Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Dance: Fall For Dance Festival

Now in its fifth year, the Fall For Dance Festival, featuring ten nights of six programs of four to five companies each for the absurdly low price of $10 per ticket, is popular enough that obtaining those tickets is infuriatingly difficult. I've had increasingly worse seats each year (this was my third; read about my second here), and wish that City Center would beef up their server for the flood of frenzied internet purchasers logging in at 10:59 the day that tickets go on sale; because of their poor system, the September 19th show, featuring Merce Cunningham, sold out before I could log in. And so, I bought tickets for each other program, and herein follows a discussion of what I saw.

I knew nothing about Shen Wei walking into the show, but was thrilled to see the company perform a highly structured modern piece called Map, set to a gorgeous Steve Reich soundtrack. The choreography was rigorously musical, a meditation on the workings of hips and shoulders (I sometimes wonder whether this kind of choreography appeals to anyone other than dancers themselves—without narrative or prettiness to grasp onto, unless one has a vested interest in studying what the body itself knows, this kind of work could appear impenetrable). With a threatening, almost cancerous tone, as the dancers' gray bodies broke into clusters, the piece fell apart at the end, as the dancers walked around with their arms flailing. The Fall For Dance Festival has a somewhat regular structure for each show, generally opening with a big modern piece. BeijingDance/LDTX is another company I knew nothing about, but their piece, The Cold Dagger, was equivalent to Map; set to a beautifully ugly composition by Henryk Górecki, with a large group of dancers dressed in black and white floor-length gowns (men and women both wore full skirts), the bodies recalled chess pieces in a violent struggle between groupthink and isolation. Again, to a dancer, the piece was dramatic, stunning, rich in physicality and, more than Map, socio-politically meaningful, but perhaps still elusive, masked, or even truculent to the uninitiated. I think that [bjm_danse] Les Ballets Jazz de Montreal's Les Chambres des Jacques, with its cobbled soundtrack ranging from Vivaldi to the Cracow Klezmer Band and its fresh-faced dancers clad in white, flouncing peasant shifts with colored bodices was much more accessible, while the choreography was equally if not more interesting for the audience and challenging for the dancers (more the men than the women, who seemed to be showcased less). The staging, utilizing square spotlights to highlight different groups of dancers at different times, added to the visual appeal, but ultimately, the piece was perhaps too light, too musical, too fun, too empty. Here I am in danger of insinuating that dark is deeper than bright, but I will come back to that thought in a bit.

The FFD program has space enough for smaller companies to do smaller pieces; there are a number of solos, duets, and trios sprinkled in that give perhaps lesser-known dancers quite a hefty audience. Sheron Wray (whom I perhaps not unfairly mistook for Camille Brown, who performed in last year's festival) danced Harmonica Breakdown; like Brown's piece last year, the music was so good that it upstaged the dancing (which was fine, but a bit repetitive). Kate Weare Company showed The Light Has Not the Arms to Carry Us, an amalgam of a solo and a duet that didn't fit together at all—while the solo was very gut-based (think Martha Graham), the duet was cooler, more cerebral (think Merce). Both Kate (in the duet) and the female soloist danced beautifully (if Kate was a bit more rigid), though Kate's male partner seemed rather too lunkish to carry off her choreography; ultimately, there was little to bind these pieces, and little for the audience to hold onto for later.

Fang-Yi Sheu's Single Room, a disturbingly too-erotic piece, showcased Sheu's acrobatic flexibility, balance, and control (think Circque de Soleil) Sheu is a beautiful dancer with particularly gorgeous feet, but the porno-sax music and the masturbatory writhing against the table (an obvious structural metaphor for a bed) made the piece seem rather cheap. Contrast Sheu's cool and effortless gymnasticism, though, with something deeper: Talia Paz in Love. With the spindly, erotic elegance of a long-legged spider, Paz completely hypnotized the audience so that we barely noticed how repetitive (and frankly, uninteresting) the choreography (and music) were. It didn't matter, though; I would pay money just to watch Paz walk down the street. Her body is perfectly refined; she seems to have control over every last nerve ending, surging with a lush je ne sais qua even to the surface of her skin. Here is a woman who defines visceral dancing: she is everything I want in a dancer. Little surprise that she comes from Batsheva Dance Company.

