono in Cut Piece (1964) Carnegie Recital Hall, 1965. Photo
© Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

The Dawn of Performance Art

Not unsurprisingly, Cut Piece was named by The Guardian one of the 10 most shocking performance pieces ever. . But I am interested in it less for its outrageousness and more for its connection to dance and performance art. It was not unlike some of Anna Halprin’s work of the ’60s, for example, the slow sequence in Parades and Changes in which the performers are dressing and undressing while focusing steadily on another person.

That kind of gaze became known as the downtown “neutrality.” I’ve seen a similar combination of guts and neutrality in work by Yvonne Rainer, and the combination of a simple structure with sensuality in Simone Forti’s work. Rainer and Forti (both of whom had studied with Halprin), were colleagues of Ono’s in the early ’60s, sometimes performing in the same shows.

Ono with Bag Piece (1964) At MoMA, photo by Ryan Muir

Ono with Bag Piece (1964). Homepage photo of Ono with Apple, both photos at MoMA by Ryan Muir

Another interactive performance piece, called Bag Piece (1964–2015) is based, touchingly, on her own shyness. The instructions are for two people to go under the bag, take their own clothes off, put them back on, then emerge from the bag. In the display type, she writes, “I didn’t know how to explain to people how shy I was. When people visited I wanted to be in sort of a box with little holes where nobody could see me but I could see the m through the holes.”

Talking About Crotch Aesthetics

Still shot of Film No. 4

Still shot of Film No. 4

I recently posted my musings about the new frankness of what I call crotch aesthetics. But I realized when I saw this exhibit that Ono was way ahead of today’s artists in her crotch derring-do. In Film No. 4, she filmed nude people walking away from her, one at a time, the camera trained on the lower rear end. You get to see how different people move their buttocks as they walk.

The John Cage Influence

Many of the artists in Ono’s milieu were inspired by John Cage, whose famous composition class at The New School she sometimes attended. He challenged the separation of music and theater and, even further, the separation of art and life.

In the early 60s, that cross-discipline spirit was fostered in Ono’s loft on Chambers Street, which soon became a hotbed of hybrid work by musicians, visual artists, and dancers. Forti created a landmark evening called “Dance Constructions” there in 1961. In it she presented her now-classic works like Huddle, Slantboard and Roller Boxes.

Just as Judson Dance Theater was an offshoot of John Cages’ teachings (via Robert Dunn), Ono was an offshoot in a different direction. Already possessed of an idiosyncratic imagination that knew both pleasure and pain on a cosmic level, she extended his idea that any sound can be music to any action can be art. In the new book John Cage Was, she acknowledged his influence by beginning her contribution with this claim:  “The history of Western music can be divided into B.C. (before John Cage) and A. C. (after Cage).” The respect was likely mutual. Cage, who himself was influenced by Asian ideas, had dedicated a piece of music to Ono.

A taunting kind of playfulness infuses the current exhibit, officially called Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971. That too is in line with Cage’s endearing optimism. You only have to go as far as Twitter to find further examples of that quality. She recently tweeted, “Be playful. Dance with your mind and body. It’s such fun that ‘They’ might start to dance with us, too!”

The Prank Became Real

Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, MoMA c. 1960–61. Photo © Minoru Niizuma. Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

Ono with Standing Woman (1932) by Gaston Lachaise, MoMA, c. 1960–61, Photo © Minoru Niizuma, Courtesy Lenono Photo Archive

Cut Piece was one of the few performances Ono made. More often she created suggestions for a performance or exhibit rather than the thing itself. Take for instance her semi-fictitious announcement of a one-woman show at the Museum of Modern Art in 1971. She sent out publicity, took out ads, and made an elaborate catalog of a show that consisted only of a statement that a jar of flies drenched in Ono’s perfume had been released at MoMA and people were following the flies all over the city. Now, more than 40 years later, that ridiculous prank has led to a one-woman show. And it’s a spectacular, provocative, many-layered experience.


Her Rising Stature

Although I’ve always been dazzled by Ono’s gifts (I chose her song “Walking on Thin Ice” for my choreography once), this exhibit transforms her in my mind from a marginal music maker and conceptual artist to a major figure in 20th century art. The exhibit encompass 125 drawings, posters, objects (including a whole room in which all the furniture is cut in half) , audio recordings, films. Everything, whether an instruction piece or an object, are exercises in expanding the imagination.

Half-A-Room (1967)

Half-A-Room (1967)

One could view her 2013 music video of Bad Dancer, in which she’s not a bad dancer at all (at the age of 80), as an update of her ’60s ideas. It combines painting, costume design, music and dance, and has garnered over a million hits.

Capsules of Infinite Imagination

What we take away from Yoko Ono: One Woman Show, 1960–1971, is a restless, curious mind that puts fantasies in the form of challenges, riddles, or haiku. Many of the verbal riddles and instructions come from the pages of her book Grapefruit, which was written between 1961 and ’64. I will leave you with three examples from this collection of enigmatic instructions.

One page was written for Robert Morris, who was married to Simone Forti at the time.

“Find a stone that is your size or weight.

Crack it until it becomes a fine powder.

Dispose of it in the river.

Send small amounts to your friends.

Do not tell anybody what you did.

Do not explain about the powder to the

Friends to whom you sent it.”


Another page was written as “Voice piece for soprano”:


  1. against the wind
  2. against the wall
  3. against the sky”


Lastly, Dawn Piece:

“Take the first word that comes across your mind. Repeat the word until dawn.”



