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

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 & Johnston, together again, II: Reviving Amsterdam & Schneemann ‘Newspaper Event’ in New Amsterdam

momajudsonpapersFrom 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 Ruth Emerson in Carolee Schneemann’s “Newspaper Event,” 1963. Performed at Concert of Dance #3, Judson Memorial Church, New York, January 29, 1963. © Estate of Al Giese/Licensed by VAGA, New York, NY. Courtesy of Carolee Schneemann, Galerie Lelong & Co., and P•P•O•W, New York.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2005 Jill Johnston

(Today’s re-posting of this article — first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as the Johnston Letter, Volume 1, Number 1 — in conjunction with the Museum of Modern art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work is Never Done,  is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance . Like what you’re reading? Please consider making a donation to the DI/AV today by designating your donation through PayPal to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

Once upon a few decades ago I wrote a column. A title for one could easily have been OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON — words I saw just last week, down the street on a T-shirt at my Crunch gym. The guy wearing it was at the counter where I show my plastic card to sign in. I used to think up zany titles for my columns, ones that might make you want to find out if they had any bearing on anything, thus read on. Since the column appeared in a newspaper I could be sure someone would see it. Here a click is involved. I’m trying to adjust. I adjust all the time, otherwise I’d be dead by now. I go to the gym for instance even though I can’t go places on their running and biking machines. I mingle with the biceps jocks in the pushing pulling and lifting areas. I never walked or ran or danced on my arms, which therefore don’t mind my trying to use them this way. Sometimes when I check in and a worker asks me if I want anything, like a towel, I say yeah two new legs. They smile agreeably, not collusively exactly, but patronizingly I suppose. When I was their age, God will know, I saw the likes of me as a species apart, arrived here perhaps from another planet fully formed in this steeped or percolated state. An important adjustment to make as you await new legs or launch a click column is to forget about saving the world, realizing you will only offend people. By world of course I mean self. I start every day at my c.s. or coffee shop, before going to work which entails returning home. I’ve called it Segafredo after the first name I gave it, before knowing that Segafredo is the coffee they make, not its real name. Lately I just say c.s. Practically the whole place is distressed — the walls, floor, ceiling, bathroom and my favorite table, a large round wooden leaning affair, its top thick as a butcher block, with half inch crevices unevenly crossing its scurfy surface. The bathroom is masterfully small and has a nice mirror if you can get far enough away from it to appreciate your dubious morning visage. The front end of the toilet lid is all of six inches from the wall it faces — a hastily hammered raggedy-edged vertical stretch of graffiti-decorated plaster board. The friends I make at the c.s. are a bit like those you meet on shipboard or airplane. You may see them there repeatedly but not anyplace else. If you leave the c.s. with one of them you are probably in trouble. Not that you can’t get in trouble inside too. I made a big adjustment when I started hiding more or less at the back, in relative darkness, at the large leaning wooden table, next to the kitchen, armed with my newspaper, papers in general, my journal and book du jour. Just last week, opting to sit at one of the two small round window tables up front, I had an adventure. Two points of interest suddenly converged — a striking lady of years sitting at another table, and an arresting quote in my biography of T.E. Lawrence. Lawrence is my latest love. I fall in love with dead people — as who does not. It isn’t just my percolated state. And I still have arms for embracing the living. I should have used them, strengthened by Crunch machines and all, to embrace Bertha Harris before she died last month. I may have been making up for it at the c.s. by approaching this beautiful picture of decrepitude, a lady of surely eighty plus, stark white hair straggling to shoulders, a vase of flowers at one elbow, a bleached face, a look pensive and defeated, with my quote by T.E. Lawrence. I had just excitedly come across it. Having adjusted to an unexciting life, this wasn’t easy to handle. I almost ran the four yards to her table. A little earlier I had introduced myself by way of passing her and commenting on her pretty vase of flowers, which came, she remarked impassively, from a friend’s garden. Now, breathless after four yards, I laid my book in front of her, open to the page with the quote. She read it and said she wanted to copy it. I gave her my pen and she found a piece of paper in her bag. The quote goes: After 70 an unearthly richness attacks most of our elders and they become wells of satisfaction to me. Only then one gets to like them too much and away they go and die. After that great deed I finished reading my book and went to work. I have something new at home — a giant pot housing my avocado plant. The pot blocks out one third of the light from one of our two tallish windows facing south. By “our” I mean myself and Ingrid, who set up this space for a click column. She designed the whole website . My son Richard did the technology. On Ingrid’s part, it’s a conspiracy of sorts. Back in 1969 long before we met she saw one of my columns on an Amsterdam newsstand. By 1980 when we got together I was no longer writing them and between then and now I have written books and sundry articles in many publications. Now, as it seems, Ingrid has revived Amsterdam, and resurrected the reason she wanted to know me. I’m a very obliging person, during the day at least, full of eagerness to adjust. At night I’m focused on nothing more or better than begging every power in creation to help me sleep. When I get up I celebrate survival with agreement. I haven’t entirely adjusted to my new pot, which my daughter Winnie brought here one day with her son my grandson Ben, creating an astonishing replanting scene involving hacking apart the old pot long cracked down one whole side of it anyway and banging in a board to extend the window shelf. Wrapping up this column replanting, I have more watermelon news: Those three words, OLYMPIC GREASY WATERMELON, seen on a T-shirt at Crunch, describe a game played by Olympic hopefuls or Crunch trainers involving two teams standing at pool’s edge poised for a greasy watermelon to be thrown into the water whereupon they all dive in and grapple to secure this dirigible fruit and bear it off to the opposite team’s goal. That was a good day at the gym. I might forget sometimes to set a pile of blocks at my grand weight of 15 pounds and start pulling on the cords. One day the cords wouldn’t budge. I thought the mechanism was broken or something, and consulted a biceps jock standing nearby. He said it was set at 100 pounds! At the c.s., I have had worse moments but the other day, working at the back next to the kitchen I was in for a pleasant surprise. A woman with upswept white hair approached me on her way to the bathroom. She was wearing a copious long white like peasant dress, dotted all over with appliquéd flowers. I didn’t recognize her until she said she wanted to thank me for that quote. She was the quote lady! Today she was smiling, and she inquired animatedly, “How did you know I was over 70?” Making me sort of gape. “How old are you in fact?” I asked her. And she came up with 71! But really even smiling and wearing a cheerful dress she couldn’t be a day under 80. She wandered off murmuring over the quote, the “wording of it…so unusual.” The word “attacks” struck her fancy the most. “At 70 an unearthly richness attacks our elders.” I wish I could tell Lawrence. He was still alive when I was born. I’m clicking away. It’s a new age, heading for the open seize, in publishing.

