Post-modern classics: In Paxton ‘Bound’ and Jingju Peking Circus ‘Women Generals,’ a tale of two countries’ attitudes towards dance preservation

paxton boundJurij Konjar in Steve Paxton’s “Bound.” Nada Zgank photo copyright Nada Zgank and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2003, 2119 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To celebrate its 20th anniversary as the leading artist-driven publication in the United States, the Dance Insider and Arts Voyager  is reflecting on Post-Modern classics, as captured by Dance Insider critics in performances around the world over the past two decades. This Flash Review from the Dance Insider Archive was first published on October 26, 2015. To find out about purchasing your own copy of the DI’s Archive of more than 2000 exclusive reviews by more than 150 leading critics of performances and art exhibitions on five continents over the past 20 years, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . To become a DI/AV sponsor and receive linked sponsor credit in this space for as little as $36, you can make a donation through PayPal in US $ or Euros by designating your donation to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

PARIS — What do the aesthetics of Steve Paxton and the Peking Opera have to do with each other? When performed by, respectively, Jurij Konjar and the Jingju Theatre of Beijing, as they were last week at the Theatre de la Ville – Abbesses and the Theatre de la Ville Sarah Bernhardt, virtuosity and engagement.

When I asked His Judson Eminence after last Thursday’s opening of the 1982 solo “Bound” (continuing through October 27) what distinguished it from his earlier work, he answered: “Spectacle.” When I asked which parts of the 55-minute piece were up to the performer to create, he smiled like the Sphinx and answered: “The dance.” While the humility of this response, from the inventor of a form of dance, Contact Improvisation, wildly popular in France but for which the 76-year-old creator no doubt gets no royalties, is admirable, it does raise the question of variability: In the hands of a less expressive, inventive, intuitively droll, supple, smart, and well-trained interpreter of Paxton’s intentions and design than the 37-year-old (for improvisation, the perfect conjuncture, in which mental maturity and comprehension still has at its disposal a capable vehicle to execute its intentions) Konjur, who trained at Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker’s P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels before working with the Ballets C de la B and Boris Charmatz, might the choreographic elements have been less imaginative? The question is partially answered by the slim results when La De Keersmaeker herself apparently left her much younger charges to come up with the moves for her recent “Golden Hours.” And the dancer-dancemakers for that farce (in the ‘rip-off’ sense of the term) had a whole text to work with, Shakespeare’s “As you like it.” But if Paxton doesn’t give his performer a text per se, he definitely furnishes a rule book. It’s easy to forget when Contact Improvisation has become the biggest excuse for aimless and indulgent noodling around that dance has ever seen, but his system for creating dances is as rigorous as those devised by Petipa, Balanchine, and Forsythe. (And a lot more original than recent Forsythe, which regurgitates Merce Cunningham and Trisha Brown.) If the choreography is not set, there are still, Paxton explained to me, musical and scenographic parameters, or put more simply certain tasks that the dancer has to undertake at certain times. Imagine this structure as a scaffold. How the dancer gets to the top (or the bottom from the top) is up to him, but he has to make contact with certain points at certain junctures and arrive by the end at a fixed terminus.

For “Bound,” the physical terrain was circumscribed from the beginning by four planks marked along the side by different colors of tape later sometimes predictably arranged as see-saws, but also arrayed and balanced creatively as abstract art. A screen upstage center became a tapestry whose projected kaleidoscope formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue formed a military pattern when Konjar stood in front of it, probably because of the fatigue shorts he sported over red pants, the ensemble rounded out by a white shirt, Lennon-esque shades and a bathing cap which made him look like an Olympic swimmer circa 1920, the shorts revealed after he stepped out of a box which had been hung from his shoulders by suspenders so that it covered his mid-section. When I asked Paxton later what differentiated “Bound” from his pioneering Judson work, he answered that he wanted to do more “Spectacle,” and Konjar sets that tone right away. This is no blasé post-mod performer who seems to be pretending the audience isn’t there, but an interpreter determined to engage us, to get us to shut off our cell phones and stop zapping and surfing and watch one man taking the time to create a world out of very few elements, pointedly utilized. Mid-spectacle, he brings onstage a wooden rocking chair and a darker mahogony newspaper bin simply to rock them one by one as he sits between them in his box, only his trunk visible. This arrived, as I recall, during a musically quiet moment, but even when it came to responding to the pure music, the Bulgarian State Women’s Choir, and sound effects — resembling first traffic noise, later garbled military commands to a helicopter pilot — Konjar, as directed by Paxton, once again defied what one often expects from a post-modern dancer and actually seemed to be responding to the score, moving lyrically to the Bulgarian adagio sections, swerving around in traffic to the car noise, parading during martial horn music, and frantic and alienated during the military maneuvers.

I was even more startled about the eminent watchability and appeal of this 55-minute piece when Paxton informed me afterwards that for its creation, he had no “outer eye.” It was mostly “thought up” while he was on tour, ahead of the Rome premiere. Given that the choreography can dramatically diverge from night to night, he explained, he was also lucky in the reconstruction of the dance to have recovered two videos capturing radically different outcomes.

