D.C. DanceWatcher

2017: Not Pretty — A Year in Dance

Posted in African dance, Ballet, Dance, Modern dance, Tap dance, Uncategorized by lisatraiger on December 31, 2017

The year 2017 was no time for pretty in dance.

The dance that I experienced this year moved me by being meaningful, making a statement, and speaking truth to power. Thus, the choreography that excited or touched or challenged or even changed me was unsettling, thought-provoking, visceral. The influence of #Black Lives Matter, #Resist and #MeToo meant that dance needed to be consequential, now more than ever. Here’s what made me think and feel during a year when I saw less dance than usual.

cafe muller

Not merely the best performance I saw this year, but among the best dance works I’ve experienced in a decade or more was the double revival of Pina Bausch’s “Café Muller” and “Rite of Spring” at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. Alas, the company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C., so my experience with Bausch’s canonic works are few, but I’m grateful for the opportunity to have experienced these two masterworks. Their significance cannot be understated. In “Café Muller,” the profound gravity of the performers in that closed café, with its scintillatingly scattered chairs, doorways and walls arranged in perfect disarray is humorless, just like the dancers, who arrive with their aura of existential loneliness. The bored banality of these slip-dressed sleepwalking women, the meaningless urgency of the red-head in her clickety clackety heels and green dress, the morose body-bruising couplings, as a slip-thin woman incessantly throws herself onto her male counterpart only to be flung, dropped, and sideswiped with as much care as one might give to a sack of laundry. “Café Muller’s” fragrance, with its snippets from a Purcell score, is heavy with the perfume of existentialism and the Sartrian notion that hell is other people. The work feels like life: a study of losses, regrets, and the unrelenting banality of existence. I’m glad I saw it in middle age — Pina understood it as the decade of disappointment.

A rejoinder to this nondescript yet vivid café of no exits, is the cataclysmic clash of the sexes that imbues Bausch’s version of “The Rite of Spring” with the driving forces of primitivism that jangle the nerves, raise the heart rate, ignite loins, and remind us of our most basic animalistic instincts for creation and destruction. The infamous soil-covered stage, populated with xx men and women elemental gravity in came from the It took a trip to Brooklyn, New York, because, alas, the Pina Bausch Dance Company doesn’t perform in Washington, D.C. The double revival of Café Muller and The Rite of Spring shook my world, reminding me what the greatest dance can do to the gut and the soul.

Mon élue noire (My Black Chosen One): Sacre #2A companion of sorts to Bausch, arrived later in the fall at the University of Maryland’s Clarice. Germaine Acogny, often identified as the Martha Graham of African modern dance, brought for just a single evening her taut and discomfiting Mon Elue Noire — “My Black Chosen One” — a singular recapitulation of “Rite of Spring” drawing, of course, from Stravinsky’s seminal score, and also dealing unapologetically with colonialism. The choreography by French dancemaker Olivier Dubois places 73-year-old Acogny, first clad in a black midriff baring bra top, into a coffin like vertical box, her head hooded by a scarf. A flame, then the sweet, musky perfume of tobacco smoke draw the viewer in before the lights come up. There she sits, smoking a pipe, eyeing the audience with suspicion. The drum beats and familiar voice of the oboe as the musical score heats up, push Acogny into a frenzy of sequential movements. The French monologue (alas, my French has faded after all these years) from African author Aime Cesaire’s 1950 “Speech on Colonialism” sounds accusatory, but it’s the embodied power Acogny puts forth — her flat, bare feet intimately grounded, her long arms flung, her pelvis at one point relentlessly pumping powers it all. As smoke fills the space, Acogny pulls up the floor of her claustrophobic stage and slaps white paint on herself, brushes it in wide swaths on this box, filled with smoke. Now wearing a white bra, her lower body hidden beneath the floor, her eyes, bore into the darkened theater. Mon Elue Noire’s bold statement of black bodies, of African women, of seizing a voice from those — white colonialists — who for centuries silenced body, voice and spirit rings forth both sobering and inspiring.

