When Helen Keller lifted Merce, & more danced stories from Martha at Mother

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

First published on the DI on March 2, 2000. Today’s republication sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. To read more about the late Pilobolus dancer Rebecca Jung, click here.

NEW YORK — The first time I saw Merce Cunningham perform his “Chair Dance” a couple of years ago, I cried. (I know, some of you probably think I cry all the time, but really, it’s only death, Merce, Pina, New York City Ballet, and loves that might have been that drive me to tears, and not all for the same reason. Drop me a line at artsvoyager@gmail.com and I’ll shoot you the appropriate Flash Reviews and love letters.) It was partly Merce’s powerful presence, partly that he shook when he walked. I imagine I would also cry in the presence of G-d, and Merce is the dance equivalent. The dance was entirely tasteful; Merce at 78 didn’t choreograph for himself as if he were 38. It was made for a 78-year-old, and one who shakes when he walks at that. It was an act of generosity more than one of vainglory by an aging trooper who refuses to leave the stage. When I saw Alicia Alonso, the great Cuban ballerina, dance a “chair dance” at 74 or so – here, in Fokine’s “Spectre de la Rose” — I regretted it immediately. Not having seen Alonso in her prime, this enfeebled, blind ghost was how I would remember her. Last night, Merce reprised his chair dance for Martha at Mother, the occasional dance revue at a tiny Meatpacking district bar (Mother), hosted by faux Martha Graham Richard Move. (Though officially, she leaves the “Graham” off for legal reasons.) Standing at the rear of the tiny space, I cried again, tears that linger still.

Merce, however, was not crying. He showed more bonhomie than I would have, being interviewed by a drag queen channeling the woman for whom Merce was the second male dancer. “You look like someone I know,” he told Move before recalling various experiences with the real Martha. Most memorable: A visit to the studio by Helen Keller, who asked Martha if she could touch a dancer. Martha asked Merce to stand at the barre. When Keller held him around the waist and lifted him, Merce recalled, she said he felt “as light as the mind.”

As for Merce’s dancing Wednesday night, well. His “Chair Dance” at 78 entailed some movements around the chair and some in it, and a lot of hand stuff and some footwork. The shaking became part of the choreography. Last night, it was as if Merce’s landscape continues to shrink. (That’s a compliment.) We saw a face ballet at times; the eyes seemed almost to shut at points, and the face opened into a warm, cherubic grin.

The one sour point for me was Move’s presuming to perform with Merce at the end of the dance. I thank him and Janet Stapleton for bringing Merce to their event, but I thought it over-moxie for Move to dance with him; it presents them as equals, and they’re not.

A more successful collaboration was the premiere of a video created by Charles Atlas and Cunningham, which gave us a Merce’s-eye view of Paris, during a recent Cunningham tour. The camera appeared mounted on Merce, who also narrated, bemusedly.

Isaac Mizrahi MC’d the performance by Move’s company that opened the evening. Particularly sharp in this ersatz Graham troupe was a dancer who reminded me of a young Rebecca Jung, the former Pilobolus stalwart. Looking at my program now….Oh, it was Rebecca Jung. (Funny how time blurs the memory.) The ersatz bothers me–my concern is that people who don’t know the real McCoy will think that Graham was just about melodrama, when her psychodrama rings very true. But judging from the number of Graham insiders on stage–Donlin Foreman also performed last night–as well as other dance insiders in the audience (Baryshnikov among them), I’m probably in the minority on this.

Infectious: Untainted Love for Dance from Donna Scro & Freespace Dance

donna for re-postPhotograph of Donna Scro Samori of Freespace Dance by and copyright Lois Greenfield.

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2002,. 2019 Maura Nguyen Donohue

First published on the DI on September 23, 2002.

NEW YORK — On occasion one might be lucky enough to see a dancer whose love of the dance is absolutely infectious. Donna Scro continued to reveal herself as one of those dancers in work with her own company, Freespace Dance, this past weekend. Scro shared a program, as well as one progressively unraveling duet performed in parts throughout the course of the evening, with fellow Sean Curran dancer JM Rebudal as part of the self-produced Dance Access program at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church.

