Writing My Dancing Life
At the New Museum
My son Ryan doesn’t always want to visit museums. Dragging him away from his Blue Bell, PA home with newly fallen snow on the ground and two different new snowboards to try out involves arm twisting and bribery. We arrive before the throng. It’s fun to see the giant chaotically colorful image from ‘Lateral Pass’ in the entry of New York’s New Museum of Contemporary Art and say “Ryan, that’s Vicky and Diane, the lady I was in Paris with, and that’s Randy”. I want to locate myself in this display. It’s one of the few clubs I was ever drawn to joining. Shortly after we were installed in the gallery, Ryan, looking from underneath the weave of rope, clothes and bodies that is ‘Floor of the Forest’ asks me how long we’ll be at the show. Disappointed with the answer he says “Can’t we stay longer?”
If you’re eight you probably love an arcade or an amusement park where you choose which thrills and chills you’re up for when. Ryan treated “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue” just like that. Seeing the exploits of dancers on tape and later in a special live presentation of reconstructed works, he was drawn from one viewpoint to another, inspired into dancing himself, demonstrating how he can stretch and contort. The excitement in the space was playground-like, challenging a kid to get physical because what was on view was so “extreme”. That word, now used as a rubric for challenging and disorienting sports, easily applies to Trisha Brown’s early work. Extreme dance, tipping the body sideways, suspending it from wires and mountaineering gear, and later, placing bodies at high velocity on a collision course and dealing masterfully with the resulting momentum in contact.
We were early enough that we saw short dry runs of the performances and later the real thing. The dancers are easy and natural when they work for themselves; in performance they have a more neutral look - beautiful, clean and abstract.
In “Floor of the Forest” clothing is woven through a grid of ropes suspended from a square frame maybe 3 feet off the ground, much like a square trampoline. Two figures thread themselves in and out of the pants and shirts, filling and emptying them of limbs, hanging suspended. The postures of the dancers resemble flight, falling or sleep. The changes are slow, it’s not as though you need to see something different every moment. This is installation art-performance, like watching moss grow. This is where Ryan plays under the clothing forest with his moving self just plain turned on. I realize too, this is the only dance I’ve seen where I have the choice in any given moment to watch from above or below.
Close up is fun. As Sandra Grinberg begins Spanish Dance (the legendary Line Up of beautiful women unfurling their arms flamenco style and piling up against each other as they make their way across the proscenimum) we are close enough to see the texture of the weave of her cotton yoga pants. Her swaying hips are monumental, we see the heft of her breasts. This is no distanced theatre viewing experience. As the dancers move forward we see the back view, like watching a train disappear in the distance, swaying bottoms down the line.
Spiral is the best 45 second dance in history. It is not executed willy-nilly but so cleanly – a unison of 3 performers stepping from ladders to place feet at ceiling height against their respective columns and pushing out to be suspended parallel to the floor. Their ladders are simultaneously removed and they begin an exhilarating spiral walking descent to the floor.
I love the musicality of ‘brooms’ from Astral Convertible. I couldn’t hear it seeing the piece in a proscenium theatre. Up close, the rhythms and sounds of two push brooms used in functional and dance-y ways makes an erratic, changeable soundscore.
In the photos of early Judson days, the audience is mashed up against a gallery wall. What a different picture than a velvet-seats viewing experience. In this performance we choose our vantage point along with serendipity, perhaps craning over others. It’s messier, not predetermined. As we watch ‘brooms’ there’s applause from another part of the space. Oops, we missed something! More taking place than we can possibly take in.
I watch Diane Madden in a ‘Newark’ video traverse the proscenium using other dancers much as a slalom skier would dig in with her poles. She’s masterful. I watch another dancer do my part in ‘Decoy’ with appreciation for her fullness and elegance. As I watch ‘Group Primary Accumulation’ the 4 figures on the floor in white are seen against the background of Robert Rauschenberg’s progression of black and white images for Glacial Decoy while the fog machine hisses and the voice of Trisha Brown comments on the dance ‘Opal Loop’. She says “I was having as much trouble managing this improvisation as Fujiko Nakaya was having managing the water molecules of her fog sculpture”. The evenly repeating accumulation progresses, turning (is it) 45 degrees at the end of each run, looping back again and again through a collection of casually sensual gestures. This layering of works is serious high art fun.
Being at the show has an easy social aspect too. The dance community has gathered, from the freshest faced dancers to veterans of Yvonne Rainer’s films, critics and noted choreographers. I speak with Carolyn Lucas, Trisha’s choreographic assistant, about new experiments. She says that wherever she goes, when she teaches bits of Trisha’s Brown work be they large or small, it’s a life altering event for those concerned. As we talk, Ryan walks about staring at the ceiling. He has taken to changing his relationship to space; he’s looking at things from every perspective.
