Archive for the ‘reviews and responses’ Category

Dear RoseLee Goldberg,
“Dancers” are “artists.”

Dear Guggenheim,
(Ahem); the emperor has no clothes.

Dear (Commercial) Visual Art World,
It’s not that we (the downtown performance community) don’t “get” you, and it’s not a case of “the grass is greener.”  You are stealing from us even as you belittle us.  That’s bound to make anyone a little cranky.  Please stop.

Sarah, etc.

P.S.  The above-captioned letters are in response to this article in the New York Observer.  (Warning: if you make performance, remove any sharp objects from your immediate vicinity prior to clicking the link, as reading the article  may provoke violent thoughts and/or actions.)

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Remember when I said that experimental performance needed a cable network?  Well, it’s here! Ok, it’s not on cable, but it’s quite amazing, nonetheless.  Thanks to On the Boards, you can catch some of the best contemporary performance from the comfort of your pajamas at 3AM.  Thanks, OTB.

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I should know better than to read the arts section of the Times while sipping my Saturday morning coffee.  For many people, curling up with the arts section is a lovely weekend diversion.  For me, it’s a tug back into the whirlwind of conflicting opinions around the support of artists that governs my workweek.  This morning, an article on Contract Disputes in Dance didn’t just tug me back to work, it catapulted me full force:

First of all, I want to stress that everyone in the dance field feels under-served, underpaid, and under-appreciated.  By everyone, I mean everyone: choreographers, dancers, presenters, writers, designers, stagehands, everyone.  So, this continuing argument of “who has it worse?” and “who deserves the most pity or sympathy or extra-special treatment?” drives me insane.  We all chose this route, and yes, it’s unfair, but blaming each other does nothing to solve the problems of the field.  In fact, I’d wager that it makes things worse.

Second, the fact that, according the the article, an artist involved in a conflict over his contract with the 92nd Street Y, claims that Y’s decision to stick to their contract’s exclusivity clause, which limited the artist’s ability to perform at other venues within a specific span of time, was “appalling,” because the Y’s dance festival doesn’t have “a track record of being a festival that is well attended,” also drives me insane.  Think for a moment.  If you host a festival that is perceived as being generally not well attended, wouldn’t it be that much more important for you to drive as many people who are interested in the artists you are presenting to your venue to see them?  Wouldn’t it hurt your attendance even more if those same artists were performing concurrently in better-established, easier-to-reach venues?  And, if you are an artist who is concerned about your participation in such a festival, why would you sign that contract?

Last, and most important, I’m sick of hearing artists ask, “where is our power?” as another choreographer is quoted as doing in this same article.  As an artist myself, as well as an administrator who has worked for several arts presenters, this drives me most insane.  Artists have all the power we choose to take, and if we choose to give it away by signing contracts we don’t read, or trusting that by simply aligning ourselves with a presenter that our magical, financially-successful career will follow, or complaining about the state of dance criticism without once picking up a pen (or a keyboard) to write about the field ourselves, then we choose to give that power away.

Take charge, artists.  Self-produce.  Read your contracts.  Realize that dance is never going to pay your bills, and make your choices.  You have a lot more power than any of the venues, but it’s up to you to use it.

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In my little corner of the NY performing arts community there has been much consternation over an article, which finally appeared in yesterday’s NY Times.  The article exposes to the general public (or at least to the general public which includes readers of the Times Arts Section) that NYC’s massive capital boom ate a few arts organizations alive, and those same organizations are struggling with large burdens of debt.  As someone who has intimate knowledge of these organizations and projects, I only wish that the article had gone further to implicate the lack of foresight on behalf of the City and show more clearly how it dangled the carrot of “a permanent home” in front of eviction-weary arts organizations that none dared refuse.  Perhaps it can all be blamed on misguided expectations from both sides: arts organizations expecting the City to assist them with these new ventures more thoroughly, and the City expecting the arts organizations to have more infrastructure in place.  Indeed, the arts organizations had some naivete working against them, but for the City to claim no culpability here is truly infuriating.  In these cases, as with so many in this economic disaster, we are all responsible, and we must all work together to find solutions, or risk losing important pieces of our culture.

