“What’s Dachau?”: Passing Over With Pilobolus Dance Theater & Sendak

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

First published on April 19, 2000. The principal subject of this Flash — and the question above — is, unfortunately, still relevant today, in the wake of the 13 anti-Semitic terrorist attacks which have taken place in the New York metropolitan area alone over the past several weeks, at least one of them, at a Kosher deli in Jersey City, with deadly results. Today’s publication, in this revised version, is sponsored by Slippery Rock University Dance. (As an indication of how the DI primed exploiting the nascent Internet medium to provide our readers with supplementary information with an immediacy print couldn’t provide, we’ve included the original external links. If they no longer work, please address the sources. We also primed overnight “Flash Reviews”; the one below was written on three hours sleep after a midnight train from Jersey to NY, probably for a 7 a.m. deadline before which I — and our redoubtable webmistress Robin Hoffman — also had to edit and post two other Flashes. So to paraphrase Kate Bush: Be kind to my longeur.)

PRINCETON, N.J. — March 16, a gallery opening in Chelsea: I stand before a photograph called “Wall of Death, Dachau.” The middle-aged woman besides me asks her friend: “What’s Dachau?” April 11, a courtroom in London: British “historian” David Irving loses his libel case against U.S. author Deborah Lipstadt, who he accused of falsely portraying him as a Holocaust denier. Irving claims no Jews were gassed at Auschwitz and that Hitler didn’t know about the mass killings of Jews. April 12, the Metropolitan Museum: Museum director Philippe de Montebello releases an extraordinary list of 393 European paintings of “incomplete provenance” from the World War II era. Notwithstanding de Montebello’s statement that “this is not a list of suspect pictures,” the action is in response to recent outings of works in prominent museums alleged to have been stolen from Jews by the Nazis. April 18, 4:30 p.m., Princeton: Toni Morrison, the Nobel Prize-winning novelist, tells an audience about the “intolerable trauma that occurs when the imagination experiences a chasm without the intellectual… ability to scan it.” 9:10 p.m., Princeton: Pilobolus, Maurice Sendak, and Arthur Yorinks try to give us a language, in dance and drama and pictures, to understand the Holocaust, reprising their 1999 dance “A Selection” at the McCarter Theater.

What makes “A Selection” troubling — and provides its intellectual girth — is that, for much of the dance, anyway, who the villain is is not clear. On the surface, it must be Otis Cook, a slithery, rubbery, twisted, earthy, perverted, deranged figure who enters ominously, a coat over his head, after the rest of the personae, a sort of family, have missed the last train out of the war-torn city indicated by Sendak’s backdrop of a city aflame, evoking the landscape of Chagall’s “White Jesus.” One by one, Cook tries to separate individuals from the group: giving money to Josie Coyoc’s little girl, obsessively trying to shake hands with a suspicious Gaspard Louis, making a move on the personnage who might be the mother of the group, Rebecca Anderson. Only Matt Kent, as a father figure, seems to sense Cook’s evil.

Kent tries to wrestle Coyoc away from Cook, but the rescuing becomes a brutal one. He swings her around by her ankles, which she stops only by — even as he is still swinging her — grafting onto him first with her knees, then grabbing his torso with her arms. He chases her, and she takes refuge, brilliantly, in the huddled group — Cook, Anderson, Louis, and Benjamin Pring. It’s a serious game of hide-and-seek, Pilobolus-style: Kent scurries behind the group; Coyoc’s head sticks out between two legs in front, upside-down. He sticks an arm into the group; his arm, impossibly elongated, juts out the other side. Her hair protrudes out of the top of this circle, but the bald Cook droops the hair over his pate as if it’s his. Then Kent pulls the hair, and Coyoc, out of her hiding place.

Later — or maybe, actually, it was earlier — Kent placed a possibly unconscious Cook on an operating table and, bare-handed, sliced into his abdomen. His arm bore deeper and deeper, until his hand emerged out of Cook’s mouth. Getting nothing, he then sucked –kissed? — Cook’s stomach. When I saw this dance premiere last summer at the Joyce, this is where the ambiguity kicked in; if Cook is the villain and Kent the innocent Jew, then why is Kent carving up Cook, Mengele-style? Other questions emerged, too: If Cook is the villain, then why is he dressed in what looks like the baggy garb of a concentration camp prisoner? If Kent is the victim, then why does his pursuit of Coyoc — which we at first think might be motivated by wanting to get her out of the clutches of Cook — almost turn brutal?

