Relationships, Shallow & Wise: When a Body Meets a Body at New York City Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2000, 2019 Alicia Chesser

(Editor’s note: Chesser, connecting ballet to life. Can ballet be relevant? You bet. First published on the DI on June 2, 2000.)

NEW YORK — When non-balletomanes ask me what makes dance valuable in the modern world or how it could have any relevance anymore, I often say that it’s important for us because of its unique ability to teach us about human relationships. We are, after all, beings who live in space and time; we know each other first by meeting a body, and we want to know more the moment that body — the eyes, the hands, the smile — responds to ours. These are the simple realities of human interaction about which dance has something to tell us. Last night at New York City Ballet, there were three statements put forward about such matters: Balanchine’s “Agon,” the premiere of Kevin O’Day’s “Swerve Poems,” and Jerome Robbins’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was an inspired bit of programming: I learned something about what a shallow relationship looks like by looking at a couple of wise ones.

The O’Day piece showed its youth in more ways than one. It’s actually a rather pretty ballet (O’Day was standing behind me at an intermission, telling someone not to worry, it’s a very light piece) — simple blue costumes and bare legs, with Arch Higgins and Albert Evans in ballet-class skirts for some reason; pigtails on some of the women and a shock of short red hair on Stacey Calvert; lovely lighting; and a minimalist set composed of a big black curtain upstage and a smaller white one stage left that kept moving up and down at random. The opening trick is a fun one, featuring a sort of cliff-edge at the back of the stage. Tom Gold starts out the piece as the spastic sprite amidst a company of very swervy kiddos who begin in a big group hug; he’s zipping and leaping every which way, and suddenly he slides backwards on his stomach and disappears (audience gasps!) into the floor. He’s the life of the party, the fun equivalent of what Peter Martins gave Damian Woetzel to do in “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” (See Flash Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet.) Then it’s many minutes of woozy tripping from the kids, grouped in twos or fours or sixes — they really did remind me of the people at the parties I used to go to in high school, where everyone was a smidge tipsy and trying awkwardly to get each other over to their side of the couch.

There was lots of very cool dancing here — the astonishing Abi Stafford and Carrie Lee Riggins got the moves and the groove especially well — and lots of steps, lots of moving in and out and popping up and being dropped and carried (plus some rather blatant “echoes” of steps I’d just seen minutes before in “Agon,” a lift lifted straight from “Serenade,” and a “West Side Story” bit for the marvelous boys). But one question kept coming to mind: What’s the reason for these steps? Why this way rather than that? Most of all, what are these people doing together? I couldn’t see a mind behind the ballet, couldn’t see any logic to the progression of events. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal looked like the chaperones of this party; Whelan seemed to be aching for more time, more space to move in, for the bustle to quiet down for just a second so she could reflect. I was feeling much the same way. These wispy relationships, this periodical hugging, this randomness dressed up to look like a savvy comment — enough. This is what the depressing Gen X phenomenon known as the hook-up looks like set to music.

Actually, John King’s music (for violins, viola, cello, and bass clarinets) was the star of the show; it reminded me of Philip Glass’s harsh, tender string quartets, strangely moving in a way that O’Day’s dance never quite came to be. The audience, incidentally, knew it should have been over about seven minutes before it was. Gold reappeared and did his sliding thing again, the crowd started clapping in recognition of a nice full-circle ending, but then there came more slurpy boys and girls, until there was another false conclusion and yet more pretty slurping (this time, God knows why, unacccompanied) before they finally just sort of ran out of steam and stopped dancing. Don’t get me wrong: This is a perfectly lovely, if long and increasingly boring, ballet with some truly touching moments (I’m thinking here of Calvert and Evans lying on the floor, she on her side on top of him on his side in a sort of fetal position). But it’s a ballet with a teenager’s sensibility about human relationships: tender, smart, and beautiful in its way, but lacking a center and a purpose.

