Golden Advice for Dance Writers

Like many of you, I’m taking the time at home to burrow into boxes of old stuff to see what I can get rid of. One of the treasures I found was a set of handwritten corrections on my first wobbly attempts at writing. In 1971, I was taking a weekly workshop in dance criticism led by two formidable women: Deborah Jowitt and Marcia B. Siegel. At that time Deborah was a dancer/choreographer as well as the dance critic for The Village Voice. Marcia has written for many publications, including the Boston Phoenix for sixteen years. Currently, Deborah has a regular “DanceBeat” on ArtsJournal.com, and Marcia posts on the ArtsFuse.org. Both are brilliant writers, and I’m always interested in what they have to say and how they say it.

Deborah Jowitt c. 1972

Those six-week workshops were given under the auspices of Dance Theater Workshop (which morphed into New York Live Arts in 2011). A small group of us gathered either in Deborah’s living room in Greenwich Village or Rosalind Newman’s loft in Tribeca. Sitting on the floor, we read our reviews aloud and responded to each other’s offerings.

At the time, my main effort was choreography, but I liked the workshop so much that I took three cycles of it. I’ve said that the workshop appealed to me because I just wanted to keep talking about dance. But upon discovering these old papers, I see another reason I kept signing up for the course: I was serious about writing.

In addition to correcting the usual errors like redundancies and verb tenses gone awry, Deborah and Marcia challenged us to be tough on ourselves. Their critiques, sometimes accompanied by biting humor, strengthened my perceptions as well as my prose. They taught me to hear the writing.

Marcia Siegel by Nat Tileston, 1970s

Keep in mind, this was decades before YouTube. Dance reviews were pretty much the only tracings of a performance available to the public at large.

In this entry, I am extending my hand to the past, in gratitude to Deborah and Marcia, while also extending a hand toward future dance writers. According to my colleague Siobhan Burke, who teaches at Barnard, more students than ever before have signed up for her annual course in dance criticism. So, despite the recent evaporation of live performance, maybe this is a good time to help cultivate a new generation of dance critics.

Below are examples from six of my attempts from 1971–72. I tried to give just enough of my own words for you to see the point of my teachers’ comments. I also tried to retain the casual—yet very different from each other—styles of their corrections.

¶¶¶

  • The performance: Two choreographers at the Cunningham Studio, Oct. 1, 1971.

What I wrote: “…along with an expanded sense of space and time.”
Deborah: “a little confusing if you don’t plan to say how they did this pretty soon.”

What I wrote: “After a while of this…”
Deborah: “No! Maybe, After doing this for a while.”

What I wrote: “This led to the poignant question, ‘Do you sense me?’ ”
Deborah: “How is this poignant?”

What I wrote: “The dancer doesn’t use his own impetus.”
Deborah: “What gives this impression? In other words, what do you mean by impetus?”

What I wrote: “…this adds to the effect of cerebralism.”
Deborah: “Do you mean cerebralism? Or just cool, detached, etc?”

What I wrote: “…was presented…were done…was…was…”
Deborah: “Too many blah verbs.”
Marcia’s final comment: “You can make everything stronger by using more specific words & tightening up the conversational diffuseness, e.g. ‘showed the smoothness and casualness with which she moves’ could be ‘moving smoothly and casually.’ Also you may find that consciously pulling it together will sharpen your perceptions. Once you condense or delete “a film…that took a little too long,” you’ll start thinking about what to really say about the film, why it took too long. . . . Especially pay attention to verbs—use descriptive, specific ones instead of plain ones like go, do (I won’t embarrass you by underlining the do’s, but . . .) or the auxiliaries—is, was, etc. This will improve your writing enormously. . . . I find you usually describe things accurately but sometimes miss the point. Try to think beyond the dance’s physicality to its shape or sensibility. Also consider the dynamic qualities more—the best line in your piece is about the Cunningham quality of ‘fast, disconnected movements and unexpected calms.’  These kinds of words carry their own emotional weight & if they’re accurately and carefully chosen can convey the atmosphere of the dance better than how many steps to the right etc.”

  • The Performance: Ritual Acrobats of Persia at Brooklyn Academy of Music, Nov. 9–14, 1971 (I wrote this one in my messy penmanship.)

What I wrote: a section on the dancers’ spectacular feats and the audience reactions.
Deborah: “These two paragraphs cut into the middle of another kind of thinking. Surely the paragraph that begins ‘All the group’ and the one that begins ‘A point of interest, for me’ belong together. With a little reworking, they might fit.”

What I wrote: “group unison”
Deborah: “redundant”
Marcia’s final comment: “You saw all the right things but didn’t dig into why they made you react. I think you can avoid some of the rather choppy feeling your writing has by combining ideas. Take the essential facts of this sentence ‘older but more sprightly’ and put them in the next sentence. Also putting two slightly different ideas in one sentence will help you vary your sentence structure, using subordinate clauses (although, however, since, while etc) and other constructions. . . . Pay more attention to the sound of your writing. It gets monotonous, just like music, when every phrase is built the same way, gives the same kind of information, has the same mood. . . . Did you get The Elements of Style?” [the classic book about writing by Strunk and White]
Deborah’s final comment: “I like your observation about the ways the different men execute the various stunts. You saw some things clearly and wrote vigorously about them. . . . The organization of the review is pretty dreadful. A lot of skipping around etc. . . .By the way, you’ve got a splendid catchy lead if you had used it as such: ‘Are they dancers? Soldiers? Circus entertainers? Or monks?’ Then you can explain why you wonder, What makes them a little like all of these and yet not wholly like any of them? And you’re off and running with your remarks about the walk, the few spectacular tricks, the daily chore-look, etc. . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER? UGH!”

  • The performance: A single dancer/choreographer “with friends,” Cunningham Studio, Nov. 19–20, 1971.

What I wrote: “Beautiful dancers don’t necessarily make beautiful dances.”
Marcia: “This would be a good lead for the article you wrote. (Perhaps better than your nice metaphor, since the metaphor is only true partly, i.e. she’s not always enigmatic.)”

What I wrote: “…the sweeping backbends are breath-taking…M is divinely ordained to dance…”
Marcia: “This borders on fan-mag style, but you are specific enough to get away with it.”

What I wrote: “Unfortunately, the exquisiteness of her dancing does not conceal the mediocrity of her choreography.”
Marcia: “Brutally abrupt shift!”

What I wrote: “The bulk of the dance…”
Marcia: “Awkward, sounds like something to do with digestion.”

