08 January 2011

Paris Wrap-up: Writings on Dance

The Emperor’s Old Clothes: An Autumn of Dance in Paris, 2010

                                                                                            Peter Sparling


Hovering above Newfoundland en route from Paris to the USA, I find a safe distance from which to survey the dance diary I kept during my 4-month stay in the City of Light.  As a professor of dance on academic leave at Cité Internationale des Arts, I set out to chronicle as many dance performances in Paris as I could afford to attend, when tickets were available. I kept it within Paris, although I saw one of the best theater productions (Miss Julie directed by Katie Mitchell and Leo Warner) of this or any season while in Berlin, along with a very disappointing program of chamber dances with live contemporary music at the new riverside warehouse space of Sasha Waltz, Berlin’s anointed empress of dance.  A quick walk along the Seine from my apartment above Pont Louis Philippe, the Theatre de la Ville became my Paris beat. I would rush home, exhilarated, after many a performance, eager to sit at my laptop and decipher the scrawl I’d jotted down in my notebook while sitting in the dark theater, like a blind man creating a makeshift Braille from images dancing in his head.

I peer at my glowing laptop screen in the darkness of the economy class cabin and scroll down pages of text written as responses to the works I’ve seen in theaters, opera houses and studios. After a momentary wave of self-satisfaction, it occurs to me that I still have much work to be accomplished.  Are there conclusions to be drawn? What is French dance? What characterizes the Fall 2010 season? Who wears the crown in the Paris dance scene? Or is it less about local fiefdoms and more a celebration or emergence of a global scene, without nationalistic boundaries defined by style, attitude, esthetic, or technique? Is it in the hands of a few presenters? And who, if anyone, is calling the emperors of these diverse, hybridized realms on their new clothes, if, on occasion, they ride naked in their multi-cultural, multi-media, politicized or conceptualized pomp and circumstance across the stages of Paris?

Themes emerge: the disruption of the theatre space by migrations from the street, from the “people”, who are beset by corporate greed and the empires of world power, or confronting the 21st century’s spiritual and moral vacuum left in the last century’s wake. Cast out in darkness (so many midnight-black stages) and brought to the edge of self-extinction, they reach for the light, for a shred of poetry.  Or they are mere subjects of a choreographer’s intellectualized re-mapping of the American post-modern predicament, filtered through a retro sensibility and bluntly clever (i.e. blatantly obvious and often heavy-handed) French wit.

Between these extremes, I sense an obsession with values of lightness and heaviness, weight, emotion, (mostly reactionary and in fitful raves and rages), and of theatrical (lighting, props, scenarios staged in highly physical, non-dance modes) relative to pure dance spectacle. Dancers are expected to be excellent technicians, versed in Ohad Naharin’s Gaga, post-modern dance styles, release and contact improvisation as well as be theater animals, ready to react spontaneously and instinctively to quick shifts of situation, context and tone. The dancing I witnessed was uniformly extraordinary, skillful and expressive. This was true for both contemporary and ballet companies. More often than not, the dancers provided the glue that binds, the substance that creates the illusion that a choreographer’s work has a body and soul, or, if not a soul, than at least a mind that indulges in the luxury of rehashing well-worn theories of culture, art and philosophy.

Production values were, for the most part, slick and expensive looking compared to those in the US, even with them most minimalistic stage sets. Or there was a desire to look low-cost, transparent and “of the street”, with an undressed stage, no legs to indicate wings, and lighting and sets revealed for what they were: the accessories or exoskeletons of concepts, of the stage as laboratory or diorama for cultural discourse.

