The week that was in dance: fusion and confusion

Trey McIntyre Dance/Chris Riesing

Friend of Art Scatter Martha Ullman West got back to Portland from a lengthy stretch in Kansas City, where she’s been researching a book on ballet legend Todd Bolender, just in time to take in one of the Rose City’s busiest dance weeks in quite a while. Here’s her report — and thanks, Martha, for Scattering!

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Portland Dance Journal, Saturday Feb. 21 through Friday Feb. 27, 2009

I didn’t realize it until I sat down to to write this Scatter post, but what we had in Portland last week was fusion, fusion, fusion, and some con-fusion. It was not a week for purists, that’s for sure — from Oregon Ballet Theatre to the Trey McIntyre Project to Tuesday and Wednesday night’s performances at Reed College by Pappa Tarahumara, a Japanese company that performed what it claimed was a version of Chekhov’s Three Sisters, this one set in rural Japan in the 1960s.

Moreover, critic and historian Marcia Siegel was in town to give two lectures to Portland State University’s dance history students on fusion in ballet, and also to teach composition students in the same place. In addition, she showed two extraordinary films, Carolyn Brown’s Dune Dance and Merce Cunningham’s Biped. She also led a session with Reed students on how to write about dancing, based on the Pappa Tarahumara performance. And if you haven’t read Howling Near Heaven, her recent book on Twyla Tharp and her work, or The Shapes of Change, a book published in 1979 that is an indispensable part of my library, go and do so immediately.

Herewith a log of sorts:

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Saturday, 8 p.m.: I go to opening night of Oregon Ballet Theatre and the premiere of Christopher Stowell’s Rite of Spring. The program opened with Peter Martins’ Ash, with Yuka Iino and Chauncey Parsons in the principal roles and doing a sparkling job of dancing them. Bang off, the company showed how well-schooled it has become under Stowell’s leadership, how fast and how accurate in its technique: In Ash the dancers contributed artistry to what is basically an aerobic workout danced to an unstructured score.

"Rite of Spring," Stowell/Stravinsly/OBT. Blaine Truitt CovertGod knows Stravinsky’s 1912 Sacre du Printemps, played brilliantly here in its two-piano version by Carol Rich and Susan DeWitt Smith, is structured. Its lyrical beginning builds to a pounding crescendo in music that is still startling for its highly stylized brutality.

Seeking to do something new with Vaslav Nijinsky’s anti-classical ballet about a primitive Russian fertility rite that calls for the sacrifice of a Chosen One (female, it’s almost needless to say), Stowell, assisted by Anne Mueller, has come up with an episodic narrative that is more about 21st century Americans and our seemingly endless search for community and catharsis than anything else. Or is it an episodic narrative? It’s definitely episodic, but the narrative may be up for grabs.

Michael Mazzola’s movable-set-piece walls contribute to this effect, as do his lights. But on opening night, while I was impressed with the dancing and the production values, I was also more than a little mystified by Stowell’s intentions, and glad to know I’d have a chance to see it again.

Lambarena made a dandy closing ballet, challenging the dancers in a different way from the program’s other works, and audiences love it. I don’t. I’ve seen San Francisco Ballet dance it, the company on which Val Caniparoli originated it, and Pacific Northwest Ballet performs it as well, with Arianna Lallone unforgettable in the lead woman’s role. Kathi Martuza was equally good on opening night at OBT, and Gavin Larsen, trained with impeccable classicism at New York City Ballet’s School of American Ballet, clearly enjoyed bending the rules as well as her upper body. But the mixture of African tribal dancing and classical ballet, as enthusiastically as OBT’s dancers performed it, works for me no better than the score, a blend of Bach and West African tribal music. Some fusion works, some doesn’t.

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Tuesday, 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.: I rush to get Siegel downtown from my house to teach her first composition class at PSU, after some difficulty in finding out where it’s to be held. (The closure of Lincoln Hall for retrofitting has predictably caused some havoc.) I can’t, to my regret, stay to watch, but I hasten back at noon to hear her first lecture on fusion in ballet, addressing the subject from 1945 until the late ’50s, the post-World War II period.