There are other factors that ambiguize whether Cook is victim or persecutor. He seems a mental case and, perhaps, a homosexual — both groups that were also persecuted by the Nazis. He does a goose-step at one point early on, but is it committed or a mockery?

And yet, on last night’s viewing, the ending couldn’t be more clear. Kent and Anderson are stripped naked by Cook who, suddenly, appears above them and upstage, majestically ordering the naked couple into one line, and the other three into another. One line for the gas chamber, one for the work camps is the more than implied. Cook’s groin-gear cinches it: on his front, a jester’s head covers the crotch; on his rear, a bigger clown head mocks us with a flapping tongue. Blackout.

On second viewing, then, I think I can at least hazard a guess about the meaning of the apparent ambiguity. Cook’s main objective, at first, seems to be to touch everyone. At one point he massages his crotch with his hand and then smells it ecstatically before eagerly thrusting the hand at others. My guess is that perhaps what the creators of the piece are saying is that evil is an infection, and can infect even the victims. (Cook also suggests a Capo, the Jewish concentration camp prisoners who collaborated with the Nazis.) How else to explain Kent’s mean-ness, and even some ambiguity in the other characters (when Kent is stripped, Anderson gathers his clothes and stuffs them into a suitcase)?

Choreographically, what stands out here is the troupe’s (in collaboration with Sendak and Yorinks’s) ability to invent still-new combinations with its inventive phrases. At one point, Coyoc stands astride — on deck?! — Cook who, flat, seems to glide across the stage. She also stands on Pring’s stomach as he arches himself London-bridge style.

The great irony in Pilobolus, these days, is that while it continues to find newly evocative ways to use that vocabulary in its serious works which, if anything, are getting even deeper and more complex — the 1997 men’s quartet “Gnomen” being another example — its comic pieces seem to this veteran Pilobolus-watcher, in a word, stale. Retro in a decidedly uncool way, last year’s “Uno, Dos, Tray” concerns two leering sailor types’ pursuit of a sexy (sorry, no other word here for the choreographic conceit), saucy waitress. They fixate on her ass; they feel it with their eyes closed, only to discover that they’re feeling each other’s – hardy-har-har; they go to kiss her only to kiss each other. This is comedy that is neither sophisticated, original, or wacky, and borders on the misogynist, notwithstanding that it was choreographed by a woman, Allison Chase, in collaboration with Coyoc (the woman last night), Anderson, Cook, Kent, Louis, and Pring. (A kudo is in order here, by the way; I think most choreographers create in collaboration with the dancers; Pilobolus and Momix are two of the only companies that officially acknowledge this debt. And while we’re on that subject, the Pilobolus directors who worked on “A Selection” were Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken, along with Sendak and Yorinks. All the dancers in the piece, mentioned above, are credited as collaborators on the piece.)

The 1999 solo “Femme Noir,” also choreographed by Chase, in collaboration with Anderson and with Rebecca Stenn, while interestingly lit by Stephen Strawbridge and well-danced by Anderson (you can also see the influence of the droll Stenn, a previous Dance Insider contributor, in some of her inflections), is similarly unremarkable and based on a dated, stereotypical humour. Okay, there’s a large sombrero involved, but its use is only mildly amusing.

But there’s another problem that these works, as well as the spastically veering (Comedy? Nightmare?) 1998 “Apoplexy” have in common: Paul Sullivan’s music. Sullivan’s fantasy scores, the ones that are amalgams of spacey New Age trippy music and comic sounds — “Gnomen” is a good example, and I believe he also did the elegiac 1996 “Aeros” and the ominous and tragic “Land’s Edge” — are wonderful and Pilobolus-appropriate. My understanding of the relationship here is that Sullivan comes in after the work has been set, and creates a sound for it.

