Some rites are seasonal. It's a fact those who've spent any part of their lives in close contact with the land know, intimately. Plant tomatoes in the spring under the sign of Scorpio; set potatoes in the dark of a Cancer moon. Feed a pig generously—until the last week of its life. Then, at the first hard frost, gather family members or neighbors. Shoot it in the head, hang it by its heels and slit its throat.
But, as many have observed, our culture has largely determined to estrange itself from nature, as well as estrange ourselves from one another. In doing so, it has created something not entirely predicted. Call it an epidemic of rites.
They have no season. The rite of need, for example: enacted each time an inadequately compensated laborer draws his wages and is forced to choose which necessity his family must do without. The infinite rites of obsessive-compulsive disorder. The rite of alcoholism. The rite of post-traumatic stress. The rites of domestic violence and rape.
Over and over, they occur. Months or weeks from graduation, the overconfident teenager edges a car he’s not that experienced with just over the borderline. A man, far more fragile than he imagined, is confronted with one last indignity, one last unbearable change, and looks at the pistol, the rifle, the semiautomatic weapon in its case.
And somewhere in northern North Carolina, a reactionary board of education provides its students with all the tools they need to thrive—in a culture and economy that winked out of existence some 40 years before. It is the Spring. More than one family is thankful that the military is willing to offer their children a ticket out of the dead mill town.
Later, the officer, in immaculate dress blues or the crisp taut gray of the Highway Patrol, walks across the yard to the front door of the house. She hesitates, then knocks. Again. And then again.
And thus we arrive at the title of choreographers Bill T. Jones, Janet Wong and director Anne Bogart’s new work whose world premiere took place last weekend at UNC’s Memorial Hall.
Also, not much happens. The first half of the program consists of the solo from Monk’s 1972 Education of the Girlchild. For perspective: Ms. magazine began publication in 1972. Title IX, ensuring equality in sports education for girls, passed in 1972. Women were not admitted as Harvard undergraduates until the following year. So when you watch the slow, constricted life-memory unfold, keeps those things in mind. Monk was 30 when she made this piece, imagining herself an old woman time-travelling, remembering and honoring the stages of her life.
Girlchild is meditative, not active; distant, not passionate. It may frustrate, anger or bore, and it will certainly demand your patient close attention. The movement language is not all that interesting—but the way in which the movements are carried out can be. At the very least, the piece has value has an historical marker. For me, the voice work overrides all other considerations. Even nearing 70, Monk’s voice thrills. Her range extends from unusually deep to high and light, and she makes many instruments sound from her throat and mouth.
The program’s second half, Shards, features sections from two 1971 projects, and three songs from Girlchild, performed by Monk and three other women. There is some dance, but these pieces are primarily musical, with much in common with Philip Glass. Both the electric organ and the voices (sounds, with words or phrases sometimes swimming to the surface) advance and repeat, repeat and advance, almost to the point of making you crazy before they come to a surprisingly well-resolved halt. Again, the voice work is far more compelling (from today’s perspective) than the staging or the movement.
The younger women’s voices and performances are fantastic, and they sound as Monk must have decades ago. Her voice, though, is the essential one, full of wisdom, full of joy. I’m glad I saw the Education of the Girlchild solo again, but the Shards make me happy. Inexplicably, wordlessly happy.
Meredith Monk performs the program again tonight at 8. Visit the Duke Performances website for information and tickets.
The American Dance Festival closes its 2012 performance season this weekend at the Durham Performing Arts Center, with two nights of the Mark Morris Dance Group, accompanied by the fine trio of the MMDG Music Ensemble. Compared to some of the ferocious, rowdy and ridiculous programs preceding it, this one is a rather mild-mannered—but it is such a treat to have live music for the dancing that one simply revels in the pleasurable experience.
The evening opens with the highly amusing 1982 dance, Canonic 3/4 Studies, set to “Piano Waltzes” by Harriet Cavalli, and various (uncredited) bits by other composers, arranged for solo piano (Colin Fowler). Is it possible to be gloomy in 3/4 time? I don’t think so. The good humor begins with a single male dancer cavorting alone; he soon is joined by eight more. They frolic through many permutations of step and turn to the lovely beat, before leaving him alone again. Morris excels at putting the heart into mathematical, musical studies of permutations and combinations, and this dance is no exception.
