October 2006 Archives
Reader and dance videographer Amy Reusch sent me this comment last night in response to my call out to choreographers for a night of Dylan dance "covers."
Regarding "covers," I think that's pretty much all we see in the ballet world when we watch the work of a dead choreographer. I mean, aren't we seeing a cover when we watch "Swan Lake"? Is the Paris Opera's "Jewels" close enough to the original not to be considered a cover? Perhaps. But "La Sylphide" is definitely Bournonville's cover of Taglioni, right?
Yes! I think we could consider any piece of repertory that has survived its original cast a "cover."
The advantage to the term is, it's playful: "Cover" allows the current rendition of the dance some breathing room from the past and emphasizes the dancers' interpretive powers. At the same time, the tag reminds us that all of this play started somewhere.
With 20th century repertory, that somewhere is usually well documented: there are specific steps to do. For older repertory, there's a spirit to honor--though its exact nature is open to interpretation. Some interpretations, whatever the circumstances, will be wretched--file under "Dylan-Tharp musical."
I wouldn't mind a Dylan Fest--like the Stravinsky Festival?-- except I'm generally not fond of choreography to lyrics.
But, Amy! What about Balanchine's ''Liebeslieder Waltzer'' or "Who Cares?," with Gershwin tunes shadowed by Gershwin lyrics? What about all those Mark Morris dances? For example: "New Love Song Waltzes," to the same Brahms love songs as Balanchine's "Liebeslieder"; "Gloria," to Vivaldi's praise song to God; the country-western romp "Going Away Party."
You're right, though: dances to song are hard to pull off, particularly in pop, with its intelligible and thus dominating lyrics. I've seen my share of fiascos.
Songs actually behave the same way as a lot of dances. More than telling a story, they set up a situation or lay down an emotional landscape. A dance to a song can do that too, but it needs to acknowledge the song's occasion, or you get Twyla Tharp's "The Times They Are A-Changin'."
In "Like a Rolling Stone," one of the two dozen songs in "The Times They Are," the vengeful singer exults in the downfall of a hipster-princess who used to "Let other people/Get [her]/Kicks for [her]." Or, if you prefer, the singer really wants to know--because it's his question, too-- "How does it feel?/To be on your own/With no direction home/A complete unknown/Like a rolling stone."
In any case, Tharp couldn't care less. Her method is to select iconic images from each song and string them together into a single, dopey epic.
For "Like a Rolling Stone," she extracts "rolling" and "stone" to set the dancers bouncing on black Pilates balls. It's a two-fer. They're both the rolling-stone hipster and "the jugglers and the clowns" doing tricks for--well, not for her because there isn't any princess here, but for us, I guess, or for the circus ringmaster and his blue-eyed son (nudge, nudge) at the center of this nonsensical oedipal drama. In any case, the story has stopped mattering.
Tharp reminds me of a demented ninth grade English teacher. She hunts down every Symbol and sends it flying.
So, yeah, if the choreographer takes a dunderheaded approach, dance to song is a bad idea. Otherwise, the weave can be rich and satisfying.
[ed. note: Choreographer Luciana Achugar, based in New York, sent this comment this morning. I thought it was worth featuring.]
I am a choreographer, and I find dance critics extremely important for dance and its survival. I have been reading this blog, and it makes me so much more satisfied than reading reviews in newspapers. The problem of having no space for writing about dance has always made me angry and sad for the writers themselves (I can only imagine how frustrating that must be) and for the form.
It comes as no surprise, however, that there would be no money for those who choose to write about a form whose medium is the body. There still exists in our society an underlying hierarchy where experience and the body are considered lesser and irrational. So, perhaps for most readers or editors dance doesn't seem sufficiently interesting intellectually.
I can also understand your frustration with choreographers ourselves not seeming to have any solidarity for dance writers or to value them. I believe that until there is more importance given to dance writing, dance as an art form will not gain a greater place in our culture. I respect you dance writers very, very much. I also believe, however, that the frustration of choreographers regarding dance reviews in certain publications comes from getting reviews that are short and lack any depth or context.
Who is to blame? Certainly neither dancemakers nor writers, since we are both making similar sacrifices for the form itself.
I'd love to have more dialogue between us and more solidarity as well.
Apollinaire responds: The tiny amount of space a writer gets in, say, the Times (about 300 words) does turn most ideas into cartoons. But beyond that, there are flaws in our approach. I'll write more on this in a couple of days. Thank you so much for writing.
Eva responds: I am grateful to Apollinaire Scherr for making space for this frank discussion and to Luciana Achugar for her kind response to my essay. There's so much that I agree with in Achugar's comments, but for now I want to underscore the American ambivalence about the body as a possible source--at least one source--of our difficulties with fully embracing dance as an art.
The dancer's body is, as I see it, a source of intelligence, consciousness, wisdom, inquiry, challenge, nurturance, complexity, healing, inspiration, transformation--an infinitude. But I wonder if most Americans bother to see it as anything more than a commodity to be consumed for entertainment or titillation. More on this another time. Thanks again, Luciana!
[ed. note: Achugar did not mention that she will be premiering "Exhausting Love," at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church next week.]
Part of the freelance life is to get knocked around from publication to publication. The budgets wax and wane, new editors arrive with their own ideas of what and who they want, and off we go on our next scavenge.
I've had this happen a few times--as a matter of fact, I'm having it happen right now at Newsday, where the freelance fine arts budget has recently drastically shrunk. But there's an extra problem for dance writers, as Eva notes: there just aren't that many places to go. And less every day. As Eva points out, blogging isn't a viable alternative because it doesn't pay.
I think the temptation in such dire circumstances is to look around for support from someone, please, and be struck hard by how little there is: from the newspapers, the editors, the silent readers, the choreographers, who too often want to know what you can do for them and don't notice that whatever you can do depends on loving dance more than you love the people who make it (at least in your capacity as reviewer, anyway).
So, yeah, this is a lonely vocation.
But I think you've begun to suggest the solution, Eva, in the way you've laid out the problem. There's something wrong with the ecology of dance when a review so wounds a choreographer that she makes a piece about it, and when in turn that dance breaks a critic's heart. The choreographer has forgotten the audience members who are not part of the scene; the reviewer isn't thinking of all the people whom her colleague's ambivalent review entertained and informed.
If the review didn't engage anyone outside of the dance "community"-- the mutually contemptuous cliques that make it up--we're in trouble.
The only power we writers have to change the impoverished situation of dance is in our writing. In the next post--to appear in a couple days--I will suggest some problems with the standard approach to dance reviewing in the daily and weekly press, and propose some solutions. These new and improved reviews may not compel dancemakers to clamor for more, but they might get readers curious enough to venture to the theater. And that's what matters.
[ed. note: For those of you wishing we'd hurry up and get back to fairy tales--for which great questions from reader and dance videographer Amy Reusch and a brilliant précis from Paul Parish warmed us up--it will happen. I probably shouldn't have promised the topic in advance--a liability, I've discovered, in blogland. But I haven't forgotten.]
Who gives a damn?
No, really. That's a legitimate question. My question. And I'd like an answer.
Let me explain.
