Saturday, November 21, 2009

Contemplating the Cambodians...

I took part in “By Gesture By Word” – workshops and presentations on Cambodian Dance with members of the Khmer Arts Ensemble, sponsored by Dance Advance. Here are some reflections:

1 Dancing has the power to lift you out of misery. In daily practice Chamreoun Yin worked adjacent to me as we learned the “giant” role, one of the primary archetypes from Cambodian dance. He had never worked on this role before. He first danced classical Cambodian dance thirty years before in a refugee camp, at the time when his entire country had been subjected to extreme violence and destruction. You could see on his face that doing this dancing was a refuge – a space of equanimity, of serenity, of joy. The power of inhabiting these slow-moving, spatially contained and gesturally detailed forms is, by its nature, one of growing more centered and uplifted and connected to the divine.

2 You can see what is in someone’s mind. I was fascinated to read on the faces of Sophiline Cheam Shapiro, her sister Charya Burt and the two younger dancers from Khmer Arts a quality that is transmitted to the collective: each of them projects an image of extreme dignity, restraint, and (what I read as) fundamental goodness. The half-smile seen on the gigantic faces of the Buddhas at Bayon is on their faces. Their eyes are steady, confident, receptive, awake. None of this appears pasted on, but instead seems to emanate from entering a particular a state of mind, a collectively understood experience. This may be engendered through initially assuming the form, but in time it comes to be a much deeper expression, where practicing the dances seems to shift one’s mind.

3 Small can be more powerful than big. As giants we had some large actions – brandishing our swords, declaring an intent to catch our enemy. But we also had many subtle shifts in the torso, ripples moving from the ribcage to head or from the wrist through to the head. This was even more prevalent in the women’s role: certain actions were so small as to be nearly invisible, vibrations almost, like a beat of hummingbirds’ wings. I love this quality of “resting” on one spot as a very tiny movement animates the body and space.

4 There is a space in between holding fast to tradition and throwing away the past to focus solely on the “new.” Many artists are looking for a way to effectively balance respect for and conservation of what has gone before with an openness to new influences and innovations. Questions about how to practice traditional arts in a contemporary way are paramount for many of the traditional artists who took part in this workshop. And for those of us coming out of the experimental wing of our field, the question is how to effectively embrace, build on and bring along the knowledge and strategies of what has gone before.

5 As an older dancer, it’s completely appropriate to be judicious while putting my body in situations that could result in injury. Being somewhat more delicate and more prone to injury than when I was younger, I am “conservative” regarding how I want to use and train my body. This feels completely correct. Stretches designed to actually alter the shape of the body (like ones to create a hyper-extended elbow) felt awful and I chose not to do them.

6 Devotion to lineage is at the heart of Cambodian dance study. My study as a Buddhist emphasizes this as well. I could feel in my fellow participants a kind of settling into the spiritual aspects of this dance practice, with this one idea as an entry-point.

7 Providing simple frameworks for responses to arise can be more effective than more carefully crafted “assignments” or forums. Our group was asked simply to present some of our work and examine how the contact with the Cambodian dancing is relevant to it. The range of responses was stunning, reflecting a deep connection and thoughtful contemplation. I was very impressed with what practicing and hearing about the forms brought to each of us.

8 Cultures that emphasize the individual are more likely to celebrate the lone-wolf auteur. Cultures that prize the life of the group and community are more likely to hold to tradition. “Conservative,” in the sense of preserving what from the past is of value, is not a dirty word. When we abandon conservation because we so prize the innovators, the named artists who are stars rather than the anonymous ones whose work preserves and builds on what has gone before, what have we lost? Is our sense of societal disconnect and tendency toward isolation bound up with this? This question has nagged at me since visiting Bali in '85. On returning to the U.S. I remember writing a grant application complaining of our collective "cultural bankruptcy." That's one application that certainly didn't get funded!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Honoring Mama Kariamu

photo by Joseph V. Labolito/Temple University

How often does a concert end on a note of such unbridled joy that audience members head out into the night singing? Kariamu & Company: Traditions’ concerts at Temple University celebrating 40 years of Umfundalai technique ended in just this way, with a shared ecstasy and sense of affirmation more reminiscent of a community gathering than a concert in a proscenium theater.

Dr. Kariamu Welsh (Mama Kariamu), head of the Dance Department at Temple, makes dances, but I experienced them in this concert more as vessels into which her dancers pour every drop of their passion and personal power. They address tragedies of diaspora and challenges of urban life with humor, urgency, unity and dignity.

Works from across the years were interspersed with moving testimonies by students who became teachers themselves. C. Kemal Nance, Kariamu’s student from the time he was 8 years old, is today a doctoral candidate and a powerhouse mover. Each of the older dancers who demonstrated their moves was a knockout, having applied her teaching over the long haul.

