foot in mouth: March 2007 Archives

I just want to back you up re Bourne's corps. He took the deep material of "Swan Lake's" adolescent hysteria -- the insecurities that frequent hormonal surges and sudden growths made erupt in all of us at that stage when our bodies were changing so fast -- and put them into his corps of swans.

The "traditional" "Swan Lake" makes poetic fiction, displaced into a picturesque mode, out of fears grounded in growing pains -- the sudden longings to transcend, to belong, to be cared for; the sweaty nights when your legs hurt; the sudden awareness that hair was growing in places it never used to; the sense of power you got when you realized people were looking at you with lust-fascination in their eyes; the fear you felt when it was the wrong person looking at you like that; the fear when you realized you'd been caught looking at someone else that way and THEY despised you; the new fascination you had looking at your own body as secondary sex-characteristics begin to bloom; and the oscillation between wanting to publish and to cover up these powers.

The moments in Act 2 when the swans' wings become arms, and the stunning moment at the end of the ballet when that process goes into reverse and the wings begin to beat again, are among the most striking depictions of this psychic material ever, and make "Swan Lake" rank in the popular awareness as great art of the very highest kind.

What Bourne managed to do was to dig into this material even more deeply. His swans at the end of his ballet are like the children at the end of "Lord of the Flies." [ed. note: "Kill the beast! Cut his throat!" the savage island waifs chant as they home in on the saintly child among them.]

Bourne's "Swan Lake" echoes the feelings of a queer kid in a society that rejects him -- the hardest thing I've ever had to live with, aside from disappointing my mother, was having all the boys refuse to have anything to do with me when I was in high school, especially since it was THEIR love I wanted.

It's to the point that when Bourne first choreographed "Swan Lake," many believed the Soviet musicologist Aleksandra Orlova's claim that Tchaikovsky was ordered to kill himself for his homosexuality and that he'd accepted the verdict. Balanchine died believing this (if Solomon Volkov, author of "Balanchine's Tchaikovsky: Interviews with George Balanchine," can be believed). It's since been disproved, but the myth is appealing for many reasons, as it heightens the stakes and the anxiety around breaking a taboo and also reinforces the sense that there's a dangerous secret encrypted in the image of the beautiful swan.

Apollinaire responds: This is exciting, Paul--not just what you're saying about Bourne, but how you take it all the way back to Petipa's 1895 "Swan Lake." The adolescent angle helps explain why Prince Siegfried finds Odile--the evil double to Odette's good swan--such a temptation: The boy with the growing pains can't tell where his body ends and his feelings begin, and as the pumped up version of the fragile Odette, bad Odile is simply more body. In the betrayal scene, where the possibility of Odile causes him to break his pledge to Odette, body overtakes his heart.

I should say, though, some people are going to think you've gone off the deep end (just so you know!).

Paul responds: Yeah, but lots of people have never seen a great "Swan Lake." I was lucky, I saw Ashton's first, and it's the only one that really builds, and like the second or third I saw, I cried and cried and cried. It left me so shaken, I couldn't get out of my chair till almost everybody was out of the theater.

Antoinette Sibley (as Odette/Odile, good swan/bad swan) and Anthony Dowell (Prince Siegfried) were really uncanny together, both of them quite cool on the surface, but they were so tuned into each other, they could have been twins and gotten to know each other in the womb. UNCANNY. Her Odile was like Cleopatra, so full of variety - -and her fouettes [the 32 whipping turns every Odile performs] were completely unpredictable. SHE didn't know when she was going to throw in a double..... I watched Dowell watch HER, he actually was as much in awe as any of us.... None of us could believe what we were seeing. She whipped him into a frenzy.

March 28, 2007 10:20 PM | | Comments (0)

Apollinaire writes: The English choreographer Matthew Bourne is in town through the end of the month with his latest production, "Edward Scissorhands." Writing a profile on him, I remembered how terrifying the corps in his "Swan Lake" was.

The corps in the 19th century "Swan Lake" is part swan, part woman: a metaphor being made before our eyes. Bourne's corps is a mob. He returns us to what a corps would be if a corps existed in the world.

The closest a canonical ballet has come to the force of Bourne's male, homicidal swans are the Wilis in the Romantic ballet "Giselle" (1841)--brides who died before they could marry and now, as avenging spirits, dance to death any hapless man who wanders into their woods. Like Bourne's swans, these forsaken maidens have turned their desires inside out--into violent hate.

