Monday, September 12, 2011

And Your Meaning...

“But while the dancing was high quality, it was difficult to discern much meaning out of the piece.”

Is it reasonable for a dance critic to make a statement like this? In my view, writing in the era before Judson, let alone Cunningham, perhaps yes. But the assumption that likely underlies the statement−that dance is supposed to “mean” something that the choreographer presents in a way you can parse and give language to−is off-base today.

The piece in question is John Jasperse’s Canyon. After reading the full review of which this one statement is a part, I penned the following:

“I can’t tell you why I trusted choreographer John Jasperse when he placed the audience on air mattresses supine to look up at dancers doing risky weight-sharing partnering directly over us in Prone (2005). Likewise the “meaning” of Canyon, like so many messages that arise in dreams, I accept as a given without needing to know precisely what it is. Audiences and critics looking at dance today are invited to stay open for signals, to allow layers of imagery to build in our memory like so much visual poetry. That challenge evokes the excitement of a worthy mystery, a whodunit one hasn’t yet unraveled, but may well. And however it works out, the pleasure of dwelling in the rich world of signals can be, in itself, plenty.”

Jasperse is wonderfully articulate on this issue in a recent profile.

And then, wanting to share some of the meaning I gleaned in the work, I did something I haven’t ever done before in the seven years I’ve been writing about dance in Philadelphia: sent the newspaper an unsolicited review of something that a reviewer already covered. To be clear, I don’t think the work is without areas that need tightening or clarifying. But in 200 words what seemed most vital was to offer a way IN. My review wasn’t used, so here it is:

Canyon. John Jasperse’s newest work vacillates between the time when dancers, full-bodied and capable, make their bold marks on space, and the time when they stop. Its six fine dancers leap, swirl and whoosh across the stage in satisfying waves of changing groupings, or crash and dive, later giving way to times when their bodies are less ready for deployment. They crumple, they sag, or pensively await further instructions. The implied cycles – rehearse and rest, exert and surrender to exhaustion– are reminiscent of the arc of a dancer’s day, or life. In Canyon intimacy, doubt, camaraderie, and tenderness have their place too. And then, what are the messages coming from a deep interior or a faraway power that cause the dancers to pause, looking to the distance, or listening internally?

Jasperse often messes with conventions of staging and here turns the white dance floor askew in the curtainless cavern of the space. Tony Orrico’s design includes a white cube on wheels, creaky and scuttling, that decorates the floor, or walls, with zig-zags of fluorescent green tape, like the trail of a modernist snail.

Along with surges in light, Hahn Rowe’s magisterial score evokes a grand, sometimes thunderous existential question mark. And then it’s back to simple scratchings and settled tones. So it goes. The big moments and the small ones. The grand dance and the inexorable move toward stillness.


Tuesday, August 30, 2011

A Fair for Merce

Great artists generate devoted communities. On line waiting for the elevators to Lincoln Center's Rose Theater in July, former dancers with the Cunningham Company were overheard comparing notes on who and what they’d seen earlier in the day - so and so from one era, that one from a later time.

Rather than casting many glances back, my experience of the evening segment of the day-long Merce Fair was about looking and hearing anew. Perhaps knowing that there will be no more Cunningham choreography, one is automatically drawn deeper into what there is, and that opens the mind.

It was on film that I first heard Merce explain his understanding of how music, dance and decor functioned for him in contemporary performance. As with a streetscape where one witnesses a bird in flight while hearing the scream of a firetruck, the elements cohere through their simultaneity and our processing. Whatever we make of the interrelationship is what we make of it. So it was ideal to have the music associated with Merce’s work performed in the Allen Theater with a massive window wall gazing out on a vibrant slice of Central Park South.

And the revelations in that music! As a very young dancer I was put off by these male composers’ scratching and unlovely sonic contributions from the pit. Here, it became fascinating to hear one distinct sound at a time played on a succession of percussion instruments in Cage’s “One,”and spellbinding to try to parse Alvin Luciers’ score for piano and hovering theramin-like doppelganger. And magic - a man at a computer whooshing his hands mysteriously behind a laptop’s screen to produce whorling, dense and dramatic flights of sounds.

