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.

COMPAGNIE CNDC-ANGERS/ROBERT SWINSTON @ THE JOYCE MARCH 2015

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Program Note: An Event is an uninterrupted sequence of excerpts drawn from the work of Merce Cunningham. Each Event is unique, arranged specifically for each performance space. Dance and music are independent. Events performed this week include excerpts and adaptations of Variations V (1965), Scramble (1967), Changing Steps (1973), Un Jour ou Dou (1973), Rebus (1975), Squaregame (1976), Fractions (1978), Numbers (1982), Deli Commedia (1986), Points in Space (1986), and Four Lifts (1990).

I have limited exposure to the Cunningham technique and repertory, but remember seeing many Cunningham Events at the Emergency Fund for Student Dancers (EFSD) concerts throughout the years. I also attended the final Cunningham performance at the Park Avenue Armory on New Year’s Eve in 2011. This summer I took a wonderful class with former Cunningham company member Brenda Daniels at ADF and enjoyed her insights into the Cunningham work.

The eight dancers that Robert Swinston brought from Centre National de Dance Contemporanie (CNDC) to the Joyce this month are for the most part very well-trained and coached in the Cunningham aesthetic.The dancers impressed with their technical commitment to the material. I enjoyed seeing the signature Cunningham impossible balances, tilted torsos, and quicksilver use of the legs and feet.

The non-heirarchical nature of the Cunningham work appeals to the viewer through constant offering of spatial possibilities. This is an equation with a perpetual variable. X is never resolved. Rather, it is constantly shifting through fixed points in space, shapes, and sequences.

Interestingly, Cunningham eschews the narrative structure and thematic abstraction employed by earlier creators of modern dance such as Martha Graham, Jose Limon, and Paul Taylor, but retains many of the recognizable technical frameworks (use of the feet, legs, arms, head and torso) present in the cannon of modern dance and classical ballet. Although Cunningham liberates the viewer in certain terms, the dancer is still bound by the very formal convention and demanding technique Cunningham employed in creating his work.

Recent dance scholars have focused on the way Cunningham’s plotless dances inadvertently relate to identity. Ramsay Burt in The Male Dancer: bodies, spectacle, sexualities notes “Susan Foster (2001) has argued that Cunningham’s focus on formal issues has allowed him to devise a closet with which to deflect any enquiries about his homosexuality, and she and Yutian Wong (2002) both argue that he has failed to recognize the racial inequalities embodied in modern dance. Underlying [these] criticisms, I suggest, is disappointment that Cunningham had not chosen to acknowledge the potential within his work for seeing gender, sexuality, and whiteness in new ways. What then is this potential?”

From the looks of the CNDC Company, Swinston chooses not to explore the potential mentioned above but rather continues to work in the detached/indifferent Cunningham tradition in which the creator is erased from the performative equation, leaving the viewer with only traces. That being said, this Event, with it’s glorious use of space, billowing set (fauvist-feeling panels of fabric by Jackie Mattisse), and beautiful lighting (Augustin Sauldubois) is still one that I would revisit again.

Read Alastair Macaulay’s review here: http://www.nytimes.com/2015/03/12/arts/dance/review-compagnie-cndc-angers-dances-cunningham.html?ref=dance&_r=0

DIANA FUSS: IDENTIFICATION PAPERS

“If one has lost a love-object, the most obvious reaction is to identify one-self with it, to replace it from within, as it were, by identification.” Sigmund Frued, An Outline of Psycho-Analysis

“What one cannot keep outside, one always keeps an image of inside. Identification with the object of love is as silly as that.” Jaques Lacan, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis

In Identification Papers, Diana Fuss embarks on a fascinating discussion regarding the psychological, cultural, and political dimensions of the process of identification. Fuss likens the “problem” of identification to a systematic “detour through the other that defines the self” essentially resulting in a perpetual paradox. The self becomes an eternal substitute for the other that can never be known. She expands and amplifies the slippery nature of identification as it has been named and constructed by western psychoanalysts such as Freud and Lacan. Skillfully employing theoretical discourse by great thinkers such as Judith Butler, Eve Sedgewick, D. A. Miller, Lee Edelman, and others, Fuss destabilizes the essential nature of identification, queering the process in a certain regard.

Fuss writes with purpose and with clarity. I appreciate the way she welcomes contradictions and folds arguments back into themselves. Her scholarship feels interesting and exciting to me in a way that is open and inquisitive. I admire the manner in which she teases out her critiques of theoretical discourse by paying as much careful attention to what isn’t said as to what is when a statement is made. She also seems to welcome opposing thoughts into existing theoretical frameworks. This invitation into variance seems to liberate both the writer and reader.

This book’s series of excellent essays are also quite useful on their own. Most interesting to me are Fuss’s discussion of orality and anality Jonathan Demme’s The Silence of the Lambs and the case of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer. I also found her work in Sexual Contagions: Dorothy Strachey’s ‘Olivia’ to be particularly eloquent regarding the relationship between hysteria and the institution (hospital/school/etc).