How We Know The Dancer From The Dance: Cédric Andrieux

February 4th, 2013

by Juliet Neidish

Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal

Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal

“Cédric Andrieux” (2009) is the name of the piece created for and performed by the contemporary French dancer Cédric Andrieux. This solo, conceived by the internationally famed French choreographer and conceptual artist Jérôme Bel, belongs to his series of autobiographical stagings, each a contemplative look at the career of the dancer who performs the work. In “Cédric Andrieux”, we spend an intimate 80-minutes with Andrieux during which time he tells us his story and also dances selected movement and short pieces of choreography. In other words, this is a spoken piece, with dance interspersed as visual aid.As Andrieux describes to us, Bel asked him to write the text and to choose the movement. Over a period of time, raw and revised text were e-mailed back and forth. Bel therefore, designed the structure and edited the text, while Andrieux wrote and choreographed. Andrieux enters wearing studio workout clothes and microphone headset, carrying a dance bag and water bottle. Standing calmly, center stage, he begins to tell the story (all in the present tense) of how he began to dance. He speaks in a matter- of- fact monotone, physically and vocally withdrawn from and non- reactive to even his most humorous comments and emotional summations. The 35-year old dancer tells us how he came to work in the companies of Jennifer Muller, Merce Cunningham and the Lyon Opera Ballet. He shares with us what he learned about himself while developing this piece. Before beginning to dance, he either moves to a different spot on the stage, or warns us that he is going into the wings to change into a costume that he has already introduced us to, thereby demarking the dancing space from the talking place.

A work like this reveals a lot about the day- to- day challenges of a dancer. In a particularly charming segment, he tells us what was going through his head while doing the never changing daily warm-up designed by Cunningham that Andrieux executed relentlessly before each rehearsal for the 8 years he was with the company. While fully demonstrating the exercises, he commented for instance on which section always hurt his body, or which one was so boring that he inevitably found himself thinking about what he would eat for dinner that night. Incredibly interesting was his blow by blow of how Cunningham actually choreographed in his latter years when he was too old to show the steps to his dancers. As Andrieux told it, Cunningham, sitting on a chair, would use only words to explain the movement that he had already made up on his special computer program. First he would describe what the leg would do (swing leg in front, place down in plié). Then what the torso would do while the leg was doing the previously set movement (flat back parallel to floor). Lastly, he would describe the arm, for which there were pre-classified positions (for example, round, low, side or straight high, diagonal). Finally, the dancer would have to painstakingly put all these directives together step by step to make movement. This seemed like the most counter-intuitive and cerebral method imaginable for trying to learn a dance. Andrieux also spoke of his insecurity and emotional frustration as a dancer for Cunningham, who was known since the founding days of the company to rarely give his dancers feedback, corrections or encouragement.

What was extremely enlightening was how grandly subjective autobiography can be.  When I watched the section from the Cunningham repertory (extracted from “Biped”) that Andrieux had chosen to illustrate the technique, it was a selection that was quite a-typical of Cunningham’s oeuvre, requiring tight, hurling jumps starting from a crouched position of the body that hovered close to the floor.  It almost did not look at all like a Cunningham sequence and I found that choice of selection rather odd until I realized that the dance segment was performed precisely at that point in the piece in order to demonstrate how physically difficult and frustrating the Cunningham work was for much of the duration of his stay with the company.  My realization became even clearer when he chose to perform a section from a piece by Trisha Brown that he had danced in the Lyon Opera Ballet post Cunningham.  After telling us how much kinder the work of Brown was to his body, he chose to show something from her more Cunningham-derivative period, which he did indeed dance with a lightness and ease that was missing from the “Biped” segment as well as from the short solo from Cunningham’s “Suite For 5” which Andrieux said he was eventually able to feel freer in over time.

Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal

Photo by Marco Caselli Nirmal

“Cédric Andrieux” and the other works in Bel’s autobiographical series (Véronique Doisneau (2005) was the first), ask the dancers to tap into the wide range of skills that are honed during the training of a strong and complete dancer. These pieces reveal clearly that when separated from the act of dancing, one can see that a seasoned dancer has acquired skills in acting, timing, communication through body and voice, the crafting of details and of finish, and perhaps of most importance, an ability to tap into and access resources from a vast imagination. In watching dancers perform, what is not always obvious is that despite the look of ease, excellent dancers are in fact using all of these skills when they dance.

Andrieux’ performance skills are riveting during the segment he performs from Bel’s, “The Show Must Go On” which he learned during his tenure at the Lyon Opera Ballet. It was at this time that he first worked with Bel. In this piece, Andrieux informs us that there are no steps, no set choreography, and therefore no physical pain or stress on the body. In it, the large company was asked to stand onstage and mimic in their own way the words to various pop songs. To Sting’s song, “Every Breath You Take”, Andrieux walks to a place downstage left and does not move from there. While the song plays, we hear the famous lyrics, “Every breath you take/Every move you make/Every bond you break/Every step you take/I’ll be watching you” while Andrieux gazing outward, remains stone still except for miniscule moves of his eyes which turn his head ever so slightly and very, very slowly to pan the theater from one side to the next. This is Andrieux thus, “watching” the audience. I say this is riveting because at once he is doing so little and so much. Holding our gaze, he is performs with an intensity unlike anything we’ve seen so far while hardly moving his body. Compared to the calm, deadpan of the overall storytelling, mixed with the full-out rendering of the prior complicated choreographies, this final segment, though intended to appear pedestrian, is one of complete artifice which smolders, seeming like it is about to explode from within. And yet what is actually revealed is that from out of his tense, buzzing inner core, all of a sudden comes a brightly glowing smile that radiates from a face that we now realize despite having made us laugh and chuckle, has not yet ever smiled until now. This was a tour de force finale to a piece which took its audience happily on a life journey thanks to the skill, inventiveness and rigorous collaboration between two artists. A special thanks to the French Institute Alliance Française along with the partnership of France and New York-based presenters of the “French Highlights” program, for offering this free performance at the Florence Gould Hall on January 10, 2013.

Letter from Stockholm: Dancer/choreographer Cristina Caprioli: Cloth and Weaving Politics

December 5th, 2012
Cristina Caprioli ( Photo: Håkan Larsson )

Cristina Caprioli ( Photo: Håkan Larsson )

The artist Ph.D. is a new trend in higher education gaining momentum particularly in Western Europe where increasingly conservatories are merging with universities. In this context, Cristina Caprioli, Stockholm-based choreographer, is ahead of the game as she has for some time been an artist-theorist.

I caught an informal showing of her Cloth, an installation-like dance for two women under immense black cloth that seems light but, given its mass and spread, is also weighty, and able to create myriad folds. This extremely sculptural slow-motion dance was premiered at the Moderna Museet in Stockholm (April 12, 2011), but was shown again at DOCH (University of Dance and Circus) prior to a filming (November 17, 2012).

Cloth lasts about three hours as the dancers execute choreographic material that has been set, but which must be executed under this very large square dark grey rubbery material that is spread across the floor. The audience is encouraged to walk around it and look at it from various angles. One or both of the dancers emerge occasionally for air so that their forays into the fabric – singly or as a twosome – are punctuated by their sitting at the edge during which time they look at each other and wait. Once beneath the fabric, however, their bodily outlines change radically. At times they appear highly sculptural as the material takes on a myriad of folds; occasionally the positions they assume are ornamental or statuesque, and in these moments their bodies create an anonymous volume that makes them seemed carved in stone Yet, the dark color of the cloth and its spread across a wide area also suggest an oil spill, and the bodies of birds coated in oil. Sometimes, they simply disappear in a voluminous pocket of air. The changing configuration of the cloth itself is a third player in this work and exerts a particular fascination in utter silence. The images arise one by one before dissolving: the pace is steady and uneventful as there is time between each image as it is emerging, establishing itself, and subsiding back to the material.

Cristina spoke of her upcoming conference, Weaving Politics, which is the third in a series of conferences she has curated since the late 1990s. I asked about the connection between these three events.

Talking Dancing (1997) came about because I got a grant to do something that wouldn’t be a production, but would be kind of research work; there was also the possibility to be at the Dansens Hus to do it: it was a residency grant. I felt that in the community, and in the discourse around me, there was a tremendous lack of knowledge: very few people knew about the Judson Church: who had done what when. I wanted to share this with the Swedish community. The Quattuor Albrecht Knust had just done a reenactment of Continuous Project/Altered Daily by Yvonne Rainer in France. Judson was in the air in Europe, so I invited the Knust Quartet and Yvonne, Douglas, Steve Paxton, Deborah Jowitt, Susan Foster, Sally Banes and Noel Carroll. Also, Sally Silvers and other artists. It was not so huge but it extended over a few weeks with lots of workshops and reconstructions. It was a workshop-based conference. I felt there was a lack of interest in contemporary choreography because of a lack of historical knowledge; and, I felt it was interesting for me to return to this moment. I arrived in New York in 1976 and Yvonne had already stopped doing choreography; Paxton had already left the city. I was too late then; I was trying to catch up with that.

