Paloma in BA

A few weeks ago, Paloma Herrera and I sat down to talk about her training and career, about moving back to Buenos Aires, and about what she thinks has changed in the world of ballet and in the wider culture. Our chat is now up on the DanceTabs website.

Paloma Herrera outside of the Museo de Arte Decorativo. (photo by me)
Paloma Herrera outside of the Museo de Arte Decorativo. (photo by me)




Rashaun Mitchell Gets Cosmic
Silas Riener and Melissa Toogod in Rashaun Mitchell’s Light Years. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Rashaun Mitchell, formerly of Merce Cunningham, created the new Light Years, which premiered at New York Live Arts last week, for four of his friends.  Here’s my review, for DanceTabs.


Paul Taylor branches out…

Sunset 3menOn Thursday, it was announced that as of next year the Paul Taylor Dance Company will be functioning on a new model, one that takes into account Mr. Taylor’s advancing age and the ephemeral nature of dance. In other words, to ensure the company to survive, Taylor has decided to diversify its repertory, opening itself to the works of other modern-dance choreographers. The plans are still very vague—choreography by whom? Performed with the blessing of whom? But the idea is that Taylor should become a kind of repertory company for modern dance, with a strong base in Taylor’s works. The most similar model I can think of is Alvin Ailey, but even there, the focus is on the new. (Or, as the commenter below points out, perhaps the model is the Limón Company, which presents “programs that balance classic works of American modern dance with commissions and acquisitions from contemporary choreographers.”) The company’s name, too, will change, to Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance—rather clumsy, but there it is.

The good news is that the troupe is doing well. According to the Wall Street Journal, sales are up 27 percent since 2010. Another positive note is that live music, something which has been missing for years, will be part of the equation. (Though to what extent is still unknown. According to a press conference, musicians will be used “where intended by the choreographer,” whatever that means.) Money for the transformation will be provided by the sale of several works of art by Rauschenberg from Taylor’s personal collection—the two artists have known each other for over fifty years and have collaborated on several occasions—with a matching grant from the board.

The details will become clearer over time. What’s sure is that Taylor is entering a new era, and thinking about the future, something that modern dance companies are facing with increasing frequency. The issue as always is whether to close up shop or to continue. And if the latter, how to make a company viable without its founding choreographer. Merce Cunningham decided that the only solution was to shut down the company but keep the school and a licensing arm. Trisha Brown’s company announced last year that Brown would be stepping aside due to health problems, while her dancers would undertake a three-year “farewell tour” under the tutelage of two company veterans. The troupe’s ultimate fate, however, was not fully spelled out (though the signs point toward something along the lines of Merce Cunningham. Martha Graham is soldiering on, conserving (and modifying) its Graham rep and commissioning new works. Tanztheater Wuppertal recently announced that it would begin acquiring new works and auditioning new dancers as of 2015.

One can’t help but feel a certain sense of loss as one of the great modern-dance choreographers contemplates the end of his own creative life, and a future beyond the horizon line.

For more information on the announcement, check out Susan Yung’s blog, The Ephemeralist.

A Year Ago…

A year ago I got to meet one of my childhood idols, Mikhail Baryshnikov, and interview him about his art collection. My heart stopped a little bit each time he opened his mouth to say something. It was, and still is, a highlight of my writing life. Here’s the piece that came out of that conversation.

And one of my favorite works from his collection,  Nikolai Lapshin’s Novgorod.


Peter and the Wolf

Peter (Macy Sullivan) in Peter and the Wolf. © Jacklyn Meduga.
Peter (Macy Sullivan) in Peter and the Wolf.
© Jacklyn Meduga.

Once again, Works and Process is putting on Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf. This year’s show is more elaborate than previous incarnations, with a full staging by Isaac Mizrahi, and choreography by John Heginbotham (formerly of the Mark Morris Dance Group). Mizrahi has put together quite a cast, including his friends Maira Kalman as the duck, and Gus Solomons, Jr. as the Grandfather.

Here’s my review, for DaneTabs.

And a short excerpt:

“But – and here lies its lasting power – it doesn’t talk down to its audience, musically or dramatically. The harsh realities of life are not papered over with saccharine melodies or unrealistically happy endings. The duck dies as a result of her foolishness. Near the end, we are reminded of her plight as we hear her unhappy quacking in the wolf’s belly. And Peter is told, rightly, that he, too, could have died.”

Mark Morris’s “L’Allegro” Returns

Lauren Grant and Maile Okamura in Mark Morris's "L'Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato." Photo by Kevin Yatarola.
Lauren Grant and Maile Okamura in Mark Morris’s “L’Allegro, il Penseroso ed il Moderato.” Photo by Kevin Yatarola.

