The adventurous works of the 1960s and 1970s came to be identified as postmodern some time after the question, “Is it dance or not?” had died. It’s interesting to see this earlier aesthetic revisited by its creators or adapted by younger ones. For instance, a year ago this month, Trisha Brown re-envisioned her 1974 Spiral Descent. What had been a two-minute descent round and round three pillars via ropes and harnesses by three dancers in a shabby loft became Spiral, magnified in the white vastness of Dia Beacon. Ten pillars, 10 ladders and ropes, 10 dancers in a canon that prolonged and varied the simple act.
In 1963, Yvonne Rainer made a piece called We Shall Run. A bunch of people in everyday clothes ran around Judson Church in a clump. A little over a week ago, when the Guggenheim Museum Works & Process series present works curated by Robert Wilson and made by artists who’d been in residence at his Watermill Center, Andrew Ondrejcak presented his Veneration I: The Young Heir Takes Possession of the Master’s Effects. For about a half hour, beginning before the audience straggled in, he ran in place—wearing only a jockstrap and so beautifully lit that he looked like one of Wilson’s VOOM video portraits—until he dropped, exhausted.
Rainer herself, since going back to making dances after decades as a filmmaker, has returned to strategies of the 1960s that interested her and some of her colleagues in Judson Dance Theater. Early on, she experimented with juxtaposing text to movement to see how the combination affected our perceptions, and she raised issues to do with what constituted “performance” as opposed either to process or to adamantly matter-of-fact, illusionless behavior. Everyday objects like mattresses might figure, along with ordinary-looking people.
Her Spiraling Down (2008) and her brand new Assisted Living: Good Sports 2, presented at the Baryshnikov Center by Performa, take such tactics to a more theatrical level. For Spiraling Down, Rainer drew movement images and text (spoken by Rainer on tape and by the performers at a mic or during scuffles) from a long, eclectic list of sources that includes Fred Astaire, Marcel Mauss, and Serena Williams. For Assisted Living, she collected sports photos, somewhat the way Steve Paxton and Robert Rasuchenberg did for their 1964 Ja ville görna telefonera, and distributed them among her dancers to generate movement.
What you see in the white-floored space of BAC’s Howard Gilman Performance Space are extremely polished structures that nevertheless celebrate rough edges, thinking on the spot, spontaneity, intellectual provocation, and an abiding delight in mischief. The four women who perform Spiraling Down and whom Rainer dubbed the Raindears are a charmingly motley bunch in terms of age, size, and shape: Pat Catterson, who presented her own choreography at Judson Church in 1970 and is a tap artist as well; Brazilian-born Patricia Hoffbauer, best known, perhaps, for her many collaborations with George Emilio Sanchez; Sally Silvers, who has been choreographing and performing for 30 years; and youngest, Emily Coates, ex–New York City Ballet, who directs the Dance Studies Program at Yale. For Assisted Living, they’re joined by Keith Sabado, ex–Mark Morris, and the French-Cambodian Emmanuelle Phuon, who, like Coates, was a member of Baryshnikov’s White Oak Dance Project. These are pros, up for anything.
There’s quite a lot of friendly competitive scrimmaging in both pieces (especially in Assisted Living, where you can at times almost see an unpredictable soccer ball rolling around among the performers’ feet). You may not be able to identify Spiraling’s sources (nor should you try), although they’re clearly visible—whether it’s Catterson hawking, spitting, and blowing her nose like a ball player mid-game, Coates holding a leg improbably high, Hoffbauer as a monster chasing a wailing Catterson (and then Silvers chasing Hoffbauer), or alarmed reactions out of film noir (Silvers is divine as a wide-eyes heroine). Pinning the spoken words to the action is equally challenging and not necessary, although it’s entertaining to hear Coates complaining about the downside of testosterone shots: “Being horny is a nuisance.”
Rainer choreographs and orchestrates all this with astute theatricality in order to vary the effect on our eyes and ears, grooming apparent—even illusory—randomness to function within a whole.
Her gamesmanship is even more evident in Assisted Living: Good Sports 2 (the clever title is also resonant). Lighting designer Les Dickerson has added three big Hollywood-style spotlights and set designer Joel Reynolds has assembled a bunch of stuff, some of which—a tire, for example, and a mattress—alludes to Rainer’s early dances. Dickerson, Reynolds, and Rainer herself move stuff around. Dickerson spends quite a lot of time uncoiling an orange electrical cords so he can drop to the floor and aim a tiny lamp at a portion of the action for a few minutes. By the end of the piece, everything has been moved from a far corner to the opposite side of the performing area.
Rainer keeps an eye on the proceedings and occasionally speaks (is that Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie or the New Héloïse she’s reading from?). As the work progresses, her commentary becomes increasingly, if obliquely, attuned to today’s disastrous politics, wars, discrimination, and moral smugness (there are alarming contemporary quotes re the Ku Klux Klan and the Protocol of the Elders of Zion). As ironic counterpoint, a soprano voice filters into Quentin Chiappetta’s electronic effects with the lyric, “Everything is beautiful at the ballet.”
