Some thoughts on current (and not so current) dance shows in New York City. The first is from Flamenco Hoy, a Flamenco show that is going on at New York City Center through the weekend. The second is from a program put on by Evidence, Ronald K. Brown’s Brooklyn based dance company. I suppose you could call them reviews, but that’d be a little grandiose for my taste.
As far as I know, traditional Flamenco involves only a few performers in a small, intimate venue. This is a problem for anyone looking to present it in a venue as large as New York City Center. Flamenco Hoy‘s choreographers address the larger space by adding more dancers who use the dance’s vocabulary, but I don’t know how well it all holds together. Its director, the Spanish film director Carlos Saura, builds up the show with lighting and, appropriately enough for his genre, screens. The musical director, so to speak, is Chano Dominguez, aims to keep the improvisational feel of the music alive by blending it with jazz, another high art genre derived from a folk art.
There are a few more issues specific to the state of Flamenco today that are related to the approaches taken by the organizers of Flamenco Hoy, and to some further thoughts I’ve got about how I view Art in America in 2011. First and foremost, there’s the question of purism vs innovation. Most dancers come to Flamenco from other dance backgrounds; at the very least they’ve probably seen ballet or tango. And apparently most young dancers want to mix and match, to fiddle with the rules, to change things around. As Flamenco dancers traditionally learned their craft from their families or immediate communities, this means that dancers themselves want to push the form in directions its never gone before.
But is that the best thing for Flamenco? If it begins to take in other sources of inspiration might it not be overwhelmed? But if it stays wedding to tradition, won’t it risk fossilizing and dying off? The first school of thought says, “let’s show how flexible Flamenco can be; we can use a little jazz, a little tango, and still dance something that is undeniably Flamenco.” The other says, “Flamenco is impressive enough that people will come to us on our terms; mixing it with recognizable styles is a slippery slope to gimmickry.”1 These issues are important enough in Spain; they are focused all the more when they come to America for a short stint (only seven shows total!).
The production was put together by Carlos Saura, a Spanish film maker who has made several films on the subject of Flamenco. He views himself as a “master of ceremonies,” for the show, a role which is a little bit of false modesty. He’s not the choreographer, but more than anyone else, this is his show, and watching I felt that his background is in film was obvious.
This brings specific tensions to the production. Cinema is neither so immediate nor so ephemeral as dance, and so it is beholden to a certain sort of precision. Moreover, dance operates in three dimensions, where cinema doesn’t. From the second piece of the show, Saura use of screens2 was in the clear: as the guitar played strummed and singers sang, we saw two dancers’ silhouettes appear in screens on the sides of the stage. I’ve seen some other cinematic takes on dance (particularly on the Tango) attempt to make what is visceral and immediate into abstractions and symbols.3
The desire to screen things, or make them abstract, played a part in what I found to be the most distracting, least successful piece of the show. Aside from the musicians, who stayed by the side of the stage in a circle of light and played, the stage was dark, save for some blurry, dim lines that formed a grid. The dancers danced in the dark. Aside from barely discernible silhouettes, only the parts of their bodes that happened to fall in those dim bands of light were visible, and their precision was lost in my squinting.
I guess you’ve figured out that Flamenco Hoy comes down pretty firmly on the non-traditional side of the debate. This isn’t just because it was produced by someone in film who may have had an interest in promoting the art to an American audience. The best evidence of this was the piece “Fandango, de Boccherini.” The dance was set in a dance studio ; it began when the class’s instructors had them go through a piece they were “practicing” before dismissing them for the day. Thus the dancers wore practice outfits while they danced rigidly choreographed Flamenco, except for the Principal Nani Panos, who wore all black (down to his ballet shoes) and who danced ballet. The class leader in the scene was played with bluster by Rafael Estevez, another principal of the company. It roused interest and some laughter from the audience. Whether it was a gimmick or not was up to the viewer; I found that it got and kept my attention, but that it didn’t lead me anywhere in particular.
After intermission the show restarted with a piece using pasodoble. The female dancers were dressed in sheeny cheongsam-ish dresses that chased after the erotic potential of the music from an entirely different direction. Even when the dancers were using the Flamenco vocabulary, there were a few elements that bent the rules so much that I was distracted.
Another distraction came about when Estevez made use of hand movements used only by women, a tidbit I didn’t consciously register until the friend with whom I went to the show pointed it out. There was something parodic in seeing a man with a barrel chest and gruff, alpha-male persona use dance moves traditionally used by women. It was almost as if he were hamming it up, like Chris Farley dancing with Patrick Swayze on Saturday Night Live.
