Thursday, 5 November 2009

DANCE CLASS: The moves, the story, when it's OK to boo

Sid Smith Special to the Tribune
October 16, 2009

Am I watching a story or not? What if I like the flashy parts best? And what's an arabesque and why? Dance newcomer Christopher Borrelli has questions, critic Sid Smith has answers. For a quick lesson on an intimidating art form, read on.

Dance can often strike the newcomer -- especially the male newcomer -- as among the most mysterious and intimidating of art forms.

Tribune reporter Christopher Borrelli, a devotee of cinema and other pop arts, is dating a woman who's a passionate dance fan. This means he has the luck/misfortune of being escorted/dragged to all manner of serious dance concerts. Recently, he questioned out loud what exactly it was he was seeing, what he should look for and what he was missing. With Lar Lubovitch's ballet "Othello" in production through Oct. 25 by the Joffrey Ballet at the Auditorium Theatre, now is a fine time to answer.

1. The question that nags at me whenever I sit through dance is one of narrative. Should I be able to understand the narrative from the dance itself? And if I can't follow the story, am I watching lousy dance? Or is the narrative in a dance closer to, say, the existentialism in a film -- inferred instead of literal?
All of the above. Older dance, like older films, conforms to our conventional Western idea of narrative -- 19th century ballets such as "Swan Lake," "Giselle" and "The Nutcracker" tell clear-cut stories through mime and dance, often in ways that are precursors of silent movies.

But in the 20th century, dance, like other art forms, became increasingly abstract, so that by the time of choreographers George Balanchine, Merce Cunningham and many others in midcentury, dance became a kind of abstract painting in motion. But if there is a story, like "Swan Lake" or " Cinderella," the dance should tell it clearly, and some do this better than others. "Giselle" is a great yarn. "The Nutcracker" is a fairly lousy, muddied one. Dance can provide a great love story like "Casablanca" or an open-ended, mystifying one like the 1960 Italian film "L'avventura." In general, storytelling in dance is more sophisticated now, sharper in "Othello," Joffrey Ballet artistic director Ashley Wheater argues, than in those old 19th century war horses.

2. What is an arabesque? I think I know. But more importantly, why should I care what it is?
Ballet is an assortment of sophisticated techniques and poses developed over centuries, as sublime as yoga and at times as cruel as foot-binding. Every single dancer masters them differently, on a sliding scale, like judo practitioners or kick-boxers.

In an arabesque (there's actually a variety of them), the dancer stands on one leg, while the other leg extends away from the body, with hands, arms, neck and head held in an artful design.

"What you care about in an arabesque is the beauty of the line," Wheater says. "Look from the end of a ballerina's fingertips all the way to the end of her toes in her point shoes, and from the top of her head to the base line of her standing leg. There should be a stunningly beautiful line, like one you might see in a building by a master architect. And it's the simplicity of the line that's beautiful, a simplicity developed through years of training.

"For a woman in particular, you must have an arabesque. You can't be a dancer without it."

3. The handful of times I have attended dance, I inevitably relate better to the unusual -- a piece that feels modern and pop culture-like or simply weird -- than to the elegance and poise of classic dance. Is something wrong with me?
"No," answers Wheater, "the weird and unusual are a reflection of our time right now. In theater and opera, too, people are breaking the boundaries of traditional ideas because it's intriguing. But don't forget it's the line and simplicity of classical ballet that's actually the hardest to achieve."

4. If I can hear the dancer's feet hit the stage, even with a soft thud, which is inevitable, are they doing something wrong? Should I boo loudly?
"Ballet is a silent art form, sublimely married to the music," Wheater says. "When you hear a lot of hard-hitting point shoes, the ladies in the company have not been taught how to soften the noise properly." Ditto a man landing loudly after a leap. Meanwhile, booing is a cherished European response, less so in America. But it was famously employed recently at the opening of the opera "Tosca" in New York City.

"If you have negative reaction to an overall work or interpretation, by all means boo," Wheater says. "Booing loud toe shoes might be a bit extreme, however."

5. Is a graceful move more important than an athletically difficult move? Or is it vice versa?
Both are paramount. Technical fireworks give ballet its circus excitement; beauty, elegance and poignancy give it its soul. In cinema, the montage in "The Battleship Potemkin," the marathon tracking shots in Hitchcock's "Rope" and the filmic cornucopia in "Citizen Kane" dazzle us.

