Archive for October, 2011

Before and After Trio A: Yvonne Rainer Retrospective at Dia:Beacon

Monday, October 31st, 2011

The choreographic retrospective of Yvonne Rainer’s work now underway at the Dia Art Foundation in Beacon, New York (October 22-23, 2011) is an important event for audiences interested in Yvonne Rainer’s dance and the development of the sixties choreographic avant-garde. Two other installments will follow in February and May 2012. Yvonne Rainer, who recently published an autobiography (Feelings are Facts. A life) and more recently still a collection of poems (Poems) is expanding into a figure of immense artistic stature and vitality even while we are given a chance for retrospection. The Dia: Beacon retrospective is an integral part of Rainer’s return to dance from film first announced in 2000 by her production After many a summer dies the swan: Hybrid for the White Oak Dance Project, and then by a number of new works for the stage: AG Indexical, RoS Indexical, Spiraling Down, and Assisted Living: Good Sports II. This retrospective, which privileges dance, comes after Yvonne Rainer: radical juxtapositions 1961-2002 exhibition, which opened at the Rosenwald-Wolf Gallery (Philadelphia) in 2004.

Yvonne Rainer, Trio A, 1966. Performed as part of “This is the story of a woman who…,” Theater for the New City, New York, 1973. Photo:  © Babette Mangolte (All Rights of Reproduction Reserved). Courtesy of Broadway 1602, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, Trio A, 1966. Performed as part of “This is the story of a woman who…,” Theater for the New City, New York, 1973. Photo: © Babette Mangolte (All Rights of Reproduction Reserved). Courtesy of Broadway 1602, New York.

What distinguishes the Dia retrospective is the revival of works that have been overshadowed by her iconic Trio A (1966), which was filmed in 1978 and actively preserved (as discussed by dancer Pat Catterson in her essay “I Promised Myself I Would Never Let It Leave My Body’s Memory” in Dance Research Journal, 2009). The return at Dia of Rainer’s first dance work, Three Satie Spoons (1961) as well as her Three Seascapes (1962) and Chair/Pillow (1969) not only adds to our experience of Rainer’s art and to our understanding of its historical impact, but bring it all before our eyes in the present. What makes this re-performance uniquely successful is the fact that most of the cast has been working with Rainer over the past ten years or more. Hence there is not the sense of removal from the original inspiration. The program was also effectively assembled with only short pauses and a flexible cast of five to assure both variety in the performance of Rainer’s solos for herself and an ingenious framing of the variations on Trio A.

Three separate dancers – Emily Coates, Pat Catterson, and Patricia Hofbauer —performed Rainer’s solos for Three Satie Spoons to Satie’s Gymnopédies. The lyricism of the music was contrasted with the deliberate holding of the physical motifs and the pedestrian manner in which the dancer moved in and out of them. Given the famous aversion of the performer’s gaze from the audience that characterizes Trio A, it is interesting that in Three Satie Spoons the gaze of the dancer does frequently meet that of the audience. Coates, as Rainer’s original notes indicate, stretches her mouth with her index fingers, performs a long flexed-foot attitude, a long arabesque, places her hands squarely on her hips, and draws one foot up to her pelvis in a difficult balance. (These notes can be found in Rainer’s first book, Work 1961-73). Catterson’s solo contains some port-de-bras that suggest a ballet aesthetic (she was studying ballet with Mia Slavenska when she made this piece), but done from a squatting position, and other very sculptural placings of the arms and hands about the face as well as an energetic leg extension and pivots hovering close to the floor. Catterson’s attitude is more internal and contemplative than Coates who almost seems confrontational, yet is still molded by modern and balletic dance poses that she also mocks. The third solo by Hofbauer has the dancer giving space to the vocal (squeaks), one line of text – “The grass is greener when the sun is yellow” – and, finally one long sustained “ah-oow ah-ooo” that manages amazingly to harmonize with the music. Most interesting here is that Rainer posed herself distinct technical challenges as a dancer that are implicit in yet different from the terms of the material she is also backing off from. She was rebelling against the perceived excesses of both ballet and modern dance. There is a sense that Rainer wished to trap movement in the materiality of time, which endeavor demands a great deal of technical control. There is nothing ‘light’ about Three Satie Spoons either in its intentions or its execution. There is humor, irony, poetry, and iconoclasm (of a slightly tamer nature than we find with the uncompromising minimalism of Trio A). The rebellion is there though in a less doctrinaire form.

