foot in mouth: June 2008 Archives


I should have mentioned Neil Greenberg's show at DTW already, as I've never seen anything by him I haven't liked, if not been deeply moved by. (I'm going Friday, tonight--and may have more to say later [UPDATE: here is that more]). Thankfully, Foot in Mouth contributor Eva Yaa Asantewaa reminded me, with this rave on her blog:

Everybody's thrilled by and writing about Neil Greenberg's new Really Queer Dance with Harps, and you should really queerly or otherwise see it--especially for the radiant trio of harpists, led by composer Zeena Parkins, at the golden heart of the piece. But my own really queer heart has gone and continues to go out to Quartet with Three Gay Men, the 2006 work danced by Greenberg, Luke Miller, Antonio Ramos and Colin Stillwell. It's just--hooray!--11 minutes, and some of that time is spent dancing to RuPaul's "Supermodel (You Better Work)." Can't go wrong, in my book, with RuPaul. And it's a fantastic dance, too, like a prism breaking Greenberg into four avatars who render his spacious movement with luscious, queerforward simplicity. Oh, did I mention it's only 11 minutes? Brevity, the soul of wit.

Dance Theater Workshop
's got Dance By Neil Greenberg through Saturday. Click here to watch a clip of Quartet with Three Gay Men (it's number 4 in the slideshow). Also click here for tickets, preview articles, more rave reviews, and an Artforum piece by Greenberg himself that's really smart. Greenberg should be a big star; the fact that we can see him and his incredible, eccentric dancers up close and for $25 (or less) is amazing for us, whatever it says about the situation of the artist in America. So, Enjoy!


Photo by Erin Baiano; borrowed from The New York Times.

June 19, 2008 11:37 PM | | Comments (3)
I try not to resort too often to the common blog tactic of letting other writers do the work, but I won't be able to get anything up until next week and my colleague Joel Lobenthal, of the New York Sun, has written a wonderful tribute to the exceptional Wendy Whelan, of New York City Ballet. So I can't resist. Enjoy! 

whelansotopolyphonia.jpgWhelan and retired principal dancer Jock Soto in Christopher Wheeldon's "Polyphonia." Photo by Paul Kolnik for New York City Ballet.

June 17, 2008 10:46 PM | | Comments (0)

I've seen many exciting ballets in the last few weeks--and I knew if I didn't write about them soon (all of them), I'd forget what I was thinking. So this roundup is altogether too long. In order not to fall into a stupor, perhaps you should read it in installments. The photos serve to separate the parts.


concerto dsch.jpg

About Alexei Ratmansky's "Concerto DSCH," my friend Elaine exclaimed, "It's so real!"

    Of course, it's not real, it's ballet. But Ratmansky's eye for what people do together--become voyeurs, perpetrators, flirts, attention-hoggers, rivals, accidental lovers--is so wise and funny that he seems to have lifted scene after scene from life and translated it more perfectly than possible with translation into ballet. It's like when Marge and Homer Simpson become pilgrims--exactly as they've always been except now they're on the Mayflower.

    At one point late in the ballet--the score is Shostakovich's urbanely witty, then brooding, then buoyant Piano Concerto No. 2 in F major--a horde of dancers bursts onto the stage with little flat-footed hops, and everyone laughs, not only because the boing in the step is funny but because, performed en masse, it answers the drama that the dancers have just intruded on. You feel glee --and relief--to find aspects of humanity so instantly recognizable, no matter the language they're spoken in.

    It's tempting to compare Ratmansky to all the other choreographers I admire, not because he's derivative--not at all--but because he ratifies ballet's history by extending it. The choreographer whom he most reminds me of, though, is Jerome Robbins. (I swear, I had this thought before the Robbins festival at New York City Ballet began. Specifically, it was Ratmansky's "Bizet Variations," with its shades of the three rival sailors in "Fancy Free," that clinched the connection for me. That was during the BAM run this winter of Nina Ananiashvili's State Ballet of Georgia, which commissioned the ballet.)

