Sally Banes (1950–2020)

Courtesy Wesleyan University Press

The brilliant dance critic and historian Sally Banes, who pioneered a new way to write about dance as a social phenomenon, died on June 14, 2020, in Philadelphia. Her husband, Noel Carroll, said the cause was ovarian cancer.

Banes visited New York in October 1973 with a standard assignment: to write a book on modern dance for Chicago Review Press. Because of her curiosity about choreography, instinct for the experimental, and scintillating prose, she produced, in 1980, one of the most essential dance books of the twentieth century: Terpsichore in Sneakers: Post-modern Dance.

Shifting her attention from SoHo to the Bronx, Banes was the first dance critic to write about the exciting new urban form known as break dancing. Her article “To the Beat Y’All: Breaking is Hard to Do,” in the Village Voice in April 1981, introduced break dancing to readers before there was even a name for hip-hop culture. Fascinated by what she saw, she returned to this genre again and again.

Although these were her two favorite subjects—the (largely white) avant-garde and (largely black) urban dance—she investigated many other passions over time. In seven additional books on dance and a myriad of essays, she explored subjects ranging from the influence of black dance on Balanchine, to the drunk dances of Fred Astaire, to the Russianness of Firebird, to the knotty problem of appropriation. She held a string of college teaching-and-research positions and earned several lifetime achievement awards. She’s been a leader in the burgeoning field of dance studies, challenging her peers to rise to her level of intellectual rigor paired with vibrant prose.

Banes grew up in Silver Spring, MD, taking ballet lessons in nearby Washington, DC. She attended the University of Chicago, where she participated as a script writer and performer in a group called The Collective. She graduated in 1972 with an interdisciplinary degree in criticism, art, and theater. The following year she started writing criticism for the Chicago Reader and became its dance editor while also writing book reviews for the Chicago Daily News. During the same period, she founded the Community Discount Players, which she called “a motley collection of performers, dancers, and wizards.” She created performances that were part dance, part theater, part every-day happening. In 1974 she participated in the creation of Meredith Monk’s Chacon at an Oberlin residency. That same year, she was a co-founder of MoMing Dance and Arts Center, which was a collective as well as a presenter. She performed there with New York choreographer Kenneth King. According to dancer Carter Frank, “Without her guiding light and her enthusiasm, MoMing would not have made such a mark in Chicago. It was where I got to see people whom I had only read about in the Village Voice and it was like getting a drink of cool water in the desert.” It was at MoMing, after a 1975 performance of the improvisational group Grand Union, that she met her future husband, philosopher and critic Noel Carroll.

Collaboration with Ellen Mazer: “A Day in the Life of the Mind, Part 2,” 1975, The University of Chicago, ph Frank Gruber

Banes and Carroll moved to New York in 1976. She took class at the schools of Graham and Cunningham and the downtown Construction Company, and workshops with Simone Forti. She performed in Forti’s large improvisatory group work, Planet (1976) at P.S. 1 in Queens. (Forti was a lion, Pooh Kaye a bear, and Banes an elephant.)

The “Concepts in Performance” page of the SoHo Weekly News was the first to review the new boundary-crossing performances that defied the categories of dance, theater, poetry, or visual art—before the term performance art was coined. Banes wrote for this page from 1976 to 1980, becoming editor the last two years. She was given her own column called “Performance” in the Village Voice from 1980 to ’85, where she reviewed major artists like Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, and Laurie Anderson. She also reviewed singular performers before they became big names like Whoopi Goldberg (“careening from bathos to pathos”), Steve Buscemi (“like a human rubber band”), Eric Bogosian (“a raw, cognitive screech”), and Karen Finley (“this messy scabrous conduct exhilarated us”). These reviews are reprinted in Subversive Expectations: Performance Art and Paratheater in New York 1976–1985 (1998).

Banes adopted, in her own words, a stance of “knowing innocence” and a “sense of wonder.” She wasn’t wowed by mere virtuosity but was attracted to the questions posed by the mind/body of an enquiring artist. Whether she was writing in Dance Magazine or Dance Chronicle, she situated every artist in a social context. Her prose was informal, witty, and spontaneous, and she could paint a picture in words that was as startling as the performers themselves.

Sally wore her socialist feminism on her sleeve; she never tried to be “objective.” Reading her words, you got a strong sense of her presence at the performance. She was in line with the Duchampian idea that each work of art was not complete until the audience experienced it.

For Judson choreographers like David Gordon, Trisha Brown, and Steve Paxton who appeared in Terpsichore, and for break dancers like the Rock Steady crew, she was a staunch advocate. She took her advocacy further when, in 1978, she decided that Yvonne Rainer’s solo Trio A from 1966 had to be preserved. Although most critics were indifferent or worse—Clive Barnes labeled it a “total disaster” in The New York Times—Sally regarded this not-quite-five-minute sequence an exemplar of post-modern dance. Rainer agreed to re-perform it for the camera, even though by then she was a filmmaker who hadn’t danced in years. Originally a trio section of The Mind Is a Muscle, Trio A embodied all of Rainer’s studied defiance: odd, unmusical phrasing; looking away from the audience; eschewing repetitions that would make for a legible structure. Trio A has become a symbol of, or gateway to, postmodern dance—which probably wouldn’t have happened if Sally had not filmed it.

In 1980 Banes earned a PhD from the Department of Graduate Drama at NYU, later named the Department of Performance Studies. In 1983, Banes turned her dissertation on Judson Dance Theater into a book, Democracy’s Body: Judson Dance Theater 1962–1964, reprinted by Duke University Press in 1993. She framed the unruly Judson collective as democracy itself. This book has been the touchstone—or target—for younger scholars seeking to make their mark in contemporary dance.

In 1983, photo: WP

Making the shift from journalism to academia, she edited the scholarly Dance Research Journal from 1982 to 1988. There was a period of cross-fade when she was writing less journalism and more academic essays. Whether journalistic or academic, Banes’s writing possessed both intellectual heft and sensuous description.

Still invested in the sixties, she took the densest year of Judson, 1963, and expanded her research into the political, social and artistic activity during that time. Greenwich Village 1963: Avant-Garde Performance and the Effervescent Body, published in 1993, describes the intersecting constellations of Andy Warhol, jazz musicians, underground film, avant-garde playwrights, beat poets, and Bread and Puppet Theater.

In Writing Dancing in the Age of Post-Modernism, her 1994 collection, Banes conflates “the avant-garde, the popular, the commercial, and the vernacular.” Her interests range from post-Judson choreographers Bill T. Jones and Molissa Fenley, to emerging Latino choreographers, to, of course, break dancing. In Dancing Women: Female Bodies on Stage (1998), she brings a feminist angle to women’s roles in the canon of dance from Romantic ballet to recent modern dance.

Sally was a radiant person, bursting with life. Her enthusiasms were contagious and her knowledge was vast. She championed artists from Yvonne Rainer to Urban Bush Women, Merce Cunningham to Tim Miller. She delved into historical pockets that aren’t in “the canon,” like Ballet Suédois of the 1920s and the leftist Workers Dance League in the 1930s. On the advice of dance historian Selma Jeanne Cohen, she started studying Russian and quickly developed an interest in Soviet experimental choreographers of the 1920s.

Banes’ college teaching career began in 1980 at Florida State University. From 1981 to 86 she taught at SUNY Purchase, followed by two years at Wesleyan University, then three at Cornell. In 1991 she became associate professor of dance and theater at University of Wisconsin Madison, and chair of the dance program from 1992 to ’96, when she was named the Marian Hannah Winter Professor of Theater History and Dance Studies.

Lori Brungard, a faculty member in Hunter College’s dance department, studied with Banes at SUNY Purchase in the mid-1980s. “With her big coke-bottle glasses and her lisp and her energy in what she was talking about,” Brungard recalled, “I wouldn’t expect to be engaged by this person but I was. She was like wooo! but still focused. She had this phosphorescence, a glow. Light emanated from her and she induced a light in me.” Brungard felt enriched by what Banes was teaching: “One bridge she made was the connection to the African diaspora. She was excited about Robert Farris Thompson’s ideas and she inspired me to read African Art in Motion after her course was over.”

Banes suffered an incapacitating stroke in 2002. Her last collection, Before, Between, and Beyond: Three Decades of Dance Writing was compiled and edited by her then-assistant Andrea Harris. It has two forewords that sum up Banes’s prodigious output, one by historian Lynn Garafola, and the other by New Yorker critic Joan Acocella.

Garafola: “By the 1990s the hip, young critic of the mid-1970s had become a hip, mature academic. Yet . . . she continues to write in plain English. Her sentences move across the page with energy, and for all her interest in ideas, she still wants the reader . . . to see the movement and experience it imaginatively…More than any other critic or scholar of dance, she belongs to her time, writing with the voice of the Zeitgeist.”

Acocella: “Underneath it all…is an anarchic spirit, walking on the wild side. And joined to it is exactly what one needs with it: scholarship, moderation, wisdom.”

There aren’t many traces of Banes in person on the internet, but Walker Art Center posted this wonderful conversation between her and Yvonne Rainer in 2001. The occasion was Baryshnikov’s PastForward project, which gathered several of the Terpsichore artists together for a tour.

For her naming and framing of new forms, and for the breadth and depth of her writing about dance as part of a complex world, Banes garnered lifetime achievement awards from the Congress on Research in Dance, the Society of Dance History Scholars, and the New York Dance and Performance Awards (the Bessies). When Terpsichore was translated into French by Denise Luccioni, it won the prize for the best dance book of 2003 in France.

Brungard says, “When I read her now, I hear her voice coming through the page, I hear her excitement behind the words. I have that same sense of inspiration I had when she was my teacher. I’m glad her personal voice comes through in her writing because it’s a way that people can have her as a teacher now.”

There is another way her teaching lives on: choreographer Li Chiao-Ping, a protegée of Sally’s at University of Wisconsin, has just been awarded a named professorship and has chosen to be named the Sally Banes Professor of Dance.

Here are a few of the 51 comments from dance scholar Mark Franko’s Facebook page after he announced that Banes was in hospice care:

Millicent Hodson: “Sally was the star journalist of her time in Soho NYC & a generous colleague.”

Dena Davida: “She will be leaving us with an epic body of insightful and radiant texts about our dance world.”

Jennifer Fisher: “Such a beautiful writer, and her work retains relevance over time.”

Donald Byrd: “Sorry to hear this news. I admire her.”

Ginnine Cocuzza: “Bright flame.”

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Disclosure: Sally and I were friends and colleagues. She conferred with me when writing Terpsichore; I invited her to write for SoHo Weekly News when I was editor of its “Concepts in Performance” page. After I handed the editorship of “Concepts” off to her in 1978, she edited my reviews. She wrote about my choreography a couple times, and I invited her to be part of my Bennington College Judson Project while she was writing her dissertation on Judson Dance Theater. I was in her performance piece-in-progress, Sophie Heightens the Contradictions in 1983, in which I played Sophie, a young Communist ballet dancer at the time of the Paris commune. And Sally appeared in a video for my performance Standard Deviation in 1984. I contributed to Reinventing Dance in the 1960s: Everything Was Possible (2003), the collection of personal reminiscences she edited.

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New Treasury of Cunningham Images

 

One of the most exciting periods of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company was the late sixties and early seventies. Cunningham himself was still dancing magnificently. Composer/philosopher John Cage was still driving the Volkswagen mini-bus on tour. And the company was making and performing some of the most iconic works of contemporary dance.

Luckily, during part of that period (1967 to 1972), the young photographer James Klosty chronicled the company, which was an ensemble of highly individual dancers. In the introduction to his original 1975 book, Merce Cunningham, Klosty wrote that although Cunningham worked with musicians and visual artists, the dancers were his “only true collaborators.” This became less and less true, as the age gap between Cunningham and his dancers widened—which is why the visual evidence of this period is to be cherished.

For the Cunningham centennial last year, Klosty re-issued and augmented his book, now titled Merce Cunningham: Redux, published by powerHouse Books.

With 140 pages of additional photographs, in alluring, rich duotones, the new version is even more of a treasure chest of images and essays, shedding light on a bold development in contemporary dance—the tectonic shift from modern dance to postmodern dance.

Rainforest w Mel Wong & Meg Harper, decor by Andy Warhol

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

During those five years, Klosty had an intimate relationship with Carolyn Brown, Cunningham’s most frequent partner. With his spouse-of-dancer status, he traveled with the company everywhere. That intimacy spills over into the studio and backstage. We see Cunningham and Brown work together, laugh together, quibble together. We see dancers reflecting on their next or last move. We are privy to relaxed moments of camaraderie as well as intense moments of striving to embody Cunningham’s vision—which included the dancers being totally themselves.

Cunningham famously broke with the narrative tradition of modern dance—specifically the psychological drama of Martha Graham. But he created his own brand of drama. The photos capture a sense of spontaneity within a rigorous structure. These images are so magnetic that we feel like we are right there with the dancers. The taut leg muscles, wide open eyes, and flesh-to-flesh comfort of the dancers have a sensual quality. Each dance has a different look, depending on whether the visual artist is Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Jasper Johns, Beverly Emmons, Bruce Nauman, Marcel Duchamp, or Andy Warhol.

Merce and Valda Setterfield in Second Hand

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A particular elegiac moment captures Merce leaning back with Valda Setterfield’s head resting on his chest in a rehearsal of Second Hand in Paris. Another moment finds Viola Farber, while partnered by Merce in Crises (1960), in partial contraction with leg extended, looking tortured. A shot of Merce thrashing around in a big plastic bag in Place (1966), looking like he’s drowning, is atypically grainy.

In keeping with the Cunningham/Cage entwinement of art and life, the book commingles performance with the everyday. We see the dancers onstage in works like the absurdist Antic Meet, the darkly alarming Winterbranch, and the playful Tread; we also see them hard at work in rehearsal. Klosty follows the group from the peeling walls of the Third Avenue studio to the light-flooded, open space of the Westbeth studio, where the company moved in 1972.

Sandra Neels, Douglas Dunn, Valda in Third Avenue studio

 

 

 

 

While archivist David Vaughan’s essential book Merce Cunningham: Fifty Years, encapsulates almost every finished work by the choreographer, Klosty has caught a myriad of candid moments of the dancers at work and at play in a particularly fertile five-year period. For the everyday, we see the dancers napping in the sun, Viola Farber gleefully giving a haircut to artist Jasper Johns, and Merce reaching through a cluster of passengers to grab a suitcase from a luggage carousel. And for the site-specific, we see a number Events (Cunningham’s way to recombine pieces of pieces for a particular setting) in Paris, Grenoble, and Belgrade.

It’s hard to imagine how Klosty gained such continual access. I asked choreographer Douglas Dunn, who was in the company at the time, about his memory of Klosty’s presence. In an email, he wrote, “Jim on tour and in NYC managed to be a delightful presence and an invisible photographer. I don’t recall ever seeing him take a snap. He was friendly with anyone (like me) who wanted to convene, but, without seeming nervous, kept a distance based, I’m guessing, on what he sensed Merce (and the rest of us, each different in degree of self-consciousness) would accept. Once in a while, during the lull between the day’s preparation and the show, you might find him playing the grand piano in the pit—with considerable virtuosity.”