Hofbauer performed the solos of Three Seascapes. In the first section to Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto #2 she runs in a blue raincoat making square patterns with sharp angles. Hands in pockets, she descends to the floor and lies on her side. The hands in pockets expose or show the effort it takes to go down and up without hands; she repeats the exercise over and over from different angles and in different spaces on the stage. The mechanics/technique are not hidden. In the second solo to a grinding sound score from La Monte Young’s Poem for Chairs, Tables, Benches, etc. Hofbauer snakes across the stage on one leg with the other leg limply in the air with dangling arms and antsy facial expressions that never settle into a coherent expression. This collusion with the audience about the dancer as subject who remains distant from the theatricality of subjectivity and its conventional codes, adds another dimension that is both satirical and political. While she had remained alienated from the florid emotional cues of the Rachmaninoff score by refusing to assume an expressive relation to the music in the first solo, cacophonous sound provides the background for the second solo. The third solo begins in silence when Hofbauer drops a pile of white tulle on the floor – the ultimate classical ballet signifier –and places her raincoat on top of it. She then proceeds to collapse into the tulle while emitting breathtaking shrieks. I believe she does this three times. The screams are powerful, the tulle potentially engulfing, and the sense of panic intense. These falls are all the more shocking in their explosive affect as they are done as a repeatable task.

Yvonne Rainer, Trio A Pressured (In the Midnight Hour), 1999— 2011. Performance at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Saturday, October 22, 2011. Performers: Pat Catterson, Emmanuele Phuon, Emily Coates, and Keith Sabado. Photo: © Paula Court. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, Trio A Pressured (In the Midnight Hour), 1999— 2011. Performance at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Saturday, October 22, 2011. Performers: Pat Catterson, Emmanuele Phuon, Emily Coates, and Keith Sabado. Photo: © Paula Court. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

 The different variations on Trio A that followed were all the more fascinating in the light of these earlier solos. This, of course, was the solo in which no phrasing was to be evident, in which no movement was repeated, in which a series of denials were enacted regarding the performer in relation to the audience, and which was performed for a little over four minutes in total silence. Keith Sabado performed it first (the first time I had seen it performed in its entirety by a male dancer); Pat Catterson then performed it in reverse or retrograde; Emily Coates then performed it ‘forward’ with Keith Sabado following her, attempting to keep looking at her in the eye as she continued through the movement; and, finally, it was performed simultaneously but non-synchronously as Trio A Pressured by all four performers to the Chamber Brothers’ In the Midnight Hour. The variations have all been done before in recent performances, but to see them one after the other also added striking new dimensions to this iconic piece. In Facing I noticed that when the Sabado follows Coates around, the effect was to accentuate the solo’s changes of levels (when her gaze is to the floor he had to be lying on the floor to meet it). Moreover, his movements about her introduced a trace movement that, while even more pedestrian than her approach, because it was unconstrained by choreography at the primary level, began to introduce rhythmic and energetic dynamics around and about the soloist’s neutral performance (Rainer has theorized this as “neutral doing”). With the Midnight Hour quartet, it seemed that certain twitchy movements were highlighted by the beat of the music and put their neutralized aspect into question. In both cases, that which the choreography denies in its famed minimalism was rendered vivid by its contrary. This also begins to suggest a certain unconscious of the choreography.

Yvonne Rainer, Trio A Pressured (Facing), 1999— 2011. Performance at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Saturday, October 22, 2011. Performers: Emily Coates and Yvonne Rainer. Photo: © Paula Court. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, Trio A Pressured (Facing), 1999— 2011. Performance at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Saturday, October 22, 2011. Performers: Emily Coates and Yvonne Rainer. Photo: © Paula Court. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

The final excerpt, Chair/Pillow for the entire ensemble was explicitly rhythmic unison dancing with chairs and pillows as objects. This piece opened out the formalist experiments of the sixties into a more theatrical arena. It served to confirm the point already made, which was that Rainer’s exploration of the materiality of movement that one might want to call choreographic minimalism was many sided and continues to resonate. Another work of the sixties, We Shall Run (1963) is announced for the May 12th program.

