foot in mouth: June 2007 Archives
Liking either ballet or opera is like liking brandy -- all you need is to taste it once and you'll say, where's this been all my life?
The main difference is recording. Very little of the physical excitement of hearing opera is lost when you listen to a really good recording. You can follow a great singer around every dramatic bend as the voice swells and diminishes. But with dance, 90 percent of the things you care about most are lost in all but the very best recordings.
This is particularly true of ballet, where so much of the drama of the dancing is its magical achievement of weightlessness. The transfer to 2-D makes the miracle of moving in that pulled-up manner seem to be no big deal, since 2-D is weightless already. (It's usually cleverly disguised in Hollywood by lots of impact -- chases, collisions, etc. -- which reintroduces the idea of weight, though only the idea; Fred and Ginger let you HEAR the weight in the tapping, which makes them exciting in a way no other dancers on screen ever are.)
With modern dance, the weight IS a big deal, but that too is mostly lost on screen--this time, it's not too easily weightless, as in screen ballet, but weirdly weightless, wrongly weightless.
Anyway, you could hear "Una furtiva lagrima" (which Scott Wells just did a sweet balance beam dance to here in San Francisco) while driving your car (sorry New Yorkers, I realize y'all don't do that), but you can't see Kyra Nichols hardly anywhere, and even then it's not like REALLY SEEING HER LIVE and watching her float like magic--in 3-D and real time and in the same room with you.
I've been thinking about this for years, and I still don't entirely know why dance recording doesn't really work. It's just an observable fact, like the fact that I've got fruit flies in my kitchen right now--and I don't even have any fruit out.
Still, the consequences follow like the night, the day: Musicians get paid a great deal more, because of the residuals that come from recordings, and their unions can strike much tougher deals than those of dancers. Many dance companies can't afford to use live music, because the cost of paying the musicians is so high, and most of all, the "average person" is statistically unlikely to have had a tip-top experience seeing a ballet, while statistically she WILL have had a mesmerizing experience listening to opera.
Apollinaire responds: This is really interesting, Paul, though, about your opening brandy comparison, I haven't found that people who will later take to dance like brandy do so immediately. More often, they begin by being interested enough to go again, but they don't feel they have to go. In my experience, it takes four or five times for a person to get hooked, if she's going to get hooked.
Also, I agree on the weightless problem of celluloid and digital dance. Still, I have seen videos that blew my mind--it's hard to imagine being more wowed, but I guess I might have been, live. For example: former New York City Ballet star Edward Villella in Balanchine's "Rubies" and "Tarantella."
What translated--what came across even on screen--was his phrasing, how he didn't POP! but unfolded his phrases in typical Balanchinean fashion, a single fabric with the gold strands so thoroughly inside the weave that it felt like a special treasure to find them. I also love watching Suzanne Farrell in Balanchine's "Diamonds" and "Chaconne" -- both on Nonesuch "Dance in America" DVDs--and perhaps for the same reason, that her drama derives so much from rhythm that it translates to screen: you can make the switch from sound to sight even without a kinesthetic experience.
Here's a courtly excerpt from Merce Cunningham's "Septet" (1964) that I think works on celluloid for the same reason. (God, it's beautiful--as if Matisse's paintings of entwined dancers actually danced.)
Okay, dear readers, your turn. As the dog days of summer approach, with live dance reduced to a slow trickle (in New York, the dog days have already arrived! with a heavy, muggy thunk), tell me:
Which are your favorite dance videos or DVDs? Are you only remembering how great it was or are you having a full experience in the moment? What compensates for the weightlessness? Or maybe the fact of its being video is integral to the experience--impossible to imagine any other way? Do tell.
The comments function on Foot DOES work, by the way, though there's some problem in it confirming that the comment was received. (I often get post-comment emails from the correspondent wondering if it went through.)
Foot contributor Paul Parish sent me this email from the other coast, a de facto recommendation:
The Oakland Dance Festival has got another weekend.
It's a little like going to the Oakland Ballet used to be. There are kinda long waits between the numbers, but all the performances are full of energy, sincere, and they've got ideas....
I saw ODC last night, on a mixed bill put together by Charlie Anderson's Company C "contemporary ballet." ODC looked amazingly good seen out of context, and the piece, based on "Streetcar Named Desire," was just incredible. I think [ODC artistic director] Brenda Way did it for Dance Theatre of Harlem. It's technically amazing but SO inherently dramatic, and her dancers have the idiom in their bones. It's just amazing to see a company who know what they're doing and why and what it means....
