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Neil Greenberg Questions the Right Way to Walk

 Published in Attitude: The Dancer's Magazine, Fall 2008

 

I got a recessive jolt watching Really Queer Dances with Harps, Neil Greenberg’s intelligent, distanced new work that premiered this spring at Dance Theater Workshop.  As a boy, not only was I cursed with a first name ripe for playground mutilation; I had, to quote my sister’s boyfriend at the time, a “loose walk, a result of lordosis, or curvature of the spine.   It was a family trait that on my brothers manifested itself in a kind of swagger (what we called “pimping” back then), but though I tried to emulate them no amount of macho mimicry could disguise, or deter my spinal column’s descent into a suspicious undulation.  Cue derision and taunts: my bobbing buttocks conveyed an androgyny anathema to the cult of hyper-masculinity in my family and our urban neighborhood.  Later, subsequent attempts to straighten the spine through yoga and years of Alexander Technique did little, if anything to temper my walk, or my self-consciousness.   

Maybe that “walk” telegraphed my eventual coming of age as a gay man—sometimes the body knows more than the brain, one of many intriguing conceits explored in Really Queer Dances: are butch/feminine traits learned, or imposed by nature?  Who arbitrates these notions of gender comportment?  Why are people threatened at the sight of a limp male wrist, or a woman whose legs fail to cross in a lady-like manner?

Really Queer Dances makes no bones about where its heart lies.  From the moment Zeena Parkins and her fellow musicians enter dressed in flowing 1920’s champagne-colored sheaths, expectations of male/feminine roles get shattered.  Parkins’ score for harp begins beautifully, familiarly, until it shifts, producing meatier sounds resembling buzzing radiators, dissonant pianos or an eerie Theremin.  Exploiting the instrument’s percussive possibilities, the composer confounds our aural expectations. 

Parkins’ score is the perfect metaphor for Greenberg’s aspirations.   The movement beguiles, as jumps splay into kicks and duos, trios and quartets spill from the wings, all clad in pajama–like rehearsal clothes.  Greenberg’s dancers seem bent on fracturing ballet moves—arms and turns get skewered, runs lose their dancerly prettiness, making the viewer wonder if the mandate were to make movement ugly. But no, the ultimate effect is akin to children learning to walk, as Greenberg infuses the dance with those exultant gestures of spontaneity we wear before training and societal strictures hamstring and inhibit.  Early on, the sight of the company’s women spaced across DTW’s stage going about internal, intimate investigations held us rapt.  I was particularly entranced by the sight of one dancer who ran upstage, repeatedly crashing against the back wall as if attempting to shatter an era’s worth of repressed sensibilities.

In program notes, Greenberg discussed the process that brought about his often quirky, mostly sublime patterns of movement.  Weary of imposing his own way of moving onto his company of dancers, Greenberg culled fresh inspiration from the dancers by taping their improvisations.  But this choreographer’s signatures remain, from the inimitably eloquent arm extensions to the delineation of onstage vs. offstage: Greenberg’s dancers’ tend to drop the movement like a mask as they exit, a Brechtian tact that encouraged us to watch with a more clinical eye. 

The theme of gender bifurcation gets spoken throughout, though to more pointed effect on the bodies of the male ensemble, a gender-fuck telegraphed by the bright red flower each wears in his hair (so do the women).   When the stunning Nicholas Dunn entered in a fey run—wrists flapping, legs kicking like a sequined chicken—the audience laughed, perhaps in recognition of their long-ago roles as either a playground heckler or one of their victims, a poor unfortunate who for a fleeting moment forgot the rules of masculine containment (guilty).  There was a lovely duet for two men, all low-lunged legs and thrust buttocks that weaved provocatively.  Alas, the flip side, when women comported themselves like men, made less of an impression.  Perhaps it’s because women seem less subject to that type of scrutiny, or that our society is more strenuously conditioned to recognize (and deplore) the sight of men wearing female moves.

Would that Really Queer Dances made its case as strongly as what preceded it.  The evening opened with 2006’s Quartet with Three Gay Men, an 11-minute piece I first saw as a prelude to the revival of Greenberg’s landmark Not-About-AIDS-Dance at DTW a few seasons back.   The setting feels like a clandestine bar or a back room of the mind, and it’s as accurate a distillation of gay male poise as any I’ve seen. 

Dressed in jeans and clinging floral shirts (the costumes are by David Quinn), each dancer enters, extending an arm as a single foot begins pulsing to communicate a louche state of waiting before the bodies softened into luxurious cat-like movement.  Elegantly controlled spins dissolved into addled, trance-infused balances.  A series of passed gestures resembling the Jerk conveyed a tribal, insular world.  In Greenberg’s coded dance, the strength of the posing is undeniable, but so are the subtle hints of fey as Greenberg and his dancers show the beauty of a curling wrist or an elegant, imploring, diva-ish arm.  These are men free to be themselves, glorious birds of paradise no longer hamstring by a judgmental society 

But their freedom comes at a cost.  These men look neither at us or, notably, especially each other, and we sense the loneliness behind the cool facades.  They’ve found their release, but it’s a victory devoid of harmony, or happiness; the wall is up, negating the possibility of seduction or romance.  As the dancer’s arms caress their bodies and the air around them, they unfurl an essence of mystery that seems indivisible from hiding.  These are men wrapped in secrets of the well-practiced sort they’ve honed since boyhood; come morning they’ll don another cloak, one suitable for the country club, the corporate boardroom or the playing fields society constructs to test one’s manly mettle.  In our country’s current climate of moral persecution where all difference—sexual, racial, cultural—is suspect, can you blame them? 

© Ennis Smith

 

Dance by Neil Greenberg/Dance Theater Workshop, New York, June 11-21, 2008

            Quartet with Three Gay Men (2006)

            Really Queer Dances with Harps (Premiere)

 

Lighting and Production Design: Michael Stiller

Costumes: David Quinn

Music: Zeena Parkins (with Ru Paul for Quartet with Three Gay Men).

 

With: Greenberg, Luke Miller, Antonio Ramos, Colin Stilwell, Ellen Barnaby, Nicholas Duran, Johnni Durango, Christine Elmo, Paige Martin. 

Making the Broadway Show Dance, Part II—The Old Dances With The New

Published in Attitude: The Dancer's Magazine, Fall 2008 

 

When Broadway scavenges itself, theater lovers pounce.  More than a new work or its cousin, the Movie-made-into-a-musical-or-play, revivals are as close to a sure thing as one gets.  Hardly anyone revives a flop; since returning shows were usually hits the first time out, the producer’s job is an easier road as they set about selling that which is not only known but tried and true.  For the audience it’s an opportunity to become an expert (if you’re old enough you’ll be able to compare it to your memories of the original, or the revival that followed) or play catch up with a classic (“Wow, I’ve never seen a production of South Pacific—let’s go!”).  Creative teams get a chance to re-interpret quality (Julius Caesar set on Wall Street, anyone?), or second tier material, while stars breathe new life into their careers by assaying legendary roles, making them their own.   

Gypsy (St. James Theater) has been revived no less than four times since it premiered back in 1959 with Ethel Merman as its star.  The current mounting owes its new life to the powerhouse presence of Patti LuPone, but the show’s guardian angel remains its first director and choreographer, Jerome Robbins.  His original dances, recreated for this production by Bonnie Walker, have endured through each Broadway incarnation (and the much lauded television movie starring Bette Midler), and while it may not be his strongest theatrical work it’s hard to imagine Gypsy without the amusing numbers in the show’s first half.  Propelling the story of the stage mother who won’t rest until her girls play vaudeville’s Orpheum Circuit, is the “act” designed by Mama Rose that will take them to the top, a mishmash of old school tap and showbiz hooey built to showcase first, her daughter Dainty June, and later, the tomboy Louise who eventually blossoms into the legendary stripper Gypsy Rose Lee.  Robbins employs every trick for maximum comic effect, from leaping chorus boys and baton twirling to the strategic placement of Dainty June’s splits and fan kicks.

These numbers look not a whit like the work of a world-class dance master, but that of Rose, the delusional, stage struck woman at the musical’s center.  Robbins is choreographing story and character, apparent even in the gorgeous (by dance standards) “All I Really Need is the Girl.”  With a broom as his partner, Tulsa pours his longing into relevés and spins that float through the air like those stars dotting the scene’s backdrop as Louise, who longs to be Tulsa’s partner in the dance and in real-life, mimics him.  This duet for three earns applause for its Gene Kelly moves, but breaks hearts with its lovely depiction of unrequited love.

The revival of 1976’s A Chorus Line (Gerald Schoenfeld Theater, closed August), though less than perfect, still has much to offer.  In concept alone, other musicals pale against Michael Bennett’s depiction of the dance audition as psychodrama, a brilliant chiaroscuro that never slacks in its ability to entertain or devastate.  And A Chorus Line has some of the most stirring choreography ever seen on any stage: from its opening’s electric depiction of a dancer’s cattle call to the finale, a triumph of precision movement that is “One,” this show is jammed with oft-copied gems that defy any choreographer to match them. 

“At the Ballet” remains a moving paean to dance as an escape, and a solace (though one wonders if female dancers are still galvanized by The Red Shoes) with Bennett’s cinematic frame abetted by Tharon Musser’s original lighting design.  “The Music and the Mirror,” remains one hell of a death-defying solo dance in the hands, er, legs of Charlotte D’Amboise as Cassie, the star dancer who yearns to return to the chorus.  Still, compare it to the grainy film of Donna McKechnie (who won a Tony for the original) on YouTube.  Good as D’Amboise is, no one could compete with McKechnie’s pained grace infused with desperation as an artist who’s literally dancing for her life. 

What’s missing is the type of artistic risk that might’ve vaulted this piece into the here and now.  I get the reluctance to tamper with A Chorus Line’s special qualities, but these producers have done no one—not the talented cast, or its audiences--any favors.  By mounting what is essentially a waxworks rendition of the show vs. interpreting the material anew they forced the revived A Chorus Line to compete with memory, a war it loses.  Play safe, suffer the shame: this revival’s failure of nerve teaches a cautionary lesson I hope others will heed.

Clearly times have changed.  Both Bennett and Robbins parlayed a show dance that used a fairly traditional movement vocabulary culled from ballet, tap and jazz.  Their deployment feels as necessary to our expectations of musical theater as a bowler hat is to Bob Fosse.  But the musical theater has seen striking evolutions in the past two seasons alone; when the form changes, so too must the pieces that make it spin. 

