Paul Taylor’s new vision for American modern dance

On Tuesday, Paul Taylor kicked off his company’s three-week 60th anniversary season, presenting a wide spectrum from decades of work, among them several masterpieces. The octogenarian keeps churning them out, with no apparent interest in slowing down. But on Thursday, he acknowledged mortality and gave thought to legacy, unveiling a bold new vision for the future of his company – and for modern dance.

This time next year, we’ll be introduced to Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance. The entity hasn’t been entirely fleshed out yet and few specifics have been provided. But based on a press conference on Thursday and a public announcement at the company’s gala at Lincoln Center that night, the new organization will have a three-fold mission:

–       The continued presentation, and creation, of works by Taylor, performed by his company (currently on fine display on the Koch stage).

–       The commissioning of new works by emerging (American?) choreographers, to be set on, and performed by, Taylor’s company.

–       The presentation of American modern dance classics by Taylor’s contemporaries.

The prospect is exciting, if vague at the moment, and raises a number of questions yet to be answered. Among them, who’s curating the new work and what’s the artistic vision? What kind of dance will “American Modern Dance” champion?

In presenting classics from other choreographers – a worthy effort to preserve historic and foundational pieces of art – are these works to be reconstructed on the Taylor dancers? Performed by guest companies already specializing in some of that work (i.e., the Graham and Limon companies), or perhaps some other alternative?

In addition to these lofty intentions, another grand, and welcome, development: a commitment to live music “when intended by the choreographer,” according to the announcement. Indeed, live music is a noticeable no-show at the Koch right now. If you attend the New York City Ballet regularly, you get used to a lively presence in the orchestra pit and a full-bodied sound in the theater. An empty pit creates a buffer to the audience; it absorbs energy. Filling it back up will make many of Taylor’s best works feel whole again.

Legacy is a tricky beast in dance – both because of the slippery nature of handing down dances in general and because of the single-choreographer company model that defined (and to a large degree, still does) the structure of modern dance presentation. We’ve seen the problems of ownership that arise (à la Graham), the dispersal of a valued repertory (Cunningham) as well as a successful re-birth (Ailey).

Paul Taylor’s American Modern Dance proposes a new idea that has the potential to be an important and sustainable home for Taylor’s works, other classics, and serve as a springboard for the next generation of visionaries. We eagerly await details.

Your Extreme Weather Reading List: Ballet’s Invisible Women + Israel’s Dance of Deportation

In New York, the snow outside my window is thick like feathers and falling aggressively like bricks. In Atlanta, my brother is stranded in his apartment with a bag of pretzels and only the ingredients for a Bloody Mary (he’s not complaining). Extreme weather gives permission for extreme reading. This weekend, consider adding the following two articles to your reading list: One is an articulate exploration of the long-time problem of gender inequity in dance, the other a snapshot of a celebrated dance community caught in a political bind.

In the Huffington Post a few weeks ago, Emily Coates, the director of the dance curriculum at Yale University, weighs in on the lack of female leadership in the dance world, particularly on the ballet end of the spectrum. She writes:

I learned something surprising while preparing my lecture notes for a unit on the Ballet Russe: the last name of the great Russian dancer-choreographer “Nijinsky.” passes spell check. The last name of his sister Bronislava “Nijinska” — an important choreographer in her own right — does not. That glaring red underline, spell check’s mark of non-recognition, is a metaphor for how the women in ballet history tend to be viewed.

Coates has a 20-year dance career under her belt with some of the world’s most acclaimed companies, she knows firsthand the complicated relationship between female dancer and male mentor and the lack of opportunity or even encouragement for female dancers to transition into leadership roles. I suspect we all sense this imbalance, but it takes a reminder and call to action like this to give the issue continued visibility.

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Meanwhile, on the Mediterranean coast… This article from the prominent Israeli newspaper Haaretz (to which I also contribute) is a compelling look at another difficult issue. The Israeli dance scene has been globally celebrated in the past decade and the Israeli government has proudly supported and showcased its companies, heralding them as ambassadors of Israeli culture.

Many of the dancers in these companies are not Israelis – they’re foreigners from the United States, Germany, Taiwan, etc. who flock to that special something Israeli contemporary dance has going on right now. But in a state with super strict visa and residency requirements, they’re not always welcome to stay.

Rachel Osborne, an Australian, has been dancing with the Batsheva Dance Company for over a decade. Having watched the company for years (I lived in Tel Aviv for three), it’s hard to think of anyone else who embodies Batsheva’s intensity, intelligence and fierce sensuality more than she. Last year, without reason, the Israeli government refused to renew her visa, essentially kicking her out. Shir Hacham writes:

[Osborne] feels that she contributed to the cultural scene in Israel and when she travels the world as a dancer and teacher, she doesn’t identify as an Australian but rather as a product of Batsheva and of Naharin − and therefore as an Israeli.

Dancers have long danced without borders. This situation raises questions about who represents a “national company” that becomes a cultural export and how those individuals are valued and protected by a foreign government. At least in this case, it appears not so much.

 

Philly’s thoughtful dance-writing model (p.s. We should copy it)

I went to Philadelphia for the first time in October. Summer was refusing to abdicate to Fall, so we drank cold beers under a surprisingly strong sun and looked up at the Benjamin Franklin Bridge. When I returned last week, I slid along sidewalks and puffed into my gloves. I honestly can’t decide which version of the city I prefer. Either way, I was still charmed, even more so when I was introduced to its dynamic dance community.

This visit came about at the invitation of thINKingDANCE, a unique two-year-old collective of writers committed to covering the wide spectrum of dance in their town. It was launched by Lisa Kraus and Anna Drozdowski, who got a grant to build a sleek professional website (because we cannot underestimate the value of aesthetics in presenting our writing) and pay writers a modest fee for contributing.

