Danceletter 8

If you happen to follow me on Twitter you may know that one of my current obsessions, in a wish-it-didn’t-exist kind of way, is Hudson Yards, the new $25 billion development on the far west side of Manhattan. I’ve spent a lot of time reading and vigorously agreeing with take after withering take on this characterless, dubiously financed non-neighborhood, site of the city’s newest, most buzzed about, and most… retractably roofed performance/art space, the Shed.

I’m not here to offer an in-depth critique of the gargantuan misdirection of resources that is Hudson Yards. Other writers have already done this really well. But I have been trying to understand, for myself, the heart-sinking feeling I get when I think about this not-even-that-nice new office park/mall and its roughly $500 million visual and performing arts building.

For all my skepticism and sullen tweets, I do want to keep an open mind about the Shed. I haven’t actually seen a show there yet — except for the bureaucratic spectacle of the April 3 press preview — and when I do, I might like it! I’m wary of dismissing the work that will happen there based on my misgivings about the place itself.

But the place... As I sit here wondering why I’m even writing this, since I really have nothing to say beyond what’s been said, I keep returning to a simple question: What is the Shed really adding to the cultural landscape of New York, except for an admittedly unique retractable outer shell that allows for indoor and outdoor performances?

At the press preview, vice chair of the board Jonathan M. Tisch was the first to take a stab at articulating what sets the Shed apart, offering that some institutions (he didn’t say which) “tend to be about the past,” while “the Shed…is about the future.” It wasn’t the only time I wondered, through the morning’s many speeches: Is that… all you’ve got?

Artistic director and CEO Alex Poots elaborated on what the future might look like. He spoke of a nonhierarchical place that welcomes “all kinds of artists and therefore all kinds of audiences,” a place without borders between “emerging,” “established,” and “community” artists, categories he invoked more than once in his remarks. (If the Shed is indeed so boundary-less, why use these labels at all?) Backpedalling on his enthusiasm for one high-profile event, he clarified: “Scale doesn’t make it better; it just happens to be a larger show.”

To its credit the Shed really is providing a platform for so-called emerging artists, with an “Open Call” program featuring 52 New York-based artists and collectives; commissioning fees for this program range from $7,000 to $15,000. And as part of the effort to welcome “all kinds of audiences,” 10% of tickets, for all performances, will be reserved for low-income New Yorkers. The Shed has also partnered with public schools and community centers to offer FlexNYC, a “free, citywide residency program in dance activism,” according to its website.

These are admirable initiatives. But to echo a question that others have raised: What if the hundreds of millions funneled into the Shed went toward supporting existing, underfunded programs and artists and organizations, those doing similar work yet more deeply embedded in their communities? I think Ben Davis of Artnet said it best when he wrote:

…if you are a very rich person and are going to fund empowerment of diverse communities through an arts organization, I am not sure why you’d do it through a glittering brand-new one on the West Side, rather than through one of the thousands of local, culturally specific nonprofits dispersed across the city, which are starved for funding from both city and private donors in New York’s desperately asymmetrical, over-centralized landscape of mega-institutions and mega-donors. The Shed, both despite and because of its rhetoric of doing good, adds another ultra-extra-mega-institution to compete with for money and favor.

You could give to those littler, long-standing organizations—but then you wouldn’t get to meet Steve McQueen or Bjork or have your name on the cool Transformer building. Glamor is the price of trickle-down social justice.

A novel building also does little to offset the precarious state in which many New York artists exist. As the choreographer Annie-B Parson wrote in 2014, in an essay about the privileging of buildings over the performers who work in them, “Capital projects seem to attract millions of dollars, but a decent wage for people who sing and dance and act is somehow ‘too expensive.’” (See also Zachary Woolfe’s “How the Shed Can Live Up to Its Hype: Focus on the Artists.”)

