I spent a lot of time at the theater this year and I feel some sort of wrap-up is warranted. What follows are thoughts on a few shows I attended, in no particular order:
Trisha Brown Dance Company at the Dance Center
Most of the respect I felt for Trisha Brown came directly by recommendation: Her name was conspicuously absent from my formal training (which, in the grand tradition of American ballet schooling, was almost wholly anti-academic) but she would pop up occasionally out in the world, at the contemporary museum, in books on 20th century art and in other credible locations. In fact, the character of passing mentions of Brown’s work was so strikingly different, had such opposite concerns (it was implied) from those who were held up as titans of the form, that I efficiently learned to regard her as an artist outside of choreography without ever having seen her work or being told to give it a try.
What I realized not long into her October program at Columbia was that it was suddenly very clear why I had had the impression of her that I did, but that she was actually an artist very much inside of choreography. So inside of it that, in sublime moments, the fetishistic perfectionism of her constructions simply falls away, for she has so effortlessly created and taught an internal logic that the work begins, casually, to speak. On all kinds of subjects, in a kind of wistful, unhurried, peacefully curious language, punctuated by easy silences coming off question marks like steam coming off tea. Which isn’t to say that the four works I saw–Accumulation, Foray Forêt, If you couldn’t see me, and PRESENT TENSE–were all gossamer triviality. Trisha Brown is an intellectual powerhouse, and she isn’t content to merely entertain herself with her own cleverness. Her dancers, as avatars for herself, prod with ruddy fingers at the spongy confines of space, memory, structure and time. By “inside of choreography” I also mean that, more than anyone in the field, her sources of inspiration are chosen democratically and on merit alone. She’s not, unlike so many dance artists, gliding along a parallel stream of relative relevance, where dance cannot be foundationally influenced by work in other media. I felt like I worked harder at her show than at any other I attended this year, and I left feeling rewarded for it.
Armitage Gone! Dance, also at the Dance Center
First of all, I love the programming at Columbia. I’m a huge fan. I preview damn near the entire thing. Phil Reynolds and Bonnie Brooks are great, the production team rocks, and I’ve just had so many huge experiences there that I always get excited about going.
Karole Armitage’s program–Ligeti Essays and Time is the echo of an ax within a wood–was a disappointment. I had seen the duet from echo at Dance Salad in 2005 and loved it. I actually got so excited about seeing Megumi Eda again, who danced it with William Isaac, that I gushed about her on Flavorpill only to find out in my program that she was no longer with the company (Isaac was, however, and was undiminished in the role). False advertising on my part–as well as unwarranted excitement, as it turned out.
It was the ordinariness of the evening that puts it on this list. The first ten minutes of Ligeti were an assassination of my happy anticipation. The “triumphant return of the New York punk ballerina” from the edgy European opera scene was no more remarkable than any other rechauffé-Forsythe post-Balanchinism perpetrated by American-born “experimentalists” clogging spring and winter mixed bills from coast to coast. The leafless silver tree upstage right in Ligeti (décor by David Salle, natch) said it all: “I worked in Europe.” It didn’t help that it seemed, on the Dance Center’s floor stage, like a Canal Street knockoff of Michael Simon’s design for Wings of Wax. The Soft White flourescent tubes lining its edges could, if Salle were being mean, be commenting on Armitage’s work itself: Cold, with the lack of character of all mass-produced things, and delineating unnecessary borders. Eda was a salvation to her work (as she would be to anyone’s). Flesh-sock shod and even sporting the black belts of Agon, the dancers executed instructions too-obviously unconcerned with nuance. Leonides Arpon was having a blast, as one gets the impression he would in anyone’s work, and Frances Chiaverini is close enough to the cusp of sure command, but these small victories came off as unsolicited, maybe even unnoticed, by Armitage. A few colleagues left at intermission, although I did not.
(Open question: Why the softcore crop of Matthew Branham’s headshot in the program? The bottom edge cuts both nipples into greyscale hemispheres in a portrait smaller than a wallet photo. Isaac and Arpon are showing some major glisteny collarbone, sure, but then there’s Ryan Kelly in a black button-down. Just wondering.)
Goat Island Performance Group
I didn’t go to the final performances of Goat Island at the MCA. Stupid stupid stupid stupid stupid. It sounded right up my alley, though–I drew a giant charcoal of the Hagia Sofia before I went to Istanbul, fer chrissakes–and their short film on last year’s Dance for the Camera program, It’s Aching Like Birds, was terrific. Congrats on a storied run, Goats. I’ll no doubt be hearing about what I missed for years to come.
Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company at the MCA
I think I should have seen something else by BTJ/AZDC first. I had read that Chapel/Chapter was difficult even for some longtime fans, and while I didn’t dislike it as much as my boyfriend did, it came short of convincing me that I had done myself a disservice by not being more familiar with his work. The plainchant-sung-trial-transcripts-as-score, gridded video floor, oh, the entire inside of the MCA’s house lined with crimson curtains: It all pointed to the kind of high-concept, finish-fetish dance theater I can really get into, and yet it was such a conceptual amoeba that none of the formal innovations had anything around which to orbit, thus becoming gimmicks (albeit depressing ones, not at all the happy fun gimmicks we all know and love). Erick Montes’ performance as the dog got all the attention–it would have been nice if Jones’ contributions had had the same kind of energy and clarity of purpose. Some of the large cast gave great performances–the musicians especially–but much of the dancing was phoned in. I’m sure I would have had at least as much difficulty staying connected to material that was both thankless and repetitive. For such an aggressively-message-oriented piece, precious little of it has stayed with me. I’ll definitely continue to see the company whenever possible and do the requisite catch-up on video in fits and starts. I don’t question his stature as a choreographer of substance and consequence.