 

 

 

 

Carolyn Brown and Merce at Westbeth studio

The essays and reminiscences about Cunningham have been kept intact. We can recognize Carolyn Brown’s essay as the seed for her revelatory book, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cage and Cunningham. She describes the choreographer with great vividness: “His own dancing is suffused with mystery, poetry and madness—expressive of root emotions, generous yet often frightening in their nakedness . . .He moves with leopard stealth and speed and awareness and intention.” She also talks about his challenge to the dancers: “Merce requires…that the rhythm come from within: from the nature of the step, the nature of the phrase and from the dancer’s own musculature, not from without, from a music that imposes its own…rhythms.”</span>

Other entries are by Yvonne Rainer (who was influenced by Cunningham but was never in his company), Douglas Dunn, and Viola Farber as well as composers John Cage, Gordon Mumma, Earle Brown, Pauline Oliveros and Christian Wolff.

Also included is a letter that ballet mogul Lincoln Kirstein wrote to Klosty, with his usual belittling of modern dance. He deigns to say that he likes Cage and Cunningham personally but not their work. He contends that without 400 years of the ballet academy behind them, their work cannot possibly last. To my mind this reveals how ultra-conventional Kirstein was, while posing as someone in the know. (Kirstein is revered in ballet circles as the person who brought George Balanchine to the U.S.; he was also instrumental in the founding of the Museum of Modern Art.) Kirstein’s vitriol against modern dance has been aired on many occasions. I suppose it provides a frisson of controversy, but I felt at the time of Klosty’s original book—as I do now—that his screeds against modern dance were irresponsible.

Valda, Merce, Douglas, Susana Haymen-Chaffey in rehearsal of Signals

Some of the written entries reach back in time. The great American dance critic Edwin Denby reviewed an early Cunningham concert in 1945, saying, “Mr. Cunningham reminds you there are pure dance values in pure modern technique. He is a virtuoso, relaxed, lyrical, elastic like a playing animal . . .He has a  . . . drive and speed which phrases his dances; and better still, an improvisatory naturalness of emphasis which keeps his gesture from looking stylized or formalized.”

Those who have studied with Merce often think of him as a Zen master. And many of these photos possess a kind of tranquility. But he also brought a bracing edge to his work that rubbed off on his dancers. The whole enterprise during the Klosty years was marked by precision, purpose, and a readiness for abandon.

In the foreword to the Redux version, Klosty writes, “Images of Merce’s dances performed when he was in his prime have acquired a poignancy and power I didn’t anticipate forty-five years ago.” D’accord. Whether or not you saw the original 1975 version of this book, the beauty of these photos have accumulated over time.

Note: This article was commissioned by Tanz magazine and first appeared in German in its April issue.

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Imprinted Memories of 2019

Dance is all about motion, so when I say “imprinted memories,” I don’t mean a single still image. I mean how things flowed, or an inchoate sense that something different is happening. I like it when the dancing doesn’t fall into the easy thing, the cliché, but gives off a whiff of humanity in a new way. This list is limited by what I happened to see this year. These are the (admittedly New York–centric) performances that have left me with that kind of imprint.

NEW CHOREOGRAPHY

One. One & One, choreographed by Noa Wertheim for her Israeli group, Vertigo Dance Company, at Baryshnikov Art Center.

One. One & One, Korina Fraiman, aloft, and Etai Peri, ph Stephanie Berger

Agitated, bold, expansive. The dancers spread dirt on the floor as though planting. Held-in emotions get released into the air, into nature. In one grappling duet, the man and woman are slightly dangerous to each other. Then with a sudden buoyancy, the woman is flying/floating . . . a weathered kind of ecstasy. This trailer gives you some idea of why I was so affected by this performance.

Ink, by Camille A. Brown, at the Joyce.

Maleek and Yusha-Marie Sorano in Ink ph Christopher Duggan

Movement vocabularies drawing from a range of African diasporic forms. Solos of despair, courage, and joy. Duets of different relationships, different vocabularies. One kinetically exciting duet, based on the jitterbug, is made dense with intricate details in the hands and feet while fueled by the basic rhythm. The seven take-charge dancers, including Brown and long-term associate Juel D. Lane, were thrilling to watch.

End Plays, by Lisa Nelson with HIJACK (Kristin Van Loon and Arwen Wilder), at Roulette.

Arwen Wilder and Kristin Van Loon in End Plays, ph Ryan Fontaine

The attention to objects and to each other was quietly intense. When you hear the words “End, reverse, repeat” you think you know what’s going on. But these commands (Nelson calls the process real-time editing) were followed or not followed seemingly at random, and that’s part of its playfulness. The space appeared empty; gradually objects appeared seemingly out of nowhere. The communication between the three performers and the objects seemed to depend on a hidden, subterranean language.

The Road Awaits Us (2017), by Annie-B Parson, co-directed by Paul Lazar, with text excerpts from Ionesco and Chekhov, at NYU Skirball.
Bravo for using older dancers with wit and whimsy! Bebe Miller, Douglas Dunn, Meg Harper, Keith Sabado, Betsy Gregory, and Black-Eyed Susan brought their own weathered warmth to this delightfully absurdist journey. Seeing Douglas Dunn as a fire chief is indelible in my mind’s eye.

To Create a World, by Andrea Miller in collaboration with the Gallim dancers, at the Joyce.

To Create a World ph Yi-CHun Wu

A dancer hatches out of a huge cloth that could be a shroud, or just as easily, amniotic fluid. Lots of fetal position, animal closeness, and crawling into each other’s negative spaces. Images of grieving and nurturing, for example, dragging away a victim, co-exist with the brutality of nature. The lighting evokes fire and ice. Extinction. The end is the beginning is the end.

In Absentia (2018), U.S. premiere, by Kim Brandstrup, part of Natalia Osipova’s “Pure Dance with David Hallberg,” at NY City Center.

David Hallberg, In Absentia, ph Johan Persson

This solo for Hallberg finds him sitting on a chair watching himself on a television monitor, clicking the remote morosely. It’s a rehearsal. But with the shadows and silence, a noir feeling hangs in the air, and the dancer seems sucked into a kind of no-exit situation. Hallberg brought it off with chilling sincerity and existential gloom.

And Still You Must Swing, conceived by Dormeshia, choreography and “improvography” by Jason Samuels Smith, Derick K. Grant, and Dormeshia, at the Joyce.

And Still You Must Swing, ph Christopher Duggan

These powerhouse tap dancers exercised their exhilarating virtuosity, camaraderie, and sense of humor. Guest artist Camille A. Brown brilliantly folded Africanist movements into the shapes and rhythms of the tappers.

Colored (2017), NYC premiere, by Kyle Marshall, part of Next Wave Festival at BAM Fischer, originally commissioned by Dance on the Lawn Montclair Dance Festival.

Colored with Kyle Marshall, Myssi Robinson, Oluwadamilare Ayorinde, ph Ian-Douglas

This trio—Marshall, Myssi Robinson, and Oluwadamilare “Dare” Ayorinde—starts with a postmodern pattern of gestures and evolves into something more personal and symbolic—symbolic of black culture, of Christianity. The meditative, interior sense of Marshall’s own performing resonates in the space. Memory, culture, and intimacy all collide in a very affecting way.

Dare to Wreck (2017) choreographed and performed by Madeleine Månsson and Peder Nilsson of Skånes Dansteater, part of Fall for Dance, NY City Center.
A harrowing relationship between a woman in a wheelchair and an able-bodied man. Attachment and resistance, with equal strength on both sides. Keen suspense: How will they connect or not connect? How will they survive being alone? How will they survive each other’s harshness?

Bzzzz, by Caleb Teicher with beatboxer Chris Celiz, commissioned by Fall for Dance at NY City Center.

Bzzzz, with Caleb Teicher, center, ph Stephanie Berger

This was crazy good fun with solo and group tap dance. The secret to their rhythmic propulsion: short moments of silence cropping up when you least expect them.

William Forsythe: A Quiet Evening of Dance, a Sadler’s Wells production co-commissioned by The Shed (which I wrote about here.)

A Quiet Evening of Dance, ph Mohamed Sadek

In the first half of the program—the quiet half—the dancers worked together in twos and threes. They were problem-solving, twisting or hurling themselves into some structure we didn’t know, or tying the body into and out of knots. The second half was business as usual: a performance for the audience, with music (by Rameau).

 

VITAL REVIVALS

Live! The Realest MC (2011), by Kyle Abraham at NYU Skirball.

AIM_Live! The Realest MC, ph Julien Benhamou

Taking the cadence and shapes of the lopsided ghetto stride and extending them into arias of yearning, power, and disintegration. Approaching the mic but not speaking into it. Finally a fragment of narrative: “They held me down and spit on me.” These are ghostly shards of an experience of gender and racial bullying. Pain and poetry. Wistfulness.

The Stephen Petronio Company in Merce Cunningham’s Tread (1970) at NYU Skirball, with the original set of ten standing electric fans by Bruce Nauman.

Tread with Petronio dancers, ph Ian Douglas

One of the few really playful Cunningham works. One person wedges herself under the crook of the knee of a sitting man. Bodies alternate between having agency and being a still object, sometimes held horizontally. A fun game of the body as puzzle.

Deuce Coupe (1973) by Twyla Tharp, revived by American Ballet Theatre.

Deuce Coupe at ABT, ph Gene Schiavone

Although it’s not the same as the first time out, this was an exciting revival.

Come Sunday (1960s) by Geoffrey Holder, at Fall for Dance at NY City Center.
This soulful solo, made for the exquisite Carmen de Lavallade, was transferred to a current exquisite dancer, Alicia Graf Mack. This clip, from the section danced to “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands,” from Gia Kourlas’s #SpeakinginDance series shows Graf Mack in rehearsal.

Parts of Some Sextets (1965), choreography by Yvonne Rainer, reconstruction by Rainer and Emily Coates, within Performa•19.

David Thomson, Emily Coates, Jon Kinzel in Parts of Some Sextets, ph Paula Court

Eleven people share the stage with 10 mattresses, all 21 entities engaged in a variety of tasks. The text, the “Diary of William Bentley” from 1783 to 1819, was a bit unpleasant (“Most women have no character”) but the bare honesty of his reaction to various animals and deformed humans was one track of reality running parallel to the wholesome, diverse cast in this precisely timed slice of life.

Rosas danst Rosas (1983), danced by a younger generation of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker/Rosas, at New York Live Arts.

Rosas danst Rosas at New York Live Arts

A limited palette of gestures performed with sharpness and urgency. A sudden inhale sucks the body up as though held by the throat. Restless rest, thrusted twisting, agitated stillness. The exhaustion of merciless repetition rips away at precision.

City of Rain, a 2010 piece by Camille Brown, with music by Jonathan Melville Pratt, remade for Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater this season.

City of Rain with Ailey dancers, ph Paul Kolnik

Mourning a friend who died, dancers with hands on heart. Allowing the energy to emerge from feeling and caring, spurts of anger lifting the heads and the tempo. Spinning poetry from grief.

 

POIGNANT STORYTELLING

The musical Choir Boy, written by Tarell Alvin McCraney and choreographed by Camille A. Brown.

Choir Boy, Jeremy Pope sitting in front row, foreground

The extraordinary Jeremy Pope, as a young gay man with a heavenly voice and a hellish life, is trying to survive in a black boys’ prep school. The character’s courage and vulnerability tore my heart. The step dance choreography by Brown allowed the characters to burst forth with their rage, hurt, and determination. (By now you can see that it’s been a banner year for Camille A. Brown.)

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, written, directed, and choreographed by Michael Keegan-Dolan for the Irish theater group Teac Damsa, at BAM Harvey Theater as part of the Next Wave Festival.

Swan Lake/Loch na hEala, Alexander Leonhartsberger, center, ph Stephanie Berger

A young man named Jimmy, played by Alexander Leonhartsberger, is caught in a downward spiral of loss and loneliness. He falls in love with a girl who, because she was sexually abused by a priest, is silenced by being turned into a swan. Sadness upon sadness. This dark fairytale is spiked with humor. For only a few minutes, Leonhartsberger dances— and you’re left longing for more.

 

STANDOUT PERFORMERS

Best Debut in a Classic Role
Calvin Royal III in Balanchine’s Apollo with American Ballet Theatre.

Calvin Royal III in Apollo, ph Rosalie O’Connor

A lift in his chest gave him a natural godlike quality. He invested in details of the choreography like the wrists flipping and resting his head on the palm of one of his muses, with his ennobling attention. An Apollo for the ages. Click here to watch him rehearse the role.

Best First Solo
Carrying Floor (2018), choreographed and performed by Abel Rojo of Malpaso Dance Company, with music by Satie, at the Joyce. Rojo placed squares of tiling down, marking where he’s going and where he’s coming from. His body twisted and curved, reacting to each decision, sometimes with peacefulness and other times with challenge. A simple idea, yet fully engrossing.

Motown Superstar
Ephraim Sykes as David Ruffin in Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of the Temptations. The hyper-energized Sykes dove into sensational extremes; he’d bound straight in the air and slam back down into a sliding split. Sheer, adrenaline-fueled, shakin’-down-the mic wildness.

 

Ballet Dancers Throw Themselves into Merce
Adrian Danchig-Waring and Lydia Wellington in Merce Cunningham’s Summerspace (1958) at NYCB. This classic modern dance piece is spare, sequenced by chance procedure, and basically unmusical—though with sharp timings. These two commanded the stage with an alertness that made you feel anything could happen—an illusion that’s even difficult for long-term Merce dancers to carry off.

Urban Glamour
Marcella Lewis in Show Pony (2018) by Kyle Abraham, at the Joyce. A glorious example of Abraham’s amalgam of strutting, contemporary dance, and hip-hop tropes. Her quicksilver transitions from one mode to another were electrifying.

 

Breaking New Ground
Chalvar Monteiro of Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. In April he bounded onto the stage in Night of 100 Solos of the Cunningham centennial at BAM with striking vigor. During Ailey’s winter season at New York City Center he lilted and swiveled through the mercurial opening solo of Aszure Barton’s Busk. He’s grown into a powerhouse since three years ago when Gia Kourlas wrote this “On the Rise.”

Anguish in the Bones
In Gallim’s drastic To Create a World, Gary Reagan is the most extreme form of drastic. His limbs emerge from what looks like a pile of bones to stretch and contort in bizarre ways. He could be being born or dying—or just barely surviving. Evoking images of the holocaust, he dances with a desperate, last-day-on-earth intensity. Not “beautiful,” but unforgettable.

