A helluva year for dance: An American on 42nd St. — At Home with David Dorfman

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2004, 2019 Maura Nguyen Donohue

Celebrating 20 years online as the leading  magazine for the dance profession, the DI is re-visiting 2004, a helluva year for dance and for the DI. As a distillation of American post-modern at the dawn of the new millenium, this one, first published on March 26, should be required reading at college dance departments. To learn how to obtain your own complete copy of the DI Archive, with more than 2,000 critiques of performances, exhibitions, books, and films from five continents since 1998 by 150 critics, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Today’s re-posting is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance.

NEW YORK — I’ve been thinking a lot about American-ness lately. Actually, I think about American-ness all the time but having been enmeshed in an international collaboration with a troupe from Vietnam for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about it as related to contemporary dance. Last night, as part of the 10th anniversary season of the 92nd St. Y Harkness Dance Project at the Duke on 42nd Street, David Dorfman Dance provided me with the example I want to cite the next time I have to describe American dance to an Asian peer. We are deep and humorous, adamantly informal and absolute mad dog dancers.

Before the show David Dorfman works the crowd, wandering amidst the audience, saying hellos and pressing flesh like the affable mayor of Danceville. The dancers are warming up on a bare stage that has been stripped to the walls to resemble a working studio. Dorfman later says this choice reflects the disproportionate nature of brief performances versus months of rehearsal. It is most appropriate here, where so much of the process is part of the work.

“Lightbulb Theory,” a premiere, begins with a solo for Dorfman. He walks across the stage, Michael Wall begins playing the piano and I feel a rush of pride or delight or anticipation. I want to nudge my Vietnamese collaborators with a “yeah dawg, you’ll see, we come in all shapes and sizes here.” Dorfman can stun any noviate to modern dance. He’s the sneaky Average Joe who looks like a linebacker and creates work with overwhelming craft. Of course, this crafty choreographer’s greatest gift may be his cultivation of excellent collaborators, primarily dancers. This company could represent a utopian vision of dance-making where dancers are fully creative artists, credited as collaborators and allowed their individuality.

After Dorfman reads a passage referring to fathers and sons, Paul Matteson, Heather McArdle, Jennifer Nugent and Joseph Paulson are revealed first on the backstage balcony performing a post-modern kick line. After then entering through the upstage left door they begin a quartet quietly, as Paulson pounds his fists, reflecting an internal stress. A bright dance follows with a series of movement phrases and marching punctuated by the women’s giddy squeals and shouts of “Wow!” The dancers repeatedly ask us if we’ve heard the two different theories about light bulbs: Some are said to flicker before they go out and some just go out. The text is returned to several times in impressive solos by each dancer, along with the question of whether it is “better for a life, I mean light, to flicker or just go out” and in the midst of infectious dance I’m pondering grief and loss.

Dorfman’s dances can race past you. There are rushes of sweeping movement that flow over you so that in reflection you only remember sparks. It’s appropriate, because Nugent is explosive. She sweeps and kicks and drops with ferocious glee. She is powerful, strong and flexible, cute and sexy. She’s the dancer I want to be when I grow up. When she’s paired with Matteson, the two become a new entity, one creature rabidly devouring the space in a series of thrilling weight shifts.

The evening’s second work and premiere, “Impending Joy,” has an entirely different tone. Chris Peck’s electronic score, also performed live, is a sonic assault. This landscape is painful as compared to the nostalgic feeling evoked by the piano of “Lightbulb Theory.” A pile of wire netting and pickets from a fence sits downstage center. The other dancers pile Paulson with pickets and urge him out of the space. He begins a solo full of direct movement, sharp slices and aggressive drops while Matteson, McArdle and Nugent stand in half of the stage washed in red light, designed by Josh Epstein. Paulson throws himself at Matteson even after Matteson has vacated the space. Then he pathetically drops pickets across the stage. Matteson performs a constricted, distressed solo gesturing to his gut and reaching away while speaking phrases and partial phrases like “You deserve to be” and “You will die.”

There is an automated rigor to the dancing that serves as an enjoyable companion to the expansiveness of the first work. As the piece draws to a conclusion, each dancer pulls parts of the fence apart. Nugent is wrapped in the fence; McAdle winds the metal wire around herself and the men struggle with piles of pickets. As Nugent delivers a series of lines beginning with “This is where…,” a last light cue of red on the balcony sets a hallucinatory tone and I suddenly glimpse the special little hell that home ownership can offer.