Which means a freshening of the ranks. Broadway has frequently hosted choreographers from other genres: Twyla Tharp’s show-stopping Movin’ Out springs readily to mind, as does the work of Lar Lubovitch (Into the Woods, The Red Shoes), Doug Varone (The Triumph of Love) and Mark Dendy (Off-Broadway’s The Wild Party for Manhattan Theater Club). Duncan Sheik and Steven Sater’s adaptation of Frank Wedekind’s Spring Awakening (Eugene O’Neill Theater) cried out for something different; the synthetic skills of a usual musical theater suspect like Susan Stroman (The Producers, Young Frankenstein) or Casey Nicholaw (Spamalot, The Drowsy Chaperone) would have been anathema to Wedekind’s shattering exploration of repression, teen sexuality and suicide.  With its genuine rock score abutting the stringent 19th century German setting, this work required the imagination of one adept at less literal forms of movement, an artful practitioner of soulful revelation.  

In Spring Awakening, Bill T. Jones’ Tony-Award winning choreography finds a corresponding vocabulary for the show’s moody extremes.  Jumping angularity follows simmering repose in the evening’s explosive “The Bitch of Living,” as the spirit of Jim Morrison takes possession of teenage boys during a Latin lesson. Jones culls a fearful lament from the female chorus’ pulsing bodies as they decry mothers who’ve ill-prepared them for the physical and psychological changes invading their adolescent bodies, and a leaping frenzy of rebellion in “Totally Fucked”.  Disturbingly beautiful is the sequence where each child succumbs, as if possessed, to a wave of self-caresses from head to waist.  Passed from youth to youth, these explorations serve up moving abstractions of psychic confusion, sexual discovery and the fearful insularity that rocks the world of every youth.

This season avant-garde darling Karole Armitage created the movement for Passing Strange (Belasco Theater), a show that charts the effects of racial and artistic identity on a young man’s quest to find his own musical voice.  Like Jones in Awakening, Armitage is not so much choreographing steps as she is a mood. The musician Stew’s story roams from an urban Los Angeles Baptist church to a hedonistic drug-and-sex drenched Amsterdam, and a punk Weimar-centric Berlin whose underground grottos spawn political incendiaries.  Armitage gives Passing Strange a rock concert’s verve without neglecting he work’s sharp satire, aided by a cast adept at lightning shifts of physicality.  Alas, it closed this summer, but not before film director Spike Lee committed this exceptional work to film.  It’s not the last of Armitage uptown either: this winter, the Public Theater’s production of Hair (seen this summer at the Delacorte Theater in New York’s Central Park) will be revived on Broadway, so stayed tuned for Armitage’s take on the be-in Sixties.

New ways to dream: never mind Broadway’s current tendency towards low-denominator creativity, with shows more suited to theme parks than New York’s great stages.  Ever so often a combination of outside-the box thinking and talent coalesce; shows like the ones described above, or the current [title of show](Lyceum Theater) come along to sweep away the malaise and invigorate the form anew.  The work continues, and it’s a hard road: after surviving television’s golden age and the rocked-out 1960s, Broadway must now compete with shortened attention spans wrought by high-tech gadgetry epitomized by IPODS and Gameboys.  I believe the theater will win—they don’t call it the Fabulous Invalid for nothing.

 

©Ennis Smith

Making the Broadway Musical Dance

 Published in Attitude: The Dancers Magazine, Summer 2008

“Come and meet those dancing feet.”  So beckoned the great Harry Warren’s lyrics to 42nd Street, the title song of a 1932 movie musical that gave a behind-the-scenes look at the making of a Broadway musical.  Warren’s siren call remains potent: from early am until show time, people from around the world sojourn to that 12-block stretch of Manhattan real estate for their fix of a quintessential art form.  As tourists and natives crowd ticket windows or weather the serpentine TKTS line, their collective desire reverberates as they huddle and confer.  The subtext is clear—No Pinter, please.  Only a musical will do.

As it happened, 42nd Street’s adaptation into an actual Broadway show (one that garnered Tony nominations for its original 1980 incarnation, and a subsequent 2001 revival) flamed what is now a firmly entrenched trend in modern musicals. The movie-to-musical adaptation has become a genre onto itself. 

What this means for the very specific medium of dance called show says loads about Broadway, weekly grosses, and the legacy wrought by such titans as Jerome Robbins, Agnes de Mille and Bob Fosse to name but a few.  There’s still room for the kind of imagination that brought us A Chorus Line (being revived at the Schoenfeld Theatre) but there’s no denying those producers with an eye on the box office who choose the safe route—“Let’s put their favorite movies on stage and add songs”—are clearly pandering to New York’s booming tourist trade.  They may lack imagination, but at least they have the good sense to hire those that do, for these derivations have brought out the best in some of our theater artists (The Lion King, On the Twentieth Century). 

Choreographers especially, have managed to transcend the weary déjà vu to give us, in the words of Sondheim, more to see.  Jerry Mitchell assisted Robbins on Jerome Robbins’ Broadway, and is as close to a master of this adapt-a-genre as Broadway’s got.  Since 2000’s The Full Monty, Mitchell’s parlayed his special gift for amplifying pop dance forms into show-stopping numbers.  Hairspray (Neil Simon Theater) is a masterwork, a luscious valentine to the twist, the frug, Dick Clark’s Bandstand and the Motown-fueled ecstasies that made dancing in the streets an imperative for those who came of age in the 60’s.  Fast on its popular heels came Legally Blonde (Palace Theater), and as its choreographer and director, Mitchell’s clearly learned from the late Michael Bennett, an artist who exploited the stage equivalents of cinematic dissolve and crosscut.  An example is the first act’s “What You Want,” a musical scene whose momentum climaxes with a high-stepping march that summons memories of Fosse’s “I’m a Brass Band,” from Sweet Charity without sacrificing the story’s hipness. 

Here, Mitchell’s huge range (he also choreographs the annual Broadway Bares AIDS fundraiser, and the revival of LaCage Aux Folles) encompasses hip-hop, aerobics (dig that second act number where the jump ropes go flying), and step-dancing ala Michael Flately.   But Blonde’s ruling dance is the shimmy, a move that lives on the hips of teenage girls in malls and on street corners across America.  Mitchell adds “dissing” head and neck isolations, pulsing shifts of weight, and conspiratorial finger pops that ornament practically every number.  And sex: in the second act’s “Bend and Snap,” Mitchell exalts female body language’s ability to both beguile straight men, and in a major plot point, to reveal those guys who are into each other: gaydar gets referenced with wit, and without insult. 

 

A new musical set in the 1950s might not sound like the most promising idea--what to do with all that post-war/red-baiting/nuclear-family ennui?  But there was also Elvis and the advent of the television variety show; Curtains (Al Hirschfeld Theater) and Cry-Baby, The Musical (Marquis Theater) are dichotic emblems of that decade, and both are blessed with dances by Rob Ashford.  The last collaboration between John Kander and Fred Ebb, Curtains is a backstage musical comedy murder mystery that fulfills most conventions of its genre (dead bodies, romance, turning a flop into a hit) peopled with the sort of characters who attend rehearsals wearing cocktail dresses.

At first Ashford’s dances feel a touch generic, probably because the musical-within-the-musical (a western called “Robbin’ Hood”) isn’t meant to be very good.  But then comes the chorus dance break for “Show People,” an exuberant melding of rumba moves and show-off turns that give the evening its first jolt of excitement.  It’s fun to chart the making of the backstage musical (a novelty number called “Kansasland” is wonderfully satirical of the times, with its nods to both Agnes DeMille and splashy TV variety shows) alongside the real-time plot (the Fred-and-Ginger fantasy “A Tough Act to Follow”) through its dance.  Though it’s an original musical, Curtains’ associations will likely remind you of 50s-era films—a dollop of Funny Face, a touch of The Bandwagon, with a little Les Girls thrown in for good measure. 

Ashford’s work in Cry-Baby, the Musical is something else entirely.  An adaptation of another John Water’s film (call it Hairspray-lite) Cry-Baby strives to create a Douglas Sirk universe whose lurid convolutions should have us pitched on the edge of our seats, but the only time that happens is when Ashford’s swivel-hipped dances highjack the stage with verve, energy and a genuine sexual danger the rest of the show sorely lacks.  Again one thinks of Fosse as the male dancers scissor and slink, their pursed lips and lacquered pompadours ripe with sex and mayhem.  The triumph of the evening is a jailbreak sequence called “A Little Upset,” and in it, Ashford goes for broke: inmates tap-dance with license plates affixed to their shoes before leaping, flipping, rolling toward the audience in such aggressive patterns of athletic prowess that suddenly it becomes clear what the show’s been missing.  Too bad Ashford didn’t direct.

Time traveling back to the 1970s, you could certainly do worse than Xanadu (Helen Hayes Theater) a send-up of mirror-balled disco days, and the universally derided 1978 film that starred John Travolta, Olivia Newton-John and Gene Kelly.  Those who came of age then will recognize Dan Knechtges’ Tony Award-nominated odes to free-style, the bump, line dancing and lively variations on kick-step-ball-change.  There’s even roller-skating: the heroine, gracefully embodied by Kerry Butler, spends the evening gliding from one plot point to the next, accessorized by her blonde, blow-dried flip.  Only one aspect disappoints—the night I saw it, the mid-evening tap solo (during a 1940s flashback sequence) sounded a tad muddy—but it’s a minor blip in a 90 minute entertainment that rarely flags in humor or ingenuity.

For thunderous hoofing, head to Mary Poppins (New Amsterdam Theater, or The House of Disney) where late in the second act, Gavin Lee (whose flying solo on the proscenium’s ceiling is a triumph) and the company roll out a brand of tap that, thanks to choreographer Matthew Bourne, combines percussive pounding with diagonal patterns of movement that made it feel, and sound, like something newly invented.  But it’s a long time to wait—until then, this theme-park-as-Broadway-show, conceived perhaps for the hyperactive minds of children, felt at war with itself as sets and costumes unfurled relentlessly (the act-break’s aggressive product hawking in the aisles, and the absence of a traditional Playbill magazine kinda kills the mood, but maybe you won’t care).  The stage becomes a giant maw of color and activity, a situation that so cluttered Act I’s  “Jolly Holiday,” that the dance got a little lost.  What should have left us exhilarated felt ultimately wearing, like a day spent eating too much caramel corn.