 

Master Improviser
David Zambrano in Una Protesta at Movement Research at Judson Church, with live singing by Yva las Vegass. Solidly rooted yet impulsive, he took small steps like a geisha, gliding and skittering though space. Sudden whole-body pounces like a frog, vibratory extremities like a leaf in the wind, light laughter that hints at a wellspring of joy. Well-matched with the edginess of las Vegass’ singing, though they hadn’t met before.

BEST NON-BINARY CONCERT

The entire ‘Explode! Midwest Queer Dance Festival” at Links Hall in Chicago, curated by dance scholar Clare Croft.

LaWhore Vagistan, ph Al Evangelista

Crossing boundaries of gender and genre, this shared concert was hosted by the outrageous LaWhore Vagistan. It included work by Murad Mommy, Lee na-Moo, J-Sun Howard, and Jennifer Monson. For a full account, click here.

MERCE WAS EVERYWHERE

Night of 100 Solos, Chalvar Monteiro, center in blue, ph Stephanie Berger.

During this centennial year, evidence of Merce Cunningham cropped up in performances, live streams, books, films and on Twitter. High points included NYCB in Summerspace (1958), the program at the Joyce with The Washington Ballet in Duets (1980), Compagnie CNCD-Angers in Suite for Five (1956), and Ballet West in Summerspace. “Conversations with Merce,” curated by Rashaun Mitchell, gave three very different artists— Mina Nishimura, Netta Yerushalmy, and Moriah Evans—a chance to speak to Merce in their heads and on the Skirball stage. Stephen Petronio Company reconstructed Tread (mentioned above). For the Night of 100 Solos at BAM, visual artist Pat Steir provided a spectacular water-falling backdrop for 30 dancers who had never performed Cunningham work. Topping the centennial off are Merce Cunningham Redux, the newly augmented book of James Klosty’s fabulous photos from the 1970s; the re-issue of Cunningham’s notes titled Changes; and the 3D movie Cunningham. All of which are reminders that the master rebel took us from modern to postmodern, from the 20th century to the 21st, with uncompromising experimentation.

HURRAH FOR WOMEN LEADERS!

Wendy Whelan, who has, in her dancing and her collaborations, done so much to bridge the gap between ballet and contemporary dance, was chosen to co-direct New York City Ballet. We’re eager to see how she helps shape the NYCB repertoire. Alicia Graf Mack is now in her second year of leading the dance division of The Juilliard School, which provides equally rigorous training in modern dance and ballet. Call me biased, because I know them both (and am teaching part-time at Juilliard) but having these two glorious dance artists in top positions is good news for the dance world.
On the journalistic front, Gia Kourlas was appointed the new chief dance critic of The New York Times. Happily, she is covering dance more from the inside than any chief critic before her—following her curiosity to interview a wide range of dance artists and give them a voice. She is illuminating dance wherever she finds it, not simply going along with the ballet-is-best hierarchy we’ve seen before. Onward!

YEAR AFTER YEAR

Four dancers have each been performing one iconic role in Balanchine’s Nutcracker at New York City Ballet for so long that they are now associated with those roles. They add sensuality, shimmer, virtuosity, and intrigue to a beloved NYC tradition: Georgina Pazcoguin as Coffee since 2006, Megan Fairchild as Sugarplum since 2003, Daniel Ulbricht as Candy Cane since 2000, and Robert La Fosse as Drosselmeier since 1993.

Georgina Pazcoguin, ph Paul Kolnik

Megan Fairchild, ph Erin Baiano

 

 

 

 

 

Daniel Ulbricht, ph Paul Kolnik

Robert La Fosse, ph Paul Kolnik

 

 

 

 

 

The annual Table of Silence Project 9/11, conceived and choreographed by Jacqulyn Buglisi is performed at 8:20 am, the moment the first airplane struck the World Trade Center. The somber beauty of this ritual, with more than 150 dancers including illustrious guest artists like Terese Capucilli and Virginie Mécène, allows us to feel the enormity of what happened and how we linger in the shadow of 9/11. This annual ritual, so elegantly choreographed, gives dignity to our shock and grief.

Table of Silence, ph W. Perron

A shout-out to the many freelance dancers who serve as the backbone of Broadway musicals. My favorite example is Bahiyah Hibah, who’s graced many Broadway ensembles, the latest being Moulin Rouge, with her elegance and musicality. I’ve also seen her in Evita, Memphis, On the Twentieth Century, Rock of Ages, and After Midnight. She lends these productions a certain glamour but often disappears into the action unless you look for her. This summer she was awarded the annual Legacy Robe, that is passed down to a hard-working trouper.

Bahiyah Hibah in Legacy Robe

 

 

 

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Notable Dance Books of 2019

I love curling up with a good dance book. If you do too, then this column is for you. This year, with more and more dance books coming out, I’ve narrowed down the type of books I include in this list. I tend to enjoy accounts of dance artists’ lives rather than books on a particular technique or a particular theory. I like the story part of dance history.

Ted Shawn: His Life, Writings, and Dances
By Paul A. Scolieri
Oxford University Press

This book is epic. Paul Scolieri follows Ted Shawn’s life with wit and rigor, while also delving into the knotty issues surrounding dance, race, and sexual identity of those times. This is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the rugged road to modern dance.

Ted Shawn (1891­–1972) was a searcher and a builder. He searched for authenticity in dance and he built a foundation for modern dance. After a childhood marked by multiple tragedies, he dabbled in ballroom dance. He encountered the “chaste goddess” Ruth St. Denis, and together they shared a faith in dance as devotion. They formed Denishawn, the school and touring company that was the crucible of American modern dance. They were devoted to each other—at least professionally. In an early feminist gesture, she removed the word “obey” from their marriage vows. It was an open marriage before the term was coined, and the two had continual power struggles regarding their relationship as well as their careers.

Shawn was the first major male figure in American concert dance, and there was a certain amount of (necessary) narcissism in this. He unabashedly displayed his body as the ideal of white manhood. The writings of Havelock Ellis, who saw “inversion” (homosexuality) and art as harmonious, helped Shawn to envision his artistic next steps.

His interest in other cultures— Spain, India, Japan, China, Egypt—provided new material for dances and spectacles. He went on long pilgrimages, for instance to Algeria in search of Ouled Nial dancers, roughing it to find elements of dance that he could bring home to his American students and audiences.

The New York Times critic John Martin preferred the modernism of Shawn’s students, namely Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Charles Weidman, to Shawn’s “romanticism.” In the balance of art and entertainment, one could conclude that Denishawn tipped more toward entertainment (Shawn and St. Denis were closer chronologically to vaudeville), while Graham and Humphrey tipped toward art. One could also conclude that Shawn exploited other cultures to cash in on exoticism at home. Both are at least partly true, but Scolieri portrays Shawn and his psychological struggles with sympathy while also noting his blind spots.

One dramatic/hilarious scene occurs when Shawn, who was always finding work for Martha Graham, was faced with the young dynamo making a scene in a restaurant, screaming at him that his teaching offer was beneath her as an artist. Next day, according to him, she came crawling back to beg forgiveness.

Thickening the plot were Shawn’s tortured bisexuality and his belief in eugenics. This was before the horrors of Nazism, when eugenics, originally aligned with art, health, and labor, twisted toward racism. But the racism had been a subterranean current all along. For Shawn, jazz was “poisonous,” and the melting pot of New York City was a “cesspool.” As Scolieri repeats these opinions, he verbally cringes along with his reader.

Kinetic Molpai (1935), photo by John Lindquist, Courtesy Houghton Library, Harvard University

After many long Denishawn tours (the tour of Asia was more than one year) and side collaborations (including with German expressionist Margareta Wallmann), Shawn bought the land that is now Jacob’s Pillow. There he developed perhaps his most fulfilling project: Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers. The group gave 1,250 performances in 750 cities and four countries. One of his most successful works was Kinetic Molpai (1935), which exemplified his vision of male muscularity and camaraderie within architectural formations. The Men Dancers was a glorious long finale of Shawn’s performing and choreographing life.

The marvel of this book is not only the revelation of how hard Ted Shawn worked and how embattled he felt. It’s also that Scolieri finds an eloquent balance between giving Shawn his due and pointing out his obliviousness to his white privilege.

Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival is, of course, Ted Shawn’s most enduring legacy. That magnificent, constantly evolving dance mecca is only possible because of Shawn’s commitment, choreographic ability, courage, and leadership.

 

Jerome Robbins, by Himself
Selections from his letters, journals, drawings, photographs, and an unfinished memoir
Edited and with commentary by Amanda Vail
Alfred A. Knopf, Penguin Random House

There’s something delicious about reading Robbins’ account of himself and his life. We tune in to his desires, pleasures, plans, sorrows, and frustrations. His bright ideas are expressed modestly, his epiphanies promise inner peace. Whether rehearsals are going well or badly, he writes with the same intelligence and playfulness—and rawness—we see in his choreography.

Somehow, in between a myriad of choreographic projects, Robbins had time to write loving letters to his friends. To Donald Saddler, one of the original dancers at the start of Ballet Theatre (later ABT) who then joined the army in wartime, he writes often. He ends one letter with “My love to your mother and all your sisters.”

By all accounts, Robbins was difficult to work with: demanding and at times combative. This could be due to what he has called “heavy clouds of hot anxiety.”

Just before starting one of his greatest ballets, Dances at a Gathering (1969), he had an epiphany that “all mankind is related” through shared DNA. With this realization, he writes, “It seems to allow me to drop off my ego & my super defenses . . . I can begin to handle in contact, not in combat, people & places.”

In a 1967 letter, he  articulates why he loves dance: “The province of Dance . . . evokes emotions and reactions not describable in words . . . it’s like the trip under the mushroom. One can come out of it and flounder, make metaphors about it, but one can’t truly pin it down.”

His letters to Tanaquil Le Clercq, the ballerina (and Balanchine’s wife) who was laid low by polio in 1956, are full of compassion, passion, longing, and fun. But those qualities burst through all the letters and notes here, revealing a man who loves life in the deepest ways.

 

A Body in the O: Performances and Stories
By Tim Miller
University of Wisconsin Press

When Tim Miller first performed at P. S. 122 in the early ’80s, he was a breath of fresh air—both kinds of fresh. He was agile, unpredictable, clever, and brash. He would spray paint the word “faggot” on his chest. (Actually, he could only fit F-A-G onto himself, and his partner at the time, John Bernd, penned G-O-T on his own chest, so you could get the whole word only when they stood together.) Another time, I remember Miller kissing Peter Rose through a sheet of glass. He was and is an activist performance artist who has toured internationally. In this slim volume, his stories, scripts, and reminiscences glide into one other.

The struggle against homophobia is Miller’s main topic, and his stories about growing up queer are feisty, piquant, and raunchy. He recounts how the explosion of feminist performance at Women’s Building in L. A. “encouraged my agency . . . and also made me want to be a lesbian when I grew up.” In 1990, he was one of the NEA Four, whose grants from the National Endowment for the Arts were rescinded because their work was deemed indecent. (They sued and won their case in 1993—but at a cost: The NEA dropped its grants to individuals.) An advocate for performance artists as “first responders,” Miller co-founded both P. S. 122 (now NY Performance Space) and Highways Performance Space in Santa Monica.

His stated mission: “I am in the business of trying to get light bulbs to go on over people’s heads. I am also trying be a gay first responder when the bomb threats get phoned in; I am trying to…defuse the bombs of bigotry and suspicion that keep our country paralyzed. And when someone comes up to me and tells me that a glimmer of change just happened for him, it’s like we just hit the jackpot; the lightbulb going on. The treasure of what this country might someday become pours at our feet.”

 

Ray Bolger: More Than a Scarecrow
By Holly Van Leuven
Oxford University Press

Ray Bolger (1904–1987) was never as debonair as Fred Astaire or as crush-worthy as Gene Kelly. But he was a different kind of animal. He was an eccentric dancer, which meant he pushed everything to extremes—his limbs and his clownishness. The combination of stiff upper body and watery or jittery legs, his buoyant springiness and buckling spine—all this gave the illusion that he was out of control. But of course, every step was well rehearsed. In this clip from The Great Ziegfield (1936), his elegant tapping turns into staggering and lurching. One of his specialties was lowering into a split, drooping over in fatigue, then rising up by skooching his legs together. There simply was no one like him (though one can see echoes of him in Dick Van Dyke’s style.)

Of course, Bolger was his most lovable as the rubber-legged Scarecrow in “If I Only Had a Brain” in The Wizard of Oz (1939). But in this scene from the lesser known The Harvey Girls (1946), his goofiness is even more extreme.

In More Than a Scarecrow, Van Leuven explains, in dry but clear prose, how Bolger’s routine, which was in the legmania (or legomania) style of eccentric dance, was honed. He learned from predecessors in vaudeville like George Primrose, a white minstrel performer who traded steps with his black colleagues. He rose through vaudeville and early Broadway, largely due to his wife Gwen’s help in branding his act and getting gigs—even during the Depression.

In 1936 he originated the tap dance role in “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” in the musical On Your Toes, working with choreographer George Balanchine. While he relied on the master for a dose of ballet discipline, Balanchine relied on Bolger for his knowledge of American music. A quote from the ballet master: “This Bolger [has]…an amazing relationship to the rhythm of the music. His muscles have like the sense of humor.”

During the grueling seven-month shoot of The Wizard of Oz, Bolger was touched by Judy Garland’s innocence, and they became lifelong friends.

But Bolger didn’t enjoy making movies. He felt the process was mechanical, lacking in honesty and spontaneity. “I have to be free,” he said. “That’s the difficult thing in the motion picture business—I felt I was dancing in a phone booth.” At the end of his life, he wrote an ode to dancers he admired, saying they “left a little on the floor.” That’s what he hoped would be said of him too.

Actually, a good chunk of “If I Only Had a Brain” was left on the cutting room floor. Just for fun, take a look at this deleted sequence—he soars high above the cornfields and crashes into the fence—on YouTube.

 

Dancing with Merce Cunningham
By Marianne Preger-Simon
University Press of Florida

In 1949, the sole student who showed up to Merce Cunningham’s first technique class was Marianne Preger. It was just her, Merce, and his snapping fingers. She started dancing with him before he formed his company in 1953 and continued until 1958, remaining friends with him until his death in 2009. This book emphasizes her social relationship with Cunningham rather than the artistic challenges. Compared to Carolyn Brown’s astute, epic work, Chance and Circumstance: Twenty Years with Cunningham and Cage, it is light, easy reading. Preger-Simon repeatedly calls his work “lovely” and “wonderful.” She comes across as having a naturally cheerful temperament, which was a salve for Cunningham, especially during stressful times. As Alastair Macaulay suggests in the afterword, Preger-Simon was the prototype for a string of such company members, being the “least psychologically needy one.” This is borne out by many passages in which Cunningham and Preger are hanging out together. One of the high points is the author’s account of a post-performance party at which Cunningham breaks into a tap dance.