But where Sullivan’s scores seem anemic is when he imitates a particular style of music. In “Apoplexy,” for instance, when the work was being created, I’m told, the dancers worked/played to real heavy metal music, something like Metallica. But instead of just using that music, the company then commissioned a heavy metal-like score from Sullivan. (To be fair, the trippy stuff and sound effects are involved too, so maybe they had to have an original score.) Remember those ’70s television shows where they’d use faux-hip “rock-and-roll” to try to seem hip? It’s kind of like that. Or, to employ another analogy, the Latinesque music for “Uno, Dos, Tray” sounds like something you’d create on your Casio. Even the piano on “Femme Noir” is so faux Chopin that one has to ask, why not just use the original?

I press this point because when Pilobolus does set to existing music, its musicality is almost an unrivalled achievement. High praise, but what I mean is that even when creating with an unorthodox vocabulary, the directors and dancers are able to achieve a specific, multi-level musicality; sometimes it’s on the notes, and sometimes it’s to the spirit, but it’s always remarkably musical. Even the choice of music itself often has a deeper significance. “A Selection,” for example, is set to the music of Hans Krasa and Pavel Haas. According to the program notes, both were highly-regarded young composers when, in 1938, the Nazis branded their work “Degenerate Music,” putting them in very good company, but starting them on the road to destruction. They were interned first in Teresienstadt, a so-called model concentration camp (Irving would have loved it) in Terezin, Czechoslovakia used to hold up a sort of false front of concentration camp reality to the international public. (Alongside Sendak’s “The Wild Things” and “Chicken Soup with Rice” in the library with which our parents nourished our imaginations was “I never saw another butterfly,” a book of poems and drawings by children interned in the camp.) Let me just turn it over to the program notes: “There they continued, with varying difficulty, to write music until being deported to Auschwitz. They traveled to their deaths together on October 16, 1944. It would be accurate to say that the setting of this work has been inevitably shaped by a response to their music and their lives.”

The 1992 (’94?) “Women’s Duet” is another example of the Pilobolus choreographers having the chops to find movement that matches the most exotic and evocative of musics. To “Rosenfale,” based on Norwegian songs, arranged by Jan Garbarek and sung by Agnes Buen Garna, they created an erotically, sensuously charged duet in which the relationship of the women is ambiguous: they might be sisters, might be lovers, might be mother and daughter, might be simply friends. Many are the choreographers who are drawn to exotica; few are those with the skill to create dance at the same high level as the music, but Pilobolus can do this.

And then there’s “Sweet Purgatory,” set to a stirring Shostakovich string quartet. Created around the time of Stalin’s purges, this music is powerful, cutting, and melancholic, bespeaking some kind of horror, or Shostakovich’s reaction to horror. When the American Dance Festival brought the piece to Russia a few years ago, audiences wept. Part of this response was due to the music, certainly, and their knowledge of what it meant when it was created; but if the dance had been inadequate, just a surface match to the music, the response would not have been felt so deep.

And again, the brilliance of both the entwined, supportive, inter-dependent choreography and the dancing in “Sweet Pea,” as it’s affectionately referred to by the performers, is that it matches the music specifically and in capturing its overall spirit. So powerfully, in fact, that when I’ve seen others attempt to create to this music — and a couple have tried to in the past couple of years, including David Brown of Monte/Brown Dance — I can’t even see their dance, but can only see and feel “Sweet Pea.”

So where does this leave us? With a company that, I think — talking now on three hours sleep, folks, after having taking the last trains (you take the Dinky at the WaWa to the junction for the big train) from Princeton to Penn Station! — is, simultaneously, an under-achiever in its recent attempts at humour, and the standard-bearer for serious dance work. (For more on this, see my Flash Review of April 3: Getting Piazzolla.) Modern, ballet — no one is creating work at this high level of musical and dramatic achievement. And, most blessedly, COMPLEXITY. Pilobolus is to most seriously-themed narrative dance like foreign films are to American flicks. Sure, the Pils prompt a visceral reaction, but the other part of their uniqueness in dance today is that they make you think — not just about dance, but about life, history, and the human psyche. And that they don’t provide easy answers. More like riddles.

Okay, I’ve found at least a temporary answer to the riddle. It strikes me — having returned from a place, Princeton, that was the site of some of both my own high thinking and undergraduate shenanigans — that this company founded by Dartmouth folks still has in its kernel the heavy and light sides of a college milieu. They can annoy you with their sophomoric hi-jinks one day, and the next astound you with a cerebral achievement that makes you think things you never thought before, and introduces questions that continue to germinate in your mind. And reminds you why you admitted them to your school in the first place!

