Pilobolus- A Preview and a Flashback

“The exploration of life’s mysteries is what keeps us interested, keeps us continuously going in”- Michael Tracy, Pilobolus founder as interviewed by Rose Eichenbaum, 2001

I am thrilled to be heading to Iowa City this weekend for some performances with Common Thread Contemporary Dance Company, but not so thrilled that I will be missing Pilobolus as they stop in St. Louis.

Everyone knows Pilobolus for their imaginative, architectural work. Here are a few lesser known interesting facts about this world-famous group:

1. The company was started by six people (Moses Pendleton, Martha Clarke, Alison Chase, Jonathan Wolken, Robby Barnett, and Michael Tracy) after a dance class at Dartmouth College. Alison taught the class. No one besides Alison and Martha had previous dance experience.

2. Pilobolus refers to a sun-loving fungus (phototropic zygomycete to be precise) that grows in barnyards and pastures (cough cough, often out of manure). Early efforts of the company explored movement with graphic and kinetic imagery beyond that of humans on a stage with references to cellular life, insects, and animals. I personally enjoy the idea of a lovely plant emerging from you-know-what, kind of how one of the most prolific and sought-after companies of our time was born from mostly non-dancers.

3. The four directors (Tracy, Chase, Wolken, Barnett) strive to infuse his or her individuality into the creative process although they choreograph as a collective unit

4. I’ve taken their Master class (and yes, made the visiting artists autograph my ‘Masters of Movement’ book)

A few of the company members came to Butler to offer a small master class when I was a senior. It was one of the most strange, creatively stretching, laughable, and frustrating dance experiences of my life. I remember one exercise where a group of my fellow students were lined up and pointed to one at a time to describe how they had started their day, what they had for breakfast, etc. I’m pretty sure I remember my friend Kevin James mentioning something about a dirty cold burrito. The other half had to sit and observe and then point out the things we heard and saw from amidst the chaos of everyone talking at once. My favorite memory of the class was being picked up and thrown over the shoulder of the amazing Jun Kuribayashi and carted around upside down for a few minutes. What a way to travel! Then we were split into groups and began working on choreography ourselves. I don’t remember if we were given themes to work from. Mostly what I remember is having a very different opinion than one other person in my group, and that two other group members had zero input what-so-ever. Perhaps this was the moment that I learned I don’t play well with other children. I don’t know how this group has stayed together, creating wonderful work as a collective voice, for over forty years without tearing each other’s heads off. Then the company members surprised us with the musical selection to accompany our movement. I recall that my group had ‘girls just wanna have fun’ while other groups had classical or electronica.

I also remember one group that basically held hands and twisted about each other in a serpentine line making animal noises- my incredibly handsome and talented friend Tim mooing like a milking cow at the top of his lungs, the most serious and studious person in my class, Kristen, finishing the dance with a decided, ‘Shh!’ Their piece was collaborative, cohesive, funny, and interesting, much like what I associate with Pilobolus. Maybe the trick to working as a creative group is leaving the human behind and letting the animal in us come forth and speak.

The upcoming show certainly looks like it will be full of creative exploration in theme, sound and stage, and of course, movement. I’m especially bummed to miss the all male quartet Gnomen, even more so if Jun happens to be dancing. Someone please keep an eye out for him. You’ll be doing yourself and me a favor.

Here’s a sneak peak at what they’re bringing to The Touhill (get tickets!) this Friday and Saturday,  November 9 ( 8 pm) and 10 (2, 8 pm)!


SKYSCRAPERS
(2012) – Set against the gritty, saturated colors of LA’s Eastside streets, this quick-change tango choreographed by Trish Sie follows a never-ending, always-changing journey, drenched in overtones of love, romance, and loss.


AUTOMATON
(2012) – Experience the deep emotion and intoxicating rhythms of Pilobolus’ new collaboration with internationally renowned choreographer Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. This cyborg of a dance takes place in a mirrored world that allows us to view multiple angles at the same time, as we journey through a time that seems yet to come.

ALL IS NOT LOST
(2011) – Playing with multiple perspectives, gravity, and dimensionality, Pilobolus changes the way we look at dance through a kaleidoscopic view of human connection. This piece was originally constructed by choreographer Trish Sie as a music-video collaboration with GRAMMY-winning rock band OK Go
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RUSHES (2007) – The first of Pilobolus’s International Collaborators Project, born out of a series of conversations and a laboratory workshop, Co-Artistic Director Robby Barnett and world-renowned dance-theatre makers Inbal Pinto and Avshalom Pollak explore the range and intensity of deep collaboration in an isolated community of broken dreams.

GNOMEN (1997) Lyrical exploration of relationships emerge from an unusually inventive physical vocabulary in this all-male quartet. This Pilobolus classic is dedicated to the memory of Piloblus’ friend and colleague, Jim Blanc

I won’t be able to review this one so I’m counting on my fellow St. Louisans to go see it and tell me all about it!

The Oscar-Winning Female Choreographer: Onna White

Who watched the recent Golden Globes?

This is so fun. We are having fun. Yayyyyy

Yeah, me neither.

Who watched clips the following day of Ricky Gervais roasting all of the fancy celebrities and all of their embarrassed cringe faces?

photo via bored panda

Me too. I just love when the rich and famous are insulted while a close-up camera is right in their face. It really puts their acting skills to the test. Some of them deserve a prize for body language. I would call it, ‘best cringe choreography’.

While it’s unlikley we’ll ever see such a category, did you know that the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences had a dance direction category for three years during the 1930’s? I’m not sure why they ended it, but ever since, the Board of Directors has only celebrated choreography through honoroary Oscars.

