Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Early Trisha, Caught

On Madison Avenue walking past luxe handbags and antiques in perfect window displays you don’t expect to see videos of a renegade movement artist. But next to the Whitney Museum last weekend a passerby could get snagged before two store windows with wide-screen monitors showing early works by choreographer Trisha Brown.* It happened that way to me. I was snagged and then deeply moved, seeing the wildness and brilliance of the early Trisha.

Adventurous and visionary are words too tame to describe what she did and who she was then. Of course there's been an entire and tremendous oeuvre since. But here you see her planting a flag as a post-modern herald. Clad in clear red against a backdrop of muted Soho rooftops, she spooled out improvised gestures, many of them just skewed from ones with particular meanings and building in whimsical ways from one gesture to the next. Her pointing finger swooped around to locate a target which dissolved somewhere off to her side, her hands conducted a dialogue of curlicues. This invented semaphore got passed as a game of ‘telephone’ across the roofs from one dancer to another. It marked the airspace as artists’ playground and, along with other contemporaneous forays, forever transformed ideas about what a ‘dance’ might be.

In the next store window was Jonathan Demme’s 1986 video of Trisha performing Accumulation with Talking Plus Water Motor, shot in her studio with boxes of set pieces (ready for tour?) and her dancers accumulating gradually on the periphery to watch raptly. In her eyes is the wild exhilaration of a creature dared to move to the edge of its physical and mental limits. She mobilizes each neuron, synapse and muscle memory to accomplish her personal quadrafecta – splicing two stories, and two dances randomly and remembering end and beginning points for each to make a seamless, if bumpy ride of synergistic non-sequitors. The one dance, Water Motor, buffeting her body with surprise turbulences that ripple out into her flung arms and corkscrewing turns. The other, Standing Accumulation, gradually builds a long phrase with measured calm, one repeating action at a time.

This is the Trisha I recall watching at every performance with devotion and wonder. She looks as though there is nothing on the planet that could be more right for her to do, more delicious, or more exciting. And that is what she shared with us—her delirious pleasure in investigating physicality. In particular, she delved into what the body might do when the momentum of falling is harnessed in updraughts, careenings through space, and pliant, internal readjustments that blossom out into detailed articulations of every body part. In this solo she had found a challenge equal to her level of skill (which was off the charts) and went for it like a famished fighter. Demme captured her relish for all time. Seeing it I realize that I love this person in a way I never loved anyone before or since: as my dancing heroine, as the sun in my dancing solar system.

* Trisha Brown: Early Works 1966-1979 by Babette Mangolte, Jonathan Demme, Klaus Kertess, et al. DVD Published by: ARTPIX Notebooks

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Too Much Art?

At an orientation for dance artists and presenters seeking Dance Advance funding, DA’s director Bill Bissell said that a recent study found our area to have an “oversupply of art with an under demand for it.” I hear that as a call to action. Here are my questions:

What are the effective ways of helping audiences become more excited about concert dance?

How do you develop dance literacy?

What can we do about art being seen as an elitist luxury?

Within the field some kinds of dance are ‘easy read’ while others require more investment. What are strategies to help audiences want to delve in to more challenging work?

Friday, July 16, 2010

Best Of...

[Otto Ramstad in a still from "Moving Image: Minnesota," video by Olive Bieringa]

When a critic's "Best of" list departs significantly from my own, I'm inspired to go public with a list of Philly dance events that most excited me in 2009-2010. Here it is, in no particular order. The list leaves out plenty of worthy, interesting artists whom I might have missed or whose work was, in my estimation, not quite as strong this time around.

At the CEC, a triple-threat show featured Anna Drozdowski’s choral village made up of "Our Town" types in pedestrian actions and patterns. Like each Drozdowski work I've seen, it oozed off-kilter charm. Sharing the program, Zornitsa Stoyanova used hand-held lamps to cast artful shadows and illuminate single parts of herself in an inventive trio. And Jenn McGinn’s piece showcased her brother, James McGinn, a wondrously articulate dancer, tracing and retracing his Cecchetti-inspired steps (their mother taught the Cecchetti method of ballet training). It had the ineffable quality I associate with work that’s really going somewhere: a diving in deep to its “itness” as Andrew Simonet/Tere O’Connor would say. Both McGinns are definitely artists to watch.

