Sunday, February 22, 2009

musings on discourse project

(what follows is my counterpost on the subject of last week's discourse project at counterpulse....all viewable on their blog....)

I've been dropping down in front of the tv lately since i came down with the flu. I've been trying to endure the spotty HD signal, looking for juicy news or entertainment but discovering over and over how dreary the pickings are without plug-ins to the great television transmission gods in the sky/ground.

ironically, making do has its rewards because i watch what i might otherwise pass up. last week i saw bill moyers interview parker palmer, for instance. Palmer is a man whose piety irked me but whose thoughtfulness was galvanizing, the founder of something called the center for courage and renewal. He specifically addressed the recent crop of newcomers to politics, people who shed their past disinterest or disillusion because of the obama campaign's careful and emotionally connected organizing strategies. the essence of the strategy was to connect individual stories to a larger purpose, then keeping that purpose alive. parker talked about the need as citizens for a constant dialectic between what is and what might be, between the material and ideal; without that, we fall into narcissism and cynicism on the one hand, and delusion on the other. in either case we end up out of touch with the flawed realities of everyday life and disconnected from the changes that can arise from leaps of imagination and belief in the future. my own metaphor for this is making a tortilla: on one side is the real and on the other the ideal. you have to turn the masa harina ball over and over, patting one side then another, until you have something that holds together and can nourish you.

i came away from the discourse project thursday knowing that the parker palmer/tortilla notion seemed to be missing from the house. Perhaps the dance community is still in need of a place and means to tell individual stories, because virtually every voice seemed to be engaged in a separate and private conversation. What struck me as unfortunate about this is that the days of complaining about not being covered or crowing about how much you don't care about being covered are so over. That conversation was robust 25 years ago, when the papers were full of music critics doubling as dance writers (some of them quite good), the Bay Guardian and the other weeklies were yet to cover dance regularly, and no one much liked what was written about them but still desperately needed to be reviewed to qualify for grants or to gain a footing in the community among other dancemakers. Complaining actually had some traction, but even then only a little. Now, the problems are more stark and, in a way, more interesting. Rachel is a strong dance advocate, and although she isn't, as Paul Parish has noted, given the leeway to do the job she might do, she still makes a silk purse out of a sow's very small ear. She helps drive attention to dance from people close to and far from the art's inner circles, and this enhances the ecology of Bay Area dance culture whether the individual dancemakers feel the impact or not. The rest of us--Rita, Paul, Mary Ellen, Mike, Kitty, Janice, Aimee, me and others I don't even know of--each in our respective venues and in our distinct ways, attempt to do something similar. What distinguishes all of us from the past writers is we do it because we love dance and for little other reason. Certainly not the freelance pay, which is as negligible as it was 15 years ago. Some of us will write for free, simply because we need to.

Implicitly, some of those who spoke seemed to deny the importance of the shared or centralized conversation (despite being there to engage in it), even as some of those same people bemoaned being ignored by the press. Maybe the problem is how how we define the problem.

What I want to offer is that we think of an ecology of dance writing, a system that is complex, interwoven, and includes the generalist review down (or is that up?) to the esoteric phenomenological debates by philosophers on the nature of presence. We should be able to create a form that can hold and honor the myriad species of thinking and talking and writing about dance without having to diss one facet of the ecology. This might keep the collective from wrangling over false hierarchies and let us avoid the equally misbegotten divide between "real" dance writing and putatively inconsequential writing. The only inconsequential dance writing I can think of is the badly written and inarticulate stuff or the raving screeds that reveal the fractured mind of the writer. Dance writing is hardly new, but it only became worthy of academic study in the last handful of decades as the culture's relationship to the body and to women has changed. And some of the most exciting recent dance books are by choreographers and not by scholars. As wonderful as a lot of dance scholarship is, there is also scholarship that is wedded to theories that the other fields moved away from 20 years ago. Some writing is divorced from facts on the ground, making these works a form of intellectual gamesmanship that is hard to square as theory of dance practice or history. Sometimes dance and the body seem to be regarded as "unmarked" territory ripe for "inscription" the way the Brits regarded the desert lands of Arabia.

