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Farewell to Fosse

Fosse was dead and after the urgent calls and the logistics of death, there seemed nothing really to do about it except go for a walk along Broadway in the midnight rain.

This was the square mile of the earth Bob Fosse cared for more than any other. Up there on the second floor at 56th Street was the rehearsal hall where I’d met him years ago. Around the corner was the Carnegie Deli, where he’d have lunch with Paddy Chayefsky and Herb Gardner, trading lines, drinking coffee, smoking all those goddamned cigarettes. On the 11th floor of 850 Seventh Avenue, he and Chayefsky and Gardner had their separate offices, and from Paddy’s they would often gaze in wonder across the back courtyard of the Hotel Woodward, at the man in underwear who was always shaving, no matter what the hour. A few blocks away was the building where Fosse lived the last decade of his life.

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And down the rain-drowned avenue was the sleazy hamlet I always thought of as Fosseville: all glitter and neon and dangerous shadows. This wasn’t Runyon’s fairy-tale Broadway; it was harder, meaner, as reliable in its ruthlessness as a switchblade. Yet even in his most cynical years, Fosse insisted on seeing its citizens as human, observing their felonies and betrayals not as a journalist or a sociologist but as the fine artist he was. “I see a hooker on a corner,” he said to me once, “and I can only think: there’s some kinda story there. I mean, she was once six years old … ” On this late night, I could see Fosse in black shirt and trousers, standing in some grimy doorway, looking out at his lurid parish; he had been young here and almost died here and sometimes fled from the place and always came back. In Fosseville the gaudiest dreams existed side by side with the most vicious betrayals; everything was real but nothing was true. And, of course, he believed in some dark way that all could be redeemed by love.

Nobody loved harder. He loved his wives: Mary Ann Niles, who danced with him in the last years of the nightclub era (and who died a year after Fosse), Joan McCracken, who died on him when they were both young, and Gwen Verdon, who was with him when he lay down for the final time on the grass of a small park in Washington. But Fosse wasn’t one of those men who can be married; the emotional core of his masterpiece, All That Jazz, is not so much the romantic attraction of death, but the impossibility of fidelity. There were simply too many beautiful women in this world, with their grace and style and intelligence and mystery; the demand of monogamy was like ordering a man to love only one Vermeer.

And so he loved many women; most were dancers and actresses, because in the world where he worked they were the women he met. He treated all of them with the same grace. I saw him most often when he was between women; he was then usually engulfed by a bleakly romantic sense of loss (although the only remorse he ever expressed was about Gwen). When be met a new woman, when he was swept away, he would vanish from his usual precincts; no male friends were as important as a woman or the possibility of love.

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It was no accident that he always celebrated women in his work, although he was hardly an illustrator of feminist dogma. In the ’50s and ’60s, half the men I knew were in love with Gwen Verdon, who on stage combined humor, vulnerability, toughness, and sensuality in shows designed, choreographed, directed by Fosse. She always moved the tough guys most of all. “Every time I see her,” the sports-writer Jimmy Cannon said of Gwen, “I want to run away with her.” When Damn Yankees was in its long run, Paul Sann, the greatest newspaperman I ever knew, said of Gwen one night: “You better go see her now, kid, ’cause you ain’t gonna see anything like her again on Broadway for the rest of your fucking life.” About Gwen Verdon, as about so many things, Sann was absolutely right.

But if it’s forever impossible to separate Fosse from Gwen, he was also a fine director of other women. Liza Minnelli, Valerie Perrine, and Anne Reinking did their best work with Fosse. He was one of the few directors to see King Kong and recognize that Jessica Lange could be a superb actress; later they would become lovers, and he would cast her as the Angel of Death in All That Jazz. It was entirely appropriate, of course, that Fosse would imagine death as a woman, thus merging his two most passionate obsessions.

But he loved other things too: almost all forms of music; nightclub comics; cheap vaudeville jokes (Q. “Do you file your nails?” A. “No, I throw them away …”); the New York Mets; good food (he spent hours cooking in the huge kitchen of the house in Quogue, bringing his perfectionism to the details of the simplest meal); Fred Astaire (there were no pictures of himself in the Quogue house and two of Astaire); air hockey; children; New York Post headlines; boxing and football; his daughter Nicole; good wine, margaritas, and brandy; his cat, Macho, a stray discovered beaten-up and bloodied in the Quogue grasslands and nursed to plump domesticity; and, of course, those goddamned cigarettes.

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After family and lovers, he admired writers more than anyone else. Among his friends were Gardner and Chayefsky, E. L. Doctorow, Peter Maas, and Budd Schulberg. Although he liked to affect the I’m-only-a-song-and-dance-man pose, Fosse was a careful, intelligent reader. His writer friends knew how high Fosse’s own standards were (whether he failed or succeeded, he never set out to manufacture crap) and they often responded to his subtle urgings that they do better. Some writers who worked with him were angry at the end, as he demanded from them what he could more easily demand from a dancer; those who didn’t work with him had easier friendships.

Yes, Fosse was competitive, and cared (perhaps too much) about the way he stood in relation to other directors. In 1974, after he had his first ferocious heart attack, Gardner and Chayefsky were summoned to Fosse’s hospital room to serve as witnesses to his will. There were two lawyers waiting. Fosse was in critical condition in his bed, silent and trapped in a ganglia of tubes and wires. The lawyers asked the two writers to sign the will; Gardner did so immediately. But Chayefsky insisted on reading the text. He discovered that Fosse hadn’t left him anything, so he turned to the silent Fosse and said: “Fuck you, live!” Fosse started to laugh; all measuring devices began to go wild; the lawyers blanched; a platoon of nurses arrived to save Fosse’s life. Finally, all was calmed down again. Chayefsky resumed reading the will while Fosse lay silent. Then Paddy came to a provision that reserved $20,000 for a party for Fosse’s friends. Hey, that’s great, Chayefsky said, it’s just what Josh Logan did. For the first time, Fosse spoke.

“How much did Logan leave for the party?” he said, in a thin weak voice.

“Twenty thousand,” said Chayefsky.

“Make mine twenty-five,” said Fosse, falling back, as Chayefsky and Gardner dissolved into laughter. That visit probably saved his life.

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Quite simply, Fosse wanted to be the best at what he did. In that impossibly romantic quest, he drove dancers hard (although never harder than he drove himself) and kept demanding more from his stars. He worked hard at understanding actors, studying with Sanford Meisner, reading the basic texts from Stanislavski to Harold Clurman. And he developed his own ways to get his actors to do their best work.

“He could act incredibly humble when he wanted something from you,” said Roy Scheider, who believes his own best work was in All That Jazz. “When he met someone he wanted for the first time, he knew everything about you. He’d done research, he’d seen your movies or plays. He’d say, ‘You know, you were very good in that part, hey, wait, you got a nomination, didn’t you? You won.’ And there’d be a pause, after he did all this praising. And then he’d say how that was nothing compared to what lies ahead in your work with me. And he made you believe it. And then he did it … After three, four meetings you’d be thoroughly convinced that you were not capable of giving him what he wanted. And then he would begin to build your confidence, making you feel that your reflowering would take place in his show.” Scheider laughed. “You see, for him, it was always being done for posterity. Every time out of the chute, it was for history.”

Because he worked so hard, and because he knew how much pain was involved in the making of a show or a movie, Fosse generally despised critics. He thought they saw too much and, as a result, their sensibilities were blunted, making them unable to respond to amazing theatrical moments in the way an audience might. They were all too glib, dismissing (or praising) two years of another’s work in a review dashed off in an hour. He thought critics were primarily responsible for the failure of Star 80 (based on Teresa Carpenter’s brilliant article for the Voice); when Big Deal opened to lukewarm reviews last year and then closed after 100-odd performances, he was disheartened.

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“Maybe all they want are Eddie Murphy movies or sets that sing,” he said. “Maybe all they want is shit. Maybe it’s over for people like me.”

