The DI, Year 1: Eiko & Koma at the American Dance Festival — ‘When Nights Were Dark’

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2000, 2017 Byron Woods

DURHAM, NC — Lyrical, mythic, elusive, and sidereal — let those potent adjectives start the description of “When Nights Were Dark,” Eiko and Koma’s fantastic evening-length work whose expanded version premiered at Durham’s American Dance Festival this week. In this new book of slow and subtle changes, the duo took a mostly willing audience into a different time zone, as usual.

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The DI, Year 1: Tantra Tarantula? Pilobolus’s Misogynist Spidey Sense

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2000 Byron Woods

(First published on June 17, 2000. Today’s re-post of the complete article is sponsored by Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet, Freespace Dance, and Slippery Rock University Dance.)

DURHAM, NC — It’s not the first time that spiders have wound up in a dance. The tarantella, that literal Italian dance craze of the 15th century, originated from a belief that its moves cured the venomous bite of the tarantula. Nineteenth-century heartthrob Lola Montez achieved notoriety through her signature “Spider Dance,” while Leo Staats’s “The Spider’s Feast” won Parisian hearts in 1913.

But “Tantra Aranea,” Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken’s erotically charged new duet for Pilobolus Dance Theater, uses the mating behaviors of orb-weaving spiders as the unlikely lens for revisioning elements of Hindu spiritual practice and Japanese mythology.

Stay with us here. In this new American Dance Festival commission, which premiered in North Carolina on Thursday night at Page Auditorium, Pilobolus once again looks to the natural realm for insights on the human condition. Of course, there’s nothing remotely new in that: Over the centuries, agenda-laden readings of the natural world have been used to justify a number of curious institutions.

But it is telling — and disappointing — that where the original Hindu chroniclers of Shiva and Shakti’s greatest hits envisioned transcendence through sexual union in the Kama Sutra, Barnett and Wolken’s arachnophilic take on that text ultimately finds one thing: the very high price of satisfaction.

That is, if you’re a guy.

“Tantra Aranea” invokes that tired canard, the monstrous feminine, in a world where men can’t trust women or sexuality. Why? Because maneaters only decloset after orgasm.

How useful. And how very original.

The result negates the Indian sacred text, in what at points seems an unintentional exploration of male erotophobia.

Though both Angelina Avallone’s costume for dancer Josie Coyoc and the initial moments of Anwar Brahim’s guitar accompaniment seem almost Castillian, the physical dialects here soon place matters in the sub-continent.

The gracefully beckoning hand gestures in Matt Kent’s initial entreaties to Coyoc seem directly taken from sacred Indian paintings of the idealized god and lover, Krishna. The resulting love-play of the two is tantric and sexually frank; a vivid, libidinous, steamy celebration of heterosexual pursuit, capture and imaginative physical recombinations.

But the briefest of fates awaits the male after sexual union in the spider world. Here it’s not Shakti the consort who mates with the love god — it’s Kali, the destroyer, who is rarely met without cost.

Kent and Coyoc arouse us, first with playfulness and then with passion, as Barnett and Wolken give the pleasures of the flesh their full moment in arresting choreography.

But Nirvana’s price is steep in this natural — but less than perfect — world. And the endgame of “Tantra Aranea” leaves entirely open the question of its worth — along with the choreographers’ attitudes towards women.

We’ll warrant that the recombination of Hindu myth with amateur arachnology is novel enough. But the end result here — soft-core porn, tastefully served, with a misogynous twist — is really anything but.

Byron Woods is a dance and theater critic and correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer. He has previously written for Backstage, InTheater, and CitySearch.com.

