Tag Archives: rite of spring

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.


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.


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)

Thank you, Mr. B (that’s Bernstein, not Balanchine)

10 Feb

Is it just me or does it seem like a lot of the major ballet companies have done or will do Sleeping Beauty this season?  Off the top of my head I can recall the Royal Ballet, Mariinsky (in Washington DC this weekend!), NYCB, Pacific Northwest and at the beginning of this summer ABT will have Alina Cojocaru as a guest.  That’s a lot of Sleeping Beauty…and yet I’ve never seen it.  Obviously, I don’t expect that the artistic directors of the world to have conference calls to discuss what they’re doing each season so that they don’t overlap, which really doesn’t matter anyway because I highly doubt anyone can afford to globe trot to all of these Sleeping Beauty productions.  It just seems like an odd coincidence considering the fact that the classics are generally done on two/three year cycles.  Anyway, just the thought of it all seems exhausting to me, but alas, I hate flying.  Although chances are if you could potentially afford such transnational adventures, you probably wouldn’t be flying economy class so perhaps the experience is more enjoyable under those circumstances.  The only time I’ve ever flown first class was on a half an hour flight from Detroit to Columbus which they put me on because I missed my original flight after being delayed in customs because I was caught with foreign tangerines in my bag.  Oops.

Anyway, I would like to devote today’s post to a book I came across at the library, entitled Composers on Music: Eight Centuries of Writings edited by Josiah Fisk with Jeff Nichols as consulting editor.  It’s an amalgamation (I love that word) of various writings by composers themselves on other composers, on music, art movements, personal philosophies, you name it.  I don’t know that it’s necessarily a good stand alone resource, but it gives a lot of good tidbits, some just a paragraph or too, some more lengthy essays.  It also lists the source interviews, letters and writings that each passage comes from so if there’s more you need to know about the context in which the passage was written this book can show you the way.  Basically, it’s a nifty astrolabe that can guide you through an overview of composers and their thoughts.  Although I do have to say that the book is a little difficult to navigate.  For example, a composer like Tchaikovsky has a chapter of his own writings, but the index also provides page numbers for when other composers mention him by name so he’s all over the book.  It’s still pretty murky though because specific pieces aren’t always mentioned so there’s a lot of skimming with this one.

Obviously, the relationship between music and dance is hard to ignore.  In fact, I treasure and live by it (Merce Cunningham would argue otherwise and ironically I’ll be seeing the Legacy Tour inaugural show in just a couple of days.  Woot woot!).  It’s not often we get to hear the composer’s perspectives on music and ballets that are performed to their music.  In Stravinsky’s chapter, there are some of his thoughts on The Rite of Spring, how he loved the music, how he felt Nijinsky didn’t understand music and was not a good choreographer and of course the infamous premiere night in which people stormed out (among them, Camille Saint-Saëns apparently), holding Nijinsky by the coattails as Nijinsky shouted counts to his dancers over the jeers of the crowd with Diaghilev flicking the lights on and off in an effort to silence them.  And there’s also random facts like how Stravinsky and Balanchine actually watched Disney’s Fantasia together during Christmas, 1939 (Bet you didn’t know that!).  But most of all (since I find much of Stravinsky’s music jarring and somewhat unpleasant) he did share some poignant views on music and composers.  I’ve selected a couple of my favorites:

The trouble with music appreciation in general is that people are taught to have too much respect for music; they should be taught to love it instead.

Some people achieve a kind of immortality just by the totality with which they do or do not possess some quality or characteristic.  Rachmaninoff’s immortalizing totality was his scowl.  He was a six-and-a-half-foot-tall scowl.

Rachmaninoff hilarity aside, fast forward to the chapter on writings by Dmitri Shostakovich, who was a student of Alexander Glazunov (who is known to balletomanes as the composer of Raymonda).  Shostakovich said of Stravinsky and Glazunov:

Glazunov was the first to convince that a composer must make the performers submit to his will and not the other way around.  If the composer doesn’t need a triple or quadruple complement of brass instruments for his artistic vision, that’s one thing.  But if he starts thinking about practical matters, economic considerations, that’s bad.  The composer must orchestrate in the way he conceived his work and not simplify his work to please the performers, Glazunov used to say.  And for instance, I still feel that Stravinsky was mistaken in doing new orchestral editions of Firebird and Petrushka, because these reflected financial, economic and practical considerations.

Glazunov insisted that composing ballets was beneficial because it developed your technique.  Later I learned he was right about that, as well.