But he was still working at the end; trying to choose between a movie about Walter Winchell, a movie version of Chicago, probably with Madonna, or something completely new. During the summer, we talked a few times about his experiences during the Second World War, when he was a 17-year-old sailor working in an entertainment unit in the South Pacific; he was with the first Americans to enter Japan at the end of the war and was still horrified at the scale of the destruction in Tokyo and the stupidly brutal way so many American soldiers treated the Japanese, particularly the women. “It still makes me sick,” he said. “That was the first time I was really ashamed to be an American.” The contrast between the idealism of fighting the war and the morally corrosive realities of victory was a splendid setup for a Fosse movie, but Fosse was uneasy about it. “That world is gone, that music, the way people were … Most of the country wouldn’t know what I was talking about.”

Now we’ll never know. The night after we all got the news, there was a small gathering at Gardner’s apartment, a kind of secular wake. Some wept; others told the old stories, with examples of Fosse’s dark humor; all were in shock, because Fosse had been looking better than at any time in years. Later, wandering through Broadway in the rain, I thought that for Fosse, who so perfectly expressed a certain vision of New York, the worst thing about dying in Washington might have been that he closed out of town. ♦

1987 Village Voice article by Pete Hamill about director and choreographer Bob Fosse

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Lost in Music: An Oral History of Disco

The Dancing Machine: An Oral History
Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1993

GLORIA GAYNOR: I started out singing jazz, singing top 40 in clubs, and between sets, disc jockeys would come in to play and I knew that was the next storm coming; I saw that we were going to be phased out. We saw disco coming and decided we were going to furnish music for that.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: Disco was the greatest time ever, and I am happy that I experienced it. When they went out, they went out with one thing in mind, and that was to party. Today it seems like there’s always a lot of fights. People had no hard­ness or no bad thinking on their mind, and everything was free. And it seemed like the peak to me.

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BARRY WHITE: The ’70s was very glamor­ous — the very first time I ever saw regular jeans go from $5 to $250. The consumers dressed up like they were the stars.

FELIPE ROSE: Disco was like a sense of youthfulness and decadent innocence that the era had. It was just a hot, hot, hot time.

KATHY SLEDGE: I honestly saw it happening but I wasn’t allowed to go out dancing. We were minors at that time period.

BARRY WHITE: It was a freedom time­ — more people experienced things and tried new things, whether it was drugs or whatev­er. It wasn’t about sex but love and sensual­ity, communicating, relating. There’s a world of difference between making love and having sex, and the ’70s was ap­proached as if it was a woman being ro­manced and made love to.

FELIPE ROSE: You wanted to look your hottest, and damn if you forgot your tam­bourine when you got that hit of acid. (I stole that from David Hodo who says it in the show.) You were going to meet fabulous people and you were going to party not just for that night, you were going to party for days.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco snowballed the way it did because it got to be not just music, it got to be peoples’ social lives. People got to be stars and shine on their own.

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FELIPE ROSE: Every night was a different club, one after another, and there were real­ly no barriers in the clubs. There were blacks and whites, gays and straights — it was really more a harmonic thing. You never felt threatened when you went to a club. It’s not like today when you have to wonder who’s carrying a gun or something.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were very fond of disco because every artist needs some sort of movement to make them larger than they really are, and disco did that for us. It sort of gave us a niche, if you will, and a place in history. Some radio stations were calling us Dr. Buzzard’s Original Disco Band, and we never had a problem with that because we were all disco children. We used to hang out at Studio 54 so much that we should have been paying rent.

KATHY SLEDGE: When our song “He’s the Greatest Dancer” came out, it was after the Saturday Night Fever trend and everybody thought they were the greatest dancer. We literally had people come backstage and say, “I am the person you’re singing about.” They were definitely not introverts.

RAY CAVIANO: With disco, you were not an observer, you were a participant. You weren’t going to the party, you were the party.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: In a word? Drama.

RICHIE RIVERA: Party.

AUGUST DARNELL: I’d describe it as pas­sion or, better, neopassion — a passion for the modern times.

BARRY WHITE: Explosive, mystical, magi­cal. Disco brought a lot of smiles to peo­ples’ faces and I saw it everywhere in the world.

RAY CAVIANO: A disco record doesn’t let you dance, it makes you dance.

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: The producers, like Norman Harris, took the music and stressed it in the studio; when they started playing they never stopped. When I put down the vocals on “Hit and Run,” they told me to come back the next day and just work out on the break and I thought, This is the longest song I ever sang in my life. The music just went on and on.

KATHY SLEDGE: Disco music to me was musical elation. I think people forgot who they were for a minute: it had a way of lifting you, making you forget about your worries or your problems — almost like mesmerizing you. It was another way of reaching out and feeling like you’re a part of or belonging to the crowd.

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AUGUST DARNELL: Hurrah’s was one of the first clubs I went to, but I frequented Danceteria, the Mudd Club, Studio 54, the Continental Baths, Electric Circus — and there were at least a dozen after-hours places that  we used to hang out at. I’d have to look into my diaries to find out their names.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The first club I ever went to was in downtown Brooklyn, called COCP; it was all black and I snuck out there on the weekends. I was like 16. Then there was Salvation, Sanctuary, Tarot across from Max’s, and Max’s for a minute. The Loft, 12 West, Flamingo once or twice. The Gallery, the Garage, Better Days, Infinity, Le Jardin, Studio 54, but those were work-related — the other places I lived at. I was a Loft baby.

RAY CAVIANO: The first club I can remember going to was the Firehouse, early in the ’70s. It was the first place where gay people could get together in an uninhibited way away from the bar scene.

RICHIE RIVERA: The first club I played at was the GAA Firehouse, on Wooster Street. Then Footsteps, Buttermilk Bottom, the Anvil, the Sandpiper on Fire Island, Fla­mingo, the Cock Ring, the Underground, 12 West (which became the River Club after the Saint opened), Studio 54, and back to the Cock Ring.

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FELIPE ROSE: We were like G.I. Joe action dolls under the strobe lights. The intensity back then was stronger, the volume was bigger. We were one of the only groups to go live with a band into the clubs, and when we appeared in stadiums, we brought motorcycles, a tepee, a Jeep, and Portosans — for the construction worker — on stage.

AUGUST DARNELL: We were a band with a mission — to bring dance music back to the world — and we felt like the crowds almost lived by a credo that dance is everything. In England now they have all these rave par­ties, but when people say there’s nothing like a rave, I say I saw all this in 1976 at Studio 54. Studio 54 was like ritual escap­ism to the max.

RAY CAVIANO: There was no question about it: the DJ was in full control — almost mind control — of the dance floor, and he had the capacity to take you on a trip. In some cases people felt it was a religious experience of sorts. It was almost a physical thing too — quasi-sexual. The DJ was ma­nipulating the dance floor through a whole steeplechase of sounds. I wanna take you higher.

RICHIE RIVERA: People got to trust me and we bounced off one another. I had a feel for what they might like so I’d go two or three degrees further, and they usually went along.

DAVID MANCUSO: Rule number one: Don’t let the music stop.

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RICHIE RIVERA: It was difficult for me to accept [Donna Summer’s] “Last Dance” when it came out. It was such a drastic change. For years, everybody had been refining their style so the music flowed non­stop. And all of a sudden here came a song where it stopped — and people needed that. They’d been dancing nonstop for years at that point.

RAY CAVIANO: Never speak to a DJ when he’s got the earphones on and mixing. Know when to talk to the DJ, not to inter­rupt his artistic flow. You’re talking to him during his performance.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: A DJ should always pay attention to his dance floor and entertain­ — that’s his job, to read the audience and react to what they want. Make them scream when they’re good and punish them when they’re bad.

DAVID MANCUSO: A night at the Loft was like three bardos. There was the coming together, calmness. In the first two hours, it starts out very smoothly, gathering. Second bardo would be like the circus: music, lights going, the balloons. Third bardo would be the reentry — going back to where you came from, maybe not the same person, but you land back on your feet gently, a little wiser and a little more sociable.

RAY CAVIANO: Every club was different. At Flamingo the DJ was like the Svengali of the dance floor, the maestro. Funhouse was a little more casual; Jellybean was looser.

