michael j. morris


2010 Spring Concert (Extravaganza)

This week I have had the opportunity to see (and even participate in) so much live dance. I could not possibly write about all that these opportunities have inspired; in fact, I’m fairly certain even a partial reflection will warrant multiple posts.

To begin with, this week was the 2010 Spring Dance Concert(s) (extravaganza). Two concerts, twenty-five pieces, over four days. I will only write about a few pieces, a sampling of some of the great work being produced in the Department of Dance at OSU.

Betsy Miller’s “El Otro Lado/The Other Side” was a quirky, sultry, sassy, and often surprising exploration of movement vocabularies that recalled a range from classical character dance to burlesque, organized in lovely and memorable group movement through space (running sprints back and forth from the stage left and stage right wings, a slow counter-cross of a trio and a soloist at the end, etc.). In addition to clever dancing and beautiful dancers (Alexis del Sol, Lisa Dietz, Katy Gilmore, and Rashana Smith), Miller offered the rich opportunity of seeing beautifully hand-crafted costumes (designed and sewn by the choreographer herself) in motion.

Danté Brown’s “Chalk Boundaries” demonstrated a final incarnation of a piece long in the works. I had the opportunity to see and write about an all-male version of this piece in February, and the piece has grown immensely since then. In addition to having a cast of variously gendered bodies (which also nearly doubled the size of the cast), the complexity of the issues with which the choreography engages has grown significantly as well. Gender is one of Brown’s stated objects of exploration in the work, and in this incarnation of the piece, gender is examined, deconstructed, and reconfigured along multiple performative iterations. And on top of that, the choreography is really stunning. The opening of the piece was choreographically a reminder of the kinds of dances I love most: subtlety, stillness, punctuated by similar actions, individuated in form and timing. With beautiful lighting by Louise Eberle. The piece quickly transformed into driving group movement, in unison, perhaps offering an opportunity to recognize both a possible common state of bodiment/personhood and the intrinsic range of individual variation across bodies. In several conversations recently, I have come to recognize this as one of the values of unison: in unison we see both commonality and the inescapable disparity of individuals as demonstrated in action. The group then took on two groupings, almost organized along a binary of male and female identified bodies, with the subversion of Mair Culbreth (whose dancing provided one of the richest rewards of the evening) dancing amidst the cast of male bodies. In this simple transgression, the binary becomes subject to interrogation. Clearly bodies had been organized into two groups; the socially constructed binary would be that of gender/sex, assumed to be derived from a stable and clear division according to biological morphology. Yet this was not the division on which this binary was predicated. I was invited to question then what served as the foundation for this binary grouping, this differentiation between one group of bodies and another, demonstrated through differentiating movement material. What made these bodies different from those? Was it arbitrary? Are all binary constructions, whatever their function, possibly arbitrary? Of course I have my own conclusions to these inquiries; what I mean to articulate is that the choreography invited me to engage with these speculations.

The gamut of gender construction/subversion continued to be situated along a various groupings and relationships. Amanda Platt seemed to struggle between Chafin Seymour and Loganne Bond; might it demonstrate a sexual ambivalence? Or was this moment an address of the policing of gender along a matrix of sexuality? I saw a woman pushed between a man and another woman. It was within this configuration of bodies that they became sexual and thus gendered. A group of men were transfixed by the sensuous motion of a lone female; as she exited, she seemed to cast a kind of spell on Quentin Burley, who then became a point of resistance for Platt. A favorite moment of mine came when Platt flipped Burley onto his stomach and climbed on top of him; I had a momentary sense of her mounting him (a radical reconfiguration of sexuality and gender), a suspenseful moment that extended into Seymour’s entrance and subsequent mounting of Burley, then further, after a sequence of partnering, into Seymour’s intimate arrangement of their faces forehead to forehead. Were any of these acts overtly sexual? Perhaps not, but in the formulation of gender, sexuality and sexual orientations function as the site of production for intelligible binaries (and the subversion of these binaries). As this mini-drama unfolded, Daniel Holt entered downstage and watched. This was a powerful moment of becoming aware of my own gaze. Holt watched the play between men, touching himself all the while; I couldn’t decide if his handling of himself was an act of measuring or pleasuring, comparison, identification, or eroticism. Seymour responded by mirroring Holt, each one touching himself and looking at the other. It could have been a webcam situation, sensual, but removed by distance. Seymour’s sensuality gave way to aggression. Enter Rashana Smith and Mair Culbreth. The proceeding quartet was some of the most rewarding choreography in the piece, the relationships, the shifting mutual definitions of bodies moving so fluidly that I almost couldn’t keep up. Moments of partnering throughout became a rich device for configuring possible sexualities and genders.