    Ratmansky also makes a real place of the stage. He also is preoccupied with the psychology of the group and of the individual in the group; he also understands the corps not as a corps proper but as a bunch of people, whose relation to one another is constantly in flux. He also recognizes the punctuating power of exits and entrances (like the last word in a sentence or in a line of poetry). Most of all, he succeeds where Robbins desperately wanted to, but only sometimes did: he develops a language that jettisons conventional signs (for Robbins, the "cool" finger-snapping, the maidenly curtsying, the folksy jigs) for what those signs originally conveyed, before they became commonplace. Too often, Robbins got stuck in the middle, retaining the gestures while lifting them from their social context, so they quickly devolved into shtick. Ratmansky saves himself by inventing his own gestures. (He loves inventing steps as only perhaps Balanchine did, and he's got a keen sense of their evocative oomph.) Because the moves are never exactly what you'd see in the world, they offer it with wit and insight.

    On the same program-- it's called Here and Now--is "Rococo Variations," Christopher Wheeldon's last ballet as the company's resident choreographer. I dismissed it at its premiere this winter as even more frou-frou than its Tchaikovsky score, but now, on a third viewing, it seems to have deepened, grown full of mood. Of course I want to think Wheeldon went to work on it, fixing the transitions so that it now feels of a piece, but probably I'm the one who's changed.

    It's embarrassing to be so inconsistent. If I love a piece at first sight, I rarely love it less on a second go, but the other way around happens too often--especially, for some reason, with Wheeldon and Mark Morris.

    It took two visits before I could stand Morris's "Sylvia" and "Mozart Dances." Five for "V." (Believe me, I would have given up by then if the dance hadn't appeared on mixed bills.) Two for Wheeldon's "American in Paris." But I'm not sliding from admiration to adoration here, I'm leaping from impatient dislike to swoony love--a vast distance. 

    Maybe it's a musical thing. Both Wheeldon and Morris respond in detail to their scores, and when their interpretations depart radically from my own dreamy visualizations, I spend the first visit or two simply adjusting--reading the words but not grasping the sentences. I'm glad to have the luxury (the free tickets!) to come again.

Last chance for "Rococo Variations" and "Concerto DSCH" this season: Thursday, 8 pm, State Theater, Lincoln Center. Orchestra, 3rd and 4th ring seats still available. (The program consists of four ballets; the ones in the middle are bad, in my humble opinion. You could take a break for dinner and come back for the Ratmansky.) 



Clark_I Do_Stephanie Berger4_partnering.jpg


Speaking of being quickly dismissed--and of music revisited--British choreographer Michael Clark didn't get many reviews for his two programs to Stravinsky scores, presented last week at the Rose Theater as part of Lincoln Center's Great Performers series. So it's nice that the trusty old Times sent a reviewer to both programs--except they sent the same reviewer, Claudia La Rocco, and she didn't like either show! (Once it was clear that Clark irritated her, it was nuts to subject her--and us--to a second drubbing. The Times should have sent someone else.)

    Where La Rocco saw meagerness, sterility, and stale, '80s outrageousness, I found a lot to be intrigued by. (I only saw the second program, which featured "Mmm..." to Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring" and "I Do"--pictured above--to "Les Noces.") But that's neither here nor there: we're entitled to our different views. I do take issue, though, with the bind La Rocco puts an artist in who wants to respond to dance history or even just the music of dance history.

    She concludes her review of "I Do" and "Mmm..." with,

There are neat touches throughout the two works. But Mr. Clark is going up against history here, and neat doesn't quite do the trick.

    If Clark had followed the usual plot line of the ballets, the result would likely be derivative, if not hokey (see: Robbins' "Les Noces"). Instead, he acknowledges the scores' canonical status by assuming we know the story and allowing himself to take a more oblique approach, and he's accused of skirting the issue ("neat touches"). What, then, is there for him to do? This music cries out, as it always has, to be danced to, and we critics should be careful not to muffle that cry.

    For what it's worth, "Mmm..." and "I Do" seemed to me mainly modest and serious (albeit with kinky embroidery), intent on approaching the music in both highly conceptual and highly kinetic and spatial terms (these last two deliciously bound): a difficult approach, which does indeed make success unlikely, but a worthwhile one for its being so unusual.

    While the conventional response to the rhythmic bombast of "Rite" and "Noces" is to meet it beat for beat with percussive steps, Clark translates rhythm into an angularity of the body. The dancers move in flat, Cunninghamesque tilts with right-angled arms. The pieces' necessary texture comes by way of flurries of steps, turns that go against sense, torsos softly abandoning their clear lines to gyre and implode, entrances and exits that materialize unexpectedly (half the time through rotating mirrored panels at the back, which open onto a cement back wall and spotlights beaming directly into our eyes. Ingeniously creepy.).

