foot in mouth: March 2009 Archives
This winter, a deadline forced me to miss Janie Taylor in Balanchine's "La Valse" at New York City Ballet. I felt even more gloom than usual at missing her--I try to catch everything she does--because the reviews confirmed, as Alastair Macaulay, chief dance critic at the New York Times, wrote, that
no other recent interpreter... is so right for the heroine as the febrile, driven Janie Taylor. The piece begins to Ravel's "Valses Nobles et Sentimentales." Ms. Taylor enters to the eighth and final waltz, and at once she shows the morbidly curious nervous system that is at the ballet's heart. She stretches out into the dark as though it will answer her needs. [And it does. With Taylor, the darkness always does.]
So I was overjoyed to find I'd have another chance: "La Valse" was returning for City Ballet's spring season.
I rarely get to experience that relief with experimental dance, however. You have three days, and then the dance is gone forever.
I've suggested this before, but I'll try again: Wouldn't it be cool if--along with its first committment, to new work--such palaces of experimentation as Dance Theater Workshop, the Kitchen, Danspace Project, PS 122, and Dixon Place had festivals of second looks?
PS 122 and others do an abbreviated rerun each January when performing arts presenters descend on the city to see what they might want to pick up for their theaters nationwide. But what about for the rest of us? What about a festival in the summer months, when the living is easier and theaters often lie dormant for a few weeks? An August festival, say, that extended across performance spaces and ran a single work for at least four or five days?
I've heard the arguments against it. The esteemed Claudia La Rocco ran through the objections in a nuanced article for the Times last year, when Dance Theater Workshop was restaging Adrienne Truscott's "Genesis No!" a year after its initial run at PS 122.
"It's applying a museum curatorial approach to live art practice, and by 'live' I mean of the moment," said Simon Dove, who left the Springdance festival in Utrecht, the Netherlands, to become chairman of the dance department of the Herberger College of the Arts at Arizona State University last year. "A museum approach is a way of holding on to something that by its very nature cannot be held onto."
[And Tere O'Connor:] "My art is a lens I see the world through: it's not about the product as much as it is about me looking forward."
I'm with Dance Theater Workshop's artistic director, Carla Peterson, though, who
By the time a dance appears before an audience, it has been rehearsed and rehearsed and rehearsed; it has already had all sorts of moments. Which one do you have in mind, Mr. Dove? I understand that the stage creates a different aura around the dance than the studio does, but it's not as if people are just getting up there and making stuff up.
spoke out against "the tyranny of commonly accepted wisdom" that she said fetishizes the ephemeral nature of dance.
In any case, as the art of dance transpires between dancers and audience, wouldn't every moment in performance essentially be new? I mean, isn't that what performance is--to make new again and again? No one accuses Dylan of being a relic for performing the same songs for years running. But then Dove hasn't chosen a rock analogy: not tony enough. (So what if he wants gallery in place of museum.)
As for Tere O'Connor's claim that dance isn't about the final product so much as the process, I understand why he's making the distinction: if an artist is making a product, then it can be consumed, and who wants an audience of consumers? But in declaring his independence from creating something--it's not about what we see, he says, but about him "looking forward"--O'Connor stumbles upon a common ambivalence among contemporary experimental choreographers towards having an audience at all.
For example, when choreographers lately work to break through the fourth wall, it's ostensibly to bring us into "the moment." But their actions often have the opposite effect: to push us out by doing our work for us, muffling our own anarchic intrusions. These transactional experiments are offered as a form of liberation--letting the dance and the audience loose from their cages. Too often, though, they smack of condescension and self-pity. Just because I'm sitting here doesn't mean I'm encaged, and just because you're performing doesn't mean you are. Plus, big concepts about Audience and Performer tend to obscure anything else in the performance but that relationship. The moment-by-moment experience of the dance itself--the thing that audience and performer have come together around--gets lost. Maybe, in fact, that's the aim: a disappearing act in which art experienced as art becomes impossible. No more concentrated attention and wafts of thought and feeling. No freedom of mind. Just a game with precise ground rules. The fourth wall hasn't been knocked down; rather, it encircles everyone now--performers and audience alike.
As for Dove's worries about the museum paradigm, I think the real worry is about curation. Theaters that bring a work back seem to be sanctioning it even more than when they commissioned it. They are saying not just that they stand by the artist but that they stand by this particular work. And that's scary--especially as they're choosing to return to certain pieces and not others.