The artfully sketched fallibility in "The Graduate," the bittersweet finales to "Casablanca" or "Rain Man." Who'd dismiss any of them?

6. The last time I attended dance -- Bill T. Jones' Lincoln piece at the Ravinia Festival -- I liked it more than most people around me, who seemed mystified by it. I was responding, I think, to the dialogue, the theatricality, the sheer spectacle of the thing. But does this mean, when it comes to dance, I am like a child who responds better to shiny objects?
It means you're bringing your instincts and paying attention. Jones is a fascinating hybrid figure of postmodern dance, grafting unusual amounts of dialogue, drama, historical fact and biography into much of his work. Dance-theater is a good way to describe his approach, and he makes a great introduction for the dance novice. His Lincoln piece (last month's premiere of "Fondly Do We Hope ... Fervently Do We Pray") wasn't among his finest, possibly explaining nearby audience indifference. But his genius for multi-disciplines is attracting new fans and new understanding of dance. Welcome to the club.

Tribune reporter Christopher Borrelli contributed to this report.

Source: Chicago Tribune

An urban dance degree was the right move for UEL

by Rachel Williams
published in The Guardian, Tuesday 27 October 2009

East London's urban dance degree is booming in popularity, despite the criticisms of purists

Justin Gordon started dancing at the age of seven, entertaining family members with his reggae and soul moves at an endless succession of birthdays, weddings and christenings in Tottenham, north London.

"My family used to have a lot of parties," he remembers. "You either sang, or you danced."

Jessica O'Shea feels like she's been dancing all her life ("Your body just moves and you like the way it moves so you always do it"), but growing up in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, there was nowhere to learn the sort of street styles that intrigued her, until she and her friends secured funding for their own practice space.

At around the same time, a nine-year-old Annabelle Satchwell was donning embarrassing outfits to enter disco dancing competitions in Luton; in Presteigne, among the lonely hills of the Welsh Marches, Betty Adesanya was being taught ballet, modern and jazz; and in her bedroom in Hackney, east London, Christine Seraphin and her cousins were making up routines to show to their parents.

More than a decade later, put off traditional dance degrees, with their heavy focus on ballet and contemporary, by what they saw as their stuffiness and limited scope, the five were among 12 students who signed up for the first year of the UK's only urban dance undergraduate course, then newly launched at the University of East London.

Here, they are taught not just hip-hop styles like krumping, popping and locking, but also the fundamentals of African dance, capoeira and kathak, a classical Indian discipline.

Purists have turned their noses up at the course, but, now in its third year, its popularity is booming.

UEL claims it is the fastest-growing dance degree in the country: its intake has risen six-fold since it began, and this year more than 300 applicants battled it out for 75 places. During clearing, staff were inundated with calls asking if there were any spaces. A note on the whiteboard above them, as if they needed it, reminded them that there definitely were not.

Senior lecturer Kate Sicchio, a Philadelphian who has been in the UK for five years, explains: "Students are really interested in getting more than one dance style and that it's different from normal contemporary training: hip-hop one day, kathak another. They really appreciate that."

Some within the sector are supportive, but there is inevitable scepticism.

"It's a bit surprising to other HE institutions," Sicchio says. "There are quite a few who find it shocking. They say 'you teach street dance in university, how does that work?' And you say, 'well there's a history and contextual study just as much as in traditional techniques'. And you can actually talk to these artists, because they're still alive and producing work."

The course was born as UEL looked to expand its performing arts institute with a dance degree, and decided that rather than compete in a market saturated with big names, it should offer something a bit different. It took inspiration from its local area. "Rather than setting up a contemporary dance degree, they actually looked to the community and built a degree bottom-up," says Sicchio.

The decision was also based on the philosophy that popular art forms should be more swiftly adopted.

"Academia is always quite slow to wake up to innovation," says Mark O'Thomas, the director of UEL's institute for performing arts development. "It didn't even recognise jazz until relatively late. We felt urban and global dance, the dance that young people are interested in, had no validity at all [in the mainstream]."

