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.

Monday, June 1, 2009

For the Love of Dog: Dance Times Square Unleashes its Inner Animal

Melanie LaPatin and Tony Meredith, sure know how to throw a party. They’ve had a lot of practice. The oft-crowned championship Latin and Ballroom dance pair, currently So You Think You Can Dance contributing choreographers, have been doing just that with their students and fellow teachers each Spring and Fall almost since they founded the Dance Times Square social and competitive studio eight years ago. These showcases, produced by LaPatin with Administrative ProducerBronwen Carson, have taken on the added mission of support of charitable causes since last October’s fete to benefit the Helen Sawaya Fund for breast cancer survivors.

Each production features a theme of its own. DTS titled its May 11 event Ballroom Unleashed, in honor of Angel On A Leash, the evening’s beneficiary.  The showcase and a red carpet pre-show reception took place at the Danny Kaye Playhouse of Hunter College. Angel On A Leash, a Westminster Kennel Club charity, promotes work with therapy dogs in crisis intervention, rehabilitation, hospice, extended care, health care and correctional facilities and schools. 

(l to r below) Sheryl Shaker (Executive Director) and David Frei (Founder and CEO) of Angel On A Leash with Melanie LaPatin of Dance Times Square
 
LaPatin and Meredith used this connection as inspiration for dancing that explored the animal instincts that lie within student and professional dancers. Guest dancers and choreographers, who included the Parsons Dance Company in the person of Miguel Quinones; Anya Garnis and Pasha Kovalev, Sabra Johnson and Twitch from So You Think You Can Dance, Mark Stuart Eckstein Dance Theatre, and Metropolitan Opera diva Aprile Millo, brought their own. The diversity and quality of guest artists spiced the program and made for a highly intriguing evening in the theater.
 
But diversity and quality did not end with the guest artists. In a curtain speech at the top of the show LaPatin made it clear that the students performing in the show ranged in experience from near beginners to polished performers. Differences in technical level become readily apparent. But the quality of the choreography, mostly credited to LaPatin and Meredith, and the cleverness of the programming, with LaPatin as director, turned what could easily have been a deficit into an asset.
 
Dance Times Square makes a convincing case that almost anyone can dance with remarkable confidence and a sense of style, provided that the dancemaker tailors partnership and choreography to the ability and commitment of the dancers present. Almost invariably these pas de deux pair a student with a professional. But for me one of the more enjoyable moments over the long and winding course of the evening came in the form of a group a six women of various ages, shapes and sizes strutting their curves to “Jungle Boogie.” 
 
(l to r above) Mark Stuart Eckstein and Adelani Malia: contemporary jazz with benefits

While I acknowledge that such a display might not appeal to every dancegoer, the program offers up the kind of variety and pacing that virtually guarantees something appealing, entertaining, and surprising for each member of the audience. For me these came just as often in the form of student/pro duets of rhumba, samba, quickstep, tango, paso doble and jive as they did in the frequent delights of the guest artists.

The latter included several dancers from past seasons of SYTYCD. Sabra Johnson, who, at the end of season 3, became the first female winner, danced a soulful contemporary solo, while her co-competitors Anya and Pasha showed finesse in a sizzling tango. Twitch, from season 4, freestyled his way through a number in each half of the program, combining b-boy techniques and styles with fluid ease. Most of the younger half of the audience joined the teenage girls sitting next to me in wooting each time he took the stage.

Two of the other guests deserve special attention. About one third of the way through the 17 events on the first half of the program, 9 dancers from Company C Dance Club of Toledo, Ohio, took the stage with painted faces.  Over the next three minutes, they executed the well-crafted contemporary jazz styled choreography of Cassie Dzienny with a ferocity, fearlessness and crispness of attack and execution that made them resemble an entire troupe of nascent Louise Lecavalier’s
 
Dzienny’s designs often broke the group into three trios with sophisticated variations in shape, level – from splits on the floor to explosive leaps – and tempo to create and maintain a riveting dynamic tension.  Only when I encountered them in the lobby at intermission did I come to realize that this powerful ensemble consisted of tween and teen girls, the youngest of whom, they told me, hadn’t yet turned 10.  Woe to the respectable cha cha couple who had to follow them in one of the evening’s few programming faux pas. The act one charity appeal that followed the cha cha would have been better placed here instead.
 
The first half concluded with Miguel Quinones fine performance of David Parson’s signature solo “Caught,” with it’s man-in-space stage effects born of leaps and jumps frozen in strobe light flashes accompanied by Robert Fripp’s atmospheric electronic score.  I have seen this piece a score of times if I’ve seen it once, performed most frequently by its creator, but also by half a dozen other male and female interpreters. I found myself both surprised and moved by the standing ovation that still, 25 years on, greets its introduction to what I took to be a new audience. Quinones, to my mind, gets more out of the role than any other performer since the choreographer himself.
 
(above)Tony Meredith and Melanie LaPatin with the cast of "Ballroom Unleashed"

And if the DTS audience came away more, well, “enlightened” after an encounter with this contemporary classic, I found lessons among the 31 segments of the Ballroom Unleashed extravaganza that the contemporary concert dance world, particularly its “downtown” branch, might do well to observe.  For one thing, without any nudity whatsoever, these dancers and choreographers managed to convey a warm and unabashed sexuality, and more to the point perhaps, sensuality that made many of their more politically erotic modern dance peers look paradoxically puritanical by comparison.

For all their own formal clichĂ©s – the ending with man on the floor as the woman walks off and leaves him representing only the most oft repeated in this concert – the DTS artists seemed to accept both their bodies and their own desires without angst or apology. This made flirtation, seduction, infatuation, romance and yes, sex, look attractive and fun; like something you might like to do instead of something you might like to think or make a statement about doing. And while the ritualized relationship violence that seemed to percolate through the evening’s very first three pieces gave me pause, it did not reprise throughout the remainder of the program. Moreover, if brevity can be considered the soul of wit, the program leathered its sole with a refreshing amount of wit. Once or twice, a piece wore out its welcome. Even then, it would go on for an extra minute or two, not a minute or ten.
 
I didn’t get to stick around for the “after party,” back at the studio, which encourages the audience, I gather, to supply its physical rejoinder to the onstage cavorting. But Dance Times Square seems committed to the idea that everyone should come (and dance) as they are while raising money for noble causes. Who knew that doing good could be so sexy and so much fun?
 
Photos by Lauren Duque.

This post produced in cooperation with Tonya Plank of Swan Lake Samba Girl