The conclusion of the piece functioned for me as a contemporary remix of Nijinska’s Les Noces. Holt and Smith stood down stage right holding hands, observed (and approved) by the crowd that surrounded them. Repeatedly they broke away, throwing themselves into the arms of homosexual counterparts, to the revulsion of the crowd. Here is where the piece concluded, thrown back and forth between the accepted heterosexual union and the transgressive homosexual embraces. I was left wondering where the range between and beyond these two configurations might be, and if we were to attempt to choreograph that range of those places between and beyond, how might that be demonstrated?

Amanda Byars’ presented a charmingly powerful duet danced by Mair Culbreth and Erik Abbott-Main, entitled “If I were a weathervane and you were a flower.” Without going through a systematic description of the progression of the piece, I will offer that it was fundamentally a recognizable “love story,” a simple, home-grown, just a little outside of the school yard romance. It was subversively heterosexual, a configuration of which I could previously hardly conceive, yet Byars, Abbott-Main, and Culbreth enacted it both simply and expertly. It was consistently heterosexual, and yet there was not a single moment in which it was simply what it seemed, or what was expected. At every turn the relationship, the ways of interacting, the function of each body in contrast to the other, shifted into the unexpected. The subversive. Variously tender transgressions. It stayed light and easy, but with moments of pang: the revisiting of knocking one another to the floor, the moments of separation and coming back together, the sense of having built something (a life together?) in stacking the benches. Even in the final moment, there was a sense of separate beds, but not out of a lack of love. There was the space between, but there was also movement towards within that space.

I would be remiss if I didn’t also comment on the exquisite performances of the dancers in Byars’ piece: Culbreth and Abbott-Main were a joy to observe. The nuance and clarity with which they not only danced but invited me into the experience that they were sharing was unmatched in the course of the evening. Describing “performance quality” can be so problematic . . . but what I think I experienced from them both was a simple kind of sincerity. It was not that the representation of a relationship was “believable;” it was that there was no mask in their actions. They were simply doing, and being with one another, sincerely it felt. There was a naturalness and honesty to how I experienced what they were doing. This was a factor that was profoundly significant to the success of the piece.

Kristen Jeppsen’s duet entitled “Solve” was expert. On the surface, it was a pair of power femmes (of the Bette Porter variety, re: The L Word), dancing fierce and virtuosic movement in near unison. They were dressed in elegant blouses and tailored pin-stripe slacks. They could have been senators or CEOs, clearly evocative of some sort of upper administration. But there was much more to this piece. In addition to the sound score for the piece, the dancers (Jeppsen herself and Giovanna Andolina) spoke to one another throughout their dancing, cueing and almost, it seemed, coaching one another through their movement. It was in this speaking alongside the dancing that the real profundity of the piece revealed itself for me. They enacted a closed circuit exchange of power; their cueing and attention to one another was as if to indicate that they check in with one another and no one else. The exclusionary nature of their interaction disrupted the spectacle of it. The consistent inter-referentiality left the viewer (the legendary “male gaze”) displaced, outside of the equation that they demonstrated. The viewer’s presence felt neither necessary nor of consequence. The piece was being viewed, but felt as if it was not explicitly intended for viewing. Their dancing was for one another, and for themselves. The “dancing for themselves” was a significant attribute of my experience of this piece: these dancers took a palpable pleasure in these ways of moving; the delight of the movement was visible in their bodies. This personal and interpersonal pleasure functioned to reinforce this sense of its exclusiveness.

The speaking served other functions for me. There was a disruption of the traditional hierarchy between choreographer and dancer. The movement may have originated in/as Jeppsen, but in its transmission to Andolina, and in the democratization of its mobilization (both seeming to take on the responsibility for cueing and directing the movement during its performance), the potentially problematic power dynamic (not only the choreographer/dancer relationship, but the further complex situation in which the choreographer is also a participant in the performance).

The speaking also seemed to reveal something of dance practice, taking a kind of coaching into the performance itself, sharing an aspect of how we as dancers work in the studio into the demonstration of the dance itself.

The sound score also offered materials for further contextualization of the piece. Lines that stayed with me were something like “I can’t quire articulate . . .” and a description of a person’s fascination with a machine being more interesting than many conversations with people. This text seemed to emphasize an ineffability of the functioning of certain mechanisms. It brought me to a place of asking, “How does the mechanism of this dance function?” This question was partially answered by the speaking of the performers; but the speaking was to and for one another. I as a viewer on the second row still only heard bits and pieces; it was as if to say that the articulation of the mechanism’s function can only be known from the inside, as part of the closed circuit that the duet demonstrated. You can only ever know it in part from outside of the doing of it. Its function, its purpose, its pleasure, is all situated within the doing of the dance.

