DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Readers of DanceView may already know Leigh Witchel’s informed essays on the works and dancers of George Balanchine. Witchel’s own choreography, primarily for his New York chamber company Dance As Ever, is not as widely available. It’s very good choreography, but, alas for Witchel, it also concentrates on the language of classical dancing, which it showcases with an uncommon degree of love and respect. Language, love, and respect: he’s got three strikes against him before the curtain goes up. The theory of ballet programming for large houses now would say that that’s the stuff dancegoers can get any day of the week. If one wants to fish $80/ticket from people’s wallets, and then keep them hooked bolt upright while they’re in their seats, it’s necessary to offer them something a little out of the ordinary, a little freakish and dark, a little in-your-face-you’re-off-to-the-clinker-Bub-if-you-don’t-pay-attention immediate. During the past couple of its annual, one-weekend seasons, Dance As Ever has started to present live music on acoustic instruments for a few of its works, too—a step that isn’t likely to increase its market share of the shrinking dance audience any time soon. Nor is Witchel helped by his colleague, the costume designer David Quinn, who is cutting and draping and coloring the most exquisite dance costumes to be found in New York.
What these folks don’t understand is that exquisite just won’t wash with the 18-34s. Beauty is out there; beauty is over. I know that Anna Wintour and the house of Calvin Klein are making a bid to bring it back, and that Isaac Mizrachi has begun to design for Target, but, really, just who do they think they are?
Well, you can see what Witchel’s up against. He’s like a salmon, swimming up a waterfall in a hurricane, and given the conditions that salmon have to cope with now, I wouldn’t bet the farm on his career. In an era of bottom feeders, the smart thing is to go with the flow. Witchel may have entered Brandeis at the age of 15 by skipping 11th and 12th grades, but that hasn’t done anything to make him smart in the way that will bring him big gigs. After all, 11th and 12th grades are where one solidifies the wisdom that is going to get one through life, especially a life in the arts: look just like everyone else, act just like everyone else, and, most important, learn how to ace the English exams without reading the books. If I were going to counsel a young wannabe writer today, the single wisest piece of advice I could offer would be, Burn all dictionaries! Visual artists should avoid learning how to draw. Musicians should never, ever listen to music composed before 1950 or try to compare performances of the same composition. And choreographers should limit themselves to exactly three steps, develop their product without any knowledge whatsoever of classical music, and—this is key—persuade the audience that dancing is first and foremost a guy-type thing.
You think I’m kidding, don’t you? I never kid around; I have no sense of humor at all. Only facts and stats. The stats on Witchel are that in the ten years I’ve been watching his work, he hasn’t shown a single dance where the ballerina has been knocked off her feet, overpartnered, or thrown on the floor, and he hasn’t once presented a danseur clad in nothing but a jock strap and Valvoline. There are very few young ballet choreographers of whom that can be said, and those that have managed to survive don’t tend to get featured in the print press. Recently, I discovered why: the answers are all contained in a report from the International Newspaper Marketing Association, and you can read about them for yourself: (http://www.womensenews.org/article.cfm/dyn/aid/1524) I have to go back to slamming Witchel, so that you’ll keep reading. Think about it: if I’d praised him directly—or any artist who’s not well known—at this length, you wouldn’t have gotten even this far.
Okay, praise-time is over. Let’s go to the stage. Last Thursday and Saturday, I saw two performances by Dance As Ever up at the Theatre of the Riverside Church. (An astonishing number of New York’s houses of worship have a theater tucked somewhere in them, which isn’t quite what the major religions of the world expected would be the case 500 years ago, but, Hey ~ It’s New York.) The theater seats 180: on Thursday, maybe a sixth of it was occupied; on Saturday, maybe two fifths. Many of those attending were, themselves, dancers. They were there not to see Witchel’s ballets for their own sakes but rather the guest stars from the New York City Ballet, one on each program, for whom Witchel has made solos: Peter Boal on Thursday (in the 2000 A Shropshire Lad, to a recording of the suite of World War I-era songs that George Butterworth made to poems by A.E. Houseman) and Alexandra Ansanelli (in the première of The Pause on the Way Down, to a passacaglia, arranged for solo violin, by the 17th-century composer Heinrich Biber).
