Sunday, February 27, 2011

The Harkness Dance Festival Week Two: Christopher Williams Presents Excerpts and Other Mumbo Jumbo

By Sara Murphy

REVIEW- The Harkness Dance Center at the 92nd Street Y is continuing a legacy more than 75 years in the making as the home of American modern dance by presenting choreographers such as Christopher Williams as part of their annual Dance Festival.

Other than perhaps a church, Williams couldn’t have asked for a more fitting space than the Y’s Buttenwieser Hall to display a collection of excerpts inspired by medieval art history and thirteenth century texts from his decade of work on Friday, February 25, 2011. The New York based choreographer seemed to be channeling the biblical stories depicted on the ornate painted ceiling of the hall as it was almost fathomable his dancers somehow magically came alive right from the historic murals. Commenting on his choreographic process in the brief Q&A following the hour and twenty-minute program, Williams shared that his wildly creative imagination was spawned from reading children’s stories and fables. “When I was a child, it was never enough for me to just read the words on the page, because the story seemed dead. But, if I got up and acted the words out physically—experiencing what it actually felt like to be a unicorn—the story was more fulfilling.”

Williams’s fascination with fairytales led to his exploration and use of puppetry in his choreography, however he specifically left his puppets at home for this weekend run at the Y. Purposely selecting excerpts from past evening-length works including Virgo Genitrix (2003), the Bessie award winning Ursula and the 11,000 Virgins (2005), The Portuguese Suite (2006), The Golden Legend (2009) and Hen’s Teeth (2010), they, in his words, showcased the most “dancey” sections of his body of work. Though his intention is to create theatrical worlds on stage, these excerpts revealed the flaws and cracks imbedded in his lack luster movement vocabulary. For someone who is so talented at engulfing an audience in a Renaissance atmosphere, he fills the space with ordinary, recycled Cunningham movement.

However, dancing in a Williams work is not an easy task. As a dancer, you must be willing to perform naked, wear risqué costumes and fabric prosthetic breasts, and execute slow, balletic adagios (which were often beyond the dancers’ technical capabilities). The sequences were screaming for a groundedness that was never achieved, and instead a plethora of wobbly arabesques magnified the performers’ weaknesses.

In all fairness, Williams’s M.O. is not the dance, but rather everything around the dance. His costumes have craftsmanship worthy to be called haute couture, and his use of live musical accompaniment for this program for only two pieces—featuring a harp, viola, recorder, a mezzo-soprano and baritone—displayed a commitment to transport his audience.

The world premiere, Mumbo Jumbo, is a duet for two men to music from the Bollywood film, Raja Hindustani and Indian artist, Kishore Kumar. Though it was a departure from the vibe of the rest of the evening, simply titling a dance “Mumbo Jumbo” doesn’t pardon a disjointed mash-up of ideas. Perhaps par for the course in a dance referencing “cultural confusion,” the inspiration and text in the piece came from the children’s stories Little Black Sambo (1899) and The Tar Baby and Other Rhymes of Uncle Remus (1904).

The dance opened with Raja Kelly in blackface dressed in a harlequin-esque jacket and bowtie. Reciting text from the literature and confronting the audience with his close proximity, Kelly’s character immediately set a playful tone. The audience is then introduced to what appears to be Kelly’s twin played by Paul Singh, dressed identically to Kelly and also in blackface. Singh’s movement included Indian dance motifs such as moving his shoulders up and down rhythmically to the Hindi music. The idea to re-examine Little Black Sambo—a story that is widely thought to portray an African American boy, but is in fact about an Indian boy—is at the very least, ambitious. Written at a time when “black” was used as a general term for non-white or “Other,” Williams’s desire to explore how images of black males in performance has changed over time using nineteenth century literature is an interesting concept to explore using dance. As the piece went on, it was unclear just exactly how these two characters fit together. They giggled, spoke in verse and even kissed, but the concept depicted in movement was a bit too confusing. Long, messy and in dire need of editing, cultural confusion is no doubt chaotic, but Mumbo Jumbo was not the perfect storm.

