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PINA in Seattle

24 Jan

As you may recall, 2009 was a rough year for the world of modern dance, with the passing of two iconic choreographers in Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch. Cunningham was 90, had carefully laid out plans for the future of his company and his works, and died peacefully, as if ready to leave, but Bausch’s passing was unexpected—a cancer diagnosis was followed by her death a mere five days later and only two days before a documentary about her was to begin filming. Director Wim Wenders cancelled the project, but at the behest of the dancers of Tanztheater Wuppertal, was encouraged to make the film anyway. Given the rave reviews worldwide, we should be glad he did and I was very lucky to be invited to an advance screening in Seattle for Pina in 3D.

Normally, I find 3D movies to be a bit disorienting and maybe even a little nauseating, but I didn’t mind it at all in Pina. Filming dance in general can be tricky because inevitably, something is missed whether it’s a complete picture or a minute detail (in the words of the master herself, “the tiniest detail matters”) but the director had a clear vision of what he wanted—one of Bausch’s most prominent works featured at the beginning of the film was her Le Sacre du Printemps, captured perfectly from unique angles and views that didn’t diminish the work at all. I would even say I was surprised by how well it was filmed because it was as if the camerawork followed exactly what needed to be seen, and actually enhanced the work by providing insight through visual cues. When a group of female dancers huddle in a circle, each one running up to a man to offer herself, the camera is positioned from his perspective and you see every ounce of terror in their eyes and the subject of Igor Stravinsky’s famous score is revealed—human sacrifice. First made famous by Vaslav Nijinsky’s ballet that caused audiences to riot, and a popular choice amongst a number of his contemporaries, it’s Bausch’s interpretation that stands out and it’s in her ability to see truth that makes it so. Though ritual sacrifice is a forgone practice in modern times it’s still a part of our history and thus a part of humanity, and for me, that’s what Bausch’s choreography taps into. While being incredibly physically demanding and somewhat abstract, Bausch’s Le Sacre still achieves a sense of reality. It doesn’t literally depict a rite, but unmistakably shows through movement the visceral, primeval nature of such an act.

Pina

Azusa Seyama, Andrey Berezin, dancers of the ensemble of “Sacre du Printemps” in Wim Wenders’ PINA. ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

In addition to substantial performance footage, the documentary is laced with interviews with Tanztheater dancers—well, not “interviews” exactly, because they’re almost never shown speaking, just staring into the camera while they narrate what they would say (sorry, I know that sounds confusing). Each dancer describes their experiences in dancing for Bausch (or not, as some are completely silent on the matter) and dance short, original pieces (many of them outdoors) as a tribute to her and it was fascinating to be able to hear what they had to say in words and see how they expressed their elegies in movement (curiously, one dancer chose to pad a pair of pointe shoes with veal and bourée to her heart’s content). It made me think of what it means for a legendary icon to bestow a legacy and in the case of Bausch, it seems as though she didn’t just teach her dancers her style and choreography, but also empowered them to know themselves. Returning to this idea of her having an uncanny ability to see truth, many of the dancers had beautiful, poetic words to say about how she opened their eyes and for those dancers to be able to be independent and create dances in her honor is remarkable. In similar situations where an artist dies their followers may find themselves in a mad scramble to catalog and preserve, but Bausch’s dancers had a quiet calm about them, saddened by her passing but also ready to fly freely on their own terms.

Pina

Damiano Ottavio Bigi and Clémentine Deluy in Wim Wenders’ PINA. ©Neue Road Movies GmbH, Photo by Donata Wenders. A Sundance Selects release.

I was happy to see two of Bausch’s most prominent works that I had learned about a few years ago in school: Café Müller and Kontakthof. That was during what I like to call my “pre-enlightenment” period, when I was still a rather green student of dance, not confident in my opinions about it, and not self-aware of what I even could learn. I have a few visual memories of watching both pieces on the screen in Sullivant Hall, though I only have foggy clues as to what my reactions to both pieces were. This is not to say that they aren’t profound—far from it—only that I was not apt to form a coherent, memorable response. I remember enjoying the idea behind restaging Kontakthof­ with a bunch of elderly people instead of dancers, and it seems in recent years it underwent another transformation by having a cast of young teenagers perform it. It says a lot about the versatility of the work and Bausch’s creative genius, not to mention the courage to change her work so drastically without any fear of diminishing its artistic impact.

Excerpt from Kontakthof:

 

As for Café Müller…well, I have to be honest and say when I first saw it I’m pretty sure I had no idea what to make of it, but what I found fascinating this time around was one section where a couple are locked in an embrace, and a third man manipulates their bodies until the man of the couple is left holding the woman—and drops her. This repeats again and again, frenetically increasing in speed and each time they return to that same embrace. I took it as a representation of societal expectations of love and how it’s impossible to do anything but what you know instinctively, and watching Café Müller truly opened my eyes to one of the themes of the film, and that is the love between Pina and her dancers. Love can in fact be separated from romance and with more recent portrayals of directors and choreographers being crudely egotistical, it’s important for the audience to see an instance of mutual love and respect. Particularly in the US where George Balanchine is so well known for loving his dancers, bestowing gifts of perfume to his muses and creating extraordinary ballets on them, he’s revered to a point of being held up on a pedestal, whereas Pina and her dancers had something far less romantic and weepy, but still something incredibly strong and emotionally fulfilling.

Pina concludes with vibrant excerpts from Vollmond, an epic work of dance that has rain and flooding and is by far the most physically demanding of Pina’s work I’ve seen. Though the film still isn’t what I would call a crash course on Pina Bausch, but it does illustrate the kind of work she did in both vivid and thoughtful detail. Even as someone who knew a few bits about Pina, I learned so much and have re-shaped ideas about what it means to love art. My conclusion (while incomplete) is now including a theory that whether it is a love for honing one’s craft, or a love of something that inspired one to create, all art is born from love, and it doesn’t have to be conventionally beautiful, just genuine.

Excerpt from Vollmond:

 

For Seattle area readers, Pina will have a limited run at the Cinerama Theatre February 10th-16th, and will open February 24th at the SIFF Cinema at the Uptown. Please check the following websites for showtimes and details:

Seattle Cinerama (opens 2/10)

SIFF Cinema at the Uptown (opens 2/24)

Dance Critics Association Conference: A crash course in reconstruction

17 Jun

Wow—a busy week! Ever since the Dance Critics Association conference, it feels like it’s been full steam ahead. Prior to last weekend, I was going to blog something about Deborah Jowitt leaving the Village Voice, but seeing as how she was at the conference, I’m just going to tie in a few thoughts I had into one big entry, rather than bore you with a thousand words of inane rambling on the subject (and believe me, I could go on and on!). I have also been working quite a bit at my new job at a bagel deli, where I sell carbs and people eat them, and though it’s not mentally exhausting it is somewhat physically so, and you know you’ve had a long day on your feet when standing on relevé feels good because it relieves pressure on your heels! I’ve been rummaging through a few backburner topics in my head, but every time I sat down to write, I would end up asleep at the computer. So I’m still getting used to the new schedule (which sometimes includes the horror of getting up early) but today my friends, is a day off!

