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The Buzz, 3-1: Yam Power
Marines Meet Dunham; Giselle Meets Socialist Theory; PS Meets Playboy; Russell to Public?; Dancers on Top at Dance Mag & ABT

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004 The Dance Insider

(Editor's Note: The opinions expressed in the Buzz are those of its author, and do not necessarily reflect those of others on the Dance Insider staff or among its advertisers.)

PARIS -- The US-abetted* overthrow yesterday of Haiti's democratically elected president Jean-Bertrand Aristide can't help but recall, in heartbreaking contrast, the last time a US president sent soldiers into the US's impoverished and heroic neighbor. Only in 1994, it was to restore the democratically elected Aristide to power. (I'm not the first to consider this "political" story in a "dance" context; today's London Independent describes yesterday's events as "US-choreographed." Amazing how newspaper editors seem to give more space to that word as a war concept than an artistic one, no, dance insider?)

During that earlier intervention, and as reported on the front page of the New York Times on October 3, 1994, the Marines raided a Haitian compound belonging to Katherine Dunham, the mother of African and Caribbean dance in the United States. The Marines mistook the business going on behind the fence as insurgent activity. In fact, as Dunham confirmed to me later that day, the dancers behind the fence were performing a devotional vodun dance related to the Yam.

Speaking of dance and politics, if you're offended by my mixing the two, dance insider, you should see what Randy Martin's trying to do to "Giselle." Here's an excerpt from Martin's "Dance and It's (sic) Others: Theory, State, Nation, and Socialism," from Wesleyan University Press's upcoming "Of the Presence of the Body: Essays on Dance and Performance Theory":

"Giselle is caught in a love triangle: one man adores her but is spurned; the other she loves but considers herself unworthy because he is of noble rank. The revelation of this duke's true identity leads Giselle to excessive dance and her own demise. Giselle is taken up by the wilis (sic), who command her to entrance the Duke. He is saved ultimately by the dawn's light, which removes the wilis' powers; crestfallen, he returns to his legally betrothed. These women have the power to draw on the weakness of men in a situation where dance itself is taken to be that power. But the power is unsustainable in its own terms and allows the men to return to the bonds that assure the marriage of property and propriety."

That rumbling you hear comes from the Montmartre Cemetary, and it's the sound of Theophile Gautier, Heinrich Heine, and Adolphe Adam turning over in their graves. Gautier, inspired by Heine's story of the Wilis (they may not be capitalists, but they should be capitalized), wrote the ballet's libretto with Vernoy de Saint-Georges and Jean Coralli, who choreographed the 1841 premiere here with Jules Perrot, to Adam's score. If the version currently being performed in Paris sends Albrecht rather melodramatically descending towards the falling curtain with one of Giselle's lillies upheld in his extended hands, most of the versions I've seen end with him simply crumpled on the grave into which she's just returned for the last time after saving his life by delaying tactics which made sure he saw another dawn. None of them end with Martin's irresponsibly imagined marriage of political convenience.

If Martin's premises are just wrong, his/her conclusion is just blind. Far be it from me to state conclusively all that this classic is about, but it is a classic, whose primary theme is not the assertion of class values (Martin also writes that in the romantic ballets, "Dancing becomes the agency of tragic narrative, which does the state's cathartic bidding"), but the eternally resonant message of forgiveness. What's shameful about Martin's analysis is that by relegating this ballet to simple class suppression tool it would deter the young dancer minds for whom this Wesleyan textbook is presumably intended from seeing and benefiting from this universal message. As well, by Martin's second mistaken conclusion -- that the story depicts the power of dance as unsustainable -- the author would prevent them from benefiting from the dance's opposite message that, indeed, the power of dance is not fleeting but staying, not impotent but potent, not irrelevant but transformative. Contrary to Martin's baseless contention, through this crucible of dance, Giselle and Albrecht find the power to transcend whatever shackles their times may have placed on them, and the ballet becomes timeless.

And by the way: If dance is so impotent, how could a group of dancers giving a yam dance frighten a bunch of sturdy Marines?

Speaking of "resignations," following PS 122's recent announcement that executive/artistic director Mark Russell would be departing in June, and on a tip from a colleague that the answer would be a key to the understanding this story, we got to wondering just who is Donald Guarnieri, the PS board president who accepted Russell's resignation. Guarnieri wrote in recently to confirm that his background includes working in the computer industry since 1984, including as a technical and business consultant to many corporate clients, providing expertise in Local Area Networks and Wide Area Networks. He founded Novent, Inc, a database consulting company, and has written two books on network applications. He was the network architect for the Penthouse.com web site, and is currently working on projects for Playboy.com and the Buckminster Fuller Institute.

As for Russell, my vote (if not bet) is for him to replace outgoing Public Theater producer George C. Wolfe, who steps down next season. What the Downtown and theater cultures need right now in such a pivotal position is not so much a talented theater director who will contribute some new high-profile and perhaps even seminal works to the scene, but an executive/artistic producer like Russell, with a proven track record of presenting artists who have induced multiple changes in multiple scenes, and as a producer driven primarily by the NEED to take risks.

Speaking of executive changes, Dance Magazine has appointed dance artist and journalist Wendy Perron its new editor-in-chief. And American Ballet Theatre has hired former ABT dancer Rachel Moore as its fourth executive director in three years. Moore, currently director of Boston Ballet's Center for Dance Education, performed as a member of the ABT corps from 1984 to 1988. Considering ABT's current financial challenges -- the New York Times's Robin Pogrebin reported February 5 that its cash reserves had dropped from $6.5 million to $3.4 million in the last fiscal year, and that it showed an operating deficit of $3.8 million for the four-month period that ended on November 30 -- Moore has her fiscal work cut out for her. But one hopes that if she needs to cut expenses, Moore, as a former dancer, won't choose to do so at the expense of corps rehearsal time (and thus artistic product) as did one of her predecessors.

*The linked article, from the Paris daily Liberation, is in French. Since it appeared, Aristide has been reported as landing in the Central African Republic, where, according to the AP, he told State radio shortly after arriving: "In overthrowing me, they cut down the tree of peace. But it will grow again, because the roots are well-planted." Speaking to Pacifica Radio's Amy Goodman and Dennis Bernstein last night, Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) charged, "We were just as guilty of the coupe as the opposition, as the rebels, as the military that fled into the Dominican Republic and as the thugs and criminals that were moving in on the capital."




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