20 years of telling stories not told elsewhere: Here’s a work I don’t ‘like.’ Which doesn’t mean it’s bad.

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2005, 2018 Chris Dohse

(First published on October 14, 2005, this essay and Flash is re-published today with the support of Slippery Rock Dance . )

NEW YORK — I understand that there has been a debate on these pages recently about whether the quality of New York dance is declining.*

I’d like to toss out some thoughts about what I see as the rotten state of dance criticism among the mainstream publications in the city. Is it edifying to wonder which came first — the “bad” dance or the stale, moronic writing about same? Perhaps if the dozen or so minds who hold positions of power in the field, few of whom have ever made a dance or performed in one, could rise above their biases and narrow misconceptions and their narcissistic need for validation, we could stop mourning some past golden age.

I’ve perpetrated plenty of arrogant blab myself. (Search these DI archives.) I do so love the sound of my own voice. And every member of our community, no matter what their taste or status, complains that they dislike 60% or more of the work they see week after week. But at this point in my life, I don’t think the role of the critical community is to bite the hand that feeds it. Dance writers shouldn’t be barnacles clinging to a sinking ship or fat ticks sucking the life out of a dying carcass. We also shouldn’t be blind enthusiasts or cheerleaders. But I’d argue that a sane POV is one of general support for the medium and an intelligent respect for those insane enough to suffer a life creating it.

Yes, our role is to judge and evaluate, categorize and compare, but also to witness, to recognize. Not to gush and blow hot air up the fannies of certain cliques or to spot the next fad or declare a handful of personalities the brightest minds of our time simply because they fit neatly into some lineage of the canon.

In fact, throwing the canon out the window might be a healthy place to start so that we could actually see the dances that we see. In Molly Davies’s recent video installation at the Asia Society, a Japanese choreographer whose name I’ve forgotten called his work “post-historical.” He didn’t care if he was doing something that had been done before; he was following his own intuition and instincts. I like that term and hereby adopt it. (Somebody shoot me if I ever use the term “post-Judson” again.)

In the dominant/mainstream press, where I assume most dance audiences go for information about the scene, I primarily see reviews written from a position of self-congratulatory nostalgia, long-timers patting themselves on the back for having discovered the talent 20 years ago about whom they’re now cementing a hagiography without seeming to evaluate the current work for its authentic merits (or failures). These people often complain that they’re not seeing the next Tharp, the next Taylor, the next Morris (and what do they mean by that anyway?).

And we now seem to be enduring an immature, uninformed assault from certain writers who only seem to evaluate the most superficial veneer of the dances and dancers they’re watching. These writers judge dancers’ ability to point their feet, or the size of their waistlines, or their “prettiness” (based on whose model?). This isn’t criticism; it’s scorn.

Where are the writers who enter a work’s interior logic, appreciating its essential qualities and respecting its creator’s intentions and intelligence? These thinkers could herald a new age.

Time to put my money where my mouth is: Richard Daniels and his show at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church (seen September 29). Here’s a work that I don’t “like.” But that’s clearly because of my biases and preconceptions, not because the work is “bad.” Watching the two pieces on the program becomes a struggle for me, as I’m faced with style choices and tropes outside my tastes.

I chose this assignment, knowing that the movement vocabulary wasn’t my “beat,” but feeling that certain life circumstances I share with Daniels (living with HIV) would enrich my experience of his work. I don’t know him but friends of mine do. (This is the small pond of NYC dance after all.) I’m curious about the way Daniels claims in his press that “the experience of living with HIV disease led to a rebirth” and “propelled (him) to reconnect with dance as an instrument of his healing.” This sounds to me like something worth doing. The voices of long-term survivors seem to be swept under the rug today, even among the POZ brother- and sisterhood.

I trust Daniels’s intentions; I recognize them. He dances with confidence, a mature performer in solidly crafted work. The dancers believe in the material and perform it well. The choreography allows each dancer to emerge as a separate character and seems to showcase his or her unique energies.