Honoring the life’s work of those who develop techniques, foster the development of dancers, and provide them with fulfilling performing opportunities doesn’t happen nearly enough. Mama Kariamu, whose Umfundalai technique amalgamates aspects of dance languages from all over Africa, richly deserves this tribute.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Lucy Guerin Inc. in "Corridor"

I am hooked on Lucy Guerin’s Corridor. It’s a slow burn; with the company at Bryn Mawr College where I curate the Performing Arts Series, I saw the show five times over the course of two days and will be sustained on it for months.

What is it that’s gotten so under my skin? The dancing is the best I can recall in ages. Like a family of singers with distinct voices but whose DNA makes their tones blend beautifully, most of the three men and three women trained at Australia’s Victorian College of the Arts, which reliably turns out great dancers. They are fleet, flexible, brazen movers who are neither blank nor overly emotive. I could watch them forever.

Corridor’s scenes sweep up and down the expanse of an eighty-foot swath of marley flooring, building a tone at once humorous and terrifying. The show emerges stealthily out of the two parallel rows of audience facing each other as seated dancers answer their cell phones and begin milling about and chatting, some shushed by audience members confused by this hazy beginning. What ensues is a slew of variations on responding to inputs and commands, with seemingly less and less ability to fulfill anything completely. At one point the malaise manifests in a “sickness” duet with actions of retching, flinching, and groaning woven rhythmically into a tour-de-force essay on all-too-familiar suffering.

Sections are handsomely crafted, with any piece of the whole having its own ebb and flow, twists and turns. The sickness duet sputters and restarts and ends, surprisingly, as a quintet with all, doggy-style, looking up to Byron Perry as he segues into a new solo. Still, the whole does not easily cohere, and is no easy-read. As the setting shifts completely in the piece’s last quarter to a dark and ominous world of lab coats and lights from a rolling octopus-like structure trained on intimate encounters, the sense of puzzling out the meaning of the overall picture feels adult– complex and not easily contained.

Mirrored panels onstage and moving light boxes shuttled behind the audience let dancing be seen behind layers of shiny, smoky obscuration. As dancers and panels move up and down the long, narrow playing space each audience member has moments of watching at extremely close range, and other times of seeing as though down a very long hallway, observing different elements stacked.

Guerin’s physical language has absorbed everything from the classical to the released to the studied gesture. The dancers can create flow and connection between their movements but astonish most with intricately spliced action: footwork moves to tiny hand gesture, to big flailing fall, to bounding leap. In the case of Perry, whose marathon solo is framed by checking himself out in the mirrors on either end of the space, this quick cutting reaches a virtuosic zenith.
His utterances are halfway mumbled, or shouted, his focus turns on a dime. He is the modern multi-tasker, the one navigating too many inputs, impulses and possibilities. Life marches on around him in the guise of four dancers shuttling back and forth with technique class skips and leaps, now backward, now arcing. Perry hurls himself through space, as though on a continuously shifting precipice, and the quick change dynamics and broken snippets of commentary make him seem slightly mad.

In fact, they all begin to seem half-mad, part of a world gone crazy. Is it their constricted space? The effort and speed of trying to keep up? The continual inputs from MP3 players, being told what to do by the wielder of the microphone or blaring speakers, the subliminal messaging – all that “stim”?

Corridor is unsettling, not least because it ends on an ambiguous note of violence, with the soundscape mounting into a whirling machine-driven storm. Finally it all cuts out; the plug is pulled. In Thomas Great Hall the vast, dark space where we are left reverberates with afterimages of distress, with no easy fix.

I felt surprisingly tender toward these people portraying contemporary malaise, trying their best, coupling elegantly, fervently or manically, sailing through space with fine-tuned precision or shuttling through phrases of rhythmic non-sequitors: pop, you’re here, oops, sliding off there, and wow what about this thing? Movement mirrors mind. Guerin’s got it nailed.

The love of dance is life-long and getting a fix like Corridor comes not so often. I treasure the intelligence, dedication and gifts that make such moments in the theater possible. The poor artist is rich indeed.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Across the Great Divide

I wish I’d eavesdropped more after the A.W.A.R.D. show finale. Passing a parked van with disappointed dancers returning home (not sure which group they were from), I overheard “All they did was….” And then I filled in the blank to form a picture through their eyes of Nichole Canuso’s winning contact duet. “All they did was” roll around, pull and push each other, find lifts and perches, look out with quizzical perplexity. What they didn’t do was power leaps, or turns, or high legs. Or high drama, or unison, or big full out expression to thumping music.