Earlier this spring, Dance/NYC sponsored a panel on dance and race. Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa contacted panelist and Dance Magazine chief Wendy Perron (whose race issue is now on line), and Perron enlisted Theresa Ruth Howard to file a report for Foot in Mouth. (I asked for an opinionated report, as Howard had been a vocal participant in the forum.)
Theresa Ruth Howard is a former member of Dance Theater of Harlem. She currently dances with Armitage Gone! Dance and teaches ballet at the Alvin Ailey school in New York. As a freelance writer, she has contributed to Pointe and Dance Magazine, as well as The Source.
Here she is:
Historically, race has been a difficult subject to discuss. It's loaded emotionally, ethically, and personally. As members of the human race we are all affected in one way or another, whether we choose to enter the discourse or not.
On May 8, Dance/NYC took the issue on with a town forum entitled "Dance and Race." In the organization's SoHo office, there were about 25 of us. It was interesting to note who was in attendance: young dancers, former dancers, students, directors of dance programs, company managers, agents, and choreographers. There was a great diversity in age, from college students to the mature. However--and this did not surprise me--there was less diversity when it came to race. The audience was heavy on African American and Hispanic, light on Caucasian, and feather-weight on Asian. I mention the breakdown, as it informs the direction of the discussion.
The panel was moderated (albeit loosely) by Baraka Sele, presenter for the New Jersey Performing Arts Center. At times she seemed more of a sixth panelist than a moderator.
The actual panelists included Virginia Johnson, former principal dancer with Dance Theatre of Harlem and current editor in chief of Pointe; Pedro Ruiz, frequent choreographer for Ballet Hispanico and commissioned to set a ballet on the Joffrey, former principal with Ballet Hispanico, and teacher at the Ailey school; Ronald K. Brown, founder/director of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence dance company; Charles Rice-Gonzalez, producer for BAAD!, the Bronx Academy of Arts and Dance; Helen Wu, director of the New York Chinese Cultural Center; and Wendy Perron, former dancer with Trisha Brown and current editor in chief of Dance Magazine.
Sele opened the discussion with a single question: What if "a lack of diversity," as we call it, is just a matter of aesthetics? Perhaps choosing to have an all white, black, Hispanic, or Asian company is just the look the choreographer or director desires: do we have the right to say it's wrong?
Brown relayed a story about a young girl who, after seeing his company, asked why he only had black dancers. In fact, there's a Filipino dancer in the company; it was about what the little girl was seeing. As for a director's aesthetic preference, he said he hired the person who can hit the step with the feeling he's looking for. Later he spoke of turning down an offer to choreograph a piece for a ballet company that would celebrate the opening of a slave museum. He is interested in telling his grandmother's stories and has a vested interest in doing so respectfully and artistically. Upon visiting the museum later, he felt his instincts had been right. "It was just too clean," he said of the museum; there is nothing about slavery that is clean.
Sele then asked Rice-Gonzalez and Wu about how they deal with perceptions around "ethnic dance." Rice-Gonzalez spoke of Arthur Aviles, choreographer for and cofounder of BAAD!, who fights the stereotypes. People hear the word "Bronx" and "dance," and automatically think "salsa."
Wu explained that as director of the Chinese Cultural Center, she had come to the panel to help find new ways to present traditional Chinese dance. Where Latin and African dance forms make people want to get up and join in (with the misconception that it's just a whole lot of shakin' and no real structure), Chinese dance is more austere and distant, making it harder for those not familiar with it to connect. Her work at the Chinese cultural center is to find ways to make it accessible.
She pointed out that there was only one other Asian in the room, at which point it became clear to me that when we in America speak of diversity, race, and racism in dance and elsewhere, it is still very much an issue of black and white. The reason is rooted in our history. The emotional DNA between African Americans and Caucasian Americans is very specific, bringing up things--painful, ugly things--that we don't want to acknowledge or address. The history is not usually as fraught with Hispanic or Latin people, or with Asians. In fact, Asian dancers are relatively well represented in both modern and ballet companies. (Certainly, it could be better.) To be quite honest, it often comes down to blendability--if you are an African American woman (dark males have less problems in this area) and you are darker than a white woman with a Hawaiian Tropic tan, it may give some ballet directors pause.
Which brought us to the world of ballet, where the "lack of" is glaringly obvious. Gia Kourlas's New York Times article "Where Are All the Black Swans?" had just detailed as much. Johnson took the lead, stating that African American dancers (including herself) are often steered away from ballet as a career by the very teachers who trained them. The few who make it to a professional level are often alone, causing a pressure and stress for which young dancers are often ill prepared. Johnson voiced the need for mentoring dancers of color, in order to support them in environments, of school and company, that can be daunting.
