“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.
About 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
The 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.
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.
“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
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.
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.
“MIAMI CITY BALLET: THE QUICK STEP: UNSPEAKABLE JAZZ MUST GO, BROWARD CENTER FOR THE PERFORMING ARTS, FORT LAUDERDALE, FLORIDA, MARCH 2001,” Dance International Magazine, June 2002
Edward Villella is obsessed, we might say with little hyperbole.
In March, Miami City Ballet staged its world premiere of the second act of a work in progress, The Quick Step: Unspeakable Jazz Must Go, from the incomplete, four-act ballet, The Neighborhood Ballroom, destined to premiere in its entirety, Spring 2003. This stylish romp is grounded only loosely in story – an exploration of the jazz movement in American social dance during Prohibition as it appears in a single, New York City dance hall. The ballroom from Act I has become a speakeasy. Its clientele are the rebellious youth who defy convention and threaten established values with intimate body-to-body dancing. The stock characters are predictably jocose, and the central conflict is an old one. The female principal, Kiki, danced by Mary Carmen Catoya, arrives on the scene, strikes some attitudes, seduces the Poet, Yann Trividic – it is a confrontational, Latinesque seduction – and departs with her suitor, her regular beau, as the Poet returns to his real occupation: the manuscript.
What this ballet does new is to present a serious argument about the cliché of female supremacy in dancing. It is a witty, thoroughly supported challenge (both in the quality of the choreography and of the dancing) to Balanchine’s much-publicized claim, “Ballet is woman,” a sentiment that seems to have stoked Villella’s continuing ire with some persistence. For like the character in Robert Frost’s “The Death of the Hired Hand,” “[a]fter so many years he still keeps finding/ Good arguments he sees he might have used.” Unspeakable Jazz Must Go is such an argument.
Villella’s choreography for men is fresh, rapid, frequently waggish, and requires a mastery of dance forms from male ballet dancers who defy facile classifications. By casting female dancers in support parts, as male dancers traditionally serve as backdrops to female, he is resetting the limits of our expectations. Even when women occupy traditional central placement, they frequently do so as props. In one comic sequence, for example, the principal is lifted and supported by four lunch-pail aesthetes who bandy her about like a piece of lumber. The ballerina is dead wood, Villella’s comment seems to be. Her beauty is sham, her attraction negligible, and her engagement mere sport. Finally, she is simply not important. Real men would rather be working.
Two sets of characters that delight are the cross dressers, Two Young Women, danced by Marc Spielberger and Evan Unks, and Three Gentlemen, danced by Arnold Quintane, Michelle Merrell, and Callie Manning in the first cast and Kenneth Easter, Claudia Bailetti and Jessica Shults in the second. One is not misled by the travesty, nor by the cigars, the drop-waist chiffon dresses, doll make up and fetching caps. This is a mockery that is intended to entertain rather than to deceive. Spielberger and Unks posture like characters in a Greek frieze, while Quintane’s sharp terre a terre jazz style conveys the elegance of Astaire, with the sure placement and solid return that speak to Quintane’s Paris Opera training.
The music for this piece is a compilation of mostly familiar tunes composed by Duke Ellington, Cecil Mack, Gus Kahn and Jack Yellen, including The Charleston, Yes, Sir! That’s My Baby and Ain’t She Sweet?
Unspeakable Jazz Must Go premiered sandwiched between a flawless performance of Balanchine’s Square Dance, and a sadly – and I felt deliberately – tedious Paquita, the Grand Pas, Marius Petipa’s reconstruction of the 1846 Mazilier choreography. The sense in Miami is that ballet companies can’t sell tickets unless classical ballet is in the program. Paquita, here, presented beside Unspeakable Jazz, is a shaming finger. It admonishes us for this seeming preference, and presses us to admit to what we really enjoy.