main: July 2007 Archives
Sorry, no political diatribe to light up your night. Just wanted to remind you of the new column way down on the right labeled "elsewhere," with recent reviews from Newsday. I just updated the roster.
Here is my survey of Pilobolus's three programs at the Joyce Theater, including the premiere "Rushes" by guest choreographers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak, both of Israel, with Pilobolus codirector Robby Barnett supervising (as he put it in an interview; maybe he was being modest).
In the review, I wonder briefly about the chairs that appear in the work of contemporary Jewish choreographers. I was thinking of Israeli Ohad Naharin's in "Anaphaza" (recently excerpted in the collage of works Naharin created for Cedar Lake Dance), which form a circle for blasphemous prayer; New Yorker David Gordon's, which serve as a wry aside about functionality in the emphatically nonfunctional realm of postmodern art; the chair in Israeli Yasmeen Godder's "i feel funny today" that a mousy woman occupies on the margins of a conflict you begin to suspect she herself has fomented; and now the ones in "Rushes." (Read review for details.)
The chairs are modest and lightweight. They suggest both domesticity and provisionality. This gathering place may be temporary, but it is not uninviting. There is always room for another person as long as a chair can be found.
The spate of chairs brought to mind one of the differences between the New York City Ballet choreographers George Balanchine, a member of the Russian Orthodox Church, and Jerome Robbins, a Jewish agnostic. Balanchine sets most of his dances in a world without objective correlative. Dance isn't about the day to day for him, but about the state of things. At his best, Robbins imagines the stage as an actual place with a changing population--an open field in "Dances at a Gathering," a dance studio in "Afternoon of a Faun," a street corner and bar in "Fancy Free."
Maybe for diasporic people, with their portable gods, there is no state of things outside of specific contingencies, one of which is place. But the place matters less than the people who fill it. There will likely be another home soon with different chairs, but hopefully some of the same people, who are less contingent than places--or chairs; in fact, they are the state of things.
Just want to throw this in--although not to advance any particular theory--but I think I remember Israeli-born Neta Pulvermacher having a section in a dance about mortality where three women dressed as hospital patients sit on chairs and smoke cigarettes.
Apollinaire: Interesting, Eva. Thank you--I haven't seen this dance.
Cunningham has at least two chair dances.
Funny. He doesn't look Druish.
Apollinaire responds: Oh, there's lots of dances with chairs, granted--contemporary and otherwise. And I admit I'm not using the scientific method here.
I was just struck--idly perhaps--by a particular aspect of THESE chairs. Since three of the choreographers I mention are Israeli, it could just be that they've seen each other's work and been influenced; it wouldn't have to have anything to do with their experience, personally and historically, as Jews. (And you ask in your post, am I Jewish? I don't think I should have to flash my ID badge to wonder how a particular cultural-religious experience shapes the theater that people make, but, so as not to seem coy: maybe.)
Anyway, I'm not sure which Cunningham dances you have in mind, but in general the elements of his sets are divorced from their daily purpose, if they even have any. In the case of these Jewish choreographers, on the other hand, the chairs have all the associations they usually have in the world. They both link the stage to the world and electrify the dynamic among the dancer-characters.
Also, they're often all there is to the set: the choreographers want to define the setting only enough to charge the relationship between the dancers, not so much as to move into full-out storytelling.
I get what you're saying.
The first Merce chair dance I was thinking of is the one where he's got it strapped to his back, you know, the picture from the show at the performing arts library. (It's the weekend and we're too lazy to do our research.)
[Ed.: The cafe chair is strapped backward to Cunningham's back; the dance is the 1958 "Antic Meet." Cunningham originally gave Robert Rauschenberg, who did set and costumes, these notes:
chair is like a large mosquito that won't go away, maybe a leech, like chairs are. This can be actual chair or made-up one.
So, the idea of the chair, extrapolated from its function.]
The second dance I saw back in 2000 at Martha @ Mother (remember when...), when Merce made a surprise appearance. Special guest emcee Issac Mizrahi introduced the performance as "Chair Dance." Merce walked out and sat on a tall chair, then proceeded to subtly raise his arms and legs, shaking, while he remained in the chair.
As for the the whole J thing, we weren't asking to see your credentials. But wouldn't we be dealing with quite another situation if some random goy was like, "What's with Jewish choreographers and chairs?"
Same thing if John Rockwell was ever like, "What's with gay choreographers and hardware supplies?"
Apollinaire responds: Sure, if the random goy were just saying, "What's with...?"--that dumb--but if he were looking into it, then it seems fine to me. He probably should avoid the headline "Jews and chairs" --a bit ballsy in its bluntness or faux seriousness or something.
Still, I think you should be careful about calling a person "racist"--because shouldn't you want people, all sorts of people, to notice the way different cultural experiences show up in art? And if those outside a given group have to proceed on tippy-toe, they'll just stop asking and noticing. Will they make mistakes? Sure. But it's better than enforced obliviousness, I think.
Plus, questions about a person's ethnicity, race, nationality quickly devolve into questions about how much--how Jewish, Black, Chinese are you?--and what counts. Were you "raised Jewish," as people like to put it, and do you need to for you to count? Do you know Hebrew? Yiddish? Ladino? It's probably best not to start down that slippery slope.
But we can still ask why all these chairs in Jewish choreographers' work. I maintain that's a different kind of question.
Lo siento, mi amiga. Didn't mean to call you racist. I had only written that you were getting "borderline racist," not full-blown racist, like Mel Gibson or Trent Lott.
On a more serious note, though, I agree that we should be able to have open conversations about identity in art, if the tenor of the conversation is sincere in its interest (as was yours, obviously).
I'm surprised nobody else has had anything to say on this subject.
Any thoughts, dear reader?
I'm actually more curious about the chairs--or countercritic's suggestion, hardware supplies (heehee)--than any more general thoughts on Identity and Criticism, which is such a tangled issue that it quickly gets caught in a thicket when not tethered to something concrete (chairs, hardware, etc.).
Here are a couple of interesting responses to my last post, on ABT's "The Sleeping Beauty."
From Dance Magazine's editor in chief, Wendy Perron:
I like your description of the "Hey, let's put on a show!" spirit of ABT's "Sleeping Beauty." It's too bad there wasn't time to develop and connect all those ideas. But I felt like the right casting could have helped a lot.
I saw three Auroras and none was a natural Aurora (like, for instance, Jenifer Ringer across the plaza). If ABT had cast Sarah Lane in the role, she would have given the story a beating heart. In all of the old story ballets there are narrative inconsistencies, but we've gotten used to them and we focus on who's dancing the role, who's animating the story.
Hi, Wendy! I agree that people tend to be much harder on the narrative inconsistencies of new productions--or revisions--than on those stamped, dusted, and perfumed with time. Thank you for your thoughts, Wendy.
From Tonya Plank (a.k.a. Swan Lake Samba Girl):
What a great post, Apollinaire! How wonderful of you to work so hard on trying to improve this ballet, which you obviously deeply care about. I think your suggestions are fabulous and give much food for thought, which, hopefully, McKenzie will consider.
I just want to respond to something Ms. Perron said. She writes
In all of the old story ballets there are narrative inconsistencies, but we've gotten used to them and we focus on who's dancing the role, who's animating the story.
But who is "we" -- dance-industry people and avid balletomanes? Yes, different dancers do different things with each role and I have my favorites and it's always fun to see who will interpret which role in which way and who will excel at this or that. Yes, those excellent dancers can easily save a flawed ballet for me, FOR ME. But if ballet-makers want to attract new audiences, that's not the case; those narrative inconsistencies are everything.
