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By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2000, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Editor’s Note: The first of many DI forays connecting the grandmothers of dance reposing in Paris’s cemeteries — including Isadora Duncan, Marie Taglioni, and La Goulue — with the current state of their legacies as enacted on the stages of Paris, New York, and around the world. First published on October 30, 2000, this article has been updated by the author. What’s that you say? “Seen anything lately?” If you don’t like what’s being reviewed, go out and make some reviews of your own: The DI is expanding and looking for Flash Reviewers in Berlin, New York, Brussels, and Paris. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org. Like what you’re reading? Subscribe to the DI for $29.95/year and get full access to 2000 reviews by 150 leading critics of performances on five continents from 1998 through 2015. Just designate your PayPal payment in that amount to email@example.com , or write us at that address to learn how to pay by check. Today’s publication sponsored by Freespace Dance and Slippery Rock Dance.)
PARIS — The remains of Isadora Duncan lay stored behind a 12″ by 12″ plaque, amidst a vast wall of urns, one of many walls in the columbarium at Pere Lachaise cemetary here. (And not far from the ashes of Alwin Nikolais.) Under her gold-lettered name, “Danseuse” and “Ecole de Ballet de l’Opera de Paris” are all that identify the grandmother of Modern Dance. In the margins around Isadora’s columbiarium, someone has written “natural movement.” I thought of what remains of Isadora’s legacy — and of how broadly her progeny (not to mention her progeny’s progeny’s progeny) have extended that definition, and what they consider the “natural” terrain to be investigated — Saturday night, a few hours after visiting Isadora’s final resting place, while watching the geometrical experiments of Lynda Gaudreau’s company at Theatre de la Ville’s space on Rue des Abbesses, a few stops on the Metro from Pere Lachaise, and right up the hill from Paris’s Red Light district.
Whew! That’s a loaded first paragraph. But I think both juxtapositions are appropriate. On the one hand, Modern Dance’s universe has expanded at least four times since Isadora’s early expeditions, which started from the base of natural movement, entranced by Hellenistic ideals, idols, and idylls. Rather than taking a codified system (ballet) and making up a dance to music which she then had to incorporate into her body, Isadora started from her body, and how it naturally responded to music and other environmental stimulae. (N’empeche que ballet modernizers like Fokine were impatient to learn from her.) From those rather humble first steps, her successors have charted a universe which goes way beyond exploring how the body moves naturally to the psychic explorations of Martha Graham, the socio-therapeutic screes of Bill T. Jones, the simultaneously chancey and architecturally meticulous and large-scale dances of Merce Cunningham (which sometimes seem if anything more mathematical than ballet), the socio-cultural dance-theater of Alvin Ailey and Donald McKayle, the light-fantastical dance theater athletics of Alwin Nikolais, Murray Louis, Pilobolus and Momix, and all the branches and limbs of these various exponents. And these are just the American strains. In European dance theater alone, Kurt Jooss, Pina Bausch, Sasha Waltz, Maguy Marin and Peeping Tom dwarf — at least in their best work — their American contemporaries. (Well, except for Mark Dendy and Jane Comfort.) And until she got blasé in the last several years, Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker was the proud bastard child of Trisha Brown (gestures) and George Balanchine (musicality).
Double-whew! That’s a rather loaded second paragraph, so let me jump straight to the second juxtaposition: Despite all this hard work, through which these choreographers and others, aided by not a few dedicated dancers, have in a hundred years developed, essentially, a whole new school of one of our oldest art forms — despite all this, if you tell your average Joe or Jane in Middle America that you’re a dancer, he’s more likely to think of the type of sex-based action that was going on near the Place Pigalle Saturday night than the abstract art that five talented dancers and a few prodigious choreographers were creating up the hill at the Theatre des Abbesses in Montmartre.
