Friday, September 18, 2009

Studies in Whimsy and Flesh: dear peter, love nora @ 100 Grand, August 28

The first hint of whimsy arrives in the form of the riot of old fashioned table lamps, complete with shades, hung upside down from the ceiling and replacing the normal lighting in the main dance space of the second floor loft at 100 Grand St. in Manhattan. Chairs for the audience have been ranged along the windowed wall overlooking the eponymous street, and at a ¾ angle in the loft’s southeastern corner. Facing this latter quadrant after the lights dim and then resume their warm glow Peter Chamberlin begins “19/20,” a 6 minute solo that sets the tone for an engaging evening of dance exploration.
 
Peter Chamberlin in "19/20"
photos by Hope Davis


Chamberlin’s work features the focused miniaturized quality of etudes. But these studies exhibit technical and compositional acumen of a budding master.  In “19/20” he appears to lay a repeating series of 19 patterns for the upper body: head, torso, shoulders, arms, hands , over 20 variations for the legs and particularly the feet. The shifting transitions from one combination to the next steadily increase in tempo to match that of the quickening staccato thump underpinning Sam Crawford’s chordal accompanying recorded score.
 
“Untitled” pairs the radiant and articulate Shayla-Vie Jenkins with the coolly articulate Hsiao–Jou Tang in patterns that go from head and shoulders to feet in poses and walks shot through with swift silent and limber side falls and rises. The dancers provide such a visual and kinetic feast in the robust suppleness of their realization of Chamberlin’s choreography that even the simple crisp change of a walking pattern from vertical to horizontal orientation across the stage registers with the force of revelation.  Like the dancemaker, these women make maximum use of their fabulous feet.
 
Having watched with interest Nora Petroliunas’ work as a principal in the artistic directorship of the collective pocket engine, I stood unsurprised at intermission as the audience received square pieces of scrap paper from her dancers along with instructions for rearranging itself.  Pocket engine’s piece(s) had included roles for the audience and innovative use of the space. 
 
Once the chairs had been replaced in a U-shaped, ¾ in the round configuration; the curved end facing 100 Grand’s mirrored wall, the question of a vantage point became an intriguing one.  I determined that a standing spot next to the full-sized litter basket at the bottom of the right hand arm of the U allowed an excellent view of the space including the entire audience with and without the use of the mirrors.  It also took in the full span of the windows above Grand St., one of which promised to figure in some way in what would come.
 
Almost directly in front of me, at the edge of the main performance area, stood a decorative cast iron coat and hat stand with a yellow cotton rain coat hanging from one its curved prongs. In the far right corner, similarly situated, a four foot tall artificial Christmas tree festooned with ½ pint lavender milk cartons awaited its cameo.  Three large cereal boxes occupied the opposite corner.  Origami cranes strung in spiral climbed the floor stand of an empty hanging bird cage by the one open window.
 
(l to r) Peter Chamberlin (obscured), Tess Igarta, Sarah Bodley, Hsiao–Jou Tang
The six dancers, 4 in white dresses or skirts, 2 in white pants and shirts stand in the space facing in several directions. First 3, and then 2 more fall into motion as Saul Simon MacWilliams' recorded score brings the opus “goose” to life. Throughout the first musical segment, Lesley Garrison stands her ground while Sarah Bodley, Tess Igarta, Tang, Julia Burrer, and Chamberlin fly through a series of backwards, forwards and side runs and falls, turns, and twists in patterns that remind me of choreographic palindromes.
 
The piece develops in trios, duets and solos in a poetry of earnest playfulness. Petroliunas proves as masterly in presenting each of her dancers as individual movers as she does in compositional craft.  She also displays a penchant for whimsical distraction and displacement.  After Burrer and Igarta have engaged in a solo-duet-solo sequence the rangy Burrer dons the rain coat and begins pulling a seemingly endless supply of stainless steel tea spoons out of various pockets.  These she hands to individual members of the audience.
 
We’ve come to a pause. Tang and Bodley ask us to take out our scrap paper and lead us in an attempt to create origami frogs. The others collect them in the cereal boxes.
 
Chamberlin and Tang dance a charming Fred and Ginger style duet, complete with soft shoe.  The milk cartons come off the Christmas tree to be distributed to the audience members lining the windows. Inside each, they find a note instructing them to go to the fire escape window and look down. Several climb out onto the balcony. One later informs me that she watched four dancers perform in sneakers on the opposite sidewalk of Grand Street.
 
The dancing progresses with a steady and formal attention to its compositional development.  Figures I recall from earlier work come and go in lines of dancers, designs for soloists, duets, trios, ensembles. Bodley, Burrer and Tang mount the fire escape and “release” the origami cranes from their string. Garrison pulls individual members of the audience out to shadow the dancers original positions onstage.  Each time she finds herself hurled aside and displaced by another dancer. When all the doppelgangers have taken their place, she can rest at last, secure in her own.  The "goose" comes home.

(l to r) Julia Burrer, Tess Igarta, Hsiao–Jou Tang, Lesley Garrison (in silhouette)
 
Petroliunas has achieved a remarkable balance between challenge and accessibility, formal rigor and serious play, and a sense of intimacy within an experience of community.  With “goose” she has also announced her arrival in Manhattan as a choreographer of daring and whimsical imaginative gifts.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Dumb Show Smarts: Lucy Gillespie's "Driving: a Lesson"

photos by Brian Hashimoto
“Fucking Paki driving instructor!” 
 
Lucy Gillespie, as the character Julie, spits out these words in the climactic and penultimate line of her 15 minute Driving: A Lesson. The play premiered on the program of Riant Theatre’s Strawberry One Act Festival at the Theatre at St. Clement’s on August 15.
 
The minute long denouement that follows takes place in silence as Julie and Ranit (Fawad Siddiqui), the older man she has sworn at, exchange places in the learner vehicle they have occupied.  The only glances they have cast at each other during this uncomfortable interval have been sidelong, as they both regard the precipice of the chasm that has loomed up between them.
 
Siddiqui mimes the re-attachment of his shoulder harness and the re-engagement of the car’s ignition, while Gillespie’s Julie sits motionless.
 
“Seatbelt,” Ranit reminds her.
 
The driving instructor’s warning might have served for the audience as well.  Over the course of their interaction we have had ample opportunity to watch Julie’s sense of outrage build at the casual cultural sexist arrogance of this family man, who thinks nothing of speculating on the menstrual status and practice of this suburban London university student:
 
“I bet you use a tampon during the day, and a towel at night.”
 
She has retaliated by suggesting an appropriate intimate location in which he might bury the former. 
 
He has also revealed the humiliating frustration inherent in his servile role as driving tutor, despite his advanced degrees in Economics, English and European Literature, placing his own car at their service in the bargain. Julie’s major in History will not save either of them from that which they find themselves destined to repeat.
 
Siddiqui imbues Ranit with a convincing sense of moral myopia inside a physical presence that suggests a full communion with his character’s body.  When he lays his arm along the seat behind his charge’s back he creates a vague sense of casual creepiness only heightened by his character’s apparent lack of awareness of, or concern with, boundaries.
 
Gillespie’s Julie seems much less at ease.  She hunches forward at the wheel; her voice strains, rises and falls in pitch as much as her arms do in the mime sequences in which she turns an imaginary steering wheel.  I wonder how these two smell to one another.
 
