Dance Matters

January 21, 2007

Hawaiian festivals, Aix gets axed, Rainer does Stravinsky, Dance Place’s 25th



The Hawaiian Scene: Grass Skirts and Dancing Geckos

Hawaii may be a vacation paradise, but the state is rapidly gaining a reputation for its cultural offerings, too. Among a wide range of dance attractions, hula is still the predominant style, with hundreds of halau (schools) throughout the islands. An international level festival takes place every spring in Hilo on the island of Hawaii at The Merrie Monarch Festival. Now in its 43rd year, this celebration honors King David Kalakaua, whose love for that dance form stimulated its revival during his reign from 1874 to 1891. The festival runs April 16–22; the final three days will be devoted to competitions. Visitors from around the world enjoy watching hundreds of dancers compete for awards in the Miss Aloha Hula contest and the kahiko (old) and ’auana (contemporary) styles.


Another project of note is the Hawaiian Islands Tap Dance Festival, an occasional event which takes place this November at the Maui Arts & Cultural Center in Kahalui. Featuring Lynn Dally, director of the Jazz Tap Ensemble, and Jason Samuels Smith, the festival is expected to attract tappers from both sides of the Pacific.


Hawaii’s dance culture is by no means restricted to hula and tap. Every one of the state’s diverse communities has its own dance company. Superb groups like Eric Wada’s Okinawan ensemble, Ukwanshin Rabudan Ryuku Performing Arts Group, Kenny Endo’s Taiko Ensemble, and Mary Jo Freshley’s Halla Huhm Korean Dance Studio add spice to our rich dance diet.


Several ballet companies and schools also call Hawaii home. While John Landovsky’s Hawaii State Ballet performs monthly at Honolulu’s Ala Moana Shopping Center, Ballet Hawaii acts as both performing group and presenter, bringing major international companies to the islands. It also produced a charming Coppélia last season, importing San Francisco Ballet dancers Joan Boada and Amanda Schull for the leads. Nutcracker season in Honolulu offers the opportunity to view four different versions, including that by Honolulu Dance Theatre, whose Hawaiian Nutcracker Ballet, set in Kalakaua’s court, includes variations for dancing geckos and menehune (little people).


Modern dance continues to develop in Hawaii. Longtime residents Betty Jones (a former lead dancer in José Limón’s company, see “Teachers Wisdom,” April 2005) and Fritz Ludin remain two of Honolulu’s favorite teachers. The excellent dance program at the University of Hawaii, Manoa, directed by Gregg Lizenbery, is the other major training center for modern dancers. It focuses on technique, choreography, and dance ethnology. Guest artists like Korea’s Jeong Ho Nam and Yun-sok Yi, Malaysia’s Ramli Ibraham, Germany’s Claudia Jeschke, and Americans Chuck Davis, Joe Goode, and Joann Kealiinohomoku augment the core curriculum. The university’s faculty-directed dance programs are of a highly professional caliber, and student showcases provide the opportunity to discover emerging artists. The school offers a Bachelor as well as a Master of Fine Arts degree in dance.


Two major modern dance companies in Honolulu present works of unique styles. Cheryl Flaharty’s IONA Contemporary Dance Company blends modern and butoh, and often produces site-specific pieces. Flaharty’s latest work, Electric Blue, has been stunning audiences on local beaches since December; the full-length version comes to the Hawaii Theatre this month. Peter Rockford Espiritu’s Tau Dance Theater fuses Pacific/Asian movement traditions with Western theatrical disciplines. Tau Dance Theater, celebrating its 10th year, is the only professional modern dance company in Hawaii directed by a native Pacific Islander. Since its founding, TDT has maintained a Hawaii-based professional dance repertoire while providing substantial educational outreach activities.


Hawaii still promises sun and sand, but dance lovers planning to visit our islands need not spend all their waking hours baking on the beaches. —Carol Egan


Aix and Pains on the French Dance Scene

In November, against the dramatic backdrop of a rioting nation, Aix-en-Provence’s mayor, Maryse Joissans-Masini, confirmed the demise of the 29-year-old summer festival, “Danse à Aix.” She defended her surprise announcement that the festival’s funding would be absorbed by Ballet Preljocaj, a neighbor in this historic town in the South of France.