We see that same interest in the other works, especially the 2011 Festival Dance that closes the evening. The waltz, march and polka of Johan Nepomuk Hummel’s "Piano Trio No. 5 in E major (Op. 83)" are played delightfully by Colin Fowler, piano, Anna Elashvili, violin, and Julia McLaine, cello. As the 12 dancers make their sweet patterns in space, the women’s circular skirts froth to reveal a glow of red inside, indicating the heat inside the formality. Bits of various courtly and romantic dance styles going back hundreds of years mix and match with balletic lifts and turns, all unified by Morris’ sweeping arm curves, delicate footwork, interlacing lines and sly humor. The dance both begins and ends with brief tableaux of two dancers wrapped together in big hugs, further emphasizing unity and joy.
Preceding Festival Dance is the second piano-only work, Silhouettes, which shows off Morris’ penchant for mirroring and reversals in the choreography. The very interesting music is Richard Cumming’s "Silhouettes, Five Pieces for Piano." Here Samuel Black and Domingo Estrada, Jr., apparently sharing one pair of pajamas between them, frisk through the many ways to make one out of two, or a whole out of two halves. It’s not challenging, but very pleasing, and one could look at Estrada’s bare and gleaming chest pretty much forever.
The meat of the evening to this viewer (my neighbor across the aisle fell asleep!) was Rock of Ages, a 2004 dance for two men and two women set to the "Piano Trio in E flat, Adagio, D 897" (“Notturno”), by Franz Schubert. The backdrop, glowing in lighting by Nicole Pearce, and the rich, subtle costuming in violet blues and bluey greens (Katherine M. Patterson), immerse you in the magic of the twilight hour, just before Venus rises. Its exquisite melancholy offers a fitting farewell to this season of the great American Dance Festival… farewell, until we meet again.
The Paul Taylor Dance Company took the stage at the Durham Performing Arts Center last night for their annual visit to the American Dance Festival, which concludes this evening. The mainstay company brought out a crowd expecting to see virtuosic performances from the principal dancers, and Michael Trusnovec, Amy Young and Michelle Fleet didn’t disappoint them.
The real star, however, was the flawed program.
A bit long with four pieces and two intermissions—and lengthened more by a curtain mishap that required repairs—the program spanned a half-century of Taylor’s choreography; from the 1962 frolic Aureole to this year’s insectoid fantasy Gossamer Gallants. It could have cohered, though, woven together by interrogations, illustrations and blissful avoidances of the sexual codes and morays of each dance’s particular era. Except for one catastrophic piece, that is.
The balletic Aureole, a piece revived from ADF’s Connecticut College era, opened the evening. Costumed as though they’d stepped out of a Maxfield Parrish painting, two women in white flanked Trusnovec cradling Young in his arms. After dancing the brief equivalent of an unfurling banner, the pair of women scampered off, indicating their decorative role in the piece. In Aureole, only the two male dancers have agency.
Francisco Graciano plays a kind of social dandy, thumbing imaginary lapels and cantering around the stage with the trio of women in admiring pursuit. Trusnovec, however, is the statuesque, ideal loner. His solo declares this succinctly. Making straight lines with outstretched arms and pointed legs that recall Leonardo da Vinci’s Vitruvian Man, Trusnovec falters into curvatures only once at the beginning of the solo, betraying his loneliness. But he maintains his stoic poise thereafter.
After he releases her, Trusnovec—who could be mistaken for a weak-side linebacker—executes a breathtaking set of kicks while leaping up and down on one foot. The DPAC is truly a cavernous space but the audience around me leaned back in their seats as, with his fifth and sixth kicks, he neared the front of the stage. And we were in row M.
The full cast celebrates his capital-R Romantic triumph with flying, diagonal entrances and exits to the finale of Handel’s Concerti Grossi.
As the curtain rose for the five dancers to receive their applause, there was a loud thump sound and about half of one side of it vanished, so a pause became an intermission. But the DPAC crew hastily mended the stage’s missing tooth.
