Tag Archives: merce cunningham

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.

Moira Shearer

21 Sep

It would almost seem a statement of the obvious to discuss the role of women in dance.  Plenty of time is spent fawning over the performances of near mythical figures like Balanchine’s muses or prima ballerinas like Margot Fonteyn…but there are more stories than just the most illustrious ones.  There are those that are far less romantic and for various reasons less known.  I think we owe it to dance history to recognize those figures more often and for that, I turned to a book written by my former teacher and professor of dance at the Ohio State University, Karen Eliot (not a nom de plume): Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham.

The book is not a complete autobiography of these five dancers, but rather an illustration of segments of dance history as embodied by them through their working lives.  It’s a diverse selection of unsung heroines that includes eighteenth century ballerina Giovanna Baccelli, Adèle Dumilâtre (the original Myrtha), Tamara Karsavina of Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes fame, star of The Red Shoes Moira Shearer and Cunningham dancer Catherine Kerr.  I’ve been reading this book for months (because I’m actually a slow reader and easily distracted when it comes to more academic writing) so unfortunately the chapters on Baccelli and Dumilâtre are not so fresh in my mind, but know that each dancer Karen chose has a contribution to dance that is grossly overlooked.  Imagine being Dumilâtre for instance, and having to make a name for yourself in the time of Marie Taglioni?  Dumilâtre was in fact one of the first to replace Taglioni in La Sylphide, but by that time the legend was written.

I was however, most interested in the chapter on Moira Shearer, because a brainiac ballerina (Tamara Rojo…who else?) called her “the greatest English ballerina that ever was” and went as far as saying that “she was the star that should have been.”  It takes quite a bit of gall to say that Shearer should have been the star in the era of Fonteyn…although perhaps the name Tamara inspires such nerve because Karsavina was quite the brazen, brainiac ballerina herself (although for more on that, you’ll have to read Karen’s book…bwahaha!).  At any rate, Shearer is almost solely known for her role as Vicky Page in the landmark film The Red Shoes, which I watched at a time when its contents were far beyond my understanding.  Regardless, it’s interesting to uncover how she felt about the film and how it affected her career as a dancer.  I don’t know that I would say she blames the movie for her premature retirement, but it certainly did have some negative repercussions that had me thinking about some of the contemporary ballet related films being released these days.  I remember reading in an article that Darren Aronofsky said people in the ballet world were reluctant to get involved with Black Swan, which I found surprising at first but perhaps the desire to avoid the fate that befell Moira Shearer makes more sense.

Dame Ninette de Valois’s role in this cannot be ignored.  It is said that when Shearer was reluctant to take on the role of Victoria Page, de Valois “encouraged” her to accept it so that the producers of the film would stop annoying her with their persistence.  De Valois was also instrumental in creating the Fonteyn vehicle, and apparently cast Shearer in the Bluebird pas de deux on the opening night of Sleeping Beauty when the Sadler’s Wells Ballet toured to New York, a role that Shearer normally did not dance and frazzled her with anxiety; she was prone to nerves and had basically unraveled by the third act, just waiting in her dressing room.  This was at a time when Shearer was world famous for The Red Shoes, but de Valois was insistent on her promoting of Fonteyn, so Shearer’s name was used to entice American audiences but Fonteyn was ultimately the one de Valois wanted to be seen.  Apparently there are varying accounts of the tensions between Shearer and de Valois, particularly in coaching Shearer received from Tamara Karsavina and George Balanchine.  Shearer sought out Karsavina to be coached for Giselle, a move that infuriated de Valois since only Fonteyn was to receive such treatment (and eventually did when de Valois brought Karsavina in to coach Fonteyn and her partner privately).  De Valois actually had to withdraw when it came to Balanchine though; when he came to set Ballet Imperial, he requested to work with Shearer privately, an experience Shearer cherished greatly.  It’s unfortunate that some critics at the time were perhaps overzealous in their praise of Fonteyn and consequently downright cruel to Shearer (in some instances they even criticized her porcelain appearance and red hair and that she didn’t have the “look” to dance certain parts…can you believe that?).  Critics claimed the choreography wasn’t good enough for Fonteyn (who actually had trouble adapting to Balanchine’s style), and Shearer only excelled because of her speed and strong feet.  It’s rather childish, much like some of the YouTube comments on ballet videos these days…

