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Letter from Central Europe, 12-9: If you could see them now
Slovak National Dance Theater pops Warhol; Prague National Theater Ballet does Kylian and hip-hop; Brown re-set in Vienna

The Slovak National Dance Theater in Mario Radacovsky's "Warhol." Photo by and copyright Ctibor Bachratý and courtesy SNDT.

By Marisa C. Hayes
Copyright 2009 Marisa C. Hayes

BRATISLAVA -- Every time I leave for a trip to Slovakia inevitably someone makes a crack about the former Iron Curtain. The stereotypes are endless: My interloper imagines me lost in a concrete, former Communist jungle with sky-high apartment buildings that span the city. I've also heard with some regularity: The food's not so great, there can't be much to do there, and everyone is poor. Even if these stereotypes were true, I'd argue that the trip would still be worth it. Getting a little outside your comfort zone and seeing the world with your own eyes is highly recommendable, and as my travels on four continents have proven, great dance can be found just about anywhere. In case you're not so good with current events though, I've got news for you, old news. Slovakia entered the European Union in 2004. It has what's considered an "advanced economy," its currency is the euro and in 2006, Slovakia had the highest growth in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), a group of 30 developed countries including the U.S., Canada, France and Germany. In terms of dance, it's not that wealth can always be equated with quality, but I want to replace your image of peasant women waiting in line for bread with one of cozy sidewalk cafes that line immaculate cobblestone streets in the old town of the Slovakian capitol. The city features a beautifully preserved historic national theater, concert halls where Mozart as a child prodigy once played (back then the city was known as Pressburg), the church where Hungarian royals were coronated (Slovakia was once a part of the Hungarian Kingdom) and the conservatory where Bela Bartok lived and studied. Today a freshly constructed national opera house, spacious and modern, is an integral part of the city's new downtown area, where its strategic location among new commercial buildings and hotels symbolizes that alongside Bratislava's business boom, the performing arts remain a visible force in the city.

"Warhol," the Slovak National Dance Theater's latest evening-length creation, seen September 29 at the National Opera House, is an ambitious production. Choreographed by Mario Radacovsky, it examines the life and work of pop artist Andy Warhol. He's viewed as something of a hometown hero in Slovakia due to his family background: both Warhol's parents were Slovak immigrants who arrived in the United States as adults shortly before their son's birth. While "Warhol" leaves a lot to be desired in content -- the ultra-smart kitsch of Warhol's art sometimes seems relegated to sheer silliness when paired with bad costume choices and music by Queen -- the staging is often innovative and clever.

The work begins by examining Andy Warhol's cultural roots, the curtain rising to reveal a short film by Michael Slobodian (commissioned for this production) that features traditional Slovak architecture and landscapes. The naturalism found in this black and white imagery makes a stark contrast to the commercial outbursts of color that would ultimately dominate Warhol's creative portfolio in America. The artist's arrival from his native Pittsburgh in New York, which would strongly shape the rest of his life and career, is treated in flashy opening numbers that capture all the glitz and enthusiasm of a Hollywood musical, with the entire company shouting "New York" in awe. Although it represents nothing new in scenic design, scaffolding is used to good effect by the SND in its evolution from the New York skyline to the industrial interior of Warhol's famed studio, The Factory. Real people and places central to Warhol's life comprise distinct sections within the ballet, including Ultra Violet, one of the artist's self-made superstars, and Valerie Solanas, the radical feminist writer who eventually shot Warhol. Katarina Kosikova interpreted the role of Warhol's attacker admirably, bringing a sense of subtlety to a figure normally portrayed in film and theater as mad and without dimensions. Here, Kosikova was successful at capturing the sadness that engulfed Solanas's early life, including sexual abuse among other tribulations.

The Slovak National Dance Theater in Mario Radacovsky's "Warhol." Photo by and copyright Ctibor Bachratý and courtesy SNDT.

The production's strongest moments come when it examines motifs in Warhol's work: the artist's famous Marilyn Monroe portrait is incarnated first by a Marilyn solo, later accompanied by a chorus of women in matching white (wind blown) dresses and blond wigs. During these moments, the otherwise mediocre, neo-classical choreography made for the role of Andy Warhol (danced well enough by Juraj Zillncar) takes on an intriguing dance-theater dimension that raises questions about the role of women in Warhol's life -- his mother was a central figure, as were several actresses and models, yet his dangerous encounters with Valerie Solanas, which led to anxiety and other health problems, make for interesting psychological fodder.