I was just introduced to formerly D.C.-based choreographer/dancer MK Abadoo’s work this year and I’m intrigued. Her evening-length Octavia’s Brood at Dance Place in June, time travels, toggling between Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad and a futurist vision of the world where women of African descent reclaim their bodies and voices in an ensemble work that takes inspiration also from the writings and commentary of science fiction writer Octavia Butler. The work begins with a bantaba — a meeting or dancing ground. The audience is invited onto the stage to encircle the dancers. The women, clad in shades of brown, fall to their knees, rise only to fall again to all fours. Beauteous choral music accompanies this section. Soon they stretch arms widely reaching to the sides. A sense of mysterious spirituality fills the space, a space once more enriched by the uncompromising presence of strong, graceful black women’s bodies. Octavia’s Brood is not simply about memory. It navigates between past, present and future while celebrating the durability of black women in America – there’s a holy providence at play in the way Abadoo and her dancers draw forth elemental, earth-connected movement.

IMG_2038They toss their arms backwards, backs arching, leg lifting, while a conscious connection to the floor remains ever present. Later, we see these same dance artists on stage, the audience now seated, on a journey that draws them to support and uphold one another. There’s a gentle firmness in their determination and a tug and pull in the choreography, underscored by a section where the women are wrapped in yards of brown fabric, a cocoon of protection. Then as they unwind it feels like rebirth.

In September Abadoo premiered a program featuring “LOCS” and “youcanplayinthesun,” commissions by the Kennedy Center’s Millennium Stage. Dramaturg Khalid Yaya Long wrote in the program that these pieces too draw inspiration from Afro-futurist sci-fi author Butler. But they also wrestle with intracultural racism. Poet Marita Golden called it “the color complex … the belief in the superiority of light skin and European-like hair and facial features” among African Americans, and others. The six dancers clad in white fuse a modern and African dance vocabulary, but more essential to the work are the smaller gestural moments. Like when an older dancer, Judith Bauer, proudly gray haired, sits on a stool and braids and combs Abadoo’s hair. She carries a rucksack, which slows and weighs down her gait. Later we see that the bag is filled with lengths of hair, locs, suggesting the burden black women carry on whether they have “good” — straight — or “bad” — curly or kinky — hair. But that quiet moment, when Bauer tends to Abadoo’s hair — it’s a maternal act, sacred and memorable for its resonance to so many who have sat in a chair while their mother, grandmother or aunt hot combed, plaited, flattened or styled unruly hair into something not manageable but acceptable to a society that has denigrated “black hair.”

Catherine Foster of Camille A. Brown & Dancers_ink_Photo by Christopher Duggan (2)Interestingly, in ink, Camille A. Brown’s world premiere at the Kennedy Center Eisenhower Theater in November, also features black women’s hair — a subtext in a larger work that wrestles with African American identity. The evening was made more vivid by a live jazz percussion quartet helmed by Allison Miller. Structured with compelling dance vignettes that bring African American cultural and societal mores to the fore ink speaks an oft-silenced vocabulary through bodies, gestures, postures and poses. A solo by Brown feels like a griot’s history lesson articulated with highly specific gestures that vividly reflect what could be read as “woman’s work” — dinner preparations, wringing laundry, caregiving. Later Brown gives us a different story, of two guy friends — first they’re wonder-filled kids, then they hang ten, basketball their game of choice. But, unseen, unspoken, something hardens them. Later an intimate duet shows a loving couple behind closed doors. But that love belies the challenges outside that arduous nest. In ink, Brown has completed her black identity trilogy, which included Black Girl: Linguistic Play, by consciously asserting the beauty and bounty of black bodies, souls and spirits that inform, intersect and shape our larger American culture.

Other standouts for me during 2017 ranged from a new work for the Ailey company by Kyle Abraham, “Untitled America,” with its narratives of incarcerated citizens and their family members, and a simple yet powerful palette of pedestrian and gestural elements, to Lotus, a rollicking tap family reunion at the newly renovated Terrace Theater, upstairs at the Kennedy Center, that traced the home-grown percussive dance from early roots to a high-spirited finale, with plenty of meditative percussive and narrative moments in between — plus enough flashy footwork.

It was also a year of change at many Washington, D.C. dance institutions. Dance Place’s founding director, the indomitable Carla Perlo retired in the summer, along with her long-time artistic associate Deborah Riley, passing the reins to choreographer/dancer/educator Christopher K. Morgan. It’s too early to tell whether Dance Place will move in new directions, but it appears that the organization is in solid hands. Morgan continues to make his own work for his company, lending continuity to the profile of a working artist-slash-administrator-slash-artistic-director.

