foot in mouth: January 2010 Archives

Promise and dreck: the work of a young choreographer
January 31, 2010 3:46 PM | | Comments (0)

When a young choreographer has the bud of a beautiful language but only an intermittent sense of what to do with it, her promise is an open question; as a reviewer I tend to answer in the affirmative, in the hope that the language will win out in the end.

Does it usually? That depends on the powers that be--not just critics, but producers, artistic directors, etc.--recognizing how much it counts for, how much it can lead the way, particularly in such a metaphorically rich, discursively poor art form as dance.

The Hungarian Atilla Kun (no, not Attila the Hun, as I wrote a few times --ayayay! and the movement is so gentle!) is the choreographer in question this time. He brought out the most delicate attentiveness and sincere commitment in the appealing young dancers--most under age 25 and trained locally, at the "national" ballet school of Gyor, a small city (about the size of Berkeley) in northwest Hungary.

Here's most of my Financial Times review from last week of that company's, the Gyor National Ballet's, New York show. (They do ballet in the liberal European sense, not in strict pointe-shoed parlance). They're touring the program to Western Europe-- Switzerland, Austria, and Germany--in March:

Stravinsky is dictatorial enough that a dance not driven by the score risks being left in the dust - the fate of Dimitrij Simkin and James Sutherland's Petrushka for the Györ National Ballet's "Stravinsky Evening", part of New York's four-month Performing Revolutions festival of Central and Eastern European arts. For the night's Rite of Spring, however, choreographer Atilla Kun shades the music's violent upsurge towards a delicate nature without plugging his ears. A feat.

In this 1995 Petrushka , revived for the 20th anniversary of the Soviet Union's collapse, the curtain rises on a mammoth Red Star. But it is not the shiny undentable icon so much as a skeletal form made of driftwood, each strand worn and individual. The star reflects Simkin's desire, he writes in the programme, to show that " 'big chief' and small individual were well differentiated" in the Soviet Union of his youth. But he doesn't differentiate them. Rebellious Petrushka (a gentle Balint Sebestyen), the sinister Magician (a sinuous Balazs Patkai) and the will-less masses perform the same angular, impassive steps even as a panoply of discrete dramas rises up in the magical whir of the music.

Kun, who has been choreographing in his native Hungary for the past decade, hears only certain strains in The Rite of Spring as well: the wend of the bassoon, but not its minor-key menace; the beat's steadiness, but not its relentlessness. When the promising choreographer describes his Rite as "eleven remarkable artists searching [for] harmony within themselves, as well as through the music of nature and their companions", you think sleepytime George Winston, not Stravinsky. But the movement's detail -- maintained until the end, when Kun loses his nerve and succumbs to a stock rendition of ritual sacrifice -- makes room in the music for gentleness.

Kun is drawn to the body's rococo tips...


The flamingolike straightness of legs with precise, decorative detail of hands is typical of Kun's style for Rite. Dancers from our left to right: Virag Sothy, Szabina Cserpak and Balazs Patkai

For the rest of the review, click here.

January 31, 2010 2:23 PM | | Comments (0)
January 22, 2010 3:50 PM | | Comments (0)
I suppose the esteemed New York Times chief dance critic Alastair Macaulay is right that Alexey Miroshnichenko's Lady with the Little Dog "isn't the worst dog (sorry) ever seen on [the New York City Ballet] stage," though it was the worst my friend Carlene, my regular ballet companion, had seen. As Macaulay mentions, another older and more popular Soviet-ballet booster, Boris Eifman, takes the cake for awful. Eifman not only makes a travesty of the literature he submits to ghoulish treatment (Anna Karenina, for example), but he also offers an evil simulacrum of the ballet idiom. I remember my first encounter: I had been fully warned about the cornucopia of kitsch but not that the dancing would imitate the shapes of ballet while suctioning out all the muscles and bones. I got a terrible stomachache that first time, as if my body were supplying the guts missing onstage. And, sure, Miroshnichenko doesn't do that to ballet. But he does do it to Chekhov. The result is silly and boring more than horrifying, at least. If it were just a bit worse, it might actually be fun!

