Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Masters at Work - Voloshky/Morris at Bryn Mawr

I spent two afternoons in the darkened theater at Bryn Mawr considering what the difference is between a competent or even great artist and a brilliant one and why some traditional folkloric music and dance is moving to me on a level more primal than anything the post-moderns could ever serve up. Being the daughter of a square and folk dance caller who was thrown into the maelstrom of dancing grownups from a very young age certainly has a lot to do with it. But I don't think you need that kind of  connection to feel this dancing in the soul-stirring way that I do.  

In creating a new dance for Voloshky Ukrainian Dance Ensemble, Mark Morris looked very closely at the regional dances the group performed for him. He absorbed their movement language, making use of distinctive moves. But more importantly, their ethos – of a community of dancers, portraying moments in the lives of their village, their ‘tribe’—is one Morris has been incorporating in his own dances all along. He has credited his early Balkan dancing as being formative, and not only for the experience of repeating circles and lines and rhythmic patterns. The unity of the group, their social exuberance, factored strongly. 

Our age can be one of virtual more than physical connection.  So to see dancers and musicians cooperate so fully in representing a vision of human togetherness that is at once geographically specific and  completely recognizable is a reminder of where we came from; the ur-past we share. Hearts are full; hearts are broken. Young men display their prowess, and women theirs—fiddling as if on fire, and singing in tones that will pierce any reserve. There are reasons to shout and stamp and swirl and run. It’s the full catastrophe of human experience in dance, instrumental music and song. 

The spatial patterns and tricky steps in the traditional works are something Morris understands and makes full use of. But where the Ukrainian dances are comparatively clean and direct, his new Carnival, set to Saint-Saens, has rounded edges and more sly humor. His themes recur in a satisfying way. A full lyricism that sustains itself by breathing the music for sustenance is his hallmark. And with the Ukrainians, it reaches full flowering in a new way.  

Watching Morris rehearse his dance with both dancers and musicians is to see an artist move a performance from wonderful to sublime. He teases out voices, he insists on exact angles and changes arcs of emphasis. It’s a god-in-the-details thing, and the details he drives for, like dancers adding one movement beat on to the very end of a dance after the musicians finish, are the flourishes and distinctions that make the whole gleam. 

The two halves of this show, one traditional but choreographed by a now-89 year old Ukrainian master, Anatoly Kryvochyzha, and one choreographed by what Alastair Macaulay called one of the “foremost living choreographers” in last Sunday’s New York Times act as a conversation across geography and time. For Voloshky to dance something contemporary requires Morris to look to the past. It offers us a chance hear the echo of their and our histories in the ever-so-ecstatic present.

Show info here.

Monday, August 20, 2012


Remy Charlip spoke directly to the child in us. Tenderness and joy was the message.

Somewhere in high school I discovered his books. Maybe it was because of his affiliation with the Cunningham Company and teaching at Sarah Lawrence College (I had friends who studied Creative Dramatics with him). The books felt intoxicating; a liberation for mind and heart. In Thirteen he gave us hypertext before it had been invented. On each page there’s one drawing from each of thirteen visual stories that progress through the book. You can regard one page, you can follow one story start to finish (the falling leaf, the sinking ship), you can linger on the detail and luminosity of his water colors. What in the line and rendering of recognizable things made them so magical? 

I often think about the relationship of ‘what’ to ‘how’ in performance. Materials are one thing, the way they are enacted another. The latter determines how we read the materials. I have the idea that the state of mind of the person doing the thing translates into how we experience it. A person with a desire to offer us the richness of the world around us, and the knowledge of our own preciousness somehow translates that into line and color and sequence. Or dances. We feel it.

The drawings from Remy’s Air Mail Dances provide a visual record of sequences he asked dancers to create, full of loopy, delicious interactions. Two or more people twine and twirl, curving buoyantly, joyfully.  One version of a dance like this was shot on video from above with dancers on a bed, sheets and all. 

It was in Remy’s work that I first saw Eva Karczag. He revealed the exquisite animal she is through a device allowing us to observe her body mechanics: she crawled across the upstage of the old Dance Theater Workshop with rubber balls beneath each of her hands and feet. To progress forward, she kicked or rolled a ball forward and placed hand or foot down to stop it, a foot or so ahead each time.  Funny. Slow. Elegant. 