“The only critique I got was when I said: there was perhaps not a political intention, but it became something that had a political impact. People in our community disagreed: the work was so ‘mellow,’ not radical. Again, I felt, my god, people really don’t get it. Do we need to be on the barricades to be political? This discussion on what is political already started there. I think it is still an issue.

cloth (under cover) by Cristina Caprioli. Photo: Håkan Larsson. Dancers: Emelie Johansson & Cilla Olsen. Premiered April 12, 2011 at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

cloth (under cover) by Cristina Caprioli. Photo: Håkan Larsson. Dancers: Emelie Johansson & Cilla Olsen. Premiered April 12, 2011 at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

“The second conference, Movement is a Woman (2000), came later. I was just getting divorced and was on a personal journey. I had been reading a lot of Irigaray and Kristeva to catch up with feminism. And, perhaps, as the aftermath of “Talking Dancing” had displayed, unless you speak the political rhetoric that is expected, you are not political. The feminist character of dance and choreography may lie somewhere elsewhere. Something about femininity in the act of movement: “trans-genderizing” itself by continuous motion, I could say that dance does the same. I was trying to target the question of what is femininity. In what kind of dance does that come across, is it brought to the table, as the actual motive? At the moment, Rosas was very big: the work is stunning, but it is so “girlish” – a representation of something else. If felt there is more to Anna Teresa’s work than this young girl that everyone loves to look at: and also what makes it so successful. I was also trying with that conference to raise the level of theoretical thinking. It was very ambitious and I did not have enough funding or preparation to run it. But, it left some mark in this area.

Movement is a Woman was more directed to groups of students than to the general public mixed with practitioners. I invited Wim Vandekeybus: he was doing a piece about women (he started it here). That caused a lot of reactions. People attacked me; there were meetings with the union about Wim asking the performers to take off their clothes. I felt that I was provoking something: I wanted the women to counter him, or have a critical encounter with him. But, everyone wanted to work with him, was flirting with him, etc. What really came out that these female dancers who claim to understand their self worth, at the end of the day were easily manipulated. When I spoke with Wim afterwards he said he was interested in women resisting him. Finally, I thought it was good this discussion came up.

After that, I felt it was too much of an effort to continue this. I stopped. I had a course at the University where I did smaller things: seminars with guests.

cloth (under cover) by Cristina Caprioli. Photo: Håkan Larsson. Dancers: Emelie Johansson & Cilla Olsen. Premiered April 12, 2011 at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

cloth (under cover) by Cristina Caprioli. Photo: Håkan Larsson. Dancers: Emelie Johansson & Cilla Olsen. Premiered April 12, 2011 at Moderna Museet, Stockholm.

“The reason twelve years later I am doing Weaving Politics (December 14-16, 2012) is that I applied for a research program feeling again it is time now again to do this kind of thing. The scene has changed: there was a possibility to apply for such funding that includes things like a conference or symposium. It started off again from the question of politics: but I wanted to be more precise about it. One thing led to another. This is the year of human rights year in Sweden. Everyone has been talking about Raoul Wallenberg. The question of the body and the human came together with the questions of rights: why is it that when the body stands up erected, he or she is right. It was about time Forsythe was invited to Sweden not to do his neo-classical work (seen in the ballet) but to see his installation-oriented work. He will bring Human Writes to Sweden for this first time. It should be a time for choreography and dance to put herself or itself in a more spectacular and official power discourse. For this reason I needed big names. (A conference is what it is: a performance. The important thing is to read the work: we invite them to have a performance of speaking their writing. They speak by writing but then they speak again). To study and to embrace or problematize what these people who have been invited stand for can be done by reading their books or doing seminars on them, one by one. The symposium as a huge spectacular event brings about me putting them on a stage for dance. By bringing them together, the most tangible political action or act of my entire enterprise is actually to get these people onto the Dansens Hus stage. It is the place where the so-to-speak not normative but still official dance is happening: big companies from abroad come there. It is the official space where dance has most power. But, in reality, it has become incredibly commercialized.

“It feels really good that this act of politics arrives nomadically, we invade the space of power, and then we leave. We have to temporarily invade their territory. We do not want to take it over, we just want to invade it (force them to present us). It is as if I were forcing (also by inviting Forsythe) them to look at his work that resembles more than we do than what they expect. I am using him to legitimize more our discourses of choreography that do not belong to the official stage.”

Cristina explained how she originally wanted to produce Forsythe’s Human Writes in the Stockholm City Hall on the banquet tables where the Nobel Prize award ceremony always takes place.

“There has been a lot of hype because I invited Slavoj Zizek. Of course, I am interested in him for himself; but, without him, the symposium stands (Zizek has to cancel because of health issues). The public will be a mixture of people in culture, audience, people from theater and visual arts – a very heterogeneous mix.

Who is doing politics from what place? This is the question of the conference. When is it staged, when pursued, when rewritten?

This programming work is informing my own work. Who speaks from where doing what gestures and what does it mean to place choreography within a public discussion? Kristeva wrote in 1974: “contemporary theater does not take [a] place”. The specificity of what choreography does is the limited capacity it has; but if it dares to remain within its own limits it will have a tremendous possibility of reverberation or consecutive folds or rings on the water…. The cause and effect between political change and ethical impact will not be direct but nevertheless if choreography endures its own limitations, it will set in motion a series of effects. The artist does not need to go directly to the political situation: the artist must allow the folding effects to reach whatever space, location, circumstance it needs to be used at.

To say these things is almost taboo here. I don’t mean it is elite or removed from reality. The two fields – dance and politics — do not need to act upon each other directly. I don’t know if it will be possible to do this as a conference. There is the danger of popularizing the subject, making it flashy.

Dansens Hus has appropriated the theme: which is good. But, it has also popularized the theme. Let’s bring these popularized concepts, especially in Sweden everything is about rights (not about duties) is taken for granted. No one is questioning it. I also wanted to open it up to the general public: to have a catchy word no one will be scared of. The symposium wants to be specific but also stay available to a less-informed audience.

I got some harsh critique from the dance community because they think Forsythe is definitely not political. The writing is an alibi of western powers that they are acting according to these principles. I am pointing to the critique of how human rights are implemented in the contemporary world.

Hopefully, this encounter will lead to a post-scriptum: the actual discussion will happen afterwards. Perhaps in another meeting (more informally): perhaps we can all go to Ljubljana and visit Zizek to ask him our questions.”

For more information on the conference: http://www.weavingpolitics.se/participants/cristina-caprioliccap/

Me, you nobody, who: Pronouns set to dance

October 3rd, 2012

 

Simone Forti in 40 Dancers photographed by Ian Douglas

Simone Forti in 40 Dancers photographed by Ian Douglas

 by Tyrus Miller

40 Dancers Do 40 Dances for the Dancers

Conceived and directed by Clarinda Mac Low

Based on the text by Jackson Mac Low, The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers  (3 February-22 March 1964)

Platform 2012: Judson Now, Danspace Project, St. Mark’s Church, New York

13-15 September 2012

In 1961, poet Jackson Mac Low composed Nuclei for Simone Morris (later retitled Nuclei for Simone Forti), a dance piece that derived a set of actions by selecting verbs from a word list according to a set procedure. Mac Low’s Nuclei began from a poet’s reflection on the complex interrelations of different media of meaning-making—language, writing, sound, movement—and what kinds of creative “translations” can occur when one seeks to cross from one sign-system to the other and back.  True to their name, the Nuclei not only constructed a framework of instructions for developing different instantiations of that one work; they also generated a whole new set of texts, The Pronouns,[1] utilizing the same underlying materials (the action card pack) and analogous, though further elaborated procedures for deriving texts and performances from them.  The number of Mac Low’s texts, forty, related to a list of English-language pronouns, whereby each of the texts is organized around a single pronoun, ranging from the obvious “I,” “you,” and “we,” to more complex ones such as “who,” “nobody,” “either,” and “whichever.”  These combine with other words to make texts with a somewhat Gertrude Stein-like flavor, combining phrases such as “Someone then says things as a worm would, / but also as one keeping sheep or seeing an offer, / while willing themselves to be dead or coming to see something narrow” (17th Dance).  Among Mac Low’s interest in using the pronouns in this way was to explore how certain often-subliminal features of language imply and occasion different sorts of social interaction, segmentation, and identification.