We also have a better sense of the direction The Washington Ballet will be moving toward under artistic director Julie Kent. It appears that predictions of a company that resembles American Ballet Theatre, where Kent spent her stage career as a principal ballerina, are coming true. Remarks that The Washington Ballet is now “ABT-South” are no longer facetious; they’re reality. Kent has brought in her colleagues Xiomara Reyes, school director, and her husband, Victor Barbee, as her associate artistic director. And her commissions, too, have been ABT-centric, from an atrocious tribute to President John F. Kennedy called “Frontier,” from her former partner Ethan Steifel to upcoming commissions by Marcelo Gomes (who recently resigned from ABT under a cloud of suspicion over sexual allegations not related to ABT). But Washington, which gets a surfeit of ballet riches with annual visits from not only ABT, but also New York City Ballet, the Mariinsky Ballet and other top ballet companies, doesn’t need an “ABT-South.” The city needs a ballet company that speaks to the needs of the District and its environs, not the international ideal of Washington. An ideal Washington ballet company would be one that nurtures ballet artistry that is unique and relevant to hometown Washington, not government Washington. Former artistic director had one vision of a ballet company and some of its works under his direction made singular statements. What the city and its dance audiences don’t need? More Giselles, Don Quixotes or Romeo and Juliet by a mid-sized troupe.

The region also suffered a loss in The Kennedy Center’s decision to shutter the Suzanne Farrell Ballet Company. While the company never, or rarely, in its 17 years achieved the notoriety or success one would have wished for an ensemble founded by choreographer George Balanchine’s elusive muse, the early December program hinted at missed possibilities. Her company’s farewell program, a tribute to Balanchine, was strongly danced, an aberration for a company that often looked ill-prepared and at times a bit sloppy on stage, alas hinting at missed possibilities in the loss of her directorship.

2017 was also a year where dance — particularly big name ballet companies — made the news, and not in a good way. Following in the footsteps of the #MeToo movement, well-substantiated accusations of sexual harassment and improprieties against New York City Ballet ballet master-in-chief Peter Martins, rocked the ballet world. It’s again too soon to know if systemic change can come to this male-dominated leadership model and the endemic hierarchical organization of most ballet companies; but change has been a long time coming to the ballet world where hierarchy and male power reigns supreme.

Let’s hope for a new year where that status quo will be upended as ballet companies — among other companies — strive for a more equitable, comfortable and safe creative and artistic environment. The dancers deserve it. The choreographers deserve it. The art deserves it. Let 2018 be a year of change for good.

December 31, 2017
© Lisa Traiger 2017
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Sacred Ground

Posted in Contemporary ballet, Contemporary dance, Modern dance by lisatraiger on February 1, 2016

Dance Place Reunion Celebrates 35 Years

Dance Place Reunion
featuring choreographers Jan Van Dyke, Eric Hampton, Helen Hayes, Alvin Mayes, Lesa McLaughlin, Cathy Paine, Carla Perlo, Deborah Riley and drumming by Steve Bloom
Dance Place
Washington, D.C.

January 30-31, 2016

By Lisa Traiger

Carla Perlo.

When Dance Place marks a milestone, invariably by the evening’s end its Founding Artistic Director Carla Perlo has more people on stage than in the audience. This happened Saturday night January 30, 2016, as Dance Place marked 35 years with a retrospective program highlighting many of Washington, D.C.’s important choreographers from the past three decades. Full disclosure: I, too, was called to the stage and noted for my work as the first full-time manager of then-young Dance Place back in 1985. Since that year-long stint, I have spent the greater part of these past three decades watching dance there, ranging from children’s summer camp shows to major figures in late 20th-century dance, including choreographers Joe Goode, David Parsons, Liz Lerman, Margaret Jenkins, Bebe Miller, and groups like Eiko and Koma, Blue Man, Streb, and more than 700 other artists who shared their works there.

The evening was also a moment for Perlo to say thanks to her forbears as the concert was dedicated to seminal Washington, D.C. teacher and choreographer Jan Van Dyke, who died this past year in North Carolina, where she settled after leaving Washington. Many other dance teachers, among them Perlo’s early teacher Jefferson James, and local dance leaders were acknowledged.

