What's So Funny?
Since he will have the last word, we might as well give Paul Taylor the first word, too.
“All comedy that is really successful,” said the great choreographer in a British TV interview, “is based on a very serious condition in the state of humanity.”
Which may explain why Taylor can look back on a half century of seeing the world from the vantage point of a bemused visitor from a parallel universe. It explains, too, how Taylor, as he enters his ninth decade, can turn out unerring satiric gems, like Also Playing, which will receive its New York premiere during the Paul Taylor Dance Company’s home season at New York City Center (February 24 through March 14).
Not that Taylor is the jester of the dance world (although he dressed like a jester in his early Piece Period). In the 56 years of his company’s existence, he has conjured masterworks from pedestrian movement (Esplanade). He has tested the limits of his dancers’ techniques in muscular romps like Mercuric Tidings and Arden Court. And he has often sojourned in the dark recesses of the human heart in such dances as Banquet of Vultures and the terrifying Last Look, in which we mortals seem unable to resist our capacity to destroy ourselves.
Yet, what has made Taylor such an enduring cultural force is his genius for encompassing extreme moods. The ugly and the droll coexist in his works, and no dancemaker has ever exhibited such a wide range of tonal nuance.
Taylor’s sense of humor can be both wonderfully childlike and sophisticated. His very first dance in the 1950s, Jack and the Beanstalk, revealed a fondness for fractured fairy tales and revisionist narrative that has never deserted him. Flash forward almost 30 years and Taylor is at it again in his version of Snow White. The humor derives from our familiarity with the story in both its printed and cinematic incarnations—and thus, our complicity. The seven dwarfs are reduced to five (the company’s entire male complement) and billed in the program as “some dwarfs.” They’re all tall guys, so they perform the entire dance on their haunches. The iconic apple becomes “a bad apple,” a dancer in flowing red whose arm is chomped upon by the princess. And, in Taylor’s master stroke, the evil queen and the prince are danced by the same (male) performer, who seems more concerned about checking his profile in a mirror than the fate of the heroine.
Great comedy is always moral, and there’s a lesson here about narcissism and the structure of myth. That Taylor skewers convention with a needle rather than a hammer is a key to his brilliance. Once a comic trajectory is launched, he allows the logic to run its course unimpeded. Consider Le Sacre du Printemps (The Rehearsal). Here, Taylor cuts between a ballet rehearsal led by a domineering ballet mistress and a modern private eye story about a kidnapped baby. You can see the ending coming, yet when the climax, an infanticide, arrives, it is predestined, horrifying, and, because it is so inevitable, truly funny.
Taylor’s wit inclines to the saturnine. He will present you with what you think is a lighthearted romp and then summon a serious element. Your laughter congeals in your throat. Taylor reminds you that the fluffy old Andrews Sisters recordings accompanying Company B and the popular dances of the 1940s that delight audiences were born out of the desperation of World War II. Behind these party people you see the silhouettes of men dying in battle and daring to love each other, and they complicate our responses. Company B is anything but a wallow in nostalgia.
Yet nostalgia and our feelings about the conventions of theatrical and social dances of the past figure substantially in Taylor’s works. In Piece Period, his dancers (the women garbed in stiff Elizabethan finery) cavort in an arch, even mincing approximation of Renaissance dance. In the subversive and often zany Offenbach Overtures, the Romantic tunes envelop you in an aura of enchantment. But gradually, the grisettes fake intoxication a bit too realistically. Soon, too, a pair of cavaliers provoke a duel. Meanwhile, as they go at it, their seconds, who are supposed to maintain decorum, eye each other with increasing infatuation and fall into each other’s arms. So much for the 19th-century code of chivalry.
Sometimes, Taylor sets you up to laugh and then pulls the rug out from under you. My favorite example of this is A Field of Grass. At the beginning, a dancer sits cross-legged on the stage, smoking a joint. Feeling a bit superior, we all smile at this evocation of the druggy, bell-bottomed 1960s, with its Harry Nilsson songs. It all seems so dated. Yet, when the entire cast eases into unisons, accompanied by Nilsson’s “Spaceman,” you succumb to the blissful mood that many of us felt in that era, a mood Taylor so adeptly conjures.
Taylor derives his most winning comic effects from his responses to music. Take Lost, Found and Lost. We don’t know what came first. Was it the music, Donald York’s clever simulation of “wallpaper music”? Or was it the devastating movement—the dancers in trendy get-ups, posturing like fashion models, all bathed in Jennifer Tipton’s blinding studio lighting? Does it matter? The piece is a treasure.