Sexuality, drugs and doctors are examined in dream-like sequences that sometimes play remarkably well with depth of stage, lighting and movement for large groups. One of "Warhol"'s lighter diversions includes a lowered curtain that masks the dancers' bodies, but remains lifted just enough off the stage floor to reveal a chorus line of funky feet in colored shoes and stockings that capture the original color scheme of Warhol's first forays into the art world with his beloved shoe illustrations. To the sounds of Sinatra's "Strangers in the Night," these feet twist and turn, shrinking away from each other as if giddy then shy, suggesting Warhol's infamous social (and sexual) ambiguity. Although far from perfect, SND's "Warhol" is an admirable exploration of space, design and choreography.

Kylian, by Czech mates

Later the same week, on October 1, one of the SND's nights off, the Prague National Theater Ballet came to Bratislava to give a joint program of short pieces by Jiri Kylian and Petr Zuska, two of today's most recognized Czech choreographers (although the former's international reputation outshines the latter's). While Prague suffers less than Bratislava from a poor image abroad thanks to its growing popularity as a tourist destination, the Czech Republic still remains under the dance radar. Like the Slovak National Dance Theater, Prague's foremost dance company seems committed to nurturing new choreography and driving ballet into the 21st century. "A Little Extreme," Zuska's exploration of hip-hop music and lifestyle, opened the program. While Slovak audiences seemed appreciative, European attempts to examine and portray African-American culture often make me cringe. For all their mannerisms and imitations of hip-hop clothing and behavior, the Czech dancers might as well have been performing in black-face. What looked like a farce en pointe with handguns for props was explained in extensive program notes (six pages) as "two diametrically opposed musical and poetic forms (hip-hop, R&B, and esoteric music on the one hand and classical ballet to classical music on the other) and the blending of kindness with violence." Featuring a teddy bear as its mascot (a reference to the innocence of childhood and one's roots) that's tossed about on stage to the music of Tupac Shakur and 50-cent, the set of "A Little Extreme" also includes mobile white cubes rearranged and danced on by a small chorus of army boot-clad men. They, of course, are in possession of the guns while two women are tossed around like rag dolls. The dancers didn't embody much presence on stage, but who could expect them to with material that's unclear, appearing as little more than a nesting ground for stereotypes? Well-meaning as they may be, European explorations of African-American cultural themes and sociological issues rarely make the cut because they're often based on research within the artificial confines of what the media portrays, and lack any direct experience or interactions with the diversity of African-American lives today.

Fortunately, Jiri Kylian's "Last Touch," sandwiched between Zuska's two pieces, provided more than enough relief to make attendance worthwhile. Usually called "Last Touch First," this short ballet focuses on three couples who weave in and out of each other's lives with the slowness of a Butoh production, but within a Victorian/Freudian framework. With the dancers dressed as in a Chekhov play, their movements represent the slightest of shifts: the blink of an eye, a finger lifting, one foot gently crossing over the other. In "Last Touch" Kylian becomes more than an architect of the body in space -- he constructs a complex web of human psychology. Microcosmic movements unfold with sustained, dream-like speed and take on a larger than life importance within the space. The eyes of the audience travel back and forth, waiting for the next movement of any given performer as if examining life in an ant colony, albeit one that we are privy to observing in slow motion as dancers appear to swim through the air. Combining conventional balletic postures with everyday gestures, the ensemble of six dancers from the Prague National Theater Ballet demonstrated impeccable control and grace throughout. By the end of the "Last Touch," the flexible set -- composed of a large ground cloth and Victorian-era furniture -- had contracted along with the dancers, who had begun within comfortable distance from one another and finished closely drawn together on a narrow strip of white fabric that had initially covered the entire stage. It was as if the tables had turned (which they did, literally, on set cued by a loud bang in the otherwise even-tempoed ambient music by Dirk Haubrich), and in contrast to the early stillness and uneventfulness (indicating repressed feelings and memories), something in "Last Touch" explodes. The dancers, left with little space to maneuver, end in disarray around overturned furniture, forced to confront one another and their lack of mobility. Although its ending sounds bleak, the piece is more atmospheric and contemplative than pessimistic. It's also one of the most fascinating works of dance to surface in recent years. 

Sadly, the bliss induced by Kylian was short-lived, followed as it was by more work from Zuska. The choreographer, who is also the company's artistic director, recently decided to create a piece for its 2009 season that echoes the program's first two ballets, resulting in the title, "A Little Touch of the Last Extreme." One again, audience members were forced to rely on program notes if they hoped to understand what the choreographer was driving at. A mish-mash of kitsch wigs, adults dressed in baby suits and sporting pacifiers, Michael Jackson, card playing and cliché dualities (such as black/white) saturated this chaotic piece, which apparently deals with themes related to how one's identity is shaped, using elements from the sets of both "A Little Extreme" (cubes, cards) and "Last Touch" (Victorian chairs). The crazy, game show-feel of "A Little Touch of the Last Extreme" is peppered with neo-classical movement sequences that lack originality, but are well executed. The Prague dancers proved their skill and diversity throughout the evening by handling a variety of techniques, and rose to the occasion when presenting first-class choreography by Jiri Kylian.

