The DI Interview: Sara Rudner, Marathon Woman, talks to Philip W. Sandstrom

By Philip W. Sandstrom
Copyright 2007, 2017 Philip W. Sandstrom

(Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on May 10, 2007, is sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock University Dance. If you appreciate this kind of unique coverage of dance and dancers, please subscribe to the DI today at the rate of $29.95/year  by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to subscribe by check.)

NEW YORK — For “Dancing-on-View (Preview/Hindsight),” being presented this Sunday by Danspace Project and the Baryshnikov Arts Center (BAC) at BAC, Sara Rudner revisits the concept of her 1975 marathon show in which her company danced non-stop for five hours. In the 2007 version of this idea of long distance dancing, her company will present mostly new and some historical material that Rudner has mined and fashioned from her years of studio movement studies, her dancers, and her 1975 show. By creating new work that reflects upon its own movement and patterns in real time while simultaneously following a pre-ordained trajectory and movement structure, Rudner plans to present a four-hour dance work that will reveal itself over time while continuing to be self-referential. All parts of the dance will represent the dance as a whole, she explains. The audience can come and go as it pleases and still get the essence of the dance. This work will be re-created in Ireland by the Irish Modern Dance Theatre (IMDT), with a cast combining company members and dancers from the New York performance.

I interviewed Sara Rudner on April 22.

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Going the distance: Sara Rudner’s company for “Dancing-on-VIew (Preview/Hindsight).” Adam McClelland photo copyright Adam McClelland and courtesy Danspace Project and Sara Rudner.

Philip W. Sandstrom: What sparked your interest in creating this, as you’ve described it, “long distance dancing” or “marathon dancing”?

Sara Rudner: My interest in doing this kind of work started in the mid-’70s. It was 1975, we did the first marathon; that was a five-hour event for four dancers. That was born of the ideas of context: where do you see dancing, how do you see dancing, what do dancers do, how does dancing fit into life in other ways other than going into the theater, sitting in a dark space and looking at dance?

(When she initially floated her idea of long-form dance works, Rudner explained, the existing standard was to perform two or three works per program.)

… When I told my management the kinds of projects I wanted to do — long continual pieces without a break — they said That’s not going to work, we can’t book you. So, I decided to be un-bookable, and continued to do the work that I wanted to do. (Consequently her bookings were few.) As you know, since then there has been a lot of thought on how to produce dancing and you well know how fashions come and go.

PWS: I’ve seen quite a few come and go.

SR: But I am still interested in this style, the same style (marathon-style), what I’m doing now, and what I have been doing, although I approach it differently than I did in 1975.

PWS: It sounds like you have created an installation dance of dancers commenting on dancing and choreography through the act of dancing. The genre of installation work and work such as yours has never gone in or out of style — it’s a constant.

SR: Exactly. At the time I did my first marathon, I had been thinking about Asian theater, and shows that go on all night. You bring your family, you bring your dinner, you fall asleep, you come and you go. I was thinking about various paradigms as well.

PWS: Did you derive any inspiration from Kei Takei?

SR: I don’t know Kei’s work very well.

PWS: Her “24 hours of Light” went on all day and into the night in the late ’70s early ’80s.

SR: Right, and then, Robert Wilson was also doing his lengthy shows. I think this idea was in the air, as these things tend to be.

PWS: What did you learn doing your five-hour dance “marathon”?

SR: It was a big challenge and that extra hour was even more challenging; you learn how to pace yourself, what it means to be in that paradigm. Now I am working with a number of young dancers, the oldest of whom might be 31 or 32. That’s about how old I was when I did the 1975 marathon. You learn different things as a choreographer; it was a different compositional challenge to work in that format. It’s a choice, not a popular choice, especially not financially; you can’t program something like this back to back, like a matinee and an evening. But I was very eager to pursue that again.

PWS: So how did you approach this project with this group of dancers?

SR: I start with the dancers and ask, what do you want to do? New material? Old material? What are you interested in? Then we go from there; we start having a dialogue. There will be a certain amount of improvisation; these dancers have resources that will reveal themselves in performance. Their solos will be their own, the making and the choosing.

PWS: When and where in the performance will this improvisation occur?

SR: Sometimes in the midst of other performance activity, because there will be a lot of multiple focus work going on throughout the entire event.

PWS: Do you have any sort of map of the structure of the dance or of the choreography?

SR: The entire event is mapped. We have a timekeeper, Gillian Vinton; it’s her job to keep track of who’s dancing what and when. It will be posted for all to see and given out in a program. It would be too hard to remember all of that and keep all of that in your mind. It’s like a score. It will be somewhat cryptic.

