Sunday, 28 December 2014

Martha Hill and The Making of American Dance

JanetMansfield Soares, Martha Hill and The Making of American Dance, Middletown,Wesleyan UP, 2009.

When most people think about dance, they picture a ballerina fluctuating in the air. They think of a moving body. They do not usually think of what or who made that possible. However, the conditions and, most of all, the people who make dance (and art in general) happen are fundamental and to focus on them is as fundamental in order for us to think of dance in a more articulated manner. 

Martha Hill was one of them, she belongs to that group of people who we can considers standing in the wings of dance while dance is taking place. More precisely, Hill was The person who made dance happen in the United States for many decades. As a dance professor and educator, she had it fully inserted in the university curriculum, organized one of the most important festival for modern dance, the Bennington Festival, and established a solid dance department at the Julliard School at Licoln Center.

Janet Mansfield Soares, who personally knew Hill and had access to unpublished material, has written an insightful biography, rich in precious details and remarkable analysis. It is as if a huge gap in dance history had been finally filled up. Thanks to her determination and knowledge of the field, Hill succeeded in strengthening the legitimation of dance among the other art forms, thus giving it visibility and respect.

Who was this strong and powerful woman? She came from the MidWest, never had a tight relationship with her family and was not much interested in marriage. She studied gymnastics and dance at the Battle Creek Normal School of Physical Education where she graduated in 1920. In 1927 she went to see Martha Graham perform, was converted to her approach to dance and decided to go and study with her in New York. It was in this period that she began to understand that dance “must establish itself as a separate art form” in order to be fully recognized. It was the same convinction Graham and other modern dancers had, but Hill stopped dancing and dedicated herself to teaching and working towards the thorough presence of dance in the academic curriculum.

That is why, along with her teaching role in various universities (like the University of Oregon and New York University), in 1934 she managed to organize the first season of a pivotal festival for modern dance, the Bennington Festival, held in Bennington, Vermont. According to Hill, modern dance was not a movement but a “point of view” and, in the 1930s, it badly needed affirmation and recognition. Hill, together with a set of committed collaborators, gave it this chance at Bennington. At Bennington College, a small college for women, she had begun teaching that same year. The Festival put together the big names of modern dance, like Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Widman and Hanya Holm. They would teach classes but also work on choreographic pieces that they would present at the end of the Festival. Together with them, other important figures taught there, poet Ben Belitt, mythographer Joseph Campbell, dance critic Joseph Martin, set designer Arch Lauterer and composer Louis Horst, among many others. The atmosphere at Bennington was unique and its focus on modern dance a successful experiment that led other institutions to do the same. It lasted until 1942 with a year’s stop in 1939 when the Festival was moved to Mills College in California. It was then organized at Connecticut College under the name American Dance Festival and since 1978 it has found a new home at Duke University in North Carolina.

In 1950 Hill was contacted by William Schuman, composer and director of the prestigious Julliard School of Music in New York, “to design and direct a dance division for the music school”. That was the beginning of another crucial adventure for her and for the establishment of a tradition of dance at University level. Hill succeeded again, not without overcoming difficult obstacles dealing with budget, space facilities and the relationship between ballet and modern dance. In particular, with regards to the last one, she had to fight a controversial fight with impresario, writer and ballet sustainer Licoln Kirstein who was championing George Balanchine’s ballet style and dismissing the relevance of modern dance at Julliard. At Julliard, Hill always supported a wide range of dance styles and techniques, among them ballet, but she was resolute in not giving modern dance up. She won and modern dance continued to be taught in the department by steadfast choreographers such as José Limón and Anna Sokolow. Ballet teacher was and remained choreographer Antony Tudor.

Soares also gives us a thorough picture of Martha Hill’s personal life with her unconventional and close friendship with Mary Jo Shelley, her alter ego in organizing the Bennington Festival and many other enterprises and with her deep love for Thurston Davies, known as Lefty, president of Colorado College and a married man who married Hill after his divorce was over.