“We want to clarify the cultural activity in our city,” said the mayor on her decision to consolidate subsidies. The announcement, which came shortly after applause had died for the 2005 edition, and only six weeks before “Danse à Aix” was scheduled to begin planning for its 30th anniversary celebration, had the effect of a bomb exploding in the heart of the French contemporary dance community.


Created in 1977 by Ginette Escoffier, “Danse à Aix” was formed by a group of individuals eager to see dance proliferate in their city. When their initial funding trickled in, that dream became a reality. Major American companies—Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Trisha Brown, Alwin Nikolais—performed over the years. With the delightful summers typical to the region, and the lack of appropriate theaters, dance quite naturally became a part of the city’s streets, giving birth to outdoor rehearsals and performances. “Danse à Aix” introduced a practice that has now become common across the nation.


“We would go to the market,” commented Annette Paulet, a festival administrator, “and encounter dancers there. It was very familial, very close, passionate, and motivating.”


Over time, the festival introduced a host of young, experimental performers. Poyet believed in welcoming audiences of all social and economic levels. “It is through accessible cultural activities that we can touch people, perhaps give them a new perspective on life,” he said.


Despite the protests, it is inevitable that the internationally acclaimed Ballet Preljocaj, and its new dance center, Le Pavillon Noir, will benefit from funds the city had previously allocated to the festival. Scheduled to open last September, but stalled by an 18-month construction delay, the center will likely be inaugurated in late 2006.


Company founder Angelin Preljocaj’s response to the funding realignment was tactful. “I thought the mayor’s decision was made in agreement with ‘Danse à Aix.’ I had no idea that it was imposed without prior notice,” he said. Although Preljocaj believes that a festival and his company can co-exist in the same city, he has no intention of imposing festival planning on his administrative staff.


As Ballet Preljocaj further defines itself as a beacon in this touristy university town, “Danse à Aix” will disappear. One can only wonder: Is this the first in a long series of budget cuts that mark the beginning of the end of diversity in French contemporary dance? —Karyn Bauer-Prévost


Yes to Virtuosity!

Yvonne Rainer made her mark in the 1960s as an extraordinary champion of ordinary movement in contemporary dance. Yet, she’s basing her new work (only her second dance in 30 years) on a landmark ballet by one of the 20th century’s most technically demanding choreographers—Balanchine’s Agon, made to a commissioned Stravinsky score in 1957. “I’ve always loved that dance. I must have seen it pretty much when it first came out,” says Rainer.


She chose Agon (which means “contest”) as her point of departure for her contribution to Dance Theater Workshop’s “Sourcing Stravinsky” project. However, audiences won’t see a reconstruction of the ballet. “It’s an appropriation,” says Rainer.


Both pieces are plotless. Balanchine’s Agon featured four classically trained male and eight female dancers. Rainer’s piece, AG Indexical, with a little help from H.M., enlists four female dancers, of which only one, Emily Coates, is a classically trained ballerina, a former member of New York City Ballet. (AG in the title stands for Agon; HM is Henry Mancini, whose music is also used.)


The structure of Agon was inspired by manuals of 17th century French court dance. But Balanchine stretched the classical ballet idiom through a modern sensibility in a work that is spectacularly studded with angular configurations of the body. “It reveals Balanchine’s eclectic relation to ballet,” says Rainer. “The use of arms, hands, and hips, his popular jazz antecedents, his influences. It’s a very lively dance.”


While creating her version of Agon, Rainer skipped over sections of the score that she found less interesting or malleable, but she embraces much of the technicality of the original dance, utilizing it as a provocation. “I am both displaying virtuosity and challenging notions of virtuosity,” she says, explaining why she used three postmodern women—the highly individual choreographers Sally Silvers, Pat Catterson, and Patricia Hoffbauer—to dance with Coates.


“They can’t jump as high. They’re not able to get their legs up to their ears,” says Rainer, who will also make a cameo appearance. “And that is the whole point, I think. You have to give up your standards of competence. What Sally does is just as interesting as what Emily does. And just as beautiful. So the traditional standards of perfection and beauty are undermined.”


