foot in mouth: May 2008 Archives
"At Large" is bursting with ideas, dances, experiments in approaching the audience and the world--probably too much of everything, with some of the connecting threads too thin. But how nice for a change, this rigorous excess rather than the usual dour minimalism or clubby encodedness (like a party where every cluster is a closed circle--to you, anyway, as you wander, with plastic cup of bubbly water in hand.) Bauer herself, who's not even 30, is the perfect exemplar of her aesthetic-- a bold, big-boned, luscious, comic dancer, elastic in her morphing from Broadway to hiphop to bharatanatyam to a modern-dance windy tangle of moves. The world is her oyster--and she invites us in.
Anyway, you only have until tonight, Saturday, to catch it. At the Chocolate Factory Theater, 5-49 49th Ave., Long Island City, Queens. Visit Dtw.org for details.
One prong of the "At Large" project--the show is only one aspect --is a lovely pocket-sized booklet that we all get a copy of when we attend the show. A whole bunch of dancers and choreographers respond to questions with potentially no end to answers, such as "Why do you dance?" "Why do you make dances?" "Why do you go to see dance?"
The answers get less interesting as they go. Almost everyone has something striking to say about why they dance. For example: "I dance because I started dancing when I was three and it's become a condition" and "Becoming a dancer was a way to give a body to my life, because I was very ghostly." Fewer people get much out of watching other people dance. Most regard it as a professional obligation. Here's a wry example: "[B]eing in the field for a long time, it's very rare but sometimes dance performances, the performers, the dances, can....touch me." Hee hee. I also love this response: "I'm looking for a complexity I understand, not a complexity that I feel I should understand and don't." Down with guilt-inducing obscurantism!
Speaking of which and otherwise apropos of nothing, here are a couple of sentences from the eminently grouchy cultural critic Theodor Adorno. The book is his turgid yet intriguing Aesthetic Theory. It has been lying around my apartment for a long while, and I have finally assigned myself a couple of sentences a day. Each sentence is its own puzzle--with the one preceding and following not helping much. As for these two from page 6, I know what he means...
The basic levels of experience that motivate art are related to those of the world from which they recoil. The unsolved antagonism of reality returns in artworks as problems of form. [Emphasis added.]
I received this email recommendation from freelance dance writer Lori Ortiz of exploredance.com and the Performance Arts Journal yesterday:
I saw Douglas Dunn's press preview of "tanks under trees" last night. The show runs through Sunday at his SoHo loft, which he has turned into a theater with stadium seating. It's an opportunity to see amazingly evocative dancing by Dunn, Liz Filbrun, Paul Singh, and Christopher Williams--dancers we can never see enough of. Also if you haven't heard poet Anne Waldman read, there's another must-see. She moves among the dancers and is totally invested. It's completed by Mimi Gross's paintings--real, made with a brush-- and has live cello and percussion.
I am telling you about it because it's one of only two companies I've seen this season that directly addresses Iraq. (The other is Rebecca Kelly Ballet.) It is so important that some artists are attentive. Although "tanks under trees" is mostly about environmental doom, it ends strongly on an upbeat. The dance is loaded and energizing. Even palliative.
responds: Lori, thanks for the heads up. Yes, Douglas Dunn's dances can be wonderful--and his dancers always are. Readers, take note.
the lookout for dances that address Iraq, too, directly or indirectly.
I've seen have included Los Angelena Victoria Marks' "Not About Iraq
Danspace (intermittently effective--still, worth seeing),
British-Bangladeshi Akram Khan and Belgian-Moroccan Sidi
Larbi Cherkaoui's astounding "zero degrees" at City Center and, yesterday, French Algerian Rachid
Ouramdane's "Far...," which goes the route of most young choreographers
vis a vis the war: a lot of lying around plus some variation of shaking in place.
(Ouramdane's shaking was more fluid than most: a variation on hiphop popping and locking.)
Alastair Macaulay of the Times was very impressed, but he hasn't been
here long enough to be worn out by the inertia. Inertia is the new movement, as the glossies might put it. It was
interesting for the first couple of years, but by now it would be
better to say something than to say over and over again that you are
too traumatized to say anything. When everyone's doing this, it may be
just as heartfelt as when only one person is, but it doesn't feel that
"Far..." compensates for the movement cliches with its use of voice and face and web of space. The heart of
the piece is spoken testimonies--very relaxed, conversational--from the
choreographer's mother, plus other people Ouramdane's age also viewing the war through the semi-obscured lens of their parents. The Vietnam War,
as it happens, but we get the connection.
While we hear the person on tape, a
door-shaped screen at an oblique angle reveals a part of his face--like the memory we're getting only some shadowy version of. On the floor are mirrors like midnight lakes, as if we were looking
down on a map of a terrain bleached of color and light. A skein of strings only one shade lighter
than the gray ground--subtle, flickering in and out of
consciousness--webs between these dark reflective surfaces. Everything is bathed in Pierre
LeBlanc's midnight-blue light. The club music that
alternates with the speaking ricochets across the space, too. I like
Macaulay's point that the piece journeys through a collective unconscious (though I
would say it's a semiconscious).