In Public Domain, which has returned to the repertory after many years, Taylor even skewers the conventional relationship that choreographers maintain with music. This is an early (1968) dance, yet, even then, Taylor sent up dancemakers who plunder the world’s classics and then fail, miserably, to engage with them. It’s a delectable parody, a great, sophisticated joke. John Herbert McDowell’s collage score raids Beethoven, Wagner, Sibelius, Ponchielli, Mahler, Handel, an Oscar Wilde play, a routine by W.C. Fields, and heaven knows what else. To all of this sonic input, the dancers, clad in bubble-gum–hued unitards, remain oblivious, as they dutifully rearrange themselves in abstract patterns. Only at the end do the repeated chords at the conclusion of the Sibelius Fifth Symphony (looped) summon them from their reverie, as they hastily realign themselves, racing to the finish line with the music.
One of the things about Taylor that I find fascinating is how the lighthearted and serious pieces seem to have been made in pairs; we might conclude that in some cases they were even created simultaneously. The most dramatic example was the serenely romantic Roses, an antidote to the venomous Last Look. The barbershop-quartet trifle, Dream Girls, followed hard on the wrenching, heroic Promethean Fire. Go back a couple of decades to the sappy Ab Ovo Usque ad Mala, which was a prologue to the austere Musical Offering. Taylor’s sensibility seems to require that constant readjustment between extremes; those of us in thrall to his artistry happily yield to that process.
As he nears 80, Taylor’s satiric targets have become more benign. I don’t expect to see anything like the bouncing Klansmen who were such a baleful presence in Oh, You Kid! I don’t think we will again encounter the cultural arrogance of the pilgrims in From Sea to Shining Sea.
The new Also Playing is a gentle but loving spoof of dance theater itself. The takeoffs on Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, and all manner of ballet exotica are part of a tribute to the vaudeville era, in which entertainment came in many guises. There’s a kind of narrative thread running through the piece, but you won’t find it revealed here. As Taylor says, “It’s the surprise element, or the shock element (if you’re really doing it right), that will make people laugh—nervously, or not.”
Make ‘em laugh
How do Taylor’s dancers aim to strike the funny bone? Abigail Rasminsky talked to two of PTDC’s funniest dancers to find out how they approach those ticklers.
Robert Kleinendorst Paul is a big believer in letting the movement get the laugh. His thing is to play it seriously. I try to climb into the character and make him three-dimensional in my brain, so I can say, “Would he do this, and why?” Paul will show something and he’ll say, “No, do it like this,” and it’ll be completely brilliant and it’s hard to reproduce it exactly the way he did it. He performs these very subtle and simple things that are hilarious. When you can copy him, it really ends up being a great moment. He doesn’t like us mugging or hamming it up. It’s easy to tip the scales from funny to outlandish, but it gets boring and it’s not funny anymore. The hardest thing to do is to keep it simple. You have to have faith in what Paul’s giving you.
Parisa Khobdeh Without a doubt, the humor is in the choreography. It’s not something we put on. Paul has a pure talent for timing, for surprising you and the audience. It’s never the same from performance to performance. I have to leave myself open to the game, because anything can happen—costumes, slip spots on the floor, a different audience. Some things surprise me as a dancer, and I just stick to who I am, where I am, and the relationship I have to people around me. As long as I stay true to those elements, the character reacts naturally in live performance. When I got Lisa Viola’s part in Offenbach Overtures, it was daunting, so I enrolled in comedy improv classes at Upright Citizens Brigade. That helped me gain confidence to just be, to trust Paul, to be available, and to play the game.
Pictured: Parisa Khobdeh, left, with Michelle Fleet in Offenbach Overtures. Photo by Paul B. Goode, Courtesy PTDC
Allan Ulrich is a DM Senior Advising Editor and the San Francisco Chronicle dance correspondent.
I have a commitment, a romance, a love affair with dance, with the feeling that happens when the music and the steps so perfectly align and I can't help but get chills. That feeling when my partner and I are dancing as one, when everyone onstage feels the same heartbeat, when it's just me alone in my bedroom.
The way we create and consume dance is changing every day. Now more than ever, the field demands that dancers not only be able to perform at the highest level, but also collaborate with choreographers to bring their artistic visions to life. Dancers who miss out on choreographic training may very well find themselves at a disadvantage as they try to launch their careers.
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."
Four years of lectures, exams and classes can feel like a lifetime for college dancers who have their sights set on performing. So when a professional opportunity comes knocking, it can be tempting to step away from your academics. But there are a few things to consider before putting your education on hold.
