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Flash Review 1, 5-15: To Drink of Humanity
All Hail McKayle
By Aimee Tsao
Copyright 2003 Aimee Tsao
SAN JOSE, California
-- The opening event for Bay Area Celebrates National Dance Week
was held at the Metronome Ballroom, just a stone's throw from my
house in San Francisco, on Friday, April 25. I joined in sampling
the hors d'oeuvres and left the free hip hop class to those with
less arthritic knees. Impossible to miss was the eminent Donald
McKayle, named one of "America's Irreplaceable Dance Treasures"
by the Dance Heritage Coalition, as he waited to receive an award.
McKayle has a quiet yet warm elegance about him. His gracious acceptance
speech was marred by a very bad sound system. The following week
I would be seeing the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley in a tribute
to him performing three of his works. Now I was happy to see that
he was receiving honors from a local organization for his long career
in dance, especially as the San Jose company has become one of several
repositories for his works. (The others include Alvin Ailey American
Dance Theater, Lula Washington Dance Theater, Cleo Parker Robinson
Dance Ensemble, and the Dayton Contemporary Dance Company).
On Saturday, May 1,
I make the trip to San Jose for the performance. In his speech introducing
McKayle to the audience, artistic director Dennis Nahat calls him
a "master humanitarian." McKayle takes the stage to speak about
the genesis of "House of Tears." Originally commissioned in 1992
by the San Jose Cleveland Ballet (forerunner of the current Ballet
San Jose Silicon Valley) this ballet shows the tyranny of the Argentine
military junta from 1976 to 1983, and the campaign of the mothers
of the "disappeared" who marched every week in the Plaza de Mayo.
This is not some theoretical exercise, but a piece which grew out
of McKayle's own experience in Buenos Aires, where he witnessed
the marching of the "abuelas"(Spanish for grandmothers), heads covered
by white kerchiefs as they relentlessly demanded to know what had
become of their loved ones during "the process," a time when they
had been abducted, possibly tortured and killed.
Astor Piazzolla"s "Concierto
para Bandoneon" provides the perfect framework for "House of Tears"
with its driving rhythms, sensuous melodies, and contrasting tenderness
and roughness, reflecting all the contradictions of life in the
land of tango. (See my review of Grupo
Krapp.) The opening has three separate areas of action,
showing individual stories of how loved ones were wrested from families,
who then react to their losses. Watching the movement designs and
emotional textures playing against each other is intriguing. The
dancers, too, are so deeply invested in their roles that you cannot
help but be riveted to them. In the second part the actual steps
for "the Spirit of Argentina" seem a bit awkward, but Sayaka Tai
moves admirably well. The Women of the Plaza de Mayo also dance
with energy, power and a strong sense of ensemble. In the final
section the choreography becomes a dialogue between the dancers
and builds to an intense climax. Only the ghosts of the missing
people seem a bit out of place as they are costumed in white and
they dance along with everyone else. Perhaps if they were more ethereal
and removed from the action I would feel they were appropriate.
Mostly I am grateful for having the chance to see a work with substance
The second piece of
the evening is "Death and Eros," the first of a projected series
called "Story Dance Theater," dealing with the folklore of indigenous
people. It is based on an Inuit legend about "Skeleton Woman," who
is the spirit of a young woman who was thrown into the sea by her
father for committing some act against the mores and beliefs of
her people. Her bones are hooked by a young fisherman and she then
pursues him home where he manages to arrange her bones properly,
whereupon she regains her flesh and hair after licking up his tears.
The commissioned music by Jon Magnussen is a potpourri of too many
elements -- Inuit music, natural sounds and electronically modified
material. Simplicity would have served the piece far better. The
costumes by Madeline Kozlowski for the dancers who are "Sea" and
the soloist "Storm" were too tinselly, though the Skeleton Woman's
3-D bones on black are very ingenious. The choreography for the
storm is oddly quite static and small. I could imagine the storm
swirling across the stage, but instead the four dancers tend to
stay in their own small circles and move quickly without going anywhere.
McKayle could have explored the possibilities of the two invisible
partners manipulating the Skeleton Woman even more, maybe during
the storm and while being reeled in, as well as in the fisherman's
The high-spirited "District
Storyville" closes the evening. An early work from 1962 from his
own Donald McKayle and Company, it is very reminiscent of Alvin
Ailey's work from the same time period. The place is New Orleans,
the time is the beginning of the 20th century and the reasons are
to show the now vanished Storyville, a legal red-light district
and the birth of jazz. Tiffany Glenn and Willie Anderson as Sugar
Lover and Willie the Pleaser are outstanding. The rest of the company
performs with quite a flair behind them.
What a relief and a
joy to see a program of dance works which aspire to more than pure
entertainment, or, at the very most, illustrating an abstract idea.
After an evening of premieres at the San Francisco Ballet, to see
three pieces by Donald McKayle at the Ballet San Jose Silicon Valley
two night later certainly helped to reassure me that art can be
more than an exercise in personal creativity; it can also reflect
the world we live in.
The real question is
as always quantity versus quality. Yes, other irreplaceable dance
icons include George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham,
Mark Morris and Alvin Ailey. All of their works are not created
equal, even within each choreographer's own body of dances. The
issue of quality actually has several facets: craftsmanship, originality,
musicality, the ability to successfully convey an abstract idea
or reveal new insight into a political or social situation. However
perfect an abstract piece might be, personally I need to feel a
link to the common humanness shared between choreographer, dancers
and audience. The age old philosophic conundrum raises its head.
What is art? And what is it supposed to do? (See my review of Momix.)
Donald McKayle's "Angelitos Negros/Nocturne" will be performed
tonight through Saturday at and by the Conservatoire National Superieur
de Musique In Paris, on a program with Balanchine's "Valse Fantaisie,"
William Forsythe's "New Sleep," and other works. For more information,
in Paris please call 01-40-40-46-46.
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