(image taken from Joyce website)
With dance audiences supposedly dwindling, it seems like all the talk these days is how to attract the young (generally ages 20-40). Last week I attended two very different performances whose mission was basically just that. On Thursday I went to the Joyce in Chelsea for the tap dancing rock concert called “Revolution” by the show’s founders, tap dancer and rock and roller Michael Schulster, and the absolutely breathtakingly, mind-bogglingly spectacular Irish step dancer, Joel Hanna. Here’s a rather fun interview with the two very excited guys in Newsday. Anyway, If it isn’t clear from the list of adjectives I used to describe him, go see the show if you haven’t already if only to see Hanna. He’s the Joaquin Cortes of Irish step dancing. His fast fancy footwork is only the half of it; he dances with such an intense fiery passion it just sets the whole stage ablaze and makes you, as with Cortes, yearn to find out more about the underlying spirit of his dance. I remember seeing Riverdance when it first came out and I don’t ever remember seeing dancing quite like this. There was such a Latin fervor to Hanna’s pounding, beating steps I felt like he must have been influenced by Flamenco, or that Irish step dancing shared something fundamental with that Romani dance.
Unfortunately, I felt the rest of the show was unremarkable. It started out fun though. Electric guitars blared “Paradise City” by Guns ‘N Roses over the speakers (actually one of my favorite songs, not kidding!), and a set of six screens erected above the band showed different images of the dancers getting ready — in make-up, in a studio warming up, and eventually coming up the stairs to make their stage entrance. Very rock concert, maybe somewhat goofy, but uniquely cool for concert dance if you’re open-minded about it. As soon as an ensemble of dancers emerged onstage — four women and about eight men– and began tap dancing to the guitars, a camera guy entered and began filming them live from a variety of angles, the images then projected to the screens above.
I had a complicated oral argument in court Friday morning that I was nervous about, so my first thought was, excellent, something really to take my mind off my anxiety! After the initial heavy metal number, Schulster, a good tap dancer (though his rock and roll fascination makes him far different from my favorites in this department: Savion Glover or Jason Samuels Smith) took the stage for a solo. A tape was shown on the back screen of Schulster beating a punching bag with boxing gloves, explaining that his tap shoes were an instrument, akin to a musician’s guitar. The screen went blank, a combo of electric guitars and flashing strobe lights set the stage on fire and Schulster, center stage, began tapping like a fiend to the electrified strumming. Audience members (a combination of traditional dance-goers well over the target age and young’uns I’d never seen before) went nuts, screaming and cheering, raising their hands in the air as the strobe lights flashed through the crowd, blinding me at times, just like in a rock concert. I started laughing and couldn’t stop — it was really a lot of fun, and my argument was nowhere in my mind!
Then Hanna took the stage for the third number, the first of his thankfully many solos and I nearly fell out of my seat. It’s funny because here was true talent, and, at first the audience was so stunned they could only watch, no hoots and hollers, no screams, just staring at the stage in disbelief the way audiences unfamiliar with dance initially react to genius. After he finished of course everyone took a moment to process, then went wild with the applause.
The problem was, for me, it didn’t really move after this, as Sir Alastair’s rather sardonic review of the show indicates. It was just more of the same for the next hour and a half. Most annoying to me was the way the women were used. In their first number they wore skin-tight jeans, ridiculously movement-restricting, and such high stilettos everyone seemed off-kilter. Of course it didn’t matter that they couldn’t move in their attire because all they did was make a series of ludicrous sexy poses. It was like a Robert Palmer video, which, had Schulster played such music in the background, I might have actually liked the number, thinking it was intended as an ironic statement. Fortunately he didn’t confuse me. No ironic distance from his beloved rock genre there. Throughout this number, camera guy committed my cardinal sin — homing his camera in on the women’s body parts, and you can imagine just which body parts those were. While the men danced of course the camera captured their bodies in whole, often shooting them from below, making them look like demi-gods, or diagonally, making their dancing appear dizzyingly cool. I’ve noted before that I think dance filmed that way, at least in moderation so it’s not TOO dizzying, can be fun and engaging. But THE BOOBS AND BUTTS THING IS MY PET PEEVE, CAMERA MAN. It’s as if young men need to be told what to find sexy; they can’t figure it out themselves. What’s that about?
Anyway, later in the show, there was a number involving several duets with some nice partnering. At one point, a woman jumped on the back of a man, desperately attempting to win him back, he throwing her off. The audience gasped. The lift did look rather hard. I liked it because it was the one moment where I felt we got a little bit of meaning, a story. There were characters who wanted something from one another, who were having a conflict. It grabbed your attention. The show needed a lot more of that, a lot less of the sex poses, and more variety and depth. Even with Hanna’s fantastic dancing, I felt like more connection to Irish culture was needed. For example, when I’ve watched Cortes perform (whom I mentioned above), yeah he was a hot sweating shirtless guy dancing his heart out, but the performance was so much more than that. With the band playing the fascinating accompanying Gypsy music, at times celebratory at times haunting, his dancing expressed that complicated emotion. I knew nothing about Romani culture but from that alone longed to learn more. From the little I know of Irish culture, it contains the same dual complexity. Why not use Black 47 music, or something similar? Instead of just entertaining us, make us think.