About war pieces or the lack thereof, Lori,I'm surprised there aren't more movement works, given how bodily warfare is. A choreographer could do so much with the ducking, the scrambling, the marching, the machismo, the intimidating, the torturing and being tortured, the barreling around in Humvees, the being blown up. I know, I know: someone's going to say this is a hokey idea, and presumptuous to imitate a war we're so removed from. It doesn't have to be hokey, though. If you unloaded the movement from its generic meanings, took it apart piece by piece to see what the movement itself said, there might be something there. Or a choreographer could do the opposite--work with the cartoon notions of the foreigner and us the "rescuers," as in the "South Park" boys' brilliant, hilarious animated movie "Team America."
But choreographers would have to be interested in movement. The current generation of experimentalists mainly isn't. I probably would have liked "Far..." more if it hadn't reminded me that contemporary choreographers with structural or conceptual savvy invariably offer mostly muttery moves.
Is speaking through movement (about something other than one's muteness) now considered an uptight thing--the exclusive domain of nerds and dorks?
UPDATE, Monday a.m.: Lori Ortiz and Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa offer interesting responses here.
For an earlier post on the inertia movement, here are my reflections on a riotous Chez Bushwick event out in Brooklyn last winter.
Photo of Rachid Ouramdane in "Far..." by Julien Jourdes, borrowed from the New York Times.
So, while Robbins' "Watermill" (1972) has something of a story but you don't know why it matters (see the last post), "Dybbuk's" meaning and pathos are perfectly clear, even if the plot you worry you're supposed to be following isn't.
Of the two problems, I'll take the second every time. After all, even with "Swan Lake," I can't entirely decode the mime. But when Odette is describing how she ended up a swan, I do understand there's a good reason for her terror. With "Dybbuk"--in which Robbins was trying to devise a form in between story ballet and dramatic yet storyless ballet, as he was for "Watermill" --all there is to feel and think is available to you once you get an idea of how the piece works. "Dybbuk" is more a commentary on the story than a telling of it. It helps to know the story--and then not worry about it.
Janie Taylor as the possessed. On Sunday Joaquin De Luz, a dramatic, crazed spirit, plays opposite her again. Photo by Paul Kolnik for the New York City Ballet.
Janie Taylor (yay! she's back!) as the doubly betrothed Leah brought out all that conflict by stretching ballet form--in arcs and lines of yearning and despair--almost to the breaking point.
tickets for students. Go to nycballet.com for details.
The problem is, it's a false dichotomy. Theatrical effect and poetic ambiguity aren't opposites, they're on the same continuum. Ambiguity, metaphor, feeds off the concrete just as much as storytelling does. Robbins' misunderstanding of what people who are anxious about it tend to call "abstraction" caused him all sorts of trouble--including "Watermill," which reappeared last Friday at New York City Ballet after a deserved rest of nearly two decades.
Nikolaj Hubbe in "Watermill." Photo, Paul Kolnik for New York City Ballet.
"Watermill" involves a middle-aged man tripping on his life. (The captivating Edward Villella originated the role in 1972; for this run, NYCB has recruited the recently retired Nikolaj Hubbe, whose beautifully ravaged body is perfect for the part.) Reclining among bundled stalks of marsh grass, the man hallucinates his frisky youth, love affairs that went on without him, and a beautiful woman (Kaitlyn Gilliland) hypnotically brushing her hair. Teiji Ito's flute and percussion score sets the meditative tone.
If a stranger said, "I love a woman who brushes her hair," he'd still be a stranger. You'd want to know, Is it the untangling of her tresses, the sensuality of the strokes, the ritual of hygiene, the way she inclines her head--what? Or, because you'd know too little to begin with, you wouldn't want to know anything. Even with its protagonist in his underpants, the most naked thing about this ballet is Robbins' earnest conviction that he's saying something by leaving so much out.
Choreographers are still making this mistake--supposing that if they keep things open, they're giving us more freedom to imagine. Imagination doesn't need freedom, it needs something to dig its claws into. And Robbins proves again and again with his unabashedly theatrical work ("Fancy Free" and "Afternoon of a Faun," for example) that he knows this. He knows that the situation and the steps--the denotation and the connotation--don't run on separate tracks. He knows that you don't have more of one when you're missing the other.
But he forgets nearly everything when he's trying to be an Artist, rather than just make a dance.
What, you still want to see it? As part of the Robbins celebration at New York City Ballet that lasts through June (33 Robbins ballets on 10 distinct programs), "Watermill" plays once more, this Thursday, with the ebulliently goofy "Four Seasons." Cheap standby tickets for students. Go to nycballet.com for details.
Readers have wanted to know why I haven't said anything about all the critic layoffs these past several weeks.
