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“In The Company of Robert Altman,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2004

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2004

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, January 2004

Robert Altman’s new movie, simply and very effectively titled The Company may be the best dance feature film ever made.

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.

“Weir/Welch ‘Here/After’ American Ballet Theatre,” Ballet-tanz Magazine, October 2003

OAbout the time a work of art – any art – begins the self-congratulatory business of considering itself to be momentous is also about the time its audience (while running for the door) deems it merely foolish. American writer J.D. Salinger, in his novella Franny and Zooey, describes the genre of poetry that has little but itself to talk about – metapoetry – as “terribly fascinating, syntaxy droppings.” Natalie Weir’s and Stanton Welch’s metaballet, HereAfter, a puzzling partnership of independently realized but thematically mated pieces premiering May 16, 2003, at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York, by American Ballet Theatre, may well be described in the same terms.

In spite of an attempt in the program to explain the non-alliance between the choreographers, the final impression is that director Kevin McKenzie found it impossible to choose among the proposals before him, and so hired two choreographers, who worked without any sort of collaboration. The result is a contemporary dual narrative ballet in two acts, not only titled separately, Heaven and Earth, but destined to be performed – after this premiere  – separately.

Weir’s Heaven is set to John Adams’s Harmonium and concerns the life review that some people experience at the moment of their deaths. The chorus performing the music, the New York Choral Society, is arranged around the exterior of a kind of block-weave net, and the mood is futuristic, a knock-off from the gulag scene in the Mad Max: Beyond Thunderdome. A bower descends transporting the Man, and the corps, in the role of. Humanity, pours downstage. Humanity represents mankind, of course, but it is also the quality of humanness, and includes our commonalties, and our sense of self.

The Man relives two experiences of love, the first erotic, the second romantic/idealistic. The dancing provides a narrative framework for Adams’ lyrics, and seems to describe a spiritual journey.  The style of movement is sequential and dramatic rather than rhythm-governed, although it is tied to music in terms of pace. The end is a sort of summary – the beginning in reverse – the Man returns to the bower and to somnolence.

The choreography for Welch’s Earth, set to Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana, is more conventional than that of Heaven. Sequences are repeated – to the left, and then the right. The corps mirrors the leads. Dancing in late sections reflects upon earlier sections – that is, steps in new contexts cause us to rethink them, reconsidering what is achieved and how meaning is conveyed.  It is rhythm-based movement, in contrast to the loose-thread straggle of Weir’s piece. But the corps is not fully used.  Dancers in isolated groups of twos and threes perform various combinations while the rest of the corps stands around, an approach that grossly underserves the grandeur of the music. Orff’s opus has become backdrop – setting, but not theme. Also, there are simply too many pauses – so many that the lack of dynamics begins to seem academic: this is choreographers’ choreography, so repetitive and predictable that in the last several minutes we seem to “hear” the dancing ahead of the music. Welch has forgotten his audience, allowing the piece to carry on and on like a drunk on a five-hour flight, talking about itself.

A second difficulty with this production was the casting. Overall, the first cast was strong, with Ethan Steiffel in a more earth-bound, mercurial role than we have seen previously, a soaring Julio Boca, and Julie Kent whose idol-like stance manages to persuade us that we are lost in some primitive tribunal. But the second cast, in spite of strong performances by Paloma Herrera and tiny dynamo Herman Corenjo, who makes a convincing Everyman – urban, youthful and contemporary – was painful to watch. One distraction was principal Xiomara Reyes’s poor posture and worse technique. She has lovely legs and feet, but no control of her arms.  Her shoulders are in her ears, while her head juts forward from her slumped back. Most terrible of all was David Hallberg in the role of Death. His unsure, wavering stance and hesitance in the choreography, as if he were asking himself whether it was time to go right or left, and obvious self-consciousness were almost unwatchable. With its fairly elaborate costumes and sets, tremendous music and highly effective lighting, HereAfter must have cost a good deal to mount. But I found myself feeling sorry for the elderly ladies in the seats next to mine, who paid out their little money to see this mess.

The final question for audiences may be: Why mate Acts I & II?

Well, there is a structural similarity between the two.  Both return to their openings at the end, a comment on the cyclical nature of individual experience as well as the similarity between all human lives. Both are somewhat pedantically Eastern in vision. If  these answers seem too much of a stretch, viewers may turn to the program notes, which seem to gasp in wonder that both choreographers have managed, all on their own, to hit upon these trite themes. Perhaps here is the message: that choreography can convince itself, if not its audience, that the line between trendy and truth is not very important.