Disney could take a tip from The 39 Steps (Cort Theater).  This Roundabout Theater production exploits our ability to imagine by subtraction, not overload, and though it’s not a musical, its marvelous specificity of place and character owe as much to choreography (the original movement was created by Toby Sedgwick, who trained at the Jaques Lecoq School in Paris, and is the director of the Moving Picture Mime Show) as to John Buchan’s source novel, or even Alfred Hitchcock’s 1935 classic film.  I was hard pressed to observe even a moment of stillness—rigor-mortised bodies suspend across laps, feet constantly tap or slide, hands mince or clutch, bodies lurch and bob.  Scenery becomes superfluous when an actor can convey the especial physicality of being tossed about inside a roadster, running through a stream or climbing a mountain’s crag pursued by the police—not to mention escapes through windows that yield comic dividends throughout.  The phrase tour de force feels inadequate for a chase scene on top of a moving train in which speed and wind velocity are conveyed by flailing arms and coattails so accurately that the moment feels positively filmic. The 39 Steps must be seen to be believed.  It’s a stunning evocation of chaos—and a benchmark for the next guy who wants to borrow from the movies.

 

Next issue: auteurs, revivals and modern dance choreographers on the Great White Way…

 

Building Bridges

Published in Attitude: The Dancers Magazine, Summer 2008

Food for thought arose before the performance of Akram Khan’s zero degrees even began: we in the audience pondered the significance of two inanimate dummies posed on either side of a stage populated with not much else excepted a wash of light.  Soon the lights came up behind the upstage scrim, revealing four living humans.  They were the evening’s musicians, and in the dangling pause they stared back, silent, intent, making us feel a bit as if we were the show.

It made me think of all the things we witness as we chug through our days—the little atrocities, like the guy who cuts the supermarket line, or the bigger ones, like homelessness.  Our newspapers are filled with tales of property foreclosure and an administration that willfully fabricates lies to justify a war.  Our outcries are weak: rather than storm the barricades, we often look the other way, an act of self-protection to temporarily keep the clouds at bay, preserve the peace of our own private Idahoes.

In zero degrees, Khan’s stunning, compact work on view at New York’s City Center this April, issues of power, control and abuse were explored, as Khan shined a light on the whims of bureaucrats, and the individual in society.  How we conduct ourselves in extraordinary circumstances, how morality guides our actions, how we build bridges instead of walls: all of it matters, Khan wants us to know.

The evening takes its structure from a spoken story whose threads interspersed with movement that alternately comments, and reveals an explosive narrative of its own.  Often speaking in unison, Khan and the remarkable Sidi Cherkaoui related a comic/horrific experience of third-world travel (based on Khan’s real-life experience), a Kafka-esque journey of race and class-centric paranoia in a land where the rights of the individual carry little, or no weight.

Their twin voices, reverberant with the accents of their origins (Khan, of Bengali heritage, was born in London, Cherkaoui in Antwerp, the son of a Flemish mother and a Moroccan father), played like harmonies in a single song of discord and fear.  An encounter with sadistic border guards who attempt to confiscate their passports echoed recent incidents of power unchecked: Guantanamo Bay, Ahu Gharib to name but a few.

What followed that account was a thing of beauty.  The dancers faced each other, their arms engaged in a ballet of undulating caresses that filled the space between them with an aura of discovery and awe.  Soon those arms lost their probing gentleness, propelling Khan and Cherkaoui into a series of concentric spins, axeling their bodies around the stage and each other like atoms hurtling through space—one moment, heedless of collusion, the next, warily tracking the other as if to say, “careful, I know you’re there.”

The stalking didn’t last long: floating reveries escalated to hard aggression as the gentle mesmeric arms turned to weapons filled with force and speed.  Legs kicked and tripped, bodies rolled in evasive flurries that transcended martial arts.  It was the first of many chapters in a quest for power, as these flashes of virtuosity from Khan and Cherkaoui welled like unexpected storms: at points they’d break, one pacing as the other regrouped, their bodies heaving with all-too-human exertion.

The other “figures” on stage joined the action after Khan recalled an episode where a passenger dies during the train trip from Bangledesh to India—this act of witnessing prompts a warning from Khan’s cousin not to touch the body, lest he risk accusations of murder: “They will blame you,” cries his frightened relative.  Designed by sculptor Antony Gormley (and cast from the dancer’s own bodies), these dummies shift the evening’s tone by creating physical relationships that occupy that discomforting space between comedy and tragedy.  I will not soon forget the poignant ministrations of Cherkaoui as he encouraged the likeness of Khan to rub his head, caress his face or embrace him; moments later, this fine performer—the word “dancer” feels inadequate to describe what he accomplishes here—lashes out brutally, comically, in a sequence where each blow to the dummy elicited a physical spasm from the real Khan.  It’s a disturbing, complicit moment between performer, audience and story: the dummies provided a distance that made it easy for us to respond in every way except the genuine outrage such a violent depiction warranted.  Our laughter was laced with the rue of our own indifference.

By virtue of their opposing essences, Khan and Cherkaoui illustrated the gulf, or distance between.  Khan is a bullet of a dancer, his smoldering face a defiant mask of fury as he slices through space shattering the air around him.  The slender, pale, pretzel-like Cherkaoui is the water to Khan’s fire, magnetic as he spun from humor to pathos.  Their struggle to reach across the divide—zero degrees refers to the space in between, that suspended realm between polar opposites—could be interpreted as the attempt of two disparate dancers seeking a common movement vocabulary.  In a late-evening pas de deux that began with Cherkaoui dancing on pointe, before joining Khan in a sequence of Kathak foot-slapping (the classical, sometimes improvised dance form of Northern India in which the steps literally tell a story), both illuminated how individuals are like countries, and how our walls must come down if we are ever to know one another.

One of zero degrees enduring images occurs towards the end.  Cherkaoui has engaged the bodies of Khan and their doppegangers in a Sisyphean series of pulls and lifts that taxed him to the breaking point.  With one arm being “pulled” by a dummy, he turns his large brimming eyes to us as he extends his free arm.  Help me the gesture implored.   Witnessing his despair, I wanted to leap out of my seat and do just that. 


In Second Position

Published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine Vol 22, No. 1 Spring 2008

 

Take one look at Lisa Thorn, and the last word that comes to mind is veteran.  The petite, preternaturally beautiful blonde radiates such unspoiled youth and bonhomie, it’s easier to imagine her back home in the loaming fields of Virgil, NY, where she grew up the youngest of five siblings.  Yet veteran she is, having spent an illustrious, decades-long career as a principal dancer with the Kansas City Ballet, assaying roles in works by Balanchine, Ailey, Bournonville, Robbins and Duato, to name but a few.

2004 found Lisa juggling roles in the company repertory alongside her new duties as associate balletmistress, a situation rife with angst that’s understandable when poised at a career crossroads.  But during KCB’s recent spring engagement at Manhattan’s Joyce Theater, it was clear that Thorn had worked through that difficult period, emerging artistically renewed and confident.  We discussed the responsibilities of maintaining the company’s high performance standard, her continuing adventures as a dancer, and her looming role as a new mother.


E. How did you come to join Kansas City Ballet?

Lisa. I had just graduated from high school as a trainee with Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre and was accepted into the School of American Ballet’s summer program in New York and I was actively looking for a job.  Kansas City Ballet needed two women—they only hired me (laughs), somehow the other contract never got filled. 

E. So this second chapter behind the scenes, how’s it been?  How long is it now…?

Lisa. My first year as associate ballet mistress I was still dancing with the company, so I guess technically it’s my fourth.

E. Is true to say you probably had a knack for this job long before it was offered?

Lisa. My second year with the company Todd Bolenger asked if I was interested in teaching.  Later he asked if I’d assist with the children in a production of Coppélia; when it was remounted I was put in charge of the kids again.  Then Karen Brown asked me to set the corps scenes in The Nutcracker.  I guessed they recognized my focus, my attention to detail early on—I was always the one who’d be asked in rehearsal what the count was, when someone was supposed to move. 

E. When you stopped dancing full-time with the company, how did your role change, and how have you adapted?

Lisa. I think it’s definitely been gradual.  Obviously as a dancer you’re focused on yourself; as a balletmistress you’re focused on every single performer—that’s a huge change.  It was a lot that first year, to try to juggle both.  Trying to focus on your own dancing, it was pretty hard to be in front of the room one minute, and the next minute to be on the floor—it was hard to switch.  I probably could have gotten better at it but that was a challenge.

E. Sounds overwhelming.  With 26 dancers, 26 personalities, 26 different ways of moving, how do you accommodate them all? 

Lisa. One thing I really like about our company is that overall the dancers really seem to get along.  It’s more like a happy family.  I think what’s harder is juggling the other parts of the job, which is planning, scheduling auditions or the day, the things that aren’t happening in the studio.  The studio stuff comes more naturally.

E. So, in spite of your duties as a balletmistress, you continue to perform?

Lisa. I still do a bit, and that’s not so unusual, especially if you’re still in good shape.  People don’t expect that after eighteen years of dancing professionally that you would just stop.  There came this opportunity to work with the Owen/Cox Dance Group on a less intense scale—not on pointe, but just as demanding.  It keeps you connected to the form, and when you’re not taking class or rehearsing every day you can forget how tired or sore the body can get, so it keeps you in tune with the people you’re supervising.  When I would come in sore the next day I’d remember and I could appreciate what they’re struggling with.

E. A little perspective…

Lisa. I hope so.  With the pregnancy I’ve had mothers tell me, ‘you’ll become more patient.’  As a dancer I was very impatient with myself, I wanted everything fixed yesterday.  I was so hard on myself, and I really hate to see that in other people.  I see how much energy is wasted on beating yourself up, so I try to be positive.  You’re human; you’re not a machine.

E. What do you take from the balletmistresses you’ve worked with?

Lisa. My first balletmistress at Kansas City Ballet was Yna Kay.  She was Danish and worked under Balanchine.  She wasn’t strict—what’s the word?  She had a strong personality that I took to right away.  My second balletmistress was Karen Brown.  I admired how they got you to do things and how willing they were to help.  I still carry the things they’d say in class.

