A QUEER HISTORY OF THE BALLET: PETER STONELEY

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In A Queer History of the Ballet (2007)Peter Stoneley charts out preliminary studies into the historically queer aspects of nineteenth and twentieth century ballet traditions. Stoneley strategically chooses his time periods and subjects to simultaneously tease out and excavate the de-stabilizing, radical, and queer aspects of his studies, rather than provide a comprehensive and wide-sweeping account.

I found Stoneley’s most interesting writings to be his inquiries into the figure of the fairy, Diaghilev’s Ballet Russe and the emergence of queer modernity, the queer usage of the prima ballerina, and his reading of Swan Lake.

One of the most interesting aspects of Stoneley’s research is the way in which he sets up Frederick Ashton’s creation of Margot Fonteyn. Ashton’s transformative experience of seeing the legendary Pavlova dance in his youth is correlated to his work with Margot Fonteyn. Fonteyn became an international ballet star in large part to Ashton’s choreography and coaching which was drawn from and fueled by his infatuated memories of Pavlova and the idea of her hyper-femininity. The dancing ballerina is not a “woman”, but an abstraction of femininity that has been pressed through the sieve of an enraptured man. Stoneley explores this queer relationship quite fully and opens up an important area of scholarship.

Stoneley uses just enough theorists (the usual suspects: Butler, Bersani, Edelman, Foucault, Mulvey, Sedgwick) to bring an academic heft to his writing, without drowning in it. I found it and incredibly enjoyable and immensely interesting read.

SUJATA GOEL: DANCING GIRL SEPTEMBER 27

The Queer New York International Arts Festival concluded with Sujata Goel’s spellbinding Dancing Girl at Abrons Art Center on Saturday, September 27. Goel’s intelligently crafted piece reveals itself to be overlaid in various systems of physical manifestations that are reorganized and re-patterned, shifting the manner in which the viewer absorbs this information. We start in darkness, and then an arm emerges in a small band of light. It disappears and then we see two knees and feet, then a neck. These small illuminations continue and increase in frequency until the entire body of the dancer is revealed. Ms. Goel retains an engaging physical presence, expertly wielding herself on the stage while maintaing a subtle distance from it all. As the piece develops, we see the dancer move through a series of tableau that are held at various lengths and then reconfigured in tempo and order. The eye is constantly being forced to reconfigure her body and recalibrate our perception. Yap Seok Hul’s expertly executed lighting design changes and shifts as the dance continues, and it is just as responsible for telling the eye what to see. A thoughtful and unique artist, I look forward to seeing more of Sujata’s work in the future.

Photo: Rithvik Raja

Photo: Rithvik Raja

MOR SHANI: LOVE-ISM SEPTEMBER 25

Mor Shani’s Love-ism was presented at the Abrons Art Center as part of the Queer New York International Arts Festival. Performed with commitment and nuance by Pawel Konior and Majon van der Schot, this duet is Shani’s exploration of human intimacy. Konior and van der Schot demonstrated a robust athleticism and virtuosic displays of partnering. The repetitive nature of some of the smaller phrases, which mutate into amplified and more acrobatic feats, is divine. To see small patterns emerge as larger acts of movement is exciting. I like this piece, but for me it seems to be lacking in a certain sensuality. There is part of me that wanted to see reverence in the performers for the sacred-ness of the other’s body such as the curve of the ear or the arch of the foot. About 1/4 of the way through the piece, Mr. Konior disrobes while van der Schot keeps her trunks on. I questioned why this was, and came to no certain conclusions. (perhaps because there is a lift in which Ms. van der Schot sits on Mr. Konior’s foot as if it were a bicycle seat and he lifts her up? I’ve attached a clip below) I think this duet is part of a larger work (including a film with many different performers) by Mor-Shani that falls under the Umbrella of Love-ism. As for this particular duet, I’m unsure as to what was particularly queer about this performance. I questioned what was de-stabilizing or critical of social constructs in this duet. Maybe I’ll watch it again and have some revelation at some point in the future. Enjoy the clip below.

