Two Views of “Unrelated Solos”
Baryshnikov Arts Center, NYC • May 19–22, 2010
Reviewed by Elizabeth Kendall
The evening’s name was “Unrelated Solos”—three solo guys, one dancing commissioned work, two, their own. No structural logic. The only thing Barsyhnikov, Paxton, and Neumann have in common is they’ve all been around the block. Yet here they are, still onstage.
That was Benjamin Millepied’s subject, in the first solo, Years Later. A slightly shrunken Baryshnikov, in khakis and jazz shoes—blond-gray hair, chiseled jaw—ambled out from the wings and danced amiably in front of his filmed younger self spewing out jumps and pirouettes. It’s a one-(unsubtle)-idea piece. But the precision of the live Baryshnikov’s noodling, his almost grim inner largesse (as if reticence and beatitude exist in the same theatrical persona), offers the audience real spiritual food.
Then came Steve Paxton’s The Beast. Heavens, thinks the viewer, both guys have shrunk. Paxton, thin in sweatpants and curiously feminine black tank top over a tee, began his turtle-head-peering, torso-snaking, hands-spasticking solo inside an oval of light, sometimes moving outside of it, to mild popping sounds. With neat goatee, close-cropped hair, and glittering eyes, he looked like a hermit in a private wilderness.
Two grizzled veterans, showing the scars of exploration. Here is where an audience member seizes on “unrelatedness” and makes a symmetry. Baryshnikov, ballet king who apprenticed himself to the questing Judsonites, offers his body again to the whims of a young ballet colleague. Paxton, Judson king who went off to the mountains, comes back to the city with sleek stagecraft. We’re in the presence of rare theatrical humility—of two opposite kinds. But are Baryshnikov and Paxton so different? Two uncompromising lives; two guys who’ve somehow maintained, through fame and temptation, the purity of their personal stages.
The third soloist, David Neumann, can’t match them. In Dose and Tough the Tough (redux), he shows us, first, some offhand acrobatics (whirling over chairs, pivoting on his head), then slows, both times, to inert movement-philosophizing—sorry, audience, no more fun—matched to wiseguy soundtracks (Tom Waits for the first dance, Will Eno for the second). Neumann oozes the “offhand” ego that’s magically absent from the personae of the other two.
The evening, finally, takes the shape of a club sandwich, with Baryshnikov’s three numbers the bread, Paxton’s one, the meat, Neumann’s two, the mayonnaise. But what artisanal bread it is, that encases the whole. In the middle solo, by Ratmansky, Baryshnikov portrays the ballroom agonies of young Glinka, composer of Valse Fantasie—his dancing body revealing the haunted waltz. In the final number, another “idea” piece, by Susan Marshall, but this time with resonances (of space, time, history beyond this moment), Baryshnikov invites three embarrassed viewers onstage one by one. Each sits in a chair, watching him do mild dance-swashbuckling, until, at the end, he sits himself in the fourth chair, at home in his own theater.
Reviewed by MJ Thompson
How do you hold onto competing ideas and not go nuts? Practice. In “Unrelated Solos,” three artists divided by generation, technique, and fanbase came together, challenging viewers with their range of approaches.
David Neumann, wearing business suit and sneakers in Dose (1996) and Tough the Tough (redux) (2006 and 2010), chose material that illuminated his background in theater. Dose, for example, is a sharp portrait of a con artist: a minstrel act that unfolds in a spotlight to Tom Waits’ “Step Right Up.” Playing to the audience, Neumann experiments with laying bare the theater’s need to please. But here a smile morphs into distortion, as fingers pull back cheeks. Or a super-fast soft-shoe slows down into a measured pop-and-lock. “Who is that guy?” said a member of the audience. Like the love child of Gene Kelly and Andy Warhol, Neumann combines athleticism with postmodern know-how; kinetic ease with irony; sucker punches with sublimely crafted pastiche.
