Thoughts on Jack Ferver’s I Want You to Want Me

Jack Ferver’s I Want You to Want Me, presented at the Kitchen by the American Dance Institute, deals in the overlapping nature of the gothic and the queer in classical ballet. As Peter Stoneley contends in “The Queer History of Ballet”, La Sylphide, Swan Lake, Giselle, and even Sleeping Beauty depend on the supernatural and gothic in order to resolve the narrative. Furthermore, Mair Rigby and other scholars propose the history of the gothic tale as frequently queer in it’s manifestations of collective cultural anxieties. In the popular cinema, The Red Shoes and Black Swan also perpetuate ballet’s affiliation with the supernatural, along with a healthy dose of camp and various queer readings. With that being said, I Want You to Want Me arrives with a fertile lineage of history.

I watched the piece with an interest in Ferver’s use of camp and curiosity regarding use of text and choreographic structure. Stylistically, the piece depends on an overt self-aware theatricality that Ferver and his cadre of excellent performers (Reid Bartelme, Barton Cowperthwaite, and Carling Talcott-Steenstra) deliver with unbridled glee. I Want You to Want Me succeeds in both lampooning and honoring the conventions of ballet as well as historical and contemporary narratives of the ballet dancer’s plight.

This narrative finds an American ballerina (Talcott-Steenstra) making her way into the European company of Madame M (Ferver) and her sidekick (Bartelme) where she encounters a hunky love interest (Cowperthwaite). As with most gothic tales, love leads to horror and eventually a few dead bodies.

Mr. Ferver’s portrayal of Madame X relies heavily on quotes from Martha Graham (“we have so little time to be born to the instant” and others) which I found interesting. While Graham certainly holds the dramatic flair and over-the-top tendencies to serve Mr. Ferver, her status as an American (Madame X is also American) renders her outside the lineage of classical ballet. Perhaps that’s part of the joke. Madame X speaks in hilarious pronouncements and ridiculous French. She’s certainly a diva, but not really a ballet dancer, not really European, and…played by a man.

The actual choreographic material depends heavily on balletic quotes. I recognized a few references to Balanchine (a grande battement into a hinged lunge with pelvis jutting forward and the arch of the foot exposed) which I also find curious as Balanchine worked mainly in a form of ballet modernism that avoided narrative and the supernatural. The costumes (gorgeous use of shape and fabric by Reid and Harriet Design) also play out in black and white, which Balanchine frequently employed. Madame X does end up in a white variation with a glittering red appliqué on a shoulder when things get nasty at the end. The plot adheres to the tragic ending, yet Ferver subverts this through an insidiously celebratory duet for himself and Bartelme danced to Arca’s hypnotic “Sever”.

Find Brian Siebert’s (one of my favorite dance critics) thoughts in NYTimes here: I Want You to Want Me

 

 

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Notes on Carol

I viewed Todd Hayne’s Carol last night and was interested to read the many comments on A. O. Scott’s NYTimes review of the film. Gorgeously shot and acted, Carol presents an excruciating experience that verges on suffocating at times. Centered around the relationship between Therese (Mara Rooney) and Carol (Cate Blanchett), the film references identification, desire, object, and subject in a manner that never truly resolves, but maintains a persistent tension from start to finish.

As Therese, Mara Rooney’s large eyes and elfin face portray a young woman in constant surveillance of her surroundings. She is alert and attuned, yet fragile and vulnerable. Cate Blanchett’s performance as Carol recalls tones of Jasmine in Blue Jasmine as well as her nuanced stepmother in Cinderella. The smoothness of her face provides subterfuge for the inner turmoil we know she’s wrestling with.

Scenes of gazing and looking provide an interesting entry point into ideas of identification and desire. Which comes first? The two women’s faces phase in and out of searching for and sending out clues to one another in a world that prohibits language from carrying the weight of their longing. The film takes on a a strange pressure and sense of hazard early on and never lets up.

Futurist Fashion 1933

 

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Giacamo Balla, “Futurist Embroidered Waistcoat,” 1924-25. Biagiotti Cigna Foundation

Fashion exists as a system of signifiers.

