Notable Dance Books of 2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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


And while we’re on the subject of Merce…

Merce Cunningham Redux
By James Klosty
PowerHouse Books

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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


Other Books Received

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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Cunningham 3D Film Thrums with Life

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

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

Alla Kovgan,, photo by Martin Miseré

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

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

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

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

Westbeth Rooftop, photo by Mko Malkshasyan

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

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

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

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

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

Poster outside Walter Reade Theater in Lincoln Center

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







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When Queer Means More than Sexual Orientation

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

All photos by Al Evangelista


Lee Na-Moo in Nostalgia

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Monson and Nibia Pastrana Santiago

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

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

Ayodele Drum and Dance in Guinea Suite

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


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The Swirls of Dancing in China

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

Traveling by wheels

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


Tan Yuanyuan Studio Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

YY with photo of her younger self at Shanghai Dance School

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

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

Later, Still in Shanghai

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

Xiexin Dance Theatre in rehearsl, Xie Xin at right.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Beijing Dance Academy

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

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

Rehearsal of Yellow River

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From left: Wang Xin, me, Sally Cai

Lingering Thoughts

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

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

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

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

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

A 1973 poster for The White-haired Girl

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

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

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

A scene from The Eternal Wave in performance.

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

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

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

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









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Why “Deuce Coupe” Rocked My World

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

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

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

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

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

The original Deuce Coupe in 1973

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

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

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

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

The Juilliard production of Deuce Coupe in 2007

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

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


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Kirstein: Building Ballet, Trashing Modern Dance

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

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

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

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

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

Graham in Chronicle (1936) Courtesy Martha Graham Resources

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Xin Ying in Chronicle, photo by Melissa Sherwood

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Best of 2018

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

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

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

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

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

Jessica Lang’s EN, photo Paul Kolnik

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

Kairos by Wayne McGregor, photo Paul Kolnik

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

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

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

Accrorap in The Roots, photo ©João Garcia

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

Akram Khan in Xenos, photo Jean-Louis Fernandez


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

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

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

Acosta Danza in Twelve, photo Johan Persson

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

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

Fabulously Funny Duos, Redux and New

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

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

Lock ‘Em Up by Dancenoise, photo Ian Douglas


Show No Show, photo Hallie Martenson

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



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


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

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

Hadar Ahuvia in Joy Vey

Caleb Teicher in Great Heights, photo Amanda Centile



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


Taking the Improv Challenge

Timothy Edwards, photo Yi-Chun Wu

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


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


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


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

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

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

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

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

Best Performers

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

Marta Ortega with Carlos Acosta in Mermaid, photo Johan Persson

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

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

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

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

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

Cailtin Scranton as Ursula, photo Andrew Jordan

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


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

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


Three Crucial Exhibits

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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11 Notable Dance Books of 2018

I love books on dance; they are my friends. They share my sofa and my night table with me. I make new friends each year, but I do not have time to read every page of every book. However, I did read enough to absorb the scope and style of these eleven books. Loosely speaking, I would say that they all reside in the space where art meets culture. Each book deepens our understanding of what dance can be, where dance can go.

The list contains three engaging autobiographies, three gorgeous exhibition catalogs, a pair of anthologies that look at dance in an inclusive way, a quick-digest version of Jerome Robbins’ life, a re-examination of Anna Sokolow’s work, and an elegant sliver of a book of Steve Paxton’s musings. Lastly I offer a short list of other books received.


Dancing in Blackness: A Memoir
By Halifu Osumare
University Press of Florida

A lifelong dance artist, activist, and educator, Halifu Osumare takes us through her early training in the Bay Area, her teaching of “jazz ballet” in Copenhagen and Stockholm, and her growing consciousness of what it means to be a black dancer in a white world—and a dancer in a militant black world. In New York, she danced with Rod Rodgers in the early 70s, during the period when he dedicated one of his pieces to the inmates killed in the Attica prison uprising. The company performed in the ingenious DanceMobile, a kind of portable theater that brought dance to inner city neighborhoods. Back in Oakland, Osumare got involved in transcendental meditation and participated in an early version of Ntozake Shange’s celebrated play “for colored girls who have considered suicide when the rainbow is enuf.” (It was Shange who gave her her African name: Halifu is Swahili for “the shooting arrow” and Osumare is Yoruba for “the deity of the rainbow.”) She also created a lecture/performance called “The Evolution of Black Dance” that she toured to public schools.

Osumare went to Africa in search of her dance ancestry. While roughing it in a Ghanaian village, she saw, up close, how “the secular and the sacred are interwoven” in their lives. Although she was called a white woman in Ghana, when she danced with people there, she felt a sure connection.