In his 1936 book America Dancing, Martin exemplified Hill’s maverick and vital personality and choices: “She could have made a successful career as a dancer…for she has a definite flair for movement and an exceptional gift for composition, but education is her paramount interest, and for it she is uniquely equipped”.

Thursday, 2 October 2014

The bull, the cow, the rhythm and the dancing

RomaEuropa Festival, Auditorium della Conciliazione, Rome, 25 September 2014, h 21

Khan and Galván, photo Jean Louis Fernandez.
There is a bull and a cow ('toro' and 'baka' in the title), there is violence and peace, there is flamenco and kathak and there is a bit of Spain and a bit of India in Israel Galván and AkramKhan’ Torobaka that opened the Romaeuropa Festival 2014. Stereotypically Spain is associated with flamenco and bulls as India is with kathak and cows, but this piece is a lot more than that, it is entering a dimension where excellence, irony, intensity, confrontation and rhythm mix in a superb performance.

To begin with, Spanish dancer and choreographer Galván’s flamenco is and is not flamenco, it is rather a remarkable style that deconstructs it from the inside, breaking its lines and bringing its percussive nature to an almost airborne level. Then, in his thought-provoking choreographic work, Khan’s kathak is reinvented and mingled with contemporary dance, giving a sense of rootedness and three-dimensional quality to the moving body.

It goes without saying that the departing images have already been s/mashed and overturned, because Torobaka is about meeting the Other and is also about going beyond that, going beyond symbols and stereotypes to reach the pulsating rhythm we all live in. Shall we call it a duet? Galván and Khan are the two only dancers onstage and they do interact a lot, but the term ‘duet’ only makes sense if we multiply it, if we turn it into a layered series of others that play a fundamental role in the piece: I am referring to the two musicians, Bobote and B. C. Manjunath, the two singers Davide Azurza and Christine Leboutte and to rhythm and sound production.

The piece is made of various sections and takes place on a stage which is for most of its part covered by a circular platform surrounded by the musicians and the singers. At the beginning, Galván and Khan are both barefoot and confront each other, exploring space and sound. They both wear the same costume, a tunic that recalls kathak and tight trousers that can be associated with flamenco. Perfect is the ‘dialogue’ between Galván’s feet articulation and Manjunath’s percussion.

Azurza, Galván, Leboutte, photo Jean Louis Fernandez.
Then Galván puts his flamenco shoes on and performs a solo outside the circle, front-stage right, with a microphone. Again Manjunath is his alter ego, playing with his movements as Galván plays with Manjunath's vocal sounds. Irony is a key feature in Galván’s dancing, irresistible is the moment when he points his finger upwards exclaiming “E.T. phone home”. This is flamenco with a bit of comic relief! When he performs a zapateado (flamenco footwork) inside Khan’s kathak set of bells, we know a change of scenery is going to occur and Khan is going to appear.

In the third section, Khan is down to the floor with a pair of flamenco white shoes on his hands. He plays them against the stage floor, against each other alternating their sound with the one produced by his knees and head. It is as if sound ran through his body and could be created by everything he has or is. Instead of Galván’s irony here we have a profound movement density, even when he entertains a ‘dialogue’ with Bobote, who takes the flamenco shoes from his hands, throws them into the wings and starts playing las palmas (flamenco hand clapping) provoking Khan to respond. And Khan sits down on a chair and dances a seated dance.

After this, singers and musicians take the stage in a beautiful ensemble. Singers Azurza and Laboutte are phenomenal throughout the whole piece, singing songs from as different traditions as Italy and Spain. On some occasions their chanting seems to slow the dancing down, creating an unusual unbalance, but their bravura is impeccable for the aural background of the two performers.

