“Dances I Love”
April 29, 2023 evening
Glass, Til Then, Short Story, Apre le Mardi Gras, Bloom, Clearing (excerpt), Narcissus Rising
It was a dark and stormy night on April 29, the apex of an exceptionally dark and stormy week in the New York area, but you wouldn’t know that from the near capacity turnout at The Theatre at St. Jeans on the Upper East Side that night. The waterlogged visitors got to see an unusually eclectic assortment of dances, curated by Audrey Ross, titled “Dances I Love.”
A couple of years ago, Ross put a program together that celebrated the dance world of Denishawn. It was a very fine program (portions of which will be presented again at this summer’s Battery Dance Festival), as I observed in my subsequent review. Here, she’s created another program that featured a couple of the dancers from the Denishawn program, plus others, performing an assortment of dances she has loved over the years, most of which are rarely performed.
While not as successful as her previous effort, “Dances I Love” was a dance panorama that included pieces that I’d not previously seen, as well as sparkling performances by the dancers, several of whom I’d also not previously seen in any capacity.
The following summarizes the dances presented, although they may not be in performance order.
The evening opened with one of the program’s most unusual dances, and one of its best. Ane Arietta, a Graham II company member, performed Glass, choreographed, reconstructed, and coached by Lorn MacDougal, that had last been performed by MacDougal in 1982.
MacDougal danced professionally in New York for over three decades in companies directed by Martha Graham, Lar Lubovitch, Daniel Nagrin, Bertram Ross, and Phyllis Lamhut, eventually becoming a member of the dance faculty at a number of prestigious educational institutions in the New York area and beyond; and, as if that weren’t already sufficient, segued to teaching Pilates. I don’t know exactly where Glass, which MacDougal created in 1974, fits in with her career, but since it’s choreographed to “percussion on glass” by Collin Walcott and voice by Meredith Monk, my guess is that it is connected to her association with Nagrin, who appears also to have had a connection with Monk.
None of that is really important. Glass looks, at first, like a choreographed child of modern dance’s minimalist period. But if it is, it takes its choreography several step further. Arietta, a stunning-looking dancer who was born in Spain, enters the stage and shortly thereafter begins assuming positions that stretch the boundaries of flexibility disbelief with stunning poses, eventually twisting herself into a tightly-formed pretzel.
But as the piece progressed and one looked for something beyond an exposition of what a finely-tuned and youthful dancer can physically do, you realize that there’s far more here than a display of flexibility prowess. Arietta may or may not be looking into a mirror, a looking “glass,” but she’s obviously getting to know her own body in the process, with her arms crossed and feeling her left side with her the fingers of her right hand. This eventually morphs into Arietta twisting her arms behind her back as if confined to a straightjacket, concluding with her body seated on the stage floor, and while maintaining the stoic expression she projected throughout, brings her left-hand fingers from behind her to gently caress her face’s right cheek, while concurrently doing the same from her right-hand fingers to her face’s left cheek. [I may have gotten the left/right connections wrong – but that’s understandable since by that time I was in deep flexibility shock.]
As you may have gleaned by now, Glass is about self-awareness, mixed with a healthy dose of self-infatuation and more than a hint of autoeroticism. In its way, it’s very much like Jerome Robbins’s Afternoon of a Faun, except there’s only one dancer in the piece. Despite that, or maybe because of it, Glass is a marvelously magnetic dance – and would be even if Arietta hadn’t performed it with such extraordinary capability.
Valentina Kozlova had the misfortune to follow that, but her piece, Til Then, succeeded in its own way. Here Kozlova danced a brief, seemingly impromptu dance (but it wasn’t) responding to inspiration from a Scriabin etude.
Alexander Scriabin was a turn-of-the-century (19th Century) Russian composer and pianist who was highly popular during his brief lifetime (he died at 43), and reportedly is currently undergoing something of a revival. He’s known to have bridged styles, taking inspiration from Chopin before him, and eventually inspiring Stravinsky and Prokofiev. From my brief research, his composing style isn’t easy to classify, but according to a footnoted reference in Wikipedia, he’s often considered the main Russian Symbolist composer and a major representative of the Russian Silver Age (a time of glorious Russian musical composition from the late 19th to early 20th Century second only to the Golden Age a hundred or so years earlier – e.g., Tchaikovsky).
