Sunday, December 30, 2012

the mutable influences of life

Visiting Philadelphia to see the exquisite Dancing Around the Bride exhibit brought into focus not only the rich possibilities of artistic interactions, but also the ways that DC suffers from a lack of informed writing about current ideas in dance and performance.

The day after my Philadelphia trip I read Sarah Kaufman’s article about the film Anna Karenina. Ignoring for a moment her didactic tone--the way she situates herself as a critic who advises companies and choreographers on how to behave and create—I was struck by her confusion about current dance-makers. She describes the film’s choreographer, Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui, as an “experimental choreographer.” She cites his use of arms and hands in the film’s ball scene as unique and innovative. If she were familiar with his 2005 performance with Akram Khan called zero degrees, she would know that this vocabulary--viewable in the first 30 seconds of this excerpt--is part of an aesthetic approach he has honed for years.  

Does Kaufman use “experimental” to imply he is working on the fringes, using new or different ideas? If this is the case, she exposes how unaware she is of current trends in dance and its interdisciplinary influences.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

yoga and performance art

Kelly Bond and Melissa Krodman in "Colony" at the Capital Fringe Festival

Each Saturday when I roll down my yoga mat and begin a practice with a teacher in DC I do not know where I will end up. Of course there are familiar poses/asanas and certain patterns that link my movement and breath, but I also enter into unexplored territory. I savor a sense of discovery when I notice places in my muscles--and my mind--that are resistant and tight. Every week there's different information and some days the practice ends with a feeling of exhaustion, other days exhilaration. Daily shifts in the way I feel and how my body responds make the journey indeterminate, its outcome uncertain.

Recently I've been enjoying practicing next to a friend who shares my interest in performance and the arts, particularly relational aesthetics. Our conversation this morning touched upon ways in which visual artists and theatrical performers are tapping into similar trends: a current interest in immersive theater coincides with a resurgence of events in museums and galleries that make interaction a vital component in the realization of an artist’s creation. 

This blog post brings together some of these ideas…

“Breaking the fourth wall, and involving audience in a piece of theatre, has subsequently been used in ways that have different social poignancy to The Shining, and sometimes in ways that do not push against dominant values. Some shows have now achieved commercial success in New York by capitalizing upon the excitement of participation as a selling point. Yet even while it has become more common to position the audience as something other than passive spectators, choreographers have nevertheless continued to find critical tractions in different ways of engaging an audience. This has included working with the social values that are relevant to local contexts beyond the East Village scene.” 

Reading these sentences by Doran George--shortly after seeing Deborah Jowitt’s review of Dionysus in 69 and attending a symposium on immersive theatre in Washington DC--triggers my interest in "social poignancy."

The more I see approaches to performance that reconfigure artist/audience relations–David Zambrano’s Soul Project, Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, National Theatre of Scotland’s Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart–the more questions emerge. Does the incorporation of audiences into performances acknowledge the ways in which we interact with our technologies today, meaning frequently engaged, constantly available? Or does it speak to a desire for connection and intimacy in a time when screens are a primary source of communication and interaction?

Monday, October 29, 2012

Talking about talking about work

Another post by a choreographer/performer enrolled in the MFA program in Dance at GWU: part of the course I teach asks students to read different critics and analyze their perspectives.  Here Dawn Stoppiello addresses a seminal piece in dance criticism.

Arlene Croce was the dance critic for The New Yorker from 1973 to 1998. She founded Ballet Review magazine and was a film critic prior to her career as a dance writer. Croce has written several books on dance but this article, “Discussing the Undiscussable,” is an important part of her legacy and recognition. Her audience includes the large readership of The New Yorker and many dance enthusiasts and professionals.
As a “newbie” in New York City in 1994, I remember vividly when “Discussing the Undiscussable” came out. With this piece Croce started an extremely important and controversial conversation on art and criticism, one that had been waiting to be had. Already somewhat identified as an old-school uptowner, with this article Croce exposes herself as a brave journalist even if (and precisely because) her expressed opinions were not in line with everyone’s.
Surely it is agreed that the quality of an artwork is subjective, but what Croce is arguing is that it is impossible to formally critique something that is, first, and foremost a “being of something” rather than a “theater of something.” I mean to say that being a terminally ill person and not acting as one has no formal perspective from which to be critiqued. How does a critic critique a real person’s unscripted and unrehearsed real story?