What can be done beyond feeling disgruntled and wishing “if only…”? For starters: Continue to support the performance spaces, old and new, that may not have Shed-level resources or flexible-agile-responsive-adaptable architecture but that feed (and have fed) the cultural ecology of New York, that make this city an interesting place to live. For the last day of my class, Dance in New York City, I drew up a list of “small-to-medium NYC dance spaces.” If you’d like a copy, let me know — and I’m sure it’s incomplete, so I’d appreciate any additions.

From the Internet

Katy Pyle, founder of the queer-inclusive ballet company Ballez, recently unveiled Ballez Class Everywhere, a free online series allowing people around the world to connect with their affirming approach to teaching ballet. Joined by fellow Ballez members, Pyle takes viewers through 12 short exercises, from warm-up up to “dégagés & butch nod” to révérence.

For BOMB Magazine, Rachel Stone talks to Pam Tanowitz, in an interview that includes, among other gems, a look at Pam’s actual calendar.

Shows to See

Some last-minute suggestions for this weekend: Tatyana Tenenbaum and Jasmine Hearn at Danspace Project (through Saturday); Colleen Thomas Dance at La MaMa (through Sunday); “In Conversation with Merce,” curated by Rashaun Mitchell and featuring new works by Moriah Evans, Mina Nishimura, and Netta Yerushalmy, at Skirball (through Saturday); and Sunday Service, organized by Yanira Castra with work by Martita Abril, Rosana Cabán, Cori Olinghouse, Alexis Ruiseco Lombera, and Tara Sheena, at the Knockdown Center.

What You’re Watching

Thanks to everyone who sent their favorite dance vids! I’ll start with the first one that came in, from Nancy Dalva, Merce Cunningham scholar and producer of the series Mondays with Merce. She returns to this “time and again,” she writes, “just to be in the room with Valda.”

Keep the submissions coming. And thanks for reading.

Siobhan

Danceletter 7

Pole Dancing +

It has been (and continues to be) one of those nonstop busy times, so this is going to be a quick one. But I wanted to write and share with you a story I had a lot of fun working on — about the U.S. Pole Dance Championship. Yes, there are championships for pole dancing, which is even on its way to possibly becoming an Olympic sport. While some organizations promote a sportier style, the U.S. Pole Dance Federation, which runs the competition I attended, allows women (and men) “the freedom to express themselves in a sensual, sexy manner if they want,” as founder Wendy Traskos told me.

Shoutout to Nina Westervelt for the gorgeous photos and for keeping me company through many hours of pole dance routines. (A detail I didn’t get to include: between each competitor, assistants come out to clean the poles from top to bottom, which is incredible — they made it look easy — but makes for a long show.) Also, everyone I spoke with said I must try a pole class, so you might be hearing more from me on this subject.

I also enjoyed working on this piece about the Stephen Petronio Company’s revival of “Coverage,” a 1970 solo by Rudy Perez. Rudy, who lives in Los Angeles and still teaches a weekly class at 89, was one of the very few artists of color involved in Judson Dance Theater. We talked about that and much more. (Unfortunately I had to miss the show itself because I was at… the U.S. Pole Dance Championship.)

Last night I saw Mariana Valencia’s Bouquet at the Chocolate Factory and you should too (it runs through April 27). I’ve written here and there about Mariana’s work but was happy to be able to reflect on it at greater length. I also recommend the accompanying book, a lovely record of the dance and an artwork in itself.

Reader participation!

I never know how to end these letters, so I decided it might be fun to sign off each time with a dance video — from you, dear readers. So, if you wish, send me your favorite dance video. It can be something everyone’s seen or something obscure, as long it’s something you’re mildly to extremely obsessed with. You can send the link just by replying to this email, and feel free to include a few words about why you love it (but you can skip that part if you want, no stress).

I’ll start with a classic, which I’ve watched probably 100 times — Beyoncé’s “Upgrade U,” as choreographed by WilldaBeast:

Highly recommend watching this one when you’re overworked and need a boost / six-minute mental break.

Ok, don’t leave me hanging! Send me your vids.