When I lived in New York City the thing I loved the best was that in any given moment on the street there was much more going on than I could possibly take in. The city heaves with life, with new beginnings, with layered sight sound and feeling. Merce Cunninghams’ explanation of his approach to the marriage of sound and décor with his choreography has all to do with this kind of random composition – accepting that stimuli co-exist and don’t need to have a consciously crafted connection. Perhaps that’s what makes this show so exciting – that Trisha’s immaculately crafted work is layering on itself here. And the interconnections are present in any given moment, from any vantage point, alive and immensely rich.
New Museum Prelude
After classes I’d teach in Trisha Brown’s Soho loft in the 70’s, students and I would wander around the corner to Fanelli’s Cafe for a pizza and a pitcher or 2 of beer. The place was a relic of a long ago time, an easy dark spot for relaxing replete with heavily carved wooden bar and red checked tablecloths. My son Ryan, who is 8, was hungry before seeing the show “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialogue” at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in Soho. Fanelli’s does a mean burger and fries and Ry gave them, as well as all the special attention from the waitresses, top marks.
Sitting next to us was a clutch of dancers, speaking loudly, one clearly the choreographer of the bunch discussing promotional ideas, being “produced”, strategies for making money. The guy had chutzpah, clearly, and seemed to have mastered “talking the talk”. I felt myself stepping back into this stream of dancers and dancemakers that just keeps flowing, new ones entering all the time. And then on the other side of us it turned out that there was a table of dancers too. One person from the first group knew the people at the other table – small world indeed.
I’ve often thought about how there are a very small handful of geniuses and truly great ones among us. But in order to generate the fecund world that they come out of there need to be many of us practicing the form, keeping the stream vital. Who knows who will contribute which vital piece?
A propos of that, a few years back I came across the following quote posted to a bulletin board in the Dansacademie in Arnhem, the Netherlands . If anyone knows its provenenace I’d appreciate knowing.
Martha Graham to Agnes deMille:
“There is a vitality, a life force, a quickening that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and be lost. The world will not have it. It is not your business to determine how good it is: not how valuable it is; nor how it compares with other expressions. It is your business to keep it yours, clearly and directly, to keep the channel open.
You do not even have to believe in yourself or your work. You have to keep open and aware directly to the urges that motivate YOU.
Keep the channel open…No artist is pleased…
There is no satisfaction whatsoever at any time.
There is only queer divine dissatisfaction; a blessed unrest that keeps us marching and makes us more alive than the others.”
I guess that last line is what made me feel I was walking into a dance temple when I studied at the Martha Graham school as a child and now makes me gag slightly with revulsion at the Ego. Still, there's inspiratiuon to be had.
Toward a Post-Modern Lexicon
In true busman’s holiday style, my husband, who designs databases for a living, spends a fair amount of leisure time at his computer. A favorite site he discovered is Dilbert’s create-a-mission-statement where you fill in the blanks to come up with a collection of sentences that sound earnest and forward thinking but actually mean nothing whatsoever.
Paul Ben-Itzak of Dance Insider related that he could use more experience with the language used to describe post-modern dance. Though not a semiologist, linguist or scholar of any kind I can attest to the chimerical Emperor’s New Clothes quality of certain key words. They point to something we think may have great significance or perhaps in using them we are allying ourselves with a given artistic movement to which we may or may not actually have a relation.
The concepts of the post-moderns as practiced in the Judson Church seem to have quite a bit of currency at this moment in France. One of the U.S.’ most gifted choreographers, John Jasperse, confided in me that there are certain powerful people in that country who will not consider presenting his work at this time because it has actual “dance” in it. Apparently what’s hot does not. The concert I saw at Theatre de la Bastille with Joao Fiedero and Vera Montero was a case in point. Fiedero gave himself a series of tasks, many related to the use of masking tape – taping his feet to the floor and breaking out of the bounds, taping pictures along the back wall of the stage unfolding into an unfortunate story. All proceeded at a measured pace with much sitting, waiting and staring out at us, the audience, in a “dare me to do something else” kind of way. Later it struck me that my honest perception of this strong and obviously vibrant young man’s work was that he has too much time and too much money. Would that have been my response to the Judsonites as well? They certainly weren’t being subsidized by anyone so scratch that thought. Subversion (definitely a word that belongs in the post-modern lexicon) has its moment. Done in Fiedero’s way, a determination to see what the audience can take at this point reads to me as petulance rather than groundbreaking.