The A.W.A.R.D. show concluded as it began, with audience and dancers divided into camps depending on personal allegiance and dance orientation. I wish I could say it expanded people’s ideas about what dance is and can be. Having been at just two of the four nights, I can’t fully say. But my impression is that once all the butts were in the seats, this captive audience could have used more skillful ways to get thinking outside their respective boxes. On Wednesday, the lady behind me commented on Gabrielle Revlock’s arch and extremely virtuosic hula hoop marathon: “She’s just hula hooping, that’s not dance.” It seems to me that by pitting different styles against each other and not offering dialogue illuminating what’s there to be appreciated, the audience gets left exactly where it started. The choreographers did speak about their individual aims in the preliminaries. But these kinds of descriptions are frequently far removed from what’s actually onstage and don’t necessarily help a watcher know how to “read” a dance.

On TV, talent contests involve judges talking about why what they see is or isn’t strong. And that helps a viewer understand what to look for. Here the judges voted behind closed doors and were all of one stripe – NY “downtown.” Bigwigs, sure. But were they capable of fairly judging “show” dance or contemporary tap?

I was distressed that a process that was supposed to uncover the best young choreographers in Philly ended up with a finale that from a choreographic point of view was exceedingly weak. As a Philadelphia-based dance artist, I was embarrassed that our community should be represented by work that seemed so unworldly – caught in a time warp, and, at its worst, unschooled in effective composition.

Maybe I’m wrong in thinking that I appreciate dance that’s well done, no matter the style. Maybe dance has its inflexible territorial equivalent of red states and blue states, evangelical right versus liberal left. Would it help to agree on substantive criteria that would allow us to “fairly” assess merits across wide gulfs? Potential, Originality, Execution and Merit, the rubric suggested at the A.W.A.R.D. show, seems insufficient. Would rolling up the sleeves to look more deeply just drive audience away? It’s a delicate, ahem, dance. And how much of looking is going to be subjective and alchemical no matter what?

If the aims of the A.W.A.R.D. show are to develop an audience for dance, the most helpful gesture in that direction came from Lois Welk, head of DanceUSA/Philadelphia who offered to pay for the ticket of anyone in the finale audience who goes to see a dance group they haven’t seen before within the next 30 days. Now that’s a tantalizing goad to seeing, and hopefully appreciating, more dance!

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Defining Dance: A Letter to the Broad Street Review

To the Editor:
Jim Rutter’s critique of “more.” in the Broad Street Review (“Is it Art- or Just Movement?”) evokes the tired question “Is it dance?”. Whatever Rutter’s response to Headlong Dance Theater’s newest work, I suggest that he and every critic in Philadelphia catch up to what was a groundbreaking revelation in the 1960’s at New York’s Judson Church: Dance can be all-encompassing and does not need to be fashioned of traditionally virtuosic movement. Pieces that forever changed the field include Trisha Brown’s “Man Walking Down the Side of Building” which was, literally, that, or “Roof Piece” in which semaphore-like gestures were passed, as in the game ‘telephone,’ over the rooftops of then-developing Soho. Neither of these might have been recognizable as “dance” in their day, but both have come to be seen unequivocally as dance, and as representing the commendable artistic adventurousness of an era. Must we keep going backward? Critics are responsible for speaking from a context of knowing their field, and their field of today, not that of a half-century back.
Lisa Kraus

Friday, September 11, 2009

Notes on Headlong Dance Theater’s "more."

September 2009 in the Philadelphia Live Arts Festival

Usually on first viewing I form a composite sense of a dance’s elements in the same way that we all perceive movement while watching films - our brains link what are actually still shots. "more." initially defies this kind of synthesis. Its nature is of fracturing and fragmentation. Its six dancers do not interact so much as co-exist, demonstrating, at times for each other, at times for the space itself, their personal movement statement of the moment, then settling back into a generalized passivity – a state of waiting, watching, slightly irritated togetherness. All acts dissipate like waves in an ocean.

"more." is dark, something no other Headlong piece I’ve seen could truly be called. Christina Zani, her left leg in a big brace and often seated in a wheelchair, embodies physical dissolution. At the piece’s emotional center, she enthusiastically marks out for the five others a dance she envisions, but they slip back into their default position, poised on a four-seater turquoise couch in their living room set. Zani’s dance never happens. She is left alone, wheelchair-bound, facing the audience. The subtle play of responses passing over her face is wondrous - I see despondency and the kind of “bucking up” self-talk our society favors. Her story is of the fragility of the body, and isolation, and contrasts with Nichole Canuso’s repeating far-upstage displays of balletic virtuosity. Nice, in a chilling way.

