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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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Masters of Ceremony: The Limón Company Dances the Divine

The best thing about the Limón Dance Company is that it takes itself and its mission seriously. This is, of course, also potentially the worst thing. The 72-year-old troupe, founded in Manhattan by the Mexican-American José Limón and his mentor/colleague Doris Humphrey,  brings to the Joyce a program heavy on spirituality; it has always engaged serious themes, but this season the focus of the choreography turns to God and to whatever formulations Native American leaders may have held in lieu of monotheism.

Mark Willis in “The Unsung”

The company’s publicity says its primary concern is “community.” In the spare opening work, Limón’s 1970 male septet The Unsung, bare-chested men in buckskin trousers create rhythms with their bare feet. There’s no musical accompaniment; the weight of the occasion is all on the performers, and they rise to it marvelously, as an ensemble and in solo sections. What we see is minimalism inflected with the sacred, as the dancers, each of whom is identified in the program with the name of a famous chief from an American tribe, move in concert, apparently preparing for battle or celebrating victory.

With very simple theatrical tools — just the occasional change in the hue or level of light — the work projects levels of threat to these warriors’ way of life.  Performers focus on the ground or on the sky; even when they’re onstage together, their attention is less on one another than on some larger concern. It is clear that they are hunted, and probably doomed.

“The Unsung,” choreographed by José Limón

The seven men are all strong performers. I find it hard to tear my eyes from Jesse Obremski, one of the troupe’s youngest members, whose strength, clarity, and focus radiate from a secure central place. But the others — Mark Willis, David Glista, Terrence D.M. Diable, Alex McBride, Malik Williams and Tanner Myles Huseman — also capture the commitment of the native leaders.

The Body Is a House Without Walls, a new work for six women by the company’s current artistic director, Colin Connor, also seems to keep its focus on the otherworldly. After cutting one person out of a red dress, the group, costumed by Elysia Roscoe in floaty white garments, gambols around to Glenn Gould’s recording of Beethoven’s Piano Sonata #32. The trouble here is that the Beethoven is challenging and complex; at one point I find myself tuning out the dancing to concentrate on the music. But by the end of The Body, I am wondering if we are not in purgatory. And sure enough, a program note tells us that the piece was inspired by the behavior of elephants toward their dead.  Visible references are slight, but the spaced-out relationships imply a certain placelessness.

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The two-hour program’s somber nature was interrupted opening night by Rosie Herrera’s Querida Herida. A trifle for two frantic women (three if you count the sweet gymnast, Angela Falk, who vamps during a costume change) and several dresses, it relies on gimmicky outfits by Bradon McDonald to communicate the relationship between Jacqueline Bulnes and Brenna Monroe-Cook. One unzips portions of the other’s black dress to reveal dazzling red-sequined internal organs; the other pulls a spiral zipper that deconstructs an entire garment, leaving its wearer in nude-toned undies. All good fun, but then they disappear and return in golden dresses. The central dynamic between the two leading women is never entirely clear.

José Limón’s “Missa Brevis”

Limón’s sixty-year-old Missa Brevis, to a fuzzy recording of Zoltán Kodály’s choral score, also claims to be a tribute to community, but in fact aims its glorious ensemble dancing primarily at heaven. Men in casual clothing and women in simple knee-length dresses perform the various parts of the Catholic mass, the company expanded to nineteen by visiting artists from Canada and Venezuela.

At thirty-four minutes Missa is not so brevis, and its organizing principle, focusing on a man (Mark Willis) redeemed by his participation in the group, gets lost in the general pageantry, but when it was new, during the Eisenhower administration, it moved the company into the front ranks of American dance, a spot it deserved then, and deserves now.

“Missa Brevis”

Limón Dance Company
Joyce Theater
175 Eighth Avenue
212-242-0800
joyce.org
Through May 13

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In Harlem, They’re Still Dancing the Original Swing

Limbs flail as if about to fly off; feet barely touch the floor; spines bend and twist like rubber. You might not think of the Lindy hop as a frenzied dance — the original abandon would get polished away over time. Watching it today, especially in old clips like Frankie Manning’s swing sequence in Hellzapoppin’, from 1941, you can see the seeds that would later become vogue ballroom, hip-hop, krumping.

It’s often said that the closing of the Savoy Ballroom, the Lindy hop’s great cathedral until 1958, was the death of swing, at least until its resurrection in the 1980s. For the dancers of the Savoy themselves, however, swing never died. Some of the place’s legends are even still dancing.

At the Pelham Fritz Rec Center in Marcus Garvey Park, on West 122nd Street, a woman drops toward the ground. She’s wearing a red slip dress with matching fringe and fishnets. She’s held horizontal: Her partner caught her just in time, her head an inch from his feet. She’s smiling with her teeth, catching every eye in the room, all on her.

She is 83 years old.

Other partners twist, knees dipping, swiveling on the balls of their feet, cocking their heels. The older men wear fedoras; one stands six-foot-four in a terra-cotta mohair blazer with cream trousers. The younger men wear baseball caps and jerseys. Trumpets blare from the Harlem Renaissance Orchestra on the sidelines.

This is the Harlem Swing Dance Society Ball, a celebration for Harlem’s African-American elders, for those dancers who once graced the floors of the Savoy and for the ones who have kept the Lindy hop scene alive. Founded by Barbara Jones, a tall, commanding Lindy hop enthusiast, the Swing Dance Society is a Harlem original, a last effort to preserve this local history. In the nine years since Jones founded the society, she has reached out to many of the Savoy’s great dancers, now in their eighties and nineties. A few more decades and their stories might have been lost. Stories like that of Barbara Billups.

