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Flash Review, 3-22: Bright Eyes,
Pluck, Play by Play: Of These, Hope
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2001 The Dance Insider
My putative reason for skipping Day
One of the "Who Owns Martha Graham?" trial yesterday in Federal Court for the
Southern District of Manhattan was that I had to wait for the refrigerator repair
man, scheduled to stop by "between 8 and 2." When 2 rolled around with nary a
site of the man from Speedway, starving me hustled down 8th Street to 3rd Street
Cheese. When I returned an hour later, the Speedway van was parked in front with
the Speedway man huddling from the rain. "I'm here to fix your stove," he announced
-- the stove being the one that had exploded in my face two months ago, and in
whose place the landlord had given me a hotplate, forcing me to contemplate taking
him to court for a real stove. Actually, for two months I contemplated not paying
the rent with the defense that I was cooking on a hotplate and my fridge was leaking,
but Monday I paid for February and March, warning that I would still take the
landlord to court for the stove, refrigerator and, oh, did I mention our building
buzzers have been broken since February? Welcome to life in the big city, baby!
When you're a dancer in the big city
(I'll return to the Graham theme later, and by the way, this IS a review of the
Pluck Project, the North Carolina School of the Arts student-produced concert
which opened last night at NYC's University Settlement and closes tonight) the
battles of day-to-day living are just where your day starts. Your morning next
takes you to the dance class which you can't really afford, unless you pay for
it by providing free labor to the dance studio, which then likely doesn't pay
the dance teacher for your student self. In the afternoon maybe you'll go to a
nice little social where you get to be intimate with 150 other women, unless you're
a man and then it's a more intimate intimacy, a club of maybe 20, tops. These
gatherings are also called "auditions." In the cruelest months, they START with
a director or choreographer lining you up and saying, "You -- stay; you -- go."
The choreographers that expect you to exercise some creativity might give you
the time it takes to do a diagonal to demonstrate it. Then you're off to your
temp job, or your waiting job, or, if you're lucky, your personal training job
where, to start, you'll clear $25 while the gym owner gets the rest of your $100
an hour rate. Soon those rosy eyes start to dim just a little, even if you're
the only one that can notice it. Just don't tear up, baby, or you might lose site
of that Parsons gig that's the Holy Grail if only because it pays so relatively
well, with, even, dental insurance yet.
Yes, for a dancer, this is life in
the big city, baby. And yet, ever since Martha G. made the cross-country trip
from California to found this Crazy Church of Modern Dance, dancers have flocked
to New York as soon as they graduate from college. Only three years ago, a group
of bright-eyed upper-classwomen from the North Carolina School of the Arts decided
they weren't going to wait 'til they burst from the embryo. No, while they still
enjoyed the insulated luxury of time and resources college allowed them, they
were going to not just put on a show, but take it on the road, to New York. Taking
a cue from Sara Hook (who, with David Parker, was advising them that first year),
who hailed their "pluck," they called their show the Pluck Project. I've checked
their act every year since, and every year it makes me forget the dancer's often
dismal daily NYC life, not to mention many a dismal performance, and restores
my hope in the utter hopefulness of this art, and its practitioners. Do I go expecting
great choreography? No. Do I go expecting heart to the nth degree? Yes.
This year's model was no disappointment
in the heart category. And, to the degree that it gave me some food for critical
fodder -- my pen was going non-stop with ideas, for all 12, count 'em 12 presentations
-- the content offered some meat. And now I'm going to chew on it, in public,
with the proviso that, since the idea of this concert -- which the students produce,
in all its aspects - is to simulate a professional experience, I'm going to give
them a professional, not a patronizing, review, with all that entails. Fasten
your seat belts, dance insiders, it's going to be a bumpy ride!
year's concert, I complained at the apparent Dorfmanization of the NCSA composition
class. Oh these kids, I nagged -- they love David Dorfman, and you could see it
in the over-abundance of gestures like that upside-down V, butt-in-the-air one.
I also suggested that perhaps, if the goal of the Pluck Project was to display
the student, about-to-be-professional dancers' dancing ability, they were perhaps
not best served by their own very green choreography.