During 12 years at Stanford (active in both the dance program and the Committee on Black Performing Arts), she was inspired to become a scholar, thinker and organizer. She earned her PhD and formed Black Choreographers Moving Toward the 21st Century, always promoting dance as a unifying force.

Evident throughout the book is Osumare’s belief in the power of dance to address social justice issues. At every juncture, Osumare asks clusters of questions—about the fluidity of tradition, about the role of dance in different cultures, about how racism affects the dance world. She gives props to the women she learned from, including Ruth Beckford (a force for dance in Oakland), Katherine Dunham, and Dianne McIntyre. Dancing in Blackness is Osumare’s third book, after The Hiplife in Ghana: West African Indigenization of Hip-Hop (Palgrave 2013) and The Africanist Aesthetic in Global Hip-Hop Power Moves (Palgrave 2008).


Ballet for Life: A Pictorial Memoir
By Finis Jhung
New York: Ballet Dynamics, Inc

Most dance books have too few pictures, so it’s a treat to take in the bounty of photographs—more photo pages than text pages—that tell the story of master ballet teacher Finis Jhung. Ballet for Life is part autobiography, part testimonial. A small boy, growing up in Hawaii of partly Korean heritage, is so fidgety that he earns the nickname “monkey.” He becomes infatuated with ballet and performs locally. He attends the University of Utah, where he gets solid training from Willam Christensen. Although Jhung is told by classmate Michael Smuin that he will never make it as a dancer because he is Asian and has bowed legs, he rises to the top ranks in the dance department. After coming to New York to dance in the Broadway musical Flower Drum Song, he takes class at the Ballet Theatre school, where Mme. Pereyaslavec forces his turnout and destabilizes his technique. He joins San Francisco Ballet for a spell and dances in the Hollywood version of Flower Drum Song. Then he returns to New York to dance with the Joffrey Ballet.

Robert Joffrey, an excellent teacher, gets Jhung back on his center. After two years in the Joffrey Ballet (1962–64) he goes, along with many others, to the Harkness Ballet, where he stays until 1969. Along with Lawrence Rhodes, Helgi Tomasson, Brunilda Ruiz, and Lone Isakson, he dances a repertoire of works by Brian Macdonald, John Butler, Norman Walker and the company’s director, George Skibine.

After a while, his muscles get all knotted up, and he decides to listen to his massage person and become a Buddhist. He enters a less than passionate marriage, which produces his son, Jason Akira Jhung, who later helps him produce his popular dance videos. During the ’70s, while developing his craft of teaching, he founds Chamber Ballet U.S.A., a small company of excellent dancers that brings ballet to small stages and schools. It is immediately successful but lands him in debt after five years. He returns to teaching, now with a savvy business sense. One of his later projects is directing the “Billy camps” for the young boys of technical prowess who feed into the Broadway musical Billy Elliot. Ballet for Life is very readable, and the photos are a history in themselves.


Ballet Matters: A Cultural Memoir of Ballet Dreams and Empowering Realities
By Jennifer Fisher

Let’s face it. Only a small number of ballet students ever become professional. We’ve seen lots of memoirs by famous dancers, but how does a ballet lover turn her less-than-stellar potential into an artistically fulfilling life? Jennifer Fisher, now a full professor at UC Irvine, had to re-examine her love for dance and transform it into a related career. The valuable idea here is that ballet is not always lovely and ethereal: “Ballet is not a way to escape life; it’s a way to negotiate life by learning a valuable practice, by offering complexity, depth, and beauty.” Fisher grappled with ballet as a “life force” even though it didn’t elevate her to a professional level. But even as a hobby, she says, ballet “strengthens the backbone and nourishes the soul.” The book details her encounters with ballet in Russia, her participation in Baryshikov’s PastForward project commemorating Judson Dance Theater, and her stint as a TV critic. The final chapter on “Finding My Religion” describes moments in works by Petipa, Balanchine, Ulysses Dove, and Alonzo King as windows to spirituality.


Invocation of Beauty: The Life and Photography of Soichi Sunami
By David Martin
Cascadia Art Museum

Martha Graham in Lamentation (1930)

This catalog is a visual feast for those of us who care about early modern dance. Amidst a wide range of subjects are rarely seen, luminous photographs of historic dance figures, including Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman, Ted Shawn, Agnes de Mille, Harald Kreutzerg, and Helen Tamiris. It also includes lesser known, but still intriguing, figures. One is Michio Ito, the modern dance pioneer who chose deportation to Japan rather than continue to endure an internment camp during World War II. Another is Edna Guy, the young black woman who served as Ruth St. Denis’ assistant but was not accepted into Denishawn because of her race. (She later choreographed and organized key dance concerts for black dancers.) Some of the photos, like the one of Graham in Lamentation, seem to float in space.

