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
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
Plenty of companies have been around longer than this 15-year-old one, but no company has more collective experience. The roster is a history of American dance in the past half-century. For the anniversary season, the trio that started the group, A Thin Frost, gets a reprise, along with Kate Weare’s richly strange Idyll, from last year. Premieres attract notice by names-you-should-know. Gus Solomons Jr. makes a work for Sarita Allen, Michael Blake, Hope Clarke, Robert LaFosse, and Valda Setterfield. Carmen de Lavallade, celebrating her 80th birthday during the run, makes another. St. Mark’s Church, 131 East 10th Street, danspaceproject.org
Armitage Gone! Dance
April 26–May 8
Karole Armitage’s work has always balanced on the edge of mannerism. Recent dances, such as Itutu, have teetered way over, and Three Theories, last year’s interpretation of high-end physics, now reprised at the Joyce, stumbled back and forth. The alternate program is surer-footed. The punk attitudinizing of Drastic Classicism, from 1981, reads more fun than insurgent these days, Ligeti Essays is chilly and analytic, and for news value, there’s a collaboration with the embattled and newly molting Dance Theater of Harlem. Joyce Theater, 175 Eighth Avenue, joyce.org
‘Celebrating Pearl Primus’
One specialty of the 92nd Street Y is the program that disinters a neglected figure once associated with the august institution. Primus, a pioneering African-American soloist of the 1940s, is a good candidate, a new biography by Peggy and Murray Schwartz providing the occasion and context. The question, as ever, is whether current dancers can reproduce, or even suggest, whatever it was that made Primus remarkable—whether there’s a reason for the neglect. In any case, the event is free. 92nd Street Y, 1395 Lexington Avenue, 92y.org
Los Muñequitos de Matanzas
When the great Cuban rumba musicians come to town, after being denied visas for much of the past decade, watching their dancing is a subsidiary pleasure. Sly and sexual and spiritually potent as it is, the movement can seem a little small—quaint, even—compared to the magical complexity of the voices and percussion. Still, the group’s fidelity to its Afro-Cuban roots supplies a timely counterbalance to Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, making its U.S. debut at the Joyce the following week with what sound like more recent and willful fusions. Symphony Space, Broadway at 95th Street, symphonyspace.org
May 9–14 and June 2–25
Rethorst is a resilient experimentalist. When she lost her dance studio to rising rents, she moved to her living room and made two probing pieces about the displacement. Now she moves her furniture into St. Mark’s Church for a Retro(Intro)spective on the model of what a gallery might do for a midcareer visual artist. There’ll be movie nights (Steve Martin’s All of Me) and living-room conversations rather than post-performance discussions. She’ll reconstruct a watershed piece, have John Jesurun and Tere O’Connor “wreck” a few open rehearsals, and develop some new work by and by. St. Mark’s Church in-the-Bowery, 131 East 10th Street, danspaceproject.org
American Ballet Theatre
May 16–July 9
The certain joy of the season blooms in June, with the company premiere of Bright Stream, Alexei Ratmansky’s ebullient refashioning of Soviet socialist fantasy. But at the end of May, as company stars and exciting guests cycle through 19th-century classics, premieres sprout in a clump, the choice of choreographers the only predictable factor. Ratmansky, on a roll, has one, as do Christopher Wheeldon and Benjamin Millepied, the last’s workmanlike efforts now under the pressure of the fame bestowed by Black Swan. Metropolitan Opera House, Lincoln Center, abt.org
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 30, 2011