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Yearly Archives: 2004
“Review of Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Theatre’s ‘Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger’ at American Dance Festival,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, September 2004
READING, MERCY and THE ARTIFICIAL NIGGER
Set to live music with the cast costumed in business suits and ties, calling attention to the business of the piece, choreographer Bill T. Jones in the world premiere, July 18, of “Reading, Mercy and the Artificial Nigger,” commissioned for the American Dance Festival in Durham, North Carolina, has once again used the medium of dance to make a social statement. The piece is based upon American writer Flannery O’Connor’s short story, “The Artificial Nigger.” The author’s use of a word that has such a painful resonance in this country is deliberately intended to shock and to sear, for the story demonstrates the subtle psychology if how bigotry is taught. Readers on stage recite aloud sections from the story, beginning with the first paragraph, which connects the universal message concerning the survival of racism with the cyclical rhythms of the moon. What follows is a recitation of the names of products that take their appellations from icons of the American South: Dixie Chemical Company, Aunt Jemima Maple Syrup, and Southern Belle Cotton. In the story, these brand names are the billboards two characters view from a train as they journey toward the city of Atlanta from the Georgia countryside. Like much else of Jones’s work, “The Artificial Nigger” is a multimedia production with a projected set and a text that at times so thoroughly dominates dancing, that to call this piece a dance, only, is to exaggerate the significance of a single medium in a work that is made up of movement, rhythm, poetry, film, mime, music, photography and theatre. Dance is not always the central element.
Jones claims in the program notes that this choreography is not a visualization of the story, but in some senses it is – primarily in rhythmic ways, for literature, the spoken word, contains rhythms as surely as does dance, and the dancers move to them as much as they do to the music. And, as the characters experience, we see elements of their story: the train, a streetcar, pedestrians on the street, spigots and running water, hands, even the heat of the Atlanta summer. When the child stops and stares for sixty seconds, we get a sixty-second pause. Although no one dancer consistently portrays any of the main characters, we see them straggling along, one behind the other, the former the advancing shadow of the latter.
There is also psychological visualization. For example, when expectation is reversed, the dancers stand upon their necks. When the character Mr. Head instructs his grandson in the qualities one can look for in Negroes, the dancers’ movements parody African-American rhythmic dancing, and we see, briefly, the jungle bunnies that populate Mr. Head’s ignorance. When he struggles for anonymity, the dancers cover their heads with their jackets, a visualization which also appears to be a pun upon the character’s name. Near the end of the story, when the characters confront the miserable-looking artificial Negro itself, a decayed lawn ornament, we, in one moment, see the misery in their ignorance, and their likeness, in it, to the image they have both created and despised. Finally, when Mr. Head denies his child – there seems to be some connection here with St. Peter’s denial of Christ – Flannery O’Connor was devoutly Roman Catholic – the dancers slip to the floor in despair. Indeed, both the music and the choreography are heavily text-tured. Above it all are the readers’ tonally faceted and emphatic voices, Southern, patrician, and didactic.
What Jones’ piece does, in addition to reviving an important O’Connor story for a new generation of audiences and readers is to show us how as human beings, guilty of the sins of all humankind, we are quietly accused. Mr. Head, at the last, is revealed to himself as a sinner with no comprehension of his real and terrible sins, against African Americans, against humanity and against his grandson.
Several of the dancers delivered outstanding performances. Shaneeka Harrell distinguished herself early in the evening as first dancer in Jones’s 2002 work, “Power/Full,” which illustrates the isolation of the human spirit from religion and prayer. Again here, we have a text, though in this case it is simple and brief: “When God says something, He can’t take it back.” Another strong performance came from Malcolm Low, who has acquired command since I last had the opportunity to see him dance, two years ago.
Also performed this evening was “Duet X 2” (1982). Together the three pieces, all thematically complex, deeply ironic and emotionally involving works, comprised an important statement about the human condition.
