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The Buzz, 1-27: Diplomatically Speaking
From Dunham to Rice; Yanks not Welcome at Videodanse (Encore); Rockwell Modern

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

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From Dunham to Rice: A Tale of Two Diplomats

This would be a good time to remind you that everything I'm about to say is, to paraphrase Monty Python's Ann Elk, mine, mine only, mine alone, and by me. I'm the sole author; everyone else around here, staff and advertisers, may not necessarily agree with me.

It's hard today to try to write about dance subjects as matters of consequence after your two New York (so-called Democratic, so-called liberal) senators have endorsed the promotion to secretary of state of a woman who, as national security advisor, failed in her first priority; who called the Indian Ocean tsunami which killed more than 200,000 people a "wonderful opportunity" for the United States; who helped the Bush administration craft what Senator Robert Byrd called Tuesday an "unconstitutional" "doctrine of first-strike war against another country which does not pose an imminent threat to the United States"; and whose idea of spreading Democracy excludes Haiti, where she warned the democratically elected president to stay the heck out of the Caribbean (I paraphrase) after a US-abetted coup drove him from office. (To read Senator Byrd's complete address on the floor of the Senate -- delivered while clutching a copy of the Constitution -- please click here. To find out whether your senator voted yesterday to confirm Rice, please click here.)

If you're wondering why I'm commenting on this subject in a dance publication, a)the mainstream news media -- at least the New York Times -- is not doing its job, parsing the fight over Rice's nomination as "partisan"; b)Rice's parsing of torture theoretically places me, as an American living abroad, in danger; and c)a brilliant segue into a dance angle is coming right at you.

Speaking of Haiti, "smart" black women, and Americans abroad, Katherine Dunham, who turned 93 earlier this month, is not only a dancer and choreographer, but an anthropologist. Before she stunned Broadway and left a lasting imprint on not 'just' African and Caribbean dance but on dance, period, Dunham worked as an anthropologist. In other words, she did her homework. She also took her camera. Three of her films -- "Trinidad," "Haiti," and "Jamaica and Martinique," all made in 1936 -- will be on view tomorrow night at the Centre Pompidou here in Paris. The program starts at 7 p.m. and also includes "Divine Horsemen -- The Living Gods of Haiti," directed by Dunham company alumnus Maya Deren. It repeats Sunday, February 6 at 4 p.m.

Rewriting Dance History; Martha who?

Get to the Pompidou early, and you can check out the museum's annual Videodanse festival, which has taken over its basement level through February 21. The good news is it's all free. The bad news, which I'm shocked! shocked! to have to report, is that in a program of 140 films or videos of works by 86 choreographers purportedly drawn from the "panorama" of 20th-century contemporary dance, only a handful of the choreographers represented (round up the usual suspects) come from the country which -- BONJOUR!? -- invented the form. The physical framework the Pompidou has created for this event is laudable: Go there at any moment during the festival, and you'll find a variety of options for viewing the scheduled film or video -- on your own individual screen, from homey risers in a makeshift theater, etcetera. The setting also disposes of the one fear that keeps many non-initiates away from dance concerts -- here you can check in and you can leave at any time you want. But in its blindness to the magnitude of the American contribution to the art form, as evidenced by the under-representation of artists from the US, the festival's historical framework is at the least provincial and at worse, can be viewed as racist. (Living abroad, regardless of skin color, one comes to appreciate that his race is, after Human, American.)


Funny how arrogance sometimes finds its most accommodating host in the provincial mind. Take John Rockwell, the new dance authority of the New York Times, fretting this past Sunday about (his characterization, not mine) Alexandra Tomalonis, the editor of Dance View and Ballet Alert, and Leigh Witchell fretting about what Rockwell considers the "helpful fructification" of one dance form by another. I don't know where the pontificating Rockwell's been fructifying, but it sure ain't been in France, where what largely trendy and even unknown modern choreographers are doing to the repertory and dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet is more aptly described as "infecting."

Pooh-poohing the fear-mongering of the archaic classical dance defenders Tomalonis and Witchell (I'm relying on Rockwell's characterization of their views; I haven't read their letters to him, but as they're not my target here I ask them to forgive me), Rockwell imagines a world in which mostly if not universally innovative 'modern' choreographers buzz (so to speak) about cross-pollinating moribund ballet flowers, even as crusty fuddy-duddies like Tomalonis and Witchell try to shew them away.

"A love for variety," Rockwell writes, "does not imply a lack of discrimination." Maybe not when the commissioned are Maguy Marin and Mark Morris -- at this point, John, really old stalwarts at working with and understanding ballet companies -- but at the Paris Opera Ballet in the early 21st century under the misguiding hands of dance director Brigitte Lefevre, for the most part, it does.

The problem here is not that Lefevre is letting modern choreographers work with her ballet dancers. When the choreographer is an artist at the accomplished level of Pina Bausch, I'm all for it. I raved the POB's interpretation of Bausch's "Sacre du Printemps," and am looking forward to seeing its staging of her "Orphee et Eurydice" later this season. In the same review of 'Sacre,' I even asked, "When Will New York Ballet Companies Stop Pretending Mats Ek, Maguy Marin, and Pina Bausch Never Happened?" I've also said, in praising the Opera's rendition of Trisha Brown's "Glacial Decoy," that it's a crime Ms. Brown has to cross the ocean to get a ballet company to produce her, yes, classic works. (See also my Flash of this season's recent reprise.) But along with these masters -- whose work presented on this company grew dancers and audience -- Lefevre has also spoiled the Opera's repertoire, embarrassed its dancers, and shamed its storied history by programming things like Davide Bombana's "The Seventh Moon" (and presenting it on Marie Taglioni's 200th birthday!), Carolyn Carlson's "Signes", and, being reprised next month, Laura Scozzi's "Seven Deadly Sins," which instantly became the eighth when it premiered in 2001. Rockwell dismisses Tomalonis and Witchell for what he considers their concern that "ballet companies that engage modern dance choreographers... are creating throwaway novelties." If the last three works I've mentioned aren't that, I don't know what is.

Once again revealing his superficial knowledge of the field, Rockwell bolsters his defense of change as good by referencing Diaghilev. Flash to John: Laura Scozzi, Davide Bombana and yes, even Carolyn Carlson are no Nijinsky, Fokine, Massine or Balanchine. As a dancer I know put it, the Opera's dancers -- and they are upset about this too -- have nothing against contemporary or modern dance. They just think that untested choreographers should not get their try-outs on the stage of the Paris Opera Ballet, one of the few places which can offer classical and romantic spectacles on a grand scale.

Rockwell also dismisses his adversaries' concern that "modern dance choreographers can actually do harm," quoting Tomalonis's contention that if classical dancers are "fed a steady diet of contemporary dance, their classical technique starts to tank." Well -- she's right! If accomplished modern choreography like that of Brown or Bausch can stretch a classical dancer, domination of a classical company's repertoire by not just modern but BAD modern puts classical dancers out of work, only their rigorous regimes keeping their skills from atrophying.

Rockwell mocks the classical-defenders for fearing modern will "infect" their form. Wake up and smell the rosin, John! At the Paris Opera Ballet, anyway, the phylloxera has taken root, and what we need is a dance critic, not a music critic posing as one.



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