The topic of this year’s DCA conference was reconstruction, in conjunction with Pacific Northwest Ballet’s production of Giselle (but more on that later). I didn’t get to attend the whole conference, and was just a last minute volunteer but I was present on Saturday, for much of the discussion on reconstruction itself. The keynote speaker was Dr. Ann Hutchinson Guest, notation guru who knows more about the subject of reconstructing dances than the average mind can handle. It’s funny how a lot of what she talked about seemed relevant to things I learned at Ohio State (coincidentally, one of the examples she used to discuss differences in steps according to notation was indeed La Cachucha, a piece I saw at an MFA concert) and I chuckled to myself when she discussed how ballet training today is about superficial pictures, but the motivation for a movement is never a problem for a modern dancer. I actually had the opportunity to learn a ballet from notation at OSU (which was actually for six female dancers on pointe, but that’s a long story), and the thing she said that struck me the most was how reconstruction from notation is more important than video because the latter makes it so that you have to understand the movement. I always knew the importance of notation but couldn’t express why until she so artfully put it into words—the process of learning notation is an investigation of movement, and my own interpretation is that dancing from notation requires that creative process we like to call “imagination.”

The first panel discussion of the day was with Peter Boal, Doug Fullington, and Marian Smith, the trio behind PNB’s staging of Giselle. Peter opened with a general spiel, about how he wanted a unique production for the company, how Doug told him of Marian’s proximity, that it was something of a last minute decision (I seem to recall a mixed bill that it replaced), and that people are calling it the “new/old Giselle.” Now that sounds familiar…oh wait, I was one of those people! Hey…look at that legitimate writer…that’s me too! Gloating aside, there was a lot of interesting discussion on not only negotiating three minds at work, but also three documents to work with, and what the ideal creation would be. Most of the choreography came from the Stepanov, and the French scores provided the pantomime, with the usual interpolations of “artistic liberties” (at times, none of the scores provided anything of use). Much of the more difficult choreography was tested on Carrie Imler, allegro extraordinaire, who could basically do all of it though the rest of the company had some trouble, hence the adjustments. Though many fascinating questions were asked, I’m glad someone mentioned the use of humor, in the lost scenes and Smith said that the originator of the role of the old man was a world-renowned comic mime, so it is fully intended to be a moment of comic relief. She feels lightening of the mood gives the story gravity, though I still disagree here—people were surprised by humor in Giselle, though I think Act I has always had traces of it, and it’s the contrast between the two acts that gives it gravity, not an unnecessary augmentation of the storyline…but, this is strictly a matter of opinion.

There was a writing workshop during lunch that I only observed because I hadn’t been a part of the conference the previous day, and that was followed by another panel on reconstruction means, which unfortunately, by that time I was mentally checking out. Sitting through panels is a lot like lecture-based learning, and the whole experience reminded me of being in school again, something I’m not really looking to return to. Plus, it doesn’t matter how much I’ve slept, or what I’ve done for the day, I am always sleepy around two o’clock, so my notes for this panel are woefully barren. Just remember…preservation makes us human and every dancer inherits an embodied legacy.

Finding my second wind for the last panel of the day, several ballet repetiteurs shared their thoughts on reconstruction for living or deceased choreographers. Though several ballet choreographers—from lesser known to titans like Tudor and Balanchine—were discussed, I’m just going to summarize some of the Balanchine tidbits, mostly coming from Francia Russell (one of the founding co-directors of PNB). Russell indeed danced for NYCB years ago, and I suppose a lot like Carrie Imler, Balanchine tested a lot of movement on Russell, even if the performances themselves went to other dancers. Russell actually retired pretty early, but stayed with NYCB as ballet mistress, and in fact only stages ballets that she watched Balanchine produce during her tenure, as well as ballets she herself has danced. Though she doesn’t claim to have the definitive version of anything, she does say she stages things very closely to the way he wanted them (in that sense, her work is kind of like the Australia of ballet—broke away from the mother continent and remained unchanged while Balanchine’s choreography in New York evolved under different circumstances). Though she tries not to impose her personal tastes, there have been occasions where she’ll make executive decisions like when she stages Ballet Imperial, it’s mostly NYCB material but there is also choreography that is seen with the Royal Ballet (Balanchine went overseas to stage it, working closely with Moira Shearer). Also, I believe it was in regards to the finale of Divertimento No.15, she said Balanchine changed the ending for PBS’s Dance in America to accommodate the set, but she loves the original finale. Apparently, NYCB’s Divertimento is starting to look a lot like Who Cares?, and never having seen the former I don’t know what that means but it was fun to hear her opinions on several matters, like which companies were great to work with and which weren’t *coughLa Scalacough*.

The second topic of this panel posed the question of how critics should approach reconstructive work, and while this wasn’t really discussed in detail, Russell voiced some frustrations in wondering why critics feel the need to personally attack dancers, when they are so willingly giving their all. It shouldn’t come as any surprise that Deborah Jowitt nodded her head in agreement, as her refusal to write negative reviews led to her leaving the Village Voice. I found it funny that in a room full of critics, who so willingly put forth their ideas during other panels to the point where questions weren’t really asked during the Q&A sessions and it was more like a debate with statements of opinion, nobody really had much to say on the matter. Well, I am of the mind of Jowitt, who I saw speak and perform a sort of dance-theatre solo at OSU, and I believe that dance truly fascinates her, which is why she is able to write about it in the way she does. She genuinely finds the art of movement captivating at all levels, which is why she doesn’t have anything negative to say about the effort put forth by performers. I admire her so much for it, and aspire to be like her, though for me it requires some effort. We all know I can go on and on about Ashton (and in an upcoming entry, I will), but when ballet moves away from the styles I favor the most, I have a harder time discussing it. However, I think when a passion is authentic, you find a way, which leads me to believe that some critics may be more in love with the search for perfection than they are ballet itself…and for some reason society seems to think if you can nitpick flaws in a performance, you must know what you’re talking about. Rest assured, I don’t think that way.

On that note, I encourage you to read my latest and first post-DCA review on SeattleDances, in which I reviewed PNB’s Season Encore performance. I am interested to hear if you think my voice has changed, or is still the same old me, and ideally, WILDLY and authentically in love with ballet!

2010 Year in Review: Contest Winners!

15 Jan

Ladykitties and gentlecats, I have selected winners for the You Dance Funny 2010 Year in Review contest!  Among the array of entries that I oh so subtlety twisted your arms to get, these were the three that stuck out to me.  Two of them long, and one of them short, I value all of your feedback equally and have much food for thought in terms of future writing!  Please know that just because the contest is over that you have no opportunities to tell me what you’re thinking…comments are always appreciated and e-mails the same (even if I don’t get to them right away!).  Dialogue and discussion are incredibly rewarding for all parties involved, which is why I hope you’ll also take a moment to read how fellow readers have been responding to my posts…I hope you find them as enlightening as I have!

Winner: Mark

Photo Chosen:

Ballet Preljocaj in 'Near Life Experience' (Photo ©John Ross)

 

(In response to the post, ‘Muse Musings’)

This is kind of my favorite post! Not because it is so funny, actually, but because it’s a little more on the cerebral side. As somebody who grew up with dance as an integral part of my life I guess I just take “that grey matter—the substance between choreographer and teacher” for granted! But I enjoyed very much hearing how you were able to identify that…try to pin it down…very interesting!

Note from me: Short, sweet and to the point, I really appreciated this feedback because first of all, I kind of pulled that post out of nowhere, so I wasn’t sure there was even anything of substance in it, so I’m glad someone had a strong reaction to it, and second that the analytical aspects really resonated with you…I feel very encouraged to think deeply for future posts.  Thanks Mark and congratulations!

