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

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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).

THE WORK OF DANCE: LABOR, MOVEMENT, AND IDENTITY IN THE 1930’s

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Photo: New Dance Group Studio Archive

In this work, Mark Franko deftly explores the complex relationship of theatrical dancing to the labor movements of the 1930’s. Franko’s ideas impress with dimension and inventiveness. I especially enjoyed his assertions regarding the image of the chorus girl in Busby Berkeley’s Gold Diggers of 1933. He proposes that We’re in the Money establishes strong links between the body, labor, money, and sexuality. The body of the chorus girl is rendered as a commodity such that “We’re in the Money” can also mean “We are money” and the “Money is in us” We can employ this trope to contemporary images of the female body on screen (although not really chorus girls) in similar Berkeley-like music videos and performances. Beyonce’s luxuriously long weaves, Madonna’s impossible plastic surgery, and Nicki Minaj’s un-naturally tiny waist-to-ass ratio all imply that money has been exchanged in order to sexualize, and as such, present the body as commodity. Franko employs Susan Manning and Ellen Graff’s writing on Helen Tamiris and racial appropriation to discuss the history and context of her dance How Long, Brethren. Furthermore, Franko locates the early work of Martha Graham, Jane Dudley, Anna Sokolow within the political climate of the 1930’s. At times, I found the writing style convoluted and felt that Mr. Franko often sabotages his brilliant ideas with language that can obscure, rather than illuminate his remarkable thoughts for the reader.

MISHIMA: THE SAILOR WHO FELL FROM GRACE WITH THE SEA

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I’ve just finished reading Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea. I continue my fascination with this hauntingly poetic and brutally beautiful writer. Published in 1963 and translated (by John Nathan) into English in 1965, the novel chronicles the complex relationship between the 13-year old Noburu, his widowed mother Fusako, and Ryuji, the sailor that transfixes the mother and son. Ryuji and Fusako fall in love and end up marrying, which sends Noburu into a spiral of anxiety. Noburu belongs to band of savage boys who pride themselves on “objectivity”, despise sentimentality, reject hypocrisy, and shun the illusory world of adults. Ryuji, whom Noburu initially idealizes, becomes hated and targeted by the gang of children as his romance progresses with Fusako.

Nathan’s translation feels refreshingly straightforward, maintaining the essence of Mishima’s prose. A few highlights:

[H]is body looked younger and more solid than any landsman’s: it might have been cast in the matrix of the sea. His broad shoulders were square as the beams in a temple roof, his chest strained against a thick mat of hair, knotted muscle like twists of sisal hemp bulged all over his body: his flesh looked like a suit of armor that he could cast off at will

[A] man encounters the perfect woman only once in a lifetime and in every case death interposes.

Real danger is nothing more than just living. Of course living is merely the chaos of existence, but more than that it’s a crazy mixed up business of dismantling existence instant by instant to the point where the original chaos is restored, and taking strength from the uncertainty and the fear that chaos brings to re-create existence instant by instant. You won’t find another job as dangerous as that. 

Shining cooly through the gloom of the shed, the scissors were magnificent in their cold intellectual dignity

He saw them as marvelous gold embroideries leaping off a flat black fabric: the naked sailor twisting in the moonlight to confront a horn–the kitten’s death mask, grave and fang-bared–it’s ruby heart…gorgeous entities all and absolutely authentic: then Ryuji too was an authentic hero..all incidents on the sea, in the sea, under the sea. 

At that moment the pool was terrifically deep. Deeper and deeper as watery blue darkness seeped up from the bottom. The knowledge, so certain it was sensuous, that nothing was there to support the body if one plunged in generated around the empty pool an unremitting tension. Gone now was the soft summer water that received the swimmer’s body and bore him lightly afloat, but the pool, like a monument to summer and to water, had endured, and it was dangerous, lethal.

Glory, as anyone knows, is bitter stuff.

Next on my list of Mishima novels is Forbidden Colors.

GORE VIDAL: THE CITY AND THE PILLAR

Just finished The City and the Pillar by Gore Vidal, a writer and thinker that I have always wanted to become more closely acquainted with. Written in 1946 and published in 1948, Vidal shocked America with a protagonist named Jim Willard, who was wholly American and homosexual. Vidal’s earnest and plain writing illuminate the nature of gay life in the 1940’s as Willard moves through the Navy, Hollywood, and New York. The novel sparked a scandal and the New York Times refused to review or advertise The City and the Pillar, or any book by Vidal for years to come. I appreciated this book for Vidal’s writing, but also his astute historical and social perspective.