Well, that observation riled not
a few of the students, and now I'm about to make them pull their hair out with
this one: This time around, they appear to have gone to the other extreme, with
many of the dances having simply too much crammed into one 5-minute-or-less piece.
At this length, these should be thought of as danced short stories, only the NCSA
comp. teachers appear not to be teaching their charges the fundamental rule of
short-story writing: It's not a novel. Stick to one idea, one feeling, and tell
it well. LESS IS MORE. Dance-wise (I'm NOT a comp. teacher, so here I'm going
to reveal my own limits in identifying elements of dance vocabularies), stick
to one gesture, perhaps unfurled in different ways, different tempos, or even
in different limbs. With few exceptions (speaking here just about the choreography),
these dancer-choreographers were all over the place -- the floor, the various
corners of the stage, eyes looking to the side, legs whipping round the sides,
somersaulting, going on tippy toe, clasping hands together with arms akimbo. You
notice my description is already seeming a bit blurry? The problem with so much
over-abundance -- even if the intent is generous -- is that in the long term,
you're not really giving the audience something they can take home with them,
because it all blurs: the gestures in your dance, and the degree to which they're
differentiated from the others on the program.
Having said that, there is a positive
reason arguing for these choreographic tour-de-forces. From a show-off-the dancer
perspective, they're actually dancer tour-de-forces, showing everything the dancer
can do, and how well she (no boys again this year -- what's up with that?) can
do it, and with what spirit and focus. If anything, the problem is perhaps not
so much an inherent one with the choreography, but with what still seems to me
a confusion of mission. What is the Pluck purpose? Is it to show off the dancers,
enabling them to make a splash before they actually hit NYC to live, and have
to deal with all the daily distractions of surviving in the big city? To get them
hired, or at least plant that idea in the minds of choreographers who might see
them at these concerts? (Catherine Miller, a Pluck co-founder who was seen by
NCSA alum Mark Dendy the first year, is about to start working for him. Props
to Ms. Miller! Summer Robertson, also a co-founder, is dancing for Avila-Weeks
and has also worked with Michael Mao. She's also decided to go back to school,
as has last year's most promising choreographer, Emily Tschiffely, but not before
she produces some of her own work this June. Props Redux!) Or, is it supposed
to be a showcase for their choreography? I don't think it can be both, and hope
to fully succeed; I don't see any Mark Dendys or Sara Hooks here, choreographer-wise,
at least at this stage, although three hint at that promise. (See below.) While
this year's efforts, in the maximally increased movement diversity within the
individual pieces, do show more of what the dancers can do, they also reveal limitations
in the choreography, with three exceptions.
Three dancer-choreographers did stick
to one idea, in each case with a promising choreographic effort that also displayed
them at their dancing best.
Cheri Paige Fogleman, in Pippy Longstocking
pony-tails jutting out from either side of her head and natty checkered paints
and striped shirt designed by the NCSA costume shop, offered a Petrouchka-esque
interpretation of Antonio Bazzini's frenetic "Dance of the Goblins" that, while
clearly evoking a marionette moving to forces beyond its control, as if on hot
coals, did so without any of the usual stereotypes. Fogleman jutted limbs, spun
out of control, dropped, clawed at the music, suddenly shot up and froze -- in
all, piled inventive gesture upon inventive gesture, using the whole stage, and
all this while maintaining a deer-caught-in-the-headlights startled gaze that
didn't waver, until she suddenly backed up to the back of the stage, groped at
the wall while shrinking from some evil force in the audience, and disappeared
right before the music ended. A brave choice, this, because this was neither a
pretty nor graceful dance.
Jennifer Kaye Smith also made an
unusual and brave choice. Dancing to "found" music -- a colleague found it on
a mix tape (for one assignment, the NCSAers have to create a dance to music provided
by a peer) -- Smith presented a clear contrast between, well, movement and music.
To the percussive -- percussive like a truck, with a decided factory astringency!
-- score, Smith, in red leotard with reddish-blonde hair bunned up, did a graceful
dance to this most ungraceful of music. And pulled it off! She kept her focus,
often directed into the audience, and ate the stage with traditionally lyrical
If there was a weak spot here, it
was that in this exercise in differentiation -- the movement really fought the
score -- Smith concluded rather patly. Can I remember this ending? NoŠjust that
I wrote down that most of the endings of these pieces seemed to say, in very large
letters like those at the end of the old pictures, "THE END." Again, what I detect
here is a weakness in teaching, the weakness being that these earnest choreographers
don't seem to have been taught that dances don't always have to end with An Ending.