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Dracula, the ballet

This is a poster from the Dracula film. The ballet on view at the Kennedy Center is much better.

A cross between romantic ballet and the Twilight Saga, the newest production to enter the repertory of The Washington Ballet is evocative, gripping, and utterly spectacular. Performed by a phenomenal cast on Friday, Dracula featured Emily Ellis in the role of Mina and Jared Nelson in the title role. They were a scintillating couple: transforming Michael Pink’s choreography--which features long lunges, diagonal lines, and wing-like arms--into statements about desire and delusion.

The entire cast contributed to Pink’s nightmarish visions, both horrifying and believable at the same time. Their dancing was enhanced by their sumptuous outfits and sets--original costumes and production by Lez Brotherston—which Atlanta Ballet loaned to Washington. The contrasts between the light-hearted mood of the Tea Dance that began Act II and the abbey scene that closed the ballet created a sensuous and emotional journey; as bizarre as a ballet about vampires may be, these performers made the tale captivating. The score by Philip Feeney enhanced the spooky atmosphere: sounds of banging on a door, water dripping in a bucket (or maybe in some dark basement), and pulsing heartbeats conjured scenes from an Edgar Allan Poe story. Dracula’s bold and sinister demeanor made visible his allure and his cruelty, and carried through to the bows when Nelson strutted on stage, slow and majestic, a dignified commander of other realms. 

This production is a Dionysian delight, enriched by Pink’s choreography that the cast so beautifully inhabits.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Contact Improvisation Solo

Benno Voorham. Image from his website:
This is a guest blogger post by Ilana Silverstein, a DC choreographer and performer who is also pursuing her master's degree in dance at George Washington University. As part of a course I teach in Contemporary Performance and Dance History, Ilana wrote this reflection on an event by Benno Voorham at Dance Exchange:

When a distinguished dance teacher like Benno Voorham spends a weekend in town, it is time to rise to the occasion and present his work, whether you identify as a presenter or not.  Walking into the Dance Exchange studio in Takoma Park, MD, I noticed wall to wall black curtains and crisscrossing diagonals of light directed upstage.  The setting and audience of thirty people transported me into performance mode. Two simple wooden chairs were set facing away from each other splitting center on a diagonal.  My program offered little information about the piece or Voorham.  It read Benno Voorham by Benno Voorham.  Luckily, I already knew some basic information: that Voorham is a contact improvisation teacher from Sweden and that he was going to perform a twenty-minute improvisational performance.  Voorham entered the space, wearing only red plaid pants and a belt, and sat down in one of the chairs.  The opening image of Voorham sitting lasted for the entirety of the first piece of classical music as if we were invited to join in on a sitting meditation.  When Voorham left the chair, I was immediately drawn to his bare back and feet.  For the second piece of music, we watched his back and hips giggle as if he was rolling a marble up and down his torso.  The classical music and the unexpected back-dance created a bit of humor.  I was not prepared for the isolated movement and therefore wanted to laugh. 

Saturday, October 13, 2012

words and action

photo of Julia Rhoads' company Lucky Plush by Cheryl Mann

Over the last 10 days I have been to 8 different performances, films, and talks but one event stands out from all the rest. And it’s not Black Watch at Harman Hall or Voices of Strength at The Kennedy Center – although both of those were excellent – it’s something on a smaller scale that left a deeper impact. On October 2 choreographer/director Julia Rhoads spoke at Dance Exchange about a model she has created to generate stability and sustainably for small to medium sized arts organizations. It’s not only a brilliant and innovative structure, but the MacArthur Foundation has already recognized her concept with a quarter-million dollars. That’s not a typo: the MacArthur Foundation gave $250,000 in funding for multi-year support of Rhoads' proposal called, aptly enough, Creative Partners.