As a co-founder of Judson Dance Theater, Rainer advocated the idea that everyday movements, like running or falling, could be as much a part of a dance vocabulary as more technically challenging feats. She loved to break up the expected flow. She inspired an entire generation of postmodern choreographers to repudiate virtuosity, glamour, spectacle, and the other conventions of ballet and modern dance. However, Rainer insists that her particular approach, “was never meant to be a prescriptive for choreography.”


Having turned away from dance in 1975 to concentrate on filmmaking (and became a prominent experimental filmmaker), Rainer was commissioned by Mikhail Baryshnikov in 2000 to choreograph for his White Oak Dance Project (See “Misha’s New Passion,” December 2000). Her After Many a Summer Dies the Swan combined pedestrian and traditional dance movements; the mix contributed to the work’s intentionally disjointed and unpredictable quality. At one Brooklyn Academy of Music performance, there were boos as well as bravos. “In my eyes, that was a plus,” says Rainer. —Ann Farmer


Dance Place Turns 25

Just up North Capitol Street from the seat of the government in Washington, D.C. is a soul-nurturing haven with some of the most exciting dance in the country.


At Dance Place one clear, crisp evening last fall, two dancers, accompanied by pulsing cello sounds, entwined their bodies around airborne hoops in an ethereal vertical dance. Two more performers began movements that were completed by their projected images in a mind-bending fusion of live dance and video.


This anniversary performance, a brilliant mix of current dance forms—aerial, video, tap, and modern—showcased the broad spectrum of talent that has become a Dance Place signature. The center is celebrating its 25th birthday.


Every weekend, 44 weeks a year, Dance Place founder Carla Perlo opens up her “house” for performances of such cutting-edge artists as Nejla Yatkin, Rennie Harris, Ronald K. Brown, Bebe Miller, and Joe Goode. This season’s lineup alone includes Marc Bamuthi Joseph, Donna Uchizono, and Art Bridgman and Myrna Packer.


Backstage on this night, you find Perlo ironing white tablecloths for the first dinner-theater fundraiser in the center’s history—a West African dance concert honoring Kwanza by one of the resident companies, Coyaba Dance Theater. (Carla and Company and Deborah Riley Dance Projects are also resident). “I have to work as we talk,” she says.


“Twenty-five years ago, there wasn’t a studio theater in D.C. for contemporary and African dance—my two passions,” Perlo recalls. “I wanted to teach, choreograph, and rehearse, and I wanted a theater to perform in. I also wanted to see local and other contemporary dance artists who were not performing in Washington because there wasn’t a presenter or space for them.”


How far has Dance Place come in 25 years? The organization’s staff has grown from 2 to 13, with two offices, a childrens’ center, a studio, and studio/theater. Its budget has increased from $150,000 to $940,000. Its current building, a converted metal-welding workshop, has a reasonable mortgage of $200,000, and Dance Place enjoys financial stability with revenue from performances and classes, and grants from government, corporate, and private donors.


In addition to a venue for experimenting artists, Perlo has created a nurturing atmosphere with a reverence for partnerships, which is central to Dance Place’s mission. Partnerships exist both within the organization—Perlo co-directs Dance Place with Riley—and with other artists, presenters, and theaters, including co-commissions with organizations like the National Performance Network. “By nature, the field is competitive, and sharing resources hasn’t been a driving force,” says Perlo. “But we can all benefit from this and advance to new heights and in new directions.”


Another priority is developing talent, says Perlo. “We’re really about nurturing artists and young dancers, helping to educate and uplift the field in a cooperative, less competitive environment.” Harris, Brown, Eiko & Koma, and Donald Byrd all benefited from Dance Place’s supportive atmosphere early in their careers.


Besides work/study and internship programs for emerging artists, Dance Place also offers nondance classes, ranging from horticulture to computer skills, for children from low-income families. “We are grassroots and family-oriented, and we are also a nationally recognized presenter,” says Perlo. “It’s hard to be both. You have to have a broad range of experience and sensibilities.”