Winner: Catherine

Photo Chosen:

It seems Catherine and I (and many more) share some favorite dancers in common! (Photo ©John Ross)

Today I’ll be mostly talking about my favourite You Dance Funny post of 2010, and the winner is… 10th May, “Jerome Robbins’s In the Night“.  The main reason I love this post is that it introduces a ballet I’ve never seen before, entirely watchable within the post on Youtube, alongside a lively and observant commentary.  Strike one: I learned something! Strike two: I loved the ballet and got way more out of watching here than from Youtube alone (and heaven knows it is hard enough to link to short dance clips without them mysteriously disappearing, let alone a whole ballet).   Words like “inhaling and exhaling”, “floatacious”, “a hot mess” and “energy through the fingertips” prod one into watching more closely.  I enjoy reading your opinions even if I don’t always share them – the second pas de deux that you found “stoic, calculated and….a little abrasive” struck me as beautifully harmonious and moving in its portrayal of repressed affection (blame this on my period drama – loving TV habits) whereas when you wrote “I constantly wanted to yank her bodice up” for part 3 I thought, yes! So do I!!

In general this post also showcases two other things I like about your blog: firstly it mentions your latest DVD find from the library – this I love as for me ballet is strictly pleasure, and I have huge admiration for people who like to study it in a more scholarly fashion.  Even the most casual research really adds value to the enterprise and makes it easy for us to explore right along with you. Secondly, the lovely chatty intro “blurb” giving us entertaining insight into your life and mindset that day (“circling the shopping center like a vulture keen on carrion”) means that we get to know you and can see where your opinions are coming from, not to mention breeze through a pretty long post as easily as catching up with a friend.  This is a real gift of yours – writing in a totally informal way that is fun to read but with true balletomane attention to detail.

In summary: videos – good, opinions – good, chatter – good, research – good.  Oh, and knowing that you are also a student of ballet with a self-deprecating sense of humour is a bonus:)

Bravo and here’s to an even greater 2011!

Note from me: I’ve actually been thinking of revisiting a discussion on In The Night, as new videos have popped up (I think by a Russian company) and rumor has it Pacific Northwest Ballet will be doing it next season.  I’m glad you enjoyed this post because it specifically introduced a new ballet to you (as it did me!) and I’m also happy to hear that you disagree with some of my ideas too…that creates potential for interesting discussions!  Also, that my made up words don’t entirely horrify people.  Many thanks Catherine, and enjoy your prize!

Winner: Karena

Photo Chosen:

I've seen this one before...is there anything more pleasing than four dancers in fourth position? (Photo ©John Ross)

 

I have a problem with favorites. For instance, when someone asks me what my favorite color is, I never know what to say. Are we talking color to look at, or color to wear? Am I wearing it as a splash of accent color, or as my main clothing item? And what’s the weather like, anyway? And favorite food? What meal is it? What have I been doing that day? Am I above or below my RDA of chocolate? So rather than picking a favorite post, I will just say that at the moment, in my current situation, given today’s weather and the fact that apparently I am a Leo instead of a Virgo (blasphemy! I am routinely harassed for how Virgo I am…), the post I feel like commenting on is February’s post on the Merce Cunningham show.

So first off, the feedback that you probably can’t make be widely applicable (I’ll try to be constructive in a moment). What got me going on this post were the two paragraphs about Karen and Dave’s pre-show talk. They made me all warm-fuzzy nostalgic about Karen and Dave (I miss them!) and how wonderful they are. I especially like the bit about Karen exemplifying dance as the fiber of one’s being. Yup, that’s her. Sadly for many of the readers of your blog, they don’t know Karen and Dave, so they might not realize how awesome that pre-show talk must have been. But it made me happy. Feel free to continue to write about them.

But another reason that I fastened upon this post is a quality that you have in many of your posts. You do this tricky thing where you bring a fresh perspective, the eyes of someone new to dance (or at least to a particular dance), yet also speak in a knowledgeable and well-researched voice. (Now if this were a school essay, I would rework that last sentence to make clear that what you are saying is well-researched, not the sound of your voice. Because I’m reading your writing. So I don’t hear your voice. But the sound of your voice may be well-researched too, I don’t want to try to say that it’s not.) I think a lot of people who haven’t seen dance spend a lot of time worrying that they will come up with the “wrong” answer when watching it, and then let themselves be intimidated out of watching dance. (Meanwhile, a lot of dance insiders tend to bring the baggage of their preconceptions to a show, and preconceive themselves out of watching the dance that’s going on in front of them.) I like that with the Cunningham show, as with others that you have written about, you can come to it saying “I haven’t seen it before, don’t know if I’ll like it or get it” and then are able to just pay attention to your reactions and run with them rather than run from them. Meanwhile, you do enough research about what you are watching that you can then proceed to put your reactions into a wider context, giving them background and support. I can see a post like this being a useful guide to someone trying to figure out how to watch and think about dance, while it is just as (even more?) fascinating for the knowledgeable dancer/reader for its astute and detailed observations about the performance. You do get a few demerit points for putting into words what I’ve been trying to say when describing Cunningham to people: “Life itself is a string of unrelated events that have no meaning and yet they do when we decide to attach that meaning. Cunningham merely provided the series of events while I attached the meaning. It was very empowering, which is the magic of being an audience member of a Cunningham dance.” But if you let me steal those sentences, I’ll try to be a little less bitter.

Note from me: I’m really proud of this post so I’m glad it stood out.  The stories Karen and Dave shared were just so beautiful and I’ll never forget how the epic the whole experience felt.  Also, that some of my posts on modern dance are enjoyable amongst the sea of ballet themed ones.  Here’s something I haven’t shared about this post though…shortly after the inaugural performance of the Legacy Tour, I received an e-mail from Carol Teitelbaum, the faculty chair at the Cunningham studios in New York, who told me that the post was passed on to all of them from someone at the Cunningham organization!  Of the thanks she gave, I was most touched by this:

It is gratifying that Merce’s mission is being so satisfyingly realized by his company that you could have the experience you did, and write about it so clearly.

Talk about feedback!  It was one of the first times I felt like I had really made a difference with my writing, and am so grateful that you saw something special in that post too.  Thanks Karena, and congratulations on your winning entry!

Well folks, that rounds it up…I hope you’ll keep this contest in mind as 2011 has begun.  There’s a good chance this will happen again.  As in, I’m totally doing this again in 2012!  So make it easy for yourself and keep your favorites in mind this year, okay?  Wink wink.

Whim W’Him…woot woot!

15 Jan

I attended the opening performance of Seattle based company Whim W’Him’s program, Shadows, Raincoats, & Monsters (even though the actual order for the evening went Raincoats, Monsters, & Shadows!) and after previewing an excerpt of Monsters in October as a part of Men in Dance, it was a treat to see the finished product, which for many reasons looked completely different from what I remembered seeing only a few months ago.  This is where I must insert magnanimous praise for the lighting designer, Michael Mazzola—the full effect was truly astounding.  I briefly met artistic director Olivier Wevers before the show, who essentially said that he can’t imagine working with anyone else now and I can see why.  In that meeting, Olivier also jokingly asked me not to write anything mean and while dancers tackle their own set of stereotypes (i.e. in negative reactions to Black Swan) it seems as a dance writer I have a few of my own to deal with…but far from offended, I found the experience quite exciting because it makes me sense my place among the circle of dance writers as well as the dance community as a whole.  Legitimacy is awesome (and a little addictive).

My overall comments are that this is a show with an invigorating, multi-faceted appeal that is sure to relate to broad audiences.  Whether intentional or not, I was fascinated by the order of the dances themselves, which seemed to mature as the evening progressed.  The first piece, This is Not a Raincoat was the most youthful, followed by Monster, which showed a marked jump in sophisticated subject matter, and then Cylindrical Shadows displayed a mellowed, genteel character.  The journey was an artistic progression that is easily understood and showed a genuine concern for really creating a relationship with the audience (hence a well-deserved standing ovation by the evening’s end!).  What I also liked was the elementariness of the costumes, which is always something that draws more attention to the choreography itself (most effective in Monster, through the use of socks in solid, primary colors) and a distinctive style among Wevers’s two pieces.  Sometimes I find that choreographers favor saturating their works with variety in order to show versatility and/or for fear of being deemed monotonous, but I like to see some familiar movement characteristics because to me that says the choreographer is not afraid of distinguishing a unique voice.