What I wrote: “Miss M and two cohorts”
Marcia: “Has a slightly different connotation than you mean—more conspiratorial.”
Marcia’s final comment: “As I said in class, the first two graphs is the strongest writing I’ve seen you do. It happens because you really have empathized and have contributed your feelings to the event without obliterating the event. Do it more!”

  • The performance: Three Choreographers at Cunningham Studio, April 30, 1972.

What I wrote: “…was a treat for all of us who have admired…”
Marcia: “In-group sounding”

What I wrote: “It also includes some unnecessary running around:”
Deborah: “to whom?”

What I wrote: “…being punctuated with smiles of guileless guile.”
Deborah: “Agnew-esque” [Spiro Agnew, vice president at the time, had a penchant for derogatory alliteration; he later resigned because of corruption.]

What I wrote: “Pure movement invention need not be bolstered by props and lighting.”
Deborah: “Last sentence sounds sort of preachy.”
Marcia’s final comment: “This article presented a real problem — you might have solved it better by not trying to tell what the choreographers are like as dancers, since none of them danced here. Or set up the structure so that you described each dance first & then made some comment on its relation to the choreographer’s own movement style. . . . I feel it was an interesting concert but I wouldn’t have cared about the stuff you spent the most time describing: how the performer & choreographers look & move. It’s a useful observation and sometimes unusually good but doesn’t tell me what I want to know about 3 first choreographies.”

  • The performance: Two choreographers, Minor Latham Playhouse, Dance Uptown, May 12, 1972.

What I wrote: “…walking hurriedly…”
Marcia: “Opportunity to use one terrific verb: rushing? zooming? sprinting?”

What I wrote: “…they seem to get caught up in a whirlwind without changing their steps.”
Marcia: “What make you feel this? acceleration? intensity? space?”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Marcia: “Theme of this article? Then you don’t need to state it, just make the article illustrate it.”
Deborah’s final comment: “Beginning (1st first para) excellent. I like description of how they look. Captured feel of the dance.”

What I wrote: “…renew fully my usually tenuous faith in humanity.”
Deborah’s additional final comment: “Stop THESE PRISSY ENDINGS.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Wendy, I really feel like you’re making progress, slow but sure. Please pay more attention to your writing persona. Who are you talking to? yourself? me and Debby? an anonymous reader? the class? Decide, then tell everything that person needs to know. It’s a kind of performance if you like, it has to begin & end, give a complete account of itself. Put the first person singular in place of all the “we” and “you” etc. Say more about how they moved than what they looked like. Be aware that we readers need some continuity — if dance doesn’t have a plot or music etc, what is the structure? The dynamic form? Here you seem to skip around, picking out phrases or images to talk about — are they random choices? Because the dance is random? Why did you happen to think of them? Are they the most important things?”

• The performance: A composer and dancer at The Kitchen, Broadway Central Hotel, May 19, 1972.

What I wrote: “…proved to be equally at home…”
Marcia: “cliché”

What I wrote: “The novelty of the loveliness of her dancing…”
Marcia: “wordy construction”

What I wrote: “It seems unfortunate that so little of this long and dancey dance sticks in my memory. Choreographers must learn not to flood their audiences. If S had edited out parts of the dance, I’m sure the remaining segments would have remembered themselves to me more vividly.”
Deborah: “Ugh! Double ugh. You’ve made your point. Find an ending that doesn’t sound like advice from Your Dance Doctor.”
Deborah’s final comment: “I like the whole review for its reflective, friendly tone, but feel the need for just a few more specific details.”
Marcia’s final comment: “Now that you know something about form, maybe we better start working on syntax. You need to write more tightly, less discursively. Avoid weak verbs — get more directly at the action, e.g. ‘she walks’ is better than ‘it is to walk.’ But ‘she paces,’ ‘she stalks,’ ‘she staggers,’ ‘she marches’ are better than ‘she walks.’ . . . ‘Another was when’ is almost never O.K. . . .I like this best in the beginning when you describe qualities. Later you talk a lot about positions & floor patters & I don’t get any feeling what the dancer was doing.”

  • The performance: A dancer/choreographer whose work I had danced in, May 24, 1972 (Woe is me, cuz this is also handwritten.)

What I wrote: “F is on a things trip.”
Marcia: “good lead”

What I wrote: “One man combs a woman’s breast as though scooping the last of some soup into his spoon.”
Deborah: “very neat”

What I wrote: “I remember the opening of the piece.”
Deborah: “clumsy”

What I wrote: “strange”
Deborah: “If it’s all that strange, tell us about it.”

What I wrote: “…escapes my memory.”
Deborah: “a cliché”

What I wrote: “I felt that too often, an intriguing image like that one was dropped instead of being allowed to evolve.”
Deborah: “roundabout language”

What I wrote: “She marvels at assorted items in her basket and then sings a wilted rendition of ‘Lavender Blues’ to a plastic rose.”
Marcia: “nice”
Deborah: “Your last para, on p. 1, which summed up your opinion, might be better as a close — perhaps with a less equivocal last sentence. Beware of passive verbs. They’re weak. ‘Man holds rope’ better than ‘rope is held.’ Review unbalanced — like dance. What else happened, what did group do? Incomplete article. . . . WHAT HAPPENED TO YOUR TYPEWRITER?”
Marcia’s final comment: “This is better— yr getting a sense of the color & sound of words! I don’t feel a whole evening, if that’s what it was. The things you choose as unifying factors are fine, but you should also look for what the choreographer thought was keeping it together, and tell us that, even if briefly . . .(Some of the ways you describe the pc. & especially F seem inconsistent with what I know about her style. Could the ‘serenity,’ ‘liquid flowing’ and ‘resilience’ be things you feel because you like her? You have to be very sure of these things when writing about a close friend or colleague.)”

¶¶¶

I realize that I am still learning these lessons. Marcia and Deborah sit on my shoulder, compelling me to pay close attention to my choices. I’ve brought them with me as I edited other writers’ work at Dance Magazine, and now as a teacher, correcting papers.

Marcia and Deborah, Bournonville Festival, Copenhagen, 2005

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Notable Dance Books of 2020

It’s been a good year for dance history. Most of these books explore the past, deepening and broadening what we know and how we know it. Each is interesting in a different way. In cases where I didn’t have much to say, I’ve still tried to give a sense of the scope.

This was a big year for me because my own book was published, which you will see if you get to the end of this list.

Dance We Do: A Poet Explores Black Dance
By Ntozake Shange
Foreword by Alexis Pauline Gumbs
Beacon Press

The secret life of the famous playwright Ntozake Shange (1948–2018) was her dance life. When her dance play for colored girls who have considered suicide/when the rainbow is enuf (1976) exploded on Broadway in 1976, it was gritty, witty, and playful. The characters expressed themselves through both words and dance—with the help of choreographer Dianne McIntyre. Shange coined the term choreopoem to describe her equal passions for literature and dance.