David Dorfman Dance continues at the Duke Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 & 7 p.m. There is no show Friday.

Click here to read about Maura Nguyen Donohue / In Mixed Company.

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Breathless: Pina Meets the (French) Press

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Dance Insider on June 4, 2004. To find out how you can obtain your own complete copy of the more than 2,000 critiques of performances, exhibitions, books, and films from five continents that the Dance Insider’s 150 critics have covered since 1998 in the Dance Insider Archives, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Today’s re-posting is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance.

PARIS — “What is the source of your imagination?”

The question comes at the end of Pina Bausch’s Wednesday press conference at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, which tonight sees the French premiere of “Nefes” (Turkish for “Breath”), Bausch’s latest site-created work for the Tanztheater Wuppertal, this one developed in Istanbul, where it premiered last year. Bausch, seemingly forever clad in black, leans her chin on one palm, her eyes rolling upwards — not in exasperation, but as if searching her head for the words — as whispy tendrils of smoke spiral from the long cigarette held in her long fingers. (Only Pina Bausch can imbue cigarette smoke with drama; one could swear the smoke is lit with its own follow spot.)

“Desire,” she answers. Then: “The desire to find the essence of a thing.”

Pina Bausch by Robin Hoffman

Pina Bausch by Robin Hoffman.

The essence of Pina Bausch, much imitated but never replicated, is not to be found in a press conference or in the morsels that one out-of-practice interviewer can salvage from such a group interview, which Bausch has consented to so that she doesn’t have to grant additional interviews; “”I’m not a big talker,” she says. “I do all my things to not talk.” (Contrast this restraint with the increasing number of choreographers of the current generation, here in Europe anyway, who seem to create “dances” so that they can talk.) But for the true Pina (and Tanztheater Wuppertal; let’s not forget those droll performer-collaborators) groupie — for whom even a three-hour spectacle, sans intermission, is not enough — the press conference can and does flesh out the process behind the work, if only a little, and amplify the artist’s motivation and creative universe.

This being France, where the schools until recently have discouraged interrogation, your humble correspondent was obliged to get things going, which he did by reminding Bausch of her remarks at the end of Chantal Akerman’s 1983 documentary (screened at the Centre Pompidou recently), “One Day Pina Asked me to….” “What do you want for the future?” the filmmaker asks. Bausch’s shoulders slacken, as if under the weight of the world, and her head dips, as she repeats gloomily, “What do I want for the future? There are so many problems in the world…. Strength.” Noting that some would say the world has even more problems now, I ask her how she would respond to the question today.

“When she asked me that question, I had more time to think of an answer,” says Bausch, dressed in black slacks, turtleneck, and jacket (discarded halfway through the 75-minute encounter), her long hair in the signature loose ponytail. “I feel still very similar because we all need a lot of strength to continue and to do and make positive efforts, and not give up. Our desire doesn’t stop, to build, create, make friendships. It doesn’t change.”

What does change for Tanztheater Wuppertal is the locale in which it creates a new spectacle. Istanbul, however, felt in one respect like a homecoming. The troupe had been there before, with “Der Fensterputzer” (The Window-Washer). “This was one of the most wonderful performances we ever had — I will never forget it,” she recounts. “There’s a scene where a dancer takes out pictures of herself when she’s small, showing them to the public; later on, all the dancers do this. And suddenly, the public also took their family pictures out and started showing them to each other.”

One might be skeptical about whether an artist, even one of the intuitive capacity of Pina Bausch, can come to know a country and city well enough to create a piece about it after a three-week residency. But the premise would be wrong, because in these site-created works, the ville is not so much the subject as the canvas, or even the wind, inflected gestures of place subtly affecting the gestures of movement and the landscape of story. “Nefes” — which uses Tom Waits as well as the Istanbul Oriental Ensemble, among other music, and even retains tango in the shape of Astor Piazzolla — is “not only about Istanbul, it’s about us in this time — what we want to express,” says Bausch. “Each time” the company creates in residency, the resulting spectacle draws “only a tiny bit from where we are working.” But material assimilated in one milieu might show up later in another piece.