I was saddened that nobody has spoken up about the nationwide loss of fulltime dance critics. Deborah Jowitt has lost her place at the Village Voice, Lewis Segal was dismissed from the Los Angeles Times, and Laura Bleiberg is leaving the Orange County Register. Newspapers are on the decline.
It seems that there is no money for a full-time critic in any major newspaper except the NY Times. There is an overwhelming number of "media outlets," but each seems more dubious and unverifiable than the last.
Where does this leave the dance community? How will our art change with the loss of the knowledge and provocation of our major critics? How are Youtube, Myspace, and Facebook affecting dance? When everyone has a say, then whom do we trust? And if no one reads the major newspapers, then how can we reach the larger community?
There has been some vast changes over the last 10 years, and yet it seems that we are facing some of the same problems. I'd love to hear your feedback.
Before I chime in, here's my friend Paul Parish, irregular Foot contributor, who seconds your emotion and answers some of your questions. His email arrived about the same time as yours:
Sat last night behind Louis Segal at the final program of San Francisco Ballet's New Works Festival, commiserated with him, and this morning read the following letter in the New Yorker [in response to this great article by regular Nation contributor Eric Alterman]:
Alterman's predicted demise of the newspaper is premature. Newspapers are still making good money while firing staffers or offering them buyouts. An industry that has garnered profit margins of twenty-five to thirty per cent--figures that other businesses could only dream about--flies into a panic when the margin dips to seventeen per cent. Do newspaper executives really believe that they can cure their ills by reducing their news holes and closing bureaus? In my view, as someone who has spent many years as a newspaperman and as a journalism professor at New York University and at California State University, Long Beach, a glaring failure of newspapers is in not making their importance known to the public. While the television, movie, and other industries inundate us with information about their exploits, newspapers are mostly silent about themselves. The newspaper industry and individual newspapers could well benefit today from the assistance of public-relations firms that are able to tell the story of newspapers that they themselves unfortunately don't--that they produce news coverage unlike any other medium. --M. L. Stein, Irvine, Calif.
It totally confirms my sense of why dance critics of the stature of Jowitt, Zimmer, Segal are getting fired. First the publishers are making the position untenable, then they blame the critic and take the position away. Cynically. It's just a business decision. They make more money that way. Stein is naive to think that the papers need better PR. They are flying under the radar--nobody will call them on their duty to inform the public if everyone thinks they're dying. But in fact democracy as we know it, for a 9-figure population, depends on common knowledge and real reporters saying to the best of their knowledge what they know and following up on developments -- not giving their opinions nor the weird and delightful things they'd like to think nor the Scenes We'd Have Liked to See....
Niche-things (blogs and Youtube) are taking up the Mad Magazine function very well, and Stewart and Colbert are great at it, and it has its place as a safety valve, but it is not a substitute for agreement-- and democracy requires us to agree to put up with what most people agree to do, even if it goes against what we think, believe, want. But to do that depends on everybody getting intelligible intelligence. The place of the arts in this is in training the sensibility so we know what bullshit tastes like when we're being fed it.
your friend in California,
I'm with Paul most of the way. A few other thoughts, though. First, the reduction to freelance status of Jowitt and Segal, and the departure of Laura Bleiberg (perhaps she saw the writing on the wall) are terrible developments. Really depressing. I only haven't said so here because at this point the loss felt inevitable.
As Foot contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa pointed out on her own blog more than a month ago, this shoe is not the first but nearly the last to drop, after the dance pages of newspapers and magazines have been halved or eliminated and a precedent set for dance criticism's irrelevance. The less there is of it, the less need there is for it, because criticism gains traction by numbers.
Whether she recognizes it or not, every critic has a particular philosophy of criticism from which she writes; when we read two excellent critics responding to the same work differently, we develop a philosophy of our own, "so we know what bullshit tastes like when we're being fed it," as Paul so vividly puts it. When, on the other hand, there's only one take on a show, then the review can really only function as a report or an opinion. It means less, dance means less, and then--as Paul points out--editors can justifiably decide they don't need any reviews anymore. A terrible chain of events.
Criticism was the secular, humanist answer to Talmudic commentary and Christian sermon: all advance by various species of beautiful argument.
And what will come next? On a good day, I think, Surely something new. On a bad, that argument will go the way of archery.
Which brings me to your question,
There is an overwhelming number of "media outlets," but each seems more dubious and unverifiable than the last. When everyone has a say, then whom do we trust?
Where does this leave the dance community? How will our art change with the loss of the knowledge and provocation of our major critics?
--I wonder how much critics have ever affected the art. That they have affected its audience, I have no doubt.
Well, this has been a cheery post, hasn't it? And I have succumbed to complaining about our circumstances, which I started this blog to counter. But things have changed. A year and a half ago, I thought there was something we writers might do to improve our circumstances. I don't think so anymore.
UPDATE TUESDAY: Eva responds to a timely essay by Minnesota freelance dance critic Camille LeFevre here. (See comments for a taste of Eva's post, and the link to the essay she's responding to.)
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