Dance Notes Archives:
The Past, Present and Future of Genius: Michelle Dorrance’s Tap
By Debra Cash
What does it mean to be declared a genius?
The dictionary definition is pretty straightforward. A genius is a person who is exceptionally intelligent or creative, expressing a talent that comes “naturally.” Think Mozart. Think Einstein. Think Michelle Dorrance.
When the Chicago-based MacArthur Foundation granted Michelle Dorrance one of its no-strings-attached fellowships, universally referred to as a “genius grant,” in 2015, she was the first tap dancing recipient. She took her place in an elite cohort of prior MacArthur dance honorees including Bill T. Jones, Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown and Liz Lerman (not to mention scientists, scholars, and Hamilton’s Lin-Manuel Miranda). The award of $625,000 paid over five years comes like a bolt from the blue — even the names of the people who nominate and vote for the winners is a secret — and Dorrance says that she was stunned. She was quick to explain that while she might use her technique to deconstruct, stretch and expand tap’s traditions, the real genius is tap itself, a distinctive American vernacular whose roots rest in the unheralded innovations of dancers who lived through oppression and racial inequality and pushed through those burdens to joyful expression. Dorrance simply counts herself as one of tap dancing’s most recent caretakers.
Michelle Dorrance is being welcomed to the Bates Dance Festival for the first time this summer. Much has been made of the fact that this Chapel Hill, North Carolina native is the daughter of a former professional ballet dancer and a women’s soccer coach: articulate feet seem to have been entrusted to her in her DNA. During the late 1980s, she cut her theatrical teeth touring the state and country and appearing at international tap festivals with Gene Medler’s North Carolina Youth Tap Ensemble. Medler is an exceptional teacher, putting equal emphasis on the fine points of set and improvisational tap technique, and stressing his students’ responsibility to be historians of their form. It is a lesson Michelle Dorrance honors every day.
Dorrance moved to New York when she was 17, earning her undergraduate degree at New York University’s Gallatin School. Soon she was freelancing as a dancer, choreographer, and teacher throughout the world. The tap world is a close-knit one, and by the time she established her own company, Dorrance Dance, in 2011, she could depend on an unusual depth of performing experience and a network of devoted and admiring dancer and musician colleagues. Tonight’s dancers include Elizabeth Burke (another Medler protege), Byron Tittle, Carson Murphy and Warren Craft; her musician collaborators at Bates are gospel singer Aaron Marcellus, double bass player Greg Richardson and Michelle’s younger brother Donovan Dorrance on piano and guitar.
Tonight’s program introduces Maine audiences to the breadth of Dorrance’s tap dance imagination. Blues in D dives into the music of Muddy Waters, Etta James, Chris Whitley and Jimmy Reeves for dance that rises up from southern languor, where inner percussive voices are more insistent than the overt melodies made by the dancers’ shoes.
Tap dancers have always “made do,” using limited resources to create their expansive artistry. SOUNDspace turns limitation on its head. Created as a site-specific work for St. Marks Church in the Bowery in New York City in 2011, Dorrance found that the venue didn’t want the dancers’ metal taps to batter the floors. What to do? Dorrance and her collaborators explored the stamp and click and swoosh of other kinds of footwear. The result was a genre bending, a cappella tap dance that explores the sounds of bare feet, leather- and wood-soled shoes and, with more than a tip of the hat to late tap master Dr. Jimmy Slyde, socks.
If Blues in D speaks of tap’s blues roots and SOUNDspace today’s improvisational contingencies, ETM: The Initial Approach steps into tap’s digital future. ETM is the acronym for “Electronic Tap Music,” a contraption designed and built by dancer, musician and de facto sound engineer, Nicholas Van Young. Made of wired panels outfitted with Ableton software and a wii controller, Young’s device enables Dorrance to explore new possibilities for the sounds made by dancing bodies. Rhythms loop, layer, stand alone, and contrast with the contribution of the collaborating musicians. Everyone knows that tap is both seen and heard, but the extra layer of sonic information added by Young’s hyperinstrument creates opportunities that would have boggled — and probably delighted — an earlier generation of hoofers.
Simultaneously reverent and edgy, Michelle Dorrance’s playful spirit takes tap, and her audiences, on a new adventure. For me, that is as good a definition of genius as any.
© Debra Cash 2016
Order Emergent: The Art of Doug Varone
By Debra Cash
As Doug Varone and Dancers approach the threshold of their 30th anniversary season, one thing is now well established: Varone is an American master. Choreographing for the concert stage, opera and musical theatre, and even the fashion runway, he has collected a fistful of honors for his distinguished body of work, including last winter’s award for lifetime achievement from the American Dance Guild. His distinctive style bridges the emotional and the abstract, two aesthetic categories too often presumed to be antithetical. Watch attentively, and his dances will ignite the circuits in your brain while shaking you into feelings that can only rarely break through into words.
Take, for instance, the earliest dance on tonight’s program, Possession, from 1994. Inspired by images in British author A.S. Byatt’s Booker Prize-winning novel about two academics researching a pair of Victorian poets, and each couple falling in love, Possession is one of Varone’s personal favorites. In its exuberant and poignant physicality, it is a dance that he once described as being about how a relationship “tosses and tumbles you through your own heart and your own soul in the midst of it.”
In his 2015 ReComposed, inspired by the fierce, smudged pastel drawings of American artist Joan Mitchell, Varone found an almost uncanny artistic kinship that he parallels with a work of surging, shifting lines that develops in layers like marks made across a sheet of paper. And in The Fabulist, the demanding 14-minute solo that brought Varone back to the stage in 2014, after eight years out of the spotlight, gestures and remembered snippets of narrative stab into the space, recede, and leave afterimages on the eye and heart.
How do these transformations happen? It’s hard to say exactly, but I found an apt if unexpected explanation this year in an essay by the early 20th century liberal American education reformer, John Dewey. Dewey, a pragmatist philosopher committed to methods of testable hypotheses and duplicable findings, is an unlikely guide to the work of a choreographer, especially one who was born four years after his death.
Nonetheless, Dewey could have been writing dance criticism for our challenging globalized era and speaking of the art of Doug Varone in particular when he wrote:
Order is not imposed from without but is made out of the relations of harmonious interactions that energies bear to one another. Because it is active…order itself develops… Order cannot but be admirable in a world constantly threatened with disorder.
All interactions that effect stability and order in the whirling flux of change are rhythms. There is ebb and flow, systole and diastole: ordered change… Contrast of lack and fullness, of struggle and achievement, of adjustment after consummated irregularity, form the drama in which action, feeling, and meaning are one. The outcome is balance and counterbalance.
The live being recurrently loses and re-establishes equilibrium with his surroundings. The moment of passage from disturbance into harmony is that of intensest life.
Over and over again, in his cherished repertory and fresh-out-of-the-studio premieres, Doug Varone’s work for his dancers illuminates an unpredictable passage from disturbance into harmony. His dance, his dancers, and his audiences are brought together to celebrate the way human beings can reach for a life of intensity.
Debra Cash ©2016
Kate Weare: Aiming for the Target
By Debra Cash
What does it mean to aim at a target? What do we need to know beforehand, what do we learn in the process, and how do we understand our experience in its aftermath?
Tonight’s engagement of the Kate Weare Company, the troupe’s third visit to the Bates Dance Festival, explores those questions. In the excerpt of Dark Lark from 2013, the target is erotic self-expression where a person risks surrender to fantasy and tactility. In Marksman, an evening-long work premiered just a few weeks ago at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, the target refers to the unconscious proficiency exemplified in kyudo, a form of Japanese archery, as it was mythologized in the famous volume that helped introduce Zen to the west, Zen in the Art of Archery.
Kate Weare’s intricate, thrilling contemporary work has always explored movement from both dance and martial arts traditions. As a young girl growing up in an artistic family in Oakland, California she exchanged her ballet leotards for kung fu. The partnering in her work often implies sparring as the dancers’ actions toggle between aggression and submission. Weare’s working methods in the studio have their source in that combination of practices: the dancers typically rehearse not to music or counts, but to each other’s breaths, in their peripheral awareness of each other’s proximity, and to what they see in each other’s eyes as they are dancing. It is a creative process that demands time, trust and intimacy.
Dark Lark was created during a five-week creative development residency at the Brooklyn Academy of Music Fisher facility where Kate Weare was its first ever artist-in-residence.
“When you work with the body, feelings always rise to the surface,” she has said. In Dark Lark the dancers’ bodies seem saturated, even sodden with feeling, as if the presence of each other has penetrated through the membranes of their cells.
Marksman, she says, is a very different work: at least consciously, it was not intended to address human relationships or the complex hierarchies of power carried by notions of gender. Instead, it is about unconscious and automatic natural forces:
“compression and tension and a kind of focusing; heavy and intense mark-making in the energies that exist in nature, in formation of tightening and releasing, focusing and loosening.”
When in 1948 German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel published his account of living in Japan in the 1920s, Zen in the Art of Archery offered a romantic corrective to images of wartime Japanese society. The archer, Herrigel wrote, was so deeply at one with his art that he could hit a bulls-eye in total darkness. While the truth of this description has been disputed, it is easy to understand why this appeals to choreographers: dancers have long experienced transcendence through the power of adept muscle memory.
Marksman, a work for six dancers, had its germ in Unstruck, a trio Weare created last season. Weare says that these performances of the new work at Bates are aspects of her creative process:
“the reality of how we work in this economy is that we don’t get it seen [a new dance] until it’s on stage. It’s a lab cycle to comprehend it; the performances are informative and that’s always true of an evolving art form.”
Marksman is dominated by printed panels designed by Clifford Ross and lit by Mike Faba. Weare and the dancers refer to these tall panels as “totems” for the way they partition space and dwarf the dancers who move in dialog with them. Propelled by the sounds of Curtis Robert MacDonald’s original score, Marksman pushes forward towards an unseen target. “I do the work that feels necessary for me, and accept my own instincts.” Kate Weare says. “All artists can do is to try to push forward.”
2016 © Debra Cash
Lost and Found: Sean Dorsey’s The Missing Generation
By Debra Cash
In the midst of the oral histories of the AIDS pandemic that animate Sean Dorsey’s The Missing Generation, a voice comments on Americans’ “inexhaustible capacity to look away.” Suppressed, erased, never voiced, the stories of those who survived the HIV plague of the 1980s and ’90s were retrieved in 75 hours of taped testimony Dorsey collected in six cities over the course of two years. In the work being shown here at the Bates Dance Festival tonight, Sean Dorsey uses dance’s inherent quality to command sustained attention to get audiences to look, to learn, and to remember.
Premiered just a few weeks ago in San Francisco, where the choreographer has made his home off and on since 2000, The Missing Generation is both a chronicle and a love letter to survivors — families, lovers, friends, colleagues, allies — who continue to bear the imprint of living through unthinkable loss. Laura Faure and the Bates Dance Festival have served as the lead commissioner among a cohort of five risk-taking national presenters.
Sean Dorsey is 42, and was only a kid when gay and bisexual men were dying in the thousands of a disease that had no name and no treatment and where, as one Missing Generation survivor remembers, it was possible to lose count of funerals.
“Honestly, anyone my age or younger I’ve talked to, even those who are knowledgeable about LGBT [lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender] history were not taught this history,” Dorsey explained in a recent phone conversation. “They are shocked when I share the truth that on Friday someone could be vibrant and healthy, and over the weekend that same person could get sick and die.” When the AIDS Quilt was first displayed on the National Mall in 1987, it included 1,920 panels and covered a space larger than a football field. By 2012, there were more than 48,000 panels and 94,000 distinct names. If the panels had been laid end to end, they would have comprised a ribbon 50 miles long. Every name left mourners behind.
While the rate of AIDS infection has slowed down in the affluent communities of the West, AIDS continues to ravage communities where there is little access to treatment, especially for women in underserved communities here and abroad who may transmit the virus to their newborns. The scourge continues.
The Missing Generation is an anthology of embraces. It is a quartet for four dancers (Brian Fisher, ArVejon Jones, Nol Simonse and Dorsey) of different ages and backgrounds, all of whom identify as queer. In gestures and hand holds distilled from social dancing, from wrestling, from sexual encounters, the choreography recapitulates the many ways men can touch, in grief, in friendship, in support, in erotic connection, in attack, in comfort, and in love.
Against the heartbreaking stories and the musical drones of cello, horns and bells that make up Dorsey’s sensitive sound score, the men move together in a knotted mass and drift away from one another. Sometimes in unison, sometimes arranged as a crowd with one man set apart, sometimes in solos that read as private diaries, they enact stories of rejection and pride, hometown closets and sexual feasting. Like members of a community at war, under siege, or experiencing the fragility of life in the face of great natural disaster, no one who lived through those days was unchanged. At a time when gay life is increasingly becoming normalized through the filter of the transnational campaign for marriage equality and antidiscrimination laws, it is important to realize how hard won and recent these successes have been, and how much still needs to be done.
Dorsey feels a special obligation as a transgender person to include the voices and experiences of gender nonconforming gay men and trans women who lived through the AIDS crisis, especially those trans women of color whose poverty often led them to prostitution that could leave them infected and too often cost them their lives. Even gay agencies created to serve gay patients, he says, could be unwelcoming or rejecting of transgender women. There was and is “a tremendous separation between the L and G and B and T. Instead of building solidarity, we sometimes see communities letting transgender people down.”
Sean Dorsey feels that in his theatrical work he brings together an audience comprised of people who would not ordinarily coexist in the same room, much less share a cultural experience
People who dance, people who think they hate modern dance, all viscerally experiencing a shared experience around longing for connection and community and love and wellness. Everyone can respond to the shared experience of loss and grief, and the irrepressible determination to heal.
© Debra Cash 2015
Debra Cash is Scholar in Residence at the Bates Dance Festival and Executive Director of the Boston Dance Alliance.
Without Masks: Mexico’s Delfos Danza Contemporánea
By Debra Cash
What masks do we wear? What masks do others expect? And how do we make connections without relying on that protective armor? These are the questions fueling Cuando los Disfraces se Cuelgan (When the Disguises Are Hung Up), created for Delfos Danza Contemporánea by its cofounders and co-artistic directors Victor Manuel Ruiz and Claudia Lavista.
While Lavista and her husband, dancer, choreographer, and visionary educator, Omar Carrum, are beloved and long-time faculty members at the Bates Dance Festival, these performances of Cuando los Disfraces se Cuelgan mark the Mexican company’s first full performance in New England. BDF Director Laura Faure believes audiences will find it more than worth the wait: Delfos Danza has been acclaimed as the premier contemporary troupe in Mexico, and its associated school has graduated dancers who have excelled in noted professional companies across the globe.
The daughter of composer Mario Lavista, whose work spans collective improvisation and electronic music as well as music written for classical western instruments, Claudia Lavista started out as a cellist as well as a dancer. In her teens she made a choice, throwing her full energy into studies at Sistema Nacional para la Enseñanza Profesional de la Danza del Instituto Nacional de Bellas Artes in Mexico City.
Her talents were recognized almost immediately. By 17, she was performing and touring with the cutting edge U.X. Onodanza, one of an emerging cohort of Mexican dance companies that explored political, economic, and social issues. Two years later, she entered and won the important National Dance Award and was invited to join Danzahoy Dance Company of Venezuela. For the next few years, she toured constantly. Today, she laughingly admits she thinks that during her career she has visited every theatre in Mexico — and most of the theatres across Latin America — more than once.
Ultimately, Lavista yearned to do her own work, and to live a less scattered life. She and Ruiz formed Delfos Danza Contemporánea in Mexico City with Ruiz in 1992. They named the company after an oracle. The first year of their existence, Delfos won the National Dance Award, confirming that its cofounders were on the right path.
The timing was propitious. In Mexico, the community of visual artists, writers, photographers, and orchestras were increasingly becoming decentralized. In 1996, the ensemble of ten dancers left the urban energy Mexico City for the focus and solitude of Mazatlán in the Mexican state of Sinaloa. “We literally hired a huge truck, put all the dancers’ belongings in one truck and said here we go.” Lavista once told a television interviewer. It was not the first time that Sinaloa had a connection to contemporary dance. Modern dance pioneer Jose Limon was a son of Culiacán, Sinaloa’s largest city, and for almost thirty years Mazatlán has been the site of an annual international dance festival named in his honor. Delfos had come home.
Cuando los Disfraces se Cuelgan (When the Disguises Are Hung Up), choreographed jointly by Ruiz and Lavista, is one of the most popular works in the Delfos repertoire. “You have to wear different masks for every role you play in life,” Lavista has noted. “It’s not that you’re hiding or cheating. It’s a survival thing. We translated that idea of masks into the body language of dance.”
A ten-scene work for seven dancers, this hour-long work uses dance, music, and text to explore the issues of authenticity and vulnerability, self-presentation and desire. Lavista likes to paraphrase the late Mexican poet-diplomat Octavio Paz who wrote in Piedra de Sol (The Sun Stone) that the world changes if two people look at each other and recognize each other.
Delfos is a company but it is also a school, the Mazatlán Professional School of Dance (EPDM). Founded in 1998, and built by Delfos brick by brick, the school is a four-year BFA integrated arts education including dance history, visual arts, music, literature, stage production and anatomy that strives to instill in students a holistic approach to their art. Supported by the city government, EPDM also has extensive outreach programs for underserved young people from nearby communities.
It is in this way that Claudia Lavista and her Delfos colleagues come full circle. After more than twenty years of serving the art they love, they have come to be part of a community — in Mexico, in the U.S., and around the globe — that cherishes them in all their passion and in their authenticity. No masks required.
© 2015 Debra Cash
Debra Cash is Scholar in Residence at the Bates Dance Festival and Executive Director of the Boston Dance Alliance.
Keep on Keeping On: Robert Moses Kin’s NEVABAWARLDAPECE
By Debra Cash
When he was growing up in Philadelphia, Robert Moses’ mother, whose family had come north with the Great Migration, had a saying: nothing beats a hit but a miss.
One of those paradoxical put-your-head-on-straight adages, the choreographer recalls the line warmly but understands it as a challenge. If you try to do something and you get beaten down, staying down is not an option.
So it is with social movements. America’s liberation movements, insurrections and revolts are the thematic warp and weft of Moses’ NEVABAWARLDAPECE, a rumble of a title that said aloud threatens “never be a world of peace.” Created in collaboration with Carl Hancock Rux, Laura Love, and Corey Harris, it’s a dream project for Robert Moses whose over 70 works, his website says, express his “concern with the honor, dignity, truth and potential of real people.”
Robert Moses founded his San Francisco Bay-area based company in 1995, the same year he joined the dance faculty at Stanford. He now holds the title of Artist In Residence in Drama and Dance and Director of the Committee on Black Performing Art at the university. Often called a pillar of the San Francisco dance community, Moses also teaches at ODC Dance Commons and Alonzo King LINES Dance Center.
Since those early days, Moses has been known for his unusual combination of lyricism and social engagement. Tonight’s program at the Bates Dance Festival includes his ritualistic Speaking Ill of the Dead that addresses the moment when a family with a member in the military learns, to their anguish, “We regret to inform you of the death of…” Created during the depths of America’s wars in 2006, when polls showed that a large majority of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans felt that their forces were overextended, the dance has taken on a different frame of reference as the deaths of those still fighting, and the pain of those whose loved ones have been killed, seem to have been banished from the headlines.
Seven years after Speaking Ill, Moses created NEVABAWARLDAPECE. It is a dance of soapbox manifestos, of Facebook threads and snark, a series of channel-surfed vignettes. The dancers appear to be trying to take a stand above the noise of competing self-righteousness. It’s a work where the fold of a man’s arms simultaneously conveys both a stubbornness not to be moved and a decision not to listen. Moses establishes an atmosphere of clarity within the swirl of confrontation.
In a recent phone conversation, Moses explained that NEVABAWARLDAPECE‘s theme dovetails with his choice of movement vocabulary. The dancers are never at rest, you have to get up every time you’re knocked down and move forward. [The dance is] never still and something is always broken about these movements, something fractures. There’s unity for a moment, but then it all falls apart. Whether it’s the French Revolution or the protests of the 1960s, the moment of innocence keeps falling away.
Each of his collaborators had a different take on the project’s themes. Carl Hancock Rux, who has a long history of collaborating on dance projects, having worked with Marlies Yearby, Urban Bush Women, Jane Comfort & Co., Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and Martha Clarke, was interested in exploring how individuals move within constrained social circumstances. “Afro-Celtic” songwriter Laura Love, who lives off the grid in Oregon and has been an activist against the war in Iraq and participant in the Occupy movement, focused on Nat Turner’s slave rebellion and broad issues of solidarity during what turned out to be her first multi-media project. McArthur fellow and Bates alum (and honorary Bates doctorate awardee) Corey Harris, whose experiences in New Orleans and West Africa inform his unique guitar stylings for the blues, moved toward the history and promise of pan-African and Afrocentric liberation movements. Tying them all together is the lighting and visual design of Moses’ Stanford colleague, Elaine Buckholtz, best known for her gallery and site specific installations and longtime work with Meredith Monk. When first presented, the musicians performed their score alongside the dancers. While tonight’s abridged touring version is performed to a recording, the African and African diasporic motifs continue to be crucial elements of NEVABAWARLDAPECE‘s vision and message.
Ten diverse dancers move within this framework, bringing their own stories of persistence to their roles. What do you do when the rose-colored glasses come off? That question is as painful and salient for an individual as it is for an entire disillusioned society. But for Robert Moses and his collaborators any answer worth its salt emerges from the struggle. Without illusion, you see the truth more clearly. And you keep on keeping on.
c 2015 Debra Cash
Debra Cash is Scholar in Residence at the Bates Dance Festival and Executive Director of the Boston Dance Alliance.
When the Heart Matters: Prometheus Dance
By Debra Cash
Choreographer-led dance companies often have short life spans. Freelance dancers have a tendency to leave or retire and are replaced by others. Choreographers get distracted from the rigors of making new work by responsibilities as teachers or by day-jobs. Art-makers have to do double duty as business managers, administrators, marketing directors and fundraisers. Money is invariably in short supply. For a regionally significant troupe with only a limited ability to tour, success rests on the sheer determination to carry on.Prometheus Dance, based in Boston, beat long odds when it reached its quarter century mark in 2012. Happily, it met that milestone with its vision not only intact but enlarged. Established by Diane Arvanites, and since 1998 led by Arvanites alongside Tommy Neblett, this is a troupe whose repertory reflects everything from broad social issues to explorations of the human heart in the grip of longing, betrayal, aggression and farewell. Prometheus’ dances have addressed the precarious state of refugees in Kosovo, the pressure on women in theocratic societies and as sex workers, and the universal sorrow of those who witnessed and mourned the victims of 9-11. Many of these dances read as emotional exorcisms where characters, especially women, fight for self-determination.
The Heart of the Matter, the evening-long work created for the company’s 25th anniversary season and being presented here at the Bates Dance Festival tonight, is representative of many of Prometheus Dance’s most vital themes. Inspired in part by the Graham Greene’s novel about a British intelligence officer’s moral crisis in Sierra Leone, it’s a dance that explores both honesty and pity. The video of a formal garden in Savannah, Georgia is polarized so that the images blacken like a pastoral bad dream, creating a natural framework at once beautiful and malign.
With women dressed in second hand ball gowns and men in thrift store suit jackets, the dancers move from formal etiquette to emotional volatility. Prometheus Dance has been comprised entirely of women at various times in its existence. Although The Heart of the Matter’s cast includes men, the work’s athletic, intricate partnering continues to resist gender bifurcation. Desire, it seems, carries its own baggage regardless of the identity of the partners.
While the choreography of The Heart of the Matter addresses the past, present, and the imagined future, so too does Prometheus Dance’s broader community agenda. Arvanites is a longtime faculty member at Walnut Hill, the Boston-area arts high school, and both she and Neblett teach at the Boston Conservatory, where he is assistant director of the Dance Division under the directorship of Bates Dance Festival faculty member Cathy Young. Prometheus Dance gives performances in both conventional and nontraditional settings, and regularly appears at benefits for worthy causes from AIDS awareness to hurricane relief.
While acknowledging that contemporary dance has always been considered a young person’s profession, Arvanites and Neblett established the popular Prometheus Dance Elders Ensemble, a troupe of vital women ranging in age from 60 to 92. Arvanites and Neblett’s message is clear. Dancing never stops: it just changes to accommodate and express new forms of insight and wisdom. That awareness that may be the key to the heart of Prometheus. Dancing always matters.
© 2014 Debra Cash
Facing Blackface: Camille Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RAncE
By Debra Cash
|Camille A. Brown & Dancers by Grant Halverson|
In December, 1925 Langston Hughes’ poem “Minstrel Man” appeared in The Crisis, the magazine of the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) edited by W.E.B. Du Bois.
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter
And my throat
Is deep with song,
You do not think
I suffer after
I have held my pain
Because my mouth
Is wide with laughter,
You do not hear
My inner cry?
Because my feet
Are gay with dancing,
You do not know
The double consciousness of the black artist, the complicated relationship between the minstrel’s enactment of happy-go-lucky buffoonery and more fraught inner life, and the legacy and persistence of racism and marginalization in the American entertainment industry well into the 21st century shapes choreographer Camille Brown’s ambitious and provocative Mr. TOL E. RAncE.
Created in part here at the Bates Dance Festival during Camille Brown’s creative residency in 2011, Mr. TOL E. RAnce was sparked by her encounter with the life of vaudeville comedian Bert Williams, the first black Broadway star and a man W.C. Fields once described as “the funniest man I ever saw – and the saddest man I ever knew.”
Mel Watkins’ book On The Real Side: From Slavery to Chris Rock provided the historical backdrop for Brown’s research. Watkins documents the development of minstrelsy’s stereotypes from the years before the Civil War. Theatrical revues portrayed plantation life complete with cowardly, sniveling slaves “blacked up” in burnt cork and greasepaint. For its African American performers, minstrelsy was what jazz and culture critic Stanley Crouch (himself a black man) has called “the prison of stereotypes [in which the artists] reinforced the bars of the cage they were in through their talent.”
Another influence on Camille Brown’s work was African American comedian Dave Chappelle’s remarkable decision in 2005 to walk away from a renewal of his Comedy Central television contract (reportedly worth more than $50 million) because he was concerned that he was being asked to perpetuate racial stereotypes, and as he told Time magazine, “I want to make sure I’m dancing and not shuffling.”
In both the nostalgic animations by Isabela Dos Santos that introduce Mr. TOL E. RAnce and in her rapid-fire choreographic language, Brown also echoes aspects of filmmaker Spike Lee’s sometimes shocking Bamboozled, whose main character, a black television executive, develops a blackface minstrel show in order to expose racism but ends up reinforcing it. It’s a film Brown says she used to watch regularly since she has “always been fascinated with Spike Lee’s concept of current day “minstrelsy” and his depiction of this phenomenon spreading like a disease.”
With exaggerated makeup and references to distorted characters including the scary black thug and the bodacious vixen, foolish butler Stepin’ Fetchit and pancake mammy Aunt Jemima, Camille Brown and her dancers ask questions about the ways today’s performers are complicit in perpetuating those images. Or is there a way they are able to resist them? What is the spiritual cost of commercial success that panders to these images? What happens to the human spirit behind the mask? And what happens to the audience that experiences such self-denigrating images as “real?”
Audiences are not expected to be comfortable with the overt and latent racism under the cultural references Brown deconstructs, and may wince at the virtuosic, no-holds-barred “minstrel” solo that conveys Brown’s hurt and confusion. But as she explains
the dancers say this piece is like jumping out of a plane–you either go all the way or you don’t do it at all.
Facing a painful history is never easy. Exposing pain without providing easy solutions takes courage. But Camille Brown’s Mr. TOL E. RAnce proposes that honest struggle may be the only way forward.
c 2014 Debra Cash
From Generation to Generation: David Dorfman Dance Come, and Back Again
By Debra Cash
|David Dorfman Dance by Adam Campos|
Maybe you’re a person who has a garage full of bric-a-brac you’ve kept around just in case you ever have a need for it. Maybe you have a family member who can’t drive past a yard sale without screeching to a halt. Or maybe your basement is a Sandwich Generation repository stocked with things your parents wanted to keep when they downsized jammed alongside a complete collection of crayon and collage masterpieces from your kids’ elementary school years.
The question of when to hang on to something — a memento as much as a memory — and when it is important to it let go animates choreographer David Dorfman’s Come, and Back Again. It is, he says, a dance about loss, mortality, how we value our past, and the way love persists between individual people and across generations.
David’s father was an organized man who had a place for everything and kept everything in its place. When he died, Dorfman says, he left an immaculate world, complete with detailed instructions for his own funeral. This was a man for whom the present held deep enjoyment: he was always anticipating “the next great thing that will happen.”
His son David, who grew up to be a dancer, musician, choreographer and chair of the dance department at Connecticut College, finds it difficult to let go of the past. Sometimes, he says, he feels that he has held onto every article he ever touched. When he realized he had thirty years of theatre programs, he resolved that he didn’t want his own son to be faced with the challenge of cleaning up his mess after he was gone.
Like many of Dorfman’s previous works, Come, and Back Again finds its metaphors in lived experience and in American music that evokes a particular time and place. Disavowal (2008) investigated racial identity and militancy through the lens of John Brown’s doomed 1859 attempt to foment an armed slave revolt at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia; underground (2006) reflected on 1960s radicalism and explored the tipping point where activism is transformed into terror; and Prophets of Funk (2011) celebrated the influential music and interracial cultural profile of Sly and the Family Stone, which disbanded in 1983. (All of the works in this trilogy were developed or presented in some form at the Bates Dance Festival, where Dorfman and his company have been regular teachers and performers for two decades).
Dorfman had been exploring the music of Patti Smith, and acquired the rights to one of her songs, “Death Singing.” Smith had written the song for Benjamin Smoke (originally Robert Dickerson), a punk rock drag queen who once opened for her at an underground club in Atlanta. Smoke, like Smith’s friend Robert Mapplethorpe and so many others, later died of complications from AIDS. In punk rock and “the cranky rebellion of the 1990s,” Dorfman identified a productive cultural friction between chaos and order.
In Come, and Back Again Dorfman’s choreography teeters on the edge of risk. Alongside his much younger dancers, he launches a semi-structured game of Follow the Leader where Raja Kelly, Kendra Portier, Karl Rogers and Christina Robson’s acute ability to riff off his spontaneity raises the stakes for every performance. The text is full of high stakes emotional challenges, too, with faux math problems that begin with phrases such as “Start with the number of people you’ve seen take their final breaths…”
The dancers and musicians who share the stage are walled in by junk. Brooklyn visual artist Jonah Emerson Bell, who was recommended to Dorfman by the celebrity installation artist Swoon (Caledonia Curry), has created a semi-translucent white-washed set that does double duty as a dimensional surface for Shawn Hove’s video.
Dorfman’s videotaped storytelling, coupled with his performance as both a dancer and as a musician (playing accordion and alto sax), and appearances by both his wife, choreographer and dancer Lisa Race, and his now 13-year old son Sam gives Come, and Back Again the flavor of an overstuffed scrapbook, or better yet, a Flikr account. Our memories and our collections carry a heavy weight. But like David Dorfman, each of us must decide how much of that weight is a burden and how much is a comfort.
© 2014 Debra Cash
Gifts of the Past: Yin Mei and Vincent Mantsoe
By Debra Cash
|Vincent Mantsoe by Lynn Chaulieu Kolver|
History always intersects with and shapes personal identity. Yin Mei and Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe carry within their lives and art the legacy of revolution. Yin Mei was a child during China’s Cultural Revolution. Vincent Mantsoe grew up under South Africa’s apartheid regime. Tonight’s shared program of solos at the Bates Dance Festival filters those formative experiences of tumultuous social change through the prism of contemporary expression.
Yin Mei’s DIS/oriented: Antonioni in Chinabegins as a fable of a curious little girl from Luoyang, Henan. As she learns to grow and look around her, that curiosity will be both a virtue and a danger. In 1972, with the Cultural Revolution in full sway, Italian filmmaker Michelangelo Antonioni was invited on a whirlwind visit to Beijing, Henan Province, Suzhou, Nanjing and Shanghai to document the triumph of the socialist state. Instead, he focused his lens on the faces and activities ordinary people: laughing factory girls, Shanghai port workers, a Cesarean section being performed under acupuncture.
As young scholar Alice Xiang explains in Senses of Cinema magazine, Chung Kuo, Cina, was denounced and suppressed. The Communist Chinese authorities had imagined a film showcasing above all the heroism of the Revolution and the socialist project, utopian in note, halcyon in tone [and instead were] outraged by the mundane nature of what Antonioni chose to record on camera, and the decidedly non-monumental (‘desultory’) way he chose to present the resulting footage.
The party compiled a 200-page booklet called The Chinese People Will Not Stand for Being Denigrated: A Collection of Criticisms of Antonioni’s Anti-China film Cina. Yin Mei and other schoolchildren participated in scripted ritual denunciations of the film, despite the fact that it was not screened in China until 2004.
Since her arrival as a young dancer in the United States in 1985, Yin Mei has adapted classical Chinese images — fans, ink, tea, Beijing Opera masks — into her contemporary work. In DIS/oriented: Antonioni in China, she draws on the clear lines of energy and precise shapes of taiji (tai chi) quan where nature is in “harmonious balance” to retrieve the memories of a watchful time, where a knock at the door could startle and unapologetic observation posed significant political risk.
In its complete form, DIS/oriented: Antonioni in China is a duet Yin Mei performs with Fei Bo of the Chinese National Ballet. These solo excerpts, set against excerpts of Antonioni’s work, express the ways the past continues to reappear as both trauma and a site of continuing exploration.