 

And while we’re on the subject of Merce…

Merce Cunningham Redux
By James Klosty
PowerHouse Books

This exquisite book of mostly photographs focuses on my favorite period of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company: the late ’60s to early ’70s. I have put my excitement about this lavishly augmented version into this posting.

 

How to Land: Finding Ground in an Unstable World
By Ann Cooper Albright
Oxford University Press

With her prodigious experience as a teacher of modern dance, a practitioner of Contact Improvisation, and a scholar of post-modern dance, Ann Cooper Albright lays out the connectivity between the experience of the body and the experience of the world. “Falls both literally and metaphorically knock us off our feet,” she asserts. She widens her meanings by comparing falling bodies to “falling buildings, falling planes, falling economies, falling governments.” Her students at Oberlin, she notes, are more agitated and less adventurous than previous generations, and she attributes this to post-9/11 and ensuing national disasters. But the book is prompted by a disaster of a more personal nature: the teenage nephew she was caring for plunged to his death during a daredevil dive. How to land is a poetic contemplation on the mind/body connection that helps us absorb such tragedies and move on.

Cooper Albright’s conviction “that there is a deep interconnectedness between how we think about the world and how we move through it” is supported in every part of the book. Dancers intuitively understand this, but Cooper Albright extends the idea to nondancers too. She posits three R’s of the body: responsiveness, resistance and resilience. Borrowing from Contact Improvisation and Body-Mind-Centering, she has come up with her own series of exercises to increase sensation and grounding. The chapters are arranged in a cycle: Falling, Disorientation, Suspension, Gravity, Resilience, and Connection. Each one riffs on a real experience in her own life. The chapter on disorientation, for example, begins with an account of being caught in a street protest in Athens when the police started unleashing tear gas.

Her imagination takes the reader into all kinds of insights. She envisions the skin as the screen door to the outside world. The body as home. How to Land accomplishes the wish of many artists: to be personal and universal at once.

 

Revolutionary Bodies: Chinese Dance and the Socialist Legacy
By Emily Wilcox
University of California Press

One of the few American dancers to have trained in China, Wilcox brings a fount of knowledge and experience to this book—not only of dance but of Chinese history in general. Contrary to the usual American narrative of Communist China shutting down individual artists’ work and producing propaganda ballets, Wilcox analyzes an array of Chinese 20th-century dance forms. She emphasizes the three founding principles of Chinese dance, as constructed by Trinidad-born choreographer Dai Ailian, who had trained in London: 1) kinesthetic nationalism (using movement from local sources), 2) spatial and ethnic inclusiveness (regarding minority ethnicities as good sources), and 3) dynamic inheritance (Chinese dance should draw on the past but also be new). Dai Ailian wanted the new aesthetic to be based on a merging of opposites: “northern and southern, secular and religious, elite and popular, rural and urban, Han [majority] and non-Han [equivalent of non-white].” In 1954, Dai became the first director of the Beijing Dance School.

Chinese opera, which combines music, words, movement, and acrobatic martial arts, was a rich resource in this project to construct a national dance form. Wilcox discusses other forms of dance that cropped up, like disco and hip hop. In the early 1980s, visits from Asian American dance artists Ruby Shang and Lan-Lan Wang were also influences. Wilcox tells us that Chinese dance today continues evolving through research and renewal.

While the author treads lightly on the repressiveness of Mao’s Cultural Revolution (1966–76), she does say that dance teachers were sent to do manual labor and that most forms of dance were banished during that period. But she also points out that women were given new respect. For example, marriage choice (as opposed to the tradition of arranged marriages) became a theme in the ballets of the period.

This book is the wave of the future in that it contains 19 QRs by which anyone with an iPhone can view video clips of the works she discusses. One fascinating example is the dance drama titled The Fires of Fury Are Burning (1964), performed by the PLA General Political Department Song and Dance Ensemble, about the brutality of American racism. It shows a community of people in blackface fighting a cruel white cop, complete with a burning cross and hooded KKK figures. In their naïve fashion—with exaggerated happy or angry facial expressions—this group was, according to Wilcox, “offering a message of support of African-American civil rights.”

 

Broadway, Balanchine & Beyond: A Memoir
Bettijane Sills with Elizabeth McPherson
Foreword by Carol K. Walker
University Press of Florida

Bettijane Sills, who danced in New York City Ballet from 1961 to 1972, shares her perspective on Balanchine’s approach. His avoidance of divas, treating technique class more as a choreographic laboratory than as a time for the dancers to warm up, his love of gossip, his abhorrence of pretense, earn him the term, in the author’s words, “benevolent dictator.” Although Sills rose from corps to soloist, certain obstacles prevented her from rising to principal status. One of them was the emotional see-saw tied to her fluctuations of weight: Balanchine would reward her with good roles when she was thin and take them away when she gained a few pounds. Ostensibly the fat shaming wasn’t just to become thin, but to become expressive. “You are like a cocoon,” he would say. “Your true personality will only be revealed when all the fat is gone, and you are down to your bones.” In this #MeToo era, she felt compelled to say he never sexually harassed her, but then again, she was careful to keep her distance.

There are moments of humor, particularly in what the dancers said among themselves. For instance, one passage of Serenade where they repeatedly touch their foreheads is called the “aspirin dance.” After nine years in the company, plus marriage and a child, Sills started teaching. She’s been on the faculty of SUNY Purchase Conservatory of Dance since 1979.

 

Keep It Moving: Lessons for the Rest of Your Life
By Twyla Tharp
Simon & Schuster

Until her ’70s, Twyla Tharp never had a serious injury. She considered dance a “sacred trust, the fulfillment of my pledge to respect and work hard with what I had.” But after an injury that wouldn’t heal, she felt defeated. Being an uber problem solver, Tharp came up with strategies to get through the recovery process. This book is two books in one: First, a dancer’s story of injury, depression, and healing; and second, a how-to book for anyone who is facing aging. As with her books The Creative Habit and The Collaborative Habit, this one has grit because Tharp has figured all this out for herself. Here are some examples of her sensible advice: “Age is not the enemy. Stagnation is the enemy. Complacency is the enemy. Stasis is the enemy.” Here’s another: “Get out of your own way; do not expect what you have been in the past to make your today.” But enough of the don’t’s. Here are some inspiring Do’s: “Be deliberate, act with intention. Move. Chase the sublime and the absurd. Make each day one where you emerge, unlock, excite, and discover.”

Tharp also sets forth a number of exercises that could be done by nondancers as well as by dancers. My favorite is the Squirm, a movement she calls “our common evolutionary beginning.”

On her way to healing, the choreographer still retains her sense of wonder. For inspiration she watches an iPhone video of her grandson’s first steps, which reminds her “how incredibly courageous we all are as little mites lurching about in space.” And she’s thankful for the “freedom to be able to learn something for the second time around.” Of course, Tharp herself, still choreographing in her late ’70s, is an inspiration.

 

Glory: A Life Among Legends
By Glory Van Scott
Self published, widely available online

Dancer, educator, producer Dr. Glory Van Scott grew up in Chicago with obvious talent as a dancer and singer. One of six children whose parents were a doctor and a model, she seemed to have a comfortable childhood. But in 1955, she learned that her cousin, Emmett Till, was murdered in Mississippi for possibly whistling at a white woman. At that moment she vowed not to succumb to violence and revenge, ever.

The legends she worked with include George Balanchine (in House of Flowers), Katherine Dunham, Agnes De Mille, Talley Beatty, Langston Hughes, and Miles Davis. Although Balanchine wanted her to dance in his company, she declined and went instead with Katherine Dunham. (Arthur Mitchell tells a great story about how he and Tanaquil Le Clerq tried to convince Van Scott to join New York City Ballet, but she not interested. (Go five minutes into this clip). She took on some roles that only Miss Dunham had done.

A charismatic performer, Van Scott danced in many musicals including House of Flowers, Finian’s Rainbow, Showboat, Porgy and Bess, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Billy No Name, and Langston Hughes’s Prodigal Son. In 1978 she coordinated “The Magic of Katherine Dunham,” a historic series for the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. She also produced many children’s shows and memorial concerts for Miss Dunham, Syvilla Fort, and Talley Beatty. The current Dr. Glory’s Youth Theatre is still performing. In fact, Manhattan Borough President Gale Brewer’s office proclaimed December 1, 2019, “Dr. Glory’s Youth Theatre Appreciation Day.”

 

Marius Petipa, The Emperor’s Ballet Master
By Nadine Meisner
Oxford University Press

We tend to think of Marius Petipa (1818–1910) as ancient history. But he was the beginning of ballet as we know it. In this exhaustive study, Nadine Meisner emphasizes that Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes was built on the foundation that Petipa had laid. He oversaw the evolution from romanticism to the clean lines of classical ballet. In 1909, when Ballets Russes revived interest in ballet in Europe—only a year before Petipa’s death—it brought ballet full circle, since Petipa had started in France.

A member of a dancing family, Petipa came to St. Petersburg as a performer in 1847. He stayed on, excelling in character roles, for 22 years. From 1869 to 1904, as ballet master, he created ballets that Meisner calls “exciting yet refined.” He learned from his predecessors. For example, Perrot (creator of Giselle) was good at manipulating large numbers of people onstage, and Saint-Léon (creator of Coppelia) was good at making solos. Petipa made or re-made many ballets in addition to the ones he is most known for: The Sleeping Beauty (1890), Nutcracker (1892, for which he had more to do with the libretto than the choreography) and Swan Lake (1895).

As ballet master, Petipa was strict but well loved. In 1904, after he was replaced, some of the dancers—including Pavlova and Karsavina— signed a petition demanding that he be hired back. But the current directorate had no such plan.

Meisner doesn’t shy away from Petipa’s artistic weaknesses: Long processions interrupted the plot, the narrative was carried by mime instead of dancing, and the virtuoso steps did not match the story. She quotes a critic who called his first big ballet, The Pharoah’s Daughter (1862), “interminable.” But Petipa knew how to give the public the spectacles they wanted. Meisner contends that his choreography led to the reforms of Balanchine. “In the century’s final decade,” she writes, “the proportion of dance to drama increased in dance’s favour, opening the door to the plotless ballets of the twentieth century.”

 

I’ve written endorsements for two books, and I repeat them here:

Making Dances That Matter: Resources for Community Creativity
By Anna Halprin with Rachel Kaplan
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
“Anna Halprin is a pioneer of postmodern dance, a warrior for connecting arts to social issues, and a healer of individuals and communities. Here, in crystal clear prose, her wisdom of the-body-in-the-world tumbles out. Borrowing concepts from various cultural traditions, Halprin lays out the scores she has created over a long lifetime of exploring and transgressing. Her ability to integrate body, mind, and spirit is both soothing and exhilarating.”

Drawing the Surface of Dance: A Biography in Charts
By Annie-B Parson
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
“After a dance is gone, what traces are left? For Annie-B Parson, her drawings, charts, and observations of motifs provide a rich afterlife. She has created hundreds of these two-dimensional forms that challenge the ephemerality of dance. They depict the most tangible part of her dances: the objects that float in and out of her enigmatic collaborations with playwright/director Paul Lazar. They are clues to Parson’s fertile imagination. Gathered into Darwinian sets of sub-species, they take on an incantatory power.”

 

Other Books Received

Sonidos Negros: On the Blackness of Flamenco
By K. Meira Goldberg
Oxford University Press
One of New York’s great flamencas, Meira Goldberg (aka La Meira) has become a distinguished dancer/scholar. In this book, she finds the ideas of writers like Robert Farris Thompson and Toni Morrison “useful in cracking the carapace of flamenco’s weird stereotype” as the Other. She finds new wrinkles in the annals of blackface minstrelsy that pertain to gypsies. She writes about the “minstrelized Gitano, who carried a hybrid of Spanish and American representations of Blackness directly into flamenco.” The place of the soul in flamenco, according to Goldberg, is the “place of exile, the place at the heart of Spanish identity wherein lie “the Gypsy, the black, the Jew [and] the Moor.”

Out Loud, A Memoir
By Mark Morris with Wesley Spence
Penguin Random House
This review by Brian Seibert in The New York Times says it all.

La Meri and Her Life Dance: Performing the World
By Nancy Lee Chalfa Ruyter
University Press of Florida
La Meri (1899–1988), was known, in her day, as a remarkably versatile “ethnic dancer.” After studying Indian classical dance in India and flamenco in Spain, she toured with a wide-ranging repertoire throughout Europe, Asia, and Latin America. For many years she taught and performed at Jacob’s Pillow. This is the first biography of a woman who pioneered the form of what we now call “world dance.”

Staging Brazil: Choreographies of Capoeira
By Ana Paula Höfling
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
In the 1830s, capoeira was a violent martial art. Opponents were described as “throwing themselves against each other like rams,” often ending in knife fights. In 1890, capoeira was prohibited from being practiced in public spaces. It eventually acquired more gymnastic and musical skills and was named “Brazil’s national sport.” Now that it’s a popular export, Höfling addresses questions like How much is still connected to the African diaspora? How pure are the rituals? Some feel that capoeira “magnified European audiences’ fantasies of a savage, wild, barely-under-control Afro-diasporic corporeality.” Höfling’s aim is “to untangle the notions of Africa, traditions, and the past” and look at the true complexity of capoeira today.

Physics and Dance
Emily Coates and Sarah Demers
Yale University Press
A beautifully written exploration into the interconnections between physics and dance, co-written by dance artist Emily Coates, who has worked closely with Jerome Robbins, Twyla Tharp, and Yvonne Rainer; and physicist Sarah Demers. Finding points of contact between how a dancer and a physicist look at motion, energy, time and space takes on a certain eloquence when the dancer is a thinker in her own right.

Celluloid Classicism: Early Tamil Cinema and the Making of Modern Bharatanatyam
By Hari Krishnan
Wesleyan University Press
Distributed by HFS Books
On the intersection and cross influence between film of South India and the evolution of the classical Indian dance form Bharatanatyam.

After the Arbitrary: Merce Cunningham, Chance Operations, and The Human Situation on Stage
By Carrie Noland
University of Chicago Press
This book de-emphasizes the role of chance in Cunningham’s choreographic process. According to the press release, Noland shows that the choreographer “enacted archetypal human dramas.”

Love, Icebox: Letters from John Cage to Merce Cunningham
Foreword, Commentary, and Afterword by Laura Kuhn
The John Cage Trust
Available at Artbook
Charming, casual, poetic notes about John Cage’s own composing process—and about falling in love with Merce. And gossip. One revelation is that Jerome Robbins wanted Cunningham for a lead in his musical On the Town. The letters get intense when Cage loses his equanimity, admitting to Merce that he needs to know if Merce feels the same way.

 

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Cunningham 3D Film Thrums with Life

Note: Cunningham, the 3D film, opens in theaters in the U.S. on December 13, 2019. This posting is adapted from my preview appearing in the December 2019 issue of the Berlin-based journal, Tanz.