The first piece, This is Not a Raincoat, choreographed by Wevers and performed by Andrew Bartee, Ty Alexander Cheng, Chalnessa Eames, Kylie Lewallen and Lucien Postlewaite, began with only the rhythmic sound of footsteps and swishing raincoats.  When the dancers were finally illuminated in their peach velour cowl-neck and black raincoat glory, the barriers are first made apparent, like when the dancers ran full force downstage, and came to a complete halt on relevé at the very edge.  When they shed the raincoats there was a noticeable change in mood, and sprinting off in other directions ended in smooth slides.  First of all, how one does this without completely wiping out is one feat of timing and control, but the overall impression is that the movement has no rough edges, no harshness and takes on an air of warmth and invitation.  Much of it seemed to glide just above the floor, grazing the surface occasionally and offered lighthearted, playful gestures.  It was a display of childlike spirits, of people allowing themselves to indulge in merriment, after ridding themselves of conventional expectations.  As someone who has been told on several occasions that I have the intelligence of an adult with the mind of a child, it’s a message I fully appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe that who we were as children is the truth that we should seek as adults, because that reveals more about who we are than the things people tell us we should be.

Next came Monster in full, which began with the duet dealing with despair in homosexual relationships when disapproval rains terror upon them.  I stand by my description of the piece from the first round so I won’t rehash it (though the casting was slightly different this time, with Bartee and Vincent Michael Lopez), just know that the fluorescent lighting, provided by vertical tubes on the sides of the stage gives the dance a starkness that makes it all the more haunting and each duet is also preceded by beautiful poetic readings by hip hop artist RA Scion, which is both a wonderful collaboration between contemporary artists and informative in providing further context for the dances to thrive in.  The next duet fired immediately like an electrical current, jolting Lewallen and Cheng to life (the costumes for all of the duets were gray shirts with colored shorts and matching socks, red for the first and yellow the for the second).  Their movements were contorted and spasmodic, staying earthbound as their bodies seemed to take on a life of their own.  As if drug induced, movements were erratically initiated by any and all parts of the body, with Lewallen becoming increasingly lethargic as her life ebbed away.  At one point, Cheng was essentially manipulating her through the motions, prodding her with his leg, until eventually the addiction claimed her.  The final duet conveyed a dysfunctional and abusive relationship (with blue socks).  I should note that the reason why I keep mentioning the colored socks is because they revealed a lot of articulation of the feet, particularly in demi-pointe (stretched ankles with flexed toes), which is normally used only when standing on relevé but is instead used in many air-borne extensions of the leg in this piece, which is both unusual and eye-catching.  The work featured an incredible amount of tension between Postlewaite and Melody Herrera, pushing and pulling at each other with mixed feelings of love and contempt.  A moment of particular interest was the use of a motif from the first duet, with one dancer kneeling down, reaching out one hand to hold the other dancer up as he leaned forward, to highlight the commonalities between both homosexual and heterosexual relationships.

The last work, entitled Cylindrical Shadows and choreographed by Annabelle Lopez Ochoa was born out of news she received of a friend of hers (and dancer) who had suddenly died at a young age, and explores emotional reactions and the enduring renewal that is intrinsic to both life and death.  Four men (Bartee, Lopez, Postlewaite, Wevers) and two women (Eames, Herrera) started in a triangular formation, moving in unison as dancers would intermittently break away to dance their solos away from the group.  Ochoa created fantastic manipulations of patterns here, to make the transitions seamless while the shapes changed.  She utilized different groupings, including a lithe and weightless trio that had Eames hovering through space, and a heartrending pas de deux between Herrera and Postlewaite that I shall describe as soulful.  What interested me most was the quartet with just the men, because female ballet choreographers are far outnumbered by their male counterparts, and it was gratifyingly refreshing to see such liberated male movement from a female perspective.  With sweeping gestures of the leg and huge penchées, elegance was paramount to the overall aesthetic.  It helps that Bartee, Postlewaite and Wevers have eighty-five miles of legs between them, but the choreography speaks for itself.  Some aspects of the piece confused me at first, but I have to say that after a few hours of processing, I’m enjoying the cerebral playground.

Living up the company’s name, Whim W’Him’s Shadows, Raincoats, & Monsters will make you think, but not ask too much, in both playful and erudite queries.  The dances are loaded with texture, color and narrative but remain unfettered by unnecessary complexities.  The trick to great choreography is to have too much material and trim the excess rather than extend something of little substance, and this show is definitely the former, which leaves you craving more.  Two performances remain at the Intiman Theater, though Saturday’s performance is sold out, so I suggest you get tickets for Sunday (5:00pm) ASAP! (Purchase Tickets at BrownPaperTickets).

For more information about Whim W’Him and its dancers, visit their website at www.whimwhim.org

(Disclaimer: The title of this entry doesn’t make a lot of sense, but alliteration is fun.  Deal with it.)

The Modern Myth

20 Dec

As you know, the majority of my blog’s content is related to ballet, with the occasional post about modern.  However, all of the reviews I’ve done for Seattle Dances have been about contemporary artists, with the most recent being on choreographer/dancer Molissa Fenley’s work, in an evening featuring performances of three pieces, which were then followed by a conversation between her and Pacific Northwest Ballet director, Peter Boal.  Despite my feeble attempt to be somewhat incognito by wearing my Clark Kent glasses, Peter (we shook hands, we’re on a first name basis now) said he recognized me from class—I think the people at PNB are on to me…I knew I should have upped the ante with a fake mustache but alas, at this point my regrets are my own.

Peter told a funny anecdote about how when he had nights off from New York City Ballet, he went to see Molissa Fenley perform, while other NYCB dancers (including his wife) went to see the likes of Natalia Makarova and Baryshnikov at American Ballet Theater.  Fenley was also quick to note that she would see Peter perform with his respective company, so there was a mutual appreciation of the other’s art.  I don’t know that it’s very common for ballet dancers to find modern dance interesting, and it certainly wasn’t natural for me either.  We all know that I’m an Ashton junkie (well, Peter doesn’t know…YET) because the technical steps, characterization and musicality (among many, many other things) speak to my soul.  I took to ballet like a faerie to a forest but modern was and continues to be more difficult for me to process.  I can churn out a review of a ballet performance with relative ease but my Fenley review I had to drag out of my brain, kicking and screaming.

In some ways I was rather surprised to discover that Peter is such a modernist and it got me thinking about the gap between ballet and modern and popular misconceptions, like “modern is for dancers who didn’t make it in ballet” or even that it’s for dancers who retired from ballet.  Modern dance is for people who like modern dance—that’s all there is to it.  Yes, it can be less demanding on the body (and seems to demand less on the physical traits of a person), although I have to say that I’ve had a few minor injuries in dancing ballet, like pulled muscles and such but when I’ve had some of the more devastating variety, like the kind that last for weeks or more and they all came from modern classes.  I don’t know if it was a strange belief that I could do what teachers asked for, a willingness to try anything, throwing my weight around, or the Aries in me pushing one hundred percent, but modern hurt.  I think it would be more apt to say that modern doesn’t demand a physical capacity to perform precise, virtuosic feats in the way ballet does, but modern can be a mental obstacle course that in my opinion, can be worse.

