Sunday, May 20, 2007

Oxbow Incident

Oxbow is a remarkable visual arts high school nestled along the Napa River in Northern California. The brainchild of arts patron Ann Hatch, it has been in full swing for almost a decade and draws students from around the country. About 45 teenagers attend at a time, progressing through various media in 11-hour days (academics are also required) that span a single semester. Weekends home are discouraged; discipline is a must. End-of-the-semester projects are white-knuckle events as serious as college-level shows.

Situated at the looping bend in the river, the school puts young artists under the tutelege of noted painters, sculptors, printmakers and mixed media artists, all the while making sure they eat according to the gospel of Alice Waters. It echoes the Ox-Bow School of Arts on the shores of Lake Michigan, which is affiliated with the Art Institute of Chicago. It also alludes to Thomas Cole's 1836 painting entitled The Oxbow.

A friend of mine, Emma, is just finishing her semester there, and Sunday three of us visited the campus to view the students' final projects. As we moved from beautiful studio to beautiful studio (designed by architect Stanley Saitowitz) we discovered that the young artists had undertaken daring personal and philosophical explorations, pushing their skills hard and striving for real mastery and depth. Repeatedly the projects revealed sharp young minds passionately focused, expressively fluent. I found their courage inspiring.

And as a dance person, I found the recurrent presence of the body in the show a thought-provoking surprise. The arts have changed radically since the advent of AIDS. As bodies began to disappear at a staggering rate, especially in the arts world, the body was no longer a second-rate player that could be taken for granted but the first and most important game in town. Whether sick or well, diminished or pumped up, the body began to be portrayed in rich and complex ways in the years that followed, and narrative became a kind of robe that revealed and obscured the form. That trend has lasted: embodied art is everywhere.

As I thought about this, I realized that the renewed primacy of the body in visual arts harkens back to the rebellions of the Bay Area School painters (led by Richard Diebenkorn, David Park, Elmer Bischoff, and Joan Brown to name a few) against Abstract Expressionism. These painters, many of whom were vets of WW II, saw the body as central to humanism in a post-Hiroshima/Auschwitz world. Today, in an increasingly violent and uncertain world, we're once again forced back to first principles; the body is where we begin.

Oxbow's kids, with not a whit of sentimentality, claimed the body with this kind of exigency, and the human form, whether in mixed media, video, paint, or sculpture, was presented as the single verifiable if still elusive reality. As our current last frontier (there will always be a new last frontier), the body is the place where culture, economy, religion, sexuality and ethics intersect. As such, it is the figurative as well as metaphoric battleground for conflict. It is also the place of redemption. These young artists seemed to know that, and their faith in the body was amazing.

Oh Henry

David Gordon’s Pick Up Performance Co(S.) Production in Dancing Henry Five
ODC Theater, San Francisco
May 17 2007

The questions Thursday were posed like the opening of a Polish joke: how many dancers does it take to perform a four-hour Shakespeare history play about a feckless war, and how long does it take them to do it?

“Dancing Henry Five” by David Gordon, eminent-grise of post-modernism, answered with sly simplicity: it takes seven dancers (plus three large dolls), a nimble narrator, and a healthy hour. No joke.

As straightforward as that sounds, Gordon’s Shakespeare reduction was created from parts as polished as old bone and put together with a comic and elegant sense of design. It dropped what was inessential (the battle of Harfleur) and kept the critical (the devastating rout of the French at Agincourt). Enormous care went into the parade of hand-held signboards that alerted us with fanfare that the show was beginning, into the flow of chairs in space, into how cloth billowed and a trio of men stood upon moving fabric like heroic ships, window frames became field tents, dancers waltzed, and irony flowed. The result was pared-down drama that succeeded in being poignant, wise and sweetly cheeky.

