The Buzz, 7-30: Keep
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003 The Dance Insider
Paul "How can you miss
me if I never go away?" Ben-Itzak here, dance insider, to Buzz about
eccentric dancing. Not the kind that Bob Hope, whose death at the
age of 100 was announced yesterday, broke into show biz with in 1921
(more on Hope later), but the variety the Joyce Theater recently
announced for its next Altogether Different festival, January 6-18,
2004. With a line-up of Margie Gillis, Rebecca Stenn, John Kelly,
Ben Munisteri and Peter Pucci, Joyce programming director Martin
Wechsler makes a powerful statement about the festival's and the
To be open to hearing
that statement, you have to be able to look beyond the superficial
A dance insider who
asked to remain anonymous writes of the AD choices: "I guess I wonder
why they don't pick artists for their thing who truly are different
or exploring the medium of dance in an interesting and forward-moving
way.... It kind of sounds like Altogether The Same, really. I mean
Peter Pucci? Didn't he do a dance about dance and sports? What would
it be like if they had some really interesting artists -- RoseAnne
Spradlin or Barbara Mahler or Mollie O'Brien maybe... people that
are really exploring what can be accomplished in dance in new ways?
Yeah, I know they don't have the audience-building profile that
an ex-Momix dancer might have. But I keep waiting for some of these
producers to get real vision, and go out on a limb to develop people's
sensibilities and eyes so they can actually take in work that is
challenging in some way. I think that would raise the bar for all
of us, which would be a good thing."
Without disputing the
correspondent's advocacy of worthy (and engaging, from what I've
seen or heard) artists such as Spradlin, Mahler, and O'Brien, I
believe that what this year's AD artists will be bringing to the
Joyce festival promises to be in one way or another unique.
Let's start with the
former Momix dancer (and founding DI features editor) Rebecca Stenn.
If Stenn was Momix director Moses Pendleton's muse for six years,
he wasn't exactly hers for the choreography she would make on her
own company. Like Anna Teresa De Keersmaeker, John Cranko, and Martha
Graham, Pendleton doesn't just teach his performers how to make
dances like him... but how to compose dances, period. The main thing
Stenn learned from Pendleton was how to structure dances. While
she does use props like Momix, she has a greater choreographic breadth
than her teacher. While she, like him, is musical, her PerksDanceMusicTheatre
includes a cadre of top-notch musicians who also compose most of
the music for and with the dances. (And sometimes, the dances are
composed for the music.) This is not news to presenters outside
New York, who have kept the company busy over the past seven years.
What Wechsler and Joyce executive director Linda Shelton have to
contend with that the out-of-towners don't is a sometimes snooty
post- or post-post-modern community that too easily dismisses Pilobolus,
Momix, and all their children as not being obscure enough to offer
value. In bucking this resistance by programming one of those children,
Stenn, the Joyce makes a brave -- and maybe even unpopular -- choice.
The words "altogether
different," I was once told by the programmers of the festival,
are meant to describe the relation of the artists on a given year's
program to each other. At first glance, Peter Pucci might seem not
that different from Stenn -- he also worked with Pendleton as an
early member of Pilobolus, which Pendleton co-founded. And yes,
he's the guy that created "Pucci: Sport," a dance riff on sports
and an enterprise that by its popularity keeps dancers employed.
And that, through its outreach program, turns kids on to dance,
using the basketball section as a entry. "Through the process" of
this workshop, the Pucci company's web site explains, "the students
gain new insights into choreography, teamwork, creativity and the
mathematical correlation between music and movement."
Does "Pucci: Sport"
meet the downtown standard of challenging dance? I have an opinion
on that, but it's irrelevant to this discussion because this isn't
the piece Pucci will be presenting at the Joyce. Instead, and in
a departure from what audiences have seen lately from the Peter
Pucci Plus troupe, he'll be creating and performing a new solo work,
"To Begin Again," comprising elements of dance, theater, and, says
the company, a wide range of musical styles. Drawing on Pucci's
25 years as a performer and choreography, the work will be accompanied
by live musicians playing a score using Chopin's "Nocturnes" as
a starting point and branching off into jazz, blues, folk and rock.
Could this evening fill houses as "Pucci: Sport" has been doing?
Possibly not -- making it exactly the sort of work the Joyce should
be encouraging in this particular festival.
If anyone has been pegged,
it's Ben Munisteri, a former contributor to this publication and
a former employer of moi. The Joyce press release calls him a former
dancer with Doug Elkins, of whose company he was a co-founding member;
he's also been thumbnailed elsewhere as "former club kid goes ballet."