Next month marks the first anniversary of the last review I wrote for The Village Voice after nearly thirty years of professional association with that newspaper as a freelancer writing on dance and--occasionally, joyfully--getting to write items somewhat related to my more metaphysical passions. One afternoon in early November, I checked my email and downloaded a terse message from Voice dance editor Elizabeth Zimmer.
The powers-that-be at the Voice had decided to make permanent the occasional space cuts that, for the past year or so, they had inflicted on the paper's already meager dance section. From now on, the art of dance would get a mere half page of coverage and fewer listings. Moreover, they had ordered Zimmer to stop using freelancers--that would be me and Tobi Tobias (an internationally respected professional, my first editor at Dance Magazine, and a refugee from her own nightmare at New York magazine), as well as a handful of occasional contributors, including interns who Zimmer enjoyed rewarding with assignments and space in what was still considered the coolest weekly in town. The paper would have but one dance critic, the venerable Deborah Jowitt.
Zimmer assured me that any reviews I already had in the pipeline would eventually run but that if I had made commitments to review upcoming shows, I must cancel them. (Yes, I had quite a line-up in the works.) "I'm sorry," she wrote. And that was that.
It took but one moment to catch my breath before my Mars in Scorpio kicked in. I flew into action, canceling reviews--"Come see the show anyway," everyone said, wonderfully--and alerting my network of friends and dance contacts to this new development.
Some were shocked, some unsurprised, but all were saddened. The dance folks immediately felt the new wound to the community's already precarious situation in this city. They had noticed how frequently the Voice had chopped up the dance page and were alarmed to learn that things would stay that way. They probably didn't know that the management had drastically slashed fees for freelance dance writing many months prior. It remains unclear to me what, if anything, Zimmer or Jowitt did to attempt to reverse either of these developments.
A consortium of concerned dance artists and institutions put their hard-won money together and bought a full-page protest ad in the Voice. I'm sure this inflow of cash from the dance world must have given the ad folks a rush, but the gesture made absolutely no difference. Since then, we all learned that Voice management was preparing for the sale of the paper, an event that unleashed ongoing turmoil. In late August, Zimmer and several other editorial staffers lost their jobs. Cue the sound effects guy: The other shoe had dropped.
Since being cut loose by the Voice, I have discovered space--the final frontier--and a greater freedom of expression at Gay City News, on my own Web site, and now here at Apollinaire's Foot in Mouth blog. The Village Voice, meanwhile, is nowadays The Village Voice in name only, and perhaps should be rechristened.
What does all this have to do with Juliette Mapp?
Thanks for asking. I'll explain.
A few months ago, I attended a Movement Research event, where cutting-edge dance artists show works-in-progress (or process, a much-favored term), at Judson Memorial Church, famed as the headquarters of New York's avant-garde, experimental dance in the 1960s.
The program included a mesmerizing solo by early Judson luminary Deborah Hay--picture dance fans packed in like sardines--and an ensemble work by Juliette Mapp.
Mapp's piece involved two women sitting and turning the pages of a book, two people nestled in the far background whispering to each other and maybe posing or moving a bit, and Mapp delivering a long, wandering monologue about world events.
As sympathetic to her concerns as I was, I had a hard time staying with a text at once so flatly didactic and so unruly. But what really got to me were at least two snipes at some unnamed Village Voice critic--not me, I hadn't reviewed her--who apparently had disapproved of a previous politically oriented work by the choreographer.
I checked in with my feelings. Why did I feel my heart sinking?
Mapp was certainly entitled to her feelings and the expression of them. I really got what she was saying about the critic, and I mostly agreed with her--although, having spent quite a long time listening to her that evening, I could also see a little bit of where that unnamed critic was coming from. I was torn in both directions. I don't mind it when a work of art puts me in that condition, but what Mapp said threw me into an unexpectedly vulnerable place.
Was I--a dance critic--The Enemy? It felt that way. I felt targeted and marginalized--a familiar experience for other reasons, but this time I felt marginalized by a community of people I've come to give a damn about.
But who gives a damn about dance critics?
Dancers? Wary of most of us--sometimes justifiably--and caught up in their own fight for survival, they can't be expected to give a serious damn about us.
Other journalists? Do they even know we exist? Or comprehend just what it is that we do? Or why we bother?
The public? Do you know how often people look at me with blank expressions or "that's nice, dear" expressions when I tell them that I write dance criticism? They simply have not heard of this work.
That's okay...sort of...at least for now. That's a struggle for another day. What concerns me here is that I wonder how much of an active damn the dancemakers themselves give about the condition of dance journalism and criticism in New York City. It's well known that the community is dissatisfied with the status quo, but without actively, openly clamoring for more and better coverage, more and better documentation of its experiments, discoveries, and achievements, things will not change.
Right about this time, someone usually mentions the Internet as--hands down--The Solution. End of story. So, I'll save you the trouble: Yes, the Internet is a grand resource, and we should all be about the business of making the best uses of it. But, as enormously creative people who struggle and strive and somehow manage to make work and more work, more spaces for work, more festivals to showcase work, more institutions to nurture work, can we not also dream up even more ways to lift both the field of dance and its dedicated chroniclers?
After all, the print media, and printed journalism about the popular arts, still exist out there. Let's look at print journalism and visualize more for dance, not less. The art of dance should not be expected to just quietly evaporate up into the cyber-ether where, by the way, its journalists are making little or no money.
One last thing: after thirty years in this practice, I am not tired of dance. I do tire of its severely limited recognition in our society and how that negatively impacts those of us working in this field and those of us who could have served the art but-for practical or even psychological reasons--chose differently. I grieve that. But I'm not going away. Not just yet. I've still got a lot of fight left in me--that Mars-in-Scorpio thing.
The reviews are in for Twyla Tharp's song medley with chipmunks on trampolines, "The Times They are A-Changin,'" and they're not negative enough.
It's not that critics think the Broadway show is any good, but too often they're so baffled by how bad it is that they refuse to believe their eyes and ears: they think they must have missed something (for example, Newsweek or the Star-Ledger).
C'mon. Tharp chose Billy Joel tunes as the soundtrack to her last musical--the moral of which was, aerobics will set you free. Of course she doesn't know what to do with Dylan.
Any number of choreographers would, though.
Wouldn't it be neat to have a Dylan dance fest? Choreographers could respond any way they wanted: to a single image in a single song, to the cadence of his singular voice, to the old weird America his songs steal from. They could even take a song and loop it a la Steve Reich. Anything.
Then they could invite him (and he wouldn't come).
P.S. I've only seen Dylan once. A friend said, He's getting old, he may die, we can't wait any longer. So we got in my junky car--or maybe it was his junky car--and drove down the peninsula to sit on a green hill and watch a tiny figure at its base. Dylan was happy, a little drunk, and none of the songs came out like anything I'd ever heard before. He did a little two-step while singing and strumming that was more interesting and sexy than anything going on in the Tharp.
Eva Yaa Asantewaa responds:
For years, I've been telling anyone who'd listen that I'd love to see a musical built around the great songs of Stevie Wonder. Now that I've heard about the results of Tharp's Dylan project--a dubious idea to begin with--I will never again argue for a Stevie Wonder jukebox musical. And can we all board a time machine and go back to the days before this sort of thing became a trend?