Here's what I had to say about it in my Financial Times review today:

The man in the Chekhov story who says, "We Russians of the educated classes have a partiality for questions that remain unanswered", could be describing his author - and a modern state of mind that ballet has been slow to embrace. Still, there are choreographers who would know what to do with the unresolvedness of "The Lady with the Little Dog", in which a chronically bored serial adulterer unexpectedly falls in love with his latest quarry, a married woman, and discovers "a new, beautiful life" beyond his reach. Alexei Ratmansky, for example, has characters spinning unhappily in circles of habit and circumstance. But Alexey Miroshnichenko is hard-pressed to create characters at all.

The St Petersburger's New York City Ballet premiere may have taken its name from the Chekhov story, but the two works only have in common a man and a woman. (The leprechaun-angels are the choreographer's own invention.) When Sterling Hyltin and Andrew Veyette strip to their underwear and roll around on the floor, it doesn't amount to even the simplest kind of love. Miroshnichenko doesn't do mental states. His choreography alternates between ballet school steps, which mean nothing, and senseless importations from civilian life, such as when a "naked" Hyltin gropes around in post-coital defeat for her clothes, except she wasn't wearing clothes. She was wearing a tutu.

Dog seems especially foolish sandwiched between Balanchine's edgy 1957 masterpiece Agon, to Stravinsky, and his imperial romp Cortège Hongrois.

Then I go on to talk about the evening's two Balanchine works and how Sean Suozzi saved the night for me.


Sean Suozzi in Agon, with Rebecca Krohn, his glorious partner in Cortege Hongrois, to his right. Photo for the New York City Ballet by Paul Kolnik.

Macaulay comes close to offering that ballet truism that "there are no mothers-in-law in ballet," as Balanchine put it with typical wit--that this silent art inevitably makes a hash of complicated plots, with their intricate back stories. There may not be mothers-in-law, but there is psychological depth: Antony Tudor's Pillar of Fire, for example, and  Balanchine's  Davidsbundslerdantze. Literature may not have prompted these ballets, but it could have. If Miroshnichenko had actually attended to the Chekhov story, he might have had something. And Chekhov was a playwright, so his storytelling lends itself to visualization.

Here are the categories Dmitry Gurov, our serial adulterer, comes up with for the women of past affairs:

carefree, good-natured women who were exhilarated by lovemaking and grateful to him for the happiness he gave them, however short-lived; and ... others--his wife among them--whose caresses were insincere, affected, hysterical, mixed up with a great deal of quite unnecessary talk, and whose expression seemed to say that all this was not just lovemaking or passion, but something much more significant; then... two or three beautiful, cold women, over whose features flitted a predatory expression, betraying a determination to wring from life more than it could give, women no longer in their first youth, capricious, irrational, despotic, brainless, and when Gurov had cooled to these, their beauty aroused in him nothing but repulsion, and the lace trimming on their underclothes reminded him of fish-scales.

Macaulay "applaud[s] Mr. Miroshnichenko in not weighing his ballet down with literal depictions of Chekhov's details," but what's striking about the details in the above paragraph at least is that they are precise without being literal and thus can lend themselves to dance. A choreographer might have tripled the Gurov character, so you have all three types of women each in a cluster with their own cloned Gurov. On one side of the stage we have the dance of the carefree and good-natured women (plus Gurov), and on another the dance of the pretentious and portentous women (plus Gurov) and downstage center the cold, beautiful, aging, predatory, and brainless (plus Gurov--witnessing them turn from mermaids to scaly fish in his arms). The women are multiplied to convey their type and the long line of his conquests, but they wouldn't have to all be there at once. They could move in and out of the wings to circle and dally around him, the choreographic geometry reflecting his sense of there always being more and more (and he's so grateful, really). The focus could shift cinematically between the three groups, as it does in Balanchine's Nutcracker party scene: a mashup of the man's past, kaleidescoped into the instant. Balanchine does something like that with the three Schumanns and Mrs. Schumanns in Davidsbundlertanze.

And dance can show cold and predatory and greedy; it can show capricious, irrational, despotic, brainless, and Gurov's repulsion too. Out of this first, busy scene, Anna--the hopeless young lady with the lapdog whom Gurov eventually falls in love with--might materialize, alone.

