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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
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.
"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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