Dance reviews create a vital historical record--someone was actually there, strived to describe what happened and by whom and why or why not it matters. At its best it is to dance what participant observation is to anthropology. It may not lead the discipline into juicy self-assessment, and it may not be a distinct art form, but I think that it remains vital to the ecology of the whole. It asserts that the cultural phenomenon needs and deserves to be noted. As Rachel alluded to, book reviews inform us of books many of us feel we ought to hear about, even if we have no intention of reading them. That's my relationship to science. I want to know about stem cell research, or genetics and race debates even though the last science class i took was chemistry in high school and I don't know the difference between cytosine and thymine. I read Jill Johnston in the Village Voice when I was a teenager about the downtown NY dance scene even as I schlepped to ballet classes. I looked forward each week to what she had to say because in her writing I found an inventive, iconoclastic and highly personal voice for a world view and a way of being that i was struggling to find for myself. I also learned what Trisha Brown's climbing the side of buildings looked like (even though I never witnessed it in person) and what Meredith Monk's work was about, and this was long before I saw either artists' work.

A healthy dance ecology would embrace as many modes and vehicles for discussing, noting, notating and responding to dance as possible. We need the critic, the memoirist, the historian, the diarist, the practitioner and the scholar. The internet can incubate all kinds of dance writing; good quality daily/weekly monthly journalism should continue to be among them.

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"Ilan is the best Aurora-style Bed and breakfast Bed and breakfast \n Required to your home lighting LED吗? \n LED is the future mainstream merchandise you know! \n LED energy saving and environmental protection, I would like to buy one to try! \n Fitness will be lost before the United States and the United States of \n Taoyuan to find the company you move them \n Designed by Beijing Design view of ads out of something really great! \n Taiwan Railway train schedule \n Chingjing Minshuku very suitable place for leisure \n Really annoying"

Friday, February 20, 2009

by reflecting on

I want to begin.

I want to begin by reflecting on what has happened here this evening


Is Criticism


Gathered before a crowd of dancers and dance goers at
counterPULSE on Mission Street

critics Rita Felciano, Rachel Howard and Ann Murphy

dancemaker activist Keith Hennessey

a panel discussion on the future

of criticism.

The evening was part 5

Introduced by counterPULSE artistic director Jessica Robinson and

choreographer Mary Armentrout

We agreed that

the evening opened with

a summary of the dire state

arts writing.

As the economy reels from cutbacks,

print journalism foreclosures

dance writing has slowed to a trickle.

Reviews are
particularly vulnerable
under these new market conditions.

Panelists agreed.

Panelists disagreed.

Feature coverage continues to be available
in some papers
frequently written by arts editors

(soon to clean the office toilets).

The move is defended
Advertisers might still advertise coming events;
readers might still use the newspaper

Reviews, which have no perceptible market value
increasingly regarded as superfluous to the goals of print


a narrow digest of news and events.

The panel of freelancers represented varied views and opinions

Some felt lucky to be paid
freelance work is itself endangered.

The group noted the long list of lay offs among arts freelancers.

A moment of silence....

Controversy between the audience and the panelists
flaring over the dangers and opportunities provided by the usurpation of journalism by the internet.

No one knew the future

For more details visit www dot

I want to begin by saying we are here tonight attempting to forecast the future of criticism

I think the best place to start is with a definition of criticism. We might also want to define forecast. I recommend we think of that as throwing a fishing line out ahead of the current.

Criticism often signifies unkind communication that delivers a putative truth laced with barbed wire or soaked in acid. We distinguish good criticism by qualifying it as “constructive criticism.” Criticism also means a serious examination of something, coming from the Greek word “kritikos” meaning one who discerns. I find this definition beautiful, suggestive of an ability to scrutinize what is, the more refined the better. This is a far more appealing definition of critic than that of “appraiser,” which is what critics frequently become, and is interchangeable with the jeweler on the corner squinting at your grandmother’s ring with his loupe.

Criticism is like fly fishing. The critic is the fisherman, the art the fish. The critic’s job is to bring the fish in. She has the greatest chance the better her flies, the smoother her casting and the longer and farther she’s willing to wade out in her hip waders.

The fish is the beauty sought, the mystery to uncover. It is another form of dance.

I want to begin by talking about something Keith wrote to Mary. It was in an email conversation they’d been having--something I skimmed the other night. It was designed to spark conversation. This is proof that it has:

Keith argues that writing about dance is translating across a language divide that fundamentally cannot be traversed.

I say nonsense.