More, the product of Headlong Dance Theater’s investigations with Tere O’Connor stretched this Philly favorite into new terrain. See my notes on it here.

In Only Sleeping Subcircle partnered with great physical actor Geoff Sobell, taking big leaps in their work fusing projected video and live performance.I wrote about it and about Pennsylvania Ballet dancing one of William Forsythe's most celebrated works here.

Forsythe's In the Middle Somewhat Elevated is a dance that PA Ballet could do every season if I were calling the shots. The dancers are pushed out to the edges of their range of motion and stamina in this fierce, dark and swift gush of ballet steps turned sideways.

I wasn’t planning to see the Ballet’s Romeo and Juliet again this round, but wanted to experience the “audio description” they occasionally provide for visually impaired people. It’s a wonderful idea but has a ways to go before it captures the vividness of the spectacle. The performing by Julie Diana, though, was utterly stirring. Best acting in a ballet onstage in Philly.

Thanks to Dance Celebration, Fraulein Maria by Doug Elkins came to town. Humor in dance is tricky (it’s easy to get schlocky or to pander). But Elkins, remaking the Sound of Music, hit it just right. Glee!

Lucy Guerin Inc. performed Corridor at Bryn Mawr College and likewise astonished with spectacularly able dancers and rugged, ominous material. I wrote about that too (and, full disclosure: I curate that Performing Arts Series).

Another out-of-town favorite was Otto Ramstad on one of the programs in Philadelphia Dance Projects' Local History Project. Ramstad seemed to be using his highly sensitized body to tune into frequencies imperceptible to us, acting like a guide to other realms.

Camille A. Brown’s New Second Line in the International Association of Blacks in Dance showcase, set to New Orleans marching band music, was full of clever sass. Also in a showcase, this time the excellent smorgasbord put together by DanceUSA/Philadelphia, Rennie Harris Puremovement put the ladies front and center in Harris' new work set to Nina Simone’s smoky voice.

Nrityagram at Montgomery County Community College may have demonstrated the finest (East) Indian dance I have ever seen. The group lives and works in a “dance village,” regarding art as a spiritual practice, and it shows.

Also, Jumatatu Poe’s show at Performance Garage was full of precise but full throttle contact. Merian Soto presented yet more hypnotic permutations of her Branch Dances. Meg Foley at Susan Hess was engaged with intriguing explorations. Gabrielle Revlock can do anything, including hula hooping, and I’ll be riveted.(Disclosure: both Foley and Revlock have worked with me). Philadanco’s dancers dance their hearts out utterly. And…

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Open the Windows!

I’m really excited to read Tere O’Connor’s “blook” (blog +book). In the first installment he delves into a bunch of ideas that could blow people’s ways of thinking about dance-making wide open.

Start with this: "I no longer create my works in adherence to a good/bad paradigm. I have become very interested in seeing what the dances can become through a process of witnessing as opposed to employing choreographic technique of any sort.” The evolving dance is midwived rather than “crafted.” Repeatedly he writes about managing a cloud of unwieldy material, not linked in apparent ways, and remaining open to the frameworks that emerge. These come to him after hitting a dead end with initial ideas and suggest a much larger context for the work.

Miracles. Art magic.

Having seen so much dance at the American Dance Festival that followed the old paradigm: tell a story in a linear way, keep it punchy and display virtuosity, reading Tere is like opening the windows wide and looking out on lush space.

Monday, July 12, 2010

Slicing and Dicing the Famous Fungus

(uncredited photo of Pilobolus from Carolina Performing Arts site)

On the first day of the Critic’s Conference at the American Dance Festival I confessed that in the past I wouldn’t see Pilobolus even if you paid me. At Bennington College in the early 70's I saw the original Pils in a demo that was intriguing - the group's DNA was well in place and they were running on youthful excitement and invention. As they've gone along, the crowd-pleasing, go-for-laughs obviousness of the work became a turn-off for me in the same way that I don't choose to put on easy listening tracks.

