From the Archives: Dunham La Grande

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

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

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

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

Ballet showdown: Peter Martins versus Paul Mejia

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martytexas4Metropolitan Classical Ballet guest artists Vilia Putruis and Mindaugas Bauzys in Paul Mejia’s “Cafe Victoria.” Photography by, copyright, and courtesy Marty Sohl.

Text copyright 2010, 2017 Paul Ben-Itzak
Photography copyright Marty Sohl

(The opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the photographer’s views. In 2011, New York City Ballet’s press office revoked the Dance Insider’s press ticket privileges, a policy it continues to maintain.)

ARLINGTON, Texas — Three ballets into the one-night only season of Metropolitan Classical Ballet July 17 at Texas Hall, I approached Paul Mejia, the company’s co-director and the author of all three dances, and posed the rhetorical question: “What I don’t understand, purely from an artistic standpoint, is what Peter Martins is doing in New York and you’re doing here.” “Well, my family’s here,” Mejia answered, but the question persists: After seeing Mejia succeed brilliantly in three different formats — a group piece and a duet to classical music, then a spicey contemporary work to Astor Piazzolla — in which New York City Ballet chief Martins has consistently failed, one has to ask: How has it come to pass that the house that Balanchine built continues to be maintained by an incompetent architect when there is clearly other Balanchine-bred talent out there that actually understands and is able to perpetuate the Balanchine aesthetic in a way that lives up to his legacy?

To receive the rest of the article, including more photos, subscribers can contact publisher Paul Ben-Itzak at paulbenitzak@gmail.com. Not a subscriber? Subscribe to the Dance Insider for just $29.95/year ($99 for institutions gets full access for all your teachers, students, dance company members, etc.) and receive full access to our Dance Insider Archive of 2,000 exclusive reviews by 150 leading dance 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 or in Euros. You can also purchase a complete copy of the Archives for just $49 (individuals) or $129 (institutions) Purchase before January 31, 2017 and receive a second, free copy for the recipient of your choice. Contact Paul at paulbenitzak@gmail.com .

Flash Focus, 10-25: Think Globally, Act Regionally — Angelini Builds New Home for New Dance; Lustig Smashes Glass Ceiling

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Tulsa Ballet’s Daniela Buson and Wang Yi in Ma Cong’s “Blood Rush” on the opening program at the company’s intimate Studio K theater. Christopher Jean-Richard photo copyright Christopher Jean-Richard and courtesy Tulsa Ballet.

By Paul Ben-Itzak  
Copyright Paul Ben-Itzak

(Author’s Note, 10-25-2016: In processing my interview with Marcello Angelini in 2008, I was so focused on the immediate picture in front of me – the Tulsa Ballet artistic director’s investment in creating infrastructure, as one of the rare young directors of mid-sized ballet companies who wasn’t using it as merely a stepping stone to something bigger – that I under-emphasized the importance of Angelini’s vision about ballet’s larger role as a cultural and even historical vector. Beyond pointing to paragraphs six and seven below, I can only add here an element of Angelini’s trajectory which no doubt helped forge his global vision and historical appreciation for ballet’s role in reflecting and advancing the larger culture in the same way that his very Italian manner of finding a suit influenced his designs for the new theater. Before turning to directing ballet companies, he danced for many years with Rudolph Nureyev’s touring company, frequently alternating with the star in principal roles. On the day I write these notes, we’ve just learned of the death of the activist, author, and politician Tom Hayden two days earlier at the age of 76, after a long illness. Hayden is remembered for co-founding, in 1961, Students for a Democratic Society, an early agitator  for civil rights and free speech, and against the Vietnam War. In 1968 he was tried as a member of the so-called Chicago Eight after protesting outside the Democratic Convention. The last time I saw Hayden was in Sacramento, California, during the 1992 government shut-down in a squabble over the state budget. Sitting in a subdued legislative chamber, the goatee’d Hayden was profiting from the lull to immerse himself in a new book about “Generation X.”  No fossil he. But fundamentally, Hayden’s importance was that he refused to accept business as usual. Ballet has far too few of these  — another reason to celebrate agitators like Marcello Angelini.)

Recently I received the Royal Ballet’s programming announcement for next season. I had trouble keeping my eyelids open. The same old dinosaurs being trotted out, whether in tired versions of classics or tired names of supposedly original modern ballet choreographers. Fortunately, where many of the large ballet companies have failed to imagine, the companies we big-city types used to condescendingly refer to as “regional” (as in, ‘not bad for a regional company’) have come through, commissioning new work with traction from choreographers not named Wheeldon, encouraging original voices to work in the ballet idiom without sacrificing classic values or, like many European ballet companies (Lyon comes to mind) resorting to extra-dance elements like text and ‘technology.’ At the top of this list are Marcello Angelini’s Tulsa Ballet and Graham Lustig’s American Repertory Ballet.

Angelini and Lustig have one other trait in common which is revealing itself in the level of talent and support they’ve been able to build. Neither see their companies as simple necessary stepping stones in ambitious trajectories whose ultimate goal is to land them a job with a bigger company. As a result, rather than the flashy programming which garners short-term attention but leaves no legacy (or, worse, the legacy of a deficit) that we often see from directors whose ambitions are confined to their own careers, they are actually building structures, community infrastructures,  and patron relationships from which their companies and audiences will reap benefits long after they’ve departed.

In Angelini’s case, the most visible evidence is a capital campaign which, over the past five years, has raised $17 million, $8.9 million of which has been directed towards a building expansion and renovation which sees its first fruits Thursday with the opening of Studio K – Kivisto Hall, a 300-seat theater designed expressly for the performance of new work in an additional fifth series for the Tulsa home season. (For this inaugural edition, three tango-themed works by Fernanda Ghi and Guillermo Merlo, Young Soon Hue, and Tulsa Ballet principal dancer Ma Cong, on a program running through May 4. See Alicia Chesser’s review, elsewhere in these DI Archives.) The facility, named after Tulsa supporter Tom Kivisto, will serve for performances and education, and be available for community rental.