Which isn’t to say that all of the genre busting was bad. Another important divergence from tradition was the presence of a piano, played by Chano Dominguez, in many of the pieces. Here the combination of different styles worked well. The spirit of improvisation was kept in the tradition of Flamenco despite the change in instrumentation, and Estevez’s most inspired dancing came during this section. Dominguez even managed to quote Ellington’s Caravan without too much distraction.4
Some other thoughts about how we perceive Art in America
Watching the show I had the sensation that this was a program; that there was no emotion on display, just an effective display of expertise that represents emotion. I think, as a self-conscious dance goer, that is a part of my response to most theater experiences: an inability to just relax and enjoy it for what it is worth. But then, isn’t a great artist supposed to make you forget all that anyway, like the critic at the end of Ratatouille?
I was thinking about why this would be so for me, and the closest I can come up with is the rather unoriginal thought that we want to see happy endings in Art just like we want them everywhere else. We want the artist to reach his goal after years of sacrifice and struggle, and then get some sort of reward, whether its money, professional acclaim, or just personal satisfaction. Think of the Roberto Benigni and Cuba Gooding Jr. bounding up to the stage at the Oscars, bursting with spontaneous, infectious cheer, or of Notorious B.I.G. bragging about putting five carats in his baby girl’s ear. Sometimes a part of this paradigm is young Turk who shakes things up, who shows those stodgy old critics what the audience really wants and where the art needs to go.
But there is another side to art, particular arts that originate in folk cultures (and especially subcultures, now that I think about it), that is different. Art is a response to something painful or unpleasant. It doesn’t necessarily come from some higher calling for which you, as an individual artist, suffer, but a condition that restricts your entire community. It might offer solace, but not escape. There’s something just plain out harrowing about it.5 Deviation from the standard isn’t just pushing the art forward, it is a kind of willful forgetting or even destruction of something that was a part of a subculture’s identity.
So where did the show fall in all this? It kept certain elements of flashiness, it used ensembles to express a Flamenco vocabulary, it mixed in some good old Modernist twists (having a finished piece take place in the practice room), it used some jazz elements to build on its improvisational roots. But did it still have that harrowing depth? Can it have that depth when things are easier than they used to be, or when most of the performers no longer come from a class that has to sing for its supper? It was difficult to tell with the dancing; some things pointed the way to talents that the dancers were still developing. Some of the choreography didn’t work, some of it did, and some promised more interesting things to come. The one exception I can think of was the singing, perhaps because the style is so consciously evocative of desperation and suffering. Rubio de Pruna in particular had a voice that made you pay attention.6 Flamenco singing is an acquired taste, but so is coffee, strong tea, and other bitter things.
So after all that, was it worth going? Of course. Or else I wouldn’t be writing about it.
As for Evidence
From what I gather it is the 25th Anniversary of Ronald K. Brown’s dance company, Evidence. They celebrated with two different programs at the Joyce Theater in Chelsea, one of which included a selection of songs based on Stevie Wonder’s “Here on Earth.” I didn’t get to see the premier as I saw Program B, though I was far from disappointed. Program B was comprised of three pieces: Water, High Life, and Grace, all from 1999-2004. The company itself has been around since the mid eighties (he founded it when he was in his late teens!).
Water was the first piece, and consisted of a series of dances choreographed to a poem, Water, by Trinidadian poet Cheryl Boyce Taylor. Her voice was textured and pleasant; she consciously evoked the idea of a griot. It was a strange piece to start, because I couldn’t follow the dance and her words; it was less than the sum of its parts. I’d need a little more preparation to really get everything out of it, though the same goes for most other performances of poetry.
The piece was staged as though people were going about daily rituals. Three bowls of water sat at the front of stage; more bowls of water and piles of cloth sat at the back. There was some interaction, as though we were watching daily rituals, personal rituals. All through there was a sense of things not quite coming together, which for a professional dance troop would have to be intentional. Eventually my eyes settled on the two most magnetic dancers: Ronald Brown and Annique Roberts. Brown’s movements made me paraphrase something I’d first heard about wedding cakes: no one cares about a dance sequence like the person making it. His movements were crisp, exact, and sometimes I had the feeling that he was conducting the rest (remember that a conductor is usually a little ahead of his orchestra; maybe that is why they seemed subtly out of sync).
Roberts’ movements were some how more natural; they seemed obvious, like there was nothing between her and her muse; whatever technique disappeared into the effect. The other dancers were polished, but their training seemed to impede them in this piece. Why was this piece first? It felt the most experimental, the most ambitious, but it was a leap to start out with it.
