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The Buzz, 1-20: The Mother of all Battles
Alison Chase Files for Unemployment; Headlong Headlines Harkness; Joffrey's 'Green' Giant Returns

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Image by and copyright Robin Hoffman
Text copyright 2006 The Dance Insider

Ungrateful Deed

Dan Feith, the former longtime technical director of Pilobolus who first charged that the company had fired co-director Alison Chase, whose Dartmouth dance class spawned the initially (and later, intermittently) innovative dance-theater company, reports on Blogobolos that Chase filed for unemployment in December. The development is significant because the company's corporate-minded executive director denied the firing in November. To be eligible for unemployment in the United States, one's employment needs to have been terminated by the employer. Pilobolus co-director Robby Barnett, who worked with Chase for close to 35 years, did not respond yesterday to an e-mailed request for comment. While Chase has not responded to direct requests for comment, Feith, who worked with the company for 12 years, is said to be close to her, so I trust his reporting as authoritative.

Why does this matter, even if you hate Pilobolus? (I actually love Pilobolus, or did until this infamy, but I realize that not all our readers do.)

Because a once organic, collaborative choreographic enterprise has gone corporate, with all the coldness and insensitivity that implies.

Because the other three directors are all men. (Although to be fair, only two seem to have endorsed this cabal, from what my sources have told me, the noble exception being Michael Tracy.)

Because Alison Chase is a woman.

Because there likely would not be a Pilobolus if Alison Chase had not turned these men onto dance and into dancers. Because, as I noted previously, they entered her dance class as jocks and emerged as artists.

Because Chase had the best grounding in traditional modern dance choreography, historical and contemporary, of any of the directors.

Because the delicate balance of the hydra-headed Pilobolus creative directorate will now be over-run with testosterone, its last artistic vestiges trampled by sophomoric hijinks.

Because Alison Chase gave so much, GAVE SO MUCH, to these men, to this company, and to countless generations of young dancers -- "She really allows you to shine at your best," one dancer, widely respected in the wider dance community, told me -- and now they have thrown her out on the street like yesterday's garbage.


Shame on you, Robby Barnett, shame on you, Jonathan Wolken, for allowing your artistic mother to be put out on the street.

It is one ungrateful deed you have committed.

Head's up for Headheads

If Pilobolus closed the year in a fashion that reflected true Bush family values, Headlong Dance Theater is here to help us purge the demons of 2005 with its own custom Mixed Tape for a Bad Year, that being the name of the program the troupe brings to this year's Harkness Dance Festival starting March 1 at the Ailey Citigroup Theater in New York. (The five-company festival opens February 8.) "Basically," says Headlong co-director David Brick, "it's a collection of dances that have all, in some way or another, come out of our collective sense of cultural angst and disappointment over the last year. We think of these dances as being like a mixed tape in that together they rage, rail, rouse, mourn and perhaps also soothe anyone who may perhaps be experiencing some similar things of late."

On the angst and anger tip, the highlight must be "Thrash," a Headlong-produced video piece of, says co-director (and occasional DI contributor) Andrew Simonet, "physical responses to the Bush administration, including footage of us and members of the public. (They've been signing up in droves.) You listen to some speeches by George W., and then you dance a short solo in front of the camera to some loud crazy music.... It's cathartic and disturbing. Could sweep the nation like the next Macarena." (Thanks for putting that song back into our heads, Andrew. Assigning you to cover the next Ballet Tech concert.)

As a Flashback to better times when real family values ruled, or at least significantly encroached, Headlong also offers "Hippie Elegy," which Brick describes as "a comic and sad lament for the loss of hippie values in today's America: a dance requiem for the people who knew that war is bad, love is good, and everyone is beautiful just the way they are." In "Yonder," the company riffs on Alan Lomax's recordings of raw, unproduced singing in the rural South of the 1940s. "People keep dying and getting murdered," says Brick. And, in a fitting inclusion for the 92nd Street Y-produced festival, the company gives an excerpt of its upcoming "Shosha," inspired by the Isaac Bashevis Singer novel, and exploring both the book's eccentric characters from 1930s Warsaw and the 1970s America lens through which Singer recalled them.

"We haven't done a full evening of work in NYC in a couple of years, so we're looking forward to reconnecting with the city," says Brick. (Former DI cover girl Amy Smith rounds out the Headlong triumvirate.) "These dances represent a bit of a return to our roots," Brick adds, "to a way we worked before we got funding through project ideas pitched to funders a year in advance. These are shorter, smaller, simpler dances with next to no sets or fancy conceptual starting points; just the dances we felt compelled to make day to day as we kicked shit around in the studio and saw what stuck."

