Monday, October 11, 2010

Restoring the balance: Celebrating women choreographers

By Barry Johnson

Last month, when Anna Halprin was in town, a visitor from New York mused that if a male choreographer of similar stature had decided to stage an impromptu performance in Portland, the New York Times would have staffed the event with its lead dance critic. In Portland, Oregon? Yes, in Portland, Oregon.

The comment has two important parts. The first is to emphasize the importance of Halprin and her free-wheeling approach to dance-making in the history of modern dance. The second is the reason I'm bringing it up now: The contributions of women to modern dance have been undervalued in recent decades, woefully undervalued.

I don't have a systematic "proof" of this, just my own observations and what I hear, but I believe it's true. And that's why I was happy to help White Bird with its Celebrating American Women Choreographers Past, Present and Future discussion on Saturday, which featured choreographers  Lucinda Childs, Josie Moseley and Andrea Miller,  and dance preservationist and historian Norton Owen from Jacob's Pillow.  It's time we started redressing the balance.

The immediate occasion for the discussion, which attracted a hundred or so dance fans to Lincoln Hall, was the performance of Childs's Dance (1979) over three nights at the Newmark Theater. I think of it as one of the great achievements of what we call Minimalism, gathering the composition of Philip Glass, the film design of artist Sol LeWitt and Childs's choreographer into a perfect hour of performance.

Perfect? Maybe I mean "fully realized," but that doesn't quite contain the transport it offers to a pure aesthetic realm, in which infinite variations of songs and movement are working themselves out in discrete modulations, linked and logical. I'm not an Idealist, but Dance almost persuades me to become one, a place where the geometries are strict, the dancers are tireless, the music perpetually in motion investigating the tiniest crevices between notes and phrases.

Childs spent a couple of years dancing in Glass's great opus Einstein on the Beach before she and Glass decided to collaborate on Dance, so she had his music in her bones and muscles before they started. Her problem was to create movement phrases that reflected Glass's sonic ideas without mirroring them, and the several sets of fast-moving, cascading lines that she devised manage that admirably.  (A questioner at the panel suggested that the dance reminded her of a waterfall in the Gorge, which makes perfect sense to me.)

Childs participated in the Judson Dance Theater from the beginning, a group, mostly women, who re-invented modern dance during the 1960s, making it "post-modern" by tearing dance apart and rebuilding it from the ground up to explore its expressive and cognitive possibilities.  Childs, for example, worked without music and her work often had a wry, dry sense of humor. I'm thinking of Carnation, specifically.  Judson dancers (Yvonne Rainer, Steve Paxton, Trisha Brown, Deborah Hay, etc.) performed in churches, schools and, famously, parking lots, and the art they created was remarkably varied -- conceptual, slapstick, dense, odd, barely "dance" at all much of the time. But those explorations influenced just about everything about modern dance that followed.

I think of Dance as drawing on some of those experiments -- the steps don't require virtuosity, exactly, just a lot of mental concentration and physical stamina (Childs said she enlisted a lawyer in the original production because of the dance's mental demands). It doesn't have a narrative or attempt to make an emotional statement. It's not about dance heroes, though when I offered this idea during the discussion Andrea Miller said that she thought of the whole thing as heroic, and it's hard to argue.

I saw the Friday night performance of Dance. Earlier that day, I watched a workshop/master class delivered by Ty Boomershine,  Childs's assistant and a company member, to a small group of Portland dancers and a few company dancers.  Boomershine began with some basic Merce Cunningham exercises, deceptively difficult because they ask the dancer to connect "unnaturally" to specific muscle groups and skeletal alignments, the rib cage, say, and move them against their usual flow.  But then at the end, he sent the group through a series of steps that resembled the phrases Childs uses in Dance. He showed them three or four basic phrases, fairly simple ones, and then combined and recombined them.  A complicating factor? The dancer next to you might be dancing the phrases in a different order.

So, they all started whizzing back and forth across the room, and it was exhilarating. The Portland dancers were laughing, and Boomershine simply said, "I know." Something about the exercise, the combination of physical speed and mental clarity, made it delightful.

