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Flash Report 1, 1-7: Surprise, Surprise, Surprise!
Arts Presenters, Day One

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

One hardly expects to find a good omen for the arts at the dentist's, but that's exactly what happened when an Association of Arts Presenters official we'll call Jim found himself at a local dentist's after a crown fell off, on the opening registration day Friday of the 44th annual Association of Arts Presenters meeting in New York City. Jim explained to the doctor the mission of the organization he works for, the leading trade organization for arts presenters, which is convening in town through Tuesday at the Hilton Hotel and vicinity for meetings, panels, and, most important, showcases by companies who want the presenters to book them. The dentist, who had never before treated Jim, mentioned that he played in a jazz group. After the dental work was completed, the dentist told Jim, "You're in the arts. No charge."

Jim related this story to me and a dance company director/choreographer at the end of a very long, but fulfilling opening day of the Arts Presenters conference which was full with many surprises, most of them delightful. As it's now, er, 1:30 in the a.m. as I write this, and I'm exhausted if exhilarated, more punchy than pusillanimous, I'm going to just rattle these discoveries off, with the only through-line being that, like ballet, which never fails to surprise me, in a good way, just when I think I'm over it, this conference, which frankly appeared rather dry on paper, was in person yesterday chock-full of news and insights.

First and foremost, I think, was the significant presence, for the first time I can remember anyway, of American Ballet Theatre at the conference. For all the credit Michael Kaiser got, and deservedly so, for rescuing the company financially during the mid-nineties, its personnel infrastructure was pretty moribund. If the dancers carried themselves with a pride that recognized ABT's place in the American ballet hierarchy, much of the rest of the staff did not. Well, in the last year or so, since Louis G. Spisto took over as executive director, the house has been cleaned. Greg Patterson, a veteran of the National Ballet of Canada, Orange County Performing Arts Center, and Los Angeles Opera, has been installed as the company's new director of marketing and Communications. Where the previous regime cared only about the New York Times and, on occasion, the former Dance Magazine (and only when it was promised a cover, or so it seemed), Patterson has reached out, already, to everybody in the media.

In another positive omen, Jon H. Teeuwissen, a veteran of dance infrastructure if ever there was one who has held leadership roles with the New Orleans Ballet Association and Pilobolus, among others, has been named general manager of ABT, Donya Hubby company manager, and Cristina Ares manager of the Studio company, which seems to be thriving these days, with fresh choreographers like Julia Adam and fresh dancers like Misty Copeland. (Who, Ares told me, only started dancing when she was 14 -- yes, 14.) The main company isn't doing too bad either; it will soon increase touring to forty weeks, Teeuwissen told me. A new, re-vamped web site will be launched in about six weeks. The company finally has e-mail, which it did not as recently as a year ago. Premieres by Paul Taylor, Mark Morris, and David Parsons are coming up, as well as the company premiere of John Cranko's "Eugene Onegin."

While we're on the topic of resurgent ballet companies, I am very, very pleased to report the launch of the Joffrey Ensemble Dancers, as a performance unit of the Manhattan-based Joffrey School. In other words, this company which was so essential to the renaissance of ballet from the 1960s on, and to the cultural firmament of this city until it decamped for Chicago in 1995, will once again have a presence in New York -- vital to this city, as well as to the students, who will now have the opportunity to perform. They give an informal recital this week. Later this year, they'll perform with a symphony orchestra in New Jersey.

The Ensemble is represented by World Arts, Inc., lead by Vincent Paul, assisted by Meg Gurin Paul, herself a well-known former Joffrey dancer, who is the new company's ballet mistress. The artistic director, working with school director Edith D'Addario -- yes, some things never change -- is Elie Lazar.

While we're stopping at the World Arts table, Mr. and Ms. First-nighter, Ms. Paul also told me that Nacho Duato's Compania Nacional de Danza, a rage the last time it was in New York six or so years ago, returns this summer, opening at the New York State Theater July 25 with an evening-length work set to Bach, and called, er, "Deep Bach." Duato himself will dance in the piece, opening and closing it. World Arts also represents Complexions, which gives a showcase Monday at 3 p.m., in City Center Studio 5.