Vincent Sekwati Koko Mantsoe’s solos, like Yin Mei’s, are dances of deep absorption. One of South Africa’s most important choreographers, Mantsoe grew up in the Soweto township of Diepkloof. His grandmother, mother and two aunts were Ndebele sangomas (the Zulu word for traditional healers/shamans) and some of his most formative memories are of being terrified as his mother fell into trances during her early morning rituals to honor the ancestors. By the age of 6, Mantsoe had begun drumming and dancing. He joined a youth club with a group that called themselves the Joy Dancers that picked up choreography ideas from Fame and Michael Jackson videos; that group included another boy who would go on to become an important South African choreographer, Gregory Maqoma. In 1990 both young men were admitted into the training program of Sylvia Glasser’s Afro-fusion-based Moving Into Dance Mophatong (MIDM), one of the earliest racially integrated companies in the country. Within a few years, Mantsoe’s own choreographic efforts were attracting international attention.
Skwatta returns to perhaps the most distinctive aspect of Mantsoe’s choreography, the way he treads the thin boundary between trance and performance. A compelling performer, he has been called a shape-shifter, a dancer who is able to bring the set choreography of his “mixed masala” dance language into focus as he feels part of himself enter a parallel world where ancestral spirits become part of the performance.
Skwatta expresses Mantsoe’s alarm at the squatter camps around his mother’s home in the rapidly urbanizing community of East Rand outside Johannesburg. While he lives with his family in France, he returns to South Africa regularly and since the end of apartheid, he has seen both positive growth and the persistence of poverty and deprivation.
Vincent Mantsoe has noted aspects of shared spirituality between African and Asian cultures. In this unique pairing of solos by artists of very different heritages, the dances of Yin Mei and Vincent Mantsoe shed light on the way historical remembrance can shape an individual’s spiritual resilience.
© 2014 Debra Cash
Bebe Miller Company
By Hannah Kosstrin
How do you perform an archive? Four years ago, Bebe Miller, Talvin Wilks, Angie Hauser, and Darrell Jones began talking about how to build an archive of their creative process in order to make visible the ongoing conversations and processes behind their work. Inspired by a series of generative discussions, archive-based, and Internet-based projects, Miller decided that her company’s layers of process and history needed to come together onstage. Choreographer Miller, dramaturg Wilks, and performers Hauser and Jones have worked together in Bebe Miller Company since 2001. The company returns to Bates tonight with A History, the first work they have presented here since Necessary Beauty in 2008. Tonight’s work, a joint venture that premiered at The Ohio State University’s Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus, Ohio on September 29, 2012, marks an interest on their part to mine their past(s) with the company and present a work that goes forward and backward in time, questioning what they embody, what they carry from work to work, and reconciling who they are now and who they were then as they reveal the company’s internal stitching. A History is not a retrospective, but it does involve looking back.
Hauser and Jones share a history of performing together. Against a musical score that features compositions by Michael Wall, Darren Morze, Bradford Chapin, Alberto Iglesias, Albert Mathias, and Hahn Rowe, Hauser and Jones continue to build the dance in the present as they reflect upon it with kinesthetic questions about performing their bodies then and now. Subtitles on the onstage screen state “Angie-ness” when Hauser enters, defining both her movement quality and her way of being. The words that appear on the screen are less a translation or subtitle for what is happening onstage, and more a complement to highlight what is going on inside the dance and what has been inside the dance through time. Other words that materialize include “He examines,” “She is alert, busy, elsewhere,” “Angie includes Darrell.” Hauser has an unassuming and yet precise way of moving, subtly orbiting, gliding through space and suddenly pausing, carving her perimeter with the edges of her limbs, invisibly hinging to her knees, smushing her flesh into the onstage table, into Jones, into the floor without event. She perches then slides with an imperceptible transition. Jones too has a Darrell-ness (his “Darrell Drive”), a collection of performance qualities that define his oeuvre. He spins with a seemingly impossible weight in his heels, his limbs radiating out from his torso from origins that seem indefinable; he is upside down and an upward pull through his hips thrusts him to another part of the stage. He whirls uncontrollably and then collects himself in a heartbeat. When he rests on his back, it is both respite and labor, as he seems to hold the weight of the world—or is it just memory?—upon his rising and falling chest.
Founded by Miller in 1985, the structure and process of Bebe Miller Company changed in the early 2000s when Miller relocated from New York to Columbus, Ohio, first as a visiting artist and then as a professor in Ohio State’s Department of Dance. Bebe Miller Company shifted from a company model of rehearsing together daily, to what Miller calls a virtual company wherein the artists involved in a project, who are based all over the country, gather for shorter, intense bursts in residencies spread out over the two or three-year timeline of a work’s development. While improvisation was a longtime mainstay of the company’s process, with Necessary Beauty, Miller says, it became a necessary part of the performative package the company created. This was initially a functional move—the company found that after gathering a few times a year, they spent too much time trying to remember the dance’s steps—and then became a way to open possibilities for how the works are conceived, constructed, and performed. Improvisational structures, Miller affirms, allow the company to jump into the cauldron of what they make, and to develop the language they speak that is not determined by a sequence of steps.
While the majority of the movement in A History is improvised, Miller, Wilks, and the performers set the ins and outs of its order of events based upon a pre-determined score. At a certain point, Miller notes, every performance is improvised because it occurs in real time. She works to find the best form that engenders what she calls a live moment. In A History, Miller, Wilks, Hauser, and Jones focused more on crafting the elements of the entry point into certain moments than on the repetition of those moments. This manner of moving in and out of these passages in the score pulls Hauser and Jones into fresh relationships with each other. As partners, they slice into each other’s space. They have the familiarity and boundarylessness of puppies and the self-awareness of adolescents, and yet, they do not always fully acknowledge each other’s presence or the fact that they interrupt each other’s kinespheres. They just exist with each other in space and time. These two so often perform near each other, apart yet together, coming and going, that when they perform in unison for a few too-brief moments, their dual perception of each other and the quiet connection they retain through wiping the floor with their bent forearms, crouching and perching forward over their chests, revolving through space, is breathtaking.
At various points in the piece, Hauser and Jones don headphones and repeat what they hear through them. These are tapes of conversations the four artists had about the process and about each other. Miller explains that the sections with the headphones came from finding ways to strategize the sharing of who they are in their process of making work. Among the recordings that the audience hears indirectly is one central piece that Hauser wrote about performing a duet with Jones; over the course of the work they speak parts of each other’s memories. By repeating what they hear aloud and trying to grasp all of what comes through the headphones, the performers bring their history forward while retaining a sense of the immediacy of the working process. In addition to glimpsing pieces of earlier dances within this larger work—Verge(2001), Landing/Place (2005)—the headphones provide one way for the dancers to reencounter themselves during the duration of the piece, which is also part of A History’s story.
The ghosts of dancers and performances of past, present, and even future emerge in flesh and ether in two parts of A History. In addition to its embodied, performed archive, A History has a companion exhibit, parts of which are on display in Bates’ black box theater. Originally part of a project by the Wexner Center’s Jerry Dannemiller, the exhibit here contains background video material accompanied by selected writing from Miller’s choreographic journals reproduced on the theater’s walls. These materials further foreground the process and complement the performed archive, connecting the components of A History to its longer legacy. The company feels the resonances of dancers who preceded Hauser and Jones in Miller’s work prior to 2001. “It’s a very porous table that we sit at,” Miller says, understanding from A History and other dances how important its people are to its existence.
One lasting moment of A History, a video projected on the onstage screen with Hauser and Jones offstage, gently settles the threads of this piece. In this one-take improvisation shot by videographer Lily Skove, Hauser and Jones simply leave the house to walk away together outside when they are done—another day’s work, weighty and yet quotidian, as they slip effortlessly from one aspect of Angie-ness and Darrell-ness into another.
Thank you to Bebe Miller for sharing her insights about the work.
© 2013 Hannah Kosstrin
by Hannah Kosstrin
Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer’s work invokes the question: What is real?
The duo, who have performed as Bridgman|Packer Dance since 1978, began incorporating environment-shifting technological projections, camerawork, and digital manipulations into their choreography in 2001 in a construct they call video partnering. Through this method, they create a magical realist landscape where you think you see one thing but then it is something else: it folds inside out or morphs more quickly than you can blink. Bridgman and Packer explore multiple layers of consciousness and the many sides of one person’s identity active at any moment in what Packer calls the multiplicity of existence. Although Bridgman and Packer have worked exclusively with video partnering for the past twelve years, physical partnering has been central to their work since the beginning of their time together. With an interest in portraying the human condition instead of making abstract forms in space, for Bridgman and Packer the push and pull of physicality became a metaphor for portraying relationships onstage in their duet form. Between the 1970s–1990s, the pair layered movement with theatrical elements including text, set design, and props into their choreography. Once video entered the mix, the other components dropped away. With the addition of digital technology, their duet form can double, quadruple, or multiply exponentially, bringing infinite numbers of selves—or just two—into partnership with each other.
Bridgman|Packer Dance returns to Bates for tonight’s performance, wherein partnership takes on different meanings in Under the Skin and Voyeur. WhileUnder the Skin extrapolates different sides of Bridgman and Packer’s personalities, Voyeur features creations of historical-fictional relationships between different characters Bridgman and Packer portray within scenes inspired by Edward Hopper’s paintings.
In Under The Skin, which premiered in March 2005 at New York’s The Duke on 42nd Street as part of the 92nd Street Y’s Harkness Dance Festival and was last seen at Bates in August 2007, Bridgman and Packer grow generations of themselves as they effortlessly fly in and out of flesh and avatar. They move against a jazz musical score by composer Ken Field of bass, snare drum, and saxophone. Clothed in a little black dress (Packer) and black pants and a vest (Bridgman), the duo dances in front of a storm of DNA codes and mathematical equations that travel vertically up the scrim. Sometimes, when Packer lifts Bridgman or Bridgman lifts Packer, the lofted body floats away with the digital symbols; or, Packer might swing upwards, hop on the letter D, and ride it into the ether. They return to this scrim at the end of the piece, where they partner themselves as their avatars multiply exponentially. It gets crowded as figures float in and out and formulae rain down in a party of personalities. What are we made of? I wonder. What part of this is real? And what, for that matter, is reality? For Bridgman and Packer, Under the Skin is an exploration of what is inside us—literally, what is under the skin—and the different codes of genetics, the periodic table, and plays with gender that brought them to this end.
Working with their video collaborators Peter Bobrow and Jim Monroe, Bridgman and Packer produced many of the projected images in Under the Skin with green screen technology used in film special effects.1 They filmed themselves against a green background and then, using video editing software, cut themselves out and pasted themselves into the background they desired— entering and exiting the black curtain, filling themselves with letters or images of each other, lighting Packer’s skirt on fire. In performance Bridgman and Packer pair pre-edited video with live cameras. This comes together in the section where they raise and lower hoop skirts and become half of each other: flesh and fabric merge as the video projects female tops on male bottoms and vice versa. They dress and undress. Front, back, skirts, pants, naked and shirted torsos. Whose body is whose? In a way, this is a projection of insides and outsides. Bridgman is ultimately caught in the flesh, in shirt and tie as he steps out of the skirt, before grooving out with his multiple selves.
In Voyeur, Bridgman and Packer portray lifetimes of characters’ experiences by folding themselves into and out of landscapes created through shifting projections against a stationary wall and a soundscore featuring atmospheric voices, the occasional seagull or dial phone, and an underlying distressing churning sound. Like Hopper’s paintings, Voyeur has moments where silence and space produce unnerving sensations. The set becomes a captivating vortex for the wrinkles in time of dates and places. One minute we are on the street peeking into windows, then we are inside looking out. We are in a rural area, and then we are on the ocean. We are at the turn of the 20th century, and then we are somewhere in the future or the past. Extra people come and go: they constantly wander through the background or occupy the scene like ghosts. Bridgman and Packer move through walls, showing that a doorway is both mirror and door, reflection and portal. It is hard to discern if what I see is a human or a projection—until a doorknob appears on Packer’s back.
This shifting perception is what excited the pair about Hopper’s work: the way a viewer experiences partial moments of a scene, or fractions of private lives through characters looking out from within a particular setting. The obstruction generated by the set removes viewers architecturally from the reality they see in order to get partial glimpses of the dance’s events. Voyeur features two streams of filmed images, inside and outside (or foreground and background); for Bridgman, these dual projections fracture the moment and allow the characters and personae to collide front to back and live action to recorded projection. In Voyeur, audience members are at times spectators and at others subjects, and this, Packer finds, is part of the intrigue and seduction of voyeurism. Mostly the audience is the voyeur; when Bridgman and Packer invert the viewing structure, they do not make the audience the object of their gaze, but they watch something else in the world of the piece.
The Voyeur project unfolded in 2011 when the Edward Hopper House Art Center in Nyack, New York celebrated its 40th anniversary. The Hopper House approached Bridgman and Packer, who are based in neighboring Valley Cottage, to make the work; first the Hopper House, and then Portland Ovations in Portland, Maine, became co-commissioners of the piece. Voyeur premiered in October 2012 at Portland’s Institute of Contemporary Art. Bridgman, Packer, and Bobrow participated in a creative residency in Portland in the summer of 2011 where they filmed various sites before returning to the studio to determine what to project and what to present live. The use of light was central to Voyeur’s process and product. Bridgman and Packer incorporated Hopper’s prominent visual representations of shafts of light into Voyeur and found that these points of light became characters in and of themselves. During the filming process, Bobrow, Bridgman, and Packer raced around Portland chasing the perfect light and capitalizing on what Bobrow calls magic light, the 5:00 hour on August afternoons that produces long nuanced shadows. In filming, Bobrow used natural light or the light pre-existing in an inside room for the full cinema effect that the trio sought. Bridgman and Packer were more interested in reproducing Hopper’s world than his art in Voyeur. They found Portland a fruitful place to film because many of the buildings there date to 1860-1920, which matches the era of Hopper’s paintings. This piece presents the series of candid snapshots of people’s lives that Bridgman and Packer see in Hopper’s work, continuing their oeuvre of exploring people’s relationships in recorded and real time.
1. See http://www.bridgmanpacker.org for exciting videos about Bridgman and Packer’s process in making this kind of work.
Thank you to Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer for sharing their insights about the work.
© 2013 Hannah Kosstrin
by Hannah Kosstrin
“How does humanity find its soul?” the child Ayse asks her haci dede, or wise grandfather, in a Persian shadowplay scene at the opening of Nejla Yatkin’s Oasis: Everything You Ever Wanted to Know about the Middle East but Were Afraid to Dance. “One must learn to listen to their heart,” the grandfather responds.
Using a subtitle that is a takeoff on Woody Allen’s 1972 film Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid to Ask) (a sendup of David Reuben’s 1969 psychiatric advice book of the same name), Yatkin brings statements, images, and histories politically charged through contemporary global politics to the fore through dance, inscribing these histories on and through the body and bodies that have been targets and sites of discrimination in the post-9/11 War on Terror. Here, the fear of asking or dancing takes a more activist tack than Allen’s humor or Reuben’s counsel: in the aftermath of 2011’s Arab Spring and questions about democracy, which inspired her to make this work, Yatkin wanted to bring women’s agency into the mix of cultural expression in a region where women’s voices and their dancing bodies are often silenced. Significantly, the questions of a young girl fuel this dance. The work has a sense of forbidden territory, and raising women’s voices, bodies, and power in this context might be its most subversive aspect. Oasis, which premiered in June 2013 at Festival Internacional de Danza Nueva in Lima, Peru, combines evocative images of religiosity, spirituality, sensuality, torture, and a yearning search for knowledge and the truth.
Yatkin formed NY2Dance (Nejla Yasemin Yatkin Dance) as a project-based company in 2001. First with a home in Washington, D.C., Yatkin is now based in Chicago with most of her dancers in New York; they come together for the project timelines in which they rehearse and develop dances. Yatkin is no stranger to straddling multiple cities: the daughter of Turkish-Muslim parents, she spent her childhood summers in Turkey but grew up in Berlin, Germany where she trained in tanztheater, modern dance, butoh, and Turkish folk dance, and experienced Islamic culture both in and outside the Diaspora. The scene-driven Oasis is inspired by Yatkin’s travels to Turkey and Egypt in a similar vein as her Wallstories (2009) about witnessing the fall of the Berlin Wall. Influenced by tanztheater, Yatkin layers her works with imagery, allegory, and multimedia tapestries to show humanity’s nuanced strata.
Three themes intertwine through Oasis. The first is the Persian love story of Leyla and Mecnun, which Yatkin likens to an allegorical Romeo and Juliet: Leyla stands for the soul and Mecnun for humanity, and their separation is a metaphor for humanity losing its soul. The second is a recurring conversation between Ayse and her grandfather wherein Ayse asks innocent questions about the meaning of the world that mirror both the Leyla and Mecnun allegory and the topics of Oasis, and her grandfather wisely answers them. The third is a confluence of forms from Yatkin’s influences in German tanztheater, American modern dance, and Turkish folk dance and culture.
Against an original musical score by Shamou, Oasis unfolds with a montage of the textured imagery characteristic of Yatkin’s compositions. Yatkin mystically pores over a pile of books with Arabic calligraphy projected in the background. Clad in nude underclothes, she and a man sensuously undulate up and down each other’s bodies. Three figures with black sacks over their heads bind a nearly naked man with a length of rope and drag him across the stage; his body bobs at the end of the rope that winds around his neck and torso as he yelps audibly. Some women dance in wide skirts and bare backs with a line of black tape across their breasts. Other women, in long dresses with their heads and faces covered by hijabs, strut down a fashion show runway. As a heightening of Yatkin holding up a mirror to society to empower women and question why women continue to be oppressed, this hijab fashion show is meant as a lighter moment in the piece. She says that it is both a takeoff on Islamic fashion shows and a point to show that women choose to wear a hijab for a variety of reasons. One woman, she explains, is a filmmaker who gets more attention when she wears the hijab; one wears it for Allah; one wears it because she does not want to be cursed; one wears it to stand in solidarity with gay men who cannot be open about their sexuality and so can ostensibly wear whatever they want and be who ever they want to be underneath the long fabric. As with many elements of Oasis, the hijab fashion show is a moment of reclamation for women while challenging binaries that label Islamic Middle Eastern culture good or bad and instead bring nuances into the global conversation.
The dance’s title Oasis reflects the layered meaning of its content and message. An oasis is a rare fertile area in a desert, and many areas of the Middle East are composed of desert terrain. An oasis is also a respite; Yatkin’s piece offers a change of pace from polarized conversations about politics associated with the region, instead providing a refuge to engage dialogue about the nuances of humanity within a complex global matter. Yatkin says that she is not apologetic about the Middle East, but she also did not want to present a dance purely celebrating it. In Oasis, Yatkin presents a combination of what she calls the beautiful and the evil, in hopes that audiences will open their perceptions to see the full spectrum of humanity. Or, more simply, to listen to their heart in order to find their soul.
Thank you to Nejla Yatkin for sharing her insights about the work.
© 2013 Hannah Kosstrin
Doug Varone and Dancers
by Hannah Kosstrin
|Doug Varone and Dancers by Cylla VonTiedemann|
Dancers in Doug Varone’s work swivel effortlessly through their joints, swoop through turns with the ease of liquid mercury, and leave Liz Prince’s and Lynne Steincamp’s costumes to billow a path behind them, catching the wind as they spiral into the weight of the next moment— all with a breezy honesty that reminds us that they are individuals dancing together. Varone values dancers who are highly skilled technically and have a quotidian sense of being human. His dancers convey a polished focus and sense of theatricality but also a matter-of-factness that reveals the humanity in what they are doing. As in the choreographies of Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, and Merce Cunningham before him, Varone’s dancers are simply people dancing. Inspired by Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly, who Varone, as a young tap dancer, found to be at once incredible dancers and amazing pedestrians, Varone revels in not knowing where the human moment is between dancing and being.
Varone works from the outside in. He gathers movement phrases, music samples, and other dance stuffs into a stew of different combinations, lets it simmer, and sees what emerges. He recently began a lecture-demonstration performance series called Stripped/Dressed that shows the audience the dance’s insides so they can glimpse the process behind the product. The first half of the performance consists of Varone discussing the work the audience will see along with dancers performing excerpts in rehearsal clothes (“stripped” of technical theatrical performance elements), and Varone and dancers showing how certain movement phrases came to be; the second half of the performance contains the dancers performing these works in full. Varone defines the Stripped/Dressed concept as a format in which to tear the dance apart and put it back together again, and “a way to open the dialogue about what contemporary dance is, how to view it, and then eventually how to see it.” These events have generated productive dialogues about the work and about discussing contemporary dance more generally, and in the end the audience, too, is able to access Varone’s work both from the inside out and from the outside in.
Since founding Doug Varone and Dancers in 1986, Varone has choreographed for opera in and outside New York, for Broadway and off-Broadway productions, and for television and film in addition to his work internationally on the concert stage. Since 2007 Doug Varone and Dancers has been the company in residence at the 92nd Street YM/YWHA (“Y”) Harkness Dance Center on Manhattan’s Upper East Side, continuing in a relationship of the Y with modern and contemporary dance that dates back to the 1930s.1
Most recently at Bates in 2010, Varone returns for tonight’s program that features dances that bookend the past 20 of Doug Varone and Dancers’ 27 years: one established, two new. Rise, Varone’s signature work, premiered in 1993; Carrugi and “Able to Leap Tall Buildings,” an excerpt from Mouth Above Water, both premiered in 2012. Varone makes dances of epic proportion, and these three strongly follow suit.2
In Carrugi, Varone’s work in dance and opera meet. Set to W.A. Mozart’s “La Betulia Liberata,” an oratorio based on the biblical story of Judith, Carrugicelebrates the music and harkens to images and themes that surround the Judith legend without narrating its tale. The dance premiered on March 24, 2012 at the Center for the Arts at the University at Buffalo, The State University of New York (SUNY); Varone created it in part at the Y and in part in residence at Pick of the Crop Dance Company and SUNY Buffalo. Varone’s experience in opera stage work influenced his interest in composing for voices in contemporary dance. He says that when he works with an opera singer or chorus he keeps the libretto in mind as he listens to the sound of the voice and follows its architecture; similarly, the choreography of Carrugi follows the structural design of the voices in the score. In a series of vignettes of solos, duets, and groups, dancers revolve around each other, wind and wend through space, swivel their body parts through their joints, fold and unfold into and out of patterns and partnerships, take turns pausing, dip under each other’s arms, pull each other up. They make their way through a society created onstage, at times helping each other, at times hindering; there is strife and light. Varone took what he found as the essentials of Mozart’s arias and recitatives in this piece—themes of duplicity, jealousy, comradeship, memory—and worked so that each dancer embodies one aspect of these themes.
“Able to Leap Tall Buildings” questions how people relate to each other and what it means to be human (and nonhuman, and superhuman). Erin Owen and Alex Springer look as if they found themselves in bodies someone else assembled. At first glance their fitful, targeted movement manipulations appear Frankensteinian, as they lock into their joints in order to move, impressively dropping weight directly from these limb connectors. They initiate movement from within their joints, and in chain reactions their weight folds, falls, and crumples them into the next position. Owen and Springer make unconvincing attempts at intimacy, their bodies jarring as they fit uneasily together, square pegs cozying up to round holes, questioning their trust of each other. “Able to Leap,” an excerpt from Mouth Above Water, premiered in October 2012 (followed by the full work’s premiere in February 2013). Varone created Mouth in a year-long process which included residency at SUNY Buffalo and collaborations with cancer patients of all ages in two area hospitals. In a Stripped/Dressed presentation of this work, Varone explained about the title: “Mouth Above Water is a reference to drowning. They say that the last thing that you see before someone disappears under water is this calm sense of a final breath but everything underneath the surface is scrambling; it’s that beautiful and horrifying juxtaposition that we embrace in this piece.”
For “Able to Leap,” Varone, Owen, and Springer worked with a seven-year-old who scripted adventures for his action figures. The boy arranged these dolls in different positions and narrated stories about their characters as Owen and Springer reproduced the shapes and stories with their bodies and defined the de-humanized action-figure movement language of the duet. This was just one mode of movement invention for this project. In the Stripped/Dressed performance, Varone demonstrated a movement generation game that he and the dancers used to create this piece. He turned away, and instructed Owen and Springer to take a position. They did so in their action figure personas. He returned to face them and gave them small instructions: put your hand in his palm; break at the knees; get up gently; repeat. During the residency, Varone and dancers showed such movement phrase fragments to patients and then posed the question, as Varone did with the Stripped/Dressed audience, What Happens Next? A dance phrase developed before their eyes. As with Carrugi, Varone followed what he calls the aural trajectory of the musical score to create narrative build and tension, and he found Julie Wolfe’s “Cruel Sister” provided the appropriate musical architecture for this work.
A storm brews in Rise. Created in residence at NYU Tisch Summer Dance Residency Program and Virginia Commonwealth University, Rise premiered at the Quick Center for the Arts in Fairfield, Connecticut on October 8, 1993. This dance was a watermark for Varone due to its sense of structure, form, and physicality that departed from what he made previously. Varone performedRise until the early 2000s, and then brought it back into repertory for the company’s 25th anniversary season. As Varone continues to present this dance with different casts, he retools the choreography, makes changes for the current dancers’ strengths, edits the movement phrasing, and reworks lifts to maintain the same power and impact as the first time around. Among the differences is the dancing absence of Varone, whose part in the red-costumed duet is now performed by Brandon Welch. Though different in parts from its 1993 iteration, this year’s Rise retains a sense of epic events and impending doom, helped largely by John Adams’ cinematic musical score “Fearful Symmetries” full of dark corners, anticipatory builds, and a continuous orbiting quality that folds into and out of itself. Throughout the dance, background movement becomes foreground and then crossfades into something new. Julia Burrer’s threading and swiping long limbs set the tone for the piece. The dancers carve arcs and circles through space as if they are teacups in the shifting tectonics of a carnival ride. They swing into lifts; they hold on for dear life before leaping away into unknown terrain. They dive and turn and fly and suspend. The movement slips and slides through the dancers and over the floor, constantly spiraling even through stillness. The eye of the storm gives way to surrender but not defeat. As poignantly as ever, Rise evidences the weight of being human.
1. For further reading about the history of modern and contemporary dance at the Y, see Naomi Jackson, Converging Movements: Modern Dance and Jewish Culture at the 92nd Street Y (Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 2000). 2. See Cheryl Tobey, “Doug Varone and Ballet Méchanique,” PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art 24, no. 3 (2002), 92-96.
Thank you to Doug Varone for sharing his insights about the work.
© 2013 Hannah Kosstrin
Celebrating Rennie Harris’ Anniversary Year
By Debra Cash
Puremovement- photo by Brian Mengini
Rennie Harris Puremovement (RHPM) has appeared at the Bates Dance Festival since 1996. Back in the day, the festival was instrumental in helping to launch Harris’ first evening-long work,Rome & Jewels, (2000) a then audacious hip hop take on the dueling gangs at the heart of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet. For the first time, hip hop dancing was being used as a narrative language on par with ballet and the great techniques of the American modern dance pioneers as a street-based vocabulary that contained depth and breadth, and the ability to tell a range of stories.
An excerpt from Rome & Jewels is being revived for this performance, and it gives good sense of how far Rennie Harris Puremovement has come as the company, rejoined by some of its original performers, celebrates RHPM’s 20th anniversary year.
Harris has been dancing and choreographing hip hop routines since he was a 13-year old in Philadelphia in the 1970s — before hip hop even had a name, much less was seen as one of the central pillars of a global culture that, as enumerated by Afrika Bambaataa of Zulu Nation, would come to include MCing (rapping), DJing, graffiti writing, and the production of knowledge. In the company’s early days, RHPM performed in front of predominantly white audiences. Tonight’s program includes the signature works P-Funk and the classic acrobatic virtuosity of Students of the Asphalt Jungle from 1995. These works come from the period where RHPM experimented with building the cipher (inward-facing ring) that would allow the dancers to perform for and challenge each other, building their own energy field within the confines of a conventional stage.
RHPM incorporated female performers in its earliest years, but during the company’s early touring, much of its repertory focused on male prowess (inRome & Jewels, for example, Juliet is nowhere to be seen — she’s the idealization of everything outside these young men’s tight bonds with each other, and a valuable, unreachable figment of their collective imaginations). That changed with the memorably moving Facing Mekka, which was performed at Bates during the summer of 2004. This past season, Harris showcased b-girls in his narrative show, Heaven, which crossed house dancing with Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. In tonight’s repertory program, women take to the stage inBreath, Nina and Three B-Boys and a Girl.
This is the third generation of dancers to make up Rennie Harris Puremovement. Some of the dancers are hip hop specialists. Others have studied other forms of dance, gymnastics, Brazilian capoeira and competitive athletics. In all cases, commercial, and commercialized, hip hop dance is ubiquitous enough — in public places, on the stage, broadcast in shows likeAmerica’s Best Dance Crew, and everywhere on the internet — that being good enough to stand out takes some doing.
As Harris told an audience at Stanford University this past year:
Hip hop dancers are like jazz musicians, none of them are the same, they will have different variations on top of variations like tappers do and so when you watch them dance…the application is completely different. When you allow that, you allow for brilliant moments to happen, so the work always has to breathe. If it doesn’t breathe, it’s not hip hop.
In his role as teacher and griot — along with Jorge “Popmaster Fabel” Pabon of Rocksteady Crew/ Universal Zulu Nation, Harris is perhaps hip hop’s senior historian — he takes pains to stress that hip hop is merely the most recent expression of movement that comes from the African diaspora. Hip hop dance’s percussive, often acrobatic style stands on the shoulders not only of traditional West African moves but also the cakewalk, lindy hop, moonwalk, Puerto Rican dance forms, and a wide array of genres that developed over the past century and offered dancers self-expression and freedom.
As a choreographer, Rennie Harris says that he teaches his students at places like Bates or his own youth company, Rennie Harris Awe-inspiring Works (RHAW):
There are no rules, everything is fair game, the sky is the limit, and take no prisoners.
c 2012 Debra Cash
Kate Weare Plants Her Garden
By Debra Cash
Prepare the soil with compost: long decomposing, simmering, rich in nutrients.
Kate Weare grew up in the Bay Area, the daughter of a painter mother and printmaker father. She was an independent child who resisted the classical ballet uniform of leotards and pinned back hair, and dropped formal dance training in favor of kung fu. But ultimately, dance beckoned. Weare earned her BFA from California Institute of the Arts in 1994, having spent her third year abroad at the London Contemporary Dance School.
At CalArts, she says, her most influential teacher was Kurt Weinheimer, who danced with West Coast modern dance pioneer Bella Lewitzky. Weinheimer, she says, offered her real intellectual challenge in the studio, a sense of
this always-unfolding process of experimentation, trying and failing and trying again, by being himself very open about the technical puzzles of moving, and seeking answers to these puzzles as a group.
One of the things he used to say that was terribly confusing to me as a young student was “Leave your brain at the door if you’re looking to be a good dancer.” I think I understand now that he was speaking about letting instincts and your feelings guide your work as an artist, instead of your rational brain, which tends to confine rather than reveal.
After graduation, she danced in Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, Belgrade and Montreal before settling in New York City where she founded her company in 2005.
Place the seeds and water deeply until the plants are established.
Drop Down was Kate Weare’s breakout work. In 2007, it won the audience prize at the Joyce Theater Foundation’s A.W.A.R.D. Show and a $10,000 prize. This 14-minute duet for man and woman was Weare’s attempt to make sense of tango’s sexual politics, posing questions about how women negotiate and reckon with male strength and dominance to exert their own wills within heterosexual relationships. Choreographically, it’s a dance that exposes and exploits muscular tension and never lets go. Erotically loaded, the proximity of the two dancers creates excitement and danger; where an authentic Argentinian tango would scissor a dancer’s leg behind her partner’s knee enticingly, in Drop Down, the man’s slicing legs are punishing. Knocked to the ground, the woman holds onto his ankles in a demand for attention and as an act of self-preservation.
Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us, the wonderfully evocative title of a composition by French composer Gerard Pesson featured in the soundscape of Weare’s 2008 work of the same name, was originally a series of three linked female solos. Weare explains that each solo distilled different emotional states: abasement, animal wariness, sensuality. The work has been extended, and now is danced as a female solo, a trio for two men and a woman, and as a male duet.
Let time pass.
By 2010, Weare says, she knew that the company she founded five years earlier, and on which she had experimented and created her early success, had changed. Charter dancers left; new ones had joined her small circle. Her life had changed radically as well; this summer she expects to welcome her first child. Questions about her life and career loomed large. What had changed? What was still the same? Was the dance maker who plied her trade as a lone freelancer the same person as the choreographer who had taken on the responsibilities of running a company? This called for planning a Garden.
Prepare for variable weather.
The stage setting for Garden is anchored by two images designed by Kurt Perschke and lit by designer Brian Jones. At one side, a lush-leaved, upside-down tree grows towards the stage, a vision reminiscent of artist Natalie Jeremijenko’s Tree Logic. At the opposite side of the stage rests a freshly chopped stump just the right height to be used as a pedestal, a seat, or a lookout. Weare’s quartet has the same spacious clarity as Keeril Makan’s dripping individual piano notes; the way the dancers’ shifting pairings are duplicated allows the shapes to “ring” with afterimages.
As Garden continues, the dancers grow increasingly enmeshed, interacting, witnessing. As veteran dance critic Deborah Jowitt described at the time of Garden’s premiere in 2011:
Whenever the men and women form couples, they handle their partners with a kind of rough intrepidity; you can believe they’re trying to get under each other’s skin, to know what bone on bone feels like.