PWS: You mean the enigmatic phrases dancers use to identify the sections?

SR: Exactly.

PWS: So there will be some sort of artifact so we can follow?

SR: Yes, the audience will know what we call each section and where we are in real time — this will be important for the new audience members as they arrive. They’ll see that it’s 5:35 p.m., so the dancers must be at this point in the program. It’s literally a program.

PWS: How are you structuring the concert? For example, will you recap everything in the last hour for the lazy people who decided to only show up at the end?

SR: Essentially all the material in the dance will be constantly recycled in many forms, so we’re not going to do a re-cap. Everything is a variation on things that have come before. I like that. As a viewer I like my eye challenged. I like to see complex spatial organization, and rhythmic organization. I am VERY fond of making many variations on the same material. No one is expected to stay for four hours. We hope to convince people to leave and not stay so others may enter. It’s not going to be easy to look at.

PWS: Considering who’s in your cast — Rocky Bornstein, Megan Boyd, Linda Cohen, Erin Cornell, Erin Crawley-Woods, Laurel Dugan, Maria Earle, Liz Filbrun, Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, Patricia Hoffbauer, Rachel Lehrer, Merceditas Manago, yourself, Vicky Shick, Maggie Thom, and Lori Yuill — I think it will be very easy to look at.

SR: Oh well, that’s true; I’m talking choreographically. The audience should get the gist of it in about a half-hour to 45 minutes. We won’t have chairs for everyone so we hope that will help move people out after a certain period.

PWS: What’s your role on the day of the performance?

SR: My involvement will be that of the choreographer, although I will be doing some dancing.

PWS: So what’s it been like, putting all this together?

SR: It’s been a very lovely studio experience for all of us. Very good for all of us, very supportive, very intense. They have to learn a lot — it’s complicated, with intense movement — but it’s been a labor of love from just about everyone. It has context in the sense that we are all women and we are performing it on Mother’s Day.

PWS: So dancing with people that you like to dance with is a big part of the pleasure of doing this type of work?

SR: It’s a big part of the pleasure. It has a lot to do with why people stay and work with certain groups; the choreography has a great deal to do with it, but it’s relationships (as well). You can have all the smart ideas you want for choreography but you know who makes the dance?

PWS: And they never get thanked enough.

SR: Exactly.

PWS: You are choreographing “Dancing-on-View” for the upcoming four-hour performance at BAC, and for the Irish Modern Dance Theater. Are you setting the same piece in both places?

SR: I can’t. It’s the same idea and the same concept but I can’t because I don’t have (all) the same people, I have new dancers. The piece depends on who the dancers are and what they know. The dancers and what they know determine what the structure is and what is seen but the intention is the same and the concept is similar. The idea is that dancers dance and they are dancing whether they are seen or not.

Maybe it is born from my experience as a young practitioner working with Twyla (Tharp) in the ’60s. The studio process was essential and many of us, for many years, felt passionate about the work — performing really began to rely on the deep experience that we had in rehearsal. The spirit was there that working on the dance was sometimes as important and sometimes more important than the performance in those early years. Our performance ability and our early style rested on the fact that, even though we were dancing to Sinatra or Jelly Roll Morton, we were still the nerdy dancers. We weren’t the Broadway gypsies, so our performance style was slightly different.

The dancers here in New York, I’ve worked with very regularly in the studio, some for five years, and others, like Patricia Hoffbauer, Rocky Orenstein, and Vicki Shick, I’ve been involved with for a long time.

PWS: In the IMDT press release, you state, “My collaborators helped me experiment with the physical training principles that form the basis of my work.”

SR: That’s Peggy Gould and Anneke Hansen — of the group, we are the ones that have worked the most intensely together. We traveled to Ireland for the past two summers. There is a different cast for IMDT. Anneke and Peggy, who are in the New York cast, will also be in the IMDT cast. Others from New York may join us but that hasn’t been finalized yet. Peggy also works with me and teaches at Sarah Lawrence. We have been working on developing pedagogic ideas for quite a number of years, along with other Sarah Lawrence faculty. (Rudner chairs the Sarah Lawrence dance department.)

PWS: Where did you meet Anneke?

SR: At Sarah Lawrence. After her graduation, Anneke approached me about working together in the studio, so I said why not? If anyone is willing to go through this, I’m willing to mentor them through it. In this cast there are about six Sarah Lawrence alums. There are also three faculty members, Peggy Gould, Merceditas Manago, and myself, and the two musicians are from Sarah Lawrence.

PWS: Although this is a bit of a sidebar, I am curious: The IMDT press release also mentions a “somatic keeper”; what’s that?

SR: I don’t use videotape.

