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The Buzz, 2-1: All We Need is Love... and Light
Kourlas Targets Peterson; Brenner Loves Louis & Shapiro; Tipton in the Spotlight

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2007 The Dance Insider


It's amazing how the same source can produce both darkness and light. Texas gave us George Bush; it also gave us Molly Ivins, the journalist who shadowed him until her death yesterday from breast cancer (as reported in the New York Times). Dance also has its builders and its destroyers. Yesterday I got a note from a dancer on whose behalf I was preparing to rant another dancer who, it seemed to me, had burned her; she told me not to do it, that she wanted only to bless her colleague's future endeavors. As a prelude, she related an anecdote about an early teacher who had corrected another student's execution of a movement by telling her she needed to love it. "I realized at that moment that love had everything to do with my dancing," she told me.

I really wish I were big enough to love Gia Kourlas, who is doing her level best to turn the dance pages of the Times into a girls' locker room in which she is the queen, declaring who is in and who is out -- as I wish I were big enough to love George Bush. Maybe one day I'll be that strong. But on the evidence, love has little to do with what Kourlas writes about the New York dance community. And when she continues to try to take down those in our field who are trying to build it up -- in the process disgracing my own field -- I think its important to continue to Molly Ivins her.

But first, let's be clear what the issue is here -- and what it isn't. This is not a case of a critic who has panned my dance company, or my friend's dance company, or who has revealed unpleasant possible truths about the field, or opened a debate about a disagreeable topic by expressing an unpopular view. Gia's screeds have all the intellectual and aesthetic rigor of a locker-room barb hurled by a teen-aged clique chief. To the degree that we want to make the case to the Times that she has got to go, we need to stress this. If her editors (assuming she has editors) think we're just upset because she's provocative, it will have the opposite effect. We need to explain that Gia has all the provocative disposition (I'm speaking metaphorically, of course) of someone who throws a bomb into a theater. Her attacks are motivated not by heartfelt passion for the field -- as, I think, one can say about even the most negative reviews from, say, a Tobi Tobias (or me for that matter) -- but a desire to be the designator of who's cool and who's not, as dictated by the most superficial of indices.

Earlier targets included the proscenium stage (I kid you not) and downtown dance in general. Gia's latest salvo is fired squarely, if cleverly, at Carla Peterson, the veteran curator, producer, and presenter who became artistic director of Dance Theater Workshop in September -- far from her first influential position. As executive director since 2002 of the internationally recognized dance laboratory Movement Research, Peterson reinvigorated its role as a mecca for and incubator of experimental artists and emerging ideas -- and also strengthened the organization's financial foundation. Prior to that, she headed the National Performance Network, a consortium of 60 diverse performing arts organizations, expanding national touring and residency opportunities. Before that, the Ohio State University M.F.A. worked as assistant director of performing arts at Ohio's Wexner Center -- one of the most innovative presenters in the United States -- cultivating relationships with Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company, Eiko & Koma, Ann Carlson, Meredith Monk, and others. She won a Bessie (New York Dance and Performance Award) in 2005 for her leadership of Movement Research and dedication to the dance community. So it was with good reason that when DTW chose this admiral of dance as its new artistic leader, its executive director, Marion Koltun Dienstag, hailed her as "an outstanding artistic leader with decades of experience working with some of the most exciting choreographers of our time. We know that DTW is a destination for excellence in dance -- on our stage, in our studios and through the roster of services and education programs we provide. This high quality work is what our audiences and our artists expect, and Carla's vision will secure and expand this platform with depth, commitment, and innovation."

As you might have gathered from this long prelude, this apparently ain't the way Gia sees it.

In a piece in Sunday's Times which discusses DTW and the part-time dance presenters PS 122 and the Kitchen but bizarrely ignores Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church -- with DTW the most important commissioner of new post-modern work in New York -- Kourlas begins: "When Cathy Edwards stepped down as artistic director of Dance Theater Workshop last summer, experimental dance lost a general."(Yes, I know the article was titled "New Lords of the (Downtown) Dance," but besides Peterson, neither of the directors discussed were new, and one can hardly analyze the Downtown dance scene without referencing Danspace Project.)

When I first read this, my response was that, while Edwards certainly deserves credit for diversifying the diet of DTW and its audience, it's a bit of an exaggeration to call her a general of experimental dance -- not to mention unjust to the 'generals' still on the field, such as Danspace Project's Laurie Uprichard and others working under the radar.

Others in the dance community, who are more astute Gia-watchers than me, pointed out that the gross injustice in the article, and the reason they'd alerted me to it, is the way Kourlas contrasts her 'general' with what she portrays as -- by the quotes she's selected, where she's placed them, and the background she's omitted -- her wishy-washy successor.