"The Red Shoes" original posterSiegel, the first dance critic I read when I was dragooned into this remunerative profession 30 years ago, showed clips from the Fred Astaire film Shall We Dance and the British film The Red Shoes to indicate how ballet was perceived in the 1930s and ’40s when ballet was becoming an American art form. For me this is catnip, since Todd Bolender and Janet Reed, the subjects of my book, were pivotal figures in those years.

In the Astaire film, made in 1937, we see ballet presented as high, and snooty, art, Astaire as an American with a Russian name — Petrov — who would rather tap dance, and female dancers in gauzy dresses leaping around a hotel lobby while the director of this company, a wealthy ignoramus, tries to persuade the Astaire character to take the ballet seriously. Where is the fusion? Trying to convince his director that tap is high art, Astaire demonstrates a combination of ballet steps and feathery floor-bound rhythms as only he could do.

The clip from The Red Shoes, made in 1948, shows passionately serious young audience members at the ballet, hissing arguments about which dancer is best, while a wealthy patroness tries to persuade the director, Lermontov (n.b. his name is Russian) to come to an after-performance party, where her niece, an aspiring ballerina, can dance for him. Again we see the class divide. The film, directed by Michael Powell and one of the great dance films of all time, is also an example of fusion, for several reasons — among them the collaboration of the cameraman and choreographer, in this case Robert Helpmann. The plot, silly as it is, didn’t prevent either Siegel or me from seeing the film repeatedly as kids.

The next clips she showed were of Jerome RobbinsFancy Free, made in 1944, in two filmings, the first done in 1945 with the original cast, which included my girl Reed and Robbins himself, the second a later performance by New York City Ballet. This is a fusion ballet because vernacular dance, such as the rumba, is incorporated into the choreography, which includes a considerable amount of classical dance, not performed in pointe shoes. Robbins’ subject matter, Siegel pointed out, of ordinary people — three sailors and two girls — made the ballet contemporary and very American, as opposed to Russian.

This for me was familiar ground. What wasn’t were clips of two ballets by Martha Graham Company alumni John Butler and Glenn Tetley, in which modern movement is fused with classical ballet. Of particular interest was a male duet by Tetley created in 1963, called The Mark of Cain, which was performed on of all things a religious television program called Lamp Unto My Feet. Siegel made some telling comments on the influence of modern dance on ballet, centering on the psychological and the surreal, which let her into the ballets of Antony Tudor; Robbins’ Age of Anxiety (alas lost to us), which was based on W.H. Auden’s eponymous poem; and Balanchine’s La Valse.

She spoke too of the existentialist ballets being produced in Europe at the time, and to everyone’s delight showed the opening of White Nights, a film starring Baryshnikov and Gregory Hines, in which Baryshnikov performs Roland Petit’s Le Jeune Homme et La Mort. Its mixture of virtuosic classicism and modern and pedestrian movement — Baryshnikov, dancing the role of an anguished painter committing suicide, both crawls on the floor and jetes into the air in the eight-minute reduction of the piece — makes it another kind of fusion. This ballet is no longer shocking (except perhaps to me!), but in 1946 when it premiered it was nearly as scandalous as was Nijinsky’s 1913 Rite of Spring. Siegel finished with a clip of Balanchine’s 1957 Agon, a modern ballet with no subtext except the music — choreographed for a modern temperament, Siegel said, with jazziness, energy, off-centeredness and a distortion of classical technique.

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Still Tuesday, 8 p.m.: Judy Patton, who’s doing a fine job of getting a dance program restored at PSU and has arranged this visit by Siegel, picks us up to go to Reed for a viewing of Three Sisters and a post-performance dinner with artistic director Hiroshi Koike and the three company members. The performers speak little or no English, but communicated plenty in their dancing. Nevertheless, this fusion, or confusion, gives much food for thought and bewilderment. It’s a welter of the traditional Japanese woman’s mincing, shuffling walk and some quite wonderful mugging in the first half, with Western classical dance steps (at one point the smallest of the three dancers executes a perfect fifth position), bizarre use of such props as a doll and pink balloons that look like bubble gum, and Western costumes consisting of dresses with full skirts that get stripped off to reveal black bustier-like affairs that look like something Madonna would wear. The one thing this piece isn’t about is Chekhov’s Three Sisters, marooned in the country, longing to get back to the city, suffering from ennui, introspection and deprivation as only Russians can do. I wondered if the audience members — a number of PSU students (and that was nice to see at Reed) and Reedies — were wondering whether or not to laugh, as I was. At the dinner, Siegel attempts, futilely, to get Koike, who speaks good English, to give us some information. As does one of the Reed students. He dodges all questions and smiles pleasantly. We thank the dancers for their performance and leave.