Billups was nineteen or twenty — she no longer remembers exactly — when she first set foot on the Savoy Ballroom floor. It was around 1958, right before the venue closed. “When I first went to the Savoy,” she recalls, “it was the most beautiful place I had ever seen.” By then in operation for 32 years, the Savoy was unique, the only ballroom where black and white patrons regularly danced together.

Billups had just moved from Athens, Georgia, to live with her mother in Harlem, on 163rd Street, but the Savoy became her second home. “Every time I had a night off,” she says, “I would go to the Savoy, and I would dance and leave just in time to go to work the next morning. Go home, take a shower, and go to work. I tell you, I almost fell on my face one time, being up so late.”

She recounts all this while seated on the bed in her Flushing apartment, the padded headboard covered in plastic, Judge Greg Mathis on TV in the background. Billups wears a black “King of Pop” T-shirt, black sweatpants, and her hair tied back. Just past eighty, she’s still in high demand as a Lindy hop teacher; she had a teaching trip to Sweden scheduled just a few days after the interview.

In 1958, Billups was asked to dance in the Harvest Moon Ball by Willie Posey. None of the other girls wanted to dance with Posey, because he “danced wild.” Billups, who had never competed before, protested — “You know I can’t dance!” — but Posey insisted, and after three weeks of practice, Billups entered the last Harvest Moon contest to come out of the Savoy. The pair ended up placing third.

The winners were Marcella Washington and Sonny Allen, who later became Billups’s partner both on the dancefloor and off; the two now live together in the home in Flushing. By the time he won the ball, Allen was already an accomplished and versatile performer. He’d gotten his start on television at age ten, on The Star Time Kids, and danced with Henry LeTang, the Tony-winning choreographer of Black and Blue. Allen was, in addition to swing, a tap and Latin dancer, and he was a regular at the Palladium Ballroom. “I never wanted to be considered a Lindy hopper,” says Allen, seated on the bed next to Billups, in a dressing gown but still sporting perfectly coiffed hair. “If you were a Lindy hopper they’d put you in a box, and you can’t get out. We were entertainers.”

Gladys Crowder and Eddie “Shorty” Davis, two of the great Lindy hoppers at the Savoy, 1939.

Tradition held that the Harvest Moon’s winning couple would perform on The Ed Sullivan Show, which Allen and Washington did. Allen in particular saw this as his big break, his chance to realize a dream. Having answered phones for booking agents in midtown — or “downtown,” as he calls it — he thought it the right time to work his connections and secure his own representation. Trouble was, the Lindy hop was not an act you could sell. “You can’t do thirty-five minutes Lindying,” Allen reflects today. “Two and a half minutes and that’s it. Now what are you going to do the rest of the time you’re onstage?”

He needed a show. With the Savoy closed, Allen, along with Billups and their friends from the ballroom, got together to rehearse. Allen’s father worked at the Democratic club on 116th Street, which had a ballroom on its first floor where Allen and his group would practice. “I taught them how to tap, swing, ballroom, adagio,” Allen says. They even practiced etiquette for white resorts. “I got a table out and set it up with the forks and knives and everything else. In the Catskill Mountains they always said that black people don’t know how to eat.”

Eventually, Allen’s booking agent came through with a gig at the Piccadilly in New Bedford, Massachusetts. “Singing — not dancing,” the agent said. Allen protested: “These girls don’t know how to sing!” To which his agent replied: “You got two weeks to try and learn them.” Determined to make a go of it, Allen and Billups, along with their friends Lovey Farmer, Sugar Sullivan, and Charlotte “Mommy” Thacker, formed a group, Sonny Allen and the Rockets. Of the women, Billups was the only one with singing experience, having sung in church. The other three had to learn in the two-week rehearsal window.

“This is how we went to Bedford, Massachusetts,” Allen says. “We were supposed to be there for one week; we stayed there for two months.” They had only a tiny stage, but Allen, having plied his trade on TV, knew how to spot-dance, and he taught his group how to show off their Lindy hop dancing on the spot.

Sonny Allen and the Rockets went on to perform with “Harlem in Havana,” a traveling variety show out of Tampa, Florida, produced by Leon Claxton. Touring the country, the performers ended up working with some of the great jazz figures: Mario Bauzá, Sarah Vaughn, Candido Camero, Benny Moré.

These days Billups is something of a Harlem celebrity. In addition to her teaching, she still performs, drawing crowds at swing conventions the world over. This is how the form survives today. It’s a surprisingly thriving scene, but ask anyone about the global competitive circuit, and they’ll likely agree that South Korean dancers now dominate the contests. A recent documentary, Alive and Kicking, depicted the newer swing set but bothered Barbara Jones and those working with her Harlem Swing Dance Society, because none of the young dancers the film chose to focus on were black.

“What happened in Harlem was somebody dropped the ball, and it almost died out,” Jones says. “That’s why we have to be out there, too, saying, ‘Hey, the dance has gone all over the world. That’s why you have to be a part of it.’ ”

 

Lindy hoppers at the Savoy, 1954

 

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Choreographer Tamar Rogoff Mounts an Immersive Survey of Lives in Extremis

Choreographer Tamar Rogoff makes movies as well as live movement theater. She’s great at rupturing the barrier between action and audience — breaking the fourth wall — surrounding performers with spectators. In her new Grand Rounds, she turns the huge, flexible Ellen Stewart Theatre into something like a soundstage, establishing “close-ups” and “wide shots” and constructing a range of environments in the rambling space.

