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.

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Skin Games — Katherine Dunham’s Documentaries in Paris; Lauwers’s Racialist Stereotypes in Seine-Saint-Denis

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2005, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on February 10, 2005, this piece is re-published today because incredibly enough given the community’s multi-cultural population, Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room” has been programmed for April at the theater MC93 in the Paris suburb of Bobigny in the county of Seine-Saint-Denis. (Perhaps the brilliant curators who thought up this idea can sell “Tintin in the Congo,” featuring Belgium’s most famous ambassador, in the gift shop. What they really should do is book-end Lauwers’s piece with Dunham’s more noble — and authentic — enterprise.) Like what you’re reading? Please let us know by subscribing or making a donation today. Just designate your payment through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check. No amount is too small. Subscribe to the DI/AV for one year for just $36 ($21 for students) and get full access to our 20-year archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances and exhibitions from around the world by 150 critics. Paul Ben-Itzak is also available for French to English translating assignments and for DJing as MC World Beat.

PARIS — A colleague who’s also seen Jan Lauwers’s “Isabella’s Room,” a.k.a. “La chambre d’Isabella,” tells me he thinks the “‘quaint racial language is appropriate for the historic moment Lauwers was recreating.” Another respected colleague, the New York Times’s Margo Jefferson, sees merely pretension where I see tired racial stereotyping inherited from Colonialism. Reflecting on the needcompany dance-theater-music work, seen Tuesday at the Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt, I can see the bases for both these opinions, and I wouldn’t take my colleagues to the mat on them. Yet while Lauwers’s bombastic work (in general) often seems pretentious, it is also intentionally provocative. So I think a visceral response to this visceral approach is valid. (And if Lauwers can dish it out, he should certainly be able to take it.) Here’s mine, recorded a couple of hours after the performance, followed by some reflections on the work’s thin dance content and on cultural appropriation and exploitation. Then we’ll finish with the tonic of authenticity, revisiting Katherine Dunham’s early documentaries of Haiti and the Caribbean.

It is past two in the morning here in Paris, and I should be asleep. But I am restlessly pacing. I am on edge because tonight at the Theatre de la Ville – SARAH BERNHARDT (whose corps at Pere Lachaise must surely be restless these days), the Belgian director-playwright and putative choreographer Jan Lauwers used his considerable dramatic gifts to suck me into a world where, before I knew it, I was hit with residual Belgian colonial racialism, grandmother-to-minor grandson incest/rape (at least that’s what they’d call it in the States), and a generally unremitting nihilism.

Perhaps — perhaps — there are hints of hope among the despair. Perhaps, as in the work of other tragedians, the darkness is meant to set off the light. But how are we supposed to discern these signs through the barrage of blatant racialism and pointless violence? How am I to see anything but racialism when Lauwers gives us a heroine who, we’re told, was impregnated by a Black (I think the word Negro was used) performer on the Place Pigalle whose trick was that he could make his “erect p**** *** just by concentrating on it”? (The asterisks are mine, not an external censor’s; just because Lauwers has desecrated Sarah Bernhardt’s stage with this filth doesn’t mean we need to desecrate our pages.) How am I to find an island of hope on a stage whose dominating scenery is what we’re told is a “giant African penis,” on which the heroine hangs her gold necklace and lighter? How am I NOT to perceive racialism in a scenic environment which, in its blithe use and display of (what we’re told are) African artifacts, is probably committing at least one sacrilege, and has made me complicit in a sort of cultural violation? How did I feel regarding this in a sea of white faces? How did I feel when these fellow spectators giggled at the evocation of black p**** tricks?

I know, I know, I hear some of you saying: You dope, he’s not being racialist, he’s COMMENTING on racialism and Colonialism. I just don’t buy it. Jan Lauwers works in a milieu — Belgium — where one can still find vestiges of the Colonial attitude towards Blacks in mainstream postcard shops peddling images of them (thick lips, bug eyes) that make “Birth of a Nation” seem like it was produced by the NAACP (the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). In this context, the similar signposts in “Isabella’s Room” make it hard to receive this work as anything but racialist, nihilistic garbage.

lauwers oneNeedcompany in Jan Lauwers’s “La Chambre d’Isabella” (Isabella’s Room). Photo copyright Eveline Vanassche and courtesy MYRA.

