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