The daughter of a doctor, Rogoff is also interested in combining fictive and autobiographical material. The thread binding this piece is her enthusiasm for the Cherry Ames young-adult series, which was first published in 1943 and ran through 1968. Ames began as a student nurse with a flair for detective work, à la Nancy Drew, and in Grand Rounds, she’s the favorite character of a ten-year-old girl, played with bright-eyed attention by tap-dancing fifth-grader Cadence Rotarius, who’s almost always glued to a book. What she reads is shared with us via voiceover, as she tiptoes around her extended family’s house in baby-doll pajamas, wielding her trusty flashlight.

All of this is fascinating and disconcerting. The design of the piece gives you license to stare. When you’re sitting less than three feet from a couple (Jake Szczypek and Emily Pope) on a bed, and the man starts acting violently toward the woman, your urge might be to flee, or to intervene. These are people you’ve just met, and they’re not talking, so you have no idea what their problem is; all you know is that their daughter is spying on them, and so are you.

On another bed (three are surrounded by liquor boxes painted to look like wood on which we sit to observe the action; on a fourth, “upstage,” our heroine lies on her belly reading), the girl’s grandparents (Glen Heroy and Cyndy Gilbertson) spend a restless night. He’s a large, nurturing presence, and she struggles with Parkinson’s disease. On a third bed the girl’s big brother (Morgan Sullivan), also restless, seems to be in the grip of a nightmare about war. He hides under the bed, and then bench-presses it.

Rogoff doesn’t specify the period in which Grand Rounds is set, but snippets of news from an invisible radio in each bedroom hint at the era of the Korean War. Nightgowns on the female characters and tunes on the soundtrack speak to mid-century America, as does the absence of electronic media.

The second part of the eighty-minute piece, for which viewers are reseated around the edges of the performance space, farther away from the action, is more problematic. The beds are gone. On a high platform sits a hospital corridor, where nurses, doctors, and patients break out of their normal routines to dance to Fifties tunes, at one point actually forming a kick-line. On the floor below, family members build a wall out of the liquor boxes to separate the warring spouses; then they set the boxes in rows and attach fake gravestones. The brother turns up first in a military uniform and then in the upstairs hospital, suddenly dead.

This critic couldn’t figure out why young nurse Cherry (Nitzan Mager) and her bookworm fan wound up wearing tutus and dancing in a graveyard. It emerged during a post-show Q&A that Rogoff wants to engage “the whole round of life in its heartbreaking fullness,” including the issue of death, and chose the second act of the nineteenth-century ballet Giselle as the vehicle for doing that.

Real doctors and nurses collaborated on the development of the piece, and some appear in it. Stranded among the architectural demands of live theater, the allusiveness of dance, and the intimate possibilities of cinema, it’s a thought-provoking study of human challenges, of how adult behavior affects the young, of how world events can upend family life. If you have in your circle precocious tweens, bring them to see it; if not, go yourself. You’ll all find plenty to look at, listen to, and think about.

Grand Rounds
Tamar Rogoff Performance Projects
La MaMa
66 East 4th Street
212-352-3101
Through May 14

 

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In “Poor People’s TV Room,” Okwui Okpokwasili Sheds Light on Women’s Enduring Power

As we enter the theater at New York Live Arts, Poor People’s TV Room has already begun; figures move on the wide stage, both behind and before a sheet of translucent, striated plastic. The space is divided by an extension cord feeding a simple clamp light. To the left, two plastic armchairs sit in the dark. To the right, an elaborate construction resembling a low table is fronted by a large flat-screen monitor; hanging above it are table lamps, lying on their sides in the air. In front of it, another plastic armchair.

Moving among and between these objects are four barefoot women who appear to have nothing but the clothes they wear. Okwui Okpokwasili — who conceived Poor People’s TV Room and wrote it with director and designer Peter Born — is behind the plastic, dancing intently, naked to her waist. Loud industrial sound fills the room. The other women (Thuli Dumakude, Katrina Reid, and Nehemoyia Young) speak softly, barely audible except when they stand and declaim, reporting history or the news or observations about Oprah, who is somehow a godhead in this environment, part of both the forces of oppression and the hope for release. We seem to be in both the present (Young wears contemporary workout clothes) and in some colonial past, in an Africa where spirits may suddenly appear, embodied in mysterious sparkling garments.

Okpokwasili herself is loud, imperious, either the mistress of the peculiar tilted house on the right, or somehow delusional, or both. The performers lie on the table but through the magic of video appear to us to be upright, sitting or standing, looking out a window at clouds. Reid sits in a wooden chair; Okpokwasili, after berating her, lies across her lap and suckles at her breast. Sometimes she rants about the power structure in the Nigerian market town where, it appears, this quartet is imprisoned.

On the other side, Dumakude — the elder in this group, in real life an award-winning South African performer, writer, and director — and Young talk quietly; we catch snippets of their conversation about T-shirt slogans. Young reports growing a tail, which she cuts off and buries, but which grows back and turns into another girl. In the middle of the stage, Okpokwasili and Reid roll together on the floor, head to head, back to back. As the ninety-minute piece unfolds, we gather that Reid has recently given birth but that the child has not survived. These women have undergone unspeakable hardships but continue to speak. Perhaps they are hallucinating; perhaps they are seers, poets, managing their difficult situation with the courage of their female power.