Seeing them this July at ADF and coming from a place of such low expectations, the group’s show in the humongous new Durham Performing Arts Center was a surprise - more appealing than I anticipated.

I loved the interaction of Art Spiegelman's comics with live characters in the new Hapless Hooligan in "Still Moving." I enjoyed the circumscribed movement terrains in two of the pieces - one all sailing lifts, often in slow mo (Gnomen), and another all jittery electroshock tremors with hip hop (Megawatt). They sure know how to put on a show.

We wrote about it in little bits. Tedd Bale put us through a series of exercises, taking two minutes to write in each of four styles:

Descriptive: A rocking chair center stage and plucky down-home melodies set a southern mountain feel. Innocuous exchanges in a bubbling cast leave little imprint.

Emotive: The changes of scale in shadow play – hunkering man grows huge by moving toward light source – elicit a childlike fascination. But the violence causes this viewer to recoil – it’s crass stuff, and far from nursery rhymes.

Normative: Nearly forty years on, the group, begun by four Dartmouth undergrads then unschooled in the niceties of dance, is now immensely popular, capitalizing on its most successful formulas to keep’em coming.

Performative: Here’s the Pilobolus recipe – take strong young men and women, get them devising ways to lift, climb over and grapple with each other in multiple group permutations. Change speeds, stories and soundtracks. Go for the gags.

Of course the audience stood up and cheered.

In a morning session later on, John Jasperse brought up a question regarding the effect all this has on the audience’s ability to look at more challenging dance. Some say that pleasing the crowd with an easily accessible group creates more potential dance-goers, but John’s feeling is that if your sense of what dance is is defined by Pilobolus, you are not going to enjoy his work. He feels that the presenters’ strategy of bringing in the Pils because they are so popular just reinforces a situation where audiences want spoon feeding rather than a deeper engagement.

What do you think?

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Final Voyage for the Critic's Institute

Photo by ADF/Sara D. Davis, 2008

Take 14 dance critics and one eminent critic/leader, seat them around a table for hours each day speaking with guests including dance writing’s best practitioners plus presenters, artists, new media mavens and managers, send them out to see and cover a mix of popular mainstream and well-established contemporary dance within a major festival, continue for three weeks (with one day off) and at the end what do you have? Journalists ready to resume their berths at newspapers and web platforms all across the country to report on dance in a more effective, eloquent and possibly experimental way.

The National Endowment for the Arts deserves kudos for having the wisdom to fund this convening of critics over the last nine years. Officially named the NEA Institute for Dance Criticism at the American Dance Festival, this was the first of what are now several separate Arts Criticism Institutes for different art forms.

Within the dance ecosystem good-quality written commentary is crucial. Critics inform audiences about what they may experience watching different kinds of dance: why it matters, what they might take away and what the context for it is. They bring audiences to the work. They create a record in a form that’s evanescent, writing history. And for funders and presenters, their accounts become a way of identifying new artists to produce and endorsing ones worthy of support.

I was a participant in the Institute for Dance Criticism’s final voyage, just ended. It is not slated to receive any funding in next year’s cycle and so faces extinction. This is a shame. People doing terrific work like Claudia LaRocco at the New York Times and Theodore Bale in Houston have been past participants. While critics convene in weekend conferences, in no way do those replace the intensive input offered at the Institute. Suzanne Carbonneau who has been its leader for nine years cultivates not only writing chops, but also attitudes that engender supporting the field as a whole, maintaining allegiance to the reader while remaining respectful of artists and open to all forms.

Thank you National Endowment for the Arts for the great experience I had. I’ll better serve Philadelphia artists and audiences through what I’ve learned. I’m just sorry that a continuing stream of other writers and their communities will not enjoy those same benefits.