The last section is an explosion of movement, sound and rhythm with Khan particularly in tune with Manjunath’s percussion, Khan's ghungru (ankle bells) reverberating throughout the entire theatre.
Rhythm is one key element in this work, a common ground for both dancers to move and investigate choreographic patterns. Historically speaking, it is difficult to trace a clear path connecting flamenco to kathak, but, according to some, gypsies left India and travelled through the Middle-East and Europe until some of them arrived in Spain. In this sense, a beautiful film documentary comes to mind, Tony Gatlif’s Lacho Drom (1993) where there is very little dialogue as the main role is played by the rhythm of music and dancing.
Khan, photo Jean Louis Fernandez.
As it often happens, we find out that what or who we considered to be the Other is much more similar to us than we thought, it is an animal we may like, a person we become fond of. In Torobaka two types of gestures remained in my mind recalling me that, the joined hands both Galván and Khan recurrently perform pointing them downward towards the floor/earth from which so much of their energetic rhythm comes, and their hugging and touching which testify to their artistic bond. According to Galván one has to kill the audience before the audience kills you, that is his peculiar motto which testifies to the violent, aggressive element inherent in flamenco, while to Khan dance is like an offer, a gift one donates to the audience, as the cow donates milk to the world in Hindu religion. Again the bull and the cow, violence and peace, and in Torobaka dance is definitely a gift so exquisite it can virtually kill.

Sunday, 31 August 2014

Literature, Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

The relationship between literature and dance has only recently began to be addressed by scholars and, during Modernism, numerous interactions took place. Susan Jones rightly speaks of reciprocity, as it was not a question of one art influencing the other, but a two-way process, where sometimes dance inspired writers, and some other times literature inspired dance. Jones's intention is to uncover this reciprocal approach, even though most of her examples focus on writers who reflected on and were influenced by dance. They include important names such as Stéphane Mallarmé, William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett. What emerges from these studies is that dance was indeed a substantial part of the Modernist literary aesthetics.

Accomplished writers like Virginia Woolf did go to the theatre to watch the ballet and were particularly attentive about it. In her work, Woolf’s “interest in spatial forms” and her way of arranging her novels according to specific patterns, can be seen as a kind of “text as choreography”, an utterly beautiful image. One example is given by her most experimental work, The Waves, published in 1931, where her “representation of a cyclical notion of history through the typographical distinction of roman and italicized passages (…) moves closer to an imagining of text as choreography, to be experienced by the reader as one ‘body’ moving in relation to another”.

T. S. Eliot's poem Burnt Norton presents an insightful dance image connected with the idea of stillness, "at the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;/Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is". Jones scrutinises this concept contextualising it within Eliot's knowledge of ballet (he went to see the Ballets Russes) and linking it to a sense of timelessness and transcendence.

Jones’s analysis of Samuel Beckett’s relationship to dance is a welcome surprise. Especially when she talks about Léonide Massine, the marionette topos in the Ballets Russes’ Petrouchka and Beckett’s reflections. Beckett quotes the ballet in his novel Murphy and, according to Jones, “Petrouchka triggered Beckett’s thinking about philosophical treatments of the issue of self-consciousness and movement”. In later works Beckett’s approach to movement became more abstract and oriented towards a “minimalist treatment” as is shown by “his ongoing philosophical interest in the relationship between stillness and mobility”.

