Are We Blinded by Certain Choreographers’ Annoying Habits?

July 24, 2011

During Armitage Gone! Dance’s performance at SummerStage last week, every time a dancer split her legs wide open facing the audience, it was almost like she was saying hello from the crotch. It’s an unseemly way to greet the audience, but I just said to myself, “Karole loves extensions to excess, but I’ll keep my eyes open so I can see what she really has to offer choreographically.”

If you’re not crazy about her work in the first place, you’ll just be turned off by that particular habit, as Claudia La Rocco was in her recent Times review. But if you feel even slightly favorable toward her work, you can get beyond that habit and see the work for its strength. Armitage has a really strong, distinctive woman’s voice in dance, as I said in my review—and that’s rare. Her choreography, especially in partnering, is consistently inventive.

Some habits are more accepted than others. For instance, Balanchine had a habit of starting a pas de deux with the man courteously offering the woman his hand. That’s fine, but when you start to see it in most of his ballets, you realize it’s a habit reminiscent of the time when ballet came out of the royal courts. Many people like that kind of politeness in ballet, even crave it. But for me it distances me from it; I see it as referring to a time of chivalry gone by—even an avoidance of the present. However, a lot of critics either don’t notice it, or find comfort in it, or are willing to get beyond it.

Likewise, in Cunningham’s work, one of the habits in certain pieces is the minimal use of arms. Certainly Merce was more interested in bodies cutting through space than devising a wide range of arm movements. But for me, that lack of arms diminishes the expressiveness of his movement. Of course, it does not bother most people.

Another example is Paul Taylor’s cheerfulness. Many of his works start with a bouncy, cheery section that sets you up for a dramatic change to the more serious, sometimes mysterious section. Personally, I’m not crazy about that reliably light-hearted opening. But I wait it out because I know something more interesting is on its way.

Take Jorma Elo. He has a habit of putting a certain hand to mouth gesture into many ballets. That, plus the women pulling back into the pelvis, whereby they almost flaunt a sway back, is  overused. These stylistic things are hallmarks of his vocabulary. You get used to them and then look for what is different about a particular piece.

We all have habits that we can’t control. Other people’s habits don’t bother us unless we have a basic dislike for their work. I wish that choreographers would take a stronger hand in controlling their habits so that their strengths are more visible, and I wish equally that critics would not be blinded by minor habits to the real worth of a choreographer.