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Flash Review 1, 4-3: Getting Piazzolla
A New Respect for Astor at a New Dance Space

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Before modern dancers started setting works to Astor Piazzolla, "Getting Piazzolla" could have referred to tango traditionalists getting him with a knife for his radical stance, viz. tango: Mainly, that he considered the tango not dance music, but a, to him, higher form--concert music. Indeed, he was even stabbed once for this or some similar infraction. So modern dance choreographers setting work to Piazzolla's music are in doubly dangerous territory: Dangerous because they are putting their own idiom on a music designed for something else (tango), and dangerous because Piazzolla's tangos were not intended, by their author, to be danced to. As someone who was a music person before he was a dance person, I am, therefore, automatically pre-disposed to be doubly affronted by works set to Piazzolla, and, for the most part, I have been. Until, that is, Friday, when I saw a new dance that respected and understood Piazzolla's music, as well as successfully expanded upon it.

First, let's consider what came before Valerie Norman's "The Share," seen at a loft on Henry Street that was once used by the avant-garde composer Tan Dun. Or let's at least consider what hovers at the surface of my memory, as there has been a plethora--and yes, "plethora" is the correct, slightly derogatory denotation to use for multitude in this case--of dances set to his haunting, sad, romantic, melancholic and truly symphonic music in recent years.

(An exception to my invective, by the way, would be straight tango shows like "Forever Tango" and "Tango Por Dos," which at least understand tango, even if they are using the music not quite as Piazzolla intended it.)

It's difficult for me to say this because people I respect and love were involved in its making, but at the top of the list, offense-wise, has to come Pilobolus's "Orangotango." Although, I have to add a caveat here: The first time I saw it I was so pre-disposed to distrust a not only modern dance, but comic modern dance take on Piazzolla that I actually shut my eyes. So I was upset before I even saw the dance. (As you may have guessed, I can't dance a twig of tango, but I love, love this music, particularly Piazzolla. Check out the Kronos Quartet's "Five Tango Sensations," by the way, if you want to hear trained classical musicians interpret this music. It's also the last recording as musician of Piazzolla, who passed away a couple of years back.)

The second time I saw "Orangotango" I made myself watch-if only because two of the people I admire and respect, Matt Kent and Rebecca Anderson, were dancing it, and a friend had helped create it. And what I'm about to say is not a reflection on their abilities to dance it--they execute the intention well as, I'm guessing, do the Pilobolus Too dancers who also perform this dance and helped create it, Adam Battlestein and my friend and colleague Rebecca Stenn. Alison Chase, another artist whose achievements I generally champion, is the Pilobolus director who choreographed it, in collaboration with these dancers.

It's the choreographic intentions of this duet I find disturbing. First, the man appears in a sort of matador's (I may have the specifics wrong, but the point is it's Mexican or Spanish, not Argentinean) costume. Huh? Then he finds an orangutan mask and--har har--dons it just before the woman enters. The idea is that the scarlet-dressed woman doesn't realize for a while that she's dancing this sexy dance with a monkey. Double har-har. Sexy I have no problem with--that's tango, to the max. But the relation of the dancing and the dance here are only vaguely, generally related to the music-based, really, on what a surface American tourist understanding of tango might have been in 1950

I'm not saying that choreographers can't, necessarily, have free range in selecting music to choreograph to. Or that they can't make fun of it or choreograph against it. But I think--no, I demand, and I don't think I'm alone in this--that they do the work and have an understanding of the music and, preferably, the artist, before they veer from it. I have to go back, for instance, to Sean Curran's "Symbolic Logic." Curran was not the first choreographer to get hip to Sheila Chandra, but he was, to my mind, the first to really MEET her music. This is not to say that he made an "Indian" dance to the droning of this Indian òmigrò singer; but rather, that he, I think, made an effort to understand who she was and where she was coming from, and then met the musical notes specifically-as opposed to just using the music as exotica to make an exotic Mysterious dance too. (For more on Curran, please see Flash Review 1, 3-18: Fusion.)

Which leads us to the most well-known recent effort by a modern dancer working with Piazzolla, Paul Taylor's 1997 "Piazzolla Caldera." On first viewing, while I wasn't as disturbed as I was by Pilobolus's dance, I was cranky about this piece. Taylor was not the first on the Piazzolla bandwagon, and I thought, Oh great, now Paul's going to do his Piazzolla thing. But on second viewing, while I still wasn't crazy about the dance, I understood the legitimacy, musically, of Taylor's setting a work to Piazzolla. Taylor's craft is at such a high level, that it IS interesting to see how he interprets, understands, reads, explains, meets, and re-forms any music--but, especially, that of the musical masters of our time, of whom Piazzolla is one. I have no idea whether he researched tango and/or Piazzolla, but the fact is Paul Taylor is a master. As a master, he is not just "taking" from Piazzolla and using his music to juice up a dance; he is giving, too. It's an equal partnership. Taylor's respect for Piazzolla is evident even in his naming the dance! If Piazzolla were alive, I can imagine that he might, just might, feel flattered that someone at the level of Paul Taylor has chosen to make a concert dance to his music. And, notwithstanding his feelings about tango being more than dance music, I think he'd be curious about how Paul Taylor would interpret his work.

I'm not going to presume that Piazzolla would have felt the same if he were sitting in the thirty-seat live/loft space on Henry Street in New York's Chinatown Friday, to watch Norman's premiere of "The Share," set to his music. (Quibble: The specific compositions were not listed.) But I can say it's the first time a modern dance choreography really captured the spirit of tango, at least as this gringo understands it.