It’s really unfortunate that there doesn’t seem to be any footage of Shearer dancing ballets on stage commercially available, and we can only imagine what she would have been like by virtue of her film performances.  The thought of footage of the original cast of Symphonic Variations that included Shearer (thus making her a goddess in my book!) makes me slobber like a St. Bernard.  Although, I don’t know if such footage actually exists or not, but a boy can dream, no?  At any rate, my favorite video of her dancing that I’ve seen was not her performances from The Red Shoes, which she believed was filmed at a time when she didn’t consider herself fully refined as a dancer.  Although I haven’t seen the entire film, I have long coveted the clip of her dancing from the movie The Story of Three Loves, in which she dances a solo to Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini.  Famous for her light and airy movements, the intricate footwork and unusual arm movements suit her incredibly well.  I love the almost frenzied section that’s followed by a luxurious adagio to the popular melody.  The contrast is like catching a butterfly in your hands—at first it’s frantic as it flutters about but eventually there’s a moment where it settles down and ever so languidly opens and closes its wings, as if breathing through them.  In addition to the unconventional port de bras, I was very drawn to the musicality of the piece and after a little research I now know why…it was choreographed by none other than Sir Frederick Ashton!  I always gravitate toward his work (clearly at a subconscious level)…so you too must enjoy the glory of Moira Shearer, in this excerpt from The Story of Three Loves.

(I should note that this is not to be confused with Rhapsody, another Ashton ballet that actually uses the exact same music but has completely different choreography)

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.

Merce Cunningham: the Legacy Tour

13 Feb

Tonight was the inaugural performance of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s Legacy Tour, which will travel the world (Rome is next, according to the salesman from whom I bought a couple of postcards) performing works from Merce Cunningham’s repertory of modern dances.  I was so honored to be in the audience tonight; to see MCDC perform live for the very first time, to be a tiny part of this historic tour and most of all, honored to have seen Cunningham choreography.  It was a very special occasion (even though I didn’t have time to eat dinner and was starving throughout the show…which I didn’t really notice until after it was over), highlighted by a preperformance talk with Ohio State University’s very own, Karen Eliot (a former dancer with the company) and David Covey (former lighting director) as well as a question and answer session with a couple of the dancers, David Vaughan, the company’s archivist and…a guy with a mustache (regrettably, I didn’t catch his name or role with the company).  There were even showings of Tacita Dean’s Craneway Event earlier in the day (which unfortunately I missed…I had no idea they were even happening) so it was quite the exhaustive Cunningham crash course.  And I was loving every moment (and not missing watching the 2010 Olympic opening ceremonies!).

During the preperformance talk, Karen gave a speech about her experiences as a dancer for the company and it was evident that there was a lot of love and passion for what she learned during that time.  She told us that there was no right way to be an audience member for a Cunningham dance; she would find moments where she would laugh at the way a certain gesture was done but on the other end of the spectrum every Cunningham dance she sees brings her to tears.  She may not have been dancing on stage that night, but she was radiant; it’s so rare to see someone who is so deeply integrated into something they love.  Plenty of people can tell you “dance is the very fiber of my being,” but when it comes to Karen you really believe it to an extent that never occurred to you before and that alone is a precious gift.

David Covey followed with a few anecdotes of his time with Cunningham, from a whirlwind acceptance of the job to the one and only time Cunningham ever imparted his opinion on the lighting design of a piece.  David stressed that Cunningham always placed complete trust in his collaborators and never asked for anything, which is why his one request for David was so unusual.  He asked David to come to the studio at a particular hour, when the sun reflected off the Hudson River and right into the studio, illuminating primary colors on the walls.  Cunningham needed him to see that and while Cunningham normally sat onstage while directing his company in rehearsals, for this particular piece he actually went into the audience to watch, turned to David and gave him three claps of approval.  I wish I could retell the story as he originally did…it was really beautiful.

So then it was time for the show.  Now I have to preface by saying that I was a little apprehensive as to how I would react to Cunningham works.  I’ve always known that for me, dance is symbiotic with music.  In fact, as a wannabe dancer I rely on music.  In class I always do what the music tells me to do (which sometimes disagrees with the teacher).  When it comes to timing or imagining a character or wearing a certain facial expression it’s as though the voice of the music speaks to me and I just know what to do.  However, although Cunningham of course used music he had a much different approach.  His dancers rehearse in silence and then music is applied for the actual performance.  The thought terrifies me…but now having seen how the elements can come together, Cunningham has silently put a fork in the road ahead of me.  Should I stay true to who I am or seek out what I understand the least?  In the end, there is no right answer but there is always the choice to make.