I find this all quite fascinating.  Needless to say I became intrigued with any Shostakovich ballets (he wrote three, none of which were successes in his time and have only recently been reconstructed by the Bolshoi and Kirov/Mariinsky.  Judith Mackerell’s article on Shostakovich ballets is a recommended read.  Link here).  I’m also drawn to how comparable it is in dance; tracing the lineage of influences through choreographers and their commentaries on each other, although I wish it were all collected in a single book for our perusal.  It would be interesting to know what MacMillan thought of Balanchine or Ashton of Petipa or whatever combination and see that intertwined into one source, like Composers on Music.  You would think for every composer there must be an equal amount of choreographers out there.  But perhaps it’s important to not make any generalizations about the arts.  Another passage I found particularly interesting, which addressed why music is different from all other arts (hey, everyone has their biases!) was by Leonard Bernstein (hold onto your hats, this is a doozy!):

We are constantly hearing negative phrases: anti-art, anti-play, anti-novel, anti-hero, non-picture, non-poem.  We hear that art has become, perforce, art commentary; we fear that techniques have swallowed up what used to be known as content.  All this is reputed to be lamentable, a poor show, a sad state.  And yet look at how many works of art, conceived in something like these terms, prosper, attract a large following, and even succeed in moving us deeply.  There must be something good in all this negativism.

And there is.  For what these works are doing is simply moving constantly towards more poetic fields of relevance.  Let us be more specific: Waiting for Godot is a mightily moving and compassionate non-play.  La Dolce Vita, which deals with emptiness and tawdriness, is a curiously invigorating film, even an inspiring one.  Nabokov’s non-novel Pale Fire is a thrilling masterpiece, and its hero, Charles Kinbote, is a pure non-hero.  Balanchine’s most abstract and esoteric ballets are his prize smash hits.  De Kooning’s pictures can be wonderfully decorative, suggestive, stimulating and very expensive.  This could become a very long list indeed; but there is one thing it could not include     a piece of serious anti-music.  Music cannot prosper as a non-art, because it is basically and radically an abstract art, whereas all the other arts basically deal with real images     words, shapes, stories, the human body.  And when a great artist takes a real image and abstracts it, or joins it to another real image that seems irrelevant, or combines them in an illogical way, he is poeticizing.  In this sense Joyce is more poetical than Zola, Balanchine more than Petipa, Nabokov more than Tolstoy, Fellini more than Griffith.  But John Cage is not more poetical than Mahler, nor Boulez more so than Debussy.

Why must music be excluded from this very prosperous tendency in the arts?  Because it is abstract to start with; it deals directly with the emotions, through a transparent medium of tones which are unrelated to any representational aspects of living.  The only “reality” these tones can have is form     that is, the precise way in which these tones interconnect.  And by form I mean the shape of a two-note motive as well as of a phrase, or of the whole second act of Tristan.  One cannot “abstract” musical tones; on the contrary they have to be given their reality through form; up-and-down, long-and-short, loud-and-soft.

And so the inescapable conclusion.  All forms that we have ever known     plain chant, motet, fugue or sonata     have always been conceived in tonality, that is, in the sense of a tonal magnetic center, with subsidiary tonal relationships.  This sense, I believe, is built into the human organism; we cannot hear two isolated tones, even devoid of any context, without immediately imputing a tonal meaning to them.  We may differ from one another in the tonal meaning we infer, but we infer it nonetheless. […] [T]he moment a composer tries to “abstract” musical tones by denying their tonal implications, he has left the world of communication.

Now that’s food for thought.  He may have been discussing the nature of music, but I think Bernstein also may have touched on what inspires expressivity in dance, what inspires us to dance in the first place and why each choreographer’s language is unique.  Although I didn’t fully grasp the nature of what he was saying, I do feel like this is a pretty sound explanation for why music is so crucial in how I personally relate to dance.  Good to know.

So…if you’re one of those dancers that is looking for that “artistry” button, sink your teeth into this book and see what happens.  Improving your understanding of music could inspire creative interpretations in your dancing.

Or maybe, send your orchestra pit/musicians a Valentine’s card.  The muses might reward you.

Imposterous! How dancers can learn to be gymnastics-savvy, Part I

17 Aug

In this episode of youdancefunny, I shall teach you how to use a background in dance to help you be a world class gymnastics snob.  Now I know what you might be thinking…”gymnasts don’t dance!” and when you only have a minute and a half for a routine along with tumbling to cram in and a rowdy audience to please, it can be hard to make a legit piece of choreography.  But once upon a time there was REAL dance.  I recently watched the 2009 USA National Championships on TV this past weekend and the sport really is in a state of disarray with the complaint being the same as it is in dance; artistry has been lost in favor of tricks.  One of the differences however, is that in gymnastics, the decline of artistry is attributed to a few factors that you’re going to have to know if you want to throw it down with the gymnastics experts or make yourself seem smarter than you actually are, next time you tune in to the summer Olympics. 

