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The Buzz, 2-6: International Incidents and National Affairs
DTW Shifts Positions ;) ; NJ Guv to Arts: Drop Dead; Kronos's Harrington on Cage and Merce; Dance Rencontres of the Annual Kind

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

My colleagues, despite the claims by Dance Theater Workshop to have eliminated its theater operations director of mass construction, The Buzz today will present incontrovertible evidence that in fact the position has not been eliminated, but has simply been shifted to another part of the theater to elude hard-hitting investigative arts journalists like me. I'd like to share with you an instant voice message conversation which our intelligence branch has intercepted, using our sophisticated multi-platform web monitoring system software, TM. For convenience, we have translated the conversation from tech-speak into English:

Voice 1: The audience is arriving tonight. Have you moved the, uh, the you know what?

Voice 2: You mean the cash box?

Voice 1: No, I mean the red suspenders on the aisle leading up to the control booth.

Voice 2: Um, we were supposed to move those?

Voice 1: Affirmative, the apparel must be gone by the time they arrive. Can you confirm?

Voice 2: Confirmed. But how will the TOD hold up his shorts without the suspenders?

Voice 1: What shorts?

Voice 2: The, uh, you know, the SHORTS.

Voice 1: You were supposed to move those last week to St. Mark's Church.

Voice 2. Oh. Sorry.

Voice 1: Look, I better get over there now. But don't forget to erase this conversation, we wouldn't want the Dance Insider to discover it.

Speaking of things gone missing -- and this item, unlike the above, is no joke -- In an attempt to help get the state's budget down to $23.7 billion, New Jersey's Democrat governor, James McGreevey, is proposing to totally eliminate the state's $31.7 million arts and culture budget. (That's less than President Bush's budget would spend on the military in one minute.)

"I am still in a state of shock with tears in my eyes," said Andy Chiang, board president of the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company and a trustee of the state advocacy board, ArtPride. "If this proposal is true, it will pull us back into the dark ages.... The state arts council money represents a major portion of our operating budget. It is the money in the bank at the beginning of the fiscal year and pays the bills without us having to wait for the presentation on the books. If zero or very low is the (state funding) reality, I believe we will see a whole lot less dance in New Jersey. Non-profit dance simply will not be able to afford to put on any new productions, or perhaps any productions whatsoever."

At the American Repertory Ballet, the elimination of state arts funding could not come at a worse time, according to artistic director Graham Lustig. "While the Governor's proposal does not directly effect ARB this season, it will have a chilling effect on our ability to book performances for the 2003 - 2004 season, our 25th anniversary season, and beyond," said Lustig. "Not only do we face the prospect of losing state support, but the presenters across the state do as well, which directly impacts their available funds to present companies like American Repertory Ballet."

Or, as Jeffrey Woodward, managing director of Princeton's McCarter Theatre, described the meeting where McGreevey gave arts organizations the news: "We went to our own funeral today." In his comments to the Star-Ledger, Woodward added: "We understand the fiscal crisis facing New Jersey. What we don't understand or accept is why we are being singled out (and) ... eliminated."

The wholesale cut would have a ripple effect, too, explained Chiang: "The state will also lose matching funds from the National Endowment for the Arts."

McGreevey's Draconian actions could have national implications, Chiang pointed out: "This is a wake up call to the arts community around the country. Our powerful statewide arts advocacy organization, ArtPride, was able to grow the arts budget in the past several years and create an exemplary cultural trust program. Yet, we (still) see this proposal on the table."

But there is also a national artistic stake here. With its innovative programming -- particularly Lustig's commitment to commissioning, on an ongoing basis, works by female choreographers -- the ARB is a national ballet resource, just as the Nai-Ni Chen Dance Company, fusing modern and Asian sensibilities and styles, is also an artistic and community resource. And McCarter is a vital performance space for many national dance attractions, who often test new work at the Princeton venue.

To protest this funding elimination, please call Governor McGreevey's office in Trenton at 609-292-6000, or write him at P.O. Box 001, Trenton, NJ 08625.

When you get the governor's attention, you might tell him he can see what he's threatening by checking Nai-Ni Chen this Saturday and Sunday at the New Jersey Performing Arts Center, where it will be celebrating the Chinese New Year with the musical ensemble Melody of the Dragon Players. More info at 1-800-650-0246 or 888-466-5722.

In my other former home state, meanwhile, they know how to do right by the arts. Last week at the University of California at Los Angeles, and tomorrow at the University of California's Zellerbach Hall, the Kronos Quartet will play "30 Pieces for String Quartet," composed for it by John Cage in 1983, while the Merce Cunningham Dance Company performs a new dance with the music.

The composition of the music sounds uncanily like the composition of, well, a Merce Cunningham Dance.

"It's an amazing piece of music," said Kronos violinist David Harrington, "because it will never be quite the same way twice, and yet it always sounds like itself. There are numerous sections that are quite rhythmic and keep re-occurring in the various instruments. When we were working with Cage, he mentioned his fascination with frogs, and when you hear these rhythmic sections, it does remind you of frogs. Shortly before he wrote this piece for us, he'd been recording some frogs in Puerto Rico, and I wonder how much of his fascination with frogs went into '30 pieces.'"

Now, an obvious question to pose to the musicians at this point might be how the random-seeming construction of a Merce event might affect their playing. In fact, with this particular combination, it's the reverse. Even before being paired with a Cunningham dance, Cage's '30 pieces' was performed and recorded in a uniquely staged manner. First of all, Cage dictated, the four musicians shouldn't be in the same place. Second, they shouldn't even rehearse together. They can monitor each other on headsets, but the dancers are not so lucky.