“Material” might be too crass a term to describe what Bausch retains from her residencies. For instance, asked about working in Istanbul, she recalls the joy of the Wuppertal performers excited to practice their Turkish — they crammed before the trip — with the local technicians after the first rehearsal. And the interaction she wants to talk about did not involve a cultural heavy-weight, but her driver. The morsel he gave her whose essence we might find in a future work — that’s my conjecture based on how it seems to have affected her, not her promise — is the sadness of this older man when they drove past his house, which he’d sold, and around which the new owners had put a fence. Is that a feeling of loss? Is it a feeling of regret? Of finding it difficult to accept change? Is it a theme that could be expressed to sum up a libretto? Probably not, but this is precisely the matter that Bausch deals in, the inchoate; if we can’t (well, I can’t!) reproduce a linear “plot” after we see a Bausch ballet, we know there was a story, we know it took us from a to b to c (if not z), and that if we’re not changed for life — “What we do is so little,” Bausch acknowledges sadly — we’re re-oriented, or at least emerge askew from the orientation we had before the curtain went up. Before I knew — before I really knew — I wrote a clever item simply listing all the props that Bausch had utilized in a show (in fact, “Der Fensterputzer,” seen at the Brooklyn Academy of Music), but these are a diversion because the drama of a Bausch spectacle comes not from what was seen, but from how it alters your view, whether globally or on an intimate scale.

Also intriguing for her in Istanbul, as a source of inspiration, was that “the women in Turkey are a big mystery…. You don’t see how they look because they are covered, but you have their eyes. And you have a fantasy of how they are… underneath.”

The harsh reality for up to half of all Turkish women, according to a report issued by Amnesty International Wednesday, is that they are victims of domestic violence, including so-called “honor” killings, and that while neither the problem nor its scale are unique to Turkey, the failure of the authorities to adequately recognize and address the crime is. As “Nefes” would seem, from the program description, to treat relations between men and women, I ask Bausch if the piece addresses this aspect of their relationship in Turkey.

“There are many ways we can do a work,” Bausch begins. “I always try to find something that is similar in us — what we have together, why we can understand each other. Why music makes us sad, happy. I try to find a way to speak about this language of being together.” She never addresses something so specific as, in this case, domestic violence. But regarding domestic violence in Turkey, she says, “We know in any part of the world things like this exist.” The local producers who introduced the company to Istanbul, from the International Istanbul Theatre Festival and the Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, “didn’t show us only the good sides, only the chocolate sides. They showed us where the problems are too, opposite sides. We saw poor and strange things.” And regarding the situation of women, she found that apparently, “In Turkey, all the people in important positions are women. I don’t remember any other country where women are so strong.”

The violence of our times is not confined to Turkey, and many artists in dance and theater, one questioner pointed out Wednesday, have responded to this violence by reflecting it in increasingly brutal work, while Bausch, by contrast, has become more and more positive in her creations. Why?

“It’s a reaction to this” violence, she explains. “I react different. There is a reaction because it is so terrible. It’s in each one’s hands. I thought years ago, If I now cannot once smile, I have to give up, I cannot continue. If I can help how you are with other people, to try to keep a balance…. I feel like even difficult decisions should be taken on balance. I don’t know if it’s better to all blow on the same horn about ‘How terrible it is,’ or if we need an effort to remind us it could be different.” If she is responding to carnage with roses (my words), “It’s not an escape, it’s a reaction.”

“I did a lot of things before completely different,” she adds, “but that was a different time and I felt the opposite. What we try to do is so little, and I’m happy about any result because it’s so little in relation to what you want to say. It’s never enough, but maybe that’s why I don’t stop. The past few years I’ve still felt like I can’t do anything, and yet I still tried. It’s so little, and I know. So we just try. We are little people making something small….

“I’m like a child — if somebody does something nice or smiles at me, I’m happy…. When we’re travelling, sometimes we think how lucky we are — we have so many experiences. I would like to spend my life giving back some of this beauty we have received — that I can only do with my company.”

The Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt is just across the street from the Seine; across the River on your right, you can see the Eiffel Tower, which now lights up in sparkles for ten minutes every hour after sunset. Cross the bridge just in front of you, and you’re on the Ile St. Louis, where after Pina’s early evening press conference I found myself a spot on the stone boardwalk facing Notre Dame. A soft wind was blowing, caressing the cheek and making the trees rustle like in a Corot painting. Like the wind, the effects of a Pina Bausch spectacle (or a Pina Bausch press conference, it turns out) may be invisible, but the atmosphere has been altered.

Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” (Breath), a co-production of the International Istanbul Theatre Festival and Istanbul Foundation for Culture and Arts, receives its French premiere tonight on the Tanztheater Wuppertal at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt in Paris, where it continues through June 22. Decor and videos are by Peter Pabst, costumes by Marion Cito, and musical collaboration by Matthias Burkert and Andreas Eisenschneider.  In the Fall, Tanztheater Wuppertal brings Pina Bausch’s 2002 “For the Children of Today, Tomorrow, and the Future” to the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Next spring, the Paris Opera Ballet performs Bausch’s 1975 “Orphee et Eurydice.

Of fly girls & shy girls: From “Bovary” through the Head-scarf (with cameos by Bernhardt & Bausch) — When the body feminine becomes a moral battle ground

Adrien Henri Tanoux Odalisques 1905From the Arts Voyager Archives and Artcurial’s Spring 2016  sale of Orientalist and Arab and Iranian Modern art:  Adrien Henri Tanoux (1865-1923), “Odalisques,” Oil on canvas, 23.62 x 31.5 inches. Image courtesy and copyright Artcurial.

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2016, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the Arts Voyager on  May 20, 2016. Tiego Rodrigues’s latest effort to subvert a literary giant’s masterpiece, in this case Tolstoy’s “Anna Karenina,” is currently playing at the Theatre de la Bastille in Paris, this time out abetted by the company Stan. 

PARIS — What I love about Tiago Rodrigues, the director of the Portuguese National Theater who is “occupying” the Theatre de la Bastille for two months with three works, one involving the participation of 90 amateurs in its creation, is that he defies the conventional wisdom that attracting contemporary audiences requires jettisoning the classical canon. Rodrigues understands that if an oeuvre like Gustave Flaubert’s “Madame Bovary” (whose original title was “Madame Bovary, or Provincial Morals”) has endured for 160 years, it’s because despite changing mores, its portrayal of societal turmoil (above all the conflict between individual comportment and predominant national values) is still pertinent. Even if today it’s not the loose morals of a married woman that are accused of threatening religious norms, as was the case with the story of Emma Bovary, but the custom of a small group of Muslim women to cover all or part of their bodies that is perceived by some as threatening the norms of lay values, the battle terrain is the same: the woman’s body. (And not just in literature: Eight female politicians, some in powerful positions including in the French legislature, recently accused a leader of the Green party of sexual harassment, charges which the official has denied.)

First, some background is in order on the current social context in which Rodrigues’s “Bovary” — which frames Flaubert’s novel with the legal process the government instituted to ban it (he isn’t the first to use this tactic; filmmaker William Dieterle did it in 1949) — hits the Bastille, where it plays through May 28. When a group of female students at Paris’s prestigious Sciences-Po university (which forms many of the country’s political leaders) recently decided to hold a “Hijab Day” to dispel myths about the foulard, or head-scarf, the philosopher-pundit Bernard Henri-Levy tweeted, “What’s next? Lapidation Day? Sharia Day?” And the Left-leaning feminist Elisabeth Badinter called last month for a boycott of fashion houses introducing special lines catering to Muslim women. (French feminists, particularly, tend to assume that if a woman is wearing a veil, it must be because a man is forcing her to do so.)

moma hijabs smallFrom the Arts Voyager Archives: Display figures with hijab, in East Jerusalem market. Photo by Danny-w. Some rights reserved. Used through Creative Commons. Courtesy Museum of Modern Art.

Rodrigues’s “Bovary” also arrives in Paris at a moment in which a group of Left-wing activists calling themselves “Nuit Debout” (Night standing up) has been occupying the Place de Republique at night since mid-March. But while Nuit Debout promotes a very selective vision of Democracy which excludes anyone who doesn’t agree with them (the rest of us are the “Fachos”), Rodrigues, by quoting from the actual transcripts of the 1857 trial the government instigated after “Madame Bovary” first appeared in serial form (the author himself paid for the stenographer), lets both sides present their best case. As formulated by David Geselsen’s defense attorney (once he stops speeding through his lines, an annoying tendency by many young French actors, especially regrettable when delivering legal arguments which require some mastication), a government zeal which followed to its logical conclusion would require deleting suggestive words from the dictionary because of their proximity with upstanding words like “Christianity” has scary resonance at a time when conditions provoked by an attack on free speech (the Charlie Hebdo massacres) have lead to an environment in which one is not always sure what is considered acceptable speech.