My sometime perception of “coldness” in the work was utterly dispelled in Duets and Squaregame, the dances offered by the company. How interesting that Robert Swinston, the company's Director of Choreography, chose to revisit works from one narrow band of time - late 1970’s and 1980 - that are structurally exquisite, and with less seeming randomness than many.

Squaregame takes place on a demarcated white square, dancers temporarily deposited at its far corners, watching in formal groups, then joining in unison ventures.

Rashaun Mitchell, at the work’s beginning and end displays a perplexingly deep sensuality. How can it be? While Merce’s clarity and exactitude are there in spades, so are a fleshy fluidity and thoughtfulness. Cunningham himself seemed to dance with the curiosity of someone to whom the dance was happening, as though he were the subject on which the experiment of this dance were being conducted. Mitchell dances as though the movement were his voice; his wobbly knees or big reaches, without any artifice or extraneous additions, conveying a physical vulnerability or spatial interest.

I’ve heard people say that Mitchell can “channel” Merce. What I see is the channeling of Merce’s authority, and one-pointedness. But how the movement sits on his more substantial frame is different altogether - more rounded, more tender.

Duets plays a trick of continuity. With its cascade of pairings performing distinct tasks, one all hyperdrive lockstep dashes, another a duet without touching, we wonder which of the many pairs might be carrying a through line. But the center continually shifts, as though a spotlight is scanning for the heart of the matter. All the pairs are the heart as we see at the end, when in a stunningly dense minute of finale, every duet mobilizes, pauses for a settled moment, before the density kicks back in and the lights switch out.

That black out ending, used in both works, serves as a reminder that a flow can be turned off, like a faucet. It’s turned off when our proverbial glass is quite satisfyingly full, but just before any hint of overflow.

Earlier, the Fair had animated multiple contiguous spaces with diverse events.The group of attendees learning Field Dances threw themselves into their task, delighted with the open-endedness, through Merce’s structure, of making their own choices. A girl - not more than 8 - flitted among the big folks, tipping sideways facing them, placing hands on their shoulders.

Passersby happened on the floating Mylar Warhol pillows, tossing them back skyward..

The Archive represented a carefully winnowed selection from a vast collection of books, papers and photographs. Handsome hanging panels with photos and text offered both a crash course in Merce and collaborators ,and new information for those already familiar.

The film illustrating the process of creating the “Dancer 1 2 3” drawings was screened alongside the drawings themselves. With Merce revisiting a Cagean concept twenty years after Cage himself worked with it, what’s fascinating is to see how he interacts with the dancers - how he offers refining instructions, how his seeing the results generates something new on the spot.

At the Merce Fair, we were given the fitting option of choreographing our own event, wandering in and out of film screenings, or music performances, or learning a dance, or reading, looking, conversing with friends, until finally enjoying a come-together moment watching the culminating performance. It was a party Merce would have thoroughly enjoyed.

For a series of photos, visit here.

Monday, March 21, 2011

Messages from Meredith

In 1975 I had been under the spell of Judith Dunn and Steve Paxton, both former Cunningham dancers and Judson Church pioneers, for four years. At Bennington College it was their ethos that held sway. Dance was performed as task, as an everyday kind of activity that involved investigation and rigor but certainly not emotional “expression.” Judith Dunn exhorted me to wipe that grin, or whatever, off my face, saying “let your body say it instead.” And, when confronted with potential sexual rumblings and arousal in the newly birthed form of contact improvisation, Paxton exhorted dancers not to play the “gland game.”

Then along came Meredith Monk. For a week of workshops, Monk had us embody our most disgusting habits, sink deep into sensation with exercises from Alexander technique, and, strange for dancers at that time, make sound. These activities confused me. How could the worlds of formalist post-modernism and fleshy, tender hearted and unabashed expression co-exist? Like a koan, that question has dogged me since.

Another week of workshops and performances some thirty six years later at Bryn Mawr College has provided, if not a complete answer, a chance to sit again with the deeper questions raised by Meredith Monk’s work, and to speak with her about them.
Her evolution as an artist has involved a refinement and a rich flowering more than any shifts of course. The fusion of elements – voice, film, movement, into striking stage pictures and ultimately moving theater is unchanged. Today she collaborates more, handing over the authority for pieces of the production to a visual artist for instance – Ann Hamilton. Her musical palette has broadened with complex instrumentations. But the purity, the depth, and the power of what she does has only grown with time and water under the bridge.