As Alexis Pauline Gumbs explains in the foreword, Shange was working on this book while she was trying to recover from two strokes and a degenerative nerve disease. She had explored Black dance, not only as an element in her own productions, but by studying and performing with Dianne McIntyre and Halifu Osumare. As McIntyre says in these pages, Shange was at home in dance class. “In my dreams I can dance,” Shange wrote, even as her body was deteriorating. “Every night I fly.”

When auditioning for McIntyre’s Sounds in Motion in the 1970s, the young, dance-loving poet was asked to improvise for 32 counts. “I was scared to death because that was a long time. But I said, ‘Well hell, I am here.’ And we began. I danced my heart out.” Shange landed an internship with McIntyre—and friendship for life.

Shange tells a funny story about the time when, dressed as a bag lady for a performance choreographed by Osumare, she planned to make her entrance from outside the theater. Her guise was so convincing that an usher barred her from the building and threatened to call the police.

Shange follows her curiosity by interviewing Black dance artists, including McIntyre, Osumare, Eleo Pomare, and two from the younger generation: Camille A. Brown, who choreographed the last staging of colored girls, and Davalois Fearon, a dance artist who was in Stephen Petronio’s company. In these interviews, I found keys that unlock larger ideas:

Osumare: “I think that as we grow as a society, we have to become more literate in being able to read the body.”

Camille A. Brown: “If I’m eating, we’re all eating. If I get a door open, it’s my responsibility to make it wider.”

Osumare again: “Part of what I’ve been doing all my life is receiving ancestral messages and translating them in my art.”

 

Daniel Lewis: A Life in Choreography and the Art of Dance
By Donna H. Krasnow and Daniel E. Lewis
McFarland

So much of our lives happens by chance. For Daniel Lewis, a dance artist as well as a leader in dance training, it was the War in Vietnam that pushed him toward the Juilliard School. His plan was to become a Broadway dancer, but the draft board had other ideas. One of the accompanists at the Martha Graham school told him he could get a deferment by enrolling at Juilliard. There he met José Limón, who needed a male dancer just then, in 1963. At Juilliard he was taken under the wing of Martha Hill, who groomed him as a future dance educator. She sometimes asked him to fill in for Limón. It was Hill who ultimately recommended Danny to be the dean of dance at New World School of the Arts.
One of the dance world’s sunniest, most generous people, Lewis was also a performer who always revealed the humanity behind the role. A tap dancer as a child, he attended the High School of Performing Arts while also dancing in Yiddish theater. His career ride also included American Dance Festival, staging Limón works, directing his own repertory company, and finally Dean of Dance at the New World School of the Arts.

Limón’s dedication and artistry obviously made an impact on Lewis. The younger dancer was thrilled to perform Iago next to Limón’s Othello in The Moor’s Pavane. Perhaps his hardest role was the slave owner in Limón’s The Legend, about a slave uprising led by Nat Turner in 1830.

The book is chock full of entertaining stories about tours, teaching assignments, re-stagings, with side trips to Anna Sokolow, Paul Taylor, and Donald McKayle. Occasionally, with so many voices—those of Donna Krasnow, Lewis, and a slew of colleagues giving their memories—the narrative gets confusing.

Just as Lewis learned to be a leader from Martha Hill, Robert Battle learned from Lewis. As a student at New World School of the Arts, Battle, now the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, would observe Lewis as director: “Sitting in the office talking with him was like watching a circus act. Danny would be doing multiple things at once—on the phone, solving problems, and making things possible…I call Danny ‘the conductor.’”

 

Final Bow for Yellowface: Dancing between Intention and Impact
By Phil Chan with Michele Chase
Yellow Peril Press

Black Lives Matter has been front and center, rightly so. But Asian lives matter too, and it matters how they are portrayed in the dance world. Final Bow for Yellowface is a project co-founded by Phil Chan and New York City Ballet soloist Georgina Pazcoguin, as well as the title of the book. Phil Chan exposes the demeaning stereotypes in classical ballet. Exactly why does the choreography for the Chinese dance in Nutcracker call for head-bobbing, finger-pointing and shuffling? What is the historical basis, and how can these stereotypes be changed?

Taking an activist stance, Chan met with Peter Martins, then the ballet master in chief of New York City Ballet, to suggest changes. He convinced Martins to alter certain movements, but he didn’t stop there. He got 31 (and still counting) artistic directors of ballet companies around the world to sign the pledge to eliminate offensive stereotypes of Asians.

With sections titled “Caricature vs. Character” 58 or “Appropriation vs. Appreciation,” Chan provides informed, rich, and nuanced discussions. He asks questions like “Being Asian in America: Do We Belong?” “Who Gets to Decide?” “Did We Do Enough?”

Chan compares old ballets to bonsai trees, saying that in order for them to survive, we “have to give them a little delicate pruning . . . Once we acknowledge this, it becomes a little easier to be less precious with how we preserve dance . . . and more willing to take risks.”

 

Martha Graham’s Cold War: The Dance of American Diplomacy
By Victoria Phillips
Oxford University Press

Martha Graham is known as an uncompromising artist, a purist who is sometimes called the Picasso of dance. It was this very individuality that was the selling point for the U. S. State Department to send her abroad. So it’s a bit jarring to see her positioned as a creator of propaganda herself in the title. I find myself half-wishing the title were Martha Graham: A Pawn in the Cold War.

That said, this book thrusts the choreographer onto a larger world stage. Phillips helps us see how the idea of American originality is constructed and marketed. The vacillations of Graham’s career were controlled not only by the quality of her company’s performances and the response of the audience, but also by the dance panel advising the State Department on whom to send where. Along the way we learn that Eleanor Roosevelt’s favoring of Graham did not hurt her, that the Israeli audience responded well to Appalachian Spring because of its “pioneering spirit,” and that Graham cited the eroticism of her 1962 Phaedra to claim relevance well past her heyday.

Issues broached: Was Graham’s work too esoteric? Could people in poor countries enjoy it? When touring Europe, how did her rivalry with Germany’s Mary Wigman play out? How did Martha’s drinking affect her performances?