“Funny Fiddler: Boris Eifmann’s ‘Who’s Who,’ Eifmann Ballet of St. Petersburg, Wang Theatre for Performing Arts, Boston, Massachusetts, March 14, 2003,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, July 2003

OThe Wang Theatre in Boston’s Chinatown was a singularly appropriate venue for the world premiere of Boris Eifmann’s Who’s Who, a broadway-esque ballet about the adventures of Russian immigrants to the U.S. during the 1920s. A broadly played dance pantomime and costume piece, the atmosphere is reminiscent of recent Broadway production works as Ragtime or Titanic, punctuated with the burlesque humor of Funny Girl or Victor/Victoria underscored by the shrugging soberness and concern with the phenomenon of change of Fiddler on the Roof.

Although the ballet had the general style and staging of a music theatre piece, the dancing defied the conventions of the genre.  Ever inventive, the choreography had a surprising newness, appropriate to the setting and theme of the story, a pathos and wackiness that never grew tame or tired, and a resigned finish, with the gaudily clad dancers and faded god hanging over them that mirrors life, if not the conventions of art.

Precise and fluent in technique, formally tight and masterful, principal dancers Alexey Turko and Igor Siadzko demonstrated well what partnering between two males can be.  In sequences alternately comic and moving, the two men’s strength in maintaining off-centered balances, and in supporting one another through them, in lifts and in conveying intimacy – along with their gifted clowning – matched point for point ballerina Vera Arbuzova potency and gender-bending technique.  In fact, gender differences throughout the piece are deliberately blurred, adding to the continuing choreographic surprises.

Set an amalgam of jazz pieces by American artists such as Scott Joplin (“The Entertainer”), Duke Ellington (“It Don’t Mean a Thing, If it Ain’t Got that Swing”), Benny Goodman, Dave Brubeck and others, with theatre-style sets and lighting, the story revolves around the adventures of a pair of dancers from Russia trying their chances in America.  It is in many ways the story of crushed expectations and of making do with less, of the inevitable brushes with the American underworld and of struggles in establishing and maintaining personal integrity and identity.

In creating this piece Eifmann continues to fulfill the promise shown in his previous choreography.  It is a ballet audiences will want to see again.

“Chicago: Cranko’s ‘Romeo and Juliet,'” Dance International Magazine, Spring 2003

O

John Cranko’s 1969 evening-length classic, The Taming of the Shrew, was brought to vivid life once again by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago, October 16-20, 2002 at Chicago’s Auditorium Theatre. Revisiting masterworks of this stature presents audiences with opportunities for discovery in several areas. It gives them the chance to see the choreography performed by different bodies, perhaps offering nuances of characterization and meaning not suggested in other interpretations. It advances an occasion to view repertory in the context of time. This second item takes on special significance when the libretto is based in classic literature, as Taming is. Literary texts are subject to reinterpretation, and changes in the field of criticism open ways to seeing them from new points of view. In the case of Taming the effects of these changes are quite clear. When Cranko was working, Richard Burton in the only readily available filmed version of the play portrayed Petruchio as a drunken lout who wins the game by offering Kate a homeopathic remedy: a taste of her own medicine.  Only two years after the Stuttgart premiere of the ballet, Raul Julio in the famed Shakespeare in the Park series that still goes on in New York every summer, showed audiences a deeply confident Petruchio who offers Katherine a lesson in self control as well as the secret to true self esteem, instruction that allows her to become master rather than victim of her life. Critics currently argue in favor of this interpretation.

Nevertheless, Taming of the Shrew is successful as a story ballet in part because it is shaped, like many ballets in the genre, upon the eighteenth and nineteenth century comic opera model. Its opening with an overture is a bit of showmanship that prepares the audience to expect an opera-theatrical structure. Its melodic and episodic score contains airs for each of the main characters, a few bars of which repeat to introduce them in later scenes. The expense of the production, with its elaborate costumes and changing sets, its use of comedic foils to the main characters in the persons of Bianca and her three suitors, its background of clowns – especially in the final scenes – and their slapstick humor (their dousing with the contents of a chamber pot, Petruchio’s “stripping” by whores), the use of subplot to create dance opportunities along with the extended finale: all contribute to the impression. Likewise the weaving of ensemble pieces between solos and pas de deux imitates the comic opera pattern of balancing arias with choral works. The characters reflect and repeat dance phrases like repetitions in the lyric of a duet, so that even the dancing demonstrates the ballet’s relation to opera.

On opening night, Maia Wilkins, the Joffrey’s principal ballerina, played Kate with spitfire ferocity, demonstrating her strength as technician as well as mastery of gesture. Chicago Sun-Times critic Hedy Weiss noted her “ready-for-battle pitch of the shoulders, the little suggestions of pain behind the rage, [and] nightmarish exhaustion during the wacky honeymoon ordeal.”