The two pieces for the program tonight were Crises and Split SidesCrises was originally performed in 1960 and reconstructed within the past decade to enter the repertory again.  Dancers were dressed in solid colored unitards in red, orange and yellow, in sharp contrast to the plain black stage.  I found myself lost in the music, a sort of rambling of piano works with intermittent recognizable rhythms…and it turns out I was okay with it.  I wasn’t lost in it as I would be say, a Chopin Nocturne, but the cascading piano notes sort of relieved any sense of time and the piece was really a lot like daydreaming.  Karen had seen the piece before and told us it reminded her of human relationships, with elastic bands binding dancers to each other and representing the invisible ties two people have between them.  Her ideas were supported by the way pairs of dancers would manipulate each other and what I found the most intriguing was how unbiased the choreography was.  Some relationships were erotic, others playful, but there were no signs of judgment to tell us which actions were favorable or not.  This idea was emphasized by how Cunningham used ballet vocabulary and lines; the lines and steps were there but there was no intention of telling the audience that such lines were beautiful or a high leg extension was virtuosic…merely present.  I was fascinated by how he was able to strip ballet of its prettiness without making it or even the anti-balletic movements adverse.  The choreography had a pure neutrality that simply said it existed.  I felt the whole experience was beautiful, but definitely not in the same sense as going to see a classical ballet (although one woman did a series of stepping onto relevé in a parallel first position and would hold it; it was incredible in ways I have never imagined).

Split Sides was a piece that utilized one of Cunningham’s most famous tactics, randomization.  A few preselected audience members rolled dice to determine various aspects of the dance tonight.  This is absolutely crazy (in an extraordinary way) to me, because I can’t imagine not knowing exactly what would be performed and then finding out right after intermission.  But the dancers said in the Q&A that they were used to rehearsing both A-B and B-A, so it wasn’t a problem at all (one even said it was exhilarating.  I would stress out until my hair turned white).  So there were two different dances, two different pieces of music, two different sets of costumes (one set in black and white sort of violent paint splatters, the other being sunset tones with black accents), two different backdrops (one a washed out cityscape in cool blues and purples, the other an abstract forest with a suspended full moon) and then two sets of lighting cues.  It would be difficult (if not impossible) to really review or describe this piece because chances are it will be different for anyone else who sees it…but for the way it worked tonight, I surprisingly found myself moved by the very end when one dancer left the stage moving in a peculiar way, to music that didn’t really fit the moment…I likened it to when someone dies young.  It was the same feeling of unfulfillment…not just wanting to see more for the sake of seeing more but the tragic understanding that a finite end has come, without reason.  It was truly remarkable to see the way in which the five elements crystallized before us and to me it spoke again of Cunningham’s extrinisicality towards biases and preconceived ideas.  The fact that all parts of the production were equal, with none of them having anything to do with each other until the dance itself is performed (i.e. dancers rehearsing silence, lighting directors being left to their own devises, etc.) made me feel as though I were watching choreographed life itself.  The elements were separate, but equal, incidental and yet on occasion harmonious.  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.

I almost feel like it was quite an accomplishment to have experienced, learned and enjoyed so much in one night…I’m still kind of processing things.  But the obvious should be clear; if the Legacy Tour comes to a city near you, I highly recommend that that you attend!  That’s it…just go.

The Merce Cunningham Dance Company in Split Sides. Photo credit: Tony Dougherty

To download a complete schedule of the Legacy Tour, be sure to check out the Merce Cunningham Dance Company’s website.

The Human Aquarium

10 Dec

I’ve had this lingering Ashton after taste for a while, even though I haven’t watched an Ashton work in weeks.  For whatever reason, it’s fresh in my mind and despite the fact that I’m anxious to watch the DVD of his The Tales of Beatrix Potter that I just got from the library, I was getting the feeling that watching another Ashton work would drive me insane.  Nothing wrong with his ballets (obviously), but I need variety to survive.  For me it’s not the spice of life; it’s the chocolate chips to my cookie.  Life is worthless without variety.

