20 years of stories not told elsewhere: When Blackface (& body) reared its ugly head onstage at the Paris Opera Ballet

By Paul Ben-Itzak 
Copyright 2006, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

From the Dance Insider Archives: First published on October 24, 2006. Today’s re-publication (to which the only addition is the term ‘lilly-white’)  sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of  2000+ reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, & books  from around the world by 150 artist-critics,  e-mail  paulbenitzak@gmail.com . 

PARIS — When racism rears its ugly head in a supposedly civilized setting, a sort of stunned, incredulous shock can set in. So it took me a minute Saturday night, sitting in my lush red orchestra chair in the ornate Paris Opera House, presided over by a colorful Marc Chagall panorama of the arts painted around the chandelier, to realize what I was seeing up there onstage, a few minutes into Serge Lifar’s 1947 “Les Mirages”: Two characters straight out of an “African” “tribal” “sacrifice rite” from 1930s Hollywood, clad entirely in black body suits, hands and faces included. Eyes and lips in a pronounced white, of course. Making bugaboo facial expressions and doing some sort of stereotyped to the nth degree savage dance — they stopped just short of scratching their crotches. (Just to make sure I wasn’t seeing things, I checked the program after my premature but necessary exit: Ah yes, these would be “Les Negrillons.”)

What is this petrifying example of racist stereotyping doing on the stage of a theater in 2006? What was the (lilly-white) Paris Opera Ballet’s dance director Brigitte Lefevre thinking? (Obviously, she wasn’t. Voila le problème.) (Incidentally — or not so — Serge Lifar was condemned for collaborating with the Occupiers after World War II.)

On my wall is the second edition ever of Paris Match, and the first to feature just one person on the cover: Katherine (or “Kathrin” as the magazine spelled it — they Frenchify everything here) Dunham. It’s dated April 1, 1949. I don’t know if Katherine Dunham was here in 1947, but if she was, and happened to find herself at the premiere of “Les Mirages,” she likely would have had a much more demonstrative response to offer than my polite exit from the theater.

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20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Flash View, 9/12/2008 — Move, member, move: For Ailey dancer with Muslim name, rocky entrance in the Bosom of Abraham

By Omar Barghouti
Copyright 2008, 2019 Omar Barghouti

To celebrate more than two decades of telling stories not told elsewhere , the DI has been revisiting its archives. Have conditions changed at all since Omar wrote this piece? For a Palestinian perspective, check Diana Butto’s recent article in The Nation, published ahead of  last week’s Israeli parliamentary elections, and her post-election report on Democracy Now.  To read our re-post of Aimee Ts’ao’s 2006 interview with Israeli-American choreographer Ohad Naharin, review of his Batsheva Dance Company, and lesson in his Gaga dance method, click here. To check Omar’s profile of  Palestinian dancer Sharaf DarZaid, click here .

JERUSALEM — Israeli security officers at Tel-Aviv’s Ben-Gurion Airport Tuesday forced an African-American member of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater — by far the best-known touring company in the United States — to perform twice for them in order to prove he was a dancer before letting him enter the country with the company, the dancer told the Associated Press as reportred by MSNBC. But even after he complied, one of the officers suggested that Abdur-Rahim Jackson change his name. Jackson felt humiliated and “deeply saddened,” according to an Ailey spokesperson, particularly because his Arab/Muslim sounding first name, given to him by his Muslim father, was the reason that he was the only member of his company subjected to this typical Israeli ethnic profiling.

While still officially illegal in the U.S., ethnic profiling, described as “racist” by human rights groups, is widespread in Israel, at entrances to malls, public and private buildings, airports, etcetera. Israeli citizens and permanent residents with Arab names — or often just Arab accents — are commonly singled out for rough, intrusive and glaringly humiliating “security” checks. When I, an Israeli-ID holder, travel through the Tel Aviv airport, for instance, I always get stickers with the number “6” stamped on my passport, luggage and ticket. Israeli Jews, in comparison, get “1” or “2.” A “6” leads to the most thorough and degrading check of luggage and person. The smaller figures, in comparison, mean you get whisked through security with just an x-ray scan of your luggage. A couple of years ago, people like me used to get a bright red sticker, while Israeli Jews got light pink or similarly “benign” colors. Some astute Israeli officials must have been alerted that color-coding passengers according to their ethnicity and/or religion was too overtly apartheid-like, so they switched to the supposedly “nuanced” number coding. No wonder Nobel-prize winning South African Bishop and anti-Apartheid leader Desmond Tutu described Israeli practices as constituting a “worse” form of apartheid — it is far more sophisticated than the original version.