“Agon” presented a group of human beings who had somewhat more to say to each other, and somewhat more with which to say it. It was an unusually lively and endearingly imperfect performance. This wasn’t the normal cast, and there were definitely some unsure moments, most surprisingly from Damian Woetzel, who’s usually so sure of himself it’s scary. Here, in the Sarabande, he lacked Peter Boal’s expansiveness and picture-perfect poses; instead we got a solo with lots more slinkiness. Jennifer Tinsley and Deanna McBrearty were refreshing in the Gailliard; McBrearty especially was wonderfully flirty, her head peeking out from under her arm from time to time, her little jumps purring and winking. She’s a very expressive dancer, without being obvious. It was Kathleen Tracey in the Second Pas de Trois where we usually see Whelan or Maria Kowroski. Tracey looked like she was trying to move with Whelan’s force in those potent opening leaps, but it just wasn’t working. She couldn’t get any propulsion, and the effect was jarring. The men were, well, competent, if a little slow to respond.

Kowroski appeared, all legs and eyelashes, with Jock Soto in the pas de deux. This was a dance between an older man and a young nymphette: she was challenging and teasing him, he was downright intoxicated. There was a great moment where Soto, having grasped the point of Kowroski’s shoe, just let go of it suddenly in a gesture that said, “wow, what IS this girl?” Kowroski was enjoying the attention; when she had to reach waaay down to get hold of her ankle so she could lift her leg waaay up behind her, you could tell she was taking her time for the sake of his agitated pleasure. It was the first time in a while that she’s been fun to watch. And I saw something new in the final movements: a floor full of deranged court dancers. That’s how it should look! All the way through, the dancers looked a bit like people playing dress-up, and in an odd way it worked. These are court dances stripped down, sped up, turned inside out, and gone a little batty in the halls of modernity — you see the old-time arrangements of courtly manners radicalized, and most of all you see the blood beneath the forms.

If “Agon” shows human relationships at their most extreme — exposed, anxiety-ridden, trying to keep a hold on things — then “I’m Old Fashioned” shows us the grace. It’s been a long time since I was as moved at the ballet as I was during Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe’s pas de deux last night. Here, at last, were adults encountering each other in the fullness of who they were — pensive, cautious at times, a little goofy, totally in love. What made it so moving was that she, this whole woman, was responding to him, this whole man, and vice versa; because we could see them thinking, their gestures had depth and purpose, and their smiles when they looked at each other were all the more welcome and authentic. They were ENGAGED; you could see them really meeting each other in the moment. An extraordinary moment it was, too — I’ve rarely seen Whelan so deep and alive, as if she was letting us into her secret world. How wonderful it was, at the end of the evening, to be told a story about dignity and respect and graciousness, a story of adults encountering each other, and one that, in its very simplicity, whispered a truth in the ear of the audience, and carried us away. That’s ballet with a soul, ballet for OUR souls, and it couldn’t be further from the sweet immaturity of Kevin O’Day.

Everything you always wanted to know about Dance & Sex but were afraid to ask, 2: Corpus Displayum — A Dialogue on the Power of Sex in Dance

By & copyright 2000, 2019 Asimina Chremos
& Paul Ben-Itzak

(To receive the complete article, first published on May 25, 2000, subscribers please e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the DI for one year for just $36/year or $21 or Euros for students, as attested to by a copy of your student I.D., 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, and receive full access to all new articles plus our 20-year archive of 2000 reviews by 150 critics of performances and art exhibits on five continents.)

Love & Death in the Time of Cholera: Keith Haring sketches penises in front of Tiffany’s, Vega channels McCullers in the Village, and the Bush band played on

haring for repostingKeith Haring’s “Red” (detail), on view at the Gladstone Gallery through July 1.1982-1984. Gouache and ink on paper. Complete work 106 3/4 x 274 inches (271.1 x 696 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2011, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

(First published on the DI/AV on May 9, 2011 and re-published today in memory of Randy Shilts. Keith Haring is one of the 100,000 Americans and one million people world-wide who had died from AIDS-related illnesses by the end of  George H.W. Bush’s presidency, a presidency largely indifferent to their plight. Bush died on Saturday, World AIDS Day, at the age of 94. And the band played on.)

