foot in mouth: August 2007 Archives
...in fact, tomorrow, Wednesday, at 9 pm, for New Yorkers (repeated Saturday night at 12:40 am--officially Sunday). The focus is Nureyev's Soviet years.
The documentary, "Nureyev: The Russian Years," has its cheesy moments, but the footage of him dancing--both newly discovered film and clips from studio films and live broadcasts shot soon after he defected, in 1961 at age 23--are thrilling through and through.
Also, there's Nureyev talking (much of it snagged from Patricia Foy's 1991 documentary "Rudolf Nureyev," in which he is clearly very ill). I didn't have the space to go into this in my own account of the film, but Nureyev is a captivating talker, mainly because the truth matters to him. It mattered to him in his dancing--to articulate the steps and get them to speak--so it would in his talking, too. He doesn't waste a word (he may not have had the energy to), and what he says is often very wise--and impishly contrarian.
Nureyev was at his peak before my time (though my mother did take me and my sister to see him and Fonteyn when I was about 5; we were very high up and they might as well have been tiny dolls, for all I could see). But watching a pile of videos of old performances and all the documentaries I could find made me miss him as if all over again.
The two mammoth biographies haven't done that: Diane Solway's from 1998 and Julie Kavanagh's, out in October. They complement each other: even when they cover the same ground, it's from different angles. Solway's tone and approach is more journalistic and authoritative, Kavanagh's more novelistic and gossipy. When a vivid, multivoiced narrative is appropriate, Kavanagh's is better. When you want things to be more organized--and more restrained--Solway's is.
In both cases, though, the writers run into the common problem of biographers of great artists, which is that their subject is wiser than they are (and dead by the time they're writing). You end up wishing they'd get out of the way. Plus, in the case of Kavanagh, some gadabout fool with nothing better to do than follow Nureyev around--and there were many-- is too often who we're listening to. The biographies tend to fall into a soporific seesaw rhythm: "On the one hand, Nureyev danced sublimely; on the other, he was a lousy lover." The two hands aren't commensurable. One's the hand of God, and the other isn't.
If you want to bone up on Nureyev, I recommend the autobiography, written (by Alexander Grant, in fact) when the dancer was only 24! He was later embarrassed by his precocity--told Baryshnikov when B defected not to make the same mistake. But I loved the book. I loved him, his simplicity and soulfulness and honesty (for a supposed pathological liar) about the deep things where lying doesn't figure.
Finally, re his reputation as a terrible choreographer, yes, most of what he made was disappointing, but his "Nutcracker" (with Merle Park) is really entrancing. I know the big deal there is supposed to be its Freudian strains, but I actually missed that part: was too enchanted by the overall vision--and it is overall, carrying the whole ballet!--and the allegro steps, with their folk dance rhythms and extreme pointey-point maneuvers, as though Nureyev couldn't get the fairies in "The Sleeping Beauty" off his mind, or were discovering where Balanchinean rhythms, which come naturally to him, would take him if he embedded them in the steps.
Okay, a contest: Be the first to tell me which famous variation Nureyev is doing on the grass in that red-and-green towel thingie (this is from the PBS documentary), and I'll treat you to an evening at the ballet (with me, of course. There's the catch).
p.s. My Arts Journal neighbor Tobi Tobias has written a lovely--and complete--account of "Nureyev: The Russian Years" here.
[Thus began the Nureyev mania on Foot. After the above post, we moved on to outrage at the reviews of Julie Kavanagh's new mammoth biography that used the occasion to trash Nureyev, and finally relief at one review and another that did more justice to the man than the bio itself.]
"Accounting for Customs"--a new site-specific ensemble work by choreographers Andréya Ouamba (a Congolese performer from Senegal) and Reggie Wilson (U.S.)--utilizes the main entrance steps of the former Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House at 1 Bowling Green at the lower tip of Broadway. Some months ago, during an interview for "Dance Magazine," Wilson told me of his fascination with the history of this building, designed by Cass Gilbert, that now houses a federal bankruptcy court and the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian. He spoke of the slave trade--foundation of the rapid economic development of colonial states--and of his eagerness to dig into the story of the Custom House's connection to slavery.
The collaboration, including several dancers from Reggie Wilson/Fist and Heel Performance Group as well as six guest dancers, is a project of Sitelines, curated and produced by Nolini Barretto and presented by the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council as part of the annual River to River Festival.
Publicity for "Accounting for Customs" alluded to "questions of memory and loss and how people innovate within and against traditions, of preservation, continuity, stolen pasts and troubled and hopeful presents..." All of this led New York Times senior dance critic Alastair Macaulay to remark, "Such words...belong on grant applications."
Indeed, some dance publicity, rather than offering an accurate preview of what will be shown, seems tailored to appeal to funders' sensibilities. I suspect that Ouamba and Wilson have sincere, genuine objectives in mind. But the resulting 15-minute work led Macaulay to dwell on allusions to Florenz Ziegfeld and Busby Berkeley and to write, "It would be a pity to watch this work more for socio-historic meaning than for sheer sensuous pleasure." (To read Macaulay's review, click here.)