Apollinaire, it might be interesting, indeed, to see individual dances inspired by Dylan's elusive, incantatory, and fierce poetry. There are probably choreographers who might be up to the daunting task. But the idea of stringing Dylan songs together and splicing them into some concocted narrative sounds beyond silly to me. No offense to Billy Joel fans, but what you might get away with with the Piano Man's more straightforward pop tunes is one thing. Dylan is quite another.
Apollinaire responds: yeah, I agree: Making a narrative out of Dylan's elusive and allusive songs is foolish. The terrible thing is: Tharp didn't have to. She could have done whatever she wanted. Dylan gave her free rein. The fact that the tunes were his would have brought people into the theater to see what she was up to regardless. She could have used it as an opportunity to stretch the Broadway audience. Instead she condescended to them.
I do think it would be neat if choreographers did like musicians: covers of a songwriter they admired. Or they could do "covers" of a choreographer they admired. Of course, that happens all the time in large companies. It's called "repertory." I wonder what the downtown equivalent would be? Tere O'Connor tweaking a section of Cunningham's "RainForest"? Imagine: a night of Cunningham "covers"!
Come to think of it, postmodern icon Yvonne Rainer's revamp of Balanchine's "Agon" for "Sourcing Stravinsky" at Dance Theater Workshop this spring was a cover. The modern dancers doing the Balanchine moves looked positively ridiculous--what a bunch of clods! But I think the moral of the story was: Balanchine's choreography is so strong, it will survive any fool.
Not a moral that needs to be made, I don't think. In pop music, the idea of the cover is that the interpreters add something to the song, rather than just beating it up and leaving us with the pulp. The Sex Pistols' version of Sinatra's "My Way" is an example of how far out you can go and still reveal something about the original.
In the post below, Eva writes,
I am willing, however, to see violence in dance if there's some significant point to be made, larger context to be drawn, and maybe something about what inner or outer forces give rise to our violence or what arises as a result of our violent natures and violent acts.
An example for me of justified violence is the scene in Jerome Robbins' "Fancy Free" (ABT is currently performing it at City Center) where three sailors on furlough play catch with a lady-bypasser's purse.
It starts in fun--she's enjoying herself. But eventually she's not in on the fun, she's the object of it. Robbins perfectly captures how a game can turn on its players, how the force of a group even as small as three can be stronger than the judgment of any one of its members. The dance needs to toy with danger: when this scene is played as pure comedy, it doesn't amount to much. But it doesn't need to act out the violence. The sailors come to their senses right at the point when they've almost gone too far.
The rape that concludes Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon," on the other hand, is so gratuitous, you're stuck concluding that the choreographer is getting off on poor Manon's ravaging. (ABT subjected us to this ballet last year--and it's back again in the spring! Why, oh, why?)
Maybe the question we should ask when squirming in our seats is: what would be lost without the violence? In "Fancy Free," a good deal. In "Manon," it would still be a lousy ballet, but not quite so lousy.
[addendum: Eva's review of the performance she refers to below has been published. Click here.]
Gray Miller to Eva Yaa Asantewaa:
Nice to hear Sarah Michelson's DOGS was that enveloping--I could almost smell the turkey reading your column here in WI.
It seems to me that there must be an element of the sadist in some modern dance choreographers. I had the privilege of working with XXX[persons] on XXX[show] [belated editor's note: I want to keep names out of this when the communication was originally private--that's only fair; what a person does ON STAGE or IN PRINT is another matter] at PS122 back in 2000, and have done some work with XXX since then at Joyce/Soho, and I've sensed a relish, a satisfaction in the performers when I tell them that from the booth I could see the audience shifting in their seats, nervously looking at each other, or even (a time or two) leaving the theatre, not angry, but distressed. And there are times when I am resentful of performers who deliberately try to manipulate me as blatantly as any soap opera.
I'm all for a strong message. But misery is easy to convey with modern dance; I think until we do something more than abuse our audience's psyche, we're going to only attract the masochists.
Oh, I don't know if it's the masochists who are showing up at these concerts. (Don't they have better things to do with their time?) It's just folks--mostly committed dance folks, and friends and family of the artists, of course--and they are sometimes distressed by uncomfortable elements in the work or merely left cold by them.
Recently, I reviewed a piece--I won't say what it was, since the review has not yet been published [ed. note: it's now been published]--and when my mate read my draft, she said, "That sounds like an abusive dance." She didn't mean abusive to the dancers--although a case could certainly be made for that. She meant abusive to the audience. So I thought of her remark when I read your comment, Gray.
An editor and I later had a conversation about violence in some of these dances, particularly sexual violence, especially when there doesn't appear to be any larger point to it, or if there is a point, it's not clearly articulated. I read some past reviews of that concert I was talking about, and it appears this troupe has made this sort of thing at least twice before. Whether those pieces were successful or not, I don't know, but I had to ask myself: What exactly are they trying to do? Is this a kind of porn?
It's like gangsta rap. After a while, how much of this "reality of the streets" do you have to hear about to know it's real out there on the streets? Don't we know that already?
Maybe it's just me, but I know the US's history of violence--from colonialism to domestic violence to war to environmental destruction to rape to gang violence to gay bashing--and, of course, the devastating violence out there in the rest of the world. I'm not sitting at home waiting for an invitation to a dance show that will enlighten me about that. I don't really have to see violence in a dance to wake up to the reality of violence.
I am willing, however, to see violence in dance if there's some significant point to be made, larger context to be drawn, and maybe something about what inner or outer forces give rise to our violence or what arises as a result of our violent natures and violent acts, and maybe, maybe just a hint that there might be better ways for us to live with one another and live on this planet.
Violence for the sake of violence, gratuitous violence for the sake of looking hot or cool or trendy--I'm not down for that.
As for choreographers making us uncomfortable: There's nothing wrong with art making people uncomfortable. Getting a good stretch beyond one's comfort zone is a terrific thing, and there are few things better than art and few experts better than artists at administering that really good mental stretch. All you have to do is look at our country's social and political dilemma to see that most of us could use a whole damn exercise regimen, not just a stretch.
So, bring on the stretch! To use your word, I "relish" it. But wait, isn't that a food reference, Gray? Relish?
Eva Yaa Asantewaa
... to the right. Now there are four new comments there. And comments on the comments, too!
has written dance journalism and criticism since 1976, published most notably in Dance Magazine, Soho News, The Village Voice, The New York Times, The Philadelphia Inquirer, and Gay City News, and on her own blog, InfiniteBody.
[ed. note: This funny, beautiful post is the first in a series that poet and longtime dance critic Eva Yaa Asantewaa will present under the rubric "InfiniteBody." Here, she riffs off Foot in Mouth's opening question, If nearly everybody likes to move and watch others move, why are dance audiences so small?]
Are you old enough to remember the days when we would fortify ourselves first and then head off to a dance concert, or perhaps see dance and then replenish ourselves afterwards? Now many dance venues provide refreshments, encouraging audience members to belly up to the bar or chow down to their hearts' content--or ultimate discontent.