The revelations of dance history abound. For one, the narrative that modern dance was born in America only emerged after World War II. Between the world wars, it was accepted that Germany (home of Laban, Wigman, Kreutzberg) was the birthplace of modern dance. It was only after Hitler destroyed the arts in German that the idea emerged, via Margaret Lloyd’s 1949 Borzoi Book of Modern Dance, that modern dance originated in the U.S. with Graham. Another revelation is that it was Michio Ito, that shadowy figure who chose to be deported rather than confined to an internment camp, who introduced Graham to her most constant collaborator, the sculptor Isamu Noguchi. A third revelation is that, as opposed to the understanding that Graham broke completely from the “orientalist” aesthetics of Denishawn, her first State Department tour of the Orient went to the same countries as the famous Denishawn tour of 1925–26 and she posed in front of some of the same landmarks. She soon broke with the coy exotica of St. Denis as she explored the American experience, but that took time.

 

The Fascist Turn in the Dance of Serge Lifar: Interwar French Ballet and the German Occupation
By Mark Franko
Oxford University Press

Whenever the name Serge Lifar comes up, someone always says, “You know he was a Fascist, right?” Now, more than just rumor, we have the proof. Mark Franko has delved into the international archives to paint a complex picture of this mercurial dance artist who collaborated with the Nazis. The surrounding history is fascinating.

Lifar was the last favorite of Diaghilev, cultivated by him to shine as a performing and choreographing star. Cyril Beaumont described his movements as “graceful and lithe like those of a wild animal.” And yet he was also seen as an exemplar of classicism. Lifar’s sensibility was seen to fit “the avant-garde interwar art scene and its queer dimension.” Balanchine’s Apollon Musagète, with Lifar in the lead role when it premiered in 1928, was often called the dawning of neo-classicism.

Because of Lifar connection to Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, which had wowed the French elite for twenty years ending with Diaghilev’s death in 1929, the French authorities pinned their hopes on Lifar to resuscitate French ballet. He represented a reversal of sorts, in that Marius Petipa had brought ballet from France to Russia in the nineteenth century, making it thrive while ballet in France languished. So the French were eager to reverse the route and invite a Russian to revitalize the French ballet scene at the expense of Russia. Lifar did in fact bring Paris Opera Ballet into the “golden years,” which were also the war years.

In his voluminous writings, Lifar had espoused concepts that align with the Nazis, for instance, that pure classical ballet was fundamentally Aryan (as opposed to swing dance, which was banned). The Vichy government used the Opera (which then was producing more dance than music) as a public display of collaboration with the Nazi regime. In 1940, in the midst of World War II, Lifar personally showed Hitler around the Opera and had the lights turned on. When he was accused of being Jewish, he defended himself by disassociating himself from Jews and going further: “In my book La Danse (1937), I demonstrated that the Jewish culture is incompatible with omni-Aryan culture, that it has followed a distinctly different and destructive pathway while the omni-Aryan spirit symbolizes creation.” Always the opportunist, Lifar knew when white supremacy would come in handy.

After the war, for hazy reasons, Lifar was not penalized for collaborating with the Nazis as much as other public figures in France. Different factions of Paris Opera Ballet took different sides. The dancers stuck by him, but the theater electricians, who had been part of the Resistance, refused to work with him. They devised a plan to express their displeasure: In the first performance after the war, when Lifar appeared onstage, they plunged the entire theater into darkness!

There are other fun episodes, like the time Lifar challenged Massine to a duel in Central Park. (Massine declined.)

But this is the part that changed history: The general director of the Paris Opera, Jacques Rouché, had planned to replace Lifar with Balanchine, who was at the time freelancing in movies and musicals in the U.S. But at the last minute, Rouché bowed to pressure and rehired Lifar. This was right before New York City Center offered to make Balanchine and Kirstein’s fledgling group a resident company, thus giving birth to New York City Ballet in 1948. It’s unreal to think how close we came to not having NYCB!

 

Corner
Douglas Dunn, Gibson + Recoder
Photographs by Paula Court, text by Douglas Dunn and Brice Brown, film stills by Gibson + Recoder, Design by Grenfell Press and
MAB Books

Douglas Dunn is an existential figure in post-modern dance. During 46 years of making dances, he has produced events wayyy outside the box. With photographs by Paula Court, this book documents Corner (1972), in which Dunn, dressed in black, creates shapes with a crisp outline against a freestanding white-walled corner. The individual as loner, as object, as part of the architecture, as a visitor from another planet.

But that’s only half the book. The other half, if you turn the book over and start from the flip side, shows images of these same positions, now burnished bronze, obliterating the contrast of the original photos. Like a ghost crawling among the pages, the hazy figures disperse into the grainy background. This haunting effect, taking minimalism into a dream world, is accomplished by visual artists Sandra Gibson and Luis Recoder.

Included also is an essay by Dunn about the time he made Corner. His prose, like his dancing, is eloquent yet at times blunt. He aims “to emphasize the artificiality of delivering the body as art.” The surprise is that the further artificiality of the visual treatment brings these images into primal, almost animalistic territory.

 

The Legat Legacy
Ed. Mindy Aloff
Introduction by Robert Greskovic
Illustrations: Caricatures by Nicolas Legat
University Press of Florida

Master teacher and choreographer Nicolas Legat (1869–1937) was the link between Petipa and many of the Russians whose names we know; Pavlova, Fokine, Massine, Nijinsky, and Balanchine had all been his students. This book, which comprises Legat’s memoirs; testimonials from dancers like André Eglevsky, Alexandra Danilova, and Alicia Markova; and detailed lesson plans, brings the early twentieth-century Russian ballet alive for us.
Petipa is a giant in our eyes, but in Legat’s eyes, Christian Johanssen, was equally huge. Legat regarded these two men as deities. His writings show us that Russian ballet was an international blend, with influences from the French Petipa, the Swedish Johanssen (a disciple of Bournonville), and the Italian Cecchetti, who excelled in training for multiple pirouettes.

It was from Johanssen that Legat learned to be an exacting, demanding, and inventive teacher. Like Johanssen, he gave new combinations every class and tailored his corrections to individual bodies. He also learned to come five minutes early and water the floor himself before class. (In later years, a student or underling did the watering—with a garden-type watering can—the purpose being to provide friction, the result being constantly splintering wood planks.)

From Petipa, Legat learned about choreographing—but only for women. Apparently Petipa’s movement imagination did not extend to men. But Johanssen’s did. So Legat learned from him, although he felt Johanssen’s forte was in teaching rather than creating ballets.

Although Legat was sometimes open to new styles—for instance, he inserted a tap dance into Fairy Doll in 1903—he opposed the reforms of Fokine. While Fokine pushed for the story of a ballet to be danced rather than indicated through mime, Legat loved passing down Petipa’s pantomime passages to his students. These differences led to open conflicts between Legat and Fokine.