What's a pity is that the original vision quest has not produced a work that more forthrightly asks more of us than appreciation of its "sensuous pleasure" and its craft. Or perhaps the pity is when powerful critics are reluctant to look beyond the surface reticence of certain dances to their more eloquent sociopolitical undercurrents. Or perhaps the pity is about how much depth of investigation you can realistically accomplish in fifteen minutes, or outdoors, downtown, at lunchtime. Whatever the pity is, I hope that these choreographers will have an opportunity to revisit their original themes, perhaps when the apparent aesthetic distraction of 1 Bowling Green and its staircase is no longer a factor.
In the meantime, I believe I saw in "Accounting for Customs" some signs of love and community (dancers embracing), resistance (rolling up the steps against gravity), crowding in the slave ships (bodies piled up), slave auctions (extension and display of limbs), as well as timeless images of hard labor, abduction and independent will and action.
Remaining performances are scheduled for today at 1:30pm. For further information, click here.
Eva, thank you for this review (which readers can also find on Eva's web site, InfiniteBody), and its elucidation of another approach than the one Macaulay took.
I particularly liked your implicit call out to critics "to look beyond the surface reticence of certain dances" to the depths that have yet to fully emerge--in this case, African-American history during the slave trade.
When we critics catch a glimmer of some deeper concern, especially one that the choreographers have said mattered to them, I think it behooves us to talk about it--to elaborate how it might be elaborated or why it hasn't been. It makes our own account both more interesting AND more sympathetic to the artists--both at once--without abandoning our primary audience, our readers.
My problem with Macaulay's review is not that he thought the most interesting thing about the work was its Busby Berkeleyesque use of the stairs, but that he thinks the formal elements SHOULD be the more interesting. The review establishes a hierarchy of value, with the purely formal at the top. Here's his concluding paragraph:
The selection of music, ranging from traditional African to old jazz, did much to suggest different layers of African-American cultural memory. Similarly, the range of movement -- some of it spasmodic, gestural, driven -- made its expressive point. But the main spell of "Accounting for Customs" is of a beauty that transcends any socio-cultural message. [my emphasis] Eat your heart out, Flo Ziegfeld: You never used stairs like this.
Maybe Macaulay just wanted to oppose "beauty" to "message," and of course none of us wants our art lecturing at us. But in the context of the review, he seems to be equating "socio-cultural" with "message," as if any dance that brings in history and the world were necessarily preachy.
Back to the era of critic Cleanth Brooks and his "Well-Wrought Urn," which in the name of eternal values made of literature something immaculate and untrue.
Re those 1930s stairways to heaven: I can't think of a more apt--and perverse-- fantasy for the Depression than turning the Sisyphusean struggle (you climb and climb and end up farther down than where you started) into a dream of endless ascension. What makes the stairs powerful is the contrast of dizzying, giddy multiplication into infinity, on the one hand, and the shadow of dread that anyone who escaped to the movies would carry with her of a world that seemed to have no bottom to its misery, on the other. The reality makes the fantasy MORE powerful, not less.
Counter Critic also hammers Macaulay for "bask[ing] in the transcendent glow of ignorance."
Tonya Plank (aka Swan Lake Samba Girl) also reviews the show--AND offers lots of live-action photos, so you can see for yourself what the movement calls to mind. (The bodies prone on the stairs look to me like human "cargo" in the hold of a ship--but I didn't see it live. Not sure what it would have brought to mind live.)
In a revealing preview feature on "Accounting for Customs" by the wonderful Times stringer Claudia La Rocco, Wilson discusses his frustration with the false divisions and false assumptions that people (white people, as it happens) establish between culture and aesthetic forms, between his experience--and the experience of his people--and his art. How prescient! Here's a bit from the article:
Mr. Wilson draws as much inspiration from 20th-century dance lineages as he does from historical and traditional sources rooted in the African diaspora. He is intrigued by the tension between tradition and innovation: artists who receive credit for advancing an art form versus those seen (or dismissed) as working in traditional cultures, even when these cultures use the same innovations as experimental artists.
"I'll go back and look at a tape of Pina Bausch in the same way that I'll go to Congo or I'll go and get a history book," Mr. Wilson said. "Like trying to find out about the Custom House: how, why is this here now?" he said, referring to the building. "It's the story."
Mr. Wilson wearies of the labels placed on him. European presenters expect him to teach tap and hip-hop in his workshops; faculty members at all-white dance programs in American universities are, he said, "amazed that I'm still able to reference the African diaspora without black bodies, or that I still have some sort of chops with time and with movement and with space."
"I get really frustrated talking about race with white people that haven't thought about race," he added. "Somehow it's something I have to figure out; as a black choreographer I have to talk about why this work is a black piece or why this issue is important. Nobody asks John Jasperse about being white. And it's truly a white aesthetic and a white history that he's coming from in doing his work. But that's not something he's put to task about."
