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Flash Review Special, 8-6: Dance Esteem, Part 1
'Whence do we Come? What are We? Where are We Going?'*
Kylian's "Stamping Ground"; Lila Gnaoua; Jennifer Lacey/Nadia Lauro; "Fase: The Film"

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- My allergy to appropriation reached a boiling point last night when all it took was a program note by a non-American artist laying claim to represent the American form of hip-hop to send me scurrying from the theater. In this case it's me who's not going to name the artist because hey, he's just doing his thing and my problem with it is probably over-informed by elements outside the performance. (Read on!) But the allergy probably began at an authentic all-night Moroccan gnaoua music and dance session last month, and subsequent frustration that the presenter for that event is unable to come up with the name of the singular dancer who performed for six hours practically non-stop, unless you count when she collapsed in tears three hours into the performance.

Appropriation is not a new thing in dance. In modern, it goes back at least to the Orientalism of Ruth St. Denis. Later in the twentieth century, it found a proponent in the Eastern-tinged dances of Hadassah. I never saw either, but a Donald McKayle tribute to the latter at which he danced, in a sari, to bhangra music did not provoke me into hives; maybe it's because of the integrity of the artist involved.

Jiri Kylian's 1980 "Stamping Ground," seen last week in the courtyard of the Palais Royal, presented by the Paris Quartier D'Ete festival, left me more ambivalent on the appropriation question. Here the program notes are somewhat cagey. After it's explained that Kylian voyaged to Australia to 'study' the 'extraordinary technique' of the Aborigines, the choreographer is quoted to the effect that in "Stamping Ground" it is not a question of trying to reproduce the original form. The Aborigines consider their dance a possession -- in the dual sense of the word, he says -- and it would be a sacrilige to appropriate it. Instead, he insists, he's created a new vocabulary that parallels some of the concepts of the dance of the Aborigines.

Being even less familiar with the original than Kylian, it was hard for me to detect if the dance that followed was an appropriation. The vocabulary seemed to distribute the bodily instigator -- where movement was initiated, where the weight placed, and even which limb or joint propelled the movement. Arms were central, particularly on a lanky, eel-jointed male dancer (no press person was around to provide more specific performer IDs) who displayed an uncanny 'Dying Swan'-like wiggle in arms that seemed too long. Play fight motifs recurred, often played out in pas de trois. Heads were butted and reacted, as in fission. Often-times performers walked with bended knees. The first half or so of the twenty-minute dance was in silence, with the six performers one-by-one introducing themselves in solos that established the vocabulary. Carlos Chavez's music was percussive, but otherwise not particularly Aboriginal. Movement, particularly in isolations, was right on it. The Lyon Opera Ballet dancers were Amandine Francois, Marketa Plzakova, Julie Tardy, Miguel De Jong, Misha Kostrzewski, and Adriane van Winkelhof.

Here I suppose enough caveats were provided by Kylian in the program notes that "Stamping Ground" might be received as just what he says it is, an exploration of themes that parallel those in the Aboriginal technique. I don't know that Kylian can be held to account for critics who may call the vocabulary original, as he gives props to its influences.

.... No props were given to the two women at the core of the dance in Lila Gnaoua's all-night Ceremony of the Gnaouas of Marrakech, seen last month at a festival in the South of France. They were not listed in the program, although the 11 (male) musicians were. When I tried to track down a name afterwards, I was told that well, all the performers danced and there was no main dancer. Uh-uh. I danced too, but not like the performer we'll call Fatima until the festival provides her real name (I'll identify the festival when they've ID'd the dancer!).

For the performance, the musicians and a third woman who was in charge of variously colored shawls all sat on a bench covered with felt. The felt extended over a platform, on which we were soon invited to dance, facing the musicians. Facing this stage was a stand of bleachers where those who just wanted to watch or listen could hang. In front of and behind the bleachers were laid out 'Oriental' carpets and low tables with candles and incense, where you could sip mint tea or just rest. The performance was advertised to start at 11 p.m. and go until 6 the next morning, in an open-air cloister.

Because of the appropriation issue, I hung back from dancing at first; as I wouldn't just get up and boogie at a Flamenco concert, so it seemed an insult to shake my non-informed booty to a music unfamiliar to me, and so clearly part of a ritual for those who had grown up with it.

But it soon became clear -- chiefly through the careful and select distribution of shawls to select dancers from the public -- that our participation was a part of the ceremony, even essential completing it. We were the responders in the church, if you will, the response coming from our bodies. The only requirements were that we remove our shoes (have you ever tried dancing barefoot on a rickety wooden platform covered in thin felt? We're not talking Marley here! The blisters, at least for a non-professional, set in after about four hours) and that we dance with the color-appropriate shawls, which we should not use (carelessly waving about, for example) inappropriately.

