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Flash Review 1, 4-8: True Confessions
Letting it All Hang Out at St. Mark's

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

I'm not much on confessional art. Confession implies risk, and I'm not so sure how truly risky it is for a performer to bare all; this is, after all, the stock in trade of any honest performer.... No--damn! Start again. 1, 2, 3, 4: Strip the affectation, Paul. Tell it straight, like most of the (mostly) veteran performers at "Horse's Mouth" did last night at Danspace Project at St. Mark's. Church. See, I don't feel like I can stay on the sidelines here and just be the wry, fuzzily warm, simpatico but ultimately distanced reporter. What am I trying to say? That several of the stories told, in words and body, were some of the riskiest and truest moments I've seen at the theater in a long time. And that I don't think it's fair for me to just stand on the sidelines on this one, above it all, and commentate. So I'd like to start by confessing to you why I REALLY write about dance.

I do actually get this question a lot--primarily, I think, because unlike most of our other Flashers, I'm not a professional dancer. I do dance, but not that anyone would pay to see. (For more on that, see Flash Obituary, 2-29: The Importance of Being Ofra Haza.) So, one of the reasons I got into writing about dance is that I love to dance; another is that dance came into my life at a time when I was feeling down and reminded me my spirit could soar, and I wanted to share this gift with other schmucks like me; and, I found that as a journalist, writing about dance I could actually write several different types of articles: interviews, reviews, news stories, etc. But the moment the idea first occurred to me as a career move, and the engine which keeps me here even when dance writing isn't paying the bills, was when I wrote a story on San Francisco Ballet and got to interview three beautiful ballerinas (Evelyn Cisneros, Tina LeBlanc, and Elizabeth Loscavio.) Epiphany! "I could do this!" said I with a big smile on my face. And I have.

So what's the confession? The confession is that sometimes when a performer moves me, it's not just her art but the fact that she's drop-dead jaw-dropping gorgeous. I like to think--in fact, yes, going over in my mind certain performers I won't mention right now, it's definitely true--that the physical without the artistic beauty would not impress me and would leave me hollow. But the confession is that sometimes when I've been enthralled by a woman performer, while my appreciation and evaluation of her artistic skills is, I think, honest, what I've at times left out telling you is that--in the fan sense--the performer knocked me over with her art, yes, but also with her sheer beauty....Okay, now that I've said it it doesn't sound so bad? Does it...? Ahem. But enough about me, let's segue into the performance at hand.

The performer who had this affect on me last night was Tehreema Mitha. (To find out more about Mitha, go to http://www.horsesmouth.org/dancers/ny/mitha.htm)

But I don't think I'd be writing about Mitha, a Pakistani-born Bharatanatyam dancer and teacher presently living in Maryland, if the strength of the impression started and ended with her physical beauty, without her mesmerizing movement.

The set up in Horse's Mouth, an evening of spoken and danced reminiscences of dance workers of varying years of service, is mostly that one speaks, sitting on a chair, while three colleagues dance improvisationally. During her recollection, Mitha went down on the ground almost immediately, in what I think she said was a typical positioning from Bharatanatyam; I remember that her legs seemed folded and crossed beneath her. Then, with her memory, she went even further into the ground, recalling burying her father (?--please bear with me, there were 30 stories last night in a span of a little over an hour, so I'm afraid not all the details stayed with me). Then she went into a meditation on the soul...I think the drift was that if things done to the body could affect the soul...e.g., Prozac making us "happy," then were the body and the soul really distinct? Or, as Mitha concluded, "Where is the soul, where does the body end?" And Mitha's dance? Looking at my notes here...in the musical instrument-less (except for three intervals) environment of the evening, the jangles of her bracelets rang out, lilting, dancing on air. And her dance?....Hands clasped...what-to-my-underexposed-to-the-form eyes was pristine, base-relief Bharatanatyam dancing. What line! She leans forward....squats to pick up something...makes O's with her thumb and forefinger...drinks water, sneezes, joins Arthur Aviles, while another dancer remembers Anna Sokolow, in words I can't hear....