One such winner is Onna White, who won for her work on the best picture winning film, ‘Oliver!’ She is the only female to win. The other honorary oscars were awarded to Gene Kelly and Jerome Robbins.

photo by Rose Eichenbaum

White was born in Nova Scotia, Canada in 1922. Her father was a barber and her mother was a schoolteacher. She was a very sickly child, suffering from frequent fainting spells, and it was suggested to her parents that she shuld have a lot of excercise to build strength. She started with gymnastics, and began ballet when she was twelve. At seventeen, she went to take classes with the San Fransisco Ballet and was soon invted to join the company. After a few years in ballet, she wanted to do somthing other than Swan Lake, and moved to New York to pursuit Broadway. Her first audition was for Michael Kidd in the show, ‘Finian’s Rainbow’, which has a ballet combination. She got the job. She danced in many shows, and then also became Kidd’s choreography assistant before her own career began.

It seems to me like there is some effort from organizations to recognize female choreographers today, The Center for Ballet and the Arts is one. My friend and dancer, Dasha Schwartz, was recently recognized for her modern efforts to reach new audiences with her company, Cardboard Stage. It is interesting that we still seem to have to put a special spotlight on women who choreograph.

Spotlight on my girl Dasha:

When asked if it is difficult to be a woman in a male-dominated profession like choreography, White responded,

“If you prove yourself, honey, it doesn’t matter if you’re a man or a woman”

-Eichenbaum, p.39- yes, this is from my all-time favorite, Masters of Movement book which is ALL OVER this blog, but you can find more here: and here

Apparently, despite having Tony nominations and such a successful career already established, the author of Oliver didn’t want White as choreographer, first because she was a woman, and second,because she wasn’t English. Luckily, Columbia Pictures put their foot down and said she was hired. But she was tested by having to quickly choreograph the ‘Who Will Buy’ number.

photo via pinimg

The dance required 265 people, and 8 assistants to coordinate scenery changes. It was all done in one location, but made to look like an entire London neighborhood.

I suppose it really helps to have a major motion picture studio backing you, to make choices that are big and bold, to have the opportunity in the first place. But I also think it’s important for female choreographers of today to know where the pathways through the impermeable monoculture of majority in any industry have been forged before.

When asked about the challenges and pressure with work, White said,

‘I had learned my craft well. My brain was working fluently, and I was never at a loss for ideas. I just took charge. I went ahead and did my best, and it turned out pretty darn good. I’ve been lucky. Write in your book that luck has a lot to do with success.”

I don’t think they give out honorary Oscars for luck, though. Learn the craft, take charge. Keep at it, fellow female choreographers.

Oh another award? Denzel don’t care

 

 

Book Review: Raising the Barre

Here is THE one and only reason why practically every ballet company in the US puts on a version of ‘The Nutcracker’:

  1. It makes money.

Always. It’s the bread-and-butter that fuels the rest of the season for most companies. So we are stuck with it. Here are a few reasons why The Nutcracker is always bank for ballet companies:

  1. The music! Everyone knows it. Everyone has a love/hate relationship with it (No, just me?)
  2. Children’s cast- every child cast will mean parents and aunts and uncles and siblings in the seats. Two casts of children? That’s twice as many family, friend networks BUYING tickets and merchandise.
  3. It’s Christmassy! It is sometimes considered a ‘holiday event’ in the same way other people go look at lights or the ice skaters falling by the Rockefeller Tree (Again, just me?) Non- dance lovers cn sometimes be dragged to ‘The Nutcracker’ in the spirit of the holidays
  4. The camp factor- frothy, light-hearted plot without any need for intellectual consideration. And that’s fun sometimes
  5. Personalization -A lot of companies put a local twist on the show. St. Louis Ballet did a version based on the World’s Fair a few years ago, while Louisville Ballet has little derby jockeys (again, children’s cast) emerge from Mother Ginger’s skirts. When I was at Butler, I think they put a basketball jersey on the toy Nutcracker in an attempt to connect our significantly-smaller dance program to the huge phenomenon that was our basketball team. Look at us ballerinas trying to be relatable to what the majority of people care about- sports.

*Side note- it is a wonderful opportunity for children to be able to perform with companies and can strengthen communities. This practice of inclusion should never be held in any less esteem simply because of financial gains.

Even as artists, we do certain things to keep our practices afloat. Whether that’s getting up at six to go to yoga, or avoiding brownie binges, or for the larger organization, attempting strategies that will sell tickets, draw new audiences, donors, or publicity. Just imagine if a published author and immersion journalist showed up stating a desire to dance in the production AND had a book contract to detail- aka publicize- the experience.

Author Lauren Kessler’s newest nonfiction, ‘Setting the Barre; Big Dreams, False Starts, & My MIdlife Quest to Dance the Nutcracker’ is all about going through the motions of ballet while giving herself a literary pat on the back.

Kessler’s book sets the stage for her journey into The Nutcracker with personal back story of her childhood experiences dancing and a cross-country tour to see variations of the production from US-based companies :Joffrey, ABT, NYCB, San Fransisco, and her hometown company of Eugene Ballet Company in Oregon.

This is not a book about ballet. WHile Kessler does include some historical bits about the foundation of ballet, and some critiques of the performances she sees in the early chapters of the book, this floats somewhere between the genres of self-help and humor memoir. Page after page contains self-deprecating stories of trying on leotards, lists of what she learned, and a truly gross story about peeing on her own tights. I’ve been dancing for 27 years, and I’ve never done that once. She repeats over and over how badly the dancers smell. In fact, it’s mentioned in one of the two quotes chosen to preface the book. The other quote is one of inspiration from Agnes DeMille.