And that's exactly what it felt like in the audience that night.  The clean, repeated and slightly varied lines of music and dance, which seemed "mental," which seemed the result of much mental work, turned into something, um, happy. After a while, when I scanned the audience for a moment or two, I saw lots of smiling faces, and I even chuckled audibly a few times at the combinations that whizzed in front of me, sometimes with a little tilt I considered Cunningham-like, an impression confirmed by Childs in the panel -- she studied with Cunningham as a dance student, after all.

We shouldn't underestimate the contribution of Sol LeWitt to Dance. The videos he created from rehearsals for the original 1979 production now give it an historical aura. We see those dancers (including the lawyer) on a scrim in front of the stage -- sometimes they are simply mimicking the dancers on stage, sometimes they take over a dance a bit by themselves, sometimes their action is above the stage and sometimes it is full-screen, dwarfing the dancers on the stage. It's mesmerizing. The eye travels between video and real action and back, and sometimes we have it all in our visual field at once.

I loved those "old" dancers, so watery and fleet and bouncy in their movements. It took me back to what I loved about those days, how casual great dancing could seem then. The current style is much more defined and "dramatic" in a way -- sharp lines and technical marvels abound. In some ways, we dance more now like the dancers in the first great generation of choreographers, mostly women -- Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Anna Sokolow (with whom Josie Moseley studied), Helen Tameris, Doris Humphrey (Andrea Miller studied with a dancer in Humprey's company) -- at least to my eye. The film clips that Norton Owen showed at the panel emphasized this aspect, anyway: Once we get past the imaginative flights of Isadora Duncan, the hard, dramatic lines take over.

LeWitt shot the dancers of 1979 from many different angles, including from above. And the floor of those shots was a grid.  LeWitt knew his way around a grid (not to mention a cube), and the lines in this one are thick, though they pinch off a bit at their points of intersection. The effect is to suggest a sort of mathematical precision to the dance (and perhaps the music). In one section, Childs herself dances a solo up and down a central axis, her steps taking her slightly to one side, then slightly to the other, as though that grid, not content with measuring the motion, had a determining factor somehow in the movement itself.

In the panel, Childs gave us a good account of the process that led up to Dance. Moseley talked about her upcoming dance for the Martha Graham Company, a piece that responds to Graham's great Lamentation. And Miller talked about the dance her company, Gallim Dance, will perform here beginning Thursday night. I loved their passion and their willingness to talk about matters deeply important to them and their personal history. Because I was moderating the panel, I don't have my usual complement of notes to draw from to tell you what they said exactly, or even give you much of a sense of the flow of the conversation.  I wish I had recorded it!

At the end, an audience question brought us to the heart of the matter at hand -- this business of being both a woman and woman artist and how they balance. Miller talked about her inclusion in a program of other women choreographers at the Joyce Theater recently, and how that made her realize for the first time that choreographers came with gender attached. The Joyce had felt it necessary to respond to a long uninterrupted line of concerts by male choreographers with a nod to the women. Moseley pointed out the connection she felt to the long line of women dancers we had seen in Owen's videos and talked about her own commitment to the art form. Childs responded by observing that in Europe, she has many opportunities to collaborate with many different dance companies, including major ballets and opera companies. In America, these come up far less often.
 Part of this is the relative lack of support in the U.S. for dance in general, perhaps. Or an undervaluing of Childs in particular. But I don't think so: Dance in America these days is dominated by men, especially ballet companies. And the few modern companies that receive enough support to become actual institutions are mostly male-dominated, too.

This is simply wrong. Women invented modern dance as an art form; their work has constantly re-invented the form since it began They have danced it at the highest levels and written about it more consistently and more persuasively than men have. The network of grass-roots support for modern dance is predominantly made up of women.

And without taking away from the contributions of Ted Shawn, Jose Limon, Merce Cunningham, Alvin Ailey, Paul Taylor and the men who come since -- Bill T. Jones, Mark Morris, etc. -- all of whom I admire to one degree or another, I can't help thinking about what we've missed here with our pattern of support.  I'm imagining full-fledged, continuously operating, well-funded companies run by Twyla Tharp, Trisha Brown, Yvonne Rainer and Lucinda Childs, to mention some of the big