Scro is a radiant performer and a capacious dancer. She eats up the space around her and exudes a kind of excitement that practically bubbles over when she’s dancing. In “Paso” (2001), a quartet choreographed with Pilobolus alum Gaspard Louis, she’s a lovably girlish tomboy, willing to play with the boys on their level but on her terms. The quartet is a resoundingly athletic tour de force straight out of the Pilobulus mold but no less enjoyable. There is a cheekiness to the frolicking that keeps the playful work engaging beyond the immediate thrill of taut, daredevil bodies flying through the air.

“Innercurrent,” also choreographed with Louis, featured performances from the company including the equally lithe Amy Brous and powerful Maureen Glennon. Glennon is a co-founder and fellow artistic director of Freespace, which follows a collaborative mission. Louis’s six years with Pilobolus are evident in this work’s derivative partnering and tableaus, but this younger company maintains the kind of active enthusiasm currently lacking from Louis’s former company.

Rebudal’s company, Rebudal DanceGroup, was seriously out-danced in the evening. The company, made up almost entirely of recent Connecticut College alums, had an overall effect of earnest but bland dancing. Rebudal’s “Mercurial Relapse” looked well scrubbed but hardly witty. His dancers need a few seasons before they can handle Rebudal’s athletic movement sense and flair for dramatic phrasing with the kind of command their evening’s partners held.

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.

Return engagement

michelle peter(Performance Advertisement) Peter Stathas, a former member of Limon Dance Company and Marta Renzi and Dancers, returns to dance with a special performance, Leaving and Coming Back. This limited engagement at Danspace Project June 20-22 combines Peter’s early work along with newly created pieces that take audiences on a journey from the Saturday mornings he spent with his grandfather to the confinement of space that is used to represent others’ perceptions. To purchase tickets, click here or here. (Want to advertise your show, audition, or university dance program with the longest running show in online dance journalism? E-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com for rates.)

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

By Tom Patrick
Copyright 2000 Tom Patrick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Jill Johnston Letter, Volume 2, Number 6: Complete Surrender

jill dancing for warholFrom the DI Archives and the recent Museum of Modern Art exhibition Judson Dance Theater: The Work Is Never Done: Andy Warhol, “Jill and Freddy Dancing,” 1963. 16mm film (black and white, silent), 4 minutes. Original film elements preserved by the Museum of Modern Art Collections of the Andy Warhol Museum, Pittsburgh, and the Museum of Modern Art, New York. Contribution the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, Inc.

By Jill Johnston
Copyright 2007 Jill Johnston

First published on the Dance Insider on in 2007. Today’s re-publication is made possible by Dance Insider co-Principal Sponsor Freespace Dance

