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Flash Review Special: Dance Esteem, Part II
It's the Dance, Stupid
Dance in an 'Altogether Different' (Secondary) Light; Dance Wins in Brown's new "It's a Draw"; Less is More as Monk Sings the Body Electric

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2002 The Dance Insider

PARIS -- Much overlooked in the debacle over Ariane Reinhart being programmed by her parents at this summer's American Dance Festival was that it was one of the rare occasions in memory when a program at the "home of an art form" was driven not by the person who formed the art, but by the person who performed it. Even a heady name with the cross-over traction of Martha Clarke was billed second to a 25-year-old dancer who had never been a member of a professional company. The shift was just one sign that choreographers and choreography may be becoming secondary in both the presenting and creation of what we used to call Dance.

It only took the announcement of the next 'Altogether Different' season at the Joyce Theater, the leading dance-driven theater in the United States, to confirm that the Reinhart episode was not an isolated incident, attributable as it was to parental whim and presentorial hubris.

The Joyce's Altogether Different series has long been a source of grumbling among many dancers, as previously noted here. It's not that the artists aren't worthwhile -- in fact, for the most part, the line-up of this annual festival of six to eight companies usually features some of the hardest working and most deserving (and longest-struggling) companies in New York and beyond. It might even be said that the problem is not one of programming, but of naming. Notwithstanding Joyce programmers' insistence that 'altogether different' just means the attractions will be altogether different from each other, in the popular parlance the words are taken to promise something altogether different from the usual suspects. Instead, what we get is typically altogether the same -- often talented 'same,' and often brilliant new work from 'same' that deserves the Joyce's jewel-box showcase, but still not really altogether different from what we normally see.

This year's line up provides quite a different reason for grumbling. Of the seven, er, programs, two are built (or, at least, billed) not around choreographers but around, respectively, a dancer and a composer-singer.

Peter Boal Solos features the New York City Ballet danseur noble in work by Wendy Perron and Molissa Fenley, the latter of whom has featured Boal as a guest artist in previous Altogether Different seasons. While Perron isn't 'new,' her work has been seen all too rare around New York in recent years, as she devotes much of her attention (laudably) to dance journalism.

Hamilton's idiosyncratic vocalese has provided lush landscapes for choreographers, revealing a unique sensitivity for rhythms and harmonies that engage and challenge dance. In a modern dance universe with a well-known man shortage, Boal, with his unusually (for ballet) expressive upper body is a God-send. So the question here is not so much one of quality of content, but emphasis of presentation. From a dance -- and, ESPECIALLY, dance esteem perspective -- the question that must be asked of Joyce programmer Martin Wechsler is why he did not, instead, program in their own rights Wendy Perron and Andrea Wood. Once upon a time, if memory serves, one of the purposes of the Altogether Different festival was to help mid-level companies reach the next level -- not from an artistic but from an infrastructure and profile point of view. Programming a Philip Hamilton and a Peter Boal evening contributes little in this regard. From a dance esteem perspective, I question why the Joyce simply didn't program Wendy Perron, featuring guest artist Peter Boal, and Andrea Wood (Wynn has had his shots already), with a commissioned score by Philip Hamilton.

With this programming choice, we have gone from a situation that was an artistic cause for concern -- choreographers leaning too much on extra-dance elements to juice up their offerings, rather than trying to push themselves choreographically to develop something new -- to one in which the presenter has actually put the other element, be it the musician/composer (Hamilton) or the star dancer (Boal) first. The question is not whether Hamilton or Boal are worthy artists, but at what cost has the Joyce put them center stage. I think it's at the expense of the profiles of the dance artists. The choreographers will ideally be elevated and stimulated and furthered creatively by working with Hamilton and Boal, but the role and importance of choreographers will be diminished. And if we can't count on the nation's premiere venue for dance to put the dance artists first (from a presenting and marketing view), how can we expect the rest of the world to look at dance as an equal to the other arts? What's to stop Caroline Miller at New York Magazine, who has just released the magazine's dance critic, to say she doesn't need a dance critic, she'll just send her music critic to see Hamilton's show because the dance doesn't seem so important to the dance world anyway?


.... Creatively -- creatively -- there has always been a place for hybrid creations. Two recent examples from past (and present!) masters offer textbook cases, from different perspectives, of hybridism and collaboration and multi-genre dipping that works.

Before I actually saw Trisha Brown's "It's a Draw," commissioned by a dance festival here in France, I grimaced. Not just because it seemed like a gimmick but because I've had too many recent experiences where dance artists stray into another art in which they have no qualifications. Having dancers play musical instruments, for example, insults the profession of musician because it says anyone can do that. So reading that Trisha Brown would be drawing for this new solo, I thought, "Just because she thinks it would be neat doesn't mean she has the right to do it on stage."

But in fact, the only thing my presumptions revealed is that I'm pretty ignorant about Trisha Brown. After welcoming the audience of about 50 to the tiny black box theater in a residential neighborhood in Southern France, Brown turned her back and began to dance. For at least ten minutes, before she lifted a piece of chalk, she set the tone that this was, in fact, a dance concert.

