Debra Levine is a Los Angeles dance critic/historian published in the Los Angeles Times, La Opinion, Long Beach Press Telegram, andSouth China Morning Post. As a specialist in the choreographer Jack Cole, she was recently interviewed for the BBC World Service. Debra curated All That Jack (Cole), an film retrospective at the Museum of Modern Art. She co-hosted, with Robert Osborne, Choreography by Jack Cole, a full-evening broadcast on Turner Classic Movies (TCM). She has produced and hosted dance-on-film events at MoMA, Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, Jacob's Pillow, UCLA Film & Television Archive, and Dance Camera West. Debra was a Fellow at the NYU Center for Ballet and the Arts and twice a Fellow at NEA Arts Journalism Institutes and at Jacob's Pillow. Debra is editor/publisher of arts•meme, the fine-arts blog she founded in 2008.
There's a type of dance you've never heard of: It's called "classical ballet." The progenitors included Mathilde Kschessinska, Vaslav Nijinsky and Anna Pavlova. The art form passed through generations from Margot Fonteyn, Rudolf Nureyev to Mikhail Baryshnikov. It continues in our own time—Misty Copeland!
It would be far-fetched, even absurd, to hear that in a lecture today! But that is how revelatory "The Choreography of Comedy: The Art of Eccentric Dance" was, at the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences in Los Angeles on August 5.
The evening program rediscovered a once-flourishing, but critically undervalued dance genre with deep historic roots. Betsy Baytos, an eccentric-dance expert and leading connoisseur of the loose-limbed, rubbery, out-of-joint, prat-fallish, snake-hipped and peg-legged, hosted and curated.
You can see them in "Fosse/Verdon" episode one. Michelle Williams, playing Gwen Verdon, wears them with a cool, retro, forest-green jumpsuit. Tucked beneath a mop top of tousled Gwen Verdon locks, Williams sports a pair of discreet and tasteful onyx drop-earrings—the dancer's favorites. Verdon wore them all her adult life, according to her daughter Nicole Fosse, a co-executive producer of the FX series that puts a spotlight on a great woman of American dance.
"I have very little memory of my mother wearing other earrings. They were her Gwen Verdon earrings," says Fosse, speaking by phone from her home in Vermont. "She's wearing them in 99 percent of the pictures of her performing."
The Segerstrom Center for the Arts. Photo by RMA Photography, Courtesy SCFTA.
On California’s huge map, Costa Mesa forms a relative pinprick. But for the past 25 years, the Orange County city has been a beacon of international ballet, as world-class troupes perform at the House that Henry (Segerstrom) Built 45 miles south of L.A.
Segerstrom Center for the Arts, situated on a former lima bean field donated by the family of the 88-year-old real estate magnate, comprises four arts spaces, with the Orange County Museum of Art soon to join the campus. The heart of the complex is the 3,000-seat Segerstrom Hall, which was inaugurated in September 1986 and celebrates its 25th anniversary season this fall.
“We started with a strong commitment from the community and our board,” says executive vice president Judy Morr. “When Henry got involved, he made it fly.”
With its generous stage and fine sightlines, Segerstrom Hall represents the West Coast’s paramount house for dance. Under the leadership of Morr, one of the nation’s most sophisticated dance presenters, ABT has been a regular presence, and other biggies like NYCB, Paris Opéra Ballet, and the Royal have been frequent visitors, along with the Teatro alla Scala Ballet Company, Ballet Nacional de Cuba, Hamburg Ballet, and Aterballetto.
The Center has special ties with the Russians. The Kirov appeared the year the Berlin Wall fell, in 1989, and the Bolshoi and Eifman quickly followed. Today’s Russian-star–studded extravaganzas, co-produced by Ardani Artists and specially developed for the Center, have included “Diana Vishneva: Beauty in Motion” and “Kings of the Dance.”
The 2011–12 season features the world premiere of Ratmansky’s The Firebird for ABT, San Francisco Ballet, Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, and a new edition of “Kings.” The Access for All program allocates $10 tickets for selected shows, and community programs reach approximately 375,000 students each year.