Two crowd pleasing male duets came from Richard Siegal/The Bakery with The New 45 and The Lombard Twins with Lombard Play Piazzolla—The Dance Concert, but as far as I'm concerned, neither lived up to their promise. With liquid, animation-like whimsy (as in, I've only ever seen cartoons able to move this way), Ayman Harper and Mario Zambrano started strong; the music was a jazz suite and their groove was unstoppable. . . until they (or should I say their choreographer) ran out of steam; here was a piece that needed a strong editor to cut out all dead space in between the maddeningly fantastic dancing. The Twins, by contrast, were over choreographed, and desperately needed a shot of the funk that powered the Bakery dancers. Perhaps never has such physically virtuosic dancing left me so cold. These guys are completely ripped and have complete control over every micro-movement, but they are soulless automatons. Even their choreography had soul, but these so-called hip-hop/street-inspired dancers could not get down (as Robin Dunn always says during her hip-hop classes, the funk is in the floor—you've gotta get down low to be funky). And, on the topic of not being able to get down, Keigwin + Company performed a very disappointing rendition of (my least favorite of the Elements series) Fire, in which a very non-funky Julian Barnett replaced the very funky Samuel Roberts in Walk it Out, turning what, with Roberts, seems a modern embrace of hip-hop into a modern critique of hip-hop—how surreal to see that happen.

Each FFD program includes a traditional dance of national heritage, and I will admit that these are not usually my favorite. The all-male hula group The Gentlemen of Hälau Nä Kamalei performed an indolent piece called Kahikilani, which tells a surfer's love story (involving much more chanting than dancing) without any of the vigorous jumping and squatting I expect from Polynesian dancing. The Pichet Klunchun Dance Company performed Chui Chai, another storytelling piece, in which five females, weighed down by ornate and heavy gold costumes showcased the painstakingly slow traditional dance of Thailand, mannered, imperial, and decorative. This dance, which relies on hand gestures and flickering eyes to tell the story, is ill-chosen for the City Center space, where no one but the front section of the orchestra and perhaps the first rows of the dress circle are close enough to note these subtle details. For the rest of the audience, the piece only became momentarily dynamic with the introduction of a male dancer, in lightweight black pants and tee shirt, who was actually free to move, and who moved with the beautiful, loose freedom of a modern dancer (his choreography, oddly, echoed the movements of the Shen Wei dancers). While theoretically the juxtaposition of the traditional and non-traditional dancing seems interesting, I felt only an anti-imperial insistence, certainly not the actual intention of the piece. (More on this later as well.) Similarly, the traditional Indian dancing of Madhavi Mudgal in Odissi: PRAVAHA was too gestural and mannered to be at all captivating (when I see dance, I want to see whole bodies moving!) Mudgal enlisted the younger Arushi Mudgal to dance alongside her for the piece's second half, and she was definitely more fun to watch—her movements sharper, deeper, executed with more bounce and zest—but ultimately, this kind of movement is not athletic enough, doesn't engage with space enough, and again, insists on storytelling (this time perhaps less narrative, but still an "invocation," an offering, to Shiva (the Indian Lord of Dance), rather than a self-centered (and I mean that in a positive way, a centering-in on the self, on one's own body) exploration or expression). Had she not brought along a group of excellent live musicians, I would have had nothing on which to focus, except for the sensual insinuations of young Arushi's green hips.

I will stop here to discuss Garth Fagan Dance's From Before, even though this modern, New York-based company does not fit the traditional heritage dance category. This is because From Before is a contemporary study of traditional African and Caribbean dance, a piece that looks to be what Merce Cunningham might distill after studying traditional African movements. I will admit that my skin bristled when reading about this piece (the program's notes read, "extracting the essence. . . discarding ritual trappings, allowing the movement to speak for itself); the phrase "ritual trappings" is rather strong, potentially offensive. But as soon as the (all black) cast came onstage, in their neon colored, liquid chrome bodysuits, in the deep squats and tilted angles of Horton and Dunham techniques, with rolling and pulsing pelvises and ribs, their bodies what God intended when God made bodies (if God made bodies): in a Godly image. Though the choreography lagged here and there during short pauses and breaks, this was the best FFD performance of the year, with the most stunning dancers and the most physically-captivating choreography. Other "traditional" companies should make a study of this kind of distillation; Garth Fagan succeeds at what Pichet Klunchun seems to have been pushing toward: making traditional movement relevant.