E. The company press kit lists a staggering range of repertory pieces—talk about diversity. 

Lisa. And I’ve danced a good chunk of it.  I look back and think how lucky that I got to dance Balanchine, Solokov, Cunningham, Agnes De Mille…

E. What’s tremendous is how all of that is written on your body, and now you’re charged to teach [those works to] another generation.

Lisa.  I guess that’s true but we’re not an island.  It’s an artistic staff, a collaborative.  I may be working with a group of dancers, but it’s always welcome when someone else with expertise comes in—a director, a friend in the field. 

E. Dance notation helps.

Lisa. So does video—we’re learning to tape not just from the front but to document from behind, the side and above so that you can see formation.  You can’t always get the life of the piece from video, but there’s a little less notation, much more video work, but even that can be deceiving—at a particular taped performance, an individual can leave a step out, or trip.  You learn to go back and talk to the camera and say, “ideally there should be three walks and two pirouettes on count five.” 

E. Have you considered choreography as a pursuit?

Lisa. We have a great program called In The Wings that Bill Whitener (the artistic director) created about 10 years ago to allow company dancers to choreograph on each other.  My first piece I did there, the company used for performance in our Ballet in the Park series; I’ve done some things with other local groups and currently I’m choreographing for the Kansas City Ballet School’s Spring Recital.  It’s time consuming, and it usually scares me to death but then I get in the studio and the time flies. 

E. Define the role of a balletmistress.  You know, you can actually look that up on Wikipedia? (Hands her a printout). 

Lisa. (laughs and reads) Well, this is pretty correct.  It says ‘responsible for the level of competence of the dancers in their company.’  I tell people that don’t know anything about the various positions in the company that when it comes to being a balletmistress, well, just think of a sports team—I’m the assistant coach.  They get it right away.

© 2008 Ennis Smith


The Drag is Dancing


Published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, Winter 2008


 


It made perfect sense to shante, not walk, to your seat at the first performance of the Legendary House of Ninja’s The East is Red, a presentation of Dance Theater Workshop’s Studio Series on November 5, 2007; to a sinuous techno throb, one young patron earned cheers from the audience when she threw a few voguing moves in the direction of her friends.  DTW asked us to check our shoes at the door, a move designed to preserve the floor but one that always loosens one’s reserve (and summons the trauma of countless high school sock-hops).  Here, one’s stocking feet created another conduit for the beat as the bass coursed from our toes to our expectant hearts.


          Welcome to the drag ball by way of Chelsea, where the ghosts of our youth weren’t the only ones being conjured.  As the multi-generational audience leaned against the studio-length barre or seated themselves, some cross-legged on the floor, I wondered if they pondered a tradition reaching back to the 1920s: across the country, in spaces clandestine (basement bars) and mundane (convention centers and Shriner’s halls, ironically, under the protection of local law enforcement) gay men and women dolled up like Vegas Cinderellas or in traditional formal attire, found a haven where they could be their out-and-proud selves as they danced and swayed until dawn’s early hours.  After the ball the assemblage of bank presidents, milkmen and secretaries returned to closeted American lives where fear of exposure, blackmail and ostracism tempered the previous night’s high spirits like bills in the mail.


          Cut to the hyper-glitzed 1980s, and a drag ball culture populated almost exclusively by ethnic gay males who helped usher a dance craze as galvanic as the twist.  Voguing, a semaphoric explosion of dance culled from street acrobatics and fashion runways, proved the perfect metaphor for a Reagan-era Me-Decade brimming with aspiration, glamour and conspicuous consumption.  Those of us just off the bus at Port Authority could get a healthy dose of live fabulousness a few blocks north at grottos like Sally’s Hideaway on 43rd Street, Washington Square Park, the West Village piers or a plethora of drag venues stretching up to Harlem, a phenomenon that reached its apotheosis with the release of Jenny Livingston’s 1987 documentary Paris is Burning, and the popularity of a little ditty called “Vogue” by you-know-who.


          Dance still fuels the houses, but more altruistic goals (mentoring of young gays, STD prevention and transgender awareness) occupy equal prominence as they strive to endure.  The East is Red opened with a tribute to the late Willie Ninja, the star dancer whose appearances in music videos (Malcolm McLaren’s “Deep in Vogue”), and with major dance companies (Karole Armitage, Doug Elkins and David Neuman, among others) helped catapult the vogue into a larger arena; such evocations tap into the emotional history of queerness, since the vogue’s ascendance paralleled an era shrouded by the deaths of many from AIDS. 


          A whisk of red curtains transported us to the Orient and a procession of young geishas whose unison dance oozed with placid submission that turned out to be a ruse; with the words, “now bring it,” Isis Ninja (in a role suggesting the knowing court eunuch) prompted each to spread the largesse of their special gifts, a command the young women embraced by treating the audience to dazzling displays of the vogue’s many modes—runway, breakdancing and freestyle.


          When the men, or sensei, entered, the plot thickened: in this court, the only way to squelch rogue factions intent on overthrowing this fictitious House of Ninja was through battle.  In an artfully comic sequence that was one part Peking Opera, nine parts cheesy Kung Fu western, dancers paired off for a series of duels, some making real-time body contact in traditional martial arts fashion, while others assayed a slow motion style loaded with subtler physical attacks.  Here, a look loaded with “shade” (meant to convey insult through indifference) did as much damage as a chop to the jaw; a deftly pointed foot or lightning whip of the head showed the enemy who the real men were with style and attitude.


          The work’s potential was apparent.  The tropes found in Asian theater have natural counterparts in house movement (butch/femme equals samurai/geisha), and the notion of one ethnic group taking on the cultural traits of another is an intriguing one.  When it worked, the payoffs were golden: a giant red dragon pulsed through the proceedings, and the use of prerecorded dialogue recreated the off-kilter sensation of watching a Bruce Lee movie riddled with bad dubbing.  When it didn’t (at the beginning, the quartet of dancing women lacked the necessary precision, though that could have been opening night nerves), the Asian trappings felt tacked on despite the late Ninja’s citing the Far East as his initial inspiration.  Underneath the yards of silk and brocade beat hearts struggling to shake their big city roots, and why should they?  This homemade art form has a vitality all its own; such dance doesn’t need a makeover to loan it legitimacy. 


          Still, glints of what a deeper exploration of multi-ethnic identity might yield could be seen in some of the performances.  Current house head Benny Ninja is a slithery snake reincarnated as a dancer, with shoulder isolations that reminded me of that great bit of dialogue from Fred Astaire’s The Bandwagon: “She came at me in sections.”  Whether pouring himself across the floor or disseminating wonderful business with a freakishly long Fu Manchu moustache, this performer embodied an eerie otherness that taunted and amused.  Playing a pair of precocious twins, Pito and Javier Ninja (by now you’ve noted all members of the house share the same surname) made a spectacular late impression with fluid splits, extensions and fingers so well articulated they could be spied a city block away—all to the accompaniment of Chip Chop Ninja’s hysterical remix of Peggy Lee’s “We are Siamese” from Disney’s The Lady and the Tramp.


          DTW is to be commended for its help in developing this work.  But the studio’s fluorescent lights and pristine floors felt anathema to that which cried out for a touch of slightly soiled inscrutability.  Keeping up with the times is tricky business, but as The Legendary House of Ninja searches for ways to propel drag ball culture and the idiosyncratic dance that springs from it to new heights, it mustn’t forget all the previous eras from which the tradition sprang.  As The East is Red develops, let’s hope it draws from more of its resonant all-American history, one that might perfume the air like stolen kisses in the dark. 


The East is Red by The Legendary House of Ninja


Presented by Dance Theater Workshop, New York, October 4-5, 2007


 


Concept - Benny Ninja


Written - Paris Ninja


Stage Direction - Paris Ninja


Videography/Graphics – Angel eyes Ninja


Music – Chip-Chop Ninja


Choreography – Benny Ninja and The House of Ninja


Props – George


Costumes – House of Ninja


Voice Over - Archie Ninja, Eileen Ninja, Benny Ninja, Paris Ninja


Stage Assistant – Mikey Ninja


©Ennis Smith 2007

Bleak Beauty

Published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, Winter Issue 2008

 

Shivers and awe: such dueling sensations were prompted by a camera’s slow pan along the surface of seeming corridors of ice.  The shimmering walls, composed of a blue at once beguiling and ominous, begged us to imagine a time before National Geographic Specials, an Arctic landscape as seen by black explorer Matthew Henson who discovered the North Pole as a member of Admiral Richard Peary’s expedition in 1909.  Unfolding on a triptych of screens, these ultra visions greeted audiences who saw Cast No Shadow, the collaboration between filmmaker Isaac Julien and choreographer Russell Malaphant at the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Harvey Theater as part of its Next Wave Festival this past November. 

Julien, aided by his cinematographer Nina Kellgren, unfurls a journey that subverts beauty of place to reveal collisions of race, politics and the eternal dislocations of the mind and spirit.  Having honed his mastery of the tableau vivant in shorts and feature films (This is not an AIDS Advertisement, The Attendant, Young Soul Rebels and 1990’s mesmeric Looking for Langston), the filmmaker’s skill for unspooling seductive images is surpassed only by his ability to make their dark edges linger in the subconscious. 

Could Julian’s bold vision meld with live dance?  In the evening’s first part, True North, the alliance felt uneasy: those three screens loomed over a trio of men (Alexander Varona, Kyoung-Shin Kim and Riccardo Meneghini) who embodied turbulent cascades of water with crouches, swiveling turns, hand clasps, embraces and lifts that hoisted them aloft in pieta-like compositions.  Film morphs into flesh in the person of Vanessa Myrie who’s first seen onscreen trudging across snow-kissed fields before she materializes on stage as a ghostly apparition ethereally gowned by Ursula Bombshell; both witness and stand-in for Henson, Myrie’s androgynous presence forged a connection between film and live performance the rest of True North failed to exploit.  The sound of dripping water and voiceovers taken from Henson’s journals enhanced atmospherically, but the anticipated magic—the fluid dissolve from film to live imagery—never arrived; I found myself consciously shifting to absorb first one medium, then the next.  Malaphant’s contributions felt an afterthought, possibly because his work came later—True North initially premiered in 2004. 