If anything, a short story leaves you with the sense of a complete beginning,
as if what you've seen isn't the whole story, but just a vignette that captures
a moment in the story.
Amy Page, in "Unease RePete," did
seem to be going for one feeling, and she definitely stirred me. I saw a general
lurch, as if in fear of something offstage -- both by how she kept looking to
the side of the stage, and by the way she hunched her body, causing her blue satiny
gown to rustle and scrunch in reaction, tho it was more than that. Page ever so
subtly gave us an exquisite moment right from the top, when she furtively flexed
her toes. She also had a clear relationship to her costume (by Breanetta Mason),
using it to extend her body's expression, to particularly contrasting effect when,
after a hunch, her body would expand, the lushest instance of this being when,
one leg on the ground, the rest of her body floated into a vertical plane. She
also seemed to have found movement that in its slightly melancholy, more than
slightly haunted feeling expressed, or at least matched, Eugene Ysaye's Sonata
for Solo Cello Op. 28, Movement 1.
Now then, for the rest. Er, I don't
mean to lump them together as in, There were the above three and then, yeah, yeah,
the rest. The following were certainly distinct dances; I'm just saying the above
three were the most distinct of the evening, and in an evening that included 12
dances, I can't give a lengthy paragraph to each one, or you won't even make it
to my boffo, tie-it-all-back-into-who-owns-Martha ending, dance insider!
So, the most I can say about Isabelle
Provosty's "Falling Open" is that it was lyrical, and that I like the way Provosty
caught the light. (Oh, and speaking of lighting, as this was also produced by
students, I gotta grade it, or at least evaluate it: Too many of the dances ended
with -- wait for it -- a slow fade! When a dance required more than one lighting
scheme with the requisite fade, the transitions were heavy-handed and choppy.)
In Katie Swords's "Falling UP," to
Medeski, Martin and Wood's "Nocturne," I liked the choice of Takemitsuesque, Asian
percussion with Western strings music. My notes include: "How does she bend her
back like that?" "Body seems carried away." "She keeps falling." And, underlined,
"Supple." Swords's ending, in which she collapsed and arched backward, was distinct.
Amanda Oakley's choice of music for
"Soften," Michael Nyman's "The Heart Asks Pleasure First," could be considered
either brave or easy. When I see a dance set to Nyman, my first reaction (er,
before the dance even starts) is, as it is when I see one set to John Adams or
Philip Glass, "Oh, imagine that: a dance set to Nyman!" And yet, as danceable
in their overt rhythm, melody, or just plain emotion as these works are, they
can also make a bad choreographer's lack of innovation transparent. When the choreography
is insipid -- Peter Martins, op. Cit.! -- you conclude, "He/she is so lacking
in imagination they can't even create a dance to this eminently danceable music."
All of which is to say that Oakley,
in her luminosity and sweeping movement, was up to the music. Notes include: "How
does she whip that purpley-garbed leg around so swiftly?"
For "Imprints," Lindsay Davis chose
"Acentuado" by Astor Piazzolla. (That's another one which makes me say, "Oh look,
someone set a dance to Astor PiazzollaŠ." Did you know that Peter Martins set
a dance to Astor Piazzolla, as arranged by John Adams, and "succeeded" in making
a dance so bad that it made even Wendy Whelan look bad, succeeding also in creating
the first dance to make me expostulate, "It's crap!"?) Davis -- oy, my handwriting
-- hmmmŠ. Looks like I've written: "Beautiful in floor movement." "Heart-thumping
presence." (Hey, if Chris Dohse can quote his companion as extolling a dancer's
perky butt, I can say a dancer caused my heart to thump!) "Lots of sweeping."
Oh, and here I've also noted that
a good trend I see overall, in this year's concert, is to address the audience
directly, looking into our eyes -- an unabashed, welcome rebuff to the detached,
"I Can See You But I'm Going to Pretend You're Not Here and I'm Dancing for Myself"
trend that still prevails in much post-modern dance, at least in NYC. Anyway,
many of these dancers were direct in their dancing, and Davis particularly made
me note that.
