Tag Archives: the I word

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:

Danse Homage and the Kristina Isabelle Dance Company, Oct. 16-17

16 Oct

For the first time in months I attended a live dance show (PRAISE BE TO BILLY ELLIOT!), Danse Homage, as presented by the Kristina Isabelle Dance Company (and others).  First I have to say that it felt so good just to be seeing dance on the stage again.  It was a choice between this show and BalletMet’s production of Swan Lake, but I was kind of weirded out when I heard BalletMet had cast two different dancers as Odette and Odile.  Also, when I reserve things from the library I get e-mails that tell me when they’re ready to be picked up, and lo and behold, I got an e-mail yesterday that said a Swan Lake I had reserved was in.  I took it as a sign that I should experience something new and different, because for the most part, Swan Lake is Swan Lake.  Not to mention Columbus is driving me crazy and I spend my days formulating some kind of a plan to get out of here and be anywhere but here, so with that as the theme of life for the time being, I made my choice.  The only mistake of the evening I really made was wearing my skinny jeans, which happen to strangle my fat thighs and restrict my legs from bending too much.

Anyway, the department of dance chair specifically requested that we tweet, call, text, whatever and spread the word about the show, so here’s my leetle contribution.  Kristina Isabelle is a local artist, with a small modern company.  I believe she grew up in the area, is obviously still here (although she earned her BFA from Juilliard) and thus quite invested into the Columbus dance community.  And let me tell you, the Columbus dance community needs her.  Personally, I think it’s kind of dilapidated here (keep in mind I’m getting increasingly bitter, crotchety and anxious to get out by the day), and the survival of dance in Columbus hinges on the Ohio State’s dance department.  Even our major ballet company, BalletMet, is combining with the Cincinnati Ballet to put on Swan Lake.  We just don’t have a lot of resources here, and it kills me.  The arts shouldn’t have to try so hard to survive, which is why this town drives me oh so crazy, because if the arts struggle to survive, I struggle to survive.  Quite simply, without thriving arts, there be no me.  Don’t get me wrong, Columbus has a great art scene…but it’s not enough and I’m wasting away.  Anyway, it’s up to fantastic leadership from a few individuals to ensure that the arts don’t develop a geographic bias.  The work that she’s putting into Columbus is a swim upriver, but she’s doing something great.

The show featured a fair variety of pieces, of course all under the branch of modern movement, although one was on stilts which was rather unusual.  The first piece was more “dancey” in the sense that it was superhuman and unearthly.  The colors of the costumes were reminiscent of celestial bodies in the universe, and the movement was sensuous with lots of undulations and intimate lifts, but without being skanky.  Then there was a solo…kind of prototypical modern: square spotlights, really aggressive, thrown movements, and technologified mixed sounds for the soundtrack.  Basically the kind of stuff that weirds me out with its intensity, but that’s my nature.  The namesake of the company performed the solo, and she is perhaps one of the fittest women in the world, but when people get in my face, I tend to withdraw.  But that’s me.  Third piece was a male solo on stilts, which scare the crap out of me because I always envision a grape or an olive rolling in front of someone on stilts and then they take a nasty fall.  I don’t know why I can’t get that image out of my head, but stilts freak me out.  Innovative, and I was taking it very literally and getting this injured and angry heron vibe, as if it were caged and definitely mad about it, but had I read the program, I would have known that it was based on Saint Sebastian.  I’m an idiot.  Moving on, the fourth piece featured young dancers from Columbus Dance Theater (but choreographed by Isabelle, again showing her involvement), and watching them made me feel like I was forty years old.  So young.  I think it was a great opportunity for those kids to experience modern dance so early in their dance careers.  Unfortunately I believe Saturday’s show will feature a different piece instead of this one, with everything else remaining the same.  So if anyone in Columbus is interested in seeing the show, Saturday will not have this.

Now the third piece, to Tchaikovsky!  Be still my beating heart!  It was interesting, because there’s moments in the piece where the dancers were scratching themselves furiously, and scratching is one of those things where if you watch it enough, your brain kind of creates an imaginary itch and all of a sudden you find yourself needing to alleviate yourself.  The costumes were pedestrian clothes, the movement more organic and human in nature, which is interesting when juxtaposed to the structure and lyricism of a Tchaikovsky string quartet.  An different take on the emotion of frustration and after the show I was told that parts of it were…“improvised.”  Heed my warning…one should take care to avoid mentioning “the I word” around me, because it strikes fear in the deepest part of my soul.  There are many things I fear in life, and “the I word” is most defos one of them.  I’m like a deer in the headlights, and I freeze in complete terror.  But this is also a large part of the reason why I respect people who are comfortable with it.  Anyway, the night ended with a piece that was…I hate to say, on the long side, but there was an unusual interactive feature where someone in the audience got to choose several pieces of music and the order in which they would be performed.  That’s kind of cool.  However, personally, I prefer continuity in a dance, and the last piece was very disjointed (a perfectly fine artistic choice) and I lose focus.  You’d think the attention span of a squirrel would help in this instance, but it actually makes it worse.  There were a lot of different styles, personalities, solos, group dances…it was a lot like channel surfing, but when I channel surf, I don’t get anything out of it, because all I concern myself with is wherever I stop.

So if you’re in Columbus, please check out their second show on Saturday, October 17th, 8pm at Sullivant Theater.  Be sure to check out the Kristina Isabelle Dance Company’s website as well, if you’d like to know more about their company, her background, etc.  It’s really important that we support local artists, because as I always say, pyramids are built from the bottom up.  No matter which dance artists you think are the best in the world, there is a myriad of bricks on the bottom, many of them unseen, doing hard work to hold them up there, and they need recognition too!