By the end of Rosanna Gamson's major work Grand Hope Flower, the mental lightbulbs are popping on and off with an intense alacrity and this crazy , rare feeling – “I understand the meaning of life!” – percolates to the surface. That may make one feel silly, but Gamson has accomplished something serious and sustaining with Grand Hope Flower. Not all of it is likable. Gamson is a little pretentious and full of her own ideas, some of which link and some of which lead nowhere, but she has a purpose beyond herself, a choreographic design that supports her humanistic world-view.
Created in response and relation to Ed Ruscha's painting Picture Without Words, Grand Hope Flower originated in the late summer at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Gamson and her Rosanna Gamson/World Wide company moved it to Highways Performance Space in October, without benefit of Ruscha but without apparent loss, either. What Gamson could not do without is the accompanying score for string quartet by Shane W. Cadman, which contributes more to Gamson's vision than even the dancers. It is unspeakably beautiful, and so sad you can almost feel blood drain out of the air, especially during sections when couples sit separated by tapes laid in a grid on the floor, demarking their private “apartment” spaces, each appointed with a lamp that the couples turn on and off. Light and darkness is a theme. The dancers cling to each other, fight, comfort, sob – conjuring scenes from messy breakups. Juxtaposed is a lecturer, quoting from Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein and Richard Feynman on the subject of light – waves and particles and small packets of energy. Gamson recognizes the shared language of physics and dance – time, space, energy, corporeal – and constructs puns with it brilliantly. What was true for Newton was not necessarily the whole truth for Feynman. So, what is truth if it is relative?
Gamson deftly suggests the human story is more constant, predictable and true than science. The Grimm Brothers' “Little Red Riding Hood” weaves through Grand Hope Flower, enacted and told in Spanish and English by a sure-footed and wonderful actor/dancer, Richard Gallegos. Fairy tales hold true across time and through many cultures. If Gamson had stopped here, Grand Hope Flower would be just about perfect. But her text (delivered by narrator Kimberly Flynn) takes a sophomoric turn. She invokes Einstein's famous “God doesn't play dice” line and postulates that if God did play dice, Los Angeles is where he would toss them. Suddenly the work revolves around L.A. and the film industry. Gamson seems to be talking herself into believing that this urban sprawl, with its spectacular natural (and celluloid) light, is the best place on Earth. It's like she's having a personal crisis and is using Grand Hope Flower to work out her angst about having to live here. That's what one suspects, anyway.
Gamson moved here two years ago from New York, where her company had achieved some success. Her new Los Angeles troupe bursts with talented composers, singers, actors and dancers (especially Johnny Tu, who had a minor role, but whose movement instincts claimed undivided attention). And when, by the end of Grand Hope Flower, choreographic integrity reigns again, one knows Gamson has the potential to be the source of epiphanies to come. New York's loss is our gain.
Donald Byrd is on a mission to define African-American classicism. Ballet is narrow and, by contrast, jazz, the Charleston, the cakewalk, tap dancing and barrelhouse social dancing – all specifically African-American forms of expression – are unlimited. Byrd takes these opposites and grafts them. It's an exercise, but over the years it has produced authentic artistic excellence. Seven years ago, with The Minstrel Show, he examined the traditional soft-shoe acts of the 1850s in America. Two years later, he made The Harlem Nutcracker and situated the ballet in America of the 1920s with a specific plot slant – namely, to show that “not all black families are dysfunctional.” (The Harlem Nutcracker will be at the Wiltern Theater from November 12 to 15, and I encourage you to see it.) This partial chronology of Byrd's work shows that he is moving through America's history with an eye on racism. The combination of all these concerns makes him interesting on paper. And Byrd does talk the political/artistic talk. He, more than any other choreographer in recent history, is willing to put himself on the line in defense of the NEA (he appeared before Congress last spring). He has an agenda, and I mean that in the best sense. One wants him to win, to make beautiful work and rise, dance by dance, to great artistic heights, because he is a good man, a committed choreographer and a political savior.
With this in mind, one cringed when, in the program notes for Jazz Train, his new full-length opus, which arrived at El Camino College Center for the Arts on October 2, Byrd wrote: “I want Jazz Train to be like Balanchine's Stravinsky and Ravel Festivals at [New York] City Ballet.”
Byrd has the stuff to be his own man. He was on his way. Is he really going to forsake his voice, his mission, and head toward comparisons with Balanchine? Worse, even if he never wrote this note, Jazz Train reflects a choreographer in a distracted state, someone whose ideas are better than his creation. I prefer to view Jazz Train as a phase. He's getting more from it than we are.
It's impossible to separate the heroism of the dancers in Heidi Duckler's Liquid Assets, performed outdoors by her Collage Dance Theater at California Plaza on the Grand Performances summer 1998 program, from the work. It was cold out. And there they were, half naked, performing in fountains and pools. The choreography was neither convincing nor electrifying enough to let one lose oneself in it and give reality, as well as nagging concerns about the dancers' health, a rest.
Still, wonderful things happen in the piece: the symbols projected on the buildings that shoot the margins of her piece toward the sky, the ominous score by Carla Lucero, her refined dancers, and the luminous solo by Eli Nelson. Duckler needs to see Liquid Assets again, several times, for herself, then cut, not discard, this mighty work that Grand Performances was grand enough to commission.