Yvonne Rainer, Chair/Pillow, 1969. Performance at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Saturday, October 22, 2011. Performers: Keith Sabado, Patricia Hoffbauer, Emmanuele Phuon, Emily Coates, and Pat Catterson. Photo: © Paula Court. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

Yvonne Rainer, Chair/Pillow, 1969. Performance at Dia:Beacon, Riggio Galleries, Beacon, New York. Saturday, October 22, 2011. Performers: Keith Sabado, Patricia Hoffbauer, Emmanuele Phuon, Emily Coates, and Pat Catterson. Photo: © Paula Court. Courtesy Dia Art Foundation, New York.

OpEdgy’s Franko to speak at Cooper Union

Tuesday, October 18th, 2011

I’m going to be speaking at the Rose Auditorium at Cooper Union School of Art on October 20 at 6:00 pm.  Here are the details:

Although Michel Foucault never wrote of dance as an example of a bodily discipline in the classical age, he did affect the art of contemporary ballet through his influence on the work of choreographer William Forsythe. This talk interprets Foucault’s influence on Forsythe up until the early 1990s and also examines how Forsythe’s choreography ‘responded’ to issues of agency, inscription and discipline that characterize Foucault’s thought on corporeality. Ultimately, it asks whether Forsythe’s use of Foucauldian theory leads to a reinterpretation of inscription in Foucault.

What do you get when you mix 80’s nostalgia with baroque dance? A new and improved Atys

Wednesday, October 12th, 2011

The recent production of Lully’s Atys at the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City (September 18-24, 2011) has been remounted from the 1986 co-production of William Chrystie’s Les Arts Florissants and Francine Lancelot’s historical dance company Ris et danseries in collaboration with the director Jean-Marie Villégier. Atys burst on the scene (Florence, Paris, New York) at the height of the baroque revival in music and dance of the 1980s. Baroque specialist Philippe Beaussant called it “a sort of miracle” in his entry on the opera for the Encyclopaedia Universalis (1988). Atys first came to New York in 1989 with a return engagement in 1992 when it appeared to be the apogee of what was possible in the evocation of seventeenth-century tragédie lyrique, the operatic form most associated with the reign of Louis XIV. Rather than further stimulate the baroque music and dance revival of the eighties, it may have actually stalled it. The lavishness of the production values simply could not be matched by other productions of this repertory.

ATYS 1

Clearly it would be hard to top this production’s budget, which was able to give us a seventeenth-century spectacle as only heretofore imagined. The patron who financed this revival, Ronald P. Stanton, said the first Atys had changed his life and he wanted to see it once more before he died. Originally produced by a king, only a millionaire can now produce Atys. This revival stands out among all baroque revivals as the most opulent, and therefore closest to the kind of spectacle of which it is an example. Atys has aged well. The concept has even been refined by the production team and comes across now with greater clarity than it did twenty years ago. Or, possibly, we are just better positioned now to understand it. Whatever the case may be, awareness of time passing lies at the core of this production as a concept and constitutes what one might call its effective baroque machinery.

With a dramatic libretto by Philippe Quinault and music composed by Jean-Baptiste Lully in 1676 Atys tells the story of a love quadrangle. The hero Atys is in love with Sangaride who is betrothed to his best friend, King Celenus. The goddess Cybèle is in love with Atys and reveals her love to him in a dream, which is the occasion for a remarkable choreographic interlude. Atys is a variant of Adonis who also refused to requite the love of a goddess, and was thus condemned to die (Atys kills himself). The sorrowful Cybèle turns Atys into a pine tree to commemorate her lost love. The drama is Cornelian in its geometrical symmetries and Racinian in its exploration of restrained but corroding passion. The severity of neoclassical tragedy is expanded out into operatic form. That is to say it adds excesses to the formal quality of French tragedy, but also illuminates French tragedy through those very excesses that are foreign to it. In this way, Atys becomes baroque for us today: an irregular pearl of immense beauty and poignancy that fits nowhere but draws on multiple traditions within the French seventeenth century.