In the second cast, surprising newcomer Julie Kepley, recently hired from the Atlanta Ballet, appeared to upstage even this tremendous performance. Paired with Joffrey veteran Willy Shives–whose low-comedy portrayal of Petruchio transformed by an unexpected meeting with his equal and match –Katherine – inspired laughter, tears and a standing ovation.

Kepley approached the part with real daring, flying with flexed feet at the head of her suitor, and sustaining her role as sister, schlmozzel, lover, and, finally, adoring wife with the same energy and joy. In their final pas de deux, Kepley and Shives, re-costumed in the pale green of new birth, an echo of Shakespeare’s identification of Katherine as “another daughter,” the audience is privileged to witness the development of a relationship that is at once both romantic and original. Through sustained opposition of pulling and accord, we see that as partners Kate and Petruchio will retain their lovable independence as well as their eagerness to play. It is a necessary moment, satisfying the audience’s need for closure.

Other notable performances include those of the delightful technician Heather Aagard, and her three frolicking suitors, Calvin Kitten, Michael Levine and Matthew Roy Prescott, who seem to have stepped in from the stage of the commedia dell’arte. Bianca’s sweet pas de deux with Kitten’s Lucentiuo is a fine foil in its revealed falseness to the authenticity of Kate and Petruchio’s encounter. The servants schooled by Petruchio to portray themselves as gothic clowns, each with his own macabre handicap, add greatly to the fun. Even the orchestra participates in the storytelling when it suggests – musically – that the suitors in the guise of tutors have no ability to dance or sing. The weaknesses in the performance, clumsy male corps dancers who follow the choreography a beat or two behind, is effectively hidden by the busy-ness and lack of a single focal point during crowd scenes when dancing and interaction between characters is going on all over the stage.

Cranko’s ability to convey Shakespearean reversals through movement – nice girls are revealed as shrews, whores as managerial wives and spoiled brats as loving spouses – has found apt interpretation in this contribution from artistic director Gerald Arpino and in Georgette Tsinguirides (who worked with Cranko on the original production). They have demonstrated a faculty for revealing hidden talents of the dancers in choreography that remains, for all the gags, inspired, emotionally effective, and convincing.

“Dance/Gospel Fusion: Atlanta Ballet and New Birth Baptist Choir,” Atlanta Magazine, April 2003

Atlanta Magazine April 2003

Atlanta Magazine April 2003

New York-based choreographer Christian Holder had accepted a proposal to create a new ballet from Atlanta Ballet’s Artistic Director John McFall and was searching a website, skimming through titles for appropriate music when he discovered the 18th century John Marriot hymn, “Let There Be Light.” He had just reviewed a tape of his 3-day workshop with Atlanta Ballet dancers, and had in hand a cd of representative gospel music compiled for him by New Birth Missionary Baptist Church music director Kevin Bond.

“Bond recognized it immediately as the lyric for the Negro National Anthem,” Holder continues. “I’d never heard [it], but in fact it turned out to be thematically almost a blueprint for the ballet I was trying to create.”

Holder was looking for music that would be “all-inclusive, that the audience could relate to,” and that would also bring out the varied qualities he had discovered in the dancers.  “It’s a classically trained company, but culturally it’s completely mixed,”  he says. There are dancers from Mongolia and South America, all over the world. “I knew that to reveal these dancers strengths, I wanted a broad human story, but something that heals, something that transcends our human plight,” Holder explains. “Let there Be Light” is essentially a prayer for “the light of the gospel to shine into the darkest areas of the human void, into hate, into turbulence, into times like our own. It is a prayer for peace.”

            This ballet, Transcendence, has its world premiere at The Fox Theatre April 24–27 and may be one of the most unusual and innovative collaborations of its kind in Atlanta Ballet’s history, indeed in the history of dance. About a community in turmoil redeemed by a spiritual messenger, Transcendence is not a story ballet in a traditional sense. Made up of series of episodes held together by the presence of a single character, it contains narrative elements like adversity followed by triumph, and struggle leading to redemption. The idea is to illustrate the place of the artist in the universe.  “After 911, people drew together, and all of the gatherings were around music and dance,” says Holder.  “This is because music and dance heal. The essence of art is to communicate [that healing, because] the artist is the line between the human and the divine.”

“At first I thought ‘Let There Be Light’ would be recited over the music. We were in a production meeting at a hotel in New York, and I started to read it aloud.  ‘Oh, I know this,’ said Bond.”  By now Holder had chosen the sequence of songs and had a treatment for the ballet.  “It turns out, Bond knew the pieces I’d chosen and felt they would work for New Birth’s voices, that the choir could take these things and make them their own.”  The challenge then was for the dancers who would rehearse to the choir’s recordings, but perform at the Fox to live music that to some degree spontaneous. As such, each performance is a unique work of art that come into being at the moment it is performed and can never be repeated in exactly the same way. “The truth of the gesture can change from performance to performance,” Holder says.

