Still Re-born: Jones/Zane Looks Back and Finds You Can’t Go Home Again

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2003, 2017 Chris Dohse

(Editor’s Note: A fearless post-modern masterpiece. The review I mean, first published on September 12, 2003. See also my criticism of Deborah Jowitt for reviewing a work in which her own voice is featured, as well as Jowitt’s response, elsewhere in the DI Archives. Today’s republication sponsored by by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance .)

NEW YORK — This isn’t the first time I’ve found myself disagreeing with history. Or remembering it differently. I mean, I was there, dancing and making dances at the end of the 1970s and into the 1980s. Not in SoHo, not even in New York (though I did starve through a winter here), but I remember what concerns influenced me and the dancers I knew then. What compositional choices we made; what styles fascinated us.

Surely if we, many of whom are still members of the pomo dance so-called “community,” gazed into our ’80s navel, what would we find? Bill T. Jones, of course. Inescapably the bellwether of a generation of dancemakers who collided East Village performance and the ’60s avant-garde lineage into talking, gestural, identity-specific, polemical formalism.

Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company’s 20-year anniversary program at the Kitchen, “The Phantom Project,” memorializes two of the early duets (1980’s “Blauvelt Mountain” and 1981’s “Valley Cottage”) that established the pair’s careers, along with subsidiary pieces from that time (1982’s “Duet X 2” and “Continuous Relay,” 1981’s “Cotillion,” and 1978’s “Floating the Tongue”). The works are seen in archival footage — projected on a large wall — and recreated by a rotating cast of the company’s current dancers.

I couldn’t afford to see dance concerts during my previous time in New York (and I certainly didn’t have the “wild times at the Odeon” Jones reminisced about to Gia Kourlas in Time Out New York this week), so I welcomed a chance to evaluate this era-defining work. In these early dances, interracial homosexual desire, with its long heritage of taboo, had its first incendiary moment in the art historical eye.

But here’s the thing: The works recreated on the Kitchen program all look alike. And this endless duet isn’t really very interesting today. My memory tells me that, lifted from its original historical framing device it is no more compelling than what anyone else was doing around that time. It looks repetitive in a boorish way, overlong. The attack and intent of gesture (mostly lunging semaphore) and the staccato pacing become predictable and turn into a flat sort of nonlinear blur, like figures on an Etruscan jar.

Part of this is, of course, that the company members who take turns filling the parts originally danced by Bill and Arnie — and they are all individual knockouts — can only stand in the shadow of the mythos of the originals. It was the Jones/Zane relationship, at once subversive and inspirational, the statement it made at that moment in history and the way they turned it into mythology by laundering it — well, not laundering it so much as flaunting it perhaps — in their work, that was the star. With this passion only represented by absence, eulogy and ghosts, the material of the dances becomes textbook tedious.

We see spurts of movement in clearly designed space: Totems, the air between them heavy with the burden of centuries of objectification. Diaries of intimacy, a seemingly unedited pastiche of gestures from Hindu avatar to the cakewalk, the history of the middle of the last century and its debris of images as a series of gesture accumulations.

A tall Black man and an short Italian/Catholic/Jewish man showing tenderness to each other as performance was paradigm challenging then. And still is today, the way Jones has recast the roles (on Wednesday night most notably with Malcolm Low and Wen-Chung Lin in “Blauvelt Mountain”). Physically Lin and Low are as mismatched as Jones and Zane were. When they caress each other, the dance becomes a palimpsest of mixed-race discourse.

Nostalgia in our collective viewing consciousness makes the work poignant. Nostalgia for a time when post-modernism seemed a promising notion, before it ate itself and got knackered. Nostalgia for our own losses and glory days as we layer our milestones over ’80s timelines.

I begin to chafe at the incessant foregrounding of the dancemaker’s ego. And since the work has now been transferred into the vessels of a contemporary cast, of the interpreters’ egos. Movement/verbal diarrhea that privileges solipsism might lead its performers to personal awakenings, but it just falls flat as viewed action, swallowed by narcissism.

