DanceView Times, New York edition
Letter from New York
Evening of Balanchine Films
One of the pleasures of this year’s George Balanchine Centennial Celebration—which has been arranged worldwide by dancers, former dancers, and individuals who truly love and respect the work—is that the festivities have focused on Balanchine’s art. Regardless of how, in 2004, one would answer the choreographer’s challenge to the dancer Suki Schorer that the future “will remember the steps and forget the ideas,” the fact that this is the crucial issue on the table lends everyone’s contribution dignity and reality. The most provocative comment I’ve heard so far this year is the paper by Constance Valis Hill, derived from her research for the “Popular Balanchine” research program of The George Balanchine Foundation and delivered a few months ago at the Library for the Performing Arts, which proposed that Balanchine invited Katherine Dunham and her company to collaborate in a substantial way on shaping the dances for the Broadway production of Cabin in the Sky. In the milieu of Balanchine devotees, it was considered something of a scandal by several individuals in my hearing that Hill would suggest that Balanchine might not have set every step himself. At the risk of being banished from the devotee circle, I’d like to say that I found her paper a wonderful example of dance scholarship, amply supported by research and interviews with surviving members of the original cast and, ultimately, a tribute to Balanchine’s theater sense and his own delight in and respect of Dunham’s. Still, as incendiary as Hill’s paper might seem to a portion of the dance audience, it’s important to remember that, to most of America, all of these attempts to “get it right” are considered of utter inconsequence, “minutiae,” as a nondance friend recently put it. For most people, it seems a fool’s errand that anyone would care about authorship of choreography, or what the steps were, or who did them, or how the choreographer and his or her collaborators might have wanted them to be performed. Where’s the sex?, this larger group would like to know. Where’s the connection to the Beltway? Where’s the money and power? WHERE’S THE BEEF? To suggest that if daily journalism and popular history held themselves up to the standards of dance journalism and dance history there might be fewer scandals in journalism and popular history will probably get me run out of town on a rail; yet exaggerations like this are in the spirit of the age. The rule of thumb in cultural publishing across the board is to make drastically revisionist assertions first and to find the facts to fit afterwards. The day is long past and gone in which scholars of the arts and humanities arrived at ideas from independent study of, well, of minutiae, the way scientific propositions are induced from experimental data, then reproduced by other scientists to confirm the findings—except in dance. If Hill’s critics want to make their grumblings public, they’re expected to offer dance evidence that would contradict the evidence she offered. The ball is in their court, as it should be. Yet, once again, the issue for both sides of this controversy is Balanchine’s work, getting it right.
Some of the most important evidence for any thesis about Balanchine’s choreography is on black-and-white film, much of it silent, made by independent or amateur filmmakers, or is preserved on the kinescopes of old telecasts, where the viewer has to factor in restrictions of performing space and period camera technology. Last Wednesday, the Library for the Performing Arts presented a program of such films, beginning with silent excerpts of Cotillon that Laird Goldsborough filmed in 1933 and including documents of performances from the 1950’s and 60’s by Diana Adams, Tanaquil Le Clercq, Allegra Kent, David Lichine, Arthur Mitchell, Francisco Moncion, Marnee Morris, Patricia Neary, Richard Rapp, Tamara Toumanova, and many other dancers who are now, essentially, legends. Despite the disadvantages of having to look at movies which lack Hollywood’s resources, the chance to see these on a big screen was invaluable. One recognized immediately that the performances they preserve put to pay the notion that today’s dancers are better than the dancers of the past, either in their artistry or, in most respects, technique. Unquestionably, training of our time has produced male dancers with more articulate feet and female dancers with higher extensions. However, the filmed performances here of The Four Temperaments and Western Symphony are as great as any others currently available on a monitor or on stage, and individual performances in every film are magnificent. The dancers seemed so intensely absorbed in dancing for the purpose of entertaining the eye. And their theatricality was marked by exquisitely understated choices and by an unforced personal bearing that conferred tremendous individuality. In one of the films, made by the Canadian Broadcasting Company, Balanchine himself introduced each soloist to the camera and partnered a very young Suki Schorer with an elegance and respect that will live as long as the film survives. In keeping with the tone of the films, the excellent program notes by Hubert Goldschmidt told one precisely what one needed to know, which, in my case, included a few delightful minutiae I didn’t realize I needed, such as the fact that the first violin on the Concerto Barocco film was played by Henryk Szeryng. What that particle of information suggests about the artists whom Balanchine attracted outside the rehearsal studio is on a plane with the world that William Blake envisioned in a grain of sand.