The Trisha Brown company in Brown's "Foray Foret." Photo by and copyright Lois Greenfield, and courtesy Tanzquartier Wien.

If you could see her here

Though rarely thought of as Central Europe by outsiders, Austria lies directly South of the Czech Republic and is situated a mere 10 minutes West from the Slovak capital, with Vienna a mere one hour's driving distance away (Bratislava and Vienna are allegedly the two closest geographic capitals in the world). Vienna is one of those mythic cities like Paris that few others can rival in terms of artistic and cultural impact. As is the case in the French capital, it's easy to lose yourself in Vienna's history, but today the city is a driving force in contemporary dance with two world-renown institutions: Tanzquartier Wien (literally "Dance Quarter Vienna"), snuggled in the cozy, central Museum Square and ImpulsTanz, Europe's largest summer dance festival. In order to host one large-scale event for the annual "Long Night of the Museums," these two organizations joined forces to present the Trisha Brown Dance Company in a selection of three collaborations with visual artist Robert Rauschenberg (1925-2008) on October 3 at Tanz Quartier Wien's theater, Hall E.

"You Can See Us," performed to music by Laurie Anderson and danced by Leah Morrison and Dai Jian, is an intelligent reworking of Brown's early solo "If you Couldn't See Me." In this version, originally performed by Bill T. Jones and Trisha Brown in 1996, two dancers complete the same movements with one facing the audience, the other turned away from them. Aside from what watching the back of a dancer reveals -- an unexpected, uneasy feeling that arises from never seeing the performer's face, among other things -- the partnership in "You Can See Us" creates a dynamic conversation, not only between dualities (front/back, man/woman, etcetera.) but between the movement itself and the typical Brown vocabulary it diverges from: here there are no turns for momentum that would reveal the face, no side gestures, only the looming depth of the stage on which two dancers, who never touch or see one another, advance, retreat and cross. Rauschenberg's costumes are low-key, but well suited to the movement, with a silken quality that trails alongside the dancers.

Although quite different in approach, "Foray Foret" -- which looks more typically Brown in its loose and organic movements -- considers similar themes, particularly perception. This time audiences are not questioned in terms of what lies directly in front of them, as is the case in "You Can See Us," but rather in what is transpiring around them, as external music played by a live marching band -- here the Musikarbeierinnenkapelle Wien -- travels around the lobby of the theater, behind the stage, and other various points at the periphery of the theater. These faint sounds waft in and out with varying degrees of intensity as the marching band follows a predetermined path outside the auditorium. While the movement of the marching band remains hidden, we sense its mobility through auditory perception while the dance on stage remains a visual constant. At times, the music and movement seem to brush hands, and at other moments they are in complete discord, maintaining their own respective balance. "Foray Foret" features costumes by Rauschenberg that represent the trademark look for Brown's company: minimalist, free-flowing shirts with short, bell capped sleeves and loose calf-length pants that provide easy mobility for the dancers.

Watching Trisha Brown's choreography is a bit like reading a well-developed novel with a variety of characters and side stories that eventually tie into the whole. Sequences that begin in unison with the group often diverge, form sub-groups, become solos or acquire new members. Mini-stories happen on all parts of the stage, but like migrating birds, performers may reenter and reestablish links at any given moment. This is the case in "Foray Foret" as well as the final piece, "Set and Reset." Created in 1983, this seminal work is danced beneath Rauschenberg's sculpture dubbed "Elastic Carrier (Shiner)," a large box with several panels that frame white fabric suspended from the ceiling. Four pyramid-shaped forms decorate the end panels of the overhead rectangular sculpture onto which four black and white films are projected (all edited by Rauschenberg) simultaneously on the front sections. As the curtain opens, "Elastic Carrier (Shiner)" is grounded on stage, but after one minute, it is lifted in coordination with the projectors and remains hovering overhead with films playing throughout the duration of the 25-minute piece. Meanwhile, the dancers take little notice of the elevated sculpture creating patterns of shadow and light above their heads. They dive and fall to Laurie Anderson's composition, "Long Time No See," commissioned expressly for "Set and Reset." Once again, this time with the aid of Rauschenberg's sheer grey-blue costumes, Brown addresses perception and visibility. "I wished that the costumes would provoke your looking past the costumes and back to the dance," Rauschenberg once said in an interview. With visual cues like these, interesting questions arise surrounding notions of invisibility and exposure within the liquid framework of Brown's geometric eye.

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