Soichi Sunami (1885–1971) was born in Japan and came to the U. S. in 1905. He started photographing dance concerts at the Cornish School in Seattle and then invited dancers to be his models. He moved to New York in 1922, later becoming a photographer for the Museum of Modern Art. Living on the East Coast, he evaded the mass incarceration of Japanese-Americans into internment camps during World War II. However, knowing of the government’s anti-Japanese policies, he burned his early nude studies just in case. Sunami’s photographs of landscapes are as dreamlike as impressionist paintings. His photographs of dancers make two-dimensional poetry of their dancing bodies. If you’re in Seattle, try to catch this exhibit before it closes on January 6, 2019.


William Forsythe: Choreographic Objects
Institute of Contemporary Art / Boston

Whether William Forsythe is creating movement, sculpture, video, or interactive environments, his work retains an edge of rawness. This catalog, with images that reveal that edgy sensibility, lends insight into the mind of this brilliant choreographer. Roslyn Sulcas’ lead essay explains how Forsythe’s destabilizing techniques for improvisation carry over into his installations, creating new possibilities of dance. Browsing the book will give you a multitude of ideas for choreography. If you go to the exhibit, which is up until February 21, 2019, you are sure to get pulled into these kinetically alluring environments. This choreographic playground has traveled to many countries but has a special place in Boston, now that Forsythe has embarked on a five-year partnership with Boston Ballet.


Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done
Edited by Ana Janevski and Thomas J. Lax
The Museum of Modern Art

Judson Dance Theater blasted the conventions of concert dance in the early 60s, expanding the possibilities for contemporary dance. This exhibit emphasizes the connections of Judson to the art world. It includes not only dancers like Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton, but also composers like Philip Corner and visual artists like Robert Rauschenberg and Carolee Schneemann. Essays by curators Thomas Lax and Ana Janevski lay out the various forms of experimentation, from outrageous to humdrum. Collaboration was in the air; so was the will to subvert authority.

The exhibit, which is up until February 3, 2018, shows the two main environments that gave rise to Judson: Anna Halprin’s workshops on her deck in California and Robert Dunn’s composition class at the Merce Cunningham studio in New York. Simone Forti’s dance constructions, bridging those two conceptual hotbeds, were a strong influence. Striking photographs from Peter Moore and Al Giese are evocative of the period, especially the sense of collectivity, the tolerance of chaos. The latter part of the catalog gives brief profiles of 34 participants and influencers, including people we don’t usually associate with Judson Dance Theater like choreographer Aileen Passloff and jazz composer Cecil Taylor. Although there are some factual errors, this catalog provides an excellent overview of a crucial period in dance history.


The following pair of books, which treats dance from different cultural points of view, is enlivening and enlarging.

Perspectives in American Dance: The Twentieth Century
Edited by Jennifer Atkins, Sally R. Sommer, and Tricia Henry Young
University Press of Florida

This anthology of 13 essays looks at social aspects of various phenomena in dance in the United States. The entries include Julie Malnig on the racial aspects of ’50s TV shows like American Bandstand; Dara Milovanović’s connecting Fosse, fetishism and Fascism in the film Cabaret; Sara Wolf’s comparison of Isadora Duncan’s use of the flag in 1917 with Yvonne Rainer’s Trio A With Flags (1970); and Joellen A. Meglin on Ruth Page’s debt to African American jazz dance. An in-depth essay on Alonzo Kings’ LINES Ballet, by Jill Nunes Jensen, emphasizes the spiritual and global dimensions of his work. This collection reminds us that dance is everywhere—not just on a stage—and is often connected to world circumstances. Though most of the contributors are academics, they do not write in that overly pedantic way that is so annoying.

Perspectives in American Dance: The New Millennium
Edited by Jennifer Atkins, Sally R. Sommer, and Tricia Henry Young
University Press of Florida

In this second volume of the series, noted dance scholars have contributed interesting essays that are somewhat anthropological. They include Kate Mattingly on flash mobs, Hannah Schwadron on the intersection of Judaism and porn, and Patsy Gay on the Brooklyn hipster aesthetic in the club scene. The only chapter that discusses an actual choreographer is Sally Sommer’s on site-specific dancemaker extraordinaire Noémi Lafrance. Sommer analyzes two of her major works: the beautifully haunting Descent in Tribeca’s Watchtower, and Agora, which invaded the massive abandoned McCarren Park Pool in Brooklyn with a wild imagination.


