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The Buzz, 4-3: History Lessons
Welch's "Relevance"; "Myra's War"; Carlos Fuentes on "the United States of Amnesia"

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- It pains me to report the appalling lack of reflection demonstrated by Houston Ballet's artistic director-designate Stanton Welch, who made the following statement in announcing Houston's 2003-2004 season:

"(William Forsythe's) 'In the Middle, (Somewhat Elevated)' is the most athletic, dynamic ballet that there is to dance. I remember when and where I first saw it. It changed my belief in and approach to classical dance. It was unique in the fact that it married an industrial-techno feeling with classical ballet, and it was one of the first times that ballet used synthetic music of this type. This ballet made classical ballet relevant; it made a lot of people want to choreograph in a classical style again. It brought ballet into the 20th century. 'In the Middle' is what I imagine Balanchine would be doing today if he were alive. It's a bit like Baz Luhrmann's film version of 'Romeo & Juliet,' where you have Shakespeare's classical language married with an MTV visual sensibility. It's great to see such a contemporary ballet with a classical technique behind it and not ashamed of it."

It should not fall to me -- just a hack at the end of the day, and not a dance professional -- to have to explain to the director of a company that considers itself one of the top ten in the US that ballet did not start to become relevant in 1987, when Forsythe created 'In the Middle' on the Paris Opera Ballet.

First, ballet is a language; it can no more be irrelevant than English or French. It gets its relevance from what it expresses and the way it is expressed, from the sensibility of the choreographer and the commitment of the interpreter/dancer. For a reminder of this, just check my colleague Aimee Ts'ao's review on the DI today of John Cranko's "Romeo & Juliet" -- created, Mr. Welch, in 1958. This ballet, effectively choreographed and believably danced, continues to be relevant in the micro and macro senses, to young lovers and dueling nations in turmoil. And on the latter conflict, going further back, to 1932 -- when Billy Forsythe was not even a gleam in his parents' eyes -- to Kurt Jooss's "Green Table," we find a paene to war and its consequences that in its subject and its construction certainly proves ballet's relevance. Balanchine's 'Black and White' ballets, including "Agon" in 1957, reflected the post-modern visual (and musical) sensibility of the time. Going back even further, to the turn of the last century, we find Fokine and, flowing from him, Nijinsky, Nijinska, and Massine.

All of these choreographers, long before Forsythe, reflected -- and were therefore in the sensibility of their construction, 'relevant' -- the art and society of their times.

But even making my point this way misses the more fundamental flaw -- and danger -- in Mr. Welch's statement. Go back to 1841 and retrieve the Coralli, Perrot, Adam and Gautier "Giselle," put it on a stage in 2003 in the hands and feet and heart of a ballerina and partner and corps who find its meaning to them and convey that to their audience, and there's your relevance.

There are at least two related dangers in Mr. Welch's thinking and his statement.

First, it sends a message to young dancers that they shouldn't even attempt to find the relevance in ballets before 1987. Second, it sends a disastrous message to audiences, or at least those who have yet to be exposed to the potential power and relevance of all ballet, that if they want relevance, they might as well skip all the story ballets and everything else pre-Forsythe. If you have ever sobbed at the end of a performance of "Romeo & Juliet," gritted your teeth in the final scene of Cranko's "Onegin," felt the remorse and terror of Albrecht as he gets nearly danced to death at Giselle's graveside, or dreamed with Don Quixote, you will know how much others would miss if they passed on these ballets because, after all, says the director of the Houston Ballet, they're not relevant.

Also for his first season as director of Houston Ballet, Mr. Welch has promised to create a new evening-length ballet, "Tales of Texas," which, says the press release, "will take a panoramic view of Texas, its history and people...." Before Mr. Welch essays to take on the history of his new home state, I would suggest that he master the history of the art which has given him this extraordinary opportunity.

Speaking of dances about war, for the past year, the University of Washington, under the direction of a number of drama and dance teachers, including former Murray Louis and Nikolais dancer Peter Kyle, has been presenting an interdisciplinary project called "Myra's War." The project, Kyle tells us, was inspired by the story of Myra Hess, the British pianist who filled an empty National Gallery with music while bombs fell on London during World War II, giving 1,698 uninterrupted concerts. The story, says Kyle, is meant to prompt the public into considering the role of art in times of crisis.

"Myra's War," featuring, left to right: Darrah Blanton, Melissa Mascara (standing), Mikey Place, Gabby Bruya, and Nellie Viner. Rob D'Arc photo courtesy Peter Kyle.

After a series of earlier programs including lectures (on London during the Blitz, for example) and new music performances, the project culminates this weekend, tonight through Sunday, with "Myra's War," a dance theater suite by Kyle, Robyn Hunt, Steve Pearson, Maria Simpson, Christopher Shainin, and Victor Holtcamp, performed at the Meany Studio Theatre of the University of Washington.

The work, says Kyle, is organized into a suite that follows the phases of an exploding bomb: silence, light, sound, concussion, vacuum, wind, debris, silence. Using text drawn from observations of British survivors of World War II, the actors and dancers weave together a loose narrative that depicts a woman's memories of life and death during war.

The creators, Kyle adds, "have been particularly struck at how the current crisis in Iraq is mirrored in the content of this piece..... This work in some ways is trying to bring the ravages of war down to a human scale. As we hear daily briefings about various military, civilian, and other casualties of the current conflict, there seems to be a lack of resonance to what that really means. We want people to think about what it means to say 'a bomb was dropped.' Or, when the pundits are celebrating the firepower of the allied forces, how can we remind them of what happens to bodies on the other end of those attacks, regardless of political leanings or conclusions?

"I'm not trying to preach, nor is the piece offered as a diatribe against bombing(though that wouldn't be an entirely unwelcome thing). Our collaboration simply asks people to listen -- to one another, to music, to what this action means for our human legacy."

For ticket reservations, please call 206-543-4880.

Speaking of legacies, and knowing our history: Today's issue of the Paris daily Le Monde features an opinion piece by Carlos Fuentes, the novelist and (if you need a dance relevance angle) giver of the keynote speech at January's APAP conference. The piece, entitled "The United States of Amnesia," is a response to the calls in some sectors of Congress and the US media for a boycott of all products French because of France's preference for a peaceful solution, through the United Nations, to the conflict in Iraq. Because the artistic community has a stake in any boycott of France, I'd like to share a bit of this response from one of the finest representatives of our community:

"...(W)ithout France," Fuentes reminds us, "the United States would not exist. Without the support of the French monarchy, it is probable that Washington and his men would not have won the War of Independence. It is certain, in any case, that they won thanks to the powerful support that France contributed to them."

This included, Fuentes notes, one million pounds worth of arms which Louis XVI delivered to Washington's armies...for free. "This French aid saved Washington in the course of the cruel winter of 1777: the revolutionary forces, under siege in Morristown and weakened by desertions, were saved by the aid of France." As a consequence of a commerce and friendship treaty signed in February of 1778 in which France received favored nation status for trade and guaranteed the US's independence, in June war broke out between France and...England.

Fuentes concludes: "The Statue of Liberty, given by France to the United States, reminds Americans that, if they believe that they saved France in the two world wars, France not only saved, but decisively aided in the creation of the United States of America."

No doubt, without the United States, as I had the occasion to heatedly remind a militant demonstrator here who had painted a swastika on Old Glory, France would not have been liberated and I as a Jew would not be here today. But the debt is mutual. If not for France, we probably wouldn't have any freedom to fry.

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