BRUNO ISAKOVIC: DENUDED SEPT 23

 

Photo: Paula Lobo, NYTimes

Photo: Paula Lobo, NYTimes

Bruno Isakovic’s Denuded at Abrons Arts Center presents the talented Ana Vnucec in a stunning solo piece. She takes off her clothes and stands naked before the audience. She calmly and purposefully makes eye contact with every single audience member. She draws attention to her breath and we become aware of when she is breathing deeply and when she is not. This process evolves as the lights dim and Ms. Vnucec seems to be pulled up and out into space through the sound of her breath as she expands and contracts. She never really removes a foot entirely off the floor and yet she floats. The piece has a slowly calming effect, largely due in part to her artful, nuanced performance and the beautiful lighting. Her movements return her to standing, the lights return to as before. She bows and leaves. Bruno Isakovic is a dance artist I had never heard of before and I am so glad I was able to see this piece. His thoughts on the body, the gaze, the breath and audience contact are important and exciting. This performance is part of the Queer International Arts Festival, now in it’s third year. A festival and an artist to keep an eye on.

Brian Siebert reviews Denuded for the NYTimes here: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/27/arts/bruno-isakovics-denuded-at-abrons-arts-center.html?ref=dance&_r=0 

ALASTAIR MACAULAY REVIEWS TRAJAL HARRELL SEPTEMBER 23

Stephen Thompson in "Antigone SR"  Photo: Andrea Mohin/The NYTimes

Stephen Thompson in “Antigone SR” Photo: Andrea Mohin/The NYTimes

 

Find Alastair Macaulay’s insightful and astute thoughts on  Trajal Harrell’s entire “Twenty Looks” here:

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/23/arts/dance/trajal-harrells-twenty-looks-in-full-at-the-kitchen.html?_r=0

Alastair articulates the disparity in performance style between Mr. Harrell and the rest of his company quite clearly. I agree with many of his thoughts and had similar reactions to many of the elements Mr. Macaulay expounds upon.

 

TRAJAL HARRELL SEPTEMBER 19/20 2014

Photo: Casper Hedberg for the NYTimes

Photo: Casper Hedberg for the NYTimes

TRAVERSING TRAJAL: A POST-MODERN BALL

I first saw Trajal Harrell’s TWENTY LOOKS OR PARIS IS BURNING AT THE JUDSON CHURCH: ANTIGONE SR at New York Live Arts two years ago. I remember feelings of extreme frustration mixed with feelings of extreme admiration, rapture, and wonder. The piece balances lengthy periods of confusing, somewhat muddled performance passages with sequences of dancing that are downright transcendent. Revisiting this piece at the Kitchen this past October, I feel like I was able to see the work more clearly. Perhaps as the piece has been touring for the past two years, it has gained a sharper focus and stronger sense of purpose.

Harrell works under the supposition of what might have occurred should the Judson Church Dance movement and the tradition of voguing balls collided. Trajal’s interest in these two cultural and artistic movements were amplified when he discovered the genesis of both occured in 1960’s New York City. In abstraction, the Judson movement radically refused current trends in dance performance, rejecting the confines of technique, reframing assumed use of space in live performance, and eliminating ideas of spectacle and glamour. What is generally referred to as the “post-modern” dance movement began to take root at the Judson Church in Greenwich Village through the pioneering work of Trisha Brown, Steve Paxton, and Yvonne Rainer, among others.

Meanwhile, voguing emerged in Harlem as a social dance counterculture developed through celebratory balls rooted in identity, necessity, defiance, and aspiration. Primarily created by the African-American and Latino Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, and Transgender community, this dance phenomenon derived from a runway competition or ball in which competing walkers strike a series of poses or positions inspired by the glamourous fashion models that appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine. Voguing competitors aspire to total “realness”: to pass believably as something one is not. Constructs of gender, race, and economic class are rendered as mere illusions of physical representation and gesture. Comprised of a series of complex categories (Butch Queen, Femme Queen, European Runway) competitors are judged on the coherence of their “realness” through walking, clothing, hair, makeup, and posing. Voguing gained popular recognition with the release of the 1990 documentary Paris is Burning by Jennie Livingston and the hit 1990 Madonna single, Vogue.

