Three very different upcoming performances point to the elasticity of American concert dance. Alternately ambitious, intimate, autobiographical and, above all, innovative, each demonstrates an art that continues to re-imagine itself.
PAST Forward: The Influence of the Post-Moderns, the most recent venture by Mikhail Baryshnikov’s ad hoc touring company White Oak Dance Project, focuses on a seminal period in the 1960s when what constituted a dance, its structure or its content, was radically upended by a group of New York artists who came to be known as the Judson Dance Theater. The collective encompasses a laundry list of well-known dancers, composers, writers and visual artists — David Gordon, Simone Forti, Trisha Brown, Lucinda Childs, Steve Paxton, Deborah Hay and Yvonne Rainer — all of whom are represented on either of the two programs presented as part of the PAST Forward project.
As Rainer, one of the more polemical Judson members, has said in the past, ”There was new ground to be broken, and we were standing on it.“ No longer satisfied with the aesthetic tradition laid out by their antecedents, either dramatic narrativists such as Graham and Limon or abstractionists such as Cunningham and Nikolais, the group (named after the Judson Memorial Church where they performed) turned instead to experimental music and theater, to underground film and to visual-arts happenings for inspiration and cross-fertilization. Rainer‘s impassioned manifesto against spectacle and artifice reflected the collective emphasis on the random, casual and spontaneous experience of everyday life. Movement was pared down to an elemental and unadorned vocabulary of ordinary gesture and pedestrian motion. Dance performances were extricated from the proscenium stage and explored three-dimensionally, in public spaces, atop buildings and in sculptural installations that included Forti’s 1961 Huddle. One would think that work such as this, which purposefully defied the constraints of theatrical presentation, might prove challenging to re-stage today, or lose a great deal in the translation, but word has it that an integral part of the White Oak Dance Project is to maintain a work‘s performing ethos.
Since its founding, White Oak has supported the creation of new works by an eclectic assortment of modern and postmodern choreographers, and assisted in the preservation and reconstruction of several important pieces. All of which speaks not only to Baryshnikov’s interest in the medium but to his ongoing, intelligent pursuit of new technical and stylistic challenges. In PAST Forward Baryshnikov will perform two solos, including Brown‘s 1965 Homemade, which provides a different kind of challenge. In remounting the piece, Brown gave Baryshnikov the same instruction she had given herself 35 years ago, ”to enact and distill a series of meaningful memories.“ These ”memory units“ were incorporated into the piece, now consisting of both Brown’s and Baryshnikov‘s memories. It is an apt idea, one that embodies Brown’s original intent. Likewise, PAST Forward hopes to contextualize the revolutionary fervor of the Judson choreographers for today‘s audiences by weaving in film, video, new media and the creation of new dance by Judson veterans. Select guest performances by Judson choreographers are also on the bill, but who and what will be performed each night will be decided at the last minute, much in keeping with Judson sensibilities.
Over the course of his career, David Rousseve has excavated his own story as well as his family history to create (to borrow Audre Lorde’s term) biomythographical dance theater for his New York–based multiracial company, REALITY. To celebrate the company‘s 10th anniversary, Rousseve, who relocated to Los Angeles in 1996 to accept a teaching position at UCLA, did the unexpected: Instead of mounting with the company a ”greatest hits“ concert of selected repertory, he decided to go it alone. The resulting compilation of early, recent and brand-new work, The Ten Year Chat, marks the first time in 13 years the choreographer has performed solo.
The evening promises to be signature Rousseve — equally lighthearted and emotionally devastating — with the premiere of five new movement solos and a string of favorite monologues pulled from evening-length group works, including ”Urban ScenesCreole Dreams“ (seen in Los Angeles in 1994) and ”The Whispers of Angels.“ These are spoken from the perspective of finely etched characters (his grandmother, a man dying of AIDS, Rousseve on the first day of integrated school) whom he embodies with humor and grace. Rousseve is a generous and charismatic performer (his experience acting in soap operas is the subject of another monologue), and his intimate, alternately revelatory and informal banter seductively builds to grander confrontations with issues of race and gender, oppression and survival. As he told the Weekly recently, the question that continues to drive him is ”Can the polemics of the work come from a discourse that is human and real on the level of the heart?“
Another question that concerns him is ”Can theater change the world?“ As a child, Rousseve wanted to be either a lawyer who worked on behalf of social justice, or a Broadway chorus dancer. The tension between having a social conscience and loving to kick up his heels plays out in The Ten Year Chat as a balancing act between the edgy monologues and new solos that relish the unadulterated joy of dancing. Set to the music of Duke Ellington and Billy Strayhorn, the work is still deeply autobiographical, connecting Rousseve’s youthful experience with jazz dancing to his current explorations of a fluid virtuosity. It is a direction about which Rousseve initially hesitated, but which he doesn‘t see as contradicting from his previous work. ”When I was growing up in Third Ward East Houston, having fun was a political statement. The ability to celebrate is intrinsically connected with the ability to survive. It’s not enough to survive. You got to thrive, and that‘s how you do it, by bringing in this joy and celebration.“
Survival is also a key theme in the hip-hop opera Rome & Jewels, presented by Philadelphia-based Rennie Harris’ Puremovement over the next two weekends at UCLA‘s Ostin Hall and at the Carpenter Center for the Performing Arts at Cal State Long Beach. The multidimensional piece incorporates various manifestations of hip-hop — poetry, rapping, DJs, and dance techniques such as B-boying (mistakenly referred to as ”break dancing“), stepping and house dancing — to tell a coming-of-age tale set in the hood. Combining Elizabethan verse with street speak and Ebonics (”Yo Rome, thou art a villain. So what’s up?“), Rome & Jewels takes ample advantage of the Bard‘s Romeo and Juliet as well as Leonard Bernstein’s West Side Story, but as choreographer and director Harris is quick to point out, these cultural riffs are a springboard for a story that has little to do with unrequited love.
Speaking by phone from San Francisco a few weeks ago, where the company was set to open at Theater Artaud, Harris acknowledged that he had wanted to work with Shakespeare for a while, ”and the cat was going to be a homeboy.“ Transplanting fair Verona to urban Philly, updating the warring Montagues and Capulets to the Monster Q‘s and the Caps, Harris homes in on Rome’s path of self-discovery. Jewels, whose presence is felt rather than actual, acts as a catalyst not only for the plot but for Rome‘s shifting world-view. According to Harris, the piece also operates on another level. In this reading, Rome represents hip-hop culture and Jewels, as the name implies, serves as a metaphor for material wealth, for the filthy lucre that stands in the way of self-knowledge. For Harris, Rome’s death signifies his own spiritual transition from ”having one foot in the street and one foot in the universe, to having both feet in the universe.“
Harris‘ philosophical musings do not reference his or hip-hop’s entry into the sanctified world of high art. The trappings of hip-hop may have been adopted by white youth in Middle America, but Harris, who has been steeped in the vernacular idiom since he was a 14-year-old stepper in North Philly — when ”there was about a two-block radius of hip-hop“ — is not about to package this aesthetic for ready consumption. Since he was first commissioned 10 years ago to create a hip-hop piece for the theater, the goal, he says, has been to stay true to the raw street energy and improvisational nature of the dancing (”flipping the script“ is a common tactic initiated at will by the dancers) while defying the assumption that it consists only of acrobatic feats and athletic stunts (which, admittedly, are part of the vocabulary). Ultimately, staying true means creating an experience that the audience can share with the performers: ”The foundation of hip-hop is traditional African culture, and in traditional culture everyone in the circle speaks. There‘s no hierarchy. We share. That’s what the dance and the writing and the music are all about.“
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