Till next time,

Siobhan

Danceletter 6

I’ve never been to a panel on criticism (or spoken on one) that hasn’t felt at least a little bit depressing (see Danceletter 2). The recent critics’ panel at the 14th Street Y, part of a tribute to the great Deborah Jowitt, was no exception, as it slid from lively anecdotal banter toward a familiar place of despair for the future of the field. Which isn’t to say that it wasn’t stimulating, especially before the question “What is future of dance criticism?” entered the room. I learned a lot, and was happy to hear from so many writers I admire. From my notes:

  • When Deborah started writing for the Village Voice, in 1967, she earned $35/column.

  • At age 15, Mindy Aloff, who grew up in Philadelphia, learned that the Royal Ballet was bringing Giselle to town. She wrote to the company and asked to interview Margot Fonteyn. Fonteyn wasn’t dancing, but they let her talk to another Giselle.

  • In college, Mindy contacted New York City Ballet with a similarly ambitious request: to speak with George Balanchine. They granted her an interview with him at the stage door.

  • Deborah almost worked as a house cleaner for Edwin Denby.

  • Referring to Denby, a bookstore clerk told Mindy (before she knew his writing), “The dancers like him.”

  • Elizabeth Zimmer: “People read reviews because they like to read. What you want to give them is interesting writing about something you care about.”

  • When Elizabeth started working as an editor at the Voice in 1992, there were seven levels of editing. (When I wrote a review for the Voice in 2017, there was, I believe, just one.)

  • An audience member floated the idea of Deborah starting a YouTube channel. I would absolutely watch that.

Also on the panel — which, by the way, packed the house at 3pm on a Wednesday — were Jack Anderson, Alastair Macaulay, Wendy Perron, Gus Solomons jr, and moderator Linda Murray (dance curator of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts). The event was presented by the dance and storytelling series “From the Horse’s Mouth,” which continued through the weekend with performances in Deborah’s honor. At the show I attended, last Sunday, Wendy recalled visiting Deborah’s West Village apartment, years ago, and noticing that she changed the decor seasonally to balance the weather outside: cool colors for summer, warm for winter. Wendy said it was then that she realized just how sensitive Deborah was.

Whenever I teach dance criticism, I assign Deborah’s essay “Beyond Description: Writing Beneath the Surface,” which makes a case for the importance of description in writing on dance. A sentence I always underline (and which I also shared here): “The point is, in searching for what a dance may mean, not to lose sight of what it is, or appears to be.” This is actually so hard to do, and Deborah, by her sensitive example, inspires us to keep on trying.

From the Internet

I loved this story by Jia Tolentino, in The New Yorker, on the fitness apparel brand Outdoor Voices. Question: Do dancers actually wear OV’s “dancewear”? Genuinely wondering. (It’s been a while since I’ve gone shopping for proper workout/dance clothes.)

I was sad to hear of the passing of Genevieve (Gegi) Oswald, founding curator of the dance division of the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. I didn’t know her personally but have reaped the benefits of her work, from researching Ted Shawn in college to collecting oral histories at the library last summer. Marina Harss remembers her beautifully here.

My Writing

I saw Dorrance Dance not once but twice this past week and just finished writing all about it. A note on process: My review covers two different programs, but some of the pieces (by Bill Irwin and Brenda Bufalino) were performed on both. While it’s rarely possible logistically, I really enjoy seeing things twice before writing about them. Feels like a luxury when it happens.

Also this week, I reviewed Ballet Hispánico at the Joyce, and made official note of my excitement for Pam Tanowitz’s upcoming City Ballet premieres.

Shows to See

So many. A few I’m looking forward to: the Martha Graham season, April 2-14 at the Joyce; Fishamble’s Humours of Bandon, a one-woman show about preparing for the world Irish dancing championships, April 10-14 at Irish Arts Center; and Kota Yamazaki’s Darkness Odyssey Part 3 at New York Live Arts, April 3-6 (I’ll be there Thursday with my class).

Closing Tweet

This was a few weeks ago, but I keep thinking about it:

Thanks as always for reading,

Siobhan

Danceletter 5

Dancing Again

Greetings from the woods of Becket, MA, where I’ve been in residence with Jean Butler for the past week. We’re at Jacob’s Pillow, and I’m dancing for the first time in five years — like rehearse-every-day dancing, not take-class-once-a-year dancing. It feels pretty great.

You might know Jean as the original female lead and co-choreographer of Riverdance, but over the past 15 years she’s been mining her history as an Irish dancer in a much less commercial context. She invited me to join her current project as a writer-in-residence and then, to my surprise, asked if I wanted to dance during this week of creative research. I said yes a little nervously, anticipating all the hurdles, physical and psychological, that come with dancing again after a long hiatus. (See notes on perfectionism in Danceletter 1.) But the transition has been less jarring than I expected; Jean, I’ve found, is interested in meeting us where we are.

The project is hard to explain succinctly (and as resident writer, I’ll be figuring out how to do that). For now, I’ll say that it has a lot to do with understanding, as Irish dancers, where we come from — something that, in training for competition (how most Irish dancers train), we’re not always encouraged to do. Jean is looking at lineages of Irish dance history, documenting and excavating them in ways that haven’t been done before. She began last summer with her own lineage, reconstructing set dances (competitive solo dances) choreographed and danced by her teachers and their teachers. That process of transmission — from the original creators and interpreters to a younger generation of current competitors — was filmed over two weeks at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. During that time we also recorded oral histories with the teachers, some of whom have been dancing and teaching for over 50 years. As one of the oral history collectors, I realized just how little I knew about the evolution of a form I practiced for nearly two decades. And the stories I heard were just a few of so many.

This past week, we’ve been revisiting that material from the library — the films and oral histories — to develop new material of our own. “We” are five dancers (Caitlin Clarke, Kristyn Fontanella, Anna McDunn, Jean, and me), filmmaker Megan Stahl, and dramaturg/living archives collaborator Cori Olinghouse. The project will culminate in an installation called The Stepping Fields in Dublin, in 2021, and we are at the very beginning of shaping what it will be.

Our days in the studio have included as much talking and writing and watching and listening as dancing. Memory is a theme that comes up again and again. Last summer at the library, I was struck by how easily people remembered their set dances from 40 or more years ago — struck because when it comes to my own set dances, I have almost no memory. I keep returning to this moment when Kevin Broesler (a former student, like Jean, of Donny Golden) was teaching his King of the Fairies from 1983. He talked about doing the dance at a competition and how, on one particular heel slide, he winked at Jean and another friend, who were standing in the wings.

When I try to recall moments of actually competing onstage, I come up blank. How do we remember what we remember, and why?

Beginnings

Here’s something I do remember:

Sometimes people ask me how I started dancing. The answer is that growing up, I traveled to Ireland with my family every summer. Though my heritage is Irish on my dad’s side, these visits weren’t about that, at least not directly. As far as I know, my parents just decided to go and fell in love with it, and my mom, a travel agent at the time, planned many return trips.

The farmhouse where we stayed had a big walled garden in front. One day I was out there with my mom, maybe enjoying some rare sunshine, when we noticed a little girl lurking by the gate. I was a shy four-year-old who preferred to let grown-ups do the talking, but my mom sensed a budding friendship that needed to develop in private. The intuition! Against my protests, she slipped indoors, and as if on cue, the girl began to talk to me, or maybe the other way around. In any case, we hit it off. She was an Irish dancer, and just the right amount of bossy to my shy.

Three years my senior, at the wise age of seven, Mairead (who, it turned out, lived across the street) became my first dance teacher. It was from her, in the farmhouse driveway and yard, that I learned the basics of traditional Irish dance, how to do a “jump-two-three” and a “back-two-three-four-five-six-seven.” Our student/teacher relationship could shift to become more collaborative; old photos show us standing face to face along the garden’s concrete pathway, immersed in making up dances, Irish and not. Over the years, when I’ve felt frustrated with dancing, I’ve tried to tap into the feeling of that beginning, before the pressures of competing set in. It’s not too far off from what we’ve been doing this week.

From the Internet

Being here, I haven’t spent much time on the internet (a nice break). But today, my fellow dancer Kristyn shared this video with me about the school where we both studied, the Griffith Academy in Hartford, CT. On the subject of (not) knowing your history, I didn’t know most of this history during all the years I trained there, including the fact that one of my teachers, Mary Beth Griffith, was an assistant to the great choreographer Agnes de Mille.

That’s all I’ve got for now. I leave you with this Western Massachusetts sunset:

Thanks as always for reading.

Siobhan

Danceletter 4

A Quickie

I should be grading papers, but I am committed to writing this newsletter twice a month! And this short month is almost over…

So, I’m keeping this one quick. I had the pleasure of interviewing Angie Pittman about her new work, Came Up in a Lonely Castle, which opens tomorrow at Danspace Project, part of a shared evening with Johnnie Cruise Mercer. We talked about her interest in soul line dancing, the notion of dance as prayer, and what it means for her, a black woman, to lean into her natural disposition: quiet. My favorite quote of hers: “I don’t want to have to yell for you to hear me.”

In this era of analytics-driven journalism (e.g. writing about celebrities to generate clicks), I’m grateful to be able to cover artists who are doing deep, thoughtful work but who might not (yet) be super well-known. I also urge you to read Angie’s own writing over at Danspace’s journal. “Quiet is not just a lack of noise,” she observes. “It is indicative of the interiority of a person.”

Some Videos

It’s not quite the same as the live event, but Google Arts & Culture produced this beautiful distillation of Camille A. Brown’s ink, filmed at the Brooklyn Historical Society. The library location feels just right.

I went to see Farruquito at Town Hall on Friday, and his 6-year-old son, Juan “El Moreno,” made a surprise appearance, happily carrying the weight of his family’s long flamenco lineage. It was Juan’s New York debut but not his first time onstage; he has evidently been performing at least since age 4.

I’ve been watching more TV (which, for reasons I won’t unpack here, I consider a positive personal development) and I’m thinking of getting into World of Dance? Season 3 started last night, and a colleague sent me this clip of the show’s first same-gender salsa duo, which was enough to make me feel like I should be tuning in…

A Correction

Danceletter’s first correction! What a milestone. The author of the ballet shoe emoji proposal (featured in Danceletter 3) kindly offered some clarifications, via Twitter, to what I wrote. First, the emoji will not necessarily look like the pink ribboned loafer I linked to:

Secondly, the author is not merely a “barre class enthusiast”:

My apologies for the errors, and thanks to Mr. Landmann for clearing things up!

Upcoming

There’s actually so much on the horizon, it’s a little overwhelming. A sampling:

Paramodernities: Over the past few years Netta Yerushalmy has been dismantling and remixing classic works by Nijinsky, Graham, Ailey, Cunningham, Fosse, and Balanchine. She presents the full six-part, four-hour series at New York Live Arts, March 14-16, and I cannot believe I’m going to be out of town for it. Please go and report back.

Future Faith: I’ve never seen but have been curious about the work of Lime Rickey International, alter ego of the Syrian, Palestinian, American artist Leyya Mona Tawil. Future Faith, to quote from the press blurb, “is rooted in Tawil’s practice of Arabic folk forms, specifically dabke and tarab” and will be happening March 7-9 at Abrons.

Momma’s Hip Hop Kitchen: This celebration of women in hip-hop comes recommended by pioneering b-girl Ana “Rokafella” Garcia, who will be hosting the 12th edition this Saturday, March 2, at Hostos Community College in the Bronx. I’ll be there with my class, and it’s free, so if you’re looking for something to do on Saturday, come hang out!

Thanks for reading,

Siobhan

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