Writing My Dancing Life
For anyone who happens on this blog and is perplexed about the lack of recent additions, I wanted to offer some links to ongoing writing in the Philadelphia Inquirer and Dance Magazine online. It turns out that many of the links are no longer active. If you are interested in a piece and can't access it, I'll be happy to forward it to you. Another way to access my writing is by googling "Lisa Kraus Dance" and a whole bunch of pieces come up.
Paid reviews and features lack the pensiveness of blog writing and the liberties of lengthier word counts (as in my pieces on Dance Insider, www.danceinsider.com). But they offer a snapshot of a wide range of dance, interesting especially as a partial chronicle of what’s happening around Philadelphia.
Happy reading! Please get in touch if you’re so moved…
Links to my work in the Inquirer (9/04 – 2/06):
Matthew Neenan preview
Kariamu and Company
Motion Pictures Dance Films
Romeo and Juliet
Subcircle and Laura Peterson
Standpipe (Tania Isaac)
Sasha Waltz (Impromptus)
Hubbard Street Dance Chicago
And I can forward pieces on the following but don’t have links to original online versions:
Martha Graham Co.
New Festival Preview
Rennie Harris Illadelph Legends Hip-Hop
05-06 Season preview
The Mentalist (Kate Watson Wallace)
Hurdy Gurdy (Miro Dance Theater)
Leah Stein (Bardo)
New Slang (Reactionaries and Bald Mermaids)
Bird Song (Siobhan Davies)
Marc Bamuthi Joseph
First Fridays preview (Headlong Dance Theater)
Ron Wood Zen One Dance Collective
Meghan Durham (Appetite)
Kariamu & Co.: Traditions
And in Dance Magazine online:
Pennsylvania Ballet La Fille Mal Gardée
Deborah Hay (“O,O”)
Caught in the Middle - #1
After its smash New York Times review I decided I’d better pick up the phone and order tickets to Mabou Mines’s "Red Beads" or miss out. The preceding agony -“do I go or don’t I?” - reminded me of the watershed moment when it became clear my choices were no longer black and white but involved many shades of gray. I’d entered adulthood.
This weekend, bright lights beckoned in New York. For a while I've known Jennifer Monson’s "Bird Brain" would be running (for the last time) at Dance Theater Workshop. I wondered how Monson would incorporate visions of flight paths and sustainable ecologies into her performing. What would her group dancing look like now, what strategies and games has she discovered? Later I was mesmerized by the New York Times photo of Clove Galilee mid-air above acres of billowing silk drenched in red light in Mabou Mines’s new work, a collaboration with puppeteer Basil Twist. These guys are genius heroes of mine: Lee Breuer of "Gospel at Colonnus," rousing theater that raised the hairs on the back of my neck, of "Warrior Ant" using bunraku style puppetry, Ruth Malaczech in "Hajj," engaging the tiniest muscles in her face to cast the room in shifting emotional tonalities.
Here in Blue Bell, PA the summer heat had given way to temperate perfection. The weekend held the possibility of being with the family without dashing here or there. And for the following two weekends I would be gone on a nine-day working trip to Athens.
Teenagers and older don’t need you much in the way that little ones do – to clean, clothe, or take care in physical ways. But presence lends the possibility of exchange, of testing out a thought, of sharing a pleasure. It's also stable ground. For my daughter, who is 14, and my son, who is 10, my presence on their return from school each afternoon is not necessary, but it is something I want them to have whenever I can managae it. The amount of time I spend away is something I have to continually feel out – how much is too much? Paris for five and a half weeks was too much. Greece for 9 days will not be. But it would be better to leave after some solid time together.
I imagined how I would call up the memory of the "Red Beads" for years, as I have with other Mabou Mines work. How it would expand my vision of theatrical possibility. I don’t need fancy clothes or meals or vacations. But I do need the luxury of seeing great performances, and the mature work of great artists. They weave into my mindstream, become part of my history and reference bank.
So the smash New York Times review tipped the balance. But the voice on the Ticketmaster line informed me that the only tickets left were all the way on the side. I thought “If I’m spending $60 on a ticket, and I’m sitting way the heck on the side and get frustrated about that, and it took 4-1/2 hours to drive roundtrip when gas prices are really high and I already feel like it would be important to stick around, it might be a mistake.” So I let it go.
My hope is that, like "Gospel at Colonnus," the work gets picked up for a much longer run (this first one was 4 days). As for Monson, it may just have to remain in the realm of my imagination, or someday I may see how this work informed her and she went on…
Rather than sitting in a theater I listened with my daughter to her favorite pieces of Celtic dance music, enjoying the slanting early-fall light dancing through the trees. With my son off on a sleepover (funny how things turn out), my husband fetched Chinese food that the three of us ate at a picnic table at dusk at an old farm across the way. Then we watched a Woody Allen movie, my daughter laughing at grown up jokes that would’ve had her embarrassed only a short time before. I was glad not to miss that transition.