A ballerina’s feet are the foundation of her artistry, her most important asset and greatest investment. Yet they are also the area of her body most subject to stress and abuse. Since her busy schedule allows her little time to heal, blisters, corns, bunions, fungus, split toenails, and other minor complaints can become a source of chronic pain. Meanwhile, the real injuries, like snapped ligaments, stress fractures, bone spurs and tendonitis can easily bench a dancer, or worse, end her career.
The root of all this suffering, and also, ironically, the wellspring for the classical ballerina’s extraordinary beauty is the pointe shoe, historically cruel foot gear only moderately refined since Marie Taglioni wore it in the nineteenth century.
These days, a standard pointe shoe has a hard box to protect the toes, and a firm shank that supports the arches. Still, and in spite of these improvements, suffering for art seems to carry with it some historical imperative, and painless dance gets little respect. Dancers regularly do their shoes violence, breaking the shanks and crushing the boxes to improve flexibility and reduce noise, rendering them fit to wear, often, for the duration of a single performance. Even students break in their new pointe shoes in this manner.
But a ballerina is an athlete as well as an artist. In the last three decades we have witnessed the benefits of using high-tech materials to build athletic equipment and apparel for sports. It seems natural and inevitable that pointe shoes be similarly redesigned through the introduction of modern materials.
Gaynor Minden has done just that with its 1993 creation of the elastomeric pointe shoe. More than an athletic shoe encased in pink satin, it uses shock-absorbing urethane foam to reduce trauma leading to injury, and promote proper alignment of the bones of the feet, legs, and torso. In addition, Gaynor Mindens require no breaking-in of the box and shank. They are sold at five different levels of stiffness to meet the needs of individual dancers, and can even be custom made. Finally, Gaynor Minden shoes do not stretch or deteriorate. Since only the satin surface is subject to wear, they last longer than their traditional counterparts. So, although they are manufactured in America and are therefore more expensive, dance companies who order them in bulk see tremendous financial savings over time.
Sounds perfect, yes? Who wouldn’t choose a pointe shoe that can enhance performance, while potentially extending one’s dance career?
But there are objections. The most common complaint is that the Gaynor Minden shoe might take on so much of the dancer’s work that her muscles are weakened, leading to injury. A second criticism is that the firm center the shoe provides might limit the dancer’s ability to dance off-pointe, inhibiting artistry.
Gaynor Minden is only a first such manufacturer in what I expect will become a trend, especially as men begin to dance more regularly on pointe. For now, the market for the shoe seems to be young dancers who have not yet developed prejudices, and, in fact, are actively searching for a trademark style that includes pointe shoes. Meanwhile, many dancers will continue to suffer, offering their pain as a tribute to the dance gods in exchange for success.
Reprint Rights Available
Published February 2004 in Dancer Magazine
Bring it On, Savion
It’s a sunny November afternoon in Atlanta, Georgia, and Savion Glover, possibly the greatest living tap dancer, and a national treasure, is visiting the Children’s Museum to do one of the things he does best – perform for and teach a group of 30 – 40 people, most under the age of nine.
The event is unadvertised, and only a dozen kids are wearing tap shoes. But Savion is in his element. He presents a side view of his lean frame (5’ 9”, 162lbs), and taps out a hello. He spends about two minutes dancing before he calls on the children to join him. “Do you want to do a tap dance for the audience? Come on. Show me what you’ve got. Follow me. Right foot.” And soon, Savion and the kids are performing together, to the delight of everyone present.