First of all, there’s the “I-word”…which normally I do not speak aloud but I shall for the sake of clarity, remind you that this is my euphemism for “improvisation.”  It’s virtually impossible for me to create dance instantaneously and more importantly, continuously, and exercises in “I-word” make me an anxious squirrel.  I tried, but practice of it made me ridiculously uncomfortable, which of course happens to be the greatest inhibitor of “I-word.”  Or how about “retrograde,” meaning dance a phrase and then basically rewind it.  Maybe due to the advent of television’s rewind button we’re not so impressed with such a mind-boggling skill, but to see human bodies do it without the use of technology is really something else.  As someone who relies on music that recognizes a time and space continuum, to inform the tone or character of a movement, it’s just inconceivable…and many times modern dances won’t even have music at all, which is like a hellish nightmare for me.  The intellectual challenges modern dance provides are different, but by no means easier than physical challenges seen in ballet.  I would even argue that those mental challenges are in fact greater because the mind is limitless, whereas there are limits to what the body can do, and that vastness is why modern never fails to be “new.”

It may sound like I don’t like modern because of my natural tendencies and escapist point of view that favors the romantic, fantastical world of ballet but the world is more than romance and to me, that’s what modern explores.  It’s an art form that is indeed beautiful in its own way, but when I remember not to expect to feel the same after seeing it as I would a ballet, then the doors are open to experience whatever it is.  Of course there are things I like or don’t like, and in many ways learning to understand the subjective nature of the arts is a metaphor for human interaction.  I think of artists as having great responsibility in bearing their souls for an audience, because if we can judge them as we inevitably do but in a respectful way then we can claim that we are capable of doing the same for any person we encounter in life.  Perhaps it’s cliché, but this is why I truly believe that art appreciation is one of the keys to a world peace.  There’s a reason why patrons of the arts don’t go into museums, rip paintings off the walls and burn them if they don’t like them, which makes the fact that people are so willing to harm or even kill one another over differences all the more tragic.

So…I aim to never write a negative review for Seattle Dances, because people work too hard to have someone just blah on their creations.  I’m more open with criticism in this blog (though I try my best to keep it constructive and relatively inoffensive) but people read this specifically for my thoughts…a formally published review is not the appropriate forum for overindulgences into my ego.  I encourage any dance audience member to respect the validity of their opinions regardless of your understanding of dance…be judgmental, but don’t be a jerk.  There are even times when a harsh critique is perfectly appropriate; a good review does not imply seeing things through rose-colored glasses and some of my favorite reviews I’ve read aren’t sunshine and bunnies.  The secret is knowing when, where and how to express oneself and to be open to learning something before disliking it.  It wasn’t a simple process for me, but I had help along the way, in the form of education and encouragement I received from various teachers (for whom without, I would not be writing about dance as I do today!).  I came across a video a few days ago of sardonic New York humorist and author Fran Lebowitz, who in talking about her relationship with Jerome Robbins, sums it up better than I can:

GraHam it up

7 Nov

Boy did I have a busy week!  I attended two very different dance shows and wrote reviews for SeattleDances, which I encourage you to read…because if I didn’t then that would mean I had no faith in my own writing (and I’m pretty sure I’m well on my way to having it).  The first of those reviews was of the Martha Graham Dance Company, of which I have a few “funny me” thoughts I would like to share (link for the entire review at SeattleDances).

Prior to the show, my experiences with Martha Graham were very basic, merely scratching the surface by means of a couple of dance history and technique classes.  I watched Lamentation and Night Journey on film and once had a teacher who taught some morsels of Graham technique in an intermediate modern class, like contractions, triplets…that sort of thing.  So I had some ideas going in as to what to expect, but at the same time my perspective on dance has broadened so much over the past couple of years I knew my reaction to Graham now and especially live, would differ greatly.  This is something I love about being a patron of the arts and balletomane (or in this case, modernomane?)…we’re constantly reevaluating ourselves and get a real sense of how we’ve changed and the progress we’ve made in expanding our horizons.  Fortune cookie wisdom aside, it’s just plain neat.

Back when I was fresh to dance I think my reaction to Graham was unsure and a bit confused and fascinated at the same time.  While watching her company in action the other day, I felt more in tune with how powerful her choreography is.  It was interesting to see the influences upon her and those she passed on, not only upon the choreographers who created the Lamentation Variations, but I even found myself thinking about seeing her in other choreographers’ work (like Balanchine!).  However, speaking of Lamentation Variations, one of said variations was choreographed by dance artist, Richard Move.  When I read his name in the program, I knew exactly where I had seen his name before and almost refused to believe that he and the name in my memory are in fact the same person, but when artistic director Janet Eilber mentioned that Graham had a fantastic sense of humor, I realized it was possible that the idea of not taking oneself too seriously is also a part of her legacy (more on this later).  As a matter of fact, Richard Move is apparently quite the well-known Martha Graham impersonator, to the extent that lawyers of the company even sent him cease and desist letters…but this is not how I had heard of him.  It just so happens that his choreography has been posted in this blog before, as he did the choreography for one of my favorite movies, Strangers with Candy, starring Amy Sedaris, Stephen Colbert and Paul Dinello.  Take a gander:

(I’m not going to bother explaining the premises of the film…you really just have to see it.  Would “yes, she’s a forty-something ex-junkie, wearing a googly eye on her forehead, a fat suit, and they made a battery powered by poop for a state science fair in a racist, quasi-Indonesian presentation” make sense to you?  I didn’t think so)

It’s true…the same guy that did one of the Lamentation Variations, as part of a tribute to mother of modern dance Martha Graham, a piece that was performed on the anniversary of 9/11, also choreographed the above.  Talk about the odd jobs!

However, as I said, Graham actually did have a wonderful sense of humor and wasn’t afraid to mock her own work.  Needless to say, her piece Maple Leaf Rag was my favorite of the evening is now one of my favorite dances of all time.  She revealed a side of herself in that piece that no one would expect, but like Move (or rather the other way around), people are full of surprises and despite our natural tendencies or signature characteristics, everybody experiences a full spectrum of emotion; Graham doing something lighthearted and comical shouldn’t come as a surprise.  What I loved most about this piece was that I could really see myself in it—not that I could do all the movements, mind you—but I actually listen to Scott Joplin rags on my iPod all the time, and love to just be a dancing fool when they come on.  I already described some of the funnier moments in my review, like the crawling along the bar or the woman who does the same phrase across the stage over and over…it’s hard to describe what exactly she was doing not because the movement was complicated but because words truly can’t capture the full effect.  Luckily, there is some footage of Maple Leaf Rag on YouTube, as a part of an interview with Blakeley White-McGuire, who also danced the lead when I saw it.  You can see the specific dancer I’m talking about at 0:40 and 3:50, drifting across the stage like some obtuse jellyfish.

Now imagine her doing that a few more times for good measure and you can begin to understand the humor.  Unfortunately, there is no commercial recording of Maple Leaf Rag available which is a shame because the piece needs to be seen in its entirety needs to be believed (as do the abs of some of the dancers…EGADS!  Let it be known that the Martha Graham Dance Company has some of the most ripped dancers I’ve ever seen in my entire life!).

Well, that just about wraps it up for some insights on Graham, YouDanceFunny style…so I shall give a little prelude as to what’s to come in the near to immediate future.  I’m going to unwisely devote most entries this month to Swan Lake.  First of all (in case you didn’t know), I’ve never actually watched Swan Lake in full (any production), though I have seen my fair share of Black Swan pas de deux, like you do.  Second, I need to know why women in particular are nuttercrackers for this ballet, so that’s my angle in all of this research…extracting the “feminine mystique” by diving head first into the lake of swans.  So I’ve basically hoarded all of the Swan Lake DVDs the library had to offer, might be able to see a few more online and I am ready to bunker down and get to business.  There may be an unrelated post here and there (Pacific Northwest Ballet is doing their run of their Twyla Tharp program and my ticket is for this weekend so a review is to be expected!) but November shall be indeed Swan Lake month.  I’m actually thinking this is a horrible idea, but it’s too late—promises have been made and discipline must be exercised.  Come December, I better have earned my balletomane stripes for taking this project on.