Van Dyke founded Dance Place’s precursor, Dance Project in 1974 in Adams Morgan. Perlo and Co-Founder Steve Bloom, took over the second-story studio/theater near 18th and Columbia in 1980, renaming it and reimagining Van Dyke’s vision. Five years later as the neighborhood gentrified, Dance Place moved to the then sleepy Brookland neighborhood in Northeast Washington, purchasing its own building. Over the years Perlo and Riley built a state-of-the-art dance studio and theater while committing to bringing arts to local neighborhood children and families as well as presenting world-class dance almost every weekend.

The rolling rhythms of “Thunderhead,” co-founder Bloom’s drum solo played on a daf, a large-headed Persian instrument, opened the program with a clarion call to be mindful of both the pounding beats and the subtleties. In a 1992 solo, “Flight of Time,” dancer Triana Brown captured the steely determination of  choreographer Perlo’s personality with fearless balances and slicing diagonal reaches that later softened into more gossamer lightness.

It was moving to see “And Back Again,” Van Dyke’s final work, choreographed last year and rearranged for the stage, the program noted, in her last rehearsals. The women’s quartet relays Van Dyke’s austere but clarion approach to movement. She valued precision, control and specificity with a mathematician’s or architect’s eye, and here the quartet maneuvers in and out of highly designed patterns and rows, yet, then each dancer, clad in flared geometrically patterned dresses, gets a little release for a solo while the other three pause and watch.

The program closed with an earlier Van Dyke work from 1989, “Full Circle,” a trio featuring one of her favorite accompaniments, Turtle Island String Quartet. Again watching the dancers parse through the technical, specific leg and arm gestures — so out of character in light of today’s more emotion-laden or loose-limbed release techniques — it was easy to imagine Van Dyke dancing along, her cropped hair and prim presence presiding.

The program also featured “While Waiting” from long-time choreographer and educator Alvin Mayes, a heartfelt solo dance by Adriane Fang in memory of a friend and arts lover, Tuckey Requa. The late Eric Hampton’s Jane Austin-like comedy of manners for three women, “Saudades,” featured three dancers from the Maryland Youth Ballet’s Studio Company in an excerpt staged by former Hampton dancer Harriet Moncure Fellows. Ronya-Lee Anderson danced Riley’s “Shadows” from 2014 with a lushness that was meltingly romantic with its dips, reaches and arcing leg fans all set to a Chopin prelude.

Longtime dance educator Helen Hayes made a surprise appearance with her high-school aged dancers from Joy of Motion’s Youth Dance Ensemble in her first group work, a swirling water-y ballet from 1996 called “Whirlpools.” And a former Dance Place director Lesa McLaughlin revived her edgy 1984 solo “On Look” for her 13-year-old son, Chris Mateer. The piece plays on the tension between feminine and masculine roles and expectations as a dancer — back to the audience — dons a man’s dress shirt, tie and jacket, but not until a turn forward is it clear whether it is a male or female. McLaughlin came to dance late, as a college student, and there was a wildness and awkward gawkiness about her dancing and choreography that was equally intriguing and captivating. Her son has more grace and control, he doesn’t teeter in off-kilter balances with the same abandon, and at 13 is, perhaps, too young to match the sexual tension and androgynous interplay inherent in the work.

Cathy Paine, an early teacher and resident choreographer at Dance Place, returned to the stage after many years absence with a gorgeous and heartbreaking solo “Exit, Pursued by a Bear.” A graceful and liquid performer, Paine moved with silken textures, fingers tickling the air, arms softly whispering on unseen currents. Then she melted and rose, rolled and scooted again and again into the floor and out like quicksilver. Her improvised spoken narrative — a popular feature for a generation or two of DC choreographers — was both a personal recollection and reflective testament to her forbears. As the title suggested, Paine drew inspiration from the arcane yet famous Shakespearean stage direction in his The Winter’s Tale. Paine, who noted after the performance that she just celebrated her 65th birthday earlier in the week, was simply ageless, and the meaningful and evocative journey she traveled in the course of the piece, from past to present to future generations proved the evening’s singular moment. Her charge to all in the space as she caressed a small spot of center stage: “This is sacred ground so take care of it” beautifully summed up of a 35-year legacy of creating a place to dance in Washington.

Photo: Dance Place Co-founder Carla Perlo, courtesy Dance Place
Published February 1, 2016. This review originally appeared in DCMetro Theater Arts.
© Lisa Traiger 2016