Savion’s breakout style ventures far afield from formulaic tap practiced by great hoofers Bojangles Robinson, Fred Astaire, and Gregory Hines. For Savion, tapping is a way of teaching. Sound is experience: it communicates ideas. He was a regular on PBS’s Sesame Street, as a tap-dancing character named Savion “I would say one of the most influential experiences I’ve had, thus far, and I was really totally blown away, and amazed,” he drawls, as much an expert of comic timing as he is of dancing, “was when I got the chance to work with Big Bird.“
After the children’s show, he takes a few questions from the tiny audience. When one person asks, perhaps because Savion has made videos with rap artists Sean Combs and Red Man, “How important to you is the relation of tap dance to hip hop culture?” Savion takes the opportunity to slam what he clearly considers a narrow vision of art categories. “The art of tap dancing has nothing to do with the hip hop culture. The art of tap dancing is a culture in itself. There’s always the chance that I might use that music, but I was tap dancing when hip hop wasn’t so popular. I’m like Kool Herc.” Hip hop artist Kool Herc performed on the streets of New York before the style was picked up by record companies, before it was cool.
The visit to the Children’s Museum is the first event leading to a new show premiering at Atlanta’s Rialto Center for the Performing Arts, November 11 – 16, 2003, and continuing, beginning December 16, for three weeks at the Joyce Theatre in New York. The program isa jazz jam set to a medley of Broadway tunes, including “Singing in the Rain;” “My Favorite Things;” “Midnight,” from Cats; “Hey Big Spender,” from Sweet Charity; and Miles Davis’s “Seven Steps to Heaven.” The six-member band, including jazz piano great, Tommy James, and bass violinist Andy McCloud, whose CD Blues for Bighead earned Soundstage’s Best Jazz Album of the Year Award, in 2001, sit behind plexiglass screens to temper their instruments against the sounds of Savion’s tapping feet.
Savion dances the first half-hour of the show with his back to the audience, and when he at last turns to face us, his eyes are shut. This is dance that is much less about the visual – what we see – than it is about sound. Rather than performing tap tricks, in a look-what-I- can-do display, he listens – and invites the audience to listen with him – as he corners an area of the floor and explores it. The movement is tight and centered; Savion rarely becomes expansive or takes over the stage in a broad way. This is dance that is about music, not about a star, and Savion’s body, like the body of a Balanchine ballerina, is an instrument.
Andy McCloud, who plays bass violin at St Nick’s jazz club, in Harlem, which is also where he met Savion, was hired both for the Atlanta and NewYork runs. He told me: “Savion made a rough sketch of the music for the first night, and since it worked, he kept it, adding in only a few things.”
I saw the Rialto show twice, on opening night, and then the following Saturday, and there were distinct differences in the two performances, especially in the work of Savion’s cast, tap dancers XX, XX and XX. On opening night, each of the three young people entered the stage alone and did a rehearsed routine. By Saturday, Savion had refined this section of the performance to reflect his personality: his joy in hoofing, his commitment to teaching a new generation, and to movement that is conversation. Savion tapped out a melody, and the dancers returned it to him. He played it again, and they sent it back to him one more time. The next review contained bright embellishments, tapped out with spirit and vigor. In the final turn, Savion, musicians and cast joined together in a jam that the impromptu, call and response routine had brought into being.
Up until now, Savion has communicated his artistic vision in original programs like Savion Glover’s Nu York and Bring in Da Noise, Bring in Da Funk, entirely with his feet. But for Savion at the Rialto, he sang “The Way you Look Tonight,” joyously, with a promising rhythmic awareness and graceful, thirties style. When I caught up with Savion at the Children’s Museum, November 4, I asked him what was new for him in this performance.
SG: To give you [an] aspect of my performance that you’ve never witnessed before, and just work on what I know. I’m just the same old dude. What’s new is basically my association with the Nederlander. This show is letting the audience in on what I really do, at the same time I’m thanking the Nederlander for letting me be a part of what it is they do.
CMP: Can you tell me what the effect of Greg Hines’s transition has been on you, on your work?
SG: I really can’t explain it. I haven’t figured out the words. It’s just something that has affected the rest of my life, sooner than anticipated. It was like he was my father, you know.
CMP: Now it’s like you have two pairs of dance shoes to fill.
SG: No. No, I don’t feel like that.