When longtime dancer and rehearsal director Adrian Clark moved on, he paid tribute to the ensemble, writing,
This company is not a controlled entity. It is an organism, a person, with violent passions and surprising impulses that we can experience, sometimes harness, but never totally understand.
In a garden, as in most aspects of life, Kate Weare’s work conveys, there is much that we simply can’t control.
That doesn’t mean we can’t yearn and work towards Harvest.
c 2012 Debra Cash
By Debra Cash
“I got to thinking,” said Geppetto, “that I’d like to make myself a beautiful wooden puppet. Not just an ordinary puppet, you understand, but a marvelous one that could dance, fence with a little wooden sword and turn somersaults in the air. Then, with this marvelous marionette, I could travel all over the world and make him perform for people.” — The Pinocchio of C. Collodi, translated by James T. Teahan
The little puppet who longed to be a real human boy, wished on a star, and ultimately learned to discern truth from falsehood has nothing on Kyle Abraham.
There are, of course, many salient differences. Abraham didn’t get his start in Tuscany in the 1880s, or in Walt Disney’s candy-colored 1940s picaresque, but in a middle-class black family in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. He wasn’t adopted by a friendly woodcarver, but grew up as the son of a couple employed by the Pittsburgh Public School System, where his mother worked as an elementary school teacher and eventually principal, and his late father served as a social worker, all-around sports coach, and community mentor. His sister Keshia, absorbing their parents’ commitment to education, now chairs the English department at Florida Memorial University in Miami.
But Kyle Abraham has shared the iconic puppet’s risky journey towards authentic identity. That journey, as a gay black man and an artist negotiating and resisting conventional categories, beats at the heart of Live! The Realest MC.
As a performer, the charismatic Kyle Abraham is no stranger to the Bates Dance Festival. He first appeared here in 2009, performing in David Dorfman’s Disavowal. Local audiences may remember his dancing in Dorfman’s Sly and the Family Stone-inspiredProphets of Funk.
Kyle Abraham was a high school student studying visual arts, piano and cello when he first discovered dancing — seeing a video of choreography by Ulysses Dove, and later a live performance by Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. He started training at the Creative and Performing Arts High School in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and with the local Civic Light Opera Academy and eventually made the decision to study dance in college.
After graduating in dance from SUNY Purchase in 2000,Abraham had a short stint dancing with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, detoured into a sojourn in London, and finally made his return to New York to earn an MFA from the NYU Tisch School of the Arts. He began performing with Dorfman and in 2006, established his own company, Abraham.In.Motion (aka A.I.M.) in New York.
Live! The Realest MC draws on Abraham’s 2006 break-out solo, Inventing Pookie Jenkins.In that work, the bare-chested Abraham wears an ankle length white tulle skirt and to a score that blends the boastful, electronica rap of Dizzee Rascal with gunshots and sirens, he shoulders a boombox, and performs a sinuous solo that is part b-boy, partDying Swan.
Pookie Jenkins, as a character, marked Abraham’s coming to terms with the quandaries he faced back in high school: if hip hop culture presumed a straight, exaggerated, homophobic hypermasculinity, where could a kid like himself find acceptance? I began to think about a time in my life when I prayed that I could go unnoticed, he has recalled, hoping that if I get my voice to sound like the other male students around me, I wouldn’t be found out, as gay. But with the media headlines surrounding the suicides of 13-year old bullying victim Ryan Halligan and college student Tyler Clementi, who jumped off the George Washington Bridge soon after his then-roommate caught him on webcam kissing another man, Abraham began to consider how he could explore the confining, and sometimes soul-killing, gender roles and cultural presuppositions within the hip hop community in a work for the theatre.
Live! The Real MC, which had its premiere in New York last December, is an ensemble piece for seven dancers that retains its hip hop heritage within a clearly crafted contemporary dance language. Abraham’s own mesmerizing dancing is still at its center, where the articulation of bboying shifts into a different register with softness and a taste for ornament. Live! The Real MC operates in a world of raves and underground clubs where men can be divas, ladies can be butch, and an enbellished track suit peels off to reveal the glitter of sequins. Video opens to a window to the urban street and a clueless hip hop instructional video.
Kyle Abraham’s quest for an authentic voice has reached an appreciative public. Abraham.In.Motion has a particularly active touring schedule, his awards have included a Princess Grace award, last year’s coveted Bessie for The Radio Show and just this summer, the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Award, which carries a prize of $25,000, making it one of the largest cash awards in the dance industry. It’s the real thing and so, after learning to follow his own wishing star, is Kyle Abraham.
c 2012 Debra Cash
Keigwin+ Co: Selecting the Natural
By Debra Cash
Larry Keigwin is one of four brothers — and a twin. That may be one reason his dances are populated with so much hurly-burly action: the world of Keigwin + Co. is an environment where performers play as hard as they work. He’s a choreographer who can be slip on-a-banana-peel funny, pop-culture referential, and hipster ironic. But in his dances, the personalities of his company members shine through: ‘I’m always excavating movement from the dancers,” Keigwin says. The plus sign in the company name balances their ongoing collaboration.
Keigwin grew up on Long Island. He says now that he was always a person with “physical curiosity.” He didn’t know modern dance even existed until he was 16 and didn’t take formal dance classes until he was in his early 20s. Before that, though, he learned some basic circus skills like riding a unicycle and balancing on a tightrope. Not surprisingly, this “jocky” kid was a high school gymnast, although not a competitor.
Larry Keigwin really started dancing in high school in musical comedies. He followed up that enthusiasm at his local college, Hofstra University. He partly paid his way through school dancing at private parties for a company called Chez-zam, appearing at corporate events and over-the-top bar mitzvahs, something he described as being kitchy and full of the kind of campy sparkle he enjoyed.
Once he went professional, Keigwin performed with a number of “downtown” New York companies, including those of Jane Comfort and John Jasperse. He spent six years as associate director of Mark Dendy’s troupe and won a “Bessie” award for his dancing in Dendy’s Dream Analysis. Alongside those commitments, has performed in Dance of the Vampires (which he cheerfully lists on his professional resume as a “Broadway bomb”), choreographed the off- Broadway production of Rent, and created high-kicking numbers for the Rockettes.
In 2002, Keigwin formed a company to develop his own choreography. No one was auditioned: all the dancers were friends or people he knew from other dance circumstances who wanted to work together.
The troupe has two overlapping repertories: the main company, with its relatively serious concert work, and Keigwin’s Cabarets, small scale acts that he first started, he says, because he wanted to throw a party. For these burlesque-inspired performances his regular troupe is augmented by professional drag queens and other theatrical special guests, and their menu of works include everything from a spoof of American Idol to a reverse strip tease.
For this return of Keigwin + Company to the Bates Dance Festival, the company has assembled a retrospective repertory. Natural Selection, from 2004, evokes the amphibious and animal origins of human behavior and ultimately reaches towards flight. In Triptych, from 2009, James Ingall’s lighting scheme and the black bands of the dancers’ costumes establish architectural geometries that regulate the dancers’ exploration of repetition and duration.
When Keigwin’s Trio first premiered last year as Balloon Dance, a commission from Works & Process at the Guggenheim, it was surrounded by a set by Jason Hackenwerth made of balloons that waved around the edge of the performance space like a raft of sea anemones. Sadly, the decor was too difficult to replicate on tour, but the three dancers continue to play their liquid interactions against Adam Crystal’s original score.
Contact Sport, the newest work on this engagement looks back to Keigwin’s schoolboys days with a male quartet built out of memories of his life with his brothers during those long ago Long Island days. Based on studio improvisations that ranged from playing Superman to standing shoulder to shoulder as if posing for family photographs, dancer Brando Cornay wrote on the company blog “We react and sometimes encourage the natural masculine competitiveness that comes into play, but what is making this piece substantial is the bond and underlying support you see come alive.” Danced to a medley of songs by cabaret star Eartha Kitt — including C’Mon A My House sung in rapid-fire Japanese! — Larry Keigwin’s Contact Sport blends brotherly roughhousing with affectionate laughter.
c 2012 Debra Cash
“Only the sky will stop me”
African Women Changing Contemporary Dance:
Kettly Noël, Nelisiwe Xaba, and Mamela Nyamza
By Joan Frosch
Where do we begin the conversation about the extraordinary contemporary dance movement afoot in Africa and some of its stellar young leaders? Will entrenched biases distort even fresh discussions about the continent? Better to be frank.
Disaster-driven Western media rehearses distortion nowhere more consistently than in its coverage of Africa. If reported on at all, the media depicts the continent most persistently by a faceless humanity who consumes aid and offers little in return, ever engulfed by poverty, illiteracy, war, environmental degradation, HIV/AIDS, and/or political turmoil. Let’s face it: the disaster-bias takes its toll. While neither intentionally malevolent nor without basis, these images do harm. It is not because negative images are presented, but that they are repeated over and over as if disaster were the only story worth telling about Africa, to the exclusion of the myriad of untold African stories. The economic and social penalties to the continent embed themselves broadly, for example: in approaches to international aid, formulation of foreign policy, business investment, even artistic exchange. Of further consequence is that the negativity numbs the curiosity—for many—about this vast and diverse continent, further perpetuating the endemic Western ignorance about Africa.
Foreign and internal views of Africans as keepers of unchanging traditions—except for political expediency as in the case of the former Zaire’s Mobutu—have, on some occasions, combined to undermine recognition of African artistic agency. The very notion of African experimentalism has been rendered an oxymoron, if not downright “un-African.” It is such a view that some African governments have used to foster an “authentic” Africanity in service of ideology, most recently in post-apartheid South Africa, for example when choreographer Gregory Maqoma’s work was rejected for a public ceremony because it did not adequately project the governmentally constructed African ideal. Such thinking is not dissimilar to the outsider’s view that African artistic innovation must mean the destruction of “real” African culture. If African culture is to be determined by cheeky foreign critics, as occurred in the cases of Faustin Linyekula (Democratic Republic of Congo), and others, some continental choreographers’ work is simply judged “not African enough.”
If lesser souls would scamper, many African choreographers, driven by a fierce determination to create, are unafraid to confront such challenges head-on. In fact, in acts of artistic alchemy, they appear to transform the energy of Africa’s contemporary tensions, disruption, and social confrontations into the rich fodder of an intricate and complex artistic environment. In the flux of rapidly changing social and cultural milieus, previously untold stories pour forth to cut a growing choreographic swath of new expression in today’s Africa. These choreographers’ powerful voices express hearts and minds in an emergent feast of visual mind/body/emotion invention impossible to ignore. African artists are building an art form, a field, and a public all at once, along with a new history of contemporary dance. Their voices as societal provocateurs and innovators challenge the norms and pressures of both internal and external dominance. They are 21st century dance pioneers. In this essay you will meet several of the “better half” of them.
Indeed, the small but extraordinary cadre of women currently moving towards the fore of the field is a critical development in the unfolding narrative of contemporary dance in Africa, and its reach to global markets, such as our own in the United States. As the international touring phase of the emergent African contemporary movement began to grow out of the early French interventions in the 1990’s, two woman artists would soon introduce American audiences to their ingenuity. While South Africa’s long-time innovator Robyn Orlin had toured the United States extensively starting in the 1990s, in 2000, Jant Bi (Senegal) the became first Francophone African contemporary dance company headed by a woman to tour extensively in the United States. Germaine Acogny, artistic director of the all-male company, toured Jant Bi with controversial Le Coq est Mort. Acogny continues to tour a sucession of new works for the company and her own solo work. Béatrice Kombé, artistic director of the all-female company TchéTché (Côte d’Ivoire) broadly toured her works Sans Repère, Geemé, and Dimi in the United States in 2002, 2005, and 2006 respectively, ending with Kombé’s tragic death in 2007. Despite these trendsetters, women choreographers—many of whom use the stage as a sounding board that no other platform appears to offer—remained a minority in the continental contemporary dance scene, even in South Africa, whose dance history, like its national history, is distinct from that of the continent.
But change is in sight: many African women’s stories are burgeoning with life, and, apparently, impossible to contain from spilling onto the stage. Out from under the burden of social pressure to conform to certain roles as daughters, wives, and mothers, sometimes combined with the parameters of women’s self-determination in traditions, or in religious affiliations with Christianity or Islam, brave innovators have asserted their identities. Not only as artists and choreographers, they have quickly taken up the work of directors, activists, teachers, and/or cultural leaders in their communities, as well. To move against the tide, these women’s pathways appear to at least double-up the requirement for creative courage.
Notable women choreographers such as Hella Fattoumi (Tunisia/France), Nora Chipaumire (Zimbabwe/United States), Sophia Kossoko (Benin/France), among others, continue to source their African experience as the center of their work even as they have committed to living abroad for the long term. However, a growing group of women who transverse as gracefully across cultures as any 21st century artist have committed to building on the ground in Africa. In spite of isolation, economic instability, the tasks of developing infrastructure, and the inherent risks of challenging the status quo, Kettly Noël (Haiti/Mali), Nelisiwe Xaba (South Africa), Mamela Nyamza (South Africa), Maria Helena Pinto (Mozambique), and Bouchra Ouizguen (Morocco), to name but a few, have taken on the challenge. Nadia Beugre (Côte d’Ivoire), who had planned with Béatrice Kombé to build the field from their home in Abidjan, now lives between France and Senegal, her home torn apart by Kombé’s death, and the war and economic devastation: the empty space of her loss now fodder for her work. Kettly Noël (Haiti/Mali), Nelisiwe Xaba (South Africa), and Mamela Nyamza (South Africa) graciously agreed to share some of their personal histories with me and, to paraphrase Mamela Nyamza, I am ever more convinced that as African women fly forth in contemporary dance, they can only be stopped by the sky (2011).
Mamela Nyamza, based in Cape Town, studied ballet since the age of 8—and recalls arriving for her first class in a swimsuit. 26 years later, upon the award of the 2011 Standard Bank Young Artist Award Winner for Dance, she was praised as a “multiple award-winning dancer, choreographer, dance teacher, passionate development activist and motivational speaker” (http://www.standardbankarts.com/NationalArts/Young-Artist-Of-The-Year-Mamela-Nyamza.aspx). Indeed, Mamela was drawn to her creative path for multiple reasons: spiritual fulfillment, her love of movement and awe of its ability to transcend, and the pressing needs of a society in transition:
“I wanted to talk about women’s real issues, when it comes from a woman’s perspective it becomes powerful especially when you have walked some of the paths….Creating my own work was a better option for me…to tell my own stories and other women’s issues.”
Mamela pointed out that the instability of funding has led many artists to leave African countries and work abroad. In 2008, she was a contestant on the popular British version of the TV show, So You Think You Can Dance (Superstars of Dance). She competed with her brilliant reinvention of The Dying Swan for which she received a FNB Vita Dance Umbrella Award in 2000. The work is a raw look at the stuttering vulnerability of life, even the life of the unassailable and classic beauty, unmasked by artifice. When I viewed the faces of the TV judges’ reactions, it was clear that they could not wrap their heads around a black artist, not only dancing, but daring to appropriate a ballet archetype for her own interpretation. In spite of Mamela’s stunning work and performance, it did not qualify her to move forward in the competition, but it firmly advanced her resolve to further the honesty and realness of her craft.
Mamela’s work has grown from roots deep in her childhood growing up in a large family:
“Growing up in Gugulethu with a huge family did not give me a choice but to love dancing. There is music and sound, all day long, and even in the streets the noise became the music…I used my body as the instrument to react to all forms of sound, whether it be playing, crying, or watching all sorts of things that one can imagine happened in Gugulethu in the 80’s.” (http://www.standardbankarts.com/NationalArts/Young-Artist-Of-The-Year-Mamela-Nyamza.aspx)
While never intended as literal portrayals, Mamela’s work has also grown out of women’s experiences —including family members’ and her own personal experiences, if not trauma. Mamela is fearless and goes to the heart of pain in an effort to expose, and to heal. “These issues are not being solved,” Mamela lamented.
Mamela decided to tackle a particularly abhorrent encounter designed to terrorize lesbians in a patriarchal society. It is known as “corrective rape,” and it is on the rise in South Africa. According to Luleki Sizwe, a local organization which assists women who have been raped, “More than ten lesbians per week are raped or gang-raped in Cape Town alone” (BBC Jun 29, 2011). Thirty-one lesbian women were reported to have died from these attacks in the last ten years (BBC Jun 29, 2011).
Mamela has taken on rape and other issues by unpacking “real situations using real time” to say “something powerful” to foment real emotion, and another way to view, if not halt these tragedies. Again upending convention by appropriating and reinventing for a cause, she described “becoming the man in my recent work playing the good, the bad and the victim.” Mamela is committed to telling the story differently, differently enough so that people will listen. Mamela reflected, “I would like other women to go out there [and] share their own stories in their works to heal themselves and, in return, heal others. They must not be afraid to express their art.”
Born in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, choreographer Kettly Noël began her study of dance at the age of 17. In Haiti, she performed broadly, including with visual artist, Junior Mario, in video montage. Kettly studied economics but ultimately chose dance as her life work. Or, perhaps, dance chose her. In the early 1990s she traveled to Paris to immerse herself in theater, film, music, and television, and choreographed her first work, Nanlakou (June 1995). The work was to provide an underpinning for her future choreography typified by what was to become a nuanced, interdisciplinary approach to creation.
Soon after the creation of Nanlakou, Kettly choreographed the music video Agolo for Beninoise singer Angelique Kidjo. The experience woke her up…to Africa. In the summer of 1996, Kettly moved with her family to Benin. “Upon my arrival in Cotonou (Benin) I sought to understand what I do. In order to understand, I teach.” Thus she began to work with young people in contemporary dance, unpacking and examining her own choreographic development-in-action; a number of her students went on to craft careers in dance.
Beginning anew in Mali in late 1999, Kettly began to shape an infrastructure for the development of dance in Mali. She created Donko Seko, a dance center in Bamako. In addition to developing serious dance training for dancers and for youth, she developed strong outreach programs for the greater community. In 2003, she created “Danse Bamako Danse,” the first international festival of contemporary dance in Bamako. In 2010, Kettly hosted “Danse l’Afrique Danse,” the biennial pan-African choreographic competition, an epic international undertaking.
As Kettly continues to develop her personal voice, she describes herself as travelling “ into dark areas in search of light.” Always deeply personal, her work is ever part of herself, her questions, fears, and desires. Simultaneously, her work crosses boundaries to take on larger dimensions interrogating issues of identity, and “the fight for the position of women on the continent.” Thus Kettly’s work is prismatic, one light illuminating ever-deeper portraitures of society. Indeed, Kettly has made great inroads on the continent to encourage women to move beyond what they may consider possible to achieve at the present time. She explains, “I would very much like to see the youngest women take possession of the contemporary space…to step forth strong and firm…to take more risks.”
Ironically, in the early days after her move to Bamako (Mali), she recalls that some people mistook her for a man, given that only a man might so boldly talk about and dance in this transgressive new world of contemporary dance. Kettly recalled another sort of confusion of observers: Western women have, at times, (mis) interpreted that it is she who has been personally beaten or abused in her life when she has dealt with such issues in her works. Not so. Rather, Kettly takes the whole of women’s experience to draw upon in her work—for it is an experience all women own together.
Nelisiwe Xaba who lives in Johannesburg, but was born in Soweto, recollected her entry into dance:
“I started dancing during the political uprisings in the late 80s. This is when formal schooling in Soweto was interrupted, the youth was rioting, throwing stones, fighting for liberation. So when I started dancing it was to find something constructive, something where I could spend my energy positively. At that time young people were stimulated to destroy government structures and white businesses, as a way of agitating politicians. And some of that was to our detriment. Some of it went against us because we were also destroying infrastructure that was vital to our everyday existence. So I had to find something intimate, elegant, something less aggressive…”
“So dance was a way of getting out of the streets, and a way to focus and invest in a… future. At that time I was not thinking, ‘I need to tell a story’; at that time I wasn’t thinking, ‘I need to address issues of feminism, I need to address racial issues.’ Politics were such a part of my everyday life that I wanted to dance, I wanted to be free. It was around the time of the American TV series ‘Fame,’ we wanted to dance badly.”
From as young as Neli can recall, she was politically conscious: issues of feminism, racism, and religion were rooted in her consciousness, emergent, and quick to develop. “For me having been born in Soweto one was forced to be political, it wasn’t something I had to learn, it wasn’t something outside of me,” she explained. By now she feels, “I’ve spent my life fighting for equality and freedom.” Neli continued, “For me to realize that in dance or in art I still have to continue with the fight that I was fighting socially, is mind-boggling. In the future I would like to see more fierce, strong and confident women, women who are not afraid.” In spite of the fact she has seen so many advancements for women across society, including to positions of power, she described herself as “still worr[ied] about the younger generation’s future!”
Neli recalled being drawn to unpack the story of Sarah Baartman, otherwise known as “Hottentot Venus.” Neli reclaimed the humanity of this inhumanely exotified South African woman internationally displayed as a museum exhibit. In so doing, Neli created a space for herself to emerge as a South African artist also caught in the continuing 21st century web of international trade in performance. Typically for Neli, she reached beyond her comfort zone. She engaged a designer whose thinking delighted and challenged her own. Symbolic of Baartman’s long-displayed and legendarily oversized genitalia, Carlo Gibson (Strangelove) created a “skirt.” Neli described it as a “monster [which] had so many beautiful possibilities. I started to ask myself how I’d manage with the skirt. How to tell the skirt what to do? Actually what became interesting for me was how my body had to manage with this object. That’s always my interest: how my body has to manage with the objects, with the props; and then in that process my body finds a new language.”
In the harsh economic and social realities of Africa’s artists, women face an “…enormous battle, indeed,” according to French-Togolese journalist and cultural commentator, Ayoko Mensah. “Their commitment is very strong because through them, it’s really the evolution of African women that is at stake… It is vital that those artists have a certain visibility that will allow others to assert themselves more easily.” Mensah confirms, “Those artists carry the word and they facilitate a recognition of (Africa’s) new women.” Indeed, while Kettly Noël, Nelisiwe Xaba, and Mamela Nyamza usher in new ways of seeing and understanding Africa—and African women—their goals are broader still. These exceptional women see themselves as part of the whole world, not the “third world,” and, while proudly women of Africa, they refuse to be marginalized as such. As Germaine Acogny passionately stated, “I sincerely believe that this is only the beginning…We are bringing a new breath to dance.”
© Joan Frosch
Professor, School of Theatre and Dance
Director, Center for World Arts
Catching The Camille A. Brown Express
by Debra Cash
Have you ever found yourself mesmerized by the variety of human life and mood on a subway platform? Camille A. Brown has. This young choreographer came to the attention of the legendary Judith Jamison, then Artistic Director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with a brief, critically-celebrated work that became The Groove to Nobody’s Business. It’s easy to see what attracted Jamison: Brown’s affectionate portrait of an ordinary day in the life of New Yorkers returned the Ailey dancers to familiar broad-brush character portrayals, where men and women act out longing, fussiness and self-absorption amid the urban sass running under Ray Charles and Brandon McCune’s music.
The Groove to Nobody’s Business in the Ailey repertory may have been the work that brought Camille A. Brown to public attention, but she’s been choreographing almost since she could walk. She remembers making up little dances to morning cartoons as a toddler and putting on shows with her cousins in her grandparents’ living room. Early on, she was encouraged at the Bernice Johnson and Carolyn Devore Dance Studios where her teachers scoffed at the idea – conventional, but patently absurd –that she didn’t have a “dancer’s body.”
When she entered LaGuardia H.S. of the Performing Arts – the high school that inspiredFame –Brown had to decide whether to major in dance or clarinet, and dance won out. Her first job after receiving her B.F.A. in Dance from The University of North Carolina School of the Arts was as a member of Ronald K. Brown/Evidence, A Dance Company where she performed for six seasons. (Camille and Ronald K. Brown are not related.)
She was concentrating on her life as a dancer, “focusing on interpreting Ron’s movement to the best of my ability” when a college classmate sent her a flier announcing that Hubbard Street II of Chicago was hosting a national choreographic competition. Moved by the friend’s belief in her, she sent in a tape of the only choreography she had on hand – her senior composition. To her surprise, she was named one of three winners.
Brown now remembers that in college she had gotten used to a composition process that would begin with creating work in the studio, getting feedback from teachers and classmates, then another showing and another chance to polish the choreography. She admits she was in “choreographic shock” when she arrived in Chicago for Hubbard Street II rehearsals and realized she was expected to work for five days and have the new commission ready for performance.
Discipline saw her through. Since that dive into the deep end, Brown has created work for a number of noted dance companies including Urban Bush Women, Philadanco and Ballet Memphis and has received a series of awards and grants including The Princess Grace Award for Choreography, where she was the first woman to be so honored.
For her company’s Maine debut, Camille A. Brown & Dancers will be dancing The Groove to Nobody’s Business, The Evolution of a Secured Feminine and Girls Verse. In addition, tonight’s program includes two very personal works: City of Rain and New Second Line.
City of Rain is an elegy of sorts. It was choreographed in memory of a dancer friend, Gregory Lamont Boomer “Blyes,” who died in 2009 after a debilitating disease that left him paralyzed. One of her few truly abstract works to date, Brown’s choreography reinforces the additive quality of Jonathan Melville Pratt’s minimalist score.
But Brown, who often testifies about the importance of faith and spirituality in her life, dwells in celebration. New Second Line may have been inspired by Hurricane Katrina, but the choreographer’s focus is on the resilience of the survivors whose easy exuberance is conveyed in skips and leaps as free as the waving handkerchief in a dancer’s hand. Set against informal photographs of musicians parading in traditional New Orleans “second line” brass bands, Brown draws a portrait of a community that can rely on its indomitable spirit.
Every time the dancers present it, New Second Line is dedicated to someone the dancers know who has passed away during the previous year. It’s one of the many ways Camille A. Brown expresses her artistry. Dance that honors the living and memorializes departed loved ones is always a form of service.
© 2011 Debra Cashoductions and BBC TV, 1995.
Nicholas Leichter Refracts The Whiz
By Debra Cash
Think of a mirror, looking at a mirror, looking at a mirror. At each reflection, the images are slightly askew, and seem to lead into odder and odder territory.
Infinite regression is at the center of Nicholas Leichter’sThe Whiz. The image being reflected – and skewed – is L. Frank Baum’s 1900 The Wonderful Wizard of Oz in its many pop culture permutations: from populist allegory about the gold standard to benign children’s classic, gay-friendly Judy Garland-and-friends Technicolor phenomenon and up through the Michael Jackson and Diana Ross reboot. There’s even a touch of Wicked’s “Defying Gravity” anthem where Elphaba singsI’m through with playing by the rules. This is a version of the Wizard of Oz aware that it’s hardly the first reconsideration of the story and probably won’t be the last. In Leichter’s take on the Wizard of Oz the Wizard’s artifice is revealed as a quality that, if you look closely, draws on unrecognized stores of heart, brains and courage.
The Whiz was one of the musical retreads first suggested by the producers of Dance Now, where dancers take over the tiny cabaret venue of Joe’s Pub in New York City. Other works in this iconoclastic series include Doug Elkins’ Fraulein Maria and the work by David Parker and the Bang Group based on Annie Get Your Gun. Originally a project for three performers, the Whiz has retained many traces of its cabaret origins as it has grown and morphed to the evening-long piece being presented at the Bates Dance Festival tonight. In each community where Nicholas Leichter Dance tours with the work, the choreographer adds a subtitle: past subtitles have included “Moneyapolis” in Minneapolis/St. Paul and “Obamaland” at home in New York. He also inserts new twists, local flavor and private jokes for the members of his company to enjoy among themselves.
As Leichter explains it, every version of the Wizard of Oz, from the original L. Frank Baum novel to his own work, speaks to ideas of hope, fantasy and dreams during times of major political, economic and cultural change…The idea that this “wizard” is some sort of God who will make all our dreams come true and bring wealth and prosperity to those desperately in need is really just a “fantasy.”
Yet in some sense, don’t all art-makers traffic in fantasy? Leichter’s funk-infused The Whiz is an over-the-top meditation on fantasy and its close relation, celebrity. As an ambitious artist, Leichter seems keenly aware of how celebrity is constructed and rewarded in American culture. Much of his work has been a meditation on the celebrity of Michael Jackson – as a dancer, musician, music video icon and grotesque/tragic tabloid staple. In The Whiz and in a related work, Killa, Leichter weaves snippets of Jackson choreography into his own language, flavoring the blend of hip hop and house dancing he has created for his athletic young ensemble with ’70s and ’80s funk. The Whiz is presided over by drag queen and self-declared “Messiah of the Funk” Monstah Black. Black sometimes croons to The Whiz’s revamped, augmented Charlie Smalls score as master of ceremonies and at other times controls the mike and a water pistol as a Cowardly Lion wearing furry epaulets.
Monstah Black once described one of his own art projects saying: I imagine it resembling Fela Kuti meets Sylvester while sipping champagne with Prince and Grace Jones in a lounge on the bottom of the ocean. As Leichter told critic Susan Yung, Monstah “taught me that dance is theater, theater is music, music is fashion, fashion is drag, drag is performance, performance is movement.” Transgressive and fun, challenging and completely harmless, Monstah Black has often been described as Nicholas Leichter’s muse. His genre-and-gender bending performances comprise a key element of Leichter’s choreographic intelligence.
In the much-loved 1939 film, audiences learn that while the Wizard of Oz may be a fraud, all the apparatus around him –the yellow brick road, the buffing and shining, the unexpected friendship and solidarity among the pilgrims – is very real. So, too, with The Whiz: Monstah’s hipper-than-thou trickster figure may not have much power at the end of the day, but his unapologetic freedom of expression is something Leichter can adopt, envy — and to which he can aspire. Maybe that’s true for all the rest of us, too. Because, ultimately, a refracting mirror can only show what we’ve put in front of it, and what we’ve been looking at all along.
© 2011 Debra Cash
Cracking the Mystery: zoe/juniper returns to Bates
By Debra Cash
Who wouldn’t occasionally want the power to make time stop, to run it backwards, or get another chance to right things that have gone wrong? The Greeks built their tragedies on the recognition that time runs in a single direction. Centuries later, Seattle-based choreographer, Zoe Scofield, is still wrapping her mind around time’s conundrums, battling the frustrations of cause-and-effect and mourning the inevitable constraints of before-and-after.
A Crack in Everything is the second evening-length work by the multimedia performanceensemble led by Scofield in collaboration with her visual artist husband, Juniper Shuey. The first, the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t, was presented here at the Bates Dance Festival in 2008 and marked zoe | juniper as a company on the rise. Granted an unusual level of institutional and foundation support, they didn’t rush their sophomore outing. The company developed A Crack in Everythingover a three year period, working out, discarding and crystallizing ideas during a series of residencies at the Trafó House of Contemporary Art in Budapest, Hungary, at The Body Festival in Christchurch, New Zealand, and during creative development residencies at Jacob’s Pillow and the McDowell Colony.
The kernel of inspiration zoe | juniper took as their starting point was Aeschylus’ trilogy,The Oresteia, which follows the curse of King Agamemnon’s royal family in cycles of revenge, retaliation, and the eventual determination of justice. Scofield found herself fascinated by the way Greek myths and the plays that emerge from them deal with foreshadowing and hindsight and how they address the topics of compulsion and repetition.
As she recently explained it, time and memory color and shape theatrical experience too:
I was thinking about how many different performances happen. There’s the show we do on stage, in [real] time that audiences are seeing. There is the show that audiences unconsciously create through their perception with all of their own histories and desires: they are editing and reprocessing and editing it as it is happening. There is the show that happens in their memory, with distance and time seasoning it, so that they sort of reformulate the piece to be what they need it to be.
But how to convey that series of overlapping perceptions? For A Crack in Everything Juniper Shuey has taken time-shifting as the subject of his cinematic effects. He has made changes to the stage environment so that a wall is at turns opaque and transparent and the edges of spaces blur as the work unfolds. Other visual effects, such as the dancers tracing the outline of evanescent shadows with a dark marker, document attempts to capture time in a way impervious to change and disruption.
The central, striking image of A Crack in Everything is the red thread that the dancers hold in their mouths. Red threads, as symbols of luck, protection and connection are ubiquitous in world culture with examples everywhere from imperial China to Jewish mysticism. In American modern dance history, the thread echoes the route from the labyrinth famously danced by Martha Graham in her 1947 retelling of a different Greek legend, Ariadne’s flight from the Minotaur, in Errand into the Maze.
Zoe Scofield’s red thread is an ambiguous, multipurpose metaphor implying capture and journey. That long, red line also expresses a certain kind of somatic sense: Scofield says that at the McDowell Colony, she found herself having back problems and felt “like I wanted to pull my spine out of my mouth.”
Early in the development of A Crack in Everything, Scofield visited a dark European cave, a disorienting “labyrinth of courage.” She later blogged:
So, naturally being goaded on by any sort of challenge to my pride and ego, I immediately barged in. And then remembered I am really pretty scared of pits of bottomless darkness that go places I can’t see and heavy iron doors that close behind me with a big sound of finality. It was completely disorientating and really the only way to get out was to go through it (oh so heavy with metaphor), so I clutched my little rope along the wall and keep going.
The impact of the experience was soon compromised by the boisterous picture-taking German and Spanish tourists, who followed her and her companion. But the image remained.
zoe | juniper’s A Crack in Everything will not be limited to live performances. Scofield and Shuey think of the project as a multimedia umbrella for a series of related activities. Eventually A Crack in Everything will include online streaming video and a gallery
installation featuring some of Shuey’s surreal photographs of the white-powdered and sugar-dusted Scofield lashed by red threads, now on view as two slideshows on the company’s website. As they reach towards multimedia synthesis, zoe | juniper are also
working to break what they perceive as the boundaries between art forms and disciplines. Time may only flow in one direction, but there is always more than one way to tell the same story.
