Wednesday, July 3, 2013

making meaning

During the performance "The Trash Project" in Austin in 2009
“Art-making is an experiment in conjuring up the possibilities that are hidden in the habitual and the familiar.”

I thought of this line from Harvard’s 2008 report called “A Vision for the Arts” while watching the film “Trash Dance.”

A documentary directed by Andrew Garrison and featuring choreographer Allison Orr, “Trash Dance” takes its name from a project Orr created in 2009 featuring employees and vehicles from Austin’s Solid Waste Services Department. Orr spent a year with the men and women who collected garbage, dead animals, and recyclable material. She accompanied them on their routes, asked them questions about their lives, and learned about the multiple jobs they held and talents they possessed.  She wanted to both learn about the people “who pick up my trash” and make a performance that shed light on their unique lives, movements, and skills. Their show, called “The Trash Project,” happened only one time on an abandoned airport runway in Austin for an audience of a couple thousand people. Thanks to Garrison’s film, thousands more are now viewing highlights of that evening as well as the poignant and at times hilarious moments that led to its creation.

This is one way to describe the film I watched at the AFI Silver last week, but it fails to capture the many ideas and questions that it set in motion. Orr is both a gifted listener and a personable, charismatic leader, traits that enrich her process and her creations. One of the first scenes shows her interacting with the employees as she describes “The Trash Project” to a large group of men. Orr’s enthusiasm and sincerity pose a stark contrast to their suspicion and disbelief. As she perseveres, the men shift as well. Ultimately her cast consists of 24 men and women and 16 of their vehicles. Before we see their performance, Garrison’s cameras follow them through their routes as well as their daily lives: we see a single father raising a young girl, a woman’s passion for boxing, and Orr trying to explain to some employees what contemporary dance is after they ask if she dances ballet. Her reply is, “It’s done barefoot.” In a director’s statement Garrison writes: “Orr told me 90% of her job, at first, is to listen to people. Not just observing their movements, but hearing their concerns—about their family, about work and how they view the world. At this point I knew that if she actually did that, there would be a film.”
performers bow at the end of "The Trash Project"
“Trash Dance” is a stunning film, and the night in Silver Spring when I saw it, people in the theater spanned several generations. In some ways the crowd the film attracts can be as eclectic as the people in the movie itself. I started to wonder if this was one of Orr’s goals: to explore how a performance can open up different ways of getting to know one another, of listening to stories, and of fostering a sense of connection. As she writes in her choreographer’s statement: “I wanted to make a dance that offered a more fully human picture of the people who work as ‘trash men,’ and I wanted the audience and the performing employees to feel more connected to each other once the performance was over.”

There are moments in the performance that are breathtaking: a crane that emerges from a vehicle operated by Don Anderson rises like a snake emerging from a charmer’s basket. Anderson works the machinery with the grace and precision of an origami maker folding a sheet of paper. His duet with the vehicle transforms the apparatus into a flying crane, stunning and dramatic.  Another highlight of the performance is a solo by Anthony Phillips, a Litter Abatement employee whose dancing fuses Fred Astaire with Lil Buck.

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Last weekend: Ojai; This weekend: ADI

Summer breezes wafting through a concert of music by Lou Harrison while scents of eucalyptus and gardenia hang in the air…

I cannot think of a place more idyllic than Ojai for a summer festival: it combines the climate, setting, and curiosity that make for a deeply inspiring and enriching event. Although this year’s Ojai Music Festival only lasted for four days its sensorial memories--acoustic, visual, kinesthetic, tactile, and olfactory--will last for years.

photo from my seat in the Libbey Bowl during preparations for an afternoon concert
The land around Ojai is sprinkled with flowers and trees that infuse the air with delectable scents, and the weather is warm without being sweltering. In the evening, when concerts takes place in a partially outdoor venue called the Libbey Bowl, temperatures drop to chillier, but still comfortable degrees. The Libbey Bowl reminds me of a smaller version of Wolf Trap: most of the audience sits within the raked auditorium, but a lawn area is available--and ideal--for those with young children or those who prefer to picnic. The seating capacity of the interior and lawn areas of the Bowl is about 1,300 (Wolf Trap’s capacity is 7,028 total: 3,868 in-house; 3,160 lawn).

Some of the audience members who come to the Ojai Music Festival, an event that has happened each summer since 1947, have been attending since the 1940s. Some are local residents, others come from nearby cities like Santa Barbara and Los Angeles. Still others are residents of the east coast and the Midwest who come for the change of scenery and distinct artistic programming (several events triggered the question: is there a “California” or “west coast” aesthetic?) Whether local, regional, national or international, these patrons ranged from lawyers to retirees, critics to producers, and philanthropists to professors. I immensely enjoyed a couple brief conversations with Dr. Susan Foster, author of 2010’s “Choreographing Empathy,” who is a professor a UCLA and a patron and supporter of the festival.