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I’m working on two performance projects right now that employ Foley sound.  One is a radio play to be released via podcast and the other is dance-theater piece which layers a reading of Strindberg’s Easter over a movement duet about String Theory.  Sounds fun, right?  My interest in Foley began with the radio scene in the movie version of Annie (where we learn the heartbreaking truth that Bert Healey doesn’t actually tap dance), and was further encouraged by a trip to the American Museum of the Moving Image when I first moved to New York.  (By the way, not only does AMMI have a great Foley exhibit, it is one of NY’s most under-visited gems.)

Last night, watching Proto-type Theater’s WHISPER at P.S. 122, I wondered if Foley is making a comeback in live performance.  WHISPER, a fascinating meditation on urban life and loneliness, employs live Foley sound as well as a pre-recorded soundtrack to create an audio-environment which the audience experiences through headphones.  (This headphone technique was much more successful in WHISPER than in the recent Macbeth presented by St. Ann’s Warehouse, as isolation was a topic of exploration in WHISPER, and the distancing affect of the headphones made one feel more connected to the material instead of less.)

There are many interesting visuals in WHISPER – the action takes place behind a scrim which only occasionally, with a sudden flood of light, reveals the performers to be more than shadows, but I found myself most interested in the sound, particularly the “handmade” Foley sound.  Perhaps that is because I am working with a similar medium in my own performance work, but I wonder if it’s related to a larger conversation that seems to be happening in performance around our society’s relationship to technology, and a desire to keep progress on a more human scale.

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After seeing TR Warszawa’s much-anticipated interpretation of Macbeth and the National Theatre of Scotland’s interpretation of The Bacchae within a week of each other, I have one thing to say: No more severed heads on stage. Seriously, it never works. Please stop.

Ok, I guess I have a few other things to say too: What’s up with all the blood and guts classics on stage right now? I know we’re in the middle of a bloody time (is there any other kind?), but what do these plays have to say to us except to perpetuate the hopelessness of the barbaric nature of humanity? Sure, classic plays have a lot of draw – the rights are free, they seem to make you legitimate as a director/company/actor/whatever, and often audiences are afraid to disparage them, for fear of being marked as Philistines – but these tales of Boy-Meets-Sword are wearing thin.

I was especially disappointed in the National Theater of Scotland, as their Black Watch last season told a much more complex, unglorified, un-gore-ified story of pride, war and violence. Which brings me back to the severed heads. If you ARE going to deal with violence and death on stage, why take such a cop out and put that plastic prop (which isn’t fooling anyone, no matter how realistic it is, and no matter how far away your audience)? Why not use some real theatricality to create a greater impact of the cruelty of murder instead of turning the whole thing into a joke?

Why not anticipate the need for a prop at the end, and give Macbeth and Pentheus (the murdered prince in The Bacchae) each some defining prop throughout the play, which can then return to the stage bloodied without the laugh factor? (Moreover, in The Bacchae, why not have the same actor who plays Pentheus return as his mad, murderous mother Agave, displaying the messy triumph of wild nature over ordered civilization with a smaller dose of sexism than the play calls for?) I mean, I understand that back in the day, Macbeth was basically an action movie and The Bacchae was a Tarantino film, but since the movies cover that stuff nowadays, is it too much to ask for more from our theater?

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Fellow inquisitor, and current expat, Sarah Gancher wrote an enticing review of a production of Faust she recently saw in Romania. Check it out, and enjoy a wonderous virtual trip to South-East Central Europe. (What a ring that has… )

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Choreographer Susan Rethorst just wants to stay home. I can relate. For Rethorst, the whirlwind of touring and teaching all over the world has made her appreciate the calm quiet of her living room. For me, there’s the less glamorous whirlwind of trying to keep up with the NY performance world. Now granted, from this description neither Rethorst nor I have a particularly tough life and the pressures and pleasures that pull us away from our respective homes don’t seem so bad. In fact, they’re not bad, but one does crave some down time.