The middle section, Fantôme Afrique, embraced the power and pleasures of pure cinema: clips of Quagadougou, the capital of the African nation Burkina Faso, pricked our senses like subliminal flashes: vintage film posters, shots from touchstone films of the radical Pan-African cinema’s golden age; careworn movie houses and the townsmen who populate them, their rapt faces flecked with light from an unseen screen.  Elsewhere, there’s the bustling life of the town, and such Pirandellian touches as the late sight of a film crew shooting footage we’ve seen at earlier points.  A study in change and perception, Afrique shows how cinema’s Dream Machine manipulates the social realities of foreign landscapes for mass delectation, sustaining myths and lies as it casts a selective blind eye. 

Fantôme Afrique eschewed live dance.  On screen Vanessa Myrie wafts Garbo-like across the landscape, but the human heart of Afrique is Stephen Galloway (choreographing his own dancing) as a shamanistic indigent whose haggard, incendiary face grabs, and holds our attention from beginning to end.  Unleashing a ziggurat of chain-steps, undulations and, in a memorable image, a slow crawl across a sun-cracked field of earth, Galloway forcefully delineates timeless paths of civilizations rendered obsolete in the name of   progress.

          That looming question—will film and dance coalesce into something exhilarating, something new—finds its most satisfying resolution in the final third.  As the curtain rises on Small Boats, the three screens are now one as a lone camera panned along rows of literal small boats under a vivid blue sky, their bright colors worn pale by the sea.  The audience gasped at the coup de théâtre that followed: a trick of light disintegrated the screen image before our eyes, revealing a mass of dancers spinning, churning, floating in dim shadow, a briny inferno subtly enhanced by Andy Cowton’s score. 

Here the visual imagery propelled Julien’s ongoing dialogue with issues of migration and relocation.  Sometimes they jarred subtly, as with the presence of the dark-skinned Vanessa Myrie serenely strolling against a backdrop of white sand (a repeated visual symbol from True North: incongruity on a blank canvas/ethnicity in a white world) or ominously, as the camera stares at Mylar-covered bodies on a Sicilian shore while vacationers frolic a few feet away. 

Malaphant’s movement reconciled migratory struggles poignantly; often arms sliced the air in spectral desperation, the disenfranchised locked in a futile battle for survival.  In Boats, much of the choreography echoed that seen in True North, but here we see the movement recast on the screen; the mirroring enhanced the immediate story of Africans who attempt the perilous trek across water to Italy and Spain in hopes of better lives by conjuring myriad historical associations—the plight of refugees or the wages of slavery, to name but a few. 

     There was stunning footage of dancers rolling up the cylindrical stairs of the Hotel TK in Palermo, before the film dissolved into lighting designer Michael Hulls’ abyss-like replication of a staircase on the floor of the Harvey stage, followed by lovely angular solos, duets and trios.  The visions were painterly, elegant and often sexually coded, as with the sight of one man carrying another through a mirrored ballroom on screen before appearing miraculously in the flesh.  The look on the carrier’s face is at once an admonishment and a provocation; as we experience this surreal moment, our minds latch onto the intimacy the look conveyed, the unusual way the carrier clasped his friend’s body and his slow, stalking march out of the movie’s frame onto the stage. 

In the final images onscreen bodies poetically float, then sink, to the depths of a murky sea.  Again cinema morphed to flesh: through the scrim Malaphant revealed those same bodies caught in a panoramic tangle of hemp ropes, a symbolic web wrought by man-made evils.  A sight to summon dimensions of Greek tragedy, and a perfect distillation of Cast No Shadow’s ruling idea: throughout world history man’s utopic quests for discovery—and survival—spurred progress and salvation, but not without heavy costs.

 

Isaac Julien and Russell Malaphant’s Cast No Shadow

A Performa commission with Sadler’s Wells for PERFORMA07 at the BAM 25th Next Wave Festival, Harvey Theater, November 6, 8—10, 2007

Featuring the Russell Malaphant Dance Company and Vanessa Myrie

Cinematography by Nina Kellgren

Film editing by Adam Finch

Lighting Design by Michael Hulls

Music by Paul Schütze and Andy Cowton

Costumes by Ursula Bombshell

©Ennis Smith 2007  

Ohad Naharin Unbound

published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, Fall issue, 2007

 

No one who’s witnessed Ohad Naharin’s choreographic genius would blame the former artistic director of Israel’s Batsheva Dance Company if he coasted on his prodigious talent, one that has rewarded New York audiences since the 1990s.  But in Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet’s mounting of DECADANCE, a 10-year survey of his work playing throughout June 2007 at their home in New York’s Chelsea, a palpable sense of communion pervades the air.  It’s clear the mere presentation of dance that looks like no one else’s isn’t enough: beyond Naharin’s explorations of violence, sensuality and ritual lies a desire to meld with those of us in the dark.  He wants us involved, pitched so precariously forward in our seats that we might actually fall across the footlight’s divide into the hurricane.

          From the opening (the Arab line excerpt from his 2003 Naharin’s Virus) and throughout, connection is forged both subtly and aggressively.  A rumble of feet in the dark precedes the moment the lights come up on dancers in nude tights from neck to thigh, a Hieronymus Bosch portrait by way of Weimar Germany.  But never mind the simulated flesh: it’s the mutual perusal that stimulates our senses.  The dancer’s eyes are glued to ours in the kind of long-held stare that feels like infinity, the shared breath between performers and audience suspended before the dance—small sways, punctuated by the combustible spasms of individual dancers, like spiders on speed—shatters the calm.

          Naharin exploits such contrasts all evening.  The quiet that allows you to hear the slap of feet on thighs or the exhalations of a soloist, can vanish in the haze of omnipotent voiceovers or peals of Vivaldi; suspension juxtaposes with forceful bodily action that’s heart-stopping for the obvious physical prowess it demands and without exception, receives from a company that Naharin, in a three-month period, made over into one thoroughly at home with his style.  It’s a melting brew of ballet, jazz and modern, leavened with supreme athleticism and his signature spinal fluidity: think vertebrae reconstituted as mercury.   

          Black Milk (1985) is a superb example of such friction: in brightly paneled skirts (the striking costumes by Rakefet Levy deserve a show of their own) four young males converge around a drinking well.  Away from the group, a lone male (the magnificent Nickemil Concepcion) keeps his own council.  A ceremonial act of mud-smearing triggers a challenge, and the solitary figure is drawn into the world of the others, acting out myriad chapters of male sexuality and brutality through a blaze of leaps, glides and rapid, pulsing steps.  It’s a return to the primordial forests of centuries past, where bravado reigns, though occasionally nulled by fear and tenderness, etched notably in the painterly embraces Naharin creates for Concepcion and Riley Watts. 

          What a contrast to George and Zalman (2006) a dance for the company’s women in which Degas’s ballerinas time travel to a 21st century expunged of Impressionism in favor of one wrought by Margaret Atwood.  Swathed in black catholic-schoolgirl uniforms (here, the costumes were conceived by Dahlia Lider), they show a coming of age filtered through inundating societal messages.  A robotic female voice intones (“Ignore all possible concepts, the spider, the damnation of the Faust”), crippling the dancers in a perverse standing barre filled with jerks and skewered balances.  The weight of those words raining down like daily pressures burrows into the soul—theirs and ours.

          I was thrilled to see two of the works from Anaphaza, the remarkable evening helmed by Naharin and the Batsheva Dance Company for the Lincoln Center Festival in 2003.  An excerpt from Echad opened the second act here (it was the curtain raiser at Lincoln Center); when Naharin created it, the Israeli government thought it incendiary enough to request he change it but what’s shocking isn’t the near nudity, or the choice of music (a Passover song).  The word explosion doesn’t do justice to what happens when dancers seated on metal chairs burst into jackknifing patterns of arms and legs that culminate in a fleeting wave as one by one, bodies erupt in fierce backbends from stage right to left; try to imagine 11 human beings literally blowing up before your eyes—then replay that jerk and release over and over, punctuated by another article of flung clothing, and you might surmise the impact of this sequence.   On the night I saw the show one dancer hurled backwards with such velocity that he severed his chair, a testament to the kind of no-holds barred commitment such movement demands.

          Entreating an audience’s participation is a risky thing, but here Naharin resurrects a sequence where dancers pull patrons on stage for a tango and a waltz.  The result was a true collaboration: some of the more game audience members unfurled a few fancy moves of their own to complement their partner’s spins, splits and backbends.  We held our collective breath when the company, in a circular run, appeared on the verge of trampling one elderly participant but the dancers—fleet, sure—avoided disaster.  Cedar Lake’s intimate space, one that joined audience and performers in the kind of buoyant collusion that made the improvisation feel like a happening, mitigated the moment’s potential gimmickry. 

          In DECADANCE there’s enough richness to populate a dozen separate evenings.  I won’t soon forget the lonely disquieting duet for Jason Kittelberger and Acacia Schachte; the dance’s subtext—Kittelberger’s supplicant sowing seeds (or was he sprinkling holy water?) as Schachte shirks, then dissolves into his ministrations—blossomed into a gliding series of intimate lifts and clutches without losing its air of mystic ritual.  Heather Hamilton on glittery stilts was a lip-synching Dietrich from outer space in an excerpt from 1997’s Sabotage Baby and during intermission, puckish Jon Bond held us in thrall, humorously vamping and voguing in slow motion; eyes locked on us, he tossed off hair-raising feats of pointe and balance work with deceptive simplicity.     

          The show ends with the full company back in their underwear, dancing furiously to Morton Steven’s theme from Hawaii Five-0.   Their disco inferno swells to a sequence of leaps before the dancers break into another fast, circular run that conjured a herd of beautiful wild horses.  What an apt metaphor for Naharin’s vision of dance, one unbridled by convention, so bounteous in its generosity that the standing ovation at show’s end seemed inadequate thanks.

 

Ohad Naharin’s DECADENCE

Presented by Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet, New York, June 7 – July 1, 2007

 

With:

Jubal Battisti

Jon Bond

Nickemil Concepcion

William Vaughn Credell

Shani Garfinkel

Heather Hamilton

Jessica Lee Keller

Jason Kittelberger

Andrea Miller

Oscar Ramos

Matt Rich

Acacia Schachte

Jessica Coleman Scott

Riley Watts

Kristen Weiser

 

Choreographer – Ohad Naharin

Stage Manager – Norva Bennett

Original Lighting Design – Avi Yona Bueno (Bambi)

Original Costume Design – Rakefet Levy

Cedar Lake Artistic Director – Benoit-Swan Pouffer

Cedar Lake Executive Director – Gregg Mudd

Founder – Nancy Laurie

David Gordon’s Little Touch of Harry

Published in Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine, Summer 2007

 

Of all writers, arguably none has been a greater friend to the dance than William Shakespeare.  The sheer number of evening-length works based on his plays and sonnets (and their sources) confirm an enduring collaboration that hardly shows signs of abatement.  It’s no wonder: the plots are compelling, and audience familiarity with the plays give choreographers ample license to diverge from these stories without fear that their essential fuel—tragedy, romance, and characters who embody the scope of human complexity—might dissipate when paired with the inimitable movement styles of Petipa, MacMillan, Balanchine, Lubovitch and countless others. 