A choreographer could also show the first "bedroom" encounter between Dmitry and Anna, where she is sure he will not respect her once he sleeps with her--but, god, don't show us them stripping down to their underwear, with the lady flinging her blonde tresses around as in a wretched music video; show us a gradual though incomplete increase in trust and contact, as in Swan Lake when the hunter encounters his swan (but without the final submission).

When he realizes her impending infidelity causes her misery, Dmitry basically asks Anna (and haven't we all heard this chilling, bullying line before?), "So what do you want?" She wants something complicated and she's not sure what it is, but she could still dance something of that fire of wanting, at least, if not the thing she doesn't know. The solo could be a flingy off-balance affair as in Balanchine's The Four Temperaments, say. And Dmitry could dance being "bored to death," as Chekhov shockingly puts it, by her fear and tenuous hope; while Anna is suffering through her angsty solo, the carefree ladies of his past could be distracting him, flitting on and off like the sprites on the edge of Sleeping Beauty's vision scene. Occasionally, he returns his attention to the mopey spirit before him, perhaps lending a hand for a particularly reckless move of hers, before lapsing back into the less onerous visions in his head.

Would this be a story ballet? It wouldn't have to be, any more than other complicated-love ballets have been, such as Balanchine's Liebeslieder Waltzes or his Divertimento from "Le Baiser de La Fee."But it would still owe a great deal to its literary source. 

The hardest thing to show is how Dmitry's boredom--and the story is steeped in boredom and silence--shifts into love. Chekhov doesn't know how to explain it either--which is what makes him so wise, that he doesn't try to, that he lets it remain a mystery, that he doesn't comment on the man's sea change. But he does show it--Dmitry clutches his head in the final scene and cries "How? How? How?"And ballets have shown it, too: there is the Poet in Balanchine's La Somnambula, for example. It might have been the heart of this ballet--the challenge and the excitement--to show us a pas de deux that radically changes mood as it goes. (For any of this to work, you would probably have to jettison the Shchedrin score and put something less soupy together.)

So, if there are no mothers-in-laws in ballet, there are at least the ghosts of mothers-in-law, and they should be welcomed more avidly onto the ballet stage

January 22, 2010 2:35 PM | | Comments (0)
January 9, 2010 3:47 PM | | Comments (0)

Writing on the Pacific Northwest Ballet's debut under the widely admired former New York City Ballet principal Peter Boal proved a challenge, in that I know that Boal is a very thoughtful curator of dances--that as artistic director he wants collections of dances, not a haphazard jumble. But coming up with a program for a New York show that doesn't bring coal to Newcastle or wishfully exaggerate the proportions of the modest Joyce stage must have caused him to tear his hair, as I mildly suggest in my review for the Financial Times.

So when you know that the company is in some sense offering itself on the world stage (ah, the vanity of New Yorkers!) and at the same time has its hands tied, how do you review it? Carefully.

The Tharp, at least, is one of the loveliest ballets she's made in a while (even if I wish she'd set it on pointe: imagine that you had danced every day on point for years and then found yourself shortened by six inches.)

Here are the middle paragraphs from my Thursday review. You have until Sunday (Jan. 10) to catch the company at the Joyce.

The alienated-love duet, with stony man manoeuvring piteously searching woman into outlandish positions, and the cutesy solo - to Bach, usually, because Baroque grandeur intensifies the homely, tic-ridden dance's absurdity - have become such recognisable types that the genre overwhelms the material. So it is with Edwaard Liang's Fur Alina (to Arvo Pärt, the favourite of glum choreographers) and Stuttgart resident choreographer Marco Goecke's Mopey, which even James Moore's impressive mastery of the comical rapid-fire gestures couldn't entirely rescue. As for Benjamin Millepied's Three Movements, it is as uneven as many of his New York premieres this year, alternating between inspired imagery - here, a surprising riff on the samba - and leaden-footed group muddle.

    Boal's values as a dancer [Ed. note: I am referring here to something I said in the first paragraph] only emerge with the Tharp commission. In Opus 111, his appealing dancers share his rhythmic and visual clarity, immanent pleasure and intelligence. The 30-minute ballet to Brahms' lush, declarative String Quintet in G Major pools and streams without being too slippery. Tharp anchors the patterns migrating across the body - the circling leg becoming hula-hooping hips and then switching to vertical for swinging arms - in rudimentary ballet steps.