Time and again I've brought friends who are first-time balletgoers and their enjoyment is seriously hindered by their inability to figure out exactly what's going on up there onstage. Of course I explain it to them, but they'll tell me they wish they could have seen it onstage, a sad tone in their voice; they missed the beauty of the story unfolding in the dramatic dancing, which is where it's supposed to be, not via my mouth or in the Playbill synopsis. So then I'll try to explain to them how great the dancers are -- "Look, there's David Hallberg and Michele Wiles: they've won all kinds of awards together and the critics love them and David writes for The Winger and he's so smart," yadda yadda. My friends just laugh politely and tell me I obviously know the dancers better than they do.
I think we, the longtime dance lovers and dance insiders, are sometimes so close to these classic story ballets and these dancers we love so much that we lose perspective. I think ballet-makers need really to try to see things through the eyes of someone who's never before been to the ballet, ask themselves: how would this story make sense to someone who knows nothing of this ballet, and, alternatively, what would make no sense to them, what would make them jump out of their seats in awe of ballet, what would bore them, etc. -- which is what you're doing with this excellent post, Apollinaire! Anyway, those are my two cents...
Well, thank you, Tonya. It's really a challenge for any ballet company to know how to proceed, because they have very different audiences to attract and satisfy: people who will attend the ballet several times a week each week, those who go occasionally, and those who MIGHT go if it felt like a vital or fun thing to do.
I guess my approach to that conundrum is not to think about how the ballet might be accessible to neophytes or acceptable to longtime fans, but how it might work in itself. If the ballet can work in the terms it's already set for itself, then it will likely make everyone happy, or happy enough.
What's touching and maddening about the ABT production is how often the choreographers' attempts to make the narrative clearer backfire--as when they haul on Aurora during the prince's dream, rather than letting him be awash in his inchoate feelings, with the figures coming and going. After all, he'll get his vision of her in the very next scene!
The big issue for choreographers is almost always how specific to be and what to be specific about; this is the case whether or not the dance tells a story or could even be identified as a drama. If the movement is too specific or is specific about the wrong things, it's as bad as being vague. It's what my friend the illustrious Terry Teachout, quoting Henry James, describes in his Balanchine bio as "weak specifications"-- you know, hauling on Aurora when the prince is only just getting his mind around wanting anyone at all.
I, too, hope ABT follows my detailed instructions (hehe!). Thank you for writing, Tonya.
I have been ruminating about American Ballet Theatre's "The Sleeping Beauty"--first in excited anticipation, here and here and here, then in more sober post-premiere reflection, here and here and here--for so long, you'd think I would have exhausted the subject.
Nope!--especially now that ABT's artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, who choreographed this version with former ballerina Gelsey Kirkland and director Michael Chernov, has said he plans to fiddle with it and Kirkland has admitted they didn't have enough time in the first place.
But before I launch into how they might pull the ballet together, first, why it's worth the effort. In case you haven't heard, the June premiere was met with gleeful contempt, or Mosaic reprobation, by ballet fans and critics alike. Enjoy it at your own risk: when I mentioned to a critic friend that I liked whole swatches of the three-hour ballet, she nodded sympathetically. "I know how you feel," she said. "I like Jorma Elo."
I used to teach English (college and high school), where I encountered two species of flawed essay. One was full of excellent ideas, but too skittish to connect them up. The other offered nothing to distract you from its skeleton: no blood, no muscle, no guts.
For the first, the student needed to slow down and take herself seriously--choose a focus and organize the piece around it. For the second, the poor dope needed to learn how to think. I know that's a vague assignment, but the writing didn't prompt anything more precise.
Peter Martins' "Romeo + Juliet," the other full-length story ballet to debut this spring, belongs to the latter category. (It too was slammed, but no harder than "The Sleeping Beauty.") The Martins ballet, which returns to the State Theater this winter, inspires exactly one question: Why?
The reason Martins offered journalists was that he wanted to accentuate the story's youthful element. His plan was to cast young. Youth is already a big subject of the Prokofiev score and the Shakespeare play, both of which oppose the impetuous, devoted young lovers to their hidebound, powerful older kin. If you eliminate the counterbalances, as Martins mainly has, youth stops meaning much beyond the biological fact. Casting young doesn't begin to answer the question Martins might have started with: what about youth?
As The New Yorker dance critic, Joan Acocella, explained in her review of "Romeo + Juliet" and "The Sleeping Beauty," the dunderheaded approach is the more common:
In old ballets--the first "Sleeping Beauty," choreographed by Marius Petipa, had its première in 1890--meanings tend to get lost in revision. In new ballets, there is often no meaning to start with. Anyone on a quest for significance in classical dance is therefore a friend.
McKenzie et. al.'s imaginative mess is a friend. It has the ebullient "Let's put on a show" spirit you're more likely to encounter at PS 122 in the East Village--with spangled pomo burlesque dancer Julie Atlas Muz, say--than at the Met. You can imagine the creators exclaiming at their planning sessions, "Hey, I have an idea! Let's have the evil fairy ride in on a firecracker!" or "Hey, let's have fairy knights whirl the prince around in his sleep!!" or "Hey, how about if Carabosse [the evil fairy] turns into a SPIDER and catches the prince in her big shiny WEB?!"
Watching it, I thought of the summer a shy friend exclaimed to every pretty boy she met, "Hey, I have an idea! Let's go make out!" Yeah, the summer turned into a disaster, but for a while it was very fun.
ABT's "The Sleeping Beauty" is a disaster first--the pileup of wrong moves sapping the right ones of their juice--but with serious revising, it could get to fun and even to deep.
The problems fall into two categories. First, random, often distractingly comical snafus that should be easy to fix, such as:
--"the shower curtain," as the low-hanging sheet upstage through which the fairies make their grand entrance has come to be known; it is suspended limply from those round clips everyone associates with the shower. People have complained they could see the off-duty fairies through it, laughing and flirting.
According to advance interviews, the creators wanted to better distinguish the royal court from the magical fairy realm, with only our heroine, Aurora, and her prince straddling the two domains. So, yes, the fairies should enter by a different path from the genuflecting courtiers and their ladies, and a window on the limitless sky is perfect. But for a window shade, why not something splendid, such as iridescent folds streaming from the rafters like sheets of rainbow-flecked rain?
--the variation of Bluebird and Princess Florine, which in this version serves as a wedding gift to the princess bride and prince groom. (What a nice touch!) Especially in the first pas de deux, the steps move against the music's whirl--its evocation not only of the twitter of birds in love, but of their encircling one another as they wing their way up shafts of air. Here, the movement is more up and down than scalloping 'round and 'round. It will make you gnash your teeth.
Of course, if you have watched very many versions of this ballet, your teeth are already thoroughly gnashed. Of those I have seen--and unfortunately I missed the Kirov's definitive historical reconstruction of 1999--only the 1965 Konstantin Sergeyev-Kirov film comes close to doing justice to this moment, with Princess Florine (a young Natalia Makarova) twirled deep in penché.
--the shrunken space for dancing caused by Broadway designer Tony Walton's sweet storybook set (discussed earlier). The ivy-laden trestles that frame the stage may remind us that we are entering a story, a kingdom of enchantment, but the choreography already does that. The dancers can't afford to lose several yards to the idea on a stage that's not very wide to begin with. (The Met was built for opera: unlike the State Theater across the plaza, its stage is already deeper than ideal for ballet and less wide.) Forcing the dancers to move small is a terrible waste of their astounding expansiveness, one of the company's greatest resources.
The more interesting problems--isn't it nice that the problems might be interesting for once?--concern the dream logic that shapes the plot.