It’s playing at the Joyce through next week; go here for tickets. As I said, worth seeing for Hanna’s raw talent alone.
The audience at Columbia University’s on-campus Miller Theater was almost the opposite of Revolution’s. This saddened and confused me. The majority of performances at Miller are of new music; this event, in combination with the Guggenheim’s Works & Process, was an ideal commission for the theater combining as it did new music and new dance. George Steel, the Theater’s director, says that he seeks to engage young people, at a minimum, the Columbia student population, in the arts. I saw very few students though. When I was in college and grad school (at University of Arizona and Brown University respectively) I went to practically every single thing the on-campus theaters took on. I remember seeing everything from Vienna Boys Choir to Cats to Christopher Durang’s play “Beyond Therapy” to Les Ballets Trockadero. I had so much fun taking in everything I could; youth is the ideal time to expand your mind with access to the most affordable culture you’ll ever have — that provided by your University. Perhaps with Columbia students, it’s just that there’s just so much culture in New York and everything’s easily accessible. I hope…
Anyway, the ballets included were: “dogwood” by Amanda Miller, a very modern piece in which four dancers made movements at times jerky and intentionally awkward suggestive of discomfort, at times more lyrical and fluid, and used chairs that to me resembled cartoonish mini-thrones and evoked something out of “Through the Looking-Glass”; “Four/Voice” by Italian choreographer Luca Veggetti, a very beautiful ballet exploring the intersection of dance and music; and “Sweet Alchemy” by Alison Chase, a charming ballet involving three sets of partners and their interactions with each other. Here’s the New York Times article (which I haven’t read yet).
My favorites were the latter two. I was surprised to have liked the Veggetti so much since I don’t know a lot about classical music and I’m usually not one to have much of an appreciation simply for danced interpretations of music. But here I was really mesmerized watching the dancers interpret in different ways the striking sounds made by a solitary cello played over a taped recording. The colors were really lovely as well, a combination of gold and black, the scheme repeated in the backdrop and stage lighting as well. These visuals worked very harmoniously with the music; somehow the colors just sounded like the cello, if that makes any sense. The dancers — two men (some of my favorites from New York City Ballet: Robert Fairchild and Daniel Ulbricht), and two women — at times resembled cello strings themselves. I really got lost in it, watching their bodies strike the chords. I was so disappointed when it ended! Beautiful!
As for “Sweet Alchemy” — what a fitting name The ballerinas were dressed in short-skirted, flirty, rose-colored dresses evocative of a French countryside in summertime, and their slippers were tie-dyed dark pink on the bottoms. Music was performed by a string quartet. Chase is a former choreographer for the playful, comedic dance troupe, Pilobolus, famous for making shapes evocative of funny-looking creatures and other amusing objects. Although this was ballet and not modern (as is Pilobolus), you could see the influence. The dancers (all from NYCB), worked in partnerships of two, sometimes three, making interesting shapes and interacting with each other. At one point the men did what appeared to be hurdle-jumping over each other, in competition for the attention of the women, who at first sat facing them, then in unison, turned their backs. It was cutely funny. The women would climb all over the men, each using her danseur as a human jungle gym. Fun! At times the men would lift the women awkwardly upside-down, the way a father would carry a misbehaving child off kicking and screaming. Except the women weren’t kicking and screaming. So tables were turned. Men were tricked into doing heavy lifting, perhaps? At times the men would carry the women so that their feet would touch the back wall, she scampering along the wall as he skittered along on the ground, ala Larry Keigwin, except here it was light and humorous rather than more intense. It was all sweetly, playfully romantic. Similar to Revolution, there was a large screen on the back wall, which showed, instead of live filmed shots of the dancers, still pictures of them. Some pictures homed in on an embrace, torsos pressed against each other, arms wrapped around backs, bodies linked, enmeshed in each other. So much more sensual, maybe even somewhat erotic if you want to see it that way, than the Robert Palmeresque poses and shots of sexualized body parts, if you ask me. An abstract work, there was no linear narrative here. You had to piece things together for yourself, use your imagination. It’s not as easy as being told what to think, but I would hope young audiences, at least intelligent ones, would be intrigued by the challenge.
One more thing: it’s so weird, albeit very cool(!), to see ballet in such a small, intimate setting. You notice little foibles that on a majestic stage like the Met Opera House or NYCB’s State Theater are completely lost on the audience. You see the difficulty in a lift betrayed by a man’s shaking knees or a woman’s vibrating body as she holds herself in position in the air, intense concentration or fearful hesitation registered ever so discreetly in the eyes. You notice that Charles Askegard is, delightfully, like, eight feet tall I love this aspect of a small theater: it makes ballet more real, more human, to me.
Update: Here’s Apollinaire’s Newsday review of the pieces; here’s Tobi Tobias on the same; and here’s Claudia LaRocco’s NYTimes review (a different write-up from the one I linked to above). I’m the only one who liked the Chase! The others also found things I hadn’t in the Miller. Everyone seemed to like the Veggetti