Dance is not wholly inscrutable. Dance, like words, music , painting and sculpture, provoke thought and feeling that arise out of the same sea of concepts, emotion and memory that we rely on to formulate verbal language. I can say things in Italian that cannot be said in English, but that doesn’t mean that I had no concept for stronzo or ingambe. The fact that there’s no exact corollary in English doesn’t make the word untranslatable. There may be no one-to-one correspondence between them. It may take me several words to do the work of the single Italian word. The question is: do I have a concept for that word? If I do, I can find a means to express it in English, no matter how clumsy.

The same with dance. An arm floating behind a dancer’s back as she looks down at the floor may have no obvious correspondence to a single word. But that doesn’t mean I can’t capture the conceptual sense of that moment. The deeper the dance is, the richer each movement, and that usually means that phrases, even paragraphs, are needed to capture the poetry of the act.

The essence of criticism as the pursuit of some shared notion of truth and beauty and transcendent values is to engage our shared language to generate and expand discourse in the public sphere. As flawed and imperfect as that discourse is, without it we would be hostage to the solipsism of every faction, social movement, political leader and dance practitioner who claimed to be above or beyond language and mutual conversation.

The word, or logos (which the Bible claims brought the world into being when clearly it was movement) has its limits, and words are often used in a brutish and two-dimensional fashion. But so are dances. Words are signifiers capable of carving out great meaning and haunting beauty about the things they signify. When they fail it’s often the messenger and not the message system that’s lacking.

Is writing a substitute for dance? Hardly. But most of us can agree that, at bottom, it is vital that we have people writing about dance with vivid intelligence. Dance leaves no artifact behind; wrapping words around the vanished moment becomes a means to transform the ghostly experience through an emulsion of words into something we can partially see again. In our culture, a written record is also proof that you exist.

As for the inability to translate across the divide: For those of us who hold Plato’s idealism in one hand and John Dewey’s pragmatism in the other, everything is both an act of translation and nothing more than itself. I am a translation. And I am only me. My dance writing is a translation and it is itself. My name is a translation. My body and my presence here tonight are translations.

My dance writing translates to paper my experience of the dance I watch, and it always does so through my imperfect writing skills and the limitations of my understanding—and I don’t only mean my understanding of the work but the understanding of my own thought.

My name is a translation of my father’s urge for continuity, passing on his love for his mother by giving his daughter her name. It is also a translation of my mother’s lost battle to name me something else. My name is not me, and still it’s inextricable from who I am and have become, forever translating me to the world.

My body is endlessly mediating my soul, and though it often seems to have little to do with anything noncorporeal, this body is, for better and for worse, the mouthpiece of what I am.

My presence here tonight is a translation of my ideal presence, which I can only imperfectly imagine and can’t attain.

So what of the future of dance criticism?

The future of dance criticism is an unknown. I find that exciting because of the endless possibilities of the internet. I find that terrifying because of the tyrannical cacophony of the internet. The mob rules yet out of the chaos can come structures we haven’t dreamed of. The mob rules and that can be very ugly, as some of us know first hand.

Dismantling printing presses, newspaper infrastructure and intelligent journalistic culture worries me. The internet isn’t alone to blame. Remember that corporate raiders bought up papers, pirated their assets then left near empty shells to totter into the 21st century. Libertarians consumed progressive weeklies around the country and divested them of their political and aesthetic content. We need to beware of how vulnerable to oligarchies and corporate elites centralized information is. Countries like China and Russia are all too happy to control news and suppress opinion; corporations like ATT would prefer to sell bandwidth to the rich. The end of family run print journalism and the destruction of the old information infrastructure, with it ideals and ethical standards, challenges us to insure that information remains free and freely shared. It also cries out for discipline and purpose. These were the hallmarks of the best 20th century journalism. May they become them for the 21st.

spring fever

Almonds and cherries, magnolias and hardenbergia, cyclamen, tulips, lilies and roses are in bloom again. The plant world is heating up and, with dance fairly dormant during the winter, so is the dance scene. Yerba Buena Center for the Arts' Novellus Theater appears to be leading the profusion, hosting one-night-only appearances, new companies from far-flung continents and artists from another part of the state.

This weekend, for example, the YBCA curators continue their recent exploration of contemporary Japanese dance, training the spotlight on Hiroshi Koike's dance-theater company, Pappa Tarahumara, in "Ship in a View." The work, combining dance-theater spectacle with formalist abstraction, centers around a facsimile of a ship that traverses the stage during the evening, carrying dancers as it moves from a 1960s townscape to a mysterious, silvery future.
On March 3, French conceptualist Jerome Bel makes a single appearance on stage with Thai dancer Pichet Klunchun, together blurring the boundaries of formal presentation, casual inquiry and cross-cultural exploration as each attempts to understand how the other one dances.