And while we're on the subject of ballet, it's time to play good news-bad news. The good news is that, according to Marc Baylin, his client Suzanne Farrell will remount her company next fall. The bad news -- my opinion -- is that, from what I can gather from Baylin, it's still basically a pick-up company -- my words. As before, the audition and rehearsal process will start around next summer, with the dancers coming from the ranks of those who already have full-time jobs. I'm a Farrell fan. Let's not mince words: If Balanchine's last muse, who really does seem to channel him, were sitting where Peter Martins is sitting right now, the New York City Ballet wouldn't be dancing like a ship without a captain. However, in her company's last season, seen around these parts at the New Victory Theater, the last-minute coming together and pick-up nature of Farrell's ensemble showed. The dancers didn't gel as a unit; the quality of the group dipped to such an extent that while Farrell, being Farrell, could still lift them to a level surpassing themselves, it still wasn't the level that could present the work she so prizes -- by Balanchine and Robbins, especially -- at the standard it deserves. Put simply: To really give us the company, with the presentation of ballets, that she is capable of, Farrell needs to make it a real company, with a full contract, attracting top-level dancers to a full-time commitment.

Now then, let's move on to modern dance!

Here we also have good news and bad news.

The good news is that, from what I saw yesterday, artists are pushing themselves.

Shapiro and Smith, a company known for its uncanny ability to combine schtick and dance, is going, in its latest work "The Last Night Before Fall," for pure dance. This dance for two men and three women (or maybe it's three men -- sorry, it was a long day yesterday, and the S&S showcase was my first event!), set to Rachmaninoff, is racey -- lots of racing around. And there's a vertical drift to it - from the upward projection of the bodies, arrested only briefly in fleeting lifts, to the final tableau, where all step forward and, elbows akimbo, raise their arms to Heaven. Creatively, I think this pure dance dance is a brave move which S&S needed to make.

In her piece "The Carmen Suites," inspired by the Bizet opera, Rebecca Stenn and her PerksDanceMusicTheatre have reached a level few companies have, in at least two ways. Typically, non-Flamenco companies that work with this music and this theme essay a sort of generalized idea of what they think is gypsy passion. For dance, especially, the resulting products are usually insultingly two-dimensional.

Rebecca (she's a friend), working with three dancers including herself and two acting musicians (in ways that go beyond the usual cloying interaction of having the dancer still or steal the violinist's bow, or the musician circle the dancer), has created a precise, tight work with many layers -- comic, dramatic, subtle and over-the-top, all in one dance that can't be more than 15 minutes in length, but encompasses a world of relations. It's as if Stenn took the various relationships in "Carmen," threw them into a hat, and then blindly picked out new matches, so that the same characters of the original emerge, but in unexpected match-ups. David Eggar plays his cello while resting on his back on Peter Kope, who is also on his back. Jay Weissman plays his bass guitar while resting on his back, as a black flamenco-dressed Michelle de la Reza straddles him. The whole piece starts with two of the dancers, Kope and de la Reza, owning the instruments, while the natural musicians, Eggar and Weissman, strike poses both ominous and enticing.

The other main way in which this piece blew me away -- we're not even going to get into Stenn's inventive choreography for dancers and musicians, as that's a given by now with this company which takes its name seriously -- is its delicately respectful use of the cultural form of Flamenco. If there's one thing I can't stand, it's American choreographers who appropriate -- not just are "inspired by," but appropriate -- other cultures' music, exploiting its ready exoticism without really understanding the culture from which the music comes, or even the history of the music itself. As a sometimes DJ, I won't even play Flamenco, because I think it's disrespectful to use it out of its context, i.e. apart from real Flamenco dancers.

I don't know if I quite have the facility to capture the delicacy to which I refer in Stenn's use of this music and dance tradition, but I'll try. First, she is neither pretending that she and her dancers are Flamenco dancers, nor is she ironically vogueing and posing against the Flamenco style. There is some stamping (stomping?), yes, but it is used sparingly, and at select moments. That the three women are wearing Doc Martin-like Skechers is like a visual acknowledgement that they were not trained in Spain; at the same time, their stamping is not over the top, so that they're obviously not mocking the real thing. Rather, the spare stomping ends up being seen and felt as a tribute, by master dancers in one form (modern) to master dancers of another. And remember, it is not used throughout.

In fact, tho, Stenn's overall choreographic way of expressing herself -- her language -- in this dance startlingly, tellingly, and accurately reflects the Flamenco way of speaking. In Flamenco, particularly Flamenco ballets, sometimes each step can seem like a word, a small series of steps like a specific sentence. While Flamenco feet are impassioned, they are anything but wild -- this is a very deliberate, emphatic, precise, and yes even nuanced language. While the stamping in Stenn's piece isn't constant, as in Flamenco, every measure of choreography is saying something; there's nothing extraneous.