The category of pronouns occupies a special place in language, since their meaning is determined solely by their function of marking the changing positions in a discourse or conversation, rather than by reference to any fixed object or concept.  Linguists even refer to pronouns by the special name of “shifters,” because a word like “I” or “you” shifts from position to position as different speakers occupy the place of addressing others or being addressed.  The old Abbott and Costello routine about “Who’s on first?” imagines a comic world in which, rather than shifting in this way, pronouns function as names, rigidly designating the persons to which they refer: “No, who’s on second. . . “  In contrast to these comedians, Mac Low’s poetry even further radicalizes the shifting function of pronouns, asking us to understand pronouns as the paradigm of language as such, which for him was a vocabulary full of “empty words” (John Cage’s term) that can be occupied in an open-ended, indeterminate number of ways. For Mac Low, language offered models, mobile spaces, and temporary positions for people to come together and interact in structured, but freely chosen ways—and his poetic and performance works seek to heighten our awareness that language “has room” for us to be together in many different sorts of creative, emotionally rich, non-coercive encounters.[2]

Levi Gonzalez and Anna Azraeli in 40 Dancers photographed by Ian Douglas

Levi Gonzalez and Anna Azraeli in 40 Dancers photographed by Ian Douglas

In reviving and making new The Pronouns in 2012, Clarinda Mac Low demonstrates a deep understanding of her father’s artistic and political intentions, while lending the performances and project as a whole her own original, self-reflexive spin.  On this occasion—the first major presentation of the work since the 1980s—I was able to attend two of the three performances, the second and third night, as well as speak with Clarinda Mac Low (hereafter referred to as CML) about the production and with one of the performers, dancer Lise Brenner.  In her program notes, CML characterizes her work on this presentation of The Pronouns as an anthropological investigation into the network of relations existing in the New York dance community, as well as an exploration of how an artistic work / performance event such as the 2012 Pronouns may inflect the bonds of that community and help extend them in new directions.  She writes, “The resulting piece is not so much an esthetic product as an esthetic by-product of a social situation, where the provisional community formed by a shared project is as important as the performance itself” (CML, “Director’s Note”). 

The cast was selected by a combination of existing connections and friendships and the various contingencies of who was available, whose name was raised in the course of working on the project, and other factors of what we might call, after the surrealists, the “objective chance” of living in New York and working among its shifting, overlapping artistic communities.  CML’s selection brought together a diverse group of performers, ranging from senior dancers such as Simone Forti (who performed a version of Nuclei each night) to various children, and from professional dancers of different training and artistic orientation to musicians, writers, and other artists.  At the outset, each of the participants were given a copy of The Pronouns and asked to select one of the dances for which they had a special interest, resonance, or affinity.  Dancers who chose the same dance poem were paired or otherwise combined, while all forty dances were eventually distributed among the group.  In turn, an algorithm was applied to determine the distribution of the dances among the three nights (while again, the exigencies of everyday life—availability of the dancers, child care, etc.—qualified the order somewhat away from the pure mathematics of a formula). 

Clarinda Mac Low and Ignacio-Achugar-Granoff  photographed by Ian Douglas

Clarinda Mac Low and Masumi Kouakou photographed by Ian Douglas

Each dancer was given considerable freedom to interpret the piece as they saw fit, but also confronted with the daunting task of realizing by some means or another every line / instruction in Mac Low’s text and rigorously observing Mac Low’s syntactical cues of sequence, simultaneity, and consequence (thus, attending to words such as “then,” “afterwards,” “at the same time,” and so on).  One of the most notable features of the performances, and something that I became even more aware of over two nights, was the extraordinary range of interpretative means that CML’s performers employed to meet this challenge.  At one extreme, there was pure verbal recitation of the poem, as in the performance of the 34th Dance on the third night: a voice speaking the lines in the dark.  At the other, there were almost purely dance-gestural interpretations, largely free of any evident mimetic content, however much these might have been part of the dancer’s original thinking about the various lines in the piece.  (For example, as she explained it to me in conversation, in developing her performance of Dance 15, Lise Brenner obliquely used the music’s introduction of the word “saddle” to capture Mac Low’s line “gets leather by language,” while other parts of her performance were made up of relatively improvised site-specific interactions with the St. Mark’s space.) In between these extremes of almost purely verbal and almost purely non-verbal interpretations, there were numerous shades of language use and vocalization: the poem’s lines being chanted to a drone (third night, the 26th Dance), the poem’s lines read alternately by different performers, as if part of a dramatic dialogue (third night, 24th Dance), dancers reciting certain lines while dancing (numerous dances), performers making vocalizations that enacted the poem’s instructions while not directly reciting them (e.g. making interrogatory sounds to interpret the instruction of “questioning”).  A similar multiplicity of approaches marked the movement idioms of the performers: seemingly abstract dance movements, dramatization of lines, mimetic hand-gestures, enactment of everyday movements, drumming and other instrumental performance, interactions of live performers and the image of distant performers projected from Skype. 

This plurality of interpretive approaches created a lively variety of performance types across the different pieces and across the three evenings of performance.  It also, however, related in interesting ways to a hidden, internal “rhyme” structure between the pieces, which contributed to the underlying cohesion of the three-night project as a whole, while never imposing an external design.  To a very careful viewer or to a viewer (like myself) who brings a closer awareness of Mac Low’s text to the performance, some of the means of this internal structure may become visible from time to time before submerging again in the flow of the individual pieces.  Because Mac Low utilized procedural means to generate his texts, several actions appear multiple times across the forty dances, actions such as “reacting to orange hair,” “fingering a door,” or “doing something under the conditions of competition.”  Yet textual repetitions of this sort—which, as noted, connote a relation to the work of Gertrude Stein for readers of Mac Low’s book—may remain nearly indiscernible for most of the audience, who are viewing the textual details only through the multi-semiotic translations of performance, which disseminates and greatly expands the compact terseness of Mac Low’s poems.  To the extent that one is aware of these verbal “repetitions,” for instance by referring the performance to the instruction-texts, one can understand how Jackson Mac Low offers a new pendant to Stein’s important argument that her “repetitions” were not repetitive at all, but creative.  Repetition, Stein and Mac Low both suggest, comes not from iteration, but rather from the failure to reinvent new ways of giving value to words, relations, and forms.  In this regard, too, CML has avoided any antiquarian or merely historical interest in reviving this classic dance-piece of the 1960s Greenwich Village avant-garde.  Her 2012 Forty Dancers is genuinely a creative iteration, not at all a mere repetition of a past event.

Notes


[1] The texts and related essays are available in Jackson Mac Low, The Pronouns: A Collection of Forty Dances for the Dancers (Station Hill Press, 1979).

[2] I have discussed this dimension of Mac Low’s work (including The Pronouns) more extensively in my essay “Situation and Event: The Destinations of Sense,” in Ritual and Event: Interdisciplinary Perspectives, ed. Mark Franko (Routledge, 2007), 75-90; and in several chapters devoted to Mac Low in my book Singular Examples: Artistic Politics and the Neo-Avant-Garde (Northwestern UP, 2009).

A Luminous Dancer Is Gone: Remembering Brian Hanna (1960-2012)

September 4th, 2012

I was shocked and saddened to learn of the death of Brian Hanna on June 13, 2012 of sudden cardiac arrest. Brian Lowell Hanna was born March 22, 1960 in Minneapolis, attended Reed College, and subsequently received a full scholarship to attend The Juilliard School, Dance Division, in New York City.  I worked with Brian in the 1980s, during which period he was a member of my dance company NovAntiqua. He danced with us on tour in France in 1985 and thereafter in New York seasons until 1988, partnering Christine Dakin, Peff Modelski, and Susan Tenney in The Treasure of the City of Women, Antique Scripts, Renaissance Descant, and The Death of an Attitude. He also worked with Debra McCall and Joan Finkelstein who join me here in remembering Brian.

Brian’s performance in Renaissance Constructions could only be described with the French term spirituel: witty, urbane, and graceful. He brought a personal beauty, minimalist directness, creaturely innocence, and irony to his roles. In The Death of an Attitude, based on Tennessee Williams’s Two Character Play, Brian was both comedic and tragic, performing a mental and physical collapse by the end that was dramatically powerful yet achieved in purely dancing terms.