Honest Bodies: Revolutionary Modernism in the Dances of Anna Sokolow
By Hannah Kosstrin
Oxford University Press, 2017

Note: This book was published in 2017, but it slipped past me last year.

Anna Sokolow was a fierce, uncompromising dance artist. Combining Martha Graham’s modernist technique, Louis Horst’s compositional rigor, and Stanislavsky’s method of inner motivation, she created dances of haunting intensity. A Jewish dancer from an immigrant family, Sokolow naturally participated in the pro-labor, anti-fascist, socialist movement of the ’30s through the ’50s. Sokolow’s dances, says Hannah Kosstrin, were equally revolutionary and Jewish.

Sokolow’s dissent was veiled rather than blatant. Kosstrin feels that “the thematic alienation of Lyric Suite, Rooms and Opus embodied criticism of anticommunism, anti-Semitism, racism, and homophobia.” Beyond Sokolow’s own productions, she also supplied dances for communist events and pageants. “These projects evidenced her broad appeal as a communist artist who could move public masses.” She enjoyed long associations with Mexico and Israel, solidifying her alignment with the International Left.

Sokolow’s work was visceral and rebellious. As Kosstrin puts it, “Sokolow’s choreography disrupted 1950s quietism like sandpaper against a smooth surface.”

Her choreography came “from the gut.” Her endings were not final, as she wanted to allow the audience to finish the dance themselves. Says Kosstrin: “Her dances’ unresolved endings reflected Jewish modes of teaching through questioning.”

Honest Bodies is part of a recent surge of dance scholars exploring Jewishness that includes the writers Naomi Jackson, Rebecca Rossen, Judith Brin Ingber, and Hannah Schwadron. Kosstrin plunges us deep into the politics of Sokolow’s times, showing how her Jewishness is part of her idealism. I find the voices of Sokolow’s dancers are missing in this book. But Honest Bodies will acquaint you with this brilliant choreographer and the forces that shaped her.


Jerome Robbins: A Life in Dance
By Wendy Lesser
Jewish Lives Series, Yale University Press

Writer and editor Wendy Lesser has produced a short, engrossing biography of Jerome Robbins in this year of the Robbins centennial. Relying heavily on Deborah Jowitt’s Jerome Robbins: His Life, His Theater, His Dance (2004), this slim volume is more psychologically oriented. Your heart goes out to this master choreographer who often felt terrible about himself. Lesser makes a case for him being the equal of Balanchine (which some of us had already figured out), and of his ballets being as good as his phenomenal work on musicals (that, too, is no surprise). Lesser’s descriptions of ballets like The Cage, Dances at a Gathering, and Goldberg Variations make you crave to see them again. But she comes down hard on some of his greatest ballets, like Glass Pieces and In the Night. (I’m wondering if perhaps the videos she had access to just didn’t do the choreography justice.) The quotes from Emily Coates, a dancer who worked with Robbins at New York City Ballet the last six years of his life (and who went on to dance with Twyla Tharp and Yvonne Rainer) are terrifically insightful. If you don’t have time to read Jowitt’s excellent biography, then Lesser’s book is a good short cut.


By Steve Paxton
Edited by Baptiste Andrien and Florence Corin
Contredanse Editions
Also available in French, tr. Denise Luccioni

This slim collection of Steve Paxton’s haiku-like writings hints at the poetic roots of Contact Improvisation. At the age of 6, he rode in a small airplane with his father, “looping and rolling in the air over Antelope Valley, Arizona.” He could see a herd of antelope below, but with the movement of the airplane, they appeared to be above or around him. Thus began the seed for the idea of spherical space that is so key to Contact Improvisation.

Paxton poses questions about the physics of the body in motion as well as the mystery of the unconscious. “I tried to catch myself behaving unconsciously, but…the perception was ruined by turning my consciousness to it…I was spying on myself. Self-hacking.” Dancers, he says, “must hack their basic movement programs in order to adapt to new movements.” One must let sensation, rather than rote memorization, be the teacher. In the Small Dance, well known to CI practitioners, he says, “Let the organs down into the bowl of the pelvis, let the spine rise to support the skull…”

 Other bon mots:

On awareness: “The consciousness can roam within the body.”

The essence of CI: “Two bodies leaning and sharing mass create one center.”

Paxton’s gentle humor: After his one and only dancing/flying dream, he writes, “If such dreams were to become common, I would reduce my working schedule and nap more often.”

A reason for activism: “I diagnose the societies of the 21st century as mad. Collectively we seem to be helpless to stop the slaughter and the degradation of the very planet on which we live.”

Alighting on a definition of gravity: “Your mass and the earth’s mass calling to each other.”