This book sets up the contrast of a woman facing middle age against the American obsessions of youth and beauty associated with ballet. It uses the stereotype of attempting the impossible perfection of ballet as a seemingly insurmountable challenge to make the pay-off of achieving the goal that much more triumphant. Kessler’s sincere love for ballet comes across an authentic but she gets a lot wrong. It’s called ‘on pointe’, not ‘on toe’ for instance. She makes a lot of factually incorrect, insensitive, and sometimes downright offensive statements such as ‘boys come to dancing later than girls’. Tell that to the 3 year-old boys that I teach.

The decisive shift in tone from self-deprecation to self-congratulation comes somewhere mid-book. While it is rather annoying to read every compliment in quotes from the conductor about her on-stage presence, or what the costumer said about her fitting in the dress for the maiden aunt role, it is nice to see the build in confidence. This is a good reminder of the positive affirmations that come from sticking to a challenge and goal-setting, especially as it pertains to dance. However, any sense of rooting for the author goes out the window on page 214 when she states that the performance is her ‘f*ck you’ to her teacher, who she names with his own fragmented chapter-closing sentence, and whose children have taken over his ballet school.

I would recommend this book to:

  • Other middle-aged women who are grappling with the past, being present, body image, and don’t really know about but are interested in the ballet world.

I would not recommend this book to:

  • Anyone knowledgeable about the dance world.

The part where she flat-out tells the Artistic Director of the Eugene Ballet that she is NOT allowed to come in and watch rehearsal for the ‘Grandfather Dance’ in the party scene will make the head of anyone with working ballet-world knowledge explode.

  • Anyone with body dysmorphia or eating disorder issues.

I am a long-time recovered but hearing pretty much every female character the author comes across as ‘a waif’ ‘slender’ ‘perfectly formed’ ‘0 percent body fat!’ page after page was particularly triggering for me. Proceed with caution.

  • Anyone who is bothered by fragmented sentences, tangents, clichéd phrases, a narrative that reads like a thirteen year old girls phone conversation with her BFF, and long paragraphs containing only questions.

More book reviews for dancers:

I did like that the closing scene ends with her congratulating herself with a drink at a bar. Get it, barre?

I think some of these Good Reads reviews sum up the demographic for this one

 

 

 

 

 

Masterclass: Paul Taylor

Last week, Robert Kleinendorst, dancer with the Paul Taylor Dance Company, taught a master class at NYU.

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Taylor 2008 performance program- I save everything!

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This was part of my Modern Technique & Pedagogy class taught by the incredible Deborah Damast. In this class, we are learning both the conceptual, experiential, and pedagogic knowledge of five dance education traditions: Graham, Hawkins, Dunham, Horton (yay, my favorite!), and Taylor.

I studied Taylor at Butler University with Susan McGuire, former Taylor and Graham dancer, my faculty advisor, and a great friend and influence as seen on my ‘circles of influence’ doodle and in this oh-so-accurate drawing of her.

As was discussed in Rob’s masterclass, Taylor did not create a codified technique, or series of exercises to be done in ‘his style’. There are however, certain concepts that are usually incorporated in classes that prepare dancers to do his work. Some of these include spiral, unnatural use of physics applied to direction of the body, or moving off-center to then quickly re-find balance. I remember thinking of Taylor warm-ups as ballet on the bottom (rond de jambe, tedus, fondus, degages)  with a spiraling, contracting upper body on top, and finding the combination of these seemingly separate aspects particularly difficult in college.

One of Susan’s exercises that we often did was:

a degage en Croix to a lung off-center, using either contraction or high release, to push back to a balanced degage, finishing with a plie in 1rst or 5th. (kind of like this video, but to the front and back as well.)

I always loved that first initial push to the degage, reaching far out with the leg and curving the spine in the lung, and HATED the moment of return to a balanced position on one leg. It would give me so much anxiety if I couldn’t hold it, and would then make me want to restrict the freedom or push of the ‘fun parts’ so that I could be ‘correct’ in the balanced part. I’m afraid that if I release something, I might not be able to get it back.  This might be a theme of my life, as well as hindrance in my dancing.

There were a lot of great things about Rob’s class that I could bring up; the teaching method of scaffolding within class, the emotional and physical encouragement of risk. For now, I want to share one bit of imagery he used that I found particularly helpful.

When approaching a difficult balanced movement (plie, sousou, extend one leg a la second with flexed foot, pull back in to passe while on releve, add batterie, close behind in plie 5th) Rob suggested we imagine ourselves as one of those old G.I.O. dolls where you could stretch the top half and bottom half apart to reveal the inner wire holding them together. He then joked that most kids don’t understand that reference, but hey, I’m old enough that this image makes perfect sense.

I think as dancers, we consider opposition a lot. Down to go up, think lift when approaching low-level movement. Even in balance, we know a held pose isn’t static and has continual movement. I at least, have not really considered that the body can expand energy in both directions at the same time in something other than an arabesque where the limbs are obviously reaching both front and back.

And guess what, it actually worked for me. As it turns out, balance and freedom can be found through the separating of the upper and lower half that I so hated in college. IT doesn’t help my balance to try to hold on for dear life, or to only send all of my energy along one course or path. At least in dance, moving in a lot of directions at once keeps it all together.

robrob-kleinendorst-classrob-kleinendorst

In considering Taylor’s work, we examined his ability to showcase humanity in its most terrifying and contrasting joyful, wonderful dimensions.