Then the curtain rose on Big Bertha, a watershed Taylor work dating to 1970. Set to calliope and band machine music and featuring Robert Kleinendorst as a hermaphroditic dominatrix bandleader made gigantic by red leather high-heeled boots, Big Bertha is hardcore in every sense of the word. And, following Aureole, it viciously rips through the older dance’s lyrical courtship rituals and patriarchal gender roles so that the awful guts of raw animal desire can burst out. This would be David Lynch’s favorite Paul Taylor work.
The set features a huge circus contraption, pipe organs sticking out the top and Barnum and Bailey lettering trumpeting a five-cent charge, all lit with white bulbs like those infesting antique carousels. Big Bertha, the bandleader, stands upon a little spangled dais. To an excruciating metallic scratching noise, she removes a baton from out of her throat with a robotic motion. Yeah, there won’t be a happy ending to this one.
A quintessential 1950s family enters—mom, dad, and bobbysoxer daughter—out for a fun night at the fair. Dad deposits a coin into Big Bertha to activate her, and the daughter does a lively mélange of period dance moves as her parents watch. Mom tries to join in the fun but trips over her own feet and prissily withdraws into her husband’s consolation.
It’s difficult to tell whether the bandleader is merely going through its animatronic sequence or exerting puppeteer control over the family. Before the time allotment of the coin expires, causing the bandleader to slump and prompting Dad to fish in his pocket for another nickel, Big Bertha appears to hypnotize the family into unison movement.
With the second coin, Bertha assumes control. Dad performs a jerky, drunkard’s dance to “Take Me Out to the Ballgame.” His baseball swings gradually become aggressive sexual advances toward his daughter and, after he assuages his wife’s anxiety over this, a vicious smack across Mom’s face.
The dance descends into increasingly horrific scenes of incest and abuse during which Bertha wields her baton in a variety of lewd ways, the wife strips to become a burlesque harlot and the husband takes his daughter around back to emerge tattered, dragging her bloody, limp body around. Explosive sparks mark the final tableaux to “When the Saints Go Marching In.”
Judging by the audience’s audible discomfort, this demonstrative degradation of the family unit is as startling today as it was more than 40 years ago. Big Bertha’s exaggeration of the romantic yet rigidly hetero-normative power relationships underlying Aureole erupts toward its logical endpoints. The man, tumescent with power, must possess any woman who presents herself as able. Regardless of whether the daughter’s aware that her fun dance is a mating ritual, she must innocently perform it and forcibly surrender to whomever she attracts. And the mother must play the whore in order to deal with it all, seeing that sexuality is the only agency in this skewed dynamic. It’s Lynch’s “unspeakable horror behind the white picket fence,” sixteen years before Blue Velvet.
Taylor’s self-implication through Big Bertha’s role as choreographer provides the dance’s most fascinating aspect. He turns the critique against himself, pointing out the darkness inherent in his mechanical, controlling position. He frightens himself. Taylor demonstrates that the moment mechanical routines are no longer viewed as such they can become monstrous pantomimes.
Unfortunately the raw, layered messages of Big Bertha were decisively erased by the back half of the program. In a way, the piece that followed the intermission—Gossamer Gallants, which the company premiered this year—takes animal desire literally. The dancers are costumed as black fruit flies (males) and virid lacewings (females).
"In the end, you deliver some of your energy to another human being." —Shen Wei
Our eyes met for half a moment. Smeared in pink from eyes to toenails, she turned her head aside.
That panning motion continued into a casual tumble onto her back, sliding through the tempera paint that covered the floor of the Plexiglas box that contained her. Twirling upon shoulder blades and spine in the bright pigment like an ice dancer, she stopped herself gently by planting a foot into a corner of the box.
I walked away, shouldering through the audience to reach an adjacent gallery where late-Renaissance masterpiece paintings looked down upon the frenetic movements of differently colored dancers on 7-square-foot floor panels. Everyone but the dancers and the paintings was smiling.
This performance of Shen Wei Dance Arts’ Undivided Divided, which concludes tonight, occupies much of the new wing of the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Although no stranger to site-specific dance, the American Dance Festival has perhaps never set it on this scale, partnering with the NCMA to bring Shen’s multi-sensory delight to the white galleries of the museum.