PWS: I don’t get it, what’s the root of somatic? What does that mean?

SR: She keeps the movement in her body; it’s mostly Anneke. She knows all of the material. She keeps it in the old-fashioned way, in her body.

PWS: No Labanotation? Videotape? Sketches?

SR: We do write ourselves some notes, and for this project I have looked at some videotape of our past projects. The last taping I was able to look at was before Anneke came along; she’s only been working with me for the last five years. So there is some material that we are revisiting that was made before she arrived.

PWS: When did this particular iteration of this marathon project begin?

SR: I’ve subtitled this work ‘Preview/Hindsight’; the thought of doing another marathon was on my mind. I knew when my sabbatical would be. At the same time, John Scott (who directs IMDT) was interested in my work. In order to test the waters, and to introduce his company to my work, we did a series of workshops over the last two years in Ireland.

PWS: Who are ‘we’?

SR: Peggy Gould, Anneke Hansen, and me. We went, we taught, we tried out material, we introduced working methods. A lot of this work is about how you go about stuff, how you do the hard work of splicing different phrases, coordinating arms and legs, and keeping that stuff in your mind and in your body. That’s the work I’m interested in. Both developing movement from the ground up and looking at it visually and how parts of the movement vocabulary resonate with others. What goes together, what doesn’t, do you want to present those that don’t go together, or those that do? How you organize the space and the time, the visual field, and how you deal with it in terms that are usually considered musical, in terms of harmonies, dissonances, repletion, development, etcetera.

Last summer John Scott started talking more seriously about a production. He took me around to look at spaces; we found a lovely one where a marathon would look good.

When I first started working on the BAC effort it was to be a preview of what we would do in Ireland. Then in terms of hindsight I knew that I had to look to my past, to what I have always been interested in, and find new variations on that and new points of view of what I have been interested in. So that’s why it’s named “Preview/Hindsight.”

PWS: So, the idea started with IMDT, which led to the BAC show.

SR: It started with IMDT but it also started with my sabbatical and knowing I would have the time to do studio work. I knew I was going to do something; John’s invitation gave me that extra kick. Even though I teach at Sarah Lawrence, I (have) work(ed) in the studio in the city every week for the past eight years.

PWS: Working…?

SR: Working with dancers once or twice a week, whenever they can make it. I produce a certain amount of work, although not to this extent. I knew the sabbatical was coming up, I knew I had already been doing that work. Then there was John’s invitation. All these things floated around and now will actually result in two very different works with some of the same material but with very different people.

PWS: Earlier you mentioned two musicians; what about music? Will there be any amplified sounds?

SR: The musicians (William Catanzaro and Jerome Morris) will start this week; they’ll have about two rehearsals with us before we have open rehearsals. They are great improvisers. It will be a give and take structure where they will try a variety of things. They are both classroom musicians at Sarah Lawrence; of course, they do other things. They’ve been around dancers forever. This is not like commissioning a score and making a piece. It’s not atmospheric. It’s all acoustic.

PWS: They’re percussionists?

SR: They are percussionists. What we need for dancing, since most of it is ensemble dancing, is unifying time. The musicians will help us with that. Unified time, because it’s tightly choreographed with intricate canon work, and choreographic monkeyshines. They support our work and add a dimension in what they choose. They are our collaborators in the true sense.

PWS: Have you ever chosen music for your work before you make the dance? Or do you make a work and then find music for it?

SR: I’ve worked with composers before, such as Michael Soll, and I have chosen classical music and made a dance to that music or I’ve chosen music and working with a metronome. I’ve worked against the music so the music stands on its own and we dance to a different tempo.

PWS: Do you have an internal musicality?

SR: I attempt to make dance that is musical and expressive and abstract and contextualized and whatever I can pull out of movement itself. The challenge is how to make movement do this. I know it can’t do it all on its own. But sometimes I think that it can, sometimes I operate that way. Huge chunks of this dance will be done in total silence. The big question is, are people going to miss music?

PWS: I don’t think so, certainly not in New York. So, in short, setting your work to music or music to your work is not part of your process, certainly not your current process.

SR: No. I’ve been trying to set dancing to dancing; a lot of the structures in this dance are made that way. The work is done in layers: a phrase is going on in one part of the space, and another phrase, that is built upon that same material, (is going on) in another part of the space. It is all presented in reference to the dance that you’re seeing, like a riff. Layers of riffing upon riffing, all on what you are seeing, with additional material added continuously and simultaneously. Dancing to dancing, just dancing to dancing.

Disclosure: Philip W. Sandstrom and Laurie Uprichard, the executive director of Danspace Project, have had a near-familial relationship for a number of years.