            When ballet directors choose choreographers, they consider the history, the ingredients, the chemistry an individual can bring to a project.  In this case, having selected the music, although not in comprehensive way – McFall didn’t want to inhibit the artistry of his team, Holder, Bond, and composer Paul Chihara who brought the various elements of the piece together musically – he looked at Holder’s international experience. “ Holder has a spectral overview.  He doesn’t have the limits some people might. I watched him for years in performance and then when he started to make ballets.  Given his body of work, I was curious about how he would approach this music and our mission” to develop a dance that could convey “the spiritual resonance we find in this region.” Likewise, the New Birth Baptist Missionary Choir, whose contemporary sound, with the rhythms and cadence of traditional gospel music but plugged in to the various new technologies for conveying it, including electronics and computer imaging, celebrates Atlanta’s spirituality.  This music, McFall explains, is like the city itself, “enjoying a respect for tradition without being cemented in the past.”

Transcendence combines the talents of Atlanta Ballet, the New Birth Missionary Baptist Church choir and the Atlanta Ballet Orchestra—more than 200 artists sharing the stage for the first time ever—in a performance that mixes ballet, African-American religious music, Anglican prayer, Japanese drumming, contemporary dance, Bach and the blues. It is part of an ongoing effort by Atlanta Ballet to incorporate innovative, collaborative productions, as evidenced by the September 2001 concert with the Indigo Girls and last fall’s Ramblin’ Suite with The Red Clay Ramblers.

“We’re not a museum,” says McFall.  “The well-spring of the creative mission at ballet is to collaborate with the community of artists we find in Atlanta,” in the hope that by mixing the ballet form with a variety of genres “we discover ourselves as we enrich the city.” Transcendence meets this goal as a “new work that represent our time, what Atlanta is today,” he continues.  “The New Hope is one of many congregations in Atlanta that propels people in our community. It speaks to our present with vivid, emotionally charged music, and has been a clear choice in fulfilling our passion to express ourselves, with our artistic colleagues in the community, through collaboration.” 

The blend of forms, sometimes called fusion or multimedia ballet is increasingly popular across the country.  It has fueled the creation of regional companies like Complexions, in New York, Alonzo King’s LINES, in Oakland, California and Ballethnic here in Atlanta. Its concepts are also the basis for a broad spectrum of inventive ballets that employ video and computer-generated images and backdrops, ethnic and tribal music from around the world, and a wealth of critical stances from every field that offer new interpretations of old stories and ideas. A source of this dance style’s popularity may be the joy, novelty and challenge dancers and choreographers feel in putting together what seem to be oppositions.

            Holder was intrigued by the opportunity to reach audiences who might not necessarily attend ballets, and to do so with music and with a company he fell in love with. John McFall, in allowing Holder 5 months to work on the project gave him “a rare combination of security and freedom.” Certainly dance set to religious music has been done before. McFall’s own Requiem (also on the program at the Fox) is an example, as are the various Carmina Buranas done around the country. Transcendence is distinguished musically from others by the progression Holder terms “generational layering.” From Bach’s Cello Suite No. 4 in E flat major through spirituals and soul music to Bond’s own ”Bless the Lord,” whose technological currency and urban funk Holder describes as “in the moment,” the audience has a unique view of the richness and nobility of dance and history.

Holder grew up in Trinidad and London in a family of artists, writers and musicians and enjoyed a successful career as leading dancer with the Joffrey Ballet, where for many years he was the only black artist. He has choreographed and designed costumes for Washington Ballet, Ballet Concierto de Puerto Rico, Ballet Théâtre de Bordeaux, and American Ballet Theatre, and taught ballet for Steps on Broadway and the Metropolitan Opera Ballet. In June 2001, Holder choreographed the San Francisco Opera’s production of Aida. But he has found tremendous pleasure in working with Atlanta’s premier dance company, a group he found to be “beautifully trained and artistically astute.”

            Dancer and Atlanta native Emily Cook, who trained at Rotaru and Atlanta’s Center for Dance Education has found mastering Holder’s hybrid approach and cultural bilingualism rewarding. “Christian’s style is very fluent, very organic. Movement from one sequence to another just feels natural. I love dancing classical pieces, but when the performance has a deeper meaning, when it’s not just dance for dance’s sake, you reach another level of passion.”

“Deceptive Little Sweets: A Critical Review,” Up Yer Sleeve website, February 2003

Up Yer Sleeve, Deceptive Little Sweets

Up Yer Sleeve, Deceptive Little Sweets

It is a rainy November night in Seattle, and I am tooling north on I-5 with an old college pal, a wacky artist who nails canvas on the walls, and spinning around the room on roller skates and carrying a paint gun, executes four masterpieces simultaneously.

