Tina Croll, her dance company, a core of folk dancers and a marching band's worth of live musicians presented a fusion of modern dance and Balkan folk dance at the Danspace Project. The result was one of the best modern dance performances I have seen in a while. In my view, this was modern dance that makes sense. And not because it was less "modern" than other works of modern dance. Balkan Dreams was a daring experiment in many ways. Daring is an important part of what modern dance practitioners often claim to be about. Ms. Croll's risks were successful, resulting in modern dance that was also accessible.
Ms. Croll's dancers were energetic. They filled the space like a series of varied waves. They danced even when they were walking. The modern dancers, whose individual performances were all at a high level and whose collective work was well matched to each other, included Tina Croll, Einy Aam, Laura Caldow, Amanda Drozer, Jennifer Harmer, Courtney Ortiz-Trammell, Jess Reed and Ani Udovicki.
Photo by Bryan Hayes
Ms. Croll joined the performance herself for several segments, including a number with a very large scarf that gave the audience the distinct impression that she had become a bird in flight even though her feet never left the ground.
Balkan Dreams consisted of a series of segments, generally alternating between modern and folk passages. The folk dancers, all able and then some, consisted of Marion Blumenthal, Hope Geteles, Joan Hantman, Anny Iounakova, Noel Kropf, Linda Mansdorf, John Parrish, Bard Rosell, Dan Ross, Cathie Springer, and Barry Winiker.
Anny Iounakova, one of the folk dancers, presented a powerful belly dance, with some of the most energetic shaking I have seen. In a concession to modern sensibilities, she left her navel exposed. (It is my understanding that traditional costumes for this type of dance are often quite revealing, but always include a strip of fabric up the middle to cover the navel. Moreover, while Anny does refer to this style of dance as a "belly dance" the term does not do justice to her skill in this form - See Wendy Buonaventura's book "Serpent of the Nile: Women and Dance in the Arab World" for a thorough treatment of the history of this dance.)
The modern segments contained much running and leaping. As a folk dancer mentioned during the rap-up (a discussion after the performance), Balkan folk dance is generally characterized by small steps. Several of the folk dancers said that even if they had been skeptical at the start, they were quite pleased with the way that Ms. Croll adapted movements characteristic of Balkan folk dance to larger modern patterns. From a folk perspective, using big jumping steps to folk music was risky, but the risk paid off. I would concur with this assessment. The family resemblance of the movements in the modern and folk segments was readily apparent. If Balkan Dreams were an airline, the modern dancers would have been flying first class.
The structure of the evening was a reflection of the collaboration that produced it. Ms. Croll's classically trained modern dancers would dance a section, followed by a section danced by the folk dancers. Sometimes there would be a purely musical interlude in which the band would take center stage. Sometimes the band would take center stage and the dancers would dance around them (conceptually similar to Chicago). Sometimes the modern dancers and the folk dancers would dance together. For instance, in one number Ms. Croll used the same sliding alignments she used in the modern segments, but this time filled the choreographic structure with locked lines of three mixed dancers.
Modern dancers sometimes seem overly taken with 70s minimalism, resulting in performances devoid of emotion or facial expression. At first, there seemed to be a clear contrast between the modern dancers, who had relatively little facial expression, and the folk dancers who had facial expression in abundance. As the show went on, the modern dancers started smiling just as much as the folk dancers (or looking grave and sorrowful where appropriate).
Another difference between the two groups of dancers concerned polish. The modern dancers were clearly confident in their own abilities. They executed the choreography with both flourish and precise accents. The folk dancers looked talented, but perhaps not quite as polished (while many have been professional folk dancers at various times in the past, they all hold down full time jobs or school at present in addition to their dedication to dance - considering that they were dancing next to full time dance professionals, they held their own). If I were to recommend one area for improvement, it would be to not look at their own feet quite so much while dancing. I offer this criticism knowing full well that I do the same in my own dancing more than I should. After all, their feet were doing all kinds of intricate steps. The audience clearly wanted to look at the performers' feet, so it is natural for the performers to want to do so too. The trouble is that it makes a dancer look a little less confident, and also, since the head is the heaviest part of the body, it throws off the dancer's balance. Anny Iounakova was a case in point. When her head was down, she looked talented, but when she held her head up she looked positively regal. That being said, all of the folk dancers and their dancing was no less beautiful (or in the case of the men, hunky in a "big guy" kind of way) than the modern dancers. On the other hand, as someone commented during the rap-up, in some folk dances the women traditionally dance with their eyes down, so it is possible that what I saw as a weakness in the dancing was in fact "authentic" folk dance for its historical context. But since this performance is a fusion of modern and folk dance, and since we do indeed live in a modern world (even if some people would rather not), let us dance as if we do. I, for one, would rather see a woman beautiful and strong, rather than just beautiful. If you want to communicate strength, you have to hold your head up.