Merce Cunningham was never interested in a linear path of beginning, middle and end—in time or in space. He liked to make dances where you experienced everything at once, where the movement, sound, and visual design rushed at you—seemingly unrelated. He wanted the dancers to move through a field of space, not just the stage with its two-dimensional proscenium setting. In this centennial year, the 93-minute film Cunningham, directed by Alla Kovgan, indulges that wish.

Alla Kovgan,, photo by Martin Miseré

With his groundbreaking ideas and quicksilver choreography, Cunningham ushered in the American phenomenon of post-modernism in dance. No longer was a story necessary to hang the choreography on. No longer was the center of the stage the center of attention. Dance could exist anywhere, and any kind of movement could be dance. “No fixed points” was a phrase he coined, meaning the dancing does not need to have a single front. This was part of his pledge to expand the possibilities for dance. It’s a particularly American exploration, parallel to composer John Cage’s idea that any sound can be music.

Thus it is surprising that a young filmmaker from Russia—that land of classical ballet—has produced such an illuminating film on Cunningham’s life (1919–2009) and work. Kovgan has dug deep into his vast output—vast in amount of choreography, and vast in the distance he traveled away from the theatricality of early modern dance. Kovgan, who considers herself a “formalist at heart,” was inspired by a photo of Summerspace (1958) with the no-center, pointillistic décor by Robert Rauschenberg, in which Cunningham tried to create an immersive environment.

Summerspace with, from left: Viola Farber, Carolyn Brown in arabesque, Merce Cunningham, Shareen Blair, Judith Dunn looking up, and Steve Paxton, photo by Richard Rutledge c. 1961

The film interweaves black-and-white archival footage with a series of new reconstructions in several sumptuous sites, shot in 3D. In the opening scene, you feel you are inside a long tunnel, slowly approaching a sole dancer. It doesn’t matter what the dancer is doing; what matters is the eerie, telescoping sensation conjured by the 3D camera. Other environments, all for current dancers directed by Jennifer Goggans, include a pine forest, a clearing near a pond, a ballroom, and the Westbeth rooftop next to the Hudson River. Each new setting floods the senses; the 3D effect envelops you in the space, illustrating the point that Cunningham envisioned dance in a field as opposed to a flat space. The camera moves in such a kinetic way that you feel you are inside the action. In the reconstructed Rainforest (1968), you feel as though you could almost tap Andy Warhol’s silver pillows away.

Westbeth Rooftop, photo by Mko Malkshasyan

The early footage of Cunningham dancing solo reveals the explosive quality of his dancing. He threw himself into odd, chance-derived movements that were both wild and precise. His fervent energy was unstoppable. In the 60s, when the work was still new, his dancers were distinct individuals. I found the archival close-ups of Carolyn Brown, Viola Farber, Sandra Neels, Barbara Dilley, Gus Solomons, jr, and Valda Setterfield to be especially poignant. Dilley comments that Cunningham left space for them to be themselves within the choreography. (That became less true as the age gap between Cunningham and his dancers widened.)

The soundtrack includes comments from Cunningham and Cage that reflect their philosophy. For example, we hear Merce saying to a journalist, “We don’t interpret something. We present something, we do something, and then any kind of interpretation is left up to anybody looking at it in the audience.”

Merce Cunningham in Changeling (1957) photo by Richard Rutledge ,Courtesy_Magnolia

The different modes of archival footage, the 3D reconstructions, portraits, and interviews coexist, sometimes simultaneously. As with Cunningham’s choreography, you are encountering several modes at once so it feels like all your neurons are firing as you watch. Even though the reconstructions include only dances between 1944 and 1972, for example Septet (1953), Antic Meet (1957), and Winterbranch (1964), all these elements come together to form a complete picture of Cunningham’s oeuvre. The variety of modes invites us to experience his work rather than to categorize it. And we get to hear about his own subjective experience: “Inside of all that is an ecstasy, brief perhaps, not always released, but, when it is, it is like a moment in balance when all things great and small coincide.”

It took years before Cunningham’s work was accepted, and it is still considered controversial. Replying to a journalist asking about the negative reactions in the early days, Merce says, “No matter how dire the situation was, how desperate, I would wake up one day and start to work and suddenly realize that it was just as interesting as it always had been.”

Poster outside Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center

Schedules and tickets in NYC are available at Film Society of Lincoln Center and Film Forum. To see the trailer and schedules in other cities, go to Magnolia Films.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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When Queer Means More than Sexual Orientation

As participants in the Dance Studies Association conference at Northwestern University last weekend, we were getting acclimated to terms like transindividuated signature, Ashkenormativity, and socio-spatial tactics of de-familiarization. So you could imagine our relief when greeted by the drag hostess LaWhore Vagistan in full South Asian regalia at Links Hall in Chicago. She was brilliantly funny while flaunting non-binary gender as well as non-binary nationality. Her preferred pronouns, she announced, are “she, her, hers, and aunty.”  Bedecked in a glittering two-piece outfit and strutting in sparkly stiletto heels, she claimed that her aunties taught her that “sequins are for daytime.” She introduced the various acts of “Explode! Midwest Queer Dance Festival” with great generosity, and she applied Bollywood and Vegas skills to her own three numbers. (Check her out here. In the program notes she is identified as the alter ego of Kareem Khubchandani, assistant professor at Tufts University. )

All photos by Al Evangelista

 

Lee Na-Moo in Nostalgia

Not officially in drag but definitely androgynous, was Lee Na-Moo in his solo Nostalgia. Wearing a swirling ice-skating–type costume, he offered a display of astonishing articulation, combining filigree East Indian hands with ballet legs. A generous dose of pelvic bumps earned the genre name “contemporary bellydance fusion.” Lee Na-Moo seems not only a fusion of genders and genres but also a fusion of child/adult. There was something tender about this solo, both knowing and innocent.

Dedrick Gray performed aMoratorium: at the altar, it may not be my time, a deeply touching solo choreographed by JSun Howard. Starting on a chair, with his hand palpitating his heart, Gray allowed the movement to grow and evolve, punctuated by jolts like pouncing on top of the chair. He seemed so lost and desperate — not in a theatrical way, but in a way that made you feel you were right there with him. He staggered across the space, sometimes murmuring something like, “Why can’t you let me be myself.” After dragging himself on the ground, he clung to the chair with such a great need for touch, for warmth, that it brought tears to my eyes. This solo was a rare example of choreography and performance being unified as one.

Dedrick Gray in aMoratorium: at the altar, it may not be my time

When Jennifer Monson airs her absurdist side, all is right with the world. This supremely impulsive master improviser has met her match in Nibia Pastrana Santiago, a young dancer/scholar from San Juan. In Choreographies of Disaster, Installment 3, Monson posed the conundrum, “Is it possible to dance without referencing dance?” Santiago launched into a series of almost-nothing moves that were so sneaky and self-sabotaging that we erupted in laughter. Later Monson and Santiago, both topless, smashed into each other’s body parts with awkward aplomb. The next day, when scholar/dramaturg Katherine Profeta, in her paper titled “The Promise of Common Creation in Contact Improv and Improv Comedy” quoted Ishmael Houston-Jones’ pledge to “fuck with the flow,” to interrupt the flow, I thought of this duet.

Jennifer Monson and Nibia Pastrana Santiago

Pop Refuge, choreographed by Joel Valentin-Martinez, involved two young women, Keila Hamed-Ramos and Maddy Veitch, trying on different gender identities. The duet was notable mainly for the extravagantly, richly colored ground cloth (by Jeff Hancock) that wrapped around one woman or the other, allowing their fantasies to blossom.

We saw two habitually male Africanist forms taken over by women: a new one and a traditional one. In the former, MurdaMommy and Diamond Hardiman showed us the crazy fast scissoring of Chicago footwork. The latter was represented by the Chicago-based Ayodele Drum & Dance in Guinea Suite, choreographed and directed by artistic director T. Ayo Alston. This powerful all-woman group pounded out a storm of beats, with percussive dancing and beaded costumes to match. In the West African tradition, sometimes the drummers danced and the dancers drummed—another non-binary aspect for this LGBTQ celebration.

Ayodele Drum and Dance in Guinea Suite

I close with a quote from Clare Croft, founding curator of Explode!. In the book she edited, Queer Dance: Meanings and Makings, she writes:
“Dancing queerly, when we respect it as a politics that…eludes clear definition, challenges us to think of queer as social action consciously entangled with fantasy, desire, and physical practice. As we dance, dreaming and doing are not separate.”

 

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The Swirls of Dancing in China

Dance people in China are curious about dance in the West—and it goes both ways. In June, I was a guest engaged in two genres—ballet and modern dance—in two cities—Shanghai and Beijing. I participated in dialogues, gave lectures, directed workshops, and observed classes and rehearsals. I became curious about two dance forms that are largely absent in the United States: Chinese classical dance and dance drama. And a bonus: I saw a very exciting young choreographer. I learned a lot about China through dance—and through the quietly wheeling, arcing traffic at large intersections.

Traveling by wheels

Here is how this double-duty exchange happened. Yuan Yuan Tan, the great Chinese ballerina of San Francisco Ballet, invited me to speak in the forum sponsored by her Tan Yuanyuan Studio. Around the same time, I was re-invited to speak on post-modern dance by Professor Qing-Yi Liu at Shanghai Theatre Academy and Wang Xin at Beijing Dance Academy. The latter two invitations came through Lan-Lan Wang, the tireless Chinese-American dancer/teacher/producer who has organized many China-U.S. exchanges. (In 2017, Lan-Lan had arranged for two of my articles on Trisha Brown to be translated and published in Chinese dance journals.) So this trip expanded into a week in Shanghai and a week in Beijing.

 

Tan Yuanyuan Studio Forum

Every year, YY’s Studio, under the auspices of Shanghai Theatre Academy, organizes a forum to illuminate dance in some way. This year’s forum presented three events: an evening about John Neumeier’s The Little Mermaid, a dialogue on contemporary choreographers, and a roundtable of local scholars and teachers (plus me) talking about current trends in dance.

During the first evening, I realized what a charismatic speaker YY is. She was in her element—lively, fun, and spontaneous—talking about the challenges of The Little Mermaid. This ballet, based on a Hans Christian Andersen tale and defined by Neumeier as a dance drama, was a turning point for her. It challenged her to dig into herself and find the acting skills to portray the Mermaid. Her recent partner in that ballet is Aaron Robison, the charming British dancer who recently joined SFB. In between film clips of the ballet, YY and Aaron demonstrated the tricky lifts while the Mermaid is swishing her blue satin-y tail—which YY had brought all the way from San Francisco. They described the injuries they incurred—to knees, to rib cage—while working on the ballet. In the film clips you could see how YY used her face to express the Mermaid’s yearning and despair, and let her legs collapse under her to show the pain of learning to locomote on land. She said she had to allow herself to be “ugly,” which to me means letting go of ballet aesthetics to portray an extreme state of feeling. Even on film, her portrayal cut to the heart. As Steven Winn wrote in SF Chronicle, “The masterpiece here is the Little Mermaid herself, brought to heartbreakingly vivid life by Yuan Yuan Tan on opening night. In an absolutely astonishing, emotionally fearless performance, Tan leaves everything on the stage . . . Tan is utterly committed to the emotional truth of the moment.”

Yuan Yuan Tan with Aaron Robison in The Little Mermaid. Photo by Erik Tomasson

The second event was a dialogue between YY and me about contemporary ballet choreographers. I had chosen four who had worked closely with YY: Christopher Wheeldon, Alexei Ratmansky, William Forsythe and Wayne McGregor. I showed some images, described their styles briefly, and asked YY to talk about working with them. Having been a muse for some of these choreographers, she gave us insights about their work. (Sorry, I can’t tell you what she said because, well, she was speaking Chinese. My interpreter was whispering in my ear, but I didn’t catch all of it.)

In dialogue with YY. My interpreter, Brenda Liu, is to my right.

The final event of this forum was a “roundtable,” though we were rushed for time so the table never rounded into a discussion. As the first speaker, I was asked to describe trends that I see in dance today. I chose three that I thought might be transferable: dancing in museums, excavating dance history, and cultural hybrids. One of the following speakers, producer Frank Fu, emphasized the necessity to target new audiences. In response to my talk, he joked that dance in museums is just “making noise or rolling around on the floor.” This ticked me off, so I decided to include more slides of dance in museums in the next leg of my journey (after YY’s forum), which was a lecture on “Judson Dance Theater and Post-Modern Dance.” It so happened that, a few days earlier, the NYC–based Chinese choreographer Yin Mei had premiered a site-specific work to celebrate the new Modern Industrial Museum in Wuhan, Hubei Province. This was a big deal because the museum was designed by world-famous architect Daniel Libeskind. Yin Mei had sent me pictures on WeChat and told me it was live-streamed and viewed by 340,000 people. I hope someone tells Mr. Fu about it!

Tilting Toward the Sky, Yin Mei’s site-specific work at the Modern Industrial Museum, June 2019

We also visited Shanghai Dance School, YY’s old training ground, now part of the Shanghai International Dance Center. They have reason to be proud of their illustrious alumna: YY is the first Chinese ballerina to become an international superstar and has been deemed a national hero. On the wall is a life-size picture of her younger self in a white tutu.

YY with photo of her younger self at Shanghai Dance School

We saw a rehearsal of a garland waltz with lovely, proud 13-year-old girls and boys. But it was the modern dance class taught by Kong Lin Lin that grabbed me. She had 14-year-olds yanking their legs up, throwing themselves off-balance, twisting and turning, ducking under each other—all at the barre even before coming center. At first I was alarmed by the yanking, preferring leg lifts to be somatically supported. But then I was taken by the sheer ingenuity of the steps and the girl-on-girl partnering. The students charged across the floor and threw themselves into very physical pulling and sharing weight, like an aggressive, brisk version of contact improvisation. (Btw, I later saw a workshop given by Beijing CI [Contact Improvisation] for non-dancers of all ages, including three children.)

Modern dance lass of 14-year-olds taught by Kong Lin Lin

Later, Still in Shanghai

After the YY Studio forum was over, I visited a rehearsal of Xie Xin, a rising choreographer who is an artistic associate of Shanghai International Dance Center. She is an extraordinary mover: expansive, range-y, and wild. Her leg swings at the barre activated the rest of her body so that nothing was still, everything was in motion—and that was just her instant warm-up. Her movement swirls like rush-hour traffic, with arcs all over the place. She seems to have gaga, contact improvisation, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, and William Forsythe all in her body. Her work is as fluid and calligraphic as Cloud Gate but more forceful, more raw, and occasionally ominous. Her dancers connect with each other in very physical ways. I’m not the only one who finds her work exciting. In the five years she’s had her company, Xiexin Dance Theatre, they’ve performed in festivals in Europe (she appears at the Festival d’Eté in Paris soon) and she’s collaborated with the Ballet Boyz in London. I am hoping her company comes to the U.S. soon.

Xiexin Dance Theatre in rehearsl, Xie Xin at right.