Perlo’s efforts have not gone unappreciated. Sali Ann Kriegsman, former director of the Dance Program at the National Endowment of the Arts and former executive director of Jacob’s Pillow, says “Although modest in size, Dance Place has had an enormous impact on the development of dance and dancers in the Washington area, and is vital to the circulation of dance, nationally and internationally.” —Andrea Huber


One Dancer’s Triumph

Technically, chemotherapy gets the credit for curing Fabrice Lamego’s skin cancer—but dance was the real medicine that saved this artist, and kept him fighting for health.


A 29-year-old Guadelupe native, Lamego arrived in New York in 1997 on a French government scholarship. “I love travel, and because of dance, I can,” he said. While attending The Ailey School he auditioned for Elisa Monte Dance and soon became a member of the renowned company.


Six months after he joined, Monte created a solo for Lamego, titled Run to the Rock, a tribute to Alvin Ailey. When the company returned from a tour of Portugal in August 2001, he had his first indication that something wasn’t right. “I came back and I had this coughing,” he said. “I just thought because we were in the mountains, it was a cold.” Lamego had paid no attention to a small lesion on his neck. But as the cough persisted, he visited his doctor who came back with a startling diagnosis. Five months of chemotherapy began immediately.


The chemotherapy attacked the cancer, but took its toll on Lamego’s strong dancer’s body. Once capable of rehearsing five hours a day and then performing four to five pieces a night, he lost weight and became too weak to practice. “It was really painful—physically—but painful morally because I couldn’t dance anymore,” he said. “The company had a tour in South America and I couldn’t do anything.”


But Monte had already witnessed how the focus on dance—at whatever level—has kept people like Lamego “sane, healthy, and alive. I often wonder,” she said, “about those who don’t have a passion for something.”


In spite of his illness, Lamego accepted Monte’s offer to serve as company rehearsal director. “I didn’t want him to feel as if his life was ending. It was transforming,” Monte said. Lamego also began practicing yoga. His weakened body wouldn’t allow him to do many of the postures, including simple sun salutations, but basic stretches and movement offered him two gifts—a chance to rebuild muscular strength and the hope he could resume his career.


But first, chemotherapy struck its final two blows: nerve damage to Lamego’s extremities and kidney failure. “Dialysis means you have to go every day and I cannot tour and I cannot dance again,” he said. Soon, however, he began to rebound. Within a year, his kidneys were nearly functional. And despite nerve damage, he put one foot in front of the other, and returned to the stage.

Few people knew that Lamego was about to perform that night at New York’s Joyce Theater. But he had found his true home again. He danced a three-minute solo titled, ironically, Lost Things.


Monte stood in the wings, watching and crying, as Lamego glided back into the spotlight. “He had the audacity to push through, get himself out there—all that is the spark of life,” Monte said. “It was great, a triumphant moment.” —Kris Hains


Oakland Ballet Folds

Only months after celebrating its 40th birthday, the Oakland Ballet announced Jan. 31 that it was dissolving immediately, thereby ending a historic chapter in both the Bay Area and American dance. The principal culprit in the company’s closure was financing.


Box office revenue at the end of the critically commended 2005 fall season came up $129,000 short of projections. Oakland had previously gone on hiatus in 2004-05 in order to undertake a (successful) $500,000 fundraising campaign.


Karen Brown, the former Dance Theatre of Harlem dancer who became Oakland Ballet’s artistic director in 2000, noted that “the company was in the eye of the perfect storm.” Although individual donors had pledged $160,000 for the 2006 season, the city of Oakland added to the woes by permanently shutting the Calvin Simmons Theater, to which the company had relocated after its hiatus.


Long before Brown’s arrival, the Oakland Ballet had secured a place in the annals. Under founding artistic director Ronn Guidi, who retired abruptly in 1999, the company undertook an ambitious series of revivals and reconstructions of repertoire commissioned by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, culminating in the first U.S. production of Bronislava Nijinska’s Les Noces in 1981. Classic American ballets were also programmed. At Guidi’s invitation, dance legends Léonide Massine, Anna Sokolow, Ruthanna Boris, and Eugene Loring came to Oakland to stage their dances.


Brown is looking ahead: “I firmly believe that there will come the right time, place, and financial circumstances for the return of a dance company based in Oakland serving the multicultural needs of the city.” —Allan Ulrich