The prologue is quite traditional. The revisions begin in earnest with the first act, the birthday act. In most versions, the master of ceremonies, Catalabutte, discovers a clutch of weird women harboring spindles. He drags the old ladies to Aurora's father, King Florestan, who orders their heads. After much pleading, the queen persuades her husband to exercise mercy. The immediate result? Evil fairy Carabosse is on hand to deliver a spindle to the unsuspecting princess--and, of course, the girl pricks herself.
In most versions, the plot points are laid out in Tarzan fashion: King mad at old ladies; king relents; girl pricked; girl faints; kingdom sleeps. To explain the exalted place "The Sleeping Beauty" holds in the ballet canon, critics end up invoking those big, blocky themes we all gratefully abandoned with high school--Good versus Evil, Mercy versus Justice, blah, blah. There's no reason, though, that the story couldn't move a little closer to the dancing, which is now its own story. If story and dancing united forces, we might enjoy not only a glorious experience but a deep one.
So, in place of the old women, ABT offers village maidens. They use the spindle that Carabosse gives them as a maypole. Catalabutte discovers these girls spinning out the blood-red ribbons to a bumpy tune--a peasant version of the increasingly agitated and discordant waltz to which Aurora will be dancing when she pricks herself. (With Tchaikovsky, waltzes can be dangerous, the mechanism of desire wound so tight, nothing can stop it.) The budding women's bouncy dance foreshadows Aurora's own exultation in her growing maturity.
In most versions, the connection between King Florestan's decision to forgive the needle-bearers and Aurora's descent into centuries of sleep is merely causal: his act of mercy creates a loophole by which Carabosse can sneak a spindle to Aurora. But here, with the girls acting as the princess's symbolic surrogates, the king's choice is mixed up in his decisions about how to raise his child. He lets the innocent girls off the hook for playing with needles, and he lets Aurora build her own victories and make her own mistakes. Linked to child-rearing, the theme of mercy versus justice comes to life.
The production emphasizes how big a deal the king's decision is by how long he takes to make it, with his fist suction-cupped to his forehead for what feels like whole minutes while the music thunders around him and the court waits in frozen anticipation.
King Florestan's choice of mercy is in the long run (very long--hundreds of years) the right decision. You do the right thing, and in the end it will all work out for the best (as Pangloss would say): your daughter will wed a noble prince, and love and live well. But for us to feel this Enlightenment optimism--that his child is going to approach life with joy, so when the Fairy of Joy sings for her she will already know the tune--the choreographers can't minimize the maypole scene. The dancing needs to be equal to the momentous decision it occasions. Right now, it's squinched onto the lip of the stage, before the palace gates, and the girls don't dance so much as indicate they're dancing.
I appreciate the special problem that "The Sleeping Beauty" presents to anyone who approaches it anew: the steps that have come down from the original are so brilliant that any interpolated choreography is bound to feel inadequate. But the solution isn't to downplay choreographic opportunities (out of understandable terror), but to use the prodigious movement invention of the original (or as close as we have) as a guide for more invention.
Broadly speaking, the famous Rose Adagio, Aurora's coming-out dance with five suitors attending her, emphasizes balance and orderly progression. She moves methodically from prince to prince and balance to balance. When she gets into trouble, it's because she has let loose and accelerated too fast, forsaking straight lines for a large circle, which she navigates with faster and faster spins and jumps. Inevitably, she pricks herself.
How about the communal equivalent for the village maidens--a circle dance that rises to a bacchanalian pitch? Tchaikovsky's bright tune is already inspired by folk-dance rhythms. McKenzie could enlist the services of Balkan folk-dance expert Mark Morris. The villagers' peasant dance could also accelerate and the threads from the spindle form a web to anticipate Carabosse's web, in the next act. (Or if it's impossible to manipulate the threads without slowing down the dance, lighting effects could do the job, or the women could make their designs with ribbons freed from the spindle entirely. In any case, the steps shouldn't be sacrificed to the requirements of visual effects.)
In the most heavily revised act, the second, where we fast-forward 500 years (four centuries added to the usual) to the prince who will awaken Aurora with a kiss, the choreographers felt compelled to provide literal-minded "translations" of metaphors that, being metaphors, don't translate. Once spelled out, they just evaporate.
Prince Desiré falls into a deep sleep before he meets Aurora in her sleep (the canonical Vision scene). The idea of them meeting dream to dream is lovely. And the initial passages of the prince's dream, to the plaintive violin solo that usually serves as an entr'acte, are lovely, too. The fairy knights rush on and swirl him in their arms, then depart--mirroring the roil of desire inside him.
The tempestuous mood is spoiled, however, when slumbering Aurora is carted on and the knights stretch the prince overhead like Superman so he can take a peek. So much for subtlety and the subconscious.
The same sort of jarring over-enunciation mars the transition from his dream to hers, when we're returned to the hunt so the prince can say good-bye to his friends. We don't need to say good-bye--we've forgotten all about the hunt and would be happy to drift right into another dream.
McKenzie said in interviews that the prince needed "emotional beefing up," which the prince's dream begins. People have complained that attention to him dims the spotlight on our heroine, but you could just as soon argue the opposite: that his growing up only makes hers clearer and dearer. Or you could if his inner journey were more effectively expressed. Again, the execution doesn't do justice to the idea.
It's great to have the five fairies that bestowed joy, serenity, valor, etc. on Aurora return to do some bestowing on the prince. But the whole point of their gifts is that they're individual, so why do the fairies appear in a nondescript clump? Why can't he have a moment with each of them, where he translates their spikey feminine moves into danseur noble terms?
The special effects also serve as over-explanations, and supplant opportunities for dance to carry us further into the story. After his dream, the prince heads to the spellbound forest where the wicked Carabosse is waiting to ensnare him in her web. (She's a spider now.) Tchaikovsky's forest music suspends time and direction, with the muffled footsteps of the jagged wicked fairy motif the only percussive notes. The music is like Lethe--a place to which you lose yourself to indefinition. Very slowly and softly, the Lilac Fairy's melody rises like dawn from the murk.
The scene starts promisingly, with Carabosse sending out her sticky threads so slowly, you know you've entered another dimension. Then it becomes clear that the reason for the gluey tempo is to give the dancer time to get rigged to her wires, from which she will dangle for too long. And the prince never progresses from limbo to clear light, but simply gets stuck in a splendid silver web like Da Vinci's Vitruvian man splayed inside his circle, and is then rescued by the Lilac Fairy, who appears out of nowhere on a high ledge. It's scary, sure, but not to any purpose.
The trajectory of this production is wonderful: from life to dream to legend. "Once he's kissed her and awakened her and the whole kingdom has risen, there's a wedding -- and the story is in essence over," McKenzie explained in an interview I did for Newsday. "What's left is, 'Where do they go? Where is their new kingdom?' They go to the stuff of legend." They enter their own story, surrounded by characters from other stories.
McKenzie wouldn't have had to do much to bring out that angle, because it's already implied. He could have simply limited the wedding invitations to fairytale characters. With its scurry of violins alternating with trumpet and drum, Act Three's opening march would perfectly usher in the one-of-a-kind characters--each storybook pair using the violin scurry to slip in from a different wing and join the winding defile. Then we could have their variations--including the ones that were cut!! If he's going to honor his own idea, McKenzie can't cut the variations of Puss 'n' Boots and his pussycat lady friend, Little Red Riding Hood and the Big Bad Wolf, and so forth--even to get us to the train on time. After all, we need that time to adjust to the beauty's new status as legend.
