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The Buzz, 9-9: Giahad
Kourlas Paints the Grey Lady Yellow

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider

If terrorism can be defined as the tactic of pursuing war by attacking innocent civilians rather than an armed enemy who might actually shoot back, then Gia Kourlas -- the vapid "Heathers"-escapee to whom the New York Times has turned over much of its dance pages -- is practicing the journalistic equivalent, most recently in a senseless and baseless screed published Tuesday in which she effectively carpet-bombs the entire New York (modern) dance community.

Don't mistake the reaction you will read here and distinguish in the grumbling among the dance community. Dancers don't mind being criticized, where the criticism is intellectually rigorous, journalistically accurate, politically honest and offered by an authentic critic; these Dance Insider pages, most of which are filled by dancers, are proof that they are their own severest critics, and don't blanch from levelling or listening to serious artistic criticism or political feedback. But legitimate criticism, responsible journalism, and intellectual rigor hold little allure for Kourlas, whose resume includes an infamous Time Out NY piece that effectively derailed the careers of two School of American Ballet students who made the mistake of trusting her.

Kourlas's putative topic in Tuesday's column -- the demise of modern dance in New York -- might have brought home some legitimate and effective points, had the author dared to criticize by name presenters like the Joyce, the once-great dance house which now seems more interested in safe rentals than growing the art. (Or had she dared to take on Times advertisers like New York City Ballet, which continues to represent director Peter Martins as a choreographer. But the major New York ballet companies seem to be immunized for life against serious Times criticism.) But no, Kourlas is less interested in fighting the power than in setting off powerful explosions (I'm speaking metaphorically) and watching with glee as the powerless flee. (She's also not interested in accuracy; her apposition of the European model as the panacea gets just about everything wrong about the true nature of the dance scene here in Europe, where I live.) So, rather than drop her latest bomb on, say, the eve of the opening of a Joyce season highlighted by Ballet Austin, Parsons Dance Company, ODC, and Jazz Tap Ensemble, she picks the night before the opening of Dancenow/NYC, the courageous festival which has provided more openings for New York artists than any other presenter in New York. It's kind of like waging a campaign by shooting at the Red Cross.

It's tempting to just ignore the latest rantings of the resident Tourette's Syndrome sufferer on the cultural staff of the New York Times. Not only because we all know she's an idiot -- her piece is riddled with inaccuracy -- but because getting a rise out of us is exactly the brief her editors have apparently given her. (Years ago, a dance editor at the Times told me the powers that be were unhappy because dance wasn't generating as many letters to the editor as other arts coverage.) Indeed, well-intended as may have been Dance/NYC's call yesterday to barrage the Times with letters to the editor, I'd strongly counsel against it; this is exactly what they want. Please don't feed the Giabeast -- you'll only encourage her. However, this doesn't mean we shouldn't hold the Times accountable and set the record straight. Among readers who don't know any better -- who don't see a lot of dance -- Gia's ramblings can do tangible damage. If New York dance is moribund, for example, why should audiences bother to check any of the hundred or so companies performing in the Dancenow festival -- an event specifically designed to attract dance outsiders -- at Dance Theater Workshop, Joe's Pub, and other venues around the city over the next week?

But first, let's get to Gia's mythical Europe, the land where choreographers frolic freely in Judsonian fields as open-minded presenters toss money at them and say, "Just follow your muse, Dancer!" I practically choked on my pastis when I read her glazey-eyed statement that "innovation flows like water from one country to the next" on these shores. It may look like that out of Gia's rose-colored windows on W. 43rd Street, but here in the trenches of non-dance dance-throttled Europe -- where I actually live -- I can tell you: It just ain't so.