© 2011 Debra Cash
Slyness: David Dorfman Creates Prophets Of Funk
By Debra Cash
When Sly and the Family Stone was heating up the radio waves in the 1960s and early 1970s their music meant much more than the danceable beat listeners remember “taking them higher.” Sly’s group was one of the first racially and gender-integrated bands in American music history — and as such, struck a blow for social integration in the popular, subversive American language of rock and roll.
David Dorfman remembers those days well. Working out in a basement gym, the baseball and football player and his basketball-playing friend had Sly and the Family Stone’s muscle-pumping songs playing on an 8-track player as they exercised. Then the very first day of his college life at Washington University in St. Louis Dorfman caught the band playing, for free, on the campus quad. He was elated.
Choreographer Dorfman’s Prophets of Funk had to wait a few decades to come to fruition. It was only as an adult — when he drove out to the Wolf Den in the Mohegan Sun Casino some twenty minutes from his home in Connecticut, where he now serves as Chair of the University of Connecticut’s Dance department and his troupe is the permanent company-in-residence — that he heard Sly and the Family Stone’s now classic numbers played by a mix of original members and new musicians. Charmed again, he got a copy of the band’s autographed picture and slipped their manager’s business card into his wallet. Dorfman says he was already sketching out a dance to that de facto mix tape on the drive home.
Prophets of Funk is the last work in a triology that has taken Dorfman from the 1860s to the 1960s. Dorfman’s earlier works, underground and Disavowal, combine with Prophets of Funk to create a time machine journey of politics and race, resistance and settlement. The Bates Dance Festival has had a role to play in every step of this journey: over the years, Dorfman has either worked on or presented each of the three works here.
Asking him, Dorfman says, “the entire trilogy is about action and hope – what we do with our lives when faced with everyday challenges to our ever-changing personal principles.” Company member Raja Kelly explains that the sequence argues “stand up for what you believe in (undergroun), stand up for who you are (Disavowal) and stand up for what you love (Prophets of Funk).”
Within the framework of joyful, inveterate movement invention – every move that could be culled from the dancers on television’s Soul Train, and a few deep and grounded steps they never imagined in addition – Dorfman creates a forum for a young, partying ensemble. The dancers teach and deconstruct each other’s moves, and engage in new ways of interacting, flirting and clowning.
But Dorfman doesn’t shy away from uncomfortable truths, either. He shines a light on minstrel show stereotypes and sexist assumptions. In rehearsals the young generation of dancers of his current company found that they had been insulated from some of the most
egregious of these slurs. They were sobered by the recognition that these had coexisted with and alongside the band’s unabashed self-assertion.
David Dorfman likes to say that he’s a card-carrying choreographic postmodernist, which means that it’s not his tendency to illustrate song lyrics. Yet for Prophets of Funk, he has been willing to follow the message inherent in the score and follow Sly Stone’s call for people to behave better. By doing so, his intention is to go beyond mere nostalgia. In the pleasure of social dance, Dorfman has found a deeper agenda. “The experience of art,” he says, “starts the conversation.”
© 2011 Debra Cash
AXIS at the Edge
by Debra Cash
Polite people are usually taught from a young age not to stare at strangers who are physically disabled.
AXIS Dance Company has a different attitude. The San Francisco-based company invites its audiences to look as hard, and as long, as possible.
For over two decades AXIS has pioneered physically integrated work, presenting dance performed by dancers who move with the help of manual and power wheelchairs, crutches and prosthetics working as equals alongside dancers who are more traditionally trained and able-bodied. The results have been eye-opening and field-changing: a new dance idiom that challenges conventional ways of moving and collaborating onstage and has broadened the definition of both dance and human potential.
Tonight’s program shines a spotlight on the special role AXIS and its director, Judith Smith, have taken in commissioning work from more than a dozen inventive choreographers. Smith, who had a passion for riding horses as a girl and became a champion equestrienne before she was disabled in a car accident at age 17, is a founding member of AXIS. She has been the troupe’s artistic director since 1997. Smith was eager to stretch the company’s repertoire and over the years has sought out dancemakers who are eager to explore the array of talents AXIS brings to the stage.
Joe Goode relished an opportunity to think differently about the limits of human motion. He was one of the first “outside” choreographers AXIS ever commissioned to create a work, coming up with his dramatically compressed version of Jane Eyre for AXIS’ 2000 season. Goode revisited AXIS in 2006. The result is the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping…
“Joe came in with the simple notion of starting with a level playing field for everybody,” Smith remembers. “We all warmed up sitting in chairs in a circle. He asked us to identify our shared vocabulary, what we could all do together.” Instead of asking for a particular motion, step or shape, he asked the dancers to focus on their internal impulses: what, for example, it would look like when the tip of dancer’s head led her around the corner or how both performers in and out of wheelchairs could twist and curve to the right.
the beauty that was mine, through the middle, without stopping… engages with the subtle politics of representation. Prominently, it features a picture frame that “crops” the body – that can hide or focus attention on a person’s strengths and deficits. With a keen sense of irony, Goode’s work poses serious questions about what can and cannot be seen.
Alex Ketley first worked with AXIS during a residency at the Maggie Allesee National Center for Choreography (MANCC) at Florida State University in Tallahassee. He was one of four emerging choreographers chosen to work with the company. Resident choreographer for the San Francisco Conservatory of Dance, the ballet-trained Ketley is artistic director of the dance company The Foundry. MANCC, like the Bates Dance Festival, offers its choreographic residents the very special luxury of working without any requirement that the residency result in a finished work.
“To get paid to go play for 8 hours a day was one of the top experiences of my life,” Smith enthuses. Sonsheree Giles, AXIS’ associate director, dancer and costume designer, remembers that Ketley “had been diving deeply into idea of language, [asking] how can you communicate and talk while you dance. He spent a lot of time in a wheelchair choreographing, trying to come about things in a different way.”
Ketley’s duet for Maori dancer, Rodney Bell, and Sonsherée Giles, To Color Me Differentis a passionate, perhaps fractured relationship that is less about different degrees of physical ability than about different types of personal power. In 2008, Ketley reworked the duet for a larger, ensemble work, Vessel. Set to a collage of voices whose text was provided by the dancers arranged by poet, Carol Snow, Vessel retains traces of studio improvisation. The dance, and Snow’s text, asks how the body conveys information that it may – or may not — be possible to translate into language.
Light Shelter is David Dorfman’s first collaboration with AXIS. Light Shelter plays with ideas of equivalence and competitiveness. Under swinging lamps designed by Heather Basarab – a design that nods to Dorfman’s landmark 2004 Light Bulb Theory – and a stage edged with fluorescent tubes, Light Shelter portrays the athleticism of both its disabled and non-disabled performers. One performer swings her arms with as much violence as the most virtuosic jumper. Another somersaults across the floor in response to a wheelchair user’s dare that she learned to roll. David Dorfman, Smith says, “is another one of those radical humanists.”
Remarkably, even within AXIS’ enlarged and reshaped movement vocabulary, each choreographer’s distinctive creative voice comes through.
“The thing that’s exciting — I didn’t know this would happen –is that working together ends up being mutually beneficial. Choreographers get something out of working with us, a different direction, the ability to explore a different movement vocabulary.”
And besides, adds Smith, “we’re a pretty cool group of people to work with.”
© 2010 Debra Cash
When Dancing is a Flowing Stream: Doug Varone at Bates
by Debra Cash
Long-time Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt once described choreographer Doug Varone’s work using metaphors from the natural world
Doug Varone’s works sometimes make me think of small rivers on long journeys—rivers that flow serenely, curve to evade an obstacle, glance off a stone, suddenly burst into a waterfall. That’s how the luscious torrent of movement he conceived is shaped and how his dancers behave with one another. Except that they’re human beings, not running water, and they choose their courses. Who wouldn’t like to move through life the way they travel on and off the stage—fluidly, resiliently, and confident that if they fall, they will be caught?
For 24 years, Varone has been making dances that course like those lively streams: dances shaped by seemingly random incident, carrying along natural materials, the detritus of life lived and discarded, the depths churned up to mud and then running clear again.
Doug Varone and Dancers are here at the Bates Dance Festival for the company’s sixth creative residency since 1992, with the choreographer and his dancers teaching modern technique, repertory and composition. Throughout that time, Varone has been in demand as a director and choreographer of concert dance, opera, theatre, film and even fashion shows. Tonight’s performance brings together two of the company’s popular repertory works and introduces a dance that early this summer was still settling into its final form, a stream continuing to find its way.
Varone calls the two dances he created in 2006, Boats Leaving and Lux, “sister dances.”
Boats Leaving is a very internal work, a dance Varone says is about departure on many levels. For years he had been clipping images out of the New York Times: photographs from the news, sports, and business sections, advertisements, anything that he felt implied a story. For Boats Leaving Varone de-contextualized and staged more than 60 of those images. The dancers’ abstract re-enactments combine to map a storyboard that, while it skirts conventional theatrical narrative, still seems to convey struggle and longing. The accompanying score, the rich treble church harmonics of Arvo Paert’s Te Deum, amplifies the elegiac ambience.
Lux, created only six months after Boats Leaving, couldn’t be more its opposite. Optimistic and “dancey,” its energy spills over with easy exuberance. From the opening solo, one Varone usually takes himself, the dancing revs itself up and outward, the performer gesturing as if writing an invocation on the air. Running backward, tumbling forward, Varone’s choreography is an almost frictionless bounding and rebounding where the dancers rarely stop for a pose — or even breathe.
The outpouring of movement in Lux is part and parcel of its creation. Startlingly, Varone says that he created the first seventeen minutes of this 21 minute work in a mere four and a half days during a creative residency in Santa Barbara, California. Set to Philip Glass’ cycling Light, Lux is attended by the slow rise of a glowing full moon on the horizon that seems to be passing through a cloudless summer night.
The new, ink-still-wet-on-the-page dance on tonight’s program has the intriguing titleChapters from a Broken Novel. Doug Varone has a habit of jotting snatches of conversation he overhears on the street, lines from literature and film and the maxims folded into fortune cookies into his notebooks. “These are fragments of thoughts that conjure an evocative sense of mystery in my imagination,” he explains. The result is a dance/book in 34 “chapters” that Varone has envisioned as a work that can do double duty. Chapters may read as an evening-long work or be excerpted for the type of repertory program being presented here at Bates.
So tonight’s program stands as a varied, mini-retrospective of the routes Doug Varone and Dancers have taken since the company’s last appearance here in 2003. The stream digs more deeply into its banks, carries along more shiny surprises. With it, Doug Varone leads his audiences into new territory.
© 2010 Debra Cash
Risking the Fall: Monica Bill Barnes
by Debra Cash
What do you call a former philosophy major with a wry sense of humor, a weakness for costumes that tell a story, and a taste for rhythm and blues? One thing you may call her is a choreographer.
As a seven year old being raised in the academic enclave of Berkeley, California, Monica Bill Barnes declared to her parents – a minister father and women’s studies professor mother – that she wanted to be a dancer. She made a detour in her college years, studying philosophy with a focus on ethics at the University of Southern California at San Diego (UCSD). Her plan was to go to law school and perhaps become a judge.
“I always danced and loved it,” she explains now, and notes that she danced steadily through college under the guidance of a special mentor, Jean Isaacs, who was trained in the canon of American modern dance — Graham, Horton, and Cunningham techniques – and is best known for a series of site-specific dances along the San Diego trolley line.
It was the pile of graduate and law school applications her senior year, though, that made Barnes face the fact that she couldn’t imagine spending her days without dancing.
Monica Bill Barnes’ training in logic and critical thinking has come in handy. “Philosophy teaches you how to think and how to articulate your ideas,” she says. “Choreography is essentially the same task.”
Another philosophical axiom comes to mind in relation to Monica Bill Barnes’ 2009 Another Parade: Perspective is everything. Much of this young choreographer’s concerns have to do with the heightened experience of performance, on stage and in life, and how authenticity is challenged and heightened by that artificial relationship. As she explained recently during a cell phone conversation from New York’s Union Square, “what I’m dealing with is our experience on the stage. How does the fact that I’m brightly lit and you’re sitting in the dark affect the way we feel about each other?”
In Another Parade Barnes zeroes in on awkwardness, earnestness, and the steps that can be missed when things just don’t go according to plan. Another Parade is anchored by Deborah Lohse, who also leads her own New York company, ad hoc Ballet, which creates works incorporating elements of classical ballet, modern dance and theatre “while exploring current social tribulations.”
“In a way I’ve always felt we’re really a company of soloists,” Barnes once said. “Everyone is so unique to themselves, you don’t mix up who’s who. If I were to lose some of the performers, I don’t know I would remake the piece as it comes from the specificity that the individuals bring to it. ”
The quartet of women in their slightly frumpy skirts and bulky sweaters lay their hearts on the line, vamping, shadowboxing, trying to recover from their mistakes.
“I, too, have overdressed for an occasion or been too expressive and regretted it”…Barnes says. “It’s kind of like 6th grade when you walk across the room to ask someone to dance—you’re deeply grateful when someone says yes, because it allows the show to go on.”
Another Parade is funny – a rare quality in contemporary American dance – but the laughter it engenders is the laughter of recognition and empathy. The music helps too. The score crisscrosses – and maybe double-crosses — Bach with James Brown, Tina Turner, Elvis and Burt Bacharach.
Mostly Fanfare, the work-in-progress on tonight’s Bates program, is musically-driven.
Monica Bill Barnes fell in love with the recordings of soul singer Nina Simone, but has avoided delving into the singer’s remarkable, and remarkably tortured, biography. In Mostly Fanfare Barnes’ focus is on the expressive timbre, the suggestive sound, of Simone’s voice. Like Another Parade, Mostly Fanfare addresses the paradoxes of performance. Barnes explores the effort it takes for dancers in huge headdresses to keep their heads up and present the illusion of easy, graceful movement.
“The element of failure is always touching, so when it succeeds we’re invested in it — because we see the potential of it not always going well,” Monica Bill Barnes explains. “That’s the kind of conversation performers are constantly having with an audience. This is our moment to fall down or shine.”
C 2010 Debra Cash
Necessary Mysteries: Bebe Miller
by Debra Cash
Bebe Miller learned from a post-graduate physics student at Ohio State University, where she is a full professor, that 85% of the universe is made up of dark matter we cannot see.
“You don’t know why things effect you the way they do but you feel their import from something that is not visible,” she told reporter Steve Sucato. The concept dovetailed with her choreographic instincts. Ever since she started creating her own works almost thirty years ago, Bebe Miller’s choreography has been described as mysterious, perplexing, paradoxical — alongside other adjectives such as intuitive, empathetic and humane.
Tonight’s work, Necessary Beauty had its world premiere at the Wexner Center for the Arts in Columbus Ohio last fall. It’s a work in which six dancers — Angie Hauser, Kathleen Hermesdorf, Kristina Isabelle, Cynthia Oliver and Yen-Fang Yu, and, in brief cameos, Miller herself – seem to be tossed along by external gusts and force fields, where right side up and upside down both partake of gravity, and where a collapse is as precise as a pirouette. If this is a dance “about” anything, it is perhaps about the unpredictability of influence — and how self-awareness is the flip side of self-deception.
In Necessary Beauty family units converge to discuss – or not – their shapes, and how they were shaped by now-hard-to-reconstitute events and interactions. The text that accompanies these portraits was culled from interviews with the dancers as they responded to a writer’s questions. Interestingly enough, the writer in question is the scion of one of post-modern dance’s “royal” families – Ain Gordon, whose parents are David Gordon and Valda Setterfield.
With Bebe Miller’s move to Ohio in 2000, her company went “virtual” gathering for specific projects, working intensively together two to three weeks at a time several times a year, and then connecting during tours. Living in Ohio has given Miller a permanent home and time – both of which she says nourish her art.
Perhaps the most significant of these changed circumstances, however, has turned out to be her access to the artists of Ohio State University’s cutting-edge AdvancedComputing Center for the Arts and Design (ACCAD). It was in that facility that she developed much of the material and ideas for Landing/Place (presented at Bates in 2005), with video by Maya Ciarrocchi and digital animations by Vita Berezina-Blackburn. Ciarrocchi and Berezina-Blackburn have returned to collaborate with Miller on Necessary Beauty. Their large-screen projections create the settings for episodes that place the dancers in shifting environments from a dark beach to domestic interiors.
Miller’s work with these visual innovators increases the legibility of her work. After all she has to communicate with all of her partners that, for Necessary Beauty include lighting designer Michael Mazzola, dramaturg Talvin Wilks and composer Albert Mathias. But such collaboration also deepens the layers and shifts the focus from Miller’s movement language to a broader, ambient theatricality.
Miller told Steve Sucato:
“A couple of years ago I was driving between Dayton and Columbus, Ohio having just rehearsed a work with Dayton Contemporary Dance Company. It was one of those gray rainy kind-of days in which I was feeling nagged by a problem. During the ride I happened to see a flock of birds take off flapping seemingly in time with my windshield wipers, while at the same instant I got the resolution to my problem. It was one of those small transcendent moments that struck me as very artful and became the impetus of this piece, hence the title, Necessary Beauty.”
Here and gone. Synchronic and random. Like dancing. Like life.
© 2009 Debra Cash
Stuporwoman: Tania Isaac Dance
by Debra Cash
It’s suddenly fashionable to admit to being a less than perfect mother.
Throwing harsh experience the face of the experts who tell parents how to do everything right (hello T. Berry Brazelton! How ya doing Parents Magazine?) and marketing campaigns that have figured out that model moms with tattoos can look every bit as domestic as the ones teaching their kids to sail in ads for Ralph Lauren, there’s a spate of books and articles and artworks that explore motherhood without the airbrushing. Author Ayelet Waldman, who writes a series of “Mommy-Track Mysteries” admitted she prefers her husband to her children. Oprah’sSecret Life of Moms and other blogs publish confessions that stressed parents want to run in the opposite direction when their kids melt down in the grocery aisle.
Into this vortex comes dancemaker Tania Isaac’s, “Stuporwoman.” The punning title is fun but misleading. Isaac’s current state of mind is anything but dazed. Instead, in this hour-long theatre work she is honest, acute and even funny.
In “Stuporwoman” Isaac exaggerates the “self-pitying violin moments” she has felt raising her daughter, Naomi, with husband, Aaron Hyman. She is quick to clarify that her living situation is fortunate. She is educated and middle class and her partner, a furniture-maker, sculptor and acupuncturist-in-training, acts as an equal caretaker of their five-year-old — and the family’s primary chef. Yet notwithstanding these advantages, she argues, every mom has the right to indulge in the “guilty pleasure” of whining about being expected to nurture somebody else on way too few hours of sleep.
The model set by her own mother when she was growing up on St. Lucia in the West Indies wasn’t one she could emulate. Isaac describes her mother as “very capable, the strong, silent, stoic type who lived through everything. In the islands there’s a sense that women are the sustainers of culture, of home, the stabilizers. Women have the responsibility of making things work. You don’t complain because it’s your lot.” Her mother thinks, she says with a laugh, “I’m a dramatic American now. I told her I’d get through it, but I’d never do it quietly!”
“Stuporwoman” has grown from a solo to a work envisioned as a sprawling epic to its current form as a quartet. Her collaborative team includes playwright Bridget Carpenter, composer Michael Wall, mezzo-soprano Claire Stollack-Gustavsson and violinist Heather Zimmerman. Isaac wrote the semi-autobiographical text – what she calls a “personal documentary” — but folded in anecdotes and the perspectives from women she interviewed in the Caribbean and in the U.S. In the piece, Isaac performs the central role accompanied by a trio of warrior-like women who resemble the Fates or the Norns.
Tania Isaac’s movement language is rooted on the loose joints, fluent spine and polyrhythms of Caribbean dance forms augmented by Horton and Dunham dance techniques and the hip hop of her Philadelphia home. In “Stuporwoman” that movement language extends from her body in arcs that reach through space. The eye is drawn to her shoulders exposed by an elegant, cream-colored bustier. If some of the choreography echoes Judith Jamison dancing in Alvin Ailey’s “Cry” it’s no coincidence. Both are dances where tall, lean black women negotiate their environments with dignity and power.
While “Stuporwoman” may seem like a purely personal project, it reinforces Tania Isaac’s ongoing commitment to using the arts as a bridge between communities and generations. For a number of years she has led social action programs designed to facilitate conversations between youth and civic leaders. If “Stuporwoman” jumpstarts the dialog between those who are parenting young children and those who are not, those who are parents now and those whose parenting days are still before them, or behind them, “Stuporwoman” will have leaped at least one tall obstacle in a single bound.
© 2009 Debra Cash
Leaning Forward: Dances by Kate Weare
by Debra Cash
“I make movement by moving,” says choreographer and dancer Kate Weare. In the two works presented at Bates this weekend, “Bridge of Sighs” and “Lean-to”, Weare’s translation of her own impulses into solos, duets and ensemble works takes on metaphoric and even sociological meaning. In her unbridled dances, intimacy provides a close-up focus. It creates the opportunity for attack and invites the possibility of tenderness.
“Bridge of Sighs” is named for Ponte dei Sospiri, the Venetian walkway that led Italian convicts from trials in the doge’s palace to confinement in the state prison. Marlon Barrios Solano has described the work as “technically sensual with calculated violence and layered complicity.” “Bridge of Sighs” opens in silence with a duet constructed from slapping and kicking: it’s as if we’re neighbors unwillingly overhearing an argument that’s been going on for years. Weare explains that the dance is made of “friction and transformation” and addresses the ways you are “molded by who you get in contact with.”
From her earliest years, Weare has been molded by many different types of friction and connection. She grew up in Oakland to parents who were visual artists: her mother painted, her father did etchings. Nude models, and an appreciation for the shape and heft of the human body, were routine in their home studio.
Weare’s first ballet classes with a local, British-trained teacher were inauspicious. As an eight-year old, she didn’t take to it at all. “I argued a lot with my teacher. We had a lot of spats,” she remembers now. “I was strong-willed and attracted to the structure of ballet [but] I didn’t like having to wear pink tights and a black leotard and pull my hair back. I didn’t like having my choices restricted.”
As a more mature dancer she maintained her eclecticism. She studied with a number of teachers notable for “thinking for themselves” in the Bay area and when she enrolled at CalArts she was influenced by African dance, Balinese dance and, especially, Japanese dance forms. She lived in Belgrade and danced with Compagnie de Danse L’Astragale in Montreal.
In 2000, she made the move to New York City. Five years later she established her own company; two years after that she broke through with “Drop Down,” a duet voted best modern dance by the audience of the Joyce Theater Foundation’s A.W.A.R.D. Show. Winning that popular contest brought a $10,000 prize and a significant amount of attention from critics and potential presenters.
“Drop Down,” seen in Shlomo Godder’s shortened, impressionistic video, is remarkable for its genderless partnering and an edgy undertow that verges on violence. In a recent telephone conversation Weare explained it this way:
Solo dancing is its own fascinating reservoir of information but partnering is the most fascinating way to dance. About five or six years ago I started studying Argentinian tango and it blew my mind open. Skillful social dancing is about recognizing that in partnerships you give up autonomy to communicate with a partner; the central axis is more important than your own impulses.
Weare is interested in energy and she’s interested in power. To that end martial arts have been as intriguing to her as stage dancing. She is equally admiring of wushu master and actor, Jet Li and the recently deceased postmodernist, Pina Bausch. As she told Dance Magazine’s Wendy Perron:
I’m fascinated by what happens when women feel more empowered, how the game shifts when women are not assumed to be the weaker players.
“Lean-to,” which had its world premiere this past June, gives up control in further dimensions. More abstract than “Bridge of Sighs,” Weare said that it was the fruit of opening herself to the possibilities of collaboration.
Some of that openness was triggered by necessity. A knee injury made her realize she might have to skip certain types of rigorous movement. More compelling though was her growing awareness that she could “lean into” her team’s contributions. In “Lean-to” these include the “subterranean,” often wordless communication among the dancers of her tight-knit company; set designer Kurt Perschke’s enormous structure leaning out over the dancers’ space; and music created by Michel Galante & Argento Chamber Ensemble.
Stepping aside to make room for the friction and connection of other artistic voices, Kate Weare is creating new openings for creative surprise.
© 2009 Debra Cash
Drop the Devil to His Knees: Zoe Scofield & Juniper Shuey
by Debra Cash
Seattle, high-tech mecca at the edge of the American continent, has become a place for youthful reinvention. Zoe Scofield and Juniper Shuey are no exception. The married collaborators are here at Bates developing new work, beginning the transition from local celebrities to directors of a contemporary dance company hoping to make the leap to national recognition.
Every reinvention, however, drags along with it the smudged traces of the places and experiences left behind. Perhaps that’s the quandary at the center of “the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t.” Choreographer Scofield has said that the work’s origin lies in her explorations of adolescent group dynamics and the inability of people to think for themselves. How it is, she wondered, that people fall into or push themselves into the roles of leader, follower, outcast?
At just 29, those adolescent miseries are not so far behind her. It’s simplistic to say that the theme of this fierce, abstract multidimensional work is autobiographical, but both Scofield and Shuey have spoken frankly about their rocky personal journeys. Growing up in the small town of Gainesville, Georgia, Zoe Scofield started dancing at age 6, dreaming of wearing a pink tutu just like her big sister’s. At 14, she moved to Boston where she trained at the Walnut Hill School and in the Boston Ballet’s apprenticeship program. That classical training gave her a solid technical foundation – but that same period also left her with a raging substance abuse problem and later, anorexia. At least one teacher suggested the aspiring ballerina drop ballet altogether, noting that she was simply not able to stay in line. Scofield was temperamentally unsuited to be a swan maiden.
Swans, however, are not the only — or even the best – aspiration in a dancing life. She danced in the emotionally loaded modern choreography of Prometheus Dance in Boston, took up ashtanga yoga and performed with experimentalist Bill James in Toronto.
She was living in Seattle, was in recovery, and hadn’t danced for four years when she met Juniper Shuey. Shuey is an installation artist and videographer who had studied theatrical set design at Emerson College and was combining a career in fringe theatrical work and gallery exhibitions. Shuey grew up in Davenport, California and says that he coped with a difficult family situation by creating an inner life out of immersion in science fiction and fantasy. From developing installations he learned to consider what an artist had to do in order to create an environment where people would choose to stay and watch what was happening. In retrospect, that turned out to be a key call to action for a performing artist.
When Shuey first saw Scofield’s nascent choreography he was critical – and unconvinced. He encouraged her to go for broke, to dance like she meant it. Their first artistic collaboration, “I am nothing without you,” premiered in April 2005 and became the foundation stone for their company.
“the devil you know is better than the devil you don’t,” is an evening-length collaboration that premiered at the Portland Institute for Contemporary Art (PICA) in 2007 and then was selected for inclusion in the highly competitive touring program of the New England Foundation for the Arts (NEFA)’s National Dance Project.
In series of episodes divided by blackouts and shifts in musical themes Scofield draws on her ballet training in unexpected ways. The ensemble’s unison work is formally patterned with an almost balletic counterpoint that establishes legible coherence even when the work becomes violent and dark. The choreography riffs on classical classroom ballet exercises, but they’re presented with a kind of implicit challenge: what does all this delicacy buy you? Steps that should be simple and straightforward are twisted intobutoh-like contortions; steps that are hard to do are tossed off with a matter-of-fact attitude.
Shuey, who conceptualized the overall look of the piece, backs the dancing with a video of sooty smoke pouring down, a paradoxical image where weightlessness and intangibility meet the pull of gravity. Jessica Trundy created the stage lighting that acts as a kind of third character in “the devil you know…” determining what is exposed, what is
obscured and what is hidden.
Musical collaborator Morgan Henderson, who has played with a number of Seattle-based bands provides, in the words of Seattle critic Michael van Baker, a
sonic landscape, a collage of instrumental, electronic, and found sound, [that] picks up the theme of repetition, of practice, but it also slaps and stabs the dancers at times.
I have a lot of demons, Zoe Scofield admitted in a wide-ranging podcast interview with Sara Edwards, Communications Director of Seattle presenter On the Boards.
My personal feeling about physical movement, be it dancing or walking or what have you is that I think things get stored in your muscles and in your cells in your body and there’s a physical embodiment of your history… sometimes I feel like some of the best choreography comes from not ‘I’m going to make this gesture,’ ‘I’m going to express this feeling’ but what does my body want to do right now?
Depending on the project, Scofield and Shuey try to mine that cell-deep source for movement on stage, in photographic images and even in a music video Scofield recently choreographed for Dave Matthews in which her Seattle-based dancers accompany the rocker in a fiendish trip to the barber shop. By coincidence or plan, Matthews’ lyrics resonate with Scofield and Shuey’s preoccupations:
Walking along in this haze of confusion
Sometimes I collect, sometimes it takes all of my strength
Just to find enough reason to take the next step, step
But I will, but I will, till I do
I’m gonna drop the devil to his knees
I’m gonna drop the devil to his knees.
C 2008 Debra Cash
Talking (R)Evolution One Artist At A Time: Nora Chipaumire
by Joan Frosch
Historically, “‘Africa’ is an intellectual space that has been constructed in opposition to European civilization, whereby local African discourses have been domesticated under Western epistemological orders.” If indeed Europe, or the West, is the “silent referent” or sovereign subject, against which everything, even dance performance is measured, Nora Chipaumire asks: “What is an African dancing girl to do?” Nora is dancing within and against what she terms the “white frame within which contemporary dance exists /or is at least understood” and the frame quakes and splinters in her power.
Her work Chimurenga, or struggle in her nativeShona, speaks to the post-revolution trauma in Zimbabwe and what it meant to her to have been raised in what she terms the “civilized-apartheid system.” Where a code of silence exists among some Zimbabweans, Nora enters to speak her truth, to give human depth and dimension to oppression and violence, and to examine what it means to have benefited from the deaths of those who fought for freedom before her.
As she moves to heal the inner and outer wounds of her youth and her homeland, the political situation in Zimbabwe has only deteriorated. In response, her artist’s voice has grown louder, more compelling, more urgent—and her dancing fiercer. Nora has become a veritable fortress of contemporary dance as demonstrated by her 2007 Bessie Award “…for a towering, incandescent presence and for raising the bar to celestial heights for her full-tilt performances.” Her towering, incandescent presence simultaneously extends its reach deep into self and well beyond the notion of the isolated solo artist. In fact, her deeply biographical work encompasses a range of people, personalities, layers of politics and histories, and memories, many of which appear to include images of women who have, or could have, shaped her past and/or her present. She also draws deeply upon literature, film, and music of African artists: for example, Va Thomas Mapfumo’s Chimurenga music is a constant source of inspiration.
Nora situates herself squarely within an African contemporary context, and like Ousmane Sembene, she sees Africa at the center, and Europe at the periphery. Nora says: “I agree and I accept, Africa is my center; Zimbabwe is my focus.” Yet gender is critical for her, as well. As an “African female dancing,” she has stated that she is in the production of a personal aesthetic, grounded in the “now” of what it means to be a Zimbabwean woman. Nora states that she is working in a play of “…gender, shadows/light, space, time, force, objects, spirituality, nudity, shaven head, voice, text and the gestures of solo dancing, choreographing identity and agency.”
Chimurenga is a three-part work, and at Bates Nora will perform section two, entitled “Convoys, Curfews and Roadblocks” (2004). She describes the work as follows:
During the height of the revolution the Rhodesian armed forces took to escorting its citizens (white – blacks were not considered citizens) along national highways. Convoys, sometimes two miles – long, became our clock for they came without fail, every morning, noon and evening. We rose with the morning convoy, we knew when to take lunch break with the noon convoy and when to quit working the fields with the evening convoy. In the urban areas, 6am- 6pm curfews were imposed, with blackouts at 6pm to mark the beginning of the curfew. Roadblocks were set up frequently on major roads connecting towns/townships and tribal trust lands or kumusha (rural areas). Of the three, roadblocks were the most nerve wrecking; one’s life was in the hands of the soldiers at any given stop. Chitupas/identity cards had to be on your person at all times. Not having one meant that you could be accused of being a terrorist! (Freedom – fighter to the blacks).
Nora’s Chimurenga provides a window onto critical postcolonial processes of artistic production. She clears space for emergent choreographic practices unencumbered by earlier models, which may not adequately serve urgent political art forms such as hers. Her creative imperative projects, translates, and interprets the often otherwise unimaginable. As such, she is the experimentalist whose “…cognitive purview and social action range over multiple, if not countless, sites and locales” positioning herself as a fully enfranchised agent/expert who not only takes leadership in the discussion of her work, but also stimulates deeper conversations about dance in contemporary global practices. When an artist such as Nora claims such power, contemporary dance benefits substantially, particularly in arenas where voices and histories have been muted or hidden from view.
In addition to the obvious appeal of Nora’s erudition and fearlessness, both onstage and off, I am drawn to her work for a personal resonance, as well. Nora is featured in the documentary which I produced and directed, Movement (R)Evolution Africa: a story of an art form in four acts, which tells the stories of nine powerful continental choreographers. She is the performer/choreographer of my most recent production,nora (commissioned by EMPAC of Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, and directed by Alla Kovgan and David Hinton), a danced exposition her formative years from her birth in Mutare, Zimbabwe 43 years ago until her graduation from law school in 1989, when she began her continuing self-exile in the United States.