Wednesday, May 26, 2010

A Beautiful Beast

Photo: Jordi Bover, used by permission

Steve Paxton is a dancer I've been watching over the course of nearly forty years. When I told him that my children are grown enough that they now go up to Vermont on their own (that’s where he lives and where we met as teacher and student) he said that time just telescoped, decades down to a moment. Watching Paxton perform his new solo The Beast at Baryshnikov Arts Center, time telescopes too. I visualize the kinetic lusciousness of earlier Paxton incarnations, but here he shows us the dancing’s skeleton. Rather than nostalgia there’s joy in this fruition of his dancing life. The distillation of his focus and the stripping away of connective actions makes for the sparest presentation of one human body’s range of motion and properties of balance. Paxton presents his own body as a locus for inquiry, as he always has. His investigation has become increasingly detailed, exquisite. Without the spongy bounce and space-eating flow of his earlier incarnations, he is pure facet, pure torque, pure stacked bones and stretched sinew.

Merce taught us to look at movement without asking for its implied narrative. And the Raineresque performative straightforwardness of the Judson era finds its apogee in Steve whose weathered face is that of a deadpan everyman. Why then do we have the sense that there’s a scenario here, teasing us by laying just beyond our comprehension? The Beast has a sound score that’s hard to place – is it electronic, made to sound like birds? Water droplets? There’s a percussive rushing quality to it and it rises and ebbs, just as the light, a shifting pool now oblong, now a rough round, moves without provocation. Paxton seems to be lodged in this place, a dark nowhere. Atmospheric, mysterious, this visual and aural setting make a habitat for The Beast. And just who is that?

Paxton’s bio states right off that he lives on a farm. Watching him dance is not unlike watching someone scythe a field, or build a wall. Action is in service of something, and delivered without flourish or emphasis. He seems engaged with questions: ‘What is this? What happens if I shift balance by curving the spine laterally? What happens if I cross one foot over the other, standing? Or tip my head back as far as it goes?’ The action produced by that last inquiry, looking upward, is often associated with a kind of aspiration. Here it’s not that, or anything you could nail. And although that action recurs frequently, as does a full torqueing twist of head against pelvis, or a thrust through the hands, they never reveal any further reason for being. They just are. ‘Testing the Apparatus’ is the shorthand that comes to mind.

In 1986 Paxton began performing his Goldberg Variations to both of Glenn Gould’s recordings of Bach’s masterwork, the first made at the promising outset of Gould’s career, the second after a life in music, more settled and measured, and just months before his early death. The metaphor of the maturation of the artist over time was deeply moving. Paxton’s face in the second half of Goldberg was smeared with wet clay which, over the course of the work, dried and contracted, creating a crinkly premonition of older age. Today his face looks like the one he projected twenty some years ago. And I believe that the dancer he is now is the one he was imagining in Goldberg. And how essentialized and brilliant that dancer has become, like a diamond.

Saturday, May 8, 2010

Tasting "Excellence"

[Photo: "Only Sleeping" by Subcircle and Geoff Sobelle]

A recent meeting at The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage posed the question “what kinds of formats provide and encourage evaluative critical feedback that promotes excellence?” It’s obvious that most everything you see can be developed further in a variety of ways. Sometimes a choreographer has a blind spot, sometimes not enough time, or both. And sometimes excellence will elude even the most thorough worker. There’s a mysterious component too: the ineffable brilliance factor, impossible to manufacture.

How thrilling then to see a dance work, or even big hunks of a dance work, that are beautifully considered, clearly the product of prodigious intelligence, and breathtakingly executed. Two such experiences in one week leave this viewer delighted, relieved, as though drenched with rain in a dry time.