I appreciate the problem. For example, the piece that occasioned La Rocco's Times article, Adrienne Truscott's "Genesis No!," would never have been my choice for a revisit. I very much wanted to like it, because I've always enjoyed Truscott as a performer, but I found it unbearable. You know that kind of humor that doesn't want to be too obvious, so instead isn't funny at all? Imagine an hour of it. The work was really into its non-sequiturs, just the way everyone is, just the way everyone is into their own dreams. But you probably won't be (unless the dreamer is your best friend).
Nevertheless, I think artistic directors should be brave and make even more choices than they already do. They should do this deja-vu thing more often.
As for me, the downtown show I was most disappointed to have missed these last couple of months was Jody Melnick's at the Kitchen.
Eva writes: Thank you! Doing the "Body and Soul" podcast interviews has taught me that dance folks might just be in the early stages of learning how to verbalize their concepts and visions for a listening audience of peers, fans and newbies. They're also just learning that this is a resource that they can use to their advantage. (How many forget to put links to their interviews on their Web sites or press materials?) So, I'm patient and working on faith that our comfortable interactions will not only be fruitful in the moment but also train dance artists in what's possible and useful. Aside from that, I love hearing whatever they have to say. Some interviews are smoother than others but all put me closer to the artistry that I love and respect. Thanks for featuring this talk with Julian Barnett. I enjoyed and was very moved and inspired by your commentary on an earlier version of his new work--as I told him--and I look forward to his Danspace Project program.
About a year ago, a rough draft of Julian Barnett's "Sound Memory" at the La Mama Festival jumpstarted all sorts of memories for me, and now it's back in full: at Danspace Project this Thursday through Sunday.
The esteemed Eva Yaa Asantewaa, irregular Foot contributor, has a half-hour interview with Barnett here on her blog, Infinite Body.
I love Eva's interview style--her engagement and clarity, the way she follows up on questions, the way she nudges her subjects along without ever betraying one iota of impatience. Julian Barnett, on the other hand, reminds me of the gulf that exists between the way certain choreographers (usually in a postmodern vein and usually under 40) talk and the way they dance and choreograph.
When talking, the most fierce and engaging of movers can be overtaken by a wayward vagueness, a tendency toward the most banal of abstractions. I'm guessing they're trying to get their minds around something they know best from moving or watching others move, and English isn't helping them. It's as if they understood language as a repository for all that doesn't have a place in the world, as if they'd never encountered an active verb, a concrete noun, a verb in the imperative or vocative mood.
It drives me crazy.
But I'm guessing "Sound Memory" in full will be a real trip, as people used to say. The last time, anyway, it took me far and near.
Postscript Monday March 16, evening (we had an email back-and-forth that yielded some insights...):
All the best,
Eva Yaa Asantewaa
Body and Soul podcast
Apollinaire: I hear you, Eva, but I don't understand the degree of fuzziness that so many dance artists seem to require of themselves. That's the weird part: they seem to be working toward vagueness.
Eva: Specificity is not on the menu for many because they are, almost to a person, reluctant to direct the audience or provide answers in their work, let alone in a preview interview about it. I kinda understand that. At the same time, it makes my project a bit more challenging. I'm hoping most listeners will hear within and around what's actually said.
Apollinaire: I think you've hit on it, Eva! They don't want to prescribe our response. But they don't realize how powerful both we and they are: that we're not Pods, we're not preprogrammable, and the dance isn't something we read like a book, anyway; we move with it as we like, whatever anyone has said beforehand.
Eva: Yes, it's such a powerful artform. Think of it: the basic medium is the body, the same body that the dancer lives in and walks around in and feeds every day. If non-dancers really stopped to think about that, really think about it, it might electrify them. I would think it might transform them and the way they live in their own skin. It's really the spookiest art in that way. The daily and quite difficult honing of the body to deliver the energies and information of art: It's a mission, it's a shamanic commitment.
My friend Paul Parish, irregular Foot contributor, writes from the Bay Area:
The world sure is looking unfamiliar -- not unrecognizable, just distorted and actually "on-the-morph."
San Francisco Ballet's "Swan Lake" did unbelievable box office. Two million dollars in sales, biggest box office ever for SFB. High ticket prices, of course. Standing room's gone up to 20 bucks, and standing room was jostling, 4-5 people deep at the back of the orchestra. Plus, they put another crowd up in the balcony....
My hunch is that in alarming times, ballet -- maybe dance of any kind, but especially the kind with a steady beat - becomes something that people find emotionally helpful -- not necessarily an escape, more like a lifesaver, something that buoys them up. It certainly happened in the '30s and '40s, when ballet first took hold here. During the war, everybody commented on the exponential growth in the audience's numbers and fascination...
Right now movies and bars and ballet are doing real well.
Here is Paul's gracious review of the "Swan Lake" that's breaking box-office records. And here's hoping for an update after further viewings (nudge, nudge...).
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