Zani later receives a healing treatment onstage and the space is transformed into a verdant oasis with the addition of leafed-out saplings. Maybe things aren’t so bad after all…

Most of "more."’s movement is spasmodic . Occurring in snippets rather than arcs, movements are nearly all small, repetitive, and gestural, like enlarged tics with interruptions and responses. With an exception or two, no one dances “together” in more. Instead, unisons performed in close proximity or spread apart have the effect of underscoring the movement and calling attention to the space and its composition of seated figures, furniture, and upright dancers. Decisions are formalist and transparent- how do moments arise and transform and cut off? How does a phrase replicate itself at different times in different configurations?

Three of "more."’s players are nearly faceless. Nicole Cousineau in particular recedes, seeming to create a character whose modus operandi is vanishing . At one moment she stands up after having been concealed for some time behind an overstuffed armchair. It resembles a moment of seeing someone who had been previously “invisible,” suggesting a forbearing housewife or mother (“oh, don’t worry about me…”).

Headlong has often seemed less drawn to using movement as a medium for its intrinsic qualities than for its versatility as a vehicle for communicating about other concepts and states. The dancing in "more." sometimes appears like chatter: something to occupy its players, like random statements blurted out into an infinite ether. But "more." delves more deeply into the nature of its movement than any Headlong piece to date, with a movement palette that’s exploratory, thoughtful and of a piece. It unspools in a way that continually reveals the minds of its makers, and the myriad decisions comprising the whole. "more." could benefit from being pushed further structurally to reveal a logic for its myriad short movement bursts that now seem underdeveloped.

"more." is not warm and fuzzy. It’s not cute. But it has a tender regard for some of its characters – Devynn Emory begins and ends the show as an androgynous, human-animal spirit. She is given a whole new environment at the end - perhaps it’s the place of her dreams. This marks a moment of generosity in the piece, and isn’t saccharine, being tempered by the trivialization of a cheering throng.

Dance addresses the ineffable. One of Headlong ’s members said to me after the show that "more." is the first of the group’s dances where what it’s saying can’t be captured in language. I agree. While an unsettling viewing experience, I find it an exhilarating leap in the company’s artistic adventure. And, I wonder whether it might be one of those very few shows that yields its fruits slowly, being puzzling on initial viewing and later coming to mean a great deal, or even representing a turning point in theatrical convention.

[Disclaimer: I have worked closely with several of the performers and directors of "more." and cannot claim impartiality or absence of conflict of interest.]

Saturday, August 29, 2009

(End of) Summer News Letter

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I hope the summer found you with time to unwind and enjoy! Here’s my news:

In May I attended the Dublin Dance Festival where I saw some of the very intelligent mixture of text/video/movement that is coming out of Europe and Australia. Lucy Guerin Inc. who will open our next Bryn Mawr season was a knockout, and Rachid Ouramdane from France was able to use two sorts of literary voices so effectively in relating about his Algerian father’s fighting in Vietnam that it was deeply moving. I posted excerpts from my report for Dance Advance (which, along with the DDF’s sponsors and the Pennsylvania Presenters Travel Fund, subsidized the trip) on my Writing My Dancing Life weblog.

A side pleasure was getting to see Francis Bacon’s painting studio and an installation by Yinka Shonibare who now has a retrospective at the Brooklyn Museum. And how Dublin has blossomed in the 20 years since I was last there! We also spent a day in Rotterdam for the Operadagen Festival and Danny Yung’s “Tears of Barren Hill,” a masterwork in the stripping –down-to essences vein.

In June I was part of a Dance Advance-sponsored visual arts/ performing arts trip to Ohio and St. Louis with highlights including a William Forsythe installation. Read excerpts from my report here.

Regarding work-in-progress on “Red Thread” (opening March 2010), Meg Foley and I conducted ongoing research during the spring and have some intricate bits that now resonate with what we saw from Eva Karczag and Vicky Shick at our Swarthmore showing in April. In August, Eva, Vicky and I met up in Arnhem, the Netherlands for a work intensive at the ArtEz Dansacademie. We posted to our weblog with a daily rehearsal log so you can read all about it! And Gabrielle Revlock and Michele Tantoco have agreed to join the project. I’m thrilled with this cast!

“Red Thread,” being inspired by patchwork and women’s quilting circles, has challenged me to reconnect with that craft. At Karme Choling in Vermont, I initiated a sewing circle for all who wanted to work with a needle during the week of Family Camp. We had about thrity takers!