Here are some examples:

**"Because Ms. Peterson has focused mainly on artists in New York, her exposure to international performance and dance is less broad." (Never mind her heady, and trailblazing, national and international experience at Wexner and the National Performance Network, nor the international profile of Movement Research, background with which any dance writer in New York should be familiar. Unless of course the writer is trying to make her subject look like a local yokle.)

**"'I want to test out my notions, and I am very much going to be in the process of doing that over the next year and a half,' Ms. Peterson said. 'I have the right kind of intuition and intellect to approach international work, but I am not now standing on... strong two feet.... I am definitely in an eyes-wide-open place as opposed to knowing exactly what I'm going to do over the next few years.'" (Wishy-washy. The general wouldn't have prevaricated!)

"Those in the dance world are waiting eagerly to see the specifics." (What you mean, 'We,' white woman?)

For obvious reasons, dancers and presenters are reluctant to go on record criticizing a journalist. However, one presenter, Dancenow/NYC artistic director Robin Staff, was so concerned by Kourlas's implicit dis of Peterson as well as her recurrent pillorying of the New York dance community, that she was moved to comment, "We support Carla -- and Dance Theater Workshop -- and her open and thoughtful approach to how she will mold the programming at DTW. Our grave concern with this kind of coverage is about how this negative/closed-minded energy is so lethal to our community. It would be far better to focus on creating a healthy and supportive environment for work to emerge and grow."

I am not sure Gia Kourlas -- and by inference, the newspaper that enables her approach by publishing her -- is interested in creating a supportive environment for dance. In fact, I'm not so sure that Gia's particular search for the new includes dance anymore; she also quotes, with seeming approval, this statement from PS 122's artistic director: "I realized that we were presenting much more dancey dance (than DTW). And I was very distressed by that."

As another choreographer I talked to said in response to Gia's latest: "I'm tired of hearing what is the new garde. We who create cannot second guess what the flavor of the month is going to be. And of course having tastemakers who pride themselves on discovering the next new thing become generals and we are the marching ants if we are not careful. Critics and producers are allowed to express their opinions, but you can't lump us into factions or we will become us against us. Somewhere there is a balance of provocative and pleasing. And 'dancey dance' is the new un-cool? Um, I have to think about that one. Last time I looked it was our medium.

Is it Gia's?

For the Love of Murray... and Danny

"Hypocrite," I hear you saying. "How can you talk about love and then spend a thousand words tearing down your colleague?" Fair enough, so, to bring it back home to the headline:

.... Speaking of Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, this lord of downtown dance theaters tonight hosts a tribute to two venerated choreographers and dancers by Janis Brenner & Guests, to open Brenner's 25th anniversary season, running at Danspace Project through Sunday.

Janis Brenner & Guests in Murray Louis's "Porcelain Dialogues." Julie Lemberger photo copyright Julie Lemberger.

Before she was Janis Brenner, choreographer, she was Janis Brenner, performer, for the Murray Louis Dance Company, in which capacity she danced with, among others, the late Danial Shapiro. For this season, in addition to her own work, Brenner is featuring a revival of Louis's 1974 "Porcelain Dialogues," which she'll perform with four of her Louis company contemporaries: Betsy Fisher, Sara Pearson, Michael Blake, and Robert Small. Before he passed away, she was also looking forward to dancing with Danny again. Instead, tonight's performance will include a tribute to him, as well as a special presentation to Louis and two selections from Monk's "Songs from the Hill," sung by the composer (on video) and Brenner.

Dancing in her Light

Loitering a few more minutes in the church, I'm happy to report that the award-winning lord of dance (and theater and opera) light design, Jennifer Tipton, is the 2007 honoree of the Danspace Project gala, scheduled for April 24. Among a lifetime of accomplishments across the stages of the world and across genres, Tipton's most recent work includes Salvatore Sciarrino's opera "Da Gelo A Gelo," directed by Trisha Brown in Schwetzingen, Germany; Mozart's "The Magic Flute" at the Santa Fe Opera, directed by Tim Albery; and "Il Trovatore" at the Chicago Lyric, directed by David McVicar. Recent dance work includes Christopher Wheeldon's "DGV" for the Royal Ballet; Brown's "O Composite" for the Paris Opera Ballet; and Paul Taylor's "Banquet of Vultures." In theater, recent projects include Marcus Gardley's "Dance of the Holy Ghosts: a play on memory," at the Yale Repertory Theater, directed by Liz Diamond, and "Hamlet," for the Wooster Group. Other recent honors include the Dorothy and Lillian Gish Prize, the Jerome Robbins Prize, and the Mayor's Award for Arts and Culture in New York City. For more information on the gala, please contact Danspace Project's Peggy Cheng at 212-674-8112 or peggy@danspaceproject.org


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