Letter from New York

maura repopst 1 newMaura Nguyen Donohue of Maura Nguyen Donohue / InMixedCompany in her “Strictly a Female Female.” Photo ©Steven Schreiber.

Copyright 2011, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

(Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on May 24, 2011 and which does not necessarily reflect the opinions of other Dance Insider writers nor DI sponsors, is sponsored by Freespace Dance. If you appreciate this kind of unique coverage of dance and dancers, please subscribe to the DI today at whatever rate you can afford by designating your PayPal payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com, or write us at that address to learn how to subscribe by check. I’d like to add three qualifications to my original article: 1) If mainstream dance institutions like the Joyce failed a whole generation of choreographers who emerged in the late 1990s, other Downtown theaters like P.S. 122, La MaMa – where Maura and InMixedCompany recently concluded a successful season — and Danspace Project did a much better job of fostering this vital work. 2) If a couple of my superlatives for Rebecca and her work seem over the top and thus, I realize in hindsight, may have been affected by our close friendship, the acclamation – including funding of commissions —  her company received everywhere but among mainstream New York presenters still supports my thesis that the Joyce and BAM failed her by devoting their resources to the same old worn-out chestnuts like Doug Varone instead of nurturing native nascent talent. 3) My argument could also apply to other uniquely talented choreographers of their generation with whom at the epoch this story was written I had no close relationship, for example Ben Munisteri or Chase Angier. Rebecca’s and Maura’s are simply the cases with which I’m the most familiar. – PB-I)

NEW YORK — One evening back in the late 1990s, my friend the choreographer and dancer Rebecca Stenn and I were sitting in a tapas bar in the Village, where a Scandinavian presenter was telling us about Sasha Waltz, already the rage in Europe. In the intervening years, Waltz would go on to be given her own building in Berlin and enough additional means, from Germany and leading theaters throughout Europe, to work with whichever and as many artists as she wanted to in multiple genres and, most of all, the luxury of time to create new work. She never had to put her own work aside to take a teaching job so she could pay the rent and raise a family, thus risking the loss of creative momentum that might come with that. She was also provided the means to hire a full-time dramaturg to make sure the work was disciplined, as well as the resources to employ a permanent core of performers cultivated and schooled in her technique, method, and multi-genre approach.

If Rebecca Stenn and Maura Nguyen Donohue (like Rebecca, also a former and longtime Dance Insider contributor) had been working in Europe, this is the kind of support they would have received. And deserved; each, seen Sunday in back-to-back concerts at the 50-seat West End Theater, located on the second floor of a church on the upper west side, is on a creative par with Sasha Waltz, their contemporary, as far as choreographic ingenuity (Stenn), story-telling ability (Donohue), originality, singularity of vision, and musicality (both). But they had the bad luck (as artists I mean) to be creating work in turn of the 21st century New York City, where, even if the supply of talented, intelligent, and mature dancers is plentiful, the major institutions that should have supported their work — and I don’t mean by space grants of limited duration or teaching positions, but by commissioning it on a regular basis — specifically the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Lincoln Center, the Joyce Theater, New York City Ballet, and American Ballet Theatre, didn’t. These institutions, all of whom like to tout with homer pride New York City as the capitol of dance, failed to nurture two of the signature artists who emerged from the New York scene of the mid-’90s and who had the power to travel so far in their art — sweeping us, as critics and audience, along with them — but who were essentially grounded and orphaned at their creative births.

Now, Stenn would protest at about this point that no, she had space grants from the Joyce and teaching work from Lincoln Center. Donohue would probably stick up for the New York dance community, arguing that she had the opportunity to be integrally involved in Dance Theater Workshop as a board member, and institute programs there which had an impact locally and globally. Both would say that they love teaching, thank you.

But this is not what I’m talking about.

I am speaking specifically about the work. In France, where I lived and covered the arts for ten years, the work of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker, Sasha Waltz, Pina Bausch, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, Akram Khan and, more recently, Israel Galvan, is presented — and, frequently, co-produced by the presenting theaters — every single year. And this is before we even get to the French choreographers, most visibly Angelin Preljocaj and Maguy Marin. And before we even mention that 21 of them have their own, largely publicly-funded regional choreographic centers, where they are able to make work year-round, the only expectation being that they will perform it and that they will open their doors occasionally to their regional communities.