It’s quite obvious that Kozlova, who was born in Moscow and was a Principal of the Bolshoi Ballet before emigrating to the U.S. and subsequently becoming a Principal with New York City Ballet (and who now runs her own ballet school and an annual international ballet competition), has a deep, maybe congenital connection to the Scriabin music that made her dance here look spontaneous, with an Isadora Duncan-like ambiance. And taking her cue from Scriabin’s style, Kozlova’s dance (reflected in its title) bridges the past with the future.
Christine Dakin, a former Principal with the Martha Graham Company, presented Short Story. Like Kozlova, Dakin excelled in her piece for the Denishawn program, and did the same here.
Created on and for Dakin by her frequent collaborator, Mexican choreographer Jaime Blanc, Short Story was inspired by Tennessee Williams’s Lady of Larkspur Lotion. The story is a light drama about a landlady (“Mrs. Wire”) of an old New Orleans boarding house and her troublesome tenant (“Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore”), as well as an aspiring writer who lives in the neighboring room, that focuses on the landlady’s frustration getting Mardwicke-Moore to pay her rent on time. But that’s surface: reportedly, the story beneath the story is about the persistence of dreams and the reality based on those dreams that, in a way, become more real than “real” reality.
I was not familiar with the Williams story before seeing Dakin’s performance here, so I was unaware of the nuts and bolts of the underlying story. But this didn’t really matter. Dakin’s portrayal of a contorted, anguished woman (most likely the “Mrs. Hardwicke-Moore” of the original story) who appears haunted by … something, and is determined to maintain her grip on whatever she apparently sees through her mind’s eye, was a knockout. Even now, Dakin is still a dramatic, compelling dancer.
The New Orleans-related theme continued with Apre le Mardi Gras, which is understood to be the only surviving solo choreographed by Janet Collins.
Collins (1917-2003) had a storied career, including having been one of the first black dancers to break the color barrier – after being subject to it early in her career. Her classical training and competence in both ballet and modern dance led to an eclectic performance history, including (but not limited to) having danced in the companies of Lester Horton and Katherine Dunham; having performed on Broadway in 1951 (and winning an award for best dancer on Broadway); in 1952 being the first full-time African-American ballerina member of the Metropolitan Opera (after having debuted there the previous year); and having taught modern dance at New York City Ballet’s affiliated School of American Ballet. In 2007, her cousin Carmen De Lavallade established a fellowship in Collins’s name.
Collins was also a noted concert dance soloist, and premiered Apre le Mardi Gras in 1947 in Los Angeles, where she lived after having moved from New Orleans at four years old, and a year before relocating to New York.
This solo was reconstructed by Yaël Lewin, author of a book on Collins’s life, which was here performed by Daphne Lee, a member of Dance Theatre of Harlem. The piece was enhanced with live music by Baba Don Eaton Babatunde (known as Baba Don), a percussionist specializing in African drumming as well as a recording artist and teacher, who has performed with major American dance companies, including Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, the Limón Dance Company, and Dance Theatre of Harlem, and has been on the faculty of the Harlem School of the Arts for over 25 years. The sound he created to accompany Lee’s performance replicated the rhythm that goes hand-in-hand with Mardi Gras activity.
The dance’s title reflects the Creole spelling “Apre” (“Apres” would be the Cajun spelling); perhaps reflecting that tradition, the dance looked tamer than I anticipated it would be – more celebratory than an invitation to party. But in a way this was a refreshing change from what’s usually seen as emblematic of Mardi Gras, and Lee performed the piece with its intended enthusiasm rather than as a caricature. Consequently, her performance, as well as Baba Don’s drumming, delivered authenticity as well as authentic attitude, making Apre le Mardi Gras as entertaining and colorful as it probably was when Collins danced it.
Margie Gillis is an award-winning Canadian dancer who has illuminated modern dance for over 40 years. She was born in Montreal to a family of Olympic athletes, and gravitated to dance seemingly from birth, often performing as a child together with her brother, the late Christopher Gillis, a former leading dancer with Paul Taylor Dance Company, whom I remember well. I recall seeing notices of her performances in New York, but never had an opportunity to see her dance before this program. Through it, however, I have a clear sense of her sensuous, animated, and passionate style.
Bloom, which Gillis choreographed in 1989, is inspired by Molly Bloom’s “yes” soliloquy from James Joyce’s Ulysses. The soliloquy takes place in the last (18th) episode of the book, titled “Penelope” – a connection to Ulysses’s wife in Homer’s Odyssey – and is known both for its length and rambling stream-of-consciousness (22,000-words, comprised of eight “sentences,” the longest – and last – of which is 4,391 words) and for its language, which was considered by many (including the U.S. government at the time) of being pornographic.