I absolutely reject the recorded voices of Elizabeth Zimmer and Deborah Jowitt folded into the sound collage, analyzing and commenting on the importance of these early duets as we watch them — I hear the words “camaraderie” and “structure,” the names Trisha Brown and Lucinda Childs — as if the opinions of these two critics dictate public record. Well I suppose they do actually, but really it is too much to be force-fed this canonization. I feel manipulated.

But Jones has successfully controlled what he calls, in his opening remarks to the audience, the “transformation of old things.” It is not enough for him to allow the work to be lionized by the critics into part of the official art historical canon. He seems to have answered his own question: “Where is the truth of what we make? In the past, the now, or out there somewhere?”

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Action Heroines from Monica Bill Barnes

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2002, 2017 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK — Imagine an all-female, multigenerational, Elvis-crazed dance arena wherein hearts are broken but dreams come true and abiding love conquers all. Monica Bill Barnes’s “When We Were Pretty” (seen June 30 at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church) is such a place. The very last performance of Danspace’s exemplary season, ‘Pretty’ uses the spaces of the church in ways not quite seen before and is filled with muscular, funny, and poignant dance episodes. Barnes’s work is neither as angry as that of Ellis Wood, with whom she has danced, nor as deadpan as that of Keely Garfield, with whom she shares certain concerns, like a fondness for brides’ veils and fey, courageous heroines. Et voila! Just in time for Gay Pride weekend, a female superhero (Hilary Easton) bursts through the door in a star-shaped spotlight!

To receive the complete article, first published on July 10, 2002, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.

Childwold: Immaculate Conceptions and Ghosts from Lucinda Childs at the Kitchen

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2002, 2017 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK — Lucinda Childs inhabits the immaculate geometry of Sol LeWitt’s 1979 film “Dance” like an angel dancing on the head of a pin. Her iconic, impassive figure looms over the intervening decades, a postmodern totem, merged eternally with LeWitt’s rectilinear decor (black grid on white floor cloth) and Philip Glass’s mesmerizing score. For the Kitchen’s 30th anniversary, in a program seen Saturday night, Childs also ghosts herself, dancing live behind the scrim upon which LeWitt’s film is projected. Her repetitive skips, steps and small jetés done in the now — in straight lines and around the circumference of a circle — correspond nonchalantly with her filmed cadences and parabolas. The performance is a technical marvel, a monument to a certain period of art history, a minimal, relentless arithmetic. Yet stripped as it is to an autistic, tireless austerity, Childs’s delicate presence is haunting and inescapable. She becomes more than a universal human figure, inexhaustibly functioning in relationship to its surrounding space. After a time, you notice her frailty — that one of her arms seems to rotate more freely than the other, the mudra-like shapes her hands often form, her shy, averted gaze and her ironclad chill. She embodies the ‘space-bewitched’ creature once hypothesized by Oskar Schlemmer.

To receive the complete article, first published on April 25, 2002, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) by designating your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Subscribers receive full access to the DI Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@@gmail.com . $99 if you purchase before October 15.

The DI, Year One: The Return of Jill Johnston — Our Man in Flat Iron Sees Anthony Through Her Eyes

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK — Forgive me, I’ve spent the weekend reading Jill Johnston and I am madly inspired to wonder how many postmodern angels fit on the head of a pin. Therefore I’m going to write the next several hundred words pretending to be her, circa 1965.

Ariane Anthony resembles Buster Keaton as much as Mary Wigman. I mean Ariane Anthony’s quality when performing quizzes Keaton and Wigman in equal proportions. Ariane Anthony & Company make Ausdruckstanz that riffles through Twentieth Century Avant-Garde “Isms” like a rack of thrift store bargains. It is a quirkfest and I like it.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on May 9, 2000, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by February 28, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Charleston Diary, III: Pedes, don’t fail me now

charleston-threeShen Wei Dance Arts in “Re- (Part I).” Alex Pines photo courtesy Spoleto USA.

Copyright 2011, 2017 Chris Dohse

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — There’s a song by Simon & Garfunkel called “The Only Living Boy in New York.” A cover version of the song by Everything but the Girl came into my iPod shuffle while I was waiting in the Atlanta airport for my connecting flight from NYC to Charleston on May 28, and these lyrics seemed perfect in my feverish, sleep-deprived state:

“Half of the time we’re gone but we don’t know where; we don’t know when. Here I am…..” Seemed perfect because there I certainly without a doubt was.