As a colleague here at the DI has pointed out, one outcome of such blank check support can be that the artist loses hunger and has no incentive to keep the quality of the work up. I have seen this happen occasionally; most of Josef Nadj’s work of the past ten years that I’ve caught has been derivative, and yet he has that choreographic center in Orleans for life if he wants it. (Author’s note, 2-6-2017: Subsequent to the initial publication of this piece, the rules were changed, and choreographers at these centers limited to 10-year terms.) But none of the others mentioned above show any sign of laxity. De Keersmaeker has made some groaners, and Preljocaj went through a fallow period, but they rebounded, and in a Europe where the new generation of choreographers seems not that interested in choreography, they have become the keepers of the kinetic flame.

Which brings us to Rebecca Stenn and Maura Nguyen Donohue.

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Rebecca Stenn of Rebecca Stenn Company in her “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris and Voyeurism.” Photo ©Julie Lemberger.

Like De Keersmaeker, Stenn believes in music. Unlike De Keersmaeker, she doesn’t repeat herself a lot. In terms of pure choreographic invention — on her own body and for ensembles — Stenn was one of the most rigorous American choreographers of her generation. She has sometimes been dismissed as ‘that Momix girl,’ but in fact, the most important gift she took from Moses Pendleton — the Momix director and Pilobolus co-founder whose primary muse she was for a critical 6-year period — was not his compositions but his ability to compose, to select and edit. Unlike Waltz, who usually makes heavy use of props, Stenn, who at Momix learned how to use them and thus *could have* continued to rely on props, gradually and bravely cast them aside, little by little. Her latest work, “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris, and Voyeurism,” which premiered last weekend at at the West End Theater, had none.

So what did it have?

First, it had Rebecca Stenn, as performer. Like De Keersmaeker, she has her own aura and glow. She is luminous. Possessed. Enchanted. On one of the first occasions I saw her, performing a solo at the Miller Theater years ago to ‘accompany’ an orchestra, I thought of what it must have felt like to watch Martha Graham perform. This is how Stenn transfixes; she doesn’t need to insist on the spotlight; it finds her.

Now, imagine watching Martha Graham — not at the beginning of her career but, say, in 1946 — perform in an upstairs room of an uptown church with 50 seats and the woofer under one of the seats, it’s that small. (Imagine Louis Horst accompanying her and having to have his music filtered through an inadequate sound system.) It broke my heart to see an artist of this stature performing in a theater that did not match her grandeur. This is not to belittle what David Parker and Jeff Kazin have accomplished in making this space available. Apparently the church offered them its use three times per year for Parker’s Bang Group to perform; Parker responded that he had enough performance opportunities, thank you, but could he use the church to feature other artists? In other words, Parker and Kazin, artists whose responsibility it isn’t, are doing what Joseph Melillo at BAM should be doing, and nurturing and fostering the native talent, while Melillo lets the true next waves — for this is what Stenn and Donohue were in the ’90s — peter out, in terms of financial and infrastructure resources, at least. (The only resemblance most of the dance artists BAM presents have with waves is their crests are crowned with white.)

Okay, but what does this mean in practical, danceviewing terms? I have known and been following Stenn long enough that, at Sunday’s performance, I could eventually see past the frame and still be awestruck that in one solo she managed to capture an entire life of dance learning and unlearning, from her pointed feet (Royal Winnipeg Ballet school) to her fast pivots (thank you, Juilliard) to twisting limbs (born at Momix, imbued and invested with poetic resonance by Stenn) to intricate hand ballets (her own innovation) and sometimes arch regard (ditto; born of Momix silliness, given nuance by Stenn), even to an uber-story of this miniature referencing “Coppelia” and all that says about the manipulation of dance bodies by directors and choreographers. So the artistic richness does surpass the humble setting, but….

What does the lack of support through programming her mean in critical terms? It means that instead of getting the top shelf critic at the NY Times, as she likely would have were she, say, being presented by BAM in the cadre of its Next Wave festival, she gets the one who only plays a critic on t.v. and who, predictably, doesn’t get the above solo, witnessing the same movement and movement qualities I just described above but, not being an actually qualified dance critic, records it as “toe-heeling her feet in time to Chopin while rolling her shoulders forward and sticking out her rear.” This isn’t dance criticism. This is crass. It is vulgar. It is ultimately uncouth, uneducated, untrained, illiterate, and uncultured. Not only does it lack critical perspicacity; it doesn’t even atain the level of original physical description. And it’s just bad writing.

(Do Gia Kourlas’s editors at the NY Times have any idea of the existential critical horror they provoke among choreographers when they assign this woman to review their concerts? And that it doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not she likes their work, but disappointment that where exigent aesthetic faculties, perception, and expression are called for to formulate an informed response, they send someone with a locker room vocabulary? “Sticking out her rear”?! HOW IS THAT CRITICISM? Can you imagine Andre Levinson or Edwin Denby speaking like this? What self-respecting critic would? And what self-respecting journal would assign a critic who expresses herself in such base, ignorant, uneducated, and vulgar terms to review a work of art? Theodore Bernstein, the legendary guardian of the style temple at the Times, is probably toe-heeling over in his grave.)