I am a writer: writing about writing

20 Oct

I would like to dedicate today’s entry to Kristen Legg, who gave me the chance to write a review for SeattleDances, of the second week of Men in Dance.  I’m so grateful that she sees something worthwhile in my writing and want to thank her for the opportunity to write for a broader audience.  If you haven’t read the review, here be a link for your perusal: Men in Dance, Week 2

In case you haven’t noticed, I put on my best for this one and upped the professional one of the piece.  I won’t rewrite the review with my perspective here because I think the review speaks for itself and I don’t want to damage its integrity—it’s entirely legitimate and something I’m very proud of.  I do enjoy “funny me” very much and would of course love to be that way all the time…but life isn’t about me, and that review was most certainly not.  What I realized is that a review must be about the performers so I set out to describe what I saw, insert a few neutral ideas and paint an image of the works with the assumption that each piece would appeal to somebody out there.  This task was about truly writing about dance…not indulging my funny bone.  THAT, friends, is what this blog is for!  And like proper addicts, you all just keep coming back…

So I would like to write about my first experience as a true dance writer (and not some nuttercracker with a WordPress account).  My first order of business was to follow the criteria given to me by my editor (note: I like saying “my editor” because it makes me sound more writer-ish).  She asked me to write a review—not a critique, and this was something I decided to differentiate for myself.  To some, they may be one and the same but I made a distinction because I feel that a good review tells it like it is and a critique is where one can get cranky (or positive, but generally cranky).  I still love reading critiques because constructive criticism is healthy and is useful feedback in future performances, but I wanted to look at these dances as finished products.   It’s like buying something and finding an inherent fault with it…registering a complaint isn’t going to change what it is at that moment so focusing on the present was more sensible to me.  Of course I did have my share of criticisms!  One piece (I’m not going to say which one) had a really…well, awful, schmaltzy score that I was not a fan of.  At least it had some amazing choreography but then out of nowhere came a series of Italian fouettes (if you don’t know what they look like, fret not, here’s a link), which made absolutely no sense to me.  One of my pet peeves is when a bravura step sticks out like a sore thumb and breaks the spell of a dance…they have to be used in contemporary choreography very carefully.  One fouette and I won’t notice but eight in a row? Overkill.  However, this is strictly my opinion and there must have been others and obviously the choreographer who felt that it was entirely appropriate and are the most important; my opinion as an audience member (or even a reviewer) still matters, but in a different way.

After figuring out my approach, the next step was to actually get to the show and I have to admit that getting a complementary ticket was pretty cool.  Nothing inflates the ego like going up to a box office and telling the people there that you represent something and a ticket should be there for you.  That, and having press photos e-mailed to me to post in the review was awesome too.  I had access to things most people didn’t (only one photo made it into the entry, but I got to see the rest!) and as mundane as such a thing may sound to some, I was kind of on a high.  I had a general feeling of excitement throughout the whole process and you know you’ve found something you’re meant to do when you look forward to what should be deemed “work.”

There was a certain allure too, in slipping in casually and knowing that I would write something that could reach and inform people.  The only feature that set me apart from other audience members was the fact that I pulled out a legal pad to write on, something I hadn’t done since my days at Ohio State.  I have an excellent visual memory (though it’s not something I can control) and can come up with some good descriptions as I watch a piece, but as fast as my brain works it can just as quickly forget.  My teachers at Ohio State always encouraged us to write without looking at the paper so we didn’t miss anything but writing quick notes to myself in between each piece was working well for me.  Well enough, such that writing the review was a breeze afterwards because I had all of my key phrases set to go.  The only omission was a review on one of the new pieces that evening, which I feel bad about…you see, Men in Dance had two different sets of dances the first and second week.  A review had already been written of the first week so I went with highlights of the second, including only the new works that were performed.  I ended up highlighting all but one “ugly duckling,” and there was nothing wrong with the piece, but I just couldn’t come up with anything…right.  Wouldn’t be the first time I ran headfirst into a writer’s block.

For so long, even though I’ve been writing this blog I always hesitated to call myself a writer.  I always added those adjectives describing a potential like “aspiring,” “hopeful” or “in progress,” but now that I’ve done this I think I can bring myself to say it (a la Yoda): a writer I am.  An editor I have, and in the door my foot I’ve got.  So many thanks again to Kristen…there is no greater gift than to help someone understand on a deeper level who they are.

 

Men + Dance = Men in Dance

11 Oct

I’m pretty sure (as in I know) I write for a predominantly female audience…historically, women have found me more entertaining than men have.  However, I would like to dedicate this post to my male audience…all three and a half of you, and in particular the homosexual readers in honor of National Coming Out Day.  As far as I know, I shall attempt to tie this in with a review of a festival showing I went to yesterday, Men in Dance, featuring all male dancers in works by various choreographers.

First, a little anecdote.  I was in a bit of a foul mood yesterday…but lock yourself out of your apartment, lose your key and not so happy you will be!  Normally I’m a very careful person and I don’t make mistakes but when I do they tend to be of the catastrophic variety.  You know the saying: “go big or go home” and that’s what I manage to do…except I couldn’t go home because I lost my key in the taxi, which of course dropped me off within feet of my doorstep.  Irony tastes like crap, and I’ve been mentally vomiting on myself since (which will probably continue until I fix this mess).  So of course because I’m one of those people that has to beat myself up I didn’t sleep well and was quite tired after a restless night at a friend’s house.  Not to mention I had to do the whole “walk of shame” wearing the same clothes from the day before as my landlord let my roommate and I in with the spare key.  The whole condition was exacerbated by the fact that I had to leave my contacts in overnight thus irritating my eyes, and also because I didn’t have time for a shower before heading to Capitol Hill for Men in Dance.  I don’t even remember how I got there—all I remember is zombie-walking to the bus stop messy-haired and red demon eyed, then somehow managing to appear in front of the Broadway Performance hall.

The show featured a great variety of dance styles, beginning with a preshow where a group of men danced outside, in the lobby, on the stairs leading to the theatre and eventually on one corner of the stage.  As they explored these spaces, sometimes they danced at you…not for you, at you (I almost tripped over one going up the stairs).  The preshow also included a small tap ensemble, clad in black, white and shades of grey pedestrian clothing, executing complicated footwork with such ease I wanted to believe that I too, could do such a thing…but that’s the mark of great hoofers; they make it look insanely easy.  In this sense, I often feel tap is the most deceiving dance form.

Following the preshow came Cypher, a male pas de trois that consisted of a number of dizzying turns and leaps…perhaps, too many.  Here’s the thing about bravura steps…when you have a lot of pirouettes and leaps it’s one of two things; it’s a variation/coda or the piece is being overpowered by an excess of such movements.  When it comes to a modern ballet, I don’t look for specific turns or jumps but what is the effect of a turn or jump?  Does it emphasize a musical phrase or show visual contrast in levels?  I wasn’t feeling much of a sense of purpose, other than to show off…which is an entirely legitimate choice but I felt that the pirouettes and leaps actually detracted from some of the more interesting choreography.  There were wonderful moments of texture—smooth classical lines as well as smaller staccato movements, set to a compelling score entitled Trilobita, which I assume translates into trilobite (and you know I’m a huge fossil geek).  It’s a fine line any time you put in a coupe jeté followed my multiple pirouettes because it can get competition dance-y very quickly.