This Friday, Saturday, and Sunday evenings (18-20 June) the Christopher Caines Dance Company will perform five dances by Caines to live music at the Cunningham Studio. The premières include Lady of Light, to a commissioned score by Chicago composer Fred Ferko, for a baritone-countertenor and cellist, that is a setting of an early poem by Ezra Pound; and Can’t Sleep, a half-hour suite to excerpts from William Bolcom’s four books of Cabaret Songs, with lyrics by New Yorker Arnold Weinstein.
Although critics are frequently considered to be enemies of artists, they can sometimes actually be useful, too. Over the past eight years, I've enjoyed a kind of advising friendship with this choreographer, whose musicality and dance imagination I find wonderful. Last year, the national service organization Dance/USA, based in Washington, DC, commissioned stories from critics Martha Ullman West, Philip Szporer, and me for its newsletter, with our assignment to discuss the instances when we, as critics, have enjoyed a collegial, rather than an adversarial, relationship with choreographers. In that context, I conducted an interview with Christopher and a tape recorder, in a coffee shop on Broadway, about the nature of our professional friendship, describing its range and it limitations (including the fact that I don’t review his concerts). When my story was published, the interview had to be stringently edited for space. Below is a fuller version of some of his views.
MA: So, Christopher. This interview is about what used to be called being a nuisance or a busybody on the part of a critic storming into the studio, saying, “I think you should do this!” And, “I think you should do that!” But this particular connection between critics and artists may even be fun and, in fact, helpful. Occasionally. So, this [interview] is about the times I’ve done that to your work. But, before I ask you about them, I just wondered if you ever worked with anyone else that way, either as a critic, yourself, going into another artist when you were a composer, or lighting designer, whatever; or, having another critic come and speak with you before the actual performance?
CC: I’ve certainly given people responses to their work[s] before they were performed, myself. I worked for a couple years for The Field, as a facilitator, and in their particular Fieldwork process, people show works-in-progress on a weekly basis, more or less, and then everyone in the group gives them responses in a particular format, governed by a lot of rules. You’re not allowed to say, “I like. . .”; you’re supposed to sort of say what you saw. What’s been of more interest is having friends and colleagues who ask me to watch, usually dress rehearsals, or something like that, and ask you for feedback. As a lighting designer, too, I’ve talked to other colleagues about their works occasionally. It’s more informal than someone asking you after a performance, “Well, what did you think?”
MA: But that’s very different. Could you speak a little bit about speaking with another artist before a première, or after?
CC: If someone asks me to come and see their work in a rehearsal that’s very close to a performance, I always very carefully choose what I’m going to say, so that it will be immediately useful, and pertinent, and fundamentally encouraging. A couple days before someone premieres a new piece, you can’t give them the kind of searching criticism that says, “This is all on the wrong track.” Or, “You should rethink what you’re doing.” You have to think of things that can be fixed, and viably fixed, within a couple of days. So, there’s that. If someone asks you what you think about a show [after the first performance], you have to be equally sensitive, but about something else, which is, of course, that people have invested a lot of themselves, and their energy, and their money, their time, and blood, treasure, in their work. I’m never very interested in saying too much to anyone the night of a performance, or immediately afterwards. But if someone asks me what I really thought about something a few days afterwards, then I’ll be happy to give a little post-mortem. Again, if it’s a friend or a colleague, I try to be honest while still being encouraging. I try to give some response that I think is useful.
MA: Is there any point in the gestation process of art where one can say everything?
CC: I think it’s not the point in the process; it’s the quality of the relationship. For example, [the dancer, choreographer, and friend of Christopher’s who has performed in his concerts] Rika Burham: I know she’d be really honest with me if I asked her to. And I’d give her the same respect. “When you care enough to say the very worst,” as it were. Sometimes things [of Christopher’s] that she’s been in: when she’s watching the other sections and I ask her what she thinks.
But the main thrust of our conversation is supposed to be about critics, right?, and what they can do for you. I’d like to preface that by saying that, well, I can’t remember who said that all real artists crave not praise but understanding. I believe that that’s true; it’s certainly true for me. I don’t really get anything of someone coming up to me after a show and saying, “It was beautiful; I really loved it.” And that sort of gush. I’m always much more intrigued by some oddball who comes up out of the audience, often not a real dancegoer, and gives you their interpretation—their metaphorical or narrative interpretation of the work, and speaks about it in personal terms of what it really meant to them, how they connect it to something in their life. One person who was really engaged by the work means a lot more than a whole parade of your friends saying “It was beautiful; I loved it.”
