Monday, December 20, 2010

end of year insight

A reflection by Caroline Yost who is a senior in the School of Dance at GMU:

I feel there’s a progression the college level dancer endures over the course of their four years of study. When you’re a freshman, your main objective is to please your professor; if Professor X told you “Good, Caroline!” then you did your job for the day. Professor X is the authority figure and he or she already had a career so what they say must be true. In my freshman eyes, any words coming of any professor’s mouth were golden. I held no one’s opinion, not even my own, above any of my professors. When I was a freshman I whole-heartedly believed that if my professors thought I was talented, then I was. If my professors thought I was going to be a professional, then I was. I failed to take any responsibility for my craft or my career.

Naturally, when I received my first technique class “B+,” Intermediate Modern Dance, I was horrified. I couldn’t fathom how if I was doing everything correctly, attending class, and pleasing my teacher he could offer me anything short of an “A.” I found myself recalling all the verbal confirmations I’d heard in the semester, sizing up that number with the awful “B+” staining my transcript.

This class taking strategy lasted through my sophomore year. With a different palate of teachers I found myself hitting dead-ends left and right, trying to please those around me. And still, my mentality failed to change.

end of year lists

Over the weekend I was in New York City and picked up the "Arts & Leisure" section on Saturday night to see the annual list of highlights in performances and exhibitions.

Reading the critics' analysis I thought about a question I had put on a Dance Appreciation test a couple days before to motivate students to think about the conditions and reception of certain artists: "who is the greater dancer - Fred Astaire or Gene Kelly?"

Some students wrote poetically: "Trying to choose between Astaire and Kelly is like trying to choose between day and night: we need both... They were excellent dancers and the best in their own right. Picking favorites is determined by the personality of the person being questioned. It cannot be denied that both dancers broke boundaries, set standards, and deserve their thrones in the kingdom of dance mastery."

Other students described their different approaches to choreography, the camera, and movement: "Gene Kelly used a variety of camera techniques... Fred Astaire was seemingly effortless and had a certain swagger... In my opinion the best dancer would be a fusion of the many great characteristics of both men... I think the greatest dancer is Michael Jackson."

The response that really made me smile was: "The answer to this question reveals the personality of the answerer. Fred Astaire was a representation of graceful aristocracy and Gene Kelly was slightly rougher around the edges. Myself being more of a jock, I prefer Gene Kelly."

So it comes as no surprise that in The New York Times a similar pattern occurred: Alastair Macaulay wrote about Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet, Alina Cojocaru and David Hallberg of American Ballet Theatre, and Matthew Renko of The Suzanne Farrell Ballet as performers who left lasting impressions. For notable choreographers, Macaulay cited Liz Gerring and Pam Tanowitz. For impressive collaborations, he wrote about Sara Rudner and Dana Reitz.

Critic Claudia La Rocco listed Keely Garfield, Wendy Whelan, Ralph Lemon, Alain Buffard, Rob List and Bruno Beltrao as "top-notch" artists. She also mentioned people who were creating in the 1950s and 1960s and whose works were revived, re-created, or shown on film in 2010: Trisha Brown's "Walking on the Wall," Yvonne Rainer's "Trio A Geriatric with Talking," the documentary "Simone Forti: An Evening of Dance Constructions," and Anna Halprin's tribute to her husband which was performed in September in Portland.

Looking at these two lists, it is not so much the differences in people but the massively different perceptions of performance that intrigue me. I am fascinated by how much our preferences expose our subjective understanding of the world, our desire for things to be a certain way, and our particular beliefs about the role of dance and the arts today.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010


The brouhaha set off by The New York Times review of “The Nutcracker,” the follow-up by the critic, and the eloquence of Jenifer Ringer’s reaction on The Today Show exemplifies the way communication has changed in 2010: an artist can not only respond to what a critic writes, but can use many avenues – the internet, print, and television - to transmit their messages. Does this reveal how criticism is no longer confined to an authoritative voice - the expert or arbiter of style - but can engage in a dialogue that includes multiple perspectives and responses? What does this mean for the future of dance and the role of dance criticism?

