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1, 5-23: Modern Masters Millennium Mistake
No Theater for Duncan, Weidman, Limon: Kennedy Center, Dance/USA Say Go play in
In a Number of Cases, Not the Dances as Their Creators had Hoped We'd Ever See
By Byron Woods
Copyright 2002 Byron Woods
WASHINGTON -- Were it a yearly institution,
we'd already look to the American College Dance Festival for significant statements
concerning the state of dance in the academy. At present, however, such statements
come once every two years -- in marked contrast to the annual American College
Theater Festival, also held at the Kennedy Center. Inevitably such a gathering
provides a real-time demonstration of several things, including: the present state
of the art, and how the dance community of practice believes that art should be
properly treated. It also unavoidably reveals the present standards for the professional
public presentation of dance.
Which makes particularly troubling
what we witnessed last week at the 2002 American College Dance Festival in Washington,
Over the past year, Dance/USA's
National College Choreography Initiative spent $510,000 in public, National Endowment
for the Arts money to fund the reconstruction and restaging of a number of classic
dance works and the creation of new choreography throughout all 50 states and
the District of Columbia.
The American College Dance Festival
Association encouraged Dance/USA to show a series of these works in Washington
while the ACDF was in session. This they did, in parallel afternoon productions
each afternoon in the Kennedy Center just prior to the festival's evening shows.
Monday afternoon, May 13, saw a
Ball State University restaging of Isadora Duncan's 1921 "Varsahvianka," followed
by the Duke University reconstruction of the "Venus" and "Neptune" sections from
Antony Tudor's 1934 "The Planets." "A Choreographic Offering," Jose Limon's 1964
interpretation of Bach's "Musical Offering," came afterwards by way of Pennsylvania's
University of the Arts, before the program closed with Wichita State's production
of David Parsons's "The Envelope" from 1986.
Tuesday's program began with the
University of Wyoming reconstruction of Bill Evans's 1991 "Velorio - a Vigil for
the Deceased" and Charles Weidman's "Lynchtown" from 1936, performed by the University
of Nebraska - Lincoln's Dance Division. Tuesday then closed with two new works:
Sue Schroeder's "Wish," from Huntington College, and Howard University's presentation
of Ron K. Brown's "Traveling Guards (Opening the Doors)."
Wednesday's final production in
the series focused on three new works: Montclair State University's production
of Sean Curran's "Metal Garden," Mikey Thomas's "DEBT" from the University of
Southern Mississippi, and "Clear Field," a new John Jasperse work from Sarah Lawrence
College. It closed with a restaging of Paul Taylor's 1956 "3 Epitaphs" from Western
But the inappropriate venue Kennedy
Center and Dance/USA chose -- Kennedy Center's Millennium Stage -- turned these
three concerts into an unfortunate object lesson in what the dance community of
practice is willing to excuse when it comes to the public display of some of its
rarest jewels. Tudor's "Planets," for example, had not been seen anywhere on the
world stage in over 60 years before its springtime resurrection at Duke.
The Kennedy Center's Millennium
Stage occupies no theater at Kennedy Center. It sits at one end of the enormous,
sunny Grand Foyer, which spans the length of the rear of the building. It has
no curtain, and since it's not in a room of its own, and no architectural amenities
like walls or doors separate it from the rest of the concourse, sound and light
control are limited. Nothing approaching a blackout could ever be achieved on
this stage, and overhead plane noise and hallway traffic sounds are clearly audible.
Furthermore, no sets could be hung or placed upon it -- further limiting the Tudor
More problematic than these elements
was the stage's size. It was clearly too small for a number of the dances, marring
Limon's "Choreographic Offering," Thomas's "DEBT" and Evans's "Velorio." Movement
and spatial relationships repeatedly had to be significantly readjusted. The structures,
forms and movements in large ensemble pieces devolved on more than one occasion
into herd-like negotiations.
Without curtains or blackouts, we
saw dancers walk on, walk off, break scene and set up different sections out of
character and aesthetic moment, in relationship to sets that were not there, on
a stage where many had to take care not to crash into one another. In Evans's
"Velorio," a hapless dancer tripped over a colleague at the end of the "Pie Jesu."
Fundamental impediments such as
these made the unprofessional behavior of the Center's ushers on Wednesday almost
qualify as comic relief. After his colleagues seated flocks of people in the middle
of performances, not between them, usher Michael Cheatham, in the depths of "DEBT,"
apparently felt the need to walk down in front of the stage, stand there for a
while looking at the audience, and then slowly, unsteadily weave his way back
down the center aisle, glaring at us. A person next to me asked if he were part
of the performance.
In short, in a number of cases these
were not the dances as their creators had hoped we'd ever see them.
The Kennedy Center, we are told,
is a world-class institution charged with the professional preservation and presentation
of our most perishable live art forms. Dance/USA is a national service organization
for not-for-profit professional dance.
The operative term in both cases
here is "professional." It is a term than cannot begin to be applied to the conditions
we witnessed that week on Millennium Stage.
That both of these organizations
would willingly put these works in a venue this inappropriate speaks to an appalling
lapse in judgment and professional practice. Doing so at the ACDF certainly taught
the students and the audiences a lesson -- although perhaps an inadvertent one.
The NCCI Millenium Stage presentations
were a clearly slapped-together afterthought by two entities which clearly knew
better, and should have done likewise.
If Duncan, Weidman and Tudor's work
were regularly available one could perhaps afford to be as cavalier as Kennedy
Center and Dance/USA were in this instance. But their rarity and their brilliance
clearly calls for more respect than I saw paid in Washington last week.
It's puzzling that the sponsoring
agencies cared enough about dance to spend over half a million dollars on it in
one year, but when it came time to collect and present the dances in our nation's
capital, they did so in a manner which fundamentally compromised their achievements.
But then, I forget: they were only
student performances, after all. Even if one of those performances was only the
third public showing of a work the world had not seen in over 60 years, it clearly
deserved no better venue than Millennium Stage. To give these dances an adequate
theater was, apparently, inexpedient.
Message received. At the ACDF, of
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