Two stories from the archives, before this weekend's performances by the MERCE CUNNINGHAM DANCE COMPANY on its farewell "Legacy Tour," for those seeking further background on his work: a revealing interview from last summer with Cunningham dancer and dance reconstructor JEAN FREEBURY, followed by an earlier critical review from his company's last appearance at the American Dance Festival.July 2010 interview, she gave a revealing look into what his work looks and feels like from the inside; one woman’s personal, guided tour through his art.
Nine years before that, the ADF presented Cunningham’s company, for the last time, in 2001. I was there. My critical response to WAY STATION was published in the local press, on the international dance website, DANCEINSIDER.COM—and, ultimately, in the book Who’s Not Afraid of Martha Graham?, the final work of dance history by ADF’s beloved, long-time philosopher-in-residence, Dr. Gerald Myers.
Here's what I saw on the night of July 12, 2001, in Page Auditorium:
DURHAM, North Carolina — You can't miss her: in the middle of "Way Station," Merce Cunningham's latest creation, seen Thursday at the American Dance Festival, a woman enters slowly from off-stage left; walking, not quite tip-toe, on the balls of her feet. Less than a fourth of the way across stage, she stops. Still extended, she proceeds to take in the world around her with no small degree of fascination; head erect, slowly turning.
The inventory doesn't stop when she gets to her own form. As she looks at her arms, legs and torso the same rare air of discovery intensifies. At points she seems to be measuring gravity itself, and its effects on the body she is in. She deliberately articulates and extends each extremity individually, observing its responses, with what appears to be predominantly an intellectual interest — but one mixed with more than a glimmer of deep delight.
It's an unalloyed sense of wonder, at both the possibilities of physical form and the world it inhabits. In these insufficiently post-postmodern days, it's as rare as it is refreshing within the realm of modern dance. Cunningham had it when he started choreographing a little over fifty years ago. Obviously, miraculously, he still has it. We saw it clearly fund three separate — and quite rigorous — explorations over the space of thirty-three years in Thursday's concert.
At UNC-Chapel Hill, the SOLO TAKES ON festival returns for its second season of striking autobiographical solo shows, before a Duke Human Rights Center contingent in cooperation with the award-winning regional theater troupe Hidden Voices unearth one of the most famous and influential Durhamites in recent history—and the one you've most likely never heard of—in TO BUY THE SUN: THE CHALLENGE OF PAULI MURRAY.Roy Cohn, now that Playmakers Rep is finally getting around to staging Tony Kushner's epic ANGELS IN AMERICA. And in their midst, emerging playwright Monica Byrne rips the lid off the passions of a late-night college bio lab in Manbites Dog’s dark comedy, NIGHTWORK.
(Wait—that last one? Not so biographical. At least, let's hope. Make plans to see it anyway.)
More shows, after the jump.
Multi-media artist Marc Bamuthi Joseph noticed that there wasn’t a lot of overlap between the environmental movement and the people actually living in some of the most compromised environments in America. It got him to wondering why—and wondering if increased communication, exchange and cooperation between these populations were possible.
“Obviously, folks of color and folks in low-income communities have had survival practices for generations that have often gone unnoticed by the environmental movement—and unseen by ‘corporate green’,” noted colleague Hodari Davis, at a “Life is Living” festival in New York. Similar festivals over the past year in Chicago, Houston and Oakland, Calif. have attempted to redefine environmentalism in the context of hip hop culture—and have served as “field work” for a new performance piece that asks if art can facilitate community organizing and environmental change.
The name of the work in progress is “red black and GREEN: a blues.” And since it’s the latest participant in UNC’s “Process Series,” an audience in Chapel Hill sees an early version of two sections from the piece tonight.
“What we’re trying to do is create space on different levels for new work to be developed,” notes curator Joseph Megel.
This week, the three-year-old program for professional works in progress hasn’t just provided Joseph and collaborators Theaster Gates and documentary filmmaker Eli Jacobs-Fantauzzi with studio time.
“We’ve created the opportunity for them to talk to professors in urban planning and ecological sciences here, so there can be a deepening of the discussion with scholarship on ecology,” says Megel.
Belgian choreographer-performer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui has one of the most graceful, flexible and articulate bodies on the world stage. His aesthetic—at least as expressed in Sutra, an hourlong entertainment created with the support of British dance presenter Sadler’s Wells—doesn’t bother to temper this facility with subtlety or nuance. “I feel like I just saw a Chinese version of Riverdance,” one theatergoer was overheard to say at Wednesday night's show.
As the performance concluded, the audience rose up for a noisy standing ovation. Popping out of their seats in a single lighting-fast move, all were no doubt inspired by the martial-art pyrotechnics of the Shaolin monks who’d just wowed us with the mind-boggling speed, power and complexity of their movements.