The first of these factors was the elimination of compulsories, which occurred after the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.  The compulsories were set exercises consisting of relatively basic skills where the emphasis was on mastery of technique, lines and execution.  Each gymnast performed the exact same exercise so that they could be scored comparatively, and on floor every gymnast performed the same choreography which always necessitated ballet training.  Since the compulsories were eliminated, most countries stopped regular barre training altogether, and we all know what that means…no epaulement, no sense of alignment, understanding of lengthening, etc.  The second of these factors was the move to an open ended scoring system after the 2004 Olympics in Athens, getting rid of the “10.0” scoring that pretty much everyone is familiar with (although to be accurate, the 2005 World Championships still used 10.0, with the open ended scoring system taking full effect in 2006).  This meant there was a vast shift on emphasis towards difficulty of the exercise, and with the top ten skills counting (which has now fortunately been reduced to eight); gymnasts with the most difficult exercises would run away with higher scores, even with sub-par technique.  The third is the difficulty rating of leaps and turns.  Because they count towards the score, gymnasts have been pushing for harder leaps to get higher scores, resulting in these ridiculous leaps that no ballet dancer would even do.  And countless sloppy turns which are much harder on a carpeted, spring floor and even harder when you have no ballet training.  This has been going on for a number of years, but became intolerable circa 2001.

So when was gymnastics pretty?  If asked, ALWAYS respond with “the 80’s and before then” making sure to insert some kind of grumbling complaint that the sport has fallen since the elimination of compulsories and the 10.0.  If necessary, tell people your parents showed you tapes of gymnastics from the 80’s, so you don’t date yourself.  Anyway, during that time period, it should come as no surprise that the Soviets dominated, just like in ballet, so this should be very easy for dance people to remember.  The Soviets were very adamant about ballet training, and in fact many of the earliest gymnasts in the 50’s and 60’s started out as accomplished dancers.  The 80’s, however is considered the peak of the sport because that was when there was the most innovation in difficulty, which was successfully combined with the artistry by the Soviets.  In fact, most of the difficult skills being done today were performed by a Soviet gymnast during the 80’s, and in many cases more difficulty was being done then, still with attention to artistic development.  Still with me? 

The Soviets were a factory of legendary gymnasts, and there are way too many for me to cover…in fact, I’m not even the most knowledgeable on the subject.  But you only need to know a few to garner the impression that you know what you’re talking about, and for whatever reason, many of the most artistic dancers to take to the gymnastics floor were lousy competitors and never made it to the Olympics, so their relative obscurity will help increase the impact of your faux expertise (I have a theory that there might be some kind of correlation between level of artistry and ability to compete…I think the soul of a true artist doesn’t have the ferocity to compete to win, but who knows why anyone is a head case).  The following names won’t be recognized by your average gymnastics fan, or even someone who has competed in gymnastics for many years, oh no; only those well versed in the history to a somewhat healthy degree of obsession will have heard of them.  You won’t outsmart these fans, but nevertheless they will be impressed if you drop some of these names.

I’m going to make this easy and give you two Tatianas and two Olgas (and there are many Yelenas, Natalias, Oksanas, Svetlanas, etc., but let’s keep it simple).  The two Tatianas are Tatiana Tuzhikova and Tatiana Groshkova.  Tuzhikova’s major accomplishment was competing at the 1987 World Championships but never made it to another major competition and is famous for being the first gymnast to perform a full twisting double layout on floor (a skill that is still rarely performed today).  It was incredibly bizarre coming from a girl who danced like a prima ballerina, and not some muscly little nugget, but this was the magic of the Soviets.

And now for a little Latin influenced contemporary dance style, we have Tatiana Groshkova, and EVERYONE loves her.  She was the first and ONLY gymnast to ever perform a tucked double full-in (which is a tucked double back somersault with two twists during the first somersault).  She had a hot streak in 1989-1990, but never made it to a World Championships or Olympics.  She was also well known for having one of the toughest, meanest, and well…bitchiest coaches, former Soviet gymnast Elvire Saadi (who now coaches in Canada).  Saadi herself was a beautiful dancer, nicknamed “the panther” because of the way she danced, but she was pretty harsh on Tatiana, who never gained the consistency to be successful. (And sorry about the commentary in the video…I think Japanese commentators talk too much but they have some of the most footage of the Soviet gymnasts because they had a fascination with them, the same way they have a fascination with Russian ballerinas today.  Parallels galore!)