You can buy a bottle of beer at The Chocolate Factory, but for a chocoholic fix, you'll need to check out Dance Theater Workshop. At poet Carl Hancock Rux's recent BAM Next Wave multidisciplinary show, "Mycenaean," I watched a large group of college kids get tickets and then, en masse, head straight to the café counter where popcorn is a major draw. These youngsters had gone from my neighborhood in the East Village--a.k.a. NYU's Food Court, and Theme Park to the World--to another borough where they could exercise their inalienable right to consume.
But dancer-choreographer Sarah Michelson's BAM Next Wave production, "Dogs"--her purported swan song--took this sort of thing to new heights with a set that included a heaping platter of roast chicken. Since the presence of this pile of poultry was barely addressed amidst the over-the-top dance spectacle and frequently crescendoing ballet music, perhaps Michelson intended the chicken to have a largely subliminal effect. Lo and behold, come intermission, tables set up with picnicware and mounds of roast chicken--free for the plucking--greeted audience members in the lobby. Of course, as a vegetarian, I did not indulge.
Some time ago, I read an article (unfortunately, I've long since forgotten where this piece appeared) that contained a quote from a dance presenter (name forgotten, too--sorry!--but trust me, I did not make this up) who argued that selling food at dance venues is a great way to bring in new audiences, especially younger ones. After all, this presenter reasoned, dance is hard to understand and makes people anxious. Food calms people down and makes them more receptive to what they are about to see.
It never occurred to me that, for more than three decades now, I've been sitting among extremely nervous people, audiences so fearful of what they were about to see that they'd need to soothe their nerves with booze, Valium, or maybe just a really juicy Big Mac. Dance dangerous? Oh, my god! Should I have buckled my seat belt? Donned my helmet? Slipped on elbow pads? Will my local precinct sell me a bullet-proof vest?
Now that I think about it, this news gives me a good little jolt in the self-confidence. Why, if it's true that most people dread an imminent close encounter with dance, then I'm practically a daredevil--facing up to big, bad dance on a regular basis without benefit of training wheels, a chaperone, an agent from Homeland Security, a martini, or a sloppy joe burrito. The way I figure it, I'm as tough as anything Movement Research can throw at me! PS 122? Bring it on! I will feed on The Kitchen and not in it!
I can be strong for all of us. Scared of dance? Come sit by me. And if you don't have anything good to say about a dance concert, come sit by me.
[Ed. note: See the contributor's column, to the right, for Eva's bio.]
is a regular contributor to Danceviewtimes and San Francisco magazine, and has contributed to many other publications. He was a Rhodes Scholar same time as Bill Clinton. He lives and dances in Berkeley.
[ed. Note: I asked Paul Parish if he could please do the honors of starting us out on fairy tales--I have to postpone my own post --and to be polemical, please, as this is Foot in Mouth. By way of saying he didn't have anything to say, he sent this entertaining and informed response.]
I was HOPING to get further than I have on thinking about fairy tales -- most of which is, Damn, it doesn't feel polemical at all.... I was thinking about the way dance developed as a theatrical medium in the era when allegory dominated the scene -- so the function of all the arts was to translate the invisibilia into visible terms, and dance was the MAIN way to do it in the era of masques; you'd personify some large elemental force and give it a speech and a way of moving, and LO, Puckishness comes on flying on a wire saying "I go, I go, Look how I go!" or Louis XIV comes on dressed as the Sun and conquers Chaos and Night.
It's STILL the easiest thing for a little ballet school to put on Snow White and the 7 Basic Food Groups ("Hi, I'm leafy green vegetable!" who then does a leafy green dance.) Match the quality to the characteristic and you've got Summer, Fall, Winter, Spring (as in "Cinderella"), or Melancholic, Sanguinic, etc. (Balanchines "Four Temperaments"), or Earth, Wind and Fire. (Paul Taylor's "Snow White" has wonderful movement for the dwarves.)
[ed. note: Julie Atlas Muz's brilliant comico-tragedy "I am the Moon and You are the Man on Me," at PS 122 in 2004, is a recent allegory, where the bright moon and the eclipsed moon, the villains and the courtiers, eventually get entangled in one another. But it mattered that you could remember them in their allegorical purity]
And fairy tales are easy to do as quasi-allegorical materials -- good fairy, bad fairy, fickle finger of fate fairy, fairy of may-you-never-be-hungry, the embodiments of blessings and curses. Petipa made his "Sleeping Beauty" fairies like Shakespeare's, pretty little insect-like things that run around on absolute tip-toe like dragonflies on water, and used hops on pointe to create this magic -- and if they can move like THAT, well, they MUST have super-powers of some kind.
The strangest thing about this subject is that allegory is BACK big time -- Ronald Reagan poses in front of the Statue of Liberty, or shaking hands with Mickey Mouse or Betty Crocker.
Parlor games used to depend on everybody's being able to distinguish fictional characters from real ones ("I'm a romance heroine starting with the letter 'S'"). But nowadays I wonder how well that would go down.
The infotainment age is full of non-real-world creatures being treated as if they were real-world, and if Miss Piggy is not technically a bona-fide fairy, to all intents and purposes she is (and Nureyev has danced with her).
[ed. note: there's now a new box on the right-hand column for contributors. To read short bios, go there]
On the subject of renewed classics: if you live in the New York area, go see Sarah Michelson's tour de force "Dogs," at the BAM Harvey Theater through Saturday only.
It's as if Michelson, with key help from visual designer and principle dancer Parker Lutz, scooped up all the women-birds and women sphinxes--the Firebirds and Cleopatras-- in history and ballet and found a way to reimagine them so they didn't seem hokey or threadbare, as they often do when choreographers return to them, but renewed in their mysteries.
I don't want to give the experience away--the whirl and swirl and statuesque glow of the dancing, the way the stunning design (which just keeps stunning, moment to moment) makes the Harvey stage seem both enormous and thoroughly sealed. This gift is best surprised by. In mood the closest approximation I can think of is Balanchine's "Divertimento from 'La Baiser de La Fee' ": that eerie sadness.
Also, if you go, let me know what you make of the odd coda. It feels allegorical to me. I won't post responses until "Dogs'" run is up.
[ed. note: Here's something Paul wrote in an email about Mark Morris's production of the Purcell opera "King Arthur."
I'd mentioned I was disappointed that musical experimentation never counted as experimental in modern dance. Choreographers could use music as a blanket of sound or a mood adjuster or a metronome, or they could broadly riff off the place this kind of music holds in the culture, but if they got any more nuanced then that, forget it--no "experimental" for them. "Dusty" was more like it.
While such experimental New York theaters as the Kitchen or Dance Theater Workshop have no problem presenting shows where the dancing and the music are both minimal, I'll probably be dead before they take it upon themselves to invite, say, jazz tapper Joseph Wiggan into their midst. (Sure, he's not a modern dancer, but that hasn't seemed to bother anyone before.)
Morris, it seems to me, is constantly experimenting with the relation of the immaterial music to the very material dancers: how close to the spine of the music they'll dance, to what extent they are the music's embodiment or actors in its drama or none of the above, and what it means for them to slip from one role to another.
These are urgent matters--how we are permeated by the impermeable, our consciousness formed by the invisible, etc--and it takes great attention to music, and great music, to make us feel that urgency.
