Slaves to the Rhythm: Kuchipudi Kulture

shivalingappa cover

Copyright 2010, 2020 Paul Ben-Itzak

Among the many losses the Paris dance scene suffered with the departure and then death of Gerard Violette was the long-time Theatre de la Ville – Sarah Bernhardt director’s commitment to a multitude of Indian (and Pakistani) forms of music and dance. (A commitment to world dance that has since been replaced at the theatre Violette lead or co-lead for 40 years by the self-hating aesthetic of the Centre National de la Danse which Violette’s successor relies on for his dance programming, and which leaves little room for authentic, non-ironic world forms, notably from the Indian sub-continent and Spain.) Sol Hurok had nothing on Gerard Violette. Typical of that programming was this concert by the virtuosa Shantala Shivalingappa (and friends), first reviewed on the DI on October 28, 2004. To read about another Indian choreographer, the late Ranjabati Sircar, more in the traditional – contemporary veine — click here. Today’s re-publication is sponsored by Freespace Dance.

PARIS — I don’t know about your Tuesday night, but mine started with the Belgian man from Gent singing from the piano inside his open van on the Place des Abbesses in the heart of Montmartre and ended with a coked-up man from who know’s where chasing me down a dark street above the Moulin Rouge to the upper reaches of the rue des Martyrs (tracing the route Van Gogh once took to hawk his “Potato Peelers” to the Goupil Gallery on the Grands Boulevards), where I began to feel like one. In between there was Shantala Shivalingappa at the Theatre de la Ville aux Abbesses, an Indian dancer in the Kuchipudi mode intent on giving thanks for the simple blessings still ours for the asking even as the world hovers on the precipice.

I’d been avoiding concerts in the traditional Indian mode, not because they aren’t my cup of tea (especially if it’s chai tea!) but because I don’t feel my training as a critic matches these artists’ training in the various forms that come from that country. I am but a pauper babbling feeble prayers at their temple. I made an exception in the case of Shivalingappa because she had knocked my socks off in Pina Bausch’s “Nefes” (“Breath”). In addition to the precision and articulation in her fingers, which we know from other Indian forms, Shivalingappa added — in her Tanztheater Wuppertal appearance — flight.

This also turns out to be the case in the Paris premiere of “Shiva Ganga,” an evening of choreography in the Kuchipudi school or style, accompanied by live music. (Most of the choreography is by Shivalingappa, except for the opening sun worship, by Master Vempati Chinna Satyam, and a dance inspired by the god Ganesha by Kishore Mosalikanti.) Landing on plié — ouch! — or ending the evening simply spinning lyrically, back and head hunched, in a small circle — she is feather light.

But what stands out in “Shiva Ganga” is the mutual respect and relationship between music and dance. Much as in a flamenco concert, the most intriguing dynamic going on here is not necessarily the one confined to the dancer-choreographer’s body, but the one circulating between her and the ensemble of five musicians, including two soloist singers, a flautist, a percussionist and someone (like his instrument, unidentified in the program as far as I could see) on a string-like instrument that produced the underlying drone.

By far the heart of the evening, rhythmically, musically, and choreographically arrives with the extended play “Talamelam.” If you’ve listened to UK- based Indian fusion artist and pop star Sheila Chandra — specifically, “Speaking in Tongues I” and “Speaking in Tongues II” from “Weaving My Ancestors’ Voices” on Real World — or seen Sean Curran’s 1999 “Symbolic Logic,” set to remixes of the Chandra recordings, you’re familiar with the type of rhythm excursion this dance diva and her collaborators take us on. In fact, as Chandra points out in her liner notes, the sound and syllables of the musical composition relate not just to the mrdingam and tabla instruments, but “draw upon the patterns of rhythm used in South Indian dance.”

In her program notes for the evening’s musical and choreographic riff on this theme, Shivalingappa explains, “If melody is the body of Indian music, rhythm is its heart. In India, one says: ‘Melody is the mother, and rhythm is the father’ of the music. It’s the same for dance. The rhythmic system, tala, is an independent discipline, with a complex and subtle technique, finely developed. In effect, the innate mathematical sense of the Indian spirit endows it with a great rigor.”

All forms of classical Indian dance have pursued the tala rhythm, each developing its own personal language, Shivalingappa elaborates. For the form she’s schooled in — Kuchipudi — these investigations take the form of rhythmic variations in the voice and on the percussion instruments, a game or conversation in the rhythmic language, and a conversation which finishes with a dialogue between the dancer and the mrdingam player. Or, as she puts it, “The beating of the feet respond to the virtuosity of the fingers.” This conversation gives the dancer the opportunity to demonstrate the different positions of the Kuchipudi form.

“Talamelam,” the segment in “Shiva Ganga” which features this conversation, begins with a musical section created and directed by Savitry Nair and navigated by the rhythmic creations of B.P. Haribabu. Like the vowels between the consonants that book-ended his emissions, this pure music section was elongated — not just a musical introduction to a dance but a work of virtuosity in its own right. When Shivalingappa enters, the responses in her feet — as elsewhere in the program — demonstrate that for this form, all muscles and landing surfaces of the feet are called into service. Sometimes she balances on the balls, sometimes on the toes; sometimes her feet are simply flat. At other junctures, she arches both feet while maintaining the balls and toes on the ground, then bending at the waist and looking up mischievously at the musicians. In fact, it’s this personal regard — toward her collaborators in this section, and in winking asides to the audience throughout the program — that make dance like this such a tonic in a European environment too-often dominated by disinterested post-modern dance in which the performers seem to try to make like they don’t know the audience is there.

Before I saw this dance, I was impressed by the musicality of Curran’s effort to the similar Chandra chants, but there’s a difference between dancing on the surface of the music and engaging its soul and burrowing into its sonic meaning, and Shivalingappa and the musicians taught me that.

The only miss, for me, came later, when Shivalingappa squeezed her feet into and balanced on a wobbly disk-shaped basket at center stage; the awkward way in which she shuffled it forward was the one note lacking grace in the entire evening, a ‘prop’ dance we could have done without.

“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.)

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”).

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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.

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.