That was Remy. He was a guest teacher in the Netherlands where I got to know him beyond page and stage. That was where I sensed a darker side too. While I can’t swear it’s so, my sense is of him is as a wounded healer. He venerated the body and became a transformative teacher of Alexander technique. He venerated creativity and creation.

Thank you, Remy. You remain here with us, encouraging our wilder flights of imagination, our reveling in our senses and our care for each other.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Fort Blossom's Peaceable Kingdom

Photo: Maria Anguera de Sojo

As someone who has been around at the birth of landmark dance – contact improvisation, Trisha Brown classics – I know the feeling that some works are paradigm-shifting. What exactly makes them so is hard to pinpoint until time has elapsed. John Jasperse’s Fort Blossom revisited (2000/2012) belongs in that camp. Right now I think it’s because Jasperse has crafted a work that’s exquisite but tough, and formalism and felt humanity become unlikely but well-suited bedfellows.

Fort Blossom’s world begins as one of contrasts butting up against one another: the stage floor is half black/half beige, its two women are clothed and two men naked, its movement is hinged and robotic or full of a testing-out kind of exploration. By the time it concludes, after two long duets, one for the women, one for the men, and a final extended section for them all, distinctions co-exist peaceably and a kind of euphoric settledness has descended.

In its opening image, Ben Asriel inchworms prone across the stage, buttocks rising and pressing forward, as Lindsay Clark and Erika Hand, in tomato-colored A-line frocks, perform a unison duet. It’s full of sudden drops and architectural placements of their limbs in curious relationships to the squarish orange plastic bubbles each dons and wears like a goofy backpack. Ryoji Ikeda’s pulsing electronica with throbbing low tones and high pitched bleeps augments the futuristic feel. These women are on display, as plastic people, with perfect make-up, hair just so, hinging at the hips to peek-a-boo at the audience through their own legs while their red panties show, or walking slowly upstage on tip toe. They are objects worthy of admiration and perplexing, all at once. Their building and rebuilding of beautiful shapes, like so many block towers, satisfies.

Meantime Burr Johnson has found his way downstage, and lies atop Asriel, placing a clear plastic inflatable between them. As it deflates, Johnson’s hips grind and thrust. Seeing these men’s buttocks, genitals, squish onto each other, and later, their feet lifting each other’s scrotums, is far from dance as I conventionally think of it. Yet the slow, felt deliberateness of their action is riveting. The men are lithe and gorgeous, each muscle defined as in a textbook, their assholes, and all else, presented matter-of-factly, but definitely, in our face.

The men’s duet of Fort Blossom moves through phases from clinical and dispassionate to erotically charged, and takes its time to evolve and deepen, in the way that lovers might take a full afternoon exploring each other’s bodies. In complete silence its dynamics shift from slow and careful to more jagged or spasmodic.

If the first part of Fort Blossom seems to establish a never-the-twain-shall meet world, the second part erases those borders to find a place where the men and women settle into a mutual ‘creature-ness.’ They play, childlike, to Japanese samba, thwacking each other with their bubbles, falling, kerplunk, onto them or tossing them, spinning. That euphoria fades, like air seeping out of a balloon. The men then partner the women and all join in a long sweep of an upright phrase that’s continually tumbling into new curving pathways, like a twisty mountain road. Often hooking into momentary mirrorings, they slip along, and then brake, tumbling floor-ward at one moment, taking time for an ever-so-slow leg circle that eeks into reverse at another. With Ikeda’s elegiac harmonies, the effect is breathtaking.

At each step of the way, Fort Blossom seems to ask “How might we do this together?” Finding pleasure, experiencing difference and edge, parallel play, mutuality, and synergy: All these aspects of how humans are in each other’s company are rendered with aching directness. And counter to its seeming dystopian beginnings, Fort Blossom concludes with good news: our interchanges have value and tenderness and despite their challenges, serve us.

Dance, with bodies as its medium rather than paint or notes, is very directly about human beings even when it purports to be about space and shape. Fort Blossom revisited (2000/2012) is a study in human difference and complementarity. Its four dancers butt against, play off, ignore, and explore each other and ultimately settle into an easy co-existence, richer for each other’s presence. As a model of behavior, it’s hopeful. And the craft that went into shaping its often-changing and mysteriously moving atmosphere is prodigious.

Fort Blossom revisited (2000/2012), John Jasperse Company, Bryn Mawr College, February 24-26, 2012. No further performances.

Writer’s note: I Coordinate the Bryn Mawr College Performing Arts Series which presented this production.