Basically, Norman, dancing the piece with Gabriella Barnstone, presented a series of tango-fied everyday interactions and implements. By tango-fied, I mean that tango's gestures and phrases for me always dance between making love and making war. The titillation of sexuality and the threat of violence, often presented through the lens of magic realism. Norman gets that in her choreography, and she and Barnstone get that in their dancing.

First, everything is red: Barnstone's hair, first in a short-haired wig and later in a flowing red mane; the tight, mostly sexy and revealing costumes, and each wears at least a couple; the telephone which provides the tension. They are both waiting for a call, and probably only one of them will get it. Even the blow dryer and vacuum cleaner which provide the main weapons are taped in red.

Doors are constantly slamming; Norman retreating into one in a wall upstage, and Barnstone to one opening into the bathroom, closer to us, and a few minutes later bursting the door open and extending a leg from her red dress, her torso arching sensuously back, arm held in the bathroom by the blow-dryer which is plugged in there. A nice physical tension, that.

Did I say sensuous? Part of what makes this dance so deliciously intriguing is that we're not sure of the relationship of the women. Are they rivals? Lovers? Friends? Maybe even just real-life roommates in this space that is a real-life residence, playing for us with their real-life household tools? This dance has Mystery, which is one of the primal qualities of tango and why the music and good dancing of it can be so charged. And erotically charged, too. And nebulously so. I'm reminded of Carlos Saura's "Tango," in which Julio Bocca dances a tango with‡a man. Not a violent, fight tango, but a romantic one. And for which, Saura says, Bocca asked to take the female part.

So, confounding my diminished expectations for a modern interpretation of tango, Norman in her choreography and both dancers in their performances prove they know tango by the presence of several real tango elements: Eroticism, mystery, physical tension of the sexual and violent sort, and jealousy (the pop tango tune most known to American audiences is, indeed, called "Jealousy"!).

In terms of actual tango dancing, Norman has lucked out in securing Barnstone, who establishes from the get that she knows this form with a series of rapid, flash-like kicks of the heels and calves. And with her erotically (have I used erotically enough? I have warned you before that my hetero perspective sometimes gloriously informs what I see on the stage, and even moreso when the performer is a few feet in front of me)-charged performance.

Having--to my peculiar standards, anyway--established that they know the indigenous form, Norman then proceeds to interpret it with a modern dance lexicon. Meaning, all levels are used. Intimacy and earthiness are qualities shared by tango and some modern, and Norman achieves both of those.

Barnstone demonstrated her versatility next, first in a film by her sister, Lisa, in which Barnstone starred. The sort of flickering silent movie technique used in "Drink Me," perhaps not novel to the cinemaphiles among you, was a marvel to me. Skittering about, floating and gliding, really, over lush (albeit black and white) hill, dale, and creek, Barnstone reminded me of Lillian Gish.

Barnstone took her turn behind the lens for the evening's closer, an ambitious project called "Salsero." As someone who came to dance largely from being a social dancer, I was incredibly touched to see a concert dancer like Barnstone make the effort to, basically, interview social salsa and mambo dancers at various Manhattan venues about why they dance. The context of the interviews was not so much technical, as social. "I like to make her shine," a mambo maniac says of his partner. The female perspective: "He is the frame, we are the picture in the frame." Another man who seems fixated on the mating aspects of this social dance wisely advises that white and black guys can pick up chicks by saying they can't dance and asking the women to show them, because they're not expected to know how to Latin dance; but if a Latin guy tries this maneuver, she'll never buy it.

Another woman, Addie Rodriguez, gives 'nuff respect out to the predecessors of these club mavens, noting, "It was the Jews and the blacks that kept the mambo alive back in the day."

What impressed me most about Barnstone's effort is that, especially coming from someone who is herself a dancer, this documentary seems approached more from a journalist's point of view than a trained dancer's. That's a compliment, meaning she does not evaluate, say, actual steps or form from a technical perspective, but rather probes what dancing means to the rest of us to whom it may not be a job, but it still can be a life.

One of the strangest dichotomies about the way dance is received by our society is that is at the same time, to many, the most impenetrable of the arts--when viewed in concert--but also the one performing art that any of us can do and empathize with, even alone.

I can't quite articulate how yet, but I believe Barnstone has made an important contribution towards bridging the worlds of concert and social dance. And I do mean bridging. As a consequence of her foray into the social dance world, several of the salseros she interviewed were at Friday's showing. They may have come primarily for the unofficial premiere of Barnstone's documentary on them, sure, but in the process they also saw some strict concert dance--and maybe they'll be back for more.

Actually, strict concert dance isn't quite the right way to thumbnail this concert. As I write this, I'm realizing that it both started and ended with very different riffs on Latin social dances. (The other dance on the program was "False Gods," set to Chopin and created and danced by Norman.)

I'd also like to suggest that concerts in these intimate loft settings, crammed as they may be, can actually seem more welcoming than larger venues for new initiates in that they're not so intimidating and foreboding. With about thirty chairs, this evening could also have been a group of friends performing for each other at a party. All ages, races, and backgrounds were there. So even at thirty seats, these warm environments actually build the dance audience. Shouts out to Norman and her landlord for providing such a space. I look forward to seeing more from Norman and Barnstone, and to seeing more dance in their space. (A former yeshiva, by the way!) You take Lincoln Center--I'll take Henry Street any day!

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