All in all, there was never a dull moment, and Williams’s inventive take on Christian saints and medieval music cleverly evoke times long past submerged within his own queer experience in contemporary dance. You can catch Christopher next when he hosts an “Informance” at the Performance Garage in Philadelphia March 12, 2011.

Week three of five of the Harkness Dance Festival premieres on Friday, March 4 with Patti Bradshaw and People, Places and Things.
WEEK FOUR: jill sigman/thinkdance March 11-13
WEEK FIVE: Jawole Willa Jo Zollar Curates (Maria Bauman and Souleymane (Solo) Badolo) March 18-20

For tickets visit or the 92nd Street Y Harkness Dance Center located at 1395 Lexington Avenue, New York, NY 10128.

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Rebeca Tomás: Revision, Addition or Part 2? A Palo Seco- Rasgos Flamencos

By: Sara Murphy

A new year and an altered program, but not quite a sequel, Rebeca Tomás and company premiered a revised version of their debut Spring 2010 flamenco performance January 28-31, 2011 at Manhattan’s Theatre 80 in the East Village. Re-titled, A Palo Seco: Rasgos Flamencos, this show was Tomás’ ode to tradition and invention. Tomás and company’s performances continued the legacy of flamenco with the kind of sincerity and passion any Andalusian aficionado could be proud of.

Sitting in the audience at Sunday’s matinee performance, I was nervous for Tomás when Theatre 80’s manager Thomas Otway announced A Palo Seco: Rasgos Flamencos would join the ranks of historical performances the theater has hosted, such as the original production of You’re A Good Man Charlie Brown. Despite Mr. Otway’s grandiose comparisons, the company wasn’t jinxed, and delivered a memorable program strong enough to dismiss most of the criticism (The Times, The New Yorker) of the 2010 version.

After an energetic opening that introduced the audience to the company’s musicians and dancers by way of a customary bulerías (a festive improvisation), Tomás emerged from the wings with fierce authority. Pensive and compelling, she used a Spanish fan as a percussion instrument during her a palo seco (acapella with percussion) solo, Abanico: Rasgo Flamenco. Her strongest contemporary choreographic effort on the program, the dance’s repetitive blackouts revealed Tomás striking varied poses, looking a little like a deer caught in the headlights. Her nerves simmered down as soon as she moved out of her isolating pool of light, and took to the stage like a bullfighter in a ring. High-waisted black pants and a blousy, crisp white shirt made her petite frame appear statuesque and powerful. She echoed the sound of the cajón and the three accompanying singers with meticulous rhythmic footwork, and a body percussion score. Tomás’ dancing in Abanico ignited a palpable tension that remained in the air for the rest of the show.

In Alegrías, Tomás traded in her fan for a bata de cola (a dress with a long ruffled train). A traditional flamenco dance accessory, Tomás playfully whipped her skirt to the jaleos (shouts of encouragement) from the audience. At times, the bata de cola appeared distracting and seemed to burden her traveling footwork patterns, yet she seemed much more at ease in the limelight than she was in Abanico. The audience was absolutely enamored with Tomás’ performance. Though I preferred Abanico, their enthusiasm was contagious, and the piece seemed a fitting end to the highly expressive evening.

A mention must be given to the incredibly dynamic dancing of Sol “La Argentinita” in the somber solo, Soleá. She swallowed the space, carving her torso and arms elegantly and with raw audacity. Her piercing eyes never allowed me to escape her gritty performance. Percussionist and singer Oscar Valero’s cajon playing was equally as ferocious, and echoed by David Castellano’s soulful voice. Flamenco dancing owes so much to its musical counterpoint, and the company’s five musicians were extremely attentive to the dancers, and very supportive of each other throughout the performance.