Pennsylvania Ballet demonstrates itself alternately as being top drawer or nearer second string. In mounting William Forsythe’s “In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated,” the Ballet has taken on a work that crackles with brilliance throughout and pushes the dancers to unimagined heights. Forsythe plays between the pedestrian and the meta-virtuosic. Shambling entrances or casual shifts in space are ‘breathers’ that just whet the appetite for more of his whippet swift distortions of traditional ballet line. Formations recall the studio dynamic of ‘in-betweens’ – a line far upstage with each dancer in a different resting pose, a cluster to the side that forms and reforms before the “hit it” moment. And when they do hit it, the action is perilous: partnering with leans at precipitous angles and thrown weight. This was Forsythe before his work strayed too far from the ballet lexicon so every stretch away from the familiar is illuminating, delightful. And the dancers, thoroughbreds that they are, lap up the challenge. I have never seen principals like Zachary Hench, Riolama Lorenzo, Julie Diana, Amy Aldrich move so big, so fast, and so wild. It goes so far beyond even the most virtuosic turns I have witnessed at PA Ballet in the past that I’m left dazed, an adulating fan.

On quite another end of the dance spectrum, Niki and Jorge Cousineau, known collectively as Subcircle, in collaboration with Geoff Sobelle, have mounted an exhilarating synthesis of projected video with dance, text and original music - “Only Sleeping.” This is one of those works where a long history of collaboration and time to chew on multiple possibilities before settling on finalized images have resulted in moments of exquisite complexity. You read intelligence from the get-go. Sobelle appears on video only, a Magritte-like everyman, a counterpart to Niki Cousineau’s everywoman/mother (we learn on audio). Mike Kiley’s music has a rock sensibility and uses a wall of voices for intensely cinematic moments.

In a set resembling a living room with two doorways, a window, and an expanse of wall serving as a large projection surface, “Only Sleeping” relates a tale of parallel worlds, a fantasy of being swept from one’s life into that of another. The lightly sketched story line is given a sense of place through video imagery of hallways, empty rooms, and an expanse of ocean. It mines earlier works by Subcircle (“Somewhere Close to Now” above all) with a live performer in perplexing circumstances involving changes of scale and orientation.

The piece has knock-out transitions that shift nearly imperceptibly from the offhand and conversational to the theatrical (like Forsythe’s switches from preparation to full out execution). The interrelationships of multiple projected video images are orchestral in their density. Layered over time they conform to or thwart expectation, as when after seeing a door open multiple times to reveal Sobelle behind it in some quasi-pedestrian but indescribable activity, the door finally opens to reveal another door and another and another, ad infinitum. “Only Sleeping” is like that, opening out to new ground, who knows precisely where.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Recent Writing

Please note, the Inquirer articles are no longer available online. Please contact me if you are interested in reading them.

A spate of recent articles and essays:
On the Dance With Camera show at the Institute for Contemporary Art in Philly - http://www.philly.com/inquirer/magazine/79879367.html
Observations about the recent International Association of Blacks in Dance conference and performances - http://www.philly.com/inquirer/magazine/82034482.html
A review of Fraulein Maria - http://www.philly.com/philly/entertainment/arts/70213087.html
And a piece on the Dance Advance archive where I had great latitude and mused about performance and travel in Asia - http://www.pcah.us/m/dance/six-reflections-six-snapshots.pdf

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

A Letter to the New York Times

To the Editors,

If dance is the “art with no history” as Alastair Macaulay states, fair and broad-minded reporting of it, which IS in effect its history, is all the more crucial. In Mr. Macaulay’s assessment of the last decade in dance (Choreographic Climate Change, 12/31), he dismissed the downtown modern and post-modern segment of the field as “too large for anyone to keep complete track of it.” Dance’s cutting edge is no more unwieldy than that of any other artistic field; this statement reads as lack of personal interest.

While the Times’ senior critic has considerable knowledge and skill, he’s missing the curiosity required for comprehensive reporting on dance. Biases become a problem. How can he limn the 1980’s without mention of Trisha Brown whose innovations in physical language and choreographic devices permanently changed the face of contemporary dance? While Mr. Macaulay’s stated preference for ‘joy’ in dance is understandable, deep investigation and the continuing evolution of the art form merit acknowledgement.

Sincerely yours,

Lisa Kraus

Macaulay's article: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/01/03/arts/dance/03choreography.html