So many of the great Russian dancers—Pavlova, Karsavina, Massine—trusted Legat that Diaghilev hired him as ballet master for the Ballets Russes in 1925. But conflicts ensued, so Legat left to teach in Paris and then re-settled in London.

As Robert Greskovic writes in the introduction, Legat’s contribution as a teacher outweighed his output as a choreographer. None of his ballets since Fairy Doll in 1903, which he co-choreographed with his younger brother, has endured. In any case, this book is essential reading for anyone interested in Russian-style ballet training.

 

Futures of Dance Studies
Edited by Susan Manning, Janice Ross, and Rebecca Schneider
The University of Wisconsin Press

This book comprises 28 essays on a wide variety of subjects. It puts its faith in younger dance scholars to sustain the field of dance studies. The articles are divided into sub-sections: Archives, Desires, Sites, Politics, Economics, Virtuosities, and Circulations. I will summarize only two essays: the first, by Joanna Dee Das, in the Archives section; and the second, by Clare Croft, under Desires.

In “Dancing Dahomey at the World’s Fair: Revising the Archive of African Dance,” Joanna Dee Das makes the case that the exposition of the Dahomey Village (Dahomey is now the Republic of Benin) in the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair spurred the later popularity of African dance in the U. S. The early Vaudeville team of George Walker and Bert Williams, also performing at the fair, watched the West African dancers and borrowed from them when they created In Dahomey, the 1902 hit that turned the Cakewalk into a national craze. It was also the inspiration for a Dahomean number in Ziegfeld’s groundbreaking 1927 musical Showboat. Bert Williams, the soulful blackface performer, was an inspiration to the first superstar tapper, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson.

The World’s Fair was steeped in white supremacy, so it’s not surprising that journalists called the Dahomean dancers “savage,” describing them as both lazy and aggressive, “grinning” while swinging weapons. Dee Das looks to the 1930s films of Melville Herskovits for a more accurate version of the Dahomeans’ dances. She identifies a long-held duality: “The tension between black performance as object of an oppressive white gaze and black performance as a means of liberation.”

In “Lesbian Echoes in Activism and Writing: Jill Johnston’s Interventions,” Clare Croft applies a scholarly lens to Johnston’s wild ride as a dance critic turned lesbian chronicler. Johnston, who died in 2010, actually anticipated the ground-breaking Judson Dance Theater with her own explosive, raunchy, scarily insightful, convention-shattering prose. As Croft writes, “Johnson celebrates messiness, collision, and the dissolving of boundaries,” qualities that later apply to her writing as a lesbian feminist activist as well.

Croft quotes a magnificently prescient gender-diverse, Gertrude Stein–inflected statement by Johnston at the end of a review of a 1968 Lotte Goslar performance: “A queen is a queen is a boy is girl is a ballerina is a boy is a dyke is a fag is a butch is a boy is a girl is just a kinky son of a gun like the rest of us. Hello all you sexes. We’re too good to be true.”

After describing Johnston’s notorious public behavior (including a make-out session captured in the Pennebaker film Town Bloody Hall), Croft concludes the essay with gratitude: “She is here in our history to remind us again and again that there many ways to be a woman. To be a lesbian is to be a woman, with a body, with a mind—loud, brash, funny, and full of desire spilling forth.”

 

Ballet in the Cold War: A Soviet-American Exchange
By Anne Searcy
Oxford University Press

In 1959, the Bolshoi dancers burst onto the stage of the old Metropolitan Opera House, stoking excitement with their heroic leaps and hurling partnering. When they returned in September of 1962, they had two assets that promised to outdo their first triumph: the fierce ballerina Maya Plisetskaya and a new heroic Spartacus. Plisetskaya dazzled with every step, but Leonid Yacobson’s Spartacus—which expressed the Soviet Union’s revolutionary politics in grand manner, one-handed lifts and all—fell flat. Even worse, it was ridiculed. Critics compared it to kitschy Hollywood epics of the 1920s. It was called tasteless by New York critics, a charge that fit America’s disdain for Soviet “backwardness” while also marveling at the dancers’ virtuosity.

I was among the many American teenagers chosen to be supers in the production. In fact, author Anne Searcy quotes my blog entry My Spartacus as one of the people saying the ballet “did not cater to good taste.” It was only later, looking back, guessing why the eight scheduled performances were suddenly cut down to less, that I came up with that explanation. I adored the Khachaturian music, and being onstage with Plisetskaya, Rhyzhenko, and Vasiliev, was a thrill. Actually, I think the lore and lure of the Bolshoi was untouched by the charge of bad taste. Americans from Sascha Radetsky and Gabe Stone Shayer have studied there, and of course there was David Hallberg’s stint as a principle in the Bolshoi Ballet.

OK, enough of my opinion. Searcy recounts the reverse part of the exchange during the Cold War. When American Ballet Theatre went over in 1960, they defied common sense by including Eugene Loring’s Billy the Kid and Agnes de Mille’s Fall River Legend— both about extremely violent characters (what else makes a ballet American?). These ballets, which violated the alleged idealism of the Communist regime, were not well received.

More successful was New York City Ballet’s tour to the Soviet Union the following month, October 1962, which coincided with the Cuban Missile crisis. Despite the aesthetic differences, Searcy posits that both the Soviet penchant for symphonic ballets and the Balanchine’s neo-classical works embrace the music, and therein lay the common ground. I’m not sure I agree, because the Soviet aesthetic was broader and more literal, and I think they recognized that Balanchine was taking ballet into the future.

 

Finding Balanchine’s Lost Ballets: Exploring the Early Choreography of a Master
By Elizabeth Kattner
University Press of Florida

In 2018, Elizabeth Kattner, an associate professor at Oakland University in Michigan, dared to reconstruct Balanchine’s first group ballet, which he made as a teenager in St. Petersburg. Performed at the Duma Auditorium on the Nevsky Prospect, Funeral March premiered in 1923, the year before Balanchine left the Soviet Union for Europe. At the time he was the head of a group called the Young Ballet.

Influenced by the splendid work that Millicent Hodson and Kenneth Archer have done to reconstruct Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring and other Diaghilev-era ballets, Kattner restored (she uses the word “envision” rather than reconstruct) Balanchine’s eight-minute Funeral March for Grand Rapids Ballet. She feels that Funeral March foreshadows his later renowned works like Apollo, Prodigal Son and Serenade.

Inhabiting her double identity of dance artist and scholar, Kattner gathered the “remnants,” or traces of the work, and put them together like a puzzle. 46 She concludes that much of Balanchine’s genius was formed early on, in the cauldron of artistic influences of revolutionary Russia. These influences include sculptor Naom Gabo’s cubist ideas (Balanchine intended Funeral March to be seen from all four sides), the constructivist theater director Vsevolod Meyerhold, and experimental choreographer Kasyan Goleizovsky, who placed the action on different-leveled platforms.