He says, “From the beginning my dances have been both dark and light-positive and negative- with grays in between” (from Masters of Movement which I’ve mentioned in ‘the Fallen Idol’, ‘Shouting with a Bullhorn’,  and even here when I lived in New York in 2010, p. 174).

As I am discovering, even in approach to the technique of dance, a little more gray helps me find the fullest of physical and non-physical capabilities.

Many thanks to Rob, Deborah, and my classmates for a fantastic Taylor experience. (That’s a lie, but I printed it- watch to 0:45. Haha, Paul…)

Go See These Shows

I was standing at the copier at work on Friday (a fascinating start to this post) and a co-worker with whom I don’t speak regularly said, ”

Hey! I get these Meet Up emails and one was about some show at Touhill and your name was mentioned as a critic! What’s that all about?

Ok, it was much more eloquently put than that, but the gist was ‘you seem to know some stuff about dance, what are the good shows happening soon?’

And if there is a request that I am always ready to answer, it’s a suggestion for good upcoming shows. So here are the upcoming performances in St. Louis that I’m putting in my calendar:

1. Tango Buenos Aires– Friday January 30th at 8, Saturday 2 & 8

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A dance and music performance at the beautiful Touhill presented by Dance St. Louis. The Argentina-based company will perform, ‘The Song of Eva Peron’- a tango dance and live music presentation inspired by the most important feminine character in Argentinian history Eva Peron.

Did you know that Tango is supposed to be an improvised dance? I have heard it’s actually a bit blasphemous to the art for to have set choreography, but….I still want to see it. Also of note, there will be free tango lessons with company dancers in the lobby from 4-6. Let’s hope I can drag someone or else one of the company dancers will have to partner me. Actually that’s not a bad idea….

2. Wit, Grit, and Grace at the Pageant (January 30th)

There are so many reasons why this show is a must-see:

  • 1. The Pageant. I know that I’m not the only one that has enjoyed a rock show here (remember those Mosh Pit dancers? or the Pink Floyd Ballerina?) but I’ve never seen a full dance show on this stage. Way to go to The Big Muddy Dance Company for bringing dance into a popular venue! I just hope that it isn’t as slippery as that one time that I put on pointe shoes and a zip-up leo for that back-up ballerina gig for comedian Hannibal Burress’ rap song. It was an ice rink.
  • 2.Did you catch that I said The Big Muddy Dance Company? You know, these 4 guys? Plus Morgan Cameron’s amazing feet and legs. I could go on. Go see this. We’ll mosh together in the pit of the pageant- which is quite fun to say, even if it will not, and should not happen.

The Big Muddy Dance Company facebook page (watch Thom’s flip/partnering video!)

3. Stripped/Dressed– Doug Varone and Dancers at Edison Theatre (January 23)

Doug Varone’s stamp alone should garauntee a masterful show and fantastic dancers. However,The concept also sounds interesting. The show includes two longer works- the first, a look into the creative process of dance and the second, the company’s signature style of sly wit, romantic heart and humanity that energizes audiences around the world’.

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The detail that tips the scale in making this a worthy show and a ‘buy a ticket now’ show:

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The actual Doug Varone is going to emcee! He is one of the famous choreographers profiled in ‘Masters of Movement (you’ve heard me talk about this…so many times) If you know me by now, you now that I will be there, book in hand and politely ask for an autograph. Minus the polite part.Further info and tickets

PS. Hey Big Muddy- does this shout-out qualify me for one of your awesome Swagbags? I want one!

President Barack Obama presents Dancer/Choreographer Bill T. Jones with 2013 National Medal of Arts

I don’t really remember how I came to be introduced to famed dancer, prolific choreographer, ‘Socrates of the dance world’ Bill T. Jones. I have the feeling that it was one of those moments where someone more knowledgable than I said something akin to, “you mean you DON’T know who this famous, respected influential person is? Can I come visit the rock under which you’ve been living?‘ And I probably pretended to know ALL about him.

Here is a man whose accomplishments are so far-reaching and diverse in the realms of dance, humanities, and art that it’s hard to keep track, even for someone whose brain catalogue is pretty limited to ‘keeping track of awesome dance folk in the world’. Here are a few highlights from the list:

  • 1994 MacArthur Genius Grant Recipient
  • 2010 Kennedy Center Honors
  • 2009 inducted to the American Academy of Arts and Sciences
  • Tony Award for Best Choreography for Fela! (my interview with Fela dancer, Hettie Barnhill) in 2010/ for Spring Awakening in 2007
  • 140+ Dance works created within Bill T Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company since it’s founding in 1982 and recieving grants from the National Endowment for th Arts for these projects in 80,81, and 82
  • Featured in 2010 on HBO’s documentary series MASTERCLASS
  • Feaured as one of 22 prominent black Americans in 2008 on HBO’s The Black List
  • His piece, D-Man in the Waters’ was showcased  on the Emmy-award winning PBS special ‘Free to Dance’
  • Published a memoir, ‘Last Night on Earth’ through Pantheon in 1995

This is just the tip of the iceberg. You get the gist. And now he can add….

2013 Recipient of the National Medal of Arts presented by President Barack Obama

The National Medal of Arts is the highest award presented to artists and art patrons by the United States Government and is awarded to individuals or groups who “are deserving of special recognition by reason of their outstanding contributions to the excellence, support, growth , and availability of the arts in the United States”. Nominations are made annually by the American public and selected by the President.

I am amazed by several things here;

  1. The longevity of his career. Think for a moment that I was not even born, and wouldn’t be born for another four years after he began the company that has produced over 140 works, and is still going strong today, more than 30 years later. That is committment.
  2.  The relevance of his career. When Alvin Ailey graced St. Louis last spring, they performed D-Man int he Waters. Top companies are still restaging his pieces even as he’s creating new ones. I thought it was a wonderful piece, by the way.
  3. The scope of companies he has worked with, schools he has visited, interesting ways he has included media with movement, and found a home for his dance know-how within the realm of Broadway, television, and in collaboration with artists across many genres.