It makes sense that a Romantic ballet would have the most tribal and dangerous corps, as these ballets emerged in the 1800s, when republics were rising out of the ashes of monarchies all across Europe. The "folk" were taking over (comparatively speaking), and ballet was infused with folk steps and folk-tale figures, with heroines who strived to rise above their station (finally they could imagine doing so, even if they were ruined for imagining it) and perhaps also with the delirious pleasures and menace of the crowd.

Of course, a hundred years later, Hitler resurrected that nationalist fervor for fascist purposes; Nijinsky and his sister Nijinska presciently offer the insidious side of folk custom in their modernist ballets "The Rite of Spring" (1913) and "Les Noces" (1923). But the original impulse to yoke folk and nation was democratic, liberatory and mainly innocent.

And the dances? Were the depiction of crowds scary, joyous--what?

I asked Foot contributor Paul Parish, who knows way more about ballet history (and everything else), about the crowd in early ballets. Here's his illuminating response. He begins in the 19th century, then takes flight.

The annoying dates affixed to the ballets are mine. Since we're thinking about the ballets in the context of their times, I thought it would be useful to know when they were made. And it is fascinating to find that they're clustered around certain epochs: in Europe, the Romantic era; in the Soviet Union, the era of Soviet "realism," which inevitably lasted as long as the USSR; in America, the Great Depression and the last decade or so.

Paul writes: Hmmmmmm-- not sure about ballets, but in 19th century stagings of Shakespeare, the plays with big turbulent crowd scenes were the very popular ones. Not to mention battle scenes -- "Richard III," "Julius Caesar," "Macbeth" (Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane -- that's a corps de ballet).

Twenty years ago, when I was working on "The Winter's Tale," I read a lot about old stagings of it -- it was immensely popular around 1900 -- and the pictures, such as old newspaper engravings, showed wild crowd scenes, the people reacting to the news. And of course that had to be choreographed.

The descendants are ballets like Leonid Lavrovsky's "Romeo and Juliet" (1940) for the Kirov, with its HUGE crowd scenes, Cecil B. DeMille epics, John Ford cowboy fight scenes, Keystone Kops chase hunch is that there WERE crowd scenes in ballets -- who would be able to DO the scenes better than dancers?

The words "chorus" and "mob" and "democracy" are very closely connected. The Latin word for "mob"--or the disorder that produces a mob--is "turbo," whence "turbulence," "turbid," "turbine," meaning variously, "whipped up," "whirling," "confused." And this group dynamic, with all its complexities, is one of the great things you can investigate with a corps de ballet.

It can be scary. In Charles Weidman's "Lynchtown" (1936), it's Mrs. Grundy whipping up some ugly fear. But it doesn't have to be IMMEDIATELY scary (as the Wilis are). In Forsythe's "Artifact Suite" (1984; 2006), the corps are very exciting, but in the first section, it's like rituals that never reach completion but tend in directions just as harsh and anti-humane as those in "Les Noces."

The scariest corps may be the trolls in Bournonville's "A Folk Tale" (1854) for the Royal Danish Ballet. The whole second act is about drunken trolls being scary -- hilarious, incredibly inventive, but if you care about "our girl," they're scary. She's their prisoner, has been all her life, and she realizes that if they get really drunk she may be able to escape, and she does.

Bournonville is very amusing step-by-step in bringing the trolls to life -- but at the same time they're about to force her to marry one of them and she does NOT want to.

Louis Merante pretty much copied this strategy in the second act of his "Sylvia" (1876) for the ballet of the Paris Opera, as did Ashton and Mark Morris in their "Sylvias," but without being as inventive as Bournonville.

Also, the Roman soldiers in Grigorovitch's "Spartacus" (1968) for the Bolshoi are scary; the women are particularly degenerate. Curiously, the Arabs in Petipa's "Raymonda" are not scary, except their leader Abderakhman, who's a preening macho thug. His slaves DO slaver, and you wouldn't want to have to be one of them -- but they're not scary to us. It's him that's the creep.

The corps can also be sublime--the beauty that contains terror but is indifferent to human fears. For example: the corps de ballet in Balanchine's "Serenade" (1934), which is impersonal, like waves crashing against rocks -- especially in the first movement, when the lines of dancers go stationary like ridges of rock extending out into the sea and other dancers come flying by them, cut round the corner and dash back out the way they came, like a wave going back out to sea.

Democratic elections are mob rule and not scary; so are jury decisions. Scary to think about it, but the intellectual has to take his chances in a democracy. Both Bush and Hitler got ELECTED. Socrates was put to death by popular-majority election -- maybe the nadir, but worse follies may lie in our future. On the other hand, Washington and Lincoln and Roosevelt ALSO got elected, so maybe you can't fool all of the people all of the time.

