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Apollo’s Angels

A History of Ballet

Jennifer Homans

(Random House, $35)

Published by The Dallas Morning News, November 2010

Born half a millennium ago, offspring of a marriage between Italian spectacle and French obsession with classification, ballet was central to a noble existence. Ballet’s early devotees in the 16th century French court saw it as an Apollonian activity, like fencing, a way to bring them closer to their deity. The body, through mathematically devised movement, could transcend man’s earthly passions.

“Number, proportion and design, they felt, could elucidate the occult order of the universe, thus revealing God,” writes New Republic dance critic Jennifer Homans in her authoritative book, Apollo’s Angels: A History of Ballet.

Homans traces the political, social and cultural implications of ballet from the 16th century court of Henri II and Catherine de Medici, to the Russians who revolutionized ballet first at home and then in America, to the towering figure of George Balanchine and the 20th century New York scene, to what the author sees as the depleted present.

She writes with clarity as well as complexity, weaving historical fact with analysis and context. Her approach is exhaustive without being exhausting. For instance, she essays the reigns of King Louis XIII and his son, Louis XIV, who used ballet to help strengthen their hold on the French state:

“In this situation, the grip of ritual and etiquette on court life was unyielding… For to dance badly at court was not just embarrassing but a source of deep humiliation – a gaffe on a scale difficult for us to understand today.”

Homans had at least one a stellar model for Apollo’s Angels: New Yorker writer Alex Ross’ prize-winning The Rest is Noise, which contextualizes the modern era of classical music. Like Ross, she tells her story through its major figures and their times. Even before Ross, Village Voice dance critic Deborah Jowitt used a similar strategy in Time and the Dancing Image, her outstanding take on dance since the Romantic period.

But Homans faced a more daunting task than either Jowitt or Ross, if for no other reason than the amount of ground she had to cover. It’s a long way from the ballet de cour, which first brought discipline to court spectacle, to Balanchine’s precise and athletic dances for New York City Ballet. She bridges these periods by synthesizing history into crystalline ideas.

Of the pivotal moment when a series of French ballet masters developed a notation system (though virtually all of the dances of the period were lost anyway), Homans writes, “At the heart of the endeavor were the five positions of the body…The importance of these positions cannot be overstated: they are the major scale, the primary colors from which all other constructions in ballet arise.”

Much has been written about 19th and 20th century ballet, and Homans doesn’t short shrift the form’s recent history, bringing to it the same rigor for research and eloquence she uses throughout Apollo’s Angels. Her major contribution, though, is animating ballet’s beginnings for a 21st century audience.

Ironically, Homans isn’t so sure she’ll succeed. She ends Apollo’s Angels with pessimism about the future of ballet. As with so many aficionados, she’s almost inconsolable over the death of Balanchine, who transformed ballet by both modernizing it and embracing its classical roots.

Though she spends little space on modern dance, Homans acknowledges that competition helped spark ballet to new heights. Now, short of a renaissance, we might just have to settle for a good book.

Paul Taylor Dance Company: Darkness and light mingle (published by The Dallas Morning News, November 2010)

Photo of Company B by Paul B. Goode

RICHARDSON – Now 80, Paul Taylor made his mark half a century ago by transforming the harsh, angular style of his mentor, modern-dance pioneer Martha Graham, into movement that flowed joyously.

That approach, which has come to be identified with postwar American optimism, suffused three Taylor works performed by his company Saturday at the Eisemann Center, including a world premiere called Three Dubious Memories.

At some point in every piece, the dancers held hands in a circle as if they were playing “Ring Around the Rosie.” In Brief Encounters, they proudly and innocently paraded in their underwear. And in Company B – the stage brightly lit as if it were heaven – they moved to the upbeat harmonies of the Andrews Sisters.

Not that any of the dances were one-note. All featured dark undercurrents, another Taylor trademark that reflected another American trait: skepticism. Weaved together – similar to the way he fuses ballet language with everyday human gestures – these contradictory impulses are the stuff of human nature.

That’s what he retains from his Graham days, when he was dancing in her troupe while starting his own – a penchant for narrative that he animates with pantomime, an old saw that feels quaint for modern dance in 2010.