Following that was an interesting piece with a group of young men performing a…running(?) dance, with a lot of acrobatic maneuvers and tiny jogging shorts.  It was one of those pieces with no music, which tends to freak me out but what’s interesting is that without music, dancers have to tap into a sort of mass, innate, biological rhythm that we often lose touch with.  I imagine it’s the same “force” that informs a school of fish to change directions at the exact same time or a flock of geese to fly in a V.   Speaking of mysterious forces, then came Wade Madsen’s pas de deux, Breath of Light.  This piece was stunning—an intimate duet for two men that really investigated the connection between two people.  There was of course close contact in the partnering but there were also moments where one dancer would run his hand along the contours of his partner’s body without touching him, making tangible the energy that can be felt radiating from another person.

After that sensual pas de deux, came the most amazing pas de quatre…linked to Jules Perrot’s famous divertissement for the four legendary ballerinas, Carlotta Grisi, Lucille Grahn, Marie Taglioni and Fanny Cerrito.  Using Cesare Pugni’s same score, choreographer Eva Stone made the piece in the image of four modern women with contemporary choreography and set to out to do the same for four men, but decided to keep the women’s choreography and simply had men perform it.  Under the title Me Over You, the new pas de quatre had four men with diva attitudes trying to outshine one another on stage in a myriad of movement styles, from balletic to modern and even gestures of vulgarity (“the finger” if you must know).  The result was a comedic dance that drew raucous laughter from the audience and squees of glee from those who could tell that Stone even quoted a bit of Perrot’s Pas de Quatre.

The first piece after intermission was a nice solo…modern, lyrical, with interesting points of origin and alighting.  The standout of the afternoon however, was an excerpt from artistic director of Whim W’Him, Olivier Wevers’s new work Monster, which debuted at the festival (Whim W’him will perform the full version of Monster in January).  Monster embodied the anguish felt by homosexuals over the disenfranchisement that comes from being a part of a marginalized population.  The performance was dedicated to the teens that committed suicide because of bullying based on their sexual orientation (although the piece was obviously created and rehearsed before—that kind of dance doesn’t happen overnight…usually).  I’m so pleased to see that such a topic is so forthrightly observed in Seattle’s dance community.  I think this subject matter is often avoided because some people in the dance community feel that evasion of it is the best way to combat so called “negative” stereotypes about male dancers while others are so beyond acceptance that it’s completely a non-issue.  There’s not as much open dialogue about the “middle” and I think that’s whom this dance is for.  Not everyone can grow up in a liberal city like Seattle or New York and those who don’t tend to suffer the most.  I certainly had my share (if not the brunt) of it growing up so I could relate to the piece a lot.  For example, normally in a promenade in ballet, the danseuse is in a position like an attitude or arabesque—something expansive that really fills a space but Monster had these low promenades in a tucked, almost fetal position, trying to make the body look as small as possible as if shrinking away from society.  The truth is, sometimes diminishing (and inadvertently belittling) oneself was the only way to avoid being hurt by others.  At other times there were these huge, sprawled out extensions that expressed the impossibility of trying to contain one’s own spirit.  Both dancers (PNB company members) were sublime, and I really enjoyed watching Lucien Postlewaite in this performance.  I remember seeing him in Balanchine’s Square Dance earlier this year and Monster is such a departure from that it’s great to see such versatility in a performer.  Random note, I’d like to ask him what it feels like to have super strong, obedient legs…does it feel as awesome as it looks?

At any rate, I think it’s noteworthy that Wevers and Postlewaite are actually married, and because this is Seattle it’s not gossip but casual information.  It’s interesting because the sexuality of dancers is as I said, often not discussed because most people in the dance community don’t care one way or another.  Unfortunately it’s jerks outside of the dance community that exploit stereotypes and make fun of dancers, both professional and aspiring.  For that reason, I think some dancers also avoid discussing it for fear that public interest in their personal lives will supersede their professional ones…it’s all very “Anderson Cooper” if you will, who is believed/known to be gay and is sometimes harshly viewed by the gay community for not publically discussing his personal life.  The resentment is perhaps understandable—people want role models but at the same time nobody should be required to discuss something so personal and in that sense I think people who take that route represent an ideal, of the way society should be.  On the other hand, society isn’t there yet and we do need role models and for that we can look to Marcelo Gomes who did publically “come out” and it hasn’t affected his career at all—in fact, he’s often crowned “the most in demand partner in the world.”  So young friends who are gay and struggling with confidence, look to the likes of these gentlemen and know that your success is possible, regardless of stupid people around you.

The penultimate piece was a solo by former New York City Ballet principal, who apparently came out of retirement (though the end of the piece seemed like a farewell to the stage) to dance an Agon-esque solo choreographed by Donald Byrd.  There was something oddly Agon-y about the solo, and perhaps because Boal has danced Agon what, eighty-five million times?  I likened it to a “West Coast Agon” though, Seattle-fied with jeans and a t-shirt (a comment from the peanut gallery noted that the only thing missing was the Birkenstocks).  Then came the final dance of the evening; sharp, modern, percussive and with a clear beginning, middle and end.  Lots of changes of direction, reversals and athletic lifts that made for a high-energy conclusion of the afternoon.

So what started out as a crappy day (for me) improved vastly by concert’s end.  The festival goes for two weeks and will showcase a different set of works for this upcoming weekend and if this past weekend was any indication, attendance is highly recommended.  Let me just say the audience simply enjoyed watching men dance…because men don’t dance enough (obviously the world would be a better place if they did).  If you are a man (or boy!) in dance and people give you a hard time for it, know that you are or will be loved, so hang in there.  If ignoramuses give you a really hard time…well that calls for a swift kick to the shins.  What do you think the REAL purpose of frappes at barre is?

Hera help us…

10 Aug

So I read Ismene Brown’s article at The Arts Desk that discusses what is to be done with dances after a dancemaker dies, a topic that is relevant now more than ever with the passing of Merce Cunningham and Pina Bausch last year.  It’s also a topic that for no logical reason has been the cause of me losing sleep for the past week and Brown’s article has clarified some things in my mind so the timing’s right to write.  Now or never, go big or go home.

I have to start by saying I have no idea what either company should do.  I liken it to ancient civilizations like Greece and Egypt…all great things must come to an end.  However, even though modern studies of such civilizations are a conglomeration of facts and theories, the important thing is how they continue to fascinate people.  Authenticity isn’t necessarily important; in fact, the mystery adds a certain allure that continually fuels the study of them.  I want to believe Cunningham understood this, which is why he was at peace with having his company come to an end.  He knew the art is grounded in the ephemeral and that his dances are lived.  It’s like treating each dance itself as a living being; a spirit that is born when an audience sees dancers moving on a stage.  In this sense, I find dance quite religious—it is entirely dependant on living people.  Just as people live and die, so does dance and while it saddens me to think that dances are always being lost I almost take comfort in the fact that it is.  I remember reading about some nutty choreographer that wants all documentation of his dances burned and destroyed after he dies (which I find silly and a little stupid) and while that is much too extreme there’s something to be said for being able to easily separate ourselves from dance and inevitably this world.

I should actually hit the ball out of the park and just say dance IS religious.  Choreographers, performers and the “living dance spirit thingies” become our gods and goddesses, with each of us having our own wonderfully unique pantheon (a prize for anyone who can name five of mine.  To the victor go the spoils!).  In addition to worship of our idols there is disciplined practice of the art in the studios.  These are reasons why filmed performances are so critical; while we can never truly capture the magic of a live performance, dances on DVD and yes, even on something as mundane as YouTube allow for audiences to form a relationship with a particular piece by repeatedly seeing them.  Most of the time, you can’t truly fall in love with someone just by meeting them once and it’s the same with dances.  Even if there is an initial lust, ideally a dance is revisited to understand it more each time.  It really is just like filming people—like watching a video of a birthday party when you were five or something embarrassingly horrifying from high school.  You watch not to recreate the moment but to remind yourself of it and feel that connection with the people in the video or in the case of dance, a particular deity.  Video makes dance ever so slightly more tangible but not concrete.