To say ‘well deserved’ is to scrape at the tip of the iceberg.

His is one of my favorite interviews in ‘Masters of Movement’ -my favorite book of interviews/photography by my not-so-favorite anymore writer and photographer, Rose Eichenbaum.(Here is why she is not on top of my list any longer)  What seems to come back again and again is an assured sense of action and creation but never of answers- he seems more curious with questions, especially this one posed by Eichenbaum:

“How do you know if your work makes a difference?”

“I don’t. We’re never really sure if we are moving forward, sideways, or backward. Everything is moving, so we don’t know about out progress if we are moving in relation to something else. You will never know if what you do is valid. You will never know the truth about anything. You will only know the doing. That is a daunting but liberating idea. You will only know the doing”.

More “MoM’ references: Shouting at Julie Andrews with a Bullhorn / Pilobolus Preview and Flashback / The first ever interview on this here site with Tommy Lewey

I remember when I was a senior in college, I went to New York City with a few friends for some auditions. My friend John auditioned for his company and we were all oh-so-jealous. I’m pretty sure that John said you had to SING in his audition. While improvising. As if dancing set choreography isn’t nerve-wracking enough in an audition.

I’m not sure what it takes for a person to realize that they’re truly impacted the country with a vision and committment to art. How many tv specials, golden statues, beautiful works, highest honors before a person can know with certainty their work has merit? I think one must truly know they’ve MADE IT as a contributor when you can convince people to sing and dance spontaneously for you. That truly is making the world a better place- as long as it isn’t me doing the singing.

 

 

 

 

Review: Alonzo King LINES Ballet

“What’s fascinating about art, if it has any depth, is that regardless of origin it yields many  meanings. Experience, familiarity, and capactiy have everything to do with how we percieve information. You cannot imagine what is not within you. For example, someone who only knows a little about love and measures everything in terms of what they put out and what they get back will not understand selfless perpetual love. It’s inconceivable to them” Alonzo King-excerpt from ‘Masters of Movement’

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Last weekend, Alonzo King LINES Ballet travelled through the bad weather to delight the St. Louis audiences, barely arriving themselves on time for the show. Performing as part of Washington University’s Ovation series at the Edison Theatre, the San Francisco based troop brought a world-class show with global and nature-inspired elements. Luckily it was the renewed classical form of Indian Tabla music and the healing process of trees that inspired choreographer King, and not blaring car horns and dirty slush. Those of us in St. Louis can get the latter right outside our doorsteps.

The program included two longer pieces of work, opening with ‘Resin’. The title comes from the tiny hardened tears harvested when a tree is cut into the deep sapwood. Resin opens with a dancer engulfed in a luminous cone of fabric meant to simulate light that is eventually lifted. Costumed in body-baring, beautiful fitted pieces in light and dark green and nude shades, the dancers create seeming relationships and communities over the course of many movements. The piece ends with the dancers moving slowly in shadowy light under a raining stream of what must be the resin tears falling upon them. My guess is that it’s really either sand, or rice like some terribly aggressive wedding progression. Much of the dancing was conducted in silence especially while transitioning from one piece of music to the next. There is really never a pause in the dancing. The works of Alonzo King seem to be all action,with very little in the way of gesture and absolutely none in the way of superfluous pantomime. The story-telling exists solely in the tone of the music and movement. While moments of classical technique exist within the choreography, it is hard to isolate one step from the next although each is stunningly executed and noteworthy. There were moments when the movement was not actually very pretty or to me, even conventionally pleasing to watch,particularly in a pas de deux that seemed unattractively violent. The movement seemed to stutter and fight against the partner. It was clearly deliberate and not a missed step by a dancers but it made me feel a bit uncomfortable, not that this is necessarily a bad thing. Boundaries of movement vocabulary, theme, influence, and what is ‘pretty, nice, entertaining’ are all things to move beyond. It is impossible to call one dancer out above another as each became my instant favorite for whatever the most recent dazzling step.

To be quite honest, I’m not sure at all what was ‘going on’ in this piece. Were the dancers, dressed in those natural colors, the trees? Or were they the reapers of the resin, hurting the trees and being showered with the tears? I don’t have an answer or even a theory. If I think back on the piece, I think more about the stunning physical displays in impossibly hard choreography. I think about the physical capabilities of the dancers because the piece was so overwhelming that it didn’t leave much of an impact. There was so much, so many different pairings of dancer, and props, and changes of music that it didn’t leave a clear imprint. It’s the same with so many writers that aspire to write a great novel and just go on and on for pages and pages and pages (talk about abusing the trees) when in actuality it’s just as hard, if not harder, to write a concise short-story that really packs a punch. I loved every second of watching these dancers, watching what they could do and what was dreamed up for them in the choreography, but in terms of emotional effect it left me pretty blank. It was visually stunning and stimulating, but for whatever reason, did not cut deep into my own sapwood.

The show continued with ‘Rasa’ after intermission, a piece set to an original score by tabla virtuoso Zakir Hussain. This music, like the technique of classical ballet, is famed for its complex rhythms, requiring absolute concentration and devotion of performers. Yet the piece was not at all studious and was instead celebratory, full of showmanship in a movement-for-movement’s sake kind of way. The piece spoke of the thrill, the challenge, the escape of practicing and mastering a craft. It was a transformation from the sweat and burn of your average human to the lightness, quickness, exoticism of something greater with infinite freedom and true expression without trying to hard to say anything.