One thing that keeps traditional dance irrelevant is its adherence to ancient, backward class and gender relations; I already intimated the erotic servitude of women implied in Mudgal's piece, and railed against the imperialism celebrated by Pichet Klunchun, whose dancers are so weighted down by gold threads and crowns that its no wonder they can only move their hands and eyes, and so slowly at that. But ballet is another traditional dance that always infuriates me, both in its inequality (highlighting two principal dancers, while the rest of the company functions as movable scenery) and its hyper-traditional treatment of gender. The two pas de deux I saw this year, one from the Houston Ballet and choreographer George Balanchine (Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux) and one from the Oregon Ballet Theatre and choreographer Christopher Wheeldon (Rush), were equally tedious in their reconstitution of the heteronormative man-spins-woman, man-lifts-woman, man-supports-woman-while-woman-lifts-leg pas de deux formula. Wheeldon has failed to impress me before, but between these two pieces, his was the more interesting, if only because his dancers wore more contemporary black and blood-red unitards than the flouncy, BeDazzled costumes of the Houstonians. Wheeldon's choreography, in fact, could have been interesting if his dancers performed it more staccato; they seemed to be more interested in being pretty than vamping it up and creating real drama.

But even more offensive than the pas de deux was another Balanchine piece, Pithoprakta, performed by The Suzanne Farrell Ballet. Pithoprakta is a kind of modern ballet, debuted in 1968 and set to Iannis Xenakis' eponymous music from 1955. Now. For reasons I've just established, I like to see ballet being broken more than anything else. Think, in 1968, what Balanchine must have been feeling, watching someone like Merce Cunningham dancing to the music of John Cage. Pithoprakta is his response: a lewd caricature of what his backward, pea brain thought Cunningham et al. were doing. But this flat-footed parody of modern dance fails to please fans on either side of the modern-ballet divide: it's awkward, ugly, snarky, and still manages to get mired in ballet's worst tendencies (the showcasing of principal dancers, the stiff, inorganic torsos, the preening, emotionally vacuous prima ballerinas who can barely crack a fake smile). What a travesty. Balanchine's inside-jokey choreography, which attempts to satirize modern's interest in full-body contact and spatial play, only serves to show how little ballet people understand modern dance, and the choice of Xenakis' grating score discloses that the man little understood the potential for beauty in modern music as well.

Dare I continue to rail against ballet and discuss the unintentional farce that was the National Ballet of Canada's Soldiers' Mass? This all-male piece, premiered in 1980 in the Netherlands is, particularly in these times when our country actually is at war, conceptually embarrassing: a theatrical, naive paean to a kind of heroism that doesn't exist, never existed, outside, perhaps, of literature and film, the only places where war can be noble, honorable, lofty, and fought for ideals. Everything about this piece—the choreography, the staging, the costumes, the healthy, corn-fed bodies of the dancers—is a fantasy, Dickensian in its elevation of suffering, of sorrow, to a meaningful end. Contrast this delusion with Hofesh Shechter Company's Uprising, another all-male (modern) dance that discloses, in its raw, primal physicality, the reality of war: the darkness, the turpitude, the sickness. War is violence, and violence is perversion. Shechter is an Israeli who danced with the Israeli Batsheva; while I cannot praise Batsheva and Artistic Director Ohad Naharin's GAGA method highly enough, and while the palpability of Shechter's message is an effect of his GAGA training, I must also express my certainty that Shechter's cold-eyes look at war, at fighting, comes from being an Israeli. It is difficult to watch this piece and not think of checkpoints, of questioning, of bullying. It is impossible not to think of America's own flirtation with secret torture and abuse of prisoners. It is impossible not to think of renegade terror cliques: small groups of terrified young men with nothing to live for but the hope of tremendous suicide, taking out as many "enemies" as possible. And in the tussling, random grouping, and escalated slapping Shechter here displays, we see illustrated with perfect clarity how war happens: by confusion, by ignorance, by rage, by snap judgments, by the escalation of the thump-passed, and it's gritty, and it's scary, and it gets you in your belly, where it sinks you down (while the Canadians are aiming for your heart, to pull you up). This is where I come back, as promised, to my implication that dark is deeper than bright. Perhaps I've decided that it is.

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