The Alvin Ailey troupe is celebrating its 50th anniversary with a multi-nation tour starting in Israel. Despite the above incident, the show was scheduled to go on as scheduled Thursday, and the company did nothing substantial to even protest this discriminatory policy to which one of its members was subjected, notwithstanding artistic director Judith Jamison’s statement to Haaretz newspaper that “We are here to irritate you, to make you think.” This only enhances Israel’s impunity. More crucially, by its very performance in Israel, regardless of whether one of its members was targeted by Israeli ethnic profiling or not, the group has violated the cultural boycott called for by Palestinian civil society since 2004 against Israel due to its persistent violation of international law and fundamental human rights.

Two years after that initial boycott call, a large majority of Palestinian artists and cultural workers appealed to all artists and filmmakers of good conscience around the world “to cancel all exhibitions and other cultural events that are scheduled to occur in Israel, to mobilize immediately and not allow the continuation of the Israeli offensive to breed complacency.” As with the boycott of South African cultural institutions during apartheid, international cultural workers and groups are urged by their Palestinian colleagues to “speak out against the current Israeli war crimes and atrocities.” Many internationally recognized artists and intellectuals heeded the Palestinian appeal for boycott; those included John Berger, Ken Loach, Jean-Luc Godard, the Irish artists union, Aosdana, and Belgian dance company Les Ballets C. de la B. The latter published a statement  defending the cultural boycott as “a legitimate, unambiguous and nonviolent way of exerting additional pressure on those responsible.”

In 1965, the American Committee on Africa, following the lead of prominent British arts associations, sponsored a historic declaration against South African apartheid, signed by more than 60 cultural personalities. It read: “We say no to apartheid. We take this pledge in solemn resolve to refuse any encouragement of, or indeed, any professional association with the present Republic of South Africa, this until the day when all its people shall equally enjoy the educational and cultural advantages of that rich and beautiful land.”

If one were to replace “Republic of South Africa” with the “State of Israel,” the rest should apply just as strongly. Israel today, 60 years after its establishment through what prominent Israeli historian Ilan Pappe describes as a deliberate and systemic process of ethnic cleansing of a large majority of the indigenous Palestinian population, still practices racial discrimination against its own “non-Jewish” citizens; it still maintains the longest military occupation in modern history; it still denies millions of Palestinian refugees their internationally recognized right to return to their homes and properties; and it still commits war crimes and violates basic human rights and tenets of international humanitarian law with utter impunity.

Some may argue that, from their viewpoint, art should transcend political division, unifying people in their common humanity. They forget, it seems, that masters and slaves do not quite share anything in common, least of all any notion of humanity. Rather than reinventing the wheel, I recall the wise words of Enuga S. Reddy,  director of the United Nations Center Against Apartheid, who in 1984 responded to criticism that the cultural boycott of South Africa infringed on freedom of expression, saying: “It is rather strange, to say the least, that the South African regime which denies all freedoms… to the African majority… should become a defender of the freedom of artists and sportsmen of the world. We have a list of people who have performed in South Africa because of ignorance of the situation or the lure of money or unconcern over racism. They need to be persuaded to stop entertaining apartheid, to stop profiting from apartheid money and to stop serving the propaganda purposes of the apartheid regime.”

Humanity — and above all human dignity — is at the core of many of the works of Alvin Ailey. His company, and indeed all other artists and cultural entities that care about human rights and realize that art and moral responsibility should not be divorced at any time, are called upon by their Palestinian colleagues and public at large not to perform in Israel until justice, freedom, equality and human rights are established for all, irrespective of ethnic, religious, gender or any other form of identity. This is what the arts and academic (Ailey co-directs a degree program at Fordham University) community did as their contribution to the struggle to end apartheid rule in South Africa. This is precisely what they can do to end injustice and colonial conflict in Palestine. Only then can dancers named Abdur-Rahim, Fatima, Paul or Nurit be viewed and treated equally, without any profiling.