Auspiciously, during a tour of Amish country in July, we wandered into the quilt studio of Hannah Stoltzfoos of Smoketown who was very open to talking about her quilt-making. She seems to do a thriving business and had some lovely examples to show. It felt like talking across the centuries - one woman who lives without electricity or combustion engines speaking with another who uses the internet continually and is on the move in a Mazda. Where do we meet? In the love of pattern, color, and stitching…

On the writing front, Dr. Donna Jo Napoli, Chair of Linguistics at Swarthmore, and I just completed our paper on “Parameters of Language and Dance.” I have been invited to write on Twitter for the Live Arts/Fringe Festival, a new frontier for me. And as a final bit of good news, the Leeway Foundation just announced their next round of Art and Change Grants and “Red Thread” is among the grantees!

All good wishes,

P.S. With the news of Merce Cunningham’s death at 90, here’s a deep bow to him as a pivotal pioneer and teacher.

Saturday, August 8, 2009

smaller and smaller

I've signed on to be one of the writers on TwitterFest through Live Arts. As time goes on the number of words a dance writer can use sure has shrunk! The Village Voice used to print 1,000 word reviews. Standard now in the Inquirer is 400 words, 200 during Live Arts. On Twitter we'll be writing 140 characters at a time: single thoughts, but writing four or more of them on a given day. Ninja writers, cutting away anything extra! Ready for the challenge.

Monday, July 27, 2009

Twenty Questions

from a Dance/Visual Art Exchange: Ohio, Missouri 6/2009*
What correspondence is there between dramaturgy and curation?
What are strategies of composition in the visual arts that can apply to performance?
What hallmarks distinguish effective work? What do “Big People” do (this refers to a Meredith Monk film we viewed pre-trip re: conceptual outrageousness)?
How do we provide liminal space – a decompression chamber to enter art-making mind (of not knowing, waiting, finding)?
How do we foster art as “everyday practice” (Ann Hamilton), a “practice of questions”?
How does revealing the underlying systems and concepts of an artwork through accompanying text or narration serve or detract in perceiving the work? What are optimal ways of presenting contextual information to the viewers of a work?
What is the museum’s role in cultivating artistic literacy in children and adults? How do they do it? What is a dance equivalent?
How does ”reading meaning” remain a fluid activity, not a “spoiler”?
How can criticism foster awareness and excellence?
What are liminal /interdisciplinary works (i.e. Forsythe “choreographing” viewers)? How do artists learn to make them?
How does the museum become a crucible for meaningful interactions with art for all socio-economic groups?
How does the experience of architectural space allow a viewer to attend more deeply to their perceptions of art works?
How can the making of a work slip between the collective and the individual (the choir and the soloist)?
How does an artist find the right question to function as the center of a particular developmental process?
How can arts presenting organizations effectively combine missions of showing worthy art and being agents of civic and social change?
How does the curator/artist “friendship” when cultivated over a longer timeframe result in more interesting or successful projects?
How does the act of listening become the material of the work (Hamilton)?
How do you make a conversation public?
How does the question of a work connect you to some community; how do you become a local artist?
Is it possible to reside in a space of open-mindedness, pre-thought, before a “for and against” mentality clouds the ability to see?
*Sponsored by Dance Advance, a band of twelve dance and visual artists, video makers, composers, curators and arts advocates visited the Columbus Museum of Art, Wexner Center, and Cincinnati Contemporary Art Center in Ohio, and the Contemporary Art Museum, Pulitzer Foundation, and Sam Fox School of Design and Visual Art at Washington University in St. Louis. We spoke with directors and curators at several of these institutions gaining a sense of their methods and how they are thinking about their respective communities. The group was catalyzed into conversation by Mary Jane Jacobs as lead thinker.

Friday, July 24, 2009

News from Dublin and Rotterdam

Speaking with the Irish about their country always includes discussion of economic health or woes. On our first Dublin day I visited Kilmainham Gaol where starving youngsters who had stolen a loaf of bread during the potato famine and political prisoners were incarcerated. The quality of despondency represented by the jail gave a window in to the dramatic work presented later by one Irish company, Junk Ensemble. Compared to the coal-smoke dulled Dublin I knew in the 1980‘s the city looks uplifted and vigorous now. But cabbies and everyone else will tell you the Celtic Tiger has been brought to its knees. Still, some institutions we saw seem to have remained well-endowed.

Service organization Dance Ireland runs a sleek facility called Dance House with multiple spacious studios, and computer and library access. They sponsored two programs of showcases for Irish artists within the Dublin Dance Festival. These shows begged the question whether fine facilities help in cultivating excellent work. Notable exceptions were works by Jean Butler, a championship Irish step dancer who is now investigating contemporary forms in an extremely vulnerable and compelling way, and Liz Roche whose sophisticated duet took partnering into a fresh terrain of obstruction and stillness.

The Dance House counterpart in Cork, Firkin Crane, seems to be limping along, under-endowed and with staff stretched thin in multiple capacities. In these times with our budgets at Bryn Mawr (and all other institutions with which I am allied) being cut, I certainly empathized with these valiant arts workers.