It’s hard to know which of those golden rings that come around only once is going to turn out to be most precious. I think, this time, I got it right.
A Tense Issue
or No Time Like the Present
To me, after it’s over, the experience of watching a dance still exists behind my eyelids. I see it clear as a bell and I want others who weren’t there to get as palpable a re-telling as possible. That’s why, like Deborah Jowitt and many other hero writers, I choose to write as though the work is unfolding in front of me. In the present tense. Sure, you can look at Edwin Denby and see that he sometimes switches tenses depending on whether he’s writing about a general truism in the work or a momentary event. That careful distinction is on display in a bunch of writers. And yes, there are writers who choose to place their writing primarily in past tense.
Until now in my encounters with editors at Dance Magazine, the Village Voice and the Dance Insider, they have argued for consistency in the use of tenses within a piece rather than dictating the use of one or the other. But it turns out there are some who argue that because a performance is over, it took place at a fixed time that is no more, that necessitates past tense.
Why does that distress me so? Dance, the most evanescent of arts, seems a poor sister in so many respects, and yet it’s the art I have invested my life in. It is in conjuring images of it that are lively in the imagination (present) rather than contained and finite (past) that dance is properly honored and appreciated. As a reader I want to feel what it was like to be there rather be presented with a view of an embalmed corpse.
It is encouraging how many positive responses I have received about my dance writing from people who are accustomed to reading writers who perhaps don’t know dance as deeply as I do or who perhaps don’t write about it with as much passion and respect. There is a mission here – to raise consciousness about dance, and to let the dances live longer than the brief moment they are onstage, which is infinitesimally short compared to the years of preparation that went into developing the necessary skills and the months or years to develop the actual work.
Yes, a dance concert is history. But the work itself is no more history than an extant painting. Maybe you can’t see the dance before your eyes anymore. But behind them, it lives.
* * * * * * *
Some recent examples of ‘present tense’ dance reviewing:
Gia Kourlas (NYTimes)
Jennifer Dunning (NYTimes) http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/15/arts/dance/15offe.html
John Rockwell (NYTimes) http://query.nytimes.com/gst/fullpage.html?res=9C05E2DD103DF930A35750C0A9639C8B63
Deborah Jowitt (Village Voice) http://www.villagevoice.com/dance/0512,jowitt1,62267,14.html
River of Words
Even though postings have been sporadic, I HAVE been writing regularly.
You can read my preview of Matthew Neenan’s world premiere of 11:11
at the PA Ballet at http://www.philly.com/mld/philly/entertainment/family_guide/10791641.htm
and the review of the evening including that piece, with Tharp’s Nine Sinatra Songs
and Peter Martin’s the Waltz Project
I just sent in a book review of Ralph Lemon’s Tree
for Dance Research Journal and a feature on Neal Beasley for Dance Magazine’s ‘On the Rise’ section. Then there’s a review of a performance from “Re-Inventing Tradition,” a week-long Philadelphia ‘discursion’ about dance in Indonesia which should be showing up on Dance Insider pretty soon. Just so you know I haven’t been sitting on my hands. Or running out of things to say. The river of words keeps flowing...
Out It Popped
In writing to apply for support to attend the '05 National Critics Conference in Los Angeles, out popped this: I love dance so much that I feel it deserves to be seen and accurately reflected back, taken to task, goaded to greatness, questioned and cherished. It is my greatest pleasure to feel an intimacy with the work I write about, as though I am part of it somehow or it part of me, albeit in a completely different way than as a performer. It is part of me as I chew on it, try to comprehend and encompass it. And the feedback I’ve received from some artists I’ve reviewed is that they feel they’ve been truly SEEN. That’s what I aim for, laying aside preference and preconception, meeting the performance in the moment of its existence, helping it live longer and spread wider.
The Beholder and the Beheld
the kernel of my irritation today has to do with work I’ve seen recently and the challenge of reconciling it with my own not-yet-clearly-articulated view of what art is for. I believe it was Ghandi who said “You must become the change you wish to see in the world.” Looking at some recent performances I wonder what it is my colleagues have in mind. And also why my own ways of seeing seem at odds. Bearing witness to how fucked up things might be through art-making is certainly an obvious impulse and perhaps transformative. It might not involve alluding to any brighter glimpse. Maybe that’s OK. It seems to be a case by case issue. Some works draw me in, whereas others leave me gasping for air and chilled to the bone.
