featured photo
The Kitchen
Brought to you by
the New York manufacturer of fine dance apparel for women and girls. Click here to see a sample of our products and a list of web sites for purchasing.
With Body Wrappers it's always
performance at its best.

More Flash Reviews
Go Home

Flash Review Journal, 11-16: What Happened to Beauty?
Stewart Raves as Greenfield Shoots; Ea Sola Remembers, Unmemorably; Violette Guards Lido's Heritage

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005 The Dance Insider


PARIS -- I am looking right now at a close-up photo of a perspiring young man, a thick vein standing out on his forehead, his eyes closed, his uniform-like shirt open. It is May 1948, and he's just finished a performance of Leonide Massine's "Suite de Danses du Beau Danube." The man is Roland Petit, who some 61 years ago presented his first choreography at the Theatre Sarah Bernhardt, now the Theatre de la Ville and where, last night, I viewed a spectacle that was full of soaring panting bodies, often sexily adorned in various black lingerie, but strangely devoid of the beauty that -- whether from sorrow or joy -- moves. Unique bodies, objectively speaking, sported these performers of the Australian Dance Theatre, and definitely mobile, but as automatons, almost as if the humans within could not find a shred of natural harmony in the '80s techno score.

Appropriately enough, while the Petit image appears in a breathtaking collection of photos by Serge Lido I scored yesterday for 10 Euros, chronicling some of the dancers, choreographers, and teachers who made the Paris scene between 1947 and 1949, photos that invariably seem to come from deep within the earth (or the souls of the artists), Garry Stewart's emotionally vapid "Held" was shot live last night by Lois Greenfield, whose tableaus often seem to come out of nowhere -- the dancers floating in a void.
Australian Dance Theatre. Photo by Lois Greenfield, copyright Lois Greenfield, and courtesy Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt.

But before we get to "Held," the first thing I need to tell you -- as for some reason they don't at the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt, at least not that I could see -- is that if you're subject to epileptic fits or migraines, don't even go there. For at least one segment of this spectacle, created in 2004 and already seen in Australia, Alaska, and New York, Greenfield and Stewart utilize a strobe light, or at least its close cousin.

For the rest of us, the hazard in this show comes from Greenfield's source material. Unlike Lido, she doesn't have dancers and choreographers like Jean Babilee, Carmen Amaya, Katherine Dunham, (a VERY young) Leslie Caron, (ditto) Renee Jeanmaire, Leonide Massine, Jose Torres, Sujata, Indra Kamadjojo, Tamara Toumanova, Marjorie Tallchief, Yvette Chauvire, Balanchine, Maria Tallchief, Michel Renault, Janine Charrat, Moira Shearer, Margot Fonteyne, Salvador Vargas, Rosario and Antonio, Rosella Hightower, George Skibine, David Lichine, and Olga Preobrajenska as source material. (I'm looking now at another photograph of Toumanova, glamorous as usual in fur, hugging and kissing her teacher Preobrajenska on the cheek, as the two face Lido's camera directly.)

That's an imposing list, and of course it would be unfair to expect any contemporary dancers to completely match their standard -- particularly when their author doesn't give them much to work with. But a choreographer who works from the heart, with some kernel of an emotional search and not just an acrobatic one, would at least allow them to reach for it. A mate from Australia who's familiar with both Stewart and the Australian Dance Theatre company tells me these dancers "are extremely grounded, strong, musical, powerful." Well, fine, but is that all there is? Lido's book, the third in a series he would produce -- with some images shot in the studio, some in performance, some in the performers' homes, some against breathtaking backgrounds like the Bois de Boulogne or the Eiffel Tower -- is called "Masques," but the visages and poses within are full of feeling. Stewart's work of last night, by contrast, is called "Held" but, aside from the admitted thrill of watching Greenfield shoot in real time, the images projected seconds later on two large screens ("It's terrifying," she told me afterwards), there's nothing here to hold my attention.