I think I’d best stop here and let the writings speak for themselves. Retrospection has its dangers, and it would be too easy for me to spin my own theater of the mind—one that creates a realm quite apart from the actual space of the theater. Fortunately for those of us who love the dance, contemporary dance/theater has been around long enough now to embody its own dynamic framing of energies, jam-packed with tradition, anticipation, expectation, and the audience’s undying hopes for engagement, clarity, and redemption. And theaters and presenters in Paris are willing to support dance seasons, festivals and commissions, with choreographers often returning countless times to the same theater.  It is impressive and enviable to observe how Paris (and the national system of arts subsidies) grows and feeds its dance audiences.

Can the world’s choreographers meet this demand, during one season, passing through one of many cultural meccas? When choreographers fall short and pass off an empty spectacle for substance, can audiences admit to themselves that they have been duped? Too often, I saw crowds applauding the naked emperor because they needed to feel they had gotten it, were in on the joke, or part of the exclusive club and madly “into” the new, albeit invisible and insubstantial, fashion. Or were they applauding the noble efforts of the dancers, that devout cross-section of the most alive, generous and self-sacrificing of we mere mortals?  Ah, Paris. Ah, humanity.


23 septembre: Hofesh Shechter/Political Mother

Enter at the top of a sleep slope of seats, barely visible in the dense theatre fog. Already, we are immersed in an effect, calculated to?? (Despite this, the sight lines are terrific at the Theatre de la Ville.) Like the smog rising from the traffic along the right bank of the Seine, we forget its effect on/in our bodies after the initial sting. Does this bode ill, or would that be merely doom-eager, to borrow Martha Graham’s term for favoring premonitions of the dark side? By the end of Hofesh Shechter’s performance, we have seen mostly the dark side, even while Joni Mitchell’s grainy, weather-beaten voice sings nostalgically but knowingly of both sides of the clouds. Clouds of fog! We get it. But how did we get there?

The curtain opens on a man in renaissance garb holding a sword like some tragic Shakespearian hero. Isolated in a pool of fog-drenched light, he peers up into space, then plunges his sword into his gut, falls to his knees and, in spasmodic grandeur, collapses to the floor.  Blackout. Same special comes up on two men, who introduce the thematic movement motifs of the evening’s one-act epic, or should I say, modern dance requiem. (The opening scene was accompanied by Verdi’s Requiem.) These men dance, shoulders raised and wrists flashing cryptic scrawls in the air as if swayed by an Israeli folk song, seem to be pleading or bargaining with their (largely absent) God. They shuffle and hop to the incessant, percussive beat, then are joined by 6 drummers lined in formation upstage. We see their hands in minute synchronicity. A politician/tyrant at a microphone (played by the choreographer) appears above them high center, grunting and raging a rant of  garbled, guttural nonsense. His gestures mirror or provoke what is to come. And then he is replaced by a rock star at a rave, or he a prophet?

12 amazingly lithe yet relentlessly powerful dancers amplify the movement of the first duet, illuminated by lighting designer Lee Curran’s 12 stands each stacked with 6 stadium lights (hints of Metropolitan Opera designer Gil Weschler’s now-standard invention). They stand in groups, like the inheritors of Anna Sokolow’s angst-ridden lost generation of disillusioned souls, then break out into rhythmic patterns of  hunched, migrating Neanderthals in permanent Graham contraction, their arms like tentacles or scribbles of finely etched graffiti. But they generate a thousand contractions within that held contraction, building to some common purpose before dissolution drains the stage of bodies. We see them at some political rally, a rave, a revivalist meeting, and then nothing but a court-like grid of lights cast from overhead, and the sweet music of some Bach trio-sonata. This is replaced by the growl of subterranean plumbing, and suddenly the dancers are in line along the front of the stage in drab prison garb, slowly stalked by a guard in an ape mask.

Vignettes of subjugation—of two standing as a third holds a gun to their heads— merge into a central unison section, which brings into focus the question of the evening: Is a group moving in unison about collective subjugation, inspired solidarity, or mass conformity? We shift to a quartet armored in black shoulder and leg panels, moving us backwards in time to the opening scene. It’s unfortunate we cannot see the details of these fine dancers in he dim light—an example of effect partially obliterating something of telling substance. Shechter continues this method—of returning to past episodes or motifs as if to create for the work its own internal history or timeline. He is beginning to work a kind of choreographic memory map, which will become most apparent at the end. Is he returning us to a neutral present, or to a universal state of all humankind, before shifting us to the next episode?

