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The Buzz, 7-30: Keep Hope Alive

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 Joyce's mission.

To be open to hearing that statement, you have to be able to look beyond the superficial indicators.

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 listen:

"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 funnier.

"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 who's plastered.

"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?"



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