“Listen to this.” I pop the cd I just received in the mail into the drive. It’s the Salt Lake City band, Up Yer Sleeve’s 1998 release, Deceptive Little Sweets. There’s a pause as the machine shifts into action. Then we hear the first few guitar licks of the opening melody “Skeletons,” and my friend says, “Sounds like Jerry Garcia.” Then as lead vocalist Gail Krug’s slinky- sweet, tough girl voice takes over, he says, “and that reminds me of—”

“Jefferson Airplane,” we intone together.

At the first instrumental bridge he says, “And that, that right there – that sounds like what’s-his-name.”

“Knopfler,” I suggest.

Mark Knopfler! Exactly! Is the rest of it like this?”

Well, no. The songs are all different from one another. But my guess is that if you listen to this cd, you’ll find yourself thinking just like my friend and me.

Resembling the music of the sixties and seventies that informs these tunes, the selections are various and exciting, the musicianship solid, and the live- performance sound refreshing. Krug, herself, wrote most of these songs, and many of them have the tight, smoky atmosphere of a basement tavern with a linoleum floor, and the in-your-face feeling of musicians met by an audience at close terms. This is the kind of band for whom a nightclub venue is perfect, and when we listen to this cd it’s where we want to be.

Several of the pieces are real standouts. There is no denying the catchiness of a tune like “Marshmallow.” “Marshmallows, baby, are deceptive little sweets/We can burn you real badly when exposed to too much heat.” Yes, you can. The aforementioned “Skeletons” contains the sharp musicality that distinguishes the genre called “classic” rock. Others, notably “Avalanche Wind,” “Mama Didn’t Raise No Fool,” written by Tom Krug and “Drifting,” have the brave, world- weary tone that might be considered trademark of Krug’s work; that is, it might be if we had more to go on. With only the cd here under discussion, and three more singles available for listening on line, it seems to be too early to make assertions. Still, we see her frequently making claims against her vulnerability.

One track that draws my attention is “Child.” This is the type of composition that can sound preachy to an audience, but that the composer himself invariably loves because it gives honest expression to outrage, to negative emotions atypical of successful popular music. Examples that come to mind are Pink Floyd’s “The Wall” or John Lennon’s “How Do You Sleep?” In this piece, Krug seems to be addressing both one child who suffers from social ostracism, and also all children who undergo similar trials: “Child of rape … child of color … child of true diversity … savior of the human race.”

Another track I enjoy is “Better By Now,” partly because of the gentle harmonies that explore rather than insist upon the melody, and partly because of the lyric, which addresses the joylessness of addictive behavior. The piling up of “I should know”s is pleasing, hypnotic, and the logic is irrefutable. Even the rush itself becomes stupid after awhile, the speaker tells us.

At notable variance with all of these tracks is the piece composed by Duke Bonnell and performed by band member Tom Krug. “Finish Us Off” is a country-rock talk- song that might easily be sorted among humorous tomes such as Johnny Cash’sA Boy Named Sue,” or Pure Prairie League‘s “I’ll Fix Your Flat Tire, Merle.” Krug, after drawing up a lengthy list of comparisons with the current human condition, such as the Biblical story of the luckless Job, or the fate of a young deer hit by a truck (trust me, this is funnier than it sounds), suggests that the Lord should simply put us out of our misery “Bring on the earthquakes, famines, floods and plagues/Haul out the big guns. We’ll wrap it up in seven days/Why don’t you finish us? Finish us off.”

Up Yer Sleeve’s Deceptive Little Sweets breaks no new ground, musically speaking. In fact, in some ways it’s very much throwback music, and familiarity is the source of the comfort and joy we feel in it. It bespeaks an era of certain innocence in the blues-rock genre. These are the songs you’ve never heard, but already know.

http://www.yersleeve.com

“Krug’s ‘Sanctuary,’ A Critical Analysis,” Up Yer Sleeve website and cd jacket, November 2002

Krug’s Sanctuary Critical Analysis

In 1955, the great African-American ex-patriot, James Baldwin, whose works include Go Tell it on the Mountain, and 220px-Roasted-Marshmallow, published a short story set in New York City about a musician, a drummer, whose artistry took the form of near demon possession, and who sluiced the overwhelming nature of his creativity with heroin. The story is called “Sonny’s Blues,” and I still see it anthologized, mostly in freshman Introduction to Literature texts. I guess college students are still reading it. I hope they are.

In addition, of course, to being a wonderful piece from a literary point of view, the story addresses two important questions about the effects of fame and the nature of composition. The questions are important because we still ask them. My students ask them all the time. The first is: Why is it that so many artists suffer from addictive behaviors? The second is: Does the artist know what the critic knows during the act of composition? I.e., does he put all that stuff in there on purpose?