Today Monk is a Buddhist. Although in 1975 she had not yet found a formal practice or teacher, her starting place – one of compassionate regard for human beings and their experience, both painful and delightful, is in line with the Buddhist stance. People without any spiritual allegiance can recognize something fundamentally sane in her position as a performer. Although she herself features, it is never about her. Rather, she has always understood how to position herself as an everywoman, with an approach to physicality that reduces action to its simplest skeletons. She becomes like an animation of herself, effectively communicating that the work is about US.

Although ‘dance’ was the rubric that Monk was often categorized under, her approach to it was never in line with those who practiced movement for its own sake, conveying its own meaning. Rather, movement for Monk is what animates her onstage personalities, be they the quirky ladies of “Education of the Girlchild,” or the elegant celebrants of “Songs of Ascension.” Movement is life, and a body in motion is one conveying a story about how it is to be alive on this deeply troubled but spectacular and potentially benevolent earth.

Saturday, February 5, 2011

MoMA's Space, Pioneered

photo Ruby Washington for the NYTimes

When Frank Gehry purchased an old power station in 1970’s Soho, he was eager to see it populated with dancing. The long narrow space was brought to life in the fog-drenched premiere of Trisha Brown’s Opal Loop. Examples of similar synergies of architecture and dancing abound. But topping the list in my book is the recent animation of the Museum of Modern Art’s five story atrium with early works by Brown, another in the long list of her Company’s terrific 40th anniversary events.

Trisha Brown’s work with 10’ sticks and pedestrian rulegames, as well as her very refined explorations of movement designed to ‘hit’ designated points on a cube, could not be better suited to the soaring space. Works like Sticks, Scallops and Locus revel in the play of shifting angles and formations as dancers conform to or slither around imagined or actual boundaries. These dances are architectural from the get go.

Tasks are transparent: ‘balance a stick at a perfect 45 degree angle while sliding from a stand to supine.’ ‘Trace arcs around the perimeter of the space while moving shoulder to shoulder with other dancers who might chose arcs of unpredictable sizes.’
And then, in the interpretations of the onlookers next to me– ‘move within the confines of a square taped on the ground.’ Locus, if seen as fulfilling only this intention, is only partially understood. Is it important that the audience knows that Diane Madden’s every move is in relation to 27 points on her cube? That she takes four passes through, hitting the same sequence of points each time? And that a lot of the movement is the result of layering together two or more contradictory imperatives, making for curious internal ripples and wild splays? However you see it, Madden’s delivery of Locus is silky and clear, like pure water.

Changing into bright red clothing, she is the one who initiates the ‘telephone’ game of largely upper body action that is Roof Piece Relayered. In the five story atrium, 10 dancers play a game easy enough for us to trace, but one we can never see fully, as they are placed on every side, in windows and ledges at every level. One dances in a long notched opening set in an otherwise pristine white wall with a delicate white Calder mobile sailing just behind. One dances on a catwalk so high in the air, we see from underneath.

The audience member has the wondrous opportunity of framing each view for herself. This task is simple when standing in the atrium. But as soon as you decide to venture onto higher or lower levels, the choices and views take on much greater complexity.

To reach the openings into the atrium, you pass great artworks, and look through them at the dance. The dancers—red, sculptural—assert an exhilarating parity with Cornell, Rothko and Duchamp. They are art works up close, with viewers coming right to the edges of their marked off ‘stage’ spaces. Unlike the interior of the Guggenheim Museum where all of the space is always in view, the Modern’s punched out windows and balconies allow you to see partially into the big opening; then you pass through ‘closed’ spaces before the view opens out again. The effect here is of watching the performance by encircling it, and of a building that functions as a lens for performance. When passing between one opening and another, the knowledge of a performance going on, but hidden, is tantalizing. The sense of space in relation to dance explodes outward.

Recalling Brown’s predeliction for returning to rework great ideas, it’s not unlike what we experience when, in Forêt Foray (1990), Brown sets a marching band to circling the outside of the building in which the performance takes place. A dance of the mind.