Nora is currently developing a dance and music conversation with acclaimed Zimbabwean musicians Thomas Mapfumo & The Blacks Unlimited, entitled lions will roar, swans will fly, angels will wrestle heaven, rains will break: gukurahundi. She is deep in exploration of the creative ground of this most recent collaboration that will unfold during 2008-2009—stay tuned for what is sure to be an extraordinary new phase of her creative story.
Castaldi on Mudimbe in Choreographies, 34.
Chakrabarty, Postcoloniallity,” 1992:2.
Holmes and Marcus, “Refunctioning,” 1044.
Frosch, Movement R(e)Evolution. 2007
Castaldi, Francesca. Choreographies of African Identities: Negritude, Dance and the National Ballet of Senegal. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2006.
Chakrabarty, Dipesh. “Postcoloinality and the Artifice of History: Who Speaks for ‘Indian’ Pasts?,” in Representations, No. 37, Special Issue: Imperial Fantasies and Postcolonial Histories (Winter 1992), pp.1-26.
Frosch, Joan. Movement (R)evolution Africa: a story of an art form in four acts. University of Florida Foundation. Gainesville, Fla., 2007. www.movementrevolutionafrica.com
Holmes, Douglas R. and George E. Marcus. “Refunctioning Ethnography: The Challenge of an Anthropology of the Contemporary,” in Handbook of Qualitative Research, eds. N. Denzin and Y. Lincoln. Thousand Oaks: Sage Publications, 2005.
Talking (R)Evolution One Artist At A Time: Gregory Maqoma
by Joan Frosch
Numbers of international choreographic experimentalists are in development of critical discourses that illuminate their inventive practices. An elite group of those artists bring their critical discourses into deep conversation and negotiation with choreographic exploration: South Africa’s Gregory Maqoma is one such artist. The results are startling.
“Identify a moment that really tickles you—a highlight. If I had to lose everything, I would keep this,” Maqoma advised his repertory class at Bates to choose the conceptual foundation for their work. Rather than “set” the key to creative work, he further advised them to “set it with possibilities” of change, growth, and discovery. “The possibilities are endless,” he then clarifies the point with a sharp upward movement of his shoulder articulating to a hand gesture that, well, seems endless. The 34-year old dancer/choreographer challenges top speed with utter relaxation, and strong directional movement with light and exquisitely changing focus. He embodies a clear knowing, juxtaposed with a sincere and fully committed questioning of self. Freshness and openness to the discovery of a moment unknown and never anticipated proves his deep engagement in creative process and his bold trust of the same. He counseled the students to “…feel the vibration of your own movement.” Contained, precise, purposeful, simultaneously efficient and generous, and often delicious, Maqoma’s movement is lively conversation with himself, his past, his future, and his audience.
Maqoma appears to be a source of soft power: with a delicate change of his focus, the world changes, to a better, more alive place. Indeed, Beautiful Me is part of a trilogy that explores the ultimate beauty of humanity. In this masterful work, Maqoma deploys articulate and fiercely authentic dancing, cultural borrowings and insightful movement quotations, gentle humor and searing wit. The work melts frozen images of “African dance” and points to a new way of being an artist in the world. He muses mid-movement that he “… sells exotic stories to survive.” This “exotic story” poses new questions for the dance burgeoning in the postcolonial moment and new lenses are de rigueur.
“I am constantly expected to conform to stereotypical perceptions of the Western world and of African traditionalists,” Maqoma has commented. Beautiful Me not only unpacks such stereotypes, but offers the alternative views of a fully enfranchised individual actor/dancer who owns and/or appropriates culture as he see fit. He calls the world as he sees it. As if to press the point of believing that “…people of different backgrounds can transcend cultural barriers and create a new and dynamic culture,” Maqoma took the extraordinarily open-minded/hearted step to invite other choreographers to contribute to this truly global work. In Beautiful Me, choreographers Faustin Linyekula, Akram Khan, and Vincent Mantsoe provided stimuli for building movement conversations to stretch boundaries and actively reformulate African identity as a wide open question.
In fact, the work has the feel of Maqoma in dialogue with not only his contributing choreographers, but with his history, the musicians, and the audience. There is a sense that we all count in this conversation/negotiation of self with the world. As Maqoma explores his relationship to the Kathak-inspired dance of Khan, we discover that we are reflecting not only on Maqoma but on cultural expectations as he dances outside the frame of our standard lenses. He quotes Linyekula in word and deed. He inhabits magical moments of Mantsoe. Maqoma cyclonically blurs movement and culture into a new space–a rectangle of white light where he asserts with ease that he is more than we had first understood. He invites the audience to peel off the skins of the stereotypes they hold. Raw, real, yet still playful and engaging, Maqoma propels us further along the interconnected trajectory of the 21st Century. He uncovers, he experiments, he investigates humanity in ways that are now no longer “other” to him—or to us—and… he is beautiful.
Maqoma creates a complex choreographic rendering of postcolonial subjectivity. Beautiful Me is situated in the filigreed interplay of playfulness and gravitas, collaborative music and movement of varied signatures, voices, sounds and presentations, and History/history/his story (including Wole Soyinka’s exploration of the artist in society). Maqoma is at the center of a kaleidoscope, as is each person in the greater scope of humanity. Maqoma shows us that he who negotiates for her/himself a transformation into subject can no longer objectified and becomes a…subject of beauty.
I would argue that Maqoma’s framing of beauty may be particularly notable in response to the prevailing methodological and theoretical lacunae in the study of African performance, where instead of unique and extraordinary subjects people may be viewed as cultural masses, or “herds,” in Linyekula’s term. These undifferentiated groupings can be facilely (mis)categorized and ontologically imprisoned in an web of “African aesthetics.” As Mbembe posits, “To be sure, there is no African identity that could be designated by a single term or that could be named by a single word or subsumed under a single category. African identity does not exist as a substance.”
In one part of the full-length version of Beautiful Me, Maqoma poses questions to the Pope (“Have you seen God?”) and to George Bush (“Why don’t you pull the trigger yourself?”). Well, I have many questions for Maqoma and will start with this one: “Can we still see the beauty when the curtain goes down?”
Mbembe, Achille, 2001: 272.
Pearson Widrig Dance Theatre: Paradise Pond Review
by Karin Levitas
If only dance was given the opportunity to be huge more often. So rarely are choreographers given even close to what is needed to bring the enormity of their vision into reality. It takes, if you will excuse the appropriation, a village. For once, we got it.
Every now and again, there are communal outpourings that bring individuals together in a shared experience that gives rise to a heightened awareness. The Kumbah Mela, a gathering of saints every 12 years in India; a peace march in Washington; Woodstock. For two nights, Sara Pearson and Patrik Widrig orchestrated a dance equivalent on Paradise Pond in Lewiston, Maine as part of the 25th anniversary season of the Bates Dance Festival.
From an inspiration by Festival director Laura Faure, this transformation by Pearson/Widrig is an epic journey. In the beginning, a lone female figure in vivid yellow and red is ferried across the water, away from the audience seated in a stone amphitheater. She is met on the far side by a mob of dancers flinging and rushing as if unleashed for the first time in centuries. Though viewed by the audience from 200 feet away, the energy unleashed by the dancers hits one in the gut like the bass boom from a rock band. When the dancers finally disappear into the dark, the audience is asked to leave the amphitheater and begin its own journey around the pond.
There is no beginning nor end, no right way to take this trip. All around dancers and musicians create a flaming, passionate performing village. One may go slowly for the next forty-five minutes watching dancers on a balcony pour flowers to the ground below; or step away in surprise from underworld specters scrabbling in the dirt under a dark clump of bushes. One might choose to circle the pond twice in the same amount of time, taking in what catches the eye or stops the heart. No one is viewing Paradise Pond in the same way. Such is life.
And such a life Pearson/Widrig have brought forth–clearly with the participation of a very devoted cast. Performers become one with enormous boulders; a grove of trees is the setting for a lovers’ tryst; viewers pass down a darkened path bordered by rows of silent men and women dressed in white, sitting in chairs, repeating an extraordinary/ordinary ritual. And then, gorgeous and terrifying–the ropes: ten dancers swinging, dropping, flying through the air from long ropes hanging fifteen feet from branches in a stand of tall pines.
Everywhere one turns there is a feast: extreme dancing on platforms built into the pond; ghostly silhouettes on a boat hold lanterns while gliding over the lake; a chorus of three women pour water from tubs, recalling figures on a Grecian urn.
On opposite sides of the pond are two shallow reflecting pools. It is as if one has walked through a movie screen and right into the movie–into an endlessly repeating, but slightly varying segment of a movie. In one pool, a man and woman coil and spring. In the other, from behind a stone wall at the back of the pool, a woman’s hands suddenly appear. The expressiveness in this simplest of gestures communicates more than is often seen during an entire evening in the theater.
In a large field an army of children drum and chant, while circling a giant luminous cube. Inside the cube the shadows of two children rise and fall. Just farther on, six dancers behind the plate glass window of a pottery studio, endlessly drape and pose in a disconnected silent unison.
Robert Een’s astonishing score for sixteen vocalists and eight instrumentalists performed live, fills the air—insistent and ecstatic. At one point near the end of the hour, (was this journey really only an hour in length?) the audience turned its collective head to see the musicians so unearthly was the beauty of the sound.
The costumes by Melody Eggen are the colors of fire: reds, yellows and oranges, with some ghostly whites, evocative of both some ancient faraway place, as well as a time that is yet to be. Paradise Pond has elements of a modern-day Babel. But what arises is more like a not-too-distant future–when cultures having borrowed enough from each other have created new ways of speaking. History becomes ritual–both broken and renewed.
It is in the very last image of this extraordinary piece, however, that true transcendence comes. The audience now gathered back at the amphitheater watch as the main corps of dancers throw themselves with the abandon that comes from the most exacting precision, over each other– from one side of the platforms to the very edge of the other, the inky water always just inches away. Then the dancing slows. And what happens is this: From the darkness of the far shore, pieces of fire, of light, rise into the night sky. There is a gasp, a moment of disbelief –- beauty defying gravity — first one, then three, then twenty, then more. The fires float like northern lights—not down to us on earth—but up to heaven. We rise with them, briefly, but still, for once, together, rising up.
© Karin Levitas 2007
Marianela Boán: Citizen of the World
by Suzanne Carbonneau
DanzAbierta, the name of the dance company that Marianela Boán founded in Cuba, is translated as Open Dance. And this title is as concise an artistic manifesto as is conceivable: a proclamation of freedom, honesty, receptivity and curiosity. The idea of openness is, in fact, the key to understanding Boán’s life and career. For while her artistic path seems convoluted in its particulars, in its generality it is strikingly linear—that is, it takes a direct path toward openness, in every sense of that term.
When Boán founded DanzAbierta in 1988, she had already lived around the world as an accidental bystander to a variety of revolutions. She was born in Guatemala to activist parents in exile from Batista’s Cuba, but it was only months before the family was on the move again, fleeing the Guatemalan revolution, first for Mexico and then Cuba. When Castro came to power, Boán’s father joined the regime, founding La Prensa Latina, the government press agency. His duties in explaining Fidel’s revolution to the world took Boán to the United States, where they lived in Washington, DC for two years. Her father next moved the family to Algeria, during the revolution there, so that he could cover Che Guevara’s activities in Africa. It was not until her father was killed in an accident in Algeria when she was 9 years old, that Boán came to settle in Cuba.
The Cuba in which Boán found herself had been transformed utterly by revolution. While the United States blockade of the island nation meant that food and consumer goods were scarce, the government nonetheless committed itself to supporting the arts. At the age of eleven, Boán was a member of the second class to enter Escuela Nacional de Danza, the government-sponsored modern dance school in Havana that had been founded by a group of (mostly) American women who had emigrated there to support Fidel’s revolution and the Cuban experiment. Elfrieda Mahler, who had danced for Alwin Nikolais, and Lorna Burdsall, a disciple of Doris Humphrey, directed the school, which offered a full curriculum of modern and folkloric techniques, composition, painting, music, acrobatics and dance dramaturgy. The story of the school—its ambitions and deprivations—has become familiar to Americans through Boán’s teacher, Alma Guilleropietro, whose Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution, became a bestseller in 2004. In her book, Guillermopietro describes bringing her experience of studying with Martha Graham and Merce Cunningham and of dancing for Twyla Tharp to the Cuban students. While Gulliermipietro lasted at the school for only six months (she and the directors were mutually relieved at her departure), Boán spent six years immersed in the intensive curriculum before graduating at the age of eighteen.
But in the 1970s, Cuba turned inward. The importation of foreign teachers and choreographers ceased and fraternization with foreigners was disallowed. Artists and homosexuals became particular targets of isolation and coercion during Cuba’s Gray Period (1971-1976), in which Cuba modeled itself on Soviet economic and cultural policies. It was into this atmosphere of repression that Boán graduated into the Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna in 1973. Founded in the 1960s by Ramiro Guerra, who had studied with Martha Graham, this was the first modern dance company in Cuban history. Although he is now honored as the Father of Modern Dance in Cuba, Guerra, as a gay man, became a victim of the Stalinism of the Gray Period and was removed from the company. Guerra had been dedicated to the avant-garde, embracing happenings and other experimentation fermenting outside the country, and his detention was a severe blow to the burgeoning modern dance movement in Cuba.
When the Cuban government relaxed its iron fist in the late 1970s, however, opportunity arose for the generation of choreographers produced by the Revolution to find their voices. Vibrations from the outside world once again began to reach Cuban artists, and Boán hungrily devoured information that would open her to other movement languages. When Boán began to choreograph, she was determined to resuscitate Guerra’s legacy of narrative dance conceived from a conceptual stance. Her first group choreography, made in 1980, was decidedly experimental and Guerra embraced Boán as his successor.
While she had spent her childhood traveling the globe, in her Cuban period Boán was intensely focused on life on the island. Her dances took that country as their subject, amalgamating modern dance with folklore and Cuban symbols. Cuba is, of course, one of the most syncretic cultures in the world, the crossroad of Spain, Africa, and the Americas.
Because Cuba had turned inward after the Revolution, however, Boán’s subject became an historically open country that had become solipsistic. But, as an artist, Boán was determined to stay as open to the world as possible. For artistic models, she looked primarily to theater, and she she assimilated the aesthetic discoveries of the “poor theater” of Polish director Jerzy Grotowski, the theater anthropology of Eugenio Barba, the scenic experiments of Tadeusz Kantor, and the biomechanics of Vsevolod Meyerhold. And here she found inspiration for her own unique approach to dance, which she came to call “contaminated.”
Contamination is a term that Boán adopted from composers, who used this idea as an indication of their openness to mingling other styles into their scores. Boán decided that she would do the same in dance, contaminating it with other elements—with folklore, fashion, voice, painting, sports—with anything, that is, that would increase the ability of choreography to radiate outward in reference and meaning. While on the face of it, this bore some resemblance to the dance theater movement gaining steam in Europe, Boán’s sensibility was very different from the expressionism of Pina Bausch and her acolytes. Boán meant to collage elements, rather, into a variety of “expressive channels.” With her theory of contamination, Boán declared herself open—abierta—to anything.
Boán realized that she would need her own laboratory to work out these ideas. While scientific laboratories are designed to minimize contamination, Boán’s aesthetic laboratory was intended to maximize it. In 1988, she made a bold move, leaving the security of the Conjunto Nacional de Danza Moderna to form DanzAbierta. Boán was aided in this work by dancer Gabri Christa, who had studied postmodern dance and contact improvisation in the Netherlands and brought these new dance ideas with her to Boán’s company. (Christa would go on to dance for Bill T. Jones.) Boán threw caution aside and began working in a radical new fashion. She experimented for a year to create her first contaminated work. Without Permission, which received its premiere in December 1988, was aggressive in its attack on censorship and became notorious not only for its challenges to Cuban orthodoxy but also as the first Cuban dance to feature nudity. For the next 16 years, Boán continued to create choreography that confronted a closed society with truth and openness. But in her focus on Cuban society, Boán found her work and person stymied by the insularity of this subject. Forbidden by political decision-makers to travel to countries such as Mexico, Israel
and the United States, Boán found her career regressing and her ability to contaminate her work widely and freely at stake. And while her company was assisted by the government, her open criticism of the regime insured that she never had the level of support that she deserved. While acknowledged by her peers as the foremost contemporary choreographer in Cuba, Boán was hobbled by the unstable working conditions wrought by her unrelenting choreographic dissent.
But most importantly, Boán found that she was no longer interested in making work that was solely focused on Cuba. For twenty years, she had been the implicit leader of choreographic opposition to the regime, and she found herself pigeon-holed by this role. Despite her decades of artmaking devoted to criticizing the Cuban government, Boán came to the reluctant conclusion that the system would never change until larger historical forces came into play. Moreover, as she was creating her last Cuban work in 2001, she realized that the contaminations she needed for this choreography were technological. And, in Cuba, she did not have access to technology nor to the kind of information made possible by technology. Boán recognized that, no matter how open she made herself, as a Cuban, she was under virtual house arrest in not having access to the information that the rest of the world took for granted. Her status as Cuban insider doomed her to outsider status in relation to the wider world, and she knew that this was an intolerable situation for an artist devoted to openness and committed to bringing the world into her work. So, this radical movement artist made her most radical move yet. She decided to leave Cuba. In doing so, she was forced not just to leave but—because of the political situation—to abandon her country.
Leaving her home, her language, her culture, her reputation as an artist, and career security, Boán arrived in the United States with nothing but thirty years experience of choreographic experimentation to her name. And even this reputation would have to be re-built, virtually from scratch, in the United States. But, as Boán says, she has trained for crises her entire life.
She found immediate support at the Bates Dance Festival, where director Laura Faure, who had seen Boán’s choreography in Cuba, gave her residency opportunities. She chose Philadelphia as her base because she found the dedication to research and experimentation among artists there similar to what she had experienced in Havana. And she began to
assimilate what she had left home for: creating art that is contaminated by the present moment in culture.
Boán’s US company, founded in 2005, is titled BoánDanz Action, a conceptual heir to DanzAbierta (which continues to operate in Cuba). In the choreography Boán has made since emigrating to the United States, she has taken as her subject, as she did in Cuba, the society around her. She is not interested in her own dislocation, but as she has always done, offers keen observations that are, all at once, political, social, philosophical and aesthetic. In this position, Boán presents Americans the chance to observe their culture through the fresh viewpoint of an outsider. Boán finds her choreographic reactions to America less specific than her Cuban societal critiques; she is, she says, more interested in being impressionistic—less direct and theatrical, more abstract and physical. She has satisfied those frustrations at not having had technology in Cuba, basing her American-made work around consumer-quality video cameras. And she does this in the smartest way possible—using technology in an effort to capture just who technology has made us.
For Marianela Boán, this latest artistic adventure is just beginning. But as she has always done, Boán brings with her all the courage and daring of a dissident daughter of revolution. As a citizen and an artist, Boán has spent decades fighting attempts—by politics, geography, statecraft, corruption, prudery—to curb her freedom of thought and action, and she continues to do so. In speaking truth to power, Boán reminds us all, no matter where we live, of the importance of such honesty.
For further reading:
Alma Guillermoprieto, Dancing with Cuba: A Memoir of the Revolution. Translated by Esther Allen. Pantheon Books, 2004.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2007
Bridgman Packer Dance – The Metaverses of Bridgman/Packer
by Suzanne Carbonneau
How many goodly creatures are there here!
How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world,
That has such people in’t!
—Shakespeare, The Tempest
Most of us experience daily life as achingly conventional. We eat our cereal, commute to our jobs, watch must-see TV, live the lives that have been served up to us by circumstance. In our imaginations, however, we are so much more, our inner lives filled with drama and incident. How to reconcile these identities?
In his 1991 film Until the End of the World, director Wim Wenders imagined a near-future world in which a technology is developed that can record the brain’s impulses. When Wenders’s characters realize that this gives them waking access to their dreams, they become addicted to watching the playback of their nocturnal visions on hand-held devices. Their dreaming lives, they realize, are infinitely more vivid and fantastical than their waking existences. This addiction proves so compulsive that, in the end, Wenders’s characters completely forsake their real lives for the virtual worlds conjured by their imaginations.
We have, it seems, nearly achieved Wenders’s future. We don’t yet have dream machines, but we have web-worlds like Second Life, whose very name promises re-birth—or at least the chance to have another crack at things. Participants in Second Life (“Your world. Your imagination.”) create avatars who construct a virtual universe where they socialize, communicate, work, own land, create businesses, and otherwise amuse themselves. Second Life now has over eight million avatars, and its marketplace supports transactions valued at millions of (very real) dollars each month. Moreover, Second Life is only one of many thriving virtual communities or “metaverses.”
So, here we are, for the first time in history, no longer defined by our physical and economic endowments, by geography or social circumstance, or by a political system tied to physical location. We have the opportunity to construct lives that, in aligning virtually with our internalized identities, feel more real than reality. We are given the ability to stand outside history and define ourselves. Digital technology has not only freed us to live alternative lives, to conjure alternative identities, to create alternative personas, but it has promised us the possibility of endless multiples of these lives. If each of us can have a second life, why not a third life, or a fourth?
Once assumed to be fixed, the self suddenly has become one of the great construction projects of modern life. In such circumstances, what is reality? Is it the physical world that we have always known, or is it the world that we have constructed in consonance with our self-image—one that reflects back who we feel ourselves to be? We are a people given the chance to do through technology what we have always looked to art to do for us,—that is, to conjure unique worlds. And, indeed, art has been quick to adapt this technology to further the project of presenting other ways of being. Myrna Packer and Art Bridgman are among those artists who are embracing technology in their work precisely to address these questions. Their recent choreography, which integrates live performance and video technology, collapses the virtual and real worlds.
With Bridgman and Packer, there is an added dimension to the question of the real and the virtual. For the simulated images presented are of the choreographers themselves—this couple we have known as a dance duo for almost thirty years. Over that span, they have focused on the duet form to illuminate what it means for one person to link life and art with another, and they have done this in a way that emphasizes physical daring. But in the last four years, working with video artists Peter Bobrow and James Monroe, Bridgman and Packer have expanded their concerns to include video as a technique that extends their physicality even further, into the realm of the virtual. Their trilogy—Seductive Reasoning (2003), Under the Skin (2005), and Memory Bank (2007)—has exponentially enlarged the number of dancers that people their choreography, while actually featuring only Bridgman and Packer. In creating this stage-full of doppelgangers, the choreographers suggest an infinite array of metaverses.
In Seductive Reasoning, for example, we see each of the choreographers dancing with a projection of the other. The metaphors—and questions—multiply as quickly as do the video images. Who is constructing that image of the other—the partner or the partnered? Can we ever truly know another, minus the projections of our hopes and fantasies? And what happens when those images collide with reality? When the video transforms Bridgman and Packer into creatures of fairy tale endowments, we can reflect on dance technique itself as another kind of heroicizing technology. And for a dancer, what does it mean when motion is “improved”—made bigger, faster, longer—by video? Is the stage itself a form of Second Life?
These questions become more urgent in Under the Skin, where the real and projected performers dance side by side and then seem to morph identities before our eyes. Bodies are projected as images, but bodies are also the screens on which these images are projected. Do any of us feel that our identity is simple and unchanging? If not, which of those identities is the true self? Or are there many true selves? In Memory Bank, Bridgman and Packer perform with virtual images of themselves, captured just moments before. Here, we see the transformation of self as happening moment to moment, and we realize that, even as we change, we carry the past with us.
In marrying flesh and image so magically, Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer provide opportunity for us to contemplate our own addiction to dreams. And they bring us to ask: Are we, in our current obsession with creating meta-selves, falling into the solipsism of the imagination that Wim Wenders warned against? Or could it just be that, in freeing ourselves from the inauthenticity of the “real,” we have finally achieved our evolutionary destiny and become our own creators?
For further reading and viewing:
Second Life. http://secondlife.com/
Stephenson, Neal. Snow Crash. Bantam Spectra, 1992.
Until the End of the World (Bis ans Ende der Welt). Directed by Wim Wenders. Written by Michael Almereyda and Peter Carey. Argos Films, 1991.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2007
David Dorfman Dance – Days of Rage, Days of Hope: David Dorfman’s Underground
by Suzanne Carbonneau
In 2003, as bombs were falling on Iraq in the first wave of the American invasion, I remember sitting in a movie theater in Washington, DC, unable to move, awash in tears. It was the conclusion of a screening of The Weather Underground, directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel, and I was paralyzed by a merciless mix of grief, horror, rage, nostalgia and longing. A series of questions, ricocheting between past and present, had me pinned to my seat. What had happened to America, the country we thought had finally begun to live up to its Constitutional promises as a result of the liberation movements of the 1960s and the example of the Vietnam War? Hadn’t we learned our lessons? What could have led us so deeply astray? And what had happened to those young people in the ‘60s and ‘70s who had been driven to a form of madness in their quest to bring about justice? Moreover, just how had a generation that had lived through the tragedy and insanity of Vietnam blundered so amnesiacally into Iraq? And why were we today—hunkered down in a toxic stew of ignorance, ambition, narcissism, and frivolity—ignoring the illegal acts of our government, the blatant lies of our elected officials, the destruction of our civil liberties, and the hijacking of our government by corporate interests and religious fanatics? It was as though we had learned nothing from history, even a history as close to us as that documented in this film.
In speaking recently with choreographer David Dorfman, I discovered that he, too, had been deeply moved upon seeing this film, and that he had also struggled with those questions that had immobilized me. But rousing himself from his anger and sadness on the very same evening he had watched The Weather Underground, Dorfman determined to make those questions raised by the film the subject of his next work. The result is underground, an evening of dance theater that examines political potency and its attendant responsibilities.
The history of modern art is cyclical. And one of the most regularly recurrent of these cycles is the alternation of art-for-art’s-sake with art that takes as its subject—and as its aim—political change. In his 1822 “In Defense of Poetry,” the British Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley called writers “the unacknowledged legislators of the world.” Shelley believed that creative practice and political activism are inextricable, that the best poetry coalesces from engagement with the march of human affairs. And certainly literature is filled with examples of writers—Charles Dickens, George Orwell, Norman Mailer, Gore Vidal, Salman Rushdie, Walter Mosley, Susan Sontag, Wole Soyinka, the list goes on—whose work aims at changing hearts and minds.
But what could dance—too often regarded as escapism—possibly contribute to political change? A lot, it seems. By its very nature, dance is about movement, and thus inherently about change. The Greek kinema, or motion, refers not only to the physical body but also to the body politic. It is no accident that collective political efforts to effect action are known as “movements.” (Nor, alas, that “kinetic” is Pentagon jargon for destructive power.) In the history of modern dance, there is a long tradition of choreographers called, as it were, to arms. Founding mother Isadora Duncan danced the Marseillaise during World War I and performed fiery odes to the Russian Revolution. Martha Graham created anti-fascistic dances during the Spanish Civil War, and a teeming cadre of choreographers in New York in the 1930s and 1940s made art aligned with the politics of the New Masses. In the 1960s, the Judson Dance Theater had People’s Flag Day and Angry Arts Week. And there was an onslaught of choreographic activism in the 1980s in response to the government’s homicidal neglect of AIDS and the sacralization of selfishness under Reaganism.
With underground, Dorfman is on the leading edge of a new cycle of American artistic engagement with the tide of history. After long torpor during the go-go business boom of the Clinton years and an extended post-9/11 paralysis, there is finally arising a resurgence of American artists engaged in political affairs. In leaping into the maelstrom of current events, however, Dorfman looks through the long lens of history, seeing himself—and all of us—as picking up where others left off. Recognizing the Weather Underground as engaged with many of the same problems that plague us today, Dorfman identifies precedent for the complex moral questions that accompany the struggle for justice. In underground, Dorfman draws a direct parallel between contemporary events and those forty years ago: illegal wars fomented by lies, continuous aggression, protest seen as unpatriotic, all underpinned by a mentality of conservatism and fanaticism that justifies these actions. Dorfman was just 13 when Weatherman formed, too young to have thrown himself against the barricades. But today, he asks, how can I live with myself—doing nothing—as immoral actions are committed in my name. Indeed, how can any of us live like this?
In grappling with the questions that Dorfman raises in underground, it is instructive to trace the history of the Weather Underground. For as it evolved as a radical faction of the New Left of the 1960s, this group carried within itself the best and worst traits possible in striving for social and political change. The story actually begins with the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS). Drawing inspiration from the Civil Rights Movement, and particularly its youth arm the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, SDS formed in 1960. Dedicated to ideals of participatory democracy and nonviolent resistance, SDS intended to redress racial injustice and economic inequality. Its manifesto, which came to be known as the Port Huron Statement, was largely written by its field secretary Tom Hayden and formally adopted in 1962. As the 1960s progressed, however, the Vietnam War also came into focus as a pressing injustice. In 1965, as the war dramatically escalated when President Johnson ordered large-scale bombing, the focus of SDS shifted to antiwar action. With the draft as a potent recruiting tool, SDS became the leading peace organization on American college campuses. J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI and its notorious Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO) began to focus on SDS as a national security threat and worked to infiltrate and disrupt the movement. In the spring of 1968 SDS organized the “Days of Resistance.” A million students boycotted classes, resulting in the largest student strike in United States history. At Columbia University, a coalition including SDS shut down the campus, drawing national media attention to the organization and vastly increasing SDS membership.
At the 1969 Chicago SDS national convention, however, the organization disintegrated into factions. A splinter group called Weatherman emerged from the chaos brandishing the SDS name and organizational apparatus. This small but vocal group was ready to eschew the SDS nonviolent philosophy for militant action. Taking its name from Bob Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” lyric (“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”), Weatherman members were frustrated by the seeming impotence of New Left tactics. David Gilbert, a group leader who is now serving a life sentence for a post-Weatherman action, spoke about this disappointment in The Weather Underground: “We petitioned, we demonstrated, we sat in. I was willing to get hit over the head; I did. I was willing to go to prison; I did. To me it was a question of what had to be done to stop the much greater violence that was going on.” As if predicting the turn Weatherman would take, before his assassination, Martin Luther King, Jr. had quoted President Kennedy in warning that “those who make peaceful revolution impossible only make violent revolution inevitable.”
The whole world, it seems, was stirring at this time. Seeking camaraderie with revolutions in Mexico, France, Czechoslovakia, Cuba, Angola, China, Uruguay, and Vietnam, Weatherman proposed dramatic actions targeting the military-industrial complex and internal security. In solidarity with the goals of the Black Panthers and other separatist organizations, Weatherman aimed at organizing white youth to overturn their “skin privilege.” Weatherman leader Bernardine Dohrn advocated immediate commitment: “We must choose sides now,” she insisted. “We must fight on the side of the oppressed or be on the side of the oppressor.”
Weatherman’s strategy was to make the war visible in the United States so that the citizenry could not ignore what the government was doing. “Bring the War Home” was both its tactic and its slogan. In The Weather Underground, Weatherman Naomi Jaffe puts forth the argument that “doing nothing in a period of repressive violence is itself a form of violence.” That is, if you “allow the country that you live in to murder people and to commit genocide…and you don’t do anything about it, that’s violence.” Weatherman’s first concerted action took place in Chicago in October 1969. While the Days of Rage drew only several hundred people, it caused a national stir with its violence and destruction aimed at the property of wealthy Chicago Gold Coasters. In turn, police shot and arrested protesters.
Members of Weatherman (who were beginning to be called the Weathermen) were discouraged by the small turnout for the Days of Rage. But it was the murder just a few weeks later of the brilliant and charismatic community organizer, 21-year-old Black Panther Fred Hampton, by the FBI and Chicago police that really shocked the group. Hampton had worked closely with Weatherman, and it was clear that COINTELPRO were targeting the membership. Bill Ayers, a Weatherman leader, told filmmakers Green and Siegel that the group saw Hampton’s murder as a clear exposure of state power. “This was how America was,” Ayers said. “It was willing to kill…if it felt its power slipping at all. …None of us imagined that we were going to live through it.” In response, the group adopted a new name, Weather Underground Organization (WUO), and the members decided to engage thenceforward only in covert operations.
The Weathermen taught themselves to use bombs and guns, and they began to plan an attack on Fort Dix. In the documentary, member Brian Flanagan reflects back on those times, remarking that the Weathermen wanted “to give the United States and the rest of the world the sense that this country was going to be completely unlivable if the U.S. continued in Viet Nam.” While he now recognizes that, with the decision to meet killing with killing, the group had lost its moral bearings, he explains that “when you feel you have right on your side, you can do some horrific things.” Another WUO leader Mark Rudd, guiltily remarks about his thinking at the time, “We wanted this country to taste a tiny bit of what it had been dishing out. Just like the passive Americans we derided, I acquiesced to this terrible, demented logic. Not only was I willing to take the risks and suffer the consequences, but more importantly, I was overwhelmed by hate. I cherished my hate as a badge of moral superiority.”
The WUO was jarred out of this madness by the deaths of three Weathermen, killed in an explosion in a Greenwich Village safe house where they were building bombs for the Fort Dix action. Shocked into the realization that killing ordinary people was, in fact, terrorism, group members were careful from that moment on never to hurt anyone. Henceforward, their actions were carefully planned, with elaborate checks and balances, to ensure that human life would never be at stake in their bombings. But with pressure on the FBI now coming from as high as the White House to apprehend the Weathermen, the WUO dropped out of site. They were now the Weather Underground.