Books received:

Third edition of Ballet & Modern Dance: A Concise History, by Jack Anderson. Originally printed in 1986 and re-issued in 1992, this book is valuable because Jack Anderson is a dependable source of dance history. Princeton Book Company.

Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, by Kevin Winkler. Oxford University Press.

The Profitable Artist: A Handbook for All Artists in the Performing, Literary, and Visual Arts, edited by Peter Cobb, Felicity Hogan, and Michael Royce. New York Foundation for the Arts.

Writing and the Body in Motion: Awakening Voice Through Somatic Practice, by Cheryl Pallant. McFarland.

Lastly, this is not only a book received but a book I wrote for:
The Next Wave Festival
Edited by Steven Serafin and Susan Yung. Brooklyn Academy of Music. Available at Greenlight Bookstore at BAM and
Brooklyn Academy of Music in association with Print Matters Production

This book celebrates 35 years of the groundbreaking Next Wave Festival, with essays on dance, theater, music, and visual art. I had a great time digging into the rich past of Next Wave Festival. I wrote about the work of Pina Bausch, Bill T. Jones, Trisha Brown, Ralph Lemon and other dance artists who have exploded our ideas about dance in many directions.

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Fevered States: “Naharin’s Virus”

Intro: When Batsheva Dance Company brought Naharin’s Virus to Brooklyn Academy of Music in spring of 2002, it seemed to explode onto the NYC dance scene. We had seen Ohad Naharin’s intriguing choreography before, but this raise his work to a different level of human ferocity. I wrote this review for the August 2002 issue of Dance Magazine, but it is not accessible online. So I am now posting it here because Batsheva — The Young Ensemble is performing Naharin’s Virus at The Joyce Theater July 10–22, 2018. It is also collected in my book, Through the Eyes of a Dancer. In my introduction to that version, I say that Ohad Naharin’s wife, Mari Kajiwara, who had been a force of nature in his work, had died of cancer in 2001. I hope you get to see Naharin’s Virus, but if you don’t, this will give you some idea of it.

Naharins Virus Gadi Dagon


Sixteen dancers line the front of the stage and stare at the audience. Each possesses a different torque, an asymmetry in the torso that gives them a slightly damaged look. One person dances in place with a fast, wrenching fury, as though trying to rid herself of a clinging nightmare. She stops, then another dancer enters into a similar fury, while all the rest are still. Then the whole row, in unison to music by Arab-Israeli Habib Alla Jamal, pound with fists on invisible walls with high-powered African-style chest contractions, and the cycle begins again. There is energy, there is unity, there is rhythm, and there is rage.

Naharin’s Virus is not the most beautiful or imaginative dance that Ohad Naharin has choreographed. But its visceral force is unforgettable. We cannot turn away from these young people of the Tel Aviv–based Batsheva Dance Company, most of whom have probably been soldiers, fighting for their survival.

One performer wearing a man’s suit, perched atop a stage-wide wall that doubles as a blackboard, recites the script of the absurdist play Offending the Audience by Peter Handke. The words wedge an insidious distrust between the performance and audience (Handke’s virus?). “No mirror is held up to you. Because we are speaking to you, your awareness increases. You become aware of the impulse to scratch yourself.” But what saves the evening from verbal overload is that, quietly he slips out of his suit and emerges wearing the same strange unitard the other dancers wear. The suit remains standing exactly where it was, without the hands and face of the dancer. This moment, repeated later, perfectly separates the dance with text from the dance with music. It provides the irony necessary to put Handke’s rebellious declarations—by turns sophomoric, contradictory, and merely clever—into perspective: the speaker is just trying something on. So, toward the end of the play, when Handke hurls insults at “us,” we are more delighted by the word play (“you bubbleheads, you atheists, you butchers, you deadbeats ”) than hurt or shocked.

The costumes make the dancers look uncomfortable, paralleling how the text makes us feel. Naharin may be hinting at the discomfort of living in a country where hostilities are so out of control. The unitards extend to cover the hands, giving the dancers unnaturally long arms, and the thigh-high black leg warmers give them short legs. In the first section, the dancers drift toward each other in small groups as though to sniff each other. Their arms hang long and they curl their hands like simian creatures, ready to scratch themselves or to grab food. Some of the couplings are also animal-like, as though lizards were mating.