Post script: I'm already imagining objections. (Sigh.) For example: "If the ABT production boils down to 'good story, bad choreography,' it's in trouble, because it's a dance...."
Well, first, I've focused on the flaws. There is plenty of wonderful dancing (much of it snagged from earlier productions, I admit): all the numbers in the prologue; the Garland Dance; the Rose Adagio and Aurora's solo; the windswept comings and goings of the fairy knights in the prince's dream; the whole Vision scene (I particularly love the forest sprites who bound into view just out of the prince's sight with each new deerlike leap of notes: very playful); the wedding couple's pas de deux and solos--and probably other passages that are not coming to mind right now. If the dances were consistently awful, I wouldn't have made an argument for revision.
On the other hand, dance is a form of theatre--and for a story ballet, that means the story counts. You know those snobs who say they read novels solely for the language, the sonorities, the phrasing--forget plot and meaning!-- and who can never get enough of "Finnegans Wake"? Well, the dance equivalent of that line of thinking is that only the steps matter--and what they say or that they say anything at all is beside the point. I don't subscribe to that view.
Tomorrow (UPDATE: late Wednesday), in fact: what can be done about American Ballet Theatre's much-maligned "The Sleeping Beauty." (A whole lot, I say.)
In the meantime, how about being all crazy and reading this essay on the state of experimental dance in, um, Bushwick -- no, in New York? Really. I do not exaggerate.
From Foot contributor Paul Parish:
A propos of nothing (and I promise I will write something appropriate SOON), in my other life, I have invented a new drink, and my friends have urged me to copywrite it.
I figure, I'll post it on the net, by Foot in mouth, and that'll establish my claim. What do you say? We all have day jobs--as the club dancers call it, "the afterlife." And in the afterlife, I'm a bartender. And I've just invented the Quasi-mojo.
It's just a mojito plus coke; or in other words, a rum and coke plus mint (with a lime in it). It's tricky to balance, but if you get it right it's REALLY good on a hot day, even better on a hot night. Should be great in August, and a real comfort on those nights when you're trying to get your puny cat to eat and he won't take anything.... [ed. note: Alfredo Fetuccine Scherr is actually the size of a fox--bigger than most Manhattan dogs. But he is shrinking, the poor noodle.]
OK, so put some mint in a glass, mash it good with the handle of a knife (use a glass pestle if you have one). Don't break the glass. Add a healthy dram of dark rum. (I prefer Myers' or Appleton's to Tommy Bermuda, but you COULD use that; it's just got to taste like brown sugar.) Ice. Coke to the top, then squeeze enough lime into it till it be enough. You won't need to add sugar -- there's that in the Coca-Cola. Garnish with more mint, if you want. Insert two very thin straws, and see what they think. Doctor if needed.
So, remember when the Times dance writer extraordinaire Claudia La Rocco and I were on WNYC going on about the end of a ballet era? (What's this? You say, No, you don't remember, you have had other things to do besides follow Foot's every move?)
I'm not, but beginning this week Foot's very own Eva Yaa Asantewaa is!!!
Her first interview on Great Dance is with hoofers Ayodele Casel and Jason Samuels Smith on the eve of the weeklong Tap City Festival in New York.
Check them out!
Everyone took a side.
Depending on who you asked, the warehouse was too big and too cold, or the audience was too big and too drunk. The event's organizers encouraged anarchy and violence, or they might have sold peanuts with the booze. The lobster lady was right to throw a mike stand at the woman with the rat-a-tat toy machine gun strapped across her bare breasts, or the topless chick had good reason to put the lady in a chokehold. A ladies' night of theater is dangerous, or theater is dangerous, or people are dangerous--more dangerous even than lobsters, who eat each other whenever they get a chance.
Actually, you didn't have to ask, people would just start talking--on the margins of the vast performance space with plastic party cup in hand or on the bus back to civilization.
Chez Bushwick, a visionary artist's collective that emerged in 2002 from the living room of composer Loren Dempster and choreographers Jonah Bokaer and Jerome Wade, had been staging group shows in alternative spaces in its industrial Brooklyn neighborhood every month since September. AMBUSH--a clever mash up of "ambulatory" and "Bushwick"-- arose because the collective's monthly Shtudio Show had outgrown its living room. For "Ladies Who Launch," however-- the November event hosted by Brooklyn Fire Proof at the Nut Roaster--"ambush" returned to its original sense.
With a group show, you hope the individual works will add up to more than the sum of their parts, but usually you're lucky if even a few pieces have anything to say about one another. "Ladies Who Launch," however, offered a cohesive vision--of gruesome womanhood. Together the night's dances, film, video, and performance art told a contradictory story of paralysis, inertia, and explosive self-destruction--the self being both the individual and the sisterhood (as people used to call it). Only the drag act that came at night's end, with both sexes in girly getups, expressed any glee at being female--and by then we weren't in any position to believe it.
The first piece and only repertory work, Dara Birnbaum's 1978 video "Technology Transformation/Wonder Woman," foreshadowed the night. In the popular '70s TV series based on the long-lived comic book, Wonder Woman (Lynda Carter) executes her worldwide missions by materializing and dematerializing at will -- like Sabrina in "Bewitched" except more fiery. Made in the post-Vietnam era, the Birnbaum video splices together those zap! moments until the mind stumbles from superheroine in spangly red, white, and blue mini-outfit to the self-immolating Vietnamese monks who by 1978 had burned themselves into the American conscience.
Unlike the Vietnamese, Wonder Woman remains perfectly intact. In all its perky innocence, American imperialist aggression always blows up in our faces, but not for Wonder Woman! She fulfills America's fantasy of eternal renewal.
With the Iraq rerun of Vietnam far from its finale, AMBUSH's other launching ladies don't dare presume any superheroine gumption. They work the more dreary (and real) female terrain of passivity, immobility, and self-sacrifice--or at least until the improvisations begin midway through the night.
Like many experimental pieces lately, Beth Gill's untitled dance focuses less on moving than on not moving. Dancers lie in piles and get mixed up with stuff.
A shovel, a paper bag, standing speakers and a heavy-duty bike chain are laid out artfully in a modest rectangle of this warehouse the size of a city block. In the refracted light of floor kliegs pointed toward the wall, the dancers lunge and fall among the objects as deliberately as the objects are arrayed, with one of their moves to lie facedown in the dirt. In this still life with people, Gill mixes delicacy with the grime so that even inertia seems a careful aesthetic choice.
Choreographers often toy with the way a dancer shifts from willful individual to tool of motion, because it's one of the artform's strange and unavoidable givens. And other dancers have resembled trash--for example, break dancers gyring on their backs, shirts whisking around them like empty plastic bags in the wind. But there's a note of defiance with the breakers: "You think I'm trash?" they seem to demand, "I'll show you trash." They show us treasure in the form of trash. Gill's dance is also treasure--a very beautiful object--but without the defiance.
In "Gloria," dancer-choreographer Maria Hassabi blends with the environment, too. The sound score sets the dance on the shoulder of a highway where trucks roar by. A column of Port-a-potties marks the side of the stage. At one point, a man shambles over and ducks in for a leak.
In a fuchsia wife-beater and white sweatpants soon streaked with dirt, Hassabi--from Cyprus, the homeland of that other beauty, Aphrodite--inches her back down a wall until she is sitting with legs spread and torso collapsed, her head almost level with her crotch. This kind of pose appears in magazine ads for jeans, but Hassabi (who knows from poses, having modeled to support her dance habit) isn't selling anything. She seems not to even notice us. Her gaze is withdrawn into a despondency so complete, it lacks a point of focus.