Director Brian Hashimoto seems to have striven to heighten the intimacy of the situation by enclosing this pair behind 4 black theater set cubes stacked to create a kind of dashboard square.  Unfortunately, this cuts off the audience’s view of his player’s bodies below the ribs, forcing us to work with only half the physical information. 
 
The lack of a practical steering wheel created a distracting sense of struggle in the mime.  And although the sound cues for door openings and closings came off perfectly, the attention afforded their frequent repetition made them appear precious. The director, however, has a good eye for movement and the right ear for silence.
 
Gillespie’s Driving, in its first incarnation, stands as a lesson in theatrical shorthand with hints of full-fledged brilliance.  She has sketched the essence of characters whose spirit seems willing to emerge, but whose flesh will require work to shake us as profoundly as they do in that silent minute. 

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Technique courts Bliss in its dance: making love and art in lead/ follow

by guest writer Liz Miller: author and blogger of Dance Is Love

photo by Mike Howard

The genre of dance I love best involves leading and following. It is a partner dance called the lindy hop, which can be roughly described as an intense form of swing dancing. Despite the terms, leading and following do not denote dictation of the dance by one person and compliance by the other. A good leader generates power and direction. He may provide acceleration or deceleration while suggesting trajectory. A good follower stays true to these parameters, which may shift unpredictably.
 
Artists understand that diligent study of technique sublimates the tools necessary to create powerful expression. However, disproportionate focus on mechanics can obscure or cancel the overall effectiveness of a piece. Ideally, a command of technique simultaneously removes it from view and facilitates the experience of seamless and shining truth.
 
Mainstream culture tends to emphasize a dichotomy, particularly in dance, between practice and abandon. “You can’t think too much. You just have to let it flow,” runs the conventional wisdom, particularly in regard to following in partner dancing (usually the woman’s part). This idea covers half of the story at best. My study of and devotion to dancing has taught me that greater skill enables greater passion and fulfillment. Although I am a professional, I know many hobbyists who have experienced the joyful moments of expression and connection for which we all pine; for which we all live, as a direct result of studying dance technique. 
 
On the social floor, dancing may appear as a specific sequence of rehearsed moves. Most likely, the dancers have not practiced the sequence together but rather the mode of communication - leading or following or both - with other partners whom they encountered in the social dance scene. Leading and following may be compared to conversation. Most of us don’t rehearse dialogues or speeches before we go out to meet with friends. At the same time, we know that the more we practice language, the richer our conversations become. After lindy-hopping with an almost perfect stranger in a bar somewhere not my hometown, I usually hear someone ask, “How long have you two been dancing together? You just flow so well.”
 
The word flow is used consistently to describe even the most ordinary of social dances. Fancy tricks and footwork have no impact unless under girded by solid partnering. People talk excitedly about the flips or the kicks they saw, but they might not have enjoyed watching these moves without the snap, crackle and shape shifting energy of lead/follow.
 
The following excerpts from my memoir, Dance Is Love, illustrate different ways in which leading and following heighten the experience of life. The book is about my passion for and compulsion to dance. Partner dance can highlight sensuality and sexuality. Other joyful and even transcendent emotions - those that pave the way for personal growth, learning, and understanding - can be felt as well. Read additional excerpts at www.danceislove.com. `````````````````````````````````````photo by Mike Howard
 
Lead/ follow in lindy hop can be...
 
...a crucial component of art:

Kendall and I have worked considerably on the entrance into tandem Charleston - that favorite lindy hop move in which the leader dances behind the follower, both of them doing the Charleston. At the snap and direction he provides, I back into him. His hands connect to mine and our arms become springs through which his body can incite the next variation.
 
When we do this entrance correctly, he can lead turns or jumps at the same instant that his hands catch mine. All the while I must actively integrate the connections within my own body, and between my feet and the floor, so as not to lose a drop of that precious, exciting, thrilling momentum. Ideally we are like a machine in which no energy is lost to entropy. He is the dreamer and I am the dream; he is the driver and I the perfectly tuned sports car on the mountain road.
 
We need each other to make the ephemeral, spontaneous art that has claimed our lives. Even during previously determined, arduously rehearsed choreography, I must still follow his lead. Otherwise power is lost, little mistakes become deadly, and worst of all, the feeling is all wrong.
 
...a transcendent experience:

Jake led me in the most melting, slow, perfectly timed dance of my whole life. Literally and figuratively, he cradled me, supported me through every single little ball-change, pirouette, or twist I felt like doing, added his own brilliant lock steps and drops, dragged me around, dipped me, bumped me into the air and braked my landing. My dewy eyes tracked over a green line painted on the floor as I focused on following, and I felt something I never had before. I felt truly full. Hungry, overtired, but absolutely full.
 
The ever-present internal void was gone. This is the void I face when attempting to surmount even small obstacles in the artistic process. It threatens to engulf me in emptiness, in feelings of worthlessness and despair; it drives me to fill my life with distractions. I am so used to it being always there that its absence gave way to a completely foreign joy I will never forget. In a few minutes this experience was over: the fate of all dances.
 
...love:
Kendall started with an in connection, coaxing my chest onto his chest. The first time he had taught me that way to connect, we were preparing to teach a blues class that had been requested by some of my students.
 
“First we show them how to breathe together,” he’d explained. This had taken place in my studio at home; Peter had been at basketball practice.
 
“Okay,” I’d said.
 
“You come in. I put you here. We shouldn’t have to use our arms.” He let go of my back as I leaned into his chest. “Now you try following my breathing.”
 
“Meaning I inhale and exhale at the same time as you?”
 
“Yeah.”
 
You’re kidding, I’d thought. The top of my head met the lower side of his jaw and I could feel and hear his gum-chewing. The breathing did help me to follow, though. Even our students didn’t mind tuning in to each other this way, the next evening in class. I chalked up their gameness to the ice-breaking activities I had planned and executed beforehand: playground interactions like pushing on each other’s hands, then one partner moving side to side, trying to prevent the other partner from passing.
 
So, last night, at the Monday night dance, Kendall began with an in connection, walking forward. He moved my legs with his. I love you, I thought blissfully. Oh, the thrill of blues: elongated, melting, yet tolerable: space for strength and surrender, anchored and floating at once, time for crisp direction changes and slowly-unfolding trajectories, for extra spins and for be here on this foot now.
 
Kendall led ochos - in which I swish each leg in turn to cross in front of the other, a difficult move from Argentine tango that all the lindy hoppers try but few accomplish.
 
“Those felt really good,” he remarked, although to me they were just as good as always when he leads them, and I kept going; he lifted me so that my legs swung in a slow 180-degree arc before placing me on my left foot. We’d worked on that one.
 
...a study in finding happiness:
When good following is this important, we girls have quite a conundrum. Trying is not quite the right thing to do. We have to be: ourselves, the moment, the music, the boy’s dream - all in order to fulfill our own. We must detach from the thing we so dearly desire: in this case, the most sublime dance possible. Be now, I ordered myself, willfully shutting out past and future. It became a mantra.

photo by Jaclyn Gavino
 
“Pardon me,” the singer crooned, “but I’ve gotta run/ The fact’s uncomfortably clear/ Gotta find that old number one/ And why my angel eyes ain’t here.”
 
One of my best relationships was undone by this song, when, from the back of the Student Center in the fall of 1993, I heard my favorite musician sound check that melodic line on his tenor saxophone.
 