Let's in fact talk a little about that dance, quality-wise at least, capturing and relaying post-modern not being this reviewer's strength. A colleague more familiar with Brown had explained to me that she is unique among dancers of a certain generation in not walking like a bag of broken bones -- because she's kept in training. At the risk of sounding patronizing, what's fascinating is that Brown's face -- that of a 60-something woman -- doesn't seem to go chronologically with her fluid, elastic, slithering body, which moves agelessly. I am thinking of Douglas Dunn, eternally fascinating to watch and yet who sometimes makes me wince and think I hear joints cracking and creaking. It is not painful to watch him -- it is always riveting -- but it's more like his spirit seems so much younger than where his body is now.

With Brown, I don't know that she has had to lower her expectations for her body from what they might have been 40 years ago; the tasks are still rigorous. And task-oriented, it became clear as soon as Brown, turning around to face the audience and announcing, "Lets' draw!," set to work on the first of three large white canvasses, is exactly what "It's a Draw" is. What drawing offered to Brown was not a gimmick, but a new task with which to charge and challenge her body.

In the first segment, the thick black stub of charcoal was used almost as a twister board might be, the dancer-choreographer landing the chalk on the canvas first with her hand and then maneuvering her body around it. Tracing was involved, but Brownusually took the most difficult route to get to a place where finally her head was on the ground, her butt often in the air askew from the obvious even plane, as she ran the chalk around her face.

Before we move on to describing the making of the second canvas -- after stagehands hung the first canvas on the back wall -- a word needs to be said about Brown's public disposition towards her visual art task. At the time it just seemed like meaningless banter; "for some reason, I always start on this corner," she announced. Or, she would simply murmur: "Hmmm.... No..... Ah-hah. Yes. Okay." But really what this telegraphed is that Brown was not pretending to be Rauschenberg, but acknowledging that she was a total neophyte. She was not making great art; she was playing. She was us, trying to draw, except that it was far more intriguing what happened to her body when she tried than it would be to ours.

The second canvas didn't really work as visual art, and the results were less varied as dance. It involved sticking a thinner piece of chalk between her toes and trying to draw that way. The chalk had trouble making its mark, the toes trouble holding on to it. The result was a few vague circles. The third seemed to echo the first, involving tracing.

Choreographically though, "It's a Draw" was 100 percent dance, presented with integrity and pride. Far from eclipsing the dance by presenting another element as more sexy, if Brown diminished anything it was the drawing, which was clearly defined as just a tool to help this seasoned artist ford new frontiers, bringing us with her.


....Her appearance at the Soirees Nomades of the Fondation Cartier on July 22 being my first Meredith Monk experience -- Busted! -- the following must be seen as more impressionistic then authoritative. But what I can say is that in both presentation and content, Monk, primarily (I speak from observation, not historical authority) a singer and composer, elevated and showed more respect for dance than many a dance artist and presenter!

Les Soirees Nomades, curated by Isabelle Gaudefroy with the assistance of Frederique Mehdi, presents various performing artists in the settings of ongoing visual art exhibitions. The current visual art exhibition is Takashi Murakami, Kaikai Kiki, and Coloriage. And yet for Monk, the choice was made -- by the curator or Monk, I'm not sure -- NOT to set the recital inside the massive Fondation Cartier building which used to house the American Center, but in the simple garden out back. Less was definitely more.

Sometimes less is less too; not being a music critic, I'm not going to give total justice to Monk's performance, mostly a retrospective of previous works, including selections from an opera. But, even though as someone who has employed dance for some thirty years she would be given a lot of latitude in utilizing it in a music concert, she employed movement oh so choicely and sparingly, and with such taste. It helped most in a cycle set in the American Southwest. Balanchine has a phrase in "Chaconne" where a soloist opens her arms as if opening a window to the sea. In her white gossamer dress with her arms open at her waist in a beholding attitude, Monk seemed to be standing on the precipice of a canyon, considering and singing its vastness.

What these two concerts by these old masters have in common is that, whether you were at the Trisha Brown dance concert where drawing was utilized or the Meredith Monk concert where dance was utilized, you would have seen dance treated with respect and presented with pride. Despite being two artists with a proven versatility and ambidexterity who have earned a general licence and trust to cross boundaries, make no mistake about it: Trisha Brown and Meredith Monk treasure their dance heritage as a jewel. The one consideration that made me wince at the Brown concert was the thought that, oh no, are we now going to get a generation of copy cats who will figure, "Oh cool, let's do like Trisha and draw in our next concert!"? I hope instead that they will do the work and look beyond the surface, and ask, "Why has Trisha Brown, a dance artist, chosen to draw? What's the dance reason, and is it one I can explore too?" It's a harder task, but one that is essential if dance artists are to place dance first.

Next time: Worshipping Dance at La Chapelle.

PS: Also upsetting news in the next Altogether Different line-up is the inclusion of Doug Elkins Dance Company. It's always a delight to see Mr. Elkins's choreography on his fine dancers. BUT: If one of the goals of the Altogether Different festival is to help artists reach the next level, that Doug Elkins is still languishing at this one signals that the Joyce has utterly failed in this goal. I use the word 'languishing' on purpose: Performing at the Joyce is a privilege of course. But for Elkins, this is languishing in the sense that despite his artistic advancement -- he continues to cement his reputation as our generation's Paul Taylor -- presentation-wise and infrastructure-wise he is stuck. He still can't afford to present himself at the Joyce -- where far less innovative artists can. As well, that Elkins is stuck at this level means one less place in the festival for newer artists. Last time I heard, the Joyce offered a panoply of workshops for Altogether Different artists on all aspects of dance infrastructure, designed to help get them to the next level. Judged by Elkins's failure to progress in this area, it doesn't seem to be working.

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