Being in the funk that I was, I decided to take my first step into the world of Wayne McGregor, resident choreographer for the Royal Ballet.  Back when I went to see Manon at the beginning of the summer, his work Chroma was featured as a part of a triple bill that the Royal Ballet was also touring.  Between the two I chose Manon because of Carlos Acosta, but the playbill for the Royal Ballet featured a photo from Chroma and the image is kind of burned into the recesses of me brain.  Since then, I’ve categorized Chroma as “the one that got away,” because I had the opportunity to see it, but neither the knowledge nor the money.  Accordingly (and because my life hates me), it still eludes me because McGregor ballets haven’t been released on DVD as far as I know, but Infra, another one of his works is available in full on YouTube.  Okay, so maybe life doesn’t hate me after all.

After watching a brief interview with McGregor in a video by the Royal Opera House (who maintain an excellent presence on YouTube, Twitter and now iTunes), I had a sinking feeling I was in trouble.  His piece is about “inferences” and “human relationships” and I hate to say it, but I get a little annoyed when choreographers say that their dances are about “human relationships,” because that is the vaguest answer in the entire world.  I don’t have a problem with viewing a dance as a work of art and deciding for myself what I get out of the piece, but when I hear “human relationships” I can’t help but lose a sense of…something.  I can’t put my finger on it, but somehow dances inspired by human relationships fall into a certain abyss in my mind.  It’s not that I didn’t see or that I don’t understand human relationships in Infra, I just don’t see them the way McGregor does.  As usual, I blame the Aries in me…we don’t like to beat around the bush and inferences are often seen as a waste of time when one can head butt the source.  Crude, but true.

What I found interesting about Infra was that it has a lot of itsy-bitsy movements and explored the body in different ways, and although the dancers rely on their grounding in ballet technique, the overall piece lacked shapes.  To me, a leg extension or arabesque has a certain shape and a resulting aura, which was completely deconstructed and thus absent in Infra.  I’m fascinated by McGregor’s ability to create ballet without shapes, when those very shapes are what I typically see, almost as if his choreography is the absence of whatever it is that defines the art to my eyes.  Fascinating and a little disconcerting, because it almost felt overloaded with little detailed movements.  It’s kind of like staring at a tapestry and trying to count each individually woven stitch, thus losing sight of the bigger picture.  However, in Infra there really is no bigger picture, and only a few subtle changes of mood to inform us that there is a sense of passing time in the piece.  But maybe the point is we should take the time to stare at the stitches in a tapestry from time to time, just to see what’s there.  There’s a moment in Infra where a bunch of people are walking across the stage and one dancer (I don’t know who…I’m still unfamiliar with who’s who in the Royal Ballet.  I only recognized Edward Watson, who is pretty hard to miss!), breaks down and is grief-stricken.  Nobody knows why she’s crying, and the people on stage certainly don’t give a damn, but that’s one of those details that is lost when we don’t take the time to look.

Another interesting moment was one section in the middle where there are a few rectangular spotlights on the stage, neatly arranged in a row with each rectangle containing a duo of a male and female dancer, doing their own phrases of movement which occasionally coincided with another couple’s.  It reminded me of looking at an office building at night, and seeing people at work in the windows, and judging by the fact that during the credits an office building with workers in windows, I think that’s what’s being inferred (Aha!  I got an inference!  Victory!).  The whole piece has a pedestrian quality to it, obviously because of the backdrop with the LED figures walking on a street.  The piece’s structure reminded me of Cunningham’s Biped, although the color (literally and figuratively) of each piece was different.  Biped was more multi-dimensional while Infra, although not really a narrative was linear…ish.  Obviously the effect was different as well, as I was getting this “human aquarium” vibe from Infra.  Like, you’re watching and you can see people/fish communicating with each other, doing things, or being on their own and you can only “infer” what they might be saying.  Sometimes when I go to an aquarium I like to make up a conversation between the fish, like “hey, those fins make you look fat” but that wasn’t appropriate for this piece.

At any rate, I’m a little ambivalent with Infra.  I could see beauty in it, but it wasn’t a beauty that moved me or produces some intense reaction to it.  After I sort of gave in to just letting myself experience it, without looking for anything in particular it had a sort of soothing quality that aquariums have.  And sometimes I like to brainlessly stare at aquariums with no purpose.