Montero’s work, though also without any dancing as we generally think of it, was a tighter and more romantically imagistic work. Based on Manet’s lovely reclining nude, “Olympia”, Montero became the image of the painting as a final punch line in a long series of arduous attempts to get things right either in the position of her props in space (a bed she drags across the floor), in the position of her own limbs as she tries to settle into a comfortable position. This watching the usually unattended-to efforts of a human body shifting itself about holds with the post-modern love affair with the pedestrian. But the timing, the development in the action have a distinctly crafted and theatrical quality. She is a pleasure to watch for all her discomfort, the piece was like a tasty macaron, nothing heavy anywhere.
My introduction to post-modernism came through James Waring who taught teenagers each summer at a camp called Indian Hill. We took work that we had developed there (this was 1966) to New York to perform in the Judson Church sanctuary. Jimmy had me pouring vast quantities of milk from a white-painted watering can in to a white-painted pail. From that moment on my concept of what could be called “dance” was blown wide open. Maybe the French audience is in the middle of their “aha” from a current equivalent of pouring milk from the watering can.
My post-modern lexicon would have to refer to qualities of movement and about performing stance. I don’t think it includes petulant but it would include offhand, “not intentionally entertaining”. Now if we are referring to the post-modern into the 70’s and 80’s it might be intentionally entertaining but in conjunction with a fascinating unfolding of a form or a complexity of interaction.
How about inclusive. And experimental.
How about structured, improvisation, intelligent, political, feminist.
How about weight, momentum, intricacy, balance, equilibrium, contact, equipment.
How about schnurkle (Yiddish for little squiggly movement), divergence, falling, throwing, catching.
And task, environmental, chance and pedestrian.
Lets add borrowing, repeating, reversing, doubling, interfering, supporting, commanding.
Lets add research.
I love this collection of words. They make a picture describing a world I want to inhabit.
Coming next: a visit to the New Museum of Contemporary Art for “Trisha Brown: Dance and Art in Dialog” and the accompanying reconstructions with my 8 year old son if a snowstorm doesn’t stop us.
Reviewing the Reviewers
Whether or not it’s well-founded, a bad review feels like muck and slime that won’t wash off. The two worst reviews I ever got were from reviewers whose writing I completely admire. One, the late Burt Supree, wrote for many years with a sort of settled everyday majesty for the Village Voice. He said that watching one solo of mine was as much fun as watching “someone shoot frogs with a BB gun”. I’ll carry that phrase around in my head forever. The other awful review was by Sally Somers in Dance Magazine. For exorcism, in the “performance” oriented mid-eighties, Stephanie Skura and I decided to make a duet where I read Sally Somers review and Stephanie read one of her by the New York Times’ Jack Anderson on tape. This became our sound score as we danced together, embodying the loathsome qualities described. The original reviewers themselves were notified of the performance and found the whole thing quite a hoot. It certainly popped whatever was so irksome about being thwacked around in the press. I’d recommend it as a practice for anyone tormented by harsh judgment in black and white.
I’m just beginning to take the business of writing about dance seriously myself – that is, to think about the conventions involved, about who has done it wonderfully in the past and continues to do so now, about how to balance the personal take with a sense of responsibility. A blog seems a “risk-free” format for experimentation but you don’t really know…perhaps bits of it are picked up and circulated in a way you have little control over. People were informed about Decoy Among the Swans through an unexpected article on Dance Insider and now I don’t know how many people I might have offended!
Joan Acocella in the current issue of the New Yorker (“The Art of Savion Glover” 1-12-04) provides a towering example of everything a dancer reviewer ought to do. She describes the work at hand, in this case Savion Glover’s Joyce program, so that a blind and deaf person could imagine it vividly in full flesh. Her descriptions play on every sense and especially on hearing as tap is dance making music. Her metaphors go down like an exotic drink. She knows the history of the dance form about which she writes, she knows how Glover danced as a child, the evolution of his performing and choreographic style and aspirations. She doesn’t so much take him to task as illustrate why one part of the performance is inevitably far weaker than the rest. She’s asking questions about the whole endeavor. Her “opinions” read not so much as pronouncements or as an individual’s point of view but rather as the inevitable way one would see the whole based on what’s described.
Within the context of the review she manages to contemplate where tap is at its strongest, to link it to other related forms – Flamenco, Kathak - to present a sociological reasoning for this young man’s withheld, eyes cast down performance persona before his audience.This article considers where tap is going and ends on a grateful note for this young man’s gifts. I am left breathless. How could she be so comprehensive, so knowledgeable and write so seamlessly?
This particular writer is someone I’ve been aware of since the 80’s. Her work didn’t start off this good. As I recall it was competent and responsible but nothing to write home about. Now it sings and not only does she write about dance, her brief at the New Yorker includes writing book reviews and more. I am, like, totally impressed. Was this unfolding a question of perseverance furthering, of ongoing effort yielding a fabulous result? And perhaps having the right editors played a role at some point?