Born’s lighting casts the huge sheet of plastic sometimes as water, sometimes as sky, sometimes as desert, and picks out the performers in concentrated solos. The uncredited sound score modulates to a pattern of breath, then swells to evoke trucks, gunfire, aircraft.

For the past decade Okpokwasili, a Nigerian American raised in the Bronx, has been responsible for, or part of, the most compelling performance work to be seen on this country’s stages. This new piece, in development for several years, requires intense concentration on the part of its audience — and repays it in kind. Closer in form to poetry or liturgy than to conventional drama or dance, its riveting text invokes popular tropes (Oprah’s face on a piece of toast! her profile in the dimples of a potato chip!) and recounts a series of magical transformations. It tells of a woman who becomes, by turns, a cat, an ox, a butterfly, a fish, a cobra, an impala, a yellow leaf, and, finally, the dust between the toes of a chimpanzee.

Okpokwasili and Born have taken on a huge challenge: to represent, for American audiences now, the horrors of colonial Nigeria some ninety years ago, and the ways those forms of oppression linger in contemporary behavior. We may leave bewildered, or we, too, may be transformed.

Poor People’s TV Room
New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street
212-924-0077, newyorklivearts.org
Through April 29

 

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From Stage to Page: Unpacking a Shelf of New Dance Publications

First, a bit of autobiography. Years ago I set out to write, to teach, perhaps to become a literary critic. Tortured by the need to sit still, I took dance classes to break up days at my desk, and was pointed toward dance journalism by a teacher who liked my reviews. Ditching grad school in English literature to write for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation and the alternative press, I decided to read all the dance books in the Vancouver Public Library: about eighty the day I counted them. “Piece of cake,” I said to myself, figuring that when I was done I’d be ready to dive in to dance criticism.

That was in another country, and another century. Now there are probably eight thousand dance books written in English, and so many piled up in my apartment that I’ve considered replacing my queen-size bed with a single to make more room for shelves. This boom in dance literature coincides with the tailing-off of the boom in performance, which has been evident since the early Nineties; many funders now more readily support scholarship and archiving than creative projects. University dance departments seek candidates with doctorates, and require them to publish. That obligation is our gain; herewith, a quick look at the crop of the season.

Susan Rosenberg, an art historian at St. John’s University, directs its master’s degree program in museum administration. Her Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art focuses on the first half of Brown’s fifty-year career, and gives pride of place to illustrations; academic authors typically bear the costs of including visual material in their publications, but Rosenberg landed several grants to underwrite this expense, and her book fetchingly abounds with reproductions of performance and studio shots, posters, and pages from Brown’s extensive notebooks. Brown, who died last month at eighty, enjoyed enduring collaborative relationships with the twentieth century’s most significant visual artists; her process naturally attracted Rosenberg, who worked in museums for twenty years just as choreography began to be found worthy of attention by institutions whose goal is preservation.

Another art historian, Bruce Robertson, collaborated with dance scholar Ninotchka Bennahum and critic, editor, and Trisha Brown alumna Wendy Perron on Radical Bodies, the catalog for an archival museum show now at UC Santa Barbara and heading for the NYPL’s Library for the Performing Arts next month. The attractive, large-format volume gives props to 96-year-old Anna Halprin, on whose outdoor dance deck Brown began her improvisatory experiments in 1960 and first met Yvonne Rainer and Simone Forti, later to become significant colleagues at Judson Dance Theater and Grand Union. Included alongside essays by the three co-curators are reminiscences by Forti, critic John Rockwell, and composer Morton Subotnick, all collaborators in Halprin’s radical practice.

Rosemary Candelario, a young scholar with a background in anthropology and a doctorate in culture and performance, does a masterful job plumbing the history of Eiko & Koma, dance artists born in Japan but living in the United States since 1977. Her Flowers Cracking Concrete provides a useful critique of decades of reviews of the duo’s work, and of how that work has often been misinterpreted, even by the Voice‘s Deborah Jowitt. Ably negotiating the often tedious demands of academic writing, the book provides a valuable record of forty years in their lives and ours.

The gratifying thing about these writers is the way they use dance journalism as a scholarly resource, bringing the thinking of many critics to bear on their own theoretical work. The frustrating thing is the obscurity of some of the prose. Dana Mills’s Dance and Politics, a reworking of her doctoral dissertation at Oxford, sets about expanding “our notion of what is political so that it includes dance.” A teacher of political theory, she posits transactions between artists and audiences, using as examples Isadora Duncan, Martha Graham, South African gumboot dancers, Eve Ensler’s One Billion Rising action to end violence against women, and Israeli choreographer Arkadi Zaides’s danced protests against human rights violations in Palestine. She interpolates the URLs of YouTube clips so we can follow along. She examines a “moment of subversion through the body operating within the normative-theoretical idea of radical hope: a new ontology that gives its subject the possibility to dance a world in becoming.” Say what? Her writing is so convoluted that parsing it has taken me weeks.