Roland Barthes, The Fashion System

I am reading a fantastic book edited by Cristina Giorcelli and Paula Rabinowitz called Accessorizing the Body that charts the intimate connections between body and the shoe, the hat, the handbag, sunglasses, and other form of accessories throughout history. The cultural, political, and social expression of fashion continues to inspire my scholarship.

In Futurist Accessories, Franca Zoccoli delineates the importance of accessories such as ties, hats, and shoes in the aesthetics of the Italian Futurist movement. Here’s an excerpt from F. T. Marinetti’s Il Manifesto futuristo del cappello italiano (The futurist Manifesto of the Italian hat) from the Gazzetta del Popolo published on February 26, 1933.

1.We condemn the Nordic use of black and neutral colors, which bring a muddy stagnant melancholy to the rainy, snowy and foggy streets of the city making it look as if there are enormous logs, boulders, and turtles being swept along in a brown deluge.

2.We condemn the traditional, passatist headgear that is so out of touch with the aesthetics, the practicality, and the speed of our great mechanical civilization. For example, the pretentious top hat that prevents fast movement and attracts funerals. In August when the Italian streets are full of blinding light and torrid silence, the black or gray hat of the man in the street drifts above, dreary as dung. Color! Color is needed to compete with the sun of Italy.

3.We propose the Futurist functionality of the hat, which until today has been of little or no use to Man, but which from the day forth must illuminate him, mark him, take care of him, defend him, make him faster, and cheer him etc. We will create the following type of hat…:

1.The velocity hat (for everyday wear); 2.The night hat (for evening wear); 3. The luxury hat (for parades); 4.The aero-sport hat; 5.The sun hat; 6.The rain hat; 7.The mountain hat; 8.The sea hat; 9.The defense hat; 10.The poetic hat; 11.The advertising hat; 12.The simultaneous hat; 13.The plastic hat; 14.The tactile hat; 15.The light signal hat; 16.The sound hat; 17.The radio-telephone hat; 18.The therapeutic hat (resin, camphor, or menthol with a band moderating cosmic waves) 19.The automatic greeting hat (with a system of infared rays) 20.The intelligent making hat for idiots who criticize this manifesto. 

They will be made of felt, velvet, straw, cork, lightweight metals, glass, celluloid, compounds, hide, sponge, fiber, neon-tubing, etc. either separately or combines.

The colorful nature of these hats will being the flavor of huge dishes of fruit and the luxury of huge jewelry shops to the streets. The streets at night will be perfumed and illuminated by melodious currents which will destroy forever the tired-out sentimentality for moonlight.  

I love when he accuses the top hat of attracting funerals and of course how #20 is for the idiots who criticize his manifesto!

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Illustration by Giacomo Balla to accompany his 1914 manifesto Il vestito antineutrale

 

 

 

Best of Enemies

 

Another documentary to add to my list of obsessions, Best of Enemies chronicles the televised debates between William Buckley and Gore Vidal during the Republican and Democratic Conventions of 1968. Seeking higher ratings, ABC pits the intellectual rivals against each other, resulting in heated eruptions of political debate, social criticism, and cultural examination. A clash of the titans indeed.

Although Gore Vidal is a personal hero of mine, Buckley’s intelligence and passion match Vidal’s and the two men are a marvelous pair to behold. The idealogical wrestling and verbal sparring illustrate the breadth and depth of thought these two individuals invested in the role of government, notions of country and citizenship, and what freedom means. Both men were prep school graduates, military veterans, and had run for political office in the United States. They know of what they speak and say exactly what they mean, which is refreshing.

The debates come to a head when Vidal calls Buckley a “crypto-nazi”, which rattles Buckley deeply and propels him to lash out with his famous insult :

“Now listen, you queer. Stop calling me a crypto-Nazi or I’ll sock you in your goddamn face and you’ll stay plastered.”

The camera squarely holds Vidal’s face as he takes the words in. Layers of intense pleasure and embarrassment ripple underneath the eyes and around the mouth. He wins by shaking Buckley to the core, but becomes visibly shaken by Buckley’s unhinged retort. Vidal appears as the cat the ate the canary, but he chokes on the incisive barbs of this particular canary’s feathers.

The men remain rivals for the rest of their lives.