It’s easier for ballet, which to me is like an ancient civilization with artifacts, monuments, etc. and to be more precise, an ancient civilization with written word, which makes the interpretation of its relics and educated conjecture possible.  It has a structure and systematic order for teaching newer generations.  Meanwhile, I liken modern dance to smaller, native tribes with oral traditions.  Oral tradition makes the passing of stories through generations a bit more precarious but it allows for change and more importantly, imagination.  I think Bausch and Cunningham’s dances have made their mark in history and have good documentation with many performances readily available on film and while that may not be enough to easily restage a certain piece, I’m less troubled by either choreographer’s dances being “lost” because audiences of these dances have to rely on memories of what the dance was like, filling in the blanks with their imaginations and thus nurturing creativity.  I myself went to see the Cunningham Company’s Legacy tour (link for my review), and while I can’t remember exact movements to exact music like I can in ballet, I can vividly remember the style, the colors and effects and imagine for myself what the choreography looked like.  Thus, while it doesn’t have to be specific to a certain genre of dance, I often see classical ballets as immortalized and modern dances as reincarnated.

In terms of preserving modern works I hate to oversimplify and say that modern dance companies should just “try and see how it goes” but that’s often the foundation of the work that goes on in studios so I don’t necessarily see a problem with that approach.  I tend to believe that things that will have a profound influence on history will find its own way to achieve that so while I’m saddened by the idea of certain modern repertory “passing on,” I don’t believe Cunningham or Bausch’s influence will just vanish off the face of the Earth.  I just hate how the whole idea of dance conservation and guardianship is muddled by copyright laws and crap.  It’s counterproductive because the sense of freedom that should come with being an artist is so heavily monitored…but I digress.  It’s hard for me to complain rationally about something I really don’t understand.

At any rate, I have to disagree with Brown who concludes that nobody will want to support an art that “abstains from saving itself.”  For some of those dances, preservation would end up being like those people who obsessively get cosmetic surgery in order to “maintain” their “youth” (end result? Not pretty).  I often find modern choreographers to be quite grassroots in that they build in small communities and eventually those with voices big enough will be heard.  Maybe I’m sickeningly optimistic, but I think it’s just a matter of time.  After all, gods and goddesses aren’t so easily replaced.

Reader Topic: Getting Free Dance Lessons

9 Mar

So I was contacted by a reader who moderates the website http://fr.ee, a website that is solely devoted to getting freebies in life, including how to get free dance lessons.  He suggested that as a topic for my blog and I am happy to oblige…because unsurprisingly, I have opinions on this.  They already have a post that is more focused on ballroom dances like salsa, so I thought I’d tackle styles that I’m either more familiar with or have somehow managed to make its way into my category bar you see to the right.

I must preface by saying that my general views on dance are that it is in essence free.  You can put on some music (or not) and whatever movement you do (or not do) IS dance.  Untrained perhaps, but that doesn’t make it undancelike.  In fact, when I attended Separate Panes at OSU, one of the performers was not quite a trained dancer (a work in progress if you will) and yet he moves sinuously and with purpose.  It was obviously innate to him and Svetlana even mentioned how unfair it was that he danced so beautifully and she is a dance major (and ballet extraordinaire).  Unfortunately not everyone is born with such natural abilities, but dance is also one of those things where you get what you put into it.  If you invest the time and money you will see changes…changes of varying degrees depending on your body and your natural abilities but the point is if you want any change, you need to invest in it.  I promise if you do, dance will find a way to reward you!  At any rate, this is not to say you can’t enjoy a little freebie or two and sometimes that’s all you need to get started.

For free ballet lessons, there are a couple of things you can do.  You can watch videos on YouTube or slightly better, borrow an instructional video from your local library.  Personally, I don’t recommend either because if there’s one dance form that really necessitates being in the studio, it’s ballet.  I realize that some people may not have the confidence and that it can all be overwhelming to show up in a leotard and learn a bunch of new French words.  In that sense, watching a few videos is a good way to relieve some of the anticipation and at least see what some of the basic movements look like.  Even the fact that you can rewind videos can be inhibiting…after all, the art of catching up is a part of learning to dance.  If you’re learning a petite allegro and haven’t mastered all of the little jumps, negotiating with your body to get through it when it’s crunch time isn’t going to happen if you have the luxury of rewinding!

It is possible to get free ballet lessons though…for example, BalletMet, the premiere ballet company in Columbus, Ohio puts in vouchers for one free class in every program that they hand out if you attend a performance.  Getting into the performance for free is a different matter, but the voucher of course is.  If you’re really shady, you can even hang out after a performance and pick up programs people left behind or dig through the trash if you must.  If you’re super-shady, you can even ask if any of your friends are going, ask if you can have their free class and/or have them play raccoon and dig through trash for you.  It’s not glamorous…but it is free.

For jazz classes, my opinion differs a bit.  Pretty much the only way to get a free jazz class is to hope a studio might have a “bring a friend” day or a “first class free” kind of deal and there’s no way to find that out unless you know someone who attends that particular studio (I brought a friend once to a jazz class at OSU…talked to the teacher beforehand and she was cool with it.  Come to think of it, if you are a college student, checking to see if your university offers dance classes is another potential opportunity for free classes.  If you’re already paying full time tuition, why not?).  So talking is your best weapon, but I actually do approve a bit of videos for jazz.  Jazz has some neat tricks and when it comes to learning a trick-type skill, sometimes the “monkey-see-monkey-do” approach works best.  For example, watching videos is how I learned the mechanics of an illusion turn (not that I can do one, but I know how it works thanks to video).  Also, videos online in particular have been a way for innovative moves to be passed around, because unlike ballet, jazz has tons of room for new steps.

When it comes to modern, I believe it’s important to be in the studio (or not) again.  What I mean is it’s important to be somewhere…in a group, in a space, with a someone who can tell you what you’re doing or you can decide what to do, together.  The beauty of modern is that it doesn’t have to be a studio…I love it when dances take place outside.  A great way to get free classes in modern technique though is to keep your ear to the ground for any upcoming festivals, symposiums and workshops.  Modern dancers need income of course, but they are also more eager to spread their ideas, techniques and style than in any other dance form, resulting in some free opportunities.  It can be hard to find your way into the modern community though and my recommendation is to start with a local university with a dance department, since a lot of research happens there and local events often emerge as dance majors and graduate students seek to solidify their voices as they get their degrees.  These are emerging artists that need guinea pigs…volunteers are greatly appreciated.

As for tap classes, I have never taken a tap class but I can offer one unique idea.  I do not joke when I say this, but volunteer at a senior center.  I know someone who did, found out that some of the residents were hoofers and learned from them for what?  For free.  It’s an idea that is full of win-win because the old folks love to have visitors and something to look forward to and you get free tap lessons.  Think about it, this is the generation that grew up watching the likes of Fred and Ginger, Eleanor Powell and that handsome devil Gene Kelly.  For the elderly of today, tap was a BIG DEAL in their day and recreational lessons oh so very common.  This is not to say I think you should find a senior center and interrogate each resident until you find one who can tap…but the opportunity may present itself if you’re already volunteering.  They’re bound to have wonderful stories too about tap dancing in its golden age.

If none of the above works for you…be a man.  Literally.  You’d be surprised what that can get you in the world of dance.