Saturday, 23 June 2012

RETRO! - "Old" Bill. New York Times, c. 1988.

DANCE VIEW; When a Choreographer Settles Into a Formula


By Anna Kisselgoff
Published: July 03, 1988
WILLIAM FORSYTHE, A MAJOR talent worth following even when he is stuck in a groove, is represented all around us this season. West Germany's Frankfurt Ballet, where he has been artistic director since 1984, has just appeared in New York City - as part of the First New York International Arts Festival - for the first time (the company made its United States debut last summer at the PepsiCo. Summerfare festival in nearby Purchase, N.Y.) with local Forsythe premieres that came on the heels of ''Behind the china dogs,'' choreographed for the New York City Ballet's American Music Festival this spring.

At this writing, ''In the middle, somewhat elevated,'' created by the American choreographer last year for the Paris Opera Ballet, has yet to be presented by that company during its current New York season. But there is little reason to believe that it is different from the line of ballets that Mr. Forsythe has been choreographing in the last five years, of which ''Behind the china dogs'' and the 1987 ''New Sleep'' for the San Francisco Ballet are typical examples.

If one reads Mr. Forsythe correctly - and the subject of his current work is how one actually perceives the language of dance or ''reads'' it - he has settled into a formula for creating dances rather than a true esthetic.

The ''old'' Forsythe (he is only 38 years old) made his first impact as a manufacturer of pop imagery turned against pop culture. Unlike most of my colleagues, I admired his updated ''Orpheus'' (created for the Stuttgart Ballet with the English playwright Edward Bond and the German composer Hans Werner Henze) for its theatrical impact and the power of its political message.

At that time, we had not seen the West German Tanztheater movement, which was to surface later in Pina Bausch's success abroad. But when the Netherlands Dance Theater presented Mr. Forsythe's ''Say bye bye'' in New York in 1981 it was obvious that this critique of American culture via Elvis Presley songs was highly innovative. It married a formal substructure - a thematic use of ballet steps in many varied ways - with theatrical imagery.

Since 1983, Mr. Forsythe has chosen to strip away the narrative pictorial imagery. He has abstracted this approach to its bare bones. We see a deliberately restricted number of steps performed by dancers in more than one way (often repeated, often changed slightly, usually placed in different contexts according to how many others are doing the same steps). In place of dancers identifiable as characters, no matter how anonymous, the performers are seen as dancers. They are only one of several formal elements that come into play. The choreography is presented in fragments, and that is because the lighting, usually by Mr. Forsythe, is full of blackouts, eclipses, obscurity or blinding light that segments the dancing. The ''music'' is more often than not a spoken text, woven into fragments of classical music or heard alone, or it is an electronically produced sound score, usually by the Dutch composer Tom Willems, which has a percussive and goading loud beat - a cross between the wooden blocks clapped together in Kabuki drama and a rock-music rhythm box.

This is not the Forsythe represented by ''Love Songs,'' re-staged for the Joffrey Ballet in the 1980's and that was, in the recent season at the City Center, performed with admirable if more violent power by the Frankfurt dancers (some of whom are Americans familiar from American companies). The cast I saw was smashing on all counts - Amanda Miller, Isabel Gerber, Elizabeth Corbett, Glen Tuggle, Andrea Tallis, Jennifer Grissette, Leigh Matthews, Stephen Galloway.
The Forsythe on view today is the one who took off from ''France Dance,'' created in 1983 for the Paris Opera Ballet, and from ''Gange,'' created the same year in Frankfurt and later recycled for the Joffrey as ''Square Deal.''

There's the rub. Much of Mr. Forsythe's present work is a recycling of itself. And after one has admired the difficult and aggressive partnering, amazing directional changes, the attack of the women's toe work and the off-balance dynamic of Mr. Forsythe's approach to the classical ballet idiom, one admires it less when a style becomes confused with a language.
At his best, Mr. Forsythe knows how to create for the specific dancers at hand. In ''France Dance,'' he picked out still relatively uknown French dancers like Sylvie Guillem and choreographed for their bodies and polished technique.

Seen at the City Center, the otherwise impressive Frankfurt dancers (engaging in their tribal counterculture postures in works like ''Skinny'' and ''Same Old Story,'' repeated from last year) took second place to the peformance of Sabine Roth. Miss Roth is a dwarf and an eloquent actress, and her height was used in ironic contrast to the cutouts of buildings and monuments that she moved around constantly - Donald Trump fashion. These cutouts were of the Eiffel Tower, the Empire State Building, the Tower of Pisa, the Parthenon and so on. There were also big cutouts of animals, some prehistoric, and since the movement themes were based on fragmentary gestures from George Balanchine's seminal ballet ''Apollo,'' the work obviously had something to do with history.

