Dances Democratic

I have mentioned in the past how much I like dance. Today, in honor of a new season, I am going to write on dance.

I recently saw a production of the National Ballet Company of Canada’s Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, which was truly wonderful as dance and spectacle (a YouTube snippet can be found here). Despite my delight in the ballet, the New York Times review encapsulated my more meta response (which was puzzlement at why a tale with an independent female heroine was transmuted into a more conventional love story for the purposes of this re-imagining). So I’m going to write about how much I like it when the whole company comes out to take a bow and characters who are very minor—or not seen at all—get to bow along with the more primary roles.

Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland has a number of roles that are neither human nor animal. In particular, white rosebushes that the Red Queen wants painted red are hidden by 3 trees, which move around the stage on some kind of roller. It is likely that most of the audience assumed the trees were inanimate, purely mechanical—I know I did.

Well, the trees may have been partly mechanical, but the people inside them were not. I know this because the trees got their moment in the spotlight at the end, applauded right along with Alice, the White Rabbit, and the Mad Hatter. The trees had been turned to show the oval cut-outs where the dancers’ (green-painted, smiling broadly) faces were. And they took quite a droll bow, bending perpendicular in a manner befitting their Christmas-tree-like shape.

Why do I like this so much? Well, as Jennifer Homans’ wonderful history of ballet Apollo’s Angels tells us, much of classical ballet was based on court life, and its glorification of elegant and precise (and even elongated) movement was meant to be both symbol and model of an ideal court. This is replicated in the custom of bravos to and deep bows by the primary dancers. They get the large and long accolades. So the fact that the minor players in the spectacle also get a clear moment in the spotlight—and a clear moment to show who they are—is a piece of democracy in action. Here we are, said the trees, winking at us in good cheer.

I first felt the impact of a minor or inanimate character taking a bow when I saw Twyla Tharp’s 66 several years ago. 66 refers to Route 66, the highway that brought many Midwestern emigrants (including Tharp’s family) to California. The dances in 66 have to do with moving—couples find each other, dance together, and then move away. And often, there is a tire rolling at the end of scenes.

Now, I thought the tire was a metaphor, of course: of the constant movement in American life, or of resilience or of loss. But I never thought of how the tire made its appearance in the dance until…a dancer walked out at the end holding the tire as partner and as double–in a way that clearly told the audience that he had been the tire.

He got a great round of applause, partly because it had been such a feat—it can’t have been easy to be the guy rolling around all night.

But also, he held the tire out in a way that clearly indicated that the tire was central; was partner and symbol. Was heroic. Was worthy of a moment. By extension, that the movement, resilience, and mobility of US life was represented (and perhaps underwritten) by the tire.

So, in the spirit of democracy, a shout-out to trees and tire!

Dance, Dance, Dance

Last year, something unexpected happened to me.  I went to several dance performances, and the end result is, I can’t get enough dance.

It’s not like I  have never seen dance before. I have, for example, particularly fond memories of Twyla Tharp’s 66 and, since reading Joan Acocella’s biography of Mark Morris, try to follow his stuff too, when it comes near me.  But one or two shows per year were fine; they slaked any need I had.  Now, I feel like I could watch dance every week and still want more. Only the pocketbook stands in the way.  (Those searching to assuage their dance need vis-à-vis need-for-bucks and living in the greater New York City area will want to check out Ryan Wentzel’s blog entry “Dance on a Dime.”)

What caused the shift from medium enthusiasm to enthralled aficionadoism, you ask?  Well, partly it was easy barriers to entry.  New York’s Joyce theater, for example, is both relatively cheap ($10 tickets) and low key (at ground floor and just one balcony, you never feel like you’re sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon). Partly it was music. In the past year, dance performances have introduced me to the music of Nina Simone and Moby, both not part of the Meta-ist jukebox prior to the light fantastic upon the stage.

But the main reason is that the dance world is Thinking about Things. Meta-style. And here’s my piece d’ resistance example:  the Seán Curran Company. His performance at the Joyce Theater last year was, for two pieces, wonderful but standard dance fare. And then, a portly middle-aged man in a business suit came on the stage. Spoken words began to be broadcast on the loudspeakers—not spoken word as in rap, but talks and speeches. And, looking at his feet and with a frowning expression, the portly man began to dance.  A considered and moving dance. About being a portly man in a business suit.

Readers. I don’t know why, but somehow, he conveyed that this was a dance about Difference. The Other. And of course, that it why the experience was of a piece with Adventures of a Midlife Graduate Student. Our talk is robust about Othering and people’s response to Difference.  Gender difference. Sexual difference. Racial difference. Bodily difference.  Implicitly, these differences exist against a backdrop of the unmarked standard. Certainly white. And more specifically—since there is a space for gender and disability difference–the white, able-bodied male.

But think about the unmarked standard of dance. Customarily, the dancer is young. Lithe. Minimally clad. They usually look outward—if not directly at the audience, at least in the direction of the viewers. They gaze into a middle distance. They move to music. And they move between solo and paired.

This dance was, in every way, Different from those standards. Older. Portly, as I say. Clad in the most conventional full-body suit imaginable. Looking at his feet. Moving to the beats contained in speech, not music. And alone.

It was a thrilling meta moment. Really. He was using these differences to stage Difference, and to enlarge the concept of difference. And to question, really, what is Difference?  Who is not Different?

Done without a trace of “let’s bring back the white male” or “give these guys a break.”  Just, we’re all Different.

Later, the playbill revealed that the dancer was Seán Curran himself, who apparently no longer dances frequently.  So, his company became one I watch for. Its Web site gives a lot of great information on the company (although, sadly, the schedule is currently not updated).

Dance, dance, dance…