Omar Barghouti is a freelance choreographer, cultural analyst and founding member of the Palestinian Campaign for the Academic and Cultural Boycott of Israel .

Out of the Mirror and into the Gaga with American-Israeli choreo Ohad Naharin, in performance and in his own words

By Aimee Ts’ao
Copyright 2006, 2019 Aimee Ts’ao

From the Dance Insider / Arts Voyager Archives, first published on November 10, 2006. Today’s re-publication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To learn how to obtain your own copy of the DI / AV Archive of more than 2000 reviews of performances, exhibitions, films, and books from around the world by 150 artist-critics, including Aimee Ts’ao, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com . Pull-quote from Hendrix added by PB-I. 

“Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion.”

— Ohad Naharin

“I used to live in a roomfull of mirrors.
All I could see was me.
Well I took my spirit and I crashed my mirrors
Now the whole world is there for me to see.”

— Jimi Hendrix, as sung by the Pretenders

SAN FRANCISCO — Sometimes it is not just the performance of a choreographic piece that has an impact, but also the serendipitous events surrounding that performance that covertly conspire to reshape one’s perceptions of that first viewing. And so my recent experience with the Tel-Aviv-based Batsheva Dance Company turned out to be far richer than I could have imagined before I walked into the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater for the Thursday, October 26 performance of artistic director Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” The next day, both interviewing Naharin and participating in a company warmup gave me further insight into the performance and deepened my appreciation of these exceptional artists.

Granted, I had already been to YBCA the previous Tuesday night to see two films, “Israel Dancing,” a documentary by Czech television and “Boobies,” a dance choreographed by Inbal Pinto and performed by her company. The latter was so long and eclectic, or derivative, that you could use it as the sole visual aid to teach a course on the influence of every dance and theater style of the 20th century on current work. The former featured some interesting footage of various Israeli dance companies as well as interviews with choreographers. The one moment that lodged in my mind was Naharin saying, “Everybody should dance every day, for a few minutes at least.”

Now it’s Thursday night, as I take my seat after conversing with other critics, dancers, and a couple of my teachers in the lobby. It’s quite gratifying to see so many from the local dance community in attendance. “Three” runs 70 minutes, with no intermission. There are three sections (hence the name), which I later learn by searching online are called Bellus (beauty), Humus (earth) and Secus (‘otherwise’ or ‘to the contrary’ in the Latin legal definition; “this…not this” in Naharin’s more poetic rendering). They can be performed separately as well as together, I also read.

The opener, Bellus, is danced to a number of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations,” recorded by Glenn Gould. (I confess that I am a serious admirer of the late Canadian pianist.) Basically the dance begins with a solo section, then a second dancer enters and stands to the side. As the first dancer exits, the second continues with some of the same choreographic material as well as new phrases, while a third enters, then the second dancer exits and the third begins, and so on. There is a pas de deux and a section of ten dancers running and jumping in what I would call an imaginary primitive folk dance. In the final section the movement is both new and recycled from previous sections, but seamlessly woven together, befitting the nature of musical variations. For me, there is one exquisite section in which the dancers stand in a line across the stage facing the audience. Each performer gently raises his/her arms straight up, sometimes from the shoulder, sometimes only from the elbow, at varying times and at varying speeds. There is no readily obvious pattern, though the complexity increases; then they shift into new material that includes different gestures and epaulement (angling the shoulders), executed while they’re still in line. It is so utterly simple yet so profoundly deep and resonates with the spirit of Bach’s music in a mysterious way, visually reflecting its essence without being a slave to the notes, motifs or compositional form.

In Humus, to music by Brian Eno, nine women explore weight, balance and gravity, first in a very slow and purposeful manner then gaining momentum as they walk or run around the stage to another location for another exploration of the possibilities of their bodies.