And we need art like this, so we don’t forget.

…. As well as testimony. Here is one bit of that, a poem called “The Garden” written by Franta Bass, a child who perished in the Holocaust, and who wrote the following while interned in Terezin. It’s collected in a Holocaust classic I referred to above, “I never saw another butterfly: Children’s drawings and poems from Terezin concentration camp, 1942-1944.” (Schocken Books, 1978) Appropriate, I think — as was “A Selection” — for Passover, which starts at sundown today.

A little garden,
Fragrant and full of roses.
The path is narrow
And a little boy walks along it.

A little boy, a sweet boy,
Like that growing blossom.
When the blossom comes to bloom,
The little boy will be no more.

(Pilobolus’s Princeton season concludes tonight, with its signature “Day Two” substituting for “A Selection.” Pilobolus purists take note: Tonight’s a “family program,” meaning no nudity and you’ll have to settle for those dreaded flesh-toned “Esthers,” as the dancers refer to them. For more info on tour dates go to http://www.pilobolus.com.)

(To see the list of paintings released by the Met, go to http://www.metmuseum.org/news/index.htm. To read more about the David Irving case, click here.)

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.

Monkishness: For Monk’s 40th, a Birthday Chorus of Choreographic Royalty

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2004, 2019 Chris Dohse

(To celebrate two decades as the leading online voice for dancers and  number one source for exclusive reviews of performances from around the world, the Dance Insider is revisiting its Archive. Among the 150+ critics who have honored the DI by making us the vehicle to share their perceptions of the art which is so dear to them, we’re particularly elated to have been able to feature the incisive, articulate, ambidextrous, and electrifying observations of Mr. Chris Dohse. To find out how you can obtain your own copy of the 2,000 Flash Reviews of performances, books, cinema, and art from around the world covered by the  DI/AV since 1998 for as little as $49, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Today’s encore of Chris’s piece, first published on November 23, 2004, is sponsored by Slippery Rock Dance. To learn about Sponsorship opportunities at the Dance Insider & Arts Voyager, e-mail paulbenitzak@gmail.com. And to make a simple gift, in Dollars or Euros, via PayPal, just designate your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com or write us at that address to learn how to donate by check.)

NEW YORK — In honor of the 40th anniversary of Meredith Monk’s creative output, Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace Project, assembled a stellar group of post-modern choreographers to create new works set to Monk’s music. If you traced these choreographers and their influences and resumés and their similarities to other dancemakers, then connected those names, lineages, mentors and proteges to Monk, you’d have the material for a fabulous avant-garde drinking game.

Each choreographer in the “Dance to Monk” program, seen November 20 at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church, did what he or she is known best for doing. Like flavors in a broth that has been reduced for thickness, the qualities of their choreographic minds were magnified in unpretentious works that existed primarily to celebrate Monk’s genre-defying compositions. But in each dance, an appreciation of Monk’s person also abided. Aligned with the generosity and humanity of Monk’s own works, any sense of one-upmanship was absent. These ended up being minor works for these major artists, but each was significant as an historic record of the kind of impact one mind can have on her peers. Infected by Monkishness, the choreographers allowed rare sides of themselves to come to the surface. So for instance, we saw an uncharacteristically humane Molissa Fenley, a positively humble Bill T. Jones.

In Fenley’s trio, “Piece for Meredith,” we saw the impassive, somewhat chilly gaze, the imperturbable carriage, bird-like arms and crab-like legs, and formally formal forms that Fenley has built a repertory from. But set against the ethereal voices of Monk’s work from “mercy,” we also saw three lovely women who looked at times like figures on Golgotha in a liturgical dance: supportive, caregiving and reverent. When they bowed to the three sides of the seating area separately, a kind of depth to their spatial relationships became present that had been hidden within the material. Fenley’s style was suddenly lit in a much different light.

Ann Carlson’s “Flesh,” a previous commission for Oakland’s mixed-ability Axis Dance Company, questioned the quality of the inert body as two women in electric wheelchairs stacked able-bodied dancers in a heap downstage like so much firewood. Wearing nondescript jumpsuits and goggles, the cast might have been spelunkers or skydivers or explorers on an Arctic tundra.

