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kfw

"The Skin Trade "

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Writing in The New Republic, Jenifer Homans doesn't mince words.

Modern dancers today do not dance. They pontificate, shout, swear, strut, and take off their clothes. Not all modern dancers, of course: choreographers such as Paul Taylor and Mark Morris continue to draw from an impressive range of dance techniques and styles, including those they invented themselves. But descend one or two rungs down the artistic food chain, and you will find a startling number of choreographers working in small venues who are cynical, contemptuous, and physically inarticulate....

That's all that's available online to non-subscribers, and that's all I've read.

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Thanks, kfw. I love the phrase "physically inarticulate." As in, someone who does not know the language, or knows it only in the most limited fashion.

Unfortunately, I don't subscribe to the New Republic. So -- off to the library once again.

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Is this peculiar to Modern Dance? Isn't it also true in all arts, all media, all genres -- a few outstanding masters, some serviceable artists and, "two or three rungs down," a lot of mediocrity and gimmickry?

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Unfortunately, I don't subscribe to the New Republic. So -- off to the library once again.

Given the price of gas, I should probably apologize. :grinning-smiley-001:

I look foward to hearing what you think of the article.

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I have not read this yet, but I’ve reached a point with Homans’ writing where my reflex response is that anything she says that isn't glaringly obvious can’t possibly be right, and if I’m tempted to agree then I need to rethink my position. I say this with regret, and I’m always hoping I’ll be wrong. :clapping:

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The article refers to four recent dance works, and as Homans describes them they range (in my words) from the banal to the putrid and pornographic.

Ann Liv Young’s show, Michael at New York's Dance Theater Workshop, which drew praise in The NY Times: from the bump-and-grind to actual sex acts, with salacious commentary along the way. Donald Byrd’s Sleeping Beauty, also at the Dance Theater Workshop: an irreverent PoMo take on the classic tale, again with sex and trash talk, plus Byrd himself asking if Carabosse is like a terrorist.

Steps from the original ballet are transposed into thrusting and other sexually obvious moves, and the dancers cuss, fart, and sneer ("Snow White was a slut"). The prince is horny, the princess stupidly balletic, and Carabosse turns out to be a vicious sicko, stabbing a voodoo doll of the princess with perverted pleasure.

Homans faults choreographer, dancer, and media artist Dawn Stoppiello and composer and media artist Mark Coniglio of Troika Ranch for substituting technology for choreography, and finds Jennifer Monson's BIRD BRAIN, in which the dancers don't dance but "walk, crawl, paw at the ground, put clothes on and take clothes off" while another dancer eeks, burbles and somersaults, "utterly incoherent" despite the choreographer's intention to raise awareness of environmental.

Why don’t reviewers “blow the whistle” on this stuff, Homans asks. Because of a “widespread feeling” that these are artists are “all we’ve got,” and so the public must be encouraged to support them for the sake of the future of the art, and because of a fear of being “politically incorrect, prudish, and behind the times.”

I haven’t seen one single step of these dances, and it's been years since I've seen any live modern dance besides Merce Cunningham's company. Has anyone here seen this work?

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It's awkward to be put in a position where I share a general taste with Homans since the articles (haven't read this one yet, based on prior articles I'm not bothering) tend to be filled with navel gazing.

A few articles ago Homans singlehandedly invented the Russian Ballet, then she dug as shallow an excavation as she could to come to the conclusion that Ashton was twee. This time, she uncovers that performance art and artists actually exist no matter how stealthily they try to hide from her in the cracks and crevices of Dance Theater Workshop.

What will she discover in her next article? It's better than Dora the Explorer!

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I've just read the article on line (thanks, kfw). On some levels, it reminded me of the downtown dance scene in the late 60s and 70s: nudity, shouted slogans, naive politics (even when the heart is in the right place), a shock-the-bourgeois mentality, an aesthetic that was defiiantly scornful of established ideas of what is beautiful, meaningful, or important.