It is the last part, Secus, that is the most substantial, both in length and choreography. Over the course of 35 minutes, to Ohad Fishof’s compilation of music (Chan Chan, Kid 606 and Rayon [mix: Stephan Ferry], AGF, Fennesz, Kaho Naa Pyar Hai, Seefeel, and The Beach Boys), the dancers go ever so gradually from the chaos of everyone doing something different to the entire ensemble moving in unison. One section has the performers in three groups. One dancer from each articulates a brief phrase or action, then goes to the end of the line while the next dancer does the step in his/her own personal way. Usually there are only two or three repetitions before the dancers move on to new movement phrases. At one point the women on the right turn their backs one at a time to the audience, jump straight up in the air and quickly pull their pants down and up, flashing ever so briefly their derrieres. The men in the middle also pull their pants down, again one by one, but facing the crowd while concealing their private parts between their legs, a la emasculated Ken dolls. In general, the choreography for Secus is brilliantly crafted, from the use of space, to the permutations and combinations of movement phrases and finally to the ominous ensemble marching around the stage, hunched over, grabbing the air and chanting the word “welcome” as the lights dim.

Rarely do I see such emotionally powerful dancers. They are not mere automatons replicating steps. They touch us in a profoundly human way because their movement is born from intensely personal depths.

Batsheva for re-postBatsheva Dance Company in Ohad Naharin’s “Three.” Gadi Dagon photo copyright Gadi Dagon and courtesy San Francisco Performances.

The next morning I meet Naharin at his hotel for an interview. We find a quiet corner in the atrium on the mezzanine and settle in. As we talk for more than half an hour, what follows are only a few main points of our conversation:

Aimee Ts’ao: You seem to resist being called an Israeli choreographer.

Ohad Naharin: It’s trivial information in terms of what I really do. Because [then] you put all the Israeli choreographers in one box. I think the community of choreographers shouldn’t have national, ethnic or religious connotations. I’m also an American citizen, by the way. So you can call me an American-Israeli choreographer. My grandparents were from Russia and Poland, so maybe you can call me a Russian-Polish-Israeli-American choreographer. Being Israeli is not even a race; being Israeli describes geographically where I’m from. It doesn’t tell anything about who I am or what I am.

AT: I’m reading a biography of Gertrude Bell called “Desert Queen.” She was a British woman who lived and worked in the Middle East from the 1890s through the 1920s. It’s all the same problems we still have today. Nothing has changed. It really reinforces for me that the world doesn’t really change that much in a very fundamental way.

ON: That’s reassuring too.

AT: But it’s sad on the other hand.

ON: Very sad, I agree.

(Later, responding to a follow-up question in which I ask his opinion on the Israeli occupation, the wall and Israel’s recent actions in Lebanon, he offers: “The current situation is not new, it shows ignorance on the part of our leaders and many people, and it is distorting the desire for peace. It is the same as what is going on with the current government in the USA. It is not stupidity, this ignorance is intelligent but a one-way one, in which our leaders react only to their own reflections while totally blind to what is really in front of them. It means that they are not in touch with reality — while possessing so much power they create innocent victims, unnecessary suffering, and a much less secure world.”)

AT: What made you start to dance?

ON: I don’t know exactly what you mean, but when I think of starting to dance, it’s starting to live. As long as I can remember I’m dancing. Not dancing in a classroom, but being very aware of my body, my weight, being aware of the pleasure and joy I got out of movement, of the extreme physicality and effort. I think a lot of how we dance today has to do not with just our training, it has a lot to do with how we grew up, our genes, and what we did since we were born, with our body development. Our weaknesses, our strengths, our sexuality, our intelligence, our awareness of the universe has a lot to do with how we dance.

AT: How did you arrive at developing Gaga [as Naharin calls the movement language he uses in daily company training]?