ATYS 2

The technique of recitative with basso continuo tells a story while maintaining the musical interest. The vocabulary of la belle danse, so unlike classical ballet and closer to court reality, is integrated with the narrative. This research into historical performance practices conjoined with the brilliant direction of Villégier is the artistic bedrock upon which the production relies. There are some noticeable differences from the earlier production. For one thing, Francine Lancelot is no longer with us (she died in 2003). The dances are reconstructions of the original choreography by her former assistant Beatrice Massin with her Compagnie Fêtes Galantes. Lancelot’s dancers gave us a weight and timing that seemed much closer to an earlier period, which contributed a layer of theatrical gravity that is missing in the more energetic and muscled style of Massin’s company. The star turn of Jean-Christophe Paré in his magical solo as Morphé is not reproducible by anyone. And, all the singers are new. Yet, the interview with Chrystie and Villégier and their individual essays published in the May 2011 Paris program testify to a maturation of the concept that is reflected on stage.

Despite the baroque quality of its profusion the production feels more unified and more powerful now than it did twenty years ago. Atys is made up of many potentially disparate elements that seemed in 1989 to be competing for precedence, but which now appear to be integrated into a larger concept. Despite the contribution of musical and choreographic expertise the production succeeds as spectacle. And, for this reason, music critics cannot really convey why this work succeeds the way it does. The sumptuous costumes, the large number of singers on stage, and the postmodern touches (the absence of furniture, a row of heads at the top of a backdrop, severe black, white and silver palette) as well as Lancelot’s choreography that takes off from the sources to add further layers of expressionism as performed by professional dancers, all make Atys powerful without seeming anachronistic.

Les Arts Florissants

The entire action transpires in one room at Versailles, which set designer Carlo Tommasi has even provided with a ceiling. The drama of characters entering and exiting through doors rather than coming on and off stage from the wings underlines the unity of place associated with French classical tragedy. Villégier has spoken of the king and his entourage gathering in the royal apartments to listen to excerpts of Lully operas in concert version. This was the director’s point of departure in setting the work at Versailles twenty years after the historical performance of Atys had taken place. The king had already stopped dancing and the court was shrouded in a mood of morose asceticism. The dream scene is a visualization of what the court might have imagined as the earlier performance of Atys in happier times.

The story thus unfolds as a ritual of memory in which the dream dispatched to Atys by Cybèle takes place in a golden aura of light while the surrounding opera is in somber black with glints of silver that complement the lush curls of white wigs. The dream is the nostalgia of the court for youth in the heyday of its earlier enthusiasm for court ballet. The present is cold and nocturnal whereas the dream rediscovers the light of day. This wonderful baroque conceit offers a model for our relation to the performance itself, which is bathed its own past as well as in ours. Our relation to this production is conditioned in more ways than one by the past: the 1980s compared to today; the 1650s compared to the 1670s.

Lancelot’s choreography should be acknowledged. Although based on historical reconstruction, it makes some successfully daring departures from conventional historical vocabulary. Atys may have given us some of Lancelot’s best choreography. It ventures into expressionistic areas that, by the end, mirror the mood of the drama itself.  I am thinking in particular of the final scene of mourning in which the dancers remodeled baroque steps and gestures, almost pulling them out and blowing them up to a heightened level of suspension, sustained pause, and tension. This theatricalizes them and burns them into our memory. For the first time, the dancers are in black, shedding their role as divertissement and entering into the thick of the drama. It is a striking moment in which dance, music and narrative mesh to highlight the properly spectacular quality of baroque performance. Now, almost twenty years after the premiere in a very changed world, this production allows us to take a second look at our own conception of the baroque and the postmodern since the eighties.

For anyone wanting to recapture the original version, filmmaker Jacques Rozier recently revealed at a Paris screening that he had done a multi-camera shoot of Atys during a 1986 performance at the Montpellier Opera. I attended a screening of a rough cut last June at the Action Christine in Paris. Rozier is seeking the funding to do the final edit that will restore the first Atys. The film promises to be brilliant because it will not only capture the beauty of the original performance but will also view it from every possible angle in the cavernous Montpellier Opera house. It shows us performers backstage, the feats of the stagehands, and the crazy baroque impracticality of the theatre, as well as the style of the original.