But, as I thought about this, I began to see significant differences. That dance scene of the 60s-70s was engaged in creating outsider art, with all the strengths and limitations that outsider art has always had. It found short-term homes in lofts, unused storefronts and church basements.

In contrast, the movement Homans is reporting on has been

a) funded by wealthy foundations;

b) performed in expensive theater complexes created specifically for this purpose; or

c) reviewed with exagerrated praise by the New York Times.

"Nudity is empowering!" (Gia Kourlas, NY Times)

"real bodies ... in their uninhibited, unairbrushed imperfection" (Roslyn Sulcas, NY Times)

"Fascinating, erratic and ultimately deeply moving ... ijn totality, a tirumph" (NY Times)

"A renaissance of creative excitement!" (John Rockewell, NY Times

Homans' real concern seems to have to do with the hyperbole with which the cultural establishment has greeted and interpreted this work.

"Why is no one blowing the whistle?" she asks.

I guess we're all afraid of being one of those benighted audience members we read about who booed early Stravinsky, fell asleep at the first performances of Wagner, considered that Mozart composed too many notes, and generally misssed yhe point of what turned out to be the greatest cultural achievements of their day.

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I guess we're all afraid of being one of those benighted audience members we read about who booed early Stravinsky, fell asleep at the first performances of Wagner, considered that Mozart composed too many notes, and generally misssed the point of what turned out to be the greatest cultural achievements of their day.
That's such an interesting statement, bart. I've attended a number of performances at On The Boards, which is the venue for contemporary performance in Seattle. Seattle audiences have a tendency to stand, particularly when supporters are in the audience, but along with the stomping and clapping are the looks and whispers of "Did you understand that? What did that mean?" I have to admit that whenever I'm asked to "Blog the Boards," -- i.e. give a mini-review on the OtB blog website -- I'm in a basic panic, terrified that I'll have no idea how to interpret what I've just seen, and I don't calm down until I feel like I've got a least a mini-clue and a conviction that what I've seen is It or not. That's never a worry when I go to the ballet, however contemporary.

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I understand your feeling, helene. A while ago Leigh Witchel wrote something on his blog that impressed me very much. He was commenting on his reactions to a performance of Don Giovanni, and addressed the issue of the different ways we respond to art forms that we either do or do not "understand." Here's the quote:

---------------------------------------

QUOTE:

"I find Giselle or Swan Lake far more moving than Don Giovanni. Why? Because I know the language and conventions of ballet so that form has meaning. The way a woman rises on to pointe; how a man gives his hand to his partner – there’s as much information there to me as in a paragraph. In San Francisco last month, Muriel Maffre did a tendu in Yuri Possokhov’s Magrittomania that looked like no one else’s in the world. Her simple motion of her foot to the side was a small tale all on its own. I don’t understand opera in that way: to be able to interpret a singer’s approach to a note the way I can interpret a ballet step. All I have is the plot. A good reminder that ballet looks like secret code to even the educated audience that hasn’t seen it before."

-----------------------------------------

I felt a rush of recognition when I read this and have thought a lot about it.

I know I "enjoy" that which I understand -- even if imperfectly -- so much better than art forms that are completely novel or allien to my experience, values, education, etc. I've tried to be open to all art forms, but some defeat me. The dance performances Homans describes seem truly to be in a "secret code" from which I'ved been locked out. The simple (not so simple) tendu that Leigh describes is something I'm able to "see" and comprehend. And I can identify with others who feel the same way.

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The dance performances Homans describes seem truly to be in a "secret code" from which I'ved been locked out.

Well, perhaps you’ve been locked out or perhaps you’ve locked yourself out by educating your taste. I can imagine (though it’s such a pop culture cliche by now) relatively young and therefore unsophisticated audiences reading nudity and in-your-face sexuality as soul-baring and therefore “deeply moving” (NY Times). But an example of what might constitute a renaissance of creative excitement in my opinion is work that dares to stress the positive and the wholesome – work that dares to hope and to affirm. If I'm not mistaken that would at least be counter-cultural for contemporary modern dance, and from the point of view of attracting audiences, that would be daring.