Without further ado, Infra (in three parts), for your viewing pleasure (or not…it’s nobody’s fault if you don’t like it):

Remembering Merce Cunningham

27 Jul

The dance world is having a rough summer after Pina Bausch, MJ, and now Merce Cunningham.  Although, I do feel like his death is a little easier to absorb because he had such an incredible life filled with many years of dance, whereas Pina and MJ went so suddenly.  Karen Eliot, who I’ve mentioned danced for his company many years ago said it was a gift, in that he finished his last work, called the dancers to thank them, and then went peacefully in his sleep.  She said it was very much something he would do, to decide that now was the time to go and to do so.  She had known that he was not in good health for a little while now, but the poor thing is still heartbroken.  Bravely, she foraged on in class this morning, trying to be her usual self and even had us try entrechat six, which made my brain go “sha-duh-duh-duh-what?”  Anyway, there were some tears after class, and she told us a little about how much he meant to her, especially as her teacher and what he imparted onto her, so my sympathies are with her and others who were friends, family and lovers of Merce.

I studied a little bit of his work and ideas through a dance and theatre history class, and truthfully they weren’t easy for me to fully comprehend because I’m one of those crotchety grumpy bears that likes dance and music to be woven together in a harmonious relationship.  My brain is wired to take delight in classical lines, classical music, classical dance, and classical methods of presenting such.  If you like Daoism as much as I do, then you know going against one’s nature is a no-no, and Cunningham is practically on the opposite end of the spectrum.  He didn’t see music as a necessity and didn’t mind randomizing choreography and having a piece look completely different for each performance.  Reminds me of his partner John Cage as well, who felt the same about music and went as far as writing a “piece” where someone would sit at a piano for a few minutes and the music was whatever noise there was.  Some audience members were annoyed, but I think that’s just evidence that some people take life waaay too seriously.  Anyway, back on topic, to me the pursuit of chance is radical and on the verge of madness, but Cunningham was so halcyon in his approach (I’ve been waiting for an opportunity to use that word!) that it’s impossible to associate it with insanity.  It’s all very perplexing, but somehow he made it work, and even I was able to appreciate his choreography.

One of his works that I really liked was Biped (which for whatever reason I always want to mistakenly call Bipedal).  It employed innovations in the use of technology with dance, another aspect of Cunningham’s work that makes my brain work overtime, resulting in lasers and abstract 3-D holographic figures walking and running, while human dancers moved with them.  The effect was really neat, and it’s just one of those pieces that is interesting to look at.  In the same way sitting in a park and staring at some trees or riding a train and looking out the window is something interesting to look at.  We don’t necessarily stare at things because we derive a great amount of pleasure from doing so, but visually there’s always something compelling that makes it so we can’t avert our gazes.  For me, this is the essence of many of Cunningham’s works…whatever “it” is that keeps us staring at things, that “it” is something valid and worth exploring.  And more importantly, that “it” is different for every person.  I loved the way Biped didn’t make me feel stupid, and that I could indeed appreciate modern dance.

Another one of his pieces that I vividly remember is Beach Birds for Camera, which I found to be incredibly charming.  The goal of the piece wasn’t to be a bird or even move like a bird, but somehow it recreated for me that same fascination one gets when observing animals at the zoo.  To me, the piece seemed to capture the essence of how birds relate to and communicate with each other and what their language would look like if it were made into movement.  It’s really quirky, almost silly in a sense, as seagulls themselves are rather vacuous creatures (Finding Nemo anyone?  Which reminds me of a funny story in ballet class when every time we did echappé sauté, someone in the class would say “esssscah-pey!” a la Dory, and the teacher seemed really confused.  I think she was one of three people on Earth at the time that hadn’t seen Finding Nemo).  I found myself horribly amused, and wishing I was a bird too.  There is a short excerpt here (I saw the original black and white group version):

So, dearest Merce…thank you for introducing new ideas about dance and art; that not everything has to have a story, and that dance is indeed its own independent art form.  Even though I could never dance that way (improv freaks me out enough as it is), I feel like you are the kind of person I could have had interesting conversations with, proof that even people with vastly differing natures don’t have to get up in arms when they don’t agree on something.  Although, I did read a beautiful quote by you, and it would seem that we do share something in common:

“You have to love dancing to stick to it. It gives you nothing back, no manuscripts to store away, no paintings to show on walls and maybe hang in museums, no poems to be printed and sold, nothing but that single fleeting moment when you feel alive.”

-Merce Cunningham

The Squirrel Burglar strikes again…and “What Would Natalia Osipova Do?”-Answered!