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Learning from Line Up

Eeny, meeny, miny, moe
. Asked to consider which Trisha Brown choreography would be most suitable to teach the students at Franklin & Marshall College,* I weighed the options. Locus, the dance created within a cube that gives the performer options to cut and splice material as she sees fit, dances on that distinctly Brownian edge of immense precision coupled with great freedom. But Locus takes either a long time or a lot of intensive practice to get the movement ‘into your bones’ enough to be able to play at performance level. Glacial Decoy, that glorious torrent of a dance, is a whopping challenge for even the most advanced dancers. As a learning exercise it’s great for a college group, but again, getting to performance level would take more than three intensive weekends. Line Up, made of short dances related to the architecture of the body in relation to other bodies and to space, seemed an ideal fit. Adaptable in its number of performers (groups can switch between its discrete sections when only five performers are needed), and with some very simple-to-learn parts, it’s also a setting for its central complex jewel, the demanding 'Solo Olos,' with three phrases done forward and in retrograde, and dancers bumped in and out of unison by a ‘caller’. On the whole Line Up seemed a challenging, but do-able project. What I did not realize ahead of time was how fully the aesthetic and ethos of the time Line Up was made needs to be understood and embraced by the dancers to perform it convincingly.

Just standing. Paraphrasing Martha Graham, it takes a year to learn to run, five years to learn to walk and ten years to learn to stand. Being simple is among the hardest things to do.
The improvisations based on the instruction “line up” that are the glue binding Line Up were originally set through a process of “building.” Trisha’s group at the time was all-female and included several dancers whose allegiance was to somatic practice – Alexander technique, body-mind centering, Elaine Summers’ and Andre Bernard’s teaching. For them, standing, not to mention the other pedestrian action at the heart of Line Up was a practice with nuance and interest. The simpler the movement, the more the dancer could be aware of the mechanics of the body, the feeling of it, and the unfolding sculptural form they contributed to.

Students today may not have encountered an approach that encourages them to do less and feel more. They might feel bereft without recourse to drama or particular movement patterns – the high leg, the repeating turn - or without filigree, ornament, or ‘personal expression’ as they usually think of it. Line Up teaches that being stripped down is actually hard but plenty revealing. That how you are is as important as what you do. That there’s interest in subtlety – gradations of timing, angle, and energetic quality. Drama comes with the movement or stillness of the eyes, with the little games that arise between dancers and are just as quickly abandoned. In Trisha’s parlance: “Do it and get off it.”

The Time It Takes. Beginning to study the piece again after 28 years, it interested me to see how patient Trisha was in developing the material over the course of the piece. The culture has sped up in the interim. Line Up starts off with a real-time task that takes whatever time it takes. In ‘Sticks’, dancers enter with 10’ wooden poles and lie supine along one line, joining their sticks at the tips. They slide themselves out from under their sticks, each making a full circle by coming up and over her stick, to return to lying supine, all the while attempting to keep sticks joined. The dancers use spoken commands to keep tuning their connections. Like most of Line Up, the simplicity of the action belies how complex and uncompromising it is to do.

At the beginning of our process the nine F&M dancers needed to get a feel for the climate Line Up grew out of. It was a dance for all women, simply and uniformly clad, strong and smart but reflecting the non-heroic performer ethos of its time. Its virtuosity was brainy rather than flashy; its tongue-in-cheek wit a fresh breeze.

We improvised with pedestrian material. We experienced ‘release’ practices. We spoke about the Rainer ‘No Manifesto’. We looked at photographs. But the most effective way for the F&M students to understand how to ‘do less’ with clarity and confidence was to watch the original cast on video. In their stripped down language of walking, standing, running, and lying down, ‘expressiveness’ came in little bursts of energy, in choices to complement or contrast, or to touch.

Details .Within Line Up’s stripped down palette, details are crucial. With Trisha Brown’s material, no matter which piece, a student will often think she’s ‘got it’ when what she has is a rough approximation. The level of attention to detail —exact placement, timing, energetic quality, and interrelationship — is exponentially more exact than is often asked of students. This is what makes or breaks the performance. Distances of a few inches difference determine whether an image coalesces or looks like mush. Knowing that this dancer fires her movement a hair before you do, that the relative angles of your arms should be like this, that the space between you is exactly this much, and that each Rube Goldbergian chain of events has a very particular sequence is crucial to the organized chaos that suffuses many of Line Up’s sections.