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RICHIE RIVERA: At Flamingo, it was like Moses in a scene from The Ten Command­ments. At the Anvil, the booth was right in the middle of everything and people’s faces were like three or four feet away from me, so it was really like being in the heart of the whole proceedings.

RAY CAVIANO: The most famous booth in the industry was at the Paradise Garage. It was literally a who’s who of the music business in New York — from Frankie Crocker to any number of record company promo people. If a hot new record got played, word would spread like a bullet from that booth and within 48 hours you’d have a hit.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: At the Garage, I was the godmother of the booth. As the evening progressed from midnight on, there was a pattern as to who showed up. Early on, it was members of the music industry who came to promote their records but not necessarily to dance. They’d try to set up the DJ, Larry Levan, with a test pressing. After two, those people would disappear and the serious record people would show up. That’s when the party would start. After four or five, the booth would be void of anybody who wasn’t there to seriously dance or listen to music, and those people stayed until closing, sometimes until noon the next day.

RAY CAVIANO: The Infinity booth was famous for DJ groupies. The booth was high above the floor at one end of the room and Jim Burgess ruled. But the groupies had a certain amount of influence; they could get the records they liked played when some promo person didn’t have a chance.

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AUGUST DARNELL: I’d have to say my favorite club was Studio 54, it was so deca­dent and so exciting in that period to be part of something you knew was a world movement. It was a bit magical and the music was devastatingly loud. I was never into the alcohol or the drugs, so the appeal of the club was different for me from its appeal to other members of Savannah Band who will go nameless here. I went primarily for the glamor of it — so many beautiful women hanging out in one place. Steve Rubell did make it ridiculous after a while. He could stagger around higher than any­one I ever saw and still be coherent.

RICHIE RIVERA: In the course of a night, the tempo would generally curve downward, but sometimes the manager thought it was too gradual. People needed a remind­er when it was time to take the downs. They told me, You’ve got to do something to make them realize it’s time to start com­ing down — something dramatic. Some peo­ple showed up at four because they wanted to hear all that down stuff, what came to be known as sleaze music. They didn’t blend in with the earlier crowd, who were like Saturday Night Fever and just wanted to take speed and fly.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Leaving the club, we’d hit the streets looking terribly ugly because we were all very worn out and soiled and everybody out there was fresh. We’d go out to breakfast and talk over the records, the show, the dish of the night, then go home and try to sleep. Come Sunday night, you were fried but not ready to call it a week­end, so Better Days was the dessert when Larry Levan had been the appetizer and dinner.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: I was working this gay club, right? And I talk a lot before I start to sing. And I said I want a lady to come up onstage that don’t mind being a bitch. I told her to look around for whatev­er man she wanted and I’d bring him up. And then I brought a guy — he was gay — up and instructed him to call up whoever he wanted and put his tongue way down their throat. He looked around for a minute and then grabbed me and turned me way over — you know how you do — and kissed me! The audience went crazy, but I never did that again.

FELIPE ROSE: In different clubs they would throw different things on the stage. Girls would throw bras, and guys would jump on stage and take off their shirts and flex for “Macho Man.”

KATHY SLEDGE: We did the club circuit in New York, and during the Son of Sam period, I learned how much people looked forward to going out at night and when they couldn’t how much they missed it. I re­member so clearly Disco Sally was at one of our shows. I saw her in the bathroom with this long brown fall on. They said Son of Sam was preying on women with long brown hair, and when I told her that, she just whipped it off and put it in her bag.

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BARRY WHITE:  I loved the people, the attitude of the people. The consumer participated not only listening to the music but dressing to the music.

GLORIA GAYNOR: I kind of liked trendy and funky clothes. I don’t like women showing more of their body than is really necessary, but I like fun clothes — sparkle blouses and all.

AUGUST DARNELL: The thing about the style of disco, in retrospect it was quite ridiculous and laughable. To be quite hon­est, I didn’t think much of the clothing, but the Beautiful People who came to 54, they did have style. The good thing was it gave people a reason to say “Let’s get dressed up and go out.”

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The downside was monotony — how a certain style of music I would be totally driven into the ground before a change would come. Like the whole Eurodisco thing: no change, no growth.

RICHIE. RIVERA: It did get a little repetitious. It became so “in” that everybody did it, or thought they could. I mean, Ethel Merman doing a disco album?

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KATHY SLEDGE: There was less pressure then. People came out to dance and have a good time, but it was kind of a double­-edged sword. Especially when the hustle came out, you could feel the cohesiveness on the dance floor, but it was also a lonely time. Like the place would be crowded with people, but a lot of them would be dancing alone.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: My best memory is standing in the middle of Paradise Garage in the early evening before the club filled up. Larry Levan was playing the O’Jays’ “I Love Music” and I was totally straight and just about totally alone and dancing by my­self and actually got lost in the music, trav­eled with the music and within the sound system — just me and the club.

DAVID MANCUSO: The night of the black­out, people stayed over all night. We had candles and played radios and people were sleeping over, camping out. It was very peaceful, a little Woodstockish. The party still went on.

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GLORIA GAYNOR: Disco started out as a sound and unfortunately evolved into a lifestyle that Middle America found dis­tasteful — and that was the demise of disco. It got into sex and drugs that really had nothing to do with the music but that was the lifestyle that identified with disco.

AUGUST DARNELL: The most decadent I got was dancing with two girls simulta­neously, but the decadence of it was great to observe. In the bowels of Studio 54, there was a higher high. But I was like an observer more than a participant. I was like a journalist witnessing a national event.

DAVID MANCUSO: If people were using drugs, they were mild and recreational, where today it’s all about economics. But three-quarters was purely spontaneous energy.

RAY CAVIANO: In hindsight, the experience was exhausting and the lifestyle was obvi­ously way beyond the call of duty. We were going to have a good time even if it was going to kill us. We wanted to take the trip as far as we could take it.

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LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: What killed disco? The people behind the desks. They do what they wanna do. They changed disco into dance and they changed dance into house. But when you listen to it, it’s still all the same.

AUGUST DARNELL: I would imagine what happened is the same thing that will kill every innovative form: greed — people who don’t have the heart and soul of the music but just want to cash in on it. They think they have the formula without realizing that disco was much more than that at the beginning.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: Disco killed disco. The word disco killed disco. Like pop will eat itself, disco ate itself. Anything that be­comes too popular is apt to be destroyed by the same people who gave it the name.

AUGUST DARNELL: The music today — I call it disco part five.

BARRY WHITE: Disco was a sexy smooth era, very chic era. Now things are mechani­cal, more raw, closer to the streets. The attitude in America is distrust and disillu­sion. Now it’s time to rip, take the money and run, sell the country, sell your mother.

AUGUST DARNELL: It was a good period to go through because it was exaggerated and there’s nothing wrong with that as long as you find your balance eventually. ♦

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THE PLAYERS

RAY CAVIANO: Parlayed his success as disco’s most persuasive promo man into a high-powered but short-lived deal for his own RFC label at Warner Bros. Al­though cocaine abuse left him broke and in jail (and landed him on the cover of the Voice in 1986), he bounced back to become a perennial promotion man of the year, most recently with MicMac, the New York freestyle indie, which let him go in March. Since then, Caviano’s dropped from sight.

AUGUST DARNELL: Cofounder of Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, lead­er of Kid Creole & the Coconuts, whose 1992 album, You Shoulda Told Me You Were… was their last for Columbia; since being dropped by the label, the group’s been without a deal. Darnell spends much of his time these days in Manchester, England “playing daddy” to two children, Ashley and Dario.

GLORIA GAYNOR: Crowned the first Queen of Disco after “Honeybee” and “Never Can Say Goodbye,” Gaynor orig­inated one of the most imitated disco formulas but faded from the American scene after “I Will Survive.” Her recent work has been in Italy (where her Gloria Gaynor ’90 album went gold), the Middle East, and Asia, but she says,”I think I’m ready to come home.”

LOLEATTA HOLLOWAY: One of the clubs’ fiercest ruling divas with “Hit and Run” and her Dan Hartman duet “Re­light My Fire.” She still rules, both as sampled wail and featured vocalist, most famously on Marky Mark’s “Good Vi­brations.” She’s currently preparing a second single for the Select label, due early fall.