Gail Krug’s lyrically fascinating song “Sanctuary,” which appears on Utah band Up Your Sleeve’s first cd, Deceptive Little Sweets, takes on both of these questions from the artist’s perspective. Like the character, Sonny, in “Sonny’s Blues,” the speaker in this song is possessed by her creativity to the degree that it has become an alien being she would rather live without. “I would stop you if only I could.” I believe it is typical to think about the experience of inspiration as something noble. But Krug shows it to us otherwise, as a dybbuk she must wake with, a dybbuk that lurks in her face, a dybbuk that has got into her very breath. “[I]t’s like arguing with breathing.”

What we must realize as a thinking audience is that her experience is not exceptional, but normal to the artistic endeavor. The creative process is not a matter of, as Mark Knopfler so coolly put it, “Maybe get a blister on your little finger/Maybe get a blister on your thumb.” Composition is a painful process that rakes the soul clean, allowing “no secrets remaining,” and has few rewards even for those who are successful. It leaves her “bleeding … just dead.” The final irony is that those who are most accomplished are frequently the most misunderstood; the clearest statements are often misinterpreted. All that anguish and no one even gets the point! Meanwhile the demon has wrung the soul of all its juice, and the pain of experience, or memory, rendered however symbolically brings with it not catharsis, but more pain.

There’s a 1978 Jack Nicholson movie called Terms of Endearment in which old Jack tells Shirley McLaine that she needs a lot of drinks “to kill the bug that [she has] up her ass.” For artists it should only be that simple. Krug’s metaphor for sanctuary is more to the point, “needing/A sanctuary, a sanctuary, a sanctuary from my very own soul.” Rather than drowning the demon it must be isolated. Any incantation that sings such a demon to sleep and thereby allows the speaker to separate herself from it, however briefly, is viable.

So I return to my original questions. First, why do artists need so many incantations? The answer is: they don’t. It seems that they do because they live so much in the limelight, but really it’s the high profile cases we hear about. Artists, like other people, indulge in disciplined escapes that rather than being about their work, constitute the only relief they have from their work, and therefore make the work possible. Perhaps not all artists have demons that need to be pacified. But for those who do, the luxury must be controlled, or in the end there will be no demon to tame. The artist will be dead.

As for the second question, do artists really intend to express all that we as audience tend to find, the answer is: yes. Of course they do. “You’re in my face and in these lines.” But we must make a distinction between conscious and unconscious intent. Think of Michael Jordan throwing a basketball. He has a certain perceptual ability, a sense of the relation between space and time that the rest of us perceive but dimly. There is no doubt that he makes those baskets deliberately, but I don’t think he always makes them consciously. The perception of what is right and fitting for the situation is simply there, and he acts on it. So the artist’s perception of what is right and fitting for her endeavor is there, felt consciously or not. And she acts on it; it “{j}ust pour[s] out of [her] head again.”

So why do it? If it hurts so damn much (Yeah, I know. So cry me a river.), why go through it? There are two answers to this question, too.

The first is: no choice. We may invite the muse, that is, the object our imaginations spring upon, but inspiration itself waits for no summons. If we suppress it, it wrecks life, ruins love, and leaves us in the gutter. If you think I’m being melodramatic, or making metaphors, just look into the next gutter you see.

The second answer is: hope. From a biological standpoint, only time can tell us – in it’s measurement of how well we’ve survived, and how many of our genes have made it one more step into the future – whether or not we’ve made the right choices, done the right things. Created works are packed with a similar chemistry. You hear writers talk about “killing their children,” that is, scrapping their favorite sentences and paragraphs to preserve the beauty and integrity of the whole piece. In the end, we paint, and make films, and dance and write songs like “Sanctuary” in hopes of survival.

Some piece of ourselves, perhaps the best of ourselves is carried forward into the future.

“A Fire that Can Thy Light Relume: Paul Taylor Company: ‘Promethean Fire’ American Dance Festival, Page Auditorium, Duke University, Durham, North Carolina June 6, 2002,” Ballet-Tanz Magazine, August 2002

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, August/September 2002

Ballet-Tanz Magazine, August/September 2002

Paul Taylor’s new work, Promethean Fire, set to a combined score of Johann Sebastian Bach’s tocatta and fugue in D minor; prelude in E flat; and choral prelude is in many ways an entirely classical ballet piece in spite of the Martha Graham-inspired vocabulary and contemporary costumes. The spliced-together Bach music effectually presents a formally satisfying dance composition in three movements: the first and third performed by a sixteen-member corps, joined together in the second by a pas de deux.