©Jill Johnston 2005. Originally published on www.jilljohnston.com ; first published on the DI/AV in 2005 as Volume 1, Number 1 of the Jill Johnston Letter.

Back to the Future: How to access stories on the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager

Returning to its roots as a Direct E-mail List — as the most effective, efficient way to serve our subscribers, writers, advertisers, and readers — the DI will heretofore make all new content, as well as reprints from our 20-year archive of more than 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 writers of performances on five continents, plus news, commentary, art, and the Jill Johnston Archive, available strictly by e-mail. To subscribe to the DI and access both this new content and archived stories, for just $29.95/year individuals or $49.95 institutions, just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to find out about payment by check or in Euros. (In the latter case, the payments will be directed to our European correspondents.) You can also contact us at that address to find out about limited, well-integrated e-mail advertising options.

Women aren’t just victims, V: From the Gooey to the Sublime — Mantero Reaches Olympian Heights in Improv Program

By Josephine Leask
Copyright 2001, 2018 Josephine Leask

NEW YORK — A solo, duet and group piece made up the varied Movement Research Improvisation Festival program Friday at University Settlement, packed by an enthusiastic crowd composed mostly of dancers. (Those who appreciate improvised performance the most tend to be dancers who have improvised themselves.) The highlight was the Portuguese artist Vera Mantero. A quirky performer, Mantero presented a theatrical improvisation based on Edouard Manet’s famous 1863 nude painting “Olympia.” Rather than drawing on movement itself, Mantero’s improvisation took on a more tangible focus, that of text and ‘the work of art.’ Wobbling across the stage perched on a pair of stilettos with a luscious red rose in her auburn hair and wearing nothing else, Mantero reads extracts from Jean Dubuffet’s manifesto on art while ‘becoming’ Olympia herself. Dragging a couch behind her into the performance space, with eyes glued to her book in studious concentration, she recites haltingly, as if discovering the text. Already the juxtaposition of a naked woman reading male text challenges the supremacy of the male artist over his passive female object.

To receive the complete article, first published on December 11, 2001, subscribers please contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) 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. Subscribers receive full access to the DI/AV Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading critics of performances and art on five continents from 1998 through 2015. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $109 (institutions) Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com.