Susan Reiter reviewed Byrd’s “Beauty” in Dance View Times and mentioned

“a dance scene that had some theatrical viability—as opposed to others that seemed merely aimed at showcasing a certain rebellious or naughty take on the original—was one in which the rigid, proper Prince, wearing what looked like gleaming Navy dress whites, found himself at the mercy of five raging nymphomaniacs in scanty burlesque outfits. One by one they leaped at him, wrapping their legs around him with viperfish delight, as he could do little more than try not to get his neatly pressed clothes mussed. It could be seen as a nightmarish reverse-image of the Rose Adagio, with the gleaming male object of beauty and the slutty women competing, in their ugly way, to win him.”

To quote Lou Reed, it’s the beginning of a new age, OK, but while Reiter writes that Byrd means to "question [sleeping Beauty's] premise" and "investigate a broader idea of what 'beauty' is," she concludes, perhaps too kindly on that same unresolved note: " I'm certain Byrd has a lot of fascinating ideas." But what are they? As far as I can understand it, I have a hard time thinking of this stuff as anything but what Homans calls it: cynical, contemptuous of classic and beloved and proven-to-be-worth work, and in that respect not truly serious.

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But an example of what might constitute a renaissance of creative excitement in my opinion is work that dares to stress the positive and the wholesome – work that dares to hope and to affirm. If I'm not mistaken that would at least be counter-cultural for contemporary modern dance, and from the point of view of attracting audiences, that would be daring.

Gosh, kfw. Are you suggesting that we should start a new movement based on the premise that art need NOT wield the sledgehammer?

that it DOESN'T have to earn points by using and mocking the art of previous generations?

that a work's "meaning" ISN'T enhanced when the choreographer has to stop the performance in the middle to point out to the audience all the parallels between his work and some current-events concern or other?

Sound's impossibly radical to me.

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:wub: You're right, bart, and thanks for the laugh. What could I have been thinking? Seriously, I'm not doing the creating, obviously, so it's very, very easy for me to criticize. But Young's and Byrd's work in particular sounds depressingly safe and paint-by-numbers predictable in spirit, not radical and challenging as it apparently means to be.

What about movement vocabulary? Is there anyone out there (or are there lots of people out there) with a new and distinct style?

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Oh man, I have to comment on this! This might be long-winded, but here goes.

I go to NYU. Prior to college, I had no knowlege of postmodern or experimental dance, which I learned about-- pretty extensively-- in my first spring semester. It took a lot of getting used to, and I responded much more to Cunningham's ideas than say, Anna Haplrin's. And frankly, I've mostly stayed away from the downtown dance scene in New York, going to ballet about 5ish times a year, BAM when I can, and way too much at the Joyce. (As a side note, it finally dawned on me that the majority of the work presented at the Joyce is what I now call "contemporary dance lite," something far from daring but just different enough that the casual Lincoln Center-goer or Broadway fanatic can feel like they're slumming it.)

As I mentioned in my intro thread, I am very interested in dance writing, and over the past year especially, I've made it a priority in my studies. With one professor, I wrote about BAM/ABT/Joyce events, but now I am working with a professor involved with a downtown-ish publication, and I've written a fair amount on DTW stuff (and Danspace Project at St. Marks Church).

Now, on to my conflicted feelings: I love experimentation and avant garde art. I also love art, especially the principles of form. The thing that strikes me as so interesting about earlier experimenters like Nikolais and Cunningham, is that their work really did have a purpose, a philosophy behind it. Even the Judsonites, who were all about stretching art to its limit (is this dance?) had a purpose: to reveal the barest possible dance, to find something essential about art or movement there. I realize that's a tremendous oversimplification of the 60's postmodernists, but I hope you can accept it for argument's sake is.