Stenn's company is a little over five years old; prior to its regular establishment, she danced for six years with Momix, where she was a muse to Moses Pendleton, the Momix founder and Pilobolus co-founder. For the last -- yow! -- four years, Stenn has been one-half of the Pilobolus veteran duet company, Pilobolus Too. Pilobolus, and subsequently Momix (and their many progenitors, including Iso, Body/Vox, Peter Pucci, and others) was ghettoized almost from the get by the traditional modern dance community, both because most of its founders were not traditionally schooled dancers, and because the dances they then made did not rely on a prescribed modern vocabulary. While both these companies have more or less proved these nay-sayers irrelevant by producing movement moving experiences equal to those of the traditionals, they still also produce enough silliness to, in some people's minds, justify their being ostracized as just so much flim-flam. But what Stenn has done is expand (contract?) this Pilobolan-Momixian form to the point where every single "trick" or "gimmick" or prop promotes and instigates and ignites a pure dance.

Stenn, tutored by her agent (hint, we're introducing a leitmotif now for the rest of this article) Jodi Kaplan, has always given a helluva lean Arts Presenters showcase machine, and yesterday's was no exception. The program also included her standard solo tour de lizard "Iguana," which, over the years, has become nicely nuanced. And "Embrace," co-choreographed by Stenn with Kope and de la Reza, who dance on a turning disk, has assumed new texture. In the past, this romantic duet was often a bit too schmaltzy for jaded me -- tho perhaps just in the context of the cavalcade of sophisticated and multi-layered wit that is much of a Perks program -- but this year it's taken on a hint of tragedy, no doubt because the music has changed, to Messiaen, an excerpt from his Holocaust paean "Quartet for the End of Time." Towards the end of the piece, as they slowly spin and Kope lifts de la Reza, the arch of her knees and the pointing of her feet portray a beauty tinged with just a tad of poignant sorrow; And a newer piece, obviously still finding its way, called "Fast Dance," a frenetic duet for the two women which, while well-danced and with hints at a theme (the two move laterally, on a grid almost, and often against what seems a gale force), needs to go more in that direction, i.e. finding an over-riding theme to give the kinetic impact the narrative oomph that the rest of Stenn's dances have these days.

The other way her showcase is lean -- and folks, I'm not just running on on the Perks because Rebecca's a friend, but because there are lessons to be learned here by others -- is the efficient way the company breaks it down re: telling the presenter audience its recent and upcoming gigs. Instructive here -- and here we introduce yet another sub-theme to this Arts Presenters rave -- is the company's ongoing experience with the Kohler (sp.?) Arts Center in Sheybogen (sp.?), Wisconsin. "Residency" -- I saw that flinch -- has long, for some, and understandably, been a dirty word in this industry. A pill companies have to swallow to get commissioning money. But there's a new way of thinking afoot, by some companies, which is to see these arrangements as an artistic challenge. The Perks went to Wisconsin late last year, thinking that "community work" meant members of the community would audition for the new piece, and it would have to pick some of them. Well, actually, it meant that anyone from the community who wanted to join the party could! The Perks has embraced this idea. And here comes the fun part: They got to walk through the Kohler factory -- er, Kohler is the one that makes all your bathroom appliances, basically -- and take anything that wasn't attached. Result: a percussion instrument, of sorts, made up of 186 or so brass faucets.

Speaking of flow, and flights of fantasy, and more surprises, yesterday I attended a special interest panel, hosted by Sophie Renaud of the Association Francaise d'Action Artistique, on "French Cultural Exchange," thinking it would contain lessons on how to better promote, er, cultural exchange between France and the U.S. Instead -- and much more usefully, in terms of real information -- it provided a lesson affirming what many of us already know: This is a tough nut to crack, from both sides!

AFAA's mostly government-funded mission -- it gets 80 percent of its budget, or about 142 million French Francs, or about $20 million, from public monies -- is to facilitate French companies coming to this country. This they do by, for instance, paying the travel costs of French artists, and also for travel costs of presenters who want to come for France to research the French scene. (One solution Renaud suggested for increasing the presence of French dance here: Presenters need to take longer trips to France. At which point I was tempted to insert: Did I say I was media? No, no, no, I'm from Dance Insider Productions in Greenwich Village!)

One of the first questions out of the chute came from Linda Shelton, the savvy executive director of the Joyce Theater. Noting that when she'd been in France several years ago, she'd "got a lecture about how we weren't doing our part to bring French artists to this country" Shelton asked if the situation had improved. Renaud answered, essentially, that now there are not so many American companies in France, and not so many French companies in America. And that for the latter it usually comes down to Ballets Preljocaj, Maguy Marin, Opera de Lyon, and one other company.

Renaud, who used to manage Karine Saporta (sp.?), pointed out, "We toured all over the world, but just one time in the U.S. It's a question of (arranging) meetings between presenters and artists, but also getting presenters who have the opportunity to bring French dance to spend more time in France. (Likewise), French presenters have to spend more time here."

There's not a French equivalent to the Arts Presenters conference, Renaud said in response to a question. How, it was then asked, do the presenters program? The answer here was kind of vague: They see things; they talk to each other a lot.