Editorless, this week there’s been a lot of putting my foot in my mouth in writing. It’s a tricky issue. You want to open the faucet to allow the stream of words to spill onto the page. That’s how the tastiest morsels seem to tumble out. But I am slowly learning the vital role of the editor, if only in the guise of one’s own self twenty four hours later. The wondrous miracles of “post and publish” and click and send (as is often said) carry liabilities. I'll take comfot in some of the great cliches for this hotspot - "live and learn", "chalk it up to experience" and last but not least "silly me".
Some thoughts on the Paris Opera and Pennsylvania Ballets performing Balanchine
Though I know little of the history of Philadelphia’s Academy of Music , the parallels with Palais Garnier, the Paris Opera building are amusing: the Italian horseshoe plan with boxes by the stage for the most elevated spectators, the round ceiling with pendulous chandelier, in this case crystal, the ornamental painting and gold relief work, even the red velvet seats and stage curtain. The differences include trompe l’oeil marble in place of Garnier’s real thing (33 varieties, he took his marble very seriously), a less dynamic feeling – the sculpture is hunky and static, the ornamentation small and disconnected rather than forming a sweeping whole, and no large public spaces where the audience could enjoy seeing and being seen as in Garnier’s great staircases and foyers. Nonetheless the whole is grand, a place for grand spectacle and symphonies and in and of itself that’s grand.
The whole of Philadelphia’s Avenue of the Arts flutters with flags bearing the Nutcracker’s visage. We know it is a Christmas icon here. I wonder how many Nutcrackers there are being presented across the U.S. as I write. It seems to be the perfect excuse to dress little girls up in their most perfect gauzy and velvety frocks and to give them a glittery, snowy, candy filled fantasy world. My 12 year old was plenty content too. The theatrics are fun – in the second act little Marie and her prince sail in and out of this world in a flying boat. It’s enchanting stage magic. The sugar plum fairy glides across the stage miraculously while on toe (looking closely you see that she has placed that toe shoe in a kind of glider on a track). The variety of ethnic based dances in the second act is a colorful smorgasbord. And the party and Christmas tree at the beginning with wonderful presents and games is a kind of dream come true Christmas ideal.
The audience in Philadelphia claps anytime anyone does something at all noteworthy: when the orchestra completes playing the overture or when a dancer executes a longer than usual set of turns. This means that the performance has a variety show feel to it, a vaudevillian performer/audience give and take. Balanchine choreographed this Pennsylvania Ballet Nutcracker and his hand is evident in the marvelous displacement of groups and in fireworks-filled solos particularly for the female leads. I have seen other dances of his where the dancers indicate their pleasure and the generally joyous nature of the proceedings by gently smiling. Here all the dances of the corps de ballet are performed with broad smiles and as I looked through opera glasses at individual faces, it all seemed genuine enough, but taken together resembled a kind of Miss America contest with its superficial, one dimensional gaiety. Even in the duet of the Sugar Plum Fairy and her Cavalier, the one real extended pas de deux in this ballet, there were no moments of subtlety. Smiles pervade, the smiles of an airline stewardess or a star on People Magazine's cover. I can only imagine that this comes about because it is what the public wants or has come to expect. To me it is performer as trick pony.
I had just seen Balanchine’s Liebeslieder Waltzes at the Paris Opera. Four couples dance a series of group dances and duos with a Brahms score that has a pervasive lilting grace while passing through darker, mysterious moments and unabashedly delightful turns.
The dancers were shaded and rendered as people. They had elegance and stories we couldn’t quite fathom but knew were there. I found the nuances compelling in the extreme. So perhaps I find the opposite disappointing in the extreme.
Europeans complain that Americans appear initially friendly, open, and all-embracing but afterwards encounters with them lack depth and subtlety. Now I feel in the position of a European looking at us Americans with that same view.
I also kept thinking that even though the Nutcracker is a two act ballet with a large cast, it is much simpler than Trisha Brown’s Glacial Decoy. The moves all have names. The story is completely evident. The audience is all thoroughly contexted in the tradition of the dance. There are no surprises and no demands other than to sit and enjoy the eye candy. There is also nothing subtle about it. Granted you are moving around large numbers of people who need to count their steps accurately and keep their lines well. But all that is simple compared to the on the dot spatial and timing demands of Decoy, executed without benefit of music.
While at the Paris Opera the only black people I saw were a carpenter and the cleaning ladies. Paris is full of beautiful black people and seemingly the mixing of the races has an ease that it lacks here. Nonetheless the Opera stage is a bastion for the lily white. I wondered to myself if that would ever change. Although I never discussed it openly I have my doubts. The Pennsylvania Ballet’s Nutcracker has black, Hispanic and Asian dancers throughout. It was a relief to see a multi-colored Nutcracker, the doors are not closed, the ballet world here is breathing and to some degree in step with what’s happening every where else.