Paul responded with these thoughts about the transaction in a Morris show between the audience and the stage action:]
Rhythm, I think, is what allows a casual viewer to tune in and then once the actual frequency is established -- as in radio frequency -- the choreographer can modulate it. I think that's how Mark Morris gets us to tune into his weird projects -- he just GOES RIGHT THERE, and the next thing you know, you're in there, and the rhythm makes an unlikely prospect -- such as a staged oratorio -- into something that makes the people who were there feel like "we lucky few; we're the only ones who will ever know how fantastic that was....."
[Go to danceviewtimes for Paul's complete review of "King Arthur."]
Later this week, I'll post the promised piece on variations on the classics. My prompt is James Kudelka's "Cinderella," which American Ballet Theatre premiered this summer at Lincoln Center, and such questions as: Can an individual make a fairy tale or can only a folk? What would count as a contemporary fairy tale?
Dance videographer Amy Reusch sent me these intriguing questions:
Regarding making fairy tales: Are the Oz stories fairytales? How about the Chronicles of Narnia or Lord of the Rings? Made up fairytales, such as Cinderella, seem to depend much more on having interestingly developed characters than on elaborately embroidered mythologies. If the main character doesn't grab you, there's little patience for the mythology. Is it difficult for modern ballet choreography to develop interesting characters?
The distinction Amy makes between well-developed characters and embroidered mythologies got me excited.
Psychoanalysts such as Bruno Bettelheim argue that fairy tales deliver their audience, children, to primal emotions not only to prepare them for the terrors of life but also to inoculate them against those terrors. When we bowdlerize the fairy tales, we destroy their purpose. But Amy is offering the possibility that the ballet can't go that deep--or only via character, not the story itself.
Characters in written fairy tales are often very schematic. The plots are rigged to excite deep emotional responses, but are schematic as well. In theater perhaps, predictable plot is okay as long as the characters complicate it. .... I could go on and on. Anyway, there's a good deal more to think about, and I hope we'll get to.
I may also consider such remade classics (not all from fairy tales) as Matthew Bourne's "Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake," Mats Ek's "Sleeping Beauty," Mark Morris's "Hard Nut," all to Tchaikovsky scores with well-known original choreography by Petipa-Ivanov of the Imperial Russian ballet.
Another note: I should say--as I haven't yet--that, this being a blog, it's likely to be badly written. I hope I write well enough to convey some of the meat of a topic, but it will depend for nuance on YOU.
When, in the post below ("That Freaky Stuff"), I said young conceptuo-dancemakers were "barfing all over the stage" (how disgusting of me!), I didn't mean literally.
I should have. Last night I saw the final program of Dance Theater Workshop's Spring Dance Dialogue, in which young European, Russian, and American choreographers workshop their pieces for a week, then present them.
Levi Gonzalez's deceptively antiseptically entitled "Public Presentation of a Fragmentary Arrangement with Unstable Elements (work in progress)" began with four people staring at us. An audience plant tossed random stuff on the stage--a plastic bin, some shopping bags, a magazine, etc.--which the dancers flung around. They also gyrated their hips (a favorite downtown move lately). About 10 minutes in, performer Kayvon Pourazar began heaving. He stayed doubled over making retching noises for at least two minutes.
A parody of my description of the new new thing or just a nifty coincidence?
Recently I was engrossed in an arty European movie (for an article on the European Dream Festival, presently drifting across Manhattan) when I realized it didn't have a soundtrack. Ambient sounds were filling in: the buggy air of a Dutch summer resort, voices traveling in the blue light of an endless Swedish night, the tamped-down breathing of a pimply Dutch boy anxiously in love. In life, these noises are mainly just noises. In a movie, they become part of the story. The bugs might as well have been Eminem.
On stage, the same thing happens with time--at least when there's no talking. The fact of the stage heightens our awareness of the movement's rhythm, even if it's not strictly rhythmic (in Paul's sense: see post "tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow").
I'm inclined to have a broad definition of rhythm, as well as every other theatrical element--and to agree with Annie-B Parson that no element is more important than any other. But recent dance experiments have been testing my patience.
Choreographers have lately let the profound pressure that the stage exerts on the action--that it can turn arrhythmia into rhythm, for example-- do too much of the heavy lifting.
At such downtown New York theaters as The Kitchen and Dance Theater Workshop, European and American artists under age 40 have been creating work that is adamantly antiform. Often the only identifiable structures are the stage itself and the time that transpires before we get to go home. The perpetrators of this stuff (I'd name names, but these people have little enough power. If you've seen the work, you know who I'm talking about) barf all over the stage, then invite us to wade in. Obnoxious--and not rigorously so.
Looking back over a long and fruitful career, composer Steve
Reich recently noted,
Composition students from the late 1950s through to the 1980s or later found they were presented with basically one way to compose-- in the tradition of Boulez, Stockhausen, Berio et al, or John Cage. Many articles of the day noted that while the Europeans used total or near-total organization and Cage used chance, the results were remarkably similar: no pulse, no harmonic centre, no melodies one could hum.
On the cutting edge of modern dance, the scales have tipped towards Cage (but with too little of his whimsy, his wisdom, his high regard for his audience and his genius in recognizing the beauty in the everyday.) Very few modern dance choreographers are moving in the other direction--forcing themselves to try MORE structure, too much structure, absurdly binding requirements, as Reich has done.
The only experimental dance practitioners upping the structural antes seem to be rhythm tappers. From the vantage point of tap, you can see the road modern dance has not taken--not for the most part, anyway.
The new, new thing in modern dance fundamentally misunderstands structure, I think. Structure is not a secret that makes no appearance in the work. It largely is the work. There is no music without structure and no dance neither. It's not just an artist's intent (or calculated and careful non-intent, as in Cunningham), but the structure of that intent (or non-intent) that she needs to bring forward.
If, watching a dance, I can't find any structures beyond the fact that something is happening on stage and then something else is happening--one damn thing after another--whichever precious structures the artist has invented are for all intents and purposes worthless. When, on the other hand, I can sense the forms--in work by Sarah Michelson and Levi Gonzalez, for example, who may share themes and attitudes with the prevalent rock n' roll-spirited happenings but who insist on delicious detail and formal rigor--then the work is not only higher in quality, it's different in kind.
The practitioners of the new stuff probably imagine they're making the performance-equivalent of conceptual art--that the dance is as much about dance as it is a dance. Fine, except where's the dance? It's like they're making a sandwich with mostly only bread. Conceptual art worth its weight in--what? ideas?--needs to be art as much as be about it. The two imbricate and enrich each other.
According to Reich, contemporary artists are faced with the peculiar problem of too much freedom:
When I occasionally speak with student composers, I find that some are writing like late romantics, and their teachers think it's just splendid; others are heavily influenced by rock'n'roll, and their teachers think it's just splendid; some are still sticking to their serial guns; still others are writing like myself. Some turn to me and say: "You helped liberate us!" Well, I'm not sure who was in a better position, them or me. In Poetics of Music, Stravinsky wrote: "In art as in everything else, one can build only upon a resisting foundation: whatever constantly gives way to pressure, constantly renders movement impossible. My freedom thus consists in my moving about within the narrow frame that I have assigned myself for each one of my undertakings. . . Whatever diminishes constraint diminishes strength." I wish those young composers, now free to do whatever they like within the entire world history of classical and popular music, good luck.