What is history, what is dance? Mr. Forsythe likes to take a problem from his readings in literary theory and use it as a springboard for a ballet. Many of these issues, however, have already been examined by experimental modern-dance choreographers in the 1960's, and the use of permutation in movment to test perception is not an end in itself. If I sound disillusioned, I am not. I know Mr. Forsythe can do better.

Saturday, 16 June 2012

Neuroscience meets improv on TEDxMidAtlantic.

I particularly like the Future Questions slide:
What is creative genius?
Why does the brain seek creativity?
How do we acquire creativity?
What factors disrupt creativity?
Can creative behavior be learned?
My questions are:
What is virtuosity?
Why to we learn dance and music by copying rather than creating?
Why are dancers and musicians not encouraged or trained to become composers earlier, if ever?
Why do some people take improvisors less seriously as performing artists?

Tuesday, 12 June 2012

Dancing The Formation of the Alberta Badlands

In 2010 I went on my first trips to Dinosaur Provincial Park. There are so many fossils, in some places you can't help but step on them.

Ericka is a guide there. My theory is that she is also a dancer in southern Alberta. She talked a couple into helping her recreate the formation of the badlands....

Glaciers grew and advanced, scraping off most of the top of Alberta down to just above the cretaceous layer. The layers here were deposited by the Bearpaw Sea and its tributaries.

Glaciers melting as they advance...

As the ice advanced, a massive chunk fell off and was left behind.

When the ice melted, the water mobilized.

But it got trapped in the area of the Red Deer River and started swirling.

Eventually it found a way out and started rushing through the badlands, beginning to carve through the layers.


This dancer took his role very seriously and dramatically took off running through the badlands.


Monday, 11 June 2012

dance (is) everywhere

Recently a friend of mine sent me a link to a dance film called Girl Walk // All Day. The video is basically a girl dancing her way through New York City, ultimately asking people to dance with her. It's rather charming, entertaining and infectiously optimistic. It called to mind book I read a couple of years ago called Dancing in the Streets - A History of Collective Joy by Barbara Ehrenreich. A scholarly book, it offers insight into what civilization loses whenever it gets too uptight to participate in dancing in the open with its fellow man.

I can't find it now, but somewhere in my old Dance Ink (now 2wice) magazines there was a quote that struck me years ago. One of the interviewed choreographers said something like,  

"The world does not need to see more dance. The world needs to dance more." 
At the time, I was an aspiring choreographer, aware of the declining audiences for performing arts, contemporary aesthetic dance being at the bottom of the pile. The statement startled me, and still does. Like other young choreographers, we were trying to create work with the idea that would be seen by others. Young dancers were wondering why they had never heard of Martha Graham until they were 18 and in university dance programs. We were trying to promote concert dance attendance and understanding to the larger public, and this statement shot through to my impressionable core. Now of course I understand that it was meant to be inflammatory and challenging to the dance establishment, and also challenging to the artist ego, something that evaporates when one dances with others just for the sake of it.

Some of the best experiences I've had dancing have been outdoors or in public spaces, especially those that move through the street. Rather than site-specific outdoor pieces where people can come watch, traveling dances give people a fleeting glimpse of something they probably wouldn't bother going to the theatre for. The implication is that people can follow along if they have the time or interest, or even join in.

In and around New York City, Jennifer Monson has fostered what she calls migrations. Often following specific paths of birds, but sometimes water, she is often democratic in who she invites to participate, especially since they are usually over a period of 24 hours and are as much about offering the opportunity to contribute to a collective movement migration as they are about the location, the passing landscapes and architecture, and symbolic pathways. The fact that they are sometimes done in remote locations or in the middle of the night with essentially no audience is fascinating.

