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.

 

 

 

The DI, Year One: The Choreographer Suicides — Ranjabati Sircar and the toll of probing the dark spaces within

“Have I missed the mark, or, like a true archer, do I strike my quarry? Or am I prophet of lies, a babbler from door to door?”

— Cassandra, from “Agamemnon,” by Aeshylus

By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak

Today’s re-publication of this article, which first appeared on July 8, 2000 and which also considers the work of Sean Curran, Mark Dendy, and Roger Sinha, is sponsored by Freespace Dance. For nearly 20 years, these are the kinds of stories the Dance Insider has been covering. If you value this kind of unique coverage, please support the DI today by becoming a subscriber for just $29.95/year. Your sub gets you access to more than 2,000 Flash Reviews of 20 years of performances on five continents by 150+ writers, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter, syndicated exclusively on the DI. You can subscribe or donate through PayPal by designating your payment to paulbenitzak@gmail.com , or write us at that address if you prefer to pay by check.

NEW YORK — Every choreographer I have known is, to some degree or another, manic depressive. Clairvoyant in his or her highs, doomed in the lows. Sean Curran seems, on the surface at least, more manic than depressive. Roger Sinha, both in the choreographic text of his “Burning Skin” and in his performance of it, is more obviously darkly manic. But I am thinking of this, to tell you the truth, not so much because of the performances of these two choreographers and their companies last night at Central Park SummerStage, but because of the news I heard, belatedly, just before the concert — and which struck me like a blow to the solar plexus, taking the life out of me — of the death by suicide, at age 36, of Ranjabati Sircar.

I met Ranja in 1995, when I had just started working at Dance Magazine and was something of a neophyte to dance in general, let alone dance from the sub-continent, let alone the distinctions between the various genres of that dance, let alone choreographer-teacher-dancers, like Ranja, who melded classical forms to contemporary ideas, not always to a warm popular reception among audiences or choreographers of an older generation. On top of this burden, Ranja had familial expectations, her mother Manjushree Chaki Sircar being a well-known choreographer and teacher in Madras.

“Is it all right to smoke?” asked the tightly wound, striking young woman who entered my compact office that Fall day. “No,” said I, and for the next hour, while Ranja was forthcoming in discussing her work and Indian dance and hybrid classical-modern dance, she fidgeted and remained tightly wound. Still, we hit it off, and, after some hesitation at its appropriateness, I called her a day later an asked her to a Maria Benitez concert that night. “I would love to go!” Ranja said.

It was a moving concert: Benitez’s conception of the de Falla/Sierra 1915 flamenco ballet classic “El Amor Brujo,” about an older woman driven mad by love and her own demons, followed by a tablao-style second half. We were transported, in fact, to a tablao, notwithstanding that the performance was actually happening in Chelsea at the Joyce Theater. Ranja was positively glowing afterwards; I could feel that she wanted to dance Flamenco right then and there, and indeed she explained to me some of the linkages between that form and certain classical Indian dance forms.

To prolong our virtual visit to Andalucia, we decided to repair to “El Cid,” for tapas and sangria. Something about the Flamenco left us both less tightly wound, we spoke not just as choreographer and journalist but as man and woman. The sangria loosened things further and by the time I walked Ranja to the 14th Street subway stop, we had that automatic, slightly giddy, elbow-knocking intimacy that, in the right circumstances, even strangers can sometimes find when the planets are aligned.

We met up again a couple of days later for San Francisco Ballet at City Center — it was either Val Caniparoli’s African-ballet hybrid, “Lambarena,” or David Bintley’s AIDS fantasia, “The Dance House” — and I can still see Ranja, emerging from the crowd: intent look, oval face, olive complexion, intent eyes finding me right away across the crowded sidewalk.

This time we repaired to Baryshnikov’s Russian Samovar for horseradish-flavored vodka. More significantly, from a culinary perspective, Ranja shared her curry recipe with me. She could never eat at Indian restaurants in the U.S., she said, because the food was too bland, so she carried with her a curry kit packed with the various spices that go into the national dish. Having previously only used a generic Spice Islands “curry powder,” I asked her what the ingredients were: cumin, turmeric, coriander, cinnamon, cardamom, cloves, mustard seed OR onion seed, cloves, and fenugreek. (The fenugreek is tricky; put it in last or it dominates the whole.) I still make Curry a la Ranja Sircar to this day.