I would extend that wish to young choreographers.
Brian, what you say about the writer's process echoing the process of the artist under review really resonates with me.
I find writing reviews a glorious, yes agonizing process. It feels most rewarding when I can respond creatively to work that has moved me. Then a sort of call and response can begin; the artist calls through performance and we respond on behalf of ourselves as critics and of the larger community for whom we write. I was able to write this way most recently in a review for Dance Magazine, here.
My own approach to criticism includes creating a written record of an ephemeral event (description); placing the work in a context for the reader (the frame); and providing critical interpretation based on my own knowledge and experience. I'm always interested in the balance between critics' responsibilities to the artist, the audience, and the readers or cultural record.
[editor's note: Lea Marshall is cofounder and executive director of Ground Zero Dance Company and Assistant Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University's department of dance and choreography. She has written for Dance Magazine, Ballet-Dance Magazine and Dance International, among other publications.]
I agree about the pitfalls of retreating to the first person--the position of "This is just my opinion"--in reviews. There's a place for it, such as when you want to make a comment that you know is idiosyncratic, a pet peeve. But if it's done too much, it negates the whole enterprise.
The declarative sentence already says, implicitly, This is How I See It--and expresses a point of view that everyone knows is necessarily limited. Calling attention to the limitations quickly becomes mousy ("If you don't like what I'm saying, I don't really mean it") or passive-aggressive ("This is just MY opinion, and if you don't share it, you're an idiot."). Both are annoying. Such qualification is a temptation to be resisted, or a tonal color to be used in extreme moderation. A little goes a long way.
The critic SHOULD second-guess himself--question his assumptions, double-check the rightness and fairness of his assertions--but BEFORE he turns the piece in. You doubt and rethink, but then you have to make up your mind and assert something--which is why, at least for me (to retreat to the first person), writing is usually agonizing.
Was it Coleridge who wrote about judging the work in the spirit in which it was made? That seems the right first step, but then you have your response, and the thinking-through of that response (which can and often should step out of the dance's frame). Then you try to convey something about the work, that response, and those thoughts in a severely limited number of words--making artistic choices about order, emphasis, style, and tone that are not so different from the kinds of difficult choices made by the artist under review.
[ed. note: Brian Seibert writes regularly for The New Yorker's "Goings on About Town" section and The New York Sun, and has contributed to The Threepenny Review, the Times and the Voice. He's working on a history of tap for Farrar, Straus and Giroux.]
Another post from me probably isn't coming until Wednesday. But I'd love to hear from you-all about ANYTHING any of us have discussed so far.
I can think, for example, of many objections and qualifications to my post "The Frame Game" (scroll down). Here's one. I say:
Don't fault Mark Morris for not being Neil Greenberg, much less the Rockettes for not being Eiko and Koma, masters of the stark and slow. Submit to the show's frame of reference. When you can't, because the problem as you see it IS the frame, say so.
I forgot that it's always possible that the critic objects not to the frame but to the fact that she can't find one. Or maybe she doesn't object but simply goes ahead and supplies her own--an unconscious form of objection. We're very resourceful creatures, we humans. We'll fill in the gaps without even realizing we are.
Okay, talk to you in a few days.
Thank you. I love the musical perspective. Dance utilizes her elements in similar ways. We choreographers can draw attention to things without creating connections. We can be still to call attention to motion, but it must be framed in order to read. Molissa Fenley did a piece 25 years ago that never stopped moving, and there was no line to etch the movement, and all I could think of was stillness. Quite a bit like Jackson Pollock, who draws my mind toward motion/stillness. Rhythm draws attention to pattern and non-pattern (for me today). And no element in dance intrinsically is more valuable or less than any other. It's up to the choreographer/dancer to catch the interest and consideration of the audience. I need some coffee...
[ed note: Annie-B Parson is codirector/co-choreographer of Big Dance Theater, based in New York.]
I thought the main part of Annie B's argument was about non-rhythm, the arrhythmic. The point wasn't to consider what rhythm is, but the thing that isn't it, and that thing's merit. It's a similar question to the harmony versus dissonance debate in music, although pretty much everyone now agrees on their intertwining. I think it's much better to think of these conceptual poles as tendencies rather than ideals to be upheld.
When rhythm is considered tonally, the aberrations from harmony and the rhythmic tendency imbricate one another. For example, John Cage's "String Quartet in Four Parts" exhibits an inharmonic tendency that orients the listener to find rhythms. James Pritchett's liner notes to the Mode recording of the Arditti Quartet's performance describes it well:
In the quartet, each chord is expressed all by itself, and the power of harmony is neutralized by Cage's having refused to connect them, by having his remained silent in the spaces between chords. Although not including extensive silences (those would appear in his music soon thereafter), the quartet provided Cage with the compositional silence he sought: a freedom from the need to place sounds into compelling relationships.
The non-relationships make for compelling listening--a pensive, melancholic plodding like falling into the pipes in a Mario Brothers video game.
Annie-B--from your perspective, does dance have analogous operations? or is movement absolutely singular in some respect we haven't discussed yet?
[editor's note: Marc Etlin is a dramaturg and playwright in untraditional theatre. He lives in New York.]
I guess you're the hostess on this site, and it's great that you're concerned about our equilibrium, but I don't think you need to worry. I'm having a good time, and so far as I could tell Annie B expressed herself to her own satisfaction.
I do want to expand on the idea of kinesthetic identification, since as a critic that's where I take off from. Many in the audience may "look" at the dance, but for me, the sense of sight is just the way into feeling the movement itself, and when I'm fascinated by a dance, it's usually the process of finding my way back into the movement that makes me want to write.
So I'll take the most recent example of a dance that got under my skin and made me want to figure it out. I was fascinated by the way the singers moved in the Chinese opera "The Peony Pavilion" we just saw here (and here I'm going to quote what I wrote for Danceviewtimes this week)--
with twinkling small steps that roll through the platform-shoe, heel-to-toe. These steps function exactly like bourrées -- the steps are very short, extremely even, the head does not change levels, and the character seems to glide weightlessly, like a flower-petal on water. The fairies also move like this and are expressly understood to be the personifications of flowers. When a corps of a dozen or so surround the heroine in her great erotic dream-scene, the effect is of a floating ecstasy: their silk capes drift in a magnificent procession that overwhelms the stage, like a wave of magic.
Anyone who's familiar at all with Chinese dancing will remember the way dancers will pull long panels of silk fluttering through the air; there seems to be a fascination with THE FLOW, the manifold consequences that the silk reveals in these actions which is philosophical, almost religious, as if it showed us the secrets of time rippling in the wake of an impulse: the consequences must be dwelt upon, studied, savored. As with Chinese fascination with the secrets that can be revealed in calligraphy (which the new Cloudgate show coming next month is based on), the study of the unexpected vagaries of streamers set in motion seems to be investigative, as if the deepest secrets of the spirit world could be discerned by examination of the currents revealed by light glancing off streaming silk. [It puts me in mind of Andy Galsworthy's studies of rivers and tides, the ebb and flow at the edge of physics and metaphysics.]