A frisky moment in Opus 111. Photo for Pacific Northwest Ballet by Angela Sterling.

For the whole article, click here.

You know when you catch a performance so magical, you feel grateful for weeks or years? It doesn't happen very often, but Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal's second-act pas de deux in Balanchine's Midsummer Night's Dream this Wednesday was one of those times (as others have attested). Here's the final paragraph in today's Financial Times review of the ballet:

By hour's end, Balanchine has come to the end of Shakespeare's story. He begins it again, this time as pure dance. In Act I, "The course of true love never did run smooth"; in the much shorter Act II, love enters the domain of art, and runs perfectly. (As Balanchine said of another ballet: "In the first act, it's the real people that are dancing; in the second act, it's their souls.") Sublimely attuned to each other, Wendy Whelan and longtime dance partner Philip Neal travel side by side "where the wild thyme blows,/Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows" and form a wedding canopy with their interlacing arms. She circumferences him with a leg; he wreathes an arm around her. He is her world, and she is the centre of that world.


Whelan and Neal. Photo by Paul Kolnik for the New York City Ballet

For the whole review, click here:

I have problems with this review: too much showing, not enough telling. In this last paragraph, for example, I included the famous Oberon directions to Puck about where he could find Titania, "lull'd in flowers" like Eve in Paradise Lost, not because Balanchine conjures a natural paradise but because he's doing in dancing what Shakespeare does in poetry: create grace that seems utterly natural and inevitable while in fact it adheres to artificial constraints such as meter and rhyme. But I couldn't figure out how to say that in the space I had (I wonder whether lay people realize that most journalists are assigned exact word counts--not "around 400," say, but "maximum of 400." The editors don't have the space for you to err). So I just quoted a couple of lines as if to say-- Here, I give you this because I can't give you the dance.

But you can still catch the ballet: you have a couple of days. Tuesday's cast--with Jenifer Ringer and Jared Angle in the second act duet and some of my favorite cloddish lovers (Andrew Veyette and Arch Higgins) plus Sara Mearns as a likely delicious Titania--is particularly promising.

To whet your appetite for idyllic dancing, here is a video I found--via the Facebook page of Will Amato, designer of gorgeous and uncanny Web pages for authors et. al.--in which Pavlova's butterfly beauty (I've never seen such dappled lassitude) is set to a raga-esque soundtrack. The effect is to bring out the completeness of her melting collapses:


January 9, 2010 1:49 PM | | Comments (0)
The new year and decade in dance: what to hope for, what to look for, what to watch this month
January 1, 2010 5:50 PM | | Comments (0)

(I know, you probably don't care--nor should you--but I revised, as of Sunday Jan 4 3ish pm the paragraphs on the downtown scene and on Performa--the first b/c I wanted to try to get right at least what I think I'm seeing, the second because there were some factual inaccuracies. I put ** before those paragraphs.]  

Finally, we have escaped the Bush-ridden naughties. To ring in the new year and a more hopeful decade, I offer some dance recommendations this month (yeah, I know, a modest present for a whole decade before us!) and then stumble backward into the last decade.

To begin with the now, for intimate dance theater equal parts proud and desolate, Noche Flamenca can't be beat. It's gotten to the point where I actually fear the next New York season of this troupe, because the last was such a thrill. I think, How can it rise to that level again? And then it does.

Here's the first paragraph of my Financial Times review:

Flamenco is a soul-baring art, which means it is always at risk of burning itself out. Madrid's nine-person Noche Flamenca defeats those odds by anchoring the drama in the dancing and the dancing in the individual, and using the same ebb and flow of feeling that shapes the dancers' solos to pace the evening.
    After the singers, guitarists and dancers huddle for a rousing chant and handclap, the first of the season's solos arrives: Antonio Jimenez's persuasive performance of virile meltdown. While his gaze ploughs ahead like high beams into the night....

Click here for the whole thing.

Noche Flamenca - Photo by James Morgan.JPG

Soledad Barrio of Noche Flamenca, with magnificent singer Manuel Gago behind her. Photo by James Morgan.