Would the action near Pigalle be more titillating, at least to the hetero male sex? Perhaps. But would it feed your mind in the same way as the exacting and dense repertoire virtuosically danced by Lynda Gaudreau’s company? No way! This is my very long-winded way of saying that while “Document 1,” the 1999 multi-choreographer collage presented Saturday by Gaudreau, is not necessarily “entertaining” for the non-dancer, it elucidates like a clarion call that there is a cadre of modern dance choreographers who, from Isadora’s intentions to simply make it acceptable to move naturally to music, have extended Modern Dance’s mission to a search for a vocabulary which, in its pure science and demands on the dancers’ bodies and intellects has surpassed ballet as a complex system of movement and vocabulary for creating challenging abstract art. In terms of actually searching for new ways to move the body to create art, these choreographers are attempting so much more than just about anybody creating in the ballet field today, with the possible exception of William Forsythe. (Author’s note, 10-6-2017: If this last observation was still valid in 2000, it stopped being so by 2005, when the former American prodigal son ran out of kinetic ideas and started regurgitating theatrical tricks that were already old by the 1970s.)
The choreographic mix in “Document 1” included Jonathan Burrows, Adam Roberts, Matteo Fargion, Meg Stuart, Benoit Lachambre, and Daniel Larrieu.
While it was hard to distinguish where one work began and the next ended — not that I’m complaining, because Gaudreau’s conception of presenting the whole as one 75-minute seemless evening succeeded — more than anything the area covered reminded me of Burrows, whose work I saw a couple of years back at The Kitchen. Like that piece, whose title escapes me, much of this evening was concerned with exploring grids: grids of the body, grids clearly marked on the stage, grids of two or four bodies together, grids on one body, grids of the hands. Grids on the ground. The play area was defined by a brown paper colored marley (whose hue Lucie Bazzo’s lights sometimes changed to orange, black, or white). Dancers move repeatedly confined in one of two rectangles of sometimes blue light up and downstage. Towards the beginning and at the end, the five dancers (Sarah Doucet, Mark Eden-Towle, Sophie Janssens, Sarah Stocker and guest artist Lachambre), dance in a chorus line, albeit one whose moves are much more restricted and localized than what you might find at the nearby Moulin Rouge. Instead of kicking out, to reveal itself, a leg kicks in, swiftly. A foot beats against a calf.
In between these bookends of the evening, the explorations are also localized per dancer; sometimes with one or two performers on stage, but often with all four present, in their own spaces or divided, with two in one rectangle and two in another. At one point, when two of them converged on space and selves in a tape-defined area downstage right, I had a movement epiphany: Twister! Right foot red! Left hand green!
Choreographically as well as in its execution, the most virtuosic moment was provided by Lachambre, dancing an excerpt from Meg Stuart and Damaged Goods’ “No Longer Readymade.” Think Trisha Brown (the minuteness of hand-jive), remixed inna lockin’ and poppin’ mode by Doug Elkins, at 78 rpm, and you get the idea. How Lachambre moved not only his hands, but particularly his head, back and forth like that in such a cartoon-quick blur, is beyond me! The only stop-pauses in the frantic pace were ones in which Lachambre appeared to be shooting up, precisely pricking his inner elbow.
Lachambre also shined, literally, in a self-choreographed “Solo a la Hanche.” I see here by my handy-dandy French-English dictionary that “hanche” means hip in French, and that’s what we saw a lot of here, in its resplendent rippling-muscled full glory, from the moment Lachambre split open his pants to reveal thick hip, thigh, and left leg, in profile.
The guest artist also figured prominently in the wind-up toy section, where he winds up, then sets loose, a series of toys, which mercilessly pursue the other four dancers, who try to maneuver around them. Lachambre scrambles after them, often on his belly or back, catching the sonic action with his microphone. The section, er, winds up with a penguin solo, as this bird, the largest of the toys, waddles around for a while, alone in center stage, before finally winding down and being scooped up by a dancer.
During this section, the only sound is that of the winding up and down. And this is one more thing that reminds me of how far modern dance has travelled since Isadora’s initial expeditions — so far that many choreographers see music as unnecessary, so much has their work become about exploring space more than music. That’s not an entirely fair comment as applies to Gaudreau’s company, however; in fact, there was sound for much of this, but not what many would consider music: Glottal clicks, for example, also figured in the score. When sitting “off stage” at the sides, the dancers often held mikes into which they whispered the sounds for those still on stage. (Author’s note, 10-6-2017: Unfortunately, this particularly gimmick was soon run out ad infinatum by choreographers around the world.)