The show opened with 2009’s Brief Encounters, 11 dancers in modest black sports briefs and, for the women, bras, enacting relationship rituals against a paneled backdrop that depicted an ancient stone building. Juxtaposed with contemporary costuming and sculptural bodies making balletic leaps and turns, the set created cognitive dissonance.

Three Dubious Memories told the simplistic story of a brief encounter between two men and a woman, in turn from each point of view. The versions weren’t really that different. The guys couldn’t agree on who had her first or who cartoon-punched whom. Strangely, each thought he stole her from the other, American machismo at its finest.

The music by composer Peter Taussig was at times clumsy, and the commentary by a Greek-type chorus illegible in its meaning, though compelling in its flat, two-dimensional style. The militaristic costumes of gray pants and shirts contrasted nicely with the main characters’ brightly colored outfits.

The show closed with 1991’s Company B, one of the most popular works in the Taylor repertoire, probably because many audiences read it as purely sunny. Songs recorded by the Andrews Sisters in the 1940s masked the anxiety and death brought on by World War II, which Taylor used to pose the question, How did American innocence die?

Paul Taylor to debut new work at Eisemann Center (published by The Dallas Morning News, October 2010)

Paul Taylor photo by Maxine Hicks

If you had attended the Paul Taylor Dance Company performance at New York’s 92nd Street Y in October 1957 – or even heard about it – you wouldn’t have guessed that Taylor would become an icon of the modern dance establishment.

Seven New Dances put pedestrian movement center stage. Taylor walked around in a suit or stood perfectly still while David Tudor sat at the piano not playing. Part of the crowd walked out.

“To disturb an audience, as noted in these columns last week, is a perfectly valid function of the theater,” critic Walter Terry wrote in the New York Herald Tribune. “I did not, however, suggest that the creator-performer drive his captive audience insane.”

Audiences eventually went crazy for Taylor after he developed a decidedly American style that was athletically vigorous and entertaining while also attuned to the public’s preoccupation with love, war and other big questions of the human condition.

His company performs Saturday night at Eisemann Center in Richardson, where they have appeared four times since 2002.

“It started with just watching people on the street and admiring how they moved,” Taylor says in a phone interview. “I saw a girl running for a bus. It looked beautiful, so I thought maybe that was worth putting on the stage… It was something new in dance.”

He had come to his calling late. A scholarship swimmer and painting student at Syracuse University, Taylor was already in his 20s when switched to dance, moved to New York City and enrolled at Julliard. Just two years later, he would form his own company before Martha Graham asked him to become a soloist with her group in 1955, a relationship that lasted until 1962.

He had made an impression on her and other modern dance pioneers such as Jose Limon and Doris Humphrey when he appeared in 1952 at the American Dance Festival as a student.

Now 80, Taylor has created more than 130 dances and continues to produce new pieces every year. At the Eisemann, he will premiere his latest work, Three Dubious Memories, alongside 2009’s Brief Encounters and Company B, his 1991 classic set to the pop hits of the Andrews Sisters.

Three Dubious Memories is a Rashomon-like scenario inspired by modern composer Peter Elyakim Taussig’s Five Enigmas. The main characters are called The Man in Blue (Sean Mahoney), The Man in Green (Robert Kleinendorst) and The Woman in Red (Amy Young).

“The music seemed to imply something about memory,” Taylor says. “It concerns conflicting memories of three people about what happened between them. Each one of the three has a different memory. That’s how memories go sometimes.”

Brief Encounters, a subject Taylor has visited before, has a literal side: the dancers perform in their underwear. And Company B, one of the most frequently requested pieces in the Taylor repertoire, juxtaposes the sweet and dark sides of World War II-era America.

“I’ve always loved the Andrews Sisters,” he says. “I was a little boy when they were popular, and I remember hearing them on a jukebox. People were trying to seem cheerful, and the popular music was escapism mostly.”

Taylor doesn’t see much dance these days. He’s no fan of the trends – acrobatics, mixed media and “a lot of talking about themselves and their terrible mother.” “It’s all kind of personal, but that won’t last,” he says. “ Young people will move on. They may get back to dance steps. I believe in dance steps.”