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Wednesday, 11:45 to 2 p.m.: Siegel shows the Brown and Cunningham films at PSU and Jann Dryer and Bonnie Merrill show up to see them, as do a few of the students. Brown’s Dune Dance, shot on Cape Cod in 1980, just might be the best dance I saw all week, literally bringing tears to my eyes as my own muscles remembered what it felt like when I was a kid to race down those very dunes and run from the waves and fall on my back laughing — though admittedly not accompanied by a brilliant collage of classical ballet music that included bits from The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Rodeo even The Nutcracker. As in The Red Shoes, the camera collaborates with the dancers, led by Sara Rudner, in an exploration of how the sand affects the way they move. The lapping waves, brilliant sunshine, and other occupants of the beach–children, dogs–also play roles in the choreography. Dune was made for the camera; Biped was made for the proscenium stage, using motion capture technology and I found it far more effective seen live than in this film record of a performance. It’s interesting all right, but in two dimensions it does not reveal itself to be the masterpiece it is in the way it does on stage.

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Trey McIntyre at White Bird. Chris Riesing

Still Wednesday, 7:30 p.m., and we’re off to the Newmark to see the Trey McIntyre Project. McIntyre receives the predictable warm welcome from the Portland audience, which still considers him one of their own — which he is, or was — and the young company performs two pieces that constitute a different kind of fusion: the blending of classical and modern technique accompanied by popular music. Leatherwing Bat, danced to Peter, Paul and Mary’s songs for children, starts with a lone dancer on stage moving to Shel Silverstein’s “I’m being swallowed by a boa constrictor,” and I wonder if this is a metaphor for McIntyre’s state of mind as he directs a full-time company for the first time. (Serious), a new piece commissioned by White Bird and danced to the music of Henry Cowell with unisex costumes by Sandra Woodall for two men and one woman, is a different kettle of steps. McIntyre used Cowell’s music for Just, commissioned by Oregon Ballet Theatre two or three seasons ago, a pointe piece that was very specifically about ballet as it is danced today, or so it seemed to me. (Serious), performed by Jason Hartley, an old hand in McIntyre’s work; Chanel Dasilva, whose first professional gig this is; and the elegant Brett Perry, also making his professional debut; is quite different in mood, content and style, and Dasilva (like Perry, a recent Juilliard graduate), who has a compact, explosive body, does not perform on pointe. Nevertheless, this too is a fusion of forms: much of the movement is floor-bound, but a number of steps — and there are steps — are classical. I have loved past performances of A Day in the Life of, McIntyre’s lively piece danced to such Beatles songs as Ob-La Di, Ob-La-Da (a song used rather differently by Josie Moseley in a solo performed by Jae Diego in her concerts a while back) but I missed the joyous classicism of Alison Roper in this rendering, although Hartley reprised his role with his customary punch and attitude.

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Thursday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.: I spend the day observing Siegel teach, first the composition class in which she begins with a discussion of several themes to be found in the work of Trisha Brown, Meredith Monk and Steve Paxton, including structure, research or investigation and perception. The students– and there are quite a few of them, with such disparate dance backgrounds as high school dance team, Irish step-dancing and hip-hop — are led through a series of exercises illustrating those themes, using the floor as support, in an investigation of movement. They’re self-conscious but engaged. And Siegel is teaching them about trust, flow, nonverbal communication, the use of weight, community and curiosity. The class ends with an attempt to reconstruct a version of Brown’s sequential roof piece made in 1973, using the narrow, angled corridor outside the small but nice studio in the School of Performing Arts’ temporary quarters at 1616 SW Fourth Ave.