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Simone Forti, Oguri, & Roxanne Steinberg

Oguri, photo by Pep Daude

Oguri, photo by Pep Daude

There’s a natural affinity between the Japanese form of butoh and the ’60s improvisation ideas of Americans like Anna Halprin and Simone Forti. The connection to nature, the respect for intuition, the acceptance of awkwardness, are shared values. A new, three-way collaboration between postmodern pioneer Simone Forti, butoh master Oguri, and American dancer Roxanne Steinberg comes to Venice, California, this month.

Simone Forti, photo by Ian Douglas

Simone Forti, photo by Ian Douglas

Flowers and Vessel is inspired by the tradition of Japanese flower arranging, which has as much to do with intuition as with careful aesthetics. One trains for years to sharpen one’s instincts. According to the press release, “In a meeting of spirits, earthly and divine, the flower responds to the vessel. It is an act of love, of romance. Without hesitation, like the action of throwing something somewhere, the arrangement is revealed not imposed.”

Roxanne Steinberg, photo by Eoin McLoughlin

Roxanne Steinberg, photo by Eoin McLoughlin

Forti and Oguri have shared programs in both Tokyo and Los Angeles. For Flowers and Vessel, they will dance a new duet, and then, with the addition of Steinberg, a trio. Steinberg has partnered with Oguri for years. About this collaboration, she wrote in an email: “We are all after finding the essential voice … dance at its most true and unbound manifestation.”

Forti’s connection to Asian artists dates back to at least 1961, when she created an evening of Dance Constructions at Yoko Ono’s loft in Lower Manhattan. The program listing for this historic event (historic in its integration of dance and utilitarian objects) is currently on display as part of the Yoko Ono exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art.

Presented by Body Weather Laboratory, Flowers and Vessel arrives at Electric Lodge in Venice, CA May 29–31. Click here for tickets.

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My Tribute to Wendy Whelan

On May 2, the Danspace Project gala honored Wendy Whelan and Eiko Otake. I was happy to be asked to make the presentation to Whelan. Here is my tribute to her, and…really to both of them:

Fifteen years ago, I was watching a Balanchine piece at New York City Ballet. It was not one of my favorite Balanchines. I do love some of  his ballets, but this one was orderly and symmetrical and courtly. And then this wind blew through the stage, rustling up the air and changing everything. The wind was Wendy Whelan.

This is what I wrote about her at the time:  “Wendy Whelan, dancing the lead for the first time, makes her entrance — luxuriously, energetically, extravagantly billowing thither and yon… She is an impetuous creature… edgy, not quite human, threatening to elude the grip of her escort at every dive.” [This quote is in my book.]

Whelan wih Josh Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whelan wih Josh Beamish in Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan. Homepage photo by Nisian Hughes

She brought a modernist sensibility to NYCB. A simple passé became a revelation of the body’s architecture. She’s the epitome of what Annie-B Parson calls “fact-based choreography.” No frills, just the facts, like what Merce Cunningham demanded. She bypasses pretty and goes straight to beauty, a cut-glass kind of beauty, a beauty that elevates clarity to something spiritual.

She was a favorite of Jerome Robbins. She was fabulous in his woman-as-man-killing-insect ballet The Cage. “Jerry let me go with that one,” she told me. “I could use my weird assets.” You know, most ballet dancers don’t talk about themselves like that.

Whelan and Craig Hall in Wheeldon's After the Rain. Photo: Erin Baiano

Whelan and Craig Hall in Wheeldon’s After the Rain. Photo: Erin Baiano

And she became a muse for Christopher Wheeldon. Her active participation in the making of his dances allowed him to be geometrically complex, at times supremely simple, and unexpectedly tender. Every time I saw her dance his After the Rain duet, I would get psyched to see my favorite details, like hands pressing together behind the back. Nobody else did it the way she did it. Watching Wendy, I understood the saying God is in the details.

Her quality of lightness is especially hard to describe. It’s not a feminine lightness. She’s not the typical balletic Sylph. It’s a lightness of the mind, a readiness to levitate, an affinity for the air.

Outside of NYCB, one of her gigs was with Peter Boal’s small company, which I had made a piece for. When Peter asked her to choose someone to choreograph on her, she did not pick a ballet choreographer. She chose Shen Wei. Later on, she worked with Stephen Petronio.

Whelan rehearsing the Kyle Abraham section of Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

Whelan rehearsing Restless Creature, photo by Christopher Duggan

And then, still feeling restless, she came up with an idea to delve into contemporary choreography even more: She asked four very different dance artists to make a duet—and dance with her in that duet. They are Kyle Abraham, Brian Brooks, Alejandro Cerrudo, and Josh Beamish. The project is Restless Creature, which you can see at the Joyce later this month.

Wendy has become a leader in dance, not by making dances or by running a big company, but by being an interpreter of great depth, a co-conspirator in making new work, and a catalyst to bring ballet and modern dance together.

Since Danspace was started by a poet, as Claudia La Rocco reminded us in her Platform this spring, I want to pay tribute to Wendy Whelan and Eiko Otake for the poetry they have given us in dance. So I am going to read from—it’s not actually a poem, but—two sentences from my favorite essay by Merce Cunningham, “The Impermanent Art.” It’s from 1952 but he could just as well be talking about Wendy and Eiko.

“Dance is most deeply concerned with each single instant as it comes along, and its life and vigor and attraction lie in just that singleness. It is as accurate and impermanent as breathing.”

This tribute is also posted here on the Danspace blog site.




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