The Buzz, 4-3: History
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:
'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
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
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
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.
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
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.