It’s a shame more dance makers don’t tread beyond the obvious choices—pretty pictures aside, do we really need another Romeo and Juliet?  You’d think Shakespeare’s more complex works—eerily prescient, they convey the soothsayer within the poet—would appeal to a new generation, but as BAM’s executive producer Joseph V. Melillo observed in a recent New York Times article, with a few exceptions, contemporary choreographers are oddly reluctant to engage issues of politics and war, either directly or through a filter.  Such statements fail to acknowledge the challenges of distilling such hot potatoes as Iraq into the kind of stage-worthy images that speak to the enormity of the quagmire.  One could understand why the Bard’s history plays (not to mention his Julius Caesar and Coriolanus) don’t readily come to mind as vehicles for the dance—how, for heaven’s sake, to translate the brainy intrigues, the subtle coups and courtly backstabbing into an evening of potent movement?

One artist unafraid to tackle such complexities is the director/choreographer David Gordon.  I was fortunate to catch his Pickup Performance Company’s production of “Dancing Henry Five,” mounted by San Francisco’s ODC Theater (the show is currently touring the country).  The piece, first seen in New York in 2004, addresses the machinations of the Bush Administration and the mess of Iraq through the prism of Henry V; in the process Gordon creates a compelling evening that, though pocket-sized (barely an hour, a feat of gross economy considering most Shakespeare clocks in at 3hrs.), ably feeds the audience’s head while satisfying myriad potential for visually ravishing movement. 

With the help of son Ain Gordon, the choreographer contributes original text that is part commentary on the play (most of Shakespeare’s scenes are humorously summarized), part rumination on the age-old science of war.  Rather than watering down Shakespeare’s themes, it illuminates them—both writers seek an examination of those tendencies that repeat, the conflicts that get perpetrated, the spoils of sacrifice in the name of empire preservation.  Gordon concludes that history teaches us nothing; when his narrator (played by his wife Valda Setterfield) explains how, in Henry V, the Archbishop of Canterbury concocts a lie (fueled by the dying wish of Prince Hal’s father that he “busy giddy minds with foreign quarrels”) to justify England’s assault on France, she points up the parallel caprices of the Bush Administration in an amusing aside that made the audience snicker in recognition.

 Politics provide the heat, but Gordon isn’t content with mere proselytizing.   It’s art he’s after, and it’s telling that Shakespeare is but one of the evening’s collaborators.  The choreographer makes generous use of Laurence Olivier’s benchmark 1947 adaptation; here and there, dialogue from the movie wafts through the sound system, a detail that purposefully reminds us of Shakespeare’s bountiful gifts as a scene setter.  When we hear the famous opening, “Now entertain conjecture of a time,” our awareness of ourselves as participants in the tale is made manifest, cued by the presence of the theater’s bare back wall and the skeletal props piled stage center like some addled tower of Babel.  The music—from that great cinematic composer William Walton—is also courtesy of the film, but Gordon re-contextualizes it to great effect throughout, especially in the dream-like sequence depicting the British Fleet’s sail across the Channel, accomplished by Jennifer Tipton’s moody horizontal lighting, and upright dancers (representing ship mastheads) convoyed across the stage on the evening’s most versatile set element—blankets. 

It’s one of many images that speaks with an eloquence equal to Shakespeare’s meter, and wrought by the simplest of means.  Cyclonic patterns of dancers holding placards transition us from scene to scene; within the action Gordon gets dramatic mileage of everything from waltzes and march formations, to slow motion combat and elegiac tableaux, skewering them with angular arms, lunges and unexpected pivots.  When the Dauphin sends England the insulting gift of tennis balls that launches the battle of Harfleur, Gordon serves up a colorful dance with giant balls lifted out of an Esther Williams routine.  In the famous English lesson, Walton’s music underscores a delightful minuet filled with Delsarte-tinged mirroring gestures for the French princess Katherine (Karen Graham) and her waiting maid.  But this production’s triumph is a St. Crispian’s Day montage that propels the action from the stoking of cannons, through tactile engagement with the enemy, to a final tragic image of discarded bodies piled high like rubble.  Here, deployed with the type of stage vocabulary that pays homage to Brecht by way of Tommy Tune, time and space get cinematically redefined through lighting and a dizzying dance of bodies, poles and chairs that convey the exhilaration of battle, and its tragic aftermath.

In Setterfield, Gordon has found his muse of fire.  Decked out in a triangulated gown emblazoned with rugby stripes (Gordon also designed the costumes), her Chorus haunts the evening like a Cassandra whose reasoned observations we heed.  The character’s power lies in the actress’s gift for objectivity and empathy; one moment she’s keeping us abreast of the action with the dryness of George Jessel (as when she bemoans the prevalence of “friendly fire, which currently describes how we kill each other”), the next, wringing our hearts as she weighs the sacrifice of one side’s sons to war against the others—her impassioned “I want somebody else’s son to die” vaults us from abstraction to heartbreaking reality.

Other art forms—literature, film and the protest songs of such artists as Joni Mitchell, Neil Young and Rickie Lee Jones—have weighed in on our current overseas involvement with the kind of outrage not seen since the 60’s.  Part Epic Theater, part polemic, and 100% relevant, “Dancing Henry Five” rightly deserves a place alongside William Forsythe’s “Three Atmospheric Studies,” Paul Taylor’s Banquet of Vultures,” and the overtly political works of Bill T. Jones.  As the Iraq War stumbles along its complications have, if anything, deepened Gordon’s exploration of empirical arrogance and historical amnesia.  Talk about holding a mirror up to nature (and our present U.S. folly up to the light): despite its Elizabethan trappings the piece feels ripped from today’s headlines, a tribute to the synergy that occurs when one artist reaches across the ages to commune with another.  Let’s hope such daring inspires others to follow suit.

Steel Magnolia with a Whip

Ann Liv Young, Snow White

The Kitchen, 3 22 07

 

          The eyes have it.  Ann Liv Young’s blaze with an intimidating mixture of superiority, petulance, and a danger that semaphores a warning: can you handle it/me?  It’s a look to wither a lesser mortal: entering The Kitchen’s performance space I felt it immediately, an unerring gaze that burned a hole in the soul of every patron as they took their places before the start of Snow White, her new exercise in scorn and rampage.   Nothing dispels their taunting disquiet—not Thursday’s game-for-anything audience, or the white leotards worn by her and  cohorts Liz Santoro and Michael Guerraro, getups that made their Ruben-esque figures look like extras from Woody Allen’s Sleeper.

That visual banana peel gets subverted with the crashing chords of Michael Jackson’s Smooth Criminal; under lights full up on a stark white set ringed with a fringed curtain, the company shamelessly tears into what will be the first of many karaoke moments.  That opening also establishes one of the myriad themes tentacling from its title: the supposition that everything gets exposed when placed against a neutral canvas—audience (the house lights never go down) and performer are rendered equally naked and exposed.    

The world that unfolds is irrefutably, subversively adult (audience be warned: along with the actors’ nudity, the pregnant Liv Young bestrides a dildo—though tellingly she’s on top), but there’s no denying the furious sense of play informing every flip of Young’s Rapunzel-length brown mane.   One can’t help but laugh as we witness these grownups put on the kind of dress-up pageant little children embark on with the same go-for-broke stakes, but here such role-playing makes salient points about the way pop culture informs burgeoning sexuality (most of the dancing quotes MTV, and the salacious, hoochie-mama stereotypes assayed by women in music videos), and especially, the implicit propaganda contained in such rite-of-passage fairy tales like Snow White.

Liv Young’s heroine plays against its creator’s Southern roots, a dominatrix who has no interest in feminine submission or propriety.  Control is all; one moment she’s brandishing stock French dialogue and a Reynolds-wrapped sword in a duel with her prince (Santoro), the next, she might recline Cleopatra-style as she shrieks an 80s power-ballad.  In a piece that risks spurts of boredom as it careens from one outlandish moment to the next, even backstage is onstage, and Young drives its machinations too, barking out counts, sound cues, flinging suddenly inconvenient water bottles and costumes.  In a hilarious bit, she acts and stage-manages some cascading snow tossed by the hapless Guerraro at the climax of a romantic duet; her  impatient “run, run, run” will remind you of every child’s nightmare—the female playmate who orders the other kids around like some impervious Queen of a land full of incompetents.   Good thing the budget didn’t allow for dwarves; this Snow White leaves no doubt that, by evening’s end, those adorable gnomes would be dead meat.

***

3/17/2007

Stories of Us

Le Vu Long/Together Higher, DTW 

 

     The remarkable elements of Dance Theater Workshop’s presentation of Stories of Us are established before the show begins.  In this new piece by Le Vu Long/Together Higher, the audience is treated to an attenuated prologue in which not much happens, encouraging us to take in the hushed, vesper-tinged lighting and the set (both designed by choreographer Long), a series of muslin drops etched with cut-out windows and drawings of leaves, surrounding a stage filled with pylons suggesting a pier.  And then there was the music of Nguyen Van Cuong, whose collage of synthesized sounds accompanied by percussive, tango-esque guitar runs, compelled our ears as we anticipated a dance that might engage our eyes.   

     Long’s aim to summon an atmosphere redolent of northeast Asia was noble, but judging from the audience’s restlessness he chose a risky way to begin.  Those of us who’d endured a hailstorm that coated New York’s avenues with slush were rewarded by a diminutive woman in black who cleaved the air in a series of fluid diagonal weaves and dissolves; this felt like the true beginning to a piece its choreographer says was inspired by the company’s work with the hearing-impaired and H.I.V. and AIDS groups in his native Vietnam.  Indeed, this section’s tactile sensuality (note the soloist’s upheld arm, perhaps ravaged by one too many IV needles), communicated a especial interior preoccupation that resisted invasion—or rapport—with outside forces, personified by a male dancer’s subtle but unsuccessful attempts to invade the soloist’s space.