On the other hand, there were dancers who chose novels for their work and a fertile example is represented by the experience of various choreographers at Ballet Rambert. Jones highlights that one of Ballet Rambert’s specificity was to work on narrative in order to represent the characters’ psychological insights. She aptly talks of dance drama and presents a list of significant examples, such as Antony Tudor, Andrée Howard and Agnes De Mille whose collaboration with Ballet Rambert in England is little known. The way these choreographers dealt with interiorisation recalls Martha Graham’s use of inner characterization which is quite layered and distinctive. Graham is mentioned but unfortunately no real comparison between her work and Ballet Rambert's dance dramas is given.
Literature, Modernism, and Dance is an invaluable contribution to the study of dance and literature and it starts filling a huge gap within Modernist Studies. It is not the only one, but it is one of the few and, most of all, one of the most documented and original ones. Other notable choreographers and dance companies included in the book are Loïe Fuller, Martha Graham, The Ballets Russes with a splendid analysis of both Nijinsky's Rite of Spring and Nijinska's Les Noces, Léonide Massine and Rudolf Laban. Jones’s analysis is filled with marvelous technical details and observations which do justice to both literature and dance. In particular, the above-mentioned chapters on Woolf and Eliot are revealing and riveting. Furthermore so, if we think of the persistent neglect of the subject on both dance and literary scholars’ part. The reasons are quite complex, as Jones notes, and have to do, for example, with the way dance is seen and was seen with respect to literature and other art forms.

Jones’s choice not to centre on a specific method or approach makes the book almost encyclopedic in scope and, at times, a bit fragmentary. The overall impression is that each chapter is worth a book-length study on its own and one is left with a sense of thrilling anticipation to get some more.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

"The Ancestress figure", my essay on the European Journal of American Culture

Sometimes essays take a while to get published, sometimes they need to be rewritten and sometimes they get rejected on questionable bases. With regards to this last option, it has happened to me on a number of occasions and, if I find the courage (it is a very sotf spot of mine), I will to talk about it in the future. In the meanwhile, though, there are essays that are being published, as it happened to my "The Ancestress figure: Puritanism in Martha Graham's choreography", on the present number of the European Journal of American Culture, published by Intellect, here the link for those interested in knowing more about it. Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book (in Italian), Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickisnon, published by Aracne is a more updated version of this essay.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Vital Ritual

Villa Adriana, Tivoli, 25 June 2014, h 21.00

The Rite of Spring, photo Musacchio&Ianniello.
Martha Graham was always interested in dance and ritual and, in a way, her approach to dance can be summarized by this evocative term, ‘ritual’. Her teacher, dancer and choreographer Ruth St. Denis, had developed an elegant style reminiscent of the Orient, transforming dance into something profound and meaningful. In addition to that, at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, Graham encountered the concept of ‘dance as ritual’ in two fundamental experiences: as a The Chosen One in Massine’s 1930s Rite of Spring and as observer of the pueblo cultures in the Southwest of the United States. The former was an intense and, at times, troubled situation as she often quarreled with Massine and struggled to adapt to a balletic aesthetic. The second was particularly inspiring and brought her to witness the pueblo’s contact with the land through dance, an aspect that left an enduring mark in her life. The evening at the ancient Roman Villa Adriana in Tivoli presented this vital ritualistic element within Graham’s work in a breathtaking environment. Part of the Festival Internazionale di Villa Adriana, the event was organised in collaboration with Daniele Cipriani Entertainment. Pity that Tivoli itself is not very trourist-friendly, especially if you do not have a car.

Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Company,  gave a short introductory speech, with the aid of a translator. On the menu there were some of Graham’s best pieces, the lyrical Diversion of Angels (1948), the dramatic Errand, a reworking of Errand into the Maze (1947) by Luca Veggetti, Depak Ine (2014), that Nacho Duato specifically created for the Company and last but not least, The Rite of Spring, Graham’s 1984 potent version of Nijinsky’s 1913 masterpiece, set to Stravinsky’s revolutionary score.