It’s an exciting moment for many reasons. First, it’s a lot of fun to see superb choreography in an unconventional space. It’s also exciting to have to deal with the voyeuristic nature of being in a dance audience out in the open.
Just as exciting is how the moment fits into both Shen’s career and the development of the ADF. He’s played a huge role throughout the last decade of the festival. In a way, the arc of his career since his stunning debut at the 2000 ADF, from which his company was formed, matches the arc of the festival itself over the same span, during which now-retired director Charles Reinhart (whose wife Stephanie co-directed from 1993 until her death in 2002) has left after 43 years at the helm.
Both the festival and one of its most closely affiliated choreographers are necessarily transforming, facts made spectacularly evident in Undivided Divided.
The visual arts—specifically painting—have been a part of nearly every piece Shen has staged since his debut. Taking everyone’s breath away—I still have my program from it—Near the Terrace (2000) set Belgian surrealist painter Paul Delvaux’s imagery into motion. Pieces such as Rite of Spring (2003), Connect Transfer (2004), the Re- Triptych (2009) and last year’s ADF premiere Limited States feature dancers applying paint to the stage surface and/or altering an image on the surface through their movement across it. The lasting mark of an arm sweep across the floor became a Shen Wei trademark image.
To this point, visual media other than painting have played less integral and effective roles in Shen’s work, even hinting at a disablingly self-conscious trend. His Tibetan photography, though gorgeous, served as an oddly undermining backdrop to sections of Re-. The static photographs dwarfed the choreography, denying it a comparable dramatic level. The narrative energy of his 2005 Chinese opera Second Visit to the Empress dissipated in his effort to give costumes, set and music their simultaneous due. The movement suffered as something of an afterthought.
You can tell it’s an election year because of the dualities in the air. “I’m for doing this, but that guy is for doing that.”
It’s obvious why political discourse is so full of these statements of polar opposition. Opposites are simple. Even babies get “either/or.” This is why there are nearly as many “opposites” books in the toddler section of the bookstore as there are those listing colors or letters of the alphabet. Something is either in or out, black or white. It’s either day or night. It can’t be day and night at the same time.
Frequently, artists use the rhetorical simplicity of opposites to make it easier to see form. In the case of dance, it’s movement. Vertigo Dance’s Mana, choreographed by Noa Wertheim with stage and costume design by Rakefet Levy, employs a spare, white stage with a single architectural element—the generalized side of a house—and dark, tunic-like costumes to clarify the dancers’ movements against the pale backdrop.
The movement itself is far from simple. The solos, the partner sequences and the delightfully morphological ensemble dances all are multifaceted, sometimes contradictorily so. Oppositions of light and dark, slow and fast, and up and down come into play in the choreography, and the staging keeps the movement crisply visible. However, the dancing explores liminal spaces between opposites—both physical and ontological—and ultimately speaks to the unknowability of being.
Athletic and restless, Wertheim’s movement is always at least two things at once. Opposites exist simultaneously. Unison movement by the entire company looks like both a military unit training and a celebration ritual. Partners find an ambiguity between embracing and pushing the other away.
These uncertainties gradually feed back upon the certainties of the staging. At first glance of the house structure, a viewer assumes that the dancers are either inside or outside the house. But that presumption is eroded over the course of the performance. The housefront moves toward and away from the audience. A central cut-out panel separates from it, receding to make a doorway or coming out at you to become an impediment in the very middle of the stage. They’re always both inside and outside of the house. Or neither of those things.
I just saw something beautiful, although I had to forget myself to see it.
Ragamala Dance, a company of six women under the artistic direction of mother-daughter team Ranee and Aparna Ramaswamy, opened a three-night run of their evening-length work Sacred Earth at the American Dance Festival in Duke’s Reynolds Industries Theater. Thematically, Ragamala portrays man’s inextricable connection to nature through a rich combination of traditions such as Indian classical dance and music, Tamil Sangam poetry, Warli mural painting and Kolam floor painting.
OK. That’s the straight reporting of what happened, when, where and by whom. But it comes off as a list of names, which bespeaks how I began watching the performance. Once I dropped my need to know those names and the significances of all the individual movements, sounds and images I was seeing, I actually experienced the performance for what it was: a lovely, hypnotic celebration of the interconnectedness and oneness of all living things. Save the program notes until after the show, so information doesn’t interfere with the experience of Sacred Earth.