When Gerald Ford died I learned that his wife Betty was once a Martha Graham auxiliary and that she had her own dance company in Grand Rapids. When her husband became president, her new press secretary asked her what she could do for her, and Betty said, “I don’t know, what am I supposed to do?” I clipped the color photo of her at the Washington Cathedral service being escorted to her seat by Mr. Bush, whose wife and parents look on around him. It’s a great shot. You can count 24 people in three rows, eight of them the living presidential couples, all in identical photo-darkgray suits and dresses, and turning to look at the new widow, except for Hillary, who hasn’t turned and is staring downward. She’s wedged between Bill and Chelsea, only a piece of her head visible. Barbara Bush, in the forefront, tilts hers slightly and wears an expression of pained sympathy. Laura Bush looks a little stunned, like, “Is that what’s going to happen to me?” Betty is really old and not her former self. I can see her dancing though. I suppose after she was done with Martha and Grand Rapids she did the Chubby Checker Twist like the rest of us. I was once an auxiliary of sorts myself, however to Martha’s competitor Jose Limon. At a holiday season party someone told me they thought I had been a dancer. I said no no, I was an auxiliary. In that capacity all I did for Jose, besides taking his classes on West 57th Street for four years, was fill in for one of his three premier females at a single rehearsal. Betty Ford first studied with Graham at the Bennington Summer School of the Dance — in 1936. A decade and a half later, when the Summer School had moved to Connecticut College in New London, I endured some classes with Graham myself, easily a terrifying experience. So when someone dies, you find things out. I scan the papers very selectively. In the case of Saddam Hussein, hanged by our government (to be elliptical about it) December 30, only four days after the death of Betty’s husband Gerald, I plundered the write-ups on him for scraps describing his early life, and found a whole “narrative” of about a dozen unsurprising facts. He was raised by a class of landless peasants, and his father deserted his mother before birth. Are these reasons to kill people? Not the way we see it. But Hussein’s first job in politics, when he was 22, was a commission to assassinate, along with nine other youths, the Iraqi general then ruling the country. “Bloodshed,” the report I read went on, “became the major theme of his life.” Rooted in a culture of tribal violence, Hussein reached the summit of his tradition upon becoming dictator — an equivalent aspiration to the “presidency” for boys in democratic systems. A great hero of Hussein’s was Stalin. We have an analogous blood-group in our lawless subculture of mafias where the gang-head is anointed “godfather.” Dictators, unlike presidents or prime ministers, have been able to murder their enemies with impunity. Now things have changed. Presidents can kill dictators and behave just like them. In order to kill with impunity however, the president has to go abroad, or I should say send people abroad to do it for him, to the dictator’s territory. He can’t do it at home yet, i.e., that we know of. He can only imprison people without due process. If JFK had been able to assassinate Castro, as planned, wouldn’t we simply have annexed Cuba? Why are we saying we want Iraqis to take over their own country after we condemned to death the man who had held them, more or less, together, and we continue to occupy them? Mr. Bush doesn’t know. His mission was accomplished when Hussein was hanged December 30. The man on whose behalf he acted is standing right behind him in the Washington Cathedral photo — his father Bush Senior. Has anyone forgotten the claim that Saddam wanted or tried to assassinate his father? Are we living in father/son dramas called governments or what? Imagine all the stories swirling around these photo-darkgray outfits. Did Betty give up dancing for the fatherless Gerald? Yes Gerald’s father, like Hussein’s, deserted his wife too. And Gerald, similarly to his stepfather after whom he was happily renamed, was asked to supplant a father called Nixon when Nixon betrayed his country. Wouldn’t Betty just have been marking time until Mr. Right came along? Dancing was never very important. And girls as ambitious as Martha Graham were rare as lemons in an orange grove. Her original competitor was not Jose Limon of course but another rare fruit, Doris Humphrey, who became Jose’s advisor when an arthritic hip stopped her from dancing. I would have been a Humphrey auxiliary had hip replacements been available then. I was solidly in the Humphrey camp, where we tribally despised the “Graham Crackers.” It would never have occurred to me that nice people like Betty were over there — across town on the East side — hugging the floor tortuously in emotive contractions. In Jose’s studio, with Doris looking on, and despite Jose’s Mexican earthiness, we were celebrating the air. It was out of the air finally that I landed and broke a fifth foot metatarsal, leaving Jose’s studio for the greater world — a room in the 42nd Street Library called the Dance Collection, which was tucked into the Music Division. One day Martha Graham’s longtime associate, advisor, musical director and publisher of the Dance Observer, Louis Horst, came into the library and asked me to write a review for him. The rest became my history, and I was no longer an auxiliary. When JFK was assassinated a few years later, the four living presidential couples and two widows in this memorial photo were leading auxiliary lives, i.e. in waiting for their futures. When Betty became first lady she lobbied successfully and proudly to have Martha Graham receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom. One future I awaited myself would involve trying to understand who these people were, or