An adorable miniature monk, backflipping boy prodigy brings a third dimension to the alien-Euro-guy vs. sacred-Asian-army duality; squaring out the drama are 16 man-sized rectangular wooden boxes, which are dragged, propped, dropped and stacked to form a dizzying array of landscapes and images during the performance.
The highlights of Sutra come when performers from among the monks are given solo time on the stage. During these moments, the Shaolin tradition blends with choreographic sensibility to communicate astounding elegance, complexity and power with directness and simplicity.
There is one more performance tonight at 7:30. Ticket info is here.
“We had a lot more walk-outs last night than usual,” said lighting director and production manager Christopher Kuhl prior to the Saturday night performance of New York-based choreographer Ralph Lemon’s How Can You Stay in the House All Day and Not Go Anywhere? “Ralph is interested in it. He likes to track when people leave, when they start texting.”
The evening began whimsically enough with a video piece featuring 102-year old Walter Carter—Lemon’s muse and mentor, now deceased—wearing a silver spacesuit. Seated beneath and to the left of a large screen, Lemon spoke generously and openly; giving us full, intimate view of his intellectual inner workings, creative impulses and personal losses.
From about midway through “the wall” and throughout the performance, dark silhouettes began to rise from seats in the audience and scurry up the aisles to the exits. Singly, in couples or small groups, souls simply got up and left the theater. These shadowy rustlings and quiet disruptions temporarily backgrounded the stage action, yet they were eerily in harmony with the strong currents of grief and dissolution that propelled it.
It takes a measure of depth and strength to deal with the radically disorganizing principles that Lemon harnessed for How Can You Stay, and, well, not everyone could hang. Too bad, because those who bailed early missed Jim Findlay’s magical animals: Silvery projections of creatures and birds that wandered silently on to the stage, waited patiently with us for a while, and then stepped quietly back into their invisible homes.
When Burchfield announced last month that she would leave ADF and Hollins at the end of the summer, the news sent shockwaves through the dance world.
On the afternoon of July 19, and briefly on July 24 and 25, we talked for a couple of hours about what she’s leaving, where she’s going—and why.
Thanks to head librarian Kelly Lawson and the staff of Lilly Library at Duke University for hosting our conversation.
INDEPENDENT: At this point almost everybody knows what you are leaving—your positions as Dean of the American Dance Festival and as Director of the Dance Program at Hollins University.
Let’s open the conversation by focusing instead on what it is you are moving toward.
DONNA FAYE BURCHFIELD: Open space. (pause)
Tell me more.
I was talking to a friend late Saturday afternoon. It was after a long day, and she had called to talk through this news of me leaving. At one point in the conversation I said, “I feel like I’m jumping off a cliff.” Which is pretty true.
This is my 28th summer here. That’s more than half my life.
I don’t even know what my address will be in Philadelphia. I’m selling the home my children grew up in Roanoke. I’m leaving Hollins, which has been this cradle of—reassurance.
If you can imagine, when I went there my son wasn’t even potty trained, and my daughter had never been anywhere except a one-room schoolhouse and she was about to go into first grade.
[Burchfield worked in the region at Carolina Friends School and N.C. State, before her time at Hollins.]
So it was a big deal for me to leave here to move to Roanoke.
I can only say it really is a valley, and it really did reassure me and comfort me. Roanoke and Hollins became this reflective space. It just was.
Something happens in a place where you sleep there, you eat there, you watch your children grow up there, you walk down a hill behind your house and you teach your class. And you dance there, and all of these minds and bodies are working together and thinking, and bodies are moving between classrooms. It’s that idea of circulation—a circulation of knowledge and of hope.
I would say that the circulation of knowledge and feelings generates an ontology of hope, in a way.
Something happens in that kind of space.
So really, it was just ideal at that time in my life. (laughs) Also, just being in that women’s space; it was just essential.
INDEPENDENT: You were one of the founding members of the group.
SARA PROCOPIO: Yes I was.
What was your first contact with Shen Wei; the first time you saw anything he did?
I first met Shen Wei at Hollins University in 1997. He came to Hollins for a couple of weeks in the midst of creating a solo show he was performing in London and New York, to finalize the show and prepare its technical elements, using the theater on campus.
He was a guest in Donna Faye Burchfield’s dance history class. He spoke of his experiences growing up in China and training in Chinese opera, but at the time his English was very limited. He taught a master class, and after his technical rehearsals were finished, he gave a performance of his solo show.
That was my first introduction to him — as a solo artist, and not someone who had a company or was interested in having a company.