Kathleen Hahn, in "Closet Artist's
Vehicle," took what on its surface might be called a brave choice, but one which
she didn't back up with the actual choreography. Her costume -- a white leotard
that swathes her from foot (?) to head, with only a little room for her face,
also painted white -- is an obvious attempt to stand out, and then there's that
briefcase. But the dance doesn't live up to the uniqueness of the costume. It's
robotic, it's machinic, its reactive, it's teetering, it's groping, she gropes
at something on an imaginary table, picks up her briefcase and walks off. It's
too harsh to say this is weirdness for wierdness's sake; let's just say Hahn couldn't
come up with weirdness distinctly weird enough to match the weirdness more than
promised by costume and briefcase. And that I didn't see a clear choice in how
to manifest that weirdness.
We're back to straight-ahead lyricism
with Brea Cali's "Perforated Edge, " to Antonin Dvorak's Slavonic Dances, No.
1 in C Major Presto. This dance provoked me to write that I like the program structure.
I've also written, "Grace -- Modern movement, body pulls, and groundwork to traditional
music. Now a tightrope, falling, rolling, but too much of a polyglot." And, "I
don't see enough definition in the relation of the movement to the music." Yes,
this one demonstrates my over-arching criticism of many of the dances -- namely
that too much is jammed into them, to the extent that I start to ask, Was this
really dictated by the music, or by your desire to throw as much dance into one
piece as possible? And, again, where was the guidance from the instructors? Teach
your children, teachers: LESS IS MORE. And more can sometimes be less.
I've written the same about Helen
Simoneau's "Pieces" -- that I don't' see the relation of the movement to the music.
There are more floor slides, here -- this year's Dorfman V.
Camille Brown's "In the Arms (Phase
1)" started with a refreshing difference -- to silence. (Tho this did remind me
that none of the dances had been made to silence. I prefer music, but as silence
is the choice of more and more of our post-moderns -- and not always to distracting
effect -- I found it strange that, so to speak, silence did not have a voice in
this concert.) But then the music -- Beethoven's "Moonlight Sonata" -- kicked
in. And while I liked the cleanness of Brown's articulation, with finely etched
lines, and the stark way her body caught the light, I wasn't sure where the intensity
was coming from. And, again, there was too much. Brown can certainly do anything
-- but that doesn't mean she needs to do everything.
Finally -- Still with me, Dance Insider?
That rave of a Graham-tied-in ending is careening towards you with the speed of
a whipping 20-year-old leg! -- Janice Lancaster also offered more whipping legs.
But it all seemed, if anything, too quick, especially to the Wendy Mae Chambers
music, "Wild Ride." But Lancaster did offer some nice freeze frames when the music
paused. On the other hand, her fleetness also made me note, "I'm worried about
the Juilliardization of NCSA," Benjamin Harkavy having turned Juilliard
into a facile Parsons II or Ailey III company.
We can't afford for NCSA to go that
way. This is the school -- yow, I was going to lead with this, but I guess these
dancers so moved me with their own unique spirits that I forgot -- that produced
Mark Dendy, Mary Cochran, Sara Hook, Peter Pucci, Ashley Roland, Chrysa Parkinson,
Eric Hoisington, and others who are still making an impact on the field today.
It also -- thanks to some pretty warped Graham disciples who reigned as teachers
at NCSA for too many years, only forgetting the "love" part of Martha's "tough
love" approach -- produced a lot of basket cases, or, at the least, a pretty dysfunctional
Right now -- and don't worry, I say
this knowing that the greater responsibility lies with Darth Protas -- right now
the Graham entity itself has turned into a pretty dysfunctional family, as it
continues to argue over Mama's will, and the question of who owns her creations.
That answer will be decided in court.
But I'm here to tell you that, when it comes to the question of who owns Modern
Dance, the verdict is already in: It's those plucky great-grandchildren of Martha
who were in the house last night at University Settlement, and who will be in
the house again tonight. Catch 'em while you can at 184 Eldridge Street, dance
insider: I guarantee you'll leave with eyes brighter than when you entered. (And
if you want to make sure you get in, call 336-631-1203.)
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