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Flash Report, 3-28: Celebrity Dance Match
Misha Meets Rainer to Respond to AIDS

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

....Before you get too excited: I was expecting to bring you a Flash Review this morning on White Oak Dance Project's preview last night of the first new work by downtown goddess Yvonne Rainer in 25 years. That's right: Baryshnikov meets Rainer in dance's own version of the Celebrity Death Match. But as soon as I crossed the threshold of Danspace Project at St. Mark's Church, where this work was being presented to benefit Dancers Responding to AIDS, a huffy publicist informed me that the performance was not open to review. I was about to get huffy myself, but then I figured: Hey, what better excuse could I have to really go off on everything but the dance, as some of you say (justifiably) I do too much of already? And indeed, there was much to comment on in this regard. Let's start with Mikhail Baryshnikov's humble welcome to the 200 or so in the sanctuary.

"I'd like to salute your curiosity and compassion," the compact former ballet star and current modern dance apostle told the already rapt audience. "This evening belongs to two extraordinary choreographers--John Jasperse and Yvonne Rainer. It was the awesome privilege of our group to be in the same studios as these individuals. We learned a lot." (I think I can safely give you the titles of the works: Jasperse's "See Through Knot," which had actually already premiered, and Rainer's "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan.")

It occurs to me that what Baryshnikov is doing here is truly unique among former ballet legends of a certain age. Rather than seek to prolong his ballet career past the point where he's performing at his prime, he is using his considerable magnetism and clout, onstage and off, to proselytize for modern dance. Probably half the people in a typical White Oak audience are getting their first exposure to modern mavens like Rainer and Jasperse. Memories of high-flying Misha bring them to the theater; he brings them down to earth.

Baryshnikov's (lack of) ego to talent ratio is also exceptional. He had exactly one extended solo last night; otherwise he danced as just another guy in the group. This anonymity is not put-on; I think he revels in it. In fact, one gets the sense that it is he who feels honored to be admitted to play with the moderns.

And what a group of moderns to play with! First, let's consider the dancers with whom he's surrounded himself. Specifically, let's get to Emmanuele Phuon, which I think I can do without actually reviewing the dance.

Phuon has got to be one of the deepest and most spiritual modern dancers--no, dancers PERIOD--I've ever experienced. She seems in the world of the dance at hand, forgetting the audience--in a good way, I mean, i.e. that she is not playing to the audience. And thus, of course, is engaging us, enthralling us even more. And she gets deeper every time I see her. The first time, with Kevin Wynn's company at Dance Theater Workshop, Phuon was merely intense, breathy, physical, almost wrestling with her partner; the next, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, she exuded a deep ponderous pensive beauty, riveting even when standing still; this time, I reveled at being so close I could watch the emotions play across her face--no, not really play across, but just be indicated at, because they were so deep.

A chilling, moving moment--and this will be the only quote from the dance I'll cite--came when Phuon asked, out loud, "How many kids did NATO kill?" Chilling--and all the more poignant a challenge for Phuon, I'd imagine--because she lost her own mother to a road accident in Kosovo last year.

Poignant in a different way was the appearance on stage of Rainer before her dance. A two-minute performance itself! In her history "Time and the Dancing Image," discussing the Judson Church movement which Rainer co-founded, Deborah Jowitt wrote, "Because the nontheater spaces favored by the choreographers of the 1960s often came cheap, more performances were possible. Audiences excited by the pace of experimentation didn't have to wait a year to see what Yvonne Rainer would come up with next." Well, Jowitt was in the audience last night, and imagine what her and some of the others must have felt after waiting 25 years for a new Rainer dance--you get the idea. Last night might have been the only Baryshnikov-graced evening at which, to some at least, Baryshnikov was not the main attraction.

And imagine how nervous Rainer, who quit dancemaking to turn her eye to film-making, must have felt. (Context: Rainer has not left risk behind. A couple of years ago at the Drawing Center in Soho, I stumbled upon a film quarterly which analyzed a movie in which Rainer revealed her masectomized chest.)

"I am thrilled to be here, to be presenting this choreographic work," said Rainer, appearing with close-cropped peppered hair, a purple top, grey slacks, and black shoes which paced up and down while she spoke. "It's been 25 years since I last made a dance or something I called a dance. It's hard to find the words to express the excitement I feel."