For Rodrigues’s “Bovary,” the government case gets an adept advocate in the person of Ruth Vega-Fernandez, perhaps the most charismatic young actress working in France today. (Although she could do to tone down a tic she seems to have adopted for this role, of describing and punctuating her arguments with articulated arms, hands, and fingers; used once or twice, it’s compelling, but over-used it just ends up calling attention to the artifice.)

Between Vega-Fernandez, Geselsen, and the occasional choice interjections by Jacques Bonnaffe’s Flaubert, the “Bovary” trial as recreated on the stage of the Theatre de la Bastille — where I caught it May 13 — provides a valuable example of juicy, rich, and well-founded (on both sides) constructive discourse in a France in which reasoned and polite debate seems to have been supplanted by virulent polemics. It’s almost as if because the immediate question — whether Flaubert’s tale of Emma Bovary, who seeks to escape a suffocating marriage through liaisons with flighty lovers, promotes infidelity, or whether the author is simply reporting on a social condition — is (apparently) so removed in time, the audience is able to patiently assimilate and consider the merits of each argument without the dogmatic predispositions that make healthy debate nearly impossible today. And makes me think that what we need in the current climate of polarization is not more philosopher-pundits or ZAD (Zone a Defend)ists masquerading as Democrats (and attacking police, 350 of whom have been injured this year; they too marched May 18 protesting hatred of the police) but apt theater directors able to reveal the timeless lessons in ‘ancient’ tales. In a country in which, historically, vigorous debate has sometimes been replaced by, on the one side, anarchist violence including bombings and, on the other, stifling of dissent, theater directors and artists in general who have the ability to frame debate in a constructive, non-manipulative way (Vega-Fernandez’s attorney is not just a fall guy, her convincing arguments being delivered with conviction) have a critical role to play in illuminating the issues in a serene fashion.

alma palacio rodrigues bovaryAlma Palacios in “Bovary,” as captured by and copyright Pierre Grosbois and courtesy Theatre de la Bastille.

There’s just one tendency which *almost* gets in the way in “Bovary,” a misunderstanding of the Brechtian style which repeatedly calls attention to the fact that this is just a performance. Alma Palacios’s Emma regularly introduces different segments of the action — for much of the middle and through to the end of the play, the trial reconstruction gives way to a recreation of the actual drama — by stating, “On page 200,” such and such happens, etc. This is a dangerous device in the hands of a younger actress like Palacios, who already has a tendency to recite her lines in a downplayed, matter of fact and borderline ironic fashion, directly to the audience. But eventually, and as a colleague has pointed out, the power and authenticity of Flaubert’s tale and his portrayal of Emma is able to transcend even post-modern irony. Emma seduces Palacios, who seduces the procurer and Flaubert’s attorney (both break from their courtroom cool at one point and embrace Emma) and has the audience shivering when she takes the fateful arsenic. We’re finally at Rodrigues’s mercy when, in a coda, Gregoire Monsaingeon’s Charles declares (I paraphrase), that like his wife,”I eventually died too, as did the procurer, my attorney, and as will the actors on this stage, and as will all of you eventually die. But ‘Madame Bovary’ lives on.” By this time, no one in the audience is chuckling, unless it’s the nervous laughter of recognition.

Sarah Bernhardt would never have been accused of post-modern irony. But if actress Astrid Bas and director Miguel Loureiro spared her that in “Paris-Sarah-Lisboa,” which opened the annual Chantiers (building projects) d’Europe festival organized by the Theatre de la Ville May 11 with a performance supposedly tailored for the Divine One’s old dressing room at the theater, they didn’t offer much else. The 30-minute piece consisted of the actress — dressed not in Belle Epoch style but a zipper-back dull dark blue dress from the 1950s — galloping on her stilettos to different corners of the room (a Bernhardt-sized tiny bathtub, a makeup sink, both framed by mirrors) to retrieve sections of the script, off which she read excerpts from Bernhardt’s journal, with the drop in investment and nuance which reading from a script for a performance often induces. Even the potentially liveliest section, in which Bernhardt prepares for a performance with tongue-twisters (“She sells sea-shells,” etc.) was rote. So that in the end, even if the texts recited were supposedly rare, I didn’t feel I knew anything more about Bernhardt than I did before. It seemed a particularly uneventful way to open what normally promises to be a portentous festival.

Pina Bausch Agua Ulli WeissTanztheater Wuppertal’s Regina Advento and Jorge Puerta Armenta in Pina Bausch’s “Agua.” Ulli Weiss photo copyright Ulli Weiss and courtesy Theatre de la Ville.