Why does Tere O’Connor’s disjointed, demonic movement sprinkled with cutting interactions delight me, tickle my innards like some wiggly end of a devil’s tail? Why does Daniel Leveille’s assembly of hunky blocky nude movers leave me blank, feeling disconnected, as though I’ve seen something that was exactly as it meant to be but without any meaning I could discern. Reviews I read point to the dance’s own surface as one unable to be colored with meaning or ascribed qualities, that being the intent. I guess one might be as interested in that as in anything else. Why then does it read as sad?
Why does Pierre Douler’s ice cold ‘Inouï’ at Paris’ Theatre de la Cité Internationale read as a fascinating sociological choice – to reduce human movement to speedy abbreviations, extended sliding tumbles, impossible tasks and abusive encounters? It’s like having a window on someone else’s dark view of the human condition. But hey, it’s their take, and aren’t those robotic dancers spectacular! Shen Wei who has chosen to have his dancers utterly deadpan and mask-faced says that’s to let the movement read. And read it does, although you wonder why it has to be automatons who show it to you.
Going to Bali I remember coming home to feel heartbroken that I didn’t live in a place where art was a pervasive part of everyday life for everyone. I even wrote a grant application talking about America as being spiritually bankrupt. Didn’t get that funding! There’s a disconnect in my own thinking. Why do I want to see traditional arts preserved to evolve gradually but huff at the slightest bit staid or old hat ‘new’ work? I’d much rather see something that is opening out a frontier but is in no way warm and fuzzy than perhaps an older form of modern dance with a heart of gold. Weird. And then I still rail against the new work that is edgy (clearly a plus in my book) but seems to have completely forgotten about the fact that we are all going to die, that our lives are precious, that we can enjoy our existence and help each other in many ways. Guess I’m pretty hard to please.
I’m thinking now about the word rarified, as in rarified air that only a few people can actually sustain themselves on. It was a disappointment to me that in my years of dancing with Trisha Brown’s company, my Dad, who was a dance aficionado not to mention writer, found the work too cold, too abstract. I know that a lot of people didn’t have a way in to what we were doing even if it seemed perfectly clear and utterly compelling to us. Now the shoe is one the other foot and I am the audience member wondering ‘why?’.
Genius is often isolated, heading straight into its own muses, down a path it thrashes open where none have tread. Can it be that some of us just get left behind, unable to see why THAT path? I sometimes read fellow writers commenting on their own status as middle aged this or that and wonder if these questions are just about age. Maybe I’m lacking the intellectual equipment or frameworks to take much satisfaction in some of these works I see as highly formalist and (dare-I-say-it) rarefied. Or maybe the disconnect falls somewhere between my seeing/comprehending and the makers aspirations in creating the work.
This week I spent time at the Dances of Our Ancestors Festival at Swarthmore College and Temple University. With dancers and choreographers from Ghana and practitioners of contemporary African dance from the U.S. it was full of people speaking about their dancing missions in terms of bringing a sense of celebration, of empowerment and of creating community. The belief in dance as a transformative art was palpable and genuine. In the live and taped classes offered for kids, and in the concluding concerts, you could feel the effect of that view. Audience members shouted, whooped and were clearly moved, finally standing to close a circle encompassing themselves and the dancers. African dancing language is not a tongue I speak. But the sense of humanity and the kind of message the language conveys is far and away the kind I find most compelling of all.
“Our Little Sunbeam”
33 Fainting Spells
Philadelphia Live Arts Festival
September 3 - 5
I remember watching the Wooster Group in New York’s Performing Garage reeling out their spectacles based on T.S. Eliot’s “Cocktail Party” and Arthur Miller’s “the Crucible.” The tenuous line to their base texts would be augmented with the overlay of other text – on Timothy Leary’s group experiments with LSD at his Connecticut house, say – and with pandemonium in movement, erratic sound and even video monitors suspended high in the space where the same action was shown as that occurring onstage. The group had taped and then learned their own improvisation and showed the doppelganger spread apart just enough that the eye had to jump dizzyingly back and forth.
This kind of smart mix is exactly what 33 Fainting Spells is up to in “Our Little Sunbeam.” Taking Anton Chekhov’s early and little-known “Ivanov” as root text, they branch out, incorporating the awed testimony of astronauts from space. They “respectfully borrowed” from Andrew Solomon’s recent “The Noonday Demon: an Anatomy of Depression,” and from Bruce Nauman’s video installation “Violent Incident”. The former vividly records the author’s experience of depression and in the latter, Nauman achieves a disturbing amalgam of comedy and horror, not unlike the overall tone struck by 33 Fainting Spells here. Their subject matter – the meaning of our actions and relationships in the context of the enormity and beauty of space, the challenge of facing impermanence, the quest for the sublime – is evoked while continually permeating one layer of performance with another. The genre-bending production is intercut with the players’ commentary on it. The dancing dissembles, situations and songs coalesce and disintegrate with a meta-awareness that might at any moment poke straight-faced fun. It’s as though Sartre had started a tongue-in-cheek girl-group garage band.