But modern dance performed to piano, played live or recorded, makes me want to stick pins in my ears. A grand piano onstage calls forth one of the many chips on my shoulder, evoking upper class privilege or highbrow fussiness. This inner bias threatens to shut me down before the dance even begins.

The movement invention is what I like to call uptown modern, something that often looks like ballet in bare feet. The vocabulary seems to value extended line, buoyancy, “correct” execution of position and steps. I’d rather see bodies in repose or silence or floor-bound abjection; these are my tropes. Not bodies who fill the stage with doingness. I see a similar tensile quality to the styles of Zvi Gotheiner and Lar Lubovitch.

The first half of the program, “Telling Tales,” is a suite of two duets and two solos. The duets are choreographed by Scott Rink and Dusan Tynek, the solos by Daniels, who performs them. (Tynek and Regina Larkin join him for the duets.) Pianist Nurit Tilles accompanies all on that damn grand piano that swallows too much of the space. Daniels performs his solo material with strength and ease. A narrative quality sometimes unravels the shapes of his dancing into pantomime but this emphasizes his storytelling intention. He could be a Petruchka, left alone in his master’s solitary cell. His is a dignified presence of someone who has weathered the dark.

Perhaps an anthropology of the audience would help me parse the dance’s appeal? If it’s not my cup of tea, then the people here must be here because it is theirs. I don’t see anyone I recognize from the downtown dance crowd; I see few dancers. At intermission, I don’t hear anyone talking about the work, either with praise or disdain. Rather I hear two suburban couples discuss the trouble they’ve been having with their housekeepers and nannies (uh-oh, there’s my class bias again).

For “Apollo & the Muses” the piano has been moved to an upstage corner. This quintet is choreographed by Daniels, who doesn’t perform in it, to Stravinsky’s score. Tynek and Keith Sabado share the role of Apollo, the older man shadowed by his youthful self. Sabado fills his performance with gravitas; I can see a thinking presence and experience that initiates his dancing. Larkin, Megan Williams and Emmanuele Phuon play the first three muses. (Tynek morphs into the fourth.) The architectural detail of St. Mark’s Church is a perfect fit for this classical imagery as each character comes forward to contribute his or her part of the story.

What Daniels seems to have done in these two works is to create a sort of ornament that marks his place in the world. It has the elegant, timeless quality of a snow globe. He tells his story with clarity and courage. If I am to live up to my own standard of entering the present-time truth of the material, how can I be so arrogant as to say I don’t “like” it? Its signifiers simply aren’t mine. He succeeds in his goal; I just don’t get it.

Over the past few years, my disenchantment with being a dance writer in New York has twisted my knickers so severely, perhaps I’ve become unhinged. I stopped writing completely for an entire season (2003-2004), during which I didn’t even see a dance concert. If resisting something reifies the existence of that which is resisted, complaining about the state of things won’t improve the situation. We need new possibilities. For my own writing, I’m hoping to create a new model entirely, looking at the long haul, off the grid, under the radar, even though this form is the radar. I’d be sad to see the dominant voices of today’s New York dance critical community write the history of this generation of New York dance. If this happens, the truth will not be told.

*Write us at paulbenitzak@gmail.com for your own copies of the articles to which Chris is referring.


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Action Heroines from Monica Bill Barnes

By Chris Dohse
Copyright 2002, 2017 Chris Dohse

NEW YORK — Imagine an all-female, multigenerational, Elvis-crazed dance arena wherein hearts are broken but dreams come true and abiding love conquers all. Monica Bill Barnes’s “When We Were Pretty” (seen June 30 at Danspace Project at St. Mark’s Church) is such a place. The very last performance of Danspace’s exemplary season, ‘Pretty’ uses the spaces of the church in ways not quite seen before and is filled with muscular, funny, and poignant dance episodes. Barnes’s work is neither as angry as that of Ellis Wood, with whom she has danced, nor as deadpan as that of Keely Garfield, with whom she shares certain concerns, like a fondness for brides’ veils and fey, courageous heroines. Et voila! Just in time for Gay Pride weekend, a female superhero (Hilary Easton) bursts through the door in a star-shaped spotlight!

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