I’d like to say more about Khmeropedies and Corella Ballet (see my previous Charleston Diary) and something about Shen Wei, these being the three big dance companies I saw at the Spoleto Festival. Specifically about the experiment I believe choreographers Emmanuele Phuon and Christopher Wheeldon are working out on these respective companies, Khmeropedies and Corella Ballet, with varying degrees of finesse, versus Shen Wei’s seemingly effortless creation of an individual movement vocabulary.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on June 11, 2011, including more photos, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016. Just designate your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase by February 28, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Charleston Diary, II: All in the Family

corella

All grown up now: Carmen and Angel Corella face off in Maria Pages’s “Solea” with Corella Ballet. Photo courtesy Corella Ballet.

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2011, 2017 Chris Dohse

CHARLESTON, South Carolina — The first thing you notice here is that everyone in South Carolina is very moist.

I brought a sinus/chest congestion and fever with me from the North (click here for my first Charleston Diary) that has been keeping me glued to an alternately sweat-soaked and freezing mattress in my friend Neil’s “Crisp Lettuce”-colored spare bedroom when not being driven to and from chilled theaters in his car through what feels like a wall of wet socks. My newly amphibian body reacts to changes in temperature and humidity now like a barometer made of meat.

From these first febrile days and nights (nine performances in four days), the somewhat eccentric female characters have made the strongest impressions, as you might expect from any trip to the deep South, the landscape of Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote. Here are five of them.

To receive the rest of the article, first published on June 3, 2011, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our  Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading  critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment  in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase before March 1, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Charleston Diary 1: Writing about art as art

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2011, 2017 Chris Dohse

First published on May 28, 2011, re-publication of this article on Dance Insider is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance & Freespace Dance .

NEW YORK — In a few hours I leave for Charleston. Preparing my body-mind-heart to write again. I haven’t revealed myself in this way, stripped off my skin and displayed the stinking gut of my brain, for nearly three years, except for a few lackadaisical posts on my blog, Know Your Own Bone.   I’ll be dispatching daily or periodic blog entries about my experience attending 10 days of the Spoleto Festival. I got my press badge through the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, and I’ll link simultaneously to Know Your Own Bone, for perhaps slightly altered entries.

The container of the experience will be simply being again in my beloved Charleston, the city of my becoming (1981-1985), and how do I even talk about that. It’s physically painful, the throb of nostalgia, regret, the solipsistic regret. The smell of pluff mud transports me to a ditzy 23 years old. Many of the houses are gone where I had my joys and sorrows, my starving hysterical naked love affairs. They were wiped away by Hurricane Andrew. Many of the lovers are dead.

Secondary will be throwing myself again into the fray of critical discourse. Will it go tits up or nipples to the wind I wonder.

I approached Dance Magazine and Musical America to see if there was any interest in placing traditionally formatted reviews of specific shows in either place. Both said no…. Dance projects that aren’t premieres have already been reviewed and music projects are being covered by someone else. I don’t want to write that deadening format any more anyway but I thought I could make a few bucks. At this point in my life, I feel finished with the objective journalistic who-what-when-where of the traditional review. It’s just another form of advertising that serves no one except the artists who maybe get a pull quote for their next post card. Buy me! Consume me! The New York Times/Village Voice deems me worthy!

But wait. As Burroughs said, the ultimate addiction is to being right. And now already here I am, scrambling in one of my hamster wheels again, the rung of sour-grape festooned hell reserved for sufferers of post-traumatic embitterment disorder.

So what is it I aspire to write if not “deadening journalism”? Let’s see if I can gather and clarify my thoughts on the subject. What is my project anyway? I thought I’d like to call it dharmic criticism. Then I came up with non-canonical post-historicism. I think I’d feel proud if I could produce subjective, performative writing — like Jill Johnston or Gary Indiana — that captures everything in the constellation of my identity. (See elsewhere in these DI Archives for writings from Jill Johnston.) The stuff I’ve spent my life studying: praxis, theory, and the history of visual art, theater, and dance. Through the lens of the rest of the stuff I’ve spent my life studying: the bottom rung of the ladder, the gutter, frailty, falling down and getting up, getting laid and getting high, passion, art, radiant hootenanny happiness, enduring love.