In Joyce’s novel, Molly is the wife of Leopold Bloom, loyal to Leopold but without Penelope’s sexual fidelity. The soliloquy is Molly’s remembrances of things past, including but not limited to her sexual adventures before and after her marriage to Leopold, and concludes with her response years earlier to Leopold’s marriage proposal, to which she said (many times) “yes.”
I’ve never read Ulysses (like so much else, it’s on my ever-increasing bucket list), and I suspect that this lack of knowledge colored my interpretation of Gillis’s dance. Even though the dance is accompanied by Siobhan McKenna’s reading of the soliloquy, I had no context within which to place Gillis’s various and non-stop movement, and her continuing shifts from controlled ecstasy to contemptuous reactions to life’s mundanities. However, I clearly saw Gillis’s recognized ability to visually translate emotions into movement, together with the sensual use of her body to amplify whatever she’s communicating.
But with that last sentence, that “yes” sentence, it didn’t matter what, specifically, Gillis was referring to. As that sentence began, and throughout until the end, Gillis transformed from the person she’d presented earlier in the piece into someone different: with each repeated expression of “yesses,” this character underwent a glorious catharsis of relief and acceptance, and in those moments nothing that happened before (or since) mattered.
After reading that sentence in preparation for this review, I see clearly how Joyce, and Gillis, both got it right (I don’t see a conflict between what Molly was saying through a man’s (Joyce’s) words vs. what Gillis was presenting through a woman’s sensibility), and I suspect everything that Gillis did in Bloom prior to that sentence was similarly accurate, physically and emotionally. Instead of the usual “see the music,” Bloom is: “see the words.” Hers was a towering performance, making me regret even more not having seen Gillis dance previously.
The other two pieces on the program are those I had difficulty with – though not at all with respect to the dancers’ capabilities.
I’ve previously seen Lydia Johnson Dance, and in a subsequent review expressed my pleasant surprise at the quality of the dances presented on that program and of the young dancers executing them. Here, augmented by members of Limon 2, the company presented an excerpt from Johnson’s 2018 piece, Clearing. What I saw here was very well choreographed and performed – I have no qualms as to those qualities. Their performance was, collectively, luminous. But the program references a characteristic of the piece as women “reclaiming classically feminine gestures and shapes in light of the ‘me too’ movement.” Although I saw lots of communal posing, I saw nothing relating to that. Accordingly, since this was an excerpt, I’ll not comment on the piece beyond that. Hopefully I’ll have an opportunity in the future to see the dance in its entirety.
Finally, the evening concluded with Donna Clark, Principal Dancer and Artistic Director of Alpha Omega Theatrical Dance Company, performing a solo created in 1968 and originally danced by the late dancer / choreographer Eleo Pomare. As mentioned, I have no difficulty raving about Clark’s performance in a role that’s usually performed by a man. That she so magnificently danced and acted like a male in a characteristically male role was a truly awesome accomplishment. But the piece itself is a different matter.
I vaguely recall seeing Narcissus Rising before – probably in the early 1970s, when, after becoming addicted to ballet, I branched out to experience modern / contemporary dance. And I remember viscerally disliking it. I still do, for the same reason – the glorification and idolizing of a particularly narcissistic biker.
I recognize now (I didn’t then) that with this piece Pomare may have intended to shine a light on narcissistic people, using bikers as his vehicle for satirizing or mocking them in the guise of deifying them. But I don’t think that this is what Pomare is doing here. The “here” here isn’t only a narcissistic biker, it’s narcissism based on a foundation of aggression, entitlement, and egocentricity, resulting in an intended display, and celebration, of superiority and power. I don’t need to see that on stage; I can just watch the news.
But that being said, that’s just my opinion. Narcissus Rising is clearly a work of choreographic merit, is considered one of Pomare’s two or three signature pieces, and has been acclaimed for the very reasons that I dislike it. So what do I know? Regardless, Clark was coached in this role by Pomare, and has performed it on many prior occasions, and by now it may well be her signature piece as well as it was his. In every way, her performance was sensational.
Overall, and although not without some qualms, the evening of dance that Ross put together sheds a light on unfamiliar dances, and in many cases on unfamiliar dancers. Surely, however, there are more than seven dances that Ross loves. I look forward to seeing more of them in the future.