“Dancing Henry Five” concerns one of Shakespeare’s sorrier tales of vanity, hubris and benightedness and how, together, they find company in an almost endless war designed to strengthen a politician and church’s position at home. Greed was a primary motivator—King Henry V was manipulated by the Archbishop of Canterbury to drop progressive legislation and encouraged to seek money from abroad. In other words, he was to attack France to let the English forget their financial woes. To add nuance to the goings-on, Gordon uses as his starting point an already reduced Laurence Olivier film version of the play, which was created as a bit of propaganda during WW II. So when Setterfield speaks in tandem with dialogue from the film we get a deft conceptualist overlay of how the same events can be read anew in another age.

Our Henry at the helm is the once naughty Prince Harry, Harry of the pub and the whorehouse. As you’ll remember, he was the happy bad boy who hung out with bawdy Falstaff in Henry IV until a conversion experience and a crown turned him into a self-righteous Henry V, who renounces his dying hedonist friend and copes with the nation’s complexities through a mix of duplicity and bellicosity. The parallels to our dry-drunk born-again President are obvious yet sophisticated and made by ethereal narrator Valda Setterfield, whose lanky body is a mix of vaudevillian and May Queen. And although she ironically warns us from her station on a ladder that these are Gordon’s opinions, not hers, we believe by her knowing delivery that they’re every bit hers as well.

Before much ado, the work dives in with exquisitely simple sets that the company recycles (ladders, folding chairs, large rectangles of stripey fabric) and delectable lighting (Jennifer Tipton) to deconstruct without an ounce of jargon the messy business of Henry Five and, by association, George Two. Setterfield, who’s been married to Gordon since the 60s and is a former Ballet Rambert and Cunningham Company dancer, has the right sophistication for such a bare-bone task. With swirling pace, she moves us from point to point, compressing, summing up, letting us know what’s been omitted, drawing the parallels so the company of mostly men can sweep in and assume their posts as soldiers, countrymen and kings. They fight by way of percussively striking poles against the ground, creating a poetically spare sense of menace and foreboding. They set up long window frames as tents amid shadows and vermillion light. As for the additional women in the cast, the beautiful pixyish dancer Sadira Smith, who brings her own magic to the action, and the smooth-limbed Karen Graham inject a keen feminine irony into the proceedings, while William Walton’s symphonic score keeps us aptly locked between the clear dance beats of the Renaissance and the emotional tempests of the violent 20th century.

Gordon, who has been absent from the Bay Area a woefully long time, gnaws on the work’s contradictions deftly, like a clown who is both erudite and detached and loves chiseled language as he loves starkly elemental dance. As a contretemps between wary Renaissance states, for instance, we get the quintessential post-mod-ironic exercise: a dance with balls (a “screw off” from France in the form of a gift: a cache of tennis balls), here offered as a courtly dance that expands with the accretion of tasks (throw orange ball plus move; throw orange ball, move plus bounce once; throw orange and green balls, move, bounce twice etc….).

The dancers, dressed in striped rugby shirts with extra sleeves, upside down or draped as overskirts, plus 15th century-ish caps, were able to blend the present and past with apt irony, from the touching and canny minuet between Setterfield as English language tutor and Karen Graham as Catherine of Valois, preparing for the amorous side of political siege (“Big weddings are hell to pull off,” Setterfield remarks with typical piquancy); to the depiction of battle in which both England and France lose half their forces. Tadej Brndnik performed Henry with the right mix of boyish self-importance and wry likeability. (Other performers were Lloyd Knight, Eli McAffee, Guillermo Ortega and David Zurak.) The dancey rhythms of Walton livened up the action with suitable irony of its own and gave 21st century weight to the 15th century action.