A late-evening concert in Ojai: John Cage's 4'33" performed by Yegor Shevtsov at a toy piano in the Libbey Park Playground  
This summer marked a significant first: the choreographer Mark Morris was named the festival’s music director. His appointment meant that his company, Mark Morris Dance Group (MMDG), performed on stage during one of the evening concerts, and he also added a solo called “Ten Suggestions” (originally performed by Morris and here performed by Dallas McMurray) to the last day of events. From listening to conversations with audience members it seemed that people appreciated adding dancers to a festival that traditionally consists of composers and musicians.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

education and entertainment

Kristina Windom, Kate, and Stephanie Walz backstage at THEARC

Yesterday’s show by the Washington School of Ballet (WSB) was both a trip down memory lane and a depiction of how much the school has evolved. The performance took place at THEARC Theater, a venue that didn’t exist when Mary Day ran the school, but Day’s incredible teaching and attention to detail are still alive and vivid.

Several of the current WSB teachers were students of Day  -- Kristina Windom and Stephanie Walz pictured above -- and preserve her legacy while also preparing students for the changing landscape of companies today. Kee Juan Han, the school director, does a stellar job of honing students’ abilities and producing dancers who fuse exquisite technique and breathtaking excitement: when Albert Gordon is dancing it is hard for me to see anyone else.

Albert possesses an uncanny maturity considering that he is still a teenager. His calm demeanor belies his extraordinary dancing. His turns are marked by his ability to effortlessly coast his rotations and then finish in perfectly balanced positions. His leaps yesterday at THEARC caused gasps in the audience. The fluidity of his lines and his impeccable phrasing make me think a lot of David Hallberg (which makes sense since Hallberg's teacher is also Albert’s teacher: Kee Juan Han.)

Even though I have never met him, I have watched Albert’s dancing both at the school and at various showings, and his performances are amazingly consistent for such a young artist. My guess is that he has been as committed to his training as his teachers have been.

Watching yesterday’s performance I thought about Keesha Beckford’s letter about teaching that was picked up from her blog and published by Huffington Post. Her letter resonated for all the reasons that I enjoy watching a dancer like Albert: he has achieved such technique and artistry through the mutual dedication of student and teacher.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

exploring a range of choreographic ideas

Prentice Whitlow, Ashleigh Gurtler, and Maya Orchin

On May 2 I was in Brooklyn to see “Spring Movement.” One of the choreographers selected for this showing of choreography and performance was Maya Orchin, a student I met at George Mason in 2009 who moved to Europe after graduating from GMU in 2010. She shared some of these adventures abroad here and here.

I was particularly excited to see her recent work because she was a wonderfully inventive choreographer as a student at GMU and I imagined that her exposure to other ways of performing had enriched her singular approach to dance-making. Her trio – performed by Maya with fellow Mason alumni Ashleigh Gurtler and Prentice Whitlow was fantastic. Now, 10 days later, it remains one of those pieces that I keep thinking about each day and enjoying all over again.

It began with a charge of energy, Maya and Prentice tumbling and rolling, and even though there were fluctuations in this energy as the piece evolved, there was never a dropped moment. My focus and interest were steadfast.

Sunday, May 12, 2013

Today at the East Building

Today marked the opening of the Ballets Russes exhibit at the East Building and a quick walk-through revealed that it is an impressive look at this company, especially the artists and conversations that surrounded and contributed to its innovative productions.

Today also marked the closing lecture of a series called “Out of Site in Plain View: A History of Exhibiting Architecture since 1750” by Barry Bergdoll, The Philip Johnson Chief Curator of Architecture and Design at The Museum of Modern Art, and a professor at Columbia University. 

Every week I attended, Bergdoll delivered a talk that not only revealed a connection between the development of design and techniques of display but also made me think about connections between architecture and dance. In the first lecture Bergdoll spoke about the impossibilities of “collecting” architecture: how exhibitions transfer designs intended to be viewed in their environments to objects that are framed and hung. The correlations with performance and choreography seemed clear: these forms are often preserved or “collected” by being transferred to film, photographs, and written words. When Bergdoll spoke about architecture being exhibited through its simulations, I considered its resonance with dance.

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

companies, colleges, and careers

How do dancers navigate the multiple avenues available when they graduate from high school? There are decisions to be made about company auditions, college applications, and exploring a gap year before enrolling at a university. Last night the Washington School of Ballet presented a discussion about dancers’ futures to a packed audience of students and parents. One of the first ideas offered was that it’s important for a dancer to demonstrate the difference between being assertive and being aggressive.

It was this statement of Septime Webre, artistic director of The Washington Ballet, that made me realize this conversation was going to be different. It was not about platitudes and clichés, not about following your dream and hoping for the best. It was real, informative, and eye-opening.