I'm aware that this is a large generalization to make about dance from a culture that is not the one I was born into. There are certainly ribbon-dances in the culture I DO come from -- but none of them pay as much attention to the animation in the ribbon itself, as the Chinese dances all do. Western folk dance actually likes to control the ribbon, and uses patterns of plaiting (as in maypole dancing), or confining (as in la Bamba's cummerbund dance), or in the Scots and Irish reels using patterns of shuttling, weaving, threading a needle, winding around a bobbin and going off at a 90-degree angle (lace-making). The Chinese dance examines the current itself as it's revealed by the silk, and it seems to be a physicalization of the idea that you can't step twice into the same river, you cannot conquer time.
In China they may know the name of the originator of this streamer-dance - I don't know. I do know that it fascinates me because I was already fascinated by things LIKE it in western dance, and it illuminates something I've always wanted to know, which is why I am so moved by the slow movement of "Concerto Barocco" (which is a ballet that leaves many people cold but which hurries away my soul; it is one of my desert-island dances). In the West, the authorship of thread-the needle, bobbin-turns, shuttling, plaiting is "lost in the mists of antiquity" with the name of the Beowulf-poet. But if you look at the slow movement of "Concerto Barocco," you will find that Balanchine built the entire movement out of these figures, especially thread-the needle, and the section called the snail (which is the holy of holies in that ballet) is nothing but pulling a sleeve through itself to turn it inside out. But look: it makes time run backwards.
PS I owe the idea that rhythmic movement may have given early man an adaptive advantage to the great historian William MacNeill, who has developed it at length in a fascinating book, "Moving Together in Time," published by Harvard a few years ago. MacNeill is famous for the ideas that are now being popularized in "Guns, Germs, and Steel," which he laid out in the 70s in his magisterial volume "Plagues and Peoples." I'd recommend "Moving Together in Time" to anyone interested in dancing (or in military history or crowd-control). It is the greatest example I know of nowadays of a scholar at the top of his powers and near the end of his life reaching out beyond what he knows, trying to grasp a key that will help us understand the place of human beings in the balance of nature.
MacNeill's really more interested in the creation of armies than of dance companies. His insight came to him as the result of marching about in the Texas desert; he was a draftee, the prospect was World War II, but he found that after a dusty hot afternoon of marching he somehow had developed a warm generalized feeling of great good will towards his fellow soldiers. He pursued this insight after the war in studies of the dazzling victories of William of Orange, who used techniques developed first by Alexander the Great to train men in close-order synchronized movement to build unbreakable esprit de corps. These esprit-building crack-timing do-or-die exercises were widely copied throughout Renaissance Europe, whose armies then went out and conquered the world.
"Plagues and Peoples" corrected the idea that mere military superiority could have accounted for the conquest of Mexico and Peru; unlike his followers, MacNeill is not sentimental and does not blame the conquistadores for bringing smallpox and measles to the new world, any more than he blames the tsetse fly or the AIDS virus (which when he wrote had still not been imagined) for sapping the energy of human beings and making it harder to get ahead. He sees the ancient migration of human beings out of central Africa into drier lands in the Middle East, where the parasites that our ancestors had evolved in synch with were no longer present, as allowing for a greater accumulation of collective energy, and the ability to collect wealth that resulted probably then made the new civilizations likely prey for marauding bands of hungrier people, who may have brought new diseases from the steppes of Asia (home of the rodents who harbor the bubonic plague) unwittingly to assist them in conquering the likes of Babylon.
The books resist summary; I hope I've not misrepresented him too badly and even more that you'll read him for yourself.
[editor's note: my mother, who has never danced a step in her life, likes this book a whole lot too.
Paul Parish is a dance critic for danceviewtimes.com and San Francisco magazine, among many other publications. He lives and dances in Berkeley.]
In the first sentence of the first entry of Foot in Mouth, I made what I assumed would be an incontrovertible and innocuous assertion: dance audiences are small.
Paul Parish pointed out, in the very next entry, that millions watch ABC's "Dancing with the Stars" each week.
A couple of posts later, he and Annie-B Parson, codirector of the glorious Big Dance Theater, got into a discussion about the place of rhythm in dance--what counts as "rhythm," how essential it is, how interesting a dance with something other than rhythm at its core could be. (I hope I'm not misrepresenting anyone here; you can scroll down to read the posts yourselves.)
So, in a matter of a few paragraphs, we managed to bang right into the problem of writing about dance, which is: what the hell are we talking about?
In music writing, the pop music critic isn't also responsible for Beethoven. The art reviewers at the New York Times, to use a prominent example, do not review student shows. They do not review Thomas Kinkade, painter of treacly fantasies for members of the nouveau riche who still wish they were one of the seven dwarves.
But the dance reviewers weigh in on the School of American Ballet's annual graduation-class shows; they catch the Rockettes, Twyla Tharp's latest dancical, folk dance, butoh, tap, hula, ritual performance art, and ballet competitions.
Dance turns out to mean: anything that moves. No wonder the muddle.
So, what to do? Well, what not to do is "blame [the choreographer] for not achieving what he did not attempt." (That's John Updike on book reviewing, but it translates.)
Don't fault Mark Morris for not being Neil Greenberg, much less the Rockettes for not being Eiko and Koma, masters of the stark and slow. Submit to the show's frame of reference. When you can't because the problem as you see it IS the frame, say so.
Paul does, when he says about a particular kind of modern dance,
Unless you LIKE identifying with anxiety and the stress adjacent to over-multi-tasking (and who needs more of that?), what is there to appeal to the imagination?
He gives an account of what kind of art this is--it emulates the most aggravating aspects of the everyday--and thinks all it's good for is inducing headaches.
When Annie-B says,
Rhythm, or any other element or combination of elements, is only as good as its choreographer, inside or outside the comfort zone,
she's saying in effect, "I don't think the goals of these choreographers is the problem. I think the problem is how they're achieving it. Any goal is fine, as long as the artist knows what she's doing."
Critics don't have to agree that every goal is fine--that's usually what we're wondering when we're irked: "Is it or isn't it?"--but we do need to understand the difference between the artist's project and how she's executing it. We need to know what we're criticizing.
If we don't, the choreographers most likely to get maligned are those trying, at least, to push the art forward, push against the limits of the form, whether in hula, tap, modern dance (oh, what to call that one?), ballet, odissi, or Korean shamanic ritual dance. In some sense, the edges of "cutting edge art" don't exist yet; the parameters are in the process of being made, which makes them hard to talk about. But the health of dance as an art form depends on it.
That said, I think it's crucial that a reviewer respond as the person she is, not the person she thinks she ought to be. (Though if you're a total bastard, this doesn't apply.) A review shouldn't be an attempt to be good. Yuck! Would you want to read a novel like that? (That's my problem with Deborah Jowitt's reviews in the Voice: her effort to be generous distracts me from whatever else she might be saying.)
On the other hand, if the reviewer is constantly qualifying what she says with "But that's just my taste," "That's just my opinion," (as John Rockwell, the New York Times head critic, does), she pulls the rug out from under the whole enterprise.
The point of criticism is to establish--not once and for all, but for a given review--criteria by which to think about the dance. To rely on "taste" is to renege on your responsibility. It doesn't matter what your taste is--it doesn't matter if, according to other people, you have none. As a reviewer your job is to turn taste and opinion into argument.
