Happy New Year and decade: what I hope for, this month and beyond (with some additions and revisions, 1/3 pm)

(I know, you probably don’t care–nor should you–but I revised, as of Sunday Jan 4 3ish pm the paragraphs on the downtown scene and on Performa–the first b/c I wanted to try to get right at least what I think I’m seeing, the second because there were some factual inaccuracies. I put ** before those paragraphs.]  

Finally, we have escaped the Bush-ridden naughties. To ring in the new year and a more hopeful decade, I offer some dance recommendations this month (yeah, I know, a modest present for a whole decade before us!) and then stumble backward into the last decade.

To begin with the now, for intimate dance theater equal parts proud and desolate, Noche Flamenca can’t be beat. It’s gotten to the point where I actually fear the next New York season of this troupe, because the last was such a thrill. I think, How can it rise to that level again? And then it does.

Here’s the first paragraph of my Financial Times review:

Flamenco is a soul-baring art, which means it is always at risk of burning itself out. Madrid’s nine-person Noche Flamenca defeats those odds by anchoring the drama in the dancing and the dancing in the individual, and using the same ebb and flow of feeling that shapes the dancers’ solos to pace the evening.
    After the singers, guitarists and dancers huddle for a rousing chant and handclap, the first of the season’s solos arrives: Antonio Jimenez’s persuasive performance of virile meltdown. While his gaze ploughs ahead like high beams into the night….

Click here for the whole thing.

Noche Flamenca - Photo by James Morgan.JPG

Soledad Barrio of Noche Flamenca, with magnificent singer Manuel Gago behind her. Photo by James Morgan.

Because APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) descends on the city for a week starting this coming Thursday, January is a great time to catch “downtown” work you missed the first time around.

It used to be that for the presenters’ sake, APAP showings amounted to one excerpt after another. But a few years ago, New York producers (starting with PS 122, I think) realized they should pick a few works and stand by them, offering them up whole. Now other New York institutions, such as Dance Theater Workshop, and independent agents, such as Ben Pryor, who’s curating an ambitious festival, American Realness (at the New Museum and Abrons Arts Center), are following suit.

Some work I’m looking forward to seeing for the first time or have seen and recommend:

At DTW: Tere O’Connor’s Wrought Iron Fog (reviewed here) and Pam Tamowitz’s Be in the Gray with Me. (The stupendous Faye Driscoll will be offering a preview of an April work, but I’d rather wait to see it in full.)

As part of PS 122’s Coil Festival, a reprise of Maria Hassabi’s Crossing the Line festival SoloShow (or was this the one for Performa?). Though not dance, I’d also wager Richard Maxwell’s show and Lisa L’Amour and Katie Pearl’s theatre piece worth checking out.

As for American Realness (I like that name: it makes you wonder about the affect of realness in dance), where most of the offerings are on the performance art end of dance (meaning sometimes dance is the least of it), I want to see Ann Liv Young and think once again about what she’s good for; I’ve heard a lot about Jack Ferver and so it’s about time I check him out; and I’m intrigued by Trajal Harrell’s smackdown between the Judson legacy and the voguing scene (what an intriguingly improbable combo!). I had mixed feelings about Miguel Gutierrez’s Last Meadow (at DTW this fall), but the piece is certainly not dull and is worth watching for Michele Boule alone. Her James Dean impersonation is uncanny. The other artists on the Realness roster are all worthy, but they’re only doing 30 minute excerpts. 

And for ballet: this very week a spring respite at New York City Ballet with Balanchine’s shimmery, butterfly-quick Midsummer Night’s Dream, to the Mendelssohn. It will be interesting to see what the fairyland romance does to us in the dead of winter.

Yesterday was the day to sum up the decade, and I didn’t and won’t (she says), except to say that I think ballet is experiencing a renaissance–beginning with Ratmansky and Wheeldon but not ending there. Ballet has finally derailed itself from the sodden track of numbing abstraction that dominated new choreography for almost two decades. It has begun to take full advantage of its postmodern liberties to explore lexicons of movement outside the classical framework (not always very thoughtfully, but still good to have) and, more delightfully, theatrical structures.

So you get the choreographers trying out the contingencies of Cunningham and thus lightening the onstage drama, or playing with Forsythe’s pokes at the fourth wall, less impudently and dogmatically than he.

Ballet critics have gotten so used to disappointment or so entrenched in their own camps (Balanchineans, Euro-trash enthusiasts, etc.) that they haven’t sufficiently noticed how much more often something exciting comes our way balletwise than did from 1995 to 2002 (I’ll say, conservatively). 