DAVID MANCUSO: Mancuso turned his lower Broadway loft into a balloon-filled private party once a week in 1973, play­ing both DJ and host. One of the earliest New York membership clubs, the Loft has moved twice and shut down periodi­cally since then but remains a fixture, with Mancuso in full effect.

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RICHIE RIVERA: One of New York’s most popular and powerful DJs during the disco boom, Rivera last played at a club in 1983. He’s currently working in the chart department at HMV’s Upper West Side branch.

FELIPE ROSE: Discovered dancing on platforms in New York clubs by French producer Jacques Morali, Rose, a Puerto Rican Native American, was recruited to play the Indian in the Village People. Still wearing a feathered headdress, still singing “Macho Man,” he’s among the original People celebrating the group’s 16th anniversary this year.

KATHY SLEDGE: Thirteen when Sister Sledge was formed, Sledge “grew up in the business.” “We Are Family” remains the group’s anthem, but Kathy, now mar­ried with children, went solo last year with the album Heart.

JUDY WEINSTEIN: The cofounder of New York’s influential For the Record DJ pool in 1978, Weinstein is partners with DJ/remixer/producer David Mo­rales in Def Mix Productions which rep­resents Frankie Knuckles and Danny Madden.

BARRY WHITE: His “Love’s Theme” was the first disco single to top the pop charts in 1974. White continues his reign as king-size pillow talker with a retrospective boxed set on the market to be joined by a new album, Love Is the Icon, in September.

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Physical Graffiti: Breaking is Hard to Do

To The Beat Y’all

Chico and Tee and their friends from 175th Street in the High Times crew were breaking in the subway and the cops busted them for fighting.

“We’re not fighting. We’re dancing!” they claimed. At the precinct station, one kid demonstrated certain moves: a head spin, ass spin, swipe, chin freeze, “the Heli­copter,” “the Baby.”

An officer called in the other members of the crew, one by one. “Do a head spin,” he would command as he consulted a clip­board full of notes. “Do ‘the Baby.’ ” As each kid complied, performing on cue as unhesitatingly as a ballet dancer might toss off an enchainement, the cops scratched their heads in bewildered defeat.

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Or so the story goes. But then, like ballet and like great battles (it shares elements of both), breaking is wreathed in legends. “This guy in Queens does a whole bunch of head spins in a row, more than 10; he spins, stops real quick, spins … ”

“Yeah, but he stops. Left just goes right into seven spins, he never stops.”

“There’s a 10-year-old kid on my block learned to break in three days.” ‘

‘The best is Spy, Ronnie Ron, Drago, me [Crazy Legs], Freeze, Mongo, Mr. Freeze, Lace, Track Two, Weevil … ”

“Spy, he’s called the man with the thousand moves, he had a girl and he taught her how to break. She did it good. She looked like a guy.”

“Spy, man, in ’78 — he was breaking at Mom and Pop’s on Katona Avenue in the Bronx; he did his footwork so fast you could hardly see his feet,”

“I saw Spy doing something wild in a garage where all the old-timers used to break. They had a priest judging a contest, and Spy was doing some kind of Indian dance: All of a sudden, he threw himself in the air, his hat flew up, he spun on his back, and the hat landed right on his chest. And everyone said, ‘That was luck.’ So he did it once more for the priest, and the hat landed right on his chest. If I didn’t see it I would never have believed it.”

The heroes of these legends are the Break Kids, the B Boys, the Puerto Rican and black teenagers who invent and end­lessly elaborate this exquisite, heady blend of dancing, acrobatics, and martial specta­cle. Like other forms of ghetto street culture — graffiti, verbal dueling, rapping­ — breaking is a public arena for the flam­boyant triumph of virility, wit, and skill. In short, of style. Breaking is a way of using your body to inscribe your identity on streets and trains, in parks and high school gyms. It is a physical version of two favor­ite modes of street rhetoric, the taunt and the boast. It is a celebration of the flexibili­ty and budding sexuality of the gangly male adolescent body. It is a subjunctive expression of bodily states, testing things that might be or are not, contrasting masculine vitality with its range of op­posites: women, babies, animals; illness and death. It is a way of claiming territory and status, for yourself and for your group, your crew. But most of all, breaking is a competitive display of physical and imaginative virtuosity, a codified dance form cum warfare that cracks open to flaunt personal inventiveness.

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For current generation B Boys, it doesn’t really matter that the Breakdown is an old name in Afro-American dance for both rapid, complex footwork and a com­petitive format. Or that a break in jazz means a soloist’s improvised bridge be­tween melodies. For the B Boys, the his­tory of breaking started six or seven years ago, maybe in the Bronx. maybe in Har­lem. It started with the Zulus. Or with· Charlie Rocle. Or with Joe, from. the Casanovas, from the Bronx, who taught:it to Charlie Rock. “Breaking means going crazy on the floor. It means making a ·style for yourself.” In Manhattan, kids call it rocking. A dancer in the center of a ring or onlookers drops to the floor, circles around. his own axis with a flurry of slashing steps, then spins, flips, gesticulates, and poses in a flood of rhythmic motion and fleeting imagery that prompts the next guy to top him. To burn him, as the B Boys put it.

Fab Five Freddy Love, a graffiti-based artist and rapper form Bedford Stuyvesant, remembers that breaking began around the same time as rapping, as a physical analogue for a musical impulse. “Everybody would be at a party in the park in the summer, jamming. Guys would get together and dance with each other, sort of a macho thing where they would show each other who could do the best moves. They started going wild when the music got real funky” — music by groups like Super Sperm and Apache. As the beat of the drummer came to the fore, the music let you know it was time to break down, to free style. The cadenced, rhyming, fast talking epic mode of rapping, with its smooth surface of sexual braggadocio, pro­vides a perfect base for a dance style that is cool, swift, and intricate.

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But breaking isn’t just an urgent re­sponse to pulsating music. It is also a ritual combat that transmutes aggression into art. “In the summer of ’78,” Tee remem­bers, “when you got mad at someone, in­stead of saying, ‘Hey man, you want to fight?’ you’d say, ‘Hey man, you want to rock?’ ” Inside the ritual frame, burgeon­ing adolescent anxieties, hostilities, and powers are symbolically manipulated and controlled.

Each segment in breaking is short — ­from 10 to 30 seconds — but packed with action and meaning. The dancing always follows a specific format: the entry, a stylized walk into the ring for four of five beats to the music; the footwork, a rapid, circular scan of the floor by sneakered feet while the hands support the body’s weight and the head and torso revolve slowly — a kind of syncopated pirouette; the freeze, or stylized signature pose, usually preceded by a spin; the exit, a return to verticality and to the outside of the circle. The length of the “combination” can be extended by adding on more footwork-spin-freeze se­quences. The entry, the footwork, and the exit are pretty much the same from dancer to dancer — although some do variations, like Freeze from the Breakmasters crew, who stuffs a Charleston into his entry, and then exits on pointe. But it is largely in the freeze that each dancer’s originality shines forth, in configurations that are as in­tricate, witty, obscene, or insulting as pos­sible. A dancer will twist himself into a pretzel. Or he will quote the poses of a pinup girl. He might graphically hump the floor, or arch up grabbing his crotch. Someone else might mime rowing a boat or swimming or emphasize acrobatic stunts like back flips and fish dives. Sometimes two breakers team up for a stunt: imitating a dog on a leash, or a dead person brought back to life by a healthy thump on the chest. According to Rammellzee, a DJ who’s gotten too tall to break, the set of sequences adds up to a continuing pantomimic narrative. It is each dancer’s re­sponsibility to create a new chapter in the story. “Like if you see a guy acting like he’s dead, the brother who went before him probably shot him.”

When you choose your moves, you not only try to look good; you try to make your successor look bad by upping the ante. That’s one way to win points from the crowd, which collectively judges. Going first is a way to score a point, but so is coming up with a cool response, chilling out. Through the freeze, you insult, challenge, and humiliate the next person. You stick your ass in his direction. You hold your nose to tell him he stinks. You put a hand to your spine, signaling a move so good it hurts. But the elegant abstract dancing that co.uches these messages counts, too. B Boys from the Bronx and Manhattan look down on the “up rock” prevalent in Brooklyn, a mere string of scatological and sexual affronts without the aesthetic glue of spinning and getting down on the floor.