Because APAP (Association of Performing Arts Presenters) descends on the city for a week starting this coming Thursday, January is a great time to catch "downtown" work you missed the first time around.

It used to be that for the presenters' sake, APAP showings amounted to one excerpt after another. But a few years ago, New York producers (starting with PS 122, I think) realized they should pick a few works and stand by them, offering them up whole. Now other New York institutions, such as Dance Theater Workshop, and independent agents, such as Ben Pryor, who's curating an ambitious festival, American Realness (at the New Museum and Abrons Arts Center), are following suit.

Some work I'm looking forward to seeing for the first time or have seen and recommend:

At DTW: Tere O'Connor's Wrought Iron Fog (reviewed here) and Pam Tamowitz's Be in the Gray with Me. (The stupendous Faye Driscoll will be offering a preview of an April work, but I'd rather wait to see it in full.)

As part of PS 122's Coil Festival, a reprise of Maria Hassabi's Crossing the Line festival SoloShow (or was this the one for Performa?). Though not dance, I'd also wager Richard Maxwell's show and Lisa L'Amour and Katie Pearl's theatre piece worth checking out.

As for American Realness (I like that name: it makes you wonder about the affect of realness in dance), where most of the offerings are on the performance art end of dance (meaning sometimes dance is the least of it), I want to see Ann Liv Young and think once again about what she's good for; I've heard a lot about Jack Ferver and so it's about time I check him out; and I'm intrigued by Trajal Harrell's smackdown between the Judson legacy and the voguing scene (what an intriguingly improbable combo!). I had mixed feelings about Miguel Gutierrez's Last Meadow (at DTW this fall), but the piece is certainly not dull and is worth watching for Michele Boule alone. Her James Dean impersonation is uncanny. The other artists on the Realness roster are all worthy, but they're only doing 30 minute excerpts. 

And for ballet: this very week a spring respite at New York City Ballet with Balanchine's shimmery, butterfly-quick Midsummer Night's Dream, to the Mendelssohn. It will be interesting to see what the fairyland romance does to us in the dead of winter.

Yesterday was the day to sum up the decade, and I didn't and won't (she says), except to say that I think ballet is experiencing a renaissance--beginning with Ratmansky and Wheeldon but not ending there. Ballet has finally derailed itself from the sodden track of numbing abstraction that dominated new choreography for almost two decades. It has begun to take full advantage of its postmodern liberties to explore lexicons of movement outside the classical framework (not always very thoughtfully, but still good to have) and, more delightfully, theatrical structures.

So you get the choreographers trying out the contingencies of Cunningham and thus lightening the onstage drama, or playing with Forsythe's pokes at the fourth wall, less impudently and dogmatically than he.

Ballet critics have gotten so used to disappointment or so entrenched in their own camps (Balanchineans, Euro-trash enthusiasts, etc.) that they haven't sufficiently noticed how much more often something exciting comes our way balletwise than did from 1995 to 2002 (I'll say, conservatively). 

About "downtown" dance--and you know what I mean--I'm not sure what to say. I'm generally eager to give artists the benefit of the doubt, so the fact that I'm getting increasingly annoyed at and even suspicious of the artists' prerogative to do whatever they want means either there's something really cool going on that is beyond the scope of my understanding OR the work is disguising its laziness of construction and thought under a series of feints and dodges that make it not simply a dead end for dance but also an act of bad faith. While I'd like to believe the first, I'm inclined to believe the second. I have a pretty good feel for the difference between innocent ineptitude and self-righteous ineptitude built on a whole apparatus of justifications that blocks intelligent self-assessment. As a critic rather than a scholar--and of course the categories can overlap--I'm interested in the present, so this hunch causes me despair.