The dance is supposed to commence with the first note of the music, explained Harrington. But, at the performance last week in Los Angeles, the dancers "couldn't hear the first note, because the first note happened when the curtain went up, and the curtain made a noise, and Hank Dutt, our violist, was laying the first note out in the hall, and the first note is very soft. So the (dance) piece ended up starting with my first note, because I was right next to the dancers and they could hear that." Violinist John Sherba was also out in the hall, while cellist Jennifer Culp sat across the stage from Harrington. "We've done it before where all four of us were out in the hall and none of us were on the stage.... We did a TV show (of it) in Cunningham and Cage's home, where we were in four different parts of their home, me in the kitchen and Hank in the library, with four different cameras, and John Cage was there as well, working on a new piece and answering the telephone."

Even for the 30-year-old Kronos Quartet, known for its theatrical concert stagings, said Harrington, "It's not a normal way of playing music together."

But then, as Kronos has also discovered, working with the Cunningham Dance Company is not the usual way of working with a dance company.

"In our itinerary," he reported, "it said, 'Rehearse with the dancers from four to six,' but just as we got to the theater, all the dancers left, and I thought 'What is going on? No dancers.' The next day, for the sound check, it said 'Rehearse from four to six with dancers,' and the same thing happened. A dancer explained to me, 'We never rehearse with the music.' So we practiced our parts independent of each other, got the sound we wanted, and in concert it felt so natural; it was very liberating.

"It's such an interesting way to think of dance and music together. I've been wondering who influenced who -- was it Merce who influenced Cage, or John who influenced Merce? How did this idea come up that the music would not necessarily dictate anything about the dance, and the dance would not dictate anything about the music, and yet they are both independently observable and able to be appreciated, and the qualities of both can be independently felt by the audience?

"The other night I got to go out after we played and watch the the third part of the program, and it was one of the most moving experiences I've ever had watching dance, it was so beautiful.... Clearly what Merce is celebrating is the beauty of human movement. It seems like his choreography is so suited to each dancer. It was so amazing to me because it didn't seem like they were doing things that were constructed, that they had to fit into -- it's kind of like the fit was the other way around. It was such a celebration of the beauty of movement; I was so happy to see this."

Like many artists who have worked with Cage, Harrington recalled an interesting process for '30 Pieces.' "We got the music in 1983, just before the New Year. In the Spring of 1984, we were on our way to Europe. We had practiced a lot on this piece and had a lot of questions. The only way that our schedules worked out to rehearse with John Cage was (during) a lay-over at Kennedy Airport. So Cage took the subway out to the airport, and we had arranged for a room there. Everyone got there, and we had just about two hours. We got there and into this conference room, and no one could turn on the lights. So here we are with John Cage and these little lights at on the floor, and no one could see their music. So the five of us sat around this huge business conference table, each one of us at one corner, and Cage's voice was so soft, and we were practically in the dark so no one could see the music. So we asked all these questions about the piece, and the rehearsal was him answering our questions, just the most incredible rehearsal." The lights would come on, gloriously, for the piece's premiere: "We put the piece together in Finland that summer, and in Finland it doesn't get dark in the summer. We rehearsed the piece in the middle of the night, when it was still light all night."

Of the hundreds of composers Kronos has worked with, said Harrington, Cage stands out for "the nature of his listening and what he imagined," which was "very particular, and different than any other composer we've worked with. One time (in the eighties), we were at the same festival together, and we found out there was a piece we could do with Cage if he played the piano. So we convinced him to come out of retirement -- he hadn't played the piano in twenty years, and he played it with us as an encore to '30 pieces.' We still have a tape of this encore, and his touch on the piano is absolutely memorable. The tone quality of his touch was so beautiful."

The Kronos Quartet performs John Cage's "30 Pieces for String Quartet" Friday at Zellerbach Hall, with the Merce Cunningham Dance Company, presented by Cal Performances. Also on Friday's program are the U.S. premiere of "Fluid Canvas," Cunningham's latest collaboration with Paul Kaiser and Shelley Eshkar, previously reviewed here in its world premiere by Josephine Leask. A separate program is performed Saturday February 8.

Speaking of close encounters, or Rencontres, this just in: The previously biennial Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis goes annual beginning this Spring, as artistic director Anita Mathieu continues to expand its vision. Prior to last year, the festival was programmed as part of an international contest of sorts, with various dance capitols around the world holding 'platforms' featuring locally selected companies, from whom Mathieu would then choose which to bring to France. The contest format was jettisoned last year in favor of a more purely festival approach. While the platforms are still held, and Mathieu still attends many of them, she is no longer bound to choose her roster from these events, explained a spokesperson.

Cindy Van Acker in her choreography "Corps 00:00." Isabelle Meister photo courtesy Rencontres Choregraphiques Internationales de Seine-Saint-Denis.

The festival opens April 23 and lasts through May 24, spread around three venues in the suburbs of Paris: MC93 in Bobigny, Le Colombier in Bagnolet, and the Centre National in Montreuil. Now, what I love love love about this festival in the context of dance in France is it's one of the few opportunities to see companies beyond the usual suspects (often from Belgium or from various regional centres choreographique). Or as I told Margherita Mantero, along with Remi Fort the publicist for the Rencontres, "I love that I've never heard of most of these artists."

They are: Laure Bonicel, Alice Chauchat and Vera Knolle, Andre Gingras, Saskia Holbling, Kinkaleri, Fabrice Lambert, Charles Linehan, Cecile Loyer, Salva Sanchis, Angela Schubot and Martin Clausen, Chritiane Muller, Cie Skalen, Maria Donato d'Urso, Cindy Van Acker, Christoph Winkler, and Neuer Tanz. And they come from ten countries. For more information on the festival, please call 33 1 55 82 08 08.

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