Film figured heavily in the evening. Most winningly in footage of a young girl dribbling a basketball, who is shortly accosted by two men who try, mostly unsuccessfully, to steal the ball from her. (Apparently, she’s a ringer.) Towards the beginning of the evening, we see Burrows’s film “Hands,” which is just that: hands folding, unfolding, extending, folding again. One for the hardcore localized digit movement fans, but didn’t do much for me. (Author’s Note, 10-6-2017: I liked this one much better live when I saw it, or at least a variety, “Sitting Down Dance,” a few years later at the Round Point Theater, performed by Burrows and Fargion.) And, at the end, there’s a film that’s a lesson in needlepoint or crochet. This provides the pat ending to an otherwise refreshingly non-linear evening of geometrical experiments: “And then you just keep going,” says a voice offstage.
…. If I can keep going for just one paragraph longer: What moved me most about this very abstract evening was the composition of the audience. A similar program in New York would probably have been packed, but mostly by fellow-travelers: dancers and choreographers. I’ve got nothing against dancers and choreographers in the audience, but if I do have a bone to pick with some post-post-modern choreographers, it’s that their work seems to exist in a vacuum: fascinating to them from a process point of view, and maybe to some of their colleagues and mine, but just too remote to appeal to a non-dancer like me. This is not an argument against abstraction; far from it. What impressed me about Lynda Gaudreau’s concert Saturday, both on the stage and in the audience, is that a crowd of (apparently) mostly non-dancers who knew how far Modern Dance has traveled from its roots in Isadora, and who also could look beyond the dancer stereotype being represented down the hill in the Red Light district, had come to see high art — and the choreographers and dancers had given it to them.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org, 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.
By Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2013, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
(Author’s note, 1-16-2013: I only recently learned of the death of the veteran Pilobolus dancer Rebecca Jung from gastric cancer, at the age of 46. The following is a memory of Becky, and of our relationship.)
We were on a beach in Ocean City, Maryland, where Becky’s mother — who had just published a book on Frederick Law Olmstead, the conceiver of Central Park and so many other landmarks of the American passage — had a condo overlooking the Atlantic. Becky was recovering from Pilobolus’s relentless July season at the Joyce, a month-long crucible of the kind of rigorous, athletic, physically taxing and, at times, emotionally draining dances the company had been famous for since it was founded in 1971 by three smart-aleck jocks who stumbled into a Dartmouth dance class, soon joined by their teacher. It was the summer of 1997, and after seven years with the company, at the age of 33, Becky was burned out, a crash accelerated by having to teach the dances to the three of the company’s six performers who were new. Because here’s the thing about those dances: What elevated them from mere gymnastics and made the physical science and brainy concepts of the directors into art — besides the choreographic rigor that their Dartmouth dance teacher, Alison Chase, had instilled in the boys when she joined the company — was not just the agility but the versatility of the dancers chosen by Chase, Robby Barnett, Michael Tracy, and Jonathan Wolken to execute their vision, particularly the women, typically two to the four men. They not only had to be strong, elegant, and eloquent, with comedic as well as tragic chops, but musical and lyrical. And the feats of balance required weren’t merely physical; they also had to be able to find and make equilibrium from the sometimes competing visions of the four directors. Tracy might choreographic a sequence, the dancers spend days working over it and refining it, only to have Wolken come in and throw it out, pulling seniority on Tracy. (The directors were even in therapy, Becky had told me. They got a grant for it.) As the dance captain, Becky had to insulate her colleagues, as much as possible, from that anarchy.
So it’s understandable why that August at Ocean City, Becky slept a lot. And that she’d be annoyed when a couple of teenage boys kicking a soccer ball around kept hitting us. But when I warned them, half-kiddingly, “You better watch out, she’s a dancer,” meaning that she might just use those strong legs to kick them, and the boys just snickered, Becky upbraided me: “You have to understand that in most parts of the country, when you say ‘dancer,’ they think ‘stripper.'”