Afterwards, sensing the imminent end of this visit and Ranja’s return to India, I invited her over for tea. We spoke about everything — life, relationships — and oh, I am trying so hard right now to remember the specifics. About visualization, I think, and astrology. If I close my eyes I can see her face in front of me…. I think we spoke of gurus… and of something magic and inchoate… and she told me about Cassandra. There’s a word in Urdu — which I know is the Pakistani and not the Indian language, but still I think it applies here — “Janoon,” which, I’m told, means obsession. Ranja’s Janoon was Cassandra, about whom she’d written and choreographed a piece, because of what Cassandra says about the position of women in society.

Given the gift of prophecy by Apollo, this daughter of the King of Troy was then deprived by Apollo of the power to make people believe her prophecies, after she refused to sleep with him. Thus, when she accurately warned the Trojans about the Trojan Horse, no one believed her warning that an armed force was hidden in the horse, and Troy was sacked, and Cassandra raped. When Troy was captured, Agamemnon took Cassandra as his prize; both were ultimately murdered by his wife, Clytaemnestra, and her lover Aegisthus. This too Cassandra predicted: “… for me waits destruction by the two-edged sword.” [Cassandra. Aeschylus, Agamemnon 1149] In many realms, Cassandra was and is looked at as “mad,” driven so by her visions.

Ranja invited me to see her “Cassandra” that week at the studio of Mary Anthony, so dear to one of my dance mentors, the late Joseph H. Mazo. From what I can recall, it was a dance of vulnerability and pain, but seemed at its beginnings, Ranja not yet able to externalize a story that obviously resonated so deeply with her.

Ranja and I lost touch until 1998, when I asked her to write a preview about the pioneering Indian choreographer Chandrelekha. Ranja made clear that there was a fission between her and the older choreographer, but that she recognized her importance on the Indian scene. When the article came in, I perpetrated what I now see as an irrevocable minor cruelty; there was no interview with the story, so I declined to use it, or to pay Ranja. This upset her, and we lost touch again. Today I grieve not only Ranja, but that I will never be able to make this right, to compensate for a minor cruelty with a later kindness. And I wonder if this was just one of a series of “small” cruelties that added up, in Ranja’s mind, to only one solution and antidote.

It’s hard to fathom suicide, and I almost don’t want to go to the dark and hopeless place Ranja found herself in on October 23, 1999, when, as police believe, she hanged herself from the ceiling fan in the flat of a family friend in Borivili. According to a report in India Today, just two days before her death, Ranja e-mailed a friend: “I am battling the dark spaces within myself.”

The same report in India Today makes all sorts of conjectures about what drove Ranja as an artist, and what in society and in her own family life — particularly her complicated relationship with her mother — might have driven her to kill herself.

Here, I can only offer the observation of someone who once observed Ranja close-up, in what seems now like a lifetime, indeed a different life ago: Alternately driven and insecure, confident and unsteady. Beautiful and yet perhaps burdened by that beauty. Heir to a pedagogic legacy, and yet burdened by that as well.

In what now seem our all-too-brief but nonetheless intense conversations of five years ago, it seems Ranja and I only started to ask the important questions…. Okay, now it comes back, one thing we talked about, both of us, was how we were trying to live healthier lifestyles; she in particular to give up smoking…. It seems Ranja hit a black impenetrable wall in her own searching and maybe… maybe, for as I write this I am still too stunned, numbed really, from the news of her suicide to barely begin processing what it means… but it seems that even if Ranja was not able to find the insight that would save her from her own hands, she offers one insight, I think, to choreographers — not just artists, but choreographers specifically.

Roger Sinha’s piece, “Burned Skin,” had to do with insecurity about identity — no, with self-hate of one’s racial identity, based on an apocryphal tale of an Indian boy who jumps into a vat of boiling water because he’s heard it will turn his skin white. Alternating with scenes of Pascale Leonard’s serenely brewing chai, the dance that ensues is nonetheless manic, as Sinha tries on all sorts of racial archetypes, from a swaggering, chick-chasing Dean Martin in shirt and tie to a kilted Scotsman. It’s a comic romp, but performed with a mania that suggests the character is not so much whimsically playing with other identities, trying on other masks, as running from his own.