The thing is (and Croce says this quite eloquently in her 1975 review of Laura Dean "Going in Circles"), the experiments of the 60s aren't new anymore (apparently, they were redundant by the mid 70s). I love the idea of using pedestrian movement to make dances, of performing in unusual spaces, and certain other ideas embraced by experimental dance. I've also seen nudity used very effectively. But the downtown stuff I have seen recently, for the most part, doesn't make interesting use of these elements. It doesn't feel new and exciting, relevant, or even interesting.

I would disagree, as some have suggested, that all the choroegraphers in this field are "fakes." There is interesting work being made. I agree, however, that there is way way WAY too much cutesy irony, presented to a bunch of hipsters who are too busy feeling proud of themselves for going to an "experimental" dance performance. That's boring. In a lot of ways, my limited exposure to the downtown dance world reveals it to be far from experimental-- I see a lot of recycled gimmicks.

As to writing about the work, I have to echo Helene-- it's very intimidating! Even more so, because I am not an established writer/commentator on ballet or modern dance, either. The first performance I went to review this semester was Heather Kravas/Antonija Livingstone. I actually liked the show, but I had no idea how to write about it! There was very very little movement, and I don't have a theater or performance studies background. Plus, I had no idea how the theme of the "villain" played into the piece. I was stuck on that piece forever (I never did write it-- we just moved on).

Last week my professor gave me Homans' article, knowing that I've been having difficulty giving fair reviews to the DTW work (I am really opposed to writers who discount entire genres of work-- it happens just as often to ballet as it does to experimental dance). Leigh, I have to agree with you, Homans is being so simplistic! For a dance writer, she doesn't seem to know much about the field ("Modern dancers do not dance" could have been said what, 50 years ago?) I realize that I, as a student, should probably be biting my tongue, and I guess she is just writing for her audience (I can't imagine the New Republic counts a lot of downtown dance junkies among its readership). I really wish that she had commented on something I have actually seen-- why couldn't she have commented on Tere O'Connor or Jane Comfort? Based on what I've seen, I can't actually refute (or support) any of her opinions, which is frustrating, given my personal experience with her subject.

On a less related note, once I know for sure if the O'Connor review I wrote will be published (I doubt it, but it's still a possibility), I will share some of it here, if that would be at all appreciated.

Also, did anyone catch Sourcing Stravinsky at DTW last week? I am trying to find a thread to rave about Yvonne Rainer's reworking of Agon. I must say, her piece and David Neumann's really affirmed my suspicion that experimental dance can be really wonderful.

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whitelight, it's a pleasure to read your strong opinions. You can find "Sourcing Stravinsky" reviewed on danceviewtimes this week. As to what downtown dance fans might read, if my impression is correct that the work down there tends to be based more on concept than in movement vocabulary, I'd think that a lot of its devotees would read thoughtful magazines like TNR.

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whitelight - I also went, and had a slightly different take than Lisa Rinehart. I went for Ballet Review so can't review in full here, but I also liked Rainer's view of Agon a great deal; I found it very sharply observed. I was less fond of Neumann's piece. This could just be ballet pissiness coming through, but I think Neumann avoided Stravinsky - he used the most "genre" music he could find (Circusy stuff or tangos) and when he did use an aria - no choreography. Yes, I know non-ballet choreography doesn't need to have as literal a response to the music as classical choreography, but a choreographer ignoring Stravinsky is like ignoring an 800 pound gorilla. It's your right, but do it at your peril.

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Also, did anyone catch Sourcing Stravinsky at DTW last week? I am trying to find a thread to rave about Yvonne Rainer's reworking of Agon.
I hope you will click "New Topic" at t he top of the page, whitelight, to post your thoughts. We've had no prior posts on Rainer's Agon.

I also look forward to the day you can link us all to your piece on O'Connor.