This last signifies a lazy description and a superficial apprehending
of the work. About all Munisteri's sensibility shares with that
of Elkins is musicality and good taste in the interesting, emotionally
and/or rhythmically resonant music he selects. The work is distinguished
from much of the dance I've seen by Munisteri's contemporaries in
that it's not particularly angsty or solopsistic. Irony is there,
but it's not detached or dismissive of the audience. His dancers
smile -- not smugly, but conspiratorily. You might call the work
pop, and, when it includes Munisteri himself narrating, even "charming,"
but in a way I think it represents the bravest programming choice
by Wechsler: Munisteri doesn't fit any demographic. He's not an
Asian choreographer, a woman choreographer, an African-American
choreographer, a gay choreographer, a midwestern choreographer,
an international choreographer, a tap choreographer, a Brazilian
choreographer, a dyke choreographer -- he's just an innovative dancemaker.
John Kelly doesn't make
dances -- he makes what the French might call spectacles, incorporating
dance, music, and theater. Or, as put by the DI's Susan Yung, reviewing
Kelly's "Paradise Project" at the Kitchen last year, "He is a man of so many talents -- chief
among them acting, dancing, singing, art, theater -- that it is
an embarrassment of riches, and that in part may be why he eludes
recognition as one of the best in any of those fields. He simply
switches to another genre at will, or when the pace slows, never
sitting in one place very long."
To my mind, this is
exactly the type of artist that the Joyce should be commended for
programming. Multi-genre artists, who should be encouraged by all
their genres for following their muse wherever it takes them, even
if that be into the realm of the uncategorizeable, are too often
punished by being excluded by theaters who say "well, it's not really
dance/music/theater." By claiming him for dance, the Joyce embraces
an expansive vision of the art.
Speaking of singer-dancer-actors,
I promised you some more Bob Hope. In "I Never Left Home" (Simon
& Schuster, 1944) which recounts his encounters with the troops
he entertained during World War II, Hope tells how he learned to
"Naturally, there were
plenty of hospitals around Tunis, and we played as many as they'd
let us into. In one of them we saw a guy in a complete parka made
out of plaster. That flier was in one of the biggest casts since
they tore down the old Hippodrome. The cast covered his head and
body right down to his waist.
"John Steinbeck wrote,
'Probably the most difficult, the most tearing thing of all, is
to be funny in a hospital.' In a way he's right. But, on the other
hand, it's much harder not to be.
"Those guys aren't asking
for tears or sympathy. They had a job to do, and they did it. It
was a tough job. But they did do it.
"What right would I
have coming in on a bunch of men who had successfully carried out
their mission, to meet the enemy and hold him, and not be able to
carry out mine -- the job of passing out a few snickers.
"And it really isn't
laughs they want so much. It's just somebody to talk to about something
that's closest to their hearts. Nurses and doctors haven't time
to listen. Writing letters is tough to do sometimes because they
really haven't anything they're willing to say. Their buddies have
their own little things to talk about and make lousy listeners.
"I come along, they
know my kisser -- and they know most of my jokes. So I don't have
to bother with those. I just tell them, 'Yeah. I've been in St.
Paul. Great town.' That's all I have to say. They take it from there.
Believe me, I've learned one wonderful thing, talking to men in
hospitals. I've learned how to listen. That's a knack not many guys
in show business ever acquire. And I've also learned how to let
myself get topped.
"Maybe you don't know
it, but a comedian who allows himself to be topped without trying
to fight back could be a gone comic. Or maybe you don't know what
'being topped' means. That's when someone says something funny to
you and you don't try to top it by saying something you think is
"For example, a guy
says to me, 'Flying over here from England it was so foggy even
the sea gulls were on instruments.'
"The topper might be,
'Think that's something? When I came over even the instruments were
flying on instruments.' "Whether or not that's very funny isn't
the point. It's the technique of the topper.
"That guy in the all-over
plaster cast topped me... and of all people to be topped by, a guy
"In the first place
he had me topped in courage before I opened my kisser. But ask yourself
what you'd say to a living mummy, even though you know he's going
to be well and walk around again someday, when you also know what
he's gone through and you doubt if you could have taken it.
"For me to talk to that
man at all took more than courage. It took downright gall. Fortunately,
you don't stop to think of all those things when you're touring
the wards. I just got a gander at this guy and said, 'How do you
get a razor in there?'
"Nice crack, huh?
"He didn't mind. I guess
he smiled, if I could have seen it. He must have. Because what he
said was, 'I've had my close shave, Bob.'
"There may be a topper
to that. But who wants it?"