What Do Young People Want?!: Tap Dancing Rock Concert "Revolution" at the Joyce and Beautiful, Charming New Ballets At Columbia

(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 :)

16 Comments

  1. i saw marcelo at the wheeldon program last year at columbia…was he there? :)

    i’m shocked at how many columbia students were not in the audience; next year, find a columbia student to go with, tickets only cost $7 for students with a Columbia ID (maybe ask Justin Peck from TheWinger? =D). Last year, there were quite a few students in the audience.

    Columbia was a bit shocked at how popular these ballet programs were, and have committed at least one ballet event per year now.

  2. sorry, another comment…you wrote “Perhaps with Columbia students, it’s just that there’s just so much culture in New York and everything’s easily accessible. I hope…”

    Uhhh…I know students at Columbia who don’t even have Metrocards, they never leave campus.

    Sorry to say, I just don’t think that’s true….sure, they could definitely advertise dance events more for students. Most of my friends were unaware they were performing dance programs at Miller Theater

  3. Sorry in advance, I’m mildly *coughsEXTREMELYcoughs* obsessed with So You Think You Can Dance.

    I want to see Revoulution so bad for multiple reasons but from a lot of stuff I’ve read, I kinda don’t anymore. Was Allison Holker in it and if so was she any good?

    Stay on your toes,

    Selly

    http://danceoutlook.blogspot.com/

  4. Jennifer, really (about Columbia students not leaving campus!)? Well, I guess they have a lot of studying to do and NY does get expensive. No, I didn’t see Marcelo :( Well, I’m surprised now from what you say that there weren’t more Columbia people there — maybe because I went on Friday, probably the most crowded night and the night most NYCB fans seemed to go up there. I noticed a lot of NYCB fans in the audience (not from knowing them personally, just from recognizing them at the State Theater).

    Hi Selly! I forgot to mention Allison — thanks for reminding me! Yes, she was up there, although, to be honest, I didn’t watch SYTYCD religiously until this past season, so I didn’t pay a huge amount of attention. Plus, the girls all kind of blended into each other and they really didn’t have a lot of dancing; the guys had much more stage time, unfortunately. I really wish the talents of the female dancers would have been used to better effect. (Macaulay from the NYTimes said something similar in his article). Now I’m wondering if she was the one who was jumping on the guy’s back — I think she was. If she was, then, yes, she was the best of the girls. If you’re in the NY area then you should see it. It is really worth seeing Hannah — he really blew me away. And the rest of it’s not bad, just not quite as engaging as I would have hoped.

  5. I’m no where near New York. But I wish I was. *sad* And that does make sense that you watched SYTYCD this season more than others because of everyone’s favorite Russian ballroom dancer, PASHA!! Lol, I’m slightly obsessed. I already said that, didn’t I?

    Stay on your toes,

    Selly

  6. hehehe, yes, it was him (and Anya)! But I probably still would have watched it because of Danny, who used to dance with the ballet company I am obsessed with! I still can;t believe they were on and made it so far!

  7. Complexions or ABT? Both rock but I prefer contemporary so I’m leaniant towards Complexions 😉

    Selly

  8. I can’t believe the closeup on the women’s body parts! A bit horrifying, amateurish (not to be judgmental or anything 😉 and hilariously ridiculous.

  9. To be honest, I found the program at Columbia to be very disappointing. Maybe it’s an “age” thing but I thought the music and choregraphy throughout the evening left a lot to be desired. What made it somewhat bearable for me was the excellent performances by the dancers but that wasn’t always enough. I felt that the first piece – Dogwood – was dreadful -both the music and the choreography (if it could be called that!). It was the kind of piece that gives dance a bad name. The second piece by Veggetti also had music that I could not relate to but at least the choreography was interesting in spots and it was extremely well-danced. I thought that the final ballet on the program – by Alison Chase – was the best of the evening but even that one had too many lifts and became much too repetitious. But do I regret going? No. Even mediocre or inferior dance works are better than experiencing no dance at all.

  10. Attracting the “MTV crowd” to dance seems to be all the rage. There’s an interesting debate over at Blogging SYTYCD that erupted from a negative review of its concert tour:

    http://bloggingsytycd.blogspot.com/2007/09/hatchet-job.html

  11. Thanks for that, Roxanne — I’ll definitely check it out! I really like that blog — there are some very good discussions that take place there.

    Selly — yes, it’s ABT that’s my favorite company :) But I have also seen bits and pieces here and there of work by Complexions and I definitely want to see more.

    Jolene — I know! Haha, I almost would have thought it was a joke, but given the rest of the show, I don’t think so!

    Bob — It’s funny but when the Veggetti first began I thought it was a little boring but I was still happy to watch the dancers, whom I like. But then as the piece went on and I watched and watched, it almost became like one of those 3-D pictures (remember when those were all the rage several years ago?) where you first look at a picture and you just see a bunch of random colors and shapes and puzzle pieces that have no meaning in themselves, but when you stand back and just kind of take it all in and look at the whole without focusing on each part, you actually begin to look more deeply into the picture and suddenly this whole new image emerges. And you’re like, wow, brilliant. Not to sound corny, but that’s how I kind of felt with this. As I looked at the stage as a whole, and just kind of let all the elements blur together, all of a sudden, it began to take on a shape I hadn’t seen at first, the dancers actually became like the instruments themselves, like notes or struck chords. The lighting and color scheme definitely helped with that too, but the dancers were so in tune with the music, interpreting it in their own way. It just became mesmerizing to me, and I really was sad when it ended! Strange, because I’ve never had that experience before at a dance performance. I’m usually focusing on a favorite dancer! And then the Chase: well, I didn’t think it was the most profound thing in the world, but I thought it was cute and humorous and romantic in a light, sweet way. The critics really picked that one apart, and I think undeservedly so. I didn’t really understand the Miller either, but if given the chance I’d definitely be willing to give it another viewing in light of what the critics said. On first viewing, it didn’t do much for me, but I’m always willing to believe I might have missed something…

  12. Tonya, I totally agree with you on the Chase piece and as for the Veggetti, I did acknowledge that I found it somewhat intriguing and I think you may have provided me some excellent insights as to why it fascinated me. I would definitely be willing to give it another viewing (though I still hate the music). As for the Miller piece, however, they couldn’t pay me to sit through that again (well maybe if they really payed me a lot!).

Comments are closed