Indeed, when I first saw Becky, she was half-naked, performing Pilobolus’s signature group dance “Day Two” which, legend has it, was created by the above-named directors, co-founder Moses Pendleton (who later founded Momix and left Pilobolus), and other dancers including Peter Pucci in 1980, after they took hallucinogenic mushrooms and frolicked in a rainstorm in the Connecticut country-side. Fortunately somebody — probably shutterbug Pendleton — had a camera so they could remember the movement. These days, the company was relying on veterans to preserve the narrative idea behind the physical tableaux, and as the senior member, a lot of that responsibility fell to Becky. It was even in the context of toplessness that we had our first interview, in 1995; as I recall, there was a controversy concerning Becky and Rebecca (Becca) Anderson (now Darling) performing a normally topless duet on a television program. I wrote a brief blurb for Dance Magazine, where I’d just started working as an editor; I remember interviewing Becky from a pay phone on lower Broadway, en route to find a futon. I met her after one of that summer’s Joyce shows, and was instantly infatuated. By the time I sent her a book of poetry during the 1996 summer run — when I said hello to her after a show, she was wearing a fluffy white dress with magenta flowers, her hair in a bun, her cheeks flush — it must have been evident to Becky that I had a crush on her. Or so the mischievous glint in her eyes when she looked at me – suggesting she knew she had my number and that I was in the process of melting – suggested. By 1997, following (she later explained) a lull in romance which she wanted to break, she decided to take advantage of my hankering after her.
Becky had just returned to Pilobolus after a medical leave — here again, there was a question of cancer. This anyway was the story which was the excuse for our meeting at a cafe on the Avenue of the Americas that May or June. (When she called me to confirm the interview, I was just getting over the worse gastric illness in my life, unable to keep anything down; in her phone message, Becky said, “Are you there Paul Ben-Itzak? Are you vomiting?” Becky proved the maxim that dancers have no hang-ups discussing bodily functions. She once told me how a colleague proposed solving pre-show constipation by sticking a finger up her butt.) Becky had also come to my birthday party in the flat on W. 8th Street, presenting a catnip plant for my three feline companions, Sonia, Mesha, and Hopey. (Never mind that Becky was allergic.) Later, she’d confess to me that at a moment in our Avenue of the Americas rendez-vous when I’d excused myself to go to the bathroom, she’d telephoned her best friend to say, “I think it’s happening with Paul Ben-Itzak.” When I returned from the bathroom, my glass of white wine had been replenished. “I’m trying to get you drunk!” she announced with that mischievous grin. “You’re succeeding!” After she kissed me on the mouth before dropping me off at my apartment, she grinned again, cherubically: “Surprised?!”
If I had any fear that Becky was just messing with me — aware of my crush — it was dissipated after our first official date, a show at the Joyce followed by dinner in a trendy 8th Avenue restaurant, and a passionately groping goodbye at the threshold of her W. 14th Street garden studio, abruptly terminated because we had a long day ahead of us; I had to be at Becky’s door at 7 a.m. for the drive up to Pilobolus’s rural Connecticut studios, where I’d get to observe the company at work for a day in preparation for a story, probably for the New York Times. On the way down to CT, Becky predicted how each of the directors would react to the presence of a reporter. “Robby will hide in the room next to the studio,” and in fact this is exactly what Barnett did. We had to make a couple of pit-stops along the way — the gastro was not yet finished with me — and I made regular runs to the bathroom below the studio. I remember I wore a blue necktie hand-painted with orange baroque buildings that I’d picked up from a street artist in the Village; spending the day watching my favorite dance company rehearse, escorted by my favorite dancer, seemed an occasion for dressing up. (Years later I’d wonder if I’d crossed the path of another street artist, Jennifer Macavinta, an eventual successor to Becky at Pilobolus who would become a friend in Paris after Barnett introduced us.) Becky continued playing pranks. At the rehearsal for the Two Tall Women duet, in which the females are made to appear taller by standing on two men’s shoulders, and which requires the men to eventually step out from the long dresses that conceal them, buck naked, Becky looked at me wickedly, then at the two men Pilobolus rookies performing the roles for the first time, then at Barnett, and suggested, “They should do it naked so they’ll be prepared for the performance.”