Sean Curran presents a similar contradiction. His Chaplinesque stage persona never really completely hides — and perhaps this is why it resonates! — some sort of tragic, invisible burden. He’s ultimately a sad clown. In “Folk Dance for the Future,” when he gives up and then hangs his head after suggesting he might follow Amy Brous’s pivot-less somersault, it’s funny, but it’s painful too. Curran’s kinetic skill and particularly his gift for inventing new dance geometries is apparent in “Abstract Concrete,” premiered last night, and it’s an enjoyable diversion, expertly danced by a group of performers who are clearly getting inside Curran’s choreographic vision… but it has nowhere near the emotional resonance of his recent “Six Laments.” This dance — and particularly Curran’s own performance, as he gets up, stumbles, and gets up again, repeatedly, always looking over his shoulder, it’s surmised at a departed friend, as if he is being reminded every time he stumbles that the friend is no longer there — is anything but a facile tragedy with cheap plays to the emotion; it’s obviously based on real experience.

I’m thinking also of Mark Dendy. As hysterically funny as “Dream Analysis” was — this 1998 hit conjures Nijinsky, Martha Graham, and Judy Garland among others — it is ultimately a psycho-familial journey that also drove Dendy nearly to hysteria. During the creation, he told me when I interviewed him for the New York Times, he was haunted in his nightmares by an aunt who he also conjured in this dance, the idea being that she couldn’t believe he was going to bare her story in his dance.

Since “Dream Analysis,” interestingly, Dendy has followed an easier route, a pure dancey direction. In one sense I want to scold him for this — Why is he relying on his natural musicality for easy successes, when he can go so much deeper? — but after the death of Ranja, I can see the danger inherent in mining those deep waters.

Here’s what all this is leading up to, at least as close to coherence as I am able to express it this morning. Recently I have been discussing with another choreographer-dancer-teacher from the sub-continent how dance is not looked at seriously by society in general as a career. You’ve probably all heard this after you tell someone you’re a dancer: “Okay, but what’s your real job?”

The suicide of Ranja Sircar — and to a less obvious extent, the work of the artists I saw last night — gives me this epiphany: Dancing, and particularly choreographing, is not only not “not a real job.” It is an expedition no less fraught with peril than the most snake-ridden excavations of Indian Jones. Not all of these prophetic men and women, thank G*d, find their visions so ultimately and unremittingly black and hopeless that they are moved to take their own lives. But I have no doubt that the small deaths are real, and the stakes high.

Notes (from original article): Ranja’s mother passed away this spring. Thanks to Anita Ratnam for her insight.

From the Archives: Dunham La Grande

By Donald McKayle & Francis Mason
Copyright 2006 Donald McKayle & Francis Mason

First published on the Dance Insider on May 23, 2006, on the occasion of Katherine Dunham’s death. From the DI Archives of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2016, plus five years of the Jill Johnston Letter and trail-blazing reporting and commentary on the leading dance news of the era. Want more? You can purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $99 (institutions) Purchase by March 22, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

As a young teen growing up in New York City, I first came across Katherine Dunham while walking through the Broadway theater district perusing the posters and billboards of attractions at the various theaters. At the Belasco I was captured by the picture of a striking woman dancing in a gossamer dress. Katherine Dunham and her troupe of dancers, musicians, and singers were performing in Bal Negre. I purchased a balcony seat for $4.80 and went up to see a performance that would change my life and mark the beginning of my career in dance. Over the past ten years we have met and discussed several projects. Miss Dunham was a powerful force and I will always be indebted to her brilliance as an artist, a scholar, and an humanitarian. — Donald McKayle

I shall never forget Katherine Dunham in “Cabin in the Sky,” the musical Balanchine staged in New York in 1940. The devilish stunning Dunham and her dancing alongside the holier-than-thou radiance of Ethel Waters set the world on fire. When I interviewed her in 1990 with Dawn Lille for my book “I Remember Balanchine,” Dunham recalled how Balanchine came to Chicago to see her and her girls and invited them to come to New York to be in the musical. She recalled how she worked with Balanchine, how he loved her girls and how at the try-out in Boston she was censored for her bare navel in the Egyptian ballet. Her husband put a yellow diamond in her navel and the show went on. Dunham also recalled that after the show opened in New York Balanchine and the composer of “Cabin in the Sky,” Vernon Duke, used to come to her place all the time. Once they brought Stravinsky. Balanchine persuaded Stravinsky to compose a tango for her, which he did. He autographed it. “I’ve never done it,” she said, “I keep thinking I must find it. I don’t think anyone has done it.” — Francis Mason

Revisiting ‘Rite’… and Rights: 100 years after ‘Le Sacre’ exploded conventions, conventional women’s roles persist

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American Repertory Ballet in Douglas Martin’s “Rite of Spring.” Photo by Peter C. Cook.