    The penchant for the planar is very British contemporary-dance-- Richard Alston and Russell Maliphant have it, too--and Americans tend to find it a bit bland. Our strict angles--our Cunningham--is Cunningham, who is more explosive, more suddenly still, whose palette is both larger and more detailed. But the love that the Brits have for the most basic of Cunningham shapes--as if it were a miracle to flatten the body into an X or a Y, how much juice even in that!--is touching and contagious.

    I found the attention the Clark pieces invited was very like that of Cunningham dances, which have no narrative or dramatic arc, either. You get absorbed in the details and are not waiting for anything in particular. But with Clark, anyway, the devastatingly dramatic just may occur. "I Do" ends with the dancers in a tangle on the floor under sickly yellow light, as if they had been downed by poison gas and curled their limbs in to die. (Ah, the spectacle of forever after!) The bride, bedecked in what looks like a tea cozy cum dildo, stands above the wreckage. Trauma and drama presented as incident may be at odds with Stravinsky's "Rite" and "Noces"--all about anticipation, both of them--but so much the better.

Here's a one-minute clip from "Mmm..."  No more Michael Clark for Americans this year, but the company will be touring the Stravinsky fare to Luxembourg, Marseille, Suffolk, and Belfast this summer and fall. Click here for itinerary.


Twyla Tharp's "Rabbit and Rogue" for American Ballet Theatre is all anticipation. You keep waiting for the cartoon roustabouts Rabbit and Rogue and the Balanchinean corps slipping along behind them to either more fully converge or more completely diverge--rather than this semi-demi relationship.

    The premiere last week polarized critics, with more hating it than loving it. I fell somewhere in between, struck when it was over (and it is long) by what a feat it is to make a ballet--a real ballet, which this is, yes--without being struck by wonder at the ballet itself. I was never bored (though I did give way to exhaustion by the very end, having been in a state of anticipation for nearly an hour). But finally it seemed less than the sum of its parts.

    And parts "Rabbit and Rogue" certainly has. The corps is liquid and evanescent, very much in the mode of Tharp's last ballet for American Ballet Theatre, "The Brahms-Hayden Variations," with whatever meaning one derives arriving via the senses. The rapscallions Rabbit and Rogue, on the other hand, belong to the kind of cartoon world that needs a plot. I couldn't find one, but my Artsjournal colleague Tobi Tobias could (hers is my favorite among the reviews I read):

The pair [Rabbit (Herman Cornejo) and Rogue (Ethan Steifel)] sets out to see the world, accompanied by a colorful mix of music by the film composer Danny Elfman. Well, a postmodern idea of the world: They visit Hell, where Gillian Murphy and David Hallberg, alternately quarreling and making love, are the central patrons of a with-it nightclub where the required dress is black, skimpy and spangled. (Outfits by Norma Kamali.)

Next stop is Heaven, a peaceable kingdom, all white gowns and silver trousers, reigned over by Paloma Herrera and Gennadi Saveliev. In this place, one might find serene compatibility, even true love, perhaps bliss. Then the worlds commingle, as in real life.

    I did have the idea that our heroes existed in a different zone from everyone else, though primary colors for R and R, with the black and white for the rest, would have helped. But even this might not have been enough, because for the corps to tell a story, Rabbit and Rogue need one as well, and nothing really happens to them. (Have you ever met a cartoon character who wasn't defined by action? After all, what else do they have?) Rabbit and Rogue, endearingly danced by Cornejo and Steifel, end up seeming like filler in the neoclassical ballet Tharp actually wanted to make.

    Their antics might have at least employed cartoon rhythm. Film composer Danny Elfman's score has been disparaged for "lacking distinction," and it is a hodgepodge. But it starts out with a color and chug--one rhythmic pattern overlapping the next--that demands to be adhered to: Elfman is as dictatorial at the start as his hero Prokofiev. And still Tharp doesn't listen. Given how many of her early works depend on comic timing, it's surprising to find her deaf to it here. Perhaps she had to make the bulk of the dance before the score was finished.

    Besides the corps moving as silkily as a school of fish, the other unalloyed pleasure is Gillian Murphy as half of a "Rag" couple with the acclaimed David Hallberg. Tharp brings out Murphy's silent-movie-star charm; the ballerina returns the favor by inspiring Tharp's most interesting steps.

After roving across Japan and Korea, "Rabbit and Rogue" hops into Orange County in August. Click here for details.