**My solution to not becoming any more cranky is to focus on the blooming areas of downtown dance: that which abuts theater (such as Paul Lazar and Annie-B Parson's Big Dance Theater or Faye Driscoll's work) and that which is fiendishly structural. There are many people working in the second (Wally Cardona, Tere O'Connor, Neil Greenberg, Roseanne Spradlin, John Jasperse, Ronald K. Brown, Rennie Harris, Jonah Bokaer, Juliette Mapp, and more), though they are mainly an older generation, at least in their forties. This group often overlaps or switches places with another--Tere O'Connor, Neil Greenberg, Donna Uchizono Susan Rethorst, Vicky Shick, Pam Tanowitz, Sarah Michelson, Roseanne Spradlin --whose structures fall in and out of visibility, as if the choreographers were working according to an almost mystical airborne algorithm (and maybe they are).  

The New York Times chief critic Alastair Macaulay has an interesting sum-up of the decade in the Sunday paper in which he singles out for encouraging developments Indian classical dance, African indigenous/folk dance, tango, flamenco, and tap. These idioms have in common their close alliance with music, which almost guarantees structurally solid work. So they have that with the downtown choreographers who let me hope. 

Macaulay reserves judgment on the downtown scene except to say that it's too big for one person to take in the whole of and yet he suspects it's not very interesting. Instead of suspecting, why not call in the troops, who collectively, at least, might have some more definitive answers? Why not have a roundtable where Times regular contributors Gia Kourlas, Claudia La Rocco, and Roslyn Sulcas hash it out? They have between them very different aesthetics, and so it might bring out where postmodern dance has been and where it might go. Criticism shouldn't just be a matter of This is good; therefore, we will pay attention to it but also This is what the art form is up to. It matters what the cutting edge is doing, even when it is mainly stabbing itself in the back.

Finally (wow, I meant this to be short), another valuable roundup was David Velasco's in ArtForum, where he has managed to carve out a place for dance. (Yay!)

Velasco has the unenviable task of linking dance to contemporary art "practice," as they like to call it, without eliding the differences. He does an excellent job. For once, dance isn't simply the pale cousin of splendid contemporary art but might actually teach art a thing or two (to put it more pugnaciously than Velasco would).

**The inferiority complex that the art world has burdened experimental choreographers with is a terrible thing. If you think I overspeak, consider Performa, biennial of performance art. Its curators have had so little faith in contemporary performance art's dance aspect that they have felt the need to retreat to the obvious and historic--the Judson era--to beef up their dancey-art offerings, and to look to the French--who come to Judson by way of their American contemporaries, whom the biennial has until this year ignored--to suggest its relevance for now. (Allowed: Performa '09 was a good deal less oblivious and fuddy-duddy in its selections than previous years.) The curators didn't feel the need to trawl history for their art-based performance artists, now, did they? Oh, yeah, there was the Joan Jonas premiere. Still, it's a relief to discover a bonafide art person actively refusing the loser mantle usually plopped on choreographers.

Here's a paragraph from the Velasco piece:

Intriguingly, many visual artists engaged in performance this past year, and they frequently chose the bromidic model of the artist lecture: Paul Sietsema (for SculptureCenter at the New School in New York), the Jackson Pollock Bar (for the UAE pavilion at the Venice Biennale), Cory Arcangel (at the New Museum in New York), Mark Leckey (for MOMA at Abrons Arts Center), and Rabih Mroué (for the Bidoun Lounge at Art Dubai) among them. Most evinced an arch or impish relationship to institutional structures, using the (largely overdetermined) format to reflect on the still sacred myth of the artist as conveyor of special knowledge. [Ed. note: Wait! That's a myth? It seems a rather small claim, "conveyor of special knowledge." And even that is too much? An engineer, a hairdresser, a global climate scientist--they get their special knowledge but not an artist?] And they largely relied on mind over matter, disavowing the body: Heady Sietsema wasn't even present for his "lecture," instead telegraphing ideas via an abstruse, collagist film. One wonders whether this trend might be an occasion for fruitful dialogue among different performance traditions. What often seems missing from narratives about the current performative turn is that some of the most rigorous artists--certainly those who dedicate the bulk of their time to living, ratifying, and revising the conditions of performance--are first and foremost choreographers. [Emphasis added].


January 1, 2010 2:35 PM | | Comments (0)

Topics on Tap

Sunday January 31: Promise and dreck: the work of a young choreographer
Friday, January 22:  A call for mothers-in-law in ballet!
Friday January 1, 2010!  The new year and decade in dance: what to hope for, what to look for, what to watch this month


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