All right. You know I'm chomping at the bit to describe the dance that followed for you. I don't give a fig about the publicist, but DRA assured me last night that she was correct, so I have to assume that not-open-to-review was one condition under which the organization was able to present this extraordinary meeting, and play along. However, I did receive permission to report on the social scene. So here's where I stop describing the whirl of bodies and start gushing over the social whirl, and if that sort of thing offends you, I won't feel offended if you stop reading right now.

Let's start with the news angle: DRA founding director Hernando Cortez told us (I'm switching into society reporter mode now, and becoming us) last night's event raised $70,000....DRA codirector and co-founder Denise Roberts lauded a studio in Pennsylvania which had raised $4,000 for DRA. Denise (we switching to first-name basis now, in true society reporter etc.) pointed out that this fundraising contest among studios nationwide is not just a money thing, but has the objective of getting the word out (yes, folks, it still needs to be gotten out) that AIDS is not just a New York thang.

This point has not always been as obvious to everyone as you might think. A couple of years ago, while an editor at Dance Magazine, I proposed a monthly column on AIDS and dancers. To which the magazine's owner responded, "Why should we do that? Our readers are all 13-year-old girls, and 13-year-old girls don't get AIDS." Not all dance publications are such poor citizens of our community. I was heartened to see that the spanking new Pointe magazine, along with its sister publication Dance Spirit, was one of the sponsors of last night's concert. (The others included Dom Perignon and Susan Holland & Associates Catering.)

(Speaking of last night's concert, I'm now about to REALLY go off on a tangent, probably only interesting to dance journalism insiders. If that doesn't include YOU, feel free to skip the next three paragraphs!)

The Pointe posse was in the house, including Virginia Johnson, former prima ballerina at Dance Theater of Harlem and Pointe's first editor; my former DM colleague Caitlin Sims, Pointe's managing editor; editorial director Julie Davis; and president/CEO Michael Weiskopf, who told us that acquiring Johnson was "like having Michael Jordan." With a reminder that I'd much rather be Flashing Rainer and Jasperse, I can't resist Flash Reviewing the Pointe debut issue, which was handed out last night.

Out of the chute, the magazine establishes itself as more serious than DM. The hands of Sims and particularly consummate dance insider Johnson are evident in the edit, with first-persons by Johnson, former Boston Ballet artistic director Bruce Marks, and Kirk Peterson, among others....the design, by DM survivor Diana Leidel, is more snazzy and hip than DMá, but yo, peoples, what's up with the tiny print on some of those articles? Even I with my 20-20 can't read it. I know Diana well enough (she taught me my early lessons in design) to assume this couldn't have been her idea....Love the backstage at the Stuttgart photos, but those tiny white words on deep purple background are just unreadable. The dancer on the cover, Boston's April Ball, certainly pointes, and from everything I've heard she's a great dancer, but the photo is pretty mundane. Surely, a magazine which announces itself to the world as "ballet at its best" can come up with a better ballet photo for its debut?

No doubt the format will be refined and these kinks worked out. I seem to recall that the debut of The Dance Insider was met with similar complaints of challenging type (my brilliant idea!) that made reading the excellent edit problematic.

....Er, going back to the after-party: Jacob's Pillow executive director and DI subscriber Ella Baff introduced us to the relatively new executive director of American Ballet Theatre, Louis G. Spisto, who seems, in a phrase, a refreshingly down-to-earth change for that company....Got the skinny on the Martha Graham company from a Graham principal dancer. This is probably not news to any of you who read the New York Times, but it was to me: The newly gumption-filled Graham board, headed by a Niederlander, has apparently told Graham "artistic director" Ron Protas it's time for him to vacate that spot, but he doesn't want to go. The company, said this dancer, is soldiering on, and has never been prouder in its performances of the work, the work. We agreed on how a favorite of ours, Miki Orihara, has finally been allowed to come into her own, and on how clean her dancing is.

Oh yes, the dancing. I think it would be okay if I, not referencing the actual dance of last night, reported that the dancing withal was clean, as exhibited by Phuon, Baryshnikov, Raquel Aedo, Emily Coates, Michael Lomeka, and Rosalynde LeBlanc.

Off the stage, the award for most resplendent, in glimmering black dress and her usual luminous demeanor has to go to DRA volunteer, former Paul Taylor star, and DI promotions director Rachel Berman. The fabulous Ms. B will be presenting her own work in Hawaii in May. Go dere! Aloha!

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