But she doesn't stop moving. She brings to mind Eadweard Muybridge's shots from the early days of photography. With clinical precision, he documented the sequence of moves in a horse's gallop, for example, or a man's walk. Hassabi holds each of her mundane positions--from a slow crumple toward her right elbow to identifiable yoga stances--long enough for a 19th-century camera; her only apparent aim is to complete the moves.
First, "Gloria" seems a disabused expression of art for its own sake, then, more terribly, a metaphor for life. "You can ask for poses, while I am stranded on the shoulder of some highway with everyone rushing by," Hassabi seems to suggest, "but you can't ask me to inhabit them." Again, dancer as trash, sapped of her conventional use and meaning without having acquired another.
Later that night during the talk portion of the program, Elizabeth Zimmer-- dance editor of the Village Voice from 1992 until 2006, when the New Times bought the paper and shrunk the staff--tells MC Technopia (a.k.a. Topiary) that she's lost her appetite for dance. It no longer fills her with language, she says, or has to do with time.
Of course dance still has to do with time--what else does it have?--but Zimmer is right: the movement phrases in New York postmodern dance have grown so short that "phrase" overstates the case. "Pose" is more like it--the movement equivalent of silence. If Gill's or Hassabi's dance were on the page, they would be ellipses--the three periods that indicate something has been left out. Dance has been rendering Zimmer mute because it has grown mute, the urge for expression dying in the bodies before us. That's the drama of recent postmodern dance.
These still lifes--"dead nature," the French call them--inevitably exude a feminine air, given women's long association with immobility and posing. Hassabi's beauty tightens that yoke. We want to hold the look of her as long as possible. So she takes refuge inside the poses, dilating the time they take so they lose their edge. There is pathos in this subterfuge.
Up to this point, the pieces have blended in with the raw space, as well as being about blending in. On different patches of the massive nuttery grounds, the work has sometimes begun before we knew it and we've had to hurry over to watch. The two dances, especially, have been so quiet in mood, they have kept us quiet.
But then conceptual artist and expert cook Elaine Tin Nyo takes the stage. From two Fairway grocery bags, she removes a knife, a pan, fresh chives, and two live lobsters, pinchers duct-taped closed. In blazer, matching skirt, and pearl earrings, she looks formal and strict, like a professor whose Ph.D. is recent enough she doesn't realize ratty jeans and a t-shirt from high school will do. She gives us a straitened role, too: not boozy warehouse habituate, but attentive student. She tries to, anyway.
We each receive a 5-page printout. (Instructor: Elaine Tin Nyo. Lobster course prerequisites: Biology 101; Knife Skills 101; Basic Crustacean Anatomy.) It includes diagrams of a lobster's life cycle and anatomy, female and male; bulleted facts about the lobster's social life and molting; and a recipe for pan-roasted lobster with chervil and chives. What an odd course--biology and cooking in one!
Did you know that before the lobster arrives at Fairway, it has lived at least five years, molting some 25 times? When a lobster molts, it liquefies its shell with its own secretions, then feeds off that jelly shell. The lobster is so precisely made, it's hard to believe it's the product of accident and circumstance: in the course of Tin Nyo's talk, you start to wonder how ever you are going to eat it. You might as well be asked to carve up Miro's "Birth of the World" or snack on the blood and body of Christ. (Oh, yeah, people do that.)
Or you might as well be if you are one of the few dozen people in the 200-person audience who can hear Tin Nyo. The audience breaks down like most classes, with the good students in the front and the bad ones in the back sending out loud waves of interference.
"Lobsters transmit messages to each other through their pee," Tin Nyo explains. "They dominate. 'Look at me. I'm the guy who--' " The sentence gets swallowed up in the din.
"Can you be a little quieter in the back, please?" she asks crisply. A little quieter will hardly do. People are shouting to be heard over her: communicating by pissing.
"There will be a test," she announces.
"Give it now!" someone shouts.
Someone snatches the bottle of Jack Daniels meant for the lobster dish and takes a few swigs.
A young woman with a rattly toy machinegun slung across her chest a la Patty "Tania" Hearst (except she's bare-breasted) wanders onto the set. She is a member of the performance collective the AUNTS, who in the next act will scatter small origami sculptures over the stunned audience like snow. Tania puts Tin Nyo in a chokehold. Tin Nyo seems to have stopped breathing. For a moment, the crowd is paying attention: Is this part of the act?
Later--exactly how much later I don't know, because time has begun to shred--another aunt walks off with a lobster. Does Tin Nyo toss the mike stand at this aunt or a different one? In any case, the stand bounces off the back of a topless woman's head and there is a moment of dazed silence when even the drunks forget they can't keep quiet.
After the interruption (to put it politely), Tin Nyo strips down to a pink negligee while explaining how lobsters mate by eating each other. She would have settled in an audience member's lap before the final rite when she cooked the lobsters if the MC hadn't told her her her time was up. The MC says it like it's no big deal.
"Okay," says Tin Nyo in a small, tight voice, and even before we can register what's happening she has collected her clothes, slipped on her boots, and walked off. For the second time during "The Lobster Course," the audience falls silent. You can hear the steady click-click-click of her heels all the way to the door and out into the freezing night.
"For the sake of the lobster," the MC says uneasily, to break the silence.
Later, via email, one AUNT justified the group's mutiny of the performance by saying they needed to get the piece moving. "I want to be activated when I see work," Michael Helland complained. If it isn't "activation" to want so badly for the performer to stop that you put her in a chokehold, what is? "The Lobster Course" not only tells a story of sacrifice, it enacts one through the relationship between performer and audience. Like psychoanalysis, this piece works by transference. Tin Nyo assumes the role of the lobster; whatever feelings she arouses about the anatomy of sacrifice--who's doing it and at what expense--gets directed at her.
"Experimentation isn't always pretty," Helland continued. Sure. A performance about the patience of passion--the slow unfolding of identifications and projections and defenses by which we put ourselves in the place of others--demands that you sit through your unpretty feelings of revulsion and resistance. You can't hurry the punch line, because there isn't one.
ChameckiLerner's short film "Boxing Study #1" is the "Lobster Course's" perfect coda. The boxers are the Brazilian émigrés and longtime artistic partners Rosane Chamecki and Andrea Lerner. They wear mouth-guards, helmets, boxing shorts--the works. In cinematographer Marco Caruso's grainy black and white --mixing memory and cinema verité à la "Raging Bull"--the women punch each other out. A tinkly music-box ditty winds 'round and 'round as Lerner knocks out Chamecki, Chamecki knocks out Lerner, then they both go down. When two women fight, they're both defeated.
The only people to get off scotch-free are the men--and the women in their company. In the final number of "Ladies Who Launch," a drag act where both men and women play female, Glen Rumsey and a squad of dancers in identical luminous gray sack-dresses and bright-colored high heels strut up and down, roll their hips, and flip their fake tresses. On the sound system, the Peaches shout, "Let's face it: we all want toosh./If I'm wrong, impeach my bush."
The girls just want to have fun--and want us to--but they've come too late to the party. All we can do is stare at them numbly and wonder who are the real girls--the ones who will end face down in the dirt or in a chokehold.
The Brooklyn artists collective Chez Bushwick has many roles, including renting rehearsal space at rock bottom rates and, together with the John Jasperse troupe, building a home in its industrial neighborhood so it won't soon be calling itself Chez East New York. (With tongue only half in cheek, they're titling this LEED-green building, the first of its kind in Brooklyn, "CPR"--officially, Center for Performance Research.)