Some favorite quotes and passages:

When the eyes are shut, the true world begins.

Yet he realized that it would be a difficult matter to live in a world of men and women without participating in their ancient and necessary duet. 

In the highest society, the homosexual wore a stylized mask in order to move gracefully, and often convincingly, among admiring women who were attracted to him because his understanding was a great as his demands were few. Occasionally two homosexuals might meet in the great world. When they did, by a quick glance they acknowledged one another and, like amused conspirators, observed the effect each was having. It was a form of freemasonry. 

Everything in this country is calculated to destroy both sexes. Men are told that their desires are dirty and unwanted. Woman are told that they are goddesses and that men are fortunate to be able just to worship them at a distance…

Jim met him in a restaurant where the food an service were bad but where many people who were famous came to look not only at one another but also at themselves in the mirrors which lined the dining room. 

The following clip is extracted from GORE VIDAL: UNITED STATES OF AMNESIA, which I watched this weekend. Highly recommended!

REFLECTIONS ON AILEY@CITY CENTER DECEMBER 2014

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Robert Battle continues to infuse the Ailey legacy with exciting new work from choreographers from outside and within the Ailey tradition.

Of the latter, Matthew Rushing’s Odetta pays tribute to the American folk singer and civil rights activist Odetta Holmes. This world premiere showcases the talented company, allowing each dancer a small feature in a solo or duet. The astounding Hope Boykin anchors the cast as she channels the central figure of Odetta. Ms. Boykin’s lush phrasing, coupled with her athletic and precise execution of movement serve her dramatic flair and magnetic presence. Rachel McClaren and Marcus Jarrell Willis provide some comic relief in A Hole in the Bucket. McClaren plays straight to Willis’ rubbery and playful demeanor. The Cool Water duet, danced by Sarah Dailey and Jermaine Terry is exquisite. Rushing demonstrates his skills as a master choreographer here, employing Dailey and Terry’s intertwining long limbs and striking lines to beautiful, sensual effect. Cool Water became my favorite moment of the piece after my second viewing.

Rushing’s design team (costumes: Dante Baylor, Lighting: Andrew Vasquez, Scenic: Travis George, Artwork: Stephen Alcorn) have taken1960’s folk revival as inspiration in their work. Odetta has a folksy, patch-work quality and color palette that at times feels at odds with the tone of the piece. In weaker moments, it looks like a revival of “Hair”.  It would be interesting to see what this piece would reveal stripped bare, as the majority of Rushing’s movement is so strong. The piece employs four large benches with a cut-out pattern. The benches are used conventionally and help to break up the space, but they are quite clunky and don’t surprise or add to the piece in any way. I look forward to seeing more of Matthew Rushing’s work for the Ailey Company.

Hofesh Shechter’s The Uprising was a bold and excellent choice for Mr. Battle to present the talents of the Ailey men. I disagree with Alastair’s Macaulay’s dismissal of this piece as cheap and tedious. I find much of Mr. Shechter’s movement beautiful and original, particularly in a repeated run that crouches low to the ground as an arm unfurls from the elbow. The men glide impossibly close to the ground as they move across the stage in groups. Jamar Roberts stands out here as his long limbs and commanding presence is spellbinding. Whereas Macaulay attempts to reduce the piece to a “message”, I am more inclined to focus on the questions The Uprising raises and the discussions that may evolve out of it.

Shechter complicates and destabilizes the physical binary of violence/tenderness with performative gestures such as slapping, cradling, and the all too familiar chokehold. The man stand in a circle and pat each other in the back, one by one. The contact becomes increasingly forceful and a pat on the back mutates into a slap on the neck, which triggers a scrum-like brawl. How do tenderness and violence the overlap? What separates the two? A man extends a fist into the air, and is lowered by another. Men grab each other’s faces and press their skulls together, tightly bound in a complicated mathematic. The men run across the stage as if fleeing. They wait impatiently in groups. In the end, a man holds a reg flag as he is lifted by the group. Is it a symbol of revolution? Or a red flag as a warning? Or both?