And now I give you the Olgas…Olga Chudina and Olga Strazheva.  Chudina is probably my favorite, and she hardly competed at all (again, no World Championships or Olympics for her) but her ability to dance was truly unique and unsurpassed by even the best of the best, in my humble opinion.  She was a victim of politics which kept her off the 1988 Olympic team, but I’ve read that she eventually went on to dance with Anti-Gravity in New York, did some modeling and now coaches and choreographs (lucky duckies!).  The poor dear deserved better, but it seems she has done well for herself!  Just gorgeous, beautiful, breathtaking, amazing and fantastic.  She is EPIC.

And now Olga Strazheva, who actually enjoyed more success than her compatriots (and was actually one of the gymnasts to make the 1988 Olympic team at Chudina’s expense…DRAMA!).  Strazheva never won any medals on floor though, and despite winning bronze medals in the All-Around and uneven bars at the 1989 World Championships, she is mostly known because of one floor routine she did…to The Rite of Spring!  Surprise! (what else are you supposed to do something groundbreaking to?)  Even in gymnastics does Stravinsky make his mark…and the Soviet choreographers did the same by introducing avant garde choreography.  The parallel that can be drawn with ballet is astonishing here because everything Nijinsky’s version did to stir the establishment and bother some people while others recognized his brilliance was repeated with Strazheva, as you can see here in her performance at the 1989 World Championships.

So there you have it…now you too, can feign prowess amongst the worlds’ elite gymnastics fans.  But if you want more to be prepared, wait for part 2, where I will discuss more contemporary dance styles, and answer the question is there good dance in gymnastics today?

Farewell Pina Bausch

2 Jul

On June 30th, yet another influential figure in dance, Pina Bausch died.  And apparently she was only diagnosed just five days before she passed, and I can’t even imagine how hard that must have been for her and those close to her.  A cancer diagnosis is pretty devastating by itself, but to pass away in just five days is almost not enough time to come to terms with it or get that added “benefit” of saying goodbye to your loved ones in the interim.  It’s unfair really…and she was such a remarkable woman with a unique perspective on movement.  Many of her dances actually scared me even…as I’m kind of a shallow, happy-go-lucky, doesn’t take anything seriously kind of person.  Her works were so intense and visceral (hello, Le Sacre du Printemps!), they elicited emotions in me that I don’t experience regularly.  I’m just not that complex, and I think her understanding of the world was something else for sure.  But as far as the Rite of Spring is concerned, she defos did Stravinsky proud…I’m not even sure Nijinsky or Bejart (as striking and controversial as their choreography was), captured the magnitude or weight of that music the way she did. 

I actually knew of her from taking a class, and we watched a few things including Café Müller and Kontakt-hof.  Even though the natural tendencies of my brain are unfortunately lacking in an ability to appreciate the avant garde to the fullest, I find it amazing and important that she was able to create dances that made me feel things other than romance and jubilation which I get from watching ballet.  In a way, I think the most profound effect she had on me was to teach me to feel a fuller spectrum of emotions as a dance audience member, and to not simply gravitate towards what I naturally favor all the time.  Being an unbalanced human being in any direction is never really a good thing.

There’s obviously nothing funny I can say about Pina’s passing, but I do want to thank her for her creativity and recognize her influence in the world of dance.  May she rest in peace.

I tried to wear all black to ballet class today to kind of honor her in my own way, but as you know I no longer have black shoes and the white shoes made me look like I was out of my mind.  Although, for you comic book geeks, all black with white shoes was totally a look the Black Cat of Spiderman fame was rocking, so I can’t be too ashamed if I’m channeling a little Felicia Hardy (I didn’t inherit her power to bring about bad luck though…as evidenced by the fact that I found five 4-leaf clovers at the park the other day.  True story!).

And my apologies for ending this entry so abruptly and awkwardly.  I had a few more words I wanted to say about Pina Bausch, but the writing of this entry was interrupted by the invasion of a house centipede, which give me the SUPER heebie jeebies…I seriously can’t sleep if I see one in the house, and although I try to set bugs free outside, house centipedes have blinding speed rendering them vastly unpredictable, so an assassination was carried out.  Target eliminated, but the cost was my train of thought.  Sorry!