Now, at Blues Cafe, I let Jake do what he wanted. I tried not to try to hard. His low slung West-Coast boogaloo entertained and inspired me, asked much but demanded little. I floated and released into dips. I corralled my center into pirouettes aided by his well-timed hand. After a sweeping dip, I let momentum carry my left leg around his hip and back under me. Then he swung me out and slapped his knees and then the floor as I jumped and snapped my fingers in the air. We laughed. From the corner near stage right, girls watched.
 
...a bad experience
I began chatting with Jonathan about Indigo Swing and how I loved Willie’s piano playing. Jonathan seemed to get what I was saying but didn’t hear the two-against-three polyrhythm I pointed out late in the second solo. I became even more animated when I saw, out of the corner of my eye, an awkward smiling tense suburban guy hopping up and down with one hand stretched toward me. I was hoping he’d notice me absorbed in conversation and give up, but he stepped closer and asked me to dance with him. Well, at least he used his words.
 
“I love leading basics and just watching you do your thing!” he cried. His “basics” consisted of rounded shoulders, tense arms and long uncontrolled steps. I tried to lose myself in the song, singing “I’m just a baby in this business of love,” thinking how true that was, but the yanking and pulling made me wince more than once.
 
...absolutely essential
I stopped short of advancing completely into the double-handed connection during our class at the Dance Complex last Saturday, because I was demonstrating to the class what not to do. Kendall began to sputter, and even as I explained the purpose of deliberately stopping the momentum, he removed his Red Sox cap and threw it on the light-colored hardwood floor. I glanced at my reflection in the mirror as I laughed.
 
“He was about to yell at me,” I explained to the students. “‘Follow, dammit!’ Welcome to practice with Lynn and Kendall.”
 
Then we demo’d again and of course I came all the way in. I know the importance of that by now. If I don’t give everything I get, nothing works.
 
...a fulfillment of childhood fantasy:
Michael showed up to the last event I ran in Boston. I forgot his name three times in conversation before promising to remember it during our first blues dance, at about midnight.
 
I felt grateful for my training as a follower, for he was good. Tricky, in a lovely way. He stretched me, gave me turns down the slot and catapulted me in another direction when I least expected it. He gave me pop turns from his left side, not only his right; and as I whirled away from him with the acceleration he’d initiated, he connected his forearm to my tricep and gave me another turn; some boys call that a crank turn.
 
Despite the refined timing these sequences required, there was no sense of hurry. We were dancing slowly, merely emphasizing intense sections of the music. He also led turns and drags in closed position, and a bump that sent my feet into the air. There were elaborate dips, too: expertly led outside turns that somehow slid slyly into a connection between the back of his hand and the back of my neck. The way he was positioned underneath me left no doubt as to how much of my weight I could give him. I could feel it; to look and assess would have broken the flow. Dancing with Michael made me feel like a princess.

photo by Mike Howard

_____________________________________
I teach people to dance so that they will also experience these blissful states, moments of self expression and synchrony.
 
Here in Madrid, I regularly coach a dance team. I train the girls to track true, to maintain and return momentum; I help the guys lead with their bodies, allowing their arms to act as springs. Although these concepts seem simple, for most of us they require considerable repetition to be absorbed into the body, to become tools used to serve the greater purpose of creating ephemeral art with another person.
 
“Why do we study leading and following?” I quizzed them, the other day. We were rehearsing, as usual, in the park. In Madrid it hardly ever rains in summer. The rain, in Spain stays …
 
“For communication?” said one member.
 
“Yes,” I answered, “and because good leading and following feels fantastic. The more we study, the better we feel.” The better we feel, the more alive we become.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

Girl Gown Wild: Kelly Samara's "Being Patient" at Manhattan Repertory Theatre's Summer Fest '09, August 5 - 7

"I'd rather be in the presence of that painting The Sleeping Gypsy, … and see what that does to me," Kelly Samara’s patient intimates from within her flimsy hospital johnny. Dreaming and dream life, and deep wooded magic mountains indeed represent recurrent preoccupations among several in the inner monologue of this character. And she objects to her one-piece wardrobe, especially as described by the staff:

“’Gown’ is what I fantasize about wearing to the Oscars. ‘Gown’ has the word Versace in front of it,” she declares, later imagining herself more glamorously decked out on the red carpet.

And why not? When we meet this patient, she lets us know that she been haunting the 11th floor, where “the cart squeals as it wheels slowly down the empty, odorless hallway,” for “2 months, 3 weeks and 5 days.” Over the course of 45 minutes, she will gossip, ruminate, yearn, opine, muse, define, philosophize, sing, receive an unseen visitor, and toy with a string in an abbreviated explication of cat’s cradle -- all in a series of episodes that suggest the warp of the time that hangs ever heavy on her hands.

“It’s getting to be 6 months,” she declares, about a third of the way through.

Her monologues, all but one of which address the audience directly, alternate with flashes of fierce, hip hop inflected modern jazz and, at one point, balletic dancing to music ranging from dance/trip-hop to "Teardrop" by Massive Attack. Bracketing the piece, and occasionally replacing the dance interludes, poetic incantations underscored by music pit the patient’s recorded voice against that of a disembodied male-modulated speaker with a robotic quality similar to that of the ALS afflicted physicist Stephen Hawking.

Often director AJ Heekin has the patient literally dancing in the dark, dimming Vadim Ledvin’s lighting to cross-fade with reflections from a disco ball for both the dancing and voiceover sequences. (The latter have been designed by sound architect Dave Abel.) This dark matter reinforces the evocation of both the passage of time and the concomitant chafing and discomfiture of the young woman’s spirit.

Under Heekin’s able direction, Being Patient unfolds as a mini gesamtkunstwerk, showcasing Samara’s considerable talents as a theatrical wordsmith, lyrical and physical poet, actor, dancer, and singer. On stage she reminds me intensely of a young Meryl Streep, in facial resemblance, charm, grace, physical and vocal mannerism, playfulness and dexterity.

Talent, stagecraft and direction can, however, only take us so far into the inner life of this patient. In this incarnation, the piece doesn’t quite add up to the sum of its parts. The choreography seems to stand at times arms length from the lyrical language. Samara dances well, but her dance designs don’t warm to, kiss off of, revel or play with the sound or sense of her word images as engagingly as she does. As perhaps the most potentially exciting and distinctive element in a distinguishing work, the dancing bristles with a broader ambition than illustration or embellishment.

“I don’t like the way this world works. I never have. It makes me sick. I think it’s what made me sick,” she says in one of the voice-overs. But Samara never presents us with the ultimate nature of her malady, whether physical, mental or psychological. In her opening monologue, she appears drunk or drugged; intermittently so later, but less so. The locus of pain seems to shift, from hip to abdomen, maybe to chest.

Perhaps its real seat can only be suggested existentially as heart or soul sickness. Could it ultimately lie outside the patient; for example in “all of the emotionally obstructed men in the world” that the author/performer somewhat sarcastically thanks in her program bio? The one monologue not addressed to the audience references an unseen visitor she calls Gabe who has just acquired a dapper dachshund puppy he has named Scooter, along with a new, perhaps problematic, perhaps romantic roommate. Perhaps both?

“Does he scoot?” the patient needles.

Later in the voice-over cited above, the patient, Hamlet like, conjures the release that death seems to offer. But ultimately someone else passes on. She has dreamed of keys, woods, vessels and houses. The yearning and sense of loss remains more hinted at than palpable. “We are porcelain,” the Stephen Hawking voice decides. But hope and longing remain, somewhere inside her doll/patient’s gown “soft, yet unyielding within my desire.” She remains unglued, “unable to mend us in this sweltering air.”