Pina Bausch’s 2001 “Agua,” which I caught the same night at the same theater, as performed by Tanztheater Wuppertal, suffered from an opposite impediment: too much action. The argument for the work’s sonic, scenic, and kinetic splendor would be that insouciance doesn’t need an excuse, especially in an era where the insouciant have become the targets of terrorists, including in this city. And perhaps an audient less aware of how much more Pina Bausch can offer by way of meaning and catharsis would have been sated with “Agua”‘s tropical, life-affirming antidote to the nihilism with which the “Islamic State” is trying to afflict us. But as a dance and theater critic, my problem with much of the late choreographer’s work in the 2000s (she died in 2009) is that for the actual choreography, Bausch seems to rely more on the skills and body maps of the individual performers and the opulent film work of designer Peter Pabst than any grand scheme and for me, calisthenics and pyrotechnics are no longer enough, especially from a master story-teller so much of whose works had something to tell us about the times. (On my way home, I wistfully regarded a poster of Wuppertal performing Bausch’s “Rite of Spring,” which along with the equally somber “Cafe Muller” the festival of Nimes is getting. Can the programmers really think we’re less sophisticated than the provinces?)

From a promising beginning, in which the playful Wuppertal veteran Helene Pikon heartily munches on an apple, the juice dripping, as she recounts how a perturbed sleep which forced her out of bed created an opportunity to catch a breathtaking sunrise, “Agua” devolves into a beach party. Hilarious at times, even riveting — Pabst saturates every corner of the stage with an Imax-style film of a boat ride through what might be the Amazon, leaving the impression that we’re riding on the boat, as is the dancer who cascades across the deck; it was only when the boat became a raft and took to sea that I started getting nauseous — in the end “Agua” is not so much insouciant as feather-light. When a reporter asked Bausch, at a 2006 Paris press conference, why she had turned away from darker work, she answered that it was precisely because of the bad things happening in the world that she felt the need to offer some relief and reveal some light. Things have since gotten a lot worse, and (see above, under “Bovary”), considering the vast and illuminating repertoire available to them, I’m not sure that Wuppertal’s directors really serve an audience in need more than ever of cathartic revelation by giving us a frothy Carnaval.

Speaking of exotica, and getting back to woman’s body as a fertile terrain for cultural battles, a historical reminder of why some Muslim, or Arab women might want to hide their visages from disrobing Occidental eyes was provided by Wednesday’s sale of Orientalist and contemporary Arab and Iranian art by Artcurial, the leading French auction house: Just take a look at the come hither topless babes (one of whom is an alabaster white) in Adrian Henri Tanoux’s 1905 oil “Odalisques,” on sale at a pre-estimated price of 40,000 – 60,000 Euros (above). It certainly confirms my assessment that women’s bodies have been a terrain for political and moral battles for a mighty long time.

 

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.  

Post-Modern Classics: Brown and Rainer Live — Stripping White Oak’s Celebrity from its Integrity

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2000, 2119 Chris Dohse

(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 June 10, 2000. 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 . Today’s re-publication of this Flash Review is made possible by Freespace Dance.)

NEW YORK — Forty years after its genesis, Trisha Brown’s and Yvonne Rainer’s icon-blasting realness, seen last night at BAM, still blows the cobwebs off mummified high art seriousness and still awes the bedazzled sycophants of mummified high art style with a wazoo full of ideas. Their dissimilar artifacts, separately derived from Robert Dunn’s 1960-62 workshop, strip the White Oak Dance Project’s celebrity from its integrity to reveal its pith within complex, lexicon-defying vocabularies.

My taxi got lost on its way to the Brooklyn Academy of Music so I missed a first solo, Mikhail Baryshnikov doing Brown. My program opened with John Jasperse Lite, “See Through Knot.” All five dancers really strained their necks into it, but the vast Gilman Opera House diluted somehow Jasperse’s odd, lugubrious time and stripped his signature idiosyncrasy to compositional strictures. In this particular case of taking downtown style off the street and marching it up the avenue, something got lost in translation.

The correspondences of Brown’s 1979 “Glacial Decoy” are still filled with humor, subtlety and minimal cool, but the rural still life idealized in Robert Rauschenberg’s slides smacks of cultural colonialism, if you bothered to look at them.