Brian Hanna in Mark Franko's Treasure of the City of Women, Montpellier Opera (photo: Véronique Claparède)
Brian Hanna in Mark Franko’s Treasure of the City of Women, Montpellier Opera (photo: Véronique Claparède)

I met Brian in 1984 through Debra McCall with whom he was working on Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Dances; in 1994, I performed with the Company at the Bauhaus in Dessau. Being on tour with Brian was always a delight as his cultural sensitivity, humor, and urbanity were a source of energy and joy. As a dancer he also excelled in Joan Finkelstein’s How I Found Livingstone, which I saw in 1988; additionally, Brian was an understudy in Martha Clarke’s Vienna Lusthaus. As the tributes of Debra McCall and Joan Finkelstein here attest, Brian was a remarkable performer and stage presence, and a warm and beautiful person whose loss creates a void in all of our lives.

Brian Hanna in Mark Franko's The Death of an Attitude (photo: Tom Caravaglia)
Brian Hanna in Mark Franko’s The Death of an Attitude (photo: Tom Caravaglia)

Remembering Brian in the Bauhaus Dances

By Debra McCall, Director and Reconstructor, Oskar Schlemmer’s Bauhaus Dances of the 1920s

Brian came to the Bauhaus Dances after we had our inaugural performances at The Kitchen in NYC in 1982. As we were preparing for our first international tour in 1984–eleven cities in the Netherlands; Alabama Halle in Munich in conjunction with an Oskar Schlemmer exhibition; Geneva, Switzerland; and finally, the first International Biennale de la Danse in Lyon, France–Brian proved an indispensable assistant to me for all things that had to be prepared. He also learned the role of the White Figure for Figure in Space.

Figure in Space is a very exacting piece, in which the White Figure must accurately delineate the geometry of the black stage space, Additionally, being the first piece on the program of the Bauhaus Dances, the White Figure set the tone and atmosphere for the entire upcoming spectacle. Brian performed it like no other, before or since. I have seen performers in dance companies in Milwaukee and in Seattle take it on, but no one came close. In fact, the dancer in Seattle, trained at the Peking Opera, said it was the hardest dance he had ever performed, and he was a superlative dancer.

What made Brian’s performance definitive? First, there was his Apollonian physique–like no other, divine in proportion. Sponsors and audience members would ask me “Where did you find him?” as though no such mortal existed. But it was his innate understanding for, and his ability to shape and define space with that physique, that made his performances memorable and classic.

He executed his movements with grace, precision, dignity, and insightful psychological depth, imbuing space with all manner of humanity, from playfulness to humility. He captured the true intention of a moment in history, the 1920s, where the Bauhaus Stage set the bar for experimentation. That is the art of dance, and not many can make the connections between the heart of the matter (body) and external reality (space). Brian was a consummate performer–on stage and in life. As we toured, he was the one who would cheer me up late at night when I struggled with the exigencies of touring in a bus with a six-member company for six weeks!! And he made the funniest jokes–of me searching my purse in a panic for the stash of international currencies we carried along the way–“There she goes, squat and search!” He knew how to twist a moment of anxiety and stress into one of riot.

Brian Hanna and Susan Tenney in Mark Franko's The Death of an Attitude (photo: Tom Caravaglia
Brian Hanna and Susan Tenney in Mark Franko’s The Death of an Attitude (photo: Tom Caravaglia
In 1986, I reconstructed a few more of Schlemmer’s pieces. Brian took on Metal Dance. A short piece, it harkened back to the mood of medieval cathedrals and monasteries whose guilds had been the inspiration for Walter Gropius’s vision of the Bauhaus workshops and school. These new reconstructions premiered at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum in New York where, once again, Brian received unanimous accolades for his interpretation of both pieces. We also made a film that year which captured Brian’s Bauhaus Dances performances.

I wasn’t in touch with Brian in past years–work, single parenting and living in eastern Long Island took me from Manhattan. I recall with great respect and affection Brian’s beautiful White Figure moving geometry so perfectly in the black stage space, as well as his unique personal interpretation of Metal Dance. (Excerpts of these can be seen in part on the Bauhaus Dances website www.Bauhaus Dances.org). It is a loss to our dance company and to the dance community at large. But he leaves behind a memorable body of work that deserves tribute.

Brian Hanna in Figure in Space from Debra McCall's Oskar Schlemmer Bauhaus Dances
Brian Hanna in Figure in Space from Debra McCall’s Oskar Schlemmer Bauhaus Dances

Joan Finkelstein Remembers Brian Hanna

I met Brian in 1982 at the University of Illinois in Champaign Urbana. I had come as an artist in residence for a semester, and first saw him in technique class bounding across the floor. His beauty was astonishing, with his classical proportions and beautiful, expressive face. But there was a kind of wildness to his dancing the betrayed a slightly perverse edge and made him exciting to watch. We became friends that spring, dancing together in a concert organized by Ron Sequoio. With the intention of starting a pick-up company back in New York City, I asked him to work with me. Brian became my dancing partner, teaching assistant (at ADF summer of 1987) and muse for the next few years, appearing in the following dances: 

How I Found Livingstone (full evening work, 1988)

Hammer Amour (1985)

Berceuse (1985)

Truck Stop (1983)

Descent of Man (1983)

Cutthroat Ties (1982)

Overlap (1982) Advent (1982) 

It’s such a shock to lose him, even though we had lost touch for so many years. Out of sight is not out of mind. I will miss knowing that his sardonic wit and artistic take on the world exist.

Brian Hanna and Joan Finkelstein in Joan Finkelstein's How I Found Livingstone
Brian Hanna and Joan Finkelstein in Joan Finkelstein’s How I Found Livingstone

Down to Hades with Orpheus and Pina Bausch

August 24th, 2012

By Juliet Neidish

New York City dancegoers just about devoured tickets to see the Paris Opera Ballet’s twelve-day run this summer (July 11-22, 2012). After a nearly sixteen-year absence from New York, Lincoln Center Festival should be commended for presenting this legendary ballet company in three versatile programs. The Paris Opera Ballet dates back to the 17th century and the court of Louis XIV, and it is known and loved for its stellar productions of Romantic and late nineteenth century Classical ballet. But, with the directorship of Rudolf Nureyev in 1983, the Company also began to commission and maintain new, contemporary works, which it has continued to do through the near 20-year reign of current director, Brigitte Lefèvre. To underscore the wide range of its repertory, on view this summer was a program of all-French masters from the 20th-century with works by Serge Lifar, Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart, a full-scale production of Giselle, the quintessence of Romantic ballets, and the U.S. premiere of the evening-length production of Gluck’s, Orpheus and Eurydice, a dance-opera restaged for the company by German choreographer, Pina Bausch in 2005.

Judging by the swift and early ticket sales, there was a great deal of interest in the work of Pina Bausch, the prolific and ground breaking choreographer credited with the development of the genre now referred to as “tanztheater”. Pina has been in our hearts and minds a great deal of late. She passed away suddenly in 2009, at the age of 68. And the memory of the luxurious 3-D film, Pina (2010) by Wim Wenders — an homage to her life’s work with her company, Tanztheater Wuppertal — premiered earlier this year and has hardly faded from memory. In honor of Bausch, the Lincoln Center Festival chose Orpheus and Eurydice as the centerpiece of the Paris Opera programming, highlighting its presentation of this work in print and on the airwaves.

Marie-Agnès  Gillot and Stéphane Buillion in Paris Opera Ballet's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" at Lincoln Center Festival, July 20, 8 pm, David H. Koch Theater.

Marie-Agnès Gillot and Stéphane Buillion in Paris Opera Ballet's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" at Lincoln Center Festival, July 20, 8 pm, David H. Koch Theater.