“I have a visitor?” the patient asks/declares at the end, brightening.

Being Patient reveals a theater artist and a team of collaborators replete with fresh talent, enormous energy and interesting ideas at the beginning of what look to be promising careers. If they revisit this patient, perhaps on another floor, they show every possibility of making her whole.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

"You're not nice!" : remembering Pina Bausch

I stood in the stage right wing of the BAM Opera House watching the brilliant performers of Tanztheater Wuppertal in their dresses, suits, button shirts and pants slide on their butts through 3 inches of water along a diagonal line from the back to the front corners of this full-stage puddle.

All hell had broken loose. Lively music percolated the scene. Elsewhere on the lake, company men and women ran on and off in dresses piling clothes on a line of women seated in chairs. Two scale model triple-masted galleons sailed towards each other across the water from opposite wings. Coming amidships they simultaneously fired full volleys, and this caused their paper sails to burst into flame.

As the sliders moved and stopped, moved and stop they found themselves constantly splashed by a lithe young woman who ran from one to another with seeming abandon. Suddenly the woman they all called Pina stood at my shoulder.

By the time of this third BAM performance of her 3 hour Arien, I already understood what her presence onstage portended. Something must have seemed off to her from her customary aisle seat in the last row of the house orchestra section. Never one to wait, she had arrived backstage to sort things out.

Taking the splasher aside, she spoke intently and rapidly to her in German, her smokey voice rumbling with low passion and no-nonsense energy. The object of her attention had not performed in this role during the first two shows, and this must have represented the dancer's debut as a torturer. Breaking into English, Pina capped off her coaching. "Remember," she exhorted with a rising emphasis, "you are not nice!"

Philipina "Pina" Bausch would never hesitate to challenge you. She has famously been quoted as saying "I'm not interested in how people move, but in what moves them."

Wild thing, like many others, particularly performers, choreographers, theater artists, filmmakers, and writers across two generations, your evening-length dream scapes moved me. You could be in equal parts inspiring and exasperating; encouraging and intimidating; exhilarating and cautionary; horrifying and incredibly funny.

I remember theater artist Robert Wilson's pithy one sentence appreciation of your poignant and hilarious 1980, the elegy you and your company created in the wake of the loss of your late lover and collaborator Rolf Borzig. The afternoon after we both had seen its opening night in your Next Wave series at BAM, I asked for his reaction. Measuring his phrases, his Texas-sized smile brightening to include wonder and glee, he intoned with increasing volume and incredulity,

"I can't believe how those dancers
could do comedy
in English!"

Truly no language of humanity has proved beyond your reach.

I had already seen your Rite of Spring, and Cafe Muller and perhaps even Bluebeard. (The sequence escapes me.) But 1980 opened a door for me.

Without really understanding why, I had spoken up for another balcony ticket when it became available the night of my conversation with Wilson. As the second 3 1/2 hours of your waking dream began to wash over me, I witnessed the beguiling Beatrice Libonati crouch to kiss the green sod that covered the stage, just as she had several times the evening before. But this time her plaintive and now reliably predictable repeated declaration made me suddenly shiver. For when she looked up as if in wonder at the end of her task to declaim her lilting Italian-accented, "This piece of meadow is six kisses wide," it finally hit me that you had taken us to the grave site. And a piece that had been merely been an intriguing and pleasant semi-comic diversion the evening before now became a piquant meditation.

I watched again one of your achingly gorgeous women -- for no matter how pretty or feminine, your girls, like you, always had steel -- amble deliberately across the back of the green as if reviewing the line of six suited men who had formed up near the left corner. They had all dropped trou and stood, bare ass to us, as she regarded with frank, evident and unhurried curiosity the sexual endowment of each one in turn. "These must be the pallbearers," I told myself, touched beyond tears by the candid humanity of the moment. I stand as one of them today, a witness in honor of you.


More to come.

Friday, June 26, 2009

College Edge: Lang College at the New School and Marymount Manhattan stuff their strut

I had to wait until I left college, after my sophomore year, before i saw my first live dance performance.  Not that I had any awareness of waiting. The primary stage for my physical expression until just about that time had been the hockey rink, where that year I had skated an erratic center for the Fordham junior varsity.  
 
Still undecided on an academic major, I decided to take a sabbatical.  I fell in love over the following summer with an RPI architecture undergrad who dragged me to see a traveling show featuring stars of the Bolshoi Ballet.  The next performance we attended included Alvin Ailey’s "The River"; music composed by Duke Ellington, and the die was cast.  Eventually, I lost the girl, but gained a world.

At right: Caitlin Conlon & Jacob Warren in Christopher d'Amboise's "Opus 81" at Marymount Manhattan


photo by Rosalie O'Connor



Dance in an academic setting became a staple of the next half-decade of my life.  I ultimately left Fordham, abandoning my quest for an Urban Studies degree, to begin serious study at the Alvin Ailey American Dance Center.  At the end of another summer, I landed back in Providence, RI, where the lost romance had begun.  There I joined the RIC Dance Company, found myself awarded a series of dance scholarships, and eventually finished a self-designed degree in Dance and Dance Criticism, only the second dance degree (by five months) ever conferred by the College.
 
So, when I began this blog at the beginning of April, the cruelest month, it seemed appropriate to go back to school.  Four viewings of the NYU’s Second Avenue Dance Company’s “Retro” Spring show at Tisch School of the Arts made me curious as to what else might be out there.  I began my Dantean descent into college concert dance as presented in rings around the city of Dis, 2009, serving as my own Virgil.
 
But the subway ferried me uptown, and I arrived one May night at The Alvin Ailey  “Citigroup” Theater to see the Eugene Lang College of the New School’s Spring Dance Performance.  A few nights later, the steel snake carried me up the East Side to Marymount Manhattan to take in that school's Spring Repertoire concert.
 
In both cases I found houses full of receptive and supportive friends and family, faculty and staff with an allegiance to the dancers onstage.  Both concerts featured a few dancers whose artistry and charisma in performance made them stand out. Each program included a different piece by Takehiro Ueyama, as well as its own unique choreographic offering created by one other artist from among the group of dancemakers whose collaborations with the Tisch dancers I had seen weeks earlier. And each offered a vision of the place of concert dance, dance training and dance literacy distinctive from the conservatory model exemplified by schools such as Tisch.
 
The Lang showcase greeted its audience with one of the most interesting and beautifully produced program booklets I have ever seen.  An opening page juxtaposed a long paragraph about “Dance at the New School in the 1930’s” with one describing the approach to “Dance at Lang Today.”  The following five pages related to the William Forsythe “residency” which enabled Forsythe company alumni Jill Johnson and Mario Zambrano to create, in collaboration with the Lang dancers, “27 for 17,” the concert’s closing work.  The last two of these pages simply list Forsythe’s honors and awards from 1986 through 2008.  If you have to fork over a Lang tuition, I guess you had better be impressed.
 
The most intriguing and illuminating parts of the booklet, however, followed the formal program credits, and displayed excerpts from student journals and literary and graphic responses from them ignited by their participation in the preparation and production of the concert.  These highlighted and reinforced the Lang approach of fusing contemporary formal dance training with courses in history, theater and related arts in a holistic mind/body liberal arts modality.  In “27 by 17,” and in the greater part of Ueyama’s “Crowded Sky,” this approach produced exemplary results onstage.  In Eric Jackson Bradley’s “Love and Synesthesia,” Karla Wolfangle’s “In Motion,” and Rebecca Stenn’s  “Stride,” the latter two choreographed especially for dancers from the sophomore and freshman Lang academic classes respectively, the outcome seemed less convincing.
 
below: Lang dancers in Karla Wolfangle’s “In Motion,” ` ` ` photo by
Inspired in part by the movements of flocks of starlings over Rome, “Crowded Sky” sends flights of 11 women careering around the stage to music by Philip Glass.  Its designs gracefully evoke both the natural beauty of its inspiration and the pure joy in motion of its dancers.
 