The African American male dancer André Zachery asked about getting "acceptance" from the dance world, which people pooh-poohed. This greatly irritated me. We so like to believe that we should not be seeking acceptance from...anyone! A few things up to this point had stuck in my craw. I felt compelled to say that acceptance is an important and necessary aspect of what we do. We do need to be accepted by critics, the public, presenters, and definitely funders.
The second issue that bothered me had to do with aesthetics. Sele had mentioned not "getting" postmodern choreographer Ralph Lemon's work, because it wasn't what she had "expected" to see. This is a large part of the problem with dance and race: Why does dance by people of color have to look a certain way for the audience to "get it"? Why do people assume an African American's work has to take on issues of race in the most obvious ways, while white artists can paint in broad strokes and a plethora of palettes and be accepted and often applauded for the stretch? People may be bemused by a black ballet choreographer such as San Francisco's Alonzo King--who melds "downtown" ideas and concepts with the incongruent and a torquing, extra-elastic classical technique--but it isn't what they expect.
Perron reminded us how the choreographer and former Cunningham dancer Gus Solomons Jr. dealt with his alienation from the "black community" for being an abstract artist: He called himself an "Oreo." My theory was that he had called himself out as the world would see him; he is no less black for it. He was addressing the schism that affects many people of color in America--the cultural schizophrenia that has you torn between what you look like and cultural sensibilities that can often be informed by your own particular economic background, which may or may not conform to the usual in America. Trying to communicate this is touchy and bound to offend someone, because the sheer reality of it is hard to deal with.
Okay, enough of what I said.
There was talk about the diversification of companies being "hard" to do, and one had to "work" at it. Elisa Monte--who deserves special mention as a choreographer and director who can actually change the situation--took issue with this personally, as her company is highly diverse. She said she simply hired the people who were the best for the job.
Someone suggested that Alvin Ailey is considered the epitome of the African American modern dance aesthetic: it's often assumed that young African American dancers do dance for it, or ought to. Michael Moore, the company manager of the contemporary ballet company Complexions, spoke of how the troupe had lost two dancers to that juggernaut. Moore felt that with one of them, it was less her true desire and more the seduction of obtaining the very thing that supposedly every African American dancer covets.
The young African American male Winston "Dynamite" Brown--a dancer with Taylor 2, Paul Taylor's junior company--spoke about the reactions he gets from people for being in a "white" modern dance company, ranging from incredulity and confusion to pride and support. He enjoyed representing diversity not merely in that company but to the dance world--proving that indeed we are more than Ailey.
Then the discussion moved "downtown," where people of color are few and far between, except for a few golden tokens that have been taken under the wing. Unfortunately, this downtown train of thought was derailed. Not really addressed by our moderator, it is still at the core of the issue. The absence of color on the downtown scene creates the perception that people of color don't do this type of work. Closer to the reality, I think, is that the downtown venues are slow to acknowledge these artists. They are not underrepresented so much as underpresented.
A young African American ballet dancer from North Carolina School for the Arts echoed Johnson's sentiments about the lack of support for African American women in ballet. She mentioned the pressure she encounters at school to change her major. With the collapse of Dance Theatre of Harlem, there's not been anyone to look up to who looks like you, she said, and that's been hard. (Yet another reason mentoring is desperately needed.)
Sele closed by asking us to be vigilant, to educate others, to have conversations among ourselves, and to change the lexicon. As the group dispersed, there was talk of the issues we hadn't gotten around to--important issues, such as funding and presenting. Dance/NYC executive director, Robert Yesselman, committed to continuing the dialogue in the future. It proved far too vast for a mere two hours.
Finally, though, what was learned, gained, or changed? Somehow we go into these discussions thinking that this time the magic words will be spoken to solve the problem--or at least eradicate all obfuscation. Usually you leave with more things to ponder and the desire to do something. So you spend the next few days running it by people and in the end, yes, there is something learned, gained, and changed. But solved? That's another story. The truth is, until the power people enter into this discussion, change will be slow, if it happens at all.
As Rice-Gonzalez pointed out at the beginning of the discussion, quoting a line that dancer-choreographer Andrea Woods speaks in a piece of hers, "We have changed the laws, but not the people."
~Theresa Ruth Howard
From jazz to science and all points in between, even in matters of everyday survival, African diasporan people have been experimenting for a very, very long time. And that's just for starters.
It's satisfying to see that artists of color just keep on keeping on, whether or not they are categorized or understood or loved as experimenters or anything. Everyone doing what he or she needs to do, being their genius selves and not paying attention to the naysayers.