As a species, it is supposed to be language that separates man from beast, communication that makes us civilized. Imagine having every dialect, accent, and various slang at your disposal. There wouldn’t be a thing that you couldn’t comprehend or communicate. That is how the dancers of Alonzo King can express through movement, their capabilities seem limitless. Paired with the imagination of movement vocabulary from King’s choreography, they seem to speak through these long unfolding pieces of choreography and not in specific gestures or singular steps. Meaning comes from the arrangement of words into a sentence, and so it is with these two pieces. Somehow it does not require a necessarily greater attention span as the pieces seem to target something that doesn’t follow a plot line or have a defined character. It seems the best way to appreciate these pieces is to just take it in and not try to hard to understand. How incredible that such refined dancers and rich vocabulary can be turned to something that feels so primal. This feels like art that has no and needs no greater explanation than it’s existence exquisite and incomprehensible.

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The Fallen Idol

I grew up staring at a picture in my dance studio of Natalia Makarova as Dying Swan, thinking ‘one day, that will be me’. I wonder how she’d feel knowing she inspired my blacktop version?

 

A week ago, COCA hosted a lecture on the creative process of the artist with Rose Eichenbaum.

If you follow this blog you’ve heard me ramble on and on about the book, ‘Masters of Movement’many times before. This is one of her three books where she photographs and interviews choreographers, dancers, and actors. In ‘MoM’ she has interviews with people I would sell my soul if I had one to talk to; David Parsons, Paul Taylor, Daniel Ezralow, Katherine Dunham, Ann Reinking. They’re all there. It’s pretty much my dream party guest list.

Can you name any of these choreographers?

I was so excited to hear her speak, to get to see her in person, to maybe introduce myself to her afterwards. I have an autographed copy of her book, but she signed it, ‘to an aspiring choreographer’– which still holds, but I also worship this book because of the life as a dance writer, and the interviews. I thought it might be amazing to get it signed again, maybe this time to ‘an aspiring writer’. I even attempted to make myself look nice so that should I be so bold as to ask for a picture of us together, I wouldn’t look like my normal post-teaching mess. I toted my glammed-up self, my terrible old camera, a notebook to take notes during her talk, and this big old book with me to the theatre, where there were only a handful of other people waiting to hear this amazing person speak.

In her speech, she had a slideshow of pictures and described meeting with some of the people profiled in her book, how she convinced them to allow her to pick their brains, what it was like talking with them, and what they said. She had a hilarious and casual picture of Makarova in jeans.

I found the talk wonderful.Afterwards, this weirdo man and I hung around like fruit flies to bug her a little more. I think he’s a photographer of sorts, he starting asking if he could photograph me wearing my pointe shoes, then photo-crop me out so it was just the boots. Um, no. A- I don’t know you, B- why waste this face? Just kidding. 

Here I was, this shaking with excitement nerd holding her book, the dope who was the only person sitting int he front frantically writing down all of the inspirational notes from her speech. I introduced myself, said that I- like her- was a professional dancer and have found myself on a path recently as a writer, and then told her how much I love her book, how I’ve quoted it in the majority of my college papers, turn to it for inspiration before interviews that I conduct, and just peruse it when I’m creatively stumped. Want to know what she said?

“Yes, I hear that from a lot of people”.

Um. great. I’m so thrilled to be one of your many adoring fans. I’m talking about me here!

Now I know I’m totally selfish in saying this, but I had really hoped that this person who I professionally and creatively adore might take a special interest in me, seeing as how we do have certain professional background parallels. She was, this past sunday, conducting a workshop for dance photographers where she would look over portfolios and give a critique. I got up the nerve to ask if she would consider looking at a piece or two of my writing, to give her thoughts on my interview skills. I realize I was asking to bend the rules and for a favor, but I was still going to pay the entrance fee. I figured it would be worth it, professionally and emotionally.

She seemed none too enthused about the idea (a person who wants to pay to hear her thoughts on work similar to her own, where I clearly respect her opinion? How rude!). I managed to get out that I had recently interviewed a Joffrey star (which I thought would give me some clout) and she cut me off to say, ‘oh yes, I gave a copy of my book to their director. He LOVED it!’

Great. Then she burst out,‘Where was everyone tonight? I thought there would be a lot more people!” This from the lady that just spent an hour or so talking about the creative endeavor, and how it must be for you and not with the expectation of reward or recognition. Practice what you preach much?

Then she asked how to get backstage because her jacket was back there, and  the door was locked. I went to find one of the staff to unlock it for her, then without saying goodbye, or nice to meet you, or thank you for coming, (let alone a picture or autograph) she turned and walked out.  Devastating.

Her photography was on display opening Friday in the gallery at COCA. because I finished teaching at 6 and I wanted to be at the Touhill for the artist talk with Dance St. Louis director Michael Uthoff and Joffrey Director Ashley Wheater at 7:15, I had some time to kill. So after again attempting to make myself look decent and changing out of teaching sweats, I headed to the gallery where there were less than ten people milling around. Whether she recognized me from the night before or not, she did not say hello. I took my time examining the photos, fully enjoying the work, and then left with zero interaction with her.

I probably should have realized that maybe something was amiss when she said in her talk that the book that changed HER life was Isadora Duncan’s autobiography, ‘My Life’. I know that I am a fully selfish and egotistical person but I look like a saint next to Duncan. Just read it, I’m telling you, she’s a crazy old bat. She tries to seduce married men, then when they turn her down, tells the public it’s because she must have intimidated them with her beauty and genius. I also hate her work, but that’s beside the point. Isn’t it weird when the idol of your idol is someone that you cannot stand?