Rhoads conceived of this system for supporting for arts administration after considering how “90% of my job is administrative, 10% is artistic.” She wondered how she could change this paradigm (which is not unusual for successful, smaller-sized dance companies). Several keywords popped up: the structure needed to be collaborative, collective, sustainable, interdisciplinary. In many ways the structure of her newly designed organization reflects the values that drive her stage work. It's based on pooling resources of three smaller arts organizations to generate enough funding to pay one director of development and associate to find financial support for the three organizations. The organizations Rhoads chose to partner with are like-minded, but not dance-specific. She selected eighth blackbird, a new music ensemble, and Blair Thomas & Company, a puppet theater troupe.

Monday, September 17, 2012

letting go

photo of Helanius J. Wilkins by Sadar Aziz 

Once in a while there is a performance that grips me, takes me by surprise, and leads me into unexplored places that both inspire and challenge. That performance happened last night at Dance Place when Helanius J. Wilkins presented /CLOSE/R.

What made this experience even more powerful was that I had seen different iterations of this work since I serve as his thesis project advisor at George Washington University. I met Helanius a year ago when he was a student in a MFA course I taught at GWU called “Contemporary Performance & Criticism.” Instantly I was drawn to his thinking: perceptive, critical, creative.

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Mason SummerDance

Watching the performance of George Mason's first summer dance intensive I was struck by how vital this program is for teenaged dancers. They not only gain access to the aesthetics and approaches of a college dance program, but also -- and what really blew me away Sunday -- discover in two weeks what will be expected of them as students as well as performers. Talking to the summer intensive's co-director Karen Reedy revealed some of the priorities - and unexpected outcomes - of this new initiative.

Kate: Why did you decide to create the summer intensive?

Karen Reedy: The George Mason University School of Dance had been considering beginning a summer program for a while.  Heritage Professor Christopher d'Amboise developed the initial vision for this program.  He wanted to expose students to the techniques and approaches taught in the School of Dance, while placing emphasis on the development  of each student's artistry and individuality.  Mason SummerDance students trained daily in ballet and modern technique classes, taught by members of the School of Dance faculty.  During the afternoons and evenings, students rehearsed with choreographers for solo work and group dances.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

at the Washington School of Ballet

from left to right: Kate, author of blog post below, Stephanie Walz, and Jenifer Ringer in the 1980s before a performance of choreography by Choo San Goh performed by the Young Dancers of the Washington Ballet.

Two years ago I attended a performance of students at the end of their summer program and wrote a post that still holds true today. The presentation by these young dancers at the culmination of a 5-week program is phenomenal. This year there were surprises added to the afternoon that reinforced the ways in which students at WSB’s summer intensive gain unique access to living histories.

Yesterday’s performance began with the presentation of the faculty, including former NYCB principals Nilas Martins and Monique Meunier. When school director Kee Juan Han then introduced teacher Kristina Windom she paused to acknowledge her own teacher in the audience: Julio de Bittencourt, a teacher at WSB in the 1970s and 1980s.

Sunday, July 8, 2012


Jamal Ari Black & Nkosinathi "Natty" Mncube. Photo by Isaac Oboka

One of the pleasures of coming back to a city after being gone for a year is the discovery of places and events that have emerged during the time away. Sometimes it’s not clear if this spot had always been there or if it’s a new addition to the cultural landscape, but either way what happened Friday night made me happy to be back in DC. Near the Brookland metro and next door to Colonel Brooks’ Tavern, Dance Place hosted a performance by dancers, a program of four solos, that was one event within three months of free offerings that encompass dance, poetry, music, and visual arts. How fantastic to come back to the city and see that there are opportunities to engage with artists in settings that are not expensive or standoffish, but rather generative and conducive to conversation. The program of solos, all made and performed by current or former members of EdgeWorks, offered a glimpse into the diversity of perspectives embedded in this troupe. The small, unadorned performing space was surrounded by chairs filled with 25 or 30 attendees. The solos were eloquent and provocative; the performers’ words and gestures lingering long after they exited. The evening made me notice how valuable it is for choreographers to have colleagues with whom they can share their creations and engage in conversation, as well as how inspiring it is for audiences to come into contact with artistic processes within settings that are casual and open to feedback. As I left the showing I smiled when I realized how often distance actually helps us see a little more clearly: when we take a break from a place or a scene – both spatially and temporally - we notice what makes it distinct and move closer to appreciating its distinct characteristics.