ON: In order to be able to talk about it, I have to decide to make it more systematic than it really is. I’ve decided to talk about two important points, or maybe three. The first point will be my back injury. More than 20 years ago I had a very serious back injury, where I shattered a disc and I was paralyzed in my left leg and I didn’t think I’d be able to dance. I had a serious operation, but I was already choreographing, so coming back from the injury I needed two things: to get my body to move a little bit and also to be able to give other people the keys to the way to move in my work. This process of finding keys for me and for my dancers brought me to deal with my weaknesses and efficiency of movement. I needed to be so efficient because I was so limited. I developed an awareness that had to do with finding where in my body I’m not hurting and where in my body I have unused muscles, unused movement. I discovered my explosive power, the efficiency of movement. I started to really be able to connect between pleasure and pain, and between effort and joy. At the same time I needed to articulate it because I needed to give it to myself and others. So it became a language and a method. That was one, then about ten years ago, almost as a joke I started meeting [with] a group of non-dancers, workers of Batsheva company who are not dancers [but] who wanted to dance. So I started meeting [with] a group of five people twice a week in the morning. Very quickly I realized in these meetings with non-dancers, I learned a lot about movement, movement habits, all the things I described before but in a new light because none of them had the ambition to be on stage. They just wanted to feel better, and to move better and to get stronger. So then Gaga became something that had nothing to do with performing arts, just had to do with the maintenance of your body. Healing your body, finding pleasure and joy in movement and nothing to do with ambitions to be on stage. That became a very serious thing in my life — working with non-dancers. Today we have a venue with hundreds of non-dancers who come to take Gaga classes.

AT: Is it possible for someone to start as a child and be completely trained as a dancer? Or do you need to supplement with other forms?

ON: Right now I think of Gaga as the higher education of dance. You do elementary school, high school and go to college. So Gaga is this part of your education. We do have schools which approach us to teach kids. I’m more interested [in working] with adults. This year we allowed Gaga to be in the curriculum of the performing arts school in Jerusalem. But that is for 17-year-olds and over, not for kids. All the people already have [dance] training. The important idea is to make people excel in the method they already know. It’s not to abolish or cancel or change their techniques. If someone wants to be a ballerina, then Gaga can help her to be a ballerina. You should come and take Gaga class with us. We do it before the show as a warmup.

AT: I wanted to ask you about your choreographic process. Is it something that evolved, that you started in one spot and then the more you did it, you got more ideas of how you work? Not the actual choreography, but your whole way of thinking about it.

ON: Evolved is the key word. It’s evolving. It’s a process that takes me to places I’ve never been before. Otherwise I would be bored with it. The sense of discovery is always there. I think it has a lot to do with how my relationship with my dancers evolved, too. They [have] become more and more meaningful contributors to the process, especially since we started doing Gaga as our training about four years ago.

AT: I wanted to ask about music, because it is obvious that it’s an important element for you.

ON: Yes, yes. There’s something about music and structure and order and mathematics. There is something particular about this Bach piece [“Goldberg Variations”] and the way that Glenn Gould is playing it that the beauty of it really comes from making the music very bare. It’s so beautiful without any decoration. You really feel how the structure of the piece and the rhythm and the logic of it actually can create all the emotions and transport you into this landscape. This music is also almost like the sound of a metronome. Something so clean and minimalistic about it. Somehow meditating with it brought me to create the system of lifting the arms [in the Bellus section], which is really different from the system of the music. But I still feel loyal to it somehow.

AT: You also have a sense of space.

ON: It’s space that gives me the reason I can dance. I consider the importance of space in my existence more than time. I feel time passes anyway. I have no control over time, but I have control over space. I can really change the space and create the space, but I cannot change time and I cannot create time. I’m aware of time, how long it takes to do something, and I make a decision how long I want to do something, but it’s more about how long it takes to go from one place to another and that has more to do with space than with time.

AT: Is there anything else you’d like to say?

ON: Every interviewer asks me that. Yes. Cover your mirrors or break them. Don’t use mirrors when you dance. Don’t use mirrors when you live. They are very limiting, they are an illusion. They have really stopped dance from developing as far as it could go without [them]. That’s for sure. Every time I come to a ballet company to choreograph, I cover the mirrors. At the beginning it is so difficult, but at the end of the process, the dancers are so grateful.
Much later the same day I arrive at the stage door of YBCA, wondering if trying to do the Gaga warmup is really such a good idea. Nearly two years ago, I was hit by a car while walking across a street. The whiplash from being thrown at least eight to ten feet still plagues me and I have had major setbacks from such minor events as picking up a flowerpot. The ballet classes I do every day are at least a known quantity and quality, but what am I really signing on for now?

