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Flash Review 1, 4-3:
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
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
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,
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.
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
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
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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