Savion Glover merges sound with sight (published by The Dallas Morning News, October 2010)

Savion Glover has described his tap dancing trio as a band. When they performed Sunday night at the Meyerson Symphony Center, they gave the orchestra the night off and made all the music themselves.

That music – which Glover dubbed Bare Soundz – was often breathtaking, with the speed and dexterity of the performers’ feet a marvel to hear but also to watch. If tap is the art of turning rhythm into drama, what Glover and fellow hoofers Marshall Davis Jr. and Keitaro Hosokawa delivered visually was as important as the sounds they made.

Beaming from the start, Glover appeared to go into a beatific trance during the 90-minute set, as if tap were his religion. He used every part of his shoes except the very tops, even challenging his balance by tapping simultaneously with both sides of his feet. In one of his other signature moves, he would quickly scrape a shoe across the floor, creating a blur. One time, he spun at the same time, and it sounded like the scratching of a vinyl record.

The easy comparison is to jazz. Each dancing sequence lasted about 10 minutes and used a combination of predetermined steps and improvisations based on those steps. Patterns emerged, but the trio was apt to suddenly shift tempo or insert hesitations for dramatic effect.

Glover, Davis and Hosokawa danced on three wooden platforms wired for sound. This advance in technique is decades old, but it still feels like an innovation. Subtle difference in the performers’ styles could clearly be heard, Davis’ standing out for its softer, deeper tone.

But pure, nimble aggression was more the rule. At times, Bare Soundz took on the intensity and competitive spirit of sports. The dancers’ ability to produce rapid-fire drum rolls until they sounded like trills, for instance, was stunning. This friendly one-upmanship made for an even more entertaining show.

Even without a spelled-out narrative, Glover and his relentless style seemed to be saying something about endurance and the human struggle to survive. That joy on his face was hard won.

Savion Glover to perform at Meyerson Symphony Center (published by The Dallas Morning News, October 2010)

Savion Glover makes music with his feet, and he’ll prove it starkly Sunday at the Meyerson Symphony Center. Glover won’t be accompanied by the orchestra for his “a capella” show Bare Soundz. It’ll just be him and a pair of sidekicks putting metal to wood.

“We stripped this production down so that there is no instrumentation, there’s nothing else that can be distracting or get in the way of the dance,” Glover says in a phone interview from his hometown studio in Newark, N.J. “It’s hard for people who think that they’re coming to see dance when the reality is, they’re coming to hear dance.”

Already a tap-dancing legend at 36, Glover is driven by a sense that he’s part of a long, often underappreciated history, a history he’s now responsible for carrying on. He frequently invokes his predecessors – Steve Condos, Jimmy Slyde, Gregory Hines – some of whom were mentors when he was starting out.

Glover first came to public attention at 12 when starred on Broadway in The Tap Dance Kid. Then as a teenager, he teamed with Hines for 1989 film Tap. But it was his appearance in George C. Wolfe’s smash Broadway musical Bring in ’da Noise/Bring in ’da Funk in the mid-1990s that made Glover the face of tap dancing.

“Once I met these great men of the dance, it changed my life,” he says. “I started to realize what the dance meant to me, how it was my way of expressing. And not only my way of expressing, but I was and still am honored to be part of an art form, a tradition.”

Tap dates back to vaudeville, but its roots are old and deep – an amalgam of traditions from Africa, the United Kingdom and Spain. Starting in the 1930s, the form spread to the movies and became part of mainstream American culture.

Glover’s current mission is to bring more recognition to the percussive, syncopated sound of tap rather than the look of the dancers. “It’s as if you were going to see a band, a jazz trio,” he says of Bare Soundz. “What I do is more instrumental, is more musical, than just a visual dance.”

Glover, Marshall Davis Jr. and Keitaro Hosokawa will perform at the Meyerson on wired wooden platforms developed years ago by Hines to maximize musicality. As in jazz, improvisation will play a major role.

Explaining the connection between tap history and his concept for Bare Soundz, Glover says, “We’ve now come to a point where the sound is what’s most important, because the sound is what they were trying to bring forth, the sound is what they were saying, it was the stories they were telling through the dance.”