ThINKingDANCE is a clever grassroots response to the downsizing of arts journalism in recent years. It’s citizen journalism for the dance community, by the dance community, but with an eye to engaging folks beyond that community.

It’s not a blog. It has structure, editors and deadlines. It may not have the reach, or offer the rates, of the Philadelphia Inquirer (however much those rates have tumbled), but it’s a bold statement of action when so many are giving in to easy whining.

More than mere coverage, thINKingDANCE is a communal conversation. And better still, it has a stated mission to cultivate and encourage more dance writers, which means more dance writing.

On Saturday, in thefidget space, a cozy yet expansive loft about ten minutes outside the city center, I chatted with ten thINKingDANCE contributors about a range of dance writing issues: How do we consider new templates for dance writing? (i.e., Can we borrow from the listicle craze to attract readers but find a way to imbue it with thoughtful analysis?) How do we navigate perceived or actual conflicts of interest as both writers and creators? How do we consider our audience of readers?

None of these questions are unique to Philly. But thINKingDANCE is. After our daylong workshop, I observed the local writers gather around a spreadsheet to hash out writing assignments for the next two months. It was a long list and there were a lot of columns: author, editor, performance date, due date, etc.

It’s a serious, and seriously impressive, operation. The Philly dance community is lucky to have it. And other communities would be smart to emulate it.

Choreographing War

Movie poster for Lone Survivor.
Movie poster for Lone Survivor.

The latest war film to address America’s ongoing overseas engagement is Peter Berg’s “Lone Survivor,” the story of a doomed Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan. In something of a surprise, it topped the box office last week, becoming one of the few post-9/11 military films to find a broad commercial audience. Many attempts in the past few years, though critically acclaimed (like “Zero Dark Thirty,” “The Messenger,” etc.) have struggled to attract indifferent viewers. But at least they’re trying.

Meanwhile, it seems not much war has popped up thematically in dance in the past decade. (Note: Since the initial publishing of this post, Bill T. Jones’  “Blind Date” (2005), Ronald K. Brown’s “Come Ye” (2003), and Garth Fagan’s “Life: Dark/Light” have been brought to my attention.) Please continue to share, in the comments section, examples of others works or artists that you’ve encountered that have engaged with the subject.

But on Thursday night at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts in Lincoln Center, war and dance was the topic at hand. Not a survey of the field but a look at the repertory of Paul Taylor, the veteran modern dance choreographer whose company celebrates its 60th anniversary this spring. Writer and scholar Suzanne Carbonneau, author of the forthcoming Taylor biography, discussed Taylor’s approach to war in four works spanning a quarter century.

Company B
Paul Taylor Dance Company in Company B
Photo by Paul B. Goode

In “Company B” (1991), Carbonneau showed how Taylor subtly undermines the romanticization of World War II. In “Banquet of Vulture” (2008), she pointed to the usually apolitical Taylor’s rage against the war in Iraq. In a nod to Kurt Jooss’ 1932 “The Green Table,” perhaps the most famous of anti-war dances, Taylor borrowed the rigid bearing and heavy steps of the character of Death to create his own character explicitly modeled on George W. Bush.  In “Sunset” (1983), war remains hovering offstage; its only literal reference is the uniforms worn by the men. But in that work, Taylor zooms in on the way war disrupts youth and robs soldiers and their sweethearts of carefree innocence.

Dance isn’t always great at commenting on politics – some issues are just too complicated to capture in a nuanced way without words. But when it comes to illustrating how war affects our social relationships and communal psyche, dance may have something valuable to say.

From the evidence on Thursday, Paul Taylor is clearly committed to exploring these themes. Who among contemporary choreographers will join him?

Joining the Debate: Do we need professional critics?

Recently, the New York Times launched a discussion thread in the Opinion page section Room for Debate questioning whether or not we need professional critics. They solicited responses from eight practitioners in the field to weigh in with thoughts, including Meagan Bruskewicz, who shared with the DCA a few weeks ago about her decision to pursue a PhD in dance history.

The discussion was kicked off with the following prompt:

Everyone’s a critic.

Blogs and social media have empowered anyone with an Internet connection to weigh in on the movie or book du jour. This has had a profound effect on the newspaper industry, which continues to shed full-time critics, while the ones who stay enthusiastically defend their craft.

Is professional criticism still important? Can professional criticism stay relevant when media companies’ budgets are tight and the media landscape is overflowing with opinions?

Bruskewicz, in her response, wrote:  “I think there is room for anyone to add his or her voice to the discourse… Yet I feel the distinction between amateurs and professionals should remain and still does — even a cacophony of emerging voices cannot take away from the authority of well-established professional critics and renowned publications.”

To read all of the responses, from other critics, visual artists, a performer, a novelist, and a filmmaker, visit Room for Debate here.

Anton Ego, the critic of Pixar's "Ratatouille"

DCA Board Member Brian Schaefer responded to the conversation on his blog, My Two Left Feet, and finds an unlikely muse in the character of Anton Ego, the critic in Pixar’s brilliant animated feature “Ratatouille,” who he believes offers a model for broadening the conversation and reclaiming the positive contributions of criticism:

“Ratatouille presented what I consider the best contemporary representation of criticism in popular culture in the way it deals with the transformation of the critic Anton Ego and the way it celebrates the idea that “everyone can cook” or, in this case, that “everyone can be a critic.”  That doesn’t mean they are cooks or critics, it means they have the potential to be and our job as those who value and practice criticism today is not to protect it but to share it.”

So what do you think?  Do we still need professional critics or will a more democratic arena of voices serve dance just as well, and perhaps better in some ways?  Share your opinions with us.