I had not seen the Company perform since 2010 and the first thing I noticed was the change in the cast. Many new people have joined the Company, which looks fresher without losing its status. At the same time, the presence of fundamental figures such as Tadej Brdnik and Blakeley White-McGuire keeps it in a brilliant form. Diversion of Angels is the perfect start for an evening like this. As one of the few pieces where Graham did not create a strong female central protagonist, it is poetic, dynamic and cheerful, and centred on the three aspects of love, each danced by a woman dressed in a symbolic colour: yellow for adolescent love, red for erotic love and white for mature love.
The Rite of Spring, photo Musacchio&Ianniello.
Each woman has a partner and they are often surrounded by a group of other couples. Eilber has talked about a “world without gravity” and “geometric patterns” with regards to this piece and it is true: the grounded, floor-based Graham technique acquires a lighter flavor in the vibrant interchange of patterns drawn by the dancers. Natasha Diamond-Walker is a refined Woman in White and Abdiel Jacobsen dances beautifully with her, Mariya Dashkina Maddux is particularly apt in her role as the Woman in Red, a role of precision and fluidity. As she enters the stage, she slips on a humid stage (it is a bit chill) but immediately gets up, thus recalling one of Graham’s best mottos, “My dancers fall so they may rise”. When she performs the split fall it is as if she were seductively melting to the floor and then up again she goes in her flaming red dress.

In 2012 hurricane Sandy has done a lot of damage to the Company and has affected Errand into the Maze, ruining Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures. This has brought to the birth of Errand, a recreation of the piece by choreographer Luca Veggetti, with the aid of Graham principal dancer Miki Orihara. There are no sculptures and there are some changes in the choreography as well as the costumes and lights. It is perhaps the best piece in the programme. Samll and red-haired Blakeley White-McGuire is a stunning protagonist in search of her way to deal with her fears, which are embodied by a tattooed and sculpted Ben Schultz, the Creature of Fear. The piece is a reworking of the Theseus and Ariadne myth, where the former is absorbed by the latter to embark on an inner quest. Veggetti’s changes are subtle and significant: a light-coloured veil covers the male figure’s head, instead of Noguchi’s horns and a transparent chic stick replaces the one Noguchi had created. However, what is perhaps the most striking element, is that he never leaves the stage, walking his way along its perimeter when the heroine performs her solo pieces. And when he does walk, he takes away the stick from the back part of his neck where it is positioned to make his figure stiff and bidimentional. This adds a new mysterious tension to his role. White-McGuire’s marshalling through the piece, her hands on her womb at the beginning and her self-reliance growing as she fights against the Creature, is very deep and dramatic. This is a  particularly ritualistic work, both in form and content.

Depak Ine, photo Musacchio&Ianniello.
As are the other two choreographic pieces, Depak Ine and The Rite of Spring. In creating Depak Ine, Nacho Duato was inspired by Darwin’s evolution theory, Eilber notes in the introduction, and that is why the dancers move highly grounded to the floor in a more relaxed and fluid way with respect to the Graham technique. They also resemble posthuman creatures, the result, perhaps, of human, animal and machine union (John Talbot's electronic music is the perfect touch, in this sense). Watching this layered piece after the Graham pieces creates a shift in perception about the dancers’ abilities and proficient technical potentiality. They are simply, amazing! They move in groups and in couples with PeiJu Chien-Pott lying onstage, face down, for quite a while. Once we convince ourselves that her role is to figure as the static and still contrapuntal point to the other dancers, she ‘wakes up’ and astonishes us with a flexibility I have seldom seen anywhere else: she throws her legs through space, bending, standing, and breaking the time-space continuum…in my mind she is a new and vigorous embodiment of the Chosen One, the sacrificial victim of The Rite of Spring, which closes the evening.

This last choreography has the flavor of the above-mentioned Southwest pueblo cultures as a Shaman, confidently interpreted by Ben Schultz, guides the sacrifice required for a propitious spring. Men and women dance in separate groups, the stage is not very big and the masterfully Graham organized structure of this work suffers a bit because of that, even though it acquires an intimate touch it did not have. When the Shaman chooses his victim, it is a striking moment of despair and revelation: she is on her partner's shoulders and is almost abruptly taken away from him. Xiaochuan Xie dances a belligerent Chosen One, even when she is overtaken by the Shaman’s controlling power. I reckon she will get even better with time and the experience needed for this role.

The stage is now empty, people start moving away, a nice walk awaits us to get out of Villa Adriana, the best closure for this vital ritual.