No, Gia. In fact, what Stenn was doing was not “sticking out her rear” but using time-tested Chopin to take a sophisticated rear-view voyage through time and in the process, miraculously, give new life to this almost 200-year-old tune. Making old music seem new. This is one of the things that dance, at its best, can accomplish for those who have the eyes to see it.

But of course, artists shouldn’t be ruled by what critics say — whether they be pretend critics like Gia or under-equipped critics like me. More important is the work, and a more important consequence of the failure by BAM and the other major NY dance institutions cited above to support *and* present her work is that Stenn doesn’t have sufficient time and other resources to devote to and develop it. For while she was preparing “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris and Voyeurism” she was also teaching at the New School and serving as dance mentor and choreographer with the National Association for the Advancement of the Arts and, with her husband and musical collaborator Jay Weissman, raising two kids, among other things. It’s clear that while the individual parts of this new ballet are deft, the ensemble (of fellow veterans Trebien Pollard, Eric Jackson Bradley, and John Mario Sevilla) better woven than I’ve ever seen in this genre (the amoeba genre, in which individual dancers become part of a thriving larger body), they haven’t yet been organized into a clear over-all theme expressed in a dance story with a defined beginning, middle, and end.

BUT — and this is critical — this doesn’t make the work a failure. It makes it a beginning. This is the stage at which a Joe Melillo (the executive producer of BAM) would step in and in lieu of demanding, “But does it have the potential to sell tickets?” would ask, “But does it have the potential to be a fully developed, powerful, and perhaps even pioneering work that moves the form forward?” Which “Fantasy, Lies, Hubris and Voyeurism” does, but which, unfortunately, it won’t be given the chance to become because the New York universe in which Rebecca Stenn launched her choreographic career is not the one of 1926 or even 1946 or ’56, when talented choreographers might find themselves on Broadway, sponsored by a savvy producer, or even commissioned by New York City Ballet, but the one of 2011, when the big presenters in town — BAM, Lincoln Center, the Joyce — lack the courage, foresight, and most of all, genuine investment in the creative infrastructure of the art to know a good thing when they see it and nurture it, and when the big ballet companies like New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, lead by directors with no vision and boards who can’t tell the difference, prefer to present, again and again, middling talents like Christopher Wheeldon to recognizing and utilizing the choreographic genius (not just Stenn, there are more) growing in the arid funding climate of their own backyard. The result is that in lieu of the veritable capitol of dance it once was, New York has become simply a museum of dance, and a rather unevolving one at that, its capital more invested in its permanent collection than ongoing new exhibitions.

(A last, practical, suggestion for Stenn for this work: Brave as the musical choice was — in a post-post-modern context — to use Chopin, I would go further and use it exclusively. Save the Weissman original music for another occasion or, if you must, employ it more selectively: Pick one juncture. Also consider experimenting more with silence. There was one moment where the only noise was what sounded like a choir filtering in from another part of the church. This actually enlarged the work’s context, situating the dancers’ movement as a sort of oblivious and determined counterpoint to the sonic ambiance occurring outside the theater.)

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Maura Nguyen Donohue / InMixedCompany in Donohue’s “Strictly a Female Female.” Photo ©Steven Schreiber.

If Rebecca Stenn’s genius was to take the genus Momix/Pilobolus beyond the comedically diverting, sensually alluring, intermittently dramatically moving, and physically impressive to the terrain of kinetically challenging, musically broadening, and sometimes even intellectually provocative, Maura Nguyen Donohue’s genius with her Maura Nguyen Donohue / InMixedCompany was to resuscitate the ‘social issues’ genre and infuse it not just with artistic integrity but entertainment and cross-genre originality and fluidity. The main reason Donohue’s new “Strictly a Female Female” seems to work in the West End Theater space where Stenn’s doesn’t has to do with the format she’s chosen, which invites and inspires audience interaction and participation. This starts with the show before curtain and accelerates from the moment veteran Slant virtuosos Rick Ebihara and Perry Yung enter as supposed sailors just debarking in town. As with her earlier “Lotus Blossom Itch,” the Slant guys do help to leaven the message and are thus part of the reason Donohue is able to make social issues / message themes work as theater. But it’s not just that. Dressing her mostly female (and one female impersonator) and all attractive (including the female impersonator, Timothy Edwards) cast in bright orange shorts and white tank tops, Donohue may be saying it’s normal for guys to gawk at cute mostly Asian women (herself, Peggy Cheng, Miri Park, and Jessica Colotti) in shorts, or she may be catching you in the act before she sucker punches you with your political conscience, but whichever it is, the net effect is to open you to her message.