Photos in order of appearance: "Concerto DSCH" by Paul Kolnik for the New York City Ballet; Michael Clark Company in "I Do" to Stravinsky's "Les Noces" for Lincoln Center Great Performers, photo by Stephanie Berger; and "Rabbit and Rogue" by Rosalie O'Connor for American Ballet Theatre.


June 11, 2008 2:37 AM | | Comments (0)
To those of you who check in regularly: Thank you, I'm honored. And I apologize for the lull here.

I have a backlog of ballets I'm eager to respond to: Alexei Ratmansky's incredible premiere for New York City Ballet; Michael Clark's worthy Stravinsky nights at Lincoln Center Great Performances, too easily dismissed by the Times (the only paper to review it, I think); Tharp's admirably epic and somehow opaque "Rabbit and Rogue" for American Ballet Theatre, also given a Times beating (I detect a pattern here); and some more thoughts on Robbins--how much he tells you by his dancers' exits and entrances--as the Robbins festival at New York City Ballet continues. But I won't let myself do any of that until I finish a pile of paying work. So, we'll see how much you care by the time I get around to it.

In the meantime--or  in any case--check out regular Times contributor Claudia La Rocco's omnivore blog The Culturist on WNYC's web site: interesting stuff.

And if you're wanting some reflections on ballet while we're in the midst of the spring season, here are a few pieces from the Foot vault: me on "Serenade" (apropos of nothing, I know); and me on what can be done about ABT's "The Sleeping Beauty." Perhaps they have done it! (It's being reprised this month at the Met.)
June 9, 2008 11:24 AM | | Comments (0)

La Mama is a casual kind of place. I've shown up to review a dance version of "Medusa" without anyone mentioning that there would be lots of talking--in Japanese. Or, a couple of Sundays ago, only half the advertised performers actually performed. The other half had gone the day before.

This easy spirit is perfect for the La Mama Moves festival, which just finished up (sorry!) its glorious three weeks. The festival was experimental in the root sense: artists goofing around.   

On the Mavericks in Motion program on May 18, the pieces made especially for the occasion--and probably in short time--were dopey, gross, brawling, oozy, highly allusive, and very much of the moment. (Heather Olson's solo, excerpted from her Dance Theater Workshop premiere in March, "Curious Awake Not Possible," was naturally more polished. I don't know what I would have thought of the drama as a whole, but this part, with the always-splendid Olson doing the dancing, possessed a compelling oddness and clarity.)

Aaron Draper's "Fruitshake Polaroid" calls to mind food commercials--all of them--where food fills in for some other appetite. A man and woman dance, romance, and stuff their faces with Ho-Hos.

You may say, okay, I get how that's gross, oozy, and allusive, but new? The references in the other dances aren't of recent vintage, either: not the psychedelic light shows or the grunge spirit that cinematographer Ray Roy's "Red Light Special" brings to mind, nor the cassette tapes featured prominently in Julian Barnett's "Sound Memory." But what does feel current is the very plenitude of retro allusions--the ease with which the choreographers borrow from the past. 

"Red Light Special" sets the scene with a video screen behind the dancers multiplying them tenfold in red and green as they move sluggishly in the flesh. It comes into its own when pasty-faced Roy, in boxer shorts, and his two lady companions, in hoodies and underpants, plunk down in a row of institutional metal folding chairs and spread their legs, subway style.

Roy is getting off in a clammy, crackhead way on the nearness of them, while they, looking slovenly and hung over, are maintaining a heavy-lidded glumness, like he found them that day at the Laundromat after someone had stolen their clothes. If the American Apparel models let some natural light into their fluorescent cubes, it might look like this.

As I've complained on Foot more than once about the lack of movement invention among youngish choreographers, I should say that they are keen on the social realm. My favorite example on Sunday--the whole year, even--was Julian Barnett's "Sound Memory (work in progress)." 


The piece gives off such light in its unfinished state that you worry it might lose more than it gains by being completed. (Then--nature abhorring a vacuum--you figure out what might be gained and stop worrying.)

The dance begins in the pitch black. Someone empties a box of cassette tapes onto the floor and scoots them one by one across the space. It turns out that cassettes dropped and scattered make a sound so distinct that you can identify it in the dark. "Sound  Memory" calls up many things that have lain in the dark.

