Step sisters (NEW! comments, and comments on the comments)

[Ed. note: while I am slow to get a new post up,  check out the comments to this one. I have some questions for you, dear reader.]

For reasons good and bad, choreographers Andrea Miller and Sidra Bell are not typical fare at New York’s longtime incubator for new performance, Dance Theater Workshop. On the one hand, their work doesn’t question performance’s frame: not much meta-conciousness going on. On the other, they like movement–revel in it, experiment with it.

There is no reason why the two hands should be opposed–why a choreographer couldn’t explore movement and performance’s parameters. Cunningham did. Sarah Michelson does in her latest tour de force, Devotion. Still, a few years ago the opposition had grown as pronounced and unquestioned as it was during the Judson years (the ’60s and early ’70s). In New York, the trend was particularly prevalent among choreographers under 40, for whom steps often served as placeholders for an idea–about repetition or tedium or the oxymoron of performing pedestrian motion–they didn’t want us distracted from. So, no intricate detail, none of that visceral thunk through body and mind that a person understands as “beauty.”

Now that it’s waning, I can admit how devastated the Inertia Movement (as I dubbed it a while back) made me. Many lazy assumptions fueled it: that the most complete way to challenge an audience is by rejecting what makes dance pleasurable and/or engrossing: steps, spatial configurations, musicality, surprise; that movement itself doesn’t generate ideas, it merely fulfills them; that high theatricality (such as Bell’s) is best avoided, but if it must appear it should be ironic.

However successful the result, DTW’s getting behind these two young women struck me as a necessary corrective–the kind of contrary probe that keeps honest an organization whose “importance,” as the esteemed Claudia La Rocco at the mighty New York Times points out, “rests in its support of artists who truly push and pull at the boundaries and hearts of their art form.”

La Rocco complains that Bell and Miller “risked nothing.” And yet I haven’t seen many dances called “putrid,” as another outraged critic dubbed Bell’s. So yay for DTW!

By the way, I don’t think Bell’s dance was garbage (though it may have been “putrid”). It was weird and impossible to make total sense of and it did give off a smell of rot, definitely. But this combination of effects is too unusual to equal trash.

Here is some of my review of Andrea Miller and Sidra Bell:

“Downtown dance” – as the experimental scene was christened long before high rents exiled choreographers to the outer boroughs – has always had a theoretical bent. But about seven years ago, the generation coming up decided to question the parameters of dance by not moving at all. Whatever motion survived the purge simply worked in the service of the choreographer’s ideas about dance and performance. The movement had little life of its own, little power to shape those ideas.





Carla Peterson, Dance Theater Workshop’s artistic director since 2006, must have sensed how askew the situation was, because she began commissioning choreographers – such as Andrea Miller, 28, and Sidra Bell, 31, on this double bill (until Saturday) – who believe movement and ideas feed each other.

Late in his life, Glenn Gould returned to the music that had jumpstarted his career, the Goldberg Variations. “It was a spooky experience,” he said of listening back. “I recognised the fingerprints but not the spirit.” With the charming and engrossing For Glenn Gould, Miller demonstrates the conversion of spirit into fingerprints – artistic intent into alienable object.


Snipped second paragraph on the Miller work, which would make sense of this photo (by Yi-Chun Wu).

Bell’s Pool also explores alienation – or drowns in it, anyway….

bellpoolsmall.jpgKendra Samson, Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz in Bell’s Pool.Photo by Yi-Chun Wu for DTW.

….The notion of numbness overwhelming spiky will is intriguing. Bell only needs to conceive the two separately enough that their embroilment stirs us.

For the full Financial Times take on the controversial ladies, click here.



As for Sarah Michelson’s Devotion: talk about visceral thunk through body and mind!

I’ve always been blown away by Michelson’s vision, how far she sees and yet how every detail and every moment– each blasting entrance and exit, brand of tennies, color of T-shirt, style of hair, choice of civilian or dancer, spindly tween or adult–counts toward that insight. But with her last work, Dover Beach, at the Kitchen a couple of years ago, I came out feeling impatient. The vision was so controlled that, though the stage set–half caged and half free–was mesmerizing, with the women in the large cage doing these long slow developes that they held and held like they were in water, the movement mainly allowed little settling and focusing. It didn’t afford a chain of associations, a little burst of pleasure, to make possible the onslaught of darkness which is life as Michelson sees it. And so it seemed less true to me, because invariably in life there are little offerings of distraction, of help. With Dover Beach I felt more completely what I had felt in other of her dances: I am not being imprinted because I am not ever given something whose valence I instantly grock, in my body.




Devotion left me a jangle of responses. The dance is very rhythmic, and the rhythms counterpoint the movement so that, say, a dancer doing a three-count pattern to 4/4 music only returns to the start of the measure after 4 rounds (this is just an example–I’m not sure anyone did this.) Plus she’s moving in a staccato circle of second position plies around herself: east, south, west; south, west, north; west, north….like that. The overlapping, incongruent patterns cause a kind of mathematical riot in your brain akin to the sublime. And there are these reinforcing or complicating details, like a single arms jutting out or a head bobbing. 

The punishing qualities of the dance achieve a vibrant relationship with these lyrical strokes. It reminded me of what New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote about beauty:

In my experience, an onset of beauty combines extremes of stimulation and relaxation…Beauty is a willing loss of mental control, surrendered to organic process that is momentarily under the direction of an exterior object….Nothing in itself, beauty may be a mental solvent that dissolves something else, melting it into radiance.