The six performers spend quite a lot of time jogging around in squad or herd, sometimes holding up their hands like paws and shaking them. Periodically, one of them falls out of the line or cuts loose, but is picked up to rejoin the gang. Every now and then someone gives a verbal command, like “batter” or “arms” or “jump,” that triggers a quick gesture on everyone’s part.
The goings-on are very engaging in all senses of the word, and they elicit responses you only remember to think about later. Diving out of a vigorous solo, Catterson pants, “Who needs frontal lobes?” The audience laughs. But would that be the frontal lobes whose function Wikipedia defines as the ability “to recognize future consequences resulting from current actions, to choose between good and bad actions (or better and best), override and suppress unacceptable social responses, and determine similarities and differences between things or events”?
Near the end of this retrospective, forward-looking evening, Rainer remarks, “Previously she wanted to be looked at and admired. Now she just wants to be admired.” I hear you, Yvonne, and you are.
The ongoing Works & Process evenings at the Guggenheim Museum deal with ideas and developments in the arts, via performances and conversations with artists. To give New Yorkers
a taste of what the Royal Danish Ballet will perform in the U.S. in June after an absence of over 20 years, artistic director Nikolai Hübbe brought 10 RDB dancers to the Guggenheim. In between excerpts from ballets that will be shown at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater (June 14 through 19), Hübbe talks—often revealingly—with John Meehan, about the past and future of the company (which numbers over 90 performers), his own past as a child student and adult dancer in Denmark, and his tenure as a stellar performer with the New York City Ballet.
As one of the hundreds of scholars, critics, and ballet buffs who have flocked to the three Bournonville festivals that the company has organized, beginning in 1979, I’m passionate about this Danish institution. The Bournonville repertory—what remains of it—is the closest link we have to ballet of the mid 19th-century. August Bournonville, the scion of a dancing family, took Auguste Vestris’s classes alongside Marie Taglioni and wrote down the exercises before returning to Copenhagen, where he became the Royal Danish Ballet’s director and choreographer.
What Bournonville fans almost worldwide love about his ballets—their sweet-tempered beauty; their lovely, buoyant, intricate steps; their astutely conveyed drama; their casts that include children and character dancers as well as quick-footed younger ones—is, let’s face it, old hat to the Danes and a bit boring to many of the dancers. A company has to grow. The RDB’s next home season includes Balanchine’s The Nutcracker, a Balanchine-Stravinsky evening, and an all-Robbins program. The Guggenheim program offers a glimpse of Lost on Slow, a ballet by Jorma Elo, the Russian-trained Finnish choreographer, whose works seem to be on every company’s must-have list (Lost on Slow is coming to the Koch).
The difficult part for diehard Bournonvillians is accepting the belief that to keep the Danes coming to see Bournonville ballets, the works must be periodically updated in terms of décor and costumes, as well as emphasis and direction. In 1991, the artistically gifted Queen Margrethe II redesigned costumes for A Folk Tale that altered what some felt to be an essential aspect of the ballet. The 1834 La Sylphide that will be shown during the company’s U.S. tour may be the one that Hübbe, as a guest choreographer, directed and had re-designed in time for the 2005 Bournonville Festival.
For the June tour, Hübbe put together Bournonville Variations, drawing on steps from the handed-down, daily Bournonville classes. Bournonville was a charismatic dancer at a time when men on stage were being disprized in Paris and elsewhere, and he made wonderful jumping, beating steps for male dancers, and the excerpts from the work shown at the Guggenheim featured five men, led by the exemplary Bournonville dancer Thomas Lund. These are not bravura, Russian-style showpiece steps, but, oh, what bright displays of elevation and footwork, performed with modest ease. No storms of pirouettes ending with an “I dare you to applaud” lunge, just a multiple spin that the dancer ends poised for a second on the ball of one foot.
The ensemble also shows the Guggenheim audience two scenes from La Sylphide, the Pas de Sept from A Folk Tale, the Tarantella from the last act of Napoli, and the “Jockey Dance” from the otherwise vanished From Siberia to Moscow. The image Bournonville presents is one of a moral and contented society born to dance in the celebrations that fill his ballets. At the Guggenheim, watching these fragrant witty or tragic bits of dancing, finely performed, I find I’m smiling.
I was particularly impressed by Amy Watson, whose combination of innocence and robustness seems wonderfully suited to Bournonville’s steps, and she was also striking in a quirky duet from Elo’s work, in which she was partnered by Jean-Lucien Massot. Lund and Alban Lendorf are a fine pair as the two in-step but rivalrous jockeys with their little whips. Ulrik Birkkjaer is an eloquent and sensitive James to Susanne Grinder’s playful (in Act I) and dying (in Act II) sylph. Grinder, a tall slender beauty with long arms, is adept at looking otherwordly, but I found her at slightly limp; in the little solo marked by a childish clapping of the hands, she sort of fluttered hers in the air below her chin. Note to Danes: Please remember to pack the tambourines for Napoli when you return to New York. Clapping hands are no subsititute!