     Spatial relationships speak loudly in Stories of Us.  A closely proximate trio of females rarely touches, twining in and out of themselves in slow motion; later two men spaced further apart carry out a wary dance of courtship (or of flirty competition judging from how the choreography feels thrown back and forth as if on a dare).   More conventional duets emerge, such as that between a man and woman whose mirrored movements evolve into a series of lifts and clutches, followed by extrications that intimate the ways in which affection, frailty and attachments get cast aside in the interest of self preservation.  Two men repeat the same duet but end in a frozen kiss that turns chilling, as one half of the pair erupts in a sudden convulsion—it’s a charged metaphor, one that speaks to our late 20th century blues where images of illness and death inform sexual inevitabilities alongside pleasure and abandon.

     According to press reports, the “artlessness” personified by the program’s end is intentional, but what’s made its way to the stage feels more like process, rather than a satisfying conclusion.  The final processional march where individuals periodically break free to express their independence, speaks bluntly to themes of tradition, conformity and oppression; still, it made one think of theater games from an introductory acting class, an unworthy coda to the preceding provocation. 

Sundered Siblings

A Book of Reasons by John Vernon

Houghton Mifflin, 256 pages

 

          In her novella The Age of Grief the writer Jane Smiley notes the moment when "the barriers between the circumstances of oneself and of the rest of the world have broken down." A similar dawning pervades John Vernon's autobiographical A Book of Reasons. When his older brother Paul dies of an aneurysm, Vernon finds himself saddled with the responsibility of his sibling's estate. He must rehabilitate a house crammed with refuse and the sickening stench of dead pets and their sickening stench, as he tries to comprehend how Paul's life devolved into dilapidation.
         
Vernon
quests for reasons: how could a man perceived as an eccentric sociopath at most, fall to a state that could only be described as animalistic? Though the book's time frame is the three-month period between Paul's death and the dissolution of his estate, the author manages an exhumation of some 40-odd years in a struggle to reconstruct their lives together and apart.
          As the author contends with his grief and the practical aspects of the house's cleanup, he finds a coping mechanism: a consideration of items and commonplace occurrences. Buying a thermometer at Wal-Mart conjures a lengthy discourse on the history of temperature measurement. The purchase of equipment needed to build a simple set of stairs fuels a meditation on tools and how their evolution paralleled that of man and animals.
Vernon
reaches back through the ages to expound on how the contributions of Galileo, Pascal, Robert Fludd and many others shaped our understanding of how the present world came to be. The reader is treated to various insights ranging from how rocks were employed as hammers by Homo sapiens, to the murder of Abel by Cain with a weapon, or "tools that got to be weapons by being misused."
          It's a seesaw, really: over here, the life of Paul alongside the author's guilt, incredulity and dormant memory; over there, a timeless world with its theories, speculations and advances. Both carry a long circuitous chain of reasons or "recipes for making sense of the world's arrangements and accidents."
          The bulk of the work is unapologetically nonlinear, containing a larger ratio of science to actual memoir. Yet the author's brother is always there, haunting either a discourse on the history of internment or the origin of central heating back in 80 B.C. For readers who prefer straightforward memoir, these flights may prove a distraction from what is essentially a compelling look at sibling estrangement. But these technical flights never feel clinical or even detached.
Vernon
's wounded, probing voice holds it together nicely, whether the subject is the Big Bang, or the circumstances that led to the appearance of nine-year-old Paul's photo on the front page of the Worcester Telegram and Gazette.
          In melding science to the personal, he illuminates a universe that's become as vague to us as his brother was to him, while reminding us that context is everything. At one point Vernon says that he somehow fell asleep while the brother's life plummeted, an observation that might parallel our relation to the world. Everything is moving too fast goes the song;
Vernon
's insistence on examining the implications of the everyday is an invitation to cease all our taking for granted.
         
Vernon
entreats us with trenchant description and the use of metaphor. He describes the ritual of bathing after Paul: "This is how I cleaned myself: by lowering my body into Paul's gray opacity rimmed with a sort of soapy pond scum." The automobile looms as a vehicle of escape from the grief that the house represents, but also the seat of memory and revelation: an incident in their teens where he and Paul are humiliated by an aggressive motorist parallels the author's recent discovery of Paul's Duke Ellington CDs under the passenger seat.
          At one point,
Vernon asks, "Was his life a waste of life?" Paul's obsession with pornography, his ham radio and the Internet were "amusements...of solitude and boredom." His preoccupations with instruments of communication are symbolic of a desperate man pining for an elusive acceptance. As Paul sits glued to the computer in pathetic self-exile, Vernon
makes ineffectual stabs at conversation: "He looked up only if I stood in the doorway, and eventually I did--out of fraternal duty or to torture us both, I'm not sure which."
          And there lies regret: ultimately, Reasons is atonement for a missed opportunity, though its lack of resolution leaves not solace, but an aching sadness. Paul's disintegration becomes one more mystery of life that
Vernon, unlike the intrepid Robert Fludd or Jane Goodall, can't crack. In resigning himself, Vernon tellingly muses that "to be fully conscious of everything, of course, from the rivers of microorganisms we breathe in and out to the history of the shoehorn, would be a form of insanity." That statement's lesson - that the world and our loved ones occasionally escape our grasp - strikes to the heart of this work's disquieting power.

Couples Therapy

 

As Toni Sciarra Poynter descends the escalator into the basement of the midtown atrium appointed for our chat, a quote  springs to mind: “There will always be more chores to do, and dust will conquer us in the end.”  All around, the sounds of hammering and buzz saws permeate the air; like a marriage, the space promises a refuge but today the opposite is true, as the workmen appear hell-bent on razing the sanctuary.   We pay it no mind—neither do a pair of 70-somethings nestled in a corner nook, oblivious to all except their newspaper and each other. 

          The couple, the quote, and the construction seem apt metaphors as we discuss Sciarra Poynter’s book, From This Day Forward.  Incredulously, she takes in the wall of sound, wondering if the tape recorder is a lost cause.  Dressed in black slacks and a vivid blue top that bridges the colors of sky and sea, her curly dark hair sets off porcelain Italianate features that radiate intelligence and focus.       With the paperback release of the 4th edition (Loyola Press) slated for the spring, it’s an occasion to reflect on what spurred the writing of this, her first book, a series of meditations and musings inspired by her first year of marriage.  “I wrote the book that I needed to read,” she muses.  Initially published in 1995, From This Day Forward is a work whose probity exceeds its genre as Poynter examines the shock of the new that accompanies the institution of marriage.  In it, she turns the magnifying glass on herself and her new spouse, a man who juggles willfulness and sensitivity with a cunning sense of humor.   Marriage is work, her book purports, as it provides persuasive arguments for the importance of not losing one’s sense of individuality – after all, it takes a “you” and “I” to make a “we.”

Bartlett’s Quotations was enlisted “as a point of departure and inspiration.”  Throughout the book, sprinklings of famous truisms provide a pleasurable parallel structure, as quotes from Homer to Saul Bellow wisely enhance the author’s own trenchant observations.  Another inspiration came unexpectedly – one evening, as she awaited the arrival of her husband (the artist Don Poynter) at Lincoln Center’s reflecting pool, she took in sculptor Henry Moore’s Imaginary Landscapes.  “I started looking at the abstraction itself and began to think of it in relationship to marriage and how we spend so much time trying to fit together, smooth out our rough edges, when in fact it could be our differences that make us strong together.”

That she manages to draw these correlations isn’t surprising once you begin to fathom this Cincinnati native’s background.  Vassar-educated, (a Phi Beta Kappa English major) Poynter’s thoughtful responses to questions reflect an incisiveness honed at her day job as a senior editor at HarperCollins.  Lest you think of her as some rabid careerist, this daughter of a university professor and a jeweler spent very little time pondering her career destiny.  “As an English major, I was good at writing papers—but what was that going to get me?”  As college graduation loomed, that talent led her to a summer intensive at the Denver Publishing Institute, and an introduction to the finer points of book publishing (“good hard work and great fun”).  Luck struck within weeks of her arrival in New York -- she secured her first job as an assistant to one of the pioneers in what would eventually be her area of concentration: the booming genre of self-help books.

          Today, she’s the editor of such notables as the science writer Gina Kolata and the psychologist Alexandra Stoddard, helming works covering diverse subjects from cooking to medicine.  Despite her full plate, Poynter intends to heed the author’s call again, though her fans shouldn’t look for a redux of From This Day Forward.  The potential range of possibilities reflects her diverse interests.  One genre she hopes to tackle is the romance novel, not surprising from someone who still has unshakable faith in the institution of marriage.  Despite our society’s growing reliance on divorce as a solution to the woes of matrimony, she thinks it’s a touch premature to sound the death knell for marriage in these trying times.  “We want to believe those statistics won’t be our statistics. We yearn for the companionship and unity of joining with another, particularly when the world seems daunting and ever more complex.  And there is still a tremendous cultural/social support—or pressure, depending on how you look at it—for marriage, which keeps the drive and the dream alive.”

© 2003 Ennis Smith

 

Provocateurs

Pierre et Gilles

Robert Miller Gallery
524 West 26th Street, Chelsea
May 14 through June 28, 2003

 

          Pierre et Gilles are back in town to challenge our provincial attitudes, charm us with their showmanship, and provide an illicit frisson for good measure.    Fans will recognize the glossily suffocating kitsch these artists traffic in, though not necessarily from their pieces; déjà vu springs from the appropriation of their style by others, now ubiquitously trumpeted in magazines and billboards.  Turnabout is fair play—as it happens, that’s how Pierre et Gilles got their start. 

          The staid, loft-like Robert Miller Gallery has been transformed by the riot of color and imagery.  None of what’s on display is accident.  These artists supervise everything from the sketching of ideas to the elaborate creation of costumes, sets and lighting.  After Pierre takes the photos, Gilles uses layers of paint and glaze to achieve the hallmark effects, images that glisten as if immersed in a vat of tears.  Their visual worlds reference everything from mythology and pop culture to religious iconography—the result are highly atmospheric works infused with luridness, slickness and a whimsy that draws the viewer like a magnet. 