It is unique in itself to see a Bausch work set on a company other than her own.  Her work has always been crafted, developed and meticulously honed on her own tightly-knit, though large, group of performers, many of whom have worked together for decades.  Since her early creations in Wuppertal in the 1970’s, Bausch enjoyed a close relationship with France (and Italy), where her work was acclaimed by the 1980’s even while in the face of early criticism at home.  After reviving its 1975 production of Orpheus and Eurydice in 1991, Tanztheater Wuppertal was invited to perform it in 1993 at the Palais Garnier, the home of the Paris Opera Ballet.  Bausch stated that she found the French dancers to be hungry for her work and eventually decided to set her piece on the Paris Opera Ballet.  Although most of Bausch’s early dancers were first and foremost trained in ballet, and she continued to bring in ballet masters to give company class, her way of moving dancers on stage does not dwell in the category particular to the technique or style of classical ballet.  What the two companies have in common is that despite their different movement genres they both work in exclusively homogenous environments.  Unlike most ballet companies today, the Paris Opera Ballet dancers almost all come directly from the strict and specific training of the Paris Opera style that they’ve been reared in at the Paris Opera School, or in some cases by licensed Paris Opera technique teachers in conservatories throughout France.  The Tanztheater Wuppertal has had the support to allow them an almost commune-like living/working setting in Wuppertal.  Both companies have used government subsidy to create their own highly recognizable signature way of moving.  Another important factor supporting their success in working together is the high bar each company has been able to set in their staging of theater spectacle.  The Paris Opera Ballet is the national company of France and has long made its reputation on the grandness of its production values. Bausch’s works almost always take place in elaborate physical “environments” whose production values are equally, if differently, spectacular.

Stéphane Buillion (left), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (mezzo-soprano, seated in black), and Marie-Agnès  Gillot (standing, far right) with members of Paris Opera Ballet in the company's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" at Lincoln Center Festival, July 20, 8 pm, David H. Koch Theater.

Stéphane Buillion (left), Maria Riccarda Wesseling (mezzo-soprano, seated in black), and Marie-Agnès Gillot (standing, far right) with members of Paris Opera Ballet in the company's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" at Lincoln Center Festival, July 20, 8 pm, David H. Koch Theater.

Orpheus and Eurydice is a dance-opera, which runs two hours.  It requires an orchestral ensemble, choir, and soloists (The Balthasar-Neumann Ensemble und Chor) and large groups of male and female dancers.  Set, costume and lighting designer Rolf Borzik, envisioned the four scenes– Mourning, Violence, Peace, Death — as an exquisite conceptual world encompassing diverse allusions to religious painting, earthworks, contemporary furniture, post-modern mixings, and even bareness. This is a world for dancers and the three vocal soloists (the orchestra and choir remain in the orchestra pit). Everything from bouquets of dried roses, thin string dividing and crossing the stage, hugely tall wooden chairs piled in a corner, a full-size tree laying on its side, roots exposed, feels strange and beautiful, even death. Each scene develops a mood inherent to the mythological story as infused with allegory. In this way, Borzik’s scenography complements Bausch’s dramaturgy. Bausch chooses to tell this story through three dancer and three singer soloists who intermingle and shadow one another, effectively doubling the three main roles: Love/Orpheus, Death/Eurydice, and Youth/Love. The piece resides in a tremendously satisfying balance of dance and opera. 

Marie-Agnès  Gillot as Eurydice in the Paris Opera Ballet's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" at Lincoln Center Festival, July 20, 8 pm, David H. Koch Theater.

Marie-Agnès Gillot as Eurydice in the Paris Opera Ballet's production of "Orpheus and Eurydice" at Lincoln Center Festival, July 20, 8 pm, David H. Koch Theater.

Remarkably, the singers and dancers blend aesthetically and harmoniously, a rarity within today’s clear divisions between the training and staging of dance and opera. Despite the ancient story and early music, (Christoph Willibald Gluck premiered his opera in Vienna in 1762), the overall visual aesthetic is clean, linear and sparse.   Scene IV: Death, takes place in a near empty space whose rectangular feel suggests a coffin or crypt.  In this scene, only four bodies appear- two singers and two dancers.  Orpheus is sung by Maria Riccarda Wesseling and danced by Nicolas Paul.   Euyrdice is sung by Yun Jung Choi and danced by Alice Renavand.  At first the two singers sing only to each other, and the two dancers dance only to each other, while Orpheus tries desperately to fulfill the intimacy of their journey without ever looking directly at Eurydice, as the story dictates.  Soon the singers and dancers acknowledge one another as their bodies begin to cross pathways but when Orpheus can no longer avoid the pleas of Eurydice and proffers the fateful glance, it is then that dancers and singers meld as the body of the dead dancer Eurydice is carefully draped over the body of the dead singer Eurydice now wedded finally, in death.

In this production (July 21, 2012), I found the powerful expressivity of the Gluck to be most reliably communicated by the female corps of dancers.  Their ensemble work was mesmerizing in its sheer mass of beautiful, elongated women flowing and pulsating sinuously in Bauschian movement, which accentuates the length of arms and legs.  Their long, brown silky dresses often looking sheer under the stage lights, paralleled the naked torso of Orpheus.  And in “Dance of the Furies” (Scene II), the angularity and explosiveness of the group choreography which included both male and female bodies, traversed the stage in thrilling frenzy.  Eurydice (Renavand) was garbed in striking white and later in blood red.  Her overall physicality was long and extended- sometimes still, sometimes coursing, yet at times, she left the Bauschian flow for an interlude of patently innocent flirtatiousness.  In those cases, she seemingly reverted to something out of stylistic character as her way to drive the narrative.   (Based on a video viewing, I was drawn more to the Eurydice performed by Marie-Agnes Gillot, who danced the role in its Paris Opera inception and also performed in this festival on July 20th & 22.)   Mr. Paul, as Orpheus, worked himself quite hard, really pushing to fill the stage, especially when he danced alone.  His body was strong and aesthetic and his shapes were complete, but his choice to work with force and crisp tension that reverberated inwardly didn’t allow for the raw, pained expressiveness that is more synonymous with Bausch’s theater and her performers.  Within the context of operatic tragedy, arresting ensemble work, and the emotional rendition of the music, these two dance soloists often missed their chance to cause goose bumps.   On the other hand, the singer soloists present on stage, could always be relied upon as expressive vehicles.  Nevertheless, the brilliant crafting of the whole production, the hard to forget visual grandiosity of the sets, the electrifying musical interpretation, beauty and glamour of the dancers, costumes and lighting, created a powerful and memorable unique experiential journey of the senses.

92YTRIBECA presents Mark Franko on Martha Graham on September 11

August 24th, 2012

92YTRIBECA PRESENTS Mark Franko on Martha Graham, Tuesday, September 11, 12-1 pm at 12 noon.

The talk is based on his recent book, Martha Graham in Love and War (Oxford University Press). The book has received favorable reviews in The Washington Post and The Wall Street Journal.

200 Hudson Street | www.92YTribeca.org | 212.601.1000. Tickets from $21 (Press seats available. Contact Meryl Wheeler | mwheeler@92Y.org | 212.413.8841).

They Are at It Again, Bashing French Ballet: Serge Lifar’s Suite en Blanc by the Paris Opera at Lincoln Center Festival

August 3rd, 2012

Lincoln Center Festival was unable to give me a press seat for the Paris Opera Ballet’s French Masters of the Twentieth Century Program (David H. Koch Theater, Wednesday, July 11, 2012). I am wondering how happy they are about having given press seats to Alistair McCauley. After reading his review in the New York Times I felt compelled to write. Amidst an incredibly ungenerous, almost xenophobic, reception to the Paris Opera Ballet’s season McCauley found Serge Lifar’s Suite en blanc (to excerpts from Edouard Lalo’s 1882 ballet score Namouna) unequivocally empty. “Lifar’s vision of classicism,” he wrote “is formalism as a mere façade: stylish and empty . . . Lifar’s universe looks hollow.” (“Right Bank Meets West Side” New York Times, July 13, 2012, pages C1-2). And, as if this were not enough, McCauley claims that even the stylishness of Suite en blanc is “misplaced” because Lifar, according to him, has no feeling for music, and sometimes even no feeling for meter!

Aurélie Dupont and Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger

Aurélie Dupont and Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger

As the curtain opens, a host of dancers are arrayed in white against a severe black backdrop on an almost empty stage—nothing but a few stairs and a low platform at the back of the stage: As performed by the Paris Opera dancers this tableau, although designed to look frozen, was alive. The uncanny moment of death in life before anything moved was both chilling and fascinating. When staging a ballet from 1943 there are complex questions concerning what the ballet may have looked like then, and what it can or should look like now. What socio-aesthetic world is being translated into the present? If it is hollow, to what might this sensation of hollowness be attributed?

This is unfamiliar material to New York audiences: it is the first time Lifar’s work has been seen in this town since 1948! (Lifar also danced in New York in 1933). Suite en blanc is clearly interwoven with the artistic identity of the remarkable company that is the Paris Opera Ballet although the Company’s style and technique have since also been molded by others, notably by Rudolf Nureyev. It is worth noting that Suite en blanc is doubtless at the origin of the famous défilé that was instituted shortly after its premiere. Hence, it is a deliberately hierarchical work stressing the institutional structure of ballet in the French tradition. Although the entire cast is garbed in white at the start, the male corps reappear shortly thereafter in white shirts and black tights, creating an interesting gravitas as their dark legs contrast with the white tulle of the ballerinas: it is both elegant and severe.