It was the first time I’d seen any sort of African or inspired-by-Africa dance, and—for what it’s worth—I was impressed. The dancers didn’t float through space like ballet dancers. Nor did they move on their toes. They eschewed the defiance of gravity and moved with their legs wide, getting strength from a root in the earth through their heels. They danced sometimes in pairs and sometimes in circles, never devoted their whole attention to one lead, as happens often in ballet.
The second piece worked much more fluidly; each dancer’s characteristics and personality, if you will, were much more in balanced. It started with the call you may have heard at a slave auction around 1800, and soon downtrodden figures pushed suitcases across the stage. The outfits went from grim and dusty Depression era men and women moving from place to place, a few jazz age, jivey, slinky dresses, but the music never felt much like swing.
Soon things picked up. There was something simply joyous about the music (Oscar Brown Jr., Nikki Giovanni, the Jbs (!), the Nkengas, Fela, and Wunmi. I’ve always liked Afrobeat, but could never find the right context for it. It isn’t cooking music because it demands all your attention (maybe it wouldn’t if I was more familiar with it). You know you want to dance to it, but you don’t have the vocabulary. Its not like a simple (and nasty) Prince beat. It’s intimidating, like your cabbie in Lagos dropped you off at a club and sped off with your luggage. There’s emotion there, and lots of joy, but it just isn’t a music that sounds like coming out of your laptop, or your stereo. Before now it’s always reminded me of Jello Biafra’s immortal words from “Holiday in Cambodia”: “Play ethnicky jazz to parade your snazz on your five grand stereo.” It’s never been fair or productive for Afrobeat to remind me of this quote, so I’m glad I’ll finally be able to replace the association with something more pleasant.
The music in the second piece also warmed up the crowd a bit; one older woman started clapping, and eventually some people started calling out encouragement.
The final piece started with Ellington’s “Come Sunday” and is all about transcendence. Angelica Edwards is the lone dancer to start, and according to the manual, she represents a Goddess. I learned this after the show (I am terrible at reading playbills), but fit my impression to a tee: there was something unearthly and awesome (as in awe-inspiring) about her movements; there was something powerful and divine, something that could create or destroy. From such a lithe dancer (she is also in the Lion King, and her movements do recall a lanky serengeti-dwelling animal, prone to grace and ferocity), I was reminded of the medieval images of angels bearing small wands, or nothing at all, in the face of demons’ visible, but ultimately futile, strength and vulgar weaponry.
Then, oddly, there was a section of… dance music. At the time I wondered if it wasn’t semi-autobiographical (the music did sound like something one would’ve heard in Brown’s early professional years, the eighties). The movements continued but I was just too damn distracted by the music… nevertheless I chalk that one up to my own inattentiveness. Eventually the music returned back to Fela and things started connecting for me again; spirituality that lead through dance to celebration, ascension, and transcendence.
Rereading all this (I saw Evidence last Saturday, Flamenco Hoy on Wednesday and Thursday) I can’t help but notice the irony in the fact that I am very skeptical about any changes the Flamenco troupe made to traditional Flamenco, where I have no problem with an American born dancer who is famous for his work with the Alvin Ailley group (which is largely associated with modern dance), who wants to connect Caribbean and West African dance into his own vision of spirituality. The best I can say is that I am willing to accept him as an individual artist expressing his own vision and not someone representing a history that I am familiar enough to identify on my own. Also I could just say that he did it better.
1 For my part, I have to admit that I am closer to the second school of thought. Genre mixing is hallmark of parody, which is ultimately meant to take things apart, not to build things up. The innovation can come cheaply, and I don’t think it is viable as a long term approach, despite any short term success. Miles Davis was great, but what are you supposed to do if you go on after him?
2 Or his dependence on screens, depending on your viewpoint
3 Of course going to a theater (or anywhere else for that matter) to see people move in a certain way is abstract too; it’s just that we’re used to it, so it seems less jarring. Movies usually try to create their own context to make this less jarring. Scent of a Woman does it by fitting a dance scene into a story that is already going on and about which we presumably care. Documentaries about dance do it by calling themselves “documentaries” and putating (from the adjective “putative”) themselves as records. For reasons I can’t quite figure out, what is most discomfiting to me when films don’t try to fit dance into a context; they simply furnish images for us to process and so ignore all the context-setting techniques I expect in a film. There is something strangely self-conscious in the way they do this, which makes the film maker’s efforts seem more present, not less. The only movie I’ve seen (bear in mind that I have not seen many) that gets around this problem is Jonathan Demme’s Stop Making Sense.
4 Alastair Macaulay’s review in the Times references Dominguez’s playing of “Caravan,” in a way that suggests Macaulay may have thought everything was scripted and that there was no improvisation going on. I had the benefit of seeing the show twice in two days and can so say that it wasn’t.