Spring Arts Guide: Juliette Mapp Mashes Up Day Care and Gertrude Stein

Plus Paradigm, Karole Armitage, and other spring dance picks

Gertrude Stein’s The Making of Americans is a notoriously unread book. 500,000 words and so many of them the same. What book that repeats as much goes on so long? The normally responsible critic Edmund Wilson boasted that he had not read it all the way through and doubted it was possible. I haven’t read the whole thing, and neither has Juliette Mapp.

But Mapp is presenting a dance with the same title at Dance Theater Workshop, April 13 to 16. The choreographer happened upon Stein’s tome in Brussels, where she was teaching, and it spoke to her artistic concerns. Mapp was making a dance about her mother’s side of the family—immigrants from Albania who settled by the steel mills of Gary, Indiana—yet she was becoming less interested in narrative and more worried about the subject being too confining for her kind of dance. Stein gave her permission to abandon character for composition.

Mapp’s last work, Anna, Ikea, and I, was autobiographical, recounting a dancer’s progress archetypal enough for anyone to project his or her self into the tale. She narrated her memories with sly humor; her mentors and students portrayed themselves, by dancing. It was a good approach, but not one easy to apply to her deceased relatives. One feature of Anna could transfer to Americans: the use of books, physical objects with personal meaning for Mapp. Her new dance has Stein’s book, from which the cast recites. When they throw it down, it makes quite a thunk.

Stein’s Americans is about family, obliquely about Stein’s own. It starts almost like a 19th-century novel before turning in on its own making and treating words like musical notes. Mapp’s Americans is also about family, obliquely, the community made through a life in art. But where in Anna, Mapp pointed out the relation of the cast members to herself, in the new work she leaves it implicit. Some of the same mentors and students reappear, but merely as members of the ensemble, dancing and reciting Stein with everyone else. Likewise, she doesn’t emphasize that she met some of the dancers as babysitters for her toddler. “I can’t make this piece about family,” she recalls thinking, “unless they’re doing what they do. And doing that day job is what allows them to dance.”

Gary remains in Mapp’s Americans in video of urban decay by John Jesurun. Mapp, who grew up in Madison, is moved by Midwestern art, something about its passion and earnestness. She has chosen music from the region, including songs by the not-particularly-earnest Minneapolis band the Replacements. “I’m working within my means. No fancy sets. Hiring my babysitters. This feels to me very Midwestern.” The Carter Family wasn’t exactly Midwestern, but the sound of their folk songs means family and their words chime unexpectedly with Stein’s. Such connections are the groundwater of Mapp’s creations, the serendipity of things that seem to her to go together.

Stein’s prose benefits from being read aloud (and excerpted), and as text for dance, its repetitiousness is an asset: You can give it only half your attention. Instead of taking that repetition as a model for minimalism, Mapp sees an analogy with unison. Just as Stein’s relentless reiterations make subtle variations stand out, when dancers all go through the same motions, individuality rises to the surface. Those motions run from shaking on all fours to the most careful adjustments in how shoulders are set. What Mapp admires in Stein—soft subjects told hard—she plays with kinetically.

Watching a rehearsal in post-industrial Bushwick, I remarked to Mapp that the setting seemed more apt than Dance Theater Workshop. She reminded me that DTW is currently a site of uncertainty and some sadness, as the organization merges with Bill T. Jones to become New York Live Arts. Mapp’s will be the last dance presented by “DTW” in its theater. A work of family memories speaks to the moment, as does Stein at the end of her death-haunted book (I skipped ahead): “Any one coming to be an old enough one comes to be a dead one.”

‘The Making of Ameicans,’ April 13–16, Dance Theater Workshop, 219 West 19th Street, dancetheaterworkshop.org

Spring Dance Picks

Stephen Petronio Company
April 4–10
In 2003, Petronio created for the Sydney Dance Company a full-evening treatment of songs by Nick Cave, that deep-voiced and tormented Australian. Now the choreographer resets Underland on his own, smaller troupe. Projected images of destruction and fire form the backdrop for a characteristic cataract of louche classicism, hellish but always stylish, brightened slightly by intimations of immortality following those of immorality. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org

‘Under the Influence’
April 13 and May 18
Lately, it seems as if every museum in New York is enlisting dancers to liven things up. The Museum of Arts and Design jumped on the trend in February with the first of four installments in an eclectic series loosely justified by correlations with the visual arts. The lineup for the penultimate evening is strong and motley—Ronald K. Brown, Sean Curran, and Nelida Tirado. Jason Samuels Smith hammers the shallow stage in May. The Museum of Arts and Design, 2 Columbus Circle, madmuseum.org

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