From that point of view, I actually think that critics that I can read in New York these days do two other things instead of interpretation that I think are much less interesting. One is that a lot of critics conceive of themselves as giving something like consumer advice: Where will you get value for your money? Which is, intellectually, of no interest whatever. And the other thing is just pure description, which I think is influenced very much by that point of view outlined by Susan Sontag in “Against Interpretation,” which I think was salutary in its day but misleading if it’s not understood with a very particular ear. It’s much more interesting when a critic interprets the work intelligently, searchingly, than merely evaluating it.
MA: But you interpret your [own] work at some point? Or no?
CC: To myself. But I’m reluctant to interpret my work in public, which I don’t have the opportunity to really do [anyway] or to audience members. When someone asks me, “What does such-and-such mean?,” I say, “Well, what did it mean to you?” But I’m even more unrestrained in telling the dancers what I really think. At different times in history, or [in] different contexts, there may be value in holding your peace as a choreographer and letting the dancers just figure it out themselves. But I think dancers today are really not trained, necessarily, to bring their imagination to their work, especially not their musical imagination. And, in that sense, it’s of great value, at least in my experience, to tell the dancers what you have in mind, no matter how cloudy or confused or even contradictory it will be. I’ll often ask them for permission. I’ll say to one of my dancers, “Do you want to figure this out for yourself, or do you want to know what I’m really thinking?”. . . .
I give them [the dancers] a lot of imagery. And, with students, it’s even more important, because their heads are full of pop music, and MTV, and tv, none of which, by and large, is useful, and all of which is crowding out the things I have in my mind. So I give them almost a superabundance. I’m talking about making pieces for student ensembles: you try out anything to see what provokes something. My own dancers with my own company, the longer I know them I can trust them. You feel very vulnerable, at least I do, talking about the imagery that’s inside me. If you try to render in words ideas that are important to how you’re conceiving of a dance, it sounds so literal, and clumsy. But the result in the dancing is never that [the literal rendering of the words]. Dancing is about the perfume of an idea, not a picture. The things I’m talking about are like air-conditioning: you don’t see air-conditioning, but it has to be there. Or plumbing: it’s about the parts of a structure that let meaning flow through it.
MA: When you ask a critic to come look at something, what is it you expect?
CC: I should say that you’re the only critic with whom I’ve ever had a relationship remotely like this. I met you first in another context, working for Oxford [University Press, where CC served as a photo editor for the International Encyclopedia of Dance, to which I contributed an essay]. You thought I seemed like a nice fellow, and you said, “Well, I’d like to see your work,” which is a perfectly normal, social thing to say, and then you saw us [CC and his company] do True Love first. And then you said afterwards, “Keep me on your mailing list; I want to follow your work.” So I did.
One thing that a critic can very valuably provide—I can give many historical examples—is encouragement. It’s hard to keep believing in yourself through hardships you go through, trying to make dances in this town, anyway. But, aside from coming to watch my work, you’ve had my enterprise, or my taste in mind in certain circumstances that have proved to be very helpful. . . .Also, in our conversations, you’ve recommended things that I should see that has made a lot of difference. And you’ve very kindly asked me to accompany you to the theater to see, especially, a lot of ballets, which I really need to see and could not afford.
MA: The Balanchine ballets were the most important. But also some Ashton. . . .
CC: You’re certainly the only critic I’ve ever invited to come and see my work in rehearsal. There is another critic, Elizabeth Zimmer [Dance Editor of The Village Voice] who’s been very encouraging to me, both in print and vocally, whom I’ve talked to and gone to the theater with. Generally, you mostly say, “Just keep on keepin’ on,” which sounds banal but is very helpful. Because doubts tend to plague one, like bats at twilight, just before a première. And, in one instance, you certainly saved me from a very crucial aesthetic mistake: the way I had conceived of the ending of the Jánacék [Snow], which probably something I’d never have thought of doing if I had not been in it; it’s hard to be in your own dances. I’d wanted, for emotional reasons, to plonk myself down by the pianist and drop my head in my hands. You said that, in that instance, breaking the frame in that way was not wise, because the pianist was upstage left. . . .She had a kind of immaculate zone of untouchability around her. So you saved me from one very silly idea.
I always run my titles by you. . . .I always have a crisis about them.
MA: That goes back to when I was an editor. Titles are also so personal, especially for choreographers. Sometimes you can tell. . .if you were given the names of five choreographers and five titles, thought up just for that test, it might be possible to identify who thought up what.