Throughout 1970 and 1971, the Weather Underground bombed symbolic public sites in response to specific events: they bombed the National Guard Headquarters after the Kent State massacre; bombs were set in San Francisco in response to the killing of George Jackson at San Quentin; the US Capitol was bombed to protest the illegal invasion of Laos; the New York Department of Corrections was bombed after the uprising at Attica State Penitentiary. For a time, the Weather Underground were seen as countercultural heroes, particularly after helping Timothy Leary escape from the California prison where he was serving a ten-year sentence for the possession of a few joints of marijuana. And their outlaw mystique only grew as Nixon widened the Vietnam War and the country grew ever more disenchanted as the body count climbed with no end in sight. Dohrn, who was on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted list, issued a communiqué: “We are not just attacking targets,” she said. “We are bringing a pitiful, helpless giant to its knees.”
The bombings—some thirty in all—continued through 1975, but when the war in Vietnam ended that year, the Weather Underground began to unravel as irrelevant. By the end of the 1970s, almost all the Weather Underground had surfaced. Few went to prison, however, as evidence emerged that the FBI and other government agencies had broken the law in the most shocking and outrageous ways in pursuing Weathermen and other New Leftists.
Today, reflecting back on their actions as members of the Weather Underground, the subjects of Green and Siegel’s film struggle with the morality of their choices. In retrospect, Flanagan clearly understands the dangers of fanaticism: “If you think you have the moral high ground, that’s a very dangerous position and you can do some very dreadful things. You see it with terrorists these days…who can do things that are completely unconscionable. …That is a dangerous ethical position we fell into, brought about by the Vietnam War. The war made us all a little crazy.” Rudd, too, acknowledges that he continues to struggle with guilt and shame, finding it difficult to tease out what was right and wrong. Right, he says, “was our understanding of the United States position in the world.” But, he adds, “we couldn’t handle the knowledge. It was too big—we didn’t know what to do. In a way, I still don’t know what to do. It is still eating away at me, just as it did thirty years ago.”
It is this question—what do you do when murder is done in your name and you feel helpless to stop it—that is at the heart of Dorfman’s Underground. Rudd says that the murder of millions of people was “too great a fact” to live with and do nothing. But if doing nothing implicates you morally, when does doing something begin to do the same? That old conundrum of whether murder can ever be a just act is usually played as a parlor game among philosophers: Would murder be an ethical act if the person murdered had been Hitler? But what if it had been someone who would go on to murder just one person? What about two people? Three people? Where do we draw the line? And what about war? Is there ever a justification for mass murder? What is that justification? And if your country is at war, what is your responsibility as a patriot? As a citizen? As a member of the human family?
But we are all living in a time when this is not a game. In that case, what should we do, Dorfman asks. What will we be? Dorfman presents us with no ready solutions. But in raising the issues, he begins to make us see our responsibility in facing up to these questions. And if we watch the work with open hearts and active consciences, we know that we must be ready to answer. In underground’s central monologue, Dorfman addresses the Weather Underground directly, suggesting that he sees the good in what they did but admitting that he doesn’t know whether he himself could have done it. Though proclaiming himself a pacifist, he avers that nonetheless he admires these activists who resorted to violence. For they made a difference, and that difference still exists. And for all the despair that engulfs us, still, he concludes, he feels a sense of irrational hope.
And, finally, there is this unexpected postscript. In June 2006, David Dorfman’s underground received its world premiere. That same summer, the SDS held a national convention at the University of Chicago, the first such gathering since 1969 when Weatherman was formed. With the history of SDS and Weatherman firmly in mind, the new SDS seeks to re-create the best of its predecessors—re-establishing the participatory democracy of the Port Huron Days, in combination with an expansive vision of liberation dating from the late ‘60s. In just one year, the new SDS has organized hundreds of chapters and now has many thousands of members. It seems, then, just possible that Dorfman’s hope is not irrational after all.
For further viewing:
The Weather Underground. Directed by Sam Green and Bill Siegel. The Free History Project, 2003.
For further reading:
Dan Berger, Chesa Boudin, and Kenyon Farrow, eds. Letters from Young Activists: Today’s Rebels Speak Out. Nation Books/Avalon, 2005.
Bernardine Dohrn, Bill Ayers, and Jeff Jones, eds. Sing a Battle Song: The Revolutionary Poetry, Statements, and Communiqués of the Weather Underground, 1970-1974. Seven Stories Press, 2006.
David Gilbert. Writings from an Anti-Imperialist Political Prisoner. Abraham Guillen Press/Arm the Spirit, 2004.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2007
Robert Moses: Honest Bodies In Untruthful Times
by Michael Seaver
There is a saying ‘ it doesn’t matter who you vote for, the government always gets in.’ It’s an untrusting position with an undertow of powerlessness and cynicism. But it also accepts the adage that power corrupts. Do we really trust our leaders? Do we believe President George W. Bush’s claims that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq? Did we believe ex-President Bill Clinton’s assertion that he didn’t have sexual relations with that woman?
Those recent lies are not just a product of our age of hyper-reality and simulacra, where we accept the unreal as much as the real. They are indicative of the self-delusion that eats at the soul of responsibility. And it has always been so. William Jefferson Clinton’s favorite founding father was Thomas Jefferson, the third president of the United States and principal author of the Declaration of Independence. He claimed slavery was immoral and yet owned 650 of them. In Flawed Founders Stephen E. Ambrose writes that “Jefferson knew slavery was wrong and that he was wrong in profiting from the institution, but apparently could see no way to relinquish it in his lifetime…Of all the contradictions in Jefferson’s contradictory life, none is greater”. But even more hypocritical is his fathering the children of Sally Hemings, a slave who served as Jefferson’s chambermaid.
Robert Moses’ The President’s Daughter finds parallels between this event and the more recent case of the late Strom Thurmond, a segregationist senator from North Carolina, who fathered Essie Washington. She was born to an African American maid, Carrie Butler in 1925 when Butler was 16 and Thurmond was 22. Similar to Sally Hemings, Butler had been a servant in the Thurmond household. Twenty-three years after her birth Thurmond reminded his supporters:
” I wanna tell you, ladies and gentlemen, that there’s not enough troops in the army to force the Southern people to break down segregation and admit the nigra race into our theaters, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches.”
The President’s Daughter isn’t a smug piece of theatrical finger-pointing – indeed both facts have been known for some time now. Moses’ simple presentation of what happened speaks louder because it is us that have to answer the questions. And so, what do we expect of those who govern us? What responsibility do we have to demand integrity? Is it enough to shrug and accept that lies are told?
It was Lord Acton who coined the phrase “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The misdemeanors of Thurmond and Jefferson came from their power over these women. So do our leaders exercise their power in other irresponsible ways? Corruption is the amalgamation of many small lies or compromises that are not seen by the average person. It doesn’t suddenly materialize, but appears over time as power grows, and usually those yielding the power are clever enough to mask it with noble acts and words.
When we, the public, discover the corruption we claim there is a betrayal of trust placed in the hands of leaders, although often we might have suspected or known it has taken place for some time. Rather than let us bask in our self-righteousness, The President’s Daughter challenges this hypocrisy. We all lie. And we all accept lies from other people on a daily basis. This superficial world, where looking good is more important than being good, is full of lies. So how much is too much? And, ultimately, how honest are you?
Of course, theater itself is a great lie, but Cause is probably as close to the truth as you can get. Developed and originally performed in collaboration with Youth Speaks – the San Francisco-based organization promoting oral and written literacy – it is almost the antithesis of The President’s Daughter in its execution, but a kindred spirit in its expressions of frustration around issues of race, gender and violence. Novelist Gabriel Garcia Marquez once said: “I think a writer writes only one book, although that book may appear in several volumes under different titles.” Robert Moses has created an impressive canon of work and some issues may reappear in works and addressed from differing standpoints. This isn’t conceptual laziness but his genuine motivation to constantly engage with hypocrisy and prejudice.
The voice of youth in Cause is replaced by a single repeating refrain – “we regret to inform you …” – in the anti-war Speaking Ill of the Dead, created with David Worm (from Oakland’s vocal ensemble SoVoSó). In Biography, we tune into a 1961 radio discussion with James Baldwin, Lorraine Hansberry, Langston Hughes, Emile Capouya and Alfred Kazin. As with The President’s Daughter, Moses encourages reflection from the audience, not just though the words of the aural intercourse on “The Negro in American Culture”, but through our kinesthetic response to movement and stillness.
It is this kinesthetic empathy that reaches out to us in all his work. When all the texts and costumes are stripped away, it is the primacy of the moving body that contains the essence of Robert Moses’ various acts of creation. And this can be fully indulged in his soliloquy Doscongio. Here we witness the body as primary identifier: evolved, complex, articulate, and truthful. Yes, truthful. Because amidst the spin and lies that surround us in our lives it’s the primacy of the body that retains the greatest truth about who we are. Certainly we can lie through our bodies by changing their exterior, whether by cosmetic surgery or just hair dye. But the moving body contains embodied thoughts and memories that sometimes contradict our lying words. In Doscongio Moses focuses our gaze to just one body and the joyous and self-affirming act of dancing. Buoyed by non-vocal music – Chopin’s Sonata for Cello and Piano – it is the most eloquent response to those who seek to silence voices.
© Michael Seaver 2006
Mark Bamuthi Joseph: A Clear Voice Amidst Lines And Circles
by Michael Seaver
When Michael Collins, an Irish freedom fighter, was negotiating with British representatives Winston Churchill and Lloyd George on the treaty that would end British occupation of Ireland he exclaimed, “How can you argue with someone who needs to draw lines and circles to explain his position?” His point was simple. For him clear verbalizing was the most effective means of communication. Drawing lines and circles interfered with the rhythm of speech and flow of thought. In these negotiations verbally spinning out a formed argument was pitched against a conceptual over-analytical and static communication. For Collins, if you needed to draw lines and circles you didn’t have a clear argument.
It’s this verbal essence that is at the heart of the artistry Marc Bamuthi Joseph. A hip-hop poet and dancer he represents the exact kind of distilled utterances – both verbal and physical – that are eloquently and forcefully expressive. In a work like Word Becomes Flesh, a solo of “performed letters” to his unborn son that documents nine months of pregnancy, there is nothing superfluous. It is lean in its material and succinct in its delivery.
If we accept the view that the colonized are the colonizer’s unconscious then we reach a further similarity between Collins’ complaint about the British and Bamuthi’s cultural examination. In Scourge, Bamuthi, a first-generation Haitian, returns to questions around preservation of his culture and identity within the United States. The relationship between Haiti and the US mightn’t be that of colonized and colonizer, but Bamuthi argues that US behavior towards other smaller nations is similar to that of a colonizer. He claims that while within the United States any examination of other cultures is somewhat of a risk, “In the sense that we are collectively the most aloof and indifferent nation when it comes to other cultures and countries, even those that are in our back yard.” Bringing a work like Scourge into independent theaters forces audiences to reach towards unfamiliar territory. Bamuthi wants to find those places of conceptual and experiential intersection where an audience that knows nothing about Haiti can find themselves in the work, but more importantly, find the work in themselves. The drawn lines and circles could be the semiology of the modern America, the visual chaos at odds with the passionate eloquence of his voice, explaining his position and positioning his explanation as to how he is who he is where he is.
Outside the dance studio Bamuthi witnesses his young son becoming distanced from a culture Bathumi took for granted. For him this raises questions about the legacy of mythology, folklore, food, language, as well as historical factors and cultural realities that he had always taken for granted. When he found he wasn’t equipped with all of the answers his reaction was not only to do the research, but to answer those questions using the traditional methods of communication in Haiti. Poems, songs, hand games, hopscotch games, proverbs are some of the many ways his cultural legacy was passed to him and he has sought to re-imagine these within the context of hip-hop and hip-hop culture, as exemplified in Scourge.
As a child, Bamuthi’s family regularly traveled to Haiti and his affinity with the country was first hand. Not for him the misty-eyed reminiscences of the nostalgic diaspora nor the historic shedding and reinvention that can follow emigration. While his son remained at the core of the questioning that took place during the creation of Scourge, Bamuthi has also looked towards cousins in his family who he sees grow more African-American than Haitian-American. Revisiting and reasserting the ways that effectively taught him about Haiti has equipped him with instruments to educate and also to articulate a legacy and these questions to others. And although Scourge examines Haiti it gives modern audiences a blueprint to (re)construct their culture. We all may want to reconnect with our last name or skin color, but often don’t have the tools to do so.
All of these elements come together as a ritual in Scourge. Bamuthi’s artistic credo is rooted in the facilitation of ritual, not just onstage but throughout the theater. For him audiences aren’t passive witnesses but participants in a collective act. Theater director, Anne Bogart says that to observe is to disturb – as in quantum physics the act of observation alters the thing observed. Similarly for Bamuthi “to observe” is not a passive verb. He doesn’t believe in art for arts sake, but is fascinated with provoking enquiry, and these provoked questions aren’t just an isolated experienced onstage. Scourge sets out to actively include the audience in a collective aesthetic, in what Bamuthi calls “hip-hop as folklore”. It is of the body, built on rhythm and verse, and spoken in language and through the body.
The achievement of Scourge lies in its ability to retain the essence of Bamuthi’s solos, in spite of an increased cast and creative team. The design elements are not drawn lines and circles; they don’t plug gaps in his argument or explain what his voice or movement can’t express. Rather they come from the same voice, a collective choir of voices that coalesce into an essential utterance.
This alchemy cannot be created in the rehearsal studio. It takes the performing in the moment to discover the collective process and tonight’s performance is the third – and according to Bamuthi the strongest – incarnation of Scourge. Created in six cities and three countries, it took twenty months to find its cohesive voice. Blending the elements and letting each voice – design, music, text, movement – speak clearly and cogently has been achieved through performing and tweaking. And this happens on a nightly basis. These performers have known each other and been around each other at seminal moments of each other’s lives and have an ability to improvise not with material but in the space around the spirit of the work. The content is set, so freedom lies in nurturing those special places in the dialectic between the energies and finding that magical place where the emotional resonance between performers and audience hums. In this moment, ritual is happening, questions are being asked, there is provocation there and temperatures are rising and together we take part in a process of collective engagement, investment and transformation.
© Michael Seaver 2006
Jane Comfort’s America
by Suzanne Carbonneau
“Art that cannot shape society and therefore also cannot penetrate the heart…is no art.”
—Joseph Beuys, 1985
When the shamanic artist Joseph Beuys (1921-1986) declared in the 1970s that we are living in a time when performers have become politicians and politicians have become performers, it seemed that Beuys was identifying one of those cyclic moments in history that would soon give way. But here we are, twenty-five years on, and, if anything, the state of affairs Beuys described has deepened. Indeed, the idea that politicians have only slipped further into their actors’ masks was the subject of the late Arthur Miller in On Politics and the Art of Acting, the 30th Annual Jefferson Lecture, which the esteemed playwright delivered shortly after George W. Bush’s 2001 inauguration. (“We are ruled more by the arts of performance, by acting in other words, than anybody wants to think about for very long,” Miller excoriated official Washington.) But just as politicians have adopted the inauthenticity of acting and a grasping for celebrity as substitutes for a genuine commitment to public service, artists of all kinds have stepped into the breach to assume the mantle of community leaders, as activists and social critics.
Choreographer Jane Comfort entered the artworld just as Beuys was making his prescient pronouncement, and her development has been representative of socially conscious artists of the past quarter century. It is generally acknowledged that postmodernism has re-introduced “content” to the work of artists during that time, and certainly the zeitgeist is not to be denied. But the galvanizing force for the radicalization of art was certainly the Reagan Revolution, a phenomenon that dogged Comfort’s first steps as a choreographer. As Reagan’s election in 1980 began the inexorable dismantling of the social safety net that had been a profound force for equity in this country since the 1930s, as it mandated an about-face on the gains for social justice that had been achieved by minority populations, and as it declared a war on culture and art in response to the pluralism of cultural diversity, the radical nature of this political convulsion and its disastrous implications for a compassionate and open society were immediately apparent. Artists did indeed step in and assumed for themselves those roles a “streamlined” government had abrogated: as caretakers and healers of the distressed, the less fortunate, the ill, and the forgotten, and as spokespeople for democratic and pluralistic ideals. In response, artists became outraged and articulate critics of social and political policies that were aggravating inequality. They were also moved to action by the homophobic response to AIDS—it took Reagan seven years to publicly utter the word—an illness that was taking a disproportionate toll on the artistic community.
With her socially conscious artmaking, Jane Comfort has been on the front lines in all of these areas of dissent. In her work, the aptly-named Comfort has given voice and succor to the disaffected and marginalized: to drag queens, the homeless, gays and lesbians, the suppressed, the abused, the afflicted. She has taken to heart the idea that art is a place where we can enter the imaginations of others, and by doing so, develop compassion, empathy, and some degree of understanding for those who are different from us. Even at its wittiest, Comfort’s work is a serious examination of those things that unite us as well as those things that separate us, and how we can reconcile those states of being.
Jane Comfort’s America is a true cross-section of this country. Unlike the fuzzily idealized images of Leave It to Beaver small-town America that dominate our political conventions and discourse, her work is inhabited by an infinitely diverse conglomeration: by Southern good old boys and by transvestite prostitute drug addicts, by superheroes and strippers, by congressmen and DJs, by drag kings and Southern belles, by society decorators and rapists, by hard-charging businessmen and struggling artists, and by people of every color, sexual orientation, and gender. In showing America unvarnished and gloriously mongrel, Comfort wrests from politicians the idea of just what an American—and certainly, what an American hero—is. In viewing those outside the mainstream as individuals rather than as stereotypes, Comfort’s work acknowledges that America’s strength lies in its diversity and that a compassionate view toward those unlike ourselves is the true basis of America’s greatness.
In developing a form to contain these statements about breaching barriers of race, class, gender, and culture, Comfort has developed a new mode of performance whose structure is consonant with this content. Comfort has always been a “low walls” artist, dismissing disciplinary boundaries in form as she crosses cultural borders in her themes. Her work is an amalgam of dance, theater, language, sound, music, visual arts, storytelling, puppetry, gesture, and poetry.
This borderless state began very early in Comfort’s career with her embrace of text. She calls language “the defining thing” in her work, and not only was she using text long before it became commonplace for choreographers to do so, but her sophistication in experimenting with the various ways that textual and gestural forms can intersect has kept her far ahead of the curve. From her initial forays of using language as a “melodic line” in accompaniment to movement, she has moved on to explore classic performance texts in movement terms, to write her own theater pieces, and to collaborate with poets, playwrights, and lyricists. Always, however, language exists in service to the idea of how it is a force for understanding and shaping human consciousness. And in her more recent work, often the language has been reduced to an isolated sound or word, employed as a disruption of silence, to achieve maximum resonance.
Over the last fifteen or so years of dancemaking, Comfort has aimed for the marriage of structure and meaning, and she has created a series of deeply reverberating works of political bite and poetic subtlety. Her breakthrough in extended form came in Deportment, her two-part examination of racial bigotry. A native Tennesseean, Comfort used Deportment: South (1990) to expose the ugliness that lurks just under the surface of Southern politeness and gentility. She credits fellow Southerner Mark Dendy, who performed in this work, with giving her the courage not only to expose this offensiveness but also to view its perpetrators with compassion. It was Mark Russell, then-curator of P.S. 122, who encouraged her to look at the more subtle but equally destructive manifestations of Northern bigotry in Deportment: North (1991), which turned Comfort’s attention to homophobia and misogyny, in addition to race.
Another breakthrough of a different sort came in Comfort’s 1993 Faith Healing, a movement reconception of Tennessee Williams’s Glass Menagerie. In Faith Healing, Comfort created textual movement and gestural language to create a hybrid form of dance theater that was more than the sum of those two elements. While Comfort turned to a classic American drama for the underpinning story, she deconstructed Williams’s plot and dialogue to excavate themes and ideas, such as homoeroticism and the sexual fantasies of person with a disability, that Williams could not make explicit in 1944. In casting Dendy as Williams’s monstre sacre Amanda Wingfield, Comfort also explored in earnest the gender bending that she had begun to examine in Deportment, and that was to become a preoccupation culminating in her next work.
S/he (1995) was an essay in gender behavior that incorporated Comfort’s research into cross-dressing. Comfort developed a drag-king alter-ego, Jack Daniels, “a Charlie Manson wanabee from the trailer park.” In her forays around New York as Daniels, Comfort became acutely aware of differences in male and female movement behavior and their attendant privilege and oppression. The work was also an enraged response to the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings, in which congressmen treated respected legal scholar Hill as an hysterical fantasizer, barraging her with sexist and racist insinuations concerning her dating history, her sexual proclivities, and her psychological stability. Comfort transformed the hearing transcripts into passages for a gospel choir, and added text that highlighted the racial ugliness that drove the hearings. Her next work, Three Bagatelles for the Righteous (1996), was also an angry response to official malfeasance, this time to the havoc wreaked by the 1994 Republican takeover of Congress and the hijacking of the national social agenda by the radical far right in its war on the poor and on artists. As she had with S/he, Comfort had only to let politicians—Newt Gingrich, Robert Dole, Bill Clinton, and Pat Robertson—supply a text that was more satirical than any scriptwriter could have invented.
Comfort’s recent work finds the political in the personal, as it focuses on how social attitudes and conditions create the contexts for our lives. Underground River (1998) is a poetic exploration of the world of the disabled and, by metaphorical implication, of the creative mind. Still, even in its psychological delicacy, it is not so far from the broad lampooning of Three Bagatelles; for in its defense of the special insight achieved by the artist there is an answer to those right-wing politicians who characterize the federal government’s presence in the arts as aid to social parasites. In Comfort’s canon, Persephone (2004), based on the Greek myth, seems even more at odds, on its surface closer in spirit to Martha Graham’s Jungian explorations than to Comfort’s customary socially-activist work. Yet, here again, we see an artist exploring forms and ideas that give resonant voice to our contemporary nightmares. That this involves mining the ancient Western heritage for source material is really no contradiction at all, as what Comfort finds in Persephone’s story is a guidebook for learning to survive profound psychological and social upheaval.
In her activist stance, Comfort conceives of “Art as a Verb” (to use the title of a 1989 show of politically conscious art mounted by the Studio Museum of Harlem). That is, in using every means of communication at her disposal—movement, language, visual elements, and music—Comfort brings authenticity and commitment to her voice of resistance. In engaging on the front lines of the Culture Wars over two decades, she has established her bona fides as cultural worker and cultural warrior. In simultaneously creating work of deeply metaphorical implication that is resonant with layers of meaning, Comfort also establishes her bona fides as a profound artist.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2005
Dialogues in the Flesh: The Choreography of Bebe Miller
by Suzanne Carbonneau
Bebe Miller’s choreography is suffused with mystery, serenely so. In her dances, meaning is a mirage, vanishing just as we begin to grasp it, and then tantalizing us to follow it into the distance where it shimmers and beckons us on. In attempting to come to grips with the most profound questions of existence, Miller reminds us that finding answers is a process rather than an arrival, and that we can never be sure of our journey’s end.
This refusal of platitude marks Miller as an artist who has spent a lifetime immersed in a close examination of the human condition. And in this she is an acute observer. In both her nuanced and detailed choreography and in her own remarkable dancing, there is a state of alertness, the ears pricked up, the antennae out. There she is, watching for those moments of felicity and beauty that can’t be anticipated. There she is, noting those silences and evasions that might slip by unheeded without constant vigilance. She is a seer, in both the literal and figurative senses of that term, an eyewitness as well as a visionary, whose observation bores through the skin to reveal the heart.
Miller proposes the dance space as a metaphorical arena of human interaction. Not for her E.M. Forster’s injunction, “Only connect.” For this choreographer, there is no “only” about it. She recognizes that connection is, in fact, the most formidable act that people are ever called upon to perform. Her choreography resonates with the sublimity of what it means to make contact with others, but simultaneously acknowledges the near-impossibility of achieving it. She understands that human connection is the ultimate Sisyphean challenge, the thing that we spend our whole lives trying fruitlessly but enduringly to perfect. But typically for Miller, who does not shy away from revealing the contrariness of the human heart, the desperation of our hunger to know one another is matched equally by our mortal fear of what it would mean to do so.
Miller’s dances are exemplars of the postmodern condition that presupposes uncertainty. Always, there is the acknowledgment of point-of-view—that your world (composed of the sum of your background and experiences) is not mine. It is from this philosophical stance that Miller issues the most extraordinarily compassionate of challenges: to risk becoming someone else.
Her dances are calls to courage in facing one of the most difficult journeys imaginable: our forays into the territory of the Other, the true heart of darkness. How far can we truly go into the terra incognita of another’s identity? In her artmaking, Miller demands of herself, as does the Nobel Prize-winning novelist Toni Morrison in her essay “Black Matters,” the ability to “imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar,” and in doing so to have “a willingness to project consciously into the danger zones such others may represent….” That is, the artist must not only be willing to look into places that most people recoil from out of fear of otherness, but also to live there. To embrace otherness in such a way that one’s own identity is altered.
But if we exist in different worlds, how are we to know each other? One way, of course, is through our shared sensation of the body. We all know what it means to feel the lungs filling with breath, to be aware of blood coursing through our veins, to know the euphoria of a leap, the pain of endurance. Our shared experiences inside of our skins cannot be denied even by those who would separate us by social and cultural markers. Where other postmodernists have chosen to explore issues of connection and otherness through language and philosophical discourse, Miller has posited the body as an alternative site for productive inquiry, with subtle and perceptive results. Working as she does from a baseline of what unites us, it is all the more manifest when Miller locates just where our differences begin.
While Miller is most often categorized as a postmodern abstractionist, her work is, in fact, deeply political. Miller’s choreography addresses the conditions of a postrevolutionary world: after the initial battles in this country over civil rights, feminism and gay liberation have been fought, what are we left to negotiate in our daily lives? A lot, Miller insists. Over the past twenty years, her dances have chronicled how the personal exists within the political. Indeed, this subtextual theme was made explicit in her 1998 evening-length work, Going to the Wall, whose voiceover text acknowledged that “large places [are] made up of tiny things.” Racism and sexism and homophobia exist not only as inscribed in law and custom, her dances aver, but in the most minute and mundane daily interaction, whether that be a sidelong glance, a change of direction, or a recoil from a touch. How are we, she asks, to inscribe our uniqueness in a world that renders our inherence invisible with alarmingly clumsy and chillingly reductive labels?
Miller’s next work Verge(2000) grew out of her shared process in creating Going to the Wall with her company members and with dramaturg Talvin Wilks. Having worked with these collaborators for two years on a dance that used autobiography and group interaction as the basis for exploring issues of identity, Miller discovered in these working methods a mother lode of material concerning the individual’s relationship to the group, and how culture and custom shape attitudes and belief systems. And it is this process that Miller has continued to mine for insights about the act of touch. Verge is an atlas of the kinetic landscape, where Miller posits the body as the ultimate negotiator of difference. Body against body, skin against skin, the meaning of touch is both intuitive and constructed by culture, and it can magnify or erase issues of difference. “Dialogues in the flesh,” Miller called touch in Going to the Wall. While we tend to think of communication as a verbal enterprise in our culture, in Verge Miller explores how eloquently our bodies converse, as well as how many opportunities touch presents for uncertainty and misunderstanding. But again, Miller refuses to deify hard-won illuminations into definitive answers. In fact, as with all of Miller’s dances, while she exposes the jerry-rigged scaffolding of our belief systems, she will not pretend that she has discovered alternative theologies to placate our desires for certainty.
Verge had originally been called Map of the Body, and in her newest work, Landing/Place, Miller expands her topographical explorations. She is a conquistador in reverse, adventuring not to impose herself on others, but to find herself—in every sense of that term—in unfamiliar places. Working again with dramaturg Talvin Wilks, Miller returns to her concerns with how identity is constructed and how the sense of self shifts as we experience change. What does place have to do with who we are? If place defines us, what happens when we change location? How do we know who we are when we don’t know where we are? To be dislocated is to be out of articulation, and this can happen to the mind and spirit, as well as to the body. In Landing/Place, Miller is interested in charting who we are as we stand on shaky ground, dislodged from our certainties about ourselves and others. To be a seeker, Miller knows, is a condition of permanence. Definitive answers are a sop for those who, exhausted or frightened by the journey, have chosen to cease exploration.
So finally Miller leaves us to chase our hallucinations in the desert. In seeing enigma as a blessing rather than a quandary, however, she acknowledges the realities of being human: how, even as we construct intellectual and moral systems that posit the world in stark divides, it is not that way at all. For Miller understands that while the human heart is unfathomable, it is unapologetically and gloriously so.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2005
For further reading:
Toni Morrison, Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination. Vintage Books, 1993.
Rennie Harris Puremovement Facing Out, Facing In: Facing Mekka
by Suzanne Carbonneau
If art can be salvific, we are desperately in need of it now, and Rennie Harris’s Facing Mekka presents an alternative and compassionate vision for this troubled world.
Concerned that our culture lacks rights of passage, in this work Harris brings us together to experience celebration and mourning, and to provide us the means to heal if we will take it. At a preview showing of Facing Mekka, a viewer told Harris that the dance was actually a prayer, and it is a description that Harris has embraced. With its sense of ritual celebration, meditation, and catharsis the work is indeed incantatory. While hip hop is usually thought of as the most secular of enterprises as it has developed in commercial culture, Harris is interested in the latent spiritual dimensions of this form, which traces its roots to an African lineage that acknowledges movement as a form of spiritual quest. And it is to this idea of hip hop that Harris has devoted his life as an artist.
We are, all of us, global citizens—a fact that before the events of September 11, 2001 seemed to many Americans a more benign fact than it does today. Harris sees other kinds of dangers, however, in withdrawing from our contacts with others, believing that our choice of response should be to cleave more closely together rather than to withdraw in fear and hatred. In Facing Mekka, Harris provides an opportunity to do just this by taking us on a kinesthetic and musical journey through the art of other cultures. For if art is an embodiment of deeply-held values and beliefs, then it represents a particularly opportune way for us to know each other. And with dance, in particular, we are—as the Native American saying goes—walking in others’ shoes, moving like them, feeling quite literally what it is like to be them. It is certainly more difficult to hate and fear those whom we can know in such a profoundly intimate way. Facing Mekka is a work that aims to break down preconceptions and stereotypes about others, and to open up our own hearts to the unfamiliar. Harris points out that when we say that we don’t like someone or something, we are actually saying more about ourselves than about what we say we don’t like. We are, in fact revealing our smallness—the paltriness of our experiences and the puniness of our spirits. The novelist Jeanette Winterson has described art as “aerobic.” By this she means to metaphorically suggest, of course, that art makes our hearts stronger. And with this work, Harris has provided us with art that we can breathe in with great life-sustaining gulps.
Facing Mekka is an epic journey through world cultures, its landscape composed of the movement and music of peoples across the globe. Africa and the Diaspora are much in evidence, but the work also includes rhythms and dances from every inhabited continent. While it is a celebration of the variety of rhythmic expression, it is ultimately an expedition to find the commonalties within that phrasing. This is not an anthropological assemblage but an artistic one. Rather than engage in reconstructive research, Harris made the decision to draw on his own memory and experiences for the movement material in acknowledgement of the way that acculturation actually takes place. While the work is pan-cultural, it is firmly rooted in Harris’s home soil of hip hop. But Harris finds this cultural outreach a natural extension of his lingua franca because he asserts that hip hop, which represents an amalgam of cultural influences, has always represented “common ground.”
Indeed, the esteemed art historian Robert Farris Thompson has established that hip hop represents the confluence of at least five distinct cultures of the Black Atlantic that were vibrant in the South Bronx when hip hop was gestating there in the 1970s: Afro-Barbadian, Afro-Jamaican, Afro-Cuban, Puerto Rican, and North American funk. As b-boying (which became popularly known as break dancing) was emerging on the East Coast, electric boogaloo and popping were coming out of Fresno and Los Angeles. All of these unique diasporan cultures share African retentions that formed the bones of hip hop, just as they have provided the skeletal structures for all previous American vernacular styles. But there are significant influences from other cultures as well. With the popularity of Bruce Lee films in the ‘70s, the precision and dynamic movement of Asian martial arts were also absorbed, as well as, some have suggested, the floorwork of capoeira, the Angolan/Brazilian martial art form. (Capoeiristas were just beginning to make their presence felt in New York.) Harris also says that, while growing up in Philadelphia, he and his friends were consuming old dance films to sample the steps and the styles of Hollywood, which would themselves have been amalgams of everything from tap, ballet, jazz, precision chorus line, acrobatics, “eccentric dancing”—even bharata natyam— and so on. In other words, the inventiveness of hip hop dance, like hip hop music, resides in the way that older, unrelated forms have been sampled, mixed, and altered.
In Facing Mekka Harris has taken a huge creative leap, challenging himself to venture into unfamiliar territory. Harris views his work as a vehicle for exploring the profound questions of life, and his choreography is testimony to that process, charting the struggle and excitement of that journey. In this work, Harris experiments with familiar hip hop vocabulary by extending its usual range. But for Harris, “extending” hip hop means expanding the possibilities for the form to achieve meaning, depth, and significance, rather than to simply increase its physical thrills and acrobatics. For all the visceral excitement inherent in this work, Harris’s interest in aerobics, like Winterson’s, resides in lifting spiritual weights rather than in pumping iron.