The most difficult passage arrived at about 3 a.m., when the soul's exhilarated desire for the night never to end faced the body's exhaustion, and I found myself looking up at the sky for hints of the dawn and thinking "hmm, it doesn't seem to be getting any lighter." I started getting shawls placed around my shoulders at about this time, and employed them timidly, especially after noting the alarm of the shawl-keeper when the shawls were used recklessly.

The shawls were piled at the far left of the row of musicians, guarded by the shawl-keeper. It was about 3 a.m. when Fatima, really the centrifugal force of the swirling ecstatic dancers, dived for the pile of shawls and buried her head in them sobbing, as the shawl-keeper placed an arm around her for comfort. A few minutes later, the dancing and music stopped, as a break seemed call for. The dancing among us were allowed to sit on the periphery of the stage when we weren't dancing, and at this break, a few of us hovered near Fatima, not extending (out of respect) but lingering all the same to show care. After about fifteen minutes she turned her head around, cradled it in the lap of the shawl-keeper, and chatted and laughed.

At about four in the morning I realized that maybe I should start thinking like a critic, enough at least to try to dissect Fatima's dancing style and discern a vocabulary. This is a challenge, and not just because we're a month off from the performance. If there was a pattern, it was of reeling side to side. Fatima's back was sometimes slightly bent; the posture was a specific reaction to the music and the ceremony. The musicians were sitting down, and by hunching, positioned as she usually was at the front of our ranks, she was inclined towards the music and musicians. She was also naturally following the arc of her neck, itself following her weaving, entranced head. But often she also monitored the pedestrian dancers, nodding in approval when we seemed to get it, her eyes lighting up.

Her feet, well, I think of 'quick-flicking.' If there was an arch, it was not in the ankle, but in the center of her foot, between the bridge of the toes and the ankle. She wore a long tunic, which revealed little of her body or its contours, but it really didn't matter. That this was a woman, and an artist, consumed with the dance was evident.

....Jennifer Lacey/Nadia Lauro's"Chateaux of France 3," staged in an opera house, revealed much more of the body, whether strapped in styrofoam or teetering on stilettos, but so much less about dance. In fact, too much of dance these days seems about something else besides dance. How dance fell from the primal, communal activity represented by Lila Gnaoua to the styrofoam clad, artificially physically impaired, drowned in a sea of video screens world of Lacey and Lauro I'm not sure, but I think it has something to do with a lack of esteem. From an act in which everyone once found ritual and joy, dance has devolved into something in which many people find no meaning. Instead of responding by applying more intellectual and kinetic rigor to their dances, many choreographers have resorted to crutches like "videography," text, fashion, and computer-generated images -- that leave them with no ability to walk on their own.

....With Lacey, I don't know that it's any loss. But the way filmmaker Thierry De Mey has stolen the soul of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's essential dance "Fase" in the new "Fase -- The Film" is a tragedy.

"Fase" works because of the simplicity of its choreographic design and the virtuosity of its execution. When I first saw De Keersmaeker and Michele Anne De Mey give it, in 1998 at The Kitchen, I thought: This is movement that on anyone else would bore me, to music (by Steve Reich) that would usually affect me the same way. This is no doubt a unique reaction; I suspect that De Keersmaeker's fellow post-mod dancers and choreographers would find fascination in the movement itself, or its repetition. Fair enough. But coming from the hoi-polloi, I think it's a dance that could achieve what, really, not enough post-modern dance does, and truly engage the general public -- the people who think they don't get dance. You could say the same thing about basketball: what's the point of watching ten men run back and forth trying to throw a ball in a basket? The point is in the execution and its virtuosity -- as well as its grace and fire. This is not, I think, a dance that makes a claim to choreographic brilliance; the choreography is really a setting for the joy of dance to come through, and it does. It's about the dancer.

De Mey, oh so unfortunately, is afraid to let the dance stand on its own. We really could have used a pure documentation of this seminal dance. Instead, De May inserts himself, interfering with the rhythm of the dance and diluting its inherent values. Instead of standing back and using his facility to capture the built-in swirling of the dancers, he swirls the camera around them; most annoyingly in De Keermaeker's solo segment ("Violin Fase"). As if that weren't bad enough, he sets this segment in a forest on a stage covered with snow. So the effect of her swirling is cancelled out because the camera is swirling around her; and the strength of her own beauty -- a beauty coming 99 percent from the dance -- is not so clear as it is when she's dancing on a bare stage with simple lighting in a narrowly proscribed square.

What I see here, most dangerously, is a lack of confidence in the dance itself to carry the day -- even when portrayed by our most charismatic modern dancer! There is a feeling that dance needs to be sexed up by adding other elements.

....I feared the same from Trisha Brown's new solo, "It's a Draw," in which, yes, the Judson One draws. More on that tomorrow.

*Taken from Paul Gaugin's 1898 painting of the same name.

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