The slightly lesser polish of the folk dancers was an advantage in a way. It seemed to me that a central contention of the entire evening was that professional and amateur dancers can coexist and work together. The evening was asserting that dance is fundamentally about including as many people as possible in dance, from professional performers to dedicated amateurs to people who do not think of themselves as dancers but who could be (aka the audience). Ms. Croll could have chosen to use only professionals in the performance, but this would have diminished the audience's ability to realize that they are capable of participating in dance. I was originally going to suggest in this review that if they wanted to take their work further, they could include dance workshops along with the performance, but Ms. Croll and collaborators beat me to it by energetically dragging everyone in the audience they possibly could out onto the dance floor for the final number. They got about half of the packed house out onto the floor. There were plenty of people out there for that final number who have presumably never danced a Balkan folk dance before (myself included), and yet even so, the number looked like a perfectly reasonable and joyous conclusion to the evening's performance.
As was articulated during the rap-up after the performance, one of the ways in which Balkan Dreams was daring as modern dance was its reconnection of the dance with the music. Apparently, modern dance generally has gone down this path where the movement has been divorced from the music. Which probably goes a long way towards explaining why much of modern dance has left me mystified. If you are going to use the music as unconnected background noise, you might as well just turn it off and let people dance unaccompanied. Ms. Croll emphasized the relation of music and dance in part by including pure musical interludes in the evening, as if to say, "The musicians and the music deserve to be showcased as much as the dancers and the choreography deserve to be showcased." The musicians included Belle Birchfield, Morgan Clark, Susan Cohen DeStefano, Marian Eines, Sarah Ferholt, Jeff Fine, Catherine Foster, Michael Ginsburg, Adam Good, Tamberlaine Harris, Emerson Hawley, Melinda Hunt, Jesse Kotansky, Jerry Kisslinger, Matt Moran, John Parrish, Wendy Shearer, Matthew Smith, and Gary Zema.
Several of the modern dancers commented that they found dancing to the music to be difficult at first, partly because Ms. Croll gave them choreography that required them to land the rhythm correctly, but also because Balkan folk music includes improvised sections that can be of variable length. They clearly have a work ethic in rehearsal because during tonight's performance, their dancing was balletic, but with rhythmic energy.
Repeated presentation of modern and folk showed that, even with different levels of polish, performance and social dance are meant to be connected, if not fused, and that the often-found separation is what is really the aberration.
The rap-up after the performance revealed that Balkan Dreams is an evolving collaboration. It started out as a 30 minute work with seven sections. In its current form it is a full 80 minutes with twenty sections. According to both the modern and folk dancers, they appreciated each other's work more with each performance. They felt the most connected at the last performance. The musicians may have thought, at first, that adapting modern dance to Balkan rhythms would be beneath the folklore, but then they saw the modern dancers articulate the rhythm, dancing very tightly in unison. The musicians played their hearts out for them. The modern dancers, for their part, said that they started out being used to skimming over the rhythm in the music they usually dance to, but they learned to listen to the music (both to be in time to the often complex rhythms, as well as to move in and out of the improvised sections of the music and dance) and were ultimately able to draw energy from the band.
Ms. Croll's modern segments included repeated elements danced in shadow position. Some of these shadow position elements might be leadable. During the rap-up, Ms. Croll commented that she dealt with the challenge of dancing to music with improvised sections by creating repeatable sequences that the dancers would repeat until the improvisation ended. As choreography, this worked just fine. In fact, without knowing this was her method, one would never have known the dancers were simply looping a sequence waiting for the music to change. On the other hand, since modern dance is all about finding new ways to be daring, if the basic elements of modern dance are in fact leadable, this suggests that modern dance could develop structured improvisation that is akin to the improvisation that is the norm in social partner dance. The lead could either be similar to the non-verbal lead communicated through the dancers' frame used in ballroom, or something similar to the hand calls that the folk dancers demonstrated.