The Substance of Style

Virginia Postrel’s “The Substance of Style” has radically shifted my views on the history and evolution of aesthetic pleasure. Lucidly written, Postrel keenly observes trends regarding the look and feel of the world we live in, traces historical precedents, and draws fantastic theoretical conclusions.

When she questions the manner in which Maslow’s “hierarchy of needs” places aesthetic value in a position that can only be fulfilled once other needs have been met, Postrel references the vast history of of adornment and decoration present in a diverse range of global historical artifacts from multiple economic climates. She makes a solid claim that “aesthetics is not a luxury, but a universal human desire.”

Furthermore, she strategically breaks down the concept of visual “authenticity” that often places enormous value in some objects but not others, and leaves us with the following:

The demand for authenticity appeals to our desire not to be deceived by surfaces, but the pursuit of an objective definition goes too far. That quest conflates deception–forgery–with recombination, reappropriation, and change. It removes both the subject and the audience, the source and the recipient, from the play of aesthetic symbolism. “Authenticity” becomes little more than a rhetorical club to enforce the critic’s taste. (113)

Referencing a vast assortment of sources from Ann Hollander to Walter Benjamin, Virginia Postrel provides remarkable insight into the world of visual culture that informs our lives. She draws important links between what we choose to wear or where we choose to be (“I like that”) with our identity (“I’m like that”). She also makes important arguments that refute the often trivial and superficial assignment of visual culture, revealing the deep history of aesthetic pleasure that humanity has systematically cultivated.

The book ends with the following quote by designer Karim Rashid:

What really endures are artifacts, effigies, things that speak about a time, place or civilization. When people say to me that everything seems trivial or meaningless, I believe the opposite. Objects outlive us, and they are the symbols of our culture and history. (191)

Find Virginia Postrel’s website here:

http://vpostrel.com/

TALES OF HOFFMAN@FILM FORUM

This trippy, elegant, and downright awesome film is playing at Film Forum for a limited engagement. I loved seeing the captivating Moira Shearer dance the fantastic Frederick Ashton choreography in this film, as well as many of her Red Shoes co-stars like Leonide Massine, Robert Helpmann, and Ludmilla Tcherina. Another treat is to see Ashton himself appear in one of the first sequences. Shot in an over the top, romantic, theatrical, and surreal manner, The Tales of Hoffman, has an almost suffocating effect a times. Of course I took interest the fact that Shearer plays a Coppelia-like doll that is eventually dismembered onscreen. Her arms and legs are torn off and her decapitated head goes tumbling about. A favorite shot is of her head on the floor and then her eyes suddenly pop open. Ludmilla Tcherina plays a courtesan who seduces the title character of Hoffman into surrendering his reflection to her and her master (played by a campier than ever Robert Helpmann). Tcherina is impossibly sensual and to me she bears a striking resemblence to Janet Eilber. The Tales of Hoffman is a wonderful resource for dance on film in the 20th century. The entire film is shot so beautifully and seems to be entirely choreographed. Love it!

PAUL TAYLOR @ CITY CENTER MARCH 2015

The Paul Taylor Dance Company returns to City Center this month with guest performances by the Limon Dance Company and Shen Wei. I’m always thrilled to attend a Taylor event and witness the work of one of the most prolific dance artists in America. I attended the first night of the Company’s engagement which found an enigmatic program order danced with variable effectiveness.

Arden Court‘s beautiful backdrop of Gene Moore’s exquisitely painted pink rose suggests a romanticism that takes a while to emerge in the dancing. The men become airborne in this piece quite a bit with varying degrees of facility. Overall, the look of the men has recently favored a muscled bulk over sculpted line, resulting in a quality of movement that often makes some of the Taylor men appear un-coordinated and clunky. This burdened quality happens when the men are taking off into jumps and landing on the floor. At times, the choreography appears to be too fast for some of them to handle, which is problematic to me. When the dancing bodies are at odds with the choreography my mind starts to wonder why, and I diverge from the piece. The exception to this trend in the company is Michael Trusnovec, who looks sculpted and beefy, but lithe enough to jump, land, turn and dance with elegance, artistry, and ease. The women fare better in their handling of the choreography. Their daring shifts of weight, quick direction changes, and fast turning demonstrate the high degree of technique required in the Taylor repertoire. Arden Court is a pleasant piece that grows into playfulness and finally a sense of euphoria. I do agree with Siobahn Burke‘s feelings of initially resisting the Taylor pieces and then easing into them as one views them, ultimately surrendering to the charm and musicality Mr. Taylor is famous for.