Clearly, the collective is also active in ferretting out and presenting experimental work, with the monthly shows last year, under the rubric AMBUSH, including such nifty themes as "The Changing of the Garde," "A History of the Main Complaint," and "Post Modem." This year, Chez Bushwick is changing the focus--and name--of the performance series to FORCE MAJEURE. It will feature young choreographers from Croatia, Spain, Canada, Chile, Romania, Italy, Germany, France, etc. Organizer--or, as he prefers to be called, propeller--Jonah Bokaer explains:
It's time to do this: Pina Bausch and Preljocaj every couple of years is NOT an answer to international work here. There's so much young and interesting work happening!
The series begins in September. For details, visit Chez Bushwick's website in August.
For more on the slide toward inertia and paralysis in postmodern dance, here's my post on Rachid Ouramdane's ruminative antiwar dance, at DTW in spring 2008.
...to my assessment of Alastair Macaulay in the previous post.
Lise Brenner, a choreographer in New York, writes:
I want to thank you for a very balanced and considered review of A. Macaulay's performance to this point.
He IS in a very powerful position vis a vis dance. What's important is not only what he says about any individual dancer or choreographer or company, but the effect he has on the overall level of discussion. And in recent years that level has often been regrettably uninformed, gossipy, and gratuitously nasty.
Choreographers work hard to learn to look at and discuss work--their own and others. It is one of the marks of a professional in the community to be called upon to act as an outside eye: to critique, question, report what you do or do not see, and in general provide a clear and (to the best extent possible) unbiased and unjaundiced view toward work for which you yourself may very well have no sympathy. But we all have sympathy for the process of making.
I am not saying that bad work should be excused, or that the act of making is enough. Not at all. But there is a difference between commenting on work -- whether the choreography or the dancing - and commenting on the person and the personality of the person doing the work.
I'm not saying dancers are vessels and not people -- of course they are people. But the part of their personhood being put on display FOR REVIEW is their dancing. There is a way to talk about how someone holds her head that does NOT imply that she is vain, silly, and unthinking. Macaulay did not choose that less punitive way of expressing himself.
He is too good a writer not to know the difference.
I remember in the 1980s, criticism felt like a conversation between critics and dance makers. Saying that something didn't work didn't seem like a dreadful thing (although I suppose it did to whoever got the bad review) but more like what happens in the course of an ongoing investigation. I could well be romanticizing and misremembering, and it was mainly the Village Voice and not the Times that I was reading.
Without expecting the Times to fulfill the function that the Voice once did in the cultural life of the city, I hoped that at least some of that sense of us all being in this together, finding things out, questioning the process, enjoying the dancing--that more of this would come about with the change of leadership at the Times reviewing desk.
Thank you so much for writing, Lise. You've given much food for thought!
A few things:
You make an implicit comparison between a choreographer looking at her colleagues' work and a critic reviewing the finished piece. There may be some overlap, but I do think that a critic necessarily takes a different approach. As Foot contributor Paul Parish once put it to me, critics are the only ones to represent the audience--what it feels like from your seat. We're wondering less how the work might achieve a certain effect than what effect it has achieved.
Nevertheless, I think we all grapple with whether we too should act
as an outside eye: critique, question, report what we do or do not see, and in general provide a clear and (to the best extent possible) unbiased and unjaundiced eye toward work for which we ourselves may very well have no sympathy,
or whether our value lies precisely in our biases.
As critics we're not simply reporting what we see, we're reporting what the things we see make us feel and think and imagine. The art is being filtered through our very specific sensibility. Presumably our appeal is in our particular approach. And when we lack sympathy for a particular kind of work, it's often not simply a matter of it not being to our taste (as the polite classes like to put it), but of it offending something fundamental about how we imagine the subject at hand, this species of dance, etc.
That said, the older I get and the longer I write and read reviews, the more I favor a dispassionate approach, and the more important I think it is to have a chameleonic capacity to shift your frame of reference with each work. (I've talked more about that frame-shifting and how it's especially important for dance writers, who often cover a huge range of forms, in the early post The Frame Game.)
Macaulay doesn't have to like Kudelka's "Cinderella"--he doesn't have to like anything, in fact--but it is his responsibility to situate it accurately. So far, when he doesn't like something, he tends to tick off all the categories it doesn't fit (as if that in itself were a fault), then throw up his hands in exasperation, though not before he's slathered on the derision. He's generally closer to the mark with ballet than with modern dance of recent vintage.
As blogger Tonya Plank pointed out in her post on "Cinderella" and the situation of reviewing, and as you suggest here in lamenting the shrinkage of dance coverage at the Voice, it would matter less what Macaulay did if there were more reviewers with a wide readership. That there isn't is another reason each of us should resist knee-jerk reactions even as we remain faithful to our experience.
As for your point that criticism by way of humiliating the dancer is never necessary--
There is a way to talk about how someone holds her head that does NOT imply that she is vain, silly and unthinking--
I agree. What's interesting about Macaulay's takedown of ABT ballerina Irina Dvorovenko in the "Swan Lake" review (she annoys me too, by the way) is how unnecessary the chin stuff was.
Here's the full chin paragraph from that review:
Ms. Dvorovenko comes into her own at curtain calls, especially those after individual dances. The very way she runs off at the end of a dance has a kind of engaged-in-the-moment flair that her actual dancing lacks, and her face comes into full bloom as she bows, whereas while she dances, it is marred by her forever negotiating different angles of her chin.
Now, if editors at the Times actually edited--if they understood their job had a moral dimension and bothered to notice that Macaulay's elaborate pretend praise traffics in misogyny--this could have been,
Ms. Dvorovenko does have an engaged-in-the-moment flair, but only during her curtain calls. It's her dancing that needs the charm--in place of the coy theatrics.
Or something. In other words, no less harsh but without the condescension. Does it lose some of its vividness? Sure, but vividness cheaply come by. If you have bad news, deliver it succinctly. And if you're going to be funny, unless you think the object of your critique is truly hopeless, there ought to be some affection in the humor.
Clive Barnes of the New York Post is an example of someone who can be harsh--even funny and harsh--while allowing his target their dignity. How? He admits he's giving them a thrashing. If you're going to give someone a thrashing, you need to own it. (Here's Barnes' scathing "Cinderella" review.)
Also, most critics understand to reserve their harshest criticism for the dance, not the dancer. As you make clear when you sort out exactly how much of the person is in the dance, Lise, a dancer's body isn't like any other artistic instrument, because she lives with it, meets the world with it (especially if she's a woman). There's a vulnerability to the dancer that is unique among artists. While it's the critic's responsibility to convey a dancer's effect on him, gentleness is in order.
From aurix in Bangkok:
Could you tell us a bit about Macaulay's background?
I've read some of his reviews and farewell pieces. It's clear that he doesn't see much else besides ballet.
The Dance Insider posted an informative interview with Macaulay upon his appointment. Here's the bit on his background:
Alastair Macaulay: I've been a dance critic since 1978. In 1980, I was a winner of the Ballet Review competition for young critics. I was founding editor of the British quarterly Dance Theatre Journal in 1983; I served as guest dance critic to the New Yorker during two six-month sabbaticals taken by Arlene Croce in 1988 and 1992; I was second dance critic to the Guardian newspaper (UK) in 1979-90 and have been second dance critic to the Financial Times since 1988. Since 1996, I have been chief dance critic to the Times Literary Supplement.
I taught dance history at BA and MA level between 1980 and 2002 at a number of British colleges, was chief examiner in dance history to the Imperial Society of Teachers of Dancing for 15 years (1987-2002), and have lectured about aspects of dance in the USA, Canada, and Italy as well as Britain. My former students include the choreographers Matthew Bourne and Lea Anderson, the critic Sophie Constanti, and the dance academics Angela Kane and Stacy Prickett.
