Maura 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 email@example.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.
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.)
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.)
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.