The general atrophy of periodical dance criticism, now reduced in even so august a publication as the New York Times, reaches a new low in the current issue of Dance Ink, a publication spearheaded by philanthropist Patsy Tarr, designed by Abbott Miller and Andrew Walters of Pentagram, and edited by Nancy Dalva. Launched in 1989, suspended in 1996, and replaced soon after by another project called 2wice, the quarterlies used to sparkle with dazzling art and writing. (I remember fondly photographs of steam locomotives by O. Winston Link, with commentary by critic Tobi Tobias.) This spring’s slim ten-by-fourteen-inch journal is essentially an abecedary, displaying abstractions of an alphabet designed by Abbott Miller behind Pari Dukovic’s photos of dancer Melissa Toogood (in a pieced unitard by Reid Bartelme and Harriet Jung) striking poses choreographed during the shoot by Pam Tanowitz. Bookending these are a 250-word introduction by Dalva and a page of biographical notes. The magazine is handsome but opaque. The thoughtful essays we so valued in those early editions are gone. For comparable fare this season, you’ll want to check in with Jowitt’s pieces, at artsjournal.com, or seek out Ballet Review, now publishing in glorious, living color.

Trisha Brown: Choreography as Visual Art
By Susan Rosenberg
Wesleyan University Press
408 pp.

Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in
California and New York, 1955–1972

By Ninotchka Bennahum, Wendy Perron, and Bruce Robertson, et al.
University of California Press
192 pp.

Flowers Cracking Concrete: Eiko & Koma’s Asian/American Choreographies
By Rosemary Candelario
Wesleyan University Press
284 pp.

Dance & Politics: Moving Beyond Boundaries
By Dana Mills
Manchester University Press
132 pp.

Dance Ink, Vol. 8, No. 2
2wice Arts Foundation
Unpaginated

 

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Step to It: This Spring’s Most Electrifying Dance Performances

Critic’s Pick: Judson Redux

What’s extraordinary about the Judson Dance Theater, started 55 years ago by experimenters including Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon, and Steve Paxton, is not merely how vital and fertile its work was at the time, but also how inspiring the still-active founders continue to be for new generations. This spring, a cornucopia of their history and product spills out around Manhattan. Stephen Petronio’s “Bloodlines” project, at the Joyce through April 2, links his choreography to these postmodernists, reviving dances by Rainer, Paxton, and Anna Halprin, unheralded matriarch of the whole movement, and still luminous at the age of 96. Gordon’s current New York Public Library installation closes April 6; after a preview of his “Live Archiveography” project March 30 at the Bruno Walter Auditorium, the finished piece plays June 1–3 at the Kitchen (512 West 19th Street, lumberyard.org). Rainer and Simone Forti, an Italian Jew who immigrated here with her family as a small child, met in the summer of 1960, when they both studied with Halprin on her dance deck north of San Francisco. “Radical Bodies: Anna Halprin, Simone Forti, and Yvonne Rainer in California and New York, 1955–1972,” an exhibition curated by Ninotchka Bennahum and Bruce Robertson, both of UC Santa Barbara, and Dance magazine editor-at-large Wendy Perron, runs May 24 through September 16 at the Library of the Performing Arts (40 Lincoln Center Plaza, nypl.org), with an opening reception May 30 and a performance including work by all three May 31 at Hunter College’s Kaye Playhouse (hunter.cuny.edu). Forti, whose work has been purchased by the Museum of Modern Art, is renowned for her early minimalist dance constructions and improvisations; she’ll perform a solo, News Animation, at Weisacres (537 Broadway, cathyweis.org) on June 4.

Yackez

March 29–April 1

Multiplatform artist and choreographer Larissa Velez-Jackson and her spouse, songwriter-journalist Jon Velez-Jackson — who perform together under the name Yackez — superintend their new, mad interdisciplinary spectacle, Give It to You Stage. A musical in two acts, it incorporates older adults from her fitness class, queer professional wrestlers, neon-green mascot YackMan (Ashley R.T. Yergens), and the Yackez Dancers, six downtown characters notorious for their willingness to show and tell you everything. New York Live Arts, 219 West 19th Street, Manhattan, newyorklivearts.org

Ailey II

March 29–April 2

These seven dances spread over two programs showcase the talents of a dozen young hotshot performers under the direction of Troy Powell. The first bill consists of pieces by Jae Man Joo (Circular), Bridget L. Moore (Sketches of Flames), and Marcus Jarrell Willis (Stream of Consciousness, to Vivaldi reimagined by Max Richter); the second, Leila Da Rocha’s duet Meika, Ailey dancer Jamar Roberts’s Gêmeos, Jean Emile’s In & Out, and Ray Mercer’s Something Tangible. NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, Manhattan, alvinailey.org

The Joffrey Ballet

March 29–April 2

Twenty-one years after decamping for Chicago, the scrappy Joffrey troupe returns under the direction of Ashley Wheater, with six performances of Krzysztof Pastor’s Romeo and Juliet, set in twentieth-century Italy and accompanied by members of the Chicago Philharmonic playing Prokofiev’s wonderfully bombastic score. This most political of ballet tragedies, performed by several different casts, showcases many Joffrey stars; kudos to the Joyce for bringing them back. Thursday night is a gala featuring ballets by Yuri Possokhov, Christopher Wheeldon, and Myles Thatcher. David H. Koch Theater, 20 Lincoln Center Plaza, Manhattan, joyce.org

Ballet Hispanico will perform Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Línea Recta at the Joyce Theater.
Ballet Hispanico will perform Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Línea Recta at the Joyce Theater.