Both solos are a little gloomy in their theatrical trappings: Boal, in suspendered trousers and a military jacket that seems to have been tailored in Jermyn Street, completes his repertory of impeccably turned-out and centered pirouettes and his 57 brands of allegro jumps, stops, and gets immured in a coffin of light; Ansanelli, in a gauze frock with a dipping hem that could go straight from the theater to high tea at the Villard Houses, gets to unspool her streaming déboulé turns and deploy her Gothically-attenuated hands in a set by Mathew Mohr that would look like the rubble of a city, if it didn’t first look like styrofoam blocks at a Gymboree. If you don’t already know the words to the Houseman, you won’t learn them from the sound system; and if you aren’t already familiar with the form of a passacaglia, Ansanelli isn’t going to clarify it here. Doesn’t matter: each solo has been built on its dancer’s strengths and made to show the full range of what he or she can do. They won’t outlive the individuals for whom they were made, and they aren’t the best examples of Witchel’s choreographic imagination. Nevertheless, they do reveal what he can do when working with a dancer at the top of the profession: they’re calling cards to his knowledge of ballet as a vocabulary and a craft.
Witchel’s choreography for groups tends to be far more interesting formally and musically, yet it suffers, in my view, from several problems. One is, paradoxically, a result of his integrity. When he works with dancers less formidable than principals of a world-class company, he also choreographs to their strengths. He also makes them look beautiful or handsome while executing elements of the danse d’école. This is so rare and so touching that I’d almost forgive him any other difficulty. And yet, in order to present his dancers that way, he gives up asking them to exercise the animal initiative—the momentum—that, for many observers, is the very foundation of dancing. Then, too, because he is wedded to the classical lexicon, he doesn’t appear to draw on the arsenal of, say, folkdance or character dance or even of pedestrian movement, like a simple Isadora run, that would keep the look he wants his performers to have and get them moving, too. So his choreography for these dancers, who are fine performers in their own technical register, feels immobilized at times.
A more complicated problem is the subject matter of Witchel’s dances. From the program notes and surrounding theatrical elements, it’s evident that he thinks of them in some sort of narrative context having to do either with interpersonal relationships or the relationship between the figures we see and invisible forces, historical or emotional, to which they occasionally gesture. Yet, the gestures and relationships don’t gel into legible images. Like the movement, itself, the fantasies keep stopping and starting, so that after a while one finds that one either has to do quite a lot of head work to make sense of the stage action or simply to accept a divide between the abstract experience of the classical steps and the odd yet baffling gestures. Audiences don’t like to do that kind of work as an assignment, and Witchel’s ballets routinely require it. In the dances on the programs I just saw, the gestures tend to come at the end of the dance phrases, as if they were morals to a story. What would happen if they were more closely integrated with the ballet steps?
As he continues to work with live music, he may be able to address this issue. His most recent ballet for a group, The New Rome, being given its première this season to a newly commissioned—and fascinatingly irascible—score for a string quartet, by Evren Celimli, isn’t exactly fun to watch (it seems to be an essay on human frailty in a post-apocalyptic universe where you can still find a few garments from Prada). Yet the through-line of its gestural action is clearer than in much of Witchel’s earlier repertory; and the fact that this new work rings of watching Merce Cunningham (an abundance of trios, equal spacing among dancers performing terre-à-terre passages simultaneously, transitions between choreographic sections that work like cinematic wipes and jump cuts) may suggest that Witchel is opening himself up to influences beyond Balanchine and Robbins. Still, no influence from the past can replace the need for a personal understanding of the emotional dramaturgy necessary for any scriptless theatrical production.
Witchel has evolved as an artist—and I don’t use that word lightly—to the point where he has to make some hard choices: about his use of tonal, atonal, and quasi-tonal music and whether to continue to use recorded (often symphonic) scores; about what to do regarding the impoverished look of the materials for the sets; about how to suggest a coherent story without directly telling one. Perhaps, instead of looking outward to the masters, he might stop the world for a moment and decide what it is that he, himself, truly enjoys when he goes to the theater.—Mindy Aloff
Dance As Ever
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