30 Jun

When we last left our hero, his ballet shoe had been cast away in the streets (we assume) of Washington DC.  So I bought a new pair of shoes (Bloch Prolites in white leather, just in case you were curious.  I was tired of black shoes anyway), and of course had to sew in the elastics, which I always use a machine for because it’s a quick zippity-do-dah and the stitches are more durable.  However, the resident squirrel burglar somehow managed to shroud the sewing machine and pedal in separate places.  They’re of course supposed to come apart, but the logic behind storing them in two separate locations can only be rationalized by those well versed in the ways of squirrel burglary.  I managed to find the machine, but no luck with the power cord/pedal.  Naturally the squirrel burglar denied any responsibility in the misplacement of the aforementioned valuables, claiming that the sensible thing to do would have been to keep them together.  OBVIOUSLY.

Abandoning the quest, against my better judgment I decided to try sewing them in by hand, despite a well recorded history of untrustworthy hand seamstering skills.  So of course, I poked my finger with the needle before I even got a stitch in.  However, it wasn’t until after I saw blood shmeared all over my shoes did I realize that the needle had drawn blood.  White shoes, if you’ll recall.  Frantically panicking, amidst making weird “freaking out” noises like I do, I washed my stab wound, and thankfully due to the leather composition of the shoes themselves, the bloodstains wiped off with ease.  Let this be a lesson…squirrel burglars and their trickery are not to be underestimated and that only *I* could manage to bleed all over brand new WHITE shoes that I obviously hadn’t worn yet.  I also forgot to mention this was about an hour before I had class, so I ended up just tying the elastics and doing the criss-cross-wrap-underneath-your-foot-while-stepping-on-the-knot-which-gets-kind-of-annoying thing.

Anyway, so this summer has been abnormal with doing the festival, then drop in classes at Washington Ballet and now drop in classes back at OSU, home sweet home!  Summer class is taught by Karen Eliot who danced with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company.  Incidentally, to ensure I got the spelling and her bio correct, I found out that Karen Eliot is also a nom de plume that “anyone is welcome to use for activist and artistic endeavours. It is especially popular within the Neoist movement. It was developed in order to counter the male domination of that movement, the most predominant multiple user-names being Monty Cantsin and Luther Blissett.”  Coincidentally, she has also written a book: Dancing Lives: Five Female Dancers from the Ballet d’Action to Merce Cunningham, and now I’m starting to wonder if Karen Eliot is her real name…but it doesn’t matter (or does it?).  She’s still this diminutive but amazing ballet teacher with super hyper extended everything and a leg line that inspires jealousy.  She’s quite a quirky character as well…last summer she had us do a saut de chat in a grande allegro, and told everyone to take their arms to third, and I joked that Jessica (the other ballet teacher I’ve had many times) always makes the gentleman take their arms to fifth, and Karen put her hands on her hips and said “well I have a wild side.”  Oh snap!

I told Karen of Balletfest ’09 and she agreed that the Royal Ballet is…well, better than the Bolshoi.  Suck it Bolshoi!  I’m kidding really…they’re still amazing in their own right and I loved watching them very much…we just happen to agree that the RB is amazinger.  I bring this up because I was looking for a way excuse to segue into discussing the Bolshoi briefly.  In response to my What Would Natalia Osipova Do? entry, lookie what I found on youtube (AKA, what I had originally paid to see):

So mystery solved.  No Gamzatti variation, just the Petipa/Cecchetti/Ivanov Cinderella variation that is more widely used.  Although she did shake things up a little bit since it normally has the pirouette a la seconde going en dedans (which Shipulina did) instead of en dehors (which is like ridiculously muy mucho easier), but Natalia also does it from a double, and fouettes into a double (that last one being a triple), so clearly what she’s doing is probably harder for most ballerinas.  Ivan Vasiliev seems to be quite a dynamic partner…a bit stockier than Volchkov, although their jumps are probably equal and Vasiliev is a much much better turner (triples a la seconde! Holy Billy Elliot!) although I don’t think his feet are quite as good.  Their coda was much more fun to watch, and although Natalia didn’t do the a la seconde turns like in that Mariinsky festival video, she does do some consecutive doubles with different arm variations.

I know I’m extremely fortunate to have even seen the Bolshoi and you bet I’d do it all over again, same dancers and all, but apparently there’s a chance I may never truly get over Bolshoi changing the castings…I mean the least they could have done was make Natalia one of the Odalisques as a consolation prize, and perform the double tours as seen here (which all other ballerinas normally do double pirouettes):

She’s incredible.  Someday Natalia, we shall rendezvous!