That joy, tempered by fierce commitment, became even more palpable in “27 by 17.”  This performance compared favorably to Johnson’s similar Forsythe adaptation for the Tisch dancers.  Accompanied by a recording of Thom Willems’ music for Forsythe’s One Flat Thing, reproduced, the Lang dancers dig in and squeeze the sweet nectar out of everything they touch and taste.  In twisting, slashing, off-balance dancing shot through with runs, leaps, and turns they break off and feast upon spatial reality both within and beyond the limits of their skin.  Their passionate execution of this piece provides the best and most meaningful validation for Lang’s philosophy as it relates to its student dancers.
 
In the course of the evening, Yuki Fukui, Jesse Hart, John Malaya,
Above (bottom to top): Emma Hoette, Emily ` ` ` Emily Skillings, and Penelope
Skillings (in green sleeveless), Jillian Hervey` Wendtlandt tended to cut strong
(in lavender top, Nadia Mathys (2nd woman in` memorable figures in their dancing
green) & Jesse Hart (in red)in "27 by 17"` ` ` ` ` across many pieces. Skillings
photo by ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` stood out especially in “27 by 17.” But the evening seemed to belong to freshman Emma Hoette, whose extraordinary presence lit up the stage in each of the 3 pieces in which she appeared.  And all of these students also made fine contributions to the student writing include in the program booklet.
 
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
 
The Marymount Manhattan program seems to occupy a middle ground between the conservatory and Lang’s liberal arts approach.  In general, the technical level of the dancing and the assurance of the performances follows suit.
 
The Eastsiders opened with a suite of 3 duet excepts drawn from two Martha Graham masterpieces of the 1950’s.  The “Stars” and “Dancer’s World” duets from "Canticle for Innocent Comedians" followed the “Helen and Paris”  pas de deux from Clytemnestra.  In addition to showing off some fine dancers, and serving to introduce the audience to the remarkable Jacob Warren, the inclusion of the Graham works epitomized a reverence for dance tradition that the remainder of the dancing seemed also to embody.  The suite traced Graham’s classic period love moods from the dramatically passionate through the ecstatic to the lyrical.
 
Right (l to r): Kayla Shanahan, LuLu Soni, Sarah Haarman (in attitude) & Caitlin Conlon in Christopher d'Amboise's "Opus 81"
photo by Rosalie O'Connor


Christopher D’Amboise’s balletic 14 minute long "Opus ’81," set to a recording of the 2nd movement of Franz Schubert’s Trio in E-flat major, Opus 100, received its premier on this program.  Making use of the andante section of the piano trio, famously adapted for the downfall montage in Stanley Kubrick’s film Barry Lyndon, "Opus ’81" served as a transitional piece after the suite. It mixed movement recalling Graham’s heroic modern style with closing music from Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings that served as the basis for George Balanchine’s timeless "Serenade". The dancing highlights the soulful lyricism of Sarah Haarman, Kelly McCormack and Kayla Shanahan among a cast of 8 in which the over six-foot-tall Warren also stands out.
 
Act I concluded with an excerpt from Takehiro Ueyama’s 2006 “One,” a two movement dance for eight that showed the choreographer’s muted lyricism as well adapted for college dancers on the East Side, as it had been on the West. 
 
Another excerpt, from The Most Dangerous Room in The House, Susan Marshall’s dark 1998 dance play evoking desire and domestic discomfort, opened the second half.  Here the action involves a section in which many of the 11 dancers find themselves repeatedly smashed against the onstage wall of the set designed by Doug Stein & Zhanna Gurvich.  An interesting challenge for the young cast, the excerpt does not adapt as satisfyingly as the same choreographer’s poignant “Name by Name,” presented in its entirety, had for the Tisch dancers.  Perhaps the context of the full work might have allowed this cast to flesh out the immediacy of the heart wrenching human dilemma the piece seeks to interrogate.  But the urgent relevance of the inquiry to a population of this age might paradoxically lie within easier reach of a more seasoned troupe.
 
At left (l to r): Jere Hunt, Kelly McCormack & Jacob Warren in Edgar Zendejas' "Azadi"



photo by Rosalie O'Connor


The program closer, created specifically for its undergraduate dancers, proved the piece de resistance at Marymount Manhattan just as the similarly commissioned Johson/Zambrano led work had at the Lang concert.  Edgar Zendejas’ "Azadi" sets 19 MMC dancers into a two-part invention against recorded music by the baroque Henry Purcell (part I) and the contemporary Michael Gordon
 
Zendejas has thrown down a gauntlet for his cast, daring them at the limit of their technical and performance level.  Mixing groupings of various sizes in a shifting array of spatial designs he creates a series of small personal dramas and relationships within a depiction of larger community.  Titling his opus with the Persian word for "freedom" or "liberty" that doubles as the post-revolutionary name of the tower marking the symbolic entrance to Tehran, he seems prescient in his tilting lunges, lifts, and polymorphous partnerships for these Manhattan dancers. Warren might as well be the Freedom Tower himself sharing his strength of presence and precision of technique with several fellow dancers in the course of "Azadi."  Among these, Adam Gold, Haarman, Rachel Hall, Jere Hunt, and McCormack merited special attention.
 
It stands to reason that dances created in direct collaboration with the dancers who will perform them seem to succeed artistically and theatrically with greater frequency than pre-existing repertory that requires adaptation for student dancers.  Fresh creation’s value as an educational vehicle in drawing the passion of the dancers into the work seems apparent. Yet the most compelling performance in the Tisch concert came in a Marshall piece originally constructed on Juilliard students. 

Intimate knowledge of the techniques and artistic concerns underpinning the work of great artists of the near and more distant past also has its place in rounding out an appreciation of an art form that seems to depend more on an informed and unintimidated audience. But in spite of the robust health of the college dance concert 2009, as evinced by those I attended, I see cause for concern in a cultural and economic climate of retrenchment.
 
Without specific statistical knowledge of the demographics of the student populations for each of my 3 schools, I found the number of participating non-Caucasian dancers, and of men of any ethnicity still distressingly low.  Can these college dance programs, given their size and considerable resources, be seen harbingers of the shape of the rising generation? And while choreographers who have both the inclination and ability to adapt or create work with great success for student dancers may not be common, I feared that I might have sensed in the preparation and presentation of these events the inadvertent curdle of the safe choice and the most recognized name. 
 
At every dance community conclave I attend these days, I hear people lament the depletion, fragmentation and aging of audience. College dance programs themselves may now face these challenges, after years of unprecedented expansion.  But crisis and opportunity often appear as alternate faces of the same coin.

