In October 2009, I called the premiere of Punk Yankees “an invitation to a conversation.” The evening-length work by Chicago-based Lucky Plush Productions recently returned for two days, June 8 and 9, at the Dance Center of Columbia College Chicago. If memory serves — a notion the piece interrogates directly — Punk Yankees wasn’t altered much from its original iteration. But its general thrust remained the same and it’s more a conversation-starter than ever. (Full disclosure: I performed with Lucky Plush before Punk Yankees was created.)
The most significant difference was that the revival’s cast was smaller (six dancers, versus eight) and, overall, stronger. Which isn’t to say that the premiere was handicapped by weak performances. But the addition of Hubbard Street Dance Chicago alumni Francisco Aviña and Benjamin Wardell, for example, lent precision tools to the work’s excavations: What is originality in choreography? Where is the line between artistic interpretation and alteration? Who “owns” a movement, its creator, or the dancer who executes it? Both? Neither? Thorny questions all, to which there are no definitive answers.
The most poignant scene in two acts is a long pure-dance section, backgrounded by projected video of static or interference, shot through with the colors of the rainbow. (Video design is credited to John Boesche and Jocelyn Kelvin.) Having learned in earlier scenes where certain movement phrases were born — the video for Michael Jackson’s “Thriller” and Twyla Tharp’s The Golden Section are among more than 60 credited sources — we watch as the cast incorporates them into a swirling stew, in which they seem both liberated and melancholy. “We can do anything with our bodies,” the collage-ography suggests. “Within each of us is a wealth of Western dance history.” But in overtones, there are whispers: “Where are we? What are we doing?”
As in 2009, the show started with a post-show discussion. Sitting in a semicircle of folding chairs, facing the audience, LPP artistic director Julia Rhoads and the five other cast members “took questions” from the crowd. (None were actually asked; the performers simply mimed listening, then gave scripted, often humorous replies.) Arranged as they were for the “Echad Mi Yodea” from Ohad Naharin’s Anaphaza, the dancers slipped from the “talkback” into that well-known piece of choreography…and then another. And another. And still another, skipping down the aisles of a dance-history grocery store, grabbing movements off of the shelves and throwing them into the Punk Yankees cart. “This feels like [José] Limón,” says Kim Larimore Goldman, as she executes a short phrase. “It is Limón,” replies Timothy Heck.
Original music by Stefen Robinson, a.k.a. Yea Big, mirrors this stage environment with mash-ups made from scores for the source dances. (Fourteen of these are earlier Lucky Plush works, further amplifying the chamber’s echoes.) Within the first 15 minutes of Punk Yankees, the can of worms is wide-open.
Rhoads and her collaborators set boundaries for this work of investigainment. In a joking exchange toward the beginning, Goldman and Meghann Wilkinson discuss whether or not to broach the subject of appropriation by whites of movement that originated in non-white cultural contexts. Black choreographers Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey are mentioned but it’s explicitly decided, onstage, that Punk Yankees won’t go any further into all that. This despite the fact that Beyoncé’s appropriation of choreography by Bob Fosse and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker — both white — is the most centrally positioned pop-culture reference in the work, as well our point of entry.
It’s a discomfiting moment in a well-crafted, funny and smart work of dance-theater. That Lucky Plush began this conversation in 2009, continued it in subsequent works and revisited it with this revival of Punk Yankees shows dedication to the subject. Declination of its more political and racially charged proposals might not annul the piece’s viability. But that probably depends on your point of view.
To help me hash all this out, I enlisted artist Baraka de Soleil. The founder of D UNDERBELLY, a fluid network of independent artists of color, recently returned to his native Chicago following more than two decades developing movement, music and performance in Brooklyn and Minneapolis. We attended Punk Yankees together and debriefed afterward via Google Chat; what follows is a partial transcript of our conversation.
Zachary Whittenburg: So, about the show: We talked afterward about how one creates a performance that includes some sort of survey of, or reference to, history. And where the “lines are drawn” — how far one decides to take the inquiry. How do you feel Punk Yankees approached this challenge?
Baraka de Soleil: Challenge: I think that is the key word. I feel that, in some ways, the “history” that was chosen to be represented was not challenging. Understandably, this chosen history was subjective, was a creative exploration and a personal take, in some regards.
Right. It’s not, in the end, a textbook or a history lesson — it’s a piece of choreography, the work of artists. Does that, in your opinion, let them “off the hook”? Why or why not?
I don’t think it lets one off the hook, because the creative choice was to address history — the history of appropriation. Punk Yankees is a representation to its witnesses of what may be considered valid, affirmed; which histories we should uphold.
And to mention Karole Armitage as the choreographer of Madonna’s “Vogue,” but not Armitage’s source, the vogue scene in New York…
And yet, as I asked last night: To what extent does Punk Yankees deserve credit for beginning the conversation, for toppling the first domino, if you will? Is it more important that these issues be brought to the table, even if incompletely discussed or assessed? Or should one just stick with the existing paradigms and conventions if questioning them isn’t done fully or responsibly?
It definitely should be brought to the table. But I think this work is savvy enough, and able to take the risk of going further than just toppling the first domino.
You mentioned some people last night you felt were missing at the table: Bill T. Jones, Ishmael Houston-Jones. I brought up Josephine Baker. Reggie Wilson was another.
I don’t know that name.
Marlies Yearby choreographed Rent.
Why do you feel she should’ve been included? What’s her place in the lineage that Punk Yankees sought to investigate?
Her technique is about release, incorporates postmodern, contemporary and sometimes pop-cultural references. She is alongside the history of Ronald K. Brown, Ishmael, and very much in the postmodern scene, very much a part of the development of contemporary technique. Again, this goes back to choice. Inside the landscape of the evening, multiple choreographers were brought up, some perhaps not as well-known as any of the above-mentioned choreographers. Why include those choreographers and not these? Again, this goes back to subjectivity.
