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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?”
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Editor’s Note: The first of many DI forays connecting the grandmothers of dance reposing in Paris’s cemeteries — including Isadora Duncan, Marie Taglioni, and La Goulue — with the current state of their legacies as enacted on the stages of Paris, New York, and around the world. First published on October 30, 2000, this article has been updated by the author. What’s that you say? “Seen anything lately?” If you don’t like what’s being reviewed, go out and make some reviews of your own: The DI is expanding and looking for Flash Reviewers in Berlin, New York, Brussels, and Paris. Contact email@example.com. Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to the DI for $29.95/year and get full access to 2000 reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to firstname.lastname@example.org , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance.)
PARIS — The remains of Isadora Duncan lay stored behind a 12″ by 12″ plaque, amidst a vast wall of urns, one of many walls in the columbarium at Pere Lachaise cemetary here. (And not far from the ashes of Alwin Nikolais.) Under her gold-lettered name, “Danseuse” and “Ecole de Ballet de l’Opera de Paris” are all that identify the grandmother of Modern Dance. In the margins around Isadora’s columbiarium, someone has written “natural movement.” I thought of what remains of Isadora’s legacy — and of how broadly her progeny (not to mention her progeny’s progeny’s progeny) have extended that definition, and what they consider the “natural” terrain to be investigated — Saturday night, a few hours after visiting Isadora’s final resting place, while watching the geometrical experiments of Lynda Gaudreau’s company at Theatre de la Ville’s space on Rue des Abbesses, a few stops on the Metro from Pere Lachaise, and right up the hill from Paris’s Red Light district.
Whew! That’s a loaded first paragraph. But I think both juxtapositions are appropriate. On the one hand, Modern Dance’s universe has expanded at least four times since Isadora’s early expeditions, which started from the base of natural movement, entranced by Hellenistic ideals, idols, and idylls. Rather than taking a codified system (ballet) and making up a dance to music which she then had to incorporate into her body, Isadora started from her body, and how it naturally responded to music and other environmental stimulae. (N’empeche que ballet modernizers like Fokine were impatient to learn from her.) From those rather humble first steps, her successors have charted a universe which goes way beyond exploring how the body moves naturally to the psychic explorations of Martha Graham, the socio-therapeutic screes of Bill T. Jones, the simultaneously chancey and architecturally meticulous and large-scale dances of Merce Cunningham (which sometimes seem if anything more mathematical than ballet), the socio-cultural dance-theater of Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle, the light-fantastical dance theater athletics of Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Pilobolus and Momix, and all the branches and limbs of these various exponents. And these are just the American strains. In European dance theater alone, Kurt Jooss, Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz, Maguy Marin and Peeping Tom dwarf — at least in their best work — their American contemporaries. (Well, except for Mark Dendy and Jane Comfort.) And until she got blasé in the last several years, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was the proud bastard child of Trisha Brown (gestures) and George Balanchine (musicality).
Double-whew! That’s a rather loaded second paragraph, so let me jump straight to the second juxtaposition: Despite all this hard work, through which these choreographers and others, aided by not a few dedicated dancers, have in a hundred years developed, essentially, a whole new school of one of our oldest art forms — despite all this, if you tell your average Joe or Jane in Middle America that you’re a dancer, he’s more likely to think of the type of sex-based action that was going on near the Place Pigalle Saturday night than the abstract art that five talented dancers and a few prodigious choreographers were creating up the hill at the Theatre des Abbesses in Montmartre.
Would the action near Pigalle be more titillating, at least to the hetero male sex? Perhaps. But would it feed your mind in the same way as the exacting and dense repertoire virtuosically danced by Lynda Gaudreau’s company? No way! This is my very long-winded way of saying that while “Document 1,” the 1999 multi-choreographer collage presented Saturday by Gaudreau, is not necessarily “entertaining” for the non-dancer, it elucidates like a clarion call that there is a cadre of modern dance choreographers who, from Isadora’s intentions to simply make it acceptable to move naturally to music, have extended Modern Dance’s mission to a search for a vocabulary which, in its pure science and demands on the dancers’ bodies and intellects has surpassed ballet as a complex system of movement and vocabulary for creating challenging abstract art. In terms of actually searching for new ways to move the body to create art, these choreographers are attempting so much more than just about anybody creating in the ballet field today, with the possible exception of William Forsythe. (Author’s note, 10-6-2017: If this last observation was still valid in 2000, it stopped being so by 2005, when the former American prodigal son ran out of kinetic ideas and started regurgitating theatrical tricks that were already old by the 1970s.)
The choreographic mix in “Document 1” included Jonathan Burrows, Adam Roberts, Matteo Fargion, Meg Stuart, Benoit Lachambre, and Daniel Larrieu.