Like the neo-classic dance pieces of the mid-twentieth century, Promethean Fire is primarily about the music.  Its inventiveness is grounded, first, in its freedom from what Igor Stravinsky termed “ the tyranny of the beat.” Sustained, slow musical passages are often expressed through rapid, complex choreography. Some of this movement is, in fact, so fast that the kaleidoscopic lines and patterns, pattern upon pattern, blur in the fluidity of movement. This fluidity is sustained throughout the composition.  There are no pauses for photo moments, although arrangements of lines for such tableaux are there for the viewer, in plenty. A second element in the originality of this piece is its calling upon a spirit of celebration, a joy in its own humanity, without ever collapsing into sentimentality.  The pas de deux, performed by Patrick Corbin and Lisa Viola, is poignant but impersonal, like Bach’s score.

This classicism in form is mirrored in the theme. Prometheus, the peer of Zeus who brought fire to mankind, is distinguished from other Greek gods by his sympathies, which were always with humanity. The program notes offer a quotation from William Shakespeare as a subtext to the title: “…fire that can thy light relume.” This line comes from Act IV of the play, Othello, and is delivered by the title character, who soliloquizes on his intended murder of Desdemona: “If I quench thee, thou flaming minister… I know not where is that Promethean heat/ That can thy light relume. When I have pluck’d the rose, I cannot give it vital growth again.” Fire that comes from the gods ignites and illuminates, in brevity, our human light.

On opening night, June 6, 2002, the program included two of Paul Taylor’s consummate works, Cloven Kingdom (1976) and The Word (1998). The former juxtaposes passages of soaring, extravagant beauty with self-parodying, barnyard gestures. The latter uses the shadows of the dancers in motion to show the grand span of the human condition, in time, and the similarity between elements of the unrecorded past  and western culture that we consider endemic to the 20th century. Both pieces are distinguished by the effective use of taped music, making it a necessary element of the composition rather than a regrettable fact of arts funding in the United States.

“City Slippers,” Dance Spirit Magazine. July 2002

Dance Spirit Magazine June/July 2004

Dance Spirit Magazine June/July 2002

City slippers

Dance Spirit
July 1, 2002 | Payton, Colleen M
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SPENDING YOUR SUMMER IN NEW YORK CITY MAY SOUND LIKE THE PERFECT WAY TO EXPLORE THE ULTIMATE DANCE SCENE, BUT FOR NEW YORK CITY BALLET, IT’S JUST NOT ON THE PROGRAM.

Think you’re the only one who counts down to summer? This year, members of the New York City Ballet looked forward to June 30, the day of their final spring performance. Though not the beginning of a real vacation, the date marked the start of an annual getaway from the city, to Saratoga Springs, NY, located In the foothills of the Adirondack Mountains. On July 9, the company opens Its 37th summer season at the Saratoga Performing Arts Center, with George Balanchine’s Serenade, Ago” and Who Cares?. With little time to waste following their demanding spring schedule In Manhattan, you might wonder what keeps them motivated. So, Dance Spirit asked NYCB members to share the secrets of their summers.

THE GREAT OUTDOORS

During the regular season, the company dances at the New York State Theater in Manhattan’s Lincoln Center. In contrast, SPAC is surrounded by acres of woodland park and has an open-air stage that exposes the dancers to elements they normally aren’t aware of indoors, like changes in temperature, the sky, stars, mosquitoes and a truly live audience-many observers picnic on a lawn behind the amphitheater seats. As Pauline Golbin, a NYCB corps member since 1994, says, “It’s a wonderful treat, coming to Saratoga. Summer audiences are laid-back; it’s a good feeling.”

THE DAILY GRIND

Every afternoon during their summer engagement, company members will rehearse one of the 26 ballets included in the summer repertory. Over the three-week residency, there are performances every night and matinees on Saturdays. “[This is] about the same number we do normally,” says Principal Jenifer Ringer. “There’s no real break from our busy schedule.”

With various NYCB alums teaching company class, Ringer says, “Summer is a great time to learn. Trying new things, taking time with no distractions, can enrich your life as a performer.” Some dancers, like fellow Principal Damien Woetzel, choose to be on the giving end of this summer study hall by teaching in the mornings. Woetzel is also the artistic director of the nearby New York State Summer School Of The Arts’ ballet program, whose facilities on the SPAC grounds train 60 students every summer.

With mornings free and no commuting hassle, there is time for fun. Some NYCB dancers swim every morning, and the National Museum Of Dance in Saratoga is open year– round for browsing. Plus, there are the horse racing tracks-the city’s claim to fame. “The races are truly fantastic,” says Ringer. “It’s amazing to see those horses move.” As Golbin knows from many summers spent in Saratoga, “Almost everyone goes [to the tracks], but the dance and racing seasons don’t always overlap. If you want to see races it sometimes means staying on after the company leaves.”

HOME AWAY FROM HOME

Each company member finds his or her own place to stay and usually comes back to the same spot summer after summer. “I stay in a condo close enough to the theater so I can walk,” says Golbin. Many of NYCB’s dancers enjoy the fleeting privilege of small town living, complete with walks down quiet streets, before gearing up for another year of hard work and city life.