Aurélie Dupont and Benjamin Pech, Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger

Aurélie Dupont and Benjamin Pech, Members of the Paris Opera Ballet perform in “Suite en Blanc” on July 11, 2012, presented by Lincoln Center Festival 2012 at the David H. Koch Theater. Credit: Stephanie Berger

My first riposte to McCauley is this: Suite en blanc is a historical and institutional work that—face it—looks strange to balletomanes to whom Balanchine is better known. The critical question to ask is: what did Parisian neo-classical ballet look like one year after the roundup of Jews (July 1942) by French police in Paris, all of whom were sent to Auschwitz, and only ten of whom survived? Among the 13,152 arrests there had to be Paris Opera employees among them. Suite en blanc premiered exactly one year after the deportations (July 23, 1943). An article in the New York Times tells us of the revelation of police documents in an exhibit in the Municipal Hall of the Third Arrondissement (“France Reflects on Its Role in Wartime Fate of Jews” New York Times, Sunday, July 29, 2012, 12.) It is ironic that in this same month seventy years later New York was finally treated to Lifar’s 1943 ballet just as the Paris Police finally released documents admitting they themselves initiated the roundups. This offers a unique opportunity to reconsider Lifar’s neoclassicism, his contribution to twentieth-century ballet, and the man himself. Indeed, this July contained a double revelation of dance and politics for New York.

The Paris Opera has honored Lifar with three separate programs of his work, the first in 1977, the second in 1988, and the most recent in 2006-07. The 2006-07 program was at pains to contextualize Lifar with an introduction in French and in English: “To be read before the performance.” (Lifar/Malandain Program, Paris Opera, 2006-07). This implies that Suite en blanc requires some preparation on the part of even its own audience. Might it not also call for a bit of historical contextualization in a review? “No meaning springs from the dancing,” writes McCauley. We should bear that in mind as we appraise Suite en blanc as it is a work that comes to New York through the mists of time, yet danced by the company it was originally created for. This is, to begin with, the meaning that springs from the dancing.

Lest the connection I am making here between the revelation of the reality of deportations in France in 1942, the premiere of Suite en blanc in 1943, and the sudden awareness of both in New York in 2012 seems farfetched, let us remember that Lifar’s tenure during the Occupation still raises questions about collaboration. It came up in the film Serge Lifar Musagète (2005) by Dominique Delouche where Yvette Chauviré explained that Lifar was forced to leave the Opera after the liberation of Paris. “Banished” to the Nouveau Ballet de Monte Carlo in 1945, and forbidden to appear on National stages, Lifar was nevertheless subsequently forgiven, and brought back to the Paris Opera Ballet in 1947 to work there to the consternation of many for another ten years. In the film, Chauviré called the politics of this period “very complicated”, but did not elaborate. I asked Delouche about this at a showing some years ago at the Lincoln Center Dance Film Festival but he seemed dismayed and somewhat incredulous that anyone still cared about these questions. The film, however, is fascinating, and should be seen.

Serge Lifar (1905-1986) dominated the Paris Opera starting with his own production of Les Créatures de Promethée in 1929 until his retirement in 1958. Before that he had performed with the Diaghilev’s Ballets russes, appearing in some of the seminal modernist works, including Balanchine’s Apollon musagète (1928). Like Balanchine, Serge Lifar embodies a direct link to the Diaghilev era in mid-twentieth century aesthetic modernism. He directed the Paris Opera for thirty years during which time it is generally agreed that he brought French ballet into the twentieth century. Without him, the Paris Opera Ballet would not be the world-renowned institution it is today. He became a father figure who was similar to the great ballet reformers of the eighteenth century of whom the best known is Jean-Georges Noverre, author of Letters on Dancing and Ballets. In Paris, Lifar took on the cause of ballet as an art form, and was himself something of a dance scholar, with numerous publications to his credit. However, while we still read Noverre today with great interest, I am not sure we read Lifar. This is nonetheless pertinent since Suite en blanc is a summation of Lifar’s “research” on classical ballet. “This ballet,” wrote Lifar, “is a veritable technical parade, a balance sheet of the evolution of academic dance over several years, a bill presented by today’s choreographer to the future . . ..” Lifar’s words here hint at a critical edge of taking stock encased within the lightness of divertissement, at which the French excel. Lifar, born in the Ukraine, took his French-ness seriously.

Suite en blanc was choreographed for some of the greatest stars of the 1940s: among them, Solange Schwartz, Yvette Chauviré, Lycette Darsonval, a young Roland Petit, and Lifar himself. The point of Lifar’s codification of ideas already in use by Goleizovki and others was to “develop classical dance’s potential for movement.” He actually did not choreograph many “abstract” ballets: they most often had plots and relied on a style of interpretation he himself mastered and was able to pass on to his dancers. This style, also, was anything but “abstract.” As ballet master Gilbert Mayer has remarked: “His style is difficult because if it is not well done it becomes a caricature” (Serge Lifar à l’Opéra (Paris: Editions de la Martinière, 2006, 63)). Lifar’s concept of expression in ballet walked a fine line between intensity and exaggeration. Suite en blanc is thus not typical of Lifar’s output, and is something of an “academic” ballet, or a ballet about ballet: it has good manners. But, it also outlines all the twists and turns Lifar injected into academicism, and this, precisely, is its aesthetic interest. What it does not show, given the nature of the work, is the expressive ends to which these innovations were employed in other works. It is a pity that Lifar’s Mirages was not also programmed in place of Roland Petit’s l’Arlésienne, which was the weakest choreography on the program. Maurice Béjart’s Boléro is another story that would require a separate essay to discuss.

Lifar’s technical and choreographic innovations became known as lifarismes. He expanded the academic vocabulary by creating new ways to use the arms — sixth port-de-bras– and new positions for the feet and legs (6th and 7th positions). At one moment in Suite en blanc, a ballerina in multiple supported pirouette turns adds a circular back rotation as she begins to slow down and does the sixth port-de-bras – like parallel wings waving from side to side above her head. This was strikingly unexpected in a very academic framework, but quite eye-catching. McCauley wrote: “When an arm position is added that’s not part of standard classroom exercises, it’s tacked on as an exterior effect”. The 6th port de bras was executed as the ballerina’s turn slowed, thus allowing for her upper body to itself engage in a circular rotation as if it had been intoxicated by the pirouettes. That rotation of the upper back then rippled up into her arms, which reasonably “organic” to me, although McCauley claims: “The standard forms of ballet here are assembled with no organic connections.” Lifar does more than assemble the standard forms. Perhaps it helped that I recognized the port de bras as a lifarisme, not a standard form. Here, again, the point is that Lifar did not so much innovate as codify. My second riposte is that McCauleys’ use of “organic” needs some serious definition. Does it mean organic to the body or to the academic glossary of standardized steps?

Lifar achieved a greater mobility of the hips for both female and male dancers. The males assume poses that are half turned in and half turned out, with the arms in a kind of classical pose that has a slight air of the body builder. It could hit one as a kind of cheesy classicism, yet it may in part derive from Bronislava Nijinska’s Le Train Bleu, her early beach ballet. The women on pointe use the sixth and seventh positions for the feet, which are particularly dramatic in plié on a forced arch because it dips the hips under and creates an slinky curve to the entire body. But, this also permits quite a few choreographic permutations in partnering. I also noticed that at times Lifar relates the movement of the corps de ballet in the background to the music while allowing the soloist to move above the music: The background is following the music and accenting it while the foreground remains independent of music. There are other details that are less technical innovations than technical particularisms. One that I am familiar with from having studied ballet with Lucienne Lamballe in Paris in 1978–79 is the manner of ending a manège (a series of turns in a circle). Lamballe, who was in Lifar’s first work at the Paris Opera, taught us to conclude a line of chaîné turns (also called déboulés) in a tight fifth position rather than in a more expansive lunge. This contained manner of ending the spinning trajectory by drawing in the limbs rather than going to a lunge is technically demanding and precise, but also creates a very distinctive look within the fabric of the whole. I noticed it here and there in Suite en blanc. It signals the complementarity of Lifar’s quest for an expanded mobility within the confines of classicism and the economy of means he located in technical clarity and precision. There were myriad other particularities that stood out. All the women, and occasionally all the men, find themselves in a seated arabesque on the floor. There is a continuous effort to place the classical vocabulary in non-standardized spatial relationships. The great ballet modernists were at pains to assert the national identity of their vocabularies, and Lifar was not exception.