what they would become, like was president or a president’s wife a calling, a directive, an accident or what? When JFK was elected — the first and nearly the last president I ever voted for — all I thought was that he and his wife looked like a beautiful couple. How could we go wrong? The Cuba mess? Heard of it; never tried to find out what it was really about. Vietnam? Very distant. The assassination? Got extremely interested, but the news behind the news was not available, and the details were soon exhausting. Quite by chance, I commemorated the event the day of the funeral with a “dance.” Curiously, in the 1960s I became a dancer, just by saying so if I wanted to — in the Dada tradition then undergoing a renasissance. I mean you could walk down the street, or do much less than that, and advertise it as a dance. Just living was dancing. I was out at Billy Kluver’s house in New Jersey for some reason, and since Andy Warhol was there also along with his camera, he shot me running around in circles in the November mud of Billy’s backyard wearing tall black boots, cutoff denims, a red jacket and a beret. A rifle, presumably Billy’s, was slung over my shoulder. At the same time, the funeral was appearing on TV in Billy’s living room. That may have been a good place to stop, but life does move us along. We know about Betty’s traumas when she was first lady and in the aftermath. Right behind Jimmy Carter in the Cathedral photo is his wife Rosalynn, her face half hidden, a sturdier woman than Betty but not nearly so fun-loving. Is that Mrs. Reagan standing behind her — in shades, at the end of the first row? I’m sorry but I’ve crossed her off, have tended to think she’s dead. I loved the California funeral on TV for her husband, though I was surely one of those who thought it was pretty dopey to elect an actor president. By now I have figured out that it’s not their fault, becoming president, but their father’s. And keep going back to the fathers’ fathers. The written JFK history is rich with them, especially his immediate one. If Hillary becomes president, and I had hoped not to mention it here, who would we blame? Her husband I guess. A number of wives around the world have pursued their husbands into the graves of presidencies. We think men die in the Senate, but look what happens to them as top gun. I voted for Bill, then regretted it the moment he followed his military into the “don’t ask don’t tell” crime against truth and thousands of our fellow citizens. Still, I favored him for having never known his father, who died in a car accident before his birth. Like Saddam and Gerald, he had special credentials for any leadership sweepstakes. I had hopes for him. But I was fooling myself because behind the unknown father stands their fathers’ fathers anyway, and if not them the whole idea of them from 4,000 years or more back. Is Hillary going to save us from this? Is it supposed to matter that she voted for the “war”? Of course it does. It means she wasn’t thinking. And if nothing else, we need someone who thinks. Which brings me to Obama, another fatherless boy, but so exotically it gives you a tremor. I cast my preemptive vote for him in a book I wrote titled “At Sea on Land,” published in 2005, having read his first memoir, “Dreams from my Father.” After a peanut grower, an actor, a lawyer (a couple of whom had also been governors), a navy pilot and a businessman, why not a writer? I know I know, Obama didn’t vote for the “war” because he wasn’t there to vote, but I’m dead certain he would not have. Now people are saying he doesn’t have enough experience to be president, but time is running out for us; and a born leader, if you recognize one, walks right into experience knowing at least that he is having one. Never mind the charisma, or admit it if you like: he’s warm, he cares about people, and he thinks internationally. If he wins, I’ll dance in complete surrender — on my new titanium hip. Lately I’ve resembled the great choreographer Doris Humphrey in her hip dotage, leaning painfully on a cane, a woman with no chance of ever dancing again. I say “complete surrender” advisedly. I found the phrase in an article about the discovery of a long-lost brother by the English novelist Ian McEwan. The story rests in my favorite realm of permanently lost fathers. A wartime mother from Reading, England, in 1942 put a want ad in a local newspaper offering her one-month-old son for adoption. Soon she was handing her newborn baby over to strangers on the Reading railroad station platform. The mother, Rose, had been having an affair with Ian McEwan’s father David, an army officer, while her husband Ernest was away at the front fighting. Two years later during the 1944 Normandy landings, Ernest died. And Rose married McEwan, with whom in 1948 she had Ian, the future novelist. The baby handed over at Reading railway station had his father’s name, David. The name of the couple adopting him was Sharp, so he became David Sharp. His new mother was another Rose. Eight years later this Rose would die. When David was 14 he discovered he was adopted, and was told only that the family “got him out of a newspaper.” Later he found the clipping, a priceless (looked at in a certain way) kind of “certificate” of origins. Squeezed between ads for musical instruments and secondhand furniture, it reads: “Wanted, Home for Baby Boy, age one month; complete surrender. — Write Box 173, Mercury, Reading.” (My italics). In later adulthood David contacted a tracing service, and located his lost family. A photo in the article shows Ian and David happily together. This may seem unrelated to my color photo of the solemn living presidents and their wives and two widows at the Cathedral ceremony for Gerald Ford. But it does explain my title, a sentiment to which I believe I should aspire.

©Jill Johnston. Previously published on www.jilljohnston.com. To read more about Jill Johnston, please click here.