I still love this book. I will always love this book. I am really sad not to have made a connection with the person that created it, but sometimes I suppose the creation must stand separate from the creator.

And I didn’t go on Sunday to get her feedback on my work. I figured that if I got any personal time at all, I’d end up hearing more about her greatness than any potential greatness in me (which is what I ALWAYS want to hear! Tell me how awesome I am, or will become!) So that’s 15 bucks she missed out on.

I had this whole ‘meeting my idol and she’d take an interest and give me a nod of encouragement and maybe a picture’ thing so worked up n my head that I have to say, it hurt when it didn’t turn out that way. Isn’t that kind of built up expectation followed by let-down just so me? That’s ok, I can still bury myself in the glorious pages of the book and pretend, and if you’re in St. Louis, I’d encourage you to check out the gallery at COCA. (It’s free!) I can still respect the work of the artist, idolize the project, even if the artist in question isn’t the person I was hoping for. As it turns out, I idolize her job, not her– a disappointing but good distinction to make. Maybe like my thoughts towards Makarova, one day that will be me. If any over-eager person comes to me for encouragement or advice, I really hope I remember writing this.

How Do You Solve A Problem like Jessica?

I teach an afterschool musical theatre class for k-3rd graders called ,‘Lullaby of Broadway’ in a beautiful cathedral. This class entails a mix of intro to various Showtunes, basic dance steps (hello chasse ball change), drawing  headshots, playing theatre games to introduce acting techniques, and weaving all of these skills into an original play for the kids to act out written by yours truly. (And yes, I did give myself a line to two in there)

I have a particularly precocious group of kiddos (except for a 5-year-old who rarely takes his thumb out of his mouth) which makes me look like a bad-@ss teacher. Emphasis on the bad-@ss , at least last week. Here’s why:

I maybe showed up to teach said kindergarteners and such in black motorcycle boots, black and white flowered skirt, glittering silver tights, one of my Dad’s old t-shirt tucked in, and a black leather jacket. (We weren’t dancing that day! And for once, I didn’t want to wear sweatpants. It’s a rare occurence, I know)

Yes I am sitting in a child’s chair and reading a Harry Potter sticker book.

I walked into this beautiful cathedral school where I’ve been teaching for a month, and a nun dressed in the typical nurse shoes, long skirt, habit thing, who I’ve never met, saw me, took two seconds to pop her eyes out of her head, pop them back in, and stop me. “What are you here for?!”

She sounded terrified! I was so tempted to say, ‘I’m recruiting for the Wiccan Fashionista Cult! Give me your children or I’m replacing all of your Bibles with Italian Vogue …the ones that DON’T mind nudity!”

You’d think the huge box of crayons would have made me less threatening. Basically what ensued was: she did not let me go my classroom( that I’ve been going to for a month, and set up the magical props, and write my ‘key words’ and other things I do before the kids arrive) until I had signed in at the office (which no other teachers do and none of the school staff that has greeted me upon my other arrivals have ever instructed me to do). Then mean gap-toothed nun yelled at my kids the instant they came in for hiding behind a stack of cubbies. “If you do that again I will send you to the dungeon gym and you’ll miss your class!” Ridiculous, they aren’t hurting themselves or touching a thing. They just like going back there when they first come in so they can jump out and yell ‘Surprise Miss Jessssss!‘ which I find charming. Then she told us to be quiet.

I made sure to emphasize ‘projection’ in the lesson plan. It’s an important part of singing anyways and they aren’t screaming. The halls are alive with the sound of music….and rebellion.

I’ll be very curious, if next time I show up in a dowdy outfit, if she’s friendlier. We shall see.

I feel just like Julie Andrews as Maria, the enthusiastic, rule-breaking spunky sister in ‘The Sound of Music’. Especially, since we’re singing Do Re Mi.

Except that for reasons beyond the headgear, I could never be a nun. So maybe I’m more like Julie Andrews as the practically-perfect-in-every-way Mary Poppins!

Except that showing up to teach at a conservative school in motorcycle boots is probably not practical, so maybe I’m Mary’s off-beat sister…Myrtle Poppins!

old sketchbook doodle- if it can’t rain men, send me a nanny on swift umbrella wings!

My favorite part of Mary Poppins now is the Chimney Sweep scene- those dancers are amazing! And the choreography is fantastic as well- done by the fabulous duo of Dee Dee Woods and Marc Breaux (who have choreographed numerous musicals, movies including the SOUnd of Music, and won the American Choreography Awards Career Achievement Award in LA). Here they are pictured from their interview by Rose Eichenbaum in my favorite book, ‘Masters of Movement’. Apparently, the director of Mary Poppins wanted to the Step in TIme number cut down to TWO minutes, but Walt Disney liked it, so in it stayed.

apparently, Rose went through 4 rolls of film and Marc was making Bunny Ears in every shot

Their whole interview is fascinating but my other favorite tidbit is from a memory of filming ‘The Sound of Music’ for the famous ‘The Hills are alive’ scene; Dee Dee says, ‘Yes Marc was in the bushes with a bullhorn and had to cue Julie when to turn. He had to scream, ‘TURN TURN TURN!’ at the top  of his lungs”.

Man oh man, do I love the idea of shouting at Julie Andrews with a  bull-horn. Or frankly, shouting at anyone with a bullhorn. I’m sorely tempted to get one to teach with but methinks someone in particular wouldn’t like that so much.