The common thread seemed generally to be choreographers with whom the cast had had personal experience or contact, with some exceptions. Would you agree?
Your question has me wondering about how the piece brought up Pearl Primus and Alvin Ailey, given the common use of these choreographers in discussion of black contributions to dance history. I wondered what specifically the cast’s experiences were with those choreographers.
Did those references feel like tokenism?
Looking at the landscape in retrospect, the personal choices about inclusion, to me, it did feel like tokenism. It felt like the easy answers. There was talk of the history of appropriation in regard to white people taking from black culture, then the choice to draw a line and not go further into that.
Right, at the beginning. Now, I also wanted to talk about that second-act section, with the “rainbow static” video, that I felt was sort of melancholy.
There’s a kind of excitement in the first act about picking apart these divisions.
About investigating lineage. But then, as the work continues, it shifts in tone. There’s a sense of loss of certainty, of wandering in the dark without sequential, accepted lineages and clearly defined categories.
The aftermath of what happens when all the distinctive flavors of dance have melded into a hodgepodge of unrecognizable parts.
And what’s lost when interpretation becomes alteration, on a fundamental level.
And this is where I felt the piece was most provocative: Where it opened up possibilities for reflection, and to look at appropriation from multiple perspectives.
As you said, it’s a sophisticated group of artists.
Yes, they are a beautifully sophisticated group of dancers.
Who might be more comfortable with starting a conversation than with owning its implications.
Is that a question?
I’m just wondering if you agree.
I believe there was possibility to challenge us, themselves and the act of appropriation. This is not easy work, but I believe it is the work when you are dealing with subject matter as potentially volatile as this.
And as we were discussing last night, subject matter that’s inherently and inescapably political.
It is about power, as it relates to appropriation, especially in the Beyoncé example.
I would add the word exploitation. With appropriation comes exploitation.
As it relates to the choices of “appropriated” material explored inside the performance? Yes. In the act of addressing Beyoncé’s choices to appropriate Fosse and De Keersmaeker for her own creative work? I believe there was an amount of exploitation. Now, I realize that part of the conversation we have been having is not about what I witnessed, but what I would have liked to experience. And that is not fair, in some regards, to the work or to Lucky Plush.
A good point.
I do want to return to the craftsmanship of the work and its execution. But Beyoncé: Why her?
It’s not a new thing to appropriate dance?
Exactly. There is a long and exquisite history of appropriation. Why begin with her?
True although, as a point of entry, it’s accessible, and I thought the joke about how Beyoncé “keeps giving us material to work with” was funny.
That is where I find the concept of exploitation integral to this conversation. We have exploited Beyoncé as one clearly visible figure who has publicly been criticized for appropriation — but not others?
She comes up later.
Yes, but there is no developed energy around her. She’s just a name, projected on a screen, with a reference to Karole Armitage and to “Vogue,” not vogueing. Clearly, Beyoncé was the “mark” and, I feel, an easy mark.
And you feel Beyoncé as such was exploited?
Yes, but understandably so. As you say, she was most accessible and easily identifiable. Lucky Plush gave us an opportunity to build this conversation from a pop-cultural reference, and allow for the possibility to dig deeper into, What does it mean to have ownership of a dance? Of moves? Of physical language? What makes the language of a choreographer distinctive? To dig deeper into a place, in Beyoncé, that is so clearly appropriation; to look exactly at the steps and vocabulary that she took from choreographers Bob Fosse and Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker; to witness the complexities of developing, of creating dance in relation to the work of other postmodern and contemporary choreographers as well as to Lucky Plush’s own brand of movement.
To that last point, “Lucky Plush’s own brand”: You and I both noticed the influence of Joe Goode, although in a work specifically about borrowing ideas, his name didn’t come up. There’s tension, if you’re “in the know,” between what you’re seeing and what’s being named that, I think, speaks to this broader issue in Punk Yankees of what is and what isn’t on the table.
You said it clearly. I don’t have more to say on it other than we, as artists, need to be as transparent as possible with work like this. Sometimes there may be people we miss in the work. There may be some people we may not even know have influenced the work. But I think of Joe Goode as a highly influential artist in the field of dance-theater — his way of sharing stories, of putting together phrases.
Especially in this city. I wrote a story for Time Out Chicago about how deeply felt Goode is in the “Chicago aesthetic.” However — and this is what interests me — the lifting of specific dance “moves,” from Tharp or Ailey or whomever, was identified up front. The qualities of the work that reminded me of Joe Goode were less easy to define and pin down. They weren’t easy to locate in specific moments. The use of video during the single-file line to the microphone, maybe, but that’s an exception.
I first came across Joe Goode and his aesthetic in Minneapolis, over a decade ago. You’re right: Some identifiers were clear and others more subtle. Perhaps he’s an influence that was not identified because the examples were so subtle. Athough I also sensed it in the phrasing of the dances Lucky Plush identified as “their own.”
Punk Yankees seeks to be final and specific about itself, I thought, but inside territory that’s exceedingly difficult, if not impossible, to navigate.
It comes up in the work in regard to memory — how memory is intangible and part of the provocative act of appropriation in dancemaking. How one remembers the influences, where the step comes from. How it informs an aesthetic.
And what one chooses to remember.
Indeed. The choice to acknowledge, affirm or recognize those influences. Again, it’s easy to do that when the step, the move, is easily recognizable as another’s bit of choreography, as another’s aesthetic. This is not as easy when it’s more subtle or not accessible, through video or other means of recording history. When the influence lies beneath the surface.
Absolutely. Thanks so much for helping me dig beneath the surface. Like I said, the piece might not be completely successful, but it invites an important conversation.