I remember thinking that his solo was beautiful, and I enjoyed his master class. And that was that.
At the time, Burchfield was bringing in a host of guest artists to the dance program at Hollins; though he might not have exactly been just another face in the crowd, it sounds like he was just one person among a constellation of artists you were being exposed to.
Exactly, exactly. It was an experience — and then we moved on the next experience, I guess.
INDEPENDENT: I know your history with the company goes back to the early 1990s. What was it about his work that made you seek him out?
JEAN FREEBURY: I had seen Points in Space on TV when I was 16; I didn’t understand it at all at the time.
I had [Cunningham dancer] Catherine Kerr teach me in London for the first time, but I had never seen the work, and it was a mystery to me. I was very curious and quite amazed at what she could do. But she was pretty intense and I was a little shy, so I never asked her anything more. I was pretty young; it was my first year outside of Canada.
I think I actually saw the company do an Event in London, but at the time it still didn’t get me.
I hadn’t seen very much of other kinds of dance besides ballet until I was 20; originally, there was zero modern dance in Alberta.
I remember the first time I saw the company, live, in 1990. I was on spring break from the [UNC] School of the Arts. I went to City Center to see them; the program was August Pace and Fabrications.
I was totally blown away; they had a kind of physicality that I really liked. I was 21, and at that age you’re looking for movement you’d like to do, that you’d want to perform.
When I saw the company, I said I really have to try this; I have to figure out how to get here.
But really, it was the physicality in what they were doing, more than the choreography, that got me when I first saw them.
After five full weeks of dance, it was hard to shake the inaccurate sense that we’d already seen it all. But when a dapper young man shot a young woman sitting across from him at a café table in the face, without warning, with a high-power water hose on stage during the final week of last year’s American Dance Festival, it was a wake-up call, to say the least. Then, just to make sure we got the point, he did it again. And again, as the stunned party crowd on stage went as still as the audience.
And that was merely the opening bid of Various Stages of Drowning: A Cabaret by choreographer ROSIE HERRERA. By its conclusion, Herrera’s work hadn’t flinched in its spoofing of Celine Dion—or its unhurried representations of androgyny and gay male desire, for that matter. Its various sequences sending up old school sex symbols made us chuckle—before we went quiet as we wondered exactly why we were laughing.
Then a depicted moment of hospice silenced us, before a surreal film sequence dared suggest that, ultimately, no one stays on board a lifeboat, in one of the most stunning—and humane—works of the 2009 season.
This year ADF invited Herrera back, commissioning a new work, Pity Party—and requesting a restaging of Various Stages by her own company.
We spoke with her by phone at midday, on June 30, in Miami, Florida.
INDEPENDENT: The title of your work, Various Stages of Drowning, brings one question immediately to mind. Who’s drowning?
HERRERA: That’s a good question. I think it symbolizes several different types of drowning: drowning in somebody’s presence, by an experience, by an emotion, or being drowned by memory.
It also comes from my personal experiences, having felt at times like I was drowning, too—professionally, emotionally or psychologically. There are five stages of drowning; I used that as a structure to help separate those different ideas.
I’ve always had a very strong connection to the ocean, to the freedom of being underwater. My father’s Cuban and my mother’s Puerto Rican, so I’m genetically predisposed to being below sea level. (laughs) I’m bound to be within five minutes of the beach; that’s my structure. I’ve been working with underwater photographers and underwater filmmakers; I’ve always felt this incredible energy with the water.
But Various Staging of Drowning was based on series of dreams. I felt at first they were disconnected, but then I realized they were part of the same thing. When I started developing a structure for putting them all together, I was interested in created the surrealist atmosphere of a dream. The closest I could get to that would be underwater.
It’s been a whirlwind of a year—but it’s not at all clear that MARTHA CLARKE would have it any other way. In February she workshopped a new arrangement of Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess for a Broadway producer. She also learned two bits of news: She’d won the Scripps/American Dance Festival award for Lifetime Achievement, with an honorarium of $50,000. Plus, she’d received a commission for a new work to premiere at this year’s ADF. The result, ANGEL REAPERS, is based on the history of an obscure New England sect: The United Society of Believers in Christ’s Second Appearing—better known as the Shakers.
We spoke with her by phone on June 23, in New York—the morning after the first full run-through of her new work.
INDEPENDENT: How’s it going?
MARTHA CLARKE: Very hot in New York.
My sympathies; it’s already broiling down here. And you’re not in a place where you can enjoy a beverage, something cooler?
Well, this apartment has air conditioning, but the studios don’t.
And working with hot dancers, on a hot day, in the heat is, uh, a little hard.
I’m emailing somebody who wants to come to a run-through. I’ve just said, “Bring a fan.”