Trajal’s interest in these two artistic movements presents a series of interesting and provocative possibilities regarding ideas of performance and artifice. The post-modern Judsons sought a certain “authenticity” through refusing performance artifice, while in the voguing balls “realness” is intricately performed through recognized social references. Inspired by the Rem Koolhaas book, S,M,L,XL, Harrell’s exploration exists as a series: XS, S, (M)imosa, JR (Antigone JR), PLUS (Antigone JR ++) L (Antigone Sr) and M2M (Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem). ANTIGONE SR is the penultimate episode of the group and adds the Greek tragedy of Antigone into the mix of Judson and vogue. PARIS IS BURNING AT THE JUDSON CHURCH is an adventure in conceptual collision, an “impossible dialogue” of sorts, between two unique and very specific dance cultures that revolve around ideas of authenticity and illusion.

I admire the imaginative framework of this work. Employing the magic of “what if” liberates and unleashes a vast reservoir of potential for Trajal and his collaborators. By proposing questions or suggesting alternatives in this performance work, Trajal and Co have given themselves and the audience permission to make discoveries rather than arrive at a reductive fixed fusion or solution to the creative equation at hand. This is not a Judson Vogue Ball, or a Vogued Judson recreation. Harrell writes: I am most interested in how the imagination can re-think the “omissions” of history. In this way, performance can be a way in which we collectively reimagine the impossibilities of history and thus make room for new possibilities in the world we make today.  (http://www.newyorklivearts.org/artist/Trajal-Harrell)

ANTIGONE SR is a conceptually creative outpouring that struts, shouts, shrieks, and sobs with power. Erik Faltmo’s setting of intersecting grey marley “runways” is outlined in thin neon pink and blue tape. There are three raised white squares in the downstage area that are often lit in such a way that they appear to glow. To the left, in the middle of the space, is a very low platform covered in silver fabric. It is at once laissez faire and theatrical, and as a matter of fact, so is the entire piece. Jan Maertens skillful work provides stunning lighting effects. On more than one occasion, he blinds the audience with darkness and then gradually reveals and conceals ghostly, writhing creatures that seem to materialize in a haze. They are there, but not there…or are they? He seduces our eyes into playing tricks on us and we become participants in the illusions before us.

Trajal is joined onstage by four beautiful creatures, each unique and appealing in their own way. Rob Fordeyn’s sinewy, serpentine body spellbinds. Thibault Lac is lush and vulnerable. Stephen Thompson brings a studied, facile, and knowing ease to many of his humorous passages. Ondrej Vidlar grounds the group with sensual flair. Working as a unit, these men have a unique, rebellious, and self-aware power. At one point Trajal takes the mic as an MC who schools the crowd at a voguing ball. Voguing references of “House”, “Legendary Face”, and “Iconogia” illuminate various themes of Greek tragedy. Thibault and Trajal intone a delightful series of partnerships: “We are…Venus and Serena…..Cage and Cunningham….”  (and so forth) before arriving at Antigone and Ismene of the Greek play.

We are presented with various categories of runway competition in which each man walks out in an ensemble fashioned from the same costume pieces worn in earlier in the evening. A pair of acid wash jeans, a leather trench coat, an afghan blanket, a men’s blazer, and such are remixed, repurposed, and recycled to brilliant and sensational effect. Walking in imaginary high heels and fantastically imagined ensembles, the men compete for “realness” in various categories. “Mother of the House” is humorously subversive and deserves to be expanded into an evening of it’s own. Conceptually layering the post-modern ideas of deconstruction and repurposing over the conceit of the voguing runway results in a sublime release of theatrical freedom and power, and is a joy to behold. Here we see the reimaging of history and new possibilities Harrell alludes to in his artist statement, and the result is electrifying. The cultural, theoretical, historical, artistic, and academic volume of Mr. Harrell’s vision is indeed intense and thrilling. The house of Harrell is alive and well.