Part two of fusion in ballet takes place at noon. Siegel’s time frame is the 1950s to the present and she discusses the ramifications of government funding of the arts, including the development of degree programs in arts management and the regrettable cultural shift toward a corporate view that has institutionalized dance and stifled individual creativity. She incisively comments that we can no longer talk about high art, but rather populist entertainment at a high level of skill. I immediately think of Martins’ Ash, and Martins is one of the choreographers she speaks about, citing — and showing a clip from — his 1987 Ecstatic Orange, danced by Heather Watts and Jock Soto. The duet is all about sex, which has, Siegel points out, become a very big subject in ballet. She also shows Love Songs, an early William Forsythe ballet, made for the Joffrey Ballet, which some of us who are ancient saw in the good old days when the Joffrey still toured. It’s a violent piece — highly misogynistic, as Siegel points out — and I remember finding it detestable.

Next up is Gerald Arpino, who was resident choreographer at the Joffrey, and became the artistic director following Robert Joffrey’s death. She shows Round of Angels, a far lovelier work than I remembered, which provided this city’s introduction to James Canfield and Patricia Miller–they performed the pas de deux as guest artists with Pacific Ballet Theatre and a few months later Canfield took over the company as artistic director. Siegel points out that Arpino, who died quite recently, was a classically oriented populist choreographer and highly visually oriented, as is Canfield. Arpino, Siegel says, was one of the first to feature male dancers as a framing device.

She also discusses such crossover choreographers as Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp, and Mark Morris, showing the Waltz of the Snowflakes from Morris’s The Hard Nut, which deploys a unisex corps de ballet in which the men wear pointe shoes, the tutus are edged in black (making me think of New York two days after a snowstorm) and the dancers maniacally fling the artificial snow. The students exit, laughing.

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Still Thursday, 4:10 p.m. to 5:30, and back to Reed we go, where Siegel discusses Three Sisters with Minh Tran’s students and teaches them a little about reviewing a performance by describing how she does it. First step is preparation, she says, and in this case went to the company’s web site, which isn’t very informative, and read Chekhov’s play. The next step is to look at the work, and Siegel doesn’t read the program until after she’s seen the performance. “Your reactions,” she tells the students, are the raw materials for writing.”

Many of the students aren’t very forthcoming, but it’s late in the day. One uses the phrase “semiotic scope” and I try to figure out what that means, thinking, “only at Reed.” After some probing from Siegel, the students discuss the danced relationships between the sisters in the context of their own families. Later she guides them into a discussion of the elements of butoh to be found in the piece. She instructs them in distancing themselves in order to inform the reader about the work, although writers need to know why they are bored, thrilled, or fell asleep, as she confesses she did during the performance. If you hate ballet, she says, think about why. Why was I confused by Three Sisters, I think, and decide that it’s because I was misled by the choreographer into believing it’s a Japanese take on Chekhov when in fact it’s a Japanese man’s take on women, which is oppressive to say the least.

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Friday, lunchtime: I have the pleasure of observing Siegel being interviewed over sushi by Art Scatter and Oregonian writer Barry Johnson
on the state of arts journalism in Boston, where she reviews for the Boston Phoenix. It’s lousy, as it is everywhere. I’m watching a master of the interview at work, and Siegel dodges no questions. The Boston Globe, Siegel says, has no staff writers in the arts, except perhaps for classical music; the rest are free lancers. Barry makes some of the points about that he’s already made here on Art Scatter.

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Still Friday, 7:30 p.m.: Siegel’s first viewing of OBT and Stowell’s Rite of Spring, my second of Rite and god knows what of the company itself. I can see Rite much better than I could the first time, and realize just how deconstructed the set is. I still like the dancing, particularly what Stowell has done with Mueller’s fine technique, and quite love the pas de deux for Artur Sultanov and Grace Shibley, a young dancer so talented my fingers are crossed that we’ll keep her around for a while. But I remain confused, and I wonder why. So following Siegel’s departure at dawn the next day (and we don’t stay for Lambarena because of that) I watch a video of the reconstruction of the Nijinsky original done by Millicent Hodson for the Joffrey and come to the conclusion that this is not music to be danced to on pointe, whether you want to throw out the narrative arc or not. About 60 choreographers have used this seminal score to make new versions, including the Eugene Ballet’s Toni Pimble, who turned the sacrifice into a gang rape. But the unleashed brutality inherent in its rhythms is antithetical to the civilized control of classical technique. I conclude that the Stowell-Mueller version of Rite is an interesting ballet and certainly intellectually provocative, and I like it quite a bit, especially when I take it out of the context of its precedents.

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