About “downtown” dance–and you know what I mean–I’m not sure what to say. I’m generally eager to give artists the benefit of the doubt, so the fact that I’m getting increasingly annoyed at and even suspicious of the artists’ prerogative to do whatever they want means either there’s something really cool going on that is beyond the scope of my understanding OR the work is disguising its laziness of construction and thought under a series of feints and dodges that make it not simply a dead end for dance but also an act of bad faith. While I’d like to believe the first, I’m inclined to believe the second. I have a pretty good feel for the difference between innocent ineptitude and self-righteous ineptitude built on a whole apparatus of justifications that blocks intelligent self-assessment. As a critic rather than a scholar–and of course the categories can overlap–I’m interested in the present, so this hunch causes me despair.

**My solution to not becoming any more cranky is to focus on the blooming areas of downtown dance: that which abuts theater (such as Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson’s Big Dance Theater or Faye Driscoll’s work) and that which is fiendishly structural. There are many people working in the second (Wally Cardona, Tere O’Connor, Neil Greenberg, Roseanne Spradlin, John Jasperse, Ronald K. Brown, Rennie Harris, Jonah Bokaer, Juliette Mapp, and more), though they are mainly an older generation, at least in their forties. This group often overlaps or switches places with another–Tere O’Connor, Neil Greenberg, Donna Uchizono Susan Rethorst, Vicky Shick, Pam Tanowitz, Sarah Michelson, Roseanne Spradlin –whose structures fall in and out of visibility, as if the choreographers were working according to an almost mystical airborne algorithm (and maybe they are).  

The New York Times chief critic Alastair Macaulay has an interesting sum-up of the decade in the Sunday paper in which he singles out for encouraging developments Indian classical dance, African indigenous/folk dance, tango, flamenco, and tap. These idioms have in common their close alliance with music, which almost guarantees structurally solid work. So they have that with the downtown choreographers who let me hope. 

Macaulay reserves judgment on the downtown scene except to say that it’s too big for one person to take in the whole of and yet he suspects it’s not very interesting. Instead of suspecting, why not call in the troops, who collectively, at least, might have some more definitive answers? Why not have a roundtable where Times regular contributors Gia Kourlas, Claudia La Rocco, and Roslyn Sulcas hash it out? They have between them very different aesthetics, and so it might bring out where postmodern dance has been and where it might go. Criticism shouldn’t just be a matter of This is good; therefore, we will pay attention to it but also This is what the art form is up to. It matters what the cutting edge is doing, even when it is mainly stabbing itself in the back.

Finally (wow, I meant this to be short), another valuable roundup was David Velasco’s in ArtForum, where he has managed to carve out a place for dance. (Yay!)

Velasco has the unenviable task of linking dance to contemporary art “practice,” as they like to call it, without eliding the differences. He does an excellent job. For once, dance isn’t simply
the pale cousin of splendid contemporary art but might actually teach art a thing or two (to put it more pugnaciously than Velasco would).

**The inferiority complex that the art world has burdened experimental choreographers with is a terrible thing. If you think I overspeak, consider Performa, biennial of performance art. Its curators have had so little faith in contemporary performance art’s dance aspect that they have felt the need to retreat to the obvious and historic–the Judson era–to beef up their dancey-art offerings, and to look to the French–who come to Judson by way of their American contemporaries, whom the biennial has until this year ignored–to suggest its relevance for now. (Allowed: Performa ’09 was a good deal less oblivious and fuddy-duddy in its selections than previous years.) The curators didn’t feel the need to trawl history for their art-based performance artists, now, did they? Oh, yeah, there was the Joan Jonas premiere. Still, it’s a relief to discover a bonafide art person actively refusing the loser mantle usually plopped on choreographers.

Here’s a paragraph from the Velasco piece:

Intriguingly, many visual artists engaged in performance this past year, and they frequently chose the bromidic model of the artist lecture: Paul Sietsema (for SculptureCenter at the New School in New York), the Jackson Pollock Bar (for the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale), Cory Arcangel (at the New Museum in New York), Mark Leckey (for MOMA at Abrons Arts Center), and Rabih MrouĆ© (for the Bidoun Lounge at Art Dubai) among them. Most evinced an arch or impish relationship to institutional structures, using the (largely overdetermined) format to reflect on the still sacred myth of the artist as conveyor of special knowledge. [Ed. note: Wait! That’s a myth? It seems a rather small claim, “conveyor of special knowledge.” And even that is too much? An engineer, a hairdresser, a global climate scientist–they get their special knowledge but not an artist?] And they largely relied on mind over matter, disavowing the body: Heady Sietsema wasn’t even present for his “lecture,” instead telegraphing ideas via an abstruse, collagist film. One wonders whether this trend might be an occasion for fruitful dialogue among different performance traditions. What often seems missing from narratives about the current performative turn is that some of the most rigorous artists–certainly those who dedicate the bulk of their time to living, ratifying, and revising the conditions of performance–are first and foremost choreographers. [Emphasis added].


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