The journey in Facing Mekka is a tour of the cultural globe but it is also about the inner landscape. All of Harris’s works have had some element of spiritual autobiography or pilgrimage. Beginning with Endangered Species (1994), the extraordinary solo in which he comes to grips with the life the streets were preparing for him; through Students of the Asphalt Jungle and P-Funk (1995), paeans to the redemptive power of movement and rhythm; to March of the Antmen (1997), a chronicle of a struggle for survival, Harris’s choreography has charted not only where he was but where he has wanted to go. In his previous evening-length work, Rome and Jewels (2000), which was a hip-hop recasting of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, the protagonist found that love provided an opening towards a spiritual journey, but it was a journey that was aborted when Rome found himself unable to escape the parochial claims of a culture steeped in chaos, violence, and machismo. Harris described himself then as standing like Rome, with “one foot in the street, and one foot in the universe.” In Facing Mekka, it seems that Harris has left behind his straddling stance. Having arrived at that place to which these other works have pointed, Harris guides us away from the distractions of the external world to a confrontation with the deeper questions. As a child of the African Diaspora, Harris does this through movement—movement that is polyrhythmic and syncopated, in which the joints are flexed and there is close contact with the floor, in which the voices of the singers and the sounds of the instruments seem to take up residence in the bones of the dancers, in which the torso is positively symphonic in its articulations—all in a community of dancers collaborating in the ritual installation of something unseen but palpable.For those familiar with Harris’s previous work, Facing Mekka presents a radical shift in the gender dynamics of the choreography. Just as he was interested in exploring movement from unfamiliar cultures, Harris has challenged himself to cross the gender divide with the goal of having men and women acknowledge each others’ life experiences. Because hip hop is often suffused with machismo, Harris recognized that in order to truly create community, he would have to consciously undercut that inclination. Where Harris’s previous dances have centered on more aggressive movement styles and masculine tendencies, this work turns its focus toward the women. To achieve this, Harris stretched himself to see outside of his own perspective and to think outside of his own experience as he studied the ways in which the female members of his cast move. He then devised choreography that would support and acknowledge this more subtle and lyrical style. But Harris did not stop there. He also asked the males to move within this same range in order to put them in places they had not been before as dancers. In keeping with the philosophy undergirding the work, however, he also asked the women to learn more traditionally masculine floorwork and to move, at times, with a more forceful and percussive dynamic style.
The work culminates in an extraordinary solo “Lorenzo’s Oil”—Lorenzo is Harris’s given name—in which he experiments with stretching and elongating popping, the style of hip hop dance in which he specializes. In fact, Harris is seeking out connections here between popping and butoh, a post-World War II Japanese contemporary dance form, often featuring bodily distortion and extremely protracted time, that aimed at capturing the spiritual essence of that culture. While these two forms might seem to have little to do with each other at first glance, Harris is interested here, as he is throughout this work, in looking past external differences to find deeper commonalties. Harris talks about popping as a particularly “internal” dance form, and butoh is also concerned with the interior world. Harris acknowledges that popping has been, for him, an arena for working out pain, and butoh has alternatively been called “dance of darkness.” Moreover, both are nuanced forms requiring an exquisite sensitivity to subtleties. (Harris speaks of “being alive to the current of air in the room” as he performs.) The result is that, in eschewing its more spectacular and aggressive aspects, Harris seems to uncover the essence of popping.
In addressing itself to the fractured state of our world, Facing Mekka throws down a gauntlet that challenges us to choose our responses with active and evolved consciences: to develop empathy for each other, to return anger with love, to counter the horrific with the beautiful, to get past fear and embrace other people. In this work, Harris challenges us to look again at how we might see—truly see—other people of the world with compassion and fellowship. In suggesting that we face Mekka, Harris is really asking that we face ourselves.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2004
Sixteen Approaches to Poetry and Poetics:
Tere O’Connor in Conversation
by Suzanne Carbonneau
On choreographic density:
When I began choreographing, I started reading about film, and became interested in its elemental nature as an image against an image. I’m interested in the same thing with dreams. Ostensibly, a dream illogically sets up image against image. But actually, it’s natural in us. It’s how we correct the disparities of the day. You go to bed at the end of the day and you make a theater of the vicinity of images. This same density of information is important to me in my choreography.
People accept that music is abstract, but in dance, people project story onto the human figure. You may be creating a whole abstract network in the choreography, but people get stuck in their ideas about the figure. Let’s detach character from structure. Structure is it’s own thing. In post-Joycean thought, everything is not about a oneness and clarity in some logical way, but there can be a flight of character from actual space to metaphoric space.
On abstraction (redux):
I am ultimately looking for a pure dance concept, with a language that in its abstraction is not anchored to any hidden story. If you look at a Jackson Pollock painting, and you ask yourself what it is, you may find yourself with an answer such as: It is it. The painting expresses him, and then it resonates out against the rest of the world. And people come to it, and at it, and with it, and against it, but there it is.
In Mulholland Drive, director David Lynch lets the film detach from its narrative and it starts to fly into its musicality: here’s what it’s like for these beings to bat against each other without a resolution to the story. You find yourself gripping to hold onto the story—and then, you just detach, you can just let go. It’s the way that people describe going into death: I can let go, I can let go, I can let go.
On structural complexity:
My mind is fractal. People don’t operate in mono-thoughts. Any thought that occurs actually comes embedded in other ancillary thoughts. So, I was never interested in being in an art form where you pull a thought out in its purity. I want to examine a theme with everything that is also flying around it, and I’m interested in finding the music of the relativity of those things.
Dancing gets in the way of a dance. The audience may focus on the movements that relate to familiar or social forms, but that is not where the work actually resides.
On the creation of “meaning”:
What is intrinsic in choreography is that none of its imagery is denotative. So what I’m trying to do is make you keep a lot of balls in the air (in a subtle way, underneath), and to assess, to create hierarchy, to choose what’s important—like you do in your day, or in a conversation. You never know what’s coming next, so you never know how important the last moment you had was. But you still are assessing at all times what is accumulating during the day. In the theater, I’m trying to do an exaggerated version of what it’s like to keep so much aloft in your head.
In my choreography, I’m trying to locate a structure in my DNA, and when I look at the world, I will process it through this map that’s already in me. The music of my choreography is the interplay between all the thematic elements that are present in the work.
I am using this art form for something other than to reiterate pre-existing forms of music. I do, however, refer to the music at moments in my dances. Sometimes, I’m referring to the history of dancing to music; sometimes I’m referring to a dream state; sometimes there are references to film scoring; sometimes the score is atmosphere, sometimes color. I think of music in shifting ways. But I’m not saying, “Oh, Mozart, I love that. Thank god you made that because—now, watch me—I’m going to jump in front of it.”
On structure and feeling:
I’m interested in making the structure of the choreography have the potency of the material in its theme. For example, I might want you, at a structural level, to feel like a jagged soul. So I will not deal it out to you in a calm way.
On structure and narrative:
I want to create a structural runway for the audience to project narrative onto. They are all on one plane, and I am dragging them down the runway somehow with my structure.
Dance is a political way of looking at the world. It reminds me of feminism, it reminds me of holistic health, where you are looking at the well-being of the entire organism. You have to look at it in its entirety, and in its propinquity, and in its relation to the whole universe. It creates a theatricalization of life: radiates it, exaggerates it, makes one notice it.
I really want to make an experience that’s good for the audience because I do think that catharsis is a very valuable aspect of theater, and exorcising fear is something that I’m trying to do.
On intuitive apprehension:
Ultimately, I want to get to an arena of meaning rather than to one specific meaning. To do this, I must divorce the underpinnings of narrative from their specificity. I do this by detaching the audience from reading the imagery and having them just sense the kinetics of the structure.
A couple of years ago, I became re-enamored of the fact that people dance—at all—because in many ways, it’s so extreme. In a world captivated by sound bytes, it is an extreme choice not to use language as your expression. But I’m so glad that I’m in dance.
On being a choreographer:
I have got to do this while I’m on earth. I’m very aware of the work to be done. This is the only choice I have while I’m here.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2003
Doug Varone and the Art of Unsaying
by Suzanne Carbonneau
In his essay, “The Unsayable Said,” the eminent American poet Donald Hall makes the case for poetry as conjuring profound truths that are ultimately nameless. Poetry, Hall asserts, is different from prose precisely in its ability to evoke rather than to pin down, to operate by indirection and association, to layer thought and feeling. Moreover, Hall reminds us, poetry is as much a bodily pleasure as it is an intellectual experience. The way words sound and feel, the inner sensations they trigger as they are formed and vocalized, constitute the alchemy that turns ordinary speech into a communion with the ineffable.
Hall’s insights into the way that poetry operates can be also read as a key to understanding the work of choreographer Doug Varone. Reveling in the indefinable, in the indescribable, in the enigmatic—in that same “unsayable” quality apprehended by Hall—Varone has created a body of work that is regarded as among the most compelling of the contemporary repertory. From his earliest dances (his company was established in 1986) Varone has been interested in discovering a movement parlance that embodies thoughts, ideas, and feelings for which there are no linguistic equivalents. Beginning with Force Majeure (1991), Varone has developed a vocabulary and narrative scheme that allows his choreography to exist almost completely as subtext, excavating layer under layer under layer of meaning, substance, suggestion.
The reductive sureties of science are at odds with the mysterious ambiguities of art. And in some crucial ways, Varone’s goal in engaging in movement research is the exact opposite of those scientists who study movement in order to stipulate precise meanings for body language. Instead, Varone is interested in the ability of movement to convey larger, multiple, more resonant meanings. He is fascinated by the power of movement to embody ambiguities and mysteries, to sustain emotional complexity. When movement is chosen for its poetic qualities, meaning emerges that we understand but have no words for. Varone understands that this is the very reason that dance exists.
Over the course of his career, Varone has developed a movement language that reflects our inner worlds, our most private thoughts and moments. In his vernacular, gesture is amplified, intensified, and magnified. What looks like sign language is actually an invented vocabulary. Minutely detailed gestures seem to take on monumental significance and keen psychological insight. It is almost as though the scale of the gestures is inversely proportionate to their emotional power. In this vocabulary, even the crook of a finger provides insight into character. Varone himself has remarked that he believes that the key to movement is how we are in everyday life. A very subtle shift can be far more interesting than a huge leap. The limbs are propelled by movement that is initiated in the torso—the cradle of the heart—and it is directly from the heart that the movement ultimately seems to emanate.
Often in Varone’s work, there are distortions in quality and timing, suggesting that the nervous system is directly exposed. This invented vocabulary erases all assumptions and preconceptions of what dance should look like; it is as though the emotional aphasia gripping our times has demanded the creation of an entirely new system of communication. His choreography possesses extraordinary psychological acumen, as well as the potential for expressing anomie and heartbreak. The movement can be characterized as divinely awkward, as it often seems deliberately lumpy, tortured, and unrefined, beggaring our understanding of dance as elegant, graceful and lyrical. For example, in his extraordinary solo, on the field of destiny (1993), set to a John Adams score inspired by Walt Whitman’s experiences as a hospital orderly in the Civil War, Varone performs movement that possesses the qualities of coagulated blood. In its defiance of flow, harmony, linearity and articulation, this work is able to show something about the insanity of war as it is experienced by those whom it maims physically and psychologically. It is as acute and compelling an anti-war statement as exists in all of art.
Varone understands the virtues of significant contrast. His work provides us with a spectrum of emotion, experience and movement style, but seems to reside most comfortably at the edges. It alternates among the ecstatic—as it does in the joyful music visualization Rise (1993), the gloss on the lindy hop Let’s Dance (1996), and the giddily love-besotted Bel Canto (1998); the ruminative—in the examination of suppressed passion and uneasy connections in Home (1988), Possession (1994), In Thine Eyes (1996), and As Natural As Breathing (2000); the catastrophic—in the unflinching depiction of ostracism and brutality in Sleeping With Giants (1999), and of racism and abuse in The Bottomland (2002); the tender—in the loving constancy of an attendant for his afflicted charge in Care (1989); and the existential—in the search for meaning and the solace to be found in community in Approaching Something Higher (2001). One of the most fascinating aspects of the work is its sense of scale, veering as it does between the grandiloquent and the delicate. In its title and structure, Aperture (1994) provides insight into Varone’s interest in developing choreographic structures that mimic the abilities of a camera to sharply focus the world in a close-up, or to allow for the broader, more allusive sweep of the wide-angle lens. This theme was revisited in The Bottomland, in which performers danced with gigantic filmed versions of themselves, simultaneously depicting closeness and distance, detail and amplitude. In movement terms, Varone accomplishes this by veering between telling gestures and huge swathes of supercharged motion. He is also able to suggest contrast through the amplification of time, from fiendishly quick movement that tears through space, to sudden, frozen shards.
Varone’s vocabulary is capable of articulating thoughts that we never even knew that we had, but that we recognize immediately as authentic. The power of the work ironically resides in its nonspecificity, allowing, as it does, for complexity and nuance. Varone is interested in the interstices of experience. He recognizes that literal narrative limits what can be expressed to a particular situation or character. Over the years, he has developed a unique form of quasi-narrative, which suggests the fraught situation, but one whose borders and specifics remain enigmatic. Varone is interested in the moments of hesitation, of indecision, of the space in between words and gestures. He limns the infinite gradations of gray, leaving the black-and-white of certitude to those who see human experience in starker terms. The treacherousness of emotional life is his metier, as he delineates how we are—all of us—divided souls. In Varone’s work there is no payoff, no revelation. Ultimately, we must accept ambiguity—as we learn to do in life.
Suzanne Carbonneau 2003
Eiko & Koma:
The Weight of History, The Lightness of the Universe
by Suzanne Carbonneau
“Nature is in our body as we move, breathe and rest. Often our rest separates one day from the next; sometimes we rest between lives.” — Eiko
In Johan Elbers’s unintentionally elegiac photographs of Eiko and Koma, which were taken at a site performance on the World Trade Center landfill in 1980, we see the dancers responding to the colossal mass and verticality of the buildings that loom above them. In acknowledgment of Minoru Yamasaki’s soaring structure, the couple first rise with tensile strength before changing course with swooping arcs that pull them earthward, curving away from the steel leviathans with all the obeisant grace of willows.
From the grief and prostration of our present perspective, it is impossible not to see these photographs as almost unbearably valedictory, nor to suppress the impulse to see the fate of the buildings in the contradictory values—hubris and humility—expressed by the architecture and the dancers, respectively. What is perhaps most extraordinary about these images, however, is that, despite the disparity in scale between the human and the behemoth, Eiko and Koma more than hold their own against what should by rights be an utterly overpowering backdrop. Like those majestic photographs of Isadora Duncan at the Parthenon taken by Edward Steichen in 1920, these images assert the ability of the body to impress itself upon space in a monumental way. Bookending the century, Duncan and Eiko and Koma dance against architectural backgrounds that, despite the weight of history, civic import, mythology, and sheer size, seem incongruously apt as settings for their unadorned movement statements.
If Eiko and Koma’s work is not dwarfed even by the retrospective fact of catastrophe, it may be because their movement style is rooted in a dance form that was developed in response to another incomprehensible tragedy—that is, to the Japanese experience of nuclear holocaust. In the early 1970s, the pair began their movement studies with two of the most profoundly influential theater artists in contemporary Japan, Hijikata Tatsumi and Ono Kazuo, who are credited as the founders of the dance form known as butoh. A development of post-World War II Japan, butoh was a reaction against the war and its aftermath, and a search for what was essentially Japanese in the face of American political and cultural hegemony, as well as a critique of Western reason and codified technique. The grotesque imagery and bodily distortion of butoh were drawn from the outer edges of Japanese history—visions of technological apocalypse mixed with primitive ritual— as well as from a mining of intuition, emotion, dream, and internal imagery for source material. After several years of work with Hijikata and Ono, Eiko and Koma left Japan to study the German Expressionist style (Ausdrucktanz), which also had been influential in the development of butoh. Ausdrucktanz, too, was a reaction to being on the wrong side of history, as it drew much of its horrific imagery from the trench warfare of World War I,linking it with the work of painters Emile Nolde, Ernst Kirchner, and Otto Dix, filmmakers F.W. Murnau, Robert Wiene, and Fritz Lang, and playwright Oskar Kokoschka. After several years in Europe, Eiko and Koma settled permanently in New York in 1976, where they have, over the past quarter century, developed a movement style that, while drawing on all of these influences, is a decidedly singular creation.
While our response to the image of Eiko and Koma dancing at the twin towers has been irrevocably transformed by an accident of history, their ability to bring meaning to this cataclysmic event is inherent in the nature of their work. For it carries with it not just the scope and sweep of what we think of as recorded history, but incredibly, of something even larger: nothing less than all of life moving through all of time. The vastness of such a subject calls for epic means and these artists have perfected a device toward this end: they slow time down to such an extent that it is almost impossible to be aware of its passing. In fact, we seem to be completely outside of measurable time, and make the leap into something more closely approximating geological time. The degree of their sustainment is so virtuosically pushed to the extreme that often they seem to disappear into timelessness altogether.
While they have resided outside of Japan for thirty years, there are aspects of the style of Eiko and Koma that link them to an aesthetic that has its roots in Taoism and its successor Zen Buddhism. One of the central tenets of this philosophy is the idea of the impermanence of life, and of the inevitability of change. The aesthetic implications of this concept are to be found in the idea of passage as being more important—more true to the experience of existence—than attainment. This is manifested in their work in an emphasis on timeless and endless journeying, and on the sense always that their personae are in the act of becoming. It is suggested, too, in the openness and deliberate nonspecificity of their dances, which allow unlimited possibilities for audience members to complete the work in their imaginations, and in this way to become part of its creation. Likewise, the philosophical admonition to seek the true nature of things rather than to rely on outward appearances finds its embodiment in their interest in the essence—what in Zen is often referred to as the such-ness—of natural phenomena. In their dances, which bear titles that resonate as contained, single images, such as Grain (1983), Night Tide (1984), Tree (1988), Rust (1989), Memory (1989), Land (1991), Wind (1993), Distant (1994), Echo (1995), River (1995), Breath (1998), and Snow (1999), Eiko and Koma are concerned with life processes and what is elemental in nature. Their creaturely personae seem to have been present at the creation, and the work strongly connotes that humans are deeply connected with all beings on the evolutionary scale. Contorting themselves in such a way that their bodies often become unrecognizable as human, they can evoke everything from single-celled creatures to evolutionary mistakes, or even disappear completely into the landscape. Always, we are reminded that we are part of nature, that all beings share the mutuality of being subject to natural forces and the life cycle.
While an unhurried conception of time is a trait characteristic of other Japanese theatrical forms such as Noh, bugaku, and kabuki, for example, Eiko and Koma attenuate time so that it becomes another phenomenon altogether, with the potential to actually change the consciousness of the viewer by encouraging a meditative state. This deliberateness gives the work a sense of infinitude, and carries with it a suggestion that a lifetime should be seen in the context of all lifetimes. If time is slowed down enough, change becomes inexorable, even as it is undetectable while it is happening. Other Zen-derived aesthetic principles such as an appreciation for the subdued and austere are to be found in their movement, which is spare, sustained, rooted, elastic, and filled with spaciousness. (Eiko and Koma term this “Delicious Movement.”) In its slowness, each moment is given utter attention, and every action is performed with the utmost luminosity and concentration. In this larger view, there is no differentiation between the more important and less important. Every action is allowed its such-ness, with no distinctions made between a movement and a transition, for example. As the smallest detail is to be approached with mindfulness, attention is not to be maintained but is to be renewed at each moment, and the dynamic of the work resides in the most subtle of changes. And always, simplicity, purity, tranquility, and subtlety are at its heart.
Those 1980 performances of Event:Fission just north of what would become the World Financial Center were not Eiko and Koma’s only relationship with the World Trade Center. In the year just before the attack on the buildings, they had been resident artists on the 92nd floor of the North Tower, where they had painted and constructed the set for When Nights Were Dark (2000). In an eerily precognizant letter to that work’s composer, Joseph Jennings, Eiko wrote about her conception, as though she knew it would be a dance that the world would come to be in need of. “This will be an altar and a hearse,” she envisioned, “where the audience feels invited to pray without a language. We will address death, sleep, awakening, and cycles of life in the glowing light that suggests our destiny and our beginning.” It seems extraordinary now to visualize Eiko and Koma in that space creating a dance that would so compellingly, if unconsciously, address the tragedy that would shortly befall those with whom they went to work every day. But, then again, it was a piece that dealt with themes they had spent the last thirty years giving voice to in one way or another.
It is the metaphorical implications of their entire body of work, in fact, that come to our aid in looking for a response to this latest example of mankind’s extraordinary capacity for inhumanity. As so much of their oeuvre has been concerned with a vision of our lives as interconnected with life throughout the universe, their dances give us comfort in suggesting that this madness and our grief will pass. When viewed from this long perspective, the cataclysmic event seems a moment that will be swept away, an instant from which we will recover and rise from the ashes.
Suzanne Carbonneau, 2002
Tamango/Urban Tap’s Global Vaudville
by Suzanne Carbonneau
As the wider world opened to European exploration in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, travelers brought back with them marvels and oddities from other cultures and landscapes that soon created a kind of collectomania among scholars and nobility. Displaying their treasures in Wunderkammen, or Cabinets of Wonder, they aspired to gather together a conglomeration of objects, specimens, and cultural artifacts that would represent the dazzling diversity of the world. While the logic of these assemblages is impenetrable to us today, there is no question that these collectors were animated by their awe at the seemingly inexhaustible variety of nature and culture.
Our world has shrunk in the half-millennium or so since the heyday of the Wunderkammen. Technology has tamed the vastness of the planet, making its most remote reaches instantly accessible, and damping our ability to experience the frisson of novel experience. It has been nearly a half-century since Marshall McLuhan proclaimed the arrival of the global village, and today the ghostly light of the television screen illuminates even the most isolated villages and remote archipelagos. What possibility is there left for us to marvel at Wunderkammen today?
With his Urban Tap enterprise, Herbin “Tamango” Van Cayseele has come along to revive the notion of the Cabinet of Wonders for a contemporary audience. Tamango understands that the old ideas emphasizing otherness will no longer serve. With his postmodern variety show, we are meant to marvel not at the strangeness of the world’s diversity, but at its commonalties. As an impresario, Tamango collects the rhythms of world cultures and creates a space for them to come together and to pass from person to person. He goes McLuhan one better in understanding that global flow occurs not just through the medium of machines, but through the rhythms and movements of the human body.
Tamango’s interest in world cultures is inherent in his own story, which represents an extraordinary cross-cultural odyssey. Born in Cayenne, French Guiana, he was raised by his grandmother, a vodun practitioner whom he accompanied on her rounds as a healer. Watching these vodun rituals—syncretisations of Yoruban and Roman Catholic practice—Tamango knew himself as neither African nor European, but as heir to both traditions on yet another continent. This knowledge was made flesh in Tamango at the age of eight when he first experienced a possession by his vodun loas (deities who manifest themselves through nature), Exu, the divine messenger, and Shango, the spirit of thunder. Now literally rooted in a deeply spiritual way to his native ground, Tamango was devastated when he was sent shortly thereafter to live with his biological father in Paris. Sundered suddenly from everything and everyone he had known and loved—from the sources of his understanding of life—Tamango was desolate in France, and he began to pour his grief into poetry and drawing.
His salvation came in the form of a neighbor, Michel Van Cayseele, a French baron, who took an interest in the young boy, encouraging his creative endeavors and eventually legally adopting him as Herbin Van Cayseele. He attended art school, but knew he was still looking for something else as yet indefinable. It was his father who directed the twenty-one year-old to what would become his life’s work by encouraging him to study tap dancing with Sarah Petronio, who was known among aficionados for the complexity of her footwork and her dedication to jazz values. Petronio was to be Van Cayseele’s only formal teacher, for, after a year of training with her at the American Center in Paris, he moved on to the university of the streets. Performing as a busker with a group of musicians, Van Cayseele concentrated on the honing of his improvisational skills and the formation of a distinctive style residing outside of the rhythm tap tradition. From Paris, the group moved on to busking throughout Europe before deciding on a whim to head for the United States. In 1988, he and his musician friends, who called themselves The Over Excited, hit the streets of New York, but within six months, the musicians had been dispersed by the mercilessness of that venue. Van Cayseele continued on alone, accompanied by a boom box, performing on the five-a-day circuit of the Staten Island Ferry.
Gradually, Van Cayseele made his way into bars, clubs, and alternative venues on the lower East Side, working with jazz musicians when he could, but also often unaccompanied. At the same time, he was expanding his contacts with other cultures by collaborating with choreographers from France (Philippe Decoufle) and Japan (Min Tanaka), as well as traveling internationally with Cool Heat, Urban Beat, the show he created with hip-hop artist Rennie Harris, and with the Irish step dance extravaganza Riverdance for its 1996-1997 United States-Australian tour. Back in New York he had a regular gig at the club S.O.B. (Sounds of Brazil) that drew on his South American roots. And it was while performing there in 1998 that he had a transformational experience that paralleled that first spiritual awakening in French Guiana. One night onstage he found that his pursuit of the groove was leading him into trance, and in this state, he began to riff verbally. It was, he asserts, a kind of rebirth, and in acknowledgment, Van Cayseele reclaimed his childhood name of Tamango.
The clarity of this spiritual experience energized Tamango as he took the latest incarnation of his show, Urban Tap, to The Kitchen, hallowed ground of New York’s downtown scene, in 1999. It proved a breakthrough for him, garnering press and popular attention as well as a “Bessie” (a New York Dance and Performance Award) for its innovative style. This show and its successor, Caravane, are a summation of all of Tamango’s extraordinarily varied experiences as a citizen of the world, reflecting his transcontinental upbringing and his nomadic artistic wanderings. Its animating spirit is a kind of global vaudeville, as it features turns by performers from around the world, who, on any given night, might include a stilt walker from Côte d’Ivoire, Brazilian capoeiristas, a paralyzed Guinean who dances on his hands, a “human beat box,” American tappers, an Indian singer, hip-hoppers, a one-handed trumpeter from Italy, and assorted musicians from the African diaspora. (Tamango himself plays the didgeridoo, an instrument that he discovered on his Riverdance excursion to Australia.) Unlike traditional vaudeville, however, where the performers vied for favored spots for their separate acts, Tamango’s performances are communal affairs, where he serves as host while the artists trade licks with one another.
In assembling this living Wunderkammen for the twenty-first century, Tamango asserts new principles for adventuring in the world that forswear the rapaciousness and arrogance of those earlier European explorers. He collects not to own but to share, not to dominate but to acculturate. Like the caravan that provides the title for his newest show, these performers are a party of travelers who migrate together, settling momentarily in a myriad number of cultures each night as they take to the stage. An antidote to insularity and intolerance, Urban Tap demonstrates that to share rhythms is to know one another in the most profound way. It is, at once, the most ancient and the most forward-looking of human experiences.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2001
Liz Lerman Dance Exchange and Hallejulah
by Suzanne Carbonneau
Hallelujah! It is a word impossible to exclaim without lifting the breastbone, expanding the chest, stretching the mouth, expelling one’s breath in a burst of excitation. The very utterance of the word, in fact, incites a dance of the internal organs. This physicality of pronunciation demands uplift, ensures an energized delight, begs for more. To sing out praise brings its own rewards.
A Hebrew word, “hallelujah” is variously translated but always implies thanksgiving for light in the midst of darkness. To give praise, then, is to celebrate with mindfulness, in awareness that praise acknowledges why praise is necessary—that is, that our ability to recognize what is laudable sustains us through hardship and desolation. This understanding is at the basis of the three year Hallelujah project of Liz Lerman Dance Exchange, in which the company is conducting workshops resulting in performances at fifteen sites in the United States, from Eastport, Maine to Tuscon, Arizona. At each site, the company explores the community, meeting as many people as possible, unearthing their personal and community histories, and asking them what they are thankful for. At Eastport, for example, it was the town’s fishing industry and the way of life it engendered, which is threatened by ecological disaster; at Tuscon, it was the unrecognized prophets in our midst; at Burlington, the contentions over Vermont civil unions became a focus. Using these stories and the gestures with which they were told as source material, the company then works with the residents to create dances that celebrate their communities.
While the methods for creating the Hallelujahs seem to honor the everyday in a way that seems quite unusual in concert dance, it is business as usual for choreographer Liz Lerman, who has spent her career challenging assumptions about who gets to dance, where it is made and takes place, and what are its fit subjects. Just entering its twenty-fifth year, Liz Lerman Dance Exchange is regarded as a pioneering organization in contemporary community activist dancemaking. Beginning with Woman of the Clear Vision, a 1975 work about her mother’s death which included residents of a senior citizens home as dancers, Lerman has embraced nontraditional performers in her dances, and in so doing, has almost singlehandedly waged ongoing war against ageism in dance.The company created an even more expansive definition of dancing in 1980 with its Fanfare, which was performed by 800 people at the Lincoln Memorial. Beginning in 1983 with her series of “docudances,” works which incorporated spoken text in engaging in political commentary, Lerman declared herself a voice for art addressed at social change. Since then, the Dance Exchange has engaged in a series of projects that involve creating dances that are built around particular—often underserved—communities, based on the textual and gestural materials provided by the inhabitants. Hallelujah is the latest in this series which has been going on for more than a decade.
Tonight’s program includes performances of two of the Hallelujah projects, including one commissioned by the Bates Dance Festival. Created in a concentrated three-week residency with members of Lerman’s Creative Process class, Associate Artistic Director Peter DiMuro’s Text and Movement class, and composer Robert Een’s The Singing Body class, In Praise of the Creative Spirit is unique in the Hallelujahs in that its community is also its audience is also its performers. And in making this dance for and about a community centered in artmaking, the Dance Exchange sought out those moments of joy experienced by Festival participants in their daily quests for artistic expression. What is it, they asked Bates dancers, choreographers, teachers and support staff, that makes your creative life worth celebrating?
If it seems odd that a community engaged at every moment in the business of creativity must actively seek out and create opportunities for praise, consider the rareness of the Bates experience in the life of a dancer. As a three-week moratorium from the pressures of artmaking within the confines of a world directed at commerce, those at the Festival well understand the idea of shuttling back and forth between the sacred and the profane. It is, all too often, the central struggle of their lives. And for this situation, Lerman has found a potent song of praise.
Central to In Praise of the Creative Spirit is “A Crown of Shoes,” a Hasidic story from eighteenth-century Eastern Europe that Lerman first heard from a Rabbi in Los Angeles. It is a tale about a Rebbe dancing so wildly that his shoe flies off and is sent hurtling into the Garden of Eden. There, it comes to earth among many other shoes, which are gathered by angels and given to Gabriel. The Archangel then uses these shoes, flung from the feet of those who dance with ecstatic purity, to make a crown for the Holy One.
For any dancer, this is an extraordinarily resonant metaphor, this idea of dancing so purely that, in making rapturous contact with the earth, you actually attain heaven. It is, in fact, that kind of beatification, that kind of ennoblement, for which a dance artist strives with every step. In creating her own version of this story in which the religious context is stripped away, Lerman honors dancing as a means to a more expansive version of Paradise.
Also on this program is In Praise of Fertile Fields, a Hallelujah story that was developed at a sibling New England dance festival, Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, Massachusetts. Founded by Ted Shawn, a seminal figure in American modern dance, Jacob’s Pillow is the oldest and most comprehensive dance festival in the United States. This work acknowledges the history of the Pillow as the soil in which American dance took root, and blends this material with stories praising the gardeners of the Berkshire mountains who similarly coax beauty and nourishment from the unprepossessingly rocky soil of that region. Encircling these twinned themes is the story of Jacob’s dream, the biblical account that provides the name for the ground on which Ted Shawn and His Men Dancers built their haven for dancing. Genesis 28:10-19 tells of Jacob, who, laying his head on a pillow, falls asleep and dreams of a ladder on which angels travel between heaven and earth, “going up and coming down,” as the Bible has it. In her research materials for the project, Lerman quotes Lawrence Kushner, who, following Rabbinic tradition, suggests that, contrary to our expectations, the angels ascend first because they are actually “ordinary human beings. And like ordinary human beings, they shuttle back and forth,” retaining on earth knowledge of the heavens.
The story of Jacob was also the source for a 1933 work by Shawn, “Jacob’s Ladder” (from his Negro Sprituals I series), whose choreographic notes for the dance (along with bits of other Shawn dances, including Labor Symphony (1934), Olympiad (1937), and Polonaise(1923)) provide text and movement sources for In Praise of Fertile Fields. Other materials from the extensive archives at the Pillow, including journals, photographs, poems, letters, choreographic notes and film clips, were used as background and source information, as were interviews with gardeners who attended workshops hosted by the Berkshire Botanical Gardens. These two strands of materials come together in another of this work’s primary sources, a diary kept by Esther Miller, who was the Pillow’s cook in 1942 and keeper of its kitchen garden. Combining in her person as she does the themes of gardening and of nourishing dancers, Miller (as portrayed by Dance Exchange member Martha Wittman), serves as a kind of unifying presence through the episodic work.
In Praise of Fertile Fields and In Praise of the Creative Spirit are both dances made on ground dedicated to dancemaking and both celebrate that pursuit. Where Fertile Fields looks back to where we have come from and the sometimes stony soil from which creativity has been coaxed, Creative Spirit looks to where dance is now, to where it is going. Both urge us to shout our praise for the power and pleasure of dance, for its potential of creating a kind of heaven on earth. Hallelujah, indeed.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2001
For further reading:
Lawrence Kushner. God Was in This Place and I, i Did Not Know: Finding Self, Spirituality, and Ultimate Meaning. Jewish Lights Publishing, 1994.
Norton Owen. A Certain Place: The Jacob’s Pillow Story. Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival, 1997.
Jane Sherman and Barton Mumaw. Barton Mumaw, Dancer: From Denishawn to Jacob’s Pillow and Beyond. Wesleyan University Press, 2000.