The notes (spoiler alert!) describe the traditional practices that Ragamala incorporates. Projections of Warli paintings—roughly patterned, white-on black mural scenes of people at harmony with the natural environment rendered in simplified forms—changed on the backdrop throughout the performance. Sangam poems were occasionally read, rhetorically rolling human life and natural landscape in with a pervasive sense of the divine.
And the opening image, of five dancers posed in a circle, offering their tilted palms to a central sixth, immediately became a Kolam floor painting as the dancers began to move. Drizzling a fine stream of white rice powder from their palms, the five women stepped in a spiral pattern that mimicked a Warli projection on the curtain before the show: a flock of flying birds forming a shape roughly like a numeral 6. After moving to the rhythm of the live accompaniment of vocalist Lalit Subramanian and violinist Anjna Swaminathan for a few minutes, the rice powder formed an internally curlicued circle, which was subsequently trodden into a white, depthless blur.
For the first third of the performance, I found myself thinking like a Westerner, trying to interpret each gesture and form as if they were words. I know that each mudra—the hand and finger positions made by the dancers—has a literal meaning, but I didn’t know the meanings so, for a while, I saw the movement as a text in an unfamiliar language, conveying a message I couldn’t get. There’s a kind of anxiety in that.
All art is to some degree autobiographical. Any creation tells us something about its creator. But some art is more explicit, depicting or revealing the artist as she sees herself, or in the case of Killian Manning’s new work, exploring the milieu that shaped her.
Manning was born in 1956; she is 56 this year. Her age makes looking back and taking stock almost inevitable, and the numerology makes the undertaking feel cosmic and lucky. In her 1*9*5*6 Degrees of Separation, which is the final show in this season's Other Voices series at Manbites Dog Theater, she explains and—yes—celebrates herself by animating a cast of famous 50s characters, and her mother. In fact, the dance-theater work can also be taken as an extended love letter to her mother. At her daughter’s insistence, Cathy Manning joined the cast for their bows on Wednesday's opening night, shifting her feet in the same signature movement that Killian gave character Cathy on stage.
And there are voices in this dance. In fact, the dance feels secondary to the theatrical exposition (but it is not a drama). After a little introduction, Manning parades her characters onto the stage one by one, and each does a little movement riff by which we shall know them. Manning has chosen these people to represent an imagined zeitgeist of her natal year (and beyond), but it is as interesting to think about who’s not there as who is. The only dance artist included is ballerina Margot Fonteyn. Not, for instance, modern dancer/choreographer Martha Graham, who was certainly making news in 1956. Grace Kelly (Elisabeth Johnson) gets a role, for making the transition from actress to princess, but Ingrid Bergman, who won an Oscar that year for her work, goes unmentioned. The great Beat poet Allen Ginsberg gives what you could call the keynote speech (Derrick Ivey, reciting from "Howl," in the show’s most gripping moments), but there’s no equivalent musical giant like Charles Mingus, who released the amazing Pithecanthropus Erectus album that year. Instead, there’s the young Elvis and his new release, “Hound Dog.” The point is not that Manning’s choices are wrong in any way, but that this is her version of her 1956. She has shaped it to fit the woman she has become.
Manning mixes straight biography with a soft-edged magical realism, some of it quite charming, as when President Eisenhower dances and chats with Cathy Manning, or when J.S. Bach appears to her for a long conversation in which he explains that Killian really is musical, it just all comes out in the dances. There are a number of pleasant and enjoyable dance sequences in this work, but none of them are special, not even Margot Fonteyn’s (and really, she should have been wearing pointe shoes) or the well-conceived duet between Bach (Jonathan Leinbach) and Glenn Gould (Matthew Young).
Most of the cast are not advanced dancers (a fact all too obvious during ADF season), and even if they were, they would still be contending with the concrete floor—it is no wonder if there is a slow tentativeness to their movement. Some of this may have been purposeful, to enhance the dreamy magical quality, but it made for a lack of brio.