An additional influence that we rarely hear about was Fokine’s Chopiniana. Balanchine loved the Chopin so much that he would imitate the different roles, so it’s no surprise that he chose the Polish composer’s music for this work.

Although Funeral March is the only ballet Kattner reconstructed, her Appendix lists nine other Balanchine ballets from 1920 to 1924 for which she supplies verbal “remnants.”

 

Catherine Littlefield: A Life in Dance
By Sharon Skeel
Oxford University Press

Before New York City Ballet, before American Ballet Theatre, there was the Catherine Littlefield Ballet Company, later the Philadelphia Ballet. Though it only lasted from 1934 to 1942, it produced the first full-scale Sleeping Beauty in the United States; toured Europe in 1937; and became resident company of the Chicago Civic Opera. Littlefield’s students joined the early groups of both George Balanchine and Mikhail Mordkin, whose company morphed into ABT.

Catherine Littlefield (1905–1951) performed in local musicals, in her own ballets, and in the Ziegfeld Follies, working with choreographers Ned Wayburn and Michel Fokine. (Sounds like Fokine make an Isadora Duncan–type piece with flowing tunics for the Ziegfeld girls.) She studied ballet seriously with Luigi Albertieri, a protégé of Cecchetti. She was friends with Zelda Fitzgerald, supplied numbers for TV shows, and she choreographed Sonja Henie’s ice-skating routines.

Catherine and her sister Dorothie Littlefield met Balanchine at the studio of Lubov Egorova and Olga Preobrajenska in Paris. Both sisters continued a friendship with Balanchine and sent their students to study with him to help him start his company. Among them were Todd Bolender, who later took over Kansas City Ballet, and Barbara Weisberger, who started Pennsylvania Ballet. Another Littlefield dancer, Holly Howard, was considered by some to be Balanchine’s first American muse.

This extensively researched book fills in the knowledge gap about America’s first independent ballet company (i.e. not affiliated with an opera house), which helped lay the groundwork for ballet to flourish in this country.

 

Moving and Being Moved
By Yvonne Rainer
Roma Publications

The last line of Yvonne Rainer’s infamous No manifesto of 1965 is “No to moving or being moved.” In “A Manifesto Reconsidered” (2008), she comments on that line with one word: “Unavoidable.” Thus, in some way, the essays in this collection issue forth from Rainer’s ability to change her mind.

The fluidity of her thinking makes this book stimulating to read. But the book also includes the flip side of that: the constancy of some of her ideas. In “Doing Nothing/Nothin’ Doin’: Revisiting a Minimal Approach to Performance,” she talks about doing nothing as a component in her piece The Concept of Dust or How do you look when there’s nothing left to move? (2015): “My unattainable ideal (but aren’t all ideals unattainable?) of doing nothing is part of a continuum, an ongoing project in part aimed to upset the applecart of expectations of high energy virtuosic dancing . . . but with a twist: the acknowledgment that everyday movement can only be made intelligible dialectically, in relation to what it is not.” To show the “ongoing” aspect, the “revisiting,” she includes a photo of her Terrain (1963) in which William Davis and Steve Paxton are standing around, doing nothing except watching someone else.

With Rainer, every seed of an idea spreads out and deepens as she goes. In “What’s So Funny? Laughter and Anger in the Time of the Assassins” while acknowledging various responses to a particular joke, she realizes, “One person’s funny bone is another’s yawn.” It’s not just laughter she’s interested in, but the cause of it: the absurdity of life—and death. The confounding enormity of her brother’s lifeless body descending into a hole in the ground makes her wonder, “Does one laugh to sidestep grief? Or do I laugh to circumvent my anger at the frustrating dancing around death that pervades our culture?”

For anyone interested in Judson Dance Theater, a highpoint in “What’s So Funny” is her memory of Alex Hay’s absurdist Prairie (1963), which he made in response to Charles Ross’s trapezoidal structure of metal pipes. Hay took two pillows high up on the pipe and tried to fall asleep up there while an audiotape of his own voice asked if he was comfortable.

Moving and Being Moved also contains contributions from three other writers including the late art critic/curator Douglas Crimp. Crimp’s 2012 essay “Pedagogical Vaudevillian” takes an astute look at the sources and issues of Rainer’s choreography over the years.

Rainer not only uses language in all her recent dances but seems to have a compulsion to write about the discoveries during the making of each dance. Lucky for us. These writings are companion pieces to Rainer’s choreography; if you’ve seen any of her works, they give you more to chew on.

 

Fringe: Maria Benitez’s Flamenco Enchantment
By Jaima Chevalier
Atomic City Lights Publishers
On Amazon

Fierce, charismatic Maria Benitez was a force onstage as well as off.  With her Santa Fe–based company, María Benítez Teatro Flamenco, she toured internationally from the ’70s to the ’90s. She was so popular in the Southwest that she held 12-week summer seasons at her own cabaret venue for four decades. She also had eight seasons at The Joyce Theater and choreographed for opera. Of Native American and Puerto Rican heritage, Benitez is one of the few Americans who, after studying in Spain, became a great Flamenco dancer. The Institute for Spanish Arts, which she formed with her husband Cecilio in 1970, kept Hispanic arts alive in Santa Fe for almost five decades.

Fringe is a loving tribute by a lifelong admirer, Jaima Chevalier, written in flowery language that one might call rambling cosmic conjecture. (I wish this book had an index and footnotes to ground the scholarship.) However one learns some basic points, for example that flamenco, like jazz, emerged from a persecuted people and includes improvisation riffing off of a theme.

This lavishly produced book showcases a variety of photographers’ pictures of the great dancer. Ruven Afanador shows Benitez’s drama, glamor, and cheekbones. Beverly Gile focuses her face while she’s performing. Winter Prather shot from the bottom up, emphasizing her statuesque quality. Jack Mitchell, the famed Dance Magazine and celebrity photographer, showed the fierce pride in her arched back. Brian Fishbine caught her in candid moments with musicians and some of the many young dancers who called her Flamenco Madre.

 

Reissues

Yvonne Rainer: Work 1961–1973
Primary Information

Rainer’s writing about the process of making dances has always been galvanizing. I enjoy her conceptual clarity, articulation of ambivalence, and eagerness to experiment. Challenge and defiance are her natural state. The title reminds me that choreographing is not something romantic but is mostly work. Rainer’s witty, blunt prose embraces complexity in a way I find exhilarating. At this point, Work 196-–1973 is kind of a post-modern bible.