Then, from March 5 to 7, David Rousseve, professor in UCLA's Department of World Arts and Cultures as well as artistic director of David Rousseve/Reality, presents "Saudade" (meaning "yearning" in Portuguese), described by one reviewer as a "sprawling, chaotic patchwork of cultures, stories and dance forms." Rousseve toys with time and place and character in an effort to capture our contemporary condition.

Details: 8 p.m. today and Saturday, March 3 and 5-7, Novellus Theater, 700 Howard St., at Third Street; $15-$30; 415-978-2787,

ODC's spring

When ODC launches its bountiful spring season at the Novellus Theater for two weeks, co-directors Brenda Way and KT Nelson will deliver up new works and a rash of poignant and sensual rep pieces. In Program 1, Nelson presents her latest, "Grassland," with live music to a commissioned score by Brazilian pianist Marcelo Sarvos. In Program 2, Way gives us "In the Memory of the Forest," a work about her fearless mother-in-law, Iza Erlich, who walked out of Warsaw in 1940, as the Nazis were walling up the ghetto, and went east in search of her husband. (The choreographer has enlisted David and Ha-Jin Hodge to create video, Jay Cloidt, who uses some of Erlich's narration, to create a sound score, and Elaine Buckholtz for lighting design.)
The company also reprises an array of its deeply humanist dances, including Way's 2008 "Unintended Consequences: A Meditation" and Nelson's sexy, energy-packed "They've Lost Their Footing."
Details: ODC Dancing Downtown, 7, 8, 8:30 and 2 p.m. March 12-29, Novellus Theater, 700 Howard St., at Third Street; $15-45: 415-978-2787,

SF Ballet's 'Swan'

Reimagining ballet classics for our time, San Francisco Ballet's Helgi Tomasson floats a new "Swan Lake," his second since he took the company's helm in 1985. "Ballet at its most beautiful," Tomasson has called this fairy-tale dance, and who could disagree? In "Swan Lake," story serves poetry; the steps themselves are what's truly sublime, telling a story through the body steeped in the heartaches of 19th-century Romanticism. While Tomasson says he has chopped some dances that might strike us as comparable to overstuffed furniture in a modernist palace, he promises to leave the iconic dances alone.
Details: San Francisco Ballet, Saturday through March 1; 8 p.m. Tuesday, Thursday, Feb. 27 and 28, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays, War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave., at Grove Street; $20-$255; 415-865-2000,

More Hope

Bay Area native Hope Mohr, who has danced in New York with Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs and Douglas Dunn, among others, presents her fluid dances at Theatre Artaud next weekend in her company's second season in San Francisco. The Stanford grad and recent mother plumbs space, the environment, and the listening body.
Details: 8 p.m. Thursday through Feb. 28, Project Artaud Theater (formerly Theater Artaud), 450 Florida St., San Francisco; $18; 415-626-4370, 800-838-3006,

Alvin Ailey company at 50

Decades ago, the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, with Judith Jamison, arrived at my suburban high school for a residency. It was at the point in my nascent dance life when the Ailey was the alpha and the omega. It was not just a dance institution but an embodiment of a different way of life — integrated, streetwise, devoted and beautiful. During their stay I prowled the edges of the company, chauffeuring around three dancers in my parents' old Impala. I drove in mute adoration as these divine beings chatted about nothing.

Then there was Jamison herself. The goddess, about 6 feet tall, had one of the most supple backs in the field, and she rolled her furious head as though it were a ball spinning freely on a flexible pole, blending Africa, the blues and youth culture in a glorious profusion of movement. It caused a hall of affluent Puritans to leap to their feet stomping and singing — the spirit seizing them as it, perhaps, had never seized them before. That night I experienced the transcendent power of art in a high school auditorium.

Jamison left the company in 1980 but reappeared as the artistic director in 1989 when Ailey died, as he had wanted her to. With the same kind of feline majesty and moral clarity she manifested on stage, she set about the task of reanimating Ailey's vision, turning a troupe that had lost itself in the wilderness for a while into a company that has been treating dance as a celebration of life for 20 years.