The Dublin Dance Festival made a great choice in engaging Laurie Uprichard, formerly director of the Danspace Project in New York, as director. The Festival is energized, with artists of high caliber and high levels of attendance, all of it animating the Temple Bar section of Dublin.

Artists whose work was featured in the Festival included Lucy Guerin from Australia whose work “Structure and Sadness” (pictured here) I had viewed multiple times on DVD but never live. Bryn Mawr will be presenting Guerin this September so it was helpful for me to see how much more visceral and detailed her work is in person. Rachid Ouramdane’s piece “Loin” was the most revelatory for me for its intelligence in the weaving of text using two distinct voices - one poetic, one reportorial - plus video displayed on oddly shaped projection surfaces, and radical movement states. Both Ouramdane’s and Guerin’s work is at a level of refinement in their unity of visual elements and choreography that we simply don’t see in the US; this has got to be in part the result of sufficient budgets and development time.

Wendy Houston is a seasoned British performer whose solo performance “Happy Hour” took place in a bar and used clever displacements of language relative to the actual event we were witnessing. Jose Navas’s solo “Miniatures” depended a little too heavily on its performer’s virtuosity and charisma and offered too little in terms of conscious shaping. Ioana Popovoci composed a curious and somewhat static play based on “Animal Farm” with small objects – absurdist, and charming to me in its obsessiveness.

The most controversial work seemed to be David Zambrano’s “Soul Project,” a display of ordinary folks in a vast hall doing their fanciest party dance moves in carnivalesque costumes. It sat at the border between participatory and captive viewing in a maddening way and lead to conversations about how the choreographer’s framing of the audience’s paradigm for viewing makes all the difference. It seemed that Zambrano had not thought all that thoroughly about it.

Our final day in Rotterdam was focused on Danny Yung’s “Tears of Barren Hill.” Since seeing this work on video in Hong Kong, I have held Yung in the highest esteem. He brings the classical form of Peking Opera into the most contemporary of settings and sets up resonance between a host of thematic and performative elements. “Barren Hill” was featured within Operadagen Rotterdam 2009, an impressive festival dedicated to alternative opera that is seeking ways to generate a new audience for the form. The festival’s programming, hospitality, graphics coordination, and press conference/public kick-off all seemed inventively conceived in that inimitably Dutch adventurous way.

The work “Tears of Barren Hill,” is at every turn exquisite and restrained. Artistically I am moved by Yung’s undressing and stripping away, seeking the barest essentials of his forms. Trained initially as an architect, it is as though he finds his way down to bone and marrow.

Thanks for sponsorship to the Pew Center for Arts & Heritage through Dance Advance, the Dublin Dance Festival, and the Pennsylvania Presenters Travel Fund.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Chatting with my Congressman

I posted this to the Philadelphia Dance Listserv on 7/15. It's relevant even if you don't live in Pennsylvania, being about how to work our representative democracy.

Dear Dance Colleagues,

Yesterday at the State Capitol following the thunderous rally in support of the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts (threatened now with elimination) I went to visit my legislative representatives. At the office of Mike Gerber (Montgomery County) I had a chat with his assistant, and then, surprisingly, a long one with him!

The take away is that YOUR INDIVIDUAL CONTACT WITH YOUR LEGISLATORS MAKES ALL THE DIFFERENCE! There is no substitute for a significant number of individuals approaching our lawmakers one by one through mail, email or phone. For all issues under consideration Gerber’s assistant keeps a tally of calls, emails and letters. Gerber reads only a small sampling. WHAT’S CRUCIAL ARE THE NUMBERS.

By yesterday, Gerber had received a total of fewer than 40 phone calls, emails and letters in the current round of proposed elimination of state arts funding. He said that if he had high numbers of communications from concerned citizens he could go to the Republican Senator from our district who, along with most in his party, is intent on draconian cuts and say “What about these constituents of ours? Can you afford to ignore them?” If more of us go on record as being willing to pay a little more in taxes to pay for the things that make ours a humane and civilized society, a saner budget stands a chance. If we don’t, the reps take that to mean we will not stomach any new taxes, and funding for PCA and many other vital services will be lost.

PA is the only state considering complete elimination of its arts council. PLEASE write and call your own state senator and representative TODAY and tell them that you consider supporting the arts an essential part of government and that you are willing to pay a little more to make that possible. (You can locate contact info for your district at

Thank you!