One of Stewart's most noted recent works is called, more appropriately, "The Age ofUnbeauty," I'm told. Fine -- I accept we're in an age of many unbeautiful things. I also accept that much of dance (not just ballet) must have become more presentational than truly beautiful by 1960, so that there was a real need for Judson (one of the topics of Jill Johnston's Letter of today) to tear it down. But I think -- I *think* -- Judson at least offered an alternative, for want of a better term an intellectual rigor. Or, at least, in their work those choreographers, and their cohorts like John Cage and Robert Rauschenberg, were in pursuit of something, replacing the beauty standard with an intellectual standard. It's possible that Stewart has a legitimate search too -- for purely kinetic ideas. But I don't know that simply relying on his invulnerable dancers' ability to sideways-backflip themselves and otherwise hurl themselves onto the floor -- the kneepad budget for this show must be startling -- constitutes even an acrobatic idea. And the expressions on his dancers' faces aren't just neutral -- as I'm given to understand was the case with Judson -- they are often hostile, confrontational, emptily defiant (what exactly is being defied?), brutal even. (One performer wears a sort of executioner's hood.) If even uglyness is a valid pursuit, here it's not researched, just superficially regurgitated.

I realize that to many dancegoers -- and dance photographers, most famously Lois Greenfield -- the sheer site of dancers careening through the air is itself a kind of beauty. But I'm with Masazumi Chaya, the associate director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theatre, who once told me dance should be not about leaving impressions on the eye, but on the heart.


Ea Sola, whose "Draught and Rain, Volume 2" was last week's de la Ville spectacle, actually has something to say but, ironically, the dancemaker does not have Stewart's kinetic chops. "Draught and Rain, Volume 2" (that's a loose translation) is earnest. It's heartfelt. It's not just an evocation of darkness -- the ravaged country the choreographer found when she returned to Vietnam after the war -- but an attempt to describe how war indelibly etches its traces on a people, both collectively and individually. Or, as Ea Sola put it in Jean-Marc Adolphe's program notes to the work's performance by the Opera Ballet of Vietnam, seen November 8, "to re-open the theme of the memory of the war," and "to dance to disobey war." Unfortunately, the tools at her disposal remind me of the limits of some of the modern dance we saw emerging from China and other previously cloistered countries in the 1990s. There are a lot of seizures and tics, some aggressive dancing, men hauling limp women around, lots of rushing down to the lip of the stage, adorned with portraits of (I presume) the lost, and staring nakedly at the audience. At one point, everyone even takes turns firing their finger-guns at one man, who finally does the same to himself and collapses. There are also effects whose meaning isn't entirely clear to me; while the men are colorfully adorned, some bare-chested, their faces fully revealed, the five women are all dressed in black blouses and slacks, their long black hair combed down in front of their faces to obscure them for most of the show.

According to the program notes, when she returned to her country in 1989 Ea Sola was moved to do something to put it back on the international scene. It's a noble idea -- as was the impetus for "Draught and Rain, Volume 2" -- but I think before she does that, she perhaps needs a little more exposure herself to the choreographic tools the international dance community can offer her to help her better realize her vision.

The Last Hold-out

Notwithstanding my disappointment with these two shows, a word needs to be said in praise of Gerard Violette, the director of the Theatre de la Ville - Sarah Bernhardt. I referenced above Serge Lido's portrait of three years of the Paris dance scene, 1947-1949. I won't pretend that looking at these photographs doesn't make me think I was born at the wrong time. (Of course, if I was here then I wouldn't have had the means to tell you about those performances in close to real time!) The evident catholicity of programming is astounding. Imagine an era when one could view, in one city, Balanchine or Massine in full form or an emerging Roland Petit, on any of several companies visiting or resident, interpreted by such a galaxy of stars, kept on target no doubt by refresher courses with someone like Preobrajenska; Carmen Amaya AND Salvador Vargas AND Rosario and Antonio; and Katherine Dunham's troupe with DUNHAM DANCING, just to name a few. If Violette doesn't have that range and degree of worldwide talent available to him as he programs each season, he is at least *trying* to give his audience a diverse palette, featuring mostly companies that -- whether successful or not -- still understand that dance concerts should involve dancing. In a French scene dominated by dance presenters who seem to have tired of dance, Violette may be the last hold-out. On a global scale, he may well be the most courageous presenter around. (We're not talking rentals here.) I hope he's eating his Wheaties.

More Flash Reviews
Go Home