After a long wait on an empty stage, we are fully into the universal prison yard, and it is clear that the emotional state of these souls is not divorced in some form of post-modern deconstruction from their movement. These are fully committed and inspired performers, masterfully fulfilling the choreographer’s stark vision of a circle of hell, dancers stumbling to keep up while orbiting doom.  The electric guitar choir hovers over them along the back like demonic angels: a sonic wailing wall.

A duet follows that hints at some redemption, or is it that all subjugation is rooted in or mirrored by the relationship of man and woman? One duet become five, and the heterosexual domination becomes overbearing for a short-sighted moment.

Is this becoming a 21st century version of Ravel’s Bolero, ruled over by the same politician/tyrant? What is the message? Just as the question occurs, an uncompleted text appears across the back screen: “Where there is pressure”. Groups break off into 3s, then 4s then a duet… fog again. A group of 8 against 4.  Is this the emergence (hopeful?) of a new form or language? Dancers reappear in rehearsal clothes. (as in the closing scene of Bill T. Jones’s’ recent Lincoln tribute). And then the audience guffaws and chuckles with the completion of the quote: “...there is the folk dance”.

Sad irony or hope? The last unison rave begins as an ecstatic trance dance but succumbs to the domination of the raving politician, In a fog, the entire dance is compressed in re-run format, leading us swiftly, inexorably back to the hari-kari in reverse. The curtain descends on Joni Mitchell’s sad reflective lament to the flower children of the 60’s. All returns to fog and clouds.

One dancer stands out from the rest—a woman whose head is closely shaved at the sides with a knob of dark hair on top. Maëva Berthelot first appears in the only red dress and immediately embodies both the sharp-edged percussive beat and the warped, undulating morphology that is Shechter’s signature style. She somehow imbues the movement with a desperate vulnerability that makes it personal. I feel for her, amidst so much virtuosic group thrashing.

As I walked home from the theater, I passed the Hotel de Ville lit up like a disco, with its statuary back-lit and framed exactly like the musicians in Shechter’s work. Monuments to what? Political Mother is a requiem to the tragedy of the world’s ongoing tales of terror, perversions of power and subjugation of the individual spirit. Is there anything new in what he is saying? Perhaps for a generation who needs to hear in a form closer to their own language of sound and movement? The opening night, sold-out crowd was on its feet, cheering the cast with rhythmic applause. Whether with effect or substance, the dance worked its own kind of magic.



2 octobre: Frederick Rzewski at Bastille Amphithéâtre


Charles Ives comes to me this morning…the certain vibratory hum of Concord… And here in Paris, I am surrounded by pendulums, by the sound of my own body alone so often, sitting, in my room, or as I was, yesterday, in a cathedral, listening to an organist rehearsing, having my own dome lifted upwards on arpeggios towards bone-white arches scooped out from the clouds and hung there by the Compagnons du Devoir centuries ago.  The marvel that they still stand! I sit, swaying slightly, marking the trajectories of the pendulum along my spine, and weaving a fine needlepoint embroidery of mobius strips under my tailbone and onto my seat between my sitting bones. I watched, with the other tourists, the simulation/replacement for Foucault’s original experiment yesterday at le Panthéon, that hideous monument to patriotism and arrogant pride. Were they, too, swaying in their seats, on their tired feet, while trying to retrace with me Foucault’s logic, his comprehension of the earth’s rotations from some theoretically “still” point above, high up in the dome, the pendulum marking by degrees the mathematical formula within the measured circle?