It's not often that a promising choreographer gets to stage work in a world-class theater, on a skillfully-curated program with professional dancers, and with the possibility of winning a substantial cash prize. But at the McCallum Theatre's Palm Desert Choreography Festival, that's been the status quo for over twenty years.
Since Shea New, the festival's artistic director, founded the festival in 1998, she's worked tirelessly with McCallum's director of education and festival producer, Kajsa Thuresson-Frary, and stage manager and festival production manager Joanna Fookes to build a festival that nurtures choreographers, highlights high quality work, powerfully engages the local community and cultivates an audience base for dance in the Coachella Valley. The trio is backed by a strong team of professionals at McCallum and the brilliant volunteers from the local and national level who serve as adjudicators.
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We've all been there: You see the craziest/most beautiful/oddest/wildest clip of a dance on Facebook and you simply have to see more.
But do you actually get yourself to the theater and sit through a 90-minute performance? The consensus, at this point, typically seems to be: No.
There is no clear correlation between a company's social media campaigns and how many seats they fill in the theater. That doesn't mean social media isn't, of course, vital. It simply means that "social media campaigns operating without other marketing campaigns don't cut it," says Rob Bailis, associate director of Cal Performances at UC Berkeley. "But campaigns without social media are far worse off."
Since the project was first announced toward the end of 2017, we've been extremely curious about Yuli. The film, based on Carlos Acosta's memoir No Way Home, promised as much dancing as biography, with Acosta appearing as himself and dance sequences featuring his eponymous Cuba-based company Acosta Danza. Add in filmmaking power couple Icíar Bollaín (director) and Paul Laverty (screenwriter), and you have a recipe for a dance film unlike anything else we've seen recently.
One of the country's top arbitrators has decided to reinstate Amar Ramasar and Zachary Catazaro to New York City Ballet. The former principals were fired last fall for "inappropriate communications," namely graphic text messages.
The dancers' union, American Guild of Musical Artists, fought the termination, arguing that the firings were unjust since they related entirely to non-work activity. After a careful review of the facts, an independent arbitrator determined that while the company was justified in disciplining the two men, suspension was the appropriate action and termination took it too far.
A woman passes three men in the street. The men pursue her. They thrust their pelvises at her. They continue to pursue her after she slaps one's hand and walks away. They surround her. She glances around at them in alarm. One snatches her purse (to review the Freudian significance of purses, click here) and saunters off with it, mocking her. She tries to take the purse back, and the three men toss it over her head among each other. They make her dance with them. Each time she indicates "No," the men try harder to force her submission to their advances.
This is all within the first 10 minutes of Jerome Robbins's Fancy Free, a 1944 ballet about three sailors frolicking on shore leave during World War II, beloved by many and still regularly performed (especially during the last year, since 2018 was the centennial celebration of Robbins's birth). Critic Edwin Denby, after the premiere with Ballet Theatre, called it "a remarkable comedy piece" and "a direct, manly piece."
When you're bouncing between hotel rooms without access to a kitchen, eating a pescatarian diet can be challenging. Stephanie Mincone, who most recently traveled the globe with Taylor Swift's Reputation Stadium Tour, told Dance Magazine how she does it—while fueling herself with enough energy to perform for thousands of Taylor fans.
Choosing music for your first-ever choreography commission can feel daunting enough. But when you're asked to create a ballet using the vast discography of the Rolling Stones—and you happen to be dating Stones frontman Mick Jagger—the stakes are even higher.
So it's understandable that as of Monday, American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet dancer Melanie Hamrick, whose Port Rouge will have its U.S. premiere tonight at the Youth America Grand Prix gala, was still torn about which songs to include.
What is an acceptable request from a choreographer in terms of nudity? On the first day of shooting All That Jazz in the 1970s, Bob Fosse asked us men to remove everything but our jock straps and the women to remove their tops. His rationale was to shock us in order to build character, and it felt disloyal to refuse. Would this behavior be considered okay today?
As much as audiences might flock to Swan Lake or The Nutcracker, ballet can't only rely on old war horses if it wants to remain relevant. But building new full-lengths from scratch isn't exactly cheap.
So where can companies find the money?
The entrancing power of Instagram can't be denied. I've lost hours of my life scrolling the platform looking at other people documenting theirs. What starts as a "quick" fill-the-moment check-in can easily lead to a good 10-15 minute session, especially if I enter the nebulous realm of "suggested videos."
My algorithm usually shows me professional ballet dancers in performances, rehearsals, class, backstage and on tour, which I quite enjoy. But there are the other dance feeds that I find myself simultaneously intrigued and horrified by: the hyper-elastic, hyper-extended, gumby-footed girls always at the barre doing developpés to six o'clock. There are the multiple turners, the avid stretchers and we can't forget the endless balancers.