I have spoken at dance conferences in New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco and Berkeley as well as London. See, for example, "Looking Out" (edited by David Gere), the proceedings of the 1990 Dance Critics Association Los Angeles conference on dance and multiculturalism; "Following Sir Fred's Steps" (edited by Stephanie Jordan and Andree Grau), the proceedings of the 1994 Roehampton Institute (UK) conference on Frederick Ashton; and "Revealing MacMillan," the proceedings of the 2002 Royal Academy of Dance (UK) conference on Kenneth MacMillan. The latter two conferences were my ideas, as were the 1999 Royal Academy of Dancing (as it was called then, UK) conference "The Fonteyn Phenomenon" and the 2000 Royal Opera House conference "Teaching Dance History."
Within the dance world of London, I am well known as a lecturer on aspects of classical ballet at the Royal Opera House and in running focus days on the choreographers Merce Cunningham and Mark Morris.
Since 1990, my work as a full-time theater critic has often made this time-consuming commitment to dance exhausting. And yet I've needed to go on doing it, even in cases where there was no pay whatsoever. Why? Because I care about the art and history of dance, often passionately, sometimes obsessively, always, I hope, seriously.
With this full-time job as theater critic for the past 15 years, Macaulay may have had to confine his dance activities to choreographers he was already familiar with: Cunningham, Balanchine, Ashton, Morris.
I have a lot of respect for deep knowledge: a good foundation in history can enable a person to understand everything that follows--how art unfolds in all its variety. So far at the Times, that's not been happening for Macaulay, but he's only just starting. He could be at this post for decades!
Lise Brenner responds:
Clive Barnes is one of the reviewers I had in mind when thinking about A. Macaulay. I've been reading C. Barnes since I was a kid out in 1970's Seattle wanting desperately to learn about dancing in what seemed at the time to be a cultural wasteland.
You are right, being a critic requires a different viewpoint from a choreographer's. And yet I think that the essential thing I was trying to get at, and that you put very well in your response, was the ability to retain a generosity of spirit while watching.
One of the reasons I have not pursued writing reviews is my frequent tendency to just get pissed off. Or bored to the point of pissed off-ness. I hate being bored by dance; at my worst moments it puts my whole life's focus into question.
So kudos for persevering, and for maintaining your own interest and sense of inquiry. It's valuable and needed.
Thank you, Lise, though I think being pissed off is GOOD: It shows that what dance does matters to you. Bored, though--yeah, that's a bit of a liability. But I'll bet in choreography, your own domain, you find it's not hard to maintain your curiosity, and that that feeling is a pleasure in itself.
re: "trying to get at"--I thought you got at a good deal, very eloquently. Thank you for the letter.
GO. Or not. I'm not quite sure what to advise about James Kudelka's "Cinderella" at ABT. (But you only have through Saturday to decide.) Last year, I loved the modern take on the story but was underwhelmed by the steps. This year, I was enchanted from the second act on--enough to forgive the sloppy beginning and Kudelka's idea of the point shoe as super-high heel.
The duets between Cinderella and the prince (on Monday, Julie Kent and Marcelo Gomes) make you want to run out and fall in love. Their directness and playfulness, their back and forth --the prince wafting his arm over Cinderella's head like he were smoothing the air for love, she swivelling antsily on her pointes, then pirouetting in final release, and he responding with a soft shoe, all to a tendril of melody-- remind me of Clara and the Nutcracker finally dancing together in Mark Morris's "The Hard Nut."
Kudelka's grounded style is great for the Prokofiev score, which is out of step not only with the Cinderella fairytale--in fact, with any fairytale, given how a folk tale separates black from white--but also with the idealizing world of ballet. The Soviet composer has a blossom of hope bloom inside imprisoning circumstances: a psychologically dense picture that distrusts social nicety and wouldn't conform very neatly to a strictly classical language. Choreographer Kenneth MacMillan also understood that in his "Romeo and Juliet," to a similar Prokofiev score.
I didn't have room to go into all this, of course, but anyway here's the review. (What a weird headline; I think it's just a working one. The print version will be something else. Also, I have started a column of links to recent Newsday pieces down on the right.)
Chief Times dance critic Alastair Macaulay has a different take.
Since I made a stink in February about his appointment, which began in April, I thought I ought to say how I think Macaulay is doing. It may seem presumptuous to weigh in on other critics, but he's not just any other critic. He's the top critic at the Times. You write for Newsday, and you are not going to change the way people think about dance--or that they think about dance, even for an instant. You write as number two or three at the Times, and you're not accorded that kind of authority either, though close. The Times dance chief is unique in his power to arouse people's interest in dance. For the sake of the artform's survival, he needs to do a very fine job. So far, Macaulay has come closer than any other chief in memory, but no gold ring.
Some things that bother me: his whole-hog pronouncements about dancers and choreographers, such as:
Mr. Kudelka is just not a dance maker of any distinction.
The man finished off in a single sentence.
And somewhat more qualifiedly on ballerina Julie Kent:
Julie Kent can be an intelligent, sensitive artist... She does not, however, have the dramatic authority to shape a full-evening role like Cinderella into a major dramatic arc.
The limited space that dance writers are allotted--even the top critic in the country--tends to erase nuance. Still, it's one thing to characterize broadly and quite another to pass judgment on a dancer's or choreographer's entire worth as an artist.
Also, I wish Macaulay would avoid sarcasm and mimicry:
At the ball, despite arriving dressed like a glamour puss, Cinderella keeps melting in the glow of so much excitement, doting on the handsomeness and strength of her prince. She's all "oh gosh, oh golly."
And in an otherwise interesting review of "Swan Lake," he describes Irina Dvorovenko's face as "marred by her forever negotiating different angles of her chin."
There's a way to be funny and critical without making your subject look foolish and vain.
Macaulay's mockery and his tendency to harp on the faults he perceives in certain dancers until they probably can't get out of bed in the morning must be why James Wolcott, proud worshipper of ABT soloist Veronika Part, called him "pissy."
I am ambivalent about Part: I saw her deliver a sublime "Mozartiana" a couple of years ago, but often find her labored. The girl needs to do something about her weak ankles! Combined with incredible arches, they can make her move like sludge. But how many times must Macaulay call her boring? When he shames dancers and choreographers, it has the effect of mocking the readers who feel differently than he.
Most of all, I'm disappointed in how retrograde he is. In rejecting the three freelancers for the job, the Times went back to an old model. Until Macaulay came on, the idea seemed to be to bring in fresh blood, a contemporary perspective, and evocative writing. Then the Times decided that, no, they wanted authority and long experience. The regrettable fuzziness in my own earlier arguments--my first saying, hire the freelancers, and then, why didn't they hire a woman with more experience to lead the freelancers?--comes out of that bait and switch.
It would have been silly to claim that Claudia La Rocco, Gia Kourlas, and even the most experienced, Roslyn Sulcas, had as much experience as Macaulay. They had enough experience, however, that other valuable qualities emerged: breadth, the capacity to talk cogently and appealingly to a lay audience, and a thorough knowledge of a local scene that has international ramifications. The Times suddenly decided these virtues didn't matter: a mean trick.
Still, Macaulay might have surprised us by not fitting the old-fart bill. I'm relieved he's not blind as a bat and sawdust-dry, as was Anna Kisselgoff, or simply too ill-versed in dance to know what to look for, as John Rockwell was, but he too sticks doggedly to what he knows--and so far it's proven a narrow range.