Naming and performing the freezes you invent are ways of laying claim to them, though some poses are in the public do­main. A lot of breakers are also graffiti artists, and one way to announce a new freeze is to write it as graffiti. Speed and smoothness are essential to the entire dance, but in the freeze humor and dif­ficulty are prized above all. “You try to put your head on your arin and your toenails on your ears,” says Ken of the Breakmas­ters. “Hard stuff, like when I made up my elbow walk,” says Kip Dee of Rock Steady. “When you spin on your head.” ·”When you do ‘the Baby’ and you balance on one hand and move your legs in the air.” “When you take your legs and put them in back of your head out or the spin.”

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During the summers the B Boys gravitate to the parks, where DJs and rappers hang out. Younger kids learn to break by imitating the older kids, who tend to out­grow it when they’re about 16. Concrete provides the best surface for the feet and hands to grip, but the jamming is thickest in the parks, where the DJs can bring their mikes and amplifiers. During the winters, breakers devise new moves. Crazy Legs, of Rock Steady, claims the win which he sits on doubled-back legs, was an accident. “Once I was laying on the floor and I kicked my leg and I started spinning,” says Mr. Freeze, of Breakmasters. But invent­ing freezes also demands the hard daily work of conscious experiment. “You got to sweat it out.” You don’t stop, even when you sleep. “I have breaking dreams,” sev­eral B Boys have told me. “I wake up and try to do it like I saw it.” Kip Dee dreamed he spun on his chin, “but I woke up and tried it and almost broke my face.”

Part of the macho quality of breaking comes from the physical risk involved. It’s not only the bruises, scratches, cuts, and scrapes. As the rivalry between the crews heats up, ritual combat sometimes erupts into fighting for real. And part of it is impressing the girls. “They go crazy over it,” says Ken. “When you’re in front of a girl, you like to show off. You want to burn the public eye, because then she might like you.”

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Some people claim that breaking is played out. Freddy Love disagrees. “The younger kids keep developing it, doing more wild things and more new stuff. We never ·used to spin or do acrobatics. The people who started it just laid down the foundations. Just like in graffiti — you make a new style. That’s what life in the street is all about, just being you, being who you are around your friends. What’s at stake is a guy’s honor and his.position in the street. Which is all you have. That’s what makes it so important, that’s what makes it feel so good — that pressure on you to be the best. Or to try to be the best. To develop a new style nobody can deal with. If it’s true that this stuff reflects life, it’s a fast life.” ■

On May 3 at 3 p.m., the Breakmasters and Rock Steady crews will break, to rapping by Fab Five Freddy Love and Rammellzee, at Common Ground, 29 Wooster Street at Grand. Their performance ofi Graffiti Rock was organized by sculptor­1 photographer Henry Chalfant. For reser­vations, call 431-5446.  

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives Theater

Paul Taylor, Playwright

In 1976, when a Broadway production of my adaptation of Brecht and Weill’s Happy End was in the offing, the producers asked me who I would like to see choreograph the piece. And I said, “Paul Taylor.” I had seen Esplanade, which was then brand-new, and I thought Paul Taylor should choreograph everything.

I don’t remember who gently disabused me of this notion. It might have been our general manager, or one of the associate producers, or Grayson Hall, who was slated to play one of the lead roles. Taylor, everyone concluded, was too busy and too deep in his own work to take on any outside projects. I was more than disappointed — just a few steps short of heartbroken. “Look at it this way, Michael,” I remember the gentle disabuser telling me. “He has his own work, he has his own incredible imagination, he has his own company. He doesn’t need you. He doesn’t need a Broadway show. He doesn’t even need Brecht and Weill. He’s Paul Taylor.”

And that was true, though I have always regretted the confluence that didn’t happen, and wondered what Paul Taylor’s encounter with Brecht and Weill’s musical theater would have looked like. Encounter? No, collision, for Paul Taylor, who died on August 29 at the age of 88, never encountered any of the musical selections or the narrative motifs he took on without remaking them, forcing you to rethink them. Whether his touch was light or heavy — and it could be appallingly heavy at times — nothing he touched was left unchanged. And the change has lasted, which is the sure sign of a world-class master.

Esplanade, I should explain for the uninitiated, is performed to music by Bach, the most formal and form-conscious of composers. And to this highly formalized music, Taylor sets no formal dance steps of any kind. His Bach is made up of what the dance world calls “pedestrian movement,” a term that may sound dismissive (I personally would prefer the phrase “colloquial movement,” although this is not my area of expertise), but which simply means that every move in it is one that people take in everyday life: walking, standing still, running, skipping, sliding, falling. The dynamic tension between the hieratic music and the “pedestrian” event creates a dance poem, paying tribute to the hidden order of ordinary things, or the innate beauty of the everyday. Some of Esplanade’s sections are somber; others are extremely funny. The last time I brought a criticism student with me to see Esplanade, he said, “I never realized Bach could be funny.” That’s a perfect instance of the rethinking Taylor brought about.

The colleagues who overruled me and decided not to approach Taylor about Happy End were right, of course: He did not need me, Brecht, Weill, or Broadway. All he needed was some music — Weill alone might have served his turn — and an image or a story to set his imagination going. The range of music and the breadth of imagery that he worked through is incredible, even for a creator who worked for nearly seven decades. Few of the twentieth century’s artists, other than Picasso, have tried as much or succeeded as often. There were, inevitably, mishaps along the way, too. You don’t turn out as many masterworks as Taylor did without leaving some flawed projects behind. (Taylor aficionados cringe when I remind them of the season that contained both Minikin Fair and The Sorcerer’s Sofa.) But they are easy to overlook because the masterworks are so numerous: Arden Court, Diggity, Danbury Mix, Speaking in Tongues, Last Look, Polaris. That is not even the tip of the iceberg — hardly a bare corner of it.

I once told a friend associated with Taylor’s company that I was thinking of writing an essay about Taylor as one of America’s great playwrights, continuing the themes of Eric Bentley’s famous essay projecting a similar role for Taylor’s mentor Martha Graham. I will never write that piece now (unless this is it), but several points that would have gone into it seem to have stuck in my head. One is the extent to which, in Taylor’s work, the comic and the tragic are tightly bound up together. He was one of the few choreographers to use humor as a full element in his work. Masterpieces like Snow White and Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal) mix the painful and the painfully funny in ways that we are more likely to associate with Chekhov than with modern dance.

The sometimes-fevered oscillation of music on Taylor’s programs, alternating various eras of “high” classical composition with pop tunes from the American Songbook’s past, likewise trespasses into this funny-tragic realm. The skids and pratfalls of Bach are counterbalanced by something like Company B, set to Andrews Sisters recordings from the World War II era. What happens on the forestage in this piece is generally good-natured, funny, and lively, but every so often, people disappear behind an upstage scrim, and you see them walking stiffly, in a shadowland, in the opposite direction from the movement downstage of them. Inevitably evoking that war’s many deaths, the piece was also created at the height of the AIDS plague, and its never-underlined balance of the somber and the splashy gives it a power that haunts my memory. (I’m not the only one to have felt it. Originally created for Taylor’s junior company — hence the piece’s punning title — it garnered so much acclaim that it soon became part of the main company’s regular repertoire.)

Very few of the countless pieces Taylor left behind have the kind of narrative fulfillment typical of a conventional play. Their fulfillments are compositional and physical; dance, after all, is an art that takes place in the body. Nor is characterization (“the soul of the drama”) a strong element with Taylor. In its place are the strong personalities of his lead dancers, an extraordinary succession over the decades. But ours is a time in which many playwrights have themselves given up the conventional satisfactions that we used to associate with the word “drama.” What Taylor created was, first and foremost, a theater, enlivened with narrative touches just as it was enlivened with movement and visual surprise.