All in all, Suite en blanc, not unlike Harald Lander’s Etudes, is a treatise on Lifarian style in the classical idiom. But, unlike Etudes, it is not presented as a graduated study of classroom exercises: it is spectacle as divertissement. But, it is a serious divertissement, and therefore should be assessed not for the way ideas are generated but for the way technique is demonstrated. “Each study,” said Lifar referring to the different parts of the ballet, “is a choreographic sketch independent of the other, but linked by the same neo-classical style.” No company seems more suited to this task than the Paris Opera Ballet. Let us also give credit to the Paris Opera for presenting Lifar’s work today. Suite en blanc is a compendium of choreographic thoughts on modernity in relation to classicism imbued with critical thinking, but also in some sense stained or strained by a tragic if unspoken awareness of occupation, complicity, and betrayal.

Martha Graham’s anti-fascist choreography relevant again in current environment for civil rights and artistic freedom

May 11th, 2012

Franko_martha graham_cover (2)

Martha Graham’s work was prominent in the New York dance world of the 1930s in the wake of her innovative Primitive Mysteries (1931). Yet, her reputation grew exponentially beyond the confines of dance and the New York art world after the premiere of American Document (1938) followed by its national tour in 1939. This is, paradoxically, a work that the Martha Graham Dance Company may be reluctant to perform today in a version close to the original. It was highly anti-fascist and popular front, very related to the political issues of the day, and critical of the history of the United States. Graham’s national reputation took hold at this time, and she was noted not only for her choreography and dancing but also for her political stance in the pre-war moment. It is paradoxical that this occurred by and through a work that is considered to be of little artistic value today. To some American Document might indeed appear old-fashioned or too specific to its time to merit revival, yet I think in this time of political uncertainty Graham’s anti-fascist work –done without updating the context and streamlining the aesthetic to be faster and brasher to account for what is assumed to be the audience’s diminished attention span —  may prove most successful. The obscuring of democratic traditions and the perverse rhetorical prevarications of our present political climate has more than a little resemblance to the period that saw the rise of fascism. Dance can be exciting precisely when it is not updated, not commented upon in the process of performing it. But, to understand such works and to convey them effectively to an audience demands a deep historical and theoretical grasp on the director’s part – one that might not have existed at the time of the premiere either on the part of the artists or the public — and an ability to translate that historical perspective into immediate artistic terms. Martha Graham in Love and War is not, however, a book about the revival of dances, but rather a study of Graham’s work between 1937 and 1953 – arguably her most productive period – that attempts to envision the work as it originally appeared. So, for example, I interpret Appalachian Spring as a wartime work (it premiered in 1944 during World War II). There is an awareness and fear of war that pervades the work despite the temporal indeterminacy Graham so carefully practiced by implying it took place during the Civil War of the previous century.  In reality, the presence of the Civil War, in particular of the Escaped Slave character who was cut but yet retained in the Revivalist, as well as the presence of the abolitionist John Brown beneath the Husbandman, allowed Graham to imply an earlier popular front politics critical of injustices in American life in the guise of a patriotic wartime ballet. This analysis was possible by examining the scenarios she wrote for Aaron Copland in preparation for the work. Copland wrote his score for some characters that did not make it to the stage (another is the Indian Girl). But none of them entirely disappeared. I theorize this kind of choreographic process as one of character compression, which leads to a use of the archetype in postwar works.

Graham’s scrapbooks housed at the Library of Congress seem to have saved every bit of ephemera concerning her career, all meticulously cut out and pasted in, probably by her mentor and musical director Louis Horst. They allowed me to reassess her relationship to advertising and popular culture as well as the media interest in her as a complex public figure as of the early forties. The newspaper clippings show that her Graham was taken up as a politically influential international figure by the early forties. With the entry of the US into World War II, however, she was enlisted in the war effort as an example of “productive femininity”. It was at this point that her fame grew at the expense of a distortion of her personal and artistic personality. Her role was to reassure the working woman she would not sacrifice their femininity to the war effort. The war brought women into the work place but also reinforced gender stereotypes by virtue of the conformism that invariably accompanies wartime mentality. After the war, Graham turned to Greek myth and characters such as Jocasta, contradicting the more wholesome wartime image that had been constructed of her with a more perverse image. If her original positioning in the media had been political, the notoriety she gained during the war was at the expense of her fierce independence as a woman artist. By the end of the decade she was out of touch with the new consumerism that pervaded American society, but a sacred monster of the theater who drew large audiences. The one goal she retained since her first popular success in 1938 was to reach as broad a public as possible without compromising her modernist aesthetic, and by the mid forties she achieved this goal with the unheard of two-week Broadway season.

This was in no small measure thanks to the efforts of her dance partner and lover Erick Hawkins who first came to her work in 1938. In addition to dancing in her company, serving as a company manager, booking agent, technical director, and general factotum, Hawkins, who had graduated with a major in classics from Harvard, brought a knowledge of the myth culture of ancient Greece (Hawkins read Greek) that was most useful to Graham. He also dreamed up the first scheme for fund raising in the dance world and executed it successfully. Their relationship was, however, in many ways a tormented one. Although Hawkins was demonized in Agnes de Mille’s biography Martha for walking out on Graham in London in 1950, the correspondence between Hawkins and Graham tells a different story.

But, then there were the myth works of the immediate post-war era that made an appeal to the themes sanctioned by psychoanalysis as universal – notably the Oedipus complex explored in Night Journey (1947). How could she reconcile a fascination with myth so identified with Nazi fascism — think of Leni Riefenstahl’s Olympia, which also premiered in 1938 – with her own anti-fascist stance? This was a mystery to unravel. Her well-known interest in Jung only aggravates this question as recent scholarship has shown Jung’s involvement with Nazism during the Second World War.

Knowing that Graham was a voracious and serious reader of modern literature and psychology I thought it possible to unearth the logic behind choreographic thinking in many of her artistic choices, influenced by her extended literary ruminations. But, could her reading be tracked? Of course, there were clues. Bertram Ross (one of her lead dancers) said she was reading Esther M. Harding’s Psychic Energy while choreographing Night Journey. Might her library have survived her death intact? Certainly, the publication of The Notebooks of Martha Graham (1973) was a strong indication that her choreography was linked to a practice of writing and reading, even though the Notebooks are often quite difficult to decipher.

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Portrait of Martha Graham (courtesy of the Music Division, Library of Congress. Photographer unidentified).

Also key to Graham’s work of the immediate postwar era were Otto Rank and Erich Fromm. She had actually consulted with Fromm – and some say had an affair with him – in 1946. Fromm popularized, to some extent, key ideas of Rank. Graham quoted both men in her notes. Although her connection to Freud is often touted, Graham was much more up to date: she was a choreographic post-Freudian. Her myth works dealt with the cultural value of incest, the demystification of the Oedipus conflict, and the revalorization of the mother in psychoanalytic theory, something principally attributed in psychoanalytic literature to Rank’s The Trauma of Birth. Although Graham did read Jung, one should differentiate between the influence of psychology and psychoanalysis in her work. She underwent an extended analysis with Frances G. Wickes, a prominent New York Jungian, in the early fifties. Paradoxically, her analytic experience did not lead to further myth works but to her only anti-myth work, Voyage (1953). All but disappeared from the annals of Graham performance, yet Voyage (retitled Theater for Voyage in 1955) set to a score by William Schuman deserves to be rediscovered – perhaps even on the stage.

Time Has Come Today to the Whitney with the Atlas Ocean

May 7th, 2012

By Juliet Neidish

The Whitney Museum of American Art not only revealed its commitment to time-based art by choosing lots of it for its 2012 Biennial, but also extended its definition of the genre beyond de rigueur video and performance installations, to include dance, theater, film and music. With the Biennial still on-going, it’s not yet clear how, if at all, placing these various types of performance in this particular museum setting will affect the viewing experience or the making of such time-based work, other than to expose it to a primarily visual arts-going public.

