Dance, Modern/Contemporary/Physical

OK, you can relax. Here it is, at long last, my report on a bunch of mostly non-balletic dance events in the New York area in recent weeks.

"Mostly" because while I made mention of Christopher Wheeldon's Morphoses at City Center in an Oct. 8 posting, there was also some ballet in the non-annual Fall for Dance pop-pourri programs, again at City Center. I missed most of these, being out in California or up at our country place. Still, the one program I did see included an utterly anodyne account of Balanchine's "Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux" by Sara Webb and Connor Walsh of the Houston Ballet.

The rest of that program was pretty patchy: Boring and muddled modern dance from BeijingDance/LDTX, yet another effusion from Willy Tsao, who seems to be the driving force behind every Chinese modern-dance company that ever was. An amusing, snappily danced duet by Richard Siegal for Ayman Harper and Mario Zambrano for Siegal's Bakery company. The always riveting Fang-yi Sheu in a portion of her sensuous table-top solo, "Single Room"; this was choregraphed by Bulareyaung Pagarlava, who despite his Thai name is involved with the Cloud Gate company from Taipei (and also involved with Sheu, professionally and personally); it still looked great but had been tricked up with fancier production values than it originally enjoyed in the intimate studio it the Baryshnikov Arts Center. And The Gentlemen of Halau Na Kamalei (I'm dropping a lot of umlauts, of whatever you call them in Hawaiian), who gave male hula dancing a risible bad name. Ah, well, even at $10 a ticket (or free, for us critics), you can't win 'em all.

One of the more piquant series in this early fall was a festival called Crossing the Line. This was yet another production of the French -- the Alliance Francaise in New York, as backed by French state money. The reason we see so much French stuff is that the French still take cultural diplomacy seriously. The Americans did too, at the onset of the Cold War, but our politicians soon lost interest in winning the hearts and minds of arts lovers.

Crossing the Line kicked off with yet another deft, amusing, annoying, thought-provoking endeavor from Jerome Bel, the uncontested master of French dance conceptualism. This was supposedly called "The Last Performance," billed as a "response to a poorly received performance he had done." But he decided -- at extreme short notice, he said -- to cook up a new lecture-demo consisting of recollections from an observer's (his own) point of view of performances he had seen. Conceptualists make good critics, and Bel could be a terrific critic if he weren't so busy teasing us with his thinking and his acting out of his thinking. His talk was amusing, punctuated by his own deft movement illustrations. It made one, even those ones of us who have done it for a living, think about what it meant to watch a performance. It was not his best work, but it was plenty good enough.

So was Ivana Mueller's "While We Were Holding It Together." This consisted of a quintet of dancers (or actors or people) holding a frozen pose and talking. It sounds boring; it turned out to be gripping. Mueller is based in Paris and Amsterdam. She enlivened the static scene (and relieved her performers) with occasional blackouts, and eventually started making individual performers speak with others' voices (via recordings and lip-synching). It was maybe more entertaining than deeply affecting. But entertaining it was.

My former colleage at The NY Times, Gia Kourlas, disdains most British contemporary dance in favor of the continentals. For me, though, the long-awaited return to the U.S. of the DV8 Physical Theatre company from London was a cause for celebartion. Lloyd Newson has done some of the best work in British physical theater ever; indeed, he's the pioneer. He had a bad experience at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in the late 80's, though his company did tour elsewhere here in the mid-90's. He was lured back  to Jed Wheeler's lively Peak Performances series at Montclair State University in New Jersey, not that far from New York, and a couple of other East Coast venues, and his "To Be Straight with You" was worth the wait.

This was a piece about being gay, male and female, based on the thoughts and recollections of the dancers. It sounds didactic, but Newson has such a gift for movement, for physicality, that the whole piece pulsed with life. I do hope DV8 comes back soon; in the meantime, get ahold of the 35-minute film of "The Cost of Living," one of the grreat dance films ever made.

Finally, there were three New York-based modern-dance performances, all interesting but none as successful as the two French and one British -- with one exception. Tere O'Connor's wonderfully titled "Rammed Earth" at the Baryshnikov Arts Center has been rapturously received in previous appearances. I am fully willing to concede that I just didn't get it, but I didn't. O'Connor, who is a lynchpin of the New York scewne, as a choreographer, teacher, impresario and polemicist, is full of ideas, including having the audience move about between sections to present different perspectives on the performance. His quartet of dancers was first rate. But for me the actual movement vocabulary and shape of the group as a whole seemed prosaic. Maybe someone could clue me in. But if you have to be clued in, maybe the performance is missing something.

Ann Liv Young, the southern belle queen of trailer trash sex, has a following, too, but maybe it's dwindling. Apollinaire Scherr in her blog really labored to appreciate her latest, "The Bagwell in me," and I admire Apollinaire for all her hard work. Me, I just found it kind of gross. I mean, penetrating yourself with a dildo (her last dance) and eating out her female collaborator while the father of her baby was favoring us with closeups from a hand-held video camera seemed, well, of limited artistic potential as Young further develops her art. But God knows she's a strong performer, and some of her past work was reportedly better than this, so you never know.

Bill T. Jones is a more established character, he would be no doubt horrified to read, and one who himself is hardly a stanger to racially charged provocation, or, as he would surely (and maybe correctly) put it, fearless exploration of racial and other socio-political issues. (One wonders what he would have thought seeing the black Isabel Lewis, in blackface, in Young's piece being eaten out by her white collaborator. Makes one nostalgic for the relatively demure Karen Finley.)

Jones's piece, "A Quarreling Pair," started life out at Montclair. It is based, of all things, on a puppet play by Jane Bowles, Paul Bowles's partner of yore. Two old (white) sisters bicker symbiotically, and finally one runs off to fulfill herself. The rest, presented as a series of vaudeville sketches, is sometimes disturbing, sometimes charming, never confrontational in the old Jones manner and deeply touching.

Jones resists the thought that he might be mellowing, or maturing; he worries that maybe he's just selling out. But I think he's mellowing and maturing, and his recent work has shown a wonderfully new-found depth and gravity. Maybe, one day, Young will get there too.  

October 23, 2008 5:53 PM |


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