Big Bertha suffered a double-whammy of uneven casting and unfortunate placement on the program. It felt too early to insert such dark and twisted work so early in the evening, directly following the pastoral ease of Arden Court. I had seen this piece with a slightly different cast a few years ago and found it to be a bit clearer, riskier, and more incisive. Big Bertha presents a voluptuous carnival jukebox figure that is visited by a father, mother, and daughter. They insert a coin and as the jukebox is activated, the family unit is torn apart by rape and incest. This piece actually interests me on many levels. The audience audibly reacted with shock to some of the grotesque images Taylor presents in Big Bertha the evening I saw it, which was curious to me because television, news outlets, and the internet usually display similar (or much worse) violence and atrocities without much ado.

At the top of Big Bertha, the jukebox figure, who is dressed in a type of majorette outfit complete with cape and red knee high boots, pulls a baton out of her throat. She is a giant doll-like imposing machine with impossibly rounded thighs, appearing larger than life. Apparently this role has been played by a man as well as a woman in different variations in casting over the years in the Taylor Company (which is very interesting as well). At any rate, this figure, “Big Bertha” occupies an interesting theoretical space because her sharp and mechanical movements (she moves like a wind-up doll or a carnival machine) are at odds with the sensual and luxurious curves of her body proportion and costume. Removing the baton from her throat suggests obvious phallic references, as well as the freedom to speak and be heard. She then uses the baton to direct and control the family, wielding it as an object of power and authority.

Big Bertha dances and the mother, father, and daughter dance period steps together. They show off for each other and playfully invite each other to dance. As Big Bertha dies down the father gives her another coin (which she eats–her robust body survives on money) and she is activated again. The more she dances, the further she sends the family into the macabre. The father makes sexual advances toward his daughter and takes her behind the Big Bertha machine. The wife is left alone on stage and Big Bertha reduces her to a sexual object as well; she ends up stripping her clothes off, performing a sad type of desperate strip tease, humiliated while standing on a chair. The father returns bloodied, with a dead daughter over his shoulder. The American family unit is shredded up and literally left lying dead on the floor.

I highly suggest having a look at Nancy Dalva’s fantastic theories on Big Bertha. Her thoughts illuminate so many possibilities in this piece. She writes about a previous performance of the piece that I saw (with Michael Trusnovec in the father role) and remember as more haunting, more layered, and more dangerous. This piece could be called analogous with Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf and other works that take aim at 50’s Americana and social conventions. In similar fashion, it begins semi-comically but then turns on a dime toward the fearful, tragic, and ugly. This recent performance lacks an articulation of the point of no return where jokes become insults or gestures become threats. However, Big Bertha continues to make us think.

Troilus and Cressida (reduced) was another confusing piece to have following this piece in the program this evening. I’m not entirely sure why the Taylor Company continues to perform this work when there are over a hundred other pieces in the repertoire that would interest me more. Personally I would be interested in seeing more obscure Taylor works than Troilus and Cressida (reduced), which has been performed in New York fairly recently. This frothy, whimsical, and cartoonish depiction of the lovers Troilus and Cressida depends heavily on sight gags like pratfalls and pants falling down. The familiar Ponchielli music, “Dance of the Hours”, suggests comedy that never quite materializes in the dance the way that one hopes it would.

Szygy takes flight with a marvelous score by Donald York. I recall seeing this piece performed to a synth-heavy recording (which I also like) but the live orchestration bristles, pops, and slides with so much texture that the dance is thrust upward into a new dimension. Taking celestial designs of the sky for inspiration, this piece is in constant motion, with a welcomed relaxed and slouchy sense of dancing. Bodies are loose, tossed, and thrown about the stage as they seem to bounce like ping pong balls toward, between, and into one another. This is the kind of excitement, the type of experience that makes seeing live dance so transcendent. Heather McGinley is particularly lucid as she negotiates the non-stop movement with moments of still balances in which she reaches upward toward the stars.