Isadora’s Children: Lynda Gaudreau Documents Modern Dance’s Journey, with help from Benoit Lachambre, Meg Stuart, and Jonathan Burrows

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 paulbenitzak@gmail.com. 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 paulbenitzak@gmail.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.

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The DI, Year 1: Tantra Tarantula? Pilobolus’s Misogynist Spidey Sense

By Byron Woods
Copyright 2000 Byron Woods

(First published on June 17, 2000. Today’s re-post of the complete article is sponsored by Nutmeg Conservatory Ballet, Freespace Dance, and Slippery Rock University Dance.)

DURHAM, NC — It’s not the first time that spiders have wound up in a dance. The tarantella, that literal Italian dance craze of the 15th century, originated from a belief that its moves cured the venomous bite of the tarantula. Nineteenth-century heartthrob Lola Montez achieved notoriety through her signature “Spider Dance,” while Leo Staats’s “The Spider’s Feast” won Parisian hearts in 1913.

But “Tantra Aranea,” Robby Barnett and Jonathan Wolken’s erotically charged new duet for Pilobolus Dance Theater, uses the mating behaviors of orb-weaving spiders as the unlikely lens for revisioning elements of Hindu spiritual practice and Japanese mythology.

Stay with us here. In this new American Dance Festival commission, which premiered in North Carolina on Thursday night at Page Auditorium, Pilobolus once again looks to the natural realm for insights on the human condition. Of course, there’s nothing remotely new in that: Over the centuries, agenda-laden readings of the natural world have been used to justify a number of curious institutions.

But it is telling — and disappointing — that where the original Hindu chroniclers of Shiva and Shakti’s greatest hits envisioned transcendence through sexual union in the Kama Sutra, Barnett and Wolken’s arachnophilic take on that text ultimately finds one thing: the very high price of satisfaction.

That is, if you’re a guy.

“Tantra Aranea” invokes that tired canard, the monstrous feminine, in a world where men can’t trust women or sexuality. Why? Because maneaters only decloset after orgasm.

How useful. And how very original.

The result negates the Indian sacred text, in what at points seems an unintentional exploration of male erotophobia.

Though both Angelina Avallone’s costume for dancer Josie Coyoc and the initial moments of Anwar Brahim’s guitar accompaniment seem almost Castillian, the physical dialects here soon place matters in the sub-continent.

The gracefully beckoning hand gestures in Matt Kent’s initial entreaties to Coyoc seem directly taken from sacred Indian paintings of the idealized god and lover, Krishna. The resulting love-play of the two is tantric and sexually frank; a vivid, libidinous, steamy celebration of heterosexual pursuit, capture and imaginative physical recombinations.

But the briefest of fates awaits the male after sexual union in the spider world. Here it’s not Shakti the consort who mates with the love god — it’s Kali, the destroyer, who is rarely met without cost.

Kent and Coyoc arouse us, first with playfulness and then with passion, as Barnett and Wolken give the pleasures of the flesh their full moment in arresting choreography.

But Nirvana’s price is steep in this natural — but less than perfect — world. And the endgame of “Tantra Aranea” leaves entirely open the question of its worth — along with the choreographers’ attitudes towards women.

We’ll warrant that the recombination of Hindu myth with amateur arachnology is novel enough. But the end result here — soft-core porn, tastefully served, with a misogynous twist — is really anything but.

Byron Woods is a dance and theater critic and correspondent for the Raleigh (NC) News & Observer. He has previously written for Backstage, InTheater, and CitySearch.com.