Did I say Arthur Aviles? One reaction which compelled me to 'fess up to you about my hetero male response to Mitha was, well, my hetero male response to the naked Aviles. Appearing for his set, Aviles, a former star with the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Company, was totally clothed, in a large robe, and all he did was swirl. I was annoyed; is he saying just watching him swirl should be enough for us, he's so pretty? Then, in one of the intervals where a swathe of 20 or so dancers, each with a prop, cuts a diagonal through the stage, to horse and other stable sounds, Aviles's prop was no prop, as in no clothes at all. Duly noting that the women and non-hetero males among you would probably be riveted to him, I have to say that I averted my eyes; not just out of squeamishness, but because I thought this a gimmick; "How can I really stand out?" But I had to look: Aviles's moves, previously restricted to revolving, were suddenly intricate, sweeping, breathtaking in the minutiae and in the big picture, leaps indicating he was totally free...and as I write this I think, maybe that's what he was aiming at. He was naked again for the curtain call, but maybe...maybe not naked again, but simply naked still.

Um, can we stick to the naked motif for just a moment longer? Joan Finkelstein pointed out that dancers are pretty blase about getting naked, which, she explained, is probably a necessity since they get nekkid at least four times a day (changing for and out of class, and ditto for rehearsals)....This caused me to remember my first recent experience performing with dancers--you know who you are--and how I felt the first time that, after a rehearsal, the women nonchalantly removed their tops. I tried not to stare but, to tell you the truth, the thrill was not to my libido but to my ego: They were un-self-conscious around me, which must mean that I was one of them! (Oops, did another confession just trickle out there? Am I still in Church?)

(If we can get back to naked in the metaphoric sense, and to Mitha, for a moment: Her voice broke, her cheeks expanded to try to contain the sorrow, when she described burying her father, after sitting with the body for seven days. It was not affected sorrow. This sort of moment recurred at least once, when James Sutton went into a melancholic reverie about all the ballet colleagues he'd lost in the 80s. He tried to right himself, insisting that these losses remind him that the present is so-named because it is a gift, but his sorrow lingered. The sorrow was less heavy, maybe just remembered sadness, when Gus Solomons jr. recounted how, as a youngster auditioning for shows in New York, he found everybody liked him and kept him 'til the end of the day, only to ultimately tell him that they couldn't hire him because audiences or producers weren't ready for a [racially] mixed couple. Solomons, like Sutton mouthing that the present is a gift, assured us that it was enough for him that they wanted to hire him. but I'm not so sure I buy it.)

Finkelstein then remembered one day, when she had first come to New York--in fact, she said, it was the moment when she knew that she'd arrived, and would be living the cool Boho life. A non-dancer friend of her company director (?) showed up, and immediately stripped to nothing but his shirt-tails. This wierded young Joan out, until the director explained to her: It's how he's most comfortable.

I'm guessing--just guessing here--that one of the sirens which lured Finkelstein to the Village dance scene in the seventies was Yvonne Rainer in the 60s. Rainer is the iconic mother of the post-modern scene, a co-founder of the Judson Church movement, and, well, goddess to many modern dancers I know. I'm told she's recently returned to Judson, but last night was more or less her first time in public performance in 25 years. (For more on Rainer, i.e. her recent return to dance-making, see Flash Report, 2-28: Celebrity Dance Match) Watching her, I thought: What pedestrian movement? If this is what she was doing in 1962, it ain't just uninterpreted pedestrianism, it's art --tweaked, twisted, as much expressionist as naturalist. She doesn't run around the stage like a person running on the street, she runs around the stage like someone running on a stage! This is anything but plain! But then it's just possible that, thanks to Rainer, Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, and the other Judsonites, I've grown up in a critical environment in which this is movement is accepted as pure art. But I also can't help think that Rainer's would-be imitators have grossly misunderstood, or rather understood only on a surface level, what it means to utilize pedestrian movement. It's not just a matter of repeating what you see on the street; to be art, it still has to be interpreted through an artistic sensibility. (By the way, I may be shooting blanks here. For an authoritative "horse's mouth" view, see Deborah Jowitt's "Time and the Dancing Image.")

