Since the day had already been quite long, we can't judge them too harshly, I suppose--the administrators and visiting critics who excused themselves discretely during that intermission between Sara Juli's solo work in progress and composer Chris Peck and colleagues' after-hours showing, late Friday night at the Ark on Duke's East Campus. Instead, we may only observe they missed some of the most intriguing work we've seen to date this season on any stage at the American Dance Festival.
I refer particularly to Beth Gill and Eleanor Bauer's duet in the midst of Peck's performance, whose rawness and honesty proved a necessary antidote to the calculation, the insincerity and the Vegas-like glitz of mainstage acts by Compagnie Käfig and Brian Brooks over the previous week.
These and others throughout the season have relentlessly pursued what we might call the fiction of the body, as opposed to its facts: wildly improbable moves that are accomplished only through the most extreme techniques, placed on hyper-aestheticized forms in the service of an ever-rarified idea of beauty.
I should be quick to add here that I have nothing at all against fiction, particularly in its most speculative forms. I am a regular consumer of these genres. But I also read the morning papers. I value autobiographical performance. And creative nonfiction--the name of a journal as well as a genre here--is important to me as well.
A diet consisting entirely of fiction--on stage or page--seems one most likely to dislocate us from a real and common world.
Perhaps that's one lesson from Compagnie Käfig 's hip-hop performance of Récital, a work they created in 1998 and revised this year. Give full credit: We saw mad skills on stage. Hafid Sour's extreme isolation of various body sections in his robot sets reminded me at points of William Forsythe's radical near-origami of the human form. Karim Beddaoudia seemed determined to update Petipa's Odile--but with 32 head spins, the last at drill-bit velocity. Repeatedly through the evening we saw show-stopping moves and choreography.
But we saw them in a show whose cheesy props and good-luck grins would not have been out of place on the main stage at the Tropicana or the Sands, way out West.
And the music accompanying this spectacle most certainly did not include Public Enemy, Dead Presidents, KRS-ONE or Grandmaster Flash. Instead we were treated to the less potentially objectionable--and more generic--classically-tinged electrobeat of Franck II Louise. But why must hip hop be "elevated" to the classical music concert hall? Is it somehow not sufficient in its own habitat?
And when artistic director Mourad Merzouki has Amor Ghouila, a black French dancer from Lyon, stand in as a hoodied puppetmaster, representing hip hop's originating African-American culture, why does he direct the remaining company of six to appropriate every element of the art form except the social consciousness and protest that has fueled so much of its music and visual art? Choreographers including Rennie Harris and Ron K. Brown have been more faithful to the world that made this work. When his slick, homogenized entertainment is placed beside the far more comprehensive visions in their works of art, Merzouki's mere recital pales by comparison.
Brian Brooks confessed at an after-show discussion last Tuesday that it took nine months to craft the complex hand jive that closes Pinñta.
They don't get that time back, you know.
Like most of this wan amusement, the closing sequence constitutes a would-be triumph of style over substance, and if we were as easily distracted by shiny surfaces as Brooks apparently is, it all would actually work. The show gets nearly as much mileage out of well-timed costume changes into Roxana Ramseur's series of absurd formal dresses (with mutated accessories) as it does from the periodically strategic deployment of white confetti. And gold confetti. And blue confetti. And green confetti. And red confetti.
These pretty devices ultimately don't cover the extended plateaus Brooks gets stuck in, stretching a small handful of choreographic notions over much broader musical canvases. A mid-show tribute to two very funky chickens proves the only sequence that doesn't seriously outlast its welcome or our interest.
It was fun, for a while. And vivid visual and kinetic images suggested the interior of a paperweight snowball--but one filled with curiously bottom-feeding fish, or the kind of creatures you find at a Whack-A-Mole game at Chuck E. Cheese's. But brush away the confetti--by the end, it may well take a shovel--and very little is left underneath.
After Sara Juli's still-too-hieroglyphic monolog/performance piece Shadow Artist left its true concerns still in the shadows, Chris Peck and Jon Moniaci set up laptops and sound devices in the middle of a very humid Ark. Dancer Eleanor Bauer sat on a piano bench behind Peck, looking over his shoulder, while on a floor where power cables and patch cords snaked, a green-T-shirted Beth Gill lay next to Chase Granoff, a dancer clutching a road-worn amplifier.
No special, glitzy costumes. No cheesy grins. Just three people, getting at a truth about what it's like actually living in these bodies, under less than optimum conditions, through movement improvisation.