I have to say this. I come to this board as a highly biased, comfy in my preconceptions, slightly jaded dance goer. One of the great, great pleasures of this place is reading a piece like the one you just posted that makes me want to take another look. In this case, it happens to be across genres, but often it is of a ballet or a dancer who is so familiar, that I've stopped seeing what's in front of me.

Thanks to you and to other posters who make me shift my perspective. Sometimes I still miss what they see, but even if I don't end up agreeing, I watch more inquisitively. It's a wonderful opportunity.

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I have to say this. I come to this board as a highly biased, comfy in my preconceptions, slightly jaded dance goer. One of the great, great pleasures of this place is reading a piece like the one you just posted that makes me want to take another look. In this case, it happens to be across genres, but often it is of a ballet or a dancer who is so familiar, that I've stopped seeing what's in front of me.

Thanks to you and to other posters who make me shift my perspective. Sometimes I still miss what they see, but even if I don't end up agreeing, I watch more inquisitively. It's a wonderful opportunity.

Thank you. For all the struggle that's involved, especially for someone who missed the "dance boom" and only has a few years of reference, I am finding it so exciting to try to figure out work I don't understand, or at least, to figure out what other people see in it. I am already enjoying the experience of comparing views on this board, and am looking forward to discussing actual performances.

I hope you will click "New Topic" at t he top of the page, whitelight, to post your thoughts. We've had no prior posts on Rainer's Agon.

I will just have to do that now.

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Whitelight, I like your screen-name and the way you think. Keep it coming.

You've got Homans' number - it's got a lot of zeroes in it.

I agree, modern dance is harder to write about -- and the reasons why are obvious. Unlike ballet, every modern-dance choreographer may/can/maybe should make up his/her own vocabulary. It's hard to get a sense of the idiom without having seen lots of it or (ideally) have taken class with them. Without that, it's hard to know what they intended, much less whether A) they achieved it or B) it was a worthy aim (worthy can certainly include amusing).

Sometimes, as with Duncan or Graham or Jooss, the movement is onomatopoeic -- i.e., it echoes what it's talking about. And in those cases, it was really possible for the dance to have a popular impact and a following among people who spectated. But modernism has included a large dose of exclusiveness --TS Eliot was long ago when he was writing poetry that kept the booboisie out. BUT he did it in the name of writing honestly, of trying to displace language so it said something he needed to say -- the sincerity was of an austere sort, but it was not cynical. And if some of the lines wee impossible, others (like"I have measured out my life in coffee-spoons" were unmisunderstandable). When dancers finally got around to being that "difficult" it was the 50s and the climate of opinion was different -- in the 60's well, I must say, pedestrianism was one thing BUT contact improv could/can in fact be a very exciting thing to watch. A group like DV8 can use many of the discoveries of Contact in theatrically riveting ways still....

Well, I remember the moment of clarity I felt when I heard Trisha Brown say that she'd woken up and decided that she no longer wanted to make dances that interested the 400 people who were hip to what she had been doing. But wonderful stuff came out of that period. I'm not in fact sure that "Glacial Decoy" or her more recent opera-house work are any more fun or interesting than "Spanish Dance' or her other early work, which was certainly homespun but my GOD the wit! or that Mark Morris has done anything that better than "Shroud of White."

Well, what I can say about writing about contemporary dance is that I'd rather bite my tongue than write about somehing I didn't think I "got." But there HAS been stuff I thought I got, and when I got it, I often REALLY LOVED it. And it did things that ballet doesn't do. SO I wrote about it.

You should too.

Luckily, I didn't have an editor who insisted on having something when I didn't want to write.

I found the thing that was necessary was to recapture the way I felt and say what that was like -- i.e., with similes, to compare it to something else the reader could imagine. "She danced like water" or "like a snake"; or "the geometry reminded me of a washing machine that was off-balance but was still able to function." Whatever. It can be very satisfying to write like that -- and it does a wonderful service to the public, who'd like to have a clue as to what's going on during this brief span we have when we're alive, even if for most it's not something they'd necessarily do themselves.

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