CMP: Why did you choose dance over music? Music seems like the obvious choice, something anybody would pick. Why go for dance, instead?
SG: Dance sort of picked me. I started out as a drummer. But once my moms started us in tap class it was like boy scouts. We went to boy scouts, we went to vacation Bible school and we went to dance class. It was something to do. I didn’t know it would lead to this, or what type of impact it would have in my life. You know – this wasn’t my plan, and I didn’t choose it. It chose me.
CMP: When did you know that you were just going to keep on dancing?
SG: Um – yesterday. [Laughs].
CMP: What do you think that means, as a dancer, being independent? Is it important? SG: To be a good dancer amongst a company of course requires a strong level of independence. To be in a group allows you to exercise everything you know as an individual. Not only being able to perform, but being able to perform with – to listen to what’s going on, on the other side of the room. To be a solo artist is another sense of independence.
CMP: From the outside, you seem to have led a charmed existence. We perceive you as someone the world has never said “no” to.
SG: What? Say that again?
CMP: Someone the world has never said ‘no’ to.
SG: Oh, wow. [Laughs]. Wow.
CMP: Have you encountered obstacles?
SG: Just living, there are obstacles. But you know, I’m here. I’m here now. I think I’ve just completed a cycle in my life, which has made the next cycle clear. Clear with myself, clear with God, and with what I am and why I am. It’s just as clear as – air. I’m able to attack with clarity. I can punch [the age of] thirty right in the eye when I see him next week. Bing bing.
CMP: Many dancers feel they have to make a choice between a dance career and college.
SG: I come from a generation of dancers who weren’t afraid to take a nine-to-five that paid six dollars. We live in a generation now where – five, six dollars? For a nine-to-five? You’re out of your mind. I need twenty thousand. [Laughs]. But I come from a generation where they knew how to work, go to school, and take dance class. Now, this generation is like [snaps fingers, taps feet] – pop – quick pop – quick pop. Instant. Everything’s instant. So that makes it kind of hard for the kids. They think New York is where it is. I tell the kids: You are where it is. If you’re in Witcheta, that’s where it is. It’s in Witcheta. That’s why I big them up – all these kids that come to New York, and just want to dance. They’re so powerful. They’re so strong. Knowing who you are, and what you have to do in order to maintain who you are – it takes awhile for some people. You can put some people in New York and they know just [snaps] they’re just like that to everything. Uptown, downtown, the movie scene, the club scene, the entertainment field, the music. And then you put some people in New York, and – Alice in Wonderland. They don’t know what to do, get nervous, oh it’s too much, break down, they had an audition, the producer said: ‘You will be nothing,’ duh duh ta duh, oh my whole career’s – debauchery! [Laughs]. I’m over! Dance is a matter of seriousness, devotion, love for the craft. It costs more to be focused, to give it your full attention, [to] say this is what I’m doing. This is what I am.
CMP: People like to talk about the price of fame, how growing up in the limelight takes its toll. You haven’t fallen into any of that. How have you managed it?
SG: All this stuff is cool – the press, the newspaper, tv. It’s cool, but we would still be doing this somewhere in the dance studio, somewhere in somebody’s basement, somewhere up in the club, when there’s five people around. I guess my head is just not set on fame and fortune. I’d rather teach the kids who Jimmy Slyde is. I’d rather teach this person who Lon Chaney was – not the actor or the boxer – the tap dancer. These are our heroes. These are our pioneers of the world. I’m a part of that, just passing it on.
This is a sweeping statement, but I make it with care. Audiences have never seen the dance world rendered on stage and off, via the film medium, with such objectivity and grace. Altman shows us how real companies behave, as organizations and as collected and fallible human beings, all the while maintaining a tender regard, even adoration for the art form. Nearly entire ballets, filmed correctly so that we can see whole bodies and staging rather than subtitled snippets of movement, are woven through a relatively plot-less tale. Thus Altman shows us more clearly than any dramatic dialogue or character development might, why it is that people choose to dance, why artists embrace this way of working, why administration and fund-raisers devote themselves to mounting these projects.