In mid-work, Gill and Bauer, former students of Pamela Pietro, sized each other up with expressionless faces--and then collided, in active conflict, in contact improv that suggested collegiate wrestling or something beyond as much as modern dance. Throughout, their faces remained neutral. The only acting happening here was taking place within their bodies. The dancers contended with gravity, with physics, with the swelter in the room, with each other's angles, planes and weight.
In short, we saw the facts: how it looks when two people who must remain in conflict must also remain in touch. The struggle waxed, waned; at times the two agreed to momentary rest before one inevitably betrayed that brief, illusory accord. They grappled, resolute, unsmiling--and ever unexcused.
There was absolutely nothing "beautiful" about the work.
That's what made it beautiful.
By now it is something of a tradition: After my own fellowship there in 2003, each season I always direct a few words on the changing nature of public writing about dance to my colleagues, the visiting journalists in the ADF's Institute for Dance Criticism. The accelerating nature of these changes drives my observations for the critical crew of 2005.
In recent years, no annual gathering of our number could be complete without at least one public, drab recital of reversals in arts journalism and critique. The number of newspapers either folding outright or doing less with dance in any given year, the perceived slow erosion in assignments, column inches and career opportunities, all of these have regularly brightened recent meetings in New York and Philadelphia and contributed to a certain cornered feeling in these tribes.
An ethical concern--and the fear of contagion--forces me to pause and ask if I should even whisper the name of the latest threat, one identified by many of my print colleagues at the first National Critics Conference in Los Angeles in May.
Aw, what the hell; why not?
Anytime anyone used the term weblogs in Los Angeles, a palpable chill went through the room. Apparently their advent--totally unchecked, uncontrolled by recognized authorities--spelled all but certain doom for the Standards of our Craft.
Not that those standards were, ahem, so robust or uniformly elevated already in newsrooms across the country--a fact necessitating programs, at least partially remedial in nature, for professional writers and editors at University of Southern California's Annenberg Center and here at ADF. But I digress.
Kind ladies and gentlemen: Arts criticism is rapidly decentralizing, on a global scale. To paraphrase Leonard Cohen, democracy is coming to the writing about dance. Hallelujah.
Which would not make this exactly an hour for complacency--at least for the survival-minded among us.
Now every person in a theater can go home after a concert, and then write and publish, to the planet, what they thought and felt and learned about a show--and they can do it faster and more easily than most of us presently can in our print media. So what if we're the only critic on the one surviving daily paper in the town, a day late or more, and bringing up the rear? If more useful insights are coming from other sources, the larger conversation about dance will ultimately head away from us in that direction.
And if that truly is the case, it should.
I'll underline the term insight here. I believe it is ultimately going to prove the great democratizer in my field. For let's face it: A Ph.D. in dance history is not required to write good dance criticism, no matter how much some of us might wish it. The only thing that's mandatory is a unique and useful understanding of a work and what it does with us as an audience. The funny thing is, almost anyone can have an insight all their own, and I expect to be seeing a lot more of them in the immediate future. I don't particularly care if I read them on cheap newsprint, glossy paper or a laptop screen.
Neither does (almost) anybody else.
With daily paper circulations dwindling, it should be interesting--at least in a Darwinian sense--to see how many of these declining organisms recognize any correlation between parallel falls in valid, local live arts coverage and readership before social, journalistic and economic bankruptcy sets in. Either way, as the truly clueless fall, other forms inevitably will develop to take their place. Perhaps we can help develop them ourselves.
My advice? Embrace evolution. Or else. For some of us that will involve abandoning the notion of criticism as monolog, for the idea of an actual critical conversation instead--one we won't be able to commandeer or limit. We must not only demonstrate extreme competence, but continued relevance. And we should be assured that our positions of privilege won't save us--but our useful ideas and insights will.
We now have to earn our place, on an ongoing basis, in a radically expanding public conversation on the arts--and to recognize that whatever that place is will likely be determined not by an editor down the hall or a valuable friend on some arts council, but by the increasingly active participants and co-owners of that conversation, the people themselves.
Fellow critics, we're about to have an awful lot of company. Actually, it was always there--a silent majority who has now found it doesn't have to be silent any longer. We can either welcome audience members--critics all themselves, to some extent--or try to bar the door and stop their mouths, and see what results that course brings.
Either way, on a fundamental level, this remains the easiest moment in recorded history for anyone to begin work in dance criticism. They won't all be Edwin Denby--and the community reading them will clearly recognize that. But who would deny them the right to try?