We’ve heard the question often these last years: how does an artist make art about our dire time? Gordon’s luminously unaffected dance theater, created in 2004, offers what seems like an almost forgotten and indisputably sagacious response: he locates our tragic compulsion to repeat, often manipulated by blind self-interest couched in the name of larger good, and shows its wryly tragic results. The excuses change, the weapons grow more deadly, and the costs escalate, but the outcome is the same: death and sorrow. In the very finest dance, the elements also change, but the results don’t: beautiful movement and no small pool of enlightenment. Dancing Henry Five gave us both.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Sound Moves

Meredith Monk. May 16 2007. Kanbar Hall, San Francisco

Meredith Monk is an avant-garde aborigine. Now in her 60s she reinvents every imaginable kind of sound, whether it’s Tuva throat singing, Pygmy ululation, Bantu clicking, Balkan harmonies or the rhythms and noise of the natural world. Lucas Hoving used to tell the story of Monk in comp class at Sarah Lawrence where he taught and she went to college. When he asked his students to invent a movement phrase with a body part leading, for instance, the dancers would perform recognizable modern dance shapes, aping Graham or Limon. Monk, instead, he said, cocked her head to the side, yanked her ear up, and in a high-pitched clutter of syllables led herself across the dance floor like a wayward child being handled by an angry teacher. Hoving roared with laughter and knew instantly that Monk had a rare and magical imagination. In the ensuing decades she’s built a sound landscape so richly textured and vividly colored, so imaginatively wild and weird, that a program of Monk is both playful and also mystically austere. It reminds me of a laughing crow on the New Mexico mesa or in an otherwise empty cave.

As the intimate evening got underway in the packed Kanbar Hall, she said that the voice is the first instrument, and it is the perfect instrument to transverse gender, age, species and state. She was dressed in a simple, elegant red dress overlaid by a sheer black handkerchief-cut jacket for the first set, her long braids falling behind her, her face a mix of elf and priestess. In the second half she changed to white, and the vibrations of the color added apt counterpoint to her first playful then more mournful sets.

It was an evening of many old favorites and an audience of dance and music family—literally as well as artistically: one song was dedicated to her niece, who was in the audience. The concert opened with excerpts from “Songs from the Hill” (1977), “Light Songs,” and “Volcano Songs” and in the second set included “Traveling” (1973), “Gotham Lullaby” (1975), “Madwoman’s Vision” from her 1988 film “Book of Days,” and segments from her opera “Atlas” (1991). In 2003 she was invited by Rosetta Life, a British hospice project to work musically with the dying who wished a last public act of expression. From that she built a funny-sad list of “lasts” to a series of minimalist, hypnotic chords called “Last Song”—last song, last breath, last minute, last ditch, last dance. Monk’s own partner, Mieke van Hoek, had died the year before of cancer, a loss that upended everything in her own life, Monk said, even calling into question her role as an artist.

In her use of the voice, movement is a given, not only because she learned to move and sing through the integrated methods of Dalcroze Eurythmics, but because sound to her is a form of movement. For Monk everything in nature has its own rhythmic and harmonic reality as it does for Kathak artists, and she makes us see the sonic dance that she hears all around her, her voice bending notes with exquisite delicacy, sound circling because of her ability to alter its trajectory, music lurching and sputtering, skipping and flying, words breaking down into their elemental sonic parts. Narrative is replaced by what she calls mosaics of meaning, and emotion isn’t applied as much as it is unearthed from humble yet virtuosic bits of sound looped round and round until they envelop us in resonances that nudge, soothe or tickle. The effect is to bring us back to long-ago memories of made-up languages and elaborate vocabularies of nonverbal noises; to take us back all the way to where we began as preverbal creatures inventing and decoding meaning, riffing with a sonically busy world.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Notes on Don Q Tuesday, May 2

(Don Q’s the deluded romantic who gave his name to a venerable condition: quixotic—fine poetic word for dreamy, unrealistic, impulsive (from cuixot, Catalan for thigh or horse’s ass, which Don Q is, along with sweet and valiant.))

A delicious Don Quixote.