The link between the events at YY’s forum and the later schedule at Shanghai Theatre Academy was Professor Qing-Yi LIU. A notable dance historian, she was the last speaker in YY’s roundtable and is also one of the people who advocated for bringing me to China. She is the founder and editor of the bilingual Journal of Contemporary Research in Dance, which had published one of my essays on Trisha Brown. According to Miranda Yao, who transcribed the forum tapes, Professor LIU “expressed her disappointment with what’s happening here and now, the mainstream dance community’s lack of creativity/originality, not involved or paying attention to the real world, the real life of real people.” Quite critical—but also showing her desire for a great artist to emerge from China’s training. This gave me a hint of why she wanted me to speak about Judson and to give a workshop: to open up ways for the Chinese dancers to be creative.

I did see plenty of creativity in the workshops I gave. In the first one I applied the Trisha Brown “lining up” method, which I had been part of when she/we made Line Up in the 70s. It’s a group process that allows people to relate to each other in quicksilver manner, then to recall and reconstruct short, 10-second segments of improvisation. The 50 or so students were quick and lively and worked well together. But I think something got lost in translation because they tried to choreograph on each other rather than improvise with each other. And that was OK because I could see their impulses and ideas coming through.

Talking with class in Shanghai. My interpreter, in pink, is Margaret Zhang.

I also gave a lecture on Trisha Brown with photos and videos. At the end of it, Professor Liu, again challenging her colleagues and students, posed a question similar to her earlier comment: With all our excellent training in China, why can’t we produce a master artist like Trisha Brown? At which point, I believe I said, There is no formula for producing a great artist. And I noted too that China has produced major dance artists like Lin Hwa-Min, Shen Wei, Yin Mei and Ma Cong—and those are just the ones I know about.

There’s a new crop of dance artists within China. As arranged by the Chinese Dancers’ Association, I saw informal showings by five independent choreographers. They hailed from different backgrounds, and they showed mostly solo excerpts of longer works. (I am putting family names in upper case.) There was ZHAXI Wangjia, who has worked with Beijing LDTX; LEI Yan from TAO Dance Theater and Beijing Modern Dance Company; ZHANG Yixiang, from National Ballet of China; WANG Zhenbin, who was trained in the military dance academy and choreographs for the navy dance company; and PANG Guan Yu, who is with the Oriental Song and Dance Company. Each one combined powerful dance ability with laser focus, and each had an individual style. I also saw videos of the promising young RAO Yuhong (“Hugo”), and of FEI Bo, who choreographs for ballet companies.

We are looking at a video of Zhaxti Wangjia, who is on the floor. Wu Menghang, next to me, was interpreting. LEI Yan is at right. Photo by Jiao Jiao

Beijing Dance Academy

This world-renowned dance center, with three theaters and more than 60 studios, hosted me in several departments. The first thing I did was watch demonstrations—female and male separately— of Chinese classical dance. Formulated in the 1950s as a way to reflect the essence of Chinese aesthetics, Chinese classical dance combines movements from Chinese opera (which contains acrobatics), martial arts, and ballet. It was banned during the Cultural Revolution but resumed during the period of reform and opening up in the 1980s, when it developed in universities. At first the movement looked very Western to me, with balletic lines and lots of attitude turns and Kitri jumps. But my interpreter Sally CAI, who is Canadian-Chinese, pointed out how this form favors spirals and circularity as opposed to the shooting upward-ness of ballet. The women’s hands curve back, and their torsos spiral into flowing shapes. There’s a yin-yang element, for instance the body goes left before it goes right or goes up before going down. Chinese classical dance is spectacular in its rigor and vigor. A few women did 12 split leaps without a breath in between, and then a stag leap before running off. The men do a machine-gun turn (called Sao Tang in Chinese) where they are facing down, three limbs outstretched, and they whip around as their back leg and front arms tap the floor to build momentum.

But where Chinese classical dance became alive artistically was in the repertory class. Though still in very prescribed gender roles, the boys and girls danced together in Yellow River (1988). Heroic masses of men and women surging across the stage in interesting groupings. When their arms were held out to the side, carving the space with elbows upward, it reminded me of the fierceness of Martha Graham’s all-woman masterpiece Chronicle (1936). The whole display was kinetically exciting.

Rehearsal of Yellow River

Another category, folk dance, involves vivid displays and colorful costumes. These are staged versions of various regional dances, with—again—men and women always separate. In Guzi Yang Ge (Seedling Song Drum Dance), the boys start in super limbo position, feet planted firmly, pelvis thrust way forward. Before coming upright, they spiral around to the other side. In the Chaoxian dance, the women wear pale green gowns and dance with slow ritual power. (More varieties of folk dance are taught at the neighboring Minzu University of China, which contains greater ethnic diversity.)

Secondary school boys in a performance of a Tibetan folk dance. Courtesy BDA

BDA’s Department of Creativity sponsored my two compositional workshops, as coordinated by Liu Bing. I gave the lining up workshop here too, with more improvisation beforehand to prepare for it. But it was my second workshop here, with my own approach to group making, that really took off. They did wonderful, impulsive, zany things, fitting themselves into each other’s scenarios—all with a solid sense of form. Well, I should specify that it was the boys who did those things. The girls seemed inhibited. At the end of class, when I asked who wanted to continue choreographing when school was over, almost all the boys raised their hands and almost all the girls kept their hands down. I wasn’t surprised. I had already noticed that the gender divide is similar to the U.S. only more extreme.

Teaching class at BDA. My interpreter, Sally Cai is at my left. Photo by Liu Bing

The Department of Humanities, led by WANG Xin, hosted my PowerPoint lecture, Judson Dance Theater and Post-Modern dance. My talk prompted some good questions from the students and scholars present.

After my Judson lecture, I was surrounded by many scholars including Ou Jianping, Mu Yu, Qing Qing, Wang Xin, Liu Bing, Jessie Zhang, Wu Menghang, and Sally Cai.

One question was, What came after post-modern dance? I think I rattled off some recent developments like dances of cultural identity and urban dance forms like hip hop as concert dance. But I wish I had quoted Yin Mei, who messaged me recently, saying that post-modern dance “opens up possibilities.” So I wish I had said, What comes after is the freedom to experiment.

Building a structure one at a time. Photo by Liu Bing

Another belated answer: After one of my lectures, a young woman came up and asked me, “What is the difference between Chinese bodies and American bodies?” Or maybe she said, “Asian bodies and Western bodies.” This is the new way Ph.D. people talk about dance and culture, for example, the “black dancing body,” or the “queer body.” When she asked this question, my response was to point out that there is a great range within Asian bodies, and a great range within Western bodies. I’m afraid I implied that the question was simplistic, reductive. But a couple days later, when Sally CAI and I were on the steps of the vast National Center for Performing Arts, where many families were relaxing or at play, I saw a toddler squatting, folding up his little body as is typical for Asian children. I never see American kids squatting in that exact way—for whatever reason. My thoughts went immediately to the “squatting toilets,” which are more prevalent than seated toilets in China. So now my answer would be, The difference between Chinese and American bodies is in squat-ability.

With class in Creativity Dept of BDA, Sally Cai and me at left. Photo by Liu Bing.

The Humanities Department also sponsored two classes in dance writing. Even though I don’t know the language at all, it’s fun to talk about language. (I had noticed that certain Americanisms are used easily in China: OK, taxi, bye-bye, and Omigod.) About 40 people crammed into the classroom of the first writing workshop. In lieu of a live performance, I showed them Babette Mangolte’s celebrated film of Trisha Brown in her solo Water Motor (1978) and asked them to describe it. Most said words like “free” and “fluid.” But one older gentleman who teaches at BDA called it “madness.” That really gave me pause. I might have joked and said, well all art is a kind of madness. But I do remember that I felt compelled to say the obvious —that the choreographer had created each of those movements herself—because I suddenly felt a wide culture gap as to the understanding of originality—or maybe just a difference in aesthetics.

By the second writing class, they had self-selected down to a more manageable 15 or so. With that size, I was able to send them outside to observe motion in nature and people. And those 15 are serious about dance writing. Some of them, like Mu Yu, have already published books on dance.

From left: Wang Xin, me, Sally Cai

Lingering Thoughts

Swirls of traffic.  The bicycles, scooter, motorcycles, and delivery carts are all whisper quiet. They wheel around in arcs rather cross the street in straight lines. But then, everything swirls in China. The carpets in the hotel, and even the small pillow on China Air flights, have swirls. Sally Cai explained to me that the Chinese tend to think in circles and spirals rather than linear patterns. The swirling designs represent clouds and also qi, or chi, the energy of the life force.

Dance dramas. As I mentioned, Neumeier calls The Little Mermaid (and probably all his big ballets) a “dance drama.” That got me thinking about this genre, which is popular in China but not at all in the United States. I cannot think of a single ballet choreographed in our country that falls under the heading dance drama (except possibly some of Ratmansky’s full-length works). Yet in China and in Russia (where they call it dram-balyet—think Spartacus, or Eifman’s Hamlet), it is the major style of ballet.

Dance dramas are based on a story, but they rely more on acting than classics like Giselle or Coppélia. Every scene is highly dramatic and every movement relates to the plot. This form makes sure the audience gets every twist of plot and responds to every intense emotion. It can be heart-wrenching if you’re in the right mood.

But in general, this constant drama doesn’t go over in the States, or at least not in New York. Audiences here want a bit of modulation, of complexity, subtlety. We need the space to come to our own conclusions. The insistence on a detailed narrative seems too literal to us. The work of both Balanchine and Cunningham has attuned us to the pleasures of dance for its own sake. We are energized by a plurality of interpretation; we don’t want to be locked into the roller-coaster of theatricalized emotion.

The Chinese preference for dance dramas can be traced back to the two propaganda ballets of Mao’s time. I happened to see one of them, The White-haired Girl (1965), at the magnificent, vast National Center for the Performing Arts, courtesy of Wang Xin in the Humanities Department. It was performed by the Shanghai Ballet, with the heavenly Qi Bingxue as the peasant girl before her hair turns white. Like the more famous Red Detachment of Women, this was created (by committee, it seems) to glorify the struggle of the workers. What I loved is that it shows women in trousers the whole ballet through. No filmy sylphs or evil seductresses in these Communist ballets! The sweetness of Qi Bingxue’s upper body made the ballet appealing to me, and we saw her exquisite legs and feet through those silky trousers.

A 1973 poster for The White-haired Girl

This ballet was made in 1965 as a dance version of the classic 1945 opera. So there’s a leftover opera feeling, with a bad recording of typically shrill old-fashioned arias at the beginning of each solo—as though the choreographic committee didn’t trust that dance itself could fully express the narrative situation.

But I was impressed that women were the heroes in this ballet (as well as in The Red Detachment of Women.) Apparently Mao had proclaimed, “Women hold up half the sky.” The fact that women had been even more downtrodden than men in feudal times made for a greater heroic leap to imagine women as leading the revolution. Let me add that in all other ways this ballet conforms to the typical dance drama aesthetic: very obvious characters, emphatic acting in every scene, and a super clear story of heartbreak and heroism. The soldiers are all motivated, their girlfriends are happy, and the landlords are all tyrants. The choreography mainly pushes the message along—with detours for divertissements like the traditional ribbon dance—but with very little inventiveness.

However, with a bit of irony, a bit of noir, a bit of imagination, this form can be scintillating. I was thrilled to witness the rehearsal of Shanghai Dance Theater in a new, quite brilliant dance drama titled The Eternal Wave. It is based on the 1958 spy novel of the same name. (Shanghai Dance Theater is very different from the Shanghai Ballet, though both are housed in the Shanghai International Dance Center and both have more than 100 dancers.) The dancing was technically superb, the acting was intense, and the choreography was well crafted. I wasn’t surprised to learn that this ballet, choreographed by two women, Han Zhen and Zhou Liya, won the Ministry of Culture’s highest prize (Wen Hua Prize) for this last season. The choreography was ingenious in its formations and inventive in its detail—not at all predictable like the propaganda ballets. It was full of mysterious encounters, highly stylized tableau, brilliant use of trench coats, and a thrashing solo for the male protagonist that was both poignant and powerful. Wish I could’ve stayed an extra week to see it performed onstage.

A scene from The Eternal Wave in performance.

Gender stereotypes. In all the training sessions, the classes were separated by gender. In Chinese classical dance, the women’s faces were adorned with unfailing smiles. Whether the smiles were cheerful, sad, or strained, they signaled a desire to please. A willingness to be accommodating. A sense of confinement. The men showed their strength by striding confidently or lunging as though wielding a weapon. In both cases, the phrase “trapped by gender” entered my mind. Of course ballet is also gender-bound, and so is flamenco and many other dance forms. This is not unique to Chinese classical dance.

It seems to me that the first step to opening up creativity is to bust out of gender straitjackets. And the Chinese dance scene already has an example:  Jin Xing, The famous Chinese dance artist who transitioned from male to female. She had her own dance company and then her own TV show. (Read about her in “Nine Who Dared” in Dance Magazine in 2012:  Xie Xin, the choreographer I mentioned before, danced in Jin Xing’s company, and I found Xie Xin own androgynous look appealing. Also the choreographers I saw in the China Dancers’ Association seemed far less gender-bound than the young people in classes. And visiting companies, like Akram Khan and Batsheva Dance Company from Israel, have brought their more adventurous outlook to Shanghai International Dance Center. With all these new influences, here’s hoping the dance training will evolve to eventually loosen gender expectations.

I want to thank the many people who made this visit such an enriching experience, starting with Yuan Yuan TAN, whose invitation made this trip possible. Lan-Lan WANG, Professor Qing-Yi LIU and WANG Xin were the other active organizers. My main interpreters—Brenda LIU in Shanghai and Sally CAI in Beijing— went beyond the call of duty, guiding me in more ways than just language. Many others who gave generously of their time and expertise. In Shanghai they included YI Ding, Olivia LYU, Angel, Claire, LIN Nan, Shelley LIM, ZHANG Ling, Mother and Father TAN, Margaret ZHANG, Miranda YAO, and XIE Xin and her husband. In Beijing: XU Rui, vice dean of BDA; Jessie ZHANG, Cecilia ZHAO, LIU Bing, ZENG Jie and SHEN Peng, ZHANG Ping of China Dance Magazine, WU Menghang, Cissy YANG, and JIAO Jiao of China Dancers’ Association. Also, it was an honor to meet Mme. ZHAO Ruheng (“Sonia”), artistic director of dance at the National Performing Arts Center and vice president for Beijing International Ballet and Choreography Competition, and scholars OU Jianping, MU Yu, and QING Qing.