“This is a theater built to suit a new program, a new series that we are starting this year, rather then the other way around,” Angelini explained to me earlier this week. “This series has been in the making since I first came to Tulsa 13 years ago. In fact, it was one of the first projects I presented to the board of directors. It was all part of a plan, a three-fold plan with this series dedicated to creation being the last part of the plan. First I wanted to build a company that was able to dance everything, from the classics to the most contemporary work. Then I wanted to build a repertory that was truly international, allowing the people living in our community to experience here, in their homes, the same works they could see in New York, Paris, London, Milan or Moscow. Then, once the international repertory was built, I wanted to take the company internationally and give us a true test of our value, as assessed by reviewers and audiences that had never seen us before and would never see us again. Lastly, I wanted to add a series dedicated to creations.

“I always felt that creations need a special surrounding to be appreciated to the fullest. So, rather then creating a work and trying to fit it into a theater, I did the opposite. And that’s when being Italian helped in the thought process…. In Italy, we don’t just buy a suit and then fit it on our body. We go to the tailor, we get the fabric we like and we ask him to build it on our body…. I believe we are the only company in the U.S. that has spent $5 million to build a theater entirely dedicated to the creation of new works and, thus, to the progression and growth of the art form. This is the statement I wanted to make with Kivisto Hall.”

Angelini broadens the scope of his intentions with a credo that should serve as a guidepost for all guardians and cultivators of this art: “We enjoy an introspective look at the sociology and emotions of our ancestors from the 19th century through the art they created,” he says. “Better yet, with dance, this art comes alive in front of our eyes. We artistic directors need to commit to create a body of works that will withstand the test of time and will represent, a century or two from now, who we were at this time in the development of the human being.

“Another reason for creating art is that we, the arts organization, differ from the entertainment industry insofar as we have a responsibility toward the cultural growth of the community that supports us. Yes, we have to entertain, but we also have a responsibility to push the cultural boundaries of our people, challenge them to think, to accept progress, to expand their vision beyond the boundaries of the community they call home. Our job is to both please and make people think. Kivisto Hall will allow us to continue this commitment by creating works that are leading edge, while still entertaining and never infringing on the artistic integrity of the art form.”

Speaking of boundaries, for an art form that owes most of its historical stages of physical invention and development to women — from Taglioni’s enabling the articulation of Romanticism (see elsewhere in these DI Archives), to Farrell’s articulating and even inspiring Balanchine — ballet has a lousy record when it comes to allowing women creators *equal* access. It was in part to correct this that, several years ago, artistic director Graham Lustig started the Dancing through the Ceiling commissioning program at American Repertory Ballet, based in the working-class and university central New Jersey town of New Brunswick. But he didn’t stop there. The problem with sex or race-centric programs is they risk ghettoizing the very group they seek to promote. An all-female, all-Black, all-gay program carries the unfortunate subtext, “not bad for (women, Blacks, Gays).” It can even imply that the works will be of little interest to anyone outside that group; that they’ll speak only to an identity constituency. What Lustig does, however, is to integrate these works into his general programming. So even though three of the four works making up ARB’s program at New York’s Symphony Space May 8 and 9 are by women, the program is not being marketed as “Three Girls and Graham” but under the more universal rubric “Sinatra, Shadows, and Stars,” the ballets in question being inspired by the crooner from Hoboken, Balanchine, three Van Gogh paintings including “The Starry Night,” and the diary of Anne Frank.

The program starts with a work from that giant of male and female choreographers of the late 20th century, Twyla Tharp, in her Balanchine homage “Octet,” only the second time in 17 years the work has been programmed in New York. (Seeing the piece earlier this year in New Jersey, the Star-Ledger’s Robert Johnson called it “the most thrilling Tharp revival anywhere this season.” (And there have been a lot of them, notably at American Ballet Theatre; see elsewhere in these DI Archives.) Tharp also contributes “Sinatra Suite,” in a staging by Elaine Kudo, who created the duet with Mikhail Baryshnikov. The Dancing through the Ceiling commission is “Starry Nights,” one of more than 80 ballets created by Lisa de Ribere, and which takes its inspiration from Van Gogh’s “Starry Nights Over the Rhone,” “The Cafe Terrasse, Arles, at Night” and “The Starry Night.”

Even the one work on the program created by a male, Lustig’s “Shadows in the Attic,” owes its source to a young woman, reflecting the last night diarist Anne Frank, her family, the van Daans and Mr. Dussel spent in the Secret Annex before being discovered and before they were hauled off to the death camps by the Gestapo, all but Anne’s father Otto perishing. Bringing it back home to Angelini’s point about the potential of art to reflect a time and of dance to do it in real time, reviewing this ballet, Johnson wrote, “Such unusual works do more than underscore the empathic function of art; they place art within the realm of civic duty.”

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Among the bargains available in Artcurial’s October 18 auction of Impressionist and Modern Art in Paris are a caché of 16 drawings by Jean Cocteau, who once wrote: “When I draw, in a way I empty myself of my fatigues and anguishes. My hand turns into a fairy and works independently. It gives me the spectacle of what its intervention is capable of extracting from me that I’m practically unaware of.” Above: Jean Cocteau (1889 – 1963), “Le tango,” 1915. Ink on paper, 8.86 x 10.04 inches. Signed at the lower right corner, “Jim” (a common nom de plume for Cocteau). Artcurial pre-sale estimate: 1,000 – 1,500 €. Image copyright and courtesy Artcurial.