But four years out I’m still trying to determine if it’s objectively possible to be anticlimactic in the first scene of an evening-length ballet production when nothing precedes it. If so, Don Q hit pay dirt in 2003 when a tall skinny guy with an unwieldy body sat reading dreamily upstage while turning some pages of a book. That was it. We could hear the narrative machinery grinding: “WE HAVE TO TELL YOU THAT THIS IS ABOUT AN ECCENTRIC MAN WHO READS TOO MANY ROMANTIC TALES. It is also A STORY. IT IS DERIVED FROM THE FAMOUS NOVEL.”

Back then I thought the conceit was the problem—and at bottom it is, since there’s nothing dramatic about reading a book or being dreamy. But on Tuesday the intro’s new layers of intention, weight, and comic timing revealed the secret of good theater: when Kirill Zaretskiy added irony and drama to each of Don Q’s gestures he made the physical language large and sweetly absurd, bringing some imagination to what used to be a clanking void. It changed those minutes from dead to animate, ponderous to gently daft, and prepared us for the slapstick of the altogether hilariously down-to-earth Sancho Panza (Pascal Molat) dashing in, skidding on one leg, trying to hide with a leg of stolen ham or lamb under the table. Even though the Spanish housewives following the thief were too decorous for the job (its own little anticlimax), they couldn’t extinguish the fire ignited by Panza and his boss.

With the mechanics more adroitly out of the way, the company was free this year to let loose. And did they—with more Morris than Moorish bravura, perhaps, but buckets of bravura all the same. Not only did the principals, demi-soloists and corps comport themselves with a sparkling liveliness, they also seemed to have enormous fun. Without that, Don Q is just another excuse for a string of stunning folk-inspired set pieces.

This year most of those set pieces were stunners. Stand-outs were Ruben Martin as the matinee idol Espada in Act I, who uses his cape somewhere between kitschy accoutrement, magician’s tool and dangerous weapon. Frances Chung and Dores Andre as Kitri’s friends were powerhouses in the making, although they're not ready to throw caution to the wind--they're still trying to sublimate their considerable technique to sheer expression. (Chung, in particular, seems on the edge of consistent artistic daring.) In Act II, Hansuke Yamamoto as the Gypsy Leader had crisp command of his tempestuous grand allegro, a command that seems to grow with every new stage appearance. Sarah Van Patten’s Mercedes performed the back-bending renversés with sultry bombshell beauty and devoured the stage with vixen plasticity (let’s see her next time as Kitri). In Don Q’s Dream, Yuan Yuan Tan was an ethereal Queen of the Driads and Elizabeth Miner danced Cupid as sweetly and delectably as butter icing.

Act I brought us the gorgeous if somewhat too serious band of Toreadors who offer glamour to the folk proceedings the way Kitty Carlisle’s arias class up A Night At the Opera. They’re just this side of goofy, as everything in commedia dell’arte is and should be. Magnify that solemn hauteur bullfighters’s have—these are guys whose job puts them face to face with death, after all—and their incongruity as a dancing sextet would be both more dramatic and more delightful.

As for Tina LeBlanc and Gonzalo Garcia--think thrilling sparklers as opposed to exploding fireworks. Each time they stepped out of the crowd to perform, they pulled the ballet together rather than overwhelmed it, which was one of the reasons this Don Q. was so memorable. The other was the sheer magic of their dancing.

LeBlanc may not have a scintilla of Catalan blood in her, but she performs an ingenuously scrappy Kitri more bright and earthy than fiery and utterly believable as the young woman who has a plan for her future wildly at odds with her father’s designs. She wants to marry the delectable barber Basilio (and is able to keep the slightly callow boy in his place along the way); dad plans to pawn her off on the absurd but affluent fop Gamache (in hilariously send-up by Damian Smith).