Mobs, real turbulent mobs, ARE delirious, drunken; they come from the back of the mind. Maybe truth is found through drunkenness. Blake said, "The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom." As Hamlet's friend Horatio said, "I do in part believe it."

My favorite example of this is the crowd at a football game that surges down onto the field when the game is over and swarms up the goalposts and shakes them till they come down. It might be the Maenads tearing Orpheus or Pentheus limb from limb, but in fact in the football crowd nobody's getting hurt (except the INDIVIDUAL who's trying NOT to get swept along -- that's the only person who gets trampled). The mob en masse relaxes into the process and goes with the flow.

All through the game, the goal has been THE goal of the crowd; this is vicarious experience. The kinesthetic response is HIGHLY engaged among these people -- again and again spasms of urgency aimed at that goal. The crowd has jumped to its feet already with every completed pass, every successful running play. Every touchdown has made them stand up, jump up and down, and scream, and now that "game time" has come to and end and the immortality of victory has arrived, the crowd loses all sense of boundary and pours down onto the field, into the end zone, and up the goal posts like bees that take possession of their new home -- they swarm all over the uprights, hang from the crossbeams, and enter into spasmic contortions designed to shake the whole assembly till it topples. Amazingly, nobody gets hurt. Totally Dionysian enterprise -- they all relax into it. The only people taken to hospital are those who tried to stay out of it.

For a counterexample, a dance that did NOT work: Remy Charlip and Margaret Jenkins tried to make a dance on such a theme here in SF a decade ago -- based on the "White Night" riots, when queers rioted around City Hall after the SF Supervisor Dan White was acquitted of murdering Mayor Moscone and his fellow, gay supervisor, Harvey Milk.

The Jenkins-Charlip premise was that the Kronos Quarter would sit center-stage, representing (sort of) City Hall while playing some brainy music, and the dancers would surge dangerously around them. The problem was that the dancers had to be too careful, so the whole thing got nowhere theatrically.

Lincoln Kirstein once said that he would never let his dancers do the things that Paul Taylor required of his dancers -- because "they are too dangerous." He had a point. Insurance wouldn't cover it, and the union wouldn't allow it.

Had Taylor choreographed "Last Look" (1985) yet? I don't remember, but that would be an ideal instance of a scary corps de ballet. Scary theatrical and IN FACT scary, like Elizabeth Streb -- it's really dangerous what they do in that ballet. Remember? The dancers are all lying on the floor, comatose, as the curtain rises, amidst a scary jumble of objects -- it's like they're all stoned on opium. As they gradually come to, they touch each other and go into paroxysms of hatred. They seem to be going through withdrawal, and anything that provokes consciousness provokes irritability, if not loathing, and soon they're hurling little Reagan Wood all over the place like in an S+M scene. It's a GREAT ballet, "Last Look," and Reagan Wood was a hero.

In Forsythe's latest ballet, "Three Atmospheric Studies," the corps might be scary but don't have to be taken that way. The ballet could have been called "Three Studies in Turbulence" (since that's what Forsythe means by atmospherics). The first scene is an arrested fight scene in which a crowd in the marketplace becomes a mob, with "our boy" eventually accidentally killing someone. That moment is arrested, fragmented, replayed over and over again with algorithmic variations that expand it. The scene is over when HE is arrested.

It put me in mind of Eugene Loring's "Billy the Kid" (1938), which (curiously) when I asked him about it at the after-performance Q+A, Forsythe said he'd never heard of -- hard to believe, BUT if Leni Riefensthal could forget that those gypsies who'd been in her movie were in fact slave labor, a big IF, maybe Forsythe could have forgotten he'd ever seen "Billy the Kid." Artists DO forget things -- they HAVE to -- but that's another issue.

Anyway, in "Billy the Kid," the corps create by their movements a crossroads, a marketplace, a town, a variety of ethnic groups (the slutty dance hall girls, with their knees far apart, the "nice" Mexican girls, who keep their knees together, the bowlegged cowboys, the "upright" sheriff), and make a ruckus. There's a shooting, and Billy's mother gets killed, and Billy unthinkingly stabs the guy who killed his mother and becomes an outlaw in an instant -- and Loring did all this in 60 seconds or less. Forsythe took half an hour to do no more, though with a fascinating elaboration of the circumstances.

