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.