The buzz in some quarters is that only Lorena Fejoo is truly suited to the role. That’s like saying there’s only one Giselle (Carlotta Grisi? Alicia Alonso? Gelsey Kirkland?). LeBlanc’s no gypsy, and she certainly doesn’t have Lorena Fejoo’s Roman nose, flashing temper, and arrogant tilt of head. LeBlanc may have more Euclidian purity to her dancing than the role actually needs, and her arms in high 5th suffer some droop here and there. But there's no female dancer in the company right now more musical than she, with so vast a spectrum of color to that musicality. LeBlanc creates a world of characters that rise up effortlessly from steps and gestures invested with precise shape, limned rhythm, and luxuriant rubato. Slicing through the air as brilliantly as a diamond-encrusted scalpel, she lets warmth, humor and generosity pour through the spaces she cuts. If Fejoo’s Kitri is volcanic, LeBlanc’s is sweet water on hot stone. Two brilliant dancers. Two brilliant Kitris.

Gonzalo Garcia, the fair Spaniard, dancing his last role in his career at SFB, met LeBlanc, chiseled step for chiseled step, hot pirouette for hot pirouette, and winning disposition for winning disposition. His circling leaps read as dizzying love and youthful energy, his perfectly placed jumps as eros in action. He’s a similar dancer to LeBlanc—his mathematically clean placement is the sluice through which whatever character or role he inhabits can flow. Here, that technical purity gave depth and torque to his boyish vanity and slightly prankish air. As scenes piled up, I began to see the charming Garcia and buoyant LeBlanc as the Celtic face of Spain, with Fejoo and Boada embodying its moodier, Moorish attitude. There’s nothing misplaced about that, either. The Spanish Garcia looks more Celtic than Arab, and why shouldn’t he? Spain is the intersection of wave after wave of invaders. The Celts poured in in the 9th century BCE to establish Celtiberian culture. They were followed by Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Vandals and Visigoths. Muslim Arab-Berbers didn’t arrive until 700 AD.

In a big ballet, the structure is typically pyramidal with the few star characters populating the top of the structure, and the masses at the bottom, holding up the whole thing facelessly. Because of its meandering structure and picaresque style, and perhaps because small characters assume sudden great importance, as often happens in novels, Don Q has a loose and egalitarian quality, and the company approached it this year as a communal undertaking, rather like Mark Morris’ Sylvia. The dancers seemed to love being on stage together and delight in the silliness as much as the virtuosity. For me, it’s precisely this insouciance and camaraderie that shows the modern face of SFB the best.

(Note to Helgi: how about a series of Sunday matinees, call them A Dance Tasting, and offer us comparative works: Moorish then Celtic looking versions of Don Q’s duets; Balanchine’s Square Dance followed by Merce Cunningham’s Grange Eve; Fokine’s The Dying Swan and Ratmansky’s spoof of same, or other similar pairings.)

Monday, May 7, 2007

On The Retirement of Muriel Maffre, Shapeshifter

Dear Muriel,

Thank you for years of glorious dancing. Thank you for your bravery and humility. Thank you for cutting your hair. For seeming to treat each occasion on stage as another experiment, another chance to learn something additional about the music, your partner, the phrasing, the color of the moment, or even how far it would take you to get your endless leg to its seeming far off destination. The miracle is that you never gave control a compulsive or brittle look. You made it Olympian and grand. Love, death, sex, humor, sorrow, mystery and plain old hoofing--you brought it all to the stage.

What has made your dancing sublime is that you always treated your extraordinary intelligence as your starting point rather than your endgame. Each time you took on a role you devoured then metabolized it into spare, eloquent physical expression, and so you evolved into one of the least sentimental, most luxuriously Spartan and frequently hilarious dancers in the company.

In the early years I got to watch you refine your technical arsenal, hone your musical clarity and find the means to let your body play without impediment. I don’t remember which year it was, but one season you came before us with all your parts assuredly in place. It was then that I realized you were no longer dancing, you were shapeshifting. That ability to totally morph from Myrtha to Odette to the dominant woman in Agon to Ratmansky’s ruined Pavlova brought us a large world of extraordinary women. Your long fearless body occupied it with heroic grace. Grazie infinite.