Thankfully, there is no likelihood of Taylor’s creations being lost, as so much of Graham’s work has been — a result of her resistance to videography. Like a canny playwright preserving his scripts for a later time, Taylor made sure everything was recorded and archived — the same impulse that led him to invent a structure to keep his company going after his retirement. This piece of playwright’s practicality means that the magic land of his vision will be accessible years from now, just as Shakespeare’s is accessible centuries after his death. That it should be so is heartening. In a time when we seem to be losing everything of value, how very lucky we are that Paul Taylor was here — and that he resisted all temptations to do anything except make his own important and delightful dances and sustain his own company.

FIN

 

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives VOICE CHOICES ARCHIVES

Mark Morris’s Good-Time Variations on Romance Impress at Lincoln Center

Mark Morris finds inspiration in music, and this weekend’s bill at the Rose Theater provides a particularly rich and diverse collection, all played live — including Brahms’s Liebeslieder-Walzer, performed in German, and a suite of Monteverdi madrigals sung in Italian. The orchestra pit overflows with singers, pianists, and an ensemble of “early musicians” playing the lute, harpsichord, and theorbo.

This Mostly Mozart program’s world premiere, The Trout, to the 35-minute Piano Quintet in A major by Franz Schubert, provides a luxuriant playing field on which eleven barefoot dancers gambol. Its five women wear Maile Okamura’s pretty, translucent party dresses, each a different color; the six men are in neutral tank tops and dance trousers. Lighting designer Nick Kolin washes the cyclorama with shifting shades of blue and green.

The work opens with performers arriving onstage and clapping one another on the back, as if meeting again after a long time apart; some clasp hands. They enter and exit to the wings of the wide stage, almost shyly, assaying the center of the space and darting out again. Finally managing to mingle, they begin spinning, a motif that continues through the piece. Morris seems determined to exploit all the stage levels, with dancers sometimes leaping and sometimes lying on the ground, demonstrating both lightness and weight.

Morris never forgets that he’s in show business: His works, presentational even at their most intimate, seem aimed at giving us a good time. The dancers achieve precision but never succumb to affectation; they’re human beings, not gods and goddesses, and their vocabulary includes ordinary walking and running steps as well as energetic lifts and barrel turns. The Trout is full of incident, with little variations for groups of five, four, three, and two, as well as plaintive solos; we’re not watching storytelling, but observing choreography that illuminates musical structure in much the same way that George Balanchine’s dances do.

Filling out this satisfying evening are appealing performances of Morris’s 1989 Love Song Waltzes, made during the troupe’s sojourn in Brussels, and the 1996 I Don’t Want to Love. Smooth and angular by turns, Waltzes affords us glimpses of veteran dancer Lauren Grant among an ensemble composed of both old-timers and newbies, and of course glorious sequences of a dozen dancers whirling in one another’s arms. In I Don’t Want to Love, the diminutive Grant seems to grow in stature, becoming an in-house Wonder Woman in Isaac Mizrahi’s shiny white bare-midriff outfit; Brandon Randolph claims space in a shirt open to the waist. It’s a bit of a shock to one’s system to move so quickly from listening to German to hearing lyrics in Italian, but the dancers weather the transition well, occasionally erupting into cartwheels. They leap, they stroll, they make impudent gestures; at one point, sitting on the floor, they reach out to one another with bare feet; later, they alternate between kneeling and reaching their heads toward the sky, but they resolutely refuse to meet and meld. This is, after all, a piece about refusing romance. Lesley Garrison, a rangy blonde in a long slit skirt, constantly grabs the eye.

Morris delights in off-kilter structures, and in displaying body parts — elbows, for instance — that don’t often get attention on dance stages; his métier is a fusion of folk, ballet, and modern idioms that manages to appear entirely natural. He’s taken, in recent months, to preparing dances for cold storage, as it were, ready to resuscitate after he’s gone — but he’s just 61. Has working on the Schubert spooked him? The Viennese composer only made it to 31.

Mark Morris Dance Group
Rose Theater, Jazz at Lincoln Center
Broadway at 60th Street
212-721-6500
markmorrisdancegroup.org
Through August 12

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives

Batsheva’s Version of “Offending the Audience” Mirrors Our Culture’s Fractured Discourse

An inflatable white guy, cousin to the floppy figure sometimes visible at auto dealerships, dominated the stage at the start of Naharin’s Virus, Ohad Naharin’s 2001 adaptation of a Peter Handke play written in 1966 called Offending the Audience. First seen here in 2002, when Naharin’s Batsheva company performed it at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, Virus is currently on view at the Joyce, danced by the troupe’s Young Ensemble, a collection of gifted artists still in their twenties.

Naharin, who’s directed the Israeli troupe since 1990 and recently announced his impending retirement, invented a movement language called Gaga that’s oddly similar to the inadvertent choreography of the wildly gyrating plastic figure, his pliant spine reliant on a hidden source of power.

Outside the Joyce on the Eighth Avenue sidewalk earlier this week, two different protesting groups, contained behind police barriers, vied for public attention as the opening-night audience arrived; security guards carefully searched and grilled us. Batsheva, whose summer tour to the States is supported in part by the Israeli government, drew the ire of pro-Palestinian demonstrators, and supporters of Bibi Netanyahu’s policies hollered back. Inside the theater, sixteen dancers, nine women and seven men, toggled among powerful movement, rapt silence, Handke’s language, and snippets of personal disclosure.

Virus asks a lot of its young performers. In addition to dancing they scaled the blackboard-like walls of the set, climbed and descended the stairs behind it, and marked all over the walls with chalk, creating capital letters bigger than they are and writing commentary in several languages, including English and Hebrew. “PLASTELINA,” five of them inscribed on the back wall while the others performed adagio phrases in perfect alignment. Was this an anagram of Palestine, or the misspelling of a modeling clay called Plastilina? Alongside the huge letters were doodles of the sort first graders might produce, or adolescents in the thrall of a crush: a jewel, a kite, a little house.

Wearing Rakefet Levy’s black tights and white leotards incorporating gloves, they moved in unison and separately. They also talked to us. Evyatar Omesy, a sturdy, bearded man in a suit, stood atop the blackboard wall clutching a microphone, speaking Handke’s text. Periodically he sidled sideways and dropped down to join the other dancers, leaving the rigid suit, a kind of false front designed by Zohar Shoef, standing by itself on the high ledge. Down below, a female dancer scribbled a bright red square atop some white graffiti. Another woman carved a huge circle with many layers of chalk. Once in a while a couple embraced; a man dangled a woman from atop the wall.

Karni Postel’s original music, interspersed with smarmy passages from Samuel Barber and other composers as well as Arab folk music, segued in and out: We heard high-pitched sounds, ardent percussion, even church bells. At one point the movement resembled an Israeli folk dance, with an undertone of military marching.

The intervening decades have not been kind to the Handke play; what seemed outrageous fifty years ago sounds pompous and obvious in 2018. The stream of amplified insults that wrapped up the hour-long work, perhaps trying to goad spectators out of their seats, is all too familiar to us now. Hardly shocking anymore, it’s the rhetoric of our bloviating president’s tweets, a spate of name-calling that still makes us squirm. The empty suit, the hollow declarations, a girl’s whimpering confession of a loss of faith: They’re the stuff of our news broadcasts and our nightmares. Naharin’s Virus has infected us. Our culture, like that inflatable dancer, is full of hot air.

Batsheva — The Young Ensemble
Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue
212-242-0800
joyce.org
Through July 22

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives

From Brooklyn Burlesque to Lincoln Center Cinema: July’s Dance Highlights

The more things change, the richer the spread of summer spectacle becomes. Dance on Camera, the annual compendium of international dance films usually exhibited in late January, this year shows up in July. See below for a mere taste of what else is on deck this summer — much of it outdoors, much of it free.