Ronald K. Brown/Evidence:
by Suzanne Carbonneau
As a central fact of the African diasporic experience, migration has asserted itself as a recurrent theme of some of the most compelling art of this century—painter Jacob Lawrence’s The Migration of the American Negro series; novelists Richard Wright’s Native Son and Charles Johnson’s Middle Passage; musicians Bessie Smith’s and Muddy Waters’s blues and Louis Armstrong’s jazz; chanteuse Josephine Baker’s “J’ai deux amours”; and choreographers Joanna Haigood’s Invisible Wings and Savion Glover’s Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk. Whether the passage they were chronicling was that first forced journey from Africa to the New World; the desperate antebellum flight from Southern enslavement to Canadian freedom; the expatriation to Europe in search of a color-blind society; or the abandonment of Delta sharecropping for Northern cities, these artists have understood that various migrations have shaped the African American psyche and culture, as well as the larger history of America.
With his new work, High Life, choreographer Ronald K. Brown joins this distinguished roster of artists in considering the profound effects of a successive series of wanderings on African Americans. While addressing the experience of slavery and the subsequent black flight northward, High Life also expands the conception of black journeying to encompass internal migrations in Africa, as well as transatlantic exchange between Africa and the Americas.
Even as the history of the African slave trade is coming to be understood as a central concept in defining the American character, the story of the twentieth-century African American odyssey is less popularly known. In The Promised Land, his masterful 1991 study of this movement, Nicholas Lemann has called the Great Migration “one of the largest and most rapid mass internal movements of people in history—perhaps the greatest not caused by the immediate threat of execution or starvation.” Beginning around World War I when jobs were suddenly available in Northern factories and stockyards, until around 1970 when populations finally stabilized, six-and-a-half million Southern blacks answered the call of economic and political opportunity. The movement was abetted in its early stages by Northern black leaders crusading to free their Southern brethren in the grip of the quasi-slavery of the sharecropper system and the apartheid of Jim Crow. Lemann points out that the Chicago Defender, then the leading black newspaper in America, spearheaded a crusade in 1917 that unmistakably painted migration in terms of the biblical Exodus. A parallel movement found blacks who stayed in the South relocating from farms to cities.
The largest wave of mass movement, however, came after 1940 when five million people moved North and West, spurred by changes in the sharecropping system brought about by the mechanization of cotton farming and by the national labor shortage created by World War II. While the trip to Chicago, a favored destination for Delta sharecroppers, was only a day’s train journey north, the move called on experience that Richard Wright—himself a refugee from a Mississippi plantation,—asserted did not exist for Southern blacks. “Perhaps never in history,” Wright wrote, “has a more utterly unprepared folk wanted to go to the city.” Certainly it is testament to the unutterably savage cruelty of their Southern condition that blacks were so willing to face the harsh privations they encountered in Northern cities. For African Americans, the Great Migration still reverberates as a mythic tale of travail and fortune.
As Brown so perceptively recognizes in High Life, there is a parallel African story to this mass American movement. Just as black Americans were exchanging a rural existence for an urban one, so Africans were engaged in much the same experience. Over the course of this century, Africa has experienced a dramatic urbanization, as millions of people have left traditional village life in search of the promise of economic, educational, and cultural opportunities offered by modern cities. For example, the population of the metropolitan area of Nigeria’s colonial capital Lagos has swollen to about ten million in recent years.
But there is yet another story of exodus traced by High Life, and that is the Atlantic cross-migrations that have continued steadily since slave times. Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, an ever-increasing number of free Africans made the journey westward, following the trail of abolition from the Caribbean to the United States. But there also has been a concomitant reverse migration since the eighteenth century. Spurred by abolitionists, by the black nationalism of Marcus Garvey, or by their own convictions, thousands upon thousands of black American returnees from the diaspora—most notably, W.E.B. Du Bois who became a Ghanaian citizen at the end of his life—have settled along the West African coast from Monrovia to Lagos.
The opportunities for cultural exchange and transformation offered by the cross-fertilization of these migrations form the core of High Life. The name of the work has a double resonance, referring not only to the glamor that cities represent to rural folk, but also to the African popular music of the 1950s and ‘60s known as highlife. Based on Ghanaian rhythms, highlife also assimilated New World forms whose origins were African: Afro-Cuban styles, black North American vaudeville, and Trinidadian calypso. For Brown, highlife music represents a reversal of the slave voyages of the Middle Passage—a circular path that mirrors his own journeying as an integral member of the Black Atlantic dialogue. Considered one of the most important choreographers of his generation, Brown has traveled and studied extensively in West Africa, consciously blending African traditions with themes and approaches that represent up-to-the-minute American culture. Proving himself a true child of these migratory movements, Brown has forged a unique style that blends African dance, ballet, modern dance, hip hop, club dance, text, and story-telling in work that chronicles the African-American experience.
High Life traces the spiritual, psychological, and cultural effects of migrations by focusing on music as both a through-line of tradition, as well as a forum for responding to environmental change through improvisation. Twentieth-century American music finds its roots in the migration from South to North, where Africanisms were transported from rural to urban America, generating brilliant new musical styles, along with associated dances. While the Blues developed in the Mississippi Delta, it was disseminated by the Great Migration, most notably in Chicago where musicians such as Big Bill Broonzy and Muddy Waters found a wide audience and where the music was eventually electrified. Jazz was a Southern urban style, emerging in New Orleans, but quickly spreading into the North and even to Europe, where it continued to integrate influences from African-American, Latin American, and European art music. Likewise, Southern Gospel music became soul in its Northern incarnation. Rhythm & blues, funk, disco, and hip hop are all variations on traditional music that have developed through the cultural influences encountered through successive migrations.
But there were further migrations as well. The next were technological, as recordings eventually led American music all the way back to West Africa, the place where the journeying had begun centuries before. Critic Wolfgang Bender has examined the way that styles imported from North and South America have “re-Africanized” West African music, its rhythmic elements increased under the tutelage of such diasporic forms as Afro-Cuban percussion, Jamaican reggae, and American soul, funk, and disco. In High Life, Brown traces this cross-pollination through the music of the late Nigerian musician, Fela Anikulapo Kuti (popularly known as Fela), who began his career in the ‘50s as a singer with a highlife band. By the ‘60s Fela had developed his own instantly identifiable sound, which he first called highlife-jazz, and eventually, Afro-Beat. Melding highlife, soul, jazz, and traditional Nigerian music, Fela’s music became internationally recognized for its rhythms, while it inspired Nigerians with its heroic stand against political corruption and injustice. (It is noteworthy that Fela, an ardent Pan-Africanist, delivered his lyrics in pidgin English in order to reach urban audiences throughout Anglophone Africa.) Again, Brown draws circular connections between Africa and the Americas with additional accompaniment by the instrumental ensemble of James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, whose heavily rhythmic, dance-oriented music had been crucial in the development of Fela’s Afro-Beat.
High Life illuminates all of these acculturations resulting from migration. The work is, Brown has noted, “a journey built for the collective with a basic message that while we move forward, we never move forward without carrying our history with us, almost literally on our backs.” This lesson is borne, of course, in hearts and bodies—that is to say, in music and dance. In embracing a notion of tradition that encompasses the experiences of exodus, Brown shows that the wisdom of a people is cumulative, its lessons learned through journeys both laden with sorrow and leavened by hope.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2001
For further reading:
Nicholas Lemann, The Promised Land: The Great Black Migration and How It Changed America. Alfred A. Knopf, 1991.
Kwame Anthony Appiah and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. Africana: The Encyclopedia of the African and African American Experience. Perseus Books Group, 1999.
For further viewing:
The Promised Land, Parts 1-3 (Take Me to Chicago; A Dream Deferred; and Strong Men Keep A-Comin’ On). [VHS] Discovery Productions and BBC TV, 1995.
by Suzanne Carbonneau
David Dorfman is the guy-next-door revolutionary. Underneath his Jimmy Stewart exterior, there’s a rampant subversive streak. While on the surface his work might not look startlingly radical, in fact, on almost every level, Dorfman is challenging business-as-usual in the dance world. Since founding his company, David Dorfman Dance, in 1985, he has blown through modern dance like a bracing gust of wind, sweeping away convention, and bringing with him new ideas about what dancing and dancers can be.
While it is a given in contemporary art that all artists aspire to create something novel and individual, it is rare that they are questioning the very structures and values that shape the art world. True paradigm shifts come about infrequently, but Dorfman’s way of creating dances does indeed confront the most basic of assumptions of theatrical dance: Who gets to dance? Who gets to create art? Why do people engage in these activities? In rethinking these premises, Dorfman has enlarged the sources of the movement vocabulary and expanded the ways that the body is used. Dissenting by example, he also has been as interested in humanistic concerns as he has been in aesthetic values. In working with various partners and communities, Dorfman questions the notion that only a select caste of the anointed can create art.
Dorfman is himself not a danseur noble, that trite ideal of an aristocratic virtuoso, nor does he aspire to be. His entire company, in fact, eschews the cookie-cutter look of the contemporary dancer, brandishing in its place a prosaic demeanor and look that declares their allegiance to matter-of-factness. His company members are not taking on personae but are presenting themselves as themselves, a fact that is most pointed in Gone Right Back (1997), in which they address each other on stage by their real names. Even though they are, in fact, highly trained and extraordinarily disciplined, these dancers consciously cultivate a pedestrian look that rejects glamour and larger-than-life presence. While this is a concept that has been kicking around modern dance at least since Judson choreographer Yvonne Rainer’s famous 1965 “NO Manifesto,” with Dorfman it is not a theoretical trope, but a way of humanizing a discipline that’s been all too sacrificial of its adherents. In insisting on the pleasures of watching seemingly ordinary people dance, Dorfman does much to dispel the notion that there is some kind of ideal, or that there is only one way to look and be.
Dorfman has taken this notion even further in a series of projects made for people with no previous dance experience. In performances made for communities of athletes (Out of Season, 1993), families (Familiar Movements, 1996), and organizations (No Roles Barred, 1999), Dorfman has demonstrated the power of non-technical movement and storytelling to express what is deep and true about the human condition. Here, he is using untrained dancers not as poor substitutes for the real thing, but as people whose life experiences leave them with profound revelations to which dance technique seems only incidental. Unmediated by the seductive surface of slick expertise, their movement is unaffected, honest, and fresh. And there is no denying that these unpretentious dances reach general audiences directly, in a way that more “sophisticated” modern dance just cannot. In describing his Out of Season, Dorfman identifies the project as central to his creative vision, citing its “rawness and inclusiveness” as a “microcosm of my artistic desires.” The community projects forge a notion of performance in which the dancer undergoes a kind of transformation that is just as important as that achieved by the audience. In an art form that so often focuses almost exclusively on aesthetic goals, Dorfman has restored humanistic and therapeutic ideals as intrinsic values. Too, the projects implicitly declare the process of creation equal in value to its product.
But it is not only the authority of the dancer that Dorfman has been willing to jettison, but even the prerogative of the choreographer. Dorfman declares himself “an avid fan of collaboration and collective processes,” and, while maintaining a company that bears his name, he has made a career of cooperative creation. In seeking out group systems of artmaking, Dorfman has shown himself willing to give up the presumption of the authority of the auteur. In addition to the community projects, Dorfman has engaged in collaborations with other choreographers, including Mark Taylor and Stuart Pimsler, as well as ongoing coauthorship of a series of duets with performance artist Dan Froot. Made over the last decade, this Live Sax Acts trilogy (consisting of Horn, 1990; Bull, 1994; and Job, 1996; with a fourth, Shtick or Shtuck, about being stuck in your shtick, to be added next year) is among the most compelling work in the contemporary repertory. Dealing with the relatively neglected issue of how men negotiate their relationships with each other in a culture that provides only the broadest cartoon as a model for their emotional lives, these duets have revitalized the hackneyed idea of the pas de deux.
Dorfman has also aimed at a transformation of the content of dance, opening its parameters to new ways of moving, of combining the arts, and of drawing on sources for movement invention. He has formulated a variety of means for movement and sound to interrelate, with dancers speaking text, musicians moving as dancers, and dancers playing instruments as they move. Dance technique, too, has come into question, as Dorfman has defied traditional dynamic categories in concocting a highly athletic and exuberantly physical, yet gently flowing and gesturally nuanced base of movement. Even the assumption that the main form of support in dance must be the feet is not one that he makes, as he devises dancing that also takes place on the forearms, hands, and shoulders—literally, turning dance upside down. His movement style celebrates the idiosyncratic, but in a gloriously dorky rather than a cynically hip way. The work can be side-splittingly funny—one critic has described it as “goofing around”— but here again Dorfman won’t let us cli8AÄ`8fories. Even 1;Phumorous work has at its heart serious business. The dances that he creates for his own company tend toward abstraction, operating by indirection and evocation. The communal goals of the cooperative projects are also present in this work, but these relationships are presented more obliquely, with issues of community and conflict implied through dynamic and spatial choices, rather than through mimetic or narrative strategies. Such pieces as Sky Down (1996), with its poignant evocations of connection, A Cure for Gravity (1997), which uses the music of Joe Jackson as a springboard for contemplation about aspirations that remove us from the here and now, and Subverse (1999), which deals with the reality underlying appearances, make the case for the ability of abstracted movement to carry vivid depictions of undefined but recognizable experience.
And, finally, what is perhaps the most radical of all Dorfman’s innovations is the very subject of his choreography: the stuff of daily life. For even the lowliest among us, Dorfman recognizes, just being alive is dramatic. Honoring the welter of emotions, choices, and connections that constitute the most seemingly mundane of existences, Dorfman concerns himself with physicalizing the inner life. He reveals his own experiences with a candor that can be startling, and, while it is heartfelt, this intimacy of revelation is thoroughly free of mawkishness or bathos. In refusing to ennoble or aggrandize his life and thoughts, Dorfman creates ground for us to recognize ourselves in these dances. There is, in fact, a quality of uncanny extrasensory surveillance in how closely these works seem to be eavesdropping into our hearts, displaying the id, with all its constant craving and demands, for all to see. This is always done, however, with the utmost compassion in Dorfman’s acknowledgment of how difficult it is to be human, adrift in the world and trying to do good despite our frailties and continual penchant for messing up. The works zing right into the heart of what really matters, compelling a recognition of the commonality of personal experience and the larger issues that reside in daily interactions. Ultimately, Dorfman’s dances reveal that the struggle to be part of our various communities and relationships constitutes the true drama and challenge of our lives.
In having found humane ways to make dances, direct a company, connect with the general populace, and rehabilitate interest in the ordinary, Dorfman has provided a model for the ways that compassion can become embedded in art and artmaking. Giving voice to the poetry of personal life and honoring the gravitas of felt experience, he has made a brief for art as something relevant to all people. While realistic in its recognition of pain and foible, Dorfman’s vision of community is ultimately concerned with transcending these difficulties and finding ways to work together. If art can offer us no more than this, surely that is more than enough.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2000
by Suzanne Carbonneau
From his earliest days as a choreographer, Mark Dendy has addressed the idea of gender and sexual stereotypes in his work. While still a student, he choreographed Wave (1983), in which men wearing lovely white dresses danced with a lyricism that had heretofore been the province of American girlhood. A rebellion against the sexual politics of the traditional modern dance in which he had trained and of which he was an otherwise passionate devotee, the dance did in fact demonstrate that male physique and movement could be stunningly abetted by “female” clothing and movement. To be able to make such a radical transposition appear so natural would be an extraordinary accomplishment for the most experienced of choreographers; for a neophyte, it seemed close to miraculous. Wave was a sensation, drawing attention to Dendy’s prodigious gifts, not only as an inventor of movement, but as someone who had important things to say about the world.
After the transvestism of Wave, Dendy looked at the idea of sexual identity in his work from a perspective of erasing gender distinctions. Choreography from the ‘80s, including Rock (1981), Face (1981), Beat (1985), and Tide (1985) aimed toward a studied neutralizing of gender, as he dressed men and women in the same (often topless) costumes and asked them to perform androgynous, high-intensity movement. More recent works such as Busride to Heaven (1993), Dream Analysis (1998), and Bible Stories (2000) have abandoned gender-blindness and substituted gender-subversion. Calling himself a “gender illusionist,” Dendy has created theatrical portraiture in a variety of venues over the last decade that declare gender to be a costume—something that we can either learn to put on as a disguise, or that we can use to create a more authentic sense of what gender feels like.
Dendy found support for his intuitive understanding of gender as a social construct in his reading of Marjorie Garber’s Vested Interests: Cross-Dressing and Cultural Anxiety, which provocatively begins, “There can be no culture without the transvestite,” and of Mark Thompson’s Gay Spirit: Myth and Meaning, which redefines being gay as a spiritual as well as a sexual condition. Creating drag characters as mouthpieces and models, Dendy turned to female impersonation to make these same claims theatrically. Sandy Sheets, the transvestite televangelist who preaches fire and brimstone against homophobics, is Dendy’s drag-club alter ego. ( In a mirrored hall of impersonations, Dendy, as Sheets, quotes Mae West giving advice to Martha Graham: “I don’t see any reason that men shouldn’t dress up like women. After all, women have been doing it for years.”) He also has portrayed Amanda Wingfield in Faith Healing, Jane Comfort’s acclaimed danced-theater deconstruction of Tennessee Williams’s The Glass Menagerie; Mavis, the alcoholic mother of a lesbian in his own Fire (1993); Pawnie, a drug-addicted transvestite prostitute, and Mee-Maw, a 70-year-old who kills her rapist, both in the performance tour de force Busride to Heaven; and his own Jewish-turned-Protestant-preacher’s-wife grandmother in Bible Stories. But it was with Dream Analysis that Dendy made this concept explicitly autobiographical. Enlisting the spirit of the iconic Martha Graham in mirrored impersonations by himself and Richard Move, Dendy brilliantly charted the struggle to accept himself as gay in a piece of dance-theater that is as allusionistic as it is illusionistic.
Dendy identifies modern dance pioneer Martha Graham as the first drag queen he ever saw, pointing out that the definitive portrait of theatrical life she created in the 1957 documentary film A Dancer’s World begins with the ritual of the makeup table. In significant ways, Graham has been the matriarch and guru whose love he has sought and whose embrace he has fought against throughout his career. Dendy seems not to imitate Graham so much as to channel her. His eerie portrayals of Graham extend from casual conversation (it is difficult to get through a discussion with Dendy without his quoting her—complete with voice and mannerisms) to making her a central character in his dances and other public performances. Recognizing the simultaneous sincerity and studied theatricality of her image, Dendy has revered Graham for her understanding of drama and of the sacredness of performance, as well as for her acknowledgment of theatrical personae as constituting a constructed self. (At the same time, he also acknowledges Graham as a font of much abuse in the dance world. “I’m the type of person who needs to know why someone is mistreating me,” he says in partial explanation of his intensive study of Grahamiana.) Nevertheless, in his observations of the ways that Graham created an exaggerated feminine persona in order to stake her claim as modern dance’s high priestess, Dendy realized that representation could be constructed from inside as well as outside the gender in question.
Gender illusion is part of a larger idea that is present in Dendy’s work: his struggle to accept and love himself as a gay man. As a child in a Christian fundamentalist household in the mountains of North Carolina, Dendy says that he was taught to believe that homosexuality was evil long before he even knew that he was gay. Simultaneously, however, he was also instructed that he should listen for his calling, and that when he received it, he would have found his purpose in life. This calling, of course, was meant to be that of witness to the fundamentalist God, but Dendy confounded these expectations by answering instead the spiritual spark struck in him by art, which he has recognized as his true savior. So, while Dendy has become a missionary with his own pulpit, he is decidedly not preaching the gospel his family intended. Instead, his church is the theater, and the members of his congregation are the victims of homophobia. Dendy declares his higher calling as an artist, testifying that “I feel that I have a mission to empower gay men in America who are the products of a homophobic culture, and to bring straight people into a more loving relationship with their gay brothers and sisters.”
When Dendy was coming of age in the ‘seventies, dance was still largely closeted, but he found that he could go back in history for gay references and role models. It was the great expatriate Russian ballerina Alexandra Danilova who told Dendy to look to the phenomenal dancer and revolutionary choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky as the source of modern dance. In reading about Nijinsky and his lover and mentor Serge Diaghilev, Dendy stumbled upon the world that he had been looking for—a community of gay artists who changed the world through their aesthetic vision. Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes (1909-1929) was the first manifestation of a dance enterprise that consciously situated itself as the avant-garde, producing ballets within the modernist parameters of impressionism, symbolism, cubism, constructivism, futurism, surrealism, and neoclassicism. At a time when homosexuality was still criminalized, Diaghilev was openly gay, and his company was a haven for other gay artists and aesthetes, including Léon Bakst, Maurice Ravel, Jean Cocteau, Francis Poulenc, Anton Dolin, Serge Lifar, Boris Kochno, Igor Markevitch, and Baron Dmitri Gunzburg. Dendy realized that, in conquering the art world, Nijinsky and Diaghilev provided an alternative version to the heterocentric history he had been taught, and along with it, the model to reconstruct his own place in the world.
Not since the late Robert Joffrey has an American choreographer devoted himself so thoroughly to the Diaghilev repertory as has Dendy. Whereas Joffrey presented authentic reconstructions of Diaghilev productions, Dendy has chosen another tack in using the Ballets Russes repertory as a source of inspiration and raw materials for his own postmodern referential re-creations. Dendy has honored Nijinsky as a gay hero, recognizing in his triumphant and tragic story the classic paradigm of the visionary artist/homosexual who is misunderstood by the philistines around him, and is driven to madness as a result. Nijinsky’s autoeroticism in L’Après-Midi d’un Faune (1912), his toying with sexual identity in Jeux (1913), and his deliberate refutation of ballet in Le Sacre du Printemps (1913) branded him a sexual and aesthetic deviant. In what is both tribute and a post-Stonewall opening of historical closet doors, Dendy’s Afternoon of the Faunes (1996) reconceives Nijinsky’s Faune as a lusty and playful duet, dispensing with the nymphs to turn the Faun’s desires toward his own kind. Likewise, in Dream Analysis, Dendy conjures other Nijinsky roles (Le Spectre de la Rose) and ballets (Sacre) to re-create them for a contemporary sensibility that is unfettered by sexual taboos.
Nijinsky’s sister, the choreographer Bronislava Nijinska, has also provided Dendy with fodder for his creative imagination. Nijinska herself was a drag performer: In addition to dancing her brother’s role in Faune after his descent into schizophrenia, she performed other male roles she created for herself, and she also took to wearing tuxedos offstage. As the third in a continuing series of works that he has created for Pacific Northwest Ballet, Dendy chose to make his own version of Les Biches, which Nijinska had originally choreographed for Diaghilev in 1924. Nijinska was just as interested in gender redefinition as her brother had been, and her Les Biches held immediate appeal for Dendy, what with the ambiguous gender of its central characters (the Hostess and the Garçonne), and its portrayal of the first openly homosexual relationship on the concert dance stage. The untranslatable title of the work (called The House Party in English) refers to the Smart Set, those privileged young hedonists who took full advantage of the liberation offered by the Jazz Age. Dendy declares himself fascinated by the libertinism of the ‘twenties, and a very similar orgiastic milieu was the setting for The Wild Party (1999), the musical based on the famous poem by Joseph Moncure March he choreographed at the Manhattan Theater Club.
But there is yet another reason that Dendy is indebted to Diaghilev, for it is the Russian impresario who created the notion of a ballet as a Gesamtkuntswerk (syntheis of the arts). This Wagnerian ideal of the arts as working in unity to create a coherent theatrical expression is also a concept that has motivated Dendy’s creations over the last decade. In incorporating text and acting in his pieces, Dendy has gone Diaghilev one better in creating an integrative movement-based theater with such works as Fire, Busride to Heaven, Dream Analysis and Bible Stories. And even those works that don’t use text, such as I’m Going to My Room to Be Cool Now and I Don’t Want to Be Disturbed (2000), often have an unspoken script underpinning the narrative.
In all of these legacies, Dendy has found himself an heir to dancing made by forebears who courageously put forward more expansive notions of gender and sexuality. Following their example, Dendy seeks to create an enlightened future for dance and for the culture at large by propagating messages of liberation and tolerance in his artmaking. Passing on the lessons learned on the journey to his own hard-won freedom, Dendy sees a life in the theater as one of responsibility to the community—past, present, and future. “The connection to history is what makes you stay with dance,” Dendy passionately declares. “You don’t want to let those people down. You don’t want to abandon the legacy they have entrusted you with.”
© Suzanne Carbonneau 2000
Rennie Harris Puremovment
by Suzanne Carbonneau
In The Omni-Americans, his classic work delineating the Black experience in America, the distinguished novelist and essayist Albert Murray defines art as a stylization of experience that summarizes a community’s sense of life. Every community finds rituals that celebrate its core values and invoke its guiding spirit. But even more than that, Murray adds, art is “a way of sizing up the world, and so, ultimately, and beyond all else, a mode and medium of survival.” In the inhospitable soil of the Diaspora on which they were born, African-American art forms have always aimed at transmitting techniques for coping with a harsh world, and have offered strategies for thriving inside difficulties. Often, they have focused on finding ways to celebrate small victories, and to wrest triumph from the lunar landscape of violence and oppression on which African Americans found themselves stranded.
Hip hop has been widely misunderstood in mainstream America as being merely an exciting form of entertainment that exists to provide visceral thrills. Within its own culture, however, authentic hip hop is recognized as a deeply spiritual practice—one that offers its own survival mechanism in linking its performers to traditional African culture, in providing communion with the ancestors, and, ultimately, in creating a bridge to a spiritual condition. As does the blues in Murray’s analysis, hip hop teaches its practitioners to meet discontinuities with inventiveness. The flexibility of this improvisatory response provides practice in keeping one’s footing in an unstable environment, and in keeping one’s cool amid upheaval. Working in the smallest of spaces with only a piece of cardboard as equipment, b-boys and b-girls have called up out of thin air some of the most witty, virtuosic, and resonant art that exists today. The result is that, along with Murray’s bluesmen, hip hoppers have devised a way of insisting upon a meaningful existence in the face of social conditions that have conspired against them to assert otherwise.
Rennie Harris is a contemporary urban griot who has made hip hop gesture his language of story-telling and conjuring. He formed his company, PureMovement in 1993, as a place where he could explore hip hop without concession to commercial interests. In the name of the company was embedded a philosophy: “Pure” movement refers to Harris’s self-imposed mandate to explore movement that embodies his aesthetic and thematic concerns. It seems also, of course, a reference to Harris’s conviction that dance is not only a physical experience, but one that also embodies a moral universe.
Harris continually reminds his audience that hip hop is an extension of traditional African dance and culture, the latest in the succession of American vernacular forms including the cakewalk, animal dances, the Charleston, the lindy hop, rhythm tap, bop, funk, and disco, that are derived from an African aesthetic. As such, hip hop must be regarded as a spiritual endeavor. In Africa, dance is the medium through which human beings communicate with the gods. Movement is directed earthward, in acknowledgment of the life force that links the spirit world with the world of the living. In fact, it is the dancing body itself that brings the gods to earth through ceremonies of possession. In Western Africa, there is a saying that goes “Without dance, there would be no gods.”
Harris himself claims dance as his “spiritual house, his church.” He recognizes its centrality to spiritual practice. He reminds us that, in its vernacular form, hip hop takes place in the sacred circle of community, affirming the place for each person in the chain of life. Other characteristics of hip hop that link to African cultural traditions offer opportunities for asserting fundamental values. The call-and-response structure of the dancing is the heart of hip hop, affirming the form’s affinity with communality rather than with an individualized ethos. Likewise, improvisation, which is at the heart of hip hop—as it is of all African-derived dance and music forms—by its very nature puts demands on the performer to continually push the self to places that it has never been before. It is the means for journeying toward the sources of creation, exhorting the performer past the physical and toward the spiritual.
Harris’s hip hop specialty is popping, a dance form that he describes as “internal pantomime,” in which the flow of movement is shattered by the illusion of stopped time, as in a series of Edweard Muybridge photographs. When it is done properly, popping transforms dancers who truly believe in the illusions they create, so that they enter a kind of entrancement. This is, of course, a link to the African possession ceremonies, where an alternate world is made real by means of the flesh. Boogaloo, a form of popping, acknowledges this phenomenon in its very name: when you dance a certain way, you are, as Harris has pointed out, entered by the spirit, the Holy Ghost, the Bogeyman. Harris’s interest in popping is of a piece with his absorption with time, a preoccupation evident in all of his work. Clearly, the practice of popping seems to deny that time is the linear and continuous phenomenon that we perceive it to be in our day-to-day experience. As popping breaks time into shards, it reveals physical existence as an illusion and awakens the performer and viewer to another state of perception, a window into an alternate universe. Harris has declared himself to be fascinated by the idea that the passage of time creates a kind of dream-state: that even as we are conscious of the present moment, it is already a memory. In order to capture this sense of time as illusory, Harris employs cinematic techniques such as slow motion, frozen tableaux, and fragmented linearity in his choreography. It seems another link to the African understanding of time which tends toward a more permeable conception of past, present, and future, as the ancestors are regarded as still with the living.
Harris’s most recent project is Rome and Jewels, a hip hop opera, which is the first full-length work of his career. In various incarnations, the project has percolated with him for years. As a kid, Harris was enamored of Jerome Robbin’s film version of West Side Story (1961), which is, of course, an updating of Romeo and Juliet . Even then, it struck Harris that it would be fabulous to bring the gang story to the forefront in a funkier version with hip hop dancers crystallized when Harris saw yet another film, Baz Luhrmann’s futuristic Romeo + Juliet (1996). Harris was intrigued by the way that Luhrmann was able to set the film outside of time. The aesthetic seemed, at once, wholly contemporary in the way that the characters spoke and behaved, yet at the same time suffused with the archaic quality of Shakespeare’s language.
While Shakespeare and hip hop culture might seem odd bedfellows, Harris observes that there are actually strong links between them. Shakespeare was a poet of the people, Harris reminds us, writing for an audience that he characterizes as “the scourge of the earth.” Shakespeare knew that the way to captivate the hoi polloi was through rhyme, and rap employs a similar technique for a similar audience. Both hip hop and Shakespeare, Harris points out, “are about tragedy, love, and death.” And even as Shakespeare was telling stories that would have been topical for his contemporaries, Harris has grafted contemporary social and political issues onto the basic love story.
Rome and Jewels is concerned with love and how that is expressed through violence. Harris’s original plot angle dictates that we see love only through the perspective of the man. In fact, Jewels is not even a physical presence here; Rome “conjures” her. With this device, Harris is invoking another Africanism: conjuring is an invocation of spirit through vodun or other ritual. (In slave times, the church was often called a “conjuring lodge.”) In this story, the magic of the conjure, which is the redemptive power of love, transforms Rome from a hardened and self-absorbed gang member—“on the mack,” in Harris’s words—to a man who recognizes and responds to humanity.
The differences in the gangs are expressed through competing dance styles: the Capulets (aka Caps)are b-boys and b-girls and the Montegues (aka Monster Q’s) are hip hoppers. B-boying and b-girling is often referred to as “break dancing” (a term which Harris considers a misnomer). The style involves acrobatic floorwork done on bodily supports other than the feet, and has been developing in this country since the ‘60s. Hip hop, consisting of stylized social dances, was popular in the ‘80s and ‘90s as rap groups such as Public Enemy, MC Hammer, and Bobby Brown began to tour with backup singers. Harris points out that while hip hoppers are more verbal and political, b-boyers are more dynamic; meshing together in this work, they seem equally matched.
While Harris had originally intended to bypass the text for a fully gestural version of the story, he was intrigued by the possibilities of transcending time that could be achieved by blending Shakespeare’s words with the body language of hip hop. In addition, he was able to bring together two forms of poetry, Elizabethan verse and rap, that have been thought of as antithetical—each paradigms for high and low art, respectively. In fact, Harris is again providing an historical lesson, here elevating our understanding of the sophistication of verbal creativity in African culture. While we think of African music as centered in percussion, dance historian Jacqui Malone has pointed out that the human voice is actually the most common African instrument. In Africa, the voice is used quite differently than in European traditions of bel canto, which value an artificially extended voice. Instead, in Africa, song often consists of speech that is characterized by rapidity, improvisational skill, and virtuosic wordplay—puns, jests, derision, and sheer delight in language that could be compared with Shakespeare’s. This tradition of spoken song was carried into the Diaspora, where, for hundreds of years, various versions of this verbal dexterity have developed among Africans in America—which, in its hip hop manifestation, has emerged as rap.
With this ambitious work, Harris has taken a gigantic stride forward in his choreographic development. He has demonstrated unequivocally that hip hop is profoundly expressive—that it is, in fact, a remarkably eloquent medium for carrying a sustained and complex narrative. Harris has pushed even further at testing the limits of the form, loading the piece with subtext and undercurrent, stretching Shakespeare’s plot with underlying motivations and plot twists to explain the characters’ actions. While using the original story as a guide, Harris has chosen to expand the tale from his own perspective, asking himself what the story, situations, and characters mean to him, an African-American man, at the turn of the millennium. The result is a work that speaks to us with an immediacy that addresses who we are at this time and in this place. In boldly crossing cultural, geographical, and temporal boundaries in creating Rome and Jewels, Harris not only shows us who we are today, he is also able to reveal that our ties with the past are deep and profound—that across time and place, there are human concerns that speak to all of us.
© Suzanne Carbonneau 1999
For further reading:
Lawrence Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought from Slavery to Freedom. Oxford University Press, 1977.
Jacqui Malone, Steppin’ on the Blues: The Visible Rhythms of African American Dance. University of Illinois Press, 1996.
Albert Murray, The Omni-Americans: Black Experience and American Culture. Da Capo, 1970. And The Omni-Americans: New Perspectives on Black Experience and Culture. Outerbridge and Dienstfrey, 1970.
Robert Farris Thompson, Flash of the Spirit: African and Afro-American Art and Philosophy. Random House, 1983.