These techniques especially serve to enhance the blatant and subtle ways in which the artists explore sex.  Un Dimanche Apres-Midi depicts a lad in rugby regalia.  Soiled from head to toe, he’s plopped in a field of grass, fluffy crocuses and pink peonies under a stunning backdrop of sky and clouds.  The look on his face says it all—rather than smile, his lips curl with sexual suggestion, and anyone who’s seen a skin magazine will recognize his gaze as a big come-on.  Nearby, Le Petit Boxer is an out-and-out love letter to a black youth whose matte-mahogany skin gleams against a backdrop of worker housing and a bright sky of blue.  Shirtless, his eyes and teeth gleam back at the viewer in triumph, a Colossus rising above the circumstances of his place in the world.  How intriguing that the artists kill so many birds in a single image: here we get sociological commentary, the myth of the black buck and a fetishized rendering of adolescent youth.

           In L’esclave, the subject is a nude Adonis, but overt sexuality is eschewed in favor of something more mysterious.  With the beauty of a frescoed border setting off a potently red weathered backdrop, this boy’s mordant supplication recalls a work by Caravaggio.  His gaze follows a shadow, implying that he’s on display for the benefit of this spectral observer, not us.  In a corner replete with the biblical and the mythic, there is Le Jardin des Songs, in which a Narcissus-like figure contemplates his reflection in what appears to be a secluded lagoon.  Seated on, and surrounded by rocks and crags that suggest Celtic totems, a closer look reveals that some of the monoliths are in the shape of penises.  Despite these almost satiric (or satyric) details, the evocation of the otherworldly is so strong that the viewer might be inclined to replace their drier imagistic memories of the myth for this version.  Here, much of the strangeness derives from the use of contrast.  The background’s use of frigid blue encourages the viewer to imagine that rather than heat, the work’s shrouding mist emanates from dry ice.  The flushed skin tones of this complacent nude only enhances the unsettling atmosphere.

           A dark undercurrent runs through the candy-coated veneer.  The boys are beautiful, but what makes them matter is a varied sense of tragedy: Cain & Abel shows two men in waist-covering bunting backed by trees that sprout Easter lilies, while the poignant Le Mur Blanc depicts a man covered from head to foot with what initially appears to be bloody wounds.  A closer examination reveals that they are tomatoes, but the reds are so ghastly that it’s the brutality, rather than the joke, that lingers.  Le Supplice D’ixion gives us a modern Prometheus bound to a wheel in chains.  Again, the subject’s face contradicts the apparent bodily torture, gazing back at the viewer yieldingly, longingly.  

          That gaze radiates a provocation equal to the miles of flesh on view.  More often than not, what stares back (or what we observe) is something pliant and vulnerable that seems to say I relinquish control, a sure indication that the men in these portraits have usurped the role of women in the depiction of the nude.  That male gaze is often decidedly feminine: beckoning and coquettish, with no more purpose than to be adored.

Women, by the way, do have a place in this work.  Confined to one of the gallery’s alcoves, these portraits are loaded with the cotton candy colors and ornate framing that are de rigueur in the world of Pierre et Gilles.  Their female subjects are objects of burlesque, guised as vampires and saints, or in the case of Chi Chi, a man (the porn producer Chi Chi LaRue) in drag painted to look like another man in drag: the late John Waters star, Divine.   That tattooed lady (who by way, resembles the late musical comedy star Mary Martin) staring into a mirror to meet our gaze, is a creature of the circus, as is the bleach blonde trans party girl Amanda Lepore whose breast and lips bulge with silicone.  The sympathy lavished on the male subjects gets jettisoned in favor of department store mannequins, and that might well be the point.  After all, isn’t their function as display the assumed role of women in society?  But Pierre et Gilles’ women balk at fulfilling male fantasy; the gaze they return might as well be an eye roll, a self-awareness meant to cue that what’s being sold is a notion of femininity. 

          The surprise, and sticky wicket for some viewers, is a remarkable series of self-portraits.   In their hugely dioramic canvases, the viewer is served a sexual Hades all the more disturbing for its use of abstraction.  Through the use of mirrors, the artists revel in the distortion of the human form and its parts.  The effect is that of a brazenly graphic funhouse—lest there’s any doubt, that is an erect, glistening penis jutting across one canvas’ lower right hand corner.  Tricks of reflection may either multiply the male organ by four, or stretch it in such a way that for a moment the viewer isn’t sure what it sees.   

          In these works, the artists exploit the sculptural aspects of the human body, morphing their curves with mirrors and lighting into unearthly images.  As always, lustrous flesh radiates light from within—against backgrounds that go from brown to black, the skin glows like cauldrons in the night as shapes evoke totems, caverns, amoebas, and alien beings.  Indeed, the words “alien” and “sex” have their greatest union here, for with the sight of split heads, stretched tattoos on buttocks, hairy feet and legs that melt and sway, they’ve managed to create a bacchanal at the end of the world.  As these artists revel in this Middle American fever dream of what constitutes sex between men, their glee is palpable.

          In John Berger’s Ways of Seeing, the author invites the reader to choose a traditional female nude--then imagine it as a male.  He referred to the reassessment that the typical viewer would experience as a type of violence.  More and more, such violations continue to permeate the culture, typically in ads for everything from underwear to perfume.  Men are taking their place alongside women as objects of adornment and the focus of desire.  Despite their obvious homage to pop culture, the works on display at the Robert Miller Gallery go a step further by challenging our notions of sexuality and desire.  As gender fluidity continues its assault on society and our comfort zone, the images of Pierre et Gilles are welcome.   By chronicling this phenomenon, they reveal themselves to be more than man enough for the task.

The Art of the Possible

Lisa Moore, Joe’s Pub

 

          My first crush was on a pianist.  Mildred Adams was a walking china doll whose pigtail braids draped her shoulders like a shawl.  At various elementary school assemblies, sporting her delicate demeanor and rhinestone-studded princess glasses, her piano skills inspired jealousy and awe in her peers.  Later in life, I realized that my “crush” was really envy of her musical skill and the accompanying life of privilege I assumed made such a talent possible.   Grades later, another paradigm appeared in the person of the coltish Miss Barbara Doyle, she of the Joan-of-Arc haircut and knee-highs.  She took great pleasure in wielding the large wooden paddle that hung next to the blackboard, and in a barrelhouse style of piano playing that suited her musical forte: show tunes. 

          I thought of them both as I watched Lisa Moore take the stage at Joe’s Pub.  This engagement accompanied the release of Moore’s CD of music by Frederic Rzewski, titled Which Side Are You On?   The first half of the program was a suite of pieces called North American Ballads.  This is music to recall an idyllic summer’s day, or re-experience same as a modern elegy; listening to Rzewski’s rhapsodic, rapturous melodies might call Stephen Foster to mind, yet the composer upends that déjà vu with the use of jazz figures, unexpected repetitions and progressions. 

          Expectation was also challenged by what you saw.  Moore is an Aussie lilt wrapped in a petite package of curly blondeness.  But we are far from Weill Recital Hall; her dress communicated that she was here to work.  Dressed in a white shirt and black slacks, a zebra-striped scarf of gossamer banded one of her arms, perhaps a tip off that this would not be your grandmother’s recital. 

          It goes without saying that holding an audience with this kind of music requires an artist possessing not only sensitivity, but also a crackerjack technique.  My seat afforded a rare view of the physical nature of such an undertaking.  Again and again I was struck by how aural lyricism could be contradicted by the visual explosiveness of the playing, notably during a repeated ascending passage that progressed with subtle variations, from sotto voce to pounding pianissimo.  An intricate section presented an astounding visual of the pianist’s hands.  As one crouched over the other with the fingers of both extended, the conjoining of Rzewski’s composition and Moore’s pianism made me think of diaphanous jellyfish.  The suite’s most remarkable physical moment occurred in Winnsboro Cotton Mill Blues, during a run of bass chords that begin with  standard fingering.  As the chords broaden, so too does the use of appendages.  I had to reassure myself that what I was witnessing was true: elbows out, body hugging the piano, Moore banged out the climatic chords with her forearms. 

          After a break, Moore re-emerged bedecked in a Pradaesque morning coat; the armband was now an ascot.  The piece was De Profundis, based on excerpts from Oscar Wilde’s same-titled journal of his arrest and subsequent imprisonment for “gross indecency.”  Rzewski hasn’t created a mere piano accompaniment: in addition to speaking and playing simultaneously, the musician taking on this work must master various eccentric vocal affects, singing, whistling, drumming and the playing of a car horn! 

          Lest you think these elements serve as gimmickry, quickly it’s revealed that their usage provides apt aural metaphors for the parlor of Wilde’s mind in this world of an artist brought low.  The gift comes in the juxtaposition of the elements as abstractions play against the formal, as antiquity gets amplified by the now.  The piece swings between musical pastiche particular to the era and sequences of vocal/piano or vocal/percussive syncopations. 

            The music works as subtext – those chaotic passages communicate the difficult moments when those “bats in the belfry” threaten to overcome Wildean rationality, making the textual account all the more moving.   Rzewski sets the intelligence and the finesse of the writer like a jewel, lifting the words out of the period and hurling them into the here and now.  The symmetry of text and sound allow the listener to journey into the minds of every man and woman who ever served time as Wilde’s observations about imprisonment, solitude and their effects on the mind takes on universality. 

          In this piece (originally written for a man) Moore communicated a Brechtian air.  Certainly no similarity exists between her and Wilde, or any man.  Yet, this journey on the wheels of Wilde’s words provided as much excitement and drama as any play you’ll see this season thanks to her dulcet cadences.  Again, the physicality on view enhances – towards the end of this twenty eight minute piece, Moore will slam down the lid of the piano, creating a symphony composed of finger pops, hand drumming, whispered words and chants, to recount the intricate process by which Wilde struggles to maintain his sanity, yet observe and chronicle his current reality.

          Bookending the work is a line that goes something like this: “This is where the artistic life leads a man.”  That statement's resonance is multifaceted: recounting the persecution of a writer who rejected the prudery of Victorian society echoes the recent blacklisting of the Dixie Chicks and Sean Penn, artists who refused to succumb to pro-forma patriotism.  A civilized world that would condemn Wilde, yet less than a hundred years later play host to the unmistakable vision of Rzewski and the artistry of Moore left this listener/viewer pondering the myriad fates in store when the worlds of art, inspiration and morality collide.