“A woman like that is not ashamed to die. I have been her kind.”

–Anne Sexton

And what the hell does this writing look like and can it be accessible? Wikipedia tells me that performative writing is mostly feminist. I’m okay with that. But the entry sounds a bit surly: “It [performative writing] is often loosely semi-autobiographical, free-flowing in an ersatz stream-of-consciousness mode, and heavily informed by Left wing critical theory, but arises ultimately from linguistic ideas around performative utterances.” It cites Peggy Phelan, whose writing is about as penetrable as week-old pumpernickel. If I need to puzzle and puzzle till my puzzler is sore to understand it, what good is it? Why does it exist except to exalt the ego of its utterer? And how the hell can stream-of-consciousness be ersatz exactly?

I think I once wrote in Movement Research Performance Journal that I wanted people to read my writing because I wrote it. Otherwise it wouldn’t be criticism but program notes.

Since then I’ve spent time clarifying:

* The body in the body

*Feelings in feelings

*Mind in mind

*Phenomena in phenomena

I have stumbled across the idea of listening with my tongue. This is my invention entirely. I was at a program at Karma Triyana Dharmachakra on Meads Mountain to receive a reading transmission from Lama Karma Drodul. We had been instructed to absorb or receive these texts with our hearts, to allow them to fill our hearts, and I had been experiencing a lot of tension in my jaw and throat. An acupuncturist there mentioned that Tibetan medicine considers the tongue to be connected to the back of the heart, so I tried receiving the sacred sounds with my lolling tongue — like an open-throated baby bird with a song in the bottom of its heart reverberating with the sound of Lama’s Tibetan phonemes.

Since then I’ve been experimenting with grokking art objects and performances this way, just kind of hanging out with and corresponding to them. It seems to help remind me that everything is exactly as it should be, if you slow down enough to notice.

I’ve learned a distinction between judicious criticism and judgmental criticism, as defined by Thanissaro Bhikkhu, who has written: “So how do you know if your criticism is going to be judicious? Ask yourself four questions before you say it:

*Is it true?

*Is it beneficial?

*Is this the right time and place to say it?

*Am I the right person to be saying it?”

*I’m not clear who receives this benefit. I’ll be working that out as my writing gets read again and people send me death threats or marriage proposals. Is criticism “for” the reader, me, other people who saw the thing I’m criticizing, the object I’m criticizing, or its maker?

I used to categorize my interaction with the world as expression and relationship. Now I prefer the words response and connection.

Brenda Dixon Gottschild said something once, and I’ve paraphrased her many times in trying to understand the role of a person who writes about art and who wants that writing to be considered art: “Criticism is a response to a primary source, a kind of choreography for the page.” I would go further. I want to make friends with the performers in this hard-copy choreography of mine. The elements of personal memory, the absorbed knowledge of history and context and nomenclature, the goddam canon, the images that come unbidden — Joni Mitchell’s lyrics or Tenniel’s Alice illustrations, Plath Sexton Giorno, budding virions, sluts, slatterns, the performance of gender as an imitation for which there is no original (thank you Judith Butler), the ersatz stream-of-consciousness, my ongoing unflinching gaze at despair.

Who am I ideally writing for, other than myself, because I’m fond of the flatulent sound of my precious voice? I’d like to speak to and for the Queers, the fatties and pizza faces, the wallflowers, the Ichabods, the disease-riddled whores with hearts of gold, the androgynes with bird-like wrists, the flatsies, the tomboys, the unseen, the unclean, the doomed the damned the dead.

In other words, the people David Gere referred to, in his book How to Make Dances in an Epidemic, as “women, freaks, and marginalized others.”

So that’s it. What am I hoping to do? How am I hoping to do it? And who is it for? As Chiang Kai-shek said to Henry Kissinger, when asked what impact the Napoleonic Wars had had on world events, “It’s too soon to tell.”