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Paul Ben-Itzak
Perfect Programs
Special Focus

Perfect Couples - My dream mini-festival

by Paul Ben-Itzak
August 28, 2009
For my contribution to this occasional ExploreDance.com feature, I thought I'd program a sort of mini-festival with my perfect match-ups, pairing dances that in one way or another compliment each other. The following should not be construed as a general 'best of' list, but simply an assortment of interesting curatorial combos.

1. First Dance

As ExporeDance.com is also a social / ballroom dance journal, let's start with two works inspired by Fred Astaire and, respectively, Rita Hayworth and Ginger Rogers, Jerome Robbins's "I'm Old-Fashioned," as danced by the New York City Ballet, and Alice Chauchat's "Choregraphies," performed by the choreographer and Carlos Pez Gonzales. Since this is 'dream' programming, it doesn't matter that the one is usually performed in Lincoln Center and the other I caught in a Paris suburb.

"I'm Old-Fashioned," which mingles footage from the "I'm Old-Fashioned" number in the Astaire/Hayworth vehicle "You Were Never Lovelier" with a live ballet of couples dancing to Morton Gould's arrangement of the Jerome Kern original, probably needs no recapitulation; indeed, I'm including it in this program mostly as a lesson to Chauchat in efficient dance-making. What's unique about Robbins — here and elsewhere — is how he's able to tweak a popular dance form just enough to make it concert dance, infusing it with a modern sensibility as subtle as it is sublime. For "I'm Old-Fashioned," to the ballroom elegance and swankiness of Astaire and Hayworth, Robbins added nuance.

Chauchat's "Choregraphies," which I caught in 2002 at the Rencontres Choregraphiques in Montreuil, the funky Brooklynesque Paris suburb, more or less reverses the concept, and with much less efficiency than Robbins. This is understandable; Robbins was an accomplished pro by the time he made "I'm Old-Fashioned" in 1983, while Chauchat was a just-recent graduate of Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker's P.A.R.T.S. school in Brussels. I forget what P.A.R.T.S. actually stands for, but judging from the lack of any editing in most of the work I've seen from its students and alumni, it might well be Process (is) Above Retaining The Spectators. Chauchat's "Choregraphies" is the proof. The concept is more than clever: Two dancers riff on projected segments from Astaire-Rogers films — not the dancing, which would be too obvious, but the interactions in between the dancing in the movies. For the first half-hour, as I wrote in my Dance Insider review, it's fascinating. But running it out for 30 more minutes — the clunky black-out pauses don't help — Chauchat loses her audience. When I saw the piece, she had many of her annoyed spectators shouting at her.

2. Reality Check

Speaking of glamorous pairs, you may have heard that the Brooklyn Academy of Music will open its next "Next Wave" (in quotes because in terms of dance, BAM always seems to be programming the last wave) festival with the touring tandem of Juliette Binoche and Akram Khan. I guess it has to, as it's a sure sexy draw for tough times, but if I had my pick of Kathak/contemporary choreographer/dancer Khan's many artistic marriages, it would be "Zero Degress," his collaboration with Belgian super-star Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui. One of the few pieces I've seen which successfully artistically treats the fear of the other which has come to dominate our times, "Zero Degrees" follows two British cousins on their journey to Calcutta. The nut of the narrative is simple: Their passports are seized at the Bangladeshi border, and they follow their papers as they're passed from one guard to another, farther and farther away from them. As I wrote in my 2005 Dance Insider review, "Without their passports, they realize, they're nothing. It's a terrifying moment, but it's relayed with almost dispassionate rhythm by the miming and indicating of their hands and arms from their seated positions. Later, standing and facing each other, they use their hands to greet and almost caress one another; a tender encounter. Nearer to the end, though, almost the same physical interchange is infused with aggression and violence, as one slaps the other."

When a dummy became the victim, that it wasn't a real person didn't prevent the nine-year-old girl sitting next to me from bursting into tears and having to be escorted from the theater by her mother.

To begin this program with a bang — almost literally — I'd pair "Zero Degrees" with another reality-based tour de force, Carlotta Sagna's 2005 "Tourlourou." Inspired by the 2002 Doubrovka theater siege in Moscow, in which the hostage-takers included women wired to explode, "Tourlourou" opens with the soloist ballerina announcing, "In 30 minutes, I will be no more." As Joe-Bob Briggs might put it, we're talking kamikaze-ballerina fu. But far from being bombastic, like "Zero Degrees" "Tourlourou" is ultimately intimate, a close-up examination of the personal affect and effects of living in our traumatic times as viewed through one of its archetypal anti-heroes. (Read more about "Tourlourou" in my Dance Insider review.)

3. Blood Wedding

As you may have noticed by now, in my mini-festival I'm presenting not just interesting evenings but looking at aesthetic problems, be they translating social dance or societal developments to the concert stage. For flamenco, one of its challenges has been that of the narrative dance. When flamenco artists try to make a story, they often fail, leaving the spectator, or this spectator anyway, wishing they'd realize a pat narration isn't necessary for an evening of flamenco to enthrall. The trail of failed attempts at flamenco narrative ballets is littered with the bodies of noble choreographer-dancers like Maria Benitez, Christina Hoyas, and Sara Baras. However, I've seen at least two works, more or less flamenco, where the dance and music have seemed the perfect language for expressing the story. So let's pair them for my mini-festival. Toulouse-based Vicente Pradal's Lorca-inspired "Romancero Gitano" (or "Gypsy Ballads") does it by using music, dance, poetry, acting, and projected text to tell it's story. So rather than the dance carrying an entire story on its shoulders, it's used sparingly to punctuate the narrative at strategic interludes.

If Flamenco purists might not regard Jose Granero's "Medea" as strictly flamenco — it is part of the repertory of the National Ballet of Spain, after all, not strictly a flamenco company — I include it on my successful flamenco narratives program because the tools it uses to achieve this success are more those of flamenco than ballet. Specifically, the feet seem to be speaking with their stamping. And the hands cry. Lola Greco, the memorable interpreter of the principal role, once told me that hers sometimes bled after performances.

4. Swing it

But enough of all this heaviness! To conclude my mini-festival, I'd reward my spectators with two sensational examples of master choreographers setting to jazz master-works.

This program would start with Murray Louis's "Four Brubeck Pieces." (Actually, I think my next dream mini-festival will be entirely devoted to the work of Louis; one of the tragedies of his championing of the legacy of his late partner Alwin Nikolais is that his own has been neglected — and it's Louis who, based on what I've seen anyway, is the stronger and more important choreographer.) I haven't seen this piece for ten years, and yet I can still see before my eyes lanky lively Eric Dunlap's flying waiter's body, and his fellow performers swirling around him. While other choreographers — David Parsons comes to mind — use jazz as an easy canvas for easy-listening ballets, Louis is an equal partner to the music, speaking with his own jazzy voice, like another instrument participating in the ensemble.

Donald Byrd may not play on the same level as Louis, but I'd still close this pairing, and my mini-festival, with his "Harlem Nutcracker," just about the most thrilling ballet I've ever seen. The only thing I have against Byrd is that I've been looking for a recording of the Ellington/Strayhorn take on the Tchaikovsky original, which Byrd uses for his score, ever since seeing his "Harlem Nutcracker" some ten years ago, and without success. This is the swingingest 'Nutcracker" you'll ever see, making it a perfect way to conclude my mini-festival. As a San Francisco Ballet "Nutcracker" poster I once saw put it: Extraordinary things are there for those with eyes to see.
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