Jonathan Meyer and Julia Rae Antonick at Link’s Hall
It was a Khecari Dance Theater show, with three other works on the bill and a different guest sharing the program each night, but what really got me excited was Project #4, the 15-some minute duet that began the program and titled the evening. The two of them pair brilliantly, drawing out of each other their best qualities and bravest ideas. It was exciting, fresh, rigorous, lucid, surprising and very, very difficult. It was also the first time that I had seen Link’s reconfigured as a performance space, which immediately shocked me into wondering why I had never seen it before. (Granted, I don’t see everything at Link’s–who could?–and it’s been a venue since long before I ever just-so-happened-to-end-up in Chicago.) I was gushing afterwards. It reminded me of the kind of spirit that Christopher Tierney’s work came roaring out on the bare back of (let me know if you’re making any new stuff, Chris, and send me video).
I lifted my seven-year embargo of The Nutcracker and attended opening night of the Joffrey’s production at the Auditorium last Thursday. I’ve been calling it “absolutely average” all weekend, but it would’ve been so easy for me to dismiss that this should, considering the source, be taken more or less as a compliment. I thought Robert Joffrey’s party scene was terrific, one of the best I’ve seen. (Pull that quote if you like.) The dances were believable as spontaneous, or I should say as much as is possible in in a two-act ballet. More to the point, it read directed in the way a successful play’s scenes are, in the sense that everyone is on the same page about what’s happening, who and where and why they are, with maybe even a hypothetical internal dialogue or two in there as well. I don’t know if this is the result of painstaking dramaturgy or just inherent in the performance of choreography that is confidently constructed, but the entire ballet was supported by it as an introduction to the evening. Some of the expert traffic patterning in the big family dances, with childrens’ and parents’ dances playing out simultaneously and in cool counterpoint to one another, lent the scene an intellectual parallel narrative, and something that’s an aesthetic joy for anyone at any age. It really succeeds as being family-appropriate in the best, most inspiring sense of those oft-weaponized words. The other Thank God in Act I was when the dolls (a classic Harlequin, Columbine and two Revolutionary War soldiers) were given steps beholden to consistent fantasy physics. I cannot stress how annoying it is to watch production after production of The Nutcracker wherein the dolls seem to be some unconsidered shape-shifting entity sometimes mechanical and sometimes not. It’s one of the more challenging tasks for anyone approaching the ballet’s many tropes and I hate to see it shied away from, or flippantly disregarded. The heavy foreshadowing provided by the addition of hourly clock chimes leading up to the battle scene’s actually-composed-by-Tschaikovsky midnight toll is gratuitous and disrespectful to all of the musical transitions (not just silences, Bob) it preempts. There’s more excitement to the (Arpino?) snow pas de deux than in the Joffrey’s Grand Pas, the Sugar Plum Fairy’s variation especially lacking a sense, as most do, of a tremendously juicy opportunity and not an impossible, suffocating blanket of expectation. It got me thinking, actually, to when I can recall the Sugar Plum getting her just, erm, you-know-whats. The solo danced by Gelsey Kirkland in the late seventies, perhaps. I guess Balanchine’s isn’t bad. And Joffrey’s is far better than Nureyev’s, by a long shot (which for a POB étoile must feel exactly like the dark side of success).
At the risk of sounding crass–his memorial service was only days ago–Gerald Arpino’s reworked snow and flowers scenes were (although I admit not having seen the dances they replace) just the unwarranted, unintegrated tartings-up I had feared. Like I’ve been saying, it’s absolutely average. Act II’s divertissements somehow encompass all the things you non-specifically expect them to be: Mother Ginger is a puppet, even–a beautiful puppet puppeted with care nonetheless, but a disappointing alternative to the drag-vamping on stilts usually occasioned out of a nelly, middle-aged danseur or local celebrity to wake you up just when the fatigue begins to set in. They’re all nice dances, though, and the opening-night cast–whose names I can’t mention because our usher was out of programs and my press kit, for the first time, was devoid of one–did dutiful service to a pleasantly undesperate Trepak and sight-gag-free (albeit still politically questionable) Tea. The Mirletons were conservatively fashioned as a winsome, unison womens’ trio that, given current fascinations, seemed unavoidably a WASPy and prudish Single Ladies (Put A Ring On It). The Spanish solo borrows a little too heavily from Kitri‘s stock, fan and all, but is nonetheless enjoyable, and the finale is simple and well-done, a sorbet as a last course. It delivers. It does what The Nutcracker is supposed to do, and that’s accomplished even less often than it’s rarely attempted. Too many productions, burdened no doubt by the mandate that they provide at least half a company’s earned annual revenue, reek of desperation or, worse yet, abandonment of what is essentially a great opportunity for a choreographer’s fantasist side to intriguingly explore the only classical ballet that can be considered common knowledge.
I saw a lot more than just the above-mentioned peformances–I wrote forty previews at Flavorpill this year–and no doubt references to others will bounce off of what I see and cover here in the future. In one way or another, though, these were the experiences that reached me the most as a viewer. Oh, shit: I forgot Peter Carpenter’s The Sky Hangs Down Too Close for Lucky Plush Productions at Galaxie. Well, that should get its own post.
It can’t be stressed enough how interested I am in reading your comments–please feel free.