Three solos were performed by their creators. Sean Curran was light in his loafers in “St. Petersburg Waltz.” Curran’s explosive aerials and petit allegro belied in some way his characterization of a hesitant, avuncular Eastern European folk dancer. But his snapped-to gestures, bowler and wistful shrug quickly revealed his storytelling heart.

Dana Reitz rocked from foot to foot like an obsessive rebirther or Trager therapist in “With Meredith in Mind,” and her white tunic glowed in the space with the purity of a healer. Kathy Kaufmann’s lighting rose to the challenge of Reitz’s history of innovation with designers. Tai chi simplicity gave way to immediacy, and Reitz’s gestures began to look like urgent sign language. With her arms chattering against the assured rhythm of her weight changes, her direct, rather shining demeanor cut through. The piece became not about what she was saying but about who was doing the talking, and why, and why we wanted to listen.

Jones ended the program in a haunting video projection made by Janet Wong. Equal parts whimsy and sadness and edited into the form of a duet with his ghostly naked self, the manipulated and halted shots began to suggest absence. When Jones tipped his hat and smiled, we could realize that his entire dance had been based on a simple bow, the signal that something has reached fruition. The impulse of that bow radiated through the audience when Monk came out to receive our gratitude (and to listen to us sing “Happy Birthday”).

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.

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.  

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!

Relationships, Shallow & Wise: When a Body Meets a Body at New York City Ballet

By Alicia Chesser
Copyright 2000, 2019 Alicia Chesser

(Editor’s note: Chesser, connecting ballet to life. Can ballet be relevant? You bet. First published on the DI on June 2, 2000.)

NEW YORK — When non-balletomanes ask me what makes dance valuable in the modern world or how it could have any relevance anymore, I often say that it’s important for us because of its unique ability to teach us about human relationships. We are, after all, beings who live in space and time; we know each other first by meeting a body, and we want to know more the moment that body — the eyes, the hands, the smile — responds to ours. These are the simple realities of human interaction about which dance has something to tell us. Last night at New York City Ballet, there were three statements put forward about such matters: Balanchine’s “Agon,” the premiere of Kevin O’Day’s “Swerve Poems,” and Jerome Robbins’s “I’m Old Fashioned.” It was an inspired bit of programming: I learned something about what a shallow relationship looks like by looking at a couple of wise ones.

The O’Day piece showed its youth in more ways than one. It’s actually a rather pretty ballet (O’Day was standing behind me at an intermission, telling someone not to worry, it’s a very light piece) — simple blue costumes and bare legs, with Arch Higgins and Albert Evans in ballet-class skirts for some reason; pigtails on some of the women and a shock of short red hair on Stacey Calvert; lovely lighting; and a minimalist set composed of a big black curtain upstage and a smaller white one stage left that kept moving up and down at random. The opening trick is a fun one, featuring a sort of cliff-edge at the back of the stage. Tom Gold starts out the piece as the spastic sprite amidst a company of very swervy kiddos who begin in a big group hug; he’s zipping and leaping every which way, and suddenly he slides backwards on his stomach and disappears (audience gasps!) into the floor. He’s the life of the party, the fun equivalent of what Peter Martins gave Damian Woetzel to do in “Slonimsky’s Earbox.” (See Flash Review 2, 5-4: Tears for the Ballet.) Then it’s many minutes of woozy tripping from the kids, grouped in twos or fours or sixes — they really did remind me of the people at the parties I used to go to in high school, where everyone was a smidge tipsy and trying awkwardly to get each other over to their side of the couch.

There was lots of very cool dancing here — the astonishing Abi Stafford and Carrie Lee Riggins got the moves and the groove especially well — and lots of steps, lots of moving in and out and popping up and being dropped and carried (plus some rather blatant “echoes” of steps I’d just seen minutes before in “Agon,” a lift lifted straight from “Serenade,” and a “West Side Story” bit for the marvelous boys). But one question kept coming to mind: What’s the reason for these steps? Why this way rather than that? Most of all, what are these people doing together? I couldn’t see a mind behind the ballet, couldn’t see any logic to the progression of events. Wendy Whelan and Philip Neal looked like the chaperones of this party; Whelan seemed to be aching for more time, more space to move in, for the bustle to quiet down for just a second so she could reflect. I was feeling much the same way. These wispy relationships, this periodical hugging, this randomness dressed up to look like a savvy comment — enough. This is what the depressing Gen X phenomenon known as the hook-up looks like set to music.