Here's my own automatic writing abstract reaction to what Rainer did last night--some of the words I wrote down: small space...askew.. excersize...flight...squat, prone, forward, encircle, embrace, negative-positive magnets, hand tension, focus, micro to macro, walks, up, skis, skip-walks, windblown, riveting, praying, swinging, moving through water, agape.

Like Rainer, Wendy Perron simultaneously sends visceral thrill and mental regret through my spine. Thrill because she's one of those performers, like Baryshnikov, who could just stand still and I'd watch for hours, especially those intent eyes, themselves watching her body as if she's wondering, along with us, what it will do next. Regret because I came to dance-watching so late and thus missed so many years of her.

Artistically, this was one of the--pure--joys of watching Mitha. What distinguished this version from the last of Horse's Mouth I saw was that it was not just a nostalgic look back, but an anticipatory look forward. We were not just looking at artists in the summer (Perron), Autumn, or Winter of their careers, but in the Spring. At one of the intervals where a line of 20 or so dancers diagonally crossed the stage, most relied on a gimmick to allure us, but here's where Mitha really distinguished herself, movement-wise. She went to town on the floor, pounding it (the kind of pounding that reverberates through the whole space and the whole body of anyone beholding it), barefooted yet, with her heels inna Bharatanatyam style, moving sideways, forearms at right angles to elbows, thumb and forefinger making that ring, eyes intently spotting the other corner of the stage. She flew, really. And, less personally affected than the others, was pure, formal classicism, museum-quality friezes projecting across the stage.

Another youngster, Ellis Wood, was at last year's Horse's Mouth. But her reflection then consisted mostly of almost apologizing for being among such illustrious company and, I felt, trying to explain it by saying well, at least her parents, the long-time Graham dancers Marni and David Wood, were illustrious pioneers. She started in on that again this year, and at first I thought, okay, I'm over it. But then she went further. When she was eight and considered her parents as no less than Mr. and Ms. Modern Dance, she recollected, a San Francisco Chronicle critic named Hewel Tircuitt (I've probably bungled the spelling) wrote a "scathing review" of a concert by her parents. "I couldn't believe anyone would write this about my parents," she shared. So young Ellis took the review and scrawled on it, "Hewell Tircuit must die," clutching it to her pillow when she went to bed. As she tells it, her father, on discovering this, "thought it was so hilarious, he sent it to Hewel with a note that said This is what my daughter thinks about your review."

This was not a pretty confession. Um, well, at least not to a critic's ear. Which is why, perhaps, I felt compelled to make my confession, i.e. that it's a beautiful woman almost as much as provocative art that can capture my heart at the theater. On the other hand, I don't think I'm unique in this among audients, not to mention performers.

For his spiel last night, Horse's Mouth co-founder (with Tina Croll) James Cunningham began by telling us that non-dancers often ask him: "Come on now--what do you artists REALLY do at those rehearsals?" "We rehearse," Cunningham usually insists, indignantly. But then he went backstage last night, only to discover "men and women of every shape and size mixing it up in every imaginable way." Whereupon he reminded his colleagues that there were people out there waiting to see Art, and reprimanded them: "For God's sake, people, put on your clothes and whatever shred of dignity you have left." He concluded, to us: "This is the kind of thing that can happen when you bring artists together. They simply don't understand the difference between work and play. and that is why I have never wanted to be anything else."

Then Cunningham got up and commenced to roll around on the floor with Remy Charlip, in grappling, groping movement gloriously undistorted by any pretension to high Art.

"Where is the soul, where does the body end?" indeed.

Horse's Mouth continues through Sunday. For more information, including a schedule of who's performing when, go to www.horsesmouth.org

 

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