My thanks to Theresa Ruth Howard for accepting Wendy's and your invitation to report on this forum. I regret that I was not able to attend it, but this huge and multiheaded issue will not go away tomorrow, and I'm sure there will be other opportunities to pick up this discussion again.
Thanks again for this report, Theresa Ruth. One thought on the underpresentation of experimental artists of color in downtown venues: I think the common assumption that people of color don't experiment may be part of the problem. But another part is that "experimental" is defined in such narrow terms that it doesn't include experiments within or between given dance traditions: experiments in ballet, such as Alonzo King has done, or experiments in tap, as with Savion Glover, Roxane Butterfly, Ayodele Casel and others, or experiments in hip-hop, with lots of dancers in New York and the outer boroughs.
I recently watched a breaking class at Peridance in which the teacher, Ephrat Asherie, had set breaking steps to a salsa rhythm. The effect was amazing. One of the students, a seasoned hoofer--I didn't catch her name--was working to infuse hip-hop moves and rhythms into tap. (Of course, this is nothing new, but the iterations change as fast as hip hop does.) After class, they ran off to a dance jam way downtown. Why isn't any of that showing up at Dance Theater Workshop, for example?
You're only counted as experimental, it seems, if you work solidly within the tradition of modern-dance experimentation. How absurdly tautological! The effect, I think, is to underpresent a lot of artists of color whose postmodernism has to do with the mixes they make of various traditions.
Wendy Perron, of Dance Magazine, offers this clarification:
I just want to clarify one thing: when Gus described himself to me as an "oreo" (and this was many years ago) there was no sense that he felt alienated from the black dance community. After all, he had danced with Donald McKayle. But aesthetically he was drawn to Cunningham, and I think the term had something to do with where he grew up and where he went to school (MIT). ~Wendy
From Baraka Sele, curator at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center:
Here it is July 2, and I am just now seeing this review of the Dance and Race panel discussion I moderated May 8 for Dance/NYC.
Yes, I am not at all surprised that I seemed more like a panelist than a moderator. I am passionate and opinionated about the arts (not just dance): That's what folks get when they seek me out--passion and opinions that have accummulated over a 25-plus professional career as an artist and performing arts curator, consultant, and producer for arts organizations throughout the United States.
Please know that after a discussion with the staff of DANCE/NYC, I was given the latitude and luxury to conduct the panel as I chose.
A few other points I would like to address and clarify: Theresa Ruth Howard didn't mention that I first saw Ralph Lemon's work more than 15 years ago. For the past six years (2000 to 2006) I served on the board of directors of his production company, CROSS PERFORMANCE, INC. I have supported Lemon's work as a funder (Africa Exchange) and a co-commissioner on more than one occasion.
Also, I do not curate or program artists based on press or promotion packages, videos, DVDs, CDs, etc. I program artists based on LIVE performance. And, yes, often I do not "get" the work--this is not a sin!
As a responsible curator, I almost always take the time to return to the work of artists I do not understand to research their aesthetic, context, form and methodology. I also meet directly with the artists themselves. I usually spend two to five years learning about the work of an artist with whom I am not familiar but may be interested in presenting. I don't present the work of artists I like, I present the work of artists who I think are making important contributions to our cultural landscape and who challenge our preconceived notions (including my own) about what it means to make art in the 21st century.
Thanks to Artsjournal chief Doug McLennan, there is now a new sidebar category, Elsewhere, where I will post a rotating list of recent articles from Newsday, mainly. It's just under readers' comments, to the right.
Today, a review of Ohad Naharin's "Decadance" at Cedar Lake.
My friend and fellow blogger Terry Teachout thinks I'm a fool not to post my Newsday articles here. I don't want this blog to turn into a clearinghouse for work elsewhere, but given that the scantness of Foot posts by me often has to do with the other work I'm entangled in, I thought I'd post some reviews--eventually as a sidebar, as soon as I can figure that out.
Here's a review of some great flamenco in the East Village.
Here's a review of Christopher Wheeldon's "The Nightingale and the Rose" for the New York City Ballet. I had mixed feelings about the Wheeldon ballet, but Balanchine's hyper-Romantic "Davidsbundlertanze," on the same bill, makes up the difference. To Schumann piano pieces, the intimate dance is appropriately wonderful and strange.