It’s understandable that modern dance aficionados might have paused when considering the touring version of COME FLY AWAY, choreographer Twyla Tharp’s evening-length tribute to musical legend Frank Sinatra which closes a stand at Durham Performing Arts Center on Sunday.
As mentioned in our preview, Tharp had already gone to the well three times with Ol’ Blue Eyes between 1976 and 1983, reconfiguring various groupings of his hits that she’d choreographed into what ultimately became one of her most widely interpreted—and controversial—works, Nine Sinatra Songs. Its seven duets conveyed a range of relationships from elegiac to openly abusive, including an interpretation of “That’s Life” whose depicted violence was so realistic that Mark Morris responded by yelling “No more rape!” before storming out of an American Dance Festival performance of it in 1984.
Others were offended, not by one, but two self-congratulatory recap sections in that piece—one at midwork, the other at the end—that merely reiterated peak gestures from the sequences preceding them. While that sort of self-quotation might not call that much attention to itself in an evening-length ballet, Nine Sinatra Songs lasted all of 28 minutes, victory laps included—both of which were set to (what else?) "My Way."
So the thought did cross my mind: If Tharp was already challenged to fill a half-hour Sinatra tribute in the early 1980s, what awaited audiences in this full-length work which had garnered mostly affirming—but far from unanimous—reviews in New York last year?
As the production unfolded, the gratifying answer soon became obvious: an even stronger show than the one that played Broadway in 2010.
It will no doubt raise some eyebrows that Tharp has fundamentally retooled this show after its New York bow, trimming what was a two-hour, 34-song filibuster into a tight, intermissionless 80-minute touring version. But closer comparison of the two productions reveals that, in excising 12 numbers from the New York production—and adding five new ones to the mix—Tharp has managed to address many of the reservations lodged over the Broadway version.
NOTE: As happens every year, we had a lot more to say about the AMERICAN DANCE FESTIVAL than we could ever fit into the print version of the INDEPENDENT. Thus these expanded essays, which delve more in depth into some of the issues that came up—plus one or two that didn't—during the season: our extended dance mixes for the 2011 ADF.
IN THIS REMIX:
THE ALTERNATIVE HERSTORY OF ANNE TERESA DE KEERSMAKER
CRASH-COURSE BUTOH CRASHES ONCE AGAIN
MUSIC TO, THROUGH, AND AT TIMES IN LIEU OF DANCING:
HUBBARD STREET, SHEN WEI, EMANUEL GAT, DOUG VARONE, RON K. BROWN, PILOBOLUS & OK GO
THE ALTERNATIVE HERSTORY OF ANNE TERESA DE KEERSMAKER
After executing a nearly mathematical set of lockstep moves, tossing and turning on a dimly lit floor that permitted them no rest, the quartet marked time in permutations of poses while seated in a Kafkesque waiting room. We then saw the numbing monotony of endless renegotiations of gender and interpersonal boundaries, necessitated by bodies that constantly disclose their sexuality—whether their inhabitants desire to or not.
ROSAS DANST ROSAS concluded with a dutiful—and equally endless—labor march, a zero-sum endeavor in which two steps in any direction inevitably resulted in two steps back. The arms that swung, with clenched fists, as the foursome charged one way and another on an invisible but all-important grid, repeatedly intensified this final part. Still, within the crisp unison of these tightly circumscribed movements, each dancer subtly individualized their delivery, emphasizing not only their characters' resilience, but their resistance as well. If the four sections of the work all but pummeled us with the inescapable demands of their characters' lives, their ceaseless and subtle personal responses served notice of a human spirit yet uncrushed.
When four women examine on stage the needful, quotidian movements of rest (and its denial), dress, waiting and work, they are undeniably telling the stories of many more, across a number of generations. In this way, ROSAS DANST ROSAS constitutes a most compelling alternative history of Everywoman. Laurel Thatcher Ulrich, that noted feminist historian whose landmark works have focused on the "silent lives of ordinary people," would be pleased.
CRASH-COURSE BUTOH CRASHES ONCE AGAIN
When we learned that one of PILOBOLUS’ world premieres was a collaboration with Dairakudakan choreographer TAKUYA MURAMATSU, we wondered if all would end well.