Naharin's Virus, ph Gadi Dagon

Photos by Gadi Dagon

But the message on the blackboard is very human. The word “you” gets scrawled on one side, and “atem,” the Hebrew for the plural form of “you” on the other—the two languages being very separate. Kristin Francke, who begins the piece by drawing on the blackboard, drags the chalk behind her, around her elbow, echoing her tracings with her body parts, all while her body is distorted with tension. Throughout the evening, dancers go upstage to draw on the blackboard, sometimes adding a soothing sound element. Toward the end two dancers madly etch a blood-red asterisk shape that takes on a glow. Is this the source of the virus, an angry nucleus of hate? Or is it a burst of the heart’s emotion?

Occasionally a single person dances to a taped voice, presumably about that person’s life. During Inbar Nemirovsky’s solo, we hear a young woman’s voice telling us that, as a child, she liked to take off her clothes but would get punished for it. “I would get naked, and my mother would beat me. I found I liked it.” (Her mother also beat her because she questioned the existence of god.) This and other moments of dark humor contribute to the compelling strangeness of this U.S. premiere.

There are occasional leavening moments, as when a microphone is dropped down to a dancer who squeals, barks, sighs, and meets her own sounds with similarly unpredictable movements.

Naharin started out with the Martha Graham Dance Company, and what seems to have carried over is that the movement motivation comes from a deep core in the center of the body. But his style, he has said, owes more to Pina Bausch and American experimentalists like Gina Buntz. Therefore, the Batsheva, which was formed by Martha Graham and Bathesbe de Rothschild in 1964, went through an overhaul in both choreography and dancers when Naharin took over as artistic director in 1990.  His repertoire for the company includes funny, joyous works as well as difficult ones.

Naharin’s Virus is infectious, but not everyone will respond to it. The experience is comparable to reading Dostoyevsky’s Notes from the Underground, with its fevered self-questioning, or seeing the work of German painter Anselm Keifer, which leads one into a depth and complexity rare for an American artist. If you have gone to that well of darkness, the experience is familiar and even satisfying. If not, it can be frightening—or offending. But there is something vital and bracing about artists who delve into difficult areas, into the darkness of our souls. Artists like these possess an undeniable courage, and this is the virus of the title, for the Batsheva dancers have caught Naharin’s courage.




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Best Dance Books of 2017

Each of these nine books is a treasure for a different demographic of the dance population. I did not have time to read every page, but I dipped into each one enough to give you the gist and scope of it. The list includes the best autobiography I’ve seen in years (from Hallberg), two noteworthy academic books (on Dunham and on queer dance), two delightfully unorthodox presentations (Ten Huts and 95 Rituals), two much-needed comprehensive resources (on world dance and somatics) and two picture books.

A Body of Work SMALLA Body of Work: Dancing to the Edge and Back
By David Hallberg
Touchstone, an imprint of Simon & Schuster

This book is a page turner. Ballet superstar Hallberg writes with rich powers of observation, emotional immediacy, and openness to his own vulnerability. As a child, he taped nickels to the soles of his shoes so he could dance like Fred Astaire. His passion was set early in life, and no amount of bullying could stop him. As an 11 or 12-year-old, he fell in love with another boy and had to come out to his parents—which, luckily, went smoothly.

With lively prose, he takes the reader through Ballet Arizona’s Nutcracker, the grueling private lessons from Kee Juan Han that instilled a heroic work ethic in him, his lonely year at Paris Opera Ballet school, his appreciation of coaching at American Ballet Theatre, his rocky first ballet partnership, and the high-pressured debut at the new Bolshoi Theater. It reaches a height of euphoria dancing Romeo and Juliet with Natalia Osipova at the Bolshoi and the depths of despair during his injury and long recovery.

We follow him as he grows as an artist. For most of the story, his pre-performance mantra to himself is “Don’t fuck this up.” But as he becomes aware of true artistry, including watching Wendy Whelan’s tendus at the barre, this changes to “Risk it all and potentially fuck this up.”

The book is also a travelogue through various countries as well as some of the world’s top ballet companies: ABT, The Bolshoi, Paris Opera Ballet, Australian Ballet, La Scala. Every page reflects his curiosity, resolve to learn from every situation, and outsized commitment to dance.


Dunham coverKatherine Dunham: Dance and the African Diaspora
By Joanna Dee Das
Oxford University Press

No matter what angle you look at Katherine Dunham from, she was a titan. Artistically,
sociologically and morally, she courageously broke ground. A previous book published in 2005, Kaiso! Writings by and about Katherine Dunham, appears exhaustive, but there is always more to say. And dancer/scholar Joanna Dee Das says it in a scholarly tone, proclaiming Dunham’s significance as an activist figure in the African diaspora.

Dunham famously explored her African roots in Haiti and the Caribbean Islands, bringing back traditional dances for the stage. While some looked down on Dunham’s colorful, seductive revue shows, Das feels she was “normalizing black lives” as opposed to the caricatures of minstrelsy.