One folk dancer commented that the collaboration with modern dance helped the folk dance to transcend its roots, and thereby bring those roots to a larger audience. Many folk dancers do not want to see their music used differently, but this new use keeps the music alive and a living thing. The collaboration also helped reinvigorate modern dance. The origins of ballet are in folk dance. Modern dance was originally a rebellion from the strictures of classical ballet. In a way, by fusing modern dance with folk dance, modern dance can both rediscover some of its own roots, while also rebelling against its own accreted strictures. Some of this rebellion was achieved by presenting the folk dance in its authentic form without alteration. Ms. Croll commented that she wanted to include folk dances in the evening because they are powerful as is, partly due to their weight and quality, which she loves.
Several of the folk dancers expressed the most important success of the collaboration. In addition to the technical accomplishments of the choreography and the dancing by both the modern dancers, the folk dancers and the musicians, the evening captured the spiritual essence of Balkan folk dance. One folk dancer said, "I felt that the modern dancers captured what I feel in my spirit while dancing, even though the movements were different." Another folk dancer revealed that the modern and folk segments were "different ways of expressing the exuberance of the music. The modern dancers are the fantasies folk dancers have in their heads."
As I said at the beginning, Balkan Dreams was one of the best modern dance performances I have seen in a while. The choreography hung together well. Unlike some other fine modern dance works I have seen, there was never a moment during the show where I thought it was overly long or repetitive. The modern dancers are clearly talented. They would not look out of place at the Joyce. The folk dancers held their own quite well, and the music made you leave the theatre with a little extra lift in your step.
But while summative evaluation is important, it doesn't do the dancers much good. The real question is where to take Balkan Dreams next. My feeling is that the show works as is. The dancing was all good or better. The evening has a superstructure that makes sense. Ms. Croll could swap or adjust segments, but this would have less to do with improving the show than with her own ongoing creativity. I might add a few workshops or master classes in Balkan and/or modern dance to add to the potential for more participation by the audience, but other than that, no major changes are called for. I am not sure that Balkan Dreams would work in a proscenium theatre - the thrust stage of St. Mark's worked very well for the show in its current form, but it could easily work in a larger space with a similar configuration.
What I would do is find and adapt a Balkan folk narrative around which to build a new work. In the same way that Rodin would sculpt small figures first, and then graft them onto larger works later, Ms. Croll could take the elements she has developed in the current twenty segments and graft them onto a new work. This new work would involve the same collaboration of modern and folk dance and music. I would then run Balkan Dreams and the new work in repertory on alternating nights.
Choreography was by Tina Croll. The dancers included Einy Aam, Marion Blumenthal, Laura Caldow, Tina Croll, Amanda Drozer, Hope Geteles, Joan Hantman, Jennifer C. Harmer, Anny Iounakova, Noel Kropf, Linda Mansdorf, Courtney Ortiz-Trammell, John Parrish, Jess Reed, Bard Rosell, Dan Ross, Cathie Springer, Ani Udovicki, and Barry Winiker. Live music by Zlatne Uste Balkan Brass Band (Belle Birchfield, Morgan Clark, Marian Eines, Sarah Ferholt, Catherine Foster, Michael Ginsburg, Adam Good, Tamberlaine Harris, Emerson Hawley, Jesse Kotansky, Jerry Kisslinger, Matt Moran, John Parrish, Matthew Smith, and Gary Zema), Izgori (Susan Cohen DeStefano, Jeff Fine, Adam Good, Melinda Hunt, and Wendy Shearer), Goli Teli (Jeff Fine, Adam Good, Jesse Kotansky, and Jerry Kisslinger), and John Parrish. The lighting design was by Carol Mullins. The technical director was Owen Hughes.
For more information about the Danspace project, go to www.danspaceproject.org or call 212-674-8194. For more information on Tina Croll and Company, check out www.horsesmouth.org. For Zlatne Uste, check out www.ZlatneUste.org. For Izgori, email Hunt_Smith@compuserve.com. For Goli Teli, email firstname.lastname@example.org.