Does Marymount Manhattan’s inclusion of dances from the decade before the upheaval and explosion of the sixties and seventies contribute to the preservation of a living legacy and provide a critical context for these young dancers and their audience? Given the institutional carapaces that have grown up around both, can Lang’s recollection of the New School’s 1930’s outreach to the fledgling field of modern dance inspire a correspondingly creative contemporary initiative? The way forward rarely seems clear but in harnessing the relative fearlessness and energy of youth, it sometimes can become determined.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Hero/Worship: Christopher Williams' Saints Kick the Habit and Come Dancin' In

An arch bishop dances in bemused little skips adorned by flicking wrists, a sword thrust through the mitre that crowns his head. A holy man, stark naked except for the wreath caressing his temples, turns around and spreads his cheeks to show the congregation his asshole. Three times. Then after repeated poses recalling Rafael’s David he hurls himself upon a griddle made out of the arms of six stout men only to be tossed, joyously, as if in a blanket, and go back to posing.
Above: Luke Miller as St. Laurence about to hurl himself on the griddle formed by the male chorus: Sydney Skybetter, Bryan Campbell, Arturo Vidich (left group);
Philip Montana, Brandin Steffensen, Clay Drinko (right group). Already enthroned in the background from l to r Chris Elam as St. Christopher, Rommel Salveron as St. Pancras, Glen Rumsey as St. George, Julian Barnett as St. Vincent of Saragossa. `````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````Photo by Paula Court.


A woman screams before a man painted green and dragging a dragon’s matching tail, his head in a helmet crested with teeth. After a tussle with an armored saint, the dragon finds himself collared and led off by the woman on a leash. A group of black-veiled acolytes then rushes to wipe up the green body makeup on the white stage floor. A flock of puppet birds attends the wanderings of a friar and ends by stretching red ribbons with its beaks from anchorages at his stigmatic wounds.

I could go on (and on). On May 15, beginning with simultaneous formal processions down both aisles of the theater inside Dance Theater Workshop, I witnessed a 3-hour-long dream scape come to life in dance form. And if you want an absolutely stunning, remarkably comprehensive, concise and graceful explication of the goings on in Christopher Williams’ The Golden Legend, including the name and role of each of the 35 dancers, I recommend Deborah Jowitt’s review.

Glen Rumsey as St. George wrestles Dylan Crossman's dragon.
Photo by Paula Court


Let’s face it: saints, almost by definition, conjure the kind of obsession, fanaticism, obstinacy and foolhardiness that we tend to regard as insane. Giving themselves over to a power or ideal greater than themselves, they endure temptation, humiliation, torture, and embrace death and dismemberment, often in spite of social and political mores, in obeisance to a greater good. When we perceive that good, we lift up such people as heroes and martyrs and lionize their devotion. When we don’t, or they go off the moral rails, we recoil from their enormities as lunacy or terrorism. Either way, they make themselves hard to ignore and break through our complacent stupor.

Photo by Yi-Chun Wu
The Golden Legend, a meditation on the lives of 17 (or 23 depending on how you count) early Christian male saints, somehow put me much in mind of the day of 9/11 and those immediately following. As I circumambulated the shattered parts of my city, I kept running into the armed men and women standing sentinel at the edges of the “frozen zone” around ground zero. I eyed them and their guns warily, out of long habit, and wondered a bit resentfully just who or what they had been sent to protect and why. Yet along with most of my fellow citizens, I found myself newly appreciative of these gendarmes’ poise as potential heroes, and the sudden usefulness of their stance of moral certitude and physical fortitude in this battered landscape.

Many of the heroes and saints (if any) had already been crowned with tragic and brutal death. Others still labored behind those barricades, or would soon turn their attention to the cause of redeeming lost lives in testaments of moral introspection, social outreach, healing and political activism. Many artistic voices seemed momentarily stilled as we struggled to catch our breath and reconnect with some essential truths about our lives on this planet.
Julian Barnett hurtles earthward as St. Vincent of Saragossa
Photo by Paula Court.


Soon a whole decade will have passed. For the majority of that time Williams has been at work on his lives of the saints. Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins, produced in 2005, and in preparation for over a year previous to that, provided the distaff predecessor to and template for The Golden Legend. In a time of new crisis, in which many of the lessons of those days 8 years ago already seem in need of relearning, he arrives with a piece that challenges glib and conventional wisdom in so many significant ways.

Beginning with the full cast processional and closing with a similar formal recessional, everything about the work, save the choreography of the 17 individual dances that form its spine, has been produced on a scale rarely, if ever, seen these days in the “downtown” dance world. Williams seems to have that rare and precious ability to dare everyone and everything around him to dig more deeply and defy previous and accepted levels of expectation. This includes DTW, whose facilities and resources have been pushed to their limits, his audience, which must acclimate to the work’s deliberative pace across its 3 hour length and those, like myself, who may take weeks wrestling over a fitting response.

Holding their halos (above): David Parker as St. Thomas of Canterbury and Reid Bartelme as St. Giles advance with the other saints in the country dance style processional. ````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````````Photo by Paula Court.

The talents of what constitutes an all-star team of male contemporary dancers stretches to meet Williams’ imagining of the selected saints. These have been sketched from the telling of Jacobus de Voragine, Archbishop of Genoa and author of the 13th century Legenda Aurea Sanctorum (Golden Legend of the Saints,) the book that launched the Williams’ opus. But the choreographer also has behind him a history of Western visual art that depicts these same stories, reaching back through iconography and medieval and renaissance painting and sculpture.

Like panels in Marcel Duchamp’s Large Glass the planes of sainthood fracture in the course of the work and branch off in unexpected directions. ```````Photo by Yi-Chun Wu. Here we have a collared Rommel Salveron as St. Pancras, beheaded under the Emperor Diocletian in 304. He is attended by the blue-faced Keith Sabado and Nicky Paraiso, who flank Pancras and embody saints Mamertus and Gervasius, fellow “Icemen” in the liturgical and seasonal calendar. These seconds also recall mortals, perhaps not so intimately tickled by the finger of the divine. In the course of their scene, Sabado re-enacts the legend of the man who swore falsely on the martyr’s tomb. Now he literally can’t keep his hand off Salveron’s head. Paraiso finds himself forced to follow their tortuous interlocked dance about the stage singing as he goes.

Photo by Paula Court
Chris Elam, as St. Christopher, backs onto stage with Coco Karol on his shoulders so that under their shared costume they take on the form of a monstrous mythical giant. Slipping out of this beastly overcoat, the two, each costumed in lamb leotards complete with tails and pink-eared headpieces, execute a cruciform lift, a birth-like calving, and a series of oral explorations on their way to their crossing. Thus from an earlier pagan myth emerges that of the apocryphal Christian “bearer of Christ,” still the patron saint of cities and countries. What would it be like to taste the lamb of God?

Gus Solomons, Jr. appears as St. Saint Dionysius the Areopagite/St. Denis, with his head literally in his hands. Encased in another of the piece’s fantastic costumes, he dances under a banner “To the Unknown God” held aloft by Alberto Denis and Carlton Cyrus Ward. `````````````````````````Photo by Yi-Chun Wu.
These two evoke the saint’s fellow martyrs St. Eleutherius and St. Rusticus. The trio also hints that even a patron saint of France, one of the 14 “holy helpers,” must have needed, as we do, heroic helpers of his own. Their dancing leads us towards the liberating delirium of unity with the divine.

In each of the visually arresting episodes, the movement has been tailored to the imaginative possibilities of a story, a dancer or dancers, and a visual and/or musical touchstone. The latter range from those composed for the piece by Peter Kirn and Gregory Spears to the medieval hymns, antiphons, laude, motets, and conductus written in praise of each saint that make up the bulk of the sound accompaniment. Dating from as early as the 12th century, this music emanated in voice and on traditional and modern instruments from a consort of 11 tucked into a tiny front corner just offstage. It added immeasurably to the sense of suspended time and continuous present moment that attends the unfolding of the Legend.