Here’s a chunk of my Financial Times review on Devotion (I apologize for the weird indenting):

They are a good match. Playwright Richard Maxwell reinvigorates threadbare genres – the Everyman monologue, the boxing Bildungsroman – with hyper-natural dialogue delivered so woodenly that you actually begin to hear “how people articulate themselves and how they don’t”, as he has put it. Manchester native Sarah Michelson choreographs every eyelash flutter in marathon dances that expose the nature of performance – the public scrutiny, the numbing repetition. Painful analogies between performance on stage and in life unite these acclaimed iconoclasts.

But the analogies in the two-hour Devotion – choreographed by Michelson, with Maxwell writing the anchoring voiceover for beginning and end – are less painful. Devotion (appearing in Minneapolis and on the west coast later this winter) is crowded with benign influences: Jesus and Mary, Adam and Eve, Cunningham, Tharp and Lucinda Childs. Its view is more dappled than dark.

Michelson still devises endurance tests for her heroic performers: for the first half hour, the voluptuously precise Rebecca Warner; for the second, the slight Welsh 14-year-old Non Griffiths surviving aerobic extremity alone and eventually with James Tyson; and finally, the comically committed Jim Fletcher keeping up with Eleanor Hullihan, as vital as a panther.



Maxwell/Jesus and Michelson/Mary, with apostle Rebecca Warner doing their bidding below. Photo by Paula Court.

“Before the Fall,”
Michelson says in voiceover, “you were happy to share your identity.
Now you need to carve out your own niche. You need your space.” The
carving and measuring are relentless, with dancers’ arms pointing like
compass arrows, their feet tracing circles across the wide space. There
is so much ground to cover.

And yet Devotion is
not merely relentless. Michelson has always had an eye for movement
detail, but the results didn’t always resonate. Intent on originality,
she often kept the moves hermetically sealed. It was their duration and
spatial configuration that counted. Now she has outed her influences,
and they….

For the effect that explicit allusions have on Michelson, click here.

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  1. Lawrence McNeil says

    I’m sorry to have to say that whatever you were watching in that third grade piece of choreography from the gallim company was to me about the level of a cool ny dance piece (I actually sat through that dance travesty a few times)….the gallim piece was a horrible amateurish mess hiding under the guise of dance…i don’t know where this amateur choreographer gets her reputation from but as a lover of dance for many years, i was disgusted by the total lack of vision in this piece of trash, no watchable dance except for a few moments when she allowed her victims to actually show that they can dance…the piece opened with some promising choreography and then just stopped…the rest of this mess could have been my neighbor’s child emptying out my closets of all the junk I’ve accumulated over the years, spreading it out in my hallway and then playing with it like a moron…if playing with odd pieces of trash…running around the stage and having female dancers look like they were giving head to the male dancers and dropping chairs on the floor is the ultimate state of what all of you believe the dance world has risen to then we have reached the end of any hope in developing new and meaningful choreography….i think the nyc dance audience has lost its collective minds supporting “non-dance” crap like this…no wonder the dance audience has dwindled to the minute state it’s in…at least the second piece from choreographer bell showed great promise in it’s interesting use of movement and dance language that brought out the best in her amazing dancers especially the interesting interplay of the two male leads…and……the music had many different levels as did the choreography…..this was my first experience seeing her company and i was bowled over….the comments i heard from people next to me were “masterpiece”, “incredible” … it felt like the audience was holding its collective breath in anticipation during the whole piece waiting to see where bell was going to take them next…the woman next to me actually exhaled at the end as if she was lifted up from her chair in wonder…obviously bell is a force to be reckoned with as opposed to the pseudo ohad gaga mess of the first piece…dance criticism is really at a low point……filled with self aggrandizement and has really reached the height of putrid rot…get a new job…you are all tired and irrelevant and only exist to stop creative work…ugh..

  2. says

    “I actually sat through that dance travesty a few times”
    Wow, this LM really hates dance and dance critics. I wonder why he sat through the Gallim dance a few times, the one he purportedly hated so much…and then read a review of it!
    I think that both Gallim and Bell question the parameters frame— Gallim by attempting to express a musical idea with physical theater. People did have strong reactions, liking either one or the other. Bell draws from club dance, and this seems to bother people who do not like to mix their high and low culture.
    Hi, Lori,
    Thanks so much for writing–and sorry for my tardy response (sometimes, when I get a lot of spam, I don’t get alerted to the non-spam. argh). Yeah, a lot of people hate critics–and there are certainly a lot of legitimate reasons for doing so, such as our tendency to address the work from a position of superiority. That’s an occupational hazard. But this fellow’s reason–you didn’t like what I liked–isn’t one of them.
    On the other hand, I often want to find out what critics think when I feel strongly–whether good or bad–about a dance. So I understand his searching us out.
    I posted the comment–I certainly don’t post every bit of fury or advert for Brittany Jones sex tape directed at me–because he’s implicitly offering his own critique as an improvement on those of us jaded professional critics.
    So, readers, what do you think? Does the critic’s taste matter? If they keep liking things you hate, does that mean they’re jaded and worn out? Should we rant more–or do we rant quite enough already, thank you very much?
    ~) apollinaire

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