The selection of Charles Atlas’ film, “Ocean” (2011), was however, an exciting example of how the museum setting can provide an arena that not merely displays a non-static canvas, but actually adds to its fulfillment. Charles Atlas, a pioneer in film and videography, has a long history of collaboration with dance, including having worked closely with Merce Cunningham since the mid-1970s. “Ocean” is a dance Cunningham premiered in 1994, in a theater-in-the round of the Cirque Royal, in Brussels. In 2008, at the age of 89, Cunningham took on the major project of restaging it outdoors, in the huge Rainbow Granite Quarry in Minnesota before an audience of 4,500 spectators. Atlas’ vision was also big: with a 5- camera team he shot all 3 performances to create one vast film mirroring the immensity of both the quarry (the setting of the piece) and the ocean (the subject of the piece). The otherwise bare, 4th-floor Whitney gallery provided a wall- as- screen large enough to match his vision. Light chairs were strewn around for viewers. Only a small amount of light was maintained for the negotiation of audience entrances and exits.

 

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Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust.

The film begins with the technical crew engrossed in building the theater interspersed with clips of The St. Cloud Symphony warming up. An electronic score by David Tudor merges with Anthony Culver’s Cage-inspired orchestral score played high above the audience by the 150-piece orchestra. We get a strong sense of this massive, open-air quarry into which the circular stage and its apparatus will seemingly have to be placed. Reiterating Cunningham’s conceit that their is no one vantage point from which to view a piece, Atlas, while letting us bask in the piece in its entirety, will also give us cuts from different facings and distances, sometimes splitting the screen to show several views at once. From the minute the first dancer appears onstage, pensively feeling his way through his steps, we know that we are up front and center. And not long after that- side and back and split-screen.

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Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust

 

But a marvel of the film is that you sense much more than just closeness. It is grippingly dimensional, heightening your awareness of skin, muscles stretching, and even an eye scanning furtively for an approaching dancer. It made me feel able to see exactly how a dancer’s anatomy was able to work the Cunningham technique. For example, how the power a fully pointed foot when directed into the air was the main dictator of strength throughout the entire body. And how that foot could set off a pulley system allowing the thigh rotating in the hip socket to turn the whole body over to face a different direction. The skin-tight ocean-blue spandex unitards worn by the 13 dancers, both revealing and encasing their muscles, also led the eye in this kind of body reading. The Atlas camera work allowed me to see when a dancer was not totally “on their leg” and how they negotiated to correct or deal with imbalance. This, of course, is part of a dancer’s prowess as a performer, and the piece does go on for 90 minutes without stop, but it is rare to feel almost as if you are in the dancer’s brain following their every move. This 2008 manifestation of the nearly 60 year-old Merce Cunningham Dance Company was a strong one. The dancers breathed as one, phrased as one, and all the while offered glimpses of their own, individual presences.

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Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust

 

Having recently seen the Martha Graham Company, I began to think about why Cunningham dancers stay so fresh, so aesthetically contemporary, yet adhere to all that has marked the Cunningham dancer throughout the decades. The current leadership of the Graham Company seem to have concluded that an audience today won’t “get” Graham, unless it is jacked-up to a frenzied pace, performed with an intent to indicate and underline its narrative, and even to parody and comment upon itself while it is being danced. The result produces something quite different from the weight, timing, and abstraction, which has historically communicated story and subject so uniquely and poetically. The Limon Company, which has tried to stay religiously traditional, has in effect locked out a contemporary connection to who they are today and as a result, often appears staid or old-fashioned. The Cunningham dancers up until now have maintained vibrancy without making overt alterations to the fundamental tenets of the Cunningham technique. Now that the company has officially disbanded as of December 31, 2011, according to the plan formulated by the Cunningham Trust in concurrence with the wishes of Merce Cunningham before his death in 2009, we will have to wait to see how the effects of the Cunningham presence will continue to extend into the future.

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Still from the film "Ocean" (2011). Courtesy: Merce Cunningham Trust

Museum Dance: Michael Clark explores classical sensuality at the Whitney Biennial

May 3rd, 2012

A very large fourth floor gallery space was emptied out for Michael Clark’s Who’s Zoo? at the Whitney Biennial (April 7, 2012) in order to look and feel like a performance space. The audience was directed to sit on the floor at one side of the gallery all for the forty-minute show. The performing area was extremely wide although not comparably deep, and was symmetrically framed by two entranceways at either side serving as wings for the performers. Charles Atlas’s lighting and video projections for Clark on the back wall would create a sense of depth for the choreography as the piece progressed, which from the start privileged the use of diagonals for very practical reasons. The space used in this way was far from ideal as the intimacy of viewing dance in a museum was undermined by the lack of space in depth and hence of perspective. The performance style of the dancers, in addition, seemed more inclined to projection to an audience further away. Despite this impediment, the visual qualities of the space were extremely “clean”. A laser-like lavender line cut horizontally across the white wall we faced, joining the two entranceways.

Kate Coyne in Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court

Kate Coyne in Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court

 The walls were white, the marly floor was black; copious lights hung unobtrusively from the ceiling, which was high enough to render the technical apparatus virtually invisible, as in most theaters. In short, I was not terribly aware I was in a museum except for the challenge of crowd management briefly imposed on museum staff.

 

Clark’s company boasts six excellent dancers and himself. Three men and three women appeared initially as two species – two men in black leotards and the other four dancers in glowing orange. The music initially made this feel like a late sixties so-bad-it’s-good sci-fi film. The choreography seemed derivative of Cunningham although Clark injects arresting torso shifts that project a sensuality into the classical figures. Later on, all six sport stylish zebra like leotards. It would seem Clark is presenting his performers as dancing creatures – hence the zoo. Or, perhaps, he is saying dance always already takes place in/as an atrophied museum of its own fashioning. Clark’s own presence offered a useful counterpoint as he hovered on the outskirts in pedestrian garb fulfilling his reputation as the bad-boy of British contemporary dance.

 

The two male dancers in black worked in rhythmic unison, occasionally partnering each other. In fact, most of the choreography mimicked the musical rhythms. The title Who’s Zoo? suggested the dancers were creatures to be observed in their habitat and introduced in this way a sense, perhaps, of the natural history museum. Some kind of critique of the museum was being suggested here, doubtless, but it lacked focus. The title’s question also suggested the reading: Who is Who? – which could be understood to ask: Who is the audience and who the performer? Or, who is the human and who the animal? Understanding the question this way was underlined by the participation of many amateur dancers — called “untrained volunteers” in the program — Clark used in counterpoint to his professional and highly trained company. The program stated somewhat naively this was “an attempt to expand what our experience of movement can be.” One could, however, consider the untrained volunteers to be the third species on stage, one with which the audience might identify as the amateurs coped with their fairly basic rhythmic unison assignment.

Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court

Michael Clark Company Who’s Zoo?, March 28, 2012 at 2012 Whitney Biennial, Photograph © Paula Court

 

In the final section, a vocalist in green face paint and blue jeans took center stage to underline a grotesque presence hinted at marginally by Clark from the start. The performance from here on devolved into an acid rock concert as Darren Spooner bleated “Maggot Brain” deafeningly into a mike and any notion of choreography faded from view. This gesture in conjunction with the sci-fi ambiance, and the unfocused critique lent a dated feel to the proceedings. The sci-fi parody blunts the museum critique and leaves us wondering what is going on. Does dance in the museum need to acknowledge the institutional site of its performance? Or, should it transform the museum into a theater? Neither of these tendencies were realized by this performance, but both remained as unresolved questions.

 

 A few days later I attended the conference “Making Time: Art Across Gallery, Screen and Stage” at UC Berkeley’s Arts Research Center. Here were assembled a group of artists, curators and academics to discuss the presence of time-based art in museums. I was honored to be on a panel to discuss “Dancing in the Museum.” with Jonah Bokaer, Judy Hussie-Taylor of the Danspace Project, and Ralph Lemon. (The entire conference will soon be available on line at: arts.berkeley.edu). Sabine Breitwieser, curator of Media and Performance Art at MoMA, expressed the view that dance now finds itself in the museum because dancing bodies display skills and are attractive to look at. Shannon Jackson, director of the Arts Research Center, assured the audience in introducing our panel that we would make the deceptively simple “dancing in the museum” scenario more complicated.

 

The fields of visual art creation and the curation of art, film, dance and theater were well represented at this conference through an interdisciplinary discussion where no one discourse dominated the conversation. I noted that some curators are aware dance brings the public into the museum. Choreographers and companies are aware that museums are the new performance producers on the block with a big budget. The question of the museum as a site of display in which moving bodies challenge previous definitions of what it means to exhibit art objects and material culture was stimulating. This is uncharted territory. Curators seem to be anxious to learn more about dance and its histories; artists are aware that time-based models of art in some ways contradict the institutional mandate to preserve and display art; scholars are examining notions of liveness and objecthood in relation to exhibition and performance.