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Flash Review 1, 8-4: Misha's Homily: Bored at the Church
White Oak's New, Dry Judson Tribute

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000 The Dance Insider

PRINCETON, N.J. -- I arrived at my old stomping grounds early last night so that I could catch up with an old friend before we took in the world premiere of "Past Forward," White Oak Dance Project's new retrospective of several of the Judson Church choreographers of the Sixties. It was a warm reunion. How disappointing, then, to find the White Oak program at McCarter Theatre, itself replete with nostalgia, to be so strangely devoid of warmth. And to see such hot dancers -- in every sense of the word -- saddled with such cold and anti-septic choreography. And to behold dancers of such high technique given so little...DANCE to do.

So here's the drill on Judson -- from one who, please take note, was not there. The anti-aesthetic, as I understand it from the history books, was to show that the pedestrian deserved to be behind the proscenium. For example, Steve Paxton's 1967 "Satisfyin Lover," one of the works revived for this two-part program, consists mostly of people walking across the stage, again and again, in small groups, halting occasionally. Most of these people are real! actual! genuine! pedestrians -- culled, in this instance, from the local communities. (My Princeton friend spotted a couple of familiar faces.) Real, actual, professional dancers, from White Oak, are thrown into the mix. One might refer to them as "the ringers," except that I guess in this case it's probably more accurate to call the pedestrians the ringers, since this IS pedestrian dance and they ARE real pedestrians, and the White Oak dancers just play pedestrians on t.v.

All this is fine, actually, and if it seems a little rote -- can you say Community Involvement? Can you say Funder Requirement? -- remember that when Paxton did this, it wasn't about funding. He was trying to create art.

As I understand it, part of what the Judson ancestors were trying to do was storm the citadel of capital 'A' art and, just as the young people who hit the streets in the Sixties (including five-year-old moi) were trying to dethrone the political powers that be, the Judson crew was trying to tear down the hierarchy of technique. Art, they were saying, could be found in everyday movements, taken from the street.

I would suggest, however, that having non-dancers walk across a stage as if it were just 8th (or, in Princeton, Nassau) Street is not in itself a completely realized revolution; it's just a (necessary) first step.

That first step had to be taken in order to democratize dance. If Martha Graham wrestled dance away from the upward-boundness of ballet and contracted it, Judson with its pedestrianism was saying no to any kind of technical hegemony.

However, while decapitating the royals may have been seen as necessary to start the French Revolution, you can't build a new social fabric out of just chopping people's heads off all the time.

Paxton and company's steps, dethroning technique, opened the door and broadened the palette for those who came afterwards to, tho not abandon technique, ennoble, en-art the pedestrian by transforming it into a technique, or to incorporate it into their technique along with other elements.

My colleague and friend Ben Munisteri -- there are other examples, but I'm citing Ben because I'm most familiar with his vocabulary -- will, amongst the ballet and modern phrases that constitute much of his work, suddenly juxtapose, as interstice, a simple walk across the stage. Seen suddenly after a lyrical lift or intricate floor-twisting, this plain perambulating is jarring in contrast.

Seen in this context, such movement reveals the dancers' humanity. This type of use of pedestrian movement is, I think, descended from Judson. And I'm aware that younger choreographers recognize this and give thanks to the ancestors every day! And that for them, perhaps, as well as for dancer-choreographers who were there at the birth, putative White Oak leader Mikhail Baryshnikov's history lesson, written and directed by Judsonite David Gordon, may be an exciting excavation.

For me, tho, the Judson antecedent, at least as evoked by White Oak, was strangely cold and unmoving.

Baryshnikov is doing a noble thing in general with the company's repertoire selection in recent years: using his celebrity, earned in ballet, to proselytize for ballet's poorer (in terms of receiving attention) cousin modern dance. And in this he also finds a dance in which his body, diminished in its ability to, say, leap space, can still capitalize on its undiminished charisma and ability to eat and carve space.

In Deborah Hay's "Single Duet," which premiered last night, Baryshnikov's ability to become a sculpture is at points well-used. But even he could not save this dance from its mundanity and general triteness. And, worse, after a while his Tourette's-like mumbling and murmuring seemed, well, false. Like he was playing at playing, but not really playing. We didn't see a babbling idiot; we saw Baryshnikov trying to babble like an idiot. And seeming insincere and not very committed to the weirdness.

Indeed, as I write this on the train back to NYC, and we pass now from toney Princeton to working-class New Brunswick, it occurs to me that the effect of these highly trained dancers doing this undemanding vocabulary is that of high-class dancers slumming in the world of the rest of us pedestrian schmucks.

In Yvonne Rainer's "After Many a Summer Dies the Swan," premiered earlier this year and reprised last night, it's politics that's dabbled in. "In 1980," Emmanuele Phuon pronounces suddenly , out of nowhere, "U.S. executives made 43 times more than factory workers, In 1988, U.S. executives made 419 times more than factory workers."

True? Perhaps. Dance or even performance? Hardly. Without dance that in some way -- overtly, ironically -- relates to these words, this is just a cheap play for effect. And also, in a way, condescending; I didn't come to a dance concert to be lectured. I'm not against introducing politics to a dance, but I don't need a choreographer to tell me about these things, unless you can use your art, dance, to reveal or express them in a new way. If you're going to do that, do like, say Jane Comfort, who knows it's not enough to stop at playing for like-minded sympathy, but uses dance and theater and music to amplify a political point, and actual make art out of it.

There is one moment where Rainer does successfully marry words to dance: a charming, absorbing duet for the continuingly blossoming and maturing Emily Coates and Raquel Aedo. In zombie-like falsettos, the two dialogue on how they're really changing -- in various word combinations, but while they repeat, again and again, the same physical combination, getting up, putting their arms around each other, and falling down again. This one also worked, I think, because of the commitment of the two performers to this bizarre silliness.

Aedo also figures in the evening's other relative success, a "Chair Duet" by David Gordon. Here, paired with Phuon, maneuvering around and through the various holes in the folding chairs, opening them up and sitting on them or standing on them and then gracefully jumping off; lying down and, a chair leg at each side, slowly dragging them over their prostrate bodies.

Speaking of, er, seats, Baryshnikov's earnest desire to use his marketability among the masses to get them into the theater to see modern dance is commendable. I'm just suggesting that if he wants those people to return -- when he is not there to be the draw -- he might want to incorporate more modern modern choreography. We are older now.

White Oak Dance Project continues at McCarter Theatre in Princeton through Sunday, with last night's program repeating tonight, and another Judson program playing Saturday and Sunday. For more on White Oak, see Flash Review 3, 6-10: Brown and Rainer Live and Flash Report, 3-28: Celebrity Dance Match.

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