That message isn’t really new, concerned as it is with responding to racial and sexual stereotyping and gawking, mostly though not exclusively as it pertains to Asian-Americans and women. However, the need for its reiteration is validated by ongoing real-world provocations; most recently, as Donohue reminds us in an opening clip shown on the Ipod of one of the ‘sailors,’ in an anti-Asian-American tirade by Alexandra Wallace seen by millions on You Tube. (After the Ipod clip, the African-American and bearded Edwards takes over, lip-syncing Wallace’s recorded words. I note Edwards’s race just to evoke the aesthetic contrast of his skin color with his blonde wig.)

The artistic justification for Donohue’s attacking this theme again is that it is, in fact, her creative matter. And what’s noteworthy for a long-time observer of the way she’s gone after it and worked with this particular clay (see elsewhere in these DI Archives) is to see the growing sophistication of the artistic tools and elements with which she treats the subject. I’ve been watching social issues theater for 45 years, going back to a childhood in San Francisco in the 1960s where I regaled at the early efforts of the legendary San Francisco Mime Troupe, and I have to tell you that no one I’ve seen on two continents has managed to transcend the social/political message — to create actual art in lieu of just a polemic preached to the converted   — more effectively and eloquently than Donohue. In fact, this artist, who called one of her works “Righteous Babe” (see my review in the Archives) understands that it can actually alienate some portions of an audience to just get up on stage and rant (self-) righteously. In “Strictly a Female Female,” particularly when one considers the way she uses a multiplicity of elements to explore her theme, from the “RENT”-tested diva Miri Park, channeling Pat Benatar on “Hit me with your best shot,” to the vocally versatile Ebihara, sampling everything from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Tim Rice (“One Night in Bangkok” — did you even need to ask?) to Billy Idol, one almost has to ask whether the message isn’t serving the medium, a relatively limited social/political question being tapped to create a richer work of art! If I can be permitted one trite critical cliché (at least you’ll never catch me saying “she sticks her rear out”) — Donohue has a hit on her hands. Park and the Slant guys push it into that territory — the territory that could and should go beyond the self-consuming dance crowd and on to Broadway. I know, the powers that be on the Great White Way would rather revive the actual “Lady and the Tramp” then show us Ebihara, Yung, and Park riffing on one of  that musical’s numbers in such an original fashion that we only recognize the song half-way into it, when the choreographer and her fellow Siamese felines start slinking around in silken black kitty-wear…. And don’t ogle them too long with your devouring eyes and drooping tongue, you dog; in no time, Donohue introduces a 12-foot tall “Hello Kitty” puppet, crafted by Ebihara, to scold the letches in the audience by baring its fangs and swatting Edwards / Alexandra Wallace with its paw.

Okay, so…. The piece works in this venue…. It’s mostly finished… And it could be a hit on Broadway. Why, then, to quote another song recorded by Bobby McFerrin (who also did a version of the above-referenced “Siamese Cat Song”), why can’t I just be happy for Donohue and not worry?

In her penultimate solo, Donohue almost cried, and brought me to tears, when she reported that this was her first full new work in nine years. Nine years. That’s a lifetime for a dancer. Now, for all I know, Donohue has been perfectly happy to devote most of her time to teaching at Hunter College, raising two kids, serving on the board of a crumbling (my opinion — not hers) dance organization, writing for the DI and others, launching and leading the MeKong Project, etc., etc.. So it’s quite possible that even if she didn’t need to work as a teacher to support herself and, with her husband, support her family, even if BAM were presenting her work every year instead of importing modern dance work from Europe that far from being “Next Wave” for the most part (Waltz is an exception) just copies what Donohue’s predecessors in New York were doing 50 years ago and (sometimes) work from Asia that reinforces as opposed to owns, remixes, and responds to Asian stereotypes as she does — it’s quite possible that even if she were programmed every year at BAM or the Joyce to create new work, instead of the poseurs like Sarah Michelson that BAM in its quest for coolness chooses to commission (enabled, of course, by no-nothing Michelson enablers like Kourlas) — it’s quite possible that she would still want to teach just for the pleasure of it. (For more on Michelson, in particular by Chris Dohse, see elsewhere in these Archives.)

But.