Achieving the program’s goal of juxtaposing raw emotional darkness and festive playfulness, the show’s concept did not attain Tomás’ desire for ingenuity. Nevertheless, she and her company continue to seriously contribute to flamenco in New York.

Photos for this article are courtesy of Lee Wexler and Maly Blomberg, respectively.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

The Imperialists Are Still Alive!

This review was originally posted on the NewsGallery's website (see The last two paragraphs feature an added dance anecdote specifically for this blog.

Rooftop Films screened director Zeina Durra’s debut film, The Imperialists Are Still Alive! at the Ace Hotel in Manhattan on Sunday February 13, 2011. The screening was a free, sneak-peak of the film (officially selected at the Sundance Film Festival last year) before its New York premiere at the IFC Center March 4. The Ace Hotel was an apropos location—a hangout spot one could imagine Durra’s heroine Asya (played by French actress, Elodie Bouchez) waltzing in, wearing her fur coat and heels.

Shot using a super 16mm camera, Durra mentioned in her brief Q & A after the screening that she was inspired by Scorsese’s cult classic, After Hours (1985), Stillman’s Metropolitan (1990) and 60s and 70s era film aesthetics. The feature achieved the grainy texture Durra desired, but the picture quality looked blurry and often times out-of-focus, leaving me to wonder if that was a deliberate choice, or an outcome related to inexperience. Stylistically, Durra’s ode to iconic eras was a theme carried over into costuming, as well as popping up in the film’s title—a line taken from Jean Luc Godard’s La Chinoise (1967)—which I’m not sure captures the story’s essence.

Durra’s film however centers on Asya, a successful visual artist and cultural hybrid of Palestinian/Bosnian/Lebanese/Jordanian descent, raised in Paris, but living in New York. The film is a New York portrait, but an international story--reflective of Durra’s own cultural heritage and upbringing. Sarcastic and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny, Durra weaves together several vignettes of nightclubs, art galleries, loft apartments, Chinese restaurants and cab rides into a cohesive palette of vibrant colors.

Durra fought hard to prevent the producers from turning her script into a conventional story. She deliberately wanted to explore themes of rendition, imperialism, war, resistance, displacement and post feminism from a perspective closer to the milieu she grew up in. “The idea that Arabs or Muslims brought up in the West find themselves constantly torn between their roots and their "Western" lives has always annoyed me, since I have never related to that conflict,” Durra comments.

Sophisticated, independent, rebellious and cool, Durra takes viewers on a journey that has no resolution, but rather allows us to peak into the lives of wealthy international hipsters who fluidly transfer from Arabic, French, English, Spanish and more—navigating New York’s subcultures—simultaneously keeping one eye on the political conflicts in the Middle East. For Durra’s characters, “home” has a transient meaning and money buys freedom.

I wanted to post my review of The Imperialists Are Still Alive! on The Dance Anthropologist, because the film features too very funny dance scenes that unfortunately make dance the butt of the joke. The first takes a stab at conceptual dance when the main character, Asya, is taken by her boyfriend to his friend's "environmental dance" performance. The work is inspired by the choreographer's trip to the Amazon, and is basically a Mexican woman's horrifying portrayal of the dances she observed in a black box theater. With a troupe of contemporary looking dancers behind her, they roll around in leaves wearing tribal paint, chanting and screaming as Asya trys to conceal her laughter. Haven't we all been there?

The other dance moment comes later when Asya attends her cleaning lady's gathering to celebrate her son's graduation from the NYPD academy. There-she encounters the "Latin" male salsa dancer personified-dressed in a skintight black unitard with a plunging v-neckline, he seems to think he's the best thing since sliced bread as he tries to woo Asya with his "shines." Director Zeina Durra claims that her goal was to show Arab women from an alternative perspective sans stereotypes, but she can't seem to do the same for dance. Are there oodles of wretched contemporary dance performances, and a slew of dirty old men posing as salsa dancers in New York? Absolutely! I'm just disappointed that she couldn't come up with anything more original to get a good laugh...but then again, I can take a joke!