Jacqulyn Buglisi’s Suspended Women demonstrates the marvelous technical diversity and dramatic sweep of this amazing company of women. Having just finished the book DANCING WOMEN: Female Bodies On Stage by Sally Banes, I was fascinated by this piece in a new way, having seen it before. Ms. Buglisi employs a visually charged and theatrically sophisticated aesthetic. The production values at work in Suspended Woman are exquisite. The piece begins with a group of women who appear to be hanging like marionettes upstage at the cyclorama. They stand erect and slowly progress downstage as a unit. Adorned in beautiful hoop skirts, they float as a community toward the audience and become individuals as they melt individually to the floor. They are women en masse perhaps as combination of sisters, mothers,daughters and friends. The music is soft and the lighting is gorgeous. They vuluptuously turn through each other and hang over a precipice. Their relationship to the space around them is quietly conflicted and wrought with anxiety. They gather longingly toward the DSR corner with anticipation. A woman falls and the groups surrounds her, frozen. Linda Celeste Holmes shatters and breaks her body into angles as the music descends in similar fashion. Women rush and swirl through the air, to collapse on the floor and rise again. They are highlighted briefly as individuals, but are then absorbed back into the group again. They struggle for singularity but then are swallowed back into the community. They are organized and pulled by some outside force, rather than actively moving. Some of the women even seem to be imprisoned in their own dresses. They fall to the floor, and the weight of the dress holds them down while legs float out from underneath. I find Buglisi’s work interesting because of the manner in which she works with the Graham principles, but achieves a softer, velvety look in the way the dancers manage their limbs. She is unafraid of the dramatic and operatic and boldly charts the heightened states of being that the theatre can demand.

A man interrupts the space and the women scatter, throwing their skirts up as if howling out an alarm. The music is boldly dramatic as more men enter. The men wear dress pants and blazers with no shirts. Looking closely, these are beautiful costumes with cut-outs in the armpits and lots of beautiful detail.They move broadly and heavily, providing a flat counterpoint to the sensual curves Buglisi gives the women’s phrases. They invade the space and the women react with terror. The men mostly manipulate the women in sections that find her trying to escape him or display him slowly mold her. When lifted, the women often become frozen or hang as if half-dead. This is a world in which the male presence dominates and short-circuits the female. The masculine company shatters the female community and  renders individual females frozen.

The men leave as a high note on the piano repeats. The women revisit a phrase from earlier and reassemble themselves as a community. They dance in a circle and struggle within their bodies as they turn around themselves and are thrown off-center. Another woman falls and the others look on her as they form a diagonal line and are pulled in a diagonal line from DSR to USL. The music begins to resolve and Buglisi gives the women a more virtuosic section in two groups with jumps. Here the women defy gravity rather than become absorbed by it. They advance and recede in diagonal lines, which returns us to the idea of ladies in waiting. Some women expect, some hesitate, and then as a group they turn to face front. The women travel in place as the men are reintroduced quietly. This time, the men cross behind and in between the women while the women step lightly in place. Some men remove their jackets and hold them close to the women. A man places his jacket on a woman’s shoulders. There is some type of secret exchange, a implicit peace agreement or subordination that occurs here. The men exit and move on, but the women are traveling without moving. They are suspended women.

I did miss the long lines and beauty of Alicia Graf Mack, who is on leave this season. Other than that minor disappointment, the Ailey company was a joy to behold.

NEW@GRAHAM: ANNIE B PARSON

Xiaochuan Xie in Annie-B Parson's The Snow Falls in the Winter. Photo by Brigid Pierce.

Xiaochuan Xie in Annie-B Parson’s The Snow Falls in the Winter. Photo by Brigid Pierce.

Annie B Parson’s new work for the Martha Graham Dance Company had an in-studio showing on Wednesday, December 17th. I find Parson’s work fascinating and exciting and I admire the diverse breadth of her career. Her new collaboration with the Graham company, The Snow Falls in Winter provides a unique theatrical experience, the likes of which are rare and elusive.

Using Ionesco’s play The Lesson as source material, the piece finds the absurd, magical, and melancholy potential within the acts of teaching and learning. Working with the glorious dancers in the Graham company allows Parson to realize movement that is as full and weighted as the text and score. Highlights of this piece include the captivating Carrie Elmore-Tallitsch dancing her way eloquently around a mic cord between her spoken intervals, Lauren Newman as an commanding and irritated maid, and XiaoChuan Xie as the student. The statuesque Natasha Diamond-Walker and accomplished Tadej Brdnik round out this sophisticated cast.

Particularly beautiful is the final moment of the piece in which a dancer sits on a small chair, facing upstage as the dancers in front of her act out her teaching in silence as the lights fade. Looking forward to seeing how this work develops and having another look at the Joyce in February.

Annie B at Martha Graham: http://marthagraham.org/annie-b-parson/

Annie B’s Big Dance Theater: http://www.bigdancetheater.org/