Ballet Hispanico

April 18–23

Three female choreographers offer dances that illuminate a broad spectrum of Latin American cultures. Michelle Manzanales’s world-premiere Con Brazos Abiertos examines symbols of Mexico from the viewpoint of a kid raised in Texas; Annabelle Lopez Ochoa’s Línea Recta, new last year, considers the absence of physical contact between dancers on the flamenco stage, and features accompaniment by guitarist Eric Vaarzon Morel; and Tania Pérez-Salas’s 2002 Catorce Dieciséis uses the concept of pi as the basis for a meditation on the circularity of the human condition, to music by Baroque composers. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, Manhattan, joyce.org

Dance Theatre of Harlem

April 19, 21–22

In an engagement spread over four programs (with a matinee on Saturday the 22nd), the revived DTH offers Darrell Grand Moultrie’s Equilibrium (BROTHERHOOD) and Vessels; José Limón’s Chaconne, performed alongside dancers from the Limón Company; Robert Garland’s Return and the New York premiere of his Brahms Variations; Dianne McIntyre’s Change; Francesca Harper’s System; and, finally, a special tribute to Glen Tetley, including a new production of his 1991 Dialogues, set to Ginastera. Artistic director Virginia Johnson says it reflects the nature of our most intimate relationships. New York City Center, 131 West 55th Street, Manhattan, nycitycenter.org

Doug Elkins Choreography, Etc.

April 20–23

Former B-boy Doug Elkins has eclectic tastes: He has extracted dance masterworks from The Sound of Music and Othello; his style is influenced by hip-hop, capoeira, ballet, and modern; and he’s made work for the companies of Paul Taylor and Ohad Naharin. This Montclair program includes his new O, Round Desire (inspired by Marquez’s Love in the Time of Cholera), a new film called A Hundred Indecisions (the title a riff on T.S. Eliot’s Prufrock), and his 2012 hit Mo(or)town/Redux. Alexander Kasser Theater, Montclair State University, 1 Normal Avenue, Montclair, New Jersey, peakperfs.org

A Celebration of Indian Dance in America

April 26–30

For nineteen years, Tina Croll and Jamie Cunningham have been assembling groups of dancers — often magnificent seniors — to show their stuff across North America and tell entertaining anecdotes from their careers. This week, in collaboration with curator Rajika Puri, they celebrate Indian dance in America, mobilizing performers, musicians, historians, and choreographers, and deploying rare films and videos, to explore and demonstrate a range of Indian forms. Onstage, among many others, are Uttara Coorlawala, Parijat Desai, Anita Ratnam, Surupa Sen, and Puri herself. Theater at the 14th Street Y, 344 East 14th Street, 14streety.org

James Sewell brings Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Titicut Follies to the Skirball Center dance stage.
James Sewell brings Frederick Wiseman’s documentary Titicut Follies to the Skirball Center dance stage.

James Sewell Ballet

April 28–30

Filmmaker Frederick Wiseman, whose fifty-year career has celebrated movement in documentaries about American Ballet Theatre, the Paris Opera Ballet, the French nightclub Crazy Horse, and a boxing gym, here collaborates on a project supported by NYU’s Center for Ballet and the Arts. The aim: to turn his first film, Titicut Follies, into a live performance. As Wiseman depicted in the 1967 documentary, inmates and staff at the Massachusetts State Hospital for the Criminally Insane put on a regular variety show; choreographer James Sewell joins Wiseman and composer Lenny Pickett in transforming this material into a full-evening work for his Minneapolis-based troupe. NYU Skirball Center, 566 LaGuardia Place, nyuskirball.org

American Ballet Theatre

May 15–July 8

The country’s most distinguished touring ensemble returns to the Met for its annual blowout of big “warhorse” ballets, punctuated by the local premiere of Alexei Ratmansky’s dazzling Whipped Cream, to a score by Richard Strauss. The season opens with Don Quixote, followed by Whipped Cream on May 22 (and then for a week, starting June 26), Giselle on May 25, Ratmansky’s The Golden Cockerel on June 1, Le Corsaire on June 5, Swan Lake on June 12, Onegin on June 19, and a Tchaikovsky Spectacular, featuring dances by Ratmansky, Balanchine, and company star Marcelo Gomes, starting July 3. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, abt.org

11th Annual Dance Parade

May 20

New York is still the dance capital of the world, and the depth, diversity, and sheer energy of the community shows up during the annual Dance Parade. This year’s theme is “Dance for Peace.” More than eighty genres will be on display, with ten thousand participants of all ages performing styles from contra dancing to roller disco to salsa, from breaking to ballet to Broadway to jazz. Sign up to join the fun, or watch from the sidelines and party, with free lessons and performances at parade’s end in Tompkins Square Park. From Broadway at 21st Street to Tompkins Square Park, danceparade.org

 

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The Visionary: Trisha Brown Redefined Dance With Wit and Daring

Trisha Brown died at the age of eighty on Saturday, March 18, but I had been mourning her for several years, ever since illness started ravaging her brilliant mind in 2011. When I began to write dance reviews for the Village Voice in the rebellious Sixties, she — one of the founding members of the boldly iconoclastic Judson Dance Theater and among the smart-as-a-whip improvisers in the Grand Union during the Seventies — taught me that if an artist said he or she was making a dance, I’d better consider it as such. In 1971, I was among those at the Whitney Museum watching her and her dancers strap themselves into harnesses and walk on two of the gallery’s white walls (Walking on the Wall), altering our perception of gravity. Then we lay down and looked at the ceiling, while she read us the names of places that we could be imagining in the world overhead (Skymap).

At the time, Brown was also experimenting with movement and form unattached to ropes or pulleys. The structure of her 1971 Accumulation was that of an old kids’ game, but with gestures rather than words: movement 1, movements 1,2; 1,2,3; 1,2,3,4; and so on. Some years later, she redefined virtuosity by performing the solo Accumulation With Talking Plus Watermotor, in which she switched back and forth between telling two stories while also moving between the gestural, in-place Accumulation and the explosively careering Watermotor.