CC: I have a very particular taste. On the one hand, I like titles to have a little poetry, a little perfume. On the other hand, I’m disinclined to name my dances, “Concerto No. 2,” or something like that, which doesn’t mean I don’t respect that, or understand it. But I also dislike titles that are so leading, or pushing. . . .
MA: But you called your most recent dance Italian Suite, which is after the Stravinsky [score].
CC: That’s true. But for me, and only for me, there’s an implicit pun in there. . . .It is a somewhat sweet-natured dance, and, of course, the original title [of the music] is Suite Italienne, which, if you translate it as “S[weet]uite Italian” is also a pun anyway. That piece is very much about being Italian, from a dance point of view. We do a lot of the steps à l’italienne, normal steps—Italian changements, Italian soubresauts, but I also have them [the dancers] do Italian assemblés and Italian assembles battues. And the costuming is meant to honor Bournonville, many of whose ballets have Italian themes. . . .
The most important thing I’ve had from you is encouragement, and also the climate of discussion about my work. It helps me understand what my aspiration is as an artist, some of which is always hidden from one. Who I relate to, both consciously and unconconsciously. . . .
Eiko and Koma—who are wife and husband—met in their native Japan, in 1971, when, as students of law and political science, they joined the Butoh company of Tatsumi Hijikata and began to collaborate in performance. Eventually they moved to Germany, where they studied with Manja Chmiel, a disciple of Mary Wigman, and then to Amsterdam, from which they toured in Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, and Tunisia. In 1976 they gave their first performances in New York, presented by Beate Gordon at the Japan Society, and, in the years since, their stage work, museum installations, site-specific productions (including one in a river, in Pennsylvania), and films have earned them tremendous regard among dance audiences in North and South America, Europe, and Asia. In the U.S., their awards include a MacArthur Fellowship, the first ever given to two individuals as a unit. I began to follow their New York appearances in the mid-1980’s, during one of their Japan Society seasons, and I’ve tried to see everything they’ve performed in the city since. Their spare, unforgettably poignant images of creatures in nature are not only unlike the work of any other Butoh dancers: they are also unlike the work of any other dancers you’ve ever seen. Watching their minutely calibrated changes of position as, gradually, they trace a simple journey that slides them to and from one another—now they are as intimately connected as tree roots that have grown around a rock, now they are as distanced from one another as two members of the same family born several centuries apart==I sometimes have the sense that I’m witnessing a physical representation of an ode by the early Romantic-era poet Hölderlin, as translated by the haiku master Issa: the combination of microscopically focused energy and profoundly meditative tone in everything Eiko and Koma undertake in the theater creates a feeling of wholeness that seems to embed the East in the West.
Although occasionally they’ve included their children in their pieces, and, on at least one occasion, they’ve collaborated with a third dancer (Anna Halprin, at the Joyce Theater several years ago), for the most part theirs is an art of the duet. At the end of May, they brought their ongoing conversation with one another to the churchyard of St. Mark’s Church-in-the-Bowery in a work called Tree Song. An audience of perhaps 100 people sat in a semi-circle each cool evening, braving an onslaught of mosquitoes (which are positively ferocious this year in New York) for a little less than an hour to see the half-naked couple, stretched out on the ground near the yard’s little group of historic graves, painstakingly come alive, crawl to their knees through newly raked dirt, and rise from supine positions to a position that could almost be called standing, then separate and, on all fours, come back together. The climax of the show arrived when Koma, having helped Eiko to brace herself against the trunk of one of the yard’s mighty trees whose boughs convene some 20 feet overhead, gathered up armfuls of leaves and flowers and blanketed her diminutive, whitened body with them. As time seemed to stop in the dance action, the real wind worried the trees and licked at oil pots that had been set alight amid a mound of leaves and lilies—a memorial offering that functioned partly as illumination, partly as a set, and partly as a devotion to the sacred ground in which real bodies lay. It was, in every sense, a breathtaking moment.
I wish I could be as enthusiastic about the musical accompaniment to this beautiful work as I was about the dancers and the scenic design. That accompaniment consisted of unbearably repetitive motifs played on an upright piano by the composer, Georgia Wyeth, a Yale undergraduate who is apparently a friend of the artists, and occasional dulcet vocalizations by Sharon Dennis Wyeth, who is the composer’s mom. As lovely an idea as it is to give a youngster a chance, in this case the composer was just not ready to match the extraordinary artistic standard of the dancers. The wind in the trees, punctuated from time to time by the singer’s vocalise, might have been more effective. —Mindy Aloff
Evening of Balanchine Films: The Early Years
(1933, excerpts, silent)
They brought her
on a winter night
last updated on June 8, 2004