Speaking just for myself, as a critic and as someone who believes in and loves this work, I tear up because I see her, at 40 (Donohue referred to her age in the solo), having attained a new, higher plateau of performing charisma. (Emanating, as it so often does in a modern dancer — see reference to Martha Graham, above — in a potently eloquent torso.) I cry because I — we — deserved the joy of following her progression to this point during every one of these last nine years, prime years for a dancer. (As have audiences in Europe — and sometimes at BAM!! – had the pleasure, even rapture of seeing Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker perform every year for the last 25 years, of watching her get better and better … as a performer at least.)

And I get frustrated because, while her production values are high, her story-telling and entertainment instincts keen, and the group dance work has gotten tighter, Donohue’s weakest suit is still… the actual choreography. And I cry because, knowing how disciplined she is, from the work she has given to so many others in this community, including me and my publication — I cry because I wonder what level her *choreography* might be at at this point if she had been commissioned and presented every year at BAM. At the Joyce. At Lincoln Center. What she might have been capable of — choreographically — if, instead of allocating their resources to work like that of Sarah Michelson, 90 percent spectacle and argument and 10 percent choreography — the Joe Melillos at BAM and the Linda Sheltons at the Joyce had been supporting Donohue with commissions at a level sufficient to permit her to take a semester off from teachng *just to create.* (A colleague — who hasn’t seen this latest work — even suggests that so many hours teaching might filter into the dancemaker’s creative work and diminish it.) If they had not only commissioned a dance from Stenn so that she also could take time off to devote solely to choreographing, and really sift that creation through her own capable filters to see if it held together thematically, but paid her enough so that she might even be able to bring in a dramaturge, or a Moses Pendleton. Not because she needs the choreographic help but just as a sort of sage to give her a seasoned opinion on whether the narrative held together, and if not to observe and give feedback while she tried different ways to make it work. (Space grant, schmace grant. What Stenn and Donohue need is time.)

So while I applaud these artists for what they have achieved and accomplished in so little time, and for their determination to keep choreographing and creating amongst all their other responsibilities, and I applaud the presenters David Parker and Jeff Kazin for sacrificing their own interests for those of their peers, I say shame on BAM and the Joyce and Lincoln Center for abandoning their best and brightest. For closing their doors to them for 20 years. For leaving them — the artists as well as Parker and Kazin (who turn their receipts over to the artists, while making a fraction of what Melillo and Shelton, the Joyce’s director, do) — to fend for themselves. No, it’s worse than that. I say shame on BAM, the Joyce, and Lincoln Center for their curatorial cowardice, for their lack of mindfulness in not taking care of the legacy they inherited, for orphaning these native New York artists from their own backyard — and there are others in addition to Stenn and Donohue, these just happen to be the two cases I’m most familiar with because I care so deeply about these two women as artists and believe so ardently in what they have been trying to create and continue to be amazed by their investment in their art and the field and their generosity to their colleagues, they are my heroes — even as artists like Stenn and Donohue try to lead the art form these major presenters pretend to be interested in advancing to a rebirth. If New York was once the champion of dance, its present caretakers have given up the title without a fight.

 

 

 

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For her new “I Know You,” Donna Scro Samori, artistic director of Freespace Dance, has brought together 23 dancers ranging in age from 15 to 65. Premiering October 22 at 8 p.m. and October 23 at 4 p.m. at the Space at Yoga Mechanics in Montclair, New Jersey, “I Know You” explores the shared worlds, experiences, thoughts, and emotions that connect people from different walks of life, says Samori, a veteran of the Nikolais/Louis, Sean Curran, Peter Pucci, and other dance companies who often integrates Anusara yoga, of which she’s a certified teacher, into her choreographies. Photo from Donna Scro Samori’s “I Know You” by and copyright Robert Cooper.

Flash Flashback, 10-18: Music First, Dance Always — Donna Scro Samori Frees the Space at Danspace

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Donna Scro Samori and Nicole Smith in their “Wombed.” Photo copyright Sean Duckett and courtesy Freespace Dance.

By and copyright Nicholas Birns

(Originally published on July 6,2011.)

NEW YORK — Donna Scro Samori’s New Jersey-based Freespace Dance took a provocative step in its self-produced program last week-end at St. Mark’s Church, part of Danspace Project’s Dance Access program, by opening with a strictly musical performance. The force of the two introspective and melancholic, alternately soaring and brooding pieces, Amanda Harberg’s “Eagles; Flight” and “The Storm,” as performed by Harberg on piano and Brett Deubner on viola, was heightened by the sense of sacred space present in the performance, the seating and performance space being roughly the same as it is for St. Mark’s Church services. Having attended many performances in this space over the years, I have seen the audience and performers positioned in virtually very conceivable configuration, but there was something simple and beautiful about the spectators facing the altar, as it were, which was heightened by the austere, uncloying, yet very intense and, with a very small ‘r,’ romantic music.

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