Few geniuses have been as playful as Trisha in their art-making. When she worked her way into creating pieces for the proscenium stage instead of for lofts and public spaces, when she called upon artist friends for décor and costumes, when she finally allowed the audience to hear music rather than heavy breathing and the squeak of bare feet against the floor, she did so in very original ways. Her 1979 Glacial Decoy, for example, was performed in front of huge black-and-white projections of photos by Robert Rauschenberg, which slid across the back wall, four always visible. During the final section, the four dancers, wearing billowing white dresses (also by Rauschenberg), used more horizontal space than any given stage displayed. Periodically, a dancer would have to disappear into the wings and reappear when the pattern traveled the opposite way. And who but Brown would contest a stage’s persistent frontal image by creating, in 1994, a solo that she performed with her back to the audience and named If You Couldn’t See Me? Or recruit a local marching band to make a trip down the street outside the theater where her 1990 Foray Forêt was being danced?

Brown grew up in a forest in Aberdeen, Washington, between ocean and mountains. “Nothing about her dancing or her choreography,” I once wrote, “thrusts itself at you head on. It’s like something glimpsed between trees, influenced by tides.” When Trisha danced, movement flowed through her body, trickling here, spurting there, diverting into new channels. When she bolted into the air, it was as if a hand had plucked her up by the back and her feet had just gone along. And her choreography might set the dancers of her company glancing off or slipping past one another, intersecting in unforeseen ways. It wasn’t an idle choice for her to label her dances of the early Eighties “unstable molecular structures.”

Anyone watching her at work, as I did in a theater in Angers, France, in 1989, and in her company’s bright studio in far-west Manhattan in 1996, would have been amazed by the ways in which she and her superb dancers labored together on choreography. In Angers, the dancers working on the gorgeous Foray Forêt already knew a number of phrases and could respond to Trisha’s suggestions for one of them to jump, say, from the middle of one phrase to a move near the end of another, while a dancer nearby could briefly drop into unison with that person, then break away into something else. It was like seeing someone assemble a building out of flying bricks. In New York, Trisha might get up and improvise something startling, ask the dancers to show her what she had done, and then pick the version she liked best.

In 1986, she choreographed Lina Wertmüller’s production of Bizet’s opera Carmen for the Teatro di San Carlo in Naples. That experience, she later told me, had whetted her appetite for collaborating not just with composers as adventurous as she, but with dead ones. She taught herself baroque polyphonic composition and, undaunted, set her 55-minute M.O. (1995) to the thematically linked keyboard canons and fugues of J.S. Bach’s Musical Offering. The dancers didn’t mirror melodies; they created analogous structures.

Choreographing and directing Claudio Monteverdi’s opera Orfeo in 1998 for the Théâtre Royale de la Monnaie in Brussels, she bravely costumed dancers and singers alike and mingled them. I would love to have seen how she and her company members (as familiar with the music as she) persuaded singers to venture into new realms. How did she, four years later, interweave three of her dancers and the splendid British baritone Simon Keenlyside in Franz Schubert’s mournful song cycle, Winterreise? He sang leaning back onto dancers’ upraised feet; he sang an entire aria lying on the bed into which they had formed themselves.

The marvel of Trisha Brown has always been, for me, the wit and ebullience with which she tackled both new ideas and familiar art, without ever ceding her essential values. Every project she tackled nudged our brains awake. In how long does the subject linger on the edge of the volume… (2005), sensors attached to the dancers triggered both the score and the projected motion capture images. In the 2007 I love my robots, two remotely controlled wooden poles moved among the dancers, rocking in bowls on small, wheeled platforms.

Two final works from 2011 give a clue to this astonishing dance artist who messed with our eyes and taught us to see space and time differently. In Les Yeux et l’ame (excerpted from her choreography for Rameau’s Pigmalion), her patterns were elaborately laid out, as if the dance were an eighteenth-century garden with a breeze wanting to muss it. As for I’m going to toss my arms — if you catch them they’re yours (2011), you can imagine it, right?

Her death leaves many bereaved, not least her still-busy company. The visual artists, lighting designers, costume designers, dancers, singers, and stagehands who adored collaborating with her will mourn. So will all of us around the world who’ve been illumined by her work.

 

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Choreographer Paul Taylor’s Spring Season Blends the Strange and Engaging

Paul Taylor, now 87, is what my mother used to call a nervy individual. He formed a company in 1954, while performing in Martha Graham’s troupe, and tweaked every assumption about what was possible on a dance stage. He carries Graham’s passionate intensity deep in his choreographic DNA but is not afraid to parody it.

This season’s opening-night bill juxtaposed one of his strangest pieces, 1980’s Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal), with one of his most engaging, popular, luminous works, the 1991 Company B. Sandwiched between them is this spring’s sole world premiere.

Set to a dual-piano rendering of Stravinsky’s iconic 1913 score, Sacre is a layered, cinematic, often bewildering work. Floating scrims and Jennifer Tipton’s ingenious lighting make abrupt work of frequent scene changes, and the stylized, angular choreography, which renders flatness in three dimensions, often slows things down. Though not a word is spoken, the piece is heavily plotted, the dancers clearly acting; in a rare departure from dance protocol, the characters in the piece are identified in the program. John Rawlings’s décor is Bauhaus black or white, except for a “baby,” swaddled in red, and a satchel full of sparkly bling, which, like the baby, gets snatched. Repeat viewings of this work reveal a lot, not least its resemblance to both a Dick Tracy comic strip and a Graham bodice-ripper.