ON THE ROAD TO R & R

This year, the transition between their two worlds is different from years past. After Saratoga, NYCB traditionally embarks on a summer tour, offering the dancers a great opportunity to travel and perform abroad. For instance, two years ago, after the company performed at the Verdi Festival in Parma, Italy, Ringer and her husband, Soloist James Fayette, stayed on for an extra 10 days to travel through Spain. This year, however, the company members will have time to plan even longer vacations, since they’re off from the end of the Saratoga season until The Nutcracker rehearsals begin in early fall. For more on NYCB’s summer season, see http://www.nycballet.org.

[Sidebar]

“Summer is a great time to learn. Trying new things, taking time with no distractions, can enrich your life as a performer.”

-Jenifer Ringer,principal, New York City Ballet

[Sidebar]

“Summer audiences are laid-back; it’s a good feeling.”

-Pauline Golbin, corps member, New York City Ballet

[Author Affiliation]

Colleen teaches English and humanities at American InterContinental University in Atlanta, and writes about dance, music and culture both here and abroad.

Copyright Macfadden Performing Arts Media LLC Mar 2009. Provided by ProQuest LLC. All inquiries regarding rights or concerns about this content should be directed to Customer Service. For permission to reuse this article, contact Copyright Clearance Center.

“CARMEN IN SEATTLE,” Dance International Magazine, April 2002

Arianna Lalone In Pacific Northwest Ballet's "Carmen"

Arianna Lalone In Pacific Northwest Ballet‘s “Carmen

If medals were awarded for the number of ballets that take a particular opera as their text, Bizet’s well-worn Carmen would carry the prize away, far and away in the case of Kent Stowell’s multimedia work for Pacific Northwest Ballet, premiering January 31, 2002 at the Mercer Arts Arena, in Seattle.  Like other Carmens of recent note (Matthew Bourne’s gratuitously bloody Car Men, or Les Grands Ballets Canadiens de Montreal’s hip and world-wise treatment of 2001, for example), Stowell’s choreography illuminates the original work while exploring a thematically related aspect of contemporary culture.  Discovery is achieved through the recorded element, created by video artist Iole Alessandrini.

It is a remarkably literary ballet. It places Carmen among several other familiar dance pieces in a frame story of love, loss and disenchantment that unfolds in a dance company (a dance factory, rather than a cigar factory). Stowell depends largely on flamenco for choreography of ensemble dances: bravura and sexuality rooted in conflict.  The set is made up of tubular, movable frames with a video screen backdrop. These structures delineate, alternately, studios and performance venues.  Within them, dancers practice and perform, in addition to Carmen, Five Tangos and Le Corsaire; Balanchine’s La Valse, Chaconne and Apollo; and Stowell’s own Romeo and Juliet, and Cinderella.

Like the cast of Bob Fosse’s Cabaret, dancers in practice clothes leak onto the stage before the house lights are dimmed. Their warm up is paralleled by an orchestral tune up, and a collage construction of live video and rehearsal tapes fills the screen.  The goal is to bring the audience on stage with the dancers, showing the action from angles it otherwise could not possibly see, and to foreshadow events.

During the Habanero, for example, as Ariana Lallone, in character as Carmen awaits the attention of Jeff Stanton’s Jose, the rehearsal tape behind them is run in reverse.  Therefore, on video, the characters are already making love, and we see something of motivation, and the psychology of intent.  This juxtaposition also reflects  upon – if choreography is a form of contemplation – the nature of time.  Stowell shows us a smear in which multiple versions of the present moment occur simultaneously, rather than unwavering forward progress.

The other dancers in the piece serve as foils to the central characters. The superb technician, Patricia Barker, as Michaela, in a Nocturne of poignancy and tenderness, captures our hearts, and nearly steals the show. Stanko Milov’s Escamillo, in a pyrotechnical portrayal of the insouciant matador, is a flashing mirror of the heedless Carmen. An interesting element of characterization is that Lallone’s in-the-studio Carmen, the ballerina en alter ego, is reserved, thoughtful, cautious. In the coda, Lallone is ahead of the corps by one beat, out of sync with her society. Stanton’s martial performance with a mini-corps of picadors reveals him as a boy among boys, and draws attention to his sense of entitlement as the real source of his love and sorrow

The second cast, with principals Carrie Imler and Olivier Wevers in the lead roles convey different personalities.  Imler is a cupie-doll Carmen, and Wevers, her would-be lover, an adolescent egoist. Lallone’s Carmen neither asserts nor embodies, but simply is mystery. She exists outside of what is knowable, and her abandonment, her wildness, and her independence finally elude us.