Actually, John King’s music (for violins, viola, cello, and bass clarinets) was the star of the show; it reminded me of Philip Glass’s harsh, tender string quartets, strangely moving in a way that O’Day’s dance never quite came to be. The audience, incidentally, knew it should have been over about seven minutes before it was. Gold reappeared and did his sliding thing again, the crowd started clapping in recognition of a nice full-circle ending, but then there came more slurpy boys and girls, until there was another false conclusion and yet more pretty slurping (this time, God knows why, unacccompanied) before they finally just sort of ran out of steam and stopped dancing. Don’t get me wrong: This is a perfectly lovely, if long and increasingly boring, ballet with some truly touching moments (I’m thinking here of Calvert and Evans lying on the floor, she on her side on top of him on his side in a sort of fetal position). But it’s a ballet with a teenager’s sensibility about human relationships: tender, smart, and beautiful in its way, but lacking a center and a purpose.

“Agon” presented a group of human beings who had somewhat more to say to each other, and somewhat more with which to say it. It was an unusually lively and endearingly imperfect performance. This wasn’t the normal cast, and there were definitely some unsure moments, most surprisingly from Damian Woetzel, who’s usually so sure of himself it’s scary. Here, in the Sarabande, he lacked Peter Boal’s expansiveness and picture-perfect poses; instead we got a solo with lots more slinkiness. Jennifer Tinsley and Deanna McBrearty were refreshing in the Gailliard; McBrearty especially was wonderfully flirty, her head peeking out from under her arm from time to time, her little jumps purring and winking. She’s a very expressive dancer, without being obvious. It was Kathleen Tracey in the Second Pas de Trois where we usually see Whelan or Maria Kowroski. Tracey looked like she was trying to move with Whelan’s force in those potent opening leaps, but it just wasn’t working. She couldn’t get any propulsion, and the effect was jarring. The men were, well, competent, if a little slow to respond.

Kowroski appeared, all legs and eyelashes, with Jock Soto in the pas de deux. This was a dance between an older man and a young nymphette: she was challenging and teasing him, he was downright intoxicated. There was a great moment where Soto, having grasped the point of Kowroski’s shoe, just let go of it suddenly in a gesture that said, “wow, what IS this girl?” Kowroski was enjoying the attention; when she had to reach waaay down to get hold of her ankle so she could lift her leg waaay up behind her, you could tell she was taking her time for the sake of his agitated pleasure. It was the first time in a while that she’s been fun to watch. And I saw something new in the final movements: a floor full of deranged court dancers. That’s how it should look! All the way through, the dancers looked a bit like people playing dress-up, and in an odd way it worked. These are court dances stripped down, sped up, turned inside out, and gone a little batty in the halls of modernity — you see the old-time arrangements of courtly manners radicalized, and most of all you see the blood beneath the forms.

If “Agon” shows human relationships at their most extreme — exposed, anxiety-ridden, trying to keep a hold on things — then “I’m Old Fashioned” shows us the grace. It’s been a long time since I was as moved at the ballet as I was during Whelan and Nikolaj Hubbe’s pas de deux last night. Here, at last, were adults encountering each other in the fullness of who they were — pensive, cautious at times, a little goofy, totally in love. What made it so moving was that she, this whole woman, was responding to him, this whole man, and vice versa; because we could see them thinking, their gestures had depth and purpose, and their smiles when they looked at each other were all the more welcome and authentic. They were ENGAGED; you could see them really meeting each other in the moment. An extraordinary moment it was, too — I’ve rarely seen Whelan so deep and alive, as if she was letting us into her secret world. How wonderful it was, at the end of the evening, to be told a story about dignity and respect and graciousness, a story of adults encountering each other, and one that, in its very simplicity, whispered a truth in the ear of the audience, and carried us away. That’s ballet with a soul, ballet for OUR souls, and it couldn’t be further from the sweet immaturity of Kevin O’Day.