Last workshop in Creativity dept at BDA. Photo by Liu Bing

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why “Deuce Coupe” Rocked My World

I had grown up studying—and loving—both modern dance and ballet. But they were two separate worlds. When I saw the Robert Joffrey Ballet in Central Park in 1963, it was love at first sight. Their repertory was contemporary within classicism: The dancers cut sharp angles in Brian Macdonald’s Time Out of Mind (1963), and they stretched and curled on the floor (the floor—in a ballet company!) in Gerald Arpino’s Sea Shadow (1962). So I started taking classes at their school in Greenwich Village and kept that up for my last two years of high school. In those days you either committed to a ballet company by 18 or you forsook ballet and went to college. I was torn. For months. Finally I decided to go to Bennington College.

After graduating in 1969, I was on scholarship at the Martha Graham school and dancing with the nexus of choreographers at Dance Theater Workshop—Rudy Perez, Deborah Jowitt, Kathryn Posin, Jack Moore—and was making dances too. I was also taking Maggie Black’s ballet class. Maggie’s studio was the only place where modern and ballet dancers were in the same room. (Attending Maggie’ classes was also Kevin McKenzie, who had seen Deuce Coupe when he was with the Joffrey and is now director of ABT.)

When I saw The One Hundreds (1970) I was enthralled. I’d never seen dancing that was so polymorphous. My eyes were glued to Sara Rudner, Twyla and Rose Marie Wright as they powered through (or poured through) impossibly complex movement skeins. These were 100 eleven-second segments done in unison and in silence. The sheer inventiveness of the movement — within the ebb and flow of advancing forward while dancing and walking back upstage—was overwhelming.

So, in January of 1972, when Twyla formed the farm club in Tribeca (this was her second one, the first was on a real farm in Vermont), I was totally up for it. The melding of full-out movement with ordinary gesture, the constant shifting of where an impulse would spring from, the conscious physicality that was demanded—these were just the stimulation I needed. The rest of that year I choreographed, danced, and taught.

And then Deuce Coupe happened. That much pleasure onstage seemed like it must’ve been illegal. It broke all the rules, starting with the separation of ballet and modern dance. Twyla’s six amazing dancers mingled onstage with the eleven Joffrey dancers. The Beach Boys music was sensuous, fun, and sassy—a bold choice, given that choreographers were cautioned against using popular music because of its familiarity. The set design was a group of graffiti writers from the Bronx spraying their memes—with names like Coco 144, Snake 1, Stay High 149, Riff 170, and Bug 170—on a scroll upstage. We tend to forget how revolutionary this was, both for the fact that live people were creating the set and part of the set (although Robert Rauschenberg, collaborating with Merce Cunningham, had devised a set of living, moving people, and Charles Ross had done that at Judson Dance Theater as well as for Anna Halprin) and for challenging the privileging of ballet for and by the elite. Graffiti was not widely considered art those days, but Twyla was an expert at rupturing the status quo.

The original Deuce Coupe in 1973

The vivid personalities of Twyla’s dancers emerged despite their nonchalant style. Twyla herself tore through space with unstoppable determination. Sara’s luscious, intelligent sensuality was heaven-sent. Rose towered above all with a good-natured athleticism.

The Joffrey’s Erica Goodman at left, Tharp’s Isabel Garcia-Lorca at right.

The Joffrey’s Erica Goodman played the part of a beacon of “purity,” executing tendues and other steps in the ballet alphabet with precision.

In the “Cuddle Up” finale, all these elements mingle, eventually forming one ribboning line of movement. At this point the graffiti canvas has scrolled upward, filling the upper regions of the stage with dense and chaotic design. Tharp made all the parts flow together, and because, in my world they had been separate, it was moving to behold. Ballet, modern, pop music, and the urban form of graffiti all mixed together. It was, I believe, the first of Twyla’s everything-all-at-once endings—and a vision for a possible ideal world.

The Juilliard production of Deuce Coupe in 2007

This week American Ballet Theatre is performing its first Deuce Coupe. Back in 1973, it wouldn’t have gone near this little rock’n’roll ballet. Deuce Coupe was a specialty of the Joffrey, part of what made that company so American. Later it migrated to Kansas City Ballet, where artistic director William Whitener brought it to life. (Bill was one of the Joffrey dancers in the original cast who was so beguiled by this new way of moving that he soon joined Tharp’s company.) It’s also been done by Juilliard students and other companies. But all the later versions had to be practical: only a static backdrop and a cast of only ballet dancers.

Deuce Coupe is still a landmark ballet. You can see how Tharp creates harmony from very different elements. Gia Kourlas has a nice interview with Twyla, Sara, and two of the ABT principals who will perform it. But, to my eyes, the 1973 version, with the frisson of ballet and modern dancers together onstage and the live graffiti-in-the-making, was the most exciting version.

 

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Kirstein: Building Ballet, Trashing Modern Dance

Lincoln Kirstein (1907–1996) was a remarkable man, a champion of American art as well as a purveyor of classical ballet. A Diaghilev of his time, he was an impresario, curator, patron, and more than that—a brilliant writer. In the current exhibit at the Museum of Modern Art, Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, many of his accomplishments are on view: He helped develop the Museum of Modern Art’s collection; he wrote the scenarios and produced some of the first American-themed ballets; he co-founded the School of American Ballet and New York City Ballet with George Balanchine; and he was an early advocate for photography as art.

Kirstein c. 1948, photo by  George Platt Lynes, MoMA

Behind the scenes he helped jump-start Dance Theatre of Harlem by procuring major funding; he brought budding choreographer David Vaughan over from England (who became a beacon for dance archivists); he founded the scholarly publication Dance Index (1942–49). He also marched in Selma during the Civil Rights movement, protested the war in Vietnam, and aligned himself with other social justice movements.

But one of his endeavors that is not on display, either in the galleries or in the catalogue, is his long and nasty crusade against modern dance.

As the wall text at MoMA states, Kirstein had “omnivorous interests.” Early on, modern dance, which he sometime called free-form dance, had been one of those interests. He was “magnetized” (his word) by Martha Graham and they became good friends in the mid-30s. He called her “one of America’s greatest artists” and waxed eloquent about her choreography. In a 1937 article he wrote, “She has created a kind of candid, sweeping and wind-worn liberty for her individual expression at once beautiful and useful, like a piece of exquisitely realized Shaker furniture or homespun clothing.” In 1942, Kirstein devoted the first issue of his Dance Index to Isadora Duncan. (This edition is on display at MoMA.)

Graham in Chronicle (1936) Courtesy Martha Graham Resources

Sometimes, however, these interests turned into targets for Kirstein’s shooting practice. In a 1986 tirade in The New York Times titled “The Curse of Isadora,” he wrote that while ballet is “a three-ring circus; free-form dance is a side-show with its oddballs, freaks and phonies.” The same year, in an interview in The New Yorker, he said that the post-Graham dance artists either glommed onto ballet (e. g. Tharp) or were minimalist, in which case “There is nothing to look at.” Further, he claimed that “there was never any interest in training children” among modern dancers. The ignorance, voiced authoritatively, is quite stunning.

Although Kirstein invited Martha Graham to collaborate with Balanchine on Episodes (1959), he said privately that he did so because it was “politically useful.”

At a meeting with the Ford Foundation in the 1960s, to which several dance companies were invited, he said something like, “All Martha’s works are about elimination. She dances about shit.” (This was an out-loud variation of what he’d written in his diary after his first view of Graham in 1931: that her work was “a cross between shitting and belching.” But this particular quote comes direct from a recent conversation with former Graham dancer Stuart Hodes.) You could guess how much money the Graham company was awarded as a result of that meeting.

Kirstein’s contempt for modern dance was not a fluke. He’s part of a lineage, a tradition if you will, in the ballet world of throwing shade on modern dance. Michel Fokine had referred to Graham and Harald Kreutzberg as “the horror.” (This is not hard for me to believe. As a teenager, I showed my ballet teacher, Irine Fokine, Michel’s niece, a brochure from the concert I’d seen the night before: a Martha Graham program. She looked at the pictures and said, “How can you like something this ugly?”). The New Yorker critic Arlene Croce, who became a leader of the Balanchine-above-all circle, periodically went slumming and took random potshots at downtown choreographers. She pretty much toed the Kirstein line of celebrating Balanchine ballet while questioning the legitimacy of modern dance.

Walker Evans’ Roadside View, Alabama Coal Area Town. 1936. MoMA. Evans was one of the photographers championed by Kirstein.

In the wall text, MoMA refers to Kirstein’s “expansive view of what art could be.” But this simply did not apply to dance. For him, ballet was the supreme form while modern dance was a passing trend. In his preface to the Balanchine Foundation Catalogue, he calls Balanchine ballets a “paradigm of perfection.” Like the choreographer, he referred to ballet dancers as angels. So lovely, so innocent, so close to heaven. . . So obedient. Balanchine’s steps came mostly from ballet’s codified vocabulary, a.k.a. “the academy,” and the dancers executed these steps. Graham, on the other hand, had the temerity to create her own movements. So, although Kirstein was initially “addicted” to Graham’s work (according to Agnes de Mille), he later denigrated it.

The irony is that Kirstein’s earlier company, Ballet Caravan (1936–1941), had found a warm welcome in the modern dance world. The company debuted at the Bennington School of the Dance (the stronghold of early modern dance), and his booking manager, Frances Hawkins (also Graham’s agent), booked the company into the college circuit laid down by Graham and Doris Humphrey. He favored specifically American themes; according to Sally Banes, he shared with Graham and Humphrey “an urgent search for national identity.” Kirstein himself, in Thirty Years: New York City Ballet, wrote, “In an important sense, Modern Dance may be said to have launched Ballet Caravan.”

Another point made in the wall text at MoMA: When Kirstein traveled to South America to acquire works for MoMA, he was looking for artists who “have attempted to declare independence from traditional European expression.” Of course, this is exactly what Martha Graham was doing: breaking away from European ways of dancing and staking out a distinctively American terrain.

Primitive Mysteries (1931) by Martha Graham. Photo by Barbara Morgan. Courtesy Martha Graham Resources.

On large screens, the MoMA exhibit shows short clips (shot by Ann Barzel) of several of the ballets Kirstein commissioned for his Ballet Caravan, and they look pretty corny. In Lew Christensen’s Filling Station (1938) and William Dollar’s A Thousand Times Neigh! (made for the Ford Pavilion at the World’s Fair, 1940), the characters are broadly drawn. We see literal, almost pantomimic portrayals, and plots that are often excuses for multiple jumps and turns. To me, these ballets (granted, brief clips without music do not tell the whole story) look like children’s theater. Even Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid (1938), which did have an afterlife, looks hokey now.

Michael Kidd and John Kriza of ABT in Billy the Kid, 1944.

By contrast, Graham’s works like Chronicle (1936) and Primitive Mysteries (1931) have stood the test of time. The all-women’s group in Chronicle, now being performed at the Joyce by the Martha Graham Dance Company, gathers force as it welds design and emotion together. Each movement, whether rooted or springing upward, is essential to this ode to human power in the face of growing fascism. Graham’s signature works of the 30s broke new ground in the dance wing of modernism, while most of Kirstein’s ballets of the period were insignificant, except for his insistence on using American composers.

Xin Ying in Chronicle, photo by Melissa Sherwood

Considering the artistic flimsiness of Ballet Caravan’s rep, Kirstein’s verbal darts aimed at Graham were not only cruel but preposterous.

Regarding other modern dance figures, Kirstein was hardly more charitable than he was with Graham. When he invited Merce Cunningham to choreograph for Ballet Society (the precursor to NYCB) in 1947, he was ready with clever put downs for Cunningham and John Cage, who wrote the score: He called them “minor anarchs.” Not surprisingly, he also had words for Alvin Ailey (“tasteless vitality”).

To put these put-downs in context, he flip-flopped on many people in the arts, applying superlatives one week and degrading remarks the next. (This was true of his treatment of ballet icons Arthur Mitchell and Jerome Robbins as well as of Duncan, Graham, and Cunningham.) Diagnosed with manic-depression, Kirstein was first institutionalized in 1967. Martin Duberman, his biographer, even implies that his more outrageous slurs were caused by manic phasees. Jacques d’Amboise describes occasions when Kirstein viciously insulted an artist soon after praising him or her. (The way d’Amboise tells it, these tales of Kirstein’s uncontrollably boomeranging opinions can be very funny.) I sometimes think that most of the ballet world considers it rude, or at least indelicate, to point out the unhinged ravings of such a respected figure. But these “fulminations,” to use Sally Banes’ term, had damaging effects, and one of them was to deny funding to modern dance. Another was, as I’ve mentioned, to give permission to treat modern dance as an inferior art form.

Today ballet and modern dance are less polarized. One of the qualities of the latter that most appalled Kirstein—the earthbound mode (as opposed to the airiness/loftiness of ballet)—has seeped into the work of current ballet makers. For both Justin Peck (NYCB resident choreographer) and Alexei Ratmansky (artist in residence at American Ballet Theatre), the floor sometimes exerts a magnetic pull. Another sign of the closer relationship between the two genres is that, in this centennial year of Cunningham, the master’s works are being performed by companies like Ballet West and The Washington Ballet. And of course, it’s thrilling that NYCB invited (post)modern dance artist Kyle Abraham to contribute to its repertory—and that The Runaway, with music by Kanye West and Jay-Z, was such a runaway hit.

But there is still a privileging of ballet that pervades dance training, performances, and criticism. Perpetuating that hierarchy, The New Yorker has just appointed Jennifer Homans as its new dance critic. Homans, author of Apollo’s Angels (meaning of course, Balanchine’s dancers), has established the Center for Ballet and the Arts, a well-funded project at NYU that announces the primacy of ballet in its very title. And so the privileging continues.

Sources:
Lincoln Kirstein’s Modern, MoMA exhibit.
The Worlds of Lincoln Kirstein, by Martin Duberman.
By With To & From: A Lincoln Kirstein Reader.
Ballet: Bias and Belief, Three Pamphlets Collected and Other Dance Writing of Lincoln Kirstein, Dance Horizons, 1983.
I Was a Dancer, by Jacques d’Amboise.
• “Lincoln Kirstein, Modern Dance, and the Left:  The Genesis of an American Ballet,” by Lynn Garafola, Dance Research Journal, v. 23, no. 1, Summer 2005.
“The Curse of Isadora,” by Lincoln Kirstein, The New York Times Archives, Sunday, Nov. 23, 1986.
• “Profiles: Conversations with Kirstein — 1,” interview with W. McNeil Lowry, The New Yorker, Dec. 15, 1986.
• “Sibling Rivalry: The New York City Ballet and Modern Dance,” by Sally Banes, in Dance for a City: Fifty Years of New York City Ballet, edited by Lynn Garafola with Eric Foner.

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Best of 2018

What I’m noticing these days is the quality of attention that is invited (or demanded) by any given performance. Other than that very subjective standard, this list is, of course, limited by what I’ve actually been able to see this year.

Ailey’s 60th Knocks It Out of the Park
The company has stretched in many directions under Robert Battle while still preserving its heritage. During this 60th-anniversary season, they struck it rich with world premieres from Rennie Harris and Jessica Lang and a company premiere of Wayne McGregor. Ronald K. Brown made his seventh luscious ballet for the company, and the Robert Battle evening showed what how powerful Battle is as a choreographer—and witty too.