At the end of the day, Matt Kent, one of the newbies (“They ((the directors)) like him because he reminds them of them” was Becky’s thumbnail sketch of Kent, a black belt and musician, a contortionist as dexterous as he was smart, Big Bang Theory meets Cirque du Soleil), bought a six pack. “Let’s break into Momix!” Becky proposed, and we did just that, opening the beer in Pendleton’s studio across the road from his home, wondering if the camera that’s a permanent fixture in the studio had captured our infraction. When we recessed into the woods surrounding the studio, Becky excused herself to answer nature’s call just after Kent came back from a similar mission and, returning with a pair of spectacles, announced, “Look what I found!,” causing Kent to blush. When Becky and I stopped at a gas station on the way back home to New York, I kissed her before we stepped back into the car. “What was that for?” she asked inscrutably. “It’s just been about work all day and I wanted to re-connect with you personally.” “You know,” she said, “I’m not sure how I feel about this, with you being a journalist ‘n’ all” (a native of Maryland, Becky sometimes slipped into a charming homespun drawl). As we drove down the Westside highway nearing her place on W. 14th, I told Becky a fairy-tale I’d written about a princess with a white pimple who, after initially being horrified about it, realizes when enough princes tell her so that far from being a blemish, the pimple is her most outstanding feature. She invited me in for a beer on her W. 14th Street patio, where she lit a dozen thick candles arrayed around the stone hedge that encircled the garden. I continued the story, but I think she was more enthralled by my innocence than the tale itself as she looked at me, marveling. We finally kissed, and when things escalated, she stopped me and said nervously, “The neighbors can see us.” So we moved inside.
While it would not be appropriate to discuss in detail what followed — if Becky could be direct tete-a-tete, she was shy and discrete in public — there are two details I’ll share because they reveal a kind, sensitive, and even protective side that Becky didn’t often share. It had been a while since I had been with someone, and when I told her this, Becky found a way to put me at my ease which was sweet and romantic. I also remember that, after the best of Barry White, Becky put on Puff Daddy’s riff on Sting’s “Every breath you take,” “I’ll be missing you,” and after she fell asleep the song kept repeating until dawn. (Later, Shawn Colvin’s “This Time” or “Sunny Came Home” would provide the sonic landscape for my own emotions during our topsy-turvy affair.) Before I left the next morning — I was late for a matinee of City Ballet (as it happens, with my guest the now grown-up woman for whom I’d made up “The White Pimple”), and Becky gave me a hand-printed tee-shirt a Pilobolus groupie had made with a backstage picture of the legendary Jude Woodcock, Becky’s previous Pilobolus partner and mentor, which I wore with pride in my orchestra seat at the NY State Theater, a suitless but not empty suitor — Becky felt it necessary to bring me down from the clouds: “I should warn you that I can be a monster.” If I share this confession it’s because I think it reveals the opposite. (Ditto with Becky’s later claiming as her anthem another big hit of the summer of 1997, “I’m a B….”)
Before the Joyce season, Becky had one more rubicon to cross: Pilobolus’s annual appearance at the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, where it was introducing a jazzy Chase solo for Tamieca McCloud and what would become a classic male quartet, “Gnomen,” which exploited Kent’s ambi-dexterity as well as the solidity of Mark Santillano and the quiet eloquence of Trebien Pollard and Gaspard Louis, like Kent new to the company. (And — I point out because it’s relevant to the aesthetic appeal of the company, as is Becky’s being half-Chinese — like McCloud, African-Americans.) Becky was anticipating that this farewell season would be difficult, so she asked me to fly to Durham for moral support. (“Jonathan will look at you weirdly,” she warned, and indeed at a cast party given by supporters in a house in the woods above the theater, it seemed that Wolken couldn’t stop glaring at me, an interloper in his fief. Tracy, meanwhile, gave me what seemed like “nudge-nudge” winks whenever we crossed paths. Chase just smiled broadly.) I also felt a little weird; this time it was me who felt awkward about revealing the journalist – subject relationship, as my visit and hanging out with Becky couldn’t help do. Becky insisted on seeking the opinion of Charles and Stephanie Reinhart, the festival’s long-time directors, on the subject, and tried to re-assure me: “They think it’s fine — they don’t see any conflict.”