While it was hard to distinguish where one work began and the next ended — not that I’m complaining, because Gaudreau’s conception of presenting the whole as one 75-minute seemless evening succeeded — more than anything the area covered reminded me of Burrows, whose work I saw a couple of years back at The Kitchen. Like that piece, whose title escapes me, much of this evening was concerned with exploring grids: grids of the body, grids clearly marked on the stage, grids of two or four bodies together, grids on one body, grids of the hands. Grids on the ground. The play area was defined by a brown paper colored marley (whose hue Lucie Bazzo’s lights sometimes changed to orange, black, or white). Dancers move repeatedly confined in one of two rectangles of sometimes blue light up and downstage. Towards the beginning and at the end, the five dancers (Sarah Doucet, Mark Eden-Towle, Sophie Janssens, Sarah Stocker and guest artist Lachambre), dance in a chorus line, albeit one whose moves are much more restricted and localized than what you might find at the nearby Moulin Rouge. Instead of kicking out, to reveal itself, a leg kicks in, swiftly. A foot beats against a calf.
In between these bookends of the evening, the explorations are also localized per dancer; sometimes with one or two performers on stage, but often with all four present, in their own spaces or divided, with two in one rectangle and two in another. At one point, when two of them converged on space and selves in a tape-defined area downstage right, I had a movement epiphany: Twister! Right foot red! Left hand green!
Choreographically as well as in its execution, the most virtuosic moment was provided by Lachambre, dancing an excerpt from Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods’ “No Longer Readymade.” Think Trisha Brown (the minuteness of hand-jive), remixed inna lockin’ and poppin’ mode by Doug Elkins, at 78 rpm, and you get the idea. How Lachambre moved not only his hands, but particularly his head, back and forth like that in such a cartoon-quick blur, is beyond me! The only stop-pauses in the frantic pace were ones in which Lachambre appeared to be shooting up, precisely pricking his inner elbow.
Lachambre also shined, literally, in a self-choreographed “Solo a la Hanche.” I see here by my handy-dandy French-English dictionary that “hanche” means hip in French, and that’s what we saw a lot of here, in its resplendent rippling-muscled full glory, from the moment Lachambre split open his pants to reveal thick hip, thigh, and left leg, in profile.
The guest artist also figured prominently in the wind-up toy section, where he winds up, then sets loose, a series of toys, which mercilessly pursue the other four dancers, who try to maneuver around them. Lachambre scrambles after them, often on his belly or back, catching the sonic action with his microphone. The section, er, winds up with a penguin solo, as this bird, the largest of the toys, waddles around for a while, alone in center stage, before finally winding down and being scooped up by a dancer.
During this section, the only sound is that of the winding up and down. And this is one more thing that reminds me of how far modern dance has travelled since Isadora’s initial expeditions — so far that many choreographers see music as unnecessary, so much has their work become about exploring space more than music. That’s not an entirely fair comment as applies to Gaudreau’s company, however; in fact, there was sound for much of this, but not what many would consider music: Glottal clicks, for example, also figured in the score. When sitting “off stage” at the sides, the dancers often held mikes into which they whispered the sounds for those still on stage. (Author’s note, 10-6-2017: Unfortunately, this particularly gimmick was soon run out ad infinatum by choreographers around the world.)
Film figured heavily in the evening. Most winningly in footage of a young girl dribbling a basketball, who is shortly accosted by two men who try, mostly unsuccessfully, to steal the ball from her. (Apparently, she’s a ringer.) Towards the beginning of the evening, we see Burrows’s film “Hands,” which is just that: hands folding, unfolding, extending, folding again. One for the hardcore localized digit movement fans, but didn’t do much for me. (Author’s Note, 10-6-2017: I liked this one much better live when I saw it, or at least a variety, “Sitting Down Dance,” a few years later at the Round Point Theater, performed by Burrows and Fargion.) And, at the end, there’s a film that’s a lesson in needlepoint or crochet. This provides the pat ending to an otherwise refreshingly non-linear evening of geometrical experiments: “And then you just keep going,” says a voice offstage.
…. If I can keep going for just one paragraph longer: What moved me most about this very abstract evening was the composition of the audience. A similar program in New York would probably have been packed, but mostly by fellow-travelers: dancers and choreographers. I’ve got nothing against dancers and choreographers in the audience, but if I do have a bone to pick with some post-post-modern choreographers, it’s that their work seems to exist in a vacuum: fascinating to them from a process point of view, and maybe to some of their colleagues and mine, but just too remote to appeal to a non-dancer like me. This is not an argument against abstraction; far from it. What impressed me about Lynda Gaudreau’s concert Saturday, both on the stage and in the audience, is that a crowd of (apparently) mostly non-dancers who knew how far Modern Dance has traveled from its roots in Isadora, and who also could look beyond the dancer stereotype being represented down the hill in the Red Light district, had come to see high art — and the choreographers and dancers had given it to them.
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.
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