Lisa Kraus

Monday, April 20, 2009

Meeting Monkeys and Dancing with Goddesses

in Cambodia and Hong Kong

The seamlessly organized Dance Advance professional development trip I was fortunate to participate in this February provided the opportunity to experience the way dance tradition is maintained in a country that has lost many of its foremost practitioners through political violence and upheaval, and to pose questions about the relationship of artistic preservation to experimentation. We considered the work of three veteran artists and saw the work of several younger up-and–coming ones. For the Philadelphia artists, sharing our own practice with the dancers of the Khmer Ensemble enabled us to see each other’s defining qualities and preoccupations. It was exhilarating personally to reconnect with “sacred” dance from this part of the world and to witness dance in a Buddhist context, something that as a long-time Buddhist practitioner I had never done.

Our first encounter with Cambodia was through the lens of Angkor Wat, the famed temple complex that is one of the man-made wonders of the world. Toni Shapiro Phim, a native Philadelphian who now resides in Pnom Penh, oriented us there, highlighting the significance of the form of the apsara - the heavenly dancer - rendered by the hundreds on the temple walls. The Cambodian legend of the origin of dance is that as gods and demons held a tug-of-war with a Naga (a powerful serpent), they churned a milky sea which spawned thousands of exquisite dancing goddesses, or apsaras. These became the model for earthly dancers whose role was to be an intercessor between heaven and earth. Dancers in Cambodia were always linked to the king and his court, and were later used as emblems of power by succeeding governments.

Sacred Tradition - In the same way that dance was initially transmitted through divine agents, so a lineage continues through dancers who trained and danced at court. These dancers are utterly faithful to teaching what they themselves remember and have collectively been able to piece together with the few other artists who remain alive (about 90% of artists perished under the Khmer Rouge).

Included in the readings we were given to prepare for the trip were pieces by Sophiline Cheam Shapiro which also address the Cambodian dancer’s ideal of being possessed while dancing, being taken over by former teachers in a way that makes the dancing transcendent. This idea resonates with my own frequent cycling back through all my influences (as seen in my performance and video “50 Moves” and current work “Red Thread”).

Shapiro also wrote at length, and spoke in our presence, about the challenges politically of setting up shop where there is still a monarchy and hidebound bureaucracy. As she is married to an American and spent considerable time in California developing a school she enjoys distinct advantages - raising money for the Khmer Academy and Ensemble in the US while paying out at far lower Cambodian rates. Shapiro and her family are able to live in a family-owned compound with a theater across the road built by Shapiro’s uncle, a former minister of culture. This they use for both training and performances. Thus we saw a Southeast Asian variant on how to make dance economically workable.

The recollection of US’s involvement in this part of the world forms a haunting backdrop for such a visit. While there I read Loung Ung’s “First They Killed My Father,” an account of one child’s experience under the Khmer Rouge. Although the Cambodian genocide was not a direct result of US intervention, it is on a continuum with the immense suffering and barbarism connected with the Vietnam War.

My visceral response on first seeing the Khmer Ensemble dancers, especially knowing that their practice of this dancing rises from the ashes of a collective nightmare, was to melt, to weep. It is sublime, knowing, and serene. The detail and demeanor in each dancer is exquisite. I was reminded also of the deep connection I felt to Indonesian dance following visits to Java and Bali and subsequent study of Javanese court dance over 20 years ago. This trip seemed a coming full circle; an opportunity to recall what I consider precious.

Shapiro is extending beyond the traditional posture, dynamics, roles and costuming of Cambodian dance. She encounters resistance for making what we might consider subtle alterations. She is concerned with questions of preservation vs. experimentation, questioning how best to ensure the ongoing health of classical Cambodian dance which is her basis. I am meanwhile engaged with a form that is commonly pre-occupied with the new, always seeking another kind of stimulation, another look, another departure.

Hong Kong, Kinetic City - Never having visited Hong Kong before, I was enraptured by its multileveled curvilinear roadways and combination of soaring towers and low-to-the-ground urban bustle. We were able again to contrast the old and the new, the colonial city with the up-to-the-minute metropolis, and to encounter many versions of “hybrid” dance. Witnessing the work of Ea Sola, who has achieved significant international stature, and hearing her expound her ideas in a teatime get-together seemed a largely intellectual exercise compared to the highly emotional response the Cambodians engendered. I was also surprised that I wasn’t especially grabbed by the explorations by young Asian choreographers on the Asia-Pacific Dance Platform during the Festival. Perhaps this was because their forms seemed heavily impacted by Western ideas about structure and material but didn’t have much edge or clarity or fullness of development.

A true Renaissance artist, Danny Yung met with us and showed tapes of work old and new. Here I felt the brilliance of an artist committed to mining the essential in his materials and discovering resonance in elements from disparate sources. I was deeply impressed by his approach to melding Bach’s Goldberg Variations and Peking Opera gestures. This made stunning theater, outwardly simple, but infinitely refined. I look forward to learning much more about this artist and plan to attend a performance of the work that so impressed me in Rotterdam this coming May.