Photo: Marta Gornicka

Photo: Marta Gornicka

The final installment of Trajal’s cannon of re/de/contrucstion, M2M JUDSON CHURCH IS RINGING IN HARLEM was presented the following evening. This piece is a much smaller, but equally complex endeavor. It is the final installment to this creative cannon. Less theatrical, but still confrontational and perplexing, this piece finds Mr. Harrell, Mr. Lac, and Mr. Fordeyn seated on three chairs. It has a calmer, more meditative stance than ANTIGONE SR. The three men recite snippets from song lyrics over the microphones, ending with repeated refrains of “Don’t Stop” and “Mama Said”. In this first section Fordeyn and Luc remain distanced and ritualized while Harrell’s face contorts and twists and his body shakes as if he is working through some personal psychodrama. Wearing similar black gauzy shifts by ComplexGeometries, the relative stillness allows one to contemplate the men’s physical similarities and differences. Lac and Fordeyn are long and lean of neck, legs and fingers. Harrell is smaller and shorter in this respect. Harrell is black. Lac and Fordeyn are not. The stark differences between Mr. Harrell and his collaborators highlighted ideas of difference and accord. At times Harrell appears to be in a completely different performance mode than Lac and Fordeyn. Long pauses and a sense of implosion slowly build into a crescendo of swirling movement and ecstatic release. “Conceptual dance is ova!” Harrell shouts into the mic as Fordeyn turns it out with sinuous flair. A refrain of “work!” echoes from the men. Things slow down and Lac asks repeatedly “are you on fire?” Trajal and company certainly are, and Paris is Burning at the Judson Church, which is Ringing in Harlem in case you didn’t know.

For more on Trajal Harrell, see a previous interview I posted last week.

Also:

http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/when-drag-and-modern-dance-collide

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/09/14/magazine/how-trajal-harrell-mixes-his-moves.html

http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/22/arts/dance/trajal-harrell-fuses-harlem-voguing-and-judson-church-moves.html?pagewanted=all&_r=0

MONICA BILL BARNES SEPT 12 2014

I met up with some fellow ADF friends last night to attend the charming THREE ACTS, TWO DANCERS, ONE RADIO HOST, a collaboration between Ira Glass (public radio’s This American Life) and Monica Bill Barnes with Anna Bass. It was clear that a large portion of the audience had come to see Glass, who garnered vociferous entrance applause. The piece, billed as a collaboration between talk radio and dance, is a curious creation in three acts. All three performers are self-deprecating and silly, resulting an enjoyable and delightful evening. Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bass are robust and vibrant movers, and Mr. Glass is affable and warm.

Ms. Barnes’ choreography relies heavily on the musical choices, which range from Elvis Presley, Burt Bachrach, James Brown, and Marvin Hamlish’s “One”. Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bass have larger than life personalities on stage and clearly relish performing. Their hammy and athletic dancing was a joy to watch in the first act. The second act brought a more akward humor and third act, a more somber and melancholy feeling.

I admire all three artists for this collaboration. I remember seeing a radio detective piece that the James Sewell Ballet created with Garrison Keillor, but Ms, Barnes, Ms. Bass, and Mr. Glass are taking the collaboration of radio and dance further. It would be interesting to see Ms. Barnes and Ms. Bass develop more character-based humor in their dancing. Ms. Barnes admittedly loves using tricks like confetti cannons and balloons but they are never really incorporated into the dancing. I see a lot of potential for those elements. The show is already charming, but this might really strengthen it even more.

The piece will continue to tour the US this year and I look forward to seeing how the work develops further.