For its 50th anniversary, that devotion manifests in a number of ways. One is in its two West Coast premieres, a collaboration with the glorious vocal ensemble Sweet Honey in the Rock on March 3-4 in dancer Hope Boykin's "Go in Grace." The other in Mauro Bigonzetti's "Festa Barocca," to music by Handel. It also comes through in Jamison's tribute to the past in Program B, with its range of Ailey work from "Blues Suite" and "Lark Ascending" to "Hidden Rites" and "For Bird—With Love." Jamison retires in two years. One wishes the best for AAADT after she's gone, but don't miss it now.

Details: Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, 8 p.m. (with 2 and 3 p.m. matinees) March 3-8, Zellerbach Hall, UC Berkeley, Bancroft Way; $36-$62; 510-642-9988,

Tuesday, February 3, 2009


when lilacs last in the door-yard bloom'd

San Francisco Ballet opened its 76th season this week with the quiet elegance artistic director Helgi Tomasson has been carving into the company's character for more than two decades.

With three big, structurally complex works Tuesday evening in Program 1 and three bittersweet studies of romance in Program 2 Thursday at the War Memorial Opera House, Tomasson showed us again that he is a director who shapes his programs with understated yet fierce curatorial care. As admirable as this is, the result is often uneven — sometimes sublime and at others uptight. This week produced a bit of both.

Program 1 offered a lineup of big dances that happened also to be subtle color studies, which is where they were most interesting. Opening the program was Tomasson's "Prism," a grand ballet he created for the New York City Ballet Diamond Project in 2001. Alternating between sweeping blocks of ensemble dancing and duets and trios, it was warmly bathed in apricot and red tones and set to Beethoven's Concerto No. 1.

At its heart "Prism" deployed an array of triangular formations, essential to some prisms, danced boldly by Kristin Long, Ruben Marin and Hansuke Yamaoto and later by Sofiane Sylve, Ivan Popov and Tars Domitro, the puckish wonder of the night. Still, emotionally, none of it quite struck home.

George Balanchine's "Four Temperaments," was Prism's bookend. This is an ascetic ballet but it can pack a wallop when
performed with the right quality of ironic austerity. Built from jazz-inflected, hip-thrusting movement and set to a commissioned score by Paul Hindemith in 1946, the ballet Tuesday was ably but too squarely and decorously danced. Lacking the elegant edginess Balanchine intended, "Four Temperaments" devolves into a series of impressive academic exercises.

In between was the night's delicate premiere, "Diving into the Lilacs," by Yuri Possokhov. This ballet not only seemed to tremble with designer Sandra Woodall's lilac hued costumes, Benjamin Pierce's color-shifting lilac flower projection, and lighting designer David Finn's dusky lighting, but allowed the exquisite lineup of dancers an emotional depth missing from the other two works. It hardly mattered that the sum of the parts didn't add up to more.

Thursday was altogether cheekier. The night wrapped with William Forsythe's still-sexy and wonderfully defiant "in the middle, somewhat elevated," set to Thom Willems' brash industrial music score. The dancers, in what looked like practice attire, thrust their legs and checked their hips, while the still extraordinary Katita Waldo presided, alternating between pedestrian and virtuosic movement.

Stanton Welch's "Naked" was just as elegantly cheeky. It opened the program with the choreographer's signature wit, elaborating on the pinpoint precision of Italian ballet technique, classical form and modern insouciance. Like Forsythe's work, "Naked" upended the classical idiom, though its effect was sweet rather than Promethean.

Val Caniparoli's "Ibsen's House," the centerpiece, was a beautifully disappointing study of five of playwright Henrik Ibsen's gothic couples, danced sublimely by each one. Ironically, the very propriety Caniparoli set out to attack seemed to keep his cast from the entanglements — the lies, syphyllis, and suicide — that Ibsen fearlessly portrayed. This suggests that a little less propriety would do San Francisco Ballet a lot of good.

all photos ©erik tomasson

what: San Franciso Ballet, Programs 1 and 2
WHERE: War Memorial Opera House, 301 Van Ness Ave. (at Grove Street), S.F.
when: Program 1 repeats at 2 p.m. Sunday and Feb. 7, 8 p.m. Thursday and Feb. 7; Program 2 repeats at 2 and 8 p.m. today, Tuesday and Feb. 6, 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, and 2 p.m. today and Feb. 8
tickets: $20-$250; 415.865.2000,