No one has to tell the audience this work is beautiful: they can see it. The film contains no history lesson: we either recognize the included ballets or we don’t, proving the point that we need not be scholars to understand dancing. Nor in this film is dance choreography made up of frail, effeminate variations on the ballet-blanc theme. This is an important point for American viewers who tend to that prejudice. “Don’t look so pretty! You know I hate pretty!” company director Mr. A., (Malcolm McDowell), enjoins the dancers in rehearsal. There is one classical variation, danced brilliantly by both Julie Kepley and Suzanne Lopez; the rest of the film’s repertory is contemporary.
Altman’s signature style has been since his early films, notably Mash (1970) and McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971), to blur the distinctions between major and minor characters, knocking out the notion of hero. In the beginning of his career, he achieved this goal with sound, covering conversations between high profile actors with the noise of other characters talking. For this film, really about a company, and not a hero, Altman fogs our focus upon the lead character with limited screen time and a reluctance to center the camera on her. Several other dancers are developed as well as is Ry (Neve Campbell), and she often dances on the periphery of the frame. For those who enjoy digging in the dirt, the film offers a brief nod to some of the work-a-day tragedies of life in dance. These include poverty (a dozen or more of the dancers shack together in a single apartment – some sleep on the floor – while Ry is able to maintain a studio apartment solo (under Chicago’s el tracks) only by virtue of a second job; injuries (twice we see a principal forced by injury to sacrifice a part to a corps dancer, and a consequent status change); AIDS (“Such a terrible disease! So many losses!” Mr. A exclaims); grueling rehearsal hours (some dancers try an “energy” pill; one dancer is cut two days before performance); eccentric choreographers (hilariously spoofed at the Christmas roast); and the plight of aging dancers – it’s more than just physical –who have developed artistry over time, and are beyond meekly taking direction from ballet masters. Mr. A as a character is company director stuff and not much more: authoritarian, whimsical, headstrong, opinionated, brusque, evasive but vastly appreciative of dance and dancers.
Still, such diversions have really nothing to do with ballet. For some audiences, unfortunately not those most likely to be attracted to this film, the discovery may be an education. All of these virtues, Altman’s visionary directorship, formally integrated cinematography, innovative plotting and characterization would nevertheless collapse without a good cast. Unlike most ballet films – one winces at the memory of Ann Bancroft taking class with Mikhail Baryshnikov in The Turning Point (1977) – this one is peopled with real dancers. Neve Campbell is a retired corps member of Canada’s National Ballet, and the supporting characters are drawn from the ranks of The Joffrey (Maia Wilkins, Domingo Rubio, John Gluckman, for example) with whose full cooperation this film was made. Choreographer Lars Lubovich plays himself, as does Robert Desrosiers.
If one element of the movie puzzles, it is the inclusion of the absurd, over- conceived prop piece, Blue Snake, now in its second incarnation in film. If you are curious – and I strongly encourage you not to be – check out the 1989 documentary, Blue Snake, that gushingly follows choreographer Desrosiers through the creation and staging of this acrobatic farce. Perhaps the fact that there are two films of such a innane piece demonstrates that only a movie maker has the budget to waste on dancing dinosaurs. One hates to think that Altman is pandering to the popcorn-munching crowd here, but I find myself almost forced to think it. Poor as it is, audiences and critics may applaud it anyway, and maybe that’s the joke: that neither critics, nor audiences, nor dance practitioners can often see the difference between what should be saved, what scrapped. Sad to say, it is a joke that Altman himself may not be in on. That Blue Snake should be a failure, however, is really no surprise. The truth is: the vast majority of new choreographies fail within a few years of their inception, if not on the same night. Failure is an occupational and artistic hazard of working in the dance field. We accept it because the opportunities for true achievement are real, as we see in this film.