On stage the company is getting notes from Naharin, and I watch the dancers run through several sections of “Three,” which I saw last night. Finally they get a 15-minute break before warmup and I continue my stretching even more as a prophylactic against re-injuring myself. I need not have worried. Gaga turns out to be very liberating. I can just tune into what my body is feeling and then figure out what it needs. I am listening deeply to what it is telling me about its limits, but it reminds me, too, that there are strengths. Watching Batsheva’s members doing Gaga also shows me why they are so powerful on stage, individually and as an ensemble. By the end of the warmup, my body feels looser and more fluid than it has for a long time. I am positively exhilarated. I’m a convert; I’m thinking about incorporating some of it into my daily routine. You might even say — I’m going ga-ga over Gaga.

Life for a ‘Luxury Item’ after 9/11/01

By Veronica Dittman
Copyright 2001, 2019 Veronica Dittman

First sent out to the DI E-mail list on September 15, 2001. Veronica Dittman is the founding editor of the Dance Insider, and without whom the magazine would not have been possible. 18 years later, Veronica, and you still bring me to tears. — PBI

Dear Dance Insider Readers,

There is a long-standing delicate matter between my respected friend Paul, the editor of this venture, and me. It consists of my defensive insistence that he not print any of my submissions without letting me approve his edits to them. However, in this case, I am trusting him to not let this be too personal, too self-indulgent, or too full of parenthetical notes (but Paul, don’t you think an occasional glimpse of the subtext can be interesting? like when someone’s slip is showing?). He’s asked for written responses from us New Yorkers, but like everyone here, I’m a little strung out and am aware that my judgment is probably wobbly.

We’re quickly learning to live in the aftermath. Phone lines are undependable, the subways are undependable, there are 90 bomb threats a day, we hear fighter jets overhead patrolling us but mostly we can’t see them, and the air quality is horrendous in places. Just the same, I took ballet with Marjorie Mussman yesterday and the class was well attended (she comes in from New Jersey!), and Stef tells me she took class with Zvi at City Center this week. Friends came over to my apartment last night, and after the now routine exchange of stories and impressions, there was much hilarity.

Among my concentric circles of friends, so far I’ve only heard tales of luck, escape, and relief, so I’m grateful. But then, there are so many people gone that it becomes impersonal. If ol’ Martha was onto something with the idea of collective unconscious, there’s such a big hole here that we all feel it. There are fliers made on home computers and posted on bus shelters and lamp posts everywhere, with a photo and phone numbers: “If you’ve seen this person, please call.”

At my worst, I’m scared to drink the water, I’m scared to breathe the air, and I practically hyperventilate when the train stops for a routine red signal. In an outburst of selfishness, I’m scared that I won’t be able to get to my doctor’s appointment on Tuesday, or that the doctor will be busy with some new disaster. The hardest part for me is accepting that now the structures and systems I’d taken for granted are vulnerable and impermanent. Everything will be different now, unstable. (For once, I would love to be wrong. I would love to think back on this in a year and see myself as a melodramatic alarmist.) It’s possible, probable, that there’s more horror to come, that we’ll live with it. I’m aware that so many other cultures have had to live with this fear, and have adapted, but I arrogantly thought we were immune here.

I find I’m hopelessly in love with the physical, and my tangled theology reveals itself. I’ve got the Apostles’ Creed promising “the resurrection of the body and life everlasting” and I’m drawn to these Zen Buddhist dancing skeletons meant to confront “the impermanent nature of material existence” so that freedom, bliss, and enlightenment can become possible.

After an initial impulse to run like hell all the way to my parents’ house in Wisconsin, I don’t want to leave. As Fran Liebowitz said in a radio interview this morning, “I need myself here, even if no one else does.” I also related to her identifying herself as a “luxury item”: my skills aren’t particularly useful right now. She pointed out that construction workers and nurses, who never get any press around here, are desperately needed, and it turns out that the stylists and designers are temporarily unimportant.

Sending out good wishes to you all,

Veronica

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.

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.

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.