Crowds will be swaying this weekend in Paris, at the various Nuits Blanches festivities all over town, at parties, raves, dance performances and light shows. I will sway, my ear sways this morning between waves of noise lifting from the street up to my windows on the 4th floor, between momentary lulls and then the accumulation and thickening of automobile engines, the Metro rumbling underground setting my building and its foundations into a vibration that quickens, intensifies, grows louder, then passes.


Or sitting so still last night, listening to American pianist/composer Frederick Rzewski spin his pianistic trances at the Bastille Amphitheatre. He performed his  Nanosonatas, pour piano Livres V (2008), VII (2009-2010) & VIII (2010), followed after an intermission by all 36 variations of his 1976 epic, The People United Will Never be Defeated. I found myself inundated, swaying within the sustained oscillations of his rarely predictable chordal progressions, or the sudden eruptions and disruptions of tonal sequences run amok or finding other fractal-like patterns to follow, to fall into, to be pulled into or by, impulses, neural threads, mappings, behaviors brought into pure sound and gesture, gesture as sound as gesture, gesture as its own complex system, from origins in the mind, the will, to the messages telling to body to react, to activate the synapses, connections, and actions necessary to fulfill or carry out that impulse/desire, to enter into dialogue with the moment, to build a feedback/ loping rhythm that generates its own momentum, to act out, play the instrument of that moment which is the body in the world. All told by sound. Phrasing, shudders, sentences strung like muscle fiber to support a skeleton that gradually takes on mass, weight, gravity, and emerges and sways, at first somewhat cumbersome, but becoming graceful, refined, infinitely microscopic in its motor response, and taking on the being of this composer, this man, this life of making music, this particular grace.


In retrospect, I suppose what I can generalize from all this is that we embody our own ways of sounding the rotations of the earth, of gravity’s subtle currents as we swim upwards into verticality and life, resonating through the medium that speaks to us and for us, whether that be through sound, light, form, color, words, or the body’s movement. Or bearing children, for that matter! Fathers and Mothers of the World, Unite! Whitman really got it.


Back to the Ives connection: In all my experience dancing to Ives and listening enraptured to his music, I sense a fascination with the physics of listening, hearing, and of feeling both micro and macrocosmic vibration simultaneously in an acutely American (New England Transcendentalist) state of mind. (I remember perusing the issues of “The American Mind” that would come to our home, that no one would read, but that I would wander through, trying to locate some idea I could cling to, that would identify me as having an American mind—like Whitman’s Patient Spider.) For Rzewski, almost exactly a century later, his Nanosonatas bend Ives (and pointillism, and the bold, brash but densely edged and textured gestures of abstract expressionism) like fractals through a prism of 20th century physics, social upheavals, personal histories, the globalization of esthetic borderlines and, for a supremely gifted composer/pianist, the dilemma of dealing with a (largely Western) musical inheritance of such magnitude that, for one man to embody the task or role of entering the recital hall on 2010 to take it on, I can only think of some Nietzschean Superman or a superhero more like a keyboard Neo of The Matrix.

And Frederick is, after all, a native of Massachusetts.


There is the dilemma of whether we, either in our listening or in the act of creating, embody or endow sound (or movement) with expression, metaphor, a program or message.


From Charles Ives—Essays Before a Sonata:


On the other hand is not all music, program-music,—is not pure music, so called, representative in its essence? Is it not program-music raised to the nth power or rather reduced to the minus nth power? Where is the line to be drawn between the expression of subjective and objective emotion? It is easier to know what each is than when each becomes what it is. The “Separateness of Art” theory—that art is not life but a reflection of it—“that art is not vital to life but that life is vital to it,” does not help us. Nor does Thoreau who says not that “life is art,” but that “life is an art,” which of course is a different thing than the foregoing.


But I think I’ll leave that for another time…  It’s over my head.

My favorite passage from this important essay by Ives is often printed in the actual piano score of The Concord Sonata: “Thoreau “:

…His meditations ar