This leads to my one gripe, which has less to do with Paxton than the dance world’s lack of care in preserving its own legacies. If one is to believe the promotional material for “Bound,” if not for the fortuitous discovery of the video recordings, this master-work which opens up a multi-dimensional understanding of a critical dance forefather would have been lost. It was not notated. Contrary to the ludicrous, ill-informed, ignorant assumptions proffered by the journal of the Festival d’Automne, which co-produced this presentation with the Theatre de la Ville, it is not a given that there’s no such thing as preserving the original version of a dance. Not just ballet but also modern mavens like Martha Graham and Paul Taylor have been notated. With a dance whose kinetic core is flexible, the task is not so different; the notator would record the ground rules, structure, and props, and then attend several performances or rehearsals to save the variants, already an improvement on video because the methode de travail itself is preserved, not just one performance.

And yet in dance, there seems to be not simply an illusory exaltation that the art is ephemeral, as if this impermanence is a value to be vaunted and boasted about because as each performance is gone forever when it’s over, you will never see it again, therefore, you have been privileged, but a confounding of the uniqueness of a performance and of an interpretation with the oeuvre itself. Paint is liquid too, but what painter would be happy if his work never dried and kept getting smudged over the years? Freedom of interpretation (by interpreter and audience) can only endure if the work itself is preserved and lasts.

Jingio Theatre Peking Theater CircusJingju Theatre’s Zhang Shu Jing in “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” directed by Shen Jia Xin. DR photo courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

While they certainly didn’t have video in the 12th century, on Wednesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt the Jingju Theatre of Beijing and director Shien Jia Xin were somehow able to resurrect the nearly thousand-year old but surprisingly contemporary “The Women Generals of the Yang Family,” no doubt in part because while there may not be a Judson department at Juilliard, there’s still a Peking Opera school in China. Like Paxton, Jingju primes the delectably slow and like Konjar, its interpreters prime the well-articulated and etched gesture. The whole first half of the two-hour, 15-minute show was taken up with his warrior brothers and widow (the divine Li En Jie, who doubles as a sort of narrator in high-pitched song) summoning up the courage to tell the 100-year-old Wang clan matriarch (the sprightly Shen Wen Li) that her grandson has been felled by an enemy arrow defending the country from invaders, and in the grandmother’s campaign to convince the prince to let her and the eight widows of her other warrior grandsons lead the campaign to repulse the enemy. And it took almost the whole second half for an expeditionary squad lead by Li to find the high-mountain drawbridge which allowed them to surprise the far more numerous invading army. If this part was punctuated by some acrobatics — somersaults and meticulously choreographed sword, spear, and bow and arrow battles, often crowned with flourishes of brown peacock feathers streaming from the contestants’ helmets — the dose, particularly when the sublimely graceful warrier the general Zhang Shu Jing was charged with the battle-task, was parceled out just sparingly enough so that one never got the impression that the story was just an excuse for the circus tricks and schticks. And the athleticism wasn’t confined to these displays; when the performers weren’t walking about with splayed feet, they were balancing on high platforms.

Not only was Li’s singing/story-telling exquisite, so was her acting, both in an opening segment in which she struggles to keep her husband’s death secret from the grandmother, reluctant to lift a ceremonial glass of wine for a birthday toast to a man she knows is dead, then faltering before being lead off, and in a sword and spear fight with her son (Chen Yu) to determine whether he’s capable enough to join the crusade. “Mom!” he complains as she continues to dominate. “How am I going to be able to join the expedition if you don’t let me win?!”

Holding up the comedy element was Li Yang’s invading king, whose frustrated sputterings from beneath a long black beard and behind a heavy mask or very thick make-up as the women continued to defeat his male minions sounded a lot like Curly Howard.

One of the many miracles from all the Peking-Opera trained performers was that their facial expressions managed to be nuanced and expressive under layers of make-up so thick that if their mouths hadn’t clearly been moving, I’d have thought they were wearing masks. The dramatic oomph of their delivery was helped by the immaculate timing of the music and sound effects being played — humbly, offstage — by Ma Shuai, Qin Qin, Zhen Rui Fen, Wang Xiao Dan, Ai Zao Sheng, Zhang Ye, Ding Rui, Yin Hang, Sun Yu, and Wang Song Hai. Indeed the timing was so well-synchronized with the onstage performers, at first I thought it was a recording.

During the intermission, the Chinese-Frenchman sitting next to me — judging by their presence in the audience, the Theatre de la Ville did a great job of promoting this engagement, part of a mini-festival “Focus on China,” among the French Chinese community — told me that for the Chinese, respecting one’s parents is vital, moreso than in Western cultures. Comparing the deliberate preservation of this 1,000-year-old oeuvre with the accidental preservation of the work of a vital American ‘ancestor’ like Paxton seems to confirm this observation.

Thanks to Denise Luccioni for her help in understanding Steve Paxton’s ground rules, and as always to Robin Hoffman for help in understanding the importance and fundamentals of dance notation and preservation.  

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julie class smallSomatic Aerial Dance Classes: Julie Ludwick of Fly-by-Night Dance Theater offers a mindful approach to Aerial Dance, blending Improvisation and Skinner Releasing Technique. Emphasis is on alignment to prevent injury and on enhancing creativity. No aerial experience is necessary. Classes are held in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and have been featured in Paper Magazine and Time Out NY. Julie Ludwick was the subject of a special documentary from AfterEd TV, as an outstanding alumna of Teachers College at Columbia University. Click here for class schedule and more information; and here to see a class video. (Got a class or school to advertise? Contact paul@danceinsider.com.)

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By Angela Jones
Copyright 2005, 2017 Angela Jones

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