Das makes the point that Dunham has been disregarded by Harlem Renaissance scholars because of the mind/body division whereby they did not take the body (dance) seriously. That is just one example of how Dunham has not been given her due by history.

For those of you who don’t know, Dunham’s career was vast and she herself wrote many books; her prose is sensual and her sense of purpose inspiring. But her stature in American dance tends be overshadowed by white pioneers of modern dance like Martha Graham and Doris Humphrey. But Dunham’s influence was global. It was her performances in countries like Guinea, Senegal, Mexico and Peru that inspired the burgeoning of national companies based on indigenous dances. Her domestic performances inspired many, including the young Alvin Ailey.

Dunham was a warrior — against segregation, against censorship, against the separation of high art and popular art, and for the merging of art and social justice.


Ten Huts coverTen Huts
By Jill Sigman; foreword by Pamela Tatge
Wesleyan University Press

Do you ever pine for choreography that cares—really cares—about the environment? If so, Jill Sigman is your woman. Her Ten Huts series, built and performed between 2009 and 2014, tracks her devotion to found objects as sources for art. Part Marcel Duchamp and part Rachel Carson—with a dose of ’60s happenings thrown in—Sigman aimed to create “a charged space that could function like theater without the exclusivity of one.” In locations from Brooklyn to Oslo to Sarasota, she assembled each hut magpie-style, scavenging discarded objects that glimmer with possibility. She danced in the huts, slept in them, talked to strangers in them, showed films, hosted dance parties.

Sigman offers a manifesto whose first order is “…that we find beauty everywhere.” With contributions from esteemed cultural critics Eva Yaa Asantewaa and André Lepecki, the book interrogates consumerism, capitalism, and dance as theater.

Clearly a devotee of John Cage’s edict to blur art and life, she says the huts are a “way of re-seeing or re-envisioning.” For Hut #6 in Oslo’s opera house, she held a five-day performance. She made Hut #8 at The New School out of 2,845 plastic bottles. For Hut #9 in Denmark, she built a canopy of 19 bicycle wheels. With hundreds of color photos that illuminate Sigman’s process, Ten Huts is like an immersive performance that lasts.


World Dance cover

World Dance Cultures: From Ritual to Spectacle
By Patricia Leigh Beaman

A longtime dance history professor at NYU Tisch School of the Arts (where I also teach), Patricia Beaman never found a textbook that spanned all the cultures she covers in her World Dance course. So she simply wrote her own. The breadth of World Dance Cultures is staggering: 27 regions of the world are grouped into eight chapters. Each section comprises an overview, ideology, key points, case study, costuming and makeup, discussion questions, and current trends. Beaman connects the development of each form with that region’s history and traditions. The Japanese section takes us through Noh theater, Kabuki, and butoh. She frames flamenco as a global phenomenon with roots among Arabs, Jews, Africa, and North Indian gypsies who converged in protest against persecution. She writes about how the Spanish Civil War sent dancers like Carmen Amaya into exile. The pages are jammed with photos and text blocs that help the reader travel this world journey, and resonant proverbs are scattered throughout. This book is a resource to consult often; it will no doubt find its way into many a classroom.


Mindful Movement coverMindful Movement: The Evolution of the Somatic Arts and Conscious Action
By Martha Eddy
Intellect, Bristol, UK

This book traces the evolution of somatic education, which has changed—deepened—the way we train in dance. A somatics movement therapist, Martha Eddy has taken 15 years to gather this cornucopia of information. She begins with “founders” of somatic education like Irmgard Bartenieff, Charlotte Selver, Ida Rolf, Moshe Feldenkrais, Mabel Elsworth Todd, and Frederick Matthias Alexander, showing where strands of practice cross over between the U. S. and Europe. She moves on to current techniques like Body-Mind Centering, Laban Movement Analysis, Skinner Releasing, Continuum, and Anna Halprin’s Life/Art Process. Her beliefs in the “body as mind,” the healing power of somatic practice, and the power of dance to “refresh,” permeate the book.

Eddy contends that, through the integration of mind and body, somatics expands consciousness. Her references stretch to include international thinkers like American educator John Dewey, Swiss psychologist Carl Jung, and Brazilian theorist Paulo Freire.

This book is more than an explanation of the various somatic practices and how they can free up students from rigid habits. It also connects these practices to the lineage of modern dance, explaining how Judson Dance Theater and Contact Improvisation emerged along with somatic practices. (The section on the under-recognized Elaine Summers, who developed the “ball work” aka kinetic awareness, helps.) With the addition of guest writers like Rebecca Nettl-Foil and Kate Tarlow Morgan, Mindful Movement also offers activist and spiritual dimensions. The final section suggests how somatics can be applied to action and social change. Eddy has even invented a term for this: somaction.
This book is a gift for anyone wanting to delve deeper into the healing aspects of dance and the methods of healing dancers.