The final reward for the evening was “Though I walk, I used to fly” choreographed by Erik Abbott-Main in collaboration with the dancers in the piece, with music by Nico Muhly, and beautiful lighting by Maree ReMalia. Abbott-Main’s piece was, simply, stunning. Truly a masterpiece of formation, unison, canon, partnering, tableau, and journey through time. The crafting of the piece had the feeling of the complex precision and layering of Lar Lubovitch and Doug Varone, but with a quirkiness and curiosity of gestures that lay entirely in the unique configuration of Abbott-Main with this cast of dancers. Description of this piece is as elusive as the piece itself: constantly changing, reconfiguring itself in variations of formation and timing, flowing, swirling movements of bodies through space, their paths indirect, their arrivals always surprising and unexpected. These qualities of indirect pathways and unpredictable arrivals summarizes the most significant components of my experience with this work. But this expertly crafted motion was not perpetual; it was punctuated with the arrivals at unexpected  tableaus and frieze-like formations, all imbued with a quality of near-Classical statuary. Faces were not rigid, but neither were they overtly expressive. And perhaps this relates to one of the most pervasive but expressively elusive qualities that I experienced: a kind of impermeable softness, a demeanor that is superficially approachable and intoxicating, but once swept up inside of it, maintains a sense of being outside of it. The tableaus, for all their intricacy and quirkiness, also felt austere; the motion, for all its sweeping pleasure, also read as escaping, the slipperiness of the passage of time. Nothing stays put for too long, and when you try to revisit where you once were, you realize that the “where” is no longer there; and the “you” that you experienced there has moved on as well. The piece then functioned as a demonstration of the constantly shifting and transforming condition of situationally constructed identity, the persistent motion (dissolving, diffusing, recollecting, and reforming) of situations (thus selves), an ambiguity of the present between the erasure of the past and the unpredictability of the future. And a kind of resignation from explicit identification in the face of this ambiguity. Dancers moved from grouping to grouping, pairing to pairing, action to action, as if searching for a fit, for something that might persist, eventually coming to the conclusion that everything dissolves; everyone leaves; and in the final moment a single dancer is left alone.

These were a few of the pleasures of this week.

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Presenting Nijinska, etc.

Suffice to say, this quarter of grad school seems to be my busiest thus far. As such, my blogging has become a bit more infrequent. But I did want to offer a brief description of my most recent contribution to the field of dance.

Yesterday I had the opportunity to present a paper at the Midwest Slavic Conference being held here at OSU. I presented on a panel entitled “Aspects of the Ballets Russes” with my colleague Hannah Kosstrin. She presented a fascinating paper exploring vestiges of the Ballets Russes in American popular culture, specifically making a comparative choreographic analysis between Vaslav Nijinsky’s L’Après-midi d’un Faune and Michael Jackson’s music video for “The Way You Make Me Feel.” 

I presented a paper entitled “The Negotiation of Gender in the Work of Bronislava Nijinska.” It is an excerpt from longer work exploring the negotiation of gender in the performance and choreography of both Nijinsky and Nijinska. For this particular presentation, I limited myself to choreographic analyses of Les Noces and Les Biches. Sadly, Nijinska has been extremely under-recognized, and when she has been recorded or discussed, it is most often in relationship to her brother. It was exciting to have this opportunity to share my experience of her and her work to an academic audience.

Resisting the urge to copy-and-paste the entire paper, I will try to highlight the major points of my presentation. As I said, it was primarily a choreographic analysis of the negotiation of gender in Nijinska’s Les Noces and Les Biches. I presented Les Noces as demonstrating gender as an expression not of individual identity but of social will. Noces is the depiction of a Russian peasant wedding in four scenes. One of my main points was that although it is a wedding supposedly between one man and one woman, the central figures of the ballet, the Bride and the Bridegroom, are essentially inactive, passive figures, surrounded, moved, and eventually upstaged by the massive active groupings of their community. Although presented as discrete figures, they appear without discretion. Nijinska seems to present this young woman and young man as symbols both of those oppressed by the social expectations attached to gender and of the means by which they are oppressed, epitomes of woman and man and all of that those roles represent.

Yet there is a subliminal break from this thematic binary. Although she clearly addresses the oppressive roles of woman and man, the movement vocabulary of the ballet remains primarily genderless. Spatial groupings of men and women dissolve to form a genderless mass. Absent is the traditional partnering and support work previously inherent in ballet. Even the steps and gestures of the masses hold little distinction between male and female. What I suggest is that Nijinska presents a “solution” choreographically (the in-distinction of gender) to the problem she addresses thematically.

Les Biches I discuss primarily as returning gender and its expression to the realm of the individual. Gone are the passive figures represented in Les Noces. In Biches, we are given a vibrant cast of characters each with a distinct sexual and gender identity. This ballet is rooted not in narrative or plot, but in the expression of these characters, the negotiation of their roles with one another. These roles range from parody of popular gender roles of the 1920s (in the Girls in Pink, and the Male Athletes), to divergent sexual expressions (the Girls in Grey, a pair of young sapphists), to the ambiguous characters who seem to lie in the realm of the “third sex”, neither clearly male nor female in their gender identity (namely, the Hostess (Nijinska’s own role), and the Garçonne). These characters of the “third sex”, both female, transgress social and physical roles of what was expected of women. In them, Nijinska separates biological fact from social reality, and this would seem to me to be the success of the ballet.

