Danceletter 11

I’ve always enjoyed reading Joan Acocella in The New Yorker. But I have to admit, I had trouble with her latest piece, in the July 1 issue, which takes a long look at how big modern dance companies are carrying on without their founders (or preparing to).

And I’ve been tweeting about it:

I have so many counterexamples to the idea that dancers “don’t date; they get married [to a style]” that I don’t even know where to begin. One comes from the Paul Taylor company itself, which just a few weeks ago performed a new piece by Pam Tanowitz, sandwiched between Taylor’s Junction and Promethean Fire. While I didn’t mention this in my review, I thought the dancers looked more comfortable in Tanowitz’s work than in Taylor’s, as if they had more ownership of it — which would make sense, given that they went through the process of building the dance with Tanowitz, while they might have inherited the other works from older dancers or from video. Certainly it can be challenging to pick up a new style when you’re accustomed to another, and the original might always be where a dancer really thrives. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done, or that doing so compromises a dancer’s “integrity.” And as my friend Elena noted:

Then there is the issue of the article’s scope, which confines itself to big names in modern dance: Taylor, Graham, Bausch, Cunningham, Mark Morris, Trisha Brown (strangely making no mention of Alvin Ailey). Of course it’s worth exploring how the work of these choreographers — and the companies they founded — will or won’t endure. But questions of preservation in modern dance extend beyond artists of this stature and institutions of this size, and I wish the article acknowledged this, or at least defined its own parameters. A reader unfamiliar with the modern dance world might get the impression that the traditional company structure — devoted to one artist’s vision, with dancers employed year-round — is the norm these days, when in fact for years (decades, really) it has been giving way to something much more fluid.

And just as as the old “company model” has shifted, efforts to preserve modern dance aren’t limited to large, internationally touring groups with trusts and boards of directors. One project that comes to mind is Gesel Mason’s No Boundaries: Dancing the Visions of Contemporary Black Choreographers, which I wrote about last year. Mason has taken it upon herself to archive, in her own body and on a forthcoming digital platform, works that she considers to be part of the canon of contemporary black dance, from Donald McKayle’s Saturday’s Child (1948) to Rennie Harris’s You Are Why! (2014). To me an independent endeavor like this is as vital to protecting modern dance history as more institutionally driven approaches. (There is also a longer discussion in here about “modern” vs. “contemporary” … perhaps for another day.)

I could go on. But instead I’m going to point you in the direction of more tweets — by Andrea Kleine and Michaela Dwyer, who raise related and important points on the matter — and abruptly change the subject to: Fosse/Verdon. Who watched it? I finally did, was surprised to find I adored it, and then was surprised by most of the reviews I read, which were not nearly as enamored as I was. My favorite scene: the one where Verdon (the extraordinary Michelle Williams) tells Fosse what we’ve come to know already, that he owes her his “entire f***ing career.” Subtle? Maybe not, but very satisfying. If you tuned in and feel like sharing, let me know what you thought.

Shows to See

I’m not sure if I can get to Bard for this, but if you can, you should: Ronald K. Brown is presenting Grace with live music at the Fisher Center, plus a new companion piece called Mercy, July 5-7. This preview by Gia Kourlas might entice you to check it out.

In the free events department: SummerStage is hosting an evening of Merce Cunningham works in Central Park, July 17, featuring ABT’s Calvin Royal III, the Stephen Petronio Company, the Hudson Valley’s A-Y/Dancers, and Cunningham dancer extraordinaire Melissa Toogood, who will also teach a pre-show workshop.

What You’re Watching

Thanks to Anna Drozdowski in Philly for bringing this summer classic back into my life. I don’t think I’d ever watched it from the vantage point of adulthood:

As always, you can send me your dance video obsessions at any time (with or without explanation) by responding to this email or writing to danceletter@substack.com.

Till next time,

Siobhan

p.s. It came to my attention through an angry reader email that there might be an issue with unsubscribing from Danceletter. I’ve alerted Substack and they say they’re looking into it, but in the meantime, if you’ve had trouble unsubscribing, just let me know and I’ll take you off the list. The last thing I want is to be spamming anyone’s inbox with unsolicited dance news!

p.p.s. On the other hand, if you have not yet subscribed and want to, there is now a button you can click to do so easily:

Danceletter 10

Last night I finished another residency with Jean Butler’s Our Steps Foundation at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, as writer-in-residence and oral history collector. Since beginning this work a year ago, I’ve found it challenging to explain to people what exactly we’re up to with this project, so for this edition of Danceletter, I thought I’d share the program note I wrote for our end-of-residency showing last night. This is a warm-up for a longer essay that will be published on the Our Steps Foundation (still-in-progress) website in the next few months.

The one thing I’d add, for now, is that with all the material we’re gathering at the library — film documentation, oral histories, archival treasures our guests bring in — Jean and her collaborators will be creating an installation and performance for the Royal Hibernian Academy in Dublin in 2021. Stay tuned for updates along the way.

Taking a Breath: A note on what we’re doing here

[Program note for Our Steps residency showing. June 13, 2019.]

When I learned Irish dance steps in the kitchen of an American Legion hall in Old Wethersfield, Connecticut, in the late 1990s, I never thought about where they came from. It was obvious: They came from my teacher, who was right there in front of me, demonstrating the reel or jig or hornpipe. The past — the history of what my body was doing — did not cross my mind. I was preoccupied with the present: figuring out the intricacies of the step, trying to remember it, wanting to please (or at least not disappoint) my teacher. And the future concerned me, too: How would I fare with this step in competition? Would I be good at it? Would I be able to win?  

Talk to most competitive Irish dancers today, and they’ll likely tell you something similar. As the standard of competition grows ever more demanding — steps filling up with more beats, more tricks — we don’t pause to reflect on history. We push ahead; we accelerate and excel. Within this panting race forward, Our Steps, Our Story: An Irish Dance Legacy Archive, is a deep breath. Jean Butler, after more than four decades of immersion in Irish dance, is saying: let’s slow down; let’s look back.

Jean embarked on this project following the deaths, in a span of two years, of four influential Irish dance teachers in New York: Jimmy Erwin and Jerry Mulvihill in 2013; Michael Bergin and Peter Smith in 2014. With their passing, she realized, the history of a generation was slipping away. What would happen to the steps they had created, the knowledge they carried? And looking ahead, what about the steps and stories of their students, many of whom had become teachers themselves?

While recognizing the impossibility of a comprehensive archive, Our Steps begins an urgent process of preservation, through the passing down and documenting of solo Irish set dances (those performed in competition*) dating from the 1940s to 1994. This period starts around the time of the 1948 emigration, from Belfast to New York, of brothers Peter and Cyril McNiff, who brought over what was known as the Ulster style of Irish dance. More elegant, and done to slower music, than the leading style in New York at the time — the Munster or Kerry style, taught chiefly by James McKenna — the Ulster style is the closest ancestor of competitive Irish dance today. The chronological scope of Our Steps ends with the 1994 birth of Riverdance, which transformed Irish dance from a close-knit cultural practice into a global phenomenon.

Jean has started close to home, with her own dance lineage. The first Our Steps residency, in this same space last summer, focused on the steps of her own teacher, Donny Golden, a student of Jimmy Erwin, who was a student of Cyril McNiff. (A highlight of those two weeks was a visit from Cyril’s sister, Joan McNiff Cass, whose delicate precision — at 79 no less — wowed us all.) While Jean could have simply asked teachers to demonstrate what they remember, she instead chose to film the messier process of reconstruction and transmission: of piecing dances back together (mostly from memory) and passing them on to a younger group of current competitors. This creates room to explore generational differences: How do dancers today relate to material from 30, 40, 50 years ago? How have trends and techniques changed, or not? To dig further into the stories behind the steps, she has also invited guests to be interviewed through the Oral History Project of the Jerome Robbins Dance Division, to recount their experiences in Irish dance for future researchers.**

During this year’s residency, Jean has been fine-tuning dances taught last summer. Learning a sequence of steps is one thing; understanding their original textures and rhythmic nuances is another. “Less muscle,” she told one dancer last week, summing up a key distinction between today’s hyper-athleticism and the style she grew up with in the 1980s. This week the dancers have also been working with former pupils of Kenny Verlin, another well-known New York–area teacher. Siobhan Gorman, John Jennings, Ellen Riordan, and Theresa Wall have added to the archive with steps they learned from him. Verlin died in 1986, at 31. In his students and theirs, he dances on.

* Our Steps focuses on the competitive circuit overseen by An Coimisiún Le Rincí Gaelacha, the largest governing organization for Irish dance.

** Oral histories and video documentation from this project will enter the collection of the library’s Jerome Robbins Dance Division and will be available to the public.

From the Internet

As you can imagine, much of my time on the Internet lately has been spent falling down Irish dance rabbit holes. A few discoveries that illustrate some of the above:

The McNiff Irish Dancers (a team led by Cyril Mcniff) in 1958.

John Cullinane, author of a series of just-the-facts books on Irish dance that Jean brought into the studio, dancing in 1963.

Excerpts from Kenny Verlin’s 1979 dance drama The Lonely Boat. (While you’re there, check out more photos and videos on the Our Steps Foundation Facebook page.)

Fun fact: Filming isn’t allowed at Irish dance competitions, so very little footage of solo set dances (the kind we’ve been recording at the library) can be found online. That also explains the lack of solo dancing in videos like this high-drama highlight reel from the 2019 World Irish Dancing Championships.

What You’re Watching

Here’s some fancy footwork of a different kind, from the 2016 International Lindy Hop Championships, sent by tap dancer and choreographer Caleb Teicher:

Send me your dance video obsessions at any time by replying to this email or writing to danceletter@substack.com. Thanks for reading — and, as always, feel free to share Danceletter far and wide.

Siobhan

Danceletter 9

I haven’t been feeling too inspired on the newsletter front lately. But when I started this back in December, I vowed it would be low-maintenance. So, in that spirit, here’s just a story about something nice that happened recently:

A few months ago I received an email, through the contact form on my website, from a high-school senior in Bethlehem, PA. She explained that at her school, seniors have the opportunity to spend their last couple of weeks before graduation, in place of classes, shadowing someone in a field of their choice. Having learned about dance criticism in a summer program at Barnard (led by my former classmate Sydnie Mosley), she was writing to ask if she could shadow me.

Given the niche and impractical nature of what I do, I was touched by this request. I was also impressed that she (Liz is her name) took the initiative to contact me out of the blue. With a warning that my work is not always that interesting, and tends to be pretty solitary, I said yes.

I expected we’d get along, considering our shared interests in dance / writing about it, and we really did. This week and last we met for three shadowing sessions, which included trips to the library, to the ballet, to the New York Times building, and — so as not to give too glamorous an impression of freelance writing — to my apartment for an approximation of “working from home.” It was fun to exchange reactions to the shows we saw, hear about high-school life, and share the minutiae of my day-to-day tasks, which, I realized, I don’t share with many people.

I’m so glad I didn’t turn down the invitation for fear that my job wasn’t shadow-able, or that opening up my process would somehow disrupt my work. If anything, it made work both lighter and more purposeful for a few days.

Speaking of Work

Here’s what I’ve been up to writing-wise:

For Dance Magazine’s June issue, I wrote a cover profile of the divine Okwui Okpokwasili, who will be performing her solo Bronx Gothic at the Young Vic theater for a month, starting June 1. If you’re in London, don’t miss it.

Two Batsheva alumni, Shamel Pitts and Bobbi Jene Smith, happened to have shows around the same time. Their paths have been intersecting since their days as Juilliard students, so I wrote about them together.

It felt strangely appropriate to experience Gillian Walsh’s three-hour Fame Notions, which arises from questions of why dancers dance, on the same weekend as the 13th annual Dance Parade, whose roughly 10,000 participants could (I imagine) answer those questions in many different ways. I wrote about both (separately) in this review and this dispatch from the parade, illustrated by Nina Westervelt’s spectacular photos. (I also posted some parade videos here.)

From the Internet

I learned from this tweet that Ballet Review, one of the very few outlets for long-form dance writing, is planning to suspend publication. I second Marina’s call for institutional support (hello out there, readers with influence at universities and foundations!)

As some publications verge on folding, others try out new arts writing models. Indy Week in Durham, NC, recently launched “The Commons Crit,” a short-term experiment in pairing artists with critics, explained by editor Brian Howe in this introduction. While I have yet to read them all, I’ve eagerly bookmarked the pieces published so far.

At Open Space, dancer Dorothy Dubrule wrote this honest, engrossing, and sometimes disturbing first-person account of stripping for museum-goers in Tino Sehgal’s selling out. Jill Johnston once asked, “why is it that more dancers don’t practice the art of writing about their work?” Reading something like this makes me wish for more such writing.

Shows to See

A few in the very near future: Hadar Ahuvia’s The Dances Are for Us (through Saturday at Danspace), Phoebe Berglund’s Great Expectations at Lubov (Sunday evening), and Mariana Valencia’s Futurity at the Whitney Biennial (Sunday and also June 9 and 16).

On the horizon: The summer season at Mount Tremper Arts begins June 15, and it all looks so good I can’t decide when to go. The free River to River festival is also coming up, June 18-29, with works by NIC Kay, Sarah Michelson, Jennifer Monson, Pam Tanowitz, and more.

What You’re Watching

This one comes from LA-based director, choreographer, and performer Katherine Helen Fisher, submitted with the exclamation “This is it!!!!!” Send me your dance video obsessions at any time, by replying to this email or writing to danceletter@substack.com.

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

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