Sicchio believes other institutions are less in tune with their students and their target audience. "A lot of them are upset when a lot of their students' knowledge comes from TV programmes that are really popular, but we find that as a way in. If you're really interested in this one style of dance, let's trace it, let's find the history, and how can we blend it with other things to make it even more new and fresh."

In their new studios at Trinity Buoy Wharf, where the perpetually mud-brown waters of the River Lea meet the Essex-bound Thames, Sicchio's students are equally enthusiastic.

Many have BTec national diplomas in dance or performing arts, others have A-levels and some are self-taught. All must audition for a place and take a written test to ensure they will be able to cope with the academic side of the course.

The group of eight third-years show off their skills with a display of freestyling, whooping and clapping each other as they take it in turns to dance solo in front of the group to a soundtrack that runs from Beggin' by Madcon to New Kids On The Block's You Got It (The Right Stuff).

Resting on the studio's sprung floor afterwards, they agree unanimously that their different backgrounds, socially, geographically and in terms of favourite dance styles, make the experience of learning all the richer.

"Because everyone's so different dance-wise, everyone's more open to everyone's ideas and opinions, whereas in traditional ballet everyone's a bit snobbish, I think," says Monique Alleyne, 21.

Seraphin adds: "Contemporary and ballet were something you'd do in a dance school, street was something you'd do in classes. To be able to be on a degree where you're actually studying it, it's quite amazing, actually."

Preet Kaur raves about the variety of styles on offer. "African is about using your whole body: your chest, your back, your legs, your head, everything."

Adesanya, who transferred to UEL after one year of a more traditional dance degree, says the way the students learn from each other is crucial. "I felt like other courses or classes I went to were quite restricting. I wanted to fuse contemporary with other styles.

"Here, it's completely different, it lets you express yourself as an artist more. You're learning so many different styles, you can really develop your own style and flavour and way of dancing. And they respect that as well, which is nice. I think in five years' time everyone will want to come here."

Sicchio says the course is still finding its feet, but believes it could set a precedent for the future as employers demand more diversity from dancers.
"Some people think you must train in one technique and have your core built up. But I think it's about the individual student and not making this cookie-cutter dancer that so many institutions are interested in," she says. "It's really about finding individuals and making them shine."


For a Brazilian Choreographer, Dance as an Obstacle Course

Published: October 21, 2009

In a country where nearly everyone is a dancer, or at least aspires to be one, Deborah Colker still manages to stand out, both for her versatility and her unwillingness to be pigeonholed. Over a career spanning nearly 30 years, this Brazilian choreographer has worked in settings as aesthetically distinct as the Theatro Municipal in Rio de Janeiro, a temple of high art, and the samba schools that parade on the streets a few blocks away during the city’s annual Carnival competition.

“I don’t acknowledge barriers,” Ms. Colker, lithe and blond and brimming with enthusiasm, said in an interview this week as her company was preparing for four performances beginning on Thursday at City Center, its first New York City appearance in nearly a decade. “My attitude is kind of punk, in that I don’t respect rules or dogmas. I like mixtures, the challenges they present, and finding new solutions to old questions.”

Perhaps the most salient characteristic of Ms. Colker’s work since she founded the company that bears her name 15 years ago has been her desire to toy with perceptions of dimension, direction and distance. An early piece, “Rota,” featured dancers performing in a large spinning wheel, like hamsters at play, and another, “Velox,” required them to scale walls as if they were rock climbers competing at the X Games.

“Why must the stage always be horizontal and the dancer vertical?” she asked, and not rhetorically. “Why not use movement to subvert space and question gravity? And so I set about investigating ways to do that, in both the horizontal and vertical planes.”

Her most recent work, the disorienting “Cruel,” features three revolving mirrors with portholes, which enable the dancers to travel through those reflective spaces. And one part of “4x4,” the four-part, hourlong program her 17-member troupe will perform in Manhattan, employs 90 porcelain vases, spaced a little more than a yard apart in a chessboard pattern, as a sort of obstacle course around which her dancers must maneuver.

“Deborah is always working from concepts, and is very interested in things like physics and geometry,” said Donald Hutera, a London-based critic who is co-author of “The Dance Handbook” and has written extensively about Ms. Colker. “Her approach is big and colorful and quite playful, and there’s a physical riskiness to what she does, but that doesn’t mean it’s empty or shallow. She’s trying to place all this scientific stuff in a very kinetic context that is also very entertaining.”