What was left unsaid, tho maybe hinted at, during this exchange was that, as in New York City (as some local choreographers complain), there is a sort of presenting Mafia in France (as some French dancers and choreographers complain). Look at a festival line-up, and you'll notice that certain select companies, and only those companies, run the festival loop. An exception is in the area of dance from Africa, and here Renaud's organization has made it a special sub-mission to recruit, and fund, the presentation of dance from that continent, particularly at the Montpellier Festival, which Renaud praised as the largest in France, just about, and one of the largest in the world. If I understood her correctly, there's also the possibility of funds to support touring of these African companies in the U.S.

I'd be remiss as the representative of a publication geared towards dancers if I didn't tell you that her organization is also funding, in part, a special master class at Montpellier this summer, for which 40 top dancers from around the world will be selected to study with choreographers appearing in the season. Like French programming, and indeed AFAA's own funding process, just who gets in will be highly selective.

I did get a hint, later on, outside of the room of this workshop, about how American choreographers might crack the French festival nut. (I should explain: The rap on American dance from French programmers and some dancers is that it's stuck in post-modern, which is why they don't program it, except for celebrity post-moderns like Trisha Brown and moderns like Merce. As David Parker has aptly pointed out in these pages, this reduction ignores whole third, fourth, and fifth streams of dance that have been developing for the last thirty years in the U.S., in the dance-theater hybrid form, for instance.) I ran into a choreographer whose company is up for being programmed at a French festival this summer, and she said her company's entry was through the local museum community, which is just happy to get some good, glamorous dance, and doesn't need to play Mr. In and Mr. Out.

If France and the U.S. are at a cultural Mexican stand-off, so to speak, I am pleased to report that the U.K. seems to be doing at least one thing better: Yesterday I scored big-time when I found myself at the table for the London-based Arts Publishing International LTD, which table was stacked with copies of "PAYE," the Performing Arts Yearbook for Europe, and "MOD," its sister publication for Asia, the Pacific and North America. We're talking lists of companies, presenters, festivals, agents, funders, and more - and lists with really useful information.

Let's take a couple of examples. Looking up Pilobolus Dance Theatre, we see not just the usual data, for example that the company has six dancers, but that they're on a 40-week contract, and that the company has an income of $1.3 million. Above that, in the entry for Momix, we find the "dance type" described as "surrealistic, magical, illusionary, humorous, vaudevillian, non-categorizable."

Under Agents, the description for Elsie Management gives us not only the contacts, but actually tells us that Laura Colby's agency specializes in contemporary dance management and providing representation services, and that its clients include soloists, smaller modern dance companies, and eight member dance companies, all of whom are available for touring.

Folks, this is far more information than any other directory I've seen offered. For more info, you can e-mail Tell 'im the Dance Insider sent you. Er, I do have a caveat: The information in this directory seems to rely on the listees for its veracity. If Stephen Petronio's dancers have a 52-week contract, then I'm one of the dancers. And if the Joyce Theater seats 800 (in reality it's about 300 less), as the entry for Petronio implies, then I'm one of those who perform on its stage. ;)

Speaking of, er, issues of representation: Enough people have brought this up to me now -- often, er, egged on by me -- that I think I can introduce the topic without breaching any one confidence. And frankly there's too much at stake for our art to sweep this one under the table. There's a choreographer out there who, in the opinion of me and many others, is, at the least, the next Paul Taylor. He has talent to spare. What this choreographer needs now, most of all, is REPRESENTATION, i.e. an agent. And a manager wouldn't be bad either. Those of you who know him probably know who I'm talking about. In addition to being gifted, this young man is also nice. He just needs us to shake him by the shoulders and tell him, again and again: Get an agent, get an agent, get an agent.

And speaking of Pilobolus, and again of representation, in yesterday's e-mail I ranted about how the University Musical Society spoiled our efforts to cover last night's performance of a new work by that company, which UMS had co-commissioned. Well, yesterday I cornered one of Pilobolus's representatives at the IMG booth, the erstwhile Julia Glawe, and this young woman is so on top of it (that's a compliment!) that she was able to tell me immediately that the company will reprise the Klezmer piece next month at the Kravis Center in West Palm Beach. We'll try to be there! Because, er, we know we don't report enough on Pilobolus as it is! ;) ;)

And, er, speaking of West Palm Beach, the hottest rumor floating around the floor yesterday at the Arts Presenters opening reception was that Kathryn Harris (sp?.) -- you know, THAT woman who selected George Bush as president -- will be tapped as the President-Select's NEA chairman. Folks, not even Momix would dare to make up a dance with that premise! Welcome to the (Dis?) Illusionary Odyssey!

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