As part of the spiritually-minded “White Light” festival at Lincoln Center, the Mark Morris Dance Group is performing Morris’s L’Allegro, Il Penseroso ed il Moderato, from 1988. The ebullient work is spiritual in the best sense: it lifts the spirit. Made in the first year of the company’s residence at La Monnaie opera house in Brussels, it reflects the choreographer’s delight at the resources at his command: a spacious stage, singers, full orchestra, endless rehearsal time. Twenty-five years later, it still feels fresh. Here’s my review, for DanceTabs.

And a short excerpt: “Throughout the piece, the mood and focus shifts from darkness to light, from the joys of nature to the hubbub of urban life, from animal instinct to human folly, architecture to philosophy. In one of the dance’s most blissful passages, set to the poem “As Steals the Morn Upon the Night,” ribbons of dancers trace lines across the stage….The rhythm of their motion remains steady. We feel implicated in the dance.”

On Looking— “Way In,” at Danspace

WayIn1(c)IanDouglasIt’s intriguing and slightly uncomfortable to watch a non-performer take the stage among highly-skilled practitioners. Claudia La Rocco is a critic and poet who has lately forsworn reviewing dance (mainly for the New York Times) in order to collaborate with artists she admires. In Way In, at Danspace Projects through Nov. 16, she joins forces with Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener—members of the final generation of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company—and the production designer Davison Scandrett. The piece is a four-way meditation on its own creation, in which the collaborators’ reflections have been woven into the final product. Among other things, Way In presents a theatricalized version of the act of watching and thinking, which, as a critic, is what La Rocco does. But then, it’s what we all do when we go to a performance. So we are all implicated. We are all Claudia La Rocco.

And yes, for this reason the piece is self-referential and at times self-indulgent. Mitchell, Riener, and La Rocco seem to be in the self-discovery phase of their artistic formation. How could it be otherwise? I can only imagine how paralyzing it must feel to move forward after working with Cunningham, one of the most compelling and conceptually challenging dancemakers of the twentieth century. To develop one’s own artistic identity with the near-certainty that nothing one produces will approach his level of mastery. To break free of his ideas and his approach to the body. The easier choice, by far, would be for Mitchell and Riener to devote themselves to passing on Cunningham’s works and technique to others. They’ve chosen the thornier path.

Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in Way In. Photo by Ian Douglas.
Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener in Way In. Photo by Ian Douglas.

Cunningham dancers will always look like Cunningham dancers: inhumanly strong, physically articulate, lucid, taut. The moment Mitchell and Riener set their bodies in motion, a powerful physical intelligence blazes forth, blinding us to everything else. To see Riener rise to an impossibly high relevé, on the very tips of his toes—so that he almost seems hover a few inches above the floor—is to wonder at the mechanics of the human body. All the same, as choreographers they’re still feeling their way in the dark, discovering how to put this hard-won prowess to use. What is it that they want to say?

The transition from critic to performer is equally prickly. How does a writer’s intelligence—and La Rocco is a fiercely intelligent writer—translate into the ability to create compelling content, to give free rein to her imagination, to push beyond inhibition? The critic’s function is to watch, analyze, evaluate. In Way In, La Rocco formalizes this internal process, articulating it into a stream-of-consciousness commentary closely resembling a critics’ scribblings: “airplane arabesque,” “too fast for language,” “uses the foot to promenade.” At first, the phrases are divorced from the action, left to stand alone as the dancers do little more than embrace or reach dramatically toward each other from across the room. Only later do we see the actions she describes. When we see them, we remember her words. The descriptions are apt. As with Mitchell and Riener’s technical prowess, La Rocco’s intelligence reveals a kind of virtuosity, a virtuosity of observation.

Claudia La Rocco's exorcism in Way In. Photo by Ian Douglas.
Claudia La Rocco’s exorcism in Way In. Photo by Ian Douglas.

But La Rocco does more than provide commentary; she has skin in the game. As a performer, she has to create a stage identity. (Davison Scandrett, the fourth member of the quartet, provides a sort of absurdist counterpoint, eating potato chips, rolling on and off the stage on a small platform.) Wearing flattering jeans and a tight black top that accentuates her décolleté—she is a good-looking woman— she plays the role of ironic, sexy guide. She holds up placards emblazoned with random comments. People snicker, in that way people do when they want to show that they get the joke. She struts around sultrily, staring intently into audience members’ eyes. Though I’ll admit I found this to be the clunkiest part of the show I also admire her courage. It’s not easy to step out of the shadows and be judged alongside the likes of Mitchell and Riener.