As scholars of dance, we learn the difference between dance as ritual and dance as performance. There are fusions of these where dance rituals are performed as a presentation but the difference is still clear. Ehrenreich's terribly interesting book takes this much deeper and looks at how trends in spiritual practices and politics affect our attitudes about the body, and therefore dancing. During times of extreme repression, dancing (as well as other expressions) are forbidden. Ironically, some religions continue to use dance (or movement) in ritual and prayer to achieve what might be perceived as a spiritual state. Religious intent aside, Ehrenreich implies that these sorts of demonstrative acts of collective movement turn out to be a neglected barometer of the health of our societies throughout history. (see Neo-Tarantism, Quebec protests, cowboys, Lindy Hop, stomp dance)

Girl Walk // All Day is a joyful performance to watch. It is not a complex artistic commentary, rather it is a bit of a measure of our current society using dance as a barometer. She comes across varied attitudes toward her public display, and it's great to watch as she moves through iconic landmarks and diverse neighborhoods of New York City and their own various dance rituals.

Pod - Good Women Dance Society

June 9 &10, 2012 8 pm
Ledcor Theatre, Art Gallery of Alberta

Choreographer: Alida Nyquist-Schultz
Dancers: Ainsley Hillyard, Raena Waddell
Composer: Piotr Grella-Mozejko
Lighting designer: Lester Lee
Video: Piotr Grella-Mozejko

Good Women Dance Society is Edmonton's youngest contemporary dance company. Unabashedly pro-Edmonton, they are strong promoters and producers of dance in this city, offering classes, bringing in master teachers for workshops and they have really fun fundraisers.

The Good Women want to be taken seriously. They also want to maintain their youthful identity. This piece is perhaps their best example of the balance between those two attributes. In Pod, we see their first evening-length work and their first collaboration with a professional composer. We also see strappy tight black outfits with bare midriffs, high ponytails and green bangs.

The piece begins with the dancers under a large sheet of translucent plastic that covers the stage. Air appears to be billowing under the plastic giving the membrane movement and life. And actually, right from the beginning it is more membrane or placenta than pod. But never mind that, Membrane would have been a dumb title. An amoebic video appears on the white wall behind them, and LED flashlights audibly click on to focus on the pod activity. A look around the space reveals that there is no option for theatrical lighting, though Lester Lee did a good job of creating atmosphere and shadows using low tech lighting.

Through the pod, we can see a collection of limbs navigating each other and the membrane gently, sometimes punctuating by jabbing joints at the membrane. Occasionally limbs move in unison and we can discern that there are two women under there. This could be pretty corny, and sometimes it borders on that. Nyquist-Schultz seems aware of this and is able to pull it off in terms of the choreography and acting direction. The sophistication and tension of the primarily electronic music helps carry the piece.

Eventually the dancers emerge. Not all at once, but as if we humans had the wherewithal to test the water on our way out of the womb. The shock of leaving the relative safety of the membrane seems to set the twins against each other. One is more eager to leave, and the other sister is pissed. So mad that she passes out (or dies) while wrapped in the bunched-up pod. This leaves who we'll call Sister 1 in a good position for a solo.

Sister 1 (Hillyard) struggles for independence as she tries to make her freshly-born legs work correctly. Eventually she is able to move with agility, but she feels guilty and returns to Sister 2 (Waddell) to see if she's okay. Several checks for signs of life finally wake up Sister 2 and she is not happy. With some slick dancing and an almost-fight scene, she backs Sister 1 into a corner with the wadded-up membrane and this leaves her with a rather agitated solo with some long lunges to point-down the accused. Eventually the sisters come back together (Sister 2 seems to be hypnotizing Sister 1 at times). After a showy duet to increasingly frightening music that scrapes and shrieks, the two eventually go back for the pod, still wadded up in the corner. They ceremoniously spread out the membrane to cover the stage again.

You might worry that they are just going to go back under and it will end the way it began. Instead, Nyquist-Schultz has the dancers take an intense slow-motion walk over the lightly billowing membrane. Perhaps they are demonstrating their mastery over it, perhaps they are being called to it. Either way, its a beautiful image and one of the most striking in the piece. Only after they eventually finish their journey do they make their way back under. As they are absorbed back into the pod, it starts to move across the stage with them, the pod and its contents slowly fade stage right.

Nyquist-Schultz is sometimes described as the more subtle choreographer of the three in the collective. That is demonstrated well here. The movements are interesting in how they progress dynamically and spatially, yet much of the tension is emphasized by strong moments of stillness rather than over-dancing. The music is successful in sustaining the piece during the moments that seemed to be coming close to a girl fight from Buffy the Vampire Slayer. The interesting layers and pulses of sound were simultaneously lulling and jarring. The video worked well in the earlier sections of the piece, but toward the end became interruptive with lurching orange and green animations on the wall that didn't seem appropriate for the concomitant stage action or design.

