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Flash Review 1, 5-16: Juilliard in Trouble
Or, Where's the Adagio at Graduation Concert?

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

Last night at the Juilliard School Dance Division's senior graduation performance at the Juilliard Theater, watching allegro dance after allegro dance (including many adagio dances performed allegro), I found myself getting so depressed I was too depleted to even utter an "Oy!," though I did find the strength to hiss by the time the fourth -- count 'em, four -- Robert "Parsons Light" Battle work sped past. This one was a shocker, folks. Based on a concert of fine, mature, eloquent dancing by Juilliard students I saw just four years ago, and on the knowledge that many of our finest dancers come from this leading arts conservatory, my expectations were high. But what I saw last night looked more like a feeder school geared towards cultivating and promoting the worse qualities (I'm acknowledging there are many good qualities) of the Ailey and Parsons schools of dance. We're talking alacrity without artistry, speed without measure, and, for the most part, allegro without adagio. In a program note, the division's artistic director, Benjamin Harkarvy, says his students have been asked to meet "their art's demand" for "the introspection and the dedication that mark the professional artist." Introspection? Where? Is today opposites day, Professor Harkarvy? More telling, I think, is the student who boasts in her program bio that her performance in Lila York's "Rapture" was "a study of velocity, devilishness, and charm." Velocity? Are we training artists or track stars here?

But first.... There were some promising students and choreographers that tried valiantly to slow down the Battle express last night. Let's start with the most intriguing dancer and one of the two most intriguing new choreographies: Meghan Grupposo, who danced with four men in Adam Hougland's "Scar Tissue," a premiere. What was most intriguing here was the reactions in a duet Grupposo performed with one of the four men. Grupposo made her entrance in a bug-like position, on her back with all four limbs in the air; and there was something bug-human-like in the way she and partner poked each other with their feet, significantly enough to produce a reaction/reverberation. I also liked the quirky twist of Grupposo's torso.

This dance, along with the Patsy Cline you-don't-love-me-anymore-but-I-want-you-back-just-the-same solo choreographed by Charlotte Griffin, and performed by Kimberly Craigie, was the only palatable dance of the first ten on the program. (There were 17 in all. I didn't make it through the last.) It was not a good omen when we started with the Speed Demon himself, the Ailey's Matthew Rushing, choreographing Abdur-Rahim Jackson to basically move like a clone of Matthew Rushing. Then we had the first of Battle's spastic "dances." I've previously suggested (see Flash Diary, 4-25: An Insider Fan's Notes) that Battle is Parsons diluted, weak because Parsons is already Moses Pendleton and Paul Taylor diluted, and the farther the branch gets from the tree.... But last night he added the worse features of the Ailey company circa 2000 to the mix -- mostly the prancing and preening. I'm hard pressed to tell the difference between the four Battle dances last night. But the last, to Sheila Chandra's music, was scandalous, and I don't mean good-scandalous. Unlike Sean Curran (see Flash Review 2, 5-5: Blending and Flash Review, 5-15: Transformation), Battle uses this near-sacred music as, well -- funny music. Ha Ha. Let's make a weird dance to this weird shit. I hissed.

Finally, just before the second intermission, Paige Cunningham and Juan Rodriguez brought matters to a nice halt, in Hans van Manen's "Deja Vu." Especially in the slow liftings and intertwinings towards the end, extending through the final rolling around on the floor and into fetal position before they drift apart and then collapse, we finally got some adagio here.

What followed intermission was a Lar Lubovitch suite which, for the most part, stuck to the pattern of the evening. Nicholas Arnold was blurry in what looked like a cool-as-a-cucumber and debonair piece, "Smoke Rings," excerpted from Lubovith's "Waiting for the Sunrise." Then we had two excerpts from Lubovitch's "So in Love," both to Cole Porter songs -- not that you'd know this from the program. Ouch! For a college that also houses a top-notch music school, Juilliard is pretty sloppy about crediting composers. Both of these Porter numbers are credited to the singers, with no mention of the composer. "It's All Right with Me," sung by Tom Waits and staged by Rebecca Rigert, devolved into a showoffy showcase for Anne Zivolich, she of the vaunted "velocity." For "In the Still of the Night," sung by the Neville Brothers, we finally got a dancer who knows how to stretch and draw out and pause a phrase: the patient Hanifa Jackson, partnered by Abdur-Rahim Jackson. I see here where Ms. Jackson will join the Ailey 2 soon after graduation; there's some hope!

For subtlety and sophistication in choreography and dancing, the evening's winner was "Intersection," a premiere from Griffin, danced by Adrienne Linder and Peter de Grasse. It begins with the two on their backs, feet facing us, before they look up. They are dressed exactly like bride and groom, except barefoot. The effect is as if they fell off a wedding cake. The soundscore here is mostly advice from Emily Post, read by Suzanne Daone, regarding the etiquette of conversation. "Obviously conversation should be a matter of equal give and take," Post tells us, and much of the dance seems to be Linder and de Grasse unable to stop their personal tics and listen to the other. They are also constantly trying to tidy up the other. Now, this is a fast dance, but the manic-ness is definitely justified. There's also some mystery to the relationship of these two, and I liked that the dancers were comfortable with this mystery -- with just executing the choreography exactly, and not needing to hit us over the head with indicating the meaning.

After this, tho, we were back to a fourth and final Battle, and the worse and most offending of the lot. That is to say, if the previous three were just rushed unmusical muddles, this dance, to Chandra, was the sort of making-fun-of-different-music caper that might have been made by a high school student -- an untalented high school student.

And yet, that four of the 17 dances were by Battle, and that only five of the 17 were not speed demons, tells me that this may be the direction this dance department -- and let's be clear here, I'm scolding the department more than the individual students -- is going. A direction that mistakes rapid, unorganized, unmusical, spastic movement for dance. A direction that seems more concerned with churning out Ailey and Parsons clones than well-rounded artists. It wasn't just that most of the dances were allegro that upset me - but rather that even the dances where one might have expected some measuring of beat were rushed. For example, I expected some respite in "Mazurkas" by Jose Limon, staged by Sarah Stackhouse and danced to Chopin, but no such luck. I know, they're Mazurkas, but there are clearly spots in the choreography where Limon allows room for breathing, but none were taken here.

In fact, a dance by Janet Soares seen in the Barnard dance department spring concert seemed more recognizably in the Limon/Doris Humphrey mode than this dance by Limon. (See Flash Review 1, 3-3: Ride the College Dance Loop.)

Indeed, let's talk about that Barnard concert for a moment. I won't argue for the technical superiority of the Barnard dancers. These Juilliard young people clearly have great facility. But in terms of who appeared better to understand what it means to be an artist, there's no contest. The liberal arts college -- most of whose graduates will not go on to become professional dancers -- beats the conservatory here, hands down. For example -- and please see the Flash for more details -- take Neta Pulvermacher's "Good Bye and Good Luck." Danced to Klezmer music as it is, one might have expected choreographer and dancers to go the madcap and zany Keystone cops route. But Pulvermacher and charges gave us a measured, nuanced interpretation of Klezmer that absolutely conveyed that even when Jews dance, they dance with a heavy heart. All of these dancers were clearly artists, given choreography that encouraged them to develop and reveal that.

But regarding Juilliard, where does this leave us? In trouble I think.

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