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Flash Review 2, 1-24: ARMITAGE, BE GONE!
Back to the Future at the Joyce?
(For Gary Parks)

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider

Hissssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss ssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssssss!

If you were sitting next to seat O-2 at the Joyce Theater last night, that's the sound you would have heard. The seat is inscribed to the memory of journalist Joe Mazo, because it was Joe's vantage point for many a night at what he must have considered a Modern Dance shrine. And no, that wasn't the ghost of Joe hissing, it was me, for only the second time in my life, although judging from what I saw last night, I over-reacted the first time. For this shrine had opened the temple gates to the dance heathens, and there before my eyes, Karole Armitage and her Armitage Gone! Dance were making a mockery of at least three cultures, in presenting a debased dance vision that has no place on that hallowed stage. Indeed, if there was any ghost in the house, it was the spirit of Ruth St. Denis, at her Orientalist worse. And prompting the question: At the crest of the 21st century, why is the Joyce going back to the turn of the 20th?

To back-track, just a little: The first dances of the evening were harmless enough, if perplexing. Imagine a sort of a-musical Complexions, filtered through Merce's chance sense of time -- six o'clock extensions until you cry "Uncle!" Or, "All right already, I know you can do it, now show me what you can do with it!" The dancers' virtuosity was not in question; stand-outs included a crimson-garbed couple, Paola Fazioli and Dmitri Domojirov, who at least invested honest conviction and effort into a very typical Euro-trashian predatory fighting dance.

When, a little later on (there were no pauses or curtains between the three dances in the first half, which is why I'm loathe to attribute the specific piece), the dancers appeared one by one in black stocking masks, thrusting tepid "I'll fuck with you if I want to" expressions at us, my first thought was, "Ah! That's why Christopher Walken is sitting in the audience -- he heard there was a kidnap dance on the program!" The only saving grace in this head-scratcher was a rubbery, fluidy Marine Castel.

Up to this point, while the choreography was at times interesting, it didn't really seem to express the music particularly. I was reminded of the way some modern dance choreographers work -- setting the movement first, and then finding some music to set to or against or in spite of it. If this was the construct, it wasn't as easy to digest in what was more or less a ballet vocabulary, at least on the women; a vocabulary that cries for musicality.

The closest choreographer Karole Armitage came to musicality was in a brightly lit and costumed dance, "The Last Lap (Revised)," to Shostakovich's Quintet for Piano and Strings. But even here, she only specifically expressed the music at times, showing us she could do it if she wanted to, but she didn't want to. Particularly catching the music, and the light, here, were Marghereita Mana, who had an eloquent way of raising her arm limpidly, and Ana Gonzaga, a looming, towering, fiercely sinuous presence. I'll admit that I enjoyed this dance, to one of my favorite pieces of music ever, and one to which I'd rarely seen a dance set. I looked forward to the second act.

Now we get to the abomination, "Nadaswaram," which, as you might be able to guess from the title, pilfers, steals from, lifts, skims, MOCKS and cheaply appropriates the most obvious, cliched phrases from Southeast Asian dance forms. (I.e., the forms originating in India and Pakistan -- note that I'm not even going to name them, because I'm not a master enough to distinguish the different forms.) Yes, that's right: the clasped flat hands as the head slides from left to right, and other hackneyed stereotypes. In previous years at Altogether Different, of which Armitage is one act, we had actual Asian companies. This year, we get Asian Exotica -- that's right, friends, Orientalism rears its racist ugly head once again! Ruth St. Denis is dead; long live Ruth St. Denis!

White choreographers like Stephen Petronio and Sean Curran, both setting dances to the music of Sheila Chandra, have demonstrated that howlies can find a way to make dances that marry this music, without subjugating it to base ends and disrespecting it. (For more on Curran, just enter his name into the search engine on our Home page.) Armitage, by contrast, has taken Talvin Singh's bangra beat and set to it what look like the first phrases that come to mind from, I don't know, watching some bad '50s B-movie version of Indian dance -- you know, where the "Indian slave dancer" is actually a white actress wearing dark make-up.

Did I say white actress wearing dark make-up? Guess what!? I could be wrong about this, but judging from the fact that no black dancer besides Albert Evans had appeared before the finale, "Rave," and Evans wasn't in that one, I do believe that was a black-faced white woman in blond dreads I saw up there in this premiere. Black-faced, and red-lipped. And this was the piece commissioned by the Joyce!!

Karole Armitage's idea of "Rave" -- here's insulted culture number three, if you're counting -- is similarly hackneyed, looking more like "Vogue," perhaps not too surprising as her credits include Madonna videos, and Madonna chaired her benefit committee. And the music here was maybe the rave in the '80s, when Armitage last brought her company to New York, but rave culture has gone so much deeper in the year 2001.

But back to the Orientalism. I've criticized the Joyce in previous years for seeming to program the Altogether Different Festival by demographic category. But seeing Armitage's perversion of revered Asian dance forms last night -- oh, did I mention that the women danced in bikini tops, because hey, we all know that Indian dance is all about sex, right!? -- reminds me of one of the reasons Representation is needed. It's not just that our different cultures deserve a place at the table, and to be represented. It's that too often they are misrepresented, with white artists who don't really know their culture "slumming" just long enough to steal some exotic effects.

This is not dance. It might stoke Madonna, but it don't stoke me.

In a program note, Armitage states that she left New York in the '80s because, "There is far more support for such work as mine abroad." New York has moved so much farther than Ms. Armitage in the last ten years, it appears. I weep -- yes, I was near to tears last night -- that such a superficial and exploitative vision of dance and of the dance of other, non-white cultures would be given a home at the Joyce, filtered through what can only be called an American-Eurotrash sensibility. (To be fair to Europeans, Armitage is American.) And at a festival called Altogether Different. Such a racist, colonial dance has no place in New York in 2001.

Wendy Whelan also danced last night, doing her radiant best under the circumstances.

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