 

Conversations with Meredith Monk
New, expanded edition
By Bonnie Marranca
PAJ Publications
Order at Amazon

These interviews reveal the depth and delight of Monk’s boundary-crossing work. “The essence of my philosophy,” says Monk, “is the integration and weaving together of many perceptual forms.” And yet we experience Monk’s performances as more than simply an integration of forms. It’s also a dig down into the unconscious, into dreams and histories. A place where, as Monk says, comedy and tragedy are not opposites, but qualities that infiltrate each other.

Monk says she’s interested in “cycles of time.” Case in point: When she talks about the sick child in Quarry, which is set in World War II, she says, “Her illness becomes a metaphor for the world descending into darkness.” This suddenly seems so apt, with Covid plunging us all into a kind of darkness.

 

Howling Near Heaven: Twyla Tharp and the Reinvention of Modern Dance
By Marcia B. Siegel
University Press of Florida

From one of our best dance critics comes this 2006 work, detailing Tharp’s dances from her early rehearsals in the basement of Judson Memorial Church to full seasons on Broadway. Along the way are her landmark ballets for the Joffrey Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and the movie Hair. The title, Howling Near Heaven, hints at the joining of opposites that Tharp was so good at: the primal and the divine co-exist in her best work. Siegel takes us through Tharp’s hunger to experiment, the staggering range of her output, and her goals for each project. She describes some of the dancers’ experiences and the potential obstacles to completing each work. Tharp’s intelligence sparkles on every page, Siegel’s in-depth treatment of one of America’s greatest choreographers is invigorating to read.

 

Other Books

ChoreoGraphics: Six Studies
Photographs and Interviews by Judith Stuart Boroson
Available at Judith Stuart Photography and Outskirts Press
This slim paperback contains interviews with six current choreographers, each talking about a particular work that has been photographed by Judith Stuart Boroson. Alexandra Beller, wanting to leave the familiar postmodern vocabulary behind, watches her toddlers for clues to something more connected to purpose. Janis Brenner works with people in war-torn Sarajevo to mine their family heritage. In her intense Memoirs of a…Unicorn, Marjani Forté-Saunders attempts to connect the vulnerability of Black men to her own body: “I’m wanting to feel a kind of delirium so that the inside eventually comes out.” Colleen Thomas is engaged in process, how she begins and begins again, opening up to new ideas. Nathan Trice has been working a malleable duet form that uses his method of “hand-body listening.” And Jawole Willa Jo Zollar, along with Samantha Speis, created Walking with ’Trane to honor the traditions of exploratory improvisation in jazz music.

Transmissions
By Nick Mauss
Dancing Foxes Press
This is a lavish catalog for a 2018 exhibit at the Whitney Museum that celebrated the intersection of ballet, fashion, and art from the 1930s through the ’50s. With its photographs, flyers and other artifacts, the catalog sets forth a pre-queer, pre-camp sensibility. Painter Paul Cadmus, an associate of Lincoln Kirstein, is one of the central figures as a pre-Stonewall queer artist. The book contains artifacts reflecting work from Bakst and Goncharova to Man Ray, Elie Nadelman, Cadmus, and Pavel Tchelitchew, and glimpses of Ruth Page, Sono Osato, Alicia Markova, and Jacques d’Amboise. Photography was just coming into its own at this time. The homoerotic photos of George Platt Lynes, who was hired by Kirstein to photograph Balanchine’s dancers, seem to foreshadow Mapplethorpe’s sensibility. Carl Van Vechten’s photographic portraits, in their lush beauty with floral backgrounds, include a 1938 diptych of Al Bledger of the American Negro Ballet—one of Van Vechten’s portraits that were sometimes accused of “white naiveté.”

Corporeal Politics: Dancing East Asia
Edited by Katherine Mezur and Emily Wilcox
University of Michigan Press
One of a new spate of books featuring Asian dance scholarship, this anthology contains 16 chapters by different Asian and American dance scholars. Some of the essays focus on historical figures like Michio Ito, Dai Ailian, or Mei Lanfang. Others have great titles like “The Conflicted Monk” and “Cracking History’s Codes in Crocodile Time.” Half the contributors hail from universities in the U.S., the other half from Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea, and Germany.

Moving Bodies, Navigating Conflict: Practicing Bharata Natyam in Colombo, Sri Lanka
By Ahalya Satkunaratnam
Wesleyan University Press
Sri Lanka, called a “hybrid island,” is a mix of religions, races, and languages. The author examines classical Indian dance practice in its capital, Colombo, during the long and violent civil war from 1983 to 2009. Ahalya Satkunaratnam, a dancer herself, traces how women dancers navigate the traumatic conditions of war, including performing bharata natyam on a TV competition show, and ultimately work toward peace.

The Oxford Handbook of Improvisation in Dance
Edited by Vida L. Midgelow
Oxford University Press
With 43 entries by a wide range of improvisers and scholars including Ann Cooper Albright, Kent De Spain, Thomas DeFrantz, Janice Ross, Stephanie Skura, and Sheron Wray.

A Guru’s Journey: Pandit Chitresh Das and Indian Classical Dance in Diaspora
By Sarah Morelli
University of Illinois Press
This comprehensive look at the life of Chitresh Das (1944–2015), possibly the most accomplished Kathak dancer in the U. S., is a testament to his influence. He set up schools across the Bay Area and his followers are legion. The book also gives a welcome history of Indian dance in American since the 1880s, when Nautch dancers were deemed less than satisfactory and were replaced by white dancers willing to show more skin — skin that was bronzed in an attempt to look the part.

Lastly, my own book:
The Grand Union: Accidental Anarchists of Downtown Dance, 1970–1976
By Wendy Perron
Wesleyan University Press
You probably know by now that I wouldn’t write a book unless I absolutely loved the subject matter. So, just the facts: This leaderless improvisation group, which has been called a “miracle” and “collective genius,” included Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Barbara Dilley, Douglas Dunn, David Gordon, Nancy Lewis, Lincoln Scott and Becky Arnold. Watching them in the 1970s, and again recently via videotape, I marveled at how they retained their vivid, eccentric selves while meshing with the group—or refusing to mesh. I tried to reflect that mercurial reality—or as Dilley has said, surreal quality—while also giving a sense of the environment that made it possible: SoHo, a fledgling artists’ colony. Many readers (and viewers of my public zooming events) have been able to share my pleasure in Grand Union. And now that we are each reinventing ourselves in the pandemic, this radical concept of complete improvisation within a collective takes on new meaning.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Nightmares of Our Time

Hutch Hagendorf as a man in a “mirror prison”, all photos by Marcia Davis

OK, enough of hope. If you’re looking for a dance/theater/design performance that reflects the extreme anxiety of our lives right now, tune in to Donald Byrd’s new Lyric Suite. It’s not lyrical at all—unless you think fever dreams that plunge you into the darkest paranoia are lyrical. This series of twelve solos, performed by the twelve dancers of Spectrum Dance Theater, depicts the claustrophobia of confinement, the terror of police brutality, and the fear of an invisible menace. Other issues like homelessness, availability of PPE, news overload, and toxic wildfires are hinted at. Alban Berg’s music of the same title attenuates the strains of string instruments to make us feel like we’re ready to snap. (Additional sound is by Emmanuel Witzthum and Rob Witmer.)

