David Michalek's "Slow Dancing": A Good Idea But Poorly Executed (*Update in Bold)

Hehe, my friend, Ariel Davis, a young journalist currently in NYC for an internship with a big magazine, emailed me bright and early yesterday morning to tell me that we were quoted in the NYTimes! Of course I immediately scoured the article. Well, we weren’t actually quoted, in that our names weren’t listed, but we were the ones exclaiming, “he looks like a god,” the top quote in Claudia LaRocco’s write-up of the opening night of the Slow Dancing films I’ve been mobile-blogging about for about the past fifty posts now. (I promise to stop soon with the cell phone blogging; it’s just so exciting, in its own way). Anyway, the “god” Ariel and I were speaking of was Herman Cornejo of course :)

Anyway, I’m going to see it several more times before it leaves NY, but so far my thoughts are that the project is a great idea that has some real kinks to work out.

For starters, Lincoln Center is really annoying me and if I was Michalek I would be pissed. Slow Dancing starts at 9 p.m and continues until 1:00 in the morning; Midsummer Night Swing ends at 10:00 p.m. But after the MNS band stops playing, Lincoln Center really shuts down: the alcohol and snack bars all close shop, making it impossible to enjoy a drink with friends while watching the films, and, more seriously, a very noisy cleanup begins. The Aquafina guy noisily dismembers his metal booth then hauls it all, bit by bit, to a huge garbage-like truck waiting, motor running, in the nearby taxi cab lane; the bar guys clinkily clear bottles and glasses from their shelves; garbage collectors noisily bag trash and load it onto little trucks, which they drive dangerously through the crowd darting in and out and around groups of people, sometimes even honking if you don’t see them coming — how’s the audience supposed to focus on the film with all this crap going on? You feel like Lincoln Center’s telling you it’s time to go home now, show’s over, you’re out past your bedtime. Until July 29th, when this exhibit ends, could they possible re-arrange clean-up schedules? It’s hugely disrespectful to the artist and his audience.

As for the project itself, I think it’s a great idea and it seemed to work well when I saw it indoors at the earlier Works & Process event at the Guggenheim Museum, but for some reason, it’s not as exciting outdoors on the huge Plaza. I think part of my being so captivated at Guggenheim stemmed from the fact that I know and love all three dancers who were showcased that night: Wendy Whelan (ballerina of New York City Ballet), Herman Cornejo (American Ballet Theater), and Desmond Richardson (Complexions). But the vast majority of the dancers participating in the whole project I don’t know, or at least don’t recognize.

As LaRocco alludes to in her article, not a lot of the people on the Plaza for Midsummer Night Swing paid much attention to the films, unfortunately. Several heads did turn when the screens first lit up, and people watched for the first couple of minutes, but when they couldn’t see very much happening, they returned to their own fun. LaRocco bemoans that these social dancers, themselves participating in Dance, are ignorant of those on the screens, many of them the greats of ballet and modern dance.

Well, why should those dancers, having such a blast learning to dance themselves, stop what they’re doing in order to worship these people on the screens, whom they don’t know? Might someone, perhaps, tell them who they are?

From what I’ve seen so far, here are my critiques of the project:

1) No one knows who the dancers are and no one is bothering to tell them. If they’re not going to have easily available pamplets listing the names and credentials of the dancers, with pictures, could they run the names and a brief word about who they are somewhere prominent on the screen, at least at the start of each performance? Names humanize people. I’ve noticed this watching people watching filmed ballroom dance competitions — people who aren’t really seriously into the art of ballroom just kind of glance at the screen and look away after all of a minute — there are far too many people out there on the floor at once, it’s too much to take in, it’s confusing and nonsensical.

But once names are placed over the dancers (briefly, not for the entire time the camera’s focused on them of course), people pay much more attention, even if they’ve never heard the name before (which is highly likely). You think, ‘oh that couple’s obviously from Russia with huge names like that,’ ‘oh a Japanese couple,’ ‘wow, another Russian; a lot of Russians in ballroom, who knew…’ ‘oh wow, those are the national champions, yeah, they are really good,’ etc. etc. Names humanize. A little bit of info goes a long way.