In three commissioned solos, Baryshnikov dealt lightly with the burden of history. Years Later (2006), by Benjamin Millepied, takes on the glory days, with Misha dancing in front of archival footage of himself performing as a younger man. Valse-Fantasie (2009), by Alexei Ratmansky, deadpans the melodrama of a love affair soon forgotten in a kitsch spin on the story ballet. Closing the program with Susan Marshall’s For You, the most compelling of his solos, Baryshnikov invites three members of the crowd to sit onstage in chairs as he dances before them. He singles them out, turns away, returns his gaze to the larger audience, disappears behind the fly. It’s a neat demonstration of the audience’s desire both to be seen and to hide out, as much as the performer’s.
Steve Paxton’s The Beast (2010) is a tough-minded, minimalist solo based on his research into movement for the spine. The 71-year-old Paxton walks out into a rotating, oval pool of light and begins working. Periods of silence alternate with sound that could be water droplets or sonic feedback but in fact are the mysterious utterances of red bats. Wearing sweatpants, slippers, and a muscle shirt, Paxton performs without apparent interest in communication of any kind. What can the spine do? he seems to ask. This inner exploration results in unusual configurations of shoulder, arms, and torso, in a steady flow unmarked by dynamics or phrasing. He makes shapes, some vaguely familiar, like the pull-back of a pitcher about to throw. But the work’s magnetic appeal lies in the deeply disturbing way it resists understanding. Movement stands alone, until Paxton’s depth of concentration produces its own effect.
With Neumann the bridge between Baryshnikov’s theatrical dance and Paxton’s research-based improv, the night encouraged rumination on different dance traditions. By means of context, it helped clarify the notion of star presence as experienced, exacting artists making choices, thinking on their feet.
Martha Graham Dance Company
Joyce Theater, NYC
June 8–13, 2010
Reviewed by Lynn Garafola
Context is the Graham company’s new buzzword. A year ago that meant supertitles describing the action in Graham’s Clytemnestra. This year it means spotlighting the radical politics of her work of the 1930s. With curated programs (five in one week) to “provide audiences with new points of access to the art form,” MGDC, according to its latest press release, intends to take its cue from the art world and become a “living museum,” preserving not just its founder’s legacy but the classics of modern dance generally.
The two programs I saw accomplished this with varying degrees of success. American Document (2010), a partnership with Anne Bogart’s SITI Company, is a remake of Graham’s long-lost American Document—a meditation on what it meant to be an American in 1938, with readings from the Declaration of Independence, Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, and the sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Charles L. Mee, who wrote the new script, never quite finds equivalents of those iconic texts, and he wastes too much time evoking yesteryear’s small-town America with readings (one from Green Grow the Lilacs, the play that inspired Oklahoma!) that fail to convey the radicalism of Graham’s ideas of democracy and racial justice. Mee is on surer ground in the second half, where he stitches together a critique of the Iraq War, anti-immigration hysteria, the health care system, homophobia, and AIDS policies that the Graham of the 1930s would surely have supported.
Bogart deftly melds her performers into a single unit. Dancers speak and actors move—including Leon Ingulsrud, the descendant of Graham’s interlocutor—with unexpected facility. Signature Graham phrases, contributed by the dancers, run through the piece, eloquent and liberated in their new context. James Schuette puts everyone in individualized street clothes, and this, coupled with the varied body types and voices of dancers with accents from around the world, conveys a vision of multicultural harmony.
“Dance is a Weapon,” conceived by MGDC artistic director Janet Eilber, exemplifies the company’s new themed approach. Linked by a media montage created by scholars Victoria Geduld and Ellen Graff, “Weapon” moves from an uneven series of Graham-era “political” solos to a reconstruction of Panorama, a fascinating 1935 work danced by 31 students from the Graham School, Talent Unlimited High School Dancers, and All-City Dancers. The program culminated in a thrilling rendition of Steps in the Street (which distills and intensifies themes from Panorama) and Prelude to Action, led by a stunning Jennifer DePalo. Casting men in solos originated by Isadora Duncan and other women seems to undermine the idea of historical context.
Eilber deserves a lot of credit for taking chances on these kinds of curated programs. And, perhaps even more, she deserves praise for giving so many public high school students the chance to experience and perform Graham’s work.
Pictured: Blakeley White-McGuire in
American Document (2010)