foot in mouth: February 2011 Archives

[Ed. note: while I am slow to get a new post up,  check out the comments to this one. I have some questions for you, dear reader.]

For reasons good and bad, choreographers Andrea Miller and Sidra Bell are not typical fare at New York's longtime incubator for new performance, Dance Theater Workshop. On the one hand, their work doesn't question performance's frame: not much meta-conciousness going on. On the other, they like movement--revel in it, experiment with it.

There is no reason why the two hands should be opposed--why a choreographer couldn't explore movement and performance's parameters. Cunningham did. Sarah Michelson does in her latest tour de force, Devotion. Still, a few years ago the opposition had grown as pronounced and unquestioned as it was during the Judson years (the '60s and early '70s). In New York, the trend was particularly prevalent among choreographers under 40, for whom steps often served as placeholders for an idea--about repetition or tedium or the oxymoron of performing pedestrian motion--they didn't want us distracted from. So, no intricate detail, none of that visceral thunk through body and mind that a person understands as "beauty."  

Now that it's waning, I can admit how devastated the Inertia Movement (as I dubbed it a while back) made me. Many lazy assumptions fueled it: that the most complete way to challenge an audience is by rejecting what makes dance pleasurable and/or engrossing: steps, spatial configurations, musicality, surprise; that movement itself doesn't generate ideas, it merely fulfills them; that high theatricality (such as Bell's) is best avoided, but if it must appear it should be ironic.

However successful the result, DTW's getting behind these two young women struck me as a necessary corrective--the kind of contrary probe that keeps honest an organization whose "importance," as the esteemed Claudia La Rocco at the mighty New York Times points out, "rests in its support of artists who truly push and pull at the boundaries and hearts of their art form."

La Rocco complains that Bell and Miller "risked nothing." And yet I haven't seen many dances called "putrid," as another outraged critic dubbed Bell's. So yay for DTW!

By the way, I don't think Bell's dance was garbage (though it may have been "putrid"). It was weird and impossible to make total sense of and it did give off a smell of rot, definitely. But this combination of effects is too unusual to equal trash.

Here is some of my review of Andrea Miller and Sidra Bell:

"Downtown dance" - as the experimental scene was christened long before high rents exiled choreographers to the outer boroughs - has always had a theoretical bent. But about seven years ago, the generation coming up decided to question the parameters of dance by not moving at all. Whatever motion survived the purge simply worked in the service of the choreographer's ideas about dance and performance. The movement had little life of its own, little power to shape those ideas.

Carla Peterson, Dance Theater Workshop's artistic director since 2006, must have sensed how askew the situation was, because she began commissioning choreographers - such as Andrea Miller, 28, and Sidra Bell, 31, on this double bill (until Saturday) - who believe movement and ideas feed each other.

Late in his life, Glenn Gould returned to the music that had jumpstarted his career, the Goldberg Variations. "It was a spooky experience," he said of listening back. "I recognised the fingerprints but not the spirit." With the charming and engrossing For Glenn Gould, Miller demonstrates the conversion of spirit into fingerprints - artistic intent into alienable object.


Snipped second paragraph on the Miller work, which would make sense of this photo (by Yi-Chun Wu).

Bell's Pool also explores alienation - or drowns in it, anyway....

bellpoolsmall.jpgKendra Samson, Jonathan Campbell and Austin Diaz in Bell's Pool. Photo by Yi-Chun Wu for DTW.

....The notion of numbness overwhelming spiky will is intriguing. Bell only needs to conceive the two separately enough that their embroilment stirs us.

For the full Financial Times take on the controversial ladies, click here.

As for Sarah Michelson's Devotion: talk about visceral thunk through body and mind!

I've always been blown away by Michelson's vision, how far she sees and yet how every detail and every moment-- each blasting entrance and exit, brand of tennies, color of T-shirt, style of hair, choice of civilian or dancer, spindly tween or adult--counts toward that insight. But with her last work, Dover Beach, at the Kitchen a couple of years ago, I came out feeling impatient. The vision was so controlled that, though the stage set--half caged and half free--was mesmerizing, with the women in the large cage doing these long slow developes that they held and held like they were in water, the movement mainly allowed little settling and focusing. It didn't afford a chain of associations, a little burst of pleasure, to make possible the onslaught of darkness which is life as Michelson sees it. And so it seemed less true to me, because invariably in life there are little offerings of distraction, of help. With Dover Beach I felt more completely what I had felt in other of her dances: I am not being imprinted because I am not ever given something whose valence I instantly grock, in my body.

Devotion left me a jangle of responses. The dance is very rhythmic, and the rhythms counterpoint the movement so that, say, a dancer doing a three-count pattern to 4/4 music only returns to the start of the measure after 4 rounds (this is just an example--I'm not sure anyone did this.) Plus she's moving in a staccato circle of second position plies around herself: east, south, west; south, west, north; west, that. The overlapping, incongruent patterns cause a kind of mathematical riot in your brain akin to the sublime. And there are these reinforcing or complicating details, like a single arms jutting out or a head bobbing. 

The punishing qualities of the dance achieve a vibrant relationship with these lyrical strokes. It reminded me of what New Yorker critic Peter Schjeldahl once wrote about beauty:

In my experience, an onset of beauty combines extremes of stimulation and relaxation...Beauty is a willing loss of mental control, surrendered to organic process that is momentarily under the direction of an exterior object....Nothing in itself, beauty may be a mental solvent that dissolves something else, melting it into radiance.

Here's a chunk of my Financial Times review on Devotion (I apologize for the weird indenting):

They are a good match. Playwright Richard Maxwell reinvigorates threadbare genres - the Everyman monologue, the boxing Bildungsroman - with hyper-natural dialogue delivered so woodenly that you actually begin to hear "how people articulate themselves and how they don't", as he has put it. Manchester native Sarah Michelson choreographs every eyelash flutter in marathon dances that expose the nature of performance - the public scrutiny, the numbing repetition. Painful analogies between performance on stage and in life unite these acclaimed iconoclasts.

But the analogies in the two-hour Devotion - choreographed by Michelson, with Maxwell writing the anchoring voiceover for beginning and end - are less painful. Devotion (appearing in Minneapolis and on the west coast later this winter) is crowded with benign influences: Jesus and Mary, Adam and Eve, Cunningham, Tharp and Lucinda Childs. Its view is more dappled than dark.

Michelson still devises endurance tests for her heroic performers: for the first half hour, the voluptuously precise Rebecca Warner; for the second, the slight Welsh 14-year-old Non Griffiths surviving aerobic extremity alone and eventually with James Tyson; and finally, the comically committed Jim Fletcher keeping up with Eleanor Hullihan, as vital as a panther.


Maxwell/Jesus and Michelson/Mary, with apostle Rebecca Warner doing their bidding below. Photo by Paula Court.

"Before the Fall," Michelson says in voiceover, "you were happy to share your identity. Now you need to carve out your own niche. You need your space." The carving and measuring are relentless, with dancers' arms pointing like compass arrows, their feet tracing circles across the wide space. There  is so much ground to cover.

And yet Devotion is not merely relentless. Michelson has always had an eye for movement detail, but the results didn't always resonate. Intent on originality, she often kept the moves hermetically sealed. It was their duration and spatial configuration that counted. Now she has outed her influences, and they....

For the effect that explicit allusions have on Michelson, click here.

February 8, 2011 7:26 PM | | Comments (4)

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