Update: I went again tonight (Sunday), with Oberon, and found that there are little Lincoln Center playbills near the entrance to the State Theater, along with a poster, both giving the names and a brief background of each dancer next to his or her picture. I still like the idea of printing the names somewhere on the screens though! Also, I met Wendy Whelan tonight — she’s a very sweet person! Here is a picture of her and Oberon. Awww :)

2) There are either too many of the same types of dancers or there’s not enough variety and spontaneity in the rotations. At several points, there are two to three dancers shown all at once who are all doing modern. This is boring and reductive. Also, can everyone not be dressed exactly the same? Wendy Whelan and Janie Taylor are ballerinas but they’re both dressed in the same silky flowing gowny things as about ninety percent of all the women. To someone who doesn’t know dance, it could be confused with yet more modern. Couldn’t at least one be in a tutu and on pointe. And, could someone do a fouette or multiple pirouettes? The movement is too much the same. It would be much more interesting if there was, say, in the middle a classical ballerina on pointe in a tutu doing fouettes, then say the African dancer guy on one end, and maybe William Forsythe doing his modern on the other end; then shift in the next sequence to the bellydancer, adjacent to the head-spinning break dancer, and sandwiched in between, the drag queen; then next sequence, say the guy on the crutches, the pregnant woman, another ballerina; or have a ballerina surrounded by a strong ballet guy and one of the modern women. Just make sure there’s variety in every sequence of three. That makes it interesting and it’s more of a celebration of Dance, in its rich variety.

3) I realize the point of the project is to show movement in extreme slow motion, but I feel that it is too slow. At points you can’t even see the dancers moving at all. This actually may be a glitch in the film, because at some points I think the films have actually stopped for a while — sometimes even for as much as a full minute. This is confusing to the audience, who is already perplexed enough trying to figure out, as LaRocco illustrated with one couple’s conversation, if there actually is movement. Possible technical problems aside, though, the movement is generally still too slow. Instead of people admiring every detail of the body in motion, every ripple of a muscle, the audience just gets bored, especially if the dancer isn’t “flashy” enough. These past couple days I’ve become most fascinated with Glem Rumsey, who dances here as his flamboyant drag persona “Shasta Cola.” I find myself waiting for him to come on because I know I’m going to be most entertained. In contrast, one of the dancers I was most excited to watch was Janie Taylor. Yet, I find myself getting unexpectedly bored when she’s on here. She does nothing really over-the-top; no spectacular balletic feats. Even that crazy hair flip that generated a lot of press talk pre-show opening — it’s nothing; I almost missed it. There’s no appreciation for subtlety when the movement is this weighted down. The guy on crutches is initially intriguing because you’re wondering what he’s going to do, but you get bored and stop watching when he takes so long to get going. All of a sudden you look back and him and he’s in the air. You think, ‘oh wow,’ but it still doesn’t hold your attention for long because it takes a number of minutes for the guy to do one rotation. You lose interest. Same thing with the Whirling Dervish. Slow-mo can have a very dramatic effect, but not when it’s this slow.

My own personal favorites are Herman Cornejo, Desmond Richardson, William Forsythe, and the aforementioned Rumsey, all of whom, excepting Rumsey, I’m pretty sure I like simply because they’re already so familiar to me. I’m bringing a bunch of friends to the show over the next couple weeks, many non-dance-goers, so will be interested to hear what they think, who their favorites, if any, are. Will most definitely report back!

In the meantime, I’ve started an album on the photo page; I expect to add more pictures, but here are the first few.

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8 Responses to David Michalek's "Slow Dancing": A Good Idea But Poorly Executed (*Update in Bold)

  1. jennifer says:

    thanks for the critique tonya…the exhibition is coming to Los Angeles in the beginning of September, will report fully when it does. I wonder if the setting will be much more favorable here in LA? It’s definitely quieter here during intermissions :)

    Did you see Allegra Kent dancing in the exhibition? I hear she was one of the dancers…

    went to see Othello last night, will review it soon. Herman Cornejo sprained his ankle during his entrance (Act 1), I guess he landed his jete wrong…so Blaine Hoven stepped in for him during the 2nd and third act. More fun details coming up soon on my blog!!