Contemporary Dance Series
Through July 20
On Fridays at 6 p.m. this summer, Tiffany Rea-Fisher curates free outdoor concerts, with multiple dance companies performing nightly on an elevated stage. So far, the series — which has been running since June 22 — has hosted appearances by Graham2, the AThomasProject, Mindy Jackson, NOW Dance Project, the Peridance Contemporary Dance Company, and more. Additional highlights are on the horizon. On July 6, catch a roster that includes Monteleone Dance and Tiffany Mills Company. On July 13, Bryn Cohn + Artists, Diva Dance, Tina Croll + Company, and others take the platform. It all leads up to the concluding program, on July 20, of HopeBoykinDance, Julia Ehrstrand, Gabrielle Lamb, and Earl Mosley’s Institute of the Arts.
Bryant Park Stage, 42nd Street and Sixth Avenue, bryantpark.org

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Ballet Festival + Batsheva — The Young Ensemble
Through July 22
The Joyce’s annual Ballet Festival, running through July 7, hosts five companies from all over the country, each for two or three performances. Then, straight from a run at the Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival in Massachusetts, comes to the Chelsea venue Batsheva — The Young Ensemble (July 10–22), the junior offshoot of Tel Aviv’s leading troupe Batsheva. The outfit brings with them Naharin’s Virus, a Bessie Award–winning piece by Ohad Naharin, who recently announced that he’s stepping down as the company’s director but will continue to choreograph. Adapted from Peter Handke’s play Offending the Audience, the deeply ambiguous work, which had its U.S. premiere in 2002, includes sections of Handke’s text, a huge blackboard at the back of the stage, and other deeply theatrical strategies.
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

Company XIV
Through July 29
For ten years, Austin McCormick’s peripatetic baroque-burlesque ensemble has mounted stunning, raunchy versions of popular fairy tales and Petipa ballets. This summer, it offers an ingenious original piece, Boylesque Bullfight, in its own Brooklyn cabaret space. Eight shapely men, attired in little more than jeweled codpieces, corsets, and horned helmets, bring us a jaw-dropping version of Munro Leaf’s 1936 nursery story of Ferdinand, the bull who never learned to fight. The action comes ornamented with soprano Marcy Richardson singing arias from Bizet’s Carmen and a delightful playlist including Tom Waits, Yma Sumac, Gloria Gaynor, and tango tunes. A man-size honeybee rocks point shoes; the very talented performers work out on poles, spiral in Spanish dance styles with lace mantillas and fans, and climax, under a rain of glitter, in a kick-line wearing fake breasts. A blast for all is just about guaranteed.
Théâtre XIV, 383 Troutman Street, Brooklyn, companyxiv.com

Dance on Camera Festival
July 20–24
A co-production of the Film Society of Lincoln Center and the Dance Films Association, this year’s festival — its namesake’s 46th — offers sixteen programs encompassing ambitious features and quirky shorts from seventeen countries. The opening-night bill highlights Mark Wilkinson’s American Tap, which follows this indigenous art form from its origins among immigrants to its current resurgence. Closing the five-day event is If the Dancer Dances, focused on keeping the work of Merce Cunningham alive for a new generation. In between, watch Lucinda Childs teach members of the Lyon Opera Ballet her choreography to Beethoven, and see Marta Renzi’s tribute to dance artist Aileen Passloff, Her Magnum Opus. In addition to the programs at the giant Walter Reade Theater, free screenings and discussions take place in the FSLC’s Elinor Bunin Monroe Film Center Amphitheater across the street. Grab an all-access pass, another discount package, or single tickets and enjoy the comfy, commercial-free cinema environs.
Film Society of Lincoln Center, 65th Street between Broadway and Amsterdam, filmlinc.org

Mark Morris Dance Group
July 28; August 9–12
The redoubtable choreographer displays his precious resources at Lincoln Center this summer, including an expensive showing during August’s Mostly Mozart festival. On July 28, to kick off “Family Day” at Lincoln Center Out of Doors, members of Morris’s company will teach sections of his Love Song Waltzes to participants of all ages starting at 11 a.m in Hearst Plaza. Then, from August 9 to 12, make your way to the Rose Theater at Jazz at Lincoln Center, where the Mark Morris Dance Group performs a program including that work and the world premiere of The Trout, to the Schubert quintet played live by the Ariel Quartet, joined by pianist Inon Barnatan. Tickets for this are scarce already, so don’t dally.
Both events near Lincoln Center, markmorrisdancegroup.org

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives

Philadelphia’s Foremost Contemporary Dance Troupe Channels Political Angst

Philadanco!, a contraction of “Philadelphia Dance Company” (and sometimes referred to as ’Danco by insiders), is nearly five decades old. Founded during the early years of the National Endowment for the Arts and still directed by the indomitable Joan Myers Brown, it trains and develops dancers and choreographers who get rare year-round contracts but too often jump ship and join the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater. This is both a tribute to Brown’s prowess and a problem for her troupe.

The current Joyce program includes dances from the past four years, three of which are steeped in the sadness of this country’s racial crisis. Christopher L. Huggins, choreographer in residence at Philadanco, offers the compelling but disjointed 2017 New Fruit, referred to in the notes as “a glimpse into the unchanged landscape of the cycle of sanctioned violence on Black and Brown bodies in America.” The first of its five sections, to Nina Simone’s searing rendition of the ballad “Strange Fruit,” is a solo for William E. Burden, who alternates in the role with Joe Gonzales. Against a projected backdrop of trees and barbed wire, and with a rope dangling down at one side, Burden anticipates an all-too-frequent fate: The section ends with the sudden appearance of the shadows of two hanged men on the treescape. Next up is hip-hop dancing by performers in hoodies and jeans, the adroit choreography shot through with moves from capoeira. Clifton Taylor’s lighting does a lot of the heavy lifting, with projections that might be high-rise projects or jail cells dominating the stage.

Dawn Marie Bazemore’s A Movement for Five (2015) approaches the events of 1989 leading up to the conviction and incarceration of the Central Park Five, teenagers and alleged sexual assaulters who were later exonerated and released. Much research, thought, and care has gone into the construction of this three-section piece, which opens with eight dancers moving to Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power.” Against a green cyclorama, it uses rudimentary but clear and powerful gestures to make its points. The second section, to solemn choral music, shows the five men writhing on the ground in Nick Kolin’s squares of light, paced by Joe Gonzales, like the others apparently handcuffed. The sad final vision, after their release, has the men, reunited with their mothers and sweethearts, falling and rising, communicating their suffering and loss.

Thang Dao’s 2016 Folded Prism breaks out of the malaise, prioritizing the visual over the emotional. Featuring nine of the troupe’s ten dancers in intriguingly detailed form-fitting white costumes by Natasha Guruleva, it privileges shape over meaning, letting the performers fold and unfold their long limbs, spiral their torsos, partner briefly, and return to the cluster shape with which the piece begins. Kolin’s geometric lighting design, using lots of side lights and casting colored shadows on the white unitards, amplifies the power of the movement. The dancers are technically strong, less aggressive than their cousins at Ailey, and engaging to watch.

The newest and blandest of this program’s works is Tommie-Waheed Evans’s 2018 With(in) Verse, which a note describes as “gospel as desperation.” Identically dressed in blue trousers and flowing gray shirts, eight performers often move in unison to a percussive score assembled from music by Signal, Loscil, and T.L. Barrett. A longtime company member, Evans collaborated with the dancers on this piece, which strikes me as too low-key, overbalanced by its sound score and Taylor’s dramatic lighting, alternately hazy and angular.

Lighting dark-skinned dancers is a rare talent, mastered by only a few and helped when all the dancers onstage require this special focus. Kolin and Taylor both have it down, making it possible to see the faces of these beautiful performers even when a work’s mise-en-scène calls for bleakness in the atmosphere.

Philadanco!
Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue
212-242-0800
joyce.org
Through June 17

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CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives

As the Temperatures Rise, New York’s Dance Makers Soldier On

The dance season used to slow down when the thermometer went up, but now the creativity flows all year round. It moves outside, it moves upstate, but the dancers keep going, in the boroughs and in traditional downtown spaces. Starting this week, performers from Hawaii, New Jersey, Argentina, Portugal, and middle school, as well as keepers of the Graham flame, grace the city’s stages — and a garden. 