The British are Coming Out! The British are Coming Out! Queer Heritage from Bintley, Birmingham Royal Ballet, & Edward II

By Mark Dendy & Copyright 2000, 2107 Mark Dendy

(Editor’s note, 2-8-17, not necessarily binding on the author: On Saturday, addressing a gathering in front of the Stonewall Bar in New York, where in 1969 a police raid ignited the Rainbow Revolution on the same day Judy Garland died, Sex in the City star Cynthia Nixon, speaking after Egyptian out of the closet refugee Omar Sharif Jr.,  proclaimed,  “We are allies united by our Otherness… And if we didn’t know it before, thanks to Donald Trump we know it now.” How does Mark’s Flash, first published on the DI on September 29, 2000, relate to the Trump administration’s current hyper-speed other ostracization of the Poor, the Queer, the Trans, the Brown, the Black, the Public-school child, the Woman, the Scientist,  the Planet, the Atheist, the Jew, the Judge, the Pope (okay, that was before the election), the Samaritan, the Muslim, the Journalist, the Facts…. ? His second to last paragraph in particular makes me think that in a presidential universe alienated from and alien to so many of us,  perhaps the true Other is the one who only sees in one-dimension, and who has not yet realized that in America in 2017, we are the Mainstream. We’re also revisiting this piece because in Mark Dendy’s own work for dance and for the theater,  particularly “Dream Analysis,” he has always championed the notion that the Other, whether Queer or just plain queer, is us. Source for Nixon quote: Democracy Now.)

The re-publication of this piece is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance & Freespace Dance, whose opinions are not necessarily reflected in the new introduction above.

NEW YORK — Does the mother country have something to teach us about coming out in the opera house? We Americans tend to think of ourselves as the frontiersmen when it comes to art and homo art and new ideas and graphic sexual content onstage. It’s the Brits who are uptight, stuffy, conservative. Watching David Bintley’s Birmingham Royal Ballet production of “Edward II” at City Center the other night, I was reminded that this country was founded by people who were so uptight the British kicked them out!

“Edward II” is the really tragic tale of a king who lives openly in front of his court as a homosexual. His lover is executed by Edward’s distraught wife and her cohort. Edward is harassed, tortured, raped, pissed on (real water on stage) and finally brutally killed by nothing less (and I don’t mean this figuratively) than having a red hot poker shoved up his… well, you get the point. THE most sexually graphic ballet I have ever seen. Sometimes to a tasteless fault, but it is at its best unapologetic, bold, daring, rough-edged and brutally graphic.

The dancing of the second cast (I didn’t see the first) was good and solid. Robert Parker was excellent as Edward. As Queen Isabella, Ambra Vallo showed us not just the villainness, the betrayed and jealous, but the hurt and devastation that such a false forced relationship can cause. The pas de deux between Edward and Gaveston is luscious, physical and romantic without being schmaltzy. The satisfaction that comes from watching ballet dancers equally support each other and share partnering responsibilities is immense. (And possible in ballet only with same sex couples as opposite sex couples are too disparate strength-wise to achieve this.) This romantic bliss cannot last forever. Enter jealous wife. The proceeding pas de trois and the pas de deux with Isabella and Edward are choreographically some of the most beautiful in the production and further the story, and are danced magically.

Other moments, such as the witnessing of the offstage beheading of Edward’s lover Gaveston and Edward subsequently running on stage with a bag tied with a rope supposedly containing Gaveston’s severed head are so bad they are over the top. This of course is part of ballet’s charm to the modern experimentalist. Delsartian pantomime instead of movement and gesture that reveal real psychological and subtextual meaning.

The story is a great one — part of our queer heritage. Kudos to Bintley for having the guts to take it on and tell it like it really was, hot poker and all! In places it shines, in others, for this taste it needs to be polished. I personally didn’t care for the leather scene stuff being used to negatively define the heteros. Leather isn’t dark and murderous, it’s about brotherhood and trust. It’s primitive and tribal but not evil. Mr. Bintley might look again at such an easy stereotype to cloak his villains in. Stereotypes have been used about gays enough that we should be more sensitive when using them to define ourselves, especially as it pertains to the leather and trans-gendered sects of our tribe. There were also hilarious and wonderfully campy cuttings up with Edward’s inner court of jester queens! What a Fairy Tale this was.

The moral of the story: If you are gay, don’t let the socially dominant culture dictate to you to conform to the sexual norm. There will be an unhappy woman and she will have you for supper.

Choreographer, writer, actor and dancer Mark Dendy is the artistic director of Mark Dendy Projects. He has also created ballets on the Pacific Northwest Ballet and other companies, as well as choreographed for the theater. Mark Dendy’s “Elvis Everywhere” will be presented July 12 & 13 at the American Dance Festival & August 9-13 at Jacob’s Pillow.