Coming up later this week on Foot:
--link to a feature I wrote for Newsday on demigod Rudolf Nureyev. Oh, okay (she says with modest restraint), you can sneak a peek now.
--long postponed (cuz I have a day job or two, and this doesn't pay) conversation with Counter Critic on dance onscreen.
Apropos of posts earlier this summer--from Paul and me and Tonya (a.k.a. Swan Lake Samba Girl)--about how dance translates to the screen (or fails to), here's an advance feature I wrote for Newsday about "Live From Lincoln Center's" national telecast this Thursday of Mark Morris' widely acclaimed "Mozart Dances."
Morris and the wonderful 86-year-old director of "Live From...," Kirk Browning, shed much light on the subject--and both are forthright about the difficulties of making dance work onscreen. Browning describes all of the things he does to make it work--and, wow, what a lot of work it is!
Not much from me. Isn't this the time when we get to kick back, Apollinaire? [Ed: Oh, alright.]
I'll be checking out some theater (and the occasional dance event) at the Fringe Festival and sometimes heading up to Lincoln Center Out of Doors, braving either the scorching sun or threat of downpours to enjoy some music and dance.
Last evening at the Bandshell, the Paul Taylor Dance Company held forth quite well in "Book of Beasts," "Lines of Loss," and "Esplanade." Something about their retro styling seemed perfect for a steamy summer night.
What was not perfect was the couple--with baby in tow--who decided to execute a diaper change right there in their seats, to the great discomfort of everyone in their immediate area.
Had I accepted the seat originally reserved for me, I would have been seated directly behind them. Luckily, I had opted for a seat across the aisle, and nothing wafted leftward.
Ah! Summer in New York!
Apollinaire responds: Thanks, Eva. LOL!
...presence from me, at least, in the next week or so. Perhaps Eva or Paul will have something.
In the meantime, did you see Paul's invention of a new drink to beat the heat? Out here in the East, the weather argues for it.
From Paul Parish:
A propos of nothing (and I promise I will write something appropriate SOON), in my other life, I have invented a new drink, and my friends have urged me to copywrite it.
I figure, I'll post it on the net, by Foot in Mouth, and that'll establish my claim. What do you say? We all have day jobs--as the club dancers call it, "the afterlife." And in the afterlife, I'm a bartender. And I've just invented the Quasi-mojo.
It's just a mojito plus coke; or in other words, a rum and coke plus mint (with a lime in it). It's tricky to balance, but if you get it right it's REALLY good on a hot day, even better on a hot night. Should be great in August, and a real comfort on those nights when you're trying to get your puny cat to eat and he won't take anything.... [Ed: Alfredo Fetuccine Scherr is actually the size of a fox, but, yes, shrinking, the poor ancient noodle.]
OK, so put some mint in a glass, mash it good with the handle of a knife (use a glass pestle if you have one). Don't break the glass. Add a healthy dram of dark rum. (I prefer Myers' or Appleton's to Tommy Bermuda, but you COULD use that; it's just got to taste like brown sugar.) Ice. Coke to the top, then squeeze enough lime into it till it be enough. You won't need to add sugar -- there's that in the Coca-Cola. Garnish with more mint, if you want. Insert two very thin straws, and see what they think. Doctor if needed.
AJ BlogsAJBlogCentral | rss
Terry Teachout on the arts in New York City
Andrew Taylor on the business of arts & culture
rock culture approximately
Laura Collins-Hughes on arts, culture and coverage
Richard Kessler on arts education
Douglas McLennan's blog
Dalouge Smith advocates for the Arts
Art from the American Outback
Chloe Veltman on how culture will save the world
For immediate release: the arts are marketable
No genre is the new genre
David Jays on theatre and dance
Paul Levy measures the Angles
Judith H. Dobrzynski on Culture
John Rockwell on the arts
innovations and impediments in not-for-profit arts
Jan Herman - arts, media & culture with 'tude
Apollinaire Scherr talks about dance
Tobi Tobias on dance et al...
Howard Mandel's freelance Urban Improvisation
Focus on New Orleans. Jazz and Other Sounds
Doug Ramsey on Jazz and other matters...
Jeff Weinstein's Cultural Mixology
Martha Bayles on Film...
Fresh ideas on building arts communities
Greg Sandow performs a book-in-progress
Harvey Sachs on music, and various digressions
Bruce Brubaker on all things Piano
Kyle Gann on music after the fact
Greg Sandow on the future of Classical Music
Norman Lebrecht on Shifting Sound Worlds
Joe Horowitz on music
Jerome Weeks on Books
Scott McLemee on books, ideas & trash-culture ephemera
Wendy Rosenfield: covering drama, onstage and off
Public Art, Public Space
Regina Hackett takes her Art To Go
John Perreault's art diary
Lee Rosenbaum's Cultural Commentary