All the episodes come out of the active imagination of Donald Byrd, Spectrum’s artistic director; they arrive to the screen by way of cinematographer Egan Rory Kolb, who also produced the haunting special effects. Not every choreographer is willing to put their most harrowing thoughts into their work. But Byrd is not interested in wrapping his packages up with an optimistic bow. Instead, he and Kolb use movement, objects and the mercurial nature of dreams to delve into the current American psyche.

Akoiya Harris

Of the twelve episodes, I’ll describe three.

Akoiya Harris is hugging a tree, whispering her thankfulness to its bark. Off in the distance a pesky mirage of black wisps advances closer, emitting a shrill chirping sound. Harris climbs up the tree higher and higher as she’s chased by this scampering phantom virus. Though she lifts off the tree in a skyward escape, it does not end well.

Michele Dooley, wearing a sleek black suit and high heels, dances around a box in a free-floating, borderless room. On the box is a tally of how many days have passed—could be the number of days of sheltering at home or could be solitary confinement. She eventually crawls inside the box even though it’s much too small for her.

Perhaps the most frightening nightmare is when Mikhail Calliste dances, slow and sinuous, in view of a looming silhouette of a towering policeman in riot gear. The cop suddenly multiplies and his many boots hover over Mikhail, who is now face down on the floor. A sickening thud is heard as one boot stomps on the dancer’s face. In a rare lucid-dreaming moment, Calliste grabs the boot, now detached from the cop, and pounds it while he laughs.

The Spectrum dancers bite into these fantasies without flinching, and the camera work is stunning.  If you have the fortitude to face these fears while seeing a wild imagination at work, you can purchase a three-day pass (part of the company’s digital fall season) at this ticket link to view this weekend’s encore of Lyric Suite, November 20–22.

 

 

 

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Ishmael/Bebe/Ralph

Ishmael, Ralph, Bebe, all photos by Nathan Keay via MCA Chicago

When it was announced that Ishmael Houston-Jones, Ralph Lemon, and Bebe Miller would perform together, it seemed too good to be true. Three of our greatest mischievous/masterful dance artists improvising together!

And it wasn’t true—at least not for New Yorkers. Relations was only true for the lucky people in Chicago. The presenter was MCA Chicago, the curator was Tara Aisha Willis, and the dates were November 2–3, 2018.

Last week Tara organized a virtual watch party of the second performance, and it will now remain posted until July 31. I was thrilled to see the video. There’s a certain feeling of alert anticipation when you watch really good improvisers in live performance. And somehow this video did not seem like a document but seemed alive to me.

Ralph, Bebe, Ishmael

Three is a good number. Three people who are natural leaders agreeing to enter a leaderless arrangement. One is always in Relation to the other Two, as well as being in relation to a slat on the floor, or to a chair, or to a stash of records. I had that anything-can-happen sensation, that sitting-on-the-edge-of-my-seat feeling, while also noticing how centered in their bodies and how conscious of their decisions they seemed. It doesn’t hurt that they are all, bottom line, terrific movers.

Ralph, Bebe, Ishmael

Clear roles emerged over the hour. Bebe was like the center, the mother, the connector—connecting to each of the men and connecting to her dancer self at every moment. Ishmael was the impulsive one, in and out at the same time, expressing his ambivalence in sneaky ways. Ralph was the architect/auteur, contemplating the space, designing the space, turning it into a literary space.

Ishmael, Ralph

I don’t want to say too much about how they interacted, or how they let words slip into their nestlings and challengings, or how they let a diagonal form and then unform, because I hope you’ll see the video for yourself.

What was the genesis of this occasion? Tara asked Ishmael what he would want to do, and he replied that he’d never gotten to dance with Bebe and Ralph. This seems like a modest proposal. But when you think of “Parallels” at Danspace in New York City in 1982, the landmark series of performances that Ishmael curated to challenge the reigning definition of “black dance,” it’s in that vein. “Parallels” was reprised for a tour to Europe in 1987 (which Bebe, Ralph, and Ishmael were part of), and back at Danspace, expanded by a younger generation, in 2012. Here we are in 2020, casting a loving eye on how these three “Parallels” artists have evolved, and how they are existing, existentially, now in their 60s (greater integration of mind and body) and how they intersect as performers.

Ralph downstage, choosing a record to put on the turntable

Although this threesome was called together pointedly as a group of Black dance artists, there was something porous about Relations. Maybe because of their familiarity with each other, we were allowed to see/feel their humanity in poetic, edgy, and witty ways.

I enjoyed the after-talk too. I especially appreciated that Ishmael mentioned those we have lost since the 1982 Parallels. It happens that two of those original artists—Harry Sheppard and Blondell Cummings—were good friends of mine. They had already been dancing downtown for a decade, paving the way for Ishmael to make the breakthrough.

The after-talk

Someone was quoted as saying Relations was like a “Black Grand Union.” Oh good, I didn’t want to be the first to say it! For those of you who don’t know, Grand Union was the legendary, post-Judson, mostly white, improvisation group from 1970 to ’76. I am sure that Ralph, Bebe, and Ishmael weren’t thinking of GU, but I saw some common ground: an anchoring in movement exploration, a certain nuzzling comfort (Grand Union was an unattributed laboratory of Contact Improvisation), patience in allowing things to develop in their own time, being totally themselves yet listening to the others. Being able to surprise each other, goad each other, add a touch of humor or echo to each other.

Naturally I would see them with this lens of Grand Union. For three years, I’ve been immersed in writing a book on this group that will be out in September. I thought of GU as a fluke, only possible because of a specific time and place, unrepeatable. And it was. And this event, Relations, is also unrepeatable. But . . .  I hope they repeat it in NYC some day.

(Adjunct materials for Relations—program notes, Tara’s blog, clips of the after talk, and a booklet of their writings—are here.)

 

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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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