I am impressed by the insight Jenifer Ringer, a New York City Ballet principal, brings to the situation and her appearance reminded of other dancers who have articled their ideas through writing and teaching. Christopher d’Amboise, also a former New York City Ballet principal and now part of the faculty at GMU, wrote a book almost 30 years ago that contains beautiful revelations about the nature of artists, friendships, and dancing. Here is a passage:

“I have heard people try to describe the feeling of dancing, and it usually ends up sounding religious or mystic. One finds oneself unintentionally using phrases like ‘another world,’ or ‘the ultimate experience.’ The more sincere the attempt to explain, the more apparent is its ineffability. We do not have the proper words for it. It is as if all the senses were fulfilled, and all the desires realized. All fears and disappointments disappear, or rather they are blanketed by the overwhelming force of the positive…”

Saturday, December 11, 2010

December 2010 Concert at GMU

Watching Edwin Aparicio’s last week and the dancers of GMU last night I’m thinking about the visceral nature of dance. It challenges our notion that life can be captured and transmitted through images and recordings, and insists on experiences that are direct, immediate, and fleeting. I don’t think any recording of Aparicio’s dancers and musicians can replicate their energy or the electricity of watching their artistry take flight. I got chills. Last night, as the students who are majoring in dance at GMU presented choreography by their classmates and faculty, my eyes were bathed in different notions of beauty.

Sunday, December 5, 2010

absolutely gorgeous

Legs flicker in rapid rhythms that dive and cut between the singer’s voice. The contrast between the plaintive sounds and driving patterns conjures a feeling of mixed emotions, irreconcilable feelings that burn within each of us. Watching Edwin Aparicio’s concert “Alma Flamenca” today at the Gala Theatre, I was transported by the beauty and eloquence of the dancers and musicians. It was one of the best performances I have seen in DC and reminded me of a flamenco performance I saw just after September 11, 2001 when Noche Flamenca performed in Connecticut. I was living close to New York City at the time and the flurry of the dancers’ feet contrasting with the sinuous flow of their arms and backs seemed to capture the conflicting emotions in the audience, the sadness, anger, grief, and rage that was palpable at the time.

If the audience today seemed more subdued, the dancers on stage were not. The performance was transcendent. It opened with a trio of gorgeous women who commanded the stage with their footwork and fans, then shifted to a more somber solo choreographed and performed by Defne Enç. Dressed in black, she embodied a sense of calm strength as she stalked across the stage and poured passion into virtuosic phrases. The duet that followed, “Seguiriyas” by Edwin Aparicio and Genevieve and Guinn, brought out one aspect of flamenco that makes me cherish this dance form: the women and men take part in the dancing that is aggressive as much as they share the phrases that are more subtle and subdued. I was particularly impressed by Guinn’s performance because Aparicio is a stellar artist who makes it hard to watch anyone else on stage. She matched his power in her own exquisite way and their duet turned the stage into a richly woven fabric of music, dancing, and duende.

In a book I am reading about flamenco, Goethe is quoted as saying: “Duende… a mysterious power that everyone feels but that no philosopher has explained.”

It is the spirit that seems to overtake a great flamenco dancer and it was visible today. It is another element I love about this dancing and music: it’s not only mesmerizing to watch – as bodies and faces paint shapes and emotions on the stage – but it also deeply human and intimate. The dancers appear propelled by internal forces and allow for some play between control and risk, structure and freedom.

This may be why I find it so effective as communication. Although the performance was planned and choreographed it also valued creativity and spontaneity. The artists transmitted messages and ideas directly from body to body, dancers to musicians, and performers to audience. It was a moment that defies explanation. It must be felt and lived.

For more information about Edwin Aparicio, check out this terrific interview from DCist.