When Ms. Colker’s company was starting, the Brazilian dance establishment reacted to that approach with dismay and even a certain disdain. Tatiana Leskova, a lead dancer in the Original Ballet Russe who trained generations of ballerinas after arriving in Brazil in 1944, initially dismissed Ms. Colker’s pieces as “at best gymnastics,” though she later changed her mind and became a supporter.

But it was precisely the insouciance and playfulness of Ms. Colker’s work that led Cirque du Soleil to invite her to write, direct and choreograph a new show, “OVO,” commemorating that Canadian group’s 25th anniversary. “OVO,” which means egg in Portuguese, is a humorous but environmentally conscious evocation of life and love in the insect world that had its premiere in Montreal in May and will move to the United States next month; it is scheduled to arrive in New York in May 2010.

“This show is about energy, spirit, color and sound,” said Chantal Tremblay, Cirque du Soleil’s creative director. “Deborah’s signature is energy and movement, and that is what she brought to ‘OVO.’ The way she uses her dancers is very direct and physical, and of course we were also interested in her use of the apparatus of wheels, walls and vases.”

Ms. Colker is the first woman to choreograph a Cirque du Soleil show, but she has had plenty of experience directing large dance ensembles in settings outside her comfort zone. For three years in the mid-1990s, Rio’s oldest Afro-Brazilian samba school, Mangueira, hired her to choreograph part of its Carnival presentation, an experience she repeated a decade later with another leading samba group, Viradouro.

“I love and respect the samba and adore Carnival, but it’s not my world,” she said. “Carnival has rules, and I had to respect them, and so it was difficult at times. But it was a very exciting and worthwhile experience. It’s been said that Carnival is a gigantic street opera, and that’s the way I approached it.”

Born in 1961, Ms. Colker was raised in Rio in a family of Jewish immigrants from Russia. Her father, a violinist and music teacher, gave her a grounding in classical European culture. As a child, she studied piano for a decade and played volleyball with sufficient skill and intensity that she was twice named to an all-state team alongside players who would eventually win medals in the Olympics. A serious commitment to dance, however, came only when she was 16, an age when many girls are giving up ballet.

“Dance is very much a collegial activity, and I liked that after the extreme solitude of playing the piano,” she explained. “I had a lot of adrenaline too, a physical energy that I brought from sports, an activity which, like dance, requires discipline, competitiveness and persistence. But I also felt a necessity for creative expression” that volleyball could not satisfy.

“Art is not a question of winning and losing,” she added. “It’s about exploration and experimentation and transformation and discovery, and I take great pleasure in that.”

After studying psychology, Ms. Colker danced with a Brazilian company. Gradually, she also began choreographing videos aimed for MTV and worked for nearly a decade as a “movement director” for some of Brazil’s best-known actors and theater and film directors, helping them with staging and learning to use body language to deepen the impact of texts.

Ms. Colker resumed her piano studies in 1999, and makes extensive use of her musical training in her dance pieces. The “Vasos” section of “4x4” opens with her playing a Mozart sonata, while other segments draw on Eno-influenced ambient sounds, the jazz standard “Some Day My Prince Will Come” and fragments composed by the electronic-music pioneer Raymond Scott.

“Deborah has a sharp and decisive sensibility, and is very attentive to music, about which she is passionate, almost possessive,” the Brazilian singer-songwriter Caetano Veloso, long an admirer of her work, said in a telephone interview from Rio. “Her work is poetic, but never in a diaphanous or ethereal way. She’s a dancer who thinks like a musician, in that the sense of time and rhythm in her choreography is quite accentuated.”

Though its United States appearances have been rare, Ms. Colker’s company often performs in Europe, where audiences have responded enthusiastically to that breezy Brazilian style. She won an Olivier Award, London’s equivalent of the Tony, for “Velox” and another piece in 2001, and was also commissioned by the Berlin Ballet to create a piece for that company.

“Deborah is a Vesuvius of a personality whose work is strong and engaging and connects with people, not just an elite,” Mr. Hutera said. “She can be popular and profound, sophisticated and subtle, carefree but serious. She is always embracing contradictions and embodies a lot of those contradictions herself.”

Source: New York Times