Baryshnikov in a Mark Morris solo, “Peccadillos” … Here’s the stuff that fills the seats. I bet the hoi-polloi would applaud wildly to watch either of them wipe their ass. Morris manipulates expectations predictably (toy piano, doll-like staccato) and the crowd chuckled and peed themselves. A bonus treat, Morris jumped onstage to take a bow.

Rainer’s collage of previous elements/homage to the mythos of herself rations dance history in real time. If I was a Marxist I’d guess “After Many a Summer Dies the Swan” critiques commodity, smearing Have and Have Not across Y2K complacency. Rainer is not shy to reveal her own mysteries. Whatever her cast might be doing onstage, the framing device of her intellect is always the real star. Her abiding humor surprises, the sympathy with which she prods the images we call Twentieth Century icons. Rainer is insistently, disarmingly clever; she discovers previously undetected details of White Oak talents and defines their celebrity anew

Blueprints for a New Dance from a New Dance Magazine: Munisterians

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick

(First published on the DI on January 28, 2000, this Flash is reprinted today for the first time grace of of Freespace Dance. To find out how you can own your own copy of the 2000 exclusive reviews of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2018  by 150 leading dancer-critics published by the Dance Insider  send an e-mail to paulbenitzak@gmail.com.)

NEW YORK — Tonight I got to witness a terrifically refreshing concert: Ben Munisteri and company in “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” at P.S. 122. I had absolutely no idea what to expect in terms of movement or outlook, nor am I now in the least disappointed to say I still wouldn’t know where to classify the choreographer or the work I saw. I didn’t come away with an impression of Mr. Munisteri himself, really, but more like a sparked curiosity.

Except for a disarming little spoken address from Munisteri (intimating we were hearing his own piano playing from yesteryear, and a few other such personal tidbits,) I didn’t really see evidence that the point of the choreography or the concert was intended to be telling us about him. No, something much subtler was going on, and I appreciated it! The four dances — flowing so well into each other and performed without pause or intermission — offer us a banquet of imagery that is never tiresome or predictable. I think it FRESH. Far from just eye-candy or simple sculptural moments, the dances pulse relentlessly with bursts of ideas rising from very pleasing flow. Quite simply, it looks like it feels good, feels rich, even while they’re dodging those support columns on the P.S. 122 stage.

Given the close integration of the four “sections” and the ever-changing soundscape involved, I didn’t punctuate between them in the viewing, and I won’t do so here either. It was truly one dance tonight, thanks in no small part to the imagination and soft touch in Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting. So many wonderful contributions there, to great effect! Ginger Blake’s costumes in all cases showed the dancers’ beautiful selves beautifully, versatile designs in some sensuous fabrics appropriate for a spectrum of situations.

And the dancers, ah, the dancers. Well, they were not only covered by and bathed in intriguing ideas from Munisteri, Kaufmann, and Blake. They had quite a bit of their own to say. There was, even in the intimacy of the venue, an understatement in their regard for each other that might almost be the protective discretion of love, and certainly of respect. The concentration and cooperation among all was riveting in itself sometimes, for I swear they were directing our (my) attention between them, along and across their backs, from the ends of their purposeful limbs. Turning their attention frankly toward us sometimes, there was, I felt, a great inclusiveness to their attitudes….”C’mon, I want to show you something….” It was not ingratiating or blank or anything but…hmmm…intriguing again.

A further word or two about these facile performers: Loved ’em all –Kudos! I’m always amazed at Tricia Brouk’s effect on me: What an amalgamation of sacred and profane…and what an ability to make it all look so easy. Likewise Chris McMillan, whose fluency belies the difficulty inherent in plenty of these sequences, yet she soars like bird in the sunshine. Lisa Wheeler was tirelessly engaging, throughout. She, too, exemplifies an enviable “appropriateness” that is a great gift in my opinion. In witnessing this I felt drawn into “what” she was doing, sometimes “why,” but not distracted by the “how.” This surety and ease was displayed across the board: The organic dancing was really satisfying to behold. Mr. Munisteri danced in the work throughout, their quarterback, and shone especially I thought in a duet with Ms. Wheeler. Tonight was the New York debut of Francisco Graciano as well, as the fifth of five. He too betrayed no nerves or reservations, just the willingness to show us something. They all did.

I came away from the concert stimulated from the hour-long ride, my head filled with suggestions and memories and hope. The run of Ben Munisteri and these evocative dances continues at P.S. 122 through Sunday, January 30, and Thursday-Sunday, February 3-6. I recommend it!