In a process that extended from the blazing colors of fall through the first nip of winter, the F&M dancers homed in on their own invigorating interpretation of Line Up. They drilled the phrases of ‘Solo Olos’. They counted out the complex pattern of ‘Figure Eight.’ They found their sultry siren selves for ‘Spanish Dance.’ They ran and reran the ‘line up’ sections, negotiating with each other about moments of connection and group formations.
In the end, I witnessed their Line Up as a vehicle goading each dancer to uncover her own confident, clear and strong performing self. The dance delivers up the dancer: full blown, as a woman of intelligence at work and play. And it reveals the brilliance of what we often take for granted – simple relationships and architectures. That it spins out into baroque complexity with 'Solo Olos' is its crowning glory. ###

*Dr. Lynn M. Brooks, Chair of Dance, and Pamela S. Vail, Assistant Professor, extended this invitation. Pam successfully wrote the NEA Masterpiece grant that made the reconstruction possible.

With many thanks to the eight current and former F&M students who took part in the Line Up project—Triana Brown, Emily Grossner, Emily Herchenroether, Tori Lawrence, Jaclyn Malat, Allison Massof, Alexandria Ross, Michaila Stevens—and to Pamela Vail as performer and rehearsal director.

So Inclined

photo: Andrea Mohin/New York Times

Since 1975 I have seen each piece Trisha Brown made. (I danced in seven, including Homemade, the solo with the 16mm projector strapped on the dancer’s back.) But of the works that came before, until last fall’s Whitney Museum reconstructions, most existed for many of us only as black and white photo images: Steve Paxton with long hair and headband, bounding eagerly, suspended by wires and perpendicular to the Whitney’s wall; Sylvia Whitman leaning serenely away from her partner, held by a simple contraption of plywood and rope.

Unifying these works was the investigation of the physics at play in the area between vertical and horizontal. A body can lean just so far before it begins to fall. Trisha’s exploration played on that tipping point repeatedly, finding just how far one could stretch out on an impossible incline before surrendering to gravity, or, using various kinds of apparatus, creating the illusion of an ordinary action while in an extraordinary posture. In the early experiments we saw at the Whitney, moments of falling were postponed through ingenious means of counterbalancing. In duos when one partner leaned a bit too far out, equilibrium faltered. Seeing the dancers negotiate the tipping point, repeatedly restoring their formation, was much of the pleasure.

These experiments turning the body every which way in relation to gravity, initially with the support of ropes or other dancers, were crucial to developing Brown’s signature movement style. After fully investigating gradations of suspended ‘off-balance,’ she was ready to take away the supports and deal with the consequences, leading to her channeling the momentum of falling into surrendered ease, updraft and flight.

The physical practice that made this movement possible was to lengthen the body between feet and head rather than crumpling in the direction of gravity’s pull. This lengthening leant extra force to whatever movement followed a fall.

Like so many of the themes she investigated early on, Trisha has cycled back repeatedly to variations on suspension and the 90-degrees-to-the-wall relationship. In Set and Reset (1985), Diane Madden ‘walked’ on the wall supported by fellow dances. In the next work, Lateral Pass, the dancers bounded into the air, supported by bungee cords. Later, every bit of related investigation was folded into the miraculous aerial work in Orfée (2000) where the figure of Musica is suspended by wires drawing her upward and side to side in a musically nuanced series of tumbles, swoops and walks on air.

The early works shown at the Whitney elevate the pedestrian, spinning it into high art. Walking on The Wall recalls looking out a city window to figures on a sidewalk below. Their action is stretched and distorted through a semi-slow motion time warp. The action reverses too, winding and rewinding the figures, bringing them close enough to link arms, and to assist each-other when passing or navigating the room’s corner. In charcoal gray clothing, on a plain white wall, these figures’ slowed down ambulation makes us wonder at the beauty of something so seemingly ordinary, yet anything but.