Performed before a backdrop of a lunar landscape formed by a grid of slide images, and adorned with moddish black and white design elements, the piece first introduces 33 Fainting Spells (Gaelen Hanson and Dayna Hanson, who are not related) on video. They sing a complex lyric, gesturing softly, in a nightclub-esque scene, flanked by owls. Mysterious. Next, the character Lev speaks in a low pitch while looking incongruously like a lanky long-haired gal. In the first of many witty turns, with mike before her mouth, Gaelen Hanson lip-synchs to guest collaborator Linas Phillips’ voice speaking in a Tom Waits-like growl. Hanson makes this trick gradually obvious, and delivers as astute a rendering of the moves of a swaggering, beer swilling rocker as we might ever hope to see. It’s parody but it’s meticulous, a joke and social science, both. Could each of us be dissected this clearly? This beginning portends well. From here on we see nothing one-dimensional, and no easy reads.
Next we meet Nick, married to the frail Anna, who is wracked with tuberculosis, and Sasha, the alluring woman who tempts him. In a therapy session the married couple attempt to “work through” their difficulties, Anna on an oxygen machine (actually helium, which renders her voice comically child-like). Nick questions everything, dropping character to ask himself the meaning of his actions. Rather than seeming self-consciously self-referential, this scene pulls the rug out from under easy assumptions, as a sort of existential wake-up call.
Threaded with Chekhov’s plotline is rhapsodic language about the experience of being in space. Just as Nick eventually succumbs to Sasha, so the astronauts, whose words are heard on tape and in a variety of songs written by both Hansons, are mesmerized by sights like sunsets and golden iced crystals of urine floating beside their ship, and by the perspective one gets on human life by being so cut off from earth. Unsettling indeed.
Like the Wooster Group, 33 Fainting Spells are virtuosic and variously accomplished. Both Hansons come from dance as a ground but continually understate their gestural vocabulary, dancing in tantalizingly brief bits, like the coolest of rock’n’roll babes, which only increases the tension of the show’s dramatic thrust. Much of the movement in “Our Little Sunbeam” is played close in, like a hand of cards one doesn’t flourish. Nothing is without purpose; they don’t ever just plain dance.
At one point, Dayna Hanson’s white platform sandals are seen in close up video in a gravelly street as she dances a slide-y sequence, drawing out the gritty sound by slowing her moves. Borrowing from 33 Fainting Spells video, “Measure”, this section shows the live Hanson in unison with her close-up video feet.
Gaelen Hanson’s star turn comes in Anna’s final solo. Hanson, in black gown, begins nearly still, making sharp shifts in position – 3 little jerks to the neck, a swipe of hand around head – oh! here is the dying woman’s dying swan! The dance grows, segmenting limbs and shifting position through self-manipulation, and rises, to become real recognizable steps. Combined with the consumptive’s beautifully arcing coughs (move over Marguerite), her frailty morphs into Red Shoes strength as she goes out in a blaze of whip-turned glory. It’s a spectacular reframing of the “Swan Lake” original right down to the diagonal upstage exit.
Other memorable sections include a dance of attraction with Nick incongruously crawling doggy style, a unison love duet using the added element of a swooping chair on casters, a re-enactment of lunch in space complete with floating food, and the playful dialogues of two anthropomorphized stuffed owls.
Can we reconcile ourselves to the nature of our human drama even with the wisdom of long-distance perspective? The tale told here is full of dizzying cutaways – dramatic action dissolves into players arguing about how it should be played, into performers wondering again and again (maybe one too many times?) what kind of meaning their action has. Instead of some insipid Hollywood ending, Nick’s angst does not resolve. Neither nihilist or eternalist, the work is about limbo.
33 Fainting Spells is based in Seattle, and has worked together over the last ten years. By inviting Linas Phillips to co-create this work, they make an exponential jump in the range of possibilities for plays on gender and tone. Philips switches voices masterfully and plays the searching Nick and the befuddled actor, i.e. himself, with disarming candor.
Violent and tender, “Our Little Sunbeam,” is rich in split-second coordination of actions overlaying one another. They make a complex, incongruous whole, infinitely smart in the framing of gestures and quandaries from the daily world. So smart in fact that I literally cannot remember the last time I saw something its equal. Maybe it was in the Performing Garage.