Pilobolus theatrics dazzle but don’t quite satisfy (published by The Dallas Morning News, June 2010)

Photo by John Kane

An accomplished group of tumblers, illusionists and mimes, Pilobolus spent a great deal of time rolling around the floor of the Eisemann Center stage this weekend, half-hiding in shadows of strikingly dramatic lighting. But the occasionally witty and breathtaking theatrics didn’t add up to a satisfying modern-dance experience.

Dance is just a tool for Pilobolus – a design element – as the troupe attempts to make art out of gymnastics and quasi-narrative scenarios. The nearly 40-year-old company is built around a collaborative concept in which the performers essentially defy gravity by supporting one another’s weight almost surreptitiously. It’s like one of those circus acts that entertain during halftime.

Friday’s show got off to a sleepy start with Lanterna Magica, a 2008 piece that sums up the Pilobolus aesthetic. To the sounds of nature, a pair of dancers grabbed at swirling points of light that mimicked the flight of fireflies. Soon the whole group was worshipping a lantern hanging against a burnt-purple sky and the silhouetted branches of a tree.

Set to mostly somnambulistic music, the Disney-like narrative featured gentle lifts and Pilobolus’ signature strategy: dancers’ bodies locked together to form a many-limbed beast or machine.

The 1973 solo Pseudopodia showed off the flexibility and tumbling skills of Jun Kuribayashi. Between rolls, Kuribayashi elongated his muscular frame, lit in harsh reds and propelled by tribal drumming. He looked like a particularly supple insect.

Gnomen (1997) featured four shirtless male dancers in black briefs moving slowly and deliberately, creating a pretty tableau. They provided the night’s first moments of humor – slapstick set to recorded throat singing. The men bopped one another on the head, punctuated by the sound of a gong.

The jokiness continued in Hitched (2009), a parody on the perils of marriage. Groom chased runaway bride and vice versa until the couple ended up on the ground, wrestling in their underwear.

Mock decapitation arrived in the shadow-puppetry of Dog ID (2009) as an oversized arm morphed into a man, and a woman turned into a pet. And in Megawatt (2004), fueled by the art-rock of Primus, Radiohead and Squarepusher, the dancers jerkily slinked across the stage, like caterpillars victimized by electrocution.

Bodyart works magic at Bass Hall (published by The Dallas Morning News, April 2010)

FORT WORTH – Leslie Scott’s Limbo begins and ends with a theatrical flair that on Monday night engulfed the stage at Bass Performance Hall. It was a homecoming of sorts for the 2004 graduate of Texas Christian University’s dance program.

The first thing the audience saw was a member of the young choreographer’s New York-based company Bodyart seemingly floating in the air, wrapped in a skirt so large it flowed out to the wings, covering the entire floor. As hidden dancers moved under the fabric, the material billowed, and the central figure appeared to be cast about as if on a roiling sea. It wasn’t so much a costume as a set.

An hour later, Limbo closed with another special effect: simulated snowfall. The nine dancers, who had paired off for a series of increasingly intense couplings that peaked with one dragging another off in handcuffs, performed some of Scott’s most compelling gestures. Just before the stage went dark, they were choking their own necks.

After intermission, the floor was still lined with a confetti-like substance for Loft, a world premiere that showed how far Scott has come just since she composed Limbo last year. Loft shares the dreamy sensuality and fluid movement of Limbo. But it was more focused, with fewer lapses into banal repetition, and more appealingly lit.

The dancers, dressed in feathery black tutus, shuffled barefoot on their toes, evoking the fluttering beasts of Swan Lake and showing off Scott’s command of classical ballet language. Her twist was to make these swans more frantic and agitated. They began in front of a bank of blinding footlights, leaping toward the audience. A pose similar to one from Limbo – arms thrust outward and curved down to make the dancers look like winged creatures – fit right in.

Scott, who is also a photographer, likes to tout the multimedia aspects of her dances. But the ambient projections by artist Patrick Lovejoy that accompanied Limbo were its least dramatic element, video wallpaper that added little to the already charged atmosphere created by Charles J. Seich’s New Age music and Scott’s design skills. Loft skipped the media imagery altogether, relying on Arvo Part’s driving minimalist music for narration.

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