The musical ensemble, which featured members of Anonymous 4 and Lionheart among other illustrious players and singers, contributed to the strength and precision of the piece as surely as did the extremely strong and versatile choruses of 6 male and 5 female dancers/puppeteers. So did Tom Lee’s exquisitely reserved set of 17 high-backed chancel chairs that face each other in single lines along both sides of the performance space as if across a Cathedral choir. Each chair’s red velvet upholstered seat will enthrone a principal saint at the conclusion of his turn on the stage. From this perch, he will join the audience as witness to the subsequent The puppeteers, including (l to r) Kate ` ` ` ` ` episodes until a formal bow and reces-
Brehm, Erin K. Orr, Lake Simons elevating ` sional parades this venerable dance
their demons. `````````` Photo by Paula Court. ` company through the congregation
` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` ` again.

The metaphorical significance of this watchfulness cannot be overstated. Like
the saint he portrays, each of these dancers has achieved an individual renown born of unrelenting and solitary devotion to a way of life. This religious dedication has found him often at odds with the accepted modes of validation that predominate in American society, particularly as they relate to men’s work. Williams allows us to watch them watch each other create a collective testament that transforms and transcends the sum of its parts.

Beyond its utility and craft as a formal framing device, the choreographer’s stylization of this action subtly reminds us of our collective interdependence, and the human hunger for interconnection that we felt so strongly in the days after the terrorist attacks. He redeems and reinvigorates the role of live theatrical dance as a vital mode for acknowledging and even celebrating this existential fact; these needs and desires.

The creator’s fingerprints can be seen everywhere in a litany of collaboration. His co-credits extend to the beautifully realized costumes (designed and built with Carol Binion, Andy Jordan, Ciera Wells, and Michael Oberle) and the magical puppets (with Eric Wright and Lake Simons). And when did you ever see a performance that in addition to two early music researchers (Susan Hellauer and Williams) lists a medieval hagiography consultant (Thomas Head)? The scholarly contributions of these collaborators manifest in the music and text translations and choreographer’s notes that make up the majority of the 32-page program insert accompanying the piece. The notes represent Willams’ cogent gloss of relevant details taken from the lives of the saints as presented in his source text. It provides yet another point of entry for exploration and appreciation of The Golden Legend as an imaginative response to our Western moment.(l to r) Aaron Mattocks as St. James the More, Luke Miller as St. Laurence, Reid Bartelme as St. Giles, Stuart Singer as St. Eustace, and Chris M. Green as St. Jerome in the recessional. ```````````````````````````````````````````````Photo by Paula Court.

Only Joe Levasseur’s exquisitely nuanced lighting seems to belong to one designer alone. The collective nature of the entire theatrical enterprise, and its analogous relationship to the possibilities of cooperative action, became palpable and moved me in ways I haven’t felt onstage since the Broadway productions of Angels in America and Copenhagen. The multi-dimensionality, scale, scope and quality of the work recalls that of such artists as Meredith Monk, Robert Wilson, William Forsythe, Pina Bausch and Bill T. Jones.

The Golden Legend stands as a fitting return gift to and redemption of the sacrifices of those who stand guard over our “homeland security.” By whatever means they serve, they insure the freedom that brings us saints as well as corporate Ponzi and steroid sinners. The challenge falls to us as to which merits our own sacrifices and devotion in attention, blood and treasure.

Like other contemporary American artists, and many U.S. families, Williams has gambled himself into the bondage of credit card usury. His thrall has come in pursuit of a singular dance theater vision. The fact that he has forged his chains in a field that offers virtually no chance for the gamble to pay off in a material, and therefore, by extension, a status sense for either him or his art form hardly makes him a saint. But if it were ever to come to a question of that, perhaps The Golden Legend might be cited as one of the requisite miracles.

Friday, June 19, 2009

Fanfare for The Uncommon Woman: Naomi Goldberg Haas ties up at the Ferry Terminal

The crowd for the 1:30 pm Staten Island Ferry inside the Whitehall Terminal that hugs the southern tip of Manhattan indubitably sensed that something might be up.  A few might even have seen the 12:30 show.  But only after the gates closed behind their departure did the first fanfare sound. A cordon of 14 women dressed in white pants and tops, the middle two bearing orange flags on poles, formed up outside the entrance gates to the terminal’s great hall.
 
below (l to r): Betty Williams, Naomi Goldberg Haas (with flags), Sari Nordman, Penelope Dannenberg (atop wagon) and Rebecca Elizabeth Woll
Walking briskly through the gates, the line splits into septets, each following a flag bearer and moving swiftly to occupy one of the open areas that flank the hall’s central double rows of granite benches. Before the next ferry crowd even begins to collect, fraternal, but not identical, twin dances for 7 begin; flowing passages punctuated by freezes.   People in the waiting area begin to gather around for a better look.  The 2nd of 14 performances of the world premiere of Fanfare by Naomi Goldberg Haas/Dances for a Variable Population has begun. Performances continue with 12:30 and 1:30 pm showings June 22, 24, 36 and 27, as part of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council’s Sitelines series.
 
Now in its 6th season as part of the 8th annual River to River Festival, Sitelines has sought to vitalize the plazas, parks, fountains, bridges, staircases, and other architectural features of old New York with site-specific dances by recognized choreographers.  Goldberg Haas’s 26 minute long Fanfare, produced by Lisa Simon, makes use of a number of recordings for brass ensembles by British contemporary composer Michael Nyman. In a program note, the choreographer links her choice of music to an evocation of Aaron Copland’s “Fanfare for the Common Man."
 
below (l to r): M. Lindsey Smith and Jamie Graham (carrying chair) and Jackie Ferrara

She comes to her musical touchstone with a sense of mission.  “Recently,” she has written on her website, “I have been working with senior populations, mixing this community with young modern dancers, exploring how these disparate groups can learn from one another about the nature of movement and expression.”  The Fanfare cast divides roughly equally between these two groups, and the older performers add to a sense of poignant human vulnerability and passage within the work. 
 
Goldberg Haas follows her formal entrance and twin septets with segments designed for three discrete sections of the great hall’s floor space.  Each of these areas has been marked off with safety-orange-colored lines taped atop the terminal’s dark granite floor, and similarly colored flags identical to the ones Goldberg Haas and Sarah Chenoweth Kenney initially carried. The young dancers’ find their traction challenged in runs and turns on the polished surface.  M. Lindsay Smith, Jill Frere, Jamie Graham and Rebecca Elizabeth Woll feature in two pure movement quartets, which break up other activities often involving props such as a chair and a skateboard. The choreographer keeps the dance vocabulary fairly basic.
 
below (l to r): Jamie Graham, Betty Williams (top), M. Lindsey Smith (bottom), Jill Frere, Rebecca Elizabeth Woll, Penelope Dannenberg

The best scenes come when these young professionals and their peers interact with the elders.  These moments include an extended rotating lift in which Frere, Graham and Smith loft a reaching Betty Williams, and a slow diagonal procession in which Penny Dannenberg strikes a heroic pose atop a child’s red wagon while Sari Nordman and Woll push and pull her along.  A particularly resonant and charming passage occurs when Judith Chazen Walsh drags behind her a large red rolling suitcase. Kenney appears, curled up inside, reading a book.  Sometimes the educated young can come across as so much baggage.
 