  2. Doug Fox says:

    Your review is so much better than Claudia La Rocco’s. In her misguided efforts to highlight the differences between concert dance and social dance, she seemed to be characterizing the dancers of the latter as fumbling and oblivious – at least that’s how I read “the swingers jostled merrily.”

    I’m with you. Why should people dancing stop in their tracks to watch dancers they don’t even know move at a snail’s pace? And why don’t they make more of an effort, as you recommend, to provide background about each of the dancers?

    Why didn’t La Rocco quote you and Ariel by name? And why didn’t she name the dancer who said “it was just too much to stick around” – she had to know the name of this dancer.

    Why does La Rocco talk about “mournful ghosts,” “spooky magic” and “sinister” portraits?

    Why does she end by saying that Michalek’s video portraits are good to study, “But study is no substitute for seeing them [the featured dancers] move through the world.” Well, there were real dancers in Lincoln Center Plaza and they were moving and having fun.

    Your review strikes me as much more honest and meaningful. Plus, you give good ideas on how to make improvements. La Rocco strikes me as intent on complaining about the demise of “the art form,” not offering any constructive feedback and not giving readers a full description of what actually happened – this last item could be because of space constraints.

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  4. tonya says:

    Thanks you guys!! I work really hard on these longer reviews (and I don’t get paid for them :) ) so it makes me so incredibly happy to hear that people like them and find them helpful and meaningful!

    I hope I didn’t sound too harsh — I’ve gone all four nights so far, so I obviously really like the exhibit; am just trying to think of ways to reach that larger audience that I think Doug correctly points out some critics just don’t seem to think is even worth reaching. I DO. People who understand that good social dancing is a real art can definitely be led to appreciate the artistry of professional dance-makers; there doesn’t have to be this us / them mentality. I had the same visceral reaction to LaRocco’s write-up as you, Doug. I detected a tone of condescension toward the social dancers when she spoke of the marginalization of ballet and modern dance, and it really bothered me as someone who’s trying hard to counter ballet’s reputation for snobbery and elitism and bring ballet to the ballroom audience. One of the reasons I am so excited about this project is that it does have the potential to reach more people than those who are already avid dance fans — I feel that’s Michalek’s intention or he wouldn’t have it outdoors and free to the public. I think it’s great that it coincides with MNS — theoretically that gives it a potentially huge audience, but not if you alienate them.

    I have more to say about criticism generally, but think I’ll save it for another post. It’s late and I have to go to bed now! Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, though!

    Oh and Jennifer, yes, I saw Allegra Kent and she’s really fascinating! That does not sound good about Herman… I’m looking forward to your full reviews!

  5. Philip says:

    Thanks for including the photo of me and Wendy; I look so sleepy but she looks wide awake and gorgeous!

  6. michele says:

    I was at Lincoln Center Saturday with several thousand other people, dancing salsa.

    The admiration I heard for Slow Dancing is a good example of the unmediated appreciation social dancers often have for other forms of dance. While it’s true that not everyone stopped what they were doing to watch for long periods of time(it was extremely crowded and somewhat dangerous to suddenly stand still and focus on something in the middle distance), it was clear that social dancers in general (and latin people in particular) appreciate and respect dance in all its guises.

    If only the fans of ‘higher’ dancing could say the same about their social counterparts.

  7. Fendi says:

    Wendy Whelan , Janie Taylor , Desmond Richardson are amazing. I like the redhead/red leotard too. Agree they should be credited on the film somehow … and that the slo-mo at night thing can be sleep-inducing, but I’ll bet the filmmaker will edit thiese performances in future and maybe juxtapose with non-dance slo-mo (or regualr speed film.) Nice free evening with friends.

  8. Jaki Levy says:

    just so you know, i did a search for this piece. the first two search results:

    1. lincoln center
    2. this blog

    only after were the NYTimes review and the village voice review.

    great job!