When I was a kid, my favorite scene was the dancing penguins and the horserace (everything that takes place in the make-believe drawing. Not the bank scene. Shocking Jess, preferring fantasy over money). I love love love the look of a merry-go-round, but there’s something about tethered fake horses that just makes me sad. Horses are, I think, an animal that should be free to roam.

I just want to free the horses! Or I’m really jealous of my Dad, rocking the short shorts with the beard look. me as a baby.with my Mom

 

I really enjoy teaching, especially when I have such a great group of students,  and the work day goes by like play. It’s the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down, I guess. Maybe I’ll try to look more the part next time, so mean nun isn’t afraid it’s a shotful of vodka that makes the meds go down. That’s for the weekend. Go on children, Myrtle Poppins says it’s good for you.  🙂

The Dan Brown Book Club

My list of ‘books to read’ and ‘movies to see’ keeps on expanding.

I recently took an online quiz ‘Who do you write like?” You post a recent blog or journal entry and the text is analyzed- I don’t know if they look for word frequencies, or sentence structure. I put three entries in and came up with the same answer each time. (If you want to check yourself, go to http://iwl.me/  )

Apparently I write like David Foster Wallace. I know who he is but I haven’t read anything of his. I’m going to put ‘infinite Jest’ and ‘Brief Conversations with Hideous Men’ on my to-read list- both titles seem to sum up my life. I was kind of surprised to get the same author since one post I entered was a more serious review and the next a giant complaint about the trains- where I used more vulgar language and name-dropped some Harry Potter characters. I suppose I thought with that mix I might get J.K. Rowling, or with my use of ‘crap’- Vonnegut (the ultimate wordsmith) or with my focus on art and artists, Herman Hesse. I think if I were ever to really start a book club that focused on one writer, like ‘The Jane Austen book Club’ mine would either be the “Herman Hesse’ or “Kurt Vonnegut’ book club- since I’ve read most of what they have written. I can’t really imagine reading the work of one person back to back though, can you imagine how boring that would be? Especially if you picked, say, Dan Brown or Jodi Picoult. Angels and Demons- handsome leading man saves the day with the help of his sexy female accomplice, who is avenging some male figure who was wronged by the bad guys. Da Vinci code- ooo same thing. Thanks for the formula D. Brown- if I ever want to write a best seller/beach read, I’ll keep that in mind. But in MY movie version, I won’t have Tom Hanks pretending to be 35 with a bad bad comb-over. Worst casting ever.

I’m pretty much done with my packing, now I just have to send three cardboard boxes full of stuff home since I didn’t bring enough luggage for the stuff my parents have been gradually sending me. I paid 20 bucks for THREE EMPTY BOXES. I said I hate Fedex, I’m now adding UPS to the list. The worst thing to pack that I’m mostly stuffing in my backpack since UPS/Fedex charge by the weight are the few books I have with me. I only brought one or two little paperbacks from home, but while here, I’ve somehow caved to buying three news ones, the Tipping Point’ by Malcolm Gladwell,  “F U Haiku’ a book of pissed off poetry, and a collection of Vonnegut’s short essays on War and Peace.

I’m going to be honest- I only bought the last one because I had read everything with me, I saw Vonnegut’s name, and it was 5 dollars. Post reading it, meh, it was o.k. I actually considered, while packing today, not even bringing it home. I mean, it’s hardbound and books are heavy. Never before have I wanted a kindle rather than the real books- I’ve always thought the only time I’d want a kindle would be if I was stuck on a deserted island, that and sunscreen, and I threw my almost new bottle of that out today too. I have more at home.

I understand the convenience, but I still do not want electricity mixed in with my literature, even if it is ‘the way of the future’ (this coming from the girl who doesn’t even have an ipod). I think the only genre of book safe from the grasp of technology is the art book. I am a huge sucker for big heavy glossy books with gorgeous pictures, and the one I miss the most from home is ‘Masters of Movement; Conversations with Great Choreographers’  by Rose Eichenbaum.

The book cover

I love this book for several reasons- first the insight into these amazing minds- and it is truly conducted in conversational style, you really get a sense of what it is like to TALK with these dance icons, to hear first-hand what it was like for them growing up, starting out, dealing with success,failure and getting to the status they now enjoy. Two- it is autographed to me by the author and by a few of the featured choreographers, three- the beautiful portraits of the artsits. Eichenbaum serves as interviewer, writer, and photographer here which is great because as she gets to know their stories she can help pose or create pictures that capture the ‘essence’ of the choreographer. Some pictures are color, some black and white. Reading it, I used to imagine how she might have photographed me- (accepting my nobel peace prize for choreography, or taking note from Roxy in Chicago, surrounded by ‘a whole bunch of boys- it’ll frame me better’). If I could improve at all upon it, I would want more pictures but that’s me. I don’t even read ‘Dance’ or “Pointe’ magazine until I’ve looked at all of the pictures first.

I’m all for downsizing and condensing and the kindle makes this possible. But ‘Masters of Movement’ is a book that deserves to be enjoyed in it’s fullest glory and not through an electronical device- I think somehow reading these real people’s  stories through a computer chip somehow takes away from the personal experience of it.

I think I’ll keep the Vonnegut book, even if it wasn’t my favorite and even if it makes my already stuffed backpack even heavier. I said in an earlier post about how much I hate the trains that transportation through magic is really the only answer for me. I think packing via magic, like in Disney’s Sword in the Stone, Merlin-style (magically shrinking everything in his house down to fit in one little suitcase) , would be such a great solution for my book/packing woes. I guess this is kind of what a kindle is capable of, but until I can actually take it out and enjoy it in full-size, I’ll keep on paying ridiculous fees to UPS and lugging the real thing around with me.