Incredibly, Kourlas chooses to illustrate her depiction of our alleged mecca with an accompanying photograph of the latest spectacle from Christian Rizzo, on display this past summer in Avignon. If the camera were turned the other way, it would likely show a theater half-emptied of spectators, as was the case with most of the apparent drivel programmed at the famous festival in Southern France this year. As previously reported here, the most sensational show at Avignon 2005 was the revolt of the spectators. "Puerile," "Indecent," and "Appalling" were some of the words they used in fleeing the theaters. Like the Avignon directors, Gia will likely sneer and say the audience just can't take a little innovative provocation, but in fact what's dominating the scene here -- at least from what I see in Paris -- is a sort of self-hating dance, as choreographers, encouraged by the presenting-managing cabal, prefer to trot out tired theatrical conventions in lieu of charting new kinetic territory. They're not dancing. When they do move, they aren't so much "still motivated by the work of Judson-era choreographers," as Kourlas puts it, as imitating Judson without taking it further.

Because the presenting cabal also hates any American dance that's emerged in the past two decades -- no doubt they'll be flashing Gia's piece around as confirmation, just as newspapers and magazines are now headlining Katrina images as further proof of America's two-tiered society -- local dancemakers and audiences just don't realize that American dance has progressed. (When a French presenter breaks from the pack and presents American dance besides Merce, Trisha, and Bill, as was the case with this summer's Festival Vaison Danses, the audience loves it. More than 3,000 spectators filled Vaison's ancient amphitheater to cheer Pilobolus.)

I know you must be over my France-Dance bashing by now so, quickly, some of Gia's other misses on the scene here:

-- There is "no perceptible center of bureaucratic power," she posits. Independent French dancers will tell you differently. When the spangled new Centre National de la Danse opened last year, a rebel group of dance artists and academicians plastered the neighborhood with posters complaining of 'dance apartheid' in France, with resources parcelled out to a chosen few. (At the CND, btw, the reigning goddess of 'dance' is South African Robyn Orlin, also more interested lately in regurgitating '60s theatrical spoofing than in moving.) Unlike the US -- and this is critical -- the very fact that funding is doled out by a handful of cultural arbiters means that anyone not deemed 'in' has few resources with which to create art. The non-profit structure of the US, through which companies are not dependent solely on public funding and can seek individual and foundation support, is less present here. Consequently, we have virtually no sustainable, visible underground, in France anyway. The occasional determined independent miracle-worker will mount something, but there are no Robin Staffs or Tamara Greenfields founding anything comparable to Dancenow.

-- As opposed to US producers, who "continue to support the status quo in programming that does little to shift or expand the concept of dance," as Kourlas puts it, European presenters "aren't afraid to try something new." Perhaps this is true in Gia's imaginary Bizarro-World Europe, but not the real one in which I've been viewing dance for four years. As just one prominent example, later this month, the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt here in Paris -- one of the leading dance presenters and producers in Europe -- opens its season with Angelin Preljocaj, who hasn't had a new idea or gripping concept in at least five years.

-- "Many producers in the United States communalize their opinions," Kourlas complains. This is called pooling resources, and it makes sense. One of the most compelling pieces I saw this year was "The H.C. Andersen Project," a multi-national collaboration directed and conceived by Michael Laub. When I asked American choreographer-in-chief Greg Zuccolo afterwards if the show would be coming to the United States, he more or less laughed in my face, explaining that as the piece had no theaters co-producing it, it could only go where theaters could afford to present it, and this would likely not happen in the US. A "communal" production would have helped.

At this point, you might well ask, where do I get off criticizing a New York-based writer for misrepresenting European dance when she doesn't live here, on the one hand, and then taking her on on the subject of New York dance, when I don't live there? Well, besides editing copy from Dance Insider reviewers in New York, I also talk to New York dancers, and here's what they're telling me regarding Gia's latest accusations: She may be right about some presenters' conservative approach, but she's wrong in concluding this influences the artists' creations, and wrong in promoting experimentation for experimentation's sake, while not valuing traditional approaches. She doesn't understand how choreographers work. They're not interested in experimentation for experimentation's sake. Rather, they are interested in working through to their truth. How's that for a concept, Gia?


What's your view? E-mail paul@danceinsider.com.

 

 

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