The heart of the Forsythe is the next section, in which the boy's mother tries to get a translator to help her write a deposition that will free her son from prison. The actress playing the mother is fantastic, and the role is a great one. It's Mary the mother of Jesus all over again, trying to get the authorities to let her darling son go, and it could be any mother in Iraq or Palestine who doesn't understand how she's lost her little boy to the passions of idealistic young manhood. It's truly great -- in a strange way, the nearest thing to it in my mind is Mark Morris's "Shroud of White," in which the grieving mother takes the opposite position politically but essentially the same position emotionally, the mother-bear position. Both of them just break my heart. And in both cases, the boy has died for his people, and the mother can and should be proud.

That's the thing about the mob. It's "us" or "them." And sometimes it really is. Xenophobia is in many ways a reasonable force.

March 25, 2007 10:50 PM | | Comments (0)

[When Foot contributors see something that excites us so much, we can't stand the possibility that you might miss it, we'll post a short plug. Apollinaire has done only a few so far. This one is from Eva Yaa Asantewaa and continues on her Web site. DO click!]

You have to see Tamango. You simply have to. The way you have to see Paris. Or Stonehenge. Or the Niagara Falls.

And if you hurry, you can do it right now through March 25 at the Joyce Theater where Tamango's Urban Tap presents "Bay Mo Dilo" (Give Me Water). (For tickets: 212-242-0800.)

Premiered last fall in Miami, "Bay Mo Dilo" (Give Me Water) is a fine multimedia production dedicated to the memory of the French Guianan poet and scholar Léon Gontrand Damas. Renowned dancer-choreographer Tamango, born in French Guiana and reared in France, runs a tight ship. The show comes in at a neat 75-minutes in length and everything locks together and works: percussion, vocals, dancing, lighting and especially "Naj" Jean de Boysson's video backdrop.

De Boysson shares directing credits here with Tamango and rightly so. His exhilarating video, spread over one large central screen and two wings, embraces and grounds Tamango's choreography in the lush, natural context of rain-blessed Latin tropics while spinning it into decidedly headier, hazier realms of sun-dazzled imagination. He's the perfect collaborator for a master tap dancer who mixes exquisite movement skills, intricate rhythms of the Creole diaspora and modern sound technology.

The show begins with a deceptively sleepy pace. In de Boysson's video, the fiery ball of the sun bores a hole through thick cloud cover. Vado Diomande--a masked stilt dancer who hails from the Ivory Coast--seems to take forever to rise from the floor to full height, but when he finally stands tall, he's heaven's own rooster brusquely waking us to full awareness with his piercing cries.

Continue reading Eva's review here. You need to scroll down a bit.

March 21, 2007 2:44 PM | | Comments (0)

In case you were wondering whether there is any rhyme or reason to when things get posted--the answer is, Not really.

In my case, the rhythm depends on my other, paying work--both for Newsday and elsewhere. When I'm up to my eyeballs elsewhere, there's less of me here.

That said, I can tell you this (what a paragraph of thises and thats and heres and theres!--those wonderful pointing words that are nowhere themselves): I am swamped until about the first week of April. I may have others' pieces to post, with perhaps compulsive commentary from me.

After that, though, I plan to do a whole rash of longer essays about things I'm seeing--not just about how we critics are seeing them. Remember the Balanchine posts by me and Paul and Brian Seibert and Marc Etlin that Terry Teachout's and my visit to New York City Ballet set off? Wasn't that fun? Kinda like that.

March 21, 2007 2:33 PM | | Comments (0)

This email just in:

Whether sexism is a more pervasive presence in the New York dance community than in other places, I don't have experience to say. But I can say New Yorkers experience it -- to greater or lesser degrees, depending on our age, gender, color, size, creative inclinations, positionings -- and it affects our input and output.

So then we must decide what to do about it, if anything, and when and how much: how much to focus on it, in order to hopefully make positive change, as well as how much not to focus on it, in order to hopefully make positive change. Both are potentially good moves. It's a matter of emphasis, and we can all choose as we wish.

When Apollinaire chooses to focus on the issue of sexism (as admittedly one of many ways to look at it) within the Times appointment, I want to hear it! and also hear her alternative suggestions to the Times, of having a co-appointment. For myself, I answer any questions of "Why are you focusing on the negative here?" and "Why are you being personally reactive?" by saying that there are compelling reasons for it -- change-inducing, positive effects that can be elicited from doing both of those exact things, at times. Maybe this is one of those times.

So for all of your reasons, I'm glad you've stuck your neck out, Apollinaire.

Apollinaire responds: Thank you, Clare. This issue (the hiring of a dance chief at the Times--see the previous multiple posts) turns out to be very contentious. I'd expected a more "oh, whatever" response. At this point, I probably would have preferred that.