“This Center has had a core of dance that grew up with the community. It’s been a community that has responded to the best. But I believe people cannot help but respond to dance,” says Morr.
Cunningham sends up his first boss, Martha Graham, in Antic Meet (1958). Photo by Anna Finke, courtesy MCDC.
In 2000, Merce Cunningham began to weigh his options for the fate of his life’s work. And then, one month before the choreographer died in 2009, his foundation announced a “Legacy Plan.”
Intended to avoid the disastrous legal squabbles of the Martha Graham Dance Company in the 1990s, the plan provides a road map to ensure the continued life of Cunningham’s oeuvre while also making the announcement of the phased shutdown of the Merce Cunningham Dance Company. The two-year Legacy Tour has already traveled to more than 20 cities and will wind down with a final performance in New York on Dec. 31. On that bittersweet New Year’s Eve, the remarkable ensemble, a creative engine for the last half of the 20th century, will disband.
Dancer Robert Swinston, MCDC director of choreography, describes how he’s coping with the coming change: “I’m trying to stay in the present and in the moment. I know an end game is there; in the meantime I have plenty to do.”
Four core activities make up the plan: the world tour; severance packages for dancers and staff; digital preservation of works as “dance capsules”; and the transfer of assets, administration, and licensing to the trust. Swinston, joined by former dancer Patricia Lent, lawyer Allan G. Sperling, and John Cage Trust director Laura Kuhn, are trustees.
Inevitably, fissures have surfaced. Most glaring was a public protest by Cunningham school students, out of concern that the 11th-floor studio at the Westbeth Artists Housing Complex would likely close along with the foundation that administers it.
Christiana Axelsen, pursuing a college-accredited certificate at the school, led the protest. “One day they just told us the studio would be closed, that we shouldn’t count on getting our certificates,” she says. “The international students were freaking out about their work-study visas.”
Group meetings and the launch of a “Students for Cunningham” Facebook page led to an online petition garnering more than 4,000 signatures from around the world.
Cunningham’s creative activity at Westbeth enabled the foundation to allocate the cost of running the studio, which has never been self-supporting, as overhead expense in company budgets. Says Lent, “I have a great interest in having a studio, but I cannot guarantee it will be at Westbeth. We are working on a proposal to create a separate non-profit organization devoted to creating a center where people who are staging the works can come and meet others. I’m optimistic.”
Overseeing the restaging of classic MCDC works for the Legacy Tour, Robert Swinston pored over Cunningham’s notebooks, video renderings, and his own memory, and invited former company members to set certain pieces. The restaged masterworks, cherry-picked from across five decades, make a Cunningham aficionado salivate: Pond Way from the ’90s; Roaratorio, Duets, and Quartet from the ’80s; Squaregame from the ’70s; and from the ’60s, the iconic RainForest.
Antic Meet (1958), a series of 10 vaudeville-style sketches that famously sends up Martha Graham (Cunningham’s first boss)—along with Suite for Five (1956–58)—will be performed at New York’s Joyce Theater March 22–27. Robert Rauschenberg’s idiosyncratic costumes, deemed too fragile for touring and performance, were copied: parachute dresses, a four-sleeved sweater with no neck hole, and a chair originally strapped to Cunningham’s back. A peerless trio of MCDC doyennes, Sandra Neels (who staged the piece), Carolyn Brown, and Valda Setterfield, coached the younger generation in Antic Meet.
The massive “dance capsule” archiving project, digitizing the data of more than 50 works, also advances. The capsules include videos, restaging information, rehearsal footage, Cunningham’s notes, lighting and costume information, and even program copy. The licensing process, overseen by the foundation for years, will find stronger footing based on the capsule material. Universities are key clients (Rutgers, University of Michigan, Chapman University, and Cornish College of the Arts are recent examples), melding well with Cunningham “events,” a more flexible performance framework that draws from the repertoire.
Speaking from France, where the company has forged deep ties, executive director Trevor Carlson muses, “It’s been a cheerful time, seeing the last group of dancers Merce trained perform together. At the same time, it’s fraught with feelings. There’s not one singular emotion. There are a lot of emotions.” —Debra Levine