Rethorst’s solution was to create a performance in her living room, which was then displaced to more traditional venues (Dance Theater Workshop last season and Danspace Project this weekend.)  At a post-performance discussion last night, Rethorst commented on the escalating expense of creating performance in New York City and the increasing competition for studio space.  After harboring some frustration that it would be nearly impossible for her to make this new work the way that she has been making works since the 1980s (ah, those mythical times), Rethorst asked the performers with whom she was working, “Can’t you all just come to my house to make this?”

I like the example she’s set: Stop complaining.  Look at what you have.  Start from there.  Be honest.  Take care of yourself.

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I’ve given in to the inertia of Facebook, and I’ll never be the same. I’m amazed (and a little appalled) at my capacity to spend hours in a delirium of fake plants and fake flair, pondering a clever “status update” to impress my virtual friends. Still, I guess it’s mostly just replaced the time I stole to watch America’s Next Top Model and Step it Up and Dance.

Between Celebreality and Cyber-reality, pop culture entertainment is cropping up a lot in contemporary performance. I know I’m not the first to point this out, but I’m thinking about it in particular after watching Eleanor Bauer’s AT LARGE at The Chocolate Factory last night.

AT LARGE was ambitious and thoughtful (and has garnered a lot of press attention.) — [On a side note, has anyone noticed that the verb “garnered” is only used in the past tense and only in reference to the object of “attention?”] Anyway — AT LARGE contains all kinds of little nods and winks to entertainment – gold sequins, catchy songs, a competition, even promotional give-aways. Yet, despite all of this, the main focus of the piece is movement. It’s old-school dance in a tricked-out package.

I found myself more interested in the packaging around the movement elements than the movement elements themselves, which made me wonder, “Am I so accustomed to being entertained by ironic glitter that I can’t engage with a smart, well-danced, movement exploration anymore?” If so, can I blame Tyra?

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Some of the most interesting things I’ve seen lately have been in studios.  No offense to the big venues, but I’m finding lately that the intimacy and rawness of a studio showing can pack more punch than a lot of “fully realized” productions.  Perhaps it has less to do with the space and more to do with the artists, but I think there’s something to this studio thing.  It creates a different set of expectations for the audience, and encourages a greater appetite for risk (both for the audience and the artists.)  In short, it’s fun.

On Thursday, I saw a work-in-progress of Ursula Eagley’s Smearcase as part of Dance Theater Workshop’s Studio Series. Ursula’s work is consistently some of my favorite performance to watch – quirky, with a bizarre, dark logic that is mysterious and intriguing.  Plus, the girl moves like no other human on the planet: her joints present no obstacle, giving her an awkward, double-jointed grace that is fascinating.   Her solo work, which anchors Smearcase, is punctuated by a couple of moments where she stands still and looks at the audience, really seeing us in a simple, human action.   When this utterly open, slightly amused gaze was followed by a sudden drop into near-contortionist movement, it was shocking.  When later, the gaze replaced the movement, it was hilarious. 

This see-saw between shock and humor was maximized further in a quartet swarming around Eagley’s solo.  Abby Harris, Jeremy Holmes, Dean DeChiaro, and Keith Malone  went on a round-robin, mimed killing spree, pulling out every possible death scenario from spear stabs to shark attacks, offing each other again and again.  With attackers and victims constantly shifting, no alliance was permanent, and none were safe.  Extra creepy was the low hum that passed from attacker to attacker, shifting voices, but continuously underscoring the murderous loop.  Oddly, most of this section was completely hysterical, and even with blood dripping from their mouths, Harris and Holmes in particular seemed so sweet that we just weren’t sure what to think.   Eagley is a master at creating this kind of confusion in the audience: we’re not sure how to respond, but not because she’s not sure what she’s telling us.

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