Oh, my! Ohad Naharin! Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet! "Decadance!" Don't go if you don't want to feel as if someone has roughly grabbed you and dashed you all over the theater and left you winded, fighting for your life. Okay, maybe that doesn't sound terribly appealing but--trust me on this one--CLCB and Naharin will rock you. The dancers are talented and valiant. They have enormous presence and resilience and a strong touch of the strange--or perhaps that's what Naharin has brought out in them. They meet this master's unusual choreography head on. The boundless imagery and energy astound. And there's a delightful little audience participation segment, too--as fun to watch as it must be to perform.
I must admit that I've been avoiding Cedar Lake for a while now because, you know, as a child of a union family, the whole Wal-Mart thing.... But, no more. I'm going to try to ignore all that, the way I've had to ignore all the tobacco money in dance, and I certainly won't hold it against these excellent dancers.
Cedar Lake appears in the two-hour long Decadance now through July 1 in their Chelsea home base. Go here for more info.
[Ed. note: Fellow blogger Tonya Plank aka Swan Lake Samba Girl also raves. For those of you whose only exposure to the Israeli choreographer are his bloated extravaganzas at the Lincoln Center Festival in the past few years, definitely give him another shot. He has a whole other, intimate side to him.]
[For more on Naharin, here's Apollinaire's post on his "Three," performed at BAM by his own Batsheva company, a few months later.]
I'm under the gun with writing and non-writing, paying and volunteer assignments, so my participation in this blog may be slight for the next couple of weeks.
But upcoming from others:
--Eva Yaa Asantewaa's "GO" recommendations and anything else she wants to do.
--A report by Theresa Ruth Howard, dancer extraordinaire with Karole Armitage, on Dance/NYC's race and dance panel, held in May.
Late in the month, I hope to return to ABT's "The Sleeping Beauty." Last night, I ran into the wonderful Times critic Roslyn Sulcas, who, I think it's safe to say, isn't too fond of the production, and she handed me an epiphany--an interesting way to consider at least some of the flaws: that there's a clash of sensibilities, one inspired by metaphor, one plot-oriented. One approach makes the other redundant and simultaneously undermines it. So, more to come.
We agreed that much of the dancing was sublime. It's worth going just to see what the corps women do with the fairies: for example, Yuriko Kajiya as Fervor (aka Coulante); Misty Copeland as Valor (aka Violente), and an absolutely startling Zhong-Jing Fang as Joy (Canari--songbird).
Also, later in the summer I hope to be posting essays on the nine outings of Chez Bushwick's groundbreaking AMBUSH, the perambulatory monthly series of performance and dance in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (I will have contributed one of these essays.)
And, of course, there is always you to spice things up around here. ~Apollinaire
Or most of us, anyway. If you think there's absolutely no merit to American Ballet Theatre's new "Sleeping Beauty," then it doesn't matter how cramped the stage space is. For the rest of us, it just might matter a lot.
Tony Walton's set has internal wings on both sides of the already relatively narrow Metropolitan stage; they shrink the stage space by about six feet (and more in the Act I and III, when a staircase takes up about another yard). So in ensemble sections, the dancers are forced to dance in place and the patterns in space, so lovely in the Garland Dance and in the Vision scene, are obscured. For the space-devouring solos, you can see the dancers calculating how not to bang into the wings. It's a distracting shame.
Absolutely as soon as possible, ABT should remove those wings. (Of course, the wings might be attached to the rest of the scenery, which means "ASAP" won't be until next year.)
I saw the production again tonight--with the divine La Vishneva and wonderful David Hallberg. Highly recommended. I'm clearer on what exactly the problems are where there are problems; much still seems splendid to me--and more will be when the dancers have some room!
[A month later.... a long reflection on what the ABT "Sleeping Beauty" is good for--and what, besides the set, doesn't make too much sense]
A bunch of critics aren't liking this production. The complaints have centered around the relation between the canonical material and the new interpolations--that the effect is too much of a stylistic mishmash.
I find that hard to judge: for critics and devoted balletgoers, the canonical material is so much more familiar that ANYTHING else will likely seem glaring and weird. Even when I squint, I'm not sure what it would look like if I didn't have various other versions dancing in my head. Once I've seen it more times, it will either establish entire dominion over my imagination--or not. Really can't tell now.
Also--and somehow I didn't manage to adequately explain this in my review--part of the beauty of this version is the way it shifts keys, suddenly descending into a gluey dream-time and a different quality of movement. You can call that a stylistic mishmash or you can call it magic--or can once the timing is better. The production is still working itself out technically, with currently enough comic glitches to pull you out of whatever state of mind it's working toward. I have faith they'll figure all this out--though probably not until next year.
[A month later.... a more complete, and sober, reflection on the ABT "Sleeping Beauty"]
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