It doesn’t help that Lauwers starts off with the often-mocking presentation of a variety of African artifacts, apparently, we’re told, “collected” by his late father. (The question of Colonial expropriation of such artifacts is not broached.) Perhaps he’s mocking the mockers, but what exactly gives him the right to expropriate another culture’s ceremonial objects for his own ceremonies? Especially given Belgium’s brutal colonial history.

“Isabella’s Room” is also advertised — at least in Paris — as a dance spectacle, and when it comes to integrating dance into his theatrical works, Lauwers hasn’t made much progress since the 1999 “Morning Song.” Jefferson, in her Times review, postulates that the dance here serves the same end as the songs, to “echo the characters’ conscious thoughts and unconscious dreams.” I don’t see this; I can find neither comment, interpretation, nor even counterpoint here; just aimless noodling, which might as well have been created outside of the text, in which the individual performers appear to have been left to their own devices, the choreography often devolving into what Jefferson accurately calls “Merce Cunningham and WIlliam Forsythe cast-offs.”

Except for six hours which she spends there in a vain attempt to save the life of her grandson Frank, the Isabella of the title in Lauwers’s piece is an Africa-fancying white anthropologist who never makes it to Africa. Katherine Dunham, by contrast, is an African-American interpreter of Afro-Caribbean dance — with Pearl Primus, the U.S.’s first — who began her career by traversing the Caribbean, on a Rosenwald fellowship, with a camera. Three of the resultant 1936 documentaries, “Trinidad,” “Haiti,” and “Jamaica and Martinique” were recently screened by the Centre Pompidou here in Paris, part of a festival on voyaging women documentary makers of the ’20s through ’60s.

All three films are brief but effective time capsules of the subject countries. “Trinidad” is the most purely dance document, capturing what looks (to this untrained eye) like a Vodun-like dance with its own vocabulary — one of the vocabularies that Dunham would go on to interpret in her concert form. (What a formidable example of scholarly rigor for contemporary choreographers who have the audacity to adapt a given ethnic style after taking only a few classes in it!) A vocabulary it clearly is, with one older woman, back curved, stomach contracted, seen to be drilling a snappy younger man in his footwork as a circle watches.

“Haiti” is a 15-minute masterpiece of a portrait and travelogue; one can almost feel the young Dunham falling in love with the country that still, nearly 70 years later, plays a central role in her life and work. She begins with a panorama of coastal mountains dominated by what look like the remnants of colonial fortresses. There’s also a cock-fight, in which she follows the flying fowl, then zooms in on a smartly attired man clipping his bird’s toe-nails. Eventually we’re taken — as if we were watching it from behind the barricades — to what could be a Carnival parade. Some of the participants are clad simply in their Sunday finest, some wear large masks in the shape of animal heads, others full-body costumes; two Carnival queens greet their ‘subjects’ from floats. Most are, to one extent or another, dancing, from the sharp dresser to the fluent four-year-old on whom Dunham trains her camera for a couple of minutes.

What emerges — aided by more recent musical field recordings which have been layered onto this silent film — is a poignant memory of Haiti just after the 1934 evacuation of U.S. troops. It’s perhaps a bittersweet memory in light of the U.S.’s recent intervention to help depose Haiti’s democratically elected President Aristide, but the filmmaker, at least, provides a much-needed model of an ambassador from our country who casts a curious eye, not a pointed finger at the rest of the world.

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.

Judson, secret origins and exiles: The San Francisco / New York dance dichotomy

momajudsonhalprin smallFrom the exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done, running at the Museum of Modern Art through February 3: Anna Halprin, “The Branch,” 1957. Performed on the Halprin family’s Dance Deck, Kentfield, California, 1957. (Halprin’s husband was the noted San Francisco architect Lawrence Halprin.) Performers, from left: A. A. Leath, Anna Halprin, and Simone Forti. Photo: Warner Jepson. Courtesy of the Estate of Warner Jepson.

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2000, 2018 Christine Chen

(To receive the complete article, first published on September 27, 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.)

What becomes a Judson legend?: Halprin Intensive at the Pompidou Museum

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2004, 2018 Paul Ben-Itzak

(To receive the complete Flash Review Journal from which this article is excerpted, first published on October 21, 2004, 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.)