The trip highlighted how each artist whose work we viewed is the product of their own particular cultural context. It was always interesting to note which aspects of the work seemed part of the practitioner’s home culture and which were influences from the west, more or less skillfully integrated. Sharing the experience with Philadelphia colleagues Kun-Yang Lin, Amand Miller

and Tobin Rothlein brought clarity regarding our own foundations, evolution, and differences.

Friday, March 13, 2009

Open Form

Joao da Silva, a former EDDC colleague who runs the Dance Unlimited program at the ArtEz Dansacademie in Arnhem, the Netherlands, put out a query: how do we think about "Open Form Composition" (a practise central to their study). What follows is my response:

“Open Form Composition” probably means very specific things to the practitioners who use the term to describe their work. Not being one of that group, I surmise that it concerns a way of composing where there is openness to create within the performance itself, by choosing placements and timings and ways of rendering materials. In a related way, I’ve been on a long-term quest to find an alchemically “right place” on the continuum of set to improvised performance.

Early on, Judith Dunn, a former Cunningham dancer and wife of Robert Dunn, told me that my set choreography was far less compelling to her than my improvisation. And she was right. The immediacy and invention available when the discovery was happening on the spot were far more scintillating than the more staid choices in my fully planned forms.

Four decades later, I am still puzzling out the degree to which I want to know, and want my dancers to know, what will happen in performance. My preferred space on the continuum of completely set to completely open work is probably around the midpoint, with sufficient skeleton and materials to make a one-of-a-kind but reliably structured and rich performance.

I recently revived the dance Interactive Random Access (1990) in which the audience has a “menu” of music and dance selections as well as qualities from which to choose. This solo, first made for an intimate fundraiser, was performed in a Hall for 350 people, with the audience miked so that their verbal “commands” could be heard and immediately responded to. For me, the play in that dance – the instantaneous layering of disparate elements – is a major challenge of receptivity and awareness. Much is known (actual movement phrases, texts, improvisational scores) but the totality is always created by the audience moment by moment. Impatience yields a channel-surfing feel. Waiting and enriching or contrasting what’s already present yields surprising depth and twists and turns.

This is satisfying theater – transparent, interactive. Similarly, watching Trisha Brown perform her “Accumulation With Talking Plus Watermotor” many times on tour, where she spliced between two different stories and two different dances, somehow holding the reins on all of them and bringing them to a satisfying conclusion, was inspiring that way.

While I am invested in structure and method the ultimate question is still whether or not the piece “works.” And the way I define that now is whether it fulfills itself; whatever it contains and in whatever form - is it whole?

Tuesday, February 3, 2009

Winter News

Photo: Naomi Ramirez

Dear Friends and Colleagues,

I hope the first month of this New Year and its big changes have brought you joy! Here’s my wintertime news:

November 2008 saw the revival of Desert Island (1986) at Judson Memorial Church. It was a pleasure to dance in this TBDSalon alongside recent and current members of the Trisha Brown Dance Company. I’ll reprise Desert Island on the Swarthmore College Faculty Concert, Feb. 14 at 8pm, this time with live feed overhead video.

Eva Karczag and Vicky Shick were back in Philadelphia in December for a second period of work on Red Thread, our collaboration inspired by women’s quilting circles. We each began to take more initiative as individual ‘authors’ of the work. This residency completed the phase of work supported by my 2008 Independence Foundation and Pennsylvania Council on the Arts Fellowships. Research continues now in rehearsals with Meg Foley, developing “stitching” and “stories and spaces” and ways of supporting in improvisation. The whole piece will contain disparate elements like multi-colored scraps in a quilt which form a cohesive pattern when assembled all together.

On April 5 we all invite you to “Windows on the Work,” the first open in-progress showing of Red Thread, at Swarthmore College in the Lang Performing Arts Center, Troy dance studio, 4 pm. Also showing will be Cynthia Lee and Lenny Seidman.

On other fronts, I’m keeping my hand in as a writer with pieces for Dance Magazine on the new Martha Clarke piece for Jeanne Ruddy, for the Philadelphia Inquirer on PA Ballet and Ballet Boyz, and for the Dance Advance archive on the pioneering black ballerina and ballet mistress Delores Browne. I’m putting together what should be an exceptional next season for the Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series to open the newly renovated Goodhart Hall. On February 13 we look forward to presenting Ballet X and Miro Dance Theater in alternative spaces including renowned architect Louis Kahn’s Erdman Hall. And there’s a late-February Dance Advance professional development trip planned to Cambodia and Hong Kong. I can’t wait; I look forward to it as a way to continue contemplating the connections of dance and spirituality.

Please share your news! With all best wishes,