I wholeheartedly agree that one has to choose one's issues carefully. And this one has been complicated, because I'm not an outside observer: I have worked for or beside the people I'm talking about, and I have had my own experiences with the Times. On the other hand, an outside observer probably wouldn't have cared enough to say anything.

And yes! the only reason to even bother is in the hopes that the Times will treat its freelancers better in the future, be more careful about who they bring on so we could have the tiering I spoke of and not have writers suddenly let go, think hard before hiring over the heads of present writers, and not be oblivious to the character of this field: that dance is an overwhelmingly female arena and that just as they're hiring someone from London, dance writer after dance writer has lost her job here. (I think the writers were all women.)

This is probably a good place to stop, though I still hope to hear from Jennifer Dunning. I ran into her a couple of weeks ago. She said John Rockwell had not misrepresented her: she does feel men should be hired for the legitimacy they might confer on dance. She said she would write. She has a lot of assignments at the Times, so we'll be lucky to get something from her whenever we do.

March 10, 2007 6:11 PM | | Comments (0)

.... Unfortunately.

So now an arts blogger on the other side of the pond, Judith Flanders, has jumped into the fray.

I haven't said much about the latest blog additions to the "conversation" about the hire of Alastair Macaulay to the head dance post at the New York Times--SF Chronicle dance critic Rachel Howard on her blog and now this--because I mainly don't think they warrant response: It's not fair play to erase all the nuances, all the points, really, in a person's argument and then blast them for the new, simplified version you've come up with.

One thing Flanders discusses that is worth me clarifying: my saying it was a "slap in the face" to the New York writers that the Times went after a Londoner.

In my own remarks--as opposed to my friend Paul's add-on--I said I thought it was only a matter of time before a non-New Yorker could pick up on what was going on here. And, unlike Paul, I don't think that you need to know how the local organ of art-making operates to know what you're seeing from your seat. On the other hand, I do think you come to understand--from your seat--a set of relationships between choreographers that enriches any particular show you see: the interconnections make the whole richer. The way a big name such as Mark Morris resembles those not normally grouped with him but who have grown up in the same climate (Neil Greenberg, Donna Uchizono, Susan Marshall, Tere O'Connor) is instructive on all sides.

What upsets me about the hire--and hey, you don't have to put "dismay" in quotes, as if that were so outrageous. Yeah, it's dismaying--is that if Macaulay had been run through the same ringer as the freelancers, he may well not have gotten the job either. That is, he didn't have to fit into the Times mold--which is heavily bureaucratic and often diminishing to writers (just ask them). The three women freelancers did. The Times has a habit of hiring its chiefs over the heads of the existing staff. I think it's a crummy practice, whoever's involved--man, woman or monkey.

On the same note, Macaulay has not written on dance for a daily paper for--what is it? 10 years? I don't think this disqualifies him for the job, but it does make him equivalent to all sorts of writers in New York--most of them, women-- who were not seriously considered. They are not cookie cutter fits either. Why was this exception made for him and not them? I'm sure the Times has their reasons. I'm not sure what they are--or if I'd buy them if I knew.

In various posts, people talk about Macaulay as "the best" or "the most qualified." What, do people really believe there is exactly one person who is "best"? Certainly more than one is "best"--because we are not the same. (You see what I mean, dear reader, about the level of the conversation?) When I said that a woman might not have Macaulay's credentials, I did not mean she was less qualified and that the hire would be some sort of favor to her. I meant she didn't have his credentials--that stuff on paper. And as John Rockwell's account of Jennifer Dunning's remark suggests (to be elaborated at some future date), affirmative action often works the other way--like tax breaks for corporations. The men are favored for their capacity to confer authority on the position. I would say the same for a Londoner. Compared to a homebody, a Londoner looks glamorous.

One last note for those who think it's a ridiculous notion that you might have to live somewhere to understand how the place operates--journalistically, if not dance-wise. Journalists in San Francisco, Seattle and now London have all found my arguments flabbergasting. (I think there's a certain amount of feigned disbelief, actually; have these people never heard of feminism? or at least of not swallowing the status quo hook, line and sinker?) Those in New York know exactly what I'm talking about. They have been regularly telling me so. For professional reasons, they haven't wanted to go public.

They've had encounters with the Times or know piles of people who have--know how its inflated sense of importance has affected its interactions with writers and made it mediocre --and they're happy I'm sticking my neck out.

March 8, 2007 3:14 AM | | Comments (0)

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This page is a archive of recent entries written by foot in mouth in March 2007.

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