NEW YORK — “These are markers,” Bill T. Jones was telling me. We were at last Wednesday’s opening for the Gladstone Gallery’s ambitious exhibition of the three mammoth works Keith Haring painted in real-time during a series of performances by the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane Company in 1982, as well as two long display cases packed with drawings taken from Haring’s notebooks, including a couple of dozen sketches of penises, most poignantly several under which the artist has written, “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s.” Jones looked from tableau to tableau, reflected, and added: “I’m a marker.” Only Bill T. Jones can say this without seeming ostentatious or self-important. What he meant is that, like Haring and like the affliction they shared, the one ultimately succumbing and the other surviving, still here, he signified the artistically audacious and personally daring gestalt of a certain New York epoch. Where he was being unfair to himself, though, was that his tone implied the word *was*, and of the three iconic signifiers of the ’80s NY art scene I encountered last Wednesday meandering from Gladstone’s vast Chelsea gallery near the Hudson to the intimate Rattlestick Theater on Waverly Place, where Suzanne Vega was holding court as Carson McCullers, or pretending to, Jones was the only one who was of his time without being trapped in it. That said, with this courageous exhibition, Barbara Gladstone has liberated Haring from the sanitized version that has been passed down to us in the two decades since his death from AIDS-related illnesses in 1990, at the age of 31. If Jones is “Still / Here,” thanks to Gladsone, Haring is here again, in his full unadulterated glory.

It’s not that Haring’s animated tableaux don’t appeal to adults as well as children — they do. But I suspect my own fascination with them is in large part nostalgic, because they recall the at least surface innocence of that period in Greenwich Village, a sort of resurrection of the down but not out Beat spirit of  New York in the ‘50s after the anarchic disarray of the ‘60s and the downer of the ‘70s, with its taint of corruption and its tint of soot. Jones danced, Haring made figures who danced — cartoons that managed to be simultaneously hip and naive, innocent rather than ironic — and Vega sang of an innocent neighbor child (his name was Luca, in case you’ve forgotten),  beaten by his parents. Even the monotone vocal delivery and accompanying a-musicality of “Tom’s Diner” didn’t prevent that anecdotal anthem from being playful, a romp in an older Manhattan — the diner — seen through the eyes of a hip young singer, perhaps slightly jaded but still able to appreciate the scene she was describing. This was when irony still seemed a novelty.

But wait. Look more deeply at Haring’s murals painted for Jones’s 1982 shows and you see a serpent extending from the prolonged body of one of the dancers. Consider the dozens of drawings of penises, apparently including at least one of his own (one ageing original hipster at Wednesday’s opening, picking a penis to pose by so his friend could take a photo, passed on one which Haring noted was a a true depiction of the author’s, erect, saying, “Not accurate.”), and, being told earlier in the day by another survivor about what John Giorno wrote about having anonymous sex with Haring in the subway bathrooms of New York while others watched, one also has to recall the moment it all came crashing down in a shower of T-cells, and Haring’s death at 31 of AIDS.

When I told my AIDS survivor friend that I was considering publishing Haring’s sketches under which he has written “Drawing penises in front of Tiffany’s,” (part of his 1978 series, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks”), juxtaposing them with the fact of his dying of what Prince called the big disease with a little name, my friend suggested I would be stigmatizing Haring, and by inference other gay men who died of AIDS. In other words, I would be saying, “This is what all their penis fancies lead to.” Perhaps, if the art in question was called, “Drawing penises in front of the subway restroom,” but what’s jarring here is the tragic transformation signified by the Tiffany’s context and framing. When Truman Capote’s Holly Golightly (Audrey Hepburn in Blake Edwards’s 1961 film) stands in front of the famous Fifth Avenue display window after a night of partying staring winsomely at diamonds while eating her croissant and coffee one early New York morning, the route that might open that window for her is sleeping with wealthy men. When Keith Haring stands in front of the same window some 20 years later, the baubles, bangles, and bright shiny beads he’s dreaming of will (probably; the exact reason he contracted AIDS was not divulged) ultimately serve as the instrument of his death. Both Holly and Haring arrived from small towns with Big Apple dreams, but oh how the booty of those dreams — of the free lifestyle celebrated by Golightly and pursued by thousands of Hollys and Harings afterwards, perhaps inspired by her story — had changed! And as far as stigmatization goes, well, look at the way society treated each: Holly was lionized — never mind that her means were greased by a lighter form of selling herself; and Keith, or at least the larger social strata which encadred him, gay men, was stigmatized — never mind that unlike Holly he wasn’t using others to get rich, he was just a guy who wanted to have fun.

haring penises for re-posting

Keith Haring, “Manhattan Penis Drawings for Ken Hicks,” 1978. Graphite on paper. 8 1/2 x 5 1/2 inches (21.6 x 14 cm). ©Keith Haring Foundation. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York.