Performance Mix Festival
June 7–10
For the 32nd year, downtown’s Tribeca-based New Dance Alliance, spearheaded by Karen Bernard, has programmed a four-day festival packed with more than thirty dance artists from around the planet. On offer: ten performances plus a reception, a breakfast, an after-party, a workshop, and a four-hour closing event featuring site-specific pieces located all over the Lower East Side’s historic University Settlement house. Included on this season’s programs are choreographers Parijat Desai, Sebastian Abarbanell, Jenn Goodwin, Simon Portigal, Nicholas Rodrigues, Daniel Gwirtzman, Anna Rogovoy, João Costa Espinho, and nearly two dozen more; click here for the full roster.
University Settlement, 184 Eldridge Street, newdancealliance.org

Gabrielle Revlock will perform at

Ballet Tech Kids Dance
June 7–10
Nestled among the professional dance studios at 890 Broadway is Ballet Tech, an unusual New York City public school (accommodating students in grades four through eight, as well as some high school dancers) with ballet at the center of its curriculum. These gifted students take over the Joyce — a theater actually founded 35 years ago by the school’s artistic director and the company’s primary choreographer, Eliot Feld — for six performances, with new Feld works on pointe and old favorites, like Apple Pie, The Jig Is Up, and Meshugana Dance. On some of the programs is also It’s the Effort That Counts, choreographed by Juilliard graduates Stephanie Terasaki, Conner Bormann, and Riley O’Flynn. Watch the feet fly, and see the future of ballet in our town.
Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

10 Hairy Legs
June 7–10
That unfortunate name accurately describes the fact that this is an all-male dance company, but doesn’t hint at the high quality of its technique and its contemporary repertory — some of which, like this year’s world premiere by Yin Yue, is by women. This sixth New York season by the New Jersey–based troupe, founded by Rutgers dance professor Randy James, also includes a first choreographic commission by company member Nicholas Sciscione, performed with live music by Israeli composer Ofer Pelz, who now lives in Montreal. Completing the very diverse program are pieces by Al Blackstone, Raja Feather Kelly, and Christopher Williams. Friday’s show is a benefit, followed by a dessert reception.
Baryshnikov Arts Center, 450 West 37th Street, 10hl.org

10 Hairy Legs

Graham 2
June 7–10
Starting more than ninety years ago, Martha Graham upended the expectations of the dance world in every possible way. Though she shied away from the idea that her work might survive her, her acolytes continue to learn and perfect it — and to put it before audiences, both in large uptown spaces and, as here, in the intimate environment of her troupe’s West Village studio, where it will be performed by twelve members of the junior company. In addition to Graham’s stark 1935 Frontier and the brilliant 1948 Diversion of Angels, they’ll show part of her 1967 Cortege of Eagles, as well as dances by early company member Sophie Maslow (the 1941 I Ain’t Got No Home); longtime Graham partner Bertram Ross (the 1978 Nocturne); and A New Place, recently completed by Virginie Mécène, now the Graham 2 program director, to music by Tom Hormel.
Martha Graham Studio Theater, 55 Bethune Street, marthagraham.edu

Tango & Flamenco Fusion
Weekends through July 1
Explore the Argentine roots of tango and the complex migration of flamenco in an intimate, bilingual environment. The tight team at this precious neighborhood establishment brings live music (by Grammy winner Raul Jaurena on the bandonion, Marga Mitchell singing, and Diego Amador on piano and vocals, complemented by eight other musicians) and dancing (by Yaisuri Salamanca and John Hernan Raigosa, world tango champions, and flamenco dancer Sol “La Argentinita,” from Buenos Aires). Can’t afford the tickets? Bring the family to free brunch-time performances in nearby Thomson Hill Park; full schedule information available at the website below.
Thalia Spanish Theatre, 41-17 Greenpoint Avenue, Sunnyside, Queens, thaliatheatre.org

Hawaiian Performances and Demonstrations
Weekends through September 3
Twenty paintings by Georgia O’Keefe are only some of what pours from the cornucopia of Hawaiian riches on offer this summer in the stunning environs of the Bronx’s Botanical Garden. Both traditional and contemporary hula performances, with live music, take place Saturday and Sunday afternoons, offered by Pua Ali’i ‘Ilima o Nuioka (June 9 and 10; August 12), Pomaikai Klein (June 17), and five other groups. Want to learn this tempting form yourself? On Saturday nights, interactive hula lessons are held on the Conservatory Lawn, along with displays by other visual artists and refreshments (a poke bowl, anyone?) for sale.
New York Botanical Garden, 2900 Southern Boulevard, Bronx, nybg.org

Categories
CULTURE ARCHIVES Dance Archives

Substance Skirts the Rowdy Confections of Parsons Dance

“Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public,” said the American journalist H.L. Mencken. But for the fact that he died some sixty years ago, Mencken might have been thinking of David Parsons, director and choreographer of Parsons Dance, whose 23rd annual Joyce season opened last Tuesday.

Parsons made his name as a principal dancer with Paul Taylor’s troupe, and then with several other outfits; he choreographed for ballet and opera companies, and founded his own successful ensemble, with lighting designer Howell Binkley, in 1985. This distinguished pedigree would, you’d think, result in dances of substance, but the season’s opening night consisted of a trio of forgettable premieres, Parsons’s 1982 signature work Caught, and Trey McIntyre’s rowdy 2005 piece Ma Maison. In the first group fell Microburst, an odd quartet for dancers wreathed in black fringe. To a compelling original score played live by tabla virtuoso Avirodh Sharma, dancers Geena Pacareu, Eoghan Dillon, Zoey Anderson, and Justus Whitfield unleashed a veritable storm of percussive movement, reminiscent of, but never as sophisticated as, the kathak rhythms that Sharma was reeling out. Fragments of jazz dance, Broadway routines, some dramatic exchanges evoking domestic violence — all rather tacky, considering the long and brilliant tradition of the musical accompaniment.

Next up was Stranger to the Rain, a brief duet to a song by the evening’s guest of honor, composer Stephen Schwartz, who wrote Pippin and Wicked. Schwartz played the piano in the pit while singer Shoshana Bean, onstage, sang the song; Whitfield partnered Anderson in a spiral series of lifts, one of which had him hoisting her with one hand between her legs, as if she were a six-pack of beer. A native of Las Vegas, Whitfield is a somewhat new, strong addition to the ensemble. Then Abby Silva Gavezzoli, a fifteen-year veteran of the troupe and Parsons’s “muse,” performed her farewell solo, made collaboratively with him, to Debussy’s Clair de Lune played by Peter Dugan. In a long, beautiful striped Missoni cardigan, she noodled around and then, turning her back to us, walked off into Binkley’s sunset.

The most substantial work on the program, set to recorded music by the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, was the New Orleans–flavored Ma Maison, originally made by McIntyre for his own troupe. The dancers, wearing skull masks, white gloves, white jazz shoes, and Jeanne Button’s riotously colored costumes, brought to mind black minstrels and, of course, the famous funereal “second line” marchers. Whitfield anchored the action here.

To be sure, the opening night Gala Program was truncated; to get Parsons’s funders and supporters off to dinner by dark, the show itself lasted barely an hour, interrupted with speeches and appreciations by Parsons himself, Schwartz, and Robert Battle, a former company member who’s now the artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and didn’t bother to identify himself before heaping encomiums on his old boss. These little talks covered the costume changes, allowing the program to proceed without intermissions.

Go to the remaining shows and you’ll also see Parsons’s 2005 Wolfgang, a sextet to Mozart originally made for the Aspen Santa Fe Ballet, and his 2014 Whirlaway, commissioned by the New Orleans Ballet Association and danced to four pieces by Allen Toussaint. Taken together, this may result in a more substantial experience than the one we had on Tuesday. Last Monday, Parsons received a Capezio Dance Award (presented this year for the first time in Las Vegas, with honors going also to Wendy Whelan, Debbie Allen, Michelle Dorrance, and Steve “Mr. Wiggles” Clemente). That event was hosted by Nigel Lythgoe of So You Think You Can Dance. As ever, it’s important to remember where Parsons is coming from: He wants you to have fun.

Parsons Dance
Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue
212-242-0080
joyce.org
Through May 27