The discussion was organized by Kristina Windom and moderated by school director Kee Juan Han. Guest speakers included Webre and Susan Shields, a choreographer, professor, and longtime partner to Mikhail Baryshnikov when she performed with the White Oak Dance Project. The thread that linked the speakers and audiences was the Washington Ballet, not only the school where Shields trained, but also a company now led by Webre and an organization that is spearheading ways of preparing dancers for careers in the 21st century. As Shields said candidly, 20 years ago there was a certain stigma about a dancer thinking about going to college, or a ballet-trained student considering a career in modern or contemporary dance.

Times have changed.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

visceral or vicarious

people gather to get into Pink Line Project's Cherry Blast in 2010

Hearing one of your own bones break is a sensation that’s not easily forgotten. 

It happened more than a decade ago when I was rehearsing with a dance company and landing from a jump. Called a Jones fracture, the break split the wider end of my 5th metatarsal from the bone’s shaft. When I tried to get up and walk, the sole of my foot felt viscous instead of solid. Recovery involved a year on crutches, an operation to insert a screw to keep the bone together, walking with a cane, and discovering a newfound appreciation for what it means to move.

Monday, February 4, 2013

I got a little riled up...

Ronald K. Brown teaching a master class at Strathmore

When a DC critic suggested that Ron Brown’s work is shallow, I got a little riled up.

I had seen the performance she reviewed, as well as a master class Brown taught the week prior (pictured above). His artistry, generosity, and ability to merge and meld vocabularies and ideas are phenomenal. I left the performance as inspired as I left the master class.

So when I read The Washington Post article I wrote a comment. The paper decided not to post my comment so I share it below. I’m doing this to open a dialogue about what we are seeing and saying. On Tuesday, tomorrow, I will be discussing this performance and review with GWU students who were also there.

I have some guesses about what they will ask and wonder if anyone has some ideas about how to discuss these topics:

1. Why does a critic equate Black artists’ work with “comfort food” and “porridge”? Does she do this with ballet companies and white artists as well?

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

departures from the staid

Ian Svenonius

Some thoughts on artists and events by Ellen Chenoweth: 
Inspired by Kate’s writing and with a number of performances and experiences rattling around in my brain, I wanted to capture a few of them.

1. I’ve been noticing a welcome willingness to upset traditional formats.  Jack Ferver in a work titled Mon Ma Mes, taking place at the French Institute Alliance Française in New York as part of APAP, opened the show by admitting that he had actually forgotten about this performance, was running late because he had been teching for another show, and was therefore going to open the evening with a Q&A session rather than dancing to allow himself some time to get into the mood.  It was deliciously unclear how much of this text delivery was real, and how much was just messing around with the audience, likewise later stories involving crushes. 

The writer Junot Diaz must be drinking from the same water.  A couple of months ago, I saw Diaz deliver an electric reading / performance / lecture at ARC’s Facing Race conference.  Diaz came onto the stage and announced that he was incredibly nervous, and was therefore going to take questions from the audience as a way of warming up and dealing with the nerves.  This straying from the traditional format sent a crackle of excitement through the assembled audience of 800 or so. 

2.  Ferver’s Q&A session was a stacked deck though. 

Sunday, January 20, 2013

the magnificent seven

some reflections  on artists, curators, writers, and producers changing our cultural landscape

 1. Watching parts of “How to Lose a Mountain” Friday night inspired me to think about moments and people who enrich my thinking about art and artists. DC is a tricky place for innovative ideas. Unlike other cities where I have lived and visited recently – New York, San Francisco, Philadelphia -- it doesn’t have hubs for dancers and performers to come together and share ideas. So when I saw this work by Cassie Meador and her incredible cast, and listened to reflections by those who gathered, I was deeply moved.

Meador’s performers --- Matthew Cumbie, Sarah Levitt,  Paloma McGregor, Shula Strassfeld, and Zeke Leonard (who wasn’t present but who has already established a strong role in the production) -- are deeply committed, exhibiting a combination of strength and vulnerability that is captivating. They are individuals who possess a deep sense of dedication to one another. Meador incorporates their movement, thoughts, songs, into a multi-sensory experience: the cast’s words and movement merge and meld with the music and set. The showing took me through a journey of stories and images. Some of these are more tangible than others, but I savored those moments when there was an idea that was suggested rather than stated. At times I was not exactly sure where a person or scene was headed, but the material itself was so rich that there was a sense of excitement and curiosity generated by the interactions.

The staff of Dance Exchange gathered a diverse group of people to see and discuss the work and this discussion was similarly generative. Beautifully moderated by John Borstel, the conversation followed Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Process. There was a huge range of ideas and reflections on the showing, and the conversation kept exploring, going deeper and deeper into ideas about the work.