He sets up categories for himself that prevent him from seeing when a work is moving between categories. Many New York critics do this, but given that the Times felt it was worth stepping over the freelancers for him, I was hoping for better. I was hoping he would be curious.
To return to "Cinderella," I think the useful comparisons are not to Ashton or other balletmakers but to modern-dance choreographers, such as Matthew Bourne and Mark Morris, who have made the old stories speak to a modern sensibility.
Kudelka may not be up to their level, but they too can seem on first viewing to be doing little with the steps. They certainly have been accused of this: Morris with the "Sylvia" he created for San Francisco Ballet (which also features awkward point work) and Bourne with just about everything. I think it's exciting that American Ballet Theatre would venture in the modern-redo direction, as San Francisco Ballet has done, even if this particular ballet has its flaws. (I think they're fixable.)
So far, Macaulay has been meeting attempts to push against the established boundaries--to have any fun with the classics, for example--with a wave of the hand and a pulling of rank. For his review of ABT's "The Sleeping Beauty," he listed all the borrowings from earlier versions to no apparent end except to show that he'd seen them. As he hasn't much ventured into other worlds--tap, flamenco, even much modern--he's using ballet to make his case as a critic. (That choice does not go without saying--so why is he saying it?)
Please, Mr. Macaulay, a more expansive case.
Macaulay has the education, the smarts, the aesthetic sensitivities to do a fine job. All he needs is a little humility and generosity--toward both the artists and us readers.
UPDATE: My fellow blogger Tonya Plank has a very interesting response to this post, as well as her own take on "Cinderella."
(It occurs to me I should clarify one thing: I am on a first name basis and often friendly with most of the writers I mention here. [Tonya and I have even gone to shows together.] Critics tend to all sit in the same section of the theater, so it would be hard not to be. But I refer to people more formally--by last name-- to indicate that they have not endorsed what I say--in many cases, they are probably dying for me to shut up--and it's not their person but their writing I'm interested in. I understand I'm a fool for imagining I can maintain that distinction, but this blog isn't called "Foot in Mouth" for nothing.)
My fellow blogger Tonya Plank (a.k.a Swan Lake Samba Girl) answers my question at the end of Foot contributor Paul Parish's intriguing post. Paul makes the argument that film's quality of weightlessness robs dance of its magic. I had wanted to know from readers if, in their experience, screen dance always paled next to the live stuff. Was it ever just different--equal but different? Ever better?
Tonya makes a persuasive case for its value, particularly in duo forms such as social dancing, which would help explain not only the everlasting Rogers and Astaire phenomenon, but why "Dancing with the Stars" is such a hit.
Anyway, here's Tonya:
This is a really fun discussion! I love talking about dance and film! I agree with Paul that recordings are one of the keys to the difference in popularity between dance and opera. But I disagree (not completely but for the most part) that dance recordings can never be incredibly powerful.
I first fell in love with ballet in adulthood after watching Alessandra Ferri of ABT perform "Romeo and Juliet." And it wasn't live! It was on DVD ("Great Pas de Deux"). I was also completely mesmerized with Darcey Bussell, who danced another MacMillan pas de deux. But I became a bigger fan of Ferri, since I was able to see her perform live on a regular basis. I wouldn't have bought my first ABT subscription series, however, if I hadn't watched that video a million times. So I guess Alessandra is like brandy for me!
Her magic, and the magic of ballet, was not at all lost on me because it was not live. And I'm pretty sure it's not lost on others, either. I take ballroom dancing lessons, and I was so mesmerized with the tape, I brought it in to show my teacher in the hopes that we could actually fit some of the lifts into the lyrical rhumba showcase we were working on. Fat chance, of course.
But when we put the tape in the VCR in the lobby, right off of the main studio floor, EVERYONE started flocking around, some right in the middle of their dance lessons. Everyone was oohing and aahing and completely captivated -- I could tell they were all thinking what I had when I first saw it. So the magic in that video is lost on no one!
I was so taken with this pas de deux that I felt I had to find a full-length version of "Romeo and Juliet." I had just read the novel "Dancer" by Colum McCann, based on the life of Rudolf Nureyev, so I chose the one with him and Margot Fonteyn. I was just as mesmerized. I fell in love with Nureyev from that and he is still my favorite -- though I've never had the chance to see him live.
Another favorite ballet video of mine is Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo in Tharp's "Sinatra Suite." That one I did first see live, though not by those two, but by ABT dancers last City Center season. It lost none of its magic on video. I watch it over and over again. And I brought that video as well to my ballroom studio so that my teacher and I could incorporate some of the lifts into our foxtrot routine, and same exact thing happened as with Alessandra's "R&J." People flocked to the lobby and were captivated. Of course, many also recognized Baryshnikov and were drawn by him.
I do think that pas de deux on video capture the magic of ballet better than ensemble work, which is perhaps the problem with ballet videos and one reason why ballroom dancing is so popular right now: it's on TV and it's all duet. My favorite parts of that Nureyev and Fonteyn video were definitely the pas de deux.
I recently rented ABT doing Frederick Ashton's "The Dream." I've never been so bored watching such excellent dancers in my life. To film ballet, especially a whole production like that, the filmmaker has to really think about how best to capture it -- you can't just plop a camera down at the edge of the stage and hit record. You have to think about angles and focusing in and lighting--all the elements that go into good filmmaking. A film is a different animal than a live show, the same way that a film is completely different from a play -- you can't just film a play (like that film of Mamet's "American Buffalo" or the one of Rabe's "Hurley Burley") and expect it to work. To film ballet, the filmmakers need to be a little more creative.
Still, the larger problem is not that ballet isn't captured well on film but that, unlike opera, it's not accessible to people who aren't already huge fans! I remember that whenever I was in Tower Records, wherever I went in the store I'd have to make my way through this huge opera section. Of course, with all the beautiful opera music pouring out of those speakers you couldn't help but glance over at the CD covers bearing equally stunning singers. It was fascinating; I'd always have to stop and listen and browse, even though I knew nothing about opera and had not a clue what I was looking for.
Not the same with ballet. Where were the ballet videos? Hidden on some small obscure shelf way in the back corner of the video section, of course. You had to look and look hard to find them.
I came to ballet in my adult life through ballroom dancing. Ballroom, for whatever reason (always two people dancing together, more weighted, at least in the Latin version), is definitely filmable. I started ballroom dancing after a date took me swing dancing. I had fun, so I signed up for a class. But I fell head over heels in love with ballroom as an Art after a teacher in my studio showed a videotape of Latin dancers Slavik Kryklyvyy and Karina Smirnoff performing a rhumba -- the most beautiful thing I'd ever seen. I knew then that I needed to do whatever it took to look like Karina, to dance like that, and from then on I spent every minute in the studio that I didn't have to spend at my job.
I bought the video and watched it over and over again -- and I soon realized that what I loved about it, what really took my breath away, was just how balletic it looked. (Slavik and Karina have a ballet background). My childhood passion was suddenly rekindled, and that's what led me to the Library of the Performing Arts, to the video section, where I found Alessandra. So, basically, I fell in love with ballet completely by accident!
Sorry to go on, but my point is, many people are going to have that same path. I really think that if ballet videos were not hidden on obscure shelves in obscure areas of the library or in the back of the Opera House giftshop at the Met, if they were in areas where people who were not already converts would run smack into them and HAVE to look, as with the opera section at Tower, ballet would be competitive with opera.
I also think there's a HUGE potential for a crossover audience from fans of "Dancing With the Stars" and "So You Think You Can Dance" Those people just need somehow to get a glimpse of ballet!!!
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