I do believe that Harkness director Renata Celichowska should get some of the credit for encouraging this spirit of retro-adventure. In fact, what I love about this year's Harkness line-up, the first curated by Celichowska, is that Headlong is the only company I've heard of. Without taking away from the other aspects of her achievements at Harkness, in recent years it seemed like Joan Finkelstein, Celichowska's predecessor, was programming mostly on the basis of what other New York presenters were programming, and even some of what they were no longer programming. Not so with Celichowska, who has chosen at least one freshly-minted company, the Francesca Harper Project, directed by a former Ballett Frankfurt and Alvin Ailey dancer.

"My goals for the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Festival are threefold," Celichowska told me yesterday. "To offer opportunities both to unknown choreographers who are ready to be presented in a formal setting and to veterans who need some support. To present a variety of styles and approaches to contemporary dance -- everything from, to use this year's line-up as an example, the European-influenced dance-theater of Israel's Sally-Anne Friedland Dance Drama Company to the lush, gorgeous movement of Maxine Steinman & Dancers. And to support Jewish and Israeli artists.... I wanted to find choreographers whose work integrates the artistic, the personal and the technical. Each of the artists we're presenting has a wholeness to her or his choreography; each is presenting a vision, creating a world. It's not about the ego; it's about the art."

Rounding out this year's festival, which runs through March 12, is Todd Williams's WilliamsWorks. That's the other thing I like in advance about this year's festival: In a presenting environment in which many theaters are still challenged to, frankly, give equal -- not more, just equal, folks -- opportunity to female choreographers, only one of the companies Celichowska has selected is exclusively male-directed and choreographed.

Joffrey's 'Green Giant'

Headlong isn't the only dance company responding with vigor to George Bush's illegal and unnecessary war. Straight off a devastating run on American Ballet Theatre, Kurt Jooss's anti-war 1932 ballet "The Green Table," which received its US premiere on the Joffrey Ballet some 39 years ago, returns to the Joffrey rep. in February 2007 after an eight-year absence, on a "Groundbreaking Ballets" program that also includes Leonide Massine's "Les Presages" and Balanchine's 1932 "Cotillon." (Among the unforgettable Deaths in previous Joffrey 'Green Table' productions were Maximilian Zamosa, Christian Holder, and Phillip Jerry.)

Writes Walter Terry in his "Ballet Guide," also my source for the 'Green Table' facts above, "Les Presages," created in 1933, "was the first of Massine's symphonic ballets that introduced a series of controversies, mainly among musicians, over the propriety of using great abstract music for choreographic purposes." "Cotillon" also provides a history lesson of sorts, dating as it does from an epoch when choreographers did not always try to come up with their own books but left that to the experts, in this case Boris Kochno. The designer, Christian Berard, is no slouch. As for the dance, if you can get to the Dance Collection of the New York Public Library, there you'll find a seven-minute excerpt of a 1933 color film of the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo production, including a whirling Balanchine and a 14-year-old Tamara Toumanova.

The Joffrey's 2006-2007 season opens October 4 with Frederick Ashton's 1948 "Cinderella," to the Prokoviev score and in its first American production. "This production of 'Cinderella' was Robert Joffrey's final wish for the company," says current director and company co-founder Gerald Arpino. "So we pay tribute to him by presenting it."

Joffrey himself will be represented choreographically, later in the season, with "Gamelan," a work set to the music of Lou Harrison which previewed in 1962 at the Fashion Institute of Technology before premiering officially a year later at the Kirov (now Maryinsky) Theater in Leningrad. The same "Founders' Program" also includes Arpino's 1968 "Fanfarita," 1978 "Suite Saint-Saens," and "Sea Shadow," which premiered on September 5, 1963 in Central Park -- as part of the Rebekah Harkness Dance Festival. (Thanks again, Mr. Terry.)

"I grew up watching the Joffrey Ballet dance Kurt Jooss's 'The Green Table,'" says Robin Hoffman, the Dance Insider's webmistress and art director, and a former Joffrey dancer. "Watching a recent performance by American Ballet Theatre, I was overcome by this ballet's relevance to current events, and couldn't help fantasizing about certain war-makers getting a taste of their own medicine." Above, the result. Image copyright 2006 Robin Hoffman.

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