The first sign of conflict between us arose after we returned. Durham had probably been too much concentrated time together for two people just getting to know each other; while for the most part the days in North Carolina were romantic and I was still floating on a cloud of euphoria, we also started to get on each other’s nerves; at one point Santillano scolded Becky, “Give the guy a break!” Becky rested her head on my shoulder on the returning plane, which made me feel closer to her. Nervous for re-assurance, I called her that evening, no doubt waking her up, to tell her what a great time I’d had, but when I referred to “our relationship” she shot back, “What relationship? We don’t have a relationship.” To crib a phrase from “Rent,” we may all have baggage but this was the first intimation that our baggage didn’t go together: I’d been in situations before where the woman didn’t want to commit and was scared to get into another one. Becky had issues with commitment. The conflict produced the first of several break-ups over the next three months.
Our relationship (I permit myself to use the word here because Becky would later use it in referring to us with a mutual friend and colleague) did not end well; our respective weaknesses and vulnerabilities did not match.
When I learned of Becky’s death, a miraculous thing happened. Liberated from the earthly detritus of our relationship, positive details — of her, of our time together — I’d completely forgotten about re-surfaced. Maybe it’s that once someone departs, they only leave behind the good residue. Maybe it’s that Becky is the first person I was intimate with to die. But now I find the kindnesses coming back to me, from the minor to the major. During the throes of one break-up, Becky told me: “You ARE a good catch, you’re just not a good catch for me,” trying to send me off with confidence that I would find someone who appreciated me. And even her final act of closing me out — for after we took turns ending the relationship, it was finally Becky who closed the door for good — may have been the ultimate kindness, protecting both of us, realizing that at some level there was a feeling (or at least an attraction) too strong to make it possible for us to just be friends.
But, to end on a positive note — and to return to discussing Becky as dancer — once she told me, “You make me feel like a woman,” or it may have been, “You remind me I’m a woman.” If I share this very intimate detail, it’s not to brag of any prowess on my part, nor to reveal any intimate detail, but rather to provide some insight into what it takes to be this specific kind of dancer. Becky explained to me that finding clothes that fit her was a challenge, because the regime of being a Pilobolus dancer meant she didn’t have a typical female body: Her shoulders were strong for carrying rather than supple and ‘womanly,’ for example. (One thing she was looking forward to after leaving Pilobolus was that she could finally wear more feminine clothing.) And here’s another thing about Pilobolus, and the uniquely rigorous physical and intellectual calls it makes on a dancer, particularly a female dancer. The company, like Momix, gets a bad rap from a lot of snooty modern dancers (no doubt secretly jealous of the Pils’ popular appeal and box office success) who dismiss the work as ‘accessible,’ entertaining gymnastics. But — as I noted above and as bears repeating — it’s dancers like Becky Jung who have always saved the work from being mere circus tricks and dazzling athletic feats. Sublimely supine in duets like “Shizen,” a veritable canvas in serious dances like “Sweet Purgatory” (‘Sweet P,’ as the dancers nick-named it, was one of Becky’s favorites), droll in “‘Solo’ from ‘Empty Suitor’,” Becky was the ultimate vessel who put the theater (and comedy) in Pilobolus’s singular brand of physical theater.
In the midst of our relationship — born in late Spring, ended by early fall — I noticed on Becky’s bookshelf the volume of dance poetry I’d given her. “Ah, you got it!” “Sorry but I don’t read books,” Becky informed me. I think she lacked confidence in her own intelligence. But in fact, it’s artists like Becky who are essential to revealing the intelligence in dance.