Dance That Isn't Ballet But Is Still Dance

OK, here's part two of my recent dance roundup, devoted to dance that isn't ballet and as such is usually ignored or dismissed by ballet-oriented critics but is still dance, darn it! As the noted dance critic Stuart Smalley might say.

Jacob's Pillow in the Berkshires is a charming place to visit, with good programs, nice (funkily informal) theaters and grounds, loads of dance history, informative exhibitions and a lively summer school (and hence a mix of the characteristic Berkshires geratric demographic with younger folk). About my only caveat, if I think and think, is Ella Baff's stiff introductions before every curtain, concluding with a forced "Let's dance!". She does a fine job as director, which is what's important, but she lacks a relaxed presence.

Early this Pillow season came the formal U. S. debut of Lafa and Artists from Taiwan, and the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet of New York in the world premiere of Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui's "Orbo Novo." (Don't worry, those of you compulsive about categories; "ballet" here does not mean that this is a company devoted to classical ballet, or even to European-style "contemporary ballet"; it seems to be pretty clearly a modern-dance group, for all the undoubted ballet training of its dancers.)

Lafa was formed by and for Fang-Yi Sheu, known for her work with Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre and the Martha Graham Dance Company. Lafa has been kicking around New York for a couple of years, in residence at Mikhail Bayrshnikov's Arts Center and appearing in City Center's Fall for Dance. Formed in 2007 by Sheu and her partner, the Thai-born former Cloud Gate dancer Bulareyuang Pagarlava, it consists, reverse-harem-style, of Sheu and seven or eight men (I don't have the program handy).

Sheu is a fabulous dancer, fabulous to look at with a wonderfully flexible body and a commanding stage presence. My problem at the Pillow was that the best piece on the program, excerpts from "Single Room," was worrisomely the earliest, from 2002, and overfamiliar, having been seen at the Baryshknikov Center and at Fall for Dance. This time it had spiffier decor and lighting, and the always sensual, ingenious slitherings of Sheu on and around and under a long table placed front and center are still fun to see.

Otherwise, though, Pagarlava seems to have a serious case of the cutes. "37 Arts," named for Baryshnikov's space and previously seen there, is full of clowning, and the clumsily entitled "Summer Fantasia Part I -- Summer at Jacob's Pillow" is a bland pastoral with much flirtatious mugging imposed on Sheu. The men are terrific, especially the awesomely controlled gymnast and dancer Ming-Cheng Huang. But Pagarlava needs to broaden and deepen his range.

The Belgian Cherkaoui (he's of half Moroccan descent) is one of the hippest choreographers in Europe, based at Alain Platel's Ballets C. de la B.(Contemporains de la Belgique) in Ghent. "Orbo Novo" was an event, given his current reclam, but it seemed inconclusive. It started out with a danced and spoken summary of Jill Bolte Taylor's memoir "My Stroke of Insight," in which she chronicled her own stroke with personal insight and medical expertise. But the remaining, wordless bulk of the dance didn't overtly correlate to the outset; it looked generic.

At least it served as a fine showcase for the superb Cedar Lake dancers. This is a company built on the fortune of the daughter of Sam Walton of Wal-Mart. It started without much aesthetic direction but seems now, under the leadership of Benoit-Swan Pouffer, to have found itself as a conduit for some of the most notable (non-ballet) choreographers of our time, most of them sadly underrepresented here.

Back in New York State, Bard College's increasingly ambitious SummerScape festival (still awkwardly conjoined with the separately named Bard Music Festival) got under way at the campus's Frank Gehry-designed Fisher Center with a revival of most of Lucinda Childs's "Dance." (Both "Dance" and "Orbo Nova" will be on view in the fall at the Joyce Theater in Manhattan.)

"Dance" was first done in 1979 at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, one of Harvey Lichtenstein's efforts to foster collaborations among notable artists. "Dance" was an offshoot of "Einstein on the Beach" of 1976, without Robert Wilson but with Phililp Glass and Lucinda Childs, who played a crucial role as one of the two stylized actor/dancers in the so-called "knee plays," or entr'actes (though her choreography for the two extended dance scenes didn't appear until the first revival in 1984).

The third collaborator was the artist Sol LeWitt. He contributed films for three of the five parts of "Dance," the other two having been left unfilmed, I was told by the lighting designer Beverly Emmons at Bard, for financial reasons. The revival consists of the three scenes that were filmed, the black-and-white footage rendered newly crisp and vivid, with a new group of dancers performing live behind the film projected on a scrim. The combination of the varied ways in which the film images are seen on the scrim, and the varied proportions between filmed and live images, plus the steadily more colorful lighting of the live dancers, is terrifically effective.

Given the sometimes compelling but sometimes didactic Childs choreography, it may well be an improvement to have a "Dance" that lasts only one hour. The three remaining parts are nicely contrasted, a solo separating the busier group pieces. Those are full of precise patterns and constant spinning, skipping movement reflecting the burbling Glass score (this came towards the end of his music for his own ensemble; the opera "Satyagraha" followed in 1980). But it's the solo that is most striking. The huge closeups of Childs's impassive face and body from 30 years ago -- Vogue magazine blown up to filmscreen grandeur -- juxtaposed with Caitlin Scranton's honorable emulation of her live looked like a temple priestess before a godlike icon.

Finally, my only dance event at the Lincoln Center Festival, in the new Alice Tully Hall (I missed the other, Emanuel Gat, whom I had much enjoyed three years ago). Shen Wei's rapid rise to international prominence has incurred the envy of some, who find him unfairly favored by a few well-placed producers (like Nigel Redden, my successor at Lincoln Center). His new offering consisted of three parts, somewhat pretentiously entitled "Re- (I, II, III)" but presented out of order, the parts created and performed separately over the last two years.

The trilogy was greeted grumpily in some quarters. Me, I found it by far the best work of his that I have seen. The three parts, devoted to Tibet, then the Silk Road and modern-day New York and Beijing, and finally Angkor Wat, contrasted nicely; the music was evocative; and the look of the evening -- Shen Wei is as devoted to the visual as to the terpsichoric, another source of annoyance for some -- was striking despite a silly costume here and there. The final part, with nearly nude dancers, some posed like marble statues on the floor, was particularly impressive. It wasn't ballet, but it was dance, or dance-art, and first-rate on its own, perfectly valid terms.      

 

July 19, 2009 11:39 AM | | Comments (0)

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This page contains a single entry by John Rockwell published on July 19, 2009 11:39 AM.

The failings of arts journalism, in print and on the internet was the previous entry in this blog.

Knowing the Plot is the next entry in this blog.

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