This parade of tricksters always makes me wonder, What else can they do? Can they actually dance?
The pleasure of watching prodigies perform technical feats on Instagram can be tinged with a sense of trepidation. Impressive tricks, you think, but do they have what it takes for an actual career?
Just look at 18-year-old Maria Khoreva, who has more followers than most seasoned principals; in videos, her lines and attention to detail suggested a precocious talent, and led to a Nike ambassador contract before she even graduated from the Vaganova Ballet Academy. Still, when she joined the Mariinsky Ballet last summer, there was no guarantee any of it would translate to stage prowess.
When American Ballet Theatre announced yesterday that it would be adding Jane Eyre to its stable of narrative full-lengths, the English nerds in the DM offices (read: most of us) got pretty excited. Cathy Marston's adaptation of Charlotte Brontë's classic novel was created for England's Northern Ballet in 2016, and, based on the clips that have made their way online, it seems like a perfect fit for ABT's Met Opera season.
It also got us thinking about what other classic novels we'd love to see adapted into ballets—but then we realized just how many there already are. From Russian epics to beloved children's books, here are 10 of our favorites that have already made the leap from page to stage. (Special shoutout to Northern Ballet, the undisputed MVP of turning literature into live performance.)
Today—April 16, 2019—marks what would have been Merce Cunningham's 100th birthday. As dancers from Los Angeles to New York City to London gear up for Night of 100 Solos (the marathon performance event being livestreamed today), and as companies and presenters worldwide continue to celebrate the Cunningham Centennial through their programming, we searched through the Dance Magazine Archives to unearth our favorite images of the groundbreaking dancemaker.
A bright disposition with a dab of astringent charm is how I remember Brock Hayhoe, a National Ballet School of Canada schoolmate. Because we were a couple years apart, we barely brushed shoulders, except at the odd Toronto dance party where we could dance all night with mutual friends letting our inhibitions subside through the music. Dancing always allows a deeper look.
But, as my late great ballet teacher Pyotr Pestov told me when I interviewed him for Dance Magazine in 2009, "You never know what a flower is going to look like until it opens up."
One night. Three cities. Seventy-five dancers. And three unique sets of 100 solos, all choreographed by Merce Cunningham.
This incredible evening of dance will honor Cunningham's 100th birthday on April 16. The Merce Cunningham Trust has teamed up with The Barbican in London, the Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York City and the Center for the Art of Performance in Los Angeles for a tri-city celebration.
The best part? You don't have to be in those cities to watch—Night of 100 Solos is being live-streamed in its entirety for free.
When George Balanchine's full-length Don Quixote premiered in 1965, critics and audiences alike viewed the ballet as a failure. Elaborate scenery and costumes framed mawkish mime passages, like one in which the ballerina washed the Don's feet and dried them with her hair. Its revival in 2005 by Suzanne Farrell, the ballerina on whom it was made and to whom Balanchine left the work, did little to alter its reputation.
Yet at New York City Center's Balanchine festival last fall, some regretted its absence.
"I'd want to see Balanchine's Don Quixote," says Apollinaire Scherr, dance critic for the Financial Times. "It was a labor of love on his part, and a love letter as well. And you want to know what that looks like in his work."
Even great choreographers make mistakes. Sometimes they fail on a grand scale, like Don Quixote; other times it may be a minor misstep. Experiment and risk help choreographers grow, but what happens when a choreographer of stature misfires? Should the work remain in the repertory? And what about a work that fails on some levels but not others?
After the horrific March 15 terrorist attacks at two New Zealand mosques, the music and arts community sprang into action to plan a way to help victims and their families. A series of resulting concerts, titled "You Are Us/Aroha Nui," will take place in New Zealand (April 13 and 17), Jersey City, New Jersey (April 17) and Los Angeles (April 18). Proceeds from ticket sales will be donated to the Our People, Our City Fund, which was established by the Christchurch Foundation to aid those affected by the attacks.
Throughout 2019, the Merce Cunningham Trust continues a global celebration that will be one of the largest tributes to a dance artist ever. Under the umbrella of the Merce Cunningham Centennial are classes and workshops, film screenings and festivals, art exhibitions and symposia, and revivals and premieres of original works inspired by the dancemaker's ideas. The fever peaks on April 16, which would have been the pioneering choreographer's 100th birthday, with Night of 100 Solos: A Centennial Event, featuring a total of 75 dancers in three performances live-streamed from London, Los Angeles and New York City.