Rennie Harris’ Lazarus rises from utter despair to infectious joy. Hints of lynchings are rendered subtly, eliciting feelings that linger. The vocabulary seems to draw from a wide range of black vernacular—I thought I saw more gumboot than hip hop.

Lazarus by Rennie Harris, Daniel Harder in center, photo Paul Kolnik

In Jessica Lange’s EN, a circle is an eclipse, a moon, a pendulum, a gathering point, and a symbol of life cycles. Jacub Ciupinsky’s percussive score has unexpected spare moments that allow reflection, time for breathing and listening amidst the symphonic choreography.

Jessica Lang’s EN, photo Paul Kolnik

Wayne McGregor’s Kairos: If you could picture watching human fireflies through a musical staff, that’s the opening. This is a softer look for McGregor. The women are strong and the men are affectionate with each other. The choreographic flow is entirely engaging.

Kairos by Wayne McGregor, photo Paul Kolnik

More than that, this anniversary gave us a chance to reflect on the long-term effects of Ailey’s success. The company tours extensively, spreading seeds of inspiration all over the world. (At the recent Dance Magazine Awards, both Ronald K. Brown and Crystal Pite told stirring stories of how Ailey was the spark that made them want to dance.) The company continues to cultivate fantastic dancers, and the audiences are more racially integrated than at any other dance event. These are huge, ongoing gifts. Thank you.

Jane Comfort: Still Telling It Like It Is
The 40th-anniversary program at La MaMa showed that she’s been dealing with issues of race and gender—with directness and humor—for decades. A vibrant cast performed superb selections from her oeuvre, with co-direction by Leslie Cuyjet and Sean Donovan. Bravo for the artistic power of a woman of a certain age!

Magic Realism from France
Compagnie Accrorap in The Roots, choreographed by Kader Attou, at the Joyce: We’re in a funny nightmare where the timing is uncanny and everything is askew. The chair and sofa are tilted, the lamp twirls of its own accord. The choreography is sly, spectacular, sullen, sneaky, allowing the male cast to spin out hip hop and tap dancing feats in a surreal world.

Accrorap in The Roots, photo ©João Garcia

Most Drastic Storytelling
Akram Khan’s Xenos, at the White Light Festival: The terror of fighting as a colonial soldier, rendered with poetic swiftness. Khan’s final full-length solo (say it’s not true!), with the help of lighting, set design, story, and music, imprints on the memory. In a program note, he asks, “How can we, as humans, have such ability to create extraordinary and beautiful things from our imagination, and have, equally, our immense ability to create and commit violence and horrors beyond our imagination.”

Akram Khan in Xenos, photo Jean-Louis Fernandez

 

Best Religious/Military mix
Ka’et Dance Ensemble in Heroes, choreographed by Ronen Izhaki, at the Marlene Meyerson JCC Manhattan. The four male dancers are Israeli yeshiva teachers and students who have served in the Israeli army. Splicing between interior moves and madcap aggression, the rough-edged Heroes shows the tug between the spiritual man and the fighting man. Their timing with each other is scarily precise, which makes the blessings, where one’s head seems to melt beneath another’s hands, so touching.

Most Poetic Minimalism
Latitude, by Dana Reitz, presented by Lumberyard at The Kitchen, is an exquisite distillation of three women entering into swaths of light and motion. Its painterly quality lets your eye rest on the images. The careful placement of sticks, the dancers’ patience in waiting for each other, and how they steer us to see specific light and shadows, create an oasis. During one duet, the soft humming made it feel celestial.

Bottle-hurling Sport Dance
Twelve by Jorge Crecis gave Acosta Danza’s debut at NY City Center an exhilarating closer. Hurling bottles of water around in game-like formations, sometimes jumping up to catch a bottle in the nick of time, the 12 (or was it 13?) men and women had the astonishing coordination of jugglers or acrobats. It’s a new form of sport/dance that was terrifically exciting. For the final scene, they all freed themselves into gaga-esque buggying that stole our hearts.

Acosta Danza in Twelve, photo Johan Persson

Art as Healing
Meredith Monk’s Cellular Songs at BAM is mostly voice and film with bursts of dancing here and there. At 70+ she’s only slightly brittle, but still has the ability to project spiritual ecstasy. While singing the song “I’m a happy woman,” she radiates an intelligent happiness, as well as sorrow, anger, and fatigue. The film component gives the illusion of hands coming from all dimensions, making you feel you are held by the hands of a goddess. Only Meredith Monk can make peacefulness and cooperation into a major theatrical event.

Pointe Shoes as Percussive Instruments
Michelle Dorrance’s pièce d’occasion, Praedicere, for American Ballet Theatre’s Spring Gala, got the ABT dancers to concentrate completely on rhythm. This burst of purposeful sound making—pointe shoes jabbing the floor—had more impact than Dorrance’s more picturesque premiere later in the season. Praedicere (does it mean “before language”?) deserves a second run; it’s a refreshing break from the lavish, European-based ancient ballets that are produced by ABT.

Fabulously Funny Duos, Redux and New

David Dorfman and Dan Froot were at it again, with their physical comedy that is both hilarious and touching. This time, at the Jews and Jewishness in the Dance World conference at Arizona State University, they produced So You Think You Can Schmooze: Post-Future Jewishness in a Dancing World, where the conceit was that it’s the year 2030 and they are the grandsons of entertainers named  named David Dorfman and Dan Froot. This one idea triggered a cascade of jokes, both verbal and physical, ending in a waltz around the stage for everyone.

Dancenoise’s Lock ’Em Up at NY Live Arts: Lucy Sexton and Annie Iobst are as bawdy, transgressive, and chuckle-inducing as they were 35 years ago. With a cast of seven ready-for-anything helpers, they poked at issues like fracking and gun violence. Why is all that bright red blood smeared on their slips liberating? Why are they so damn comfortable, even now, in their 60s, sitting around chatting in the nude? I don’t know, but I am glad they exist and persist.

Lock ‘Em Up by Dancenoise, photo Ian Douglas

 

Show No Show, photo Hallie Martenson

Fab Funny NEW Duo
Show No Show at The Flea Theater: Gabrielle Revlock, from Philly, and Aleksandr Frolov from Russia, make a giddy cross-cultural pair. (You know that Russians never smile, right?) Discovering new and delightful ways to torment each other, they splice awkward not-quite-seductive encounters with scrappy movement jokes.

 

 

Orchestrated Chaos
Boris Charmatz’s 10,000 Gestures at NYU Skirball made me smile right away. Johanna-Elisa Lemke’s opening solo was like Rainer’s Trio A on speed amplified 20 times. Later I saw a sliver of the real Trio A done in an upstage corner, by Frank Willens, while 19 other crazy things were going on. I understand the objection some had to the in-the-face tromping over the audience. But at that moment, I was digging the brazenness of them clambering over the heads and bodies of us spectators. (Photo below by Tristram Kenton.)

 

Dipping Ballet into Black Culture
The Runaway, Kyle Abraham’s first piece for a ballet company, used music by Kanye West, Jay-Z and Nico Muhly to superimpose Abraham’s hip-hop–influenced ripples onto the bodies of New York City Ballet dancers. The Runaway cracked open the pristine whiteness of ballet to receive a bit of the black culture that is all around us. It was remarkable how well it all fit together.

The Poetry of Protest
Hadar Ahuvia
performed an excerpt of Joy Vey at the Jewishness conference. She was skimming the earth with folk dance shapes turned liquid. On recording, we heard her voice speaking a poem… “and maybe we didn’t shoot at them and maybe there is a people as righteous as us.” It slowly dawns on us that she is dancing to unwind the nightmare on the other side of the border with Palestine, to unwind all she has learned as an Israeli-American. (Disclosure: I co-curated the concert she was in.)

Hadar Ahuvia in Joy Vey

Caleb Teicher in Great Heights, photo Amanda Centile

 

 

Caleb Teicher Hits It Twice
At Tap City’s “Rhythm in Motion” program at Symphony Space, Caleb Teicher went from morose to clownish to draggish to poignant in his Great Heights solo. Wearing high heeled tap shoes and short shorts that reveal gorgeously muscled legs (costume by Marion Talan), he tapped up a storm on top of a narrow bar stool. Then, in Fall for Dance, he premiered Bzzz, again blasting us awake, this time with a kind of call and response with his group.

 

Taking the Improv Challenge

Timothy Edwards, photo Yi-Chun Wu

Timothy Edwards improvised split-second changes of intersecting, intercepting deep gesture for Nicole Wolcott’s This Man at Dance Now at Joe’s Pub. Emotionally exhausting and exhilarating, the solo is billed as a collaboration between Wolcott and Edwards.

 

Michelle Boulé’s quicksilver wanderings in Bebe Miller’s In a Rhythm at NY Live Arts captivated me. Her energy follows a naturally unpredictable path that is pretty exciting.

 

Switch, by Rashaun Mitchell + Silas Riener, in collaboration with six improv-savvy dancers, devised a score that was mysterious in its portions of observing and doing, orneriness and wit. In its wayward impetuousness, it reminded me of the legendary ’70s improvisation collective Grand Union. Performed as part of Quadrille, Lar Lubovitch’s reconfiguration of the space at the Joyce.

 

Reconstructions and Revivals
Merce Cunningham’s Signals (1970), part of Stephen Petronio’s Bloodlines series at the Joyce. Serious, spunky, playful. Sustained lines, solid balances, dancers holding up fingers to signal the choice of sequence. The Merce character is a magician who emits odd groans.

Molissa Fenley’s Mix (1979) at Danspace, in which four dancers clap and stomp their way into a manic euphoria of driving rhythms and geometric patterns. The street-wear costumes help to make it feel like today.

Kei Takei, Solo from Light, Part 8 (1974) at Lumberyard: She’s a cheerful madwoman determined to tie herself into knots. And you cannot look away as she does the inevitable.

Ishmael Houston-Jones, THEM (1985) at P.S. New York: slippery entanglements, self-punishing escapades…danger at every caress. Can you trust the person you’re attracted to?

David Gordon’s The Matter, begun at Oberlin College in 1972 as part of a Grand Union residency, has gone through various versions. This one, part of MoMA’s “Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done,” is layered with start-and-stop actions, talking, and films, giving a sense of overlapping time lapping up on the shore. Wally Cardona and Karen Graham re-enacted the love-and-loss duet of David Gordon and Valda Setterfield, giving just the right touch of melancholy within precision.

Best Performers

Marta Ortega of Acosta Danza in Mermaid by Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui at City Center: Liquid, as though she were both the mermaid and the water, she more than held her own beside the still charismatic Carlos Acosta.

Marta Ortega with Carlos Acosta in Mermaid, photo Johan Persson

Michael Trusnovec and Parisa Khobdeh in Paul Taylor’s Eventide: a controlled slowness expressing infinite tenderness. (Trusnovec just received a well deserved Dance Magazine Award.)

Parisa Khobdeh and Michael Trusnovec in Taylor’s Eventide, ph Paul B. Goode

Taylor Stanley, who is great in everything, ran away with Kyle Abraham’s Runaway, his spine swerving between upright ballet positions and the pelvic swagger of hip hop.

As Isadora Duncan, Sara Mearns danced with dignity, arms floating, body swirling. Staged by Isadora authority Lori Belilove, this version appeared on Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance as well as in Fall for Dance. Even if Isadora was earthly, Mearns was heavenly.

Rakeem Hardy was transfixing as the man climbing a mountain in (C)arbon by Andrea Miller and Gallim, at the Met Breuer. Totally exposed, he committed to every ounce of the trembling, staggering choreography.

Cailtin Scranton as Ursula, photo Andrew Jordan

Caitlin Scranton, luminous, mysterious…austerious, if you will, as Ursula in an excerpt of Christopher Williams’ Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins at Cathy Weis Project’s Sundays on Broadway. Her lethal-looking claws hovered near her tender, exposed flesh.

 

Megan Wright of the Stephen Petronio Dance Company, in Steve Paxton’s Goldberg Variations (1986–92) at MoMA’s Judson series. Sudden, quirky dynamics emanating from the center of the body. She applied whiteface, mimicking a mime in the sense of invisible forces pulling and pushing her, surprising her. She was led by the force of her body reacting to Glenn Gould’s recording of Bach.

Megan Wright in Paxton’s Goldberg Variations, photo Paula Court

 

Three Crucial Exhibits

Arthur Mitchell with Allegra Kent in Balachine’s Agon, 1962, photo Fritz Peyer

The Arthur Mitchell exhibit, Harlem’s Ballet Trailblazer, at Columbia University gave space to the many roles of the groundbreaking dancer/activist/leader. He broke the color bar at New York City Ballet and he started Dance Theatre of Harlem, which met with wildly enthusiastic audiences all over the world. The exhibit opened and closed last winter, just in time for Mr. Mitchell to enjoy it at the end of his life. The extensive online component, with interviews, photos and video clips, is hugely educational and inspiring.

 

The Museum of Modern Art’s current exhibit, Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done, covers a wide swath of the milieu surrounding the break from modern to postmodern dance. The hundreds of items include rare films of work by Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Robert Rauschenberg, and Elaine Summers. Currently the exhibit is showing a slew of archival videos of Trisha Brown.

Concert #13, A Collaborative Event, Judson Dance Theater, 1963, photo Peter Moore

In conjunction with New York City Ballet’s Robbins centennial, The NY Public Library for the Performing Arts has mounted Voice of My City: Jerome Robbins and New York. It reveals this monumental choreographer as a sensitive observer of life, a gatherer of material from the streets of New York. There are video and film clips of West Side Story and Dances at a Gathering that I never tire of. The surprise is Robbin’s overflowing creativity on the page—in writing and drawing. Luckily, the exhibit is up until March 30.

 

Most un-heralded racial reversal on Broadway
King Kong falls in love with . . . not a blond white woman but a young, street-wise black woman, played with great moxie by Christiani Pitts. Directed and choreographed by Drew McOnie. Throughout movie history, it’s always a white woman who is the tantalizing object of adoration for men and animals. They roar for the pinnacle of sexual privilege. To cast the character of Ann Darrow as a person of color changes our assumptions about cultural desire. And Pitts has the charisma to pull it off.

Most Heartening News
Kyle Abraham decided that he will only agree to have his work performed on a shared program if a woman’s choreography is also on that program. Kudos to a male choreographer for having the consciousness to advocate for women in dance!

Most Disheartening News
Hearing that Amar Ramasar, one of the most humane dancers on the ballet stage, allegedly participated in a mindless activity that was demeaning to women.

In Anticipation
We await two announcements that could change the dance world: The appointments for new artistic director of New York City Ballet and new chief critic of The New York Times. In a field where women are routinely passed over for leadership positions, I’m hoping…

Good Reads
It was a good year for dance books, as you can see from my list of “11 Most Notable Dance Books of 2018.”

 

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