Are Haring’s drawings of penises in front of Tiffany’s great art? In my view, no. (But, as a colleague here at the DI pointed out to me, who am I to judge?) Viewed with the awareness that he would die of AIDs a decade later, do they make a powerful statement about a prodigious artist, and about how the consequences for innocents who arrived in New York with the dream of living an artful life changed so direly over the span of just two decades, and about the death of innocence? Absolutely. (And even without this social context, when juxtaposed with Haring’s later, technically more sophisticated and graphically more involved and intricate work — as we’ve done on this page — they do in fact help complete the portrait of the artist.)

Contrast this tribute with Suzanne Vega’s “Carson McCullers Talks about Love,” a shallow homage to a complicated artist which takes absolutely no risks in what was billed as an effort to understand the author of “The Heart is a Lonely Hunter,” “The Member of the Wedding,” and other work that played its own part in signifying an earlier era. McCullers championed misfits, and in probing her story, one would have hoped that Vega would have taken a deeper look at the personal idiosyncracies that informed her oeuvre, particularly ‘Heart,’ and made it ring so true.  Vega not only avoids exploring these facets — including McCullers’s sexual ambidextrousness – but after making the decision to go with a generic southern accent, she can’t even bother to develop its nuances. Every line has the same cadence, except when she flubs one, which is frequently. The lyrics of the dozen or so songs are trite, which almost has the effect of trivializing their subject; how can one treat a personality whose chief talent was verbal lyricism with such one-dimensional language? The evening appears to have had a director, Kay Matschullat, but desperately needs a dramaturge. Vega’s fascination with McCullers seems to have started with seeing her photo on a book jacket — “She looked like a wise old child,” the singer recalls in a short introduction spoken as herself before dawning a wig and the unfortunate accent — but her stage portrait doesn’t really delve deeper than that one dimension. In effect, Vega has become the man standing outside the window of Tom’s Diner. She has not ventured inside the restaurant, leaving us to wonder if she really sees her subject. One gets the feeling that we’re beholding a sanitized version of an artist, McCullers, who was anything but. Consequently, she has taught us nothing new about the author; we leave the theater no more enlightened than we were coming in.

Barbara Gladstone, the owner of the Gladstone Gallery, could have gone the same route. She could have just presented the three large works on paper Haring painted during the Bill T. Jones / Arnie Zane performance, which, lustrous and enjoyable as they are, would simply have confirmed the Keith Haring we already know, the one who’s art is safe enough to put on coffee cups. But she clearly didn’t want to just profit from the artist — she wanted to serve him and enchance his reputation and the public’s appreciation of his authenticity and understanding of his art. Personally, on a visceral level, I was repulsed by the penis images. But as an art maven recently returned from France, where the performing arts at least still have some intellectual heft and pose difficult questions, to a New York — New York City, skyscrapers and everythang! — where the lively arts (at least as manifest in what I’ve seen) rarely seem to go beyond the surface any more, where the former town crier the Village Voice is a shadow of its former self, where the spectators don’t seem to know the difference, and where the majority of the artists who populate the Chelsea galleries seem to be so lightweight, and most of the curators not to know the difference, I celebrate the opportunity to get to know an artist I thought I already knew even better, and I applaud a gallery owner’s caring enough to provide the opportunity

The Chevalier de la Barre, 11-28: Things that keep me up at 4 in the morning, or, why Judson’s work is far from done

momajudson alligator small

From the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Al Giese’s photograph of Rudy Perez and Elaine Summers performing “Take Your Alligator with You,” 1963. Performed at Concert of Dance #7, Judson Memorial Church, New York, June 24, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

In an era where the man with the most prized pulpit in the world is calling legitimate news fake, you’d think that publicists would be more judicious before employing hyperbole. You’d also think that the scholars and scientists employed by the world’s number one institution of modern art — where scholarship and the historical accuracy this implies should be primed — would take a look at the press releases before they’re sent out.

And yet there it is, on the first page of the Museum of Modern Art’s ‘expanded’ release for its exhibition Judson Dance Theater: the Work is Never Done, running through February 3 in New York:

“Redefining the kinds of movement that could count as dance, the Judson artists would go on to profoundly shape all fields of art in the second half of the 20th century.”

For the second part of this preposterous proclamation, I have one question: Where’s your proof?

For the first part the statement,  I can only concur with the second part of the exhibition’s title: Indeed, the work is never done.