You may only remember a song's words and tune after it begins, but you usually know in advance how it will make you feel. It's as if the song were unwinding from you as much as from the tape: a reverse déjà vu, the song on tape imagined while the song in you is real. Sometimes the experience is inverted: you realize you've forgotten how much pleasure a song has given, over and over again. For weeks or months or years while you were thinking of other things, it held that pleasure, like someone holding a place for you in line.

That mix of certainty and anticipation--everything will proceed in order, and you will have to, you will get to, take it bit by bit--is specific to tape-playing. With an iPod or even with a record player (God forbid!), no one ever has to wait. And with an iPod, you can choose not only a particular tune but even randomness. (What kind of randomness is it, anyway, if you get to choose it?) Tape-playing has us wait for what we can't quite remember until it arrives.

"Sound Memory" gets at this boredom and relief, private memory and collective ritual, by very simple means. Three dancers (Barnett, Patrick Ferreri, and Hanna Kivioja) take turns picking cassettes off the floor, stuffing them into their individual boom boxes, and dancing alone to the song.

Years ago, these songs spent months in heavy rotation. Most of them are like the Counting Crows' "Mister Jones": dumb lyrics ("...and I felt so symbolic yesterday") and a dumb yet catchy beat. The dancer occasionally seems to be responding to the lyrics. More often, the song is only a point of departure--departed from so long ago, no one could possibly follow the path back.

Whenever someone says a dance is left open to our imaginations, I'm pretty sure I won't like it. Doesn't all dance do that? So what does it mean to announce it? "Sound Memory" doesn't leave the dance open to our imagination, it explores what an imagination does with what gets handed to it. The encodedness of this dancing is funny and to the point.

The dances to the individual songs could have been more distinct from person to person and song to song. My friend Elaine hoped Barnett would deploy a quasi-Cunninghamesque method as he proceeded: make a bunch of short dances, some of them to specific songs and some of them randomly assigned a song. The dancers then have this enormous repertory of dances in their heads--as we have song memories in ours--which they call up on the instant when a tape is picked off the floor.

What was amazing and rare was the texture--the way the dance fell in and out of formality. Sometimes it was antitheatrical: the dancer picking up a tape and plunking it in the player in a thoroughly pedestrian way, or losing the thread of his improvisation midway and just diddling around. And sometimes it was tightly rehearsed--the dancers tumbling over each as they progressed along a diagonal late in the piece. Usually when dances alternate back and forth like this, it means the choreographer doesn't know what he's doing. Here, it felt like listening to tapes: sometimes you're just listening and sometimes you're remembering. Sometimes it's in real time and sometimes it has the smooth patina of dream-memory. "Sound Memory (work in progress)" is the raw and the cooked together. 

Look for Julian Barnett's "Sound Memory" at Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church in March.


"Sound Memory" made me think of all sorts of mental habits that current technology has made obsolete.

When you called someone before there were answering machines, you imagined the person walking to the phone, which was grafted to the wall or planted on a surface. If it kept ringing--and you could let it ring for as long as you wanted--you imagined the empty house and no one hearing the ring except maybe the dog, if he was home. And what did it mean to him?

Then there was being called--the mystery of it. You had no idea who it might be, and you had time to think about it. Nothing was going to happen if you didn't answer on the fourth ring except maybe the person would hang up. There was no answering machine to make you feel like a cheat. If you didn't want to answer, you could count the rings and extrapolate how much this person really wanted to talk to you (or maybe your sister, mother, father, or brother.)

In the second house I grew up in, people didn't call much, though they did come by--my mother's friends and the enticing friends of the artist who lived in our basement.

The basement arrangement was supposed to be temporary--the artist moved in because his girlfriend, who lived next door, had dumped him. But he was there for years, until another girlfriend took him in.

The basement, which mainly consisted of a carport, had no windows. When he wanted outside light, he'd open the carport door--his front door--and hang out in the driveway, him and his paint-speckled friends. The subject of his paintings, were, appropriately, cars. Big cars, little cars, red cars, blue cars.

When he got drunk, he would call--and call and call and call and call. It was like having the troll who usually stays under the bridge move in. You could practically hear him dialing before the ringing began.

My father didn't live with us, so he was the person I most looked forward to hearing from. For a year after he died, when the phone would ring I'd be halfway through anticipating it was him before I remembered it couldn't be.

Then I moved away to college, and there was nowhere to anchor that tense, achy hope to.

The phone and the home and the hope were of a piece for me, but I wonder whether in this evermore portable world the imagination binds itself more and more loosely to places and things. 

June 2, 2008 1:30 AM | | Comments (0)

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