A genius choreographer who’s received every honor the country offers artists, Taylor has made some very slight works in recent years; his new Ports of Call is one of them. It’s a big nothing, a series of postcards from a fictional journey, taking its structure from composer Jacques Ibert’s 1922 Escales, which traced a similar jaunt through less jarring geography. Contemporary with Stravinsky’s, Ibert’s music resonates with shadowy references to Le Sacre du Printemps but doesn’t galvanize the ear the way that masterwork does. Literally translated, the score provides the dance’s title. In the original it journeyed from Rome to Palermo to Tunisia to Nefta to Valencia; Taylor’s trifle begins in Africa, where a squabble between what might be warring tribes leaves a queenly woman (Michelle Fleet, the current troupe’s only black member) bereaved above the body of her dead consort. We move on to Hawaii for some wan faux-hula and then to Alaska for a silly tableau in which frozen people shiver and polar bears romp; the final stop’s a church wedding somewhere in the Midwest, where the bride is pregnant and the groom reluctant. It’s sexist and unfunny; both we and the superb dancers deserve better.

It gets a lot better in Company B, which premiered in 1991 to infectious pop recordings by the Andrews Sisters and captures in song and choreography the schizophrenia of American life during World War II. Energetic bobby-soxers and multiethnic men jump and jive in the foreground, while in a narrow corridor along the back of the stage, those displaced and damaged by the war voyage in silhouette. Tipton’s moody lighting and Santo Loquasto’s costumes contribute mightily to the impact of this formally elegant suite, as do the renderings of a range of characters by Taylor’s mature ensemble. The supremely capable dancers succeed because they look so genuinely human — performing, as it were, above their weight.

Since moving its annual spring season from New York City Center to Lincoln Center’s Koch Theater in 2012, the company has many more seats available, starting with spots in the orchestra for just $10. Live music has been restored. Five Taylor pieces share the remaining programs with works by Doug Elkins, Larry Keigwin, company alum Lila York, Martha Graham, and Merce Cunningham, whose Summerspace will be performed four times by the Lyon Opera Ballet. Go see them. This mélange is, for the most part, modern dance at its best; even jaded audiences may find their faith in the medium renewed.

Paul Taylor American Modern Dance
David H. Koch Theater
20 Lincoln Center Plaza
212-496-0600
Through March 26

 

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Dance Icon David Gordon’s Delightful Archives Inspire at an NYPL Gallery

At eighty, David Gordon looks like the grandfather he is: He’s gained a little weight, but his eyes still sparkle when he contemplates his remarkable career. A native New Yorker and a graduate of Seward Park High School, Gordon went to Brooklyn College, majored in art, found his way to dance and theater classes, and was discovered sitting in a park by choreographer James Waring in the late 1950s, while still an undergraduate. The rest, as they say, is dance history; feel free to look it up. Or, better, take a rare chance to come and wallow in it at the Astor Gallery at Lincoln Center.

Until 1980 Gordon earned his living as a window dresser, creating displays for downtown shops like Azuma, which retailed Japanese-made products to proto-hippies on 8th Street. Since the early Sixties he’d been a pioneering member of the original Judson Dance Theater/Grand Union cadre, avant-garde dance experimenters with looks, brains, and a lot of chutzpah who led the charge against modernist styles and themes in American dance. After leaving his “day job” he took on more complex projects; funding and awards came his way from arts agencies and private foundations. In 1985, he told me once, he applied for a dozen different grants to make new work, expecting to maybe get one, but he got them all and then had to deliver.

In the attic-like conglomeration in the Astor Gallery you will find, in startling graphic formats, Gordon’s personal history (including photos of mid-century family gatherings and furniture from his folks’ apartment), posters from half a century of performances, and props and costumes from shows that have almost faded from memory. Gordon hates to throw anything out; the consequences of this hoarding tendency can be seen in the crowded, jumble-shop installation. Because he bought a huge Soho loft — where he still lives — in the 1960s, he was in a position to hold on to stuff others might have jettisoned. And so, since 2014, funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, the dedicated staffs of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts and of Gordon’s own troupe have been assisting him in preparing and annotating scads of material for donation to the library’s unparalleled research collection. This installation, and the live performances accompanying it, are the byproducts of that process.

The show documents his childhood on Ludlow Street and in Coney Island and his work on more than fifty years of boundary-breaking experiments in combining movement, language, and strong visual statements into works of narrative performing art. As long ago as 1987, ballet superstar Mikhail Baryshnikov began championing Gordon, recruiting him to choreograph for American Ballet Theatre and for his own White Oak Dance Project; various stage projects and film and television programs, on display here, resulted from that association.

The exhibit at the library is the tip of a huge iceberg; while it’s delightful and nostalgic and deeply educational, and stacked, literally, with video into which you can happily disappear for hours, its primary value is to point the way to the work, so a new generation can discover it. Encounter Gordon in the flesh at the library’s Bruno Walter Auditorium on March 30 at 6 p.m., when his Pick Up Performance Co(s) previews his autobiographical new show, Live Archiveography. This one’s free; the full version debuts in June at the Kitchen.

‘David Gordon: Archiveography — Under Construction’
Vincent Astor Gallery
New York Public Library for the Performing Arts
40 Lincoln Center Plaza
nypl.org/events
Through April 6

Live Archiveography
The Kitchen
June 1–3