For the duration of the review, a writer is actually developing a theory about dance--or at least this dance form-- not just this single dance. That's what Paul did when he said if all that's going on is cognitive dissonance, it's not getting my vote.
To end, here are a couple of passages from reviews that widened out beyond the specific subject to make a larger theory about the art form:
Love is, among other things, the experience of wholly identifying with another person's sincerity. It is rare in art, where impersonal operations of style normally regulate violent emotions. In the case of the brutal "Woman with Her Throat Cut," a detached response is impossible. [PETER SCHJELDAHL on Giacometti. "The Thin Man," October 29, 2001, The New Yorker. No known link]
Here's our very own Jennifer Dunning, writing in the Times about Saar Harari and Lee Sher's "Moopim," now playing at P.S. 122 in New York:
At the very least "Moopim" raises that age-old theatrical question of whether untheatrical emotions like tedium are best expressed by replicating them on the stage.
I'd never thought of that before--that certain emotions are more theatricalizable than others--and I'm not sure I agree, but it got me thinking. For that, I'm grateful.
... I promised an essay today. It will be coming either later today or tomorrow morning. Also, it won't be on the promised topic. I know I'm beginning to sound like the Monty Python restaurant that--what was it?--has nothing on offer to eat, but about the topic, at least, I have this excuse:
Douglas McClennan, the lovely and incredibly hardworking founder and main force behind Arts Journal, advised me when we were planning this blog to stay flexible. Don't stick with the scheduled topic simply because you planned on it, he said. Given that this is a public forum, if the conversation takes a particular turn go with it.
So the bit on new takes on old story ballets--when the variation works, when not, what's the criterion for its success or failure--will hold till next week (or the week after that, if something else comes up) because with my very first sentence, I landed smack at the troublesome center of writing about "dance," and thought I ought to try to extricate myself--and us?--before proceeding.
In the meantime, read this brilliant and hilarious post on rhythm, from friend and colleague Paul Parish, of Berkeley. He is responding to choreographer-director Annie-B Parson' post below.
...Well, what I meant was that rhythm is what separates us from OTHER animals. We are not the only animal that dances -- though our nearest relations (the chimpanzees) don't seem to, and dancing seems to be maybe THE thing that allows us to live in larger groups than other apes can sustain before they start killing each other off.
Other animals are usually wonderfully co-ordinated as individuals (though I know an old Labrador who walks with a sad arthritic gait), and they can certainly move in groups in fluid and fascinating ways, but even birds don't move in really rhythmic ways (except when there's wind-pressure to obey).
Obviously we disagree on the meaning of rhythm - I'm being rather strict. I think by your definition, gymnasts would have rhythm, but really they just obey the requirements of their separate tricks and create the best flow of movement they can from one movement to the next -- as a horse would do in dressage or in a stampede.
Some football players have rhythm, but they really only become rhythmic when they break into the cakewalk in order to cross the goal-line.
We're not talking about counts, a tango and a fox-trot have very similar counts but the push-pull of the rhythm is really different. Indeed, the habanera and the tango have identical counts but the push-pull is different.
As for unison, that's a theoretical term, it appeals to the cortex. It's certainly an interesting question, how does a dance company find a unison? My friends at Axis dis/Abled Dance Company have found a fascinating solution to it. But what I'm talking about is pre-verbal (human beings I'd bet were dancing before we were talking; it's deeper in our animal natures). I'm talking about a beat or a groove, and that's I think what it takes to get the casual observer to identify with dancers for the long haul.
Rhythm, I think, is what allows him to tune in and then once the actual frequency is established -- as in radio frequency -- the choreographer can modulate it. I think that's how Mark Morris gets us to tune into his weird projects -- he just GOES RIGHT THERE, and the next thing you know, you're in there, and the rhythm makes an unlikely prospect -- such as a staged oratorio -- turn into something that makes the people who were there feel like "we lucky few; we're the only ones who will ever know how fantastic that was....."
Many things will engage the interest briefly; falling is very exciting, turning is too, esp if it looks like the dancer MAY FALL. But the only way to get someone deeply interested is through the rhythm.
I certainly do agree it's true, how good the rhythm is IS a measure of how good the choreographer is.
addendum: Did you know "strangers in the night" is a tango, and "stand by me" a cha cha? Indeed, jingle bells is a polka.... nobody ever thinks that's important, but I saw my grandmother dance with santa claus when she was 80 while we all sang Jingle Bells and she did a KICK on Hey (in a one-horse open sleigh, HEY, jingle bells) and it opened MY eyes...... Oh, she was a great lady. My God!
Well I actually wasn't thinking about the comfort zone. I was asking why rhythm would necessarily be a more interesting element than any other element that dance is composed of. Rhythm, or any other element or combination of elements, is only as good as its choreographer, inside or outside the comfort zone.
I would disagree with you also, Paul, when you say rhythm sets us apart from animals. It seems to me that rhythm connects us to animals, rather than sets us apart. Observe animals moving together in a group.
And for me, unison and rhthym are related but not the same thing.
[from this first bit from previous post, Apollinaire asks:] Paul, did you see Cunningham's 2002 "Loose Time," with that incredibly impossible solo by Holley Farmer at its apex? It seems to me that it was made EXACTLY according to the principle of legato for one leg, allegro for the other, and it was so exciting that the audience CHEERED: a Cunningham audience cheering smack in the middle of a dance. never witnessed that before.
I would love to see a whole dance spelled out according to principles like that, and whatever associations/analogies they raise for the whole ensemble.
Paul responds: it was ME that cheered......
at least, in Berkeley, I was the only one. it was funky -- literally, the weight and attack that belongs to funk, that's what I felt about it. I've only seen it once.
Apollinaire adds: In New York, at the State Theater, there was a small contingent of cheerers. They were seated in the first balcony, in the usual balletomane corner, and my first thought was that the virtuosity of Holly Farmer's solo was so extreme that the the shades of the usual occupants of those seats had urged the present audience on. A nice palimpsest.
no time to post MUCH right now, but all I meant is that from my observation, the only choreography that's POPULAR is based in rhythm.... I think that rhythm is a primitive interest, one of the basic things that sets human beings apart from other animals is the love of moving together in time -- rhythm interests everybody, and very deeply, and is perhaps the most important shared thing between those onstage and those in the audience.
Apollinaire adds: aha! here we get into an enormous question, which I think Annie-B is alluding to, which is: to what extent art should stay in our comfort zone. (And of course your mentioning the criterion of popularity makes clear you're talking about that, too.) I think the issue, always, is if a dance stands too far outside, then we can't reach it at all. But one person's "too far" is another person's "just right." (oh, how trite of me.)
Paul, did you see Cunningham's 2002 "Loose Time," with that incredibly impossible solo by Holley Farmer at its apex? It seems to me that it was made EXACTLY according to the principle of legato for one leg, allegro for the other, and it was so exciting that the audience CHEERED: a cunningham audience cheering smack in the middle of a dance. never witnessed that before.
I would love to see a whole dance spelled out according to principles like that, and whatever associations/analogies they raise for the whole ensemble.
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