By Christine Chen
Copyright 2013, 2017 Christine Chen

(Editor’s Note, not necessarily implicating the author or reflecting the views of our sponsors, 2-23-2017: With an American president that Jane Fonda – who in herself contains several cycles of the evolution of how women have been perceived and have perceived themselves over the last nearly 60 years – has referred to as “the predator in chief” and a vice president cut straight from a ‘promise-keepers’ mold whose idea of women may be more luddite than the pagan worshippers of Stravinsky/Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring,” Christine’s reflections below, first published March 13, 2013, are, unfortunately, today more pertinent than ever. — Paul Ben-Itzak)

NEW BRUNSWICK, N.J. — Last Sunday, we set the clocks forward. It was the first “spring rite” I performed this year (and it feels oddly premature given that it was snowing the day before in New York). Other spring rites which I’ll need to address soon include spring cleaning, spring training (for a half marathon my husband signed us up for), and of course, the spring season for American Repertory Ballet, of which I’m the managing director. This last rite’s ‘Rite’ — artistic director Douglas Martin’s new ‘Rite of Spring,’ which I’ll write about here — is all about rights.

One hundred years ago, Nijinsky’s “Rite of Spring” for Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes notoriously provoked riots among the spectators in reaction to Igor Stravinsky’s score, the dance, and perhaps Roerich’s book. The subtitle, “Pictures of Pagan Russia in Two Parts,” better describes this libretto. At the end of each winter, a number of rituals must be performed before warmer temperatures can thaw the land and crops can flourish. I imagine Russian winters to be particularly severe, which would have made these pagan rituals all the more sacred and vital to those who performed them. After the last few brutal winter weeks here on the East Coast, I’m personally ready to dance myself to death to ring in the spring. And this is just what happens in ‘Rite’: at the climax of these spring rituals, a sacrificial victim dances herself to death, and from this, spring can spring.

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American Repertory Ballet in Douglas Martin’s “Rite of Spring.” Photo by Peter C. Cook.

As I’ve been watching Douglas Martin’s ‘Rite’ develop, I realize how brilliantly he is both paying homage to, and reinterpreting this libretto. He has lovingly re-set the story in 1961 corporate America — for a ready reference, think AMC’s Mad Men. He lays bare the office relations, the gender roles, and the rituals we now look upon as antiquated, even while we fetishize the mod fashions. On the one hand, it’s a societal self congratulation on how far we’ve come, but on the other, it’s a call to take a look at our current society and to wonder what today’s cultural norms will look like to people decades from now.

In 1913, Nijinsky was looking back on the Russian pagan rituals and, by laying bare their barbarism, made people realize how far society had come (how could those silly people actually believe that sacrificing a woman would actually make the seasons turn?). In 2013, Martin is looking back on mid-20th century culture and, by laying bare the barbarism in that society, makes us feel similarly superior to those who came before us (how could those silly people actually believe that only men could be executives and only women could be secretaries?).

In the end, (spoiler alert) Shaye Firer, who plays “the chosen one,” dances herself to death. But for what this time? We then see Samantha Gullace rising like a phoenix from her ashes to break through the metaphoric glass ceiling. Shaye’s character sacrifices herself not so the seasons will change, but so the culture can. Her sacrifice allows the women who come after her to rise in rank. In a way, it’s a Rite of Second Wave Feminism.

Which has made me wonder where we are on women’s rights issues today. When I was a woman’s studies minor in the 1990s, Arlie Hochschild’s “The Second Shift” (the title is a play on Simone de Beauvoir’s “The Second Sex”), a sociological study of dual-career households, was a canon staple. Hochschild’s “stalled gender revolution” referred to the fact that while a revolution had occurred and women were now more equally participating in the labor force, gender roles at home had not shifted. Women still held down the bulk of the housework, hence putting in a “second shift.” This work-home balance issue is still swirling. Last summer, Anne Marie Slaughter (Princeton politics professor/ former director of policy planning for the U.S. State Department / dean of Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs) positioned herself as “the chosen one” — sacrificially saying what perhaps others wanted to say in her now famous Atlantic article aptly titled, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All.” And even more recently, Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer drew feminist ire by banning telecommuting for the Internet giant’s employees. And yet, the positions these two women held and hold speak volumes about the status of the glass ceiling. Of course there are many other issues; this work-home balance just felt salient to me right now, personally. So, I leave you to consider what’s next. We’ve come so far, but where will we be next time we look back?