The lithe Kenney later touchingly rests her head against the standing Walsh’s leg as she, Geraldine Bartlett, Goldberg Haas, and Nordman sit scattered about the floor watching as Williams goes airborne across the space.  A solo for Maxine Steinhaus sets the frailty of a lone figure against the grandeur of the hall and the vastness of the harbor and sky that can be glimpsed through the terminal’s southern windows behind her.  Carol Chave, Jackie Ferrara and Mollie Leiber join the rest of the company in bringing onlookers into the dance in its final section.
 
below (l to r): M. Lindsey Smith, Jackie Ferrara, Sarah Chenoweth Kenney, Judith Chazen Walsh

Even though choreographers such as Liz Lerman have been including older and sometimes disabled dancers in their work for over a quarter century, the presence of such performers in concert and especially in site-specific dance work remains a remarkable and laudable event.  That the entire company for this iteration of Dances for a Variable Population (Goldberg Haas' troupe) happens to be female and ostensibly of European descent might, unfortunately, prove less challenging to the inchoate expectations of an audience perhaps new to contemporary dance.  The action of stalwart stage assistant Wadson Fortune in handing props to members of the troupe at the back of the playing spaces, as well as the corps’ successful enlistment of members of the audience to join in the dancing during Fanfare's final moments, seemed only to unwittingly underscore this fact. 
 
The uninitiated among the onlookers would seem to represent just the kind of folks that a series such as Sitelines might ideally seek to serve.  In a time of economic retrenchment, as our arts strive to avoid further marginalization, the struggle of artists to fight their way out of their socio-political and economic ghettoes continues unabated.
above (l to r): Jill Frere, Lindsey Graham, Betty Williams, Jamie Graham, Rebecca Elizabeth Woll

photographs by Douglas Back, 2009, courtesy of Lower Manhattan Cultural Council

Friday, June 5, 2009

You Want Some Thighs With That? – Bang Group Shows down at Joe’s Pub

A year ago, David Parker and the Bang Group created a buzz with Showdown, a forty-minute pop tart of a dream ballet for 8 dancers set to recordings created for the film version of Irving Berlin’s 1946 Broadway musical Annie Get Your Gun. This “pilot version” had only a two-night run at, of all places, Joe’s Pub, as part of Dance Now [NYC]’ s Dancemopolitan Modern [Dance] Musicals initiative.

Members of the cast of David Parker's "Showdown" giving us head in their Western shirts.
Thursday evening, the octet plus 3 returned to the scene of the climb with an ”expanded” version for a four performance encore that will end on Saturday with a two show closing night. I quote the producers advisedly, since expanding anything on the tiny stage of the hip cabaret, let alone a balletic quadrille, certainly seems like someone’s crack pipe dream. The performers enter onto literally a bandbox stage through a curtained opening in the acoustical baffles that line the back wall. That curtain hides a public hallway that leads directly to the backstage kitchen and bathrooms. You dance hard by someone's dinner.

The first hint that Dancemopolitan might actually succeed in its expansionist notions arrived with the appearance of the archly deadpan Monica Bill Barnes and Deborah Lohse through that curtain to a recording of a live concert by Johnny and June Carter Cash.  Dressed in black leather-like vests over red full body thermal underwear, complete with rear button fly, and brandishing silver snub nosed pistols, the pair strutted, threatened, and dryly idled its minute upon the stage until Lohse unfolded a welcome mat as the duet stalked off through the audience.
 
The mood changed abruptly as members of the Bang Group, first Bryan Campbell and Jeffrey Kazin, then Marissa Palley and Megan Flynn, then Nic Petry and Terry Duncan burst onto the stage dressed in jeans and checked work shirts to a recording of the musical’s overture. This segued to a lusty ensemble dance alongside “There’s No Business Like Show Business,” the show’s most enduring song.  Showdown’s score features the voices of Judy Garland and Howard Keel as recorded but never used for the 1950 MGM screen adaptation by erstwhile director Busby Berkeley.

Jeffrey Kazin rides high in the saddle in one of the easier lifts from "Showdown" (below)
 
This seems all of a piece with the ways in which Parker’s choreography bends, plays off of and defeats our expectations by its re-assignment and re-purposing of gender roles, relationships and formal structures.  In the first two numbers for example, the hips and derriere feature extensively in movement that swivels, sashays and displays as the sextet moves from balletic arm and leg extensions to cheeky ride ‘em cowboy hip mounts. Only occasionally will the couple in the various partnering, lifts and rides be of mixed gender.
 
Moreover, stylistic flourishes one most often associates with one sex will more often than not end up on the opposite sex, such as the ring of arms surrounding a soloist in a quote from Balanchine’s choreography for Episodes.  When the stalwart Amber Sloan takes on Kazin and Petry in dancing to “Doin’ What Comes Naturally,” it’s the two men who start a variation on the famous “Dance of the Cygnets” from Swan Lake before Sloan joins to round out the trio.
 
These three performers embody the choreographic spine and the presentational soul of Parker’s work clawing their way to the top of the heap in a piece in which who gets what attention – from either the audience or potential partners onstage – makes up a large part of the comic subtext. One marvels at Kazin’s multiple pencil turns, fearless attack when lifted and repeated spiral descents from such lifts, Petry’s barefoot soft shoe; the redoubtable Sloan’s take-no-prisoners dancing and straight man’s sense of bewilderment when, for instance, she lifts Kazin only to find her face scissored between his calves.

Amber Sloan's face (at bottom below) seems more at ease anchoring the cast. Nic Petry brackets the totem at its top.

But the matter of fact cleanliness and understated goofiness of this core group extends throughout the company and underpins the subversion at the heart of Parker’s wit.  For the choreographer’s send ups range beyond ballet tropes to a fan circle ala Busby Berkeley (sans fans), Broadway hoofing from DeMille to Fosse, and the cult of ta-da!  Parker’s intricate formal structures begin, end or continue as often outside the bounds of individual numbers as they coincide with their musical demarcations. And while the general levity would not suffice to produce a laugh track, the choreographer consistently amuses even as he devilishly pulls the rug from beneath our feet.
 
These qualities dovetail perfectly with those of Barnes and Lohse as they return to bookend the evening. Originally, this pair had been scheduled to present a piece of its own entitled Southern Comfort, which would have alternated with Showdown this weekend.  Instead, artistic directors and producers Robin Staff, Sydney Skybetter and Tamara Greenfield have wisely cast them as “silent hosts” for the evening’s frivolities.  Lohse exits with a sign reading “The End” leaving us with the fading sound of the Cash’s in our ears after bringing back and holding up the entire Bang Group at gunpoint for a final bow.
 
But the true encore has already occurred. After the Big Finish, with Sloan’s shadow Annie fronting the company to a full chorus version of “There’s No Business…,” Parker takes the mic to introduce a charmingly political “bonus track.”  In a warm baritone to live keyboard accompaniment, he launches into “Old Fashioned Wedding,” a bonus hit itself from the 1966 Broadway revival of the musical.  When joined by Kazin, his real life and artistic partner and principal muse, the two turn into a vaudeville song and dance team trading rat-a-tat taps and vocal parts in the longest and most poignant number of the night.
 
At this point even the busy-ness of the cabaret seemed to settle as people put down their forks and glasses, and the waiters went into waiting. Parker’s innate New England reserve often serves to mute his wicked wit and socio-political incisiveness.  But beneath the cool exterior of his work as both creator and performer beats the vital heart of a champion entertainer.