Later, as the dancers change costumes behind a bright pink curtain, we “overhear” a complicated negotiation between La Rocco and Scandrett. The performance space is bisected and overhung with pink lace, further enhanced by pink lighting. What does the pink have to do with anything? Not much that I can discern, but it’s striking and a little trashy. Their argument has marital undertones: “I need to understand what you’re saying,” one of them says. “It’s a little concept-y, I don’t like it,” the other pushes back. Then they play a faintly aggressive game of marbles. In another section, they comment on the dancers’ movements and give them cues: “do something else” “no, sorry” “go”. Each time one of them speaks, the dancers interrupt whatever they’re doing and start over again. During a passage of tricky partnering, La Rocco claps, sardonically. She’s not too impressed.

Even so, when the dancing gets going, it tends to obviate the commentary. Buried beneath layers of structural deliberation lies a portrait of great intimacy. Clasping Mitchell in an upside down lift, Riener rises into an arabesque, then pirouettes, slowly. The complication of the maneuver is reminiscent of Cunningham. Riener places his hand in Mitchell’s mouth and pulls him into a forward tilt, then leads him around in a slow promenade. Their bodies, extravagantly twisted and splayed, fit together like two halves of a whole. Foot against foot, head in the crook of an elbow, calf over shoulder, cheek to cheek. Through experimentation and improvisation—if I try this, then you can do that—the two dancers have laid out overlapping paths across each other’s bodies. At first they wear black unitards (a variation on the Cunningham uniform), then pink lace coveralls that match the campy décor, and finally almost nothing, just tiny silver briefs. The act of exposing, of showing the line of the torso, of the foot, of the thigh and the rear end, is the unspoken subtext of Way In. The dancers expose, we watch; the dancers know we are watching but ignore our gaze. It’s all part of the game. But at times the layers of knowingness melt away. Virtuosity and beauty have a way of trumping ideas.

Herein lies the unresolved tension of the piece. How much of what they do is sincere? To what extent are the performers in it? How much is presented to us in quotes, with a shrug, from a distance? The music, a barely audible soundtrack of Baroque opera intermixed with cheesy movie music, doubly underlines the atmosphere of artifice. A certain archness hovers over the scene.  It’s hard to shed the critic’s skin. La Rocco is fully aware of this conflict, plays with it, but it’s never resolved. Maybe it has no resolution. The ending becomes a kind of exorcism. Standing at a microphone that echoes and deforms her words, La Rocco utters a series of ponderous phrases, which gradually melt together into an indistinguishable mess of sounds. But before things descend into aural chaos, we hear a key phrase:  “Critics are not artists.” La Rocco begs to differ. Way In is an artistic manifesto, a beginning. The question is: where do they go from here.

You can read Claudia La Rocco’s “Rehearsal diary” for Way In here and an interview with all four collaborators here.

Bill T. Jones and Co. Take on the Canon (for DanceTabs)


The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in "Ravel: Landscape or Portrait?" Photo by Paul B. Goode.
The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in “Ravel: Landscape or Portrait?” Photo by Paul B. Goode.

Here is my review of  the program of new works by Bill T Jones at the Joyce, in the company’s thirtieth anniversary season. Both works are set to “important” chamber music (Ravel’s String Quartet in F Major and Schubert’s Death and the Maiden),  performed here by the excellent Orion String Quartet.

And here is a short excerpt: “Mr. Jones holds his own, in part by not attempting to follow the music in any literal way. The choreography, which is described in the program as being made in collaboration with Janet Wong (Associate Artistic Director) and the dancers, has a pleasingly free, earthy, all-over-the-place quality. Each dancer has a story to tell and is allowed to do so; the stories, in turn, are artfully subdivided into smaller units (phrases) and re-distributed across the stage, thereby becoming themes, patterns, motifs…. The repeated phrases act as signposts, giving a sense of structure, much as the repeats do in a piece of music.”

I’m eager to hear what other people thought of the program…

Baryshnikov and his Art Collection (for DanceTabs)

In December, I went to see “Art I’ve Lived With,” a small show of Baryshnikov’s art collection. Baryshnikov showed me around himself, and we talked about the paintings. In a way, it was like leafing through a family album; each picture had a story, and captured a moment in time.

Here is the piece I wrote for DanceTabs.

And here is a short excerpt:

“He is no longer the boy with soft blue eyes that graced the bedroom walls of many a girl in the 1980’s, including my own. Somehow, he has grown wirier, tighter, more serious with age; what one senses more than anything is a sharp intelligence, an unwillingness to waste time. With a quick nod, he was down to business. This little collection, he told me, began with a simple purchase in Paris back in 1975, at the Galérie Proscenium on the Rue de Seine, on the left bank. Misha was twenty-seven then, and “the dollar was strong and I had money in my pocket,” he says, nonchalantly.”