This ambitious new offering by the Good Women adds to their growing repertoire of dances that explore themes of threat, danger and vulnerability. It will be interesting if this trend continues or changes course in the next few years as they hone in their individual and collective aesthetics.

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Organic Dances - KO Dance Project

Kathy Ochoa comes and goes from Edmonton. Word gets around when she's heading out, and when she comes back we find out where she's been. This time it's not clear if she's been here awhile or if she's been overseas. It is a bit of a surprise when Organic Dances is announced. "KO is here."

Just reading the description of Organic Dances sounds so exciting. "Edmonton’s most experimental renegade choreographer turned mad scientist, Kathy Ochoa has grown another multi-media performance where hormones, revelry and provocative dance transform a theatre into a living forest." "There's hope for this city," one might think as they read this.

118 Avenue is on the north side of Edmonton. It's a part of the city where prostitution and drug dealing are rampant, yet there are strong efforts to gentrify the area. In fact they are currently making a CBC show called Northsiders, which seems to be causing some degree of embarrassment to our fair city. Anyway, that's where KO chose to build her piece.

The community hall is a new building along this stretch of a rather obvious attempt at urban renewal. The neighborhood seems nice, yet there is a sense of something oozing through the sidewalks, around the corners. Never mind, as soon as you walk into the hall there are familiar icons of Edmonton dance there, and walking down the halls is like walking down an aisle of a large greenhouse. Potted herbs lined the hallway and a turn into the gymnasium becomes a tree nursery (not quite a forest; for all the potted trees and plants still have the tags on them).

The space, designed by another prodigal child of the Edmonton dance scene (and former forester) Tony Olivares, feels moist and sparkly at the same time. The walls are covered in sheets of some kind of metal, perhaps Mylar. The room is full of plants and trees. There are chairs facing the stage area. Large branches extend from the floor through a basketball hoop. Tony announces the show and tells us that KO will not be performing, in fact she's expecting a child! Go KO.

The dancers are on the periphery of the space, warming up with some Qi Gong mixed with deep pliĆ©s. The music of Henry Purcell opens the of the show.  To some this might seem unexpectedly romantic. A glance at the program tells us we can expect Velvet Underground and Jackie-O Motherfucker, but also Vivaldi. When the dancers start, they lazily enter, some smiling, some staring, the focus unfocused. They occasionally dart in and out. Expecting a thrilling energy, it's surprising how the energy evaporates in this high-ceilinged room. The environment is almost too relaxed. 

In retrospect, perhaps this is the lazy dance of summer. But it doesn't seem to jive with the promised experimentalism, hormones and provocation. Expecting strange interactions with the plants and trees, rather, the dancers simply pick herbs and smell them, pick up pots and dance them prettily to a new place. At one point, Kat Smy dons high heeled shoes and dances on a sort of chair. Then she takes them off. Stiff-bodiced flouncy shiny grey dresses are propped up and danced into. More staring and smiling, lighthearted dancing, some rather typical inversions and partnering.

The most interesting part of the evening is a section where the lights go out and the dancers begin to make fast ch-ch-ch-ch sounds with their mouths while shaking the trees that are around us. Having the dancers in the audience area is an improvement on the proscenium set-up, since most people beyond the first two rows can not see most of the performance in the stage area. They finish this section with pointed lunges making sci-fi sound effects. Yes, girls can do sound effects!

There is a divertissement/set change where KO and TO come out and busily move plants all around, though it's unclear why they need to be moved. This is done (finally!) to The Velvet Underground. Meanwhile, the dancers have left to change out of metallic leggings and into summery earth tones. This also seems unnecessary, but it happens! Another set of soft, energy-dissolving movements occurs, more vague smiling and staring. A section of exaggerated bad and varying British accents suddenly occurs in the middle of the Vivaldi (one of the most over-used composers in all of dance). There is talk of tea and crumpets, presumably making fun of garden parties and silly ladies. A dancer on her back performs ballet exercises with her legs straight up in the air.

The ensemble really gels in the last section, the energy of the dancing finally building instead of fading, and the dancers seem to really enjoy dancing together. Talk of wine leads to a stumbling finish of dancers over-acting some finishing poses and they manage to force themselves off-stage.

Having no other context for the work of KO other than her legend, it's interesting to think what this piece represents within her repertoire. Known as an intense performer, this piece is demonstrably relaxed, even tousled. Hopefully there will be more KO and an interview in the near future.