95 Rituals cover

95 Rituals
Compiled by Shinichi Iova-Koga & Dancers’ Group
Introduction by Wayne Hazzard, published by Dancers’ Group. On the Internet. 

A multi-faceted tribute to pioneering dancer/choreographer/healer/activist Anna Halprin, this book tracks the day-long performance ritual that celebrated her 95th birthday in 2015. Ranging from profound to light-hearted, the long day of celebration culminated at the Hyde Street Pier in San Francisco. The book is a collage of loving contributions written by Iova-Koga, Ann Murphy, Mary Ellen Hunt, and many more; vivid photos by Pak Han; inspiring quotes from La Halprin; and wonderful, fanciful examples of the 95 rituals. As Iova-Koga has written, “Anna is the stone, the rock. This rock drops into the pool and we’re all the little ripples that move out from the impact of the rock on the surface of the water.” Ann Murphy asks Iova-Koga how he met Halprin. “Anna called me up, saying: ‘Shinichi, all of my collaborators are dead. Will you be my collaborator?’ ”

Among those who contributed the 95 rituals (or scores) are Jo Kreiter, Joanna Haigood, Keith Hennessy, Daria Halprin, and Ruth Zaporah.

Here’s a sample quote from Halprin: “I want to integrate life and art so that as our art expands our life deepens and as our life deepens our art expands.”

This book oozes love, imagination, humor, and celebration.

Related: my experience with Halprin’s Planetary Dance. My conversation with Halprin, Simone Forti and Yvonne Rainer as part of Radical Bodies.


Queer dance cover

Queer Dance: Meanings & Makings
Ed. by Clare Croft
Oxford University Press

Clare Croft has gathered 17 recent essays on queer dance, written by dance artists, scholars, and dancer/scholars. The anthology “resists a single narrative. Queer as it is danced here is a process, a series of actions, a desiring at the edge of visibility; and a feedback loop of violence and survival.” To counteract the tendency for queer theory to be overly academic, Croft says queerness emerges in action, in protests, and on stages. The book includes essays by Thomas de Frantz, known for his writing on racism in dance; drag performer Lou Henry Hoover; and wild New York improviser Jennifer Monson on the intertwining of an erotic/creative relationship with DD Dorvillier that spills over into their improvised partnership. Doran George (aka Dee Dee Gee), a UCLA based performer/scholar who, sadly, died in November, contributes a commentary on Monson and Dorvillier as well as other East Village denizens John Jasperse and Neil Greenberg. His essay turns out to be a complex ride through the hair-splitting distinctions of various gender critiques. The title of his (or “their”) essay, “The Hysterical Spectator: Dancing with Feminists, Nellies, Andro-Dykes, and Drag Queens,” gives you an idea of the feisty multi-gender spirit of this collection.


Inside the Dancer’s Art
By Rose Eichenbaum
Wesleyan University Press

Once again, Rose Eichenbaum has come up with a dancer friendly book of photographs, most of them in gorgeous color. Some are full-on, caught-in-the-act dance shots; others are sensitive portraits that bring out the artist within the dancer. But what makes this a full 360-degree experience are the inspiring quotes. Here are three examples:
Judith Jamison: “To me, the highest compliment…is to be called a dancer. A dancer is someone who is God-like.”
Desmond Richardson: “It’s only when you’re willing to show yourself openly as an artist that you truly begin to share with others.”
Chita Rivera: “All I’ve ever wanted was to touch that one person out there in the dark.”
If you’ve enjoyed Eichenbaum’s previous books of dance photos—The Dancer Within and Masters of Movement—you will want to add this to your collection.


Dancing Over 50 - final_front cover copy

Beauty Is Experience: Dancing 50 and Beyond
By Emmaly Wiederholt
Photographs by Gregory Bartning
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Celebrating the vitality of older dancers, this book involves a diverse group of practitioners up and down the West Coast. Emmaly Wiederholt’s interviews are warm and friendly, emphasizing the need and desire to keep going. Gregory Bartning’s photos, while not concerned with beautiful line, capture the essence of each participant in their surroundings. The 54 subjects include Mark Haim, Anna Halprin (below), Heidi Duckler, Kim Epifano, Linda Austin, Randee Paufve, Naomi Gedo Diouf, and Frank Shawl.

Anna-Haprin-photo-by-Gregory-Bartning-002 copy



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