Here are a few photos from the presentation (mostly from the Royal Ballet):

Les Noces

Les Noces

 

Les Noces (from the Joffrey Ballet)

Les Noces (from the Joffrey Ballet)

Les Noces

Les Noces

 

Les Biches, Girls in Pink

Les Biches, Girls in Pink

 

Les Biches, Male Athletes

Les Biches, Male Athletes

 

Les Biches, Girls in Grey

Les Biches, Girls in Grey

Les Biches, Nijinska as the Hostess

Les Biches, Nijinska as the Hostess

 

Les Biches, the Hostess

Les Biches, the Hostess

Les Biches, the Garçonne

Les Biches, the Garçonne

 

Les Biches, Nijinksa with Georgina Parkinson as the Garçonne

Les Biches, Nijinksa with Georgina Parkinson as the Garçonne

 

And here is the version of Les Noces that I used for my analysis of the choreography:

 

 

 

 

Perhaps one of the most rewarding aspects of the presentation was the diversity of fields represented in the audience. Those listening came from the fields of dance, Slavic studies, and musicology, all of whom have ties to the work that we were addressing. It reminded me of an awareness brought to the forefront by the “Synchronous Objects” project, that what we view and study and consider as dance is in fact a complex phenomenon with relevance in many fields, and the way in which we define a thing (such as dance or choreography) comes entirely out of the lens or context through which we are viewing it. I was extremely aware of this condition as I spoke about what I think of as the choreography of Nijinska, but is also thought of as a part of the legacy of Stravinsky, or an expression of Slavic folk custom and ritual. And it is in fact all of those things simultaneously; its “meaning” or relevance is not an intrinsic quality, but a quality that emerges out of engagement with it. the way in which it is engaged shapes the meaning that emerges.

Other ideas/influences in my dancing/creative/researching life right now are:

-Somatic studies (developing deep listening within the body and an awareness of the individual Self through its expression in bodily experience)
 -Labanotation: I am currently taking Laban II, learning Yvonne Ranier’s “Trio A” and the Sylph variation in Act II of La Sylphide from Labanotated scores. I am also digging deeper into the theory of the notation system in preparation for a Labanotation Teacher Certification Course I am taking this summer.
-Mark Johnson’s The Meaning of the Body: Aesthetics of Human Understanding, which seeks primarily to connect the nature of meaning to the embodied nature of experience.
Teaching Seminar with Susan Hadley, challenging me to think through what it is I value in the teaching of dance techinque
-History, Theory, and Literature of Choreography with Karen Eliot and Melanie Bales
-Modern technique with CoCo Loupe (rocking my world)

Etc.

 



Les Noces
4 December, 2008, 5:05 pm
Filed under: research | Tags: , , , , ,

I am presently concluding research and authoring a paper on the effects of Vaslav Nijinsky and Bronislava Nijinska on the presentation and perception of gender in early 20th ballet. In the work that the two produced (Nijinsky’s first three of four ballets, L’Après-midi d’un Faune, Jeux, and Le Sacre du Printemps; two of Nijinska’s ballets, Les Noces and Les Biches), the roles of gender in society and in the ballet were radically challenged, disregarded, or overthrown. 

I will resist the urge to compose an abstract of the paper here and now, but I did want to give a sense of another aspect of my current research. I thought I would offer you links to video footage of Bronislava Nijinska’s first significant ballet. It was produced in 1923, presented first in Paris by Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes. Nancy Van Norman Baer says of the ballet: it was “a primitive ritual where both the bride and the groom are trapped by fate and repressive social custom.”

Nijinska herself wrote of her ballet: “I saw a dramatic quality in such wedding ceremonies of those times in the fate of the bride and groom, since the choice is made by parents to whom they owe complete obedience–there is no question of mutuality of feelings. The young girl knows nothing at all about her future family nor what lies in store for her. Not only will she be subject to her husband, but also to his parents. It is possible that after being loved and cherished by her own kind, she may be nothing more, in her new, rough family, than a useful extra worker, just another pair of hands. the soul of the innocent is in disarray–she is bidding goodbye to her carefree youth and to her loving mother . . .”

So here are videos of Nijnska’s Les Noces. It is one of the most powerful historical ballets I have seen in quite some time. It is in three parts on youtube, but well worth the watch. Remember that this were performed in 1923, and is a commentary on the role of marriage in Russian peasant traditions. Enjoy:

part one:

part two:

part three: