From the Field To A Garden

The Fascination of What’s Difficult

It had rained for days and would continue for several more. The deluge had washed out one performance by choreographers from the Field—the second of this summer's programs of "Dances for Wave Hill"—and was threatening the final show. But on a damp Sunday late in July, an intrepid band of artists and spectators, prepared for any eventuality, converged on the Bronx's loveliest public garden, while the sun, in the clouds over the Hudson, valiantly tried to break through.

The standard environment for theatrical dancing has four walls and a ceiling, with artificial wattage trained on a climate-controlled performing space that usually boasts a carefully tended floor. Dancing in the Streets, which since 1983 has been finding extraordinary environments, gambles on the weather all the time, planting accessible performances on piers and in gardens, on the avenues of Chelsea, at the beach at Coney Island, in parks and pools, train stations and construction sites, even the Arthur Avenue Market in the Bronx.

For 10 years, DITS has commissioned site-specific dances from a range of midcareer choreographers to be performed at Wave Hill. This especially verdant season's second program featured four works. Heather Harrington made an elegant adagio trio for women in one-legged trousers, rolling and arching as they moved away from us down hills sloping toward the river, to music by Cam Millar. Philippa Kaye set three women and a man frolicking on an uphill slope, restrained by a string fence whose flapping rags matched their costumes, placing themselves upside down on the downhill slope of the hill, so only their legs were visible swaying, all to winning bluesy guitar riffs composed and performed by Jon Shriver. With no curtains or flats or artificial lights to dim, both choreographers ended their works by letting dancers trot off into invisibility.

Next up on the satisfying afternoon was Aviva Geismar's Snare Tide, a female quartet under a wooden arbor, integrating water—or maybe it was wine—into a hypnotic dance in which liquids sloshed, visibly and on Manoiseca's soundtrack. It might have been taking place on another continent, in a distant century, and the women might have been maenads, pouring libations over themselves. Completing the program was Rolling the Hillockby the Tiffany Mills Company, who, to a recording of Andrés Segovia playing Albeniz, performed the afternoon's most tightly structured piece, involving rolling their bodies up, down, and across a small hill in the shade of another arbor. Three women and one man caressed themselves and gestured in the manner of ancient friezes.

As a longtime fan of the Wave Hill concerts, I urge Dancing in the Streets to extend this project to other seasons, to scatter dances among the autumnal leaf piles, in the snow, and in the first frizz of spring. Merely visiting the grounds is restorative; the choreography is lagniappe.

 


Speaking of parks, the National Parks Service administers a partnership called Save America's Treasures, which is among the supporters of the Dance Heritage Coalition. Last year the DHC solicited nominations for the "first 100" spots on a list of the country's irreplaceable dance treasures, and late in July it issued that list, culled from about 900 nominations received, and announced preservation prizes to three of the winners: the Katherine Dunham Center in East Saint Louis, Illinois; Cross Cultural Dance Resources, of Flagstaff, Arizona; and the Halla Huhm Foundation in Honolulu, Hawaii. The cash awards will enable the preservation of photographs, moving-image materials, costumes, and musical instruments.

The 100 treasures include choreographic giants living and dead, e.g., George Balanchine, Martha Graham, Merce Cunningham, and Paul Taylor, as well as lesser-known figures like William Henry Lane, a/k/a Master Juba, America's first international dance sensation. Also on the list are organizations (among them Jacob's Pillow Dance Festival, Judson Dance Theater, and American Bandstand), popular dance styles (swing, square dance, the Charleston, hula, hip-hop, and Native American), impresarios like Sol Hurok and Lincoln Kirstein, teachers like Bessie Schönberg, and performing stars running the gamut from tap dancer John Bubbles to Balanchine's muse Suzanne Farrell. For a lavishly illustrated, fully annotated brochure containing the whole list, write to the Dance Heritage Coalition, P.O. Box 15130, Washington, D.C. 20003—and be prepared to wait a couple of months.

 


Dance is most often a communal activity, and dance audiences tend to come out to see people they know. So when John Mead, a part-time resident of the city who teaches half the year at NYU's dance education program and spends the other half as a guest choreographer all over the world, brought his ensemble to the university's Frederick Loewe Theatre, he attracted only a score or so of viewers. Half of Mead's dancers hail from Texas; one is French, another Mexican, two Korean. Most of them are "teaching artists" in a variety of settings.

The centerpiece of the program was Vows, a 16-year-old work in which a couple (Mead and Lily Cabatu Weiss), alienated from one another in a room with a long table, play out a maudlin relationship scenario. Though the performers are strong, the dance is structurally rickety, with way too many blackouts that freeze the action and disrupt the emotional flow. When one of them finally knifes the other, we are unaccountably grateful. A stronger work is Mead's new Piano, a solo for Yoon Jeong Jin, who begins on a piano bench playing an imaginary piano, and eventually morphs into the music itself (a recording of Mahler unidentified in the playbill).

 


William B. Harris, enthusiast, evangelist, archivist, and the most intrepid of Downtown performance journalists, died July 27 of a massive coronary. He was 49.

For more than 25 years Harris wrote about theater, performance art, dance, and visual arts, for this paper and the Soho Weekly News as well as the The New York Timesand more-specialized publications, opening readers' eyes to artists who were changing the landscapes of their fields.

"He was an encyclopedic source of information about Downtown theater," a colleague recalls. "He dragged people to see things. If you could be important to the artist, and if he felt the artist was important, he made sure you were there." The last time I saw Harris, he had the dance editor of the Times' Arts & Leisure section in tow, at Ann Carlson's remarkable Night Light tour of Chelsea, which involved hours of pounding pavement in search of historical tableaux she'd re-created in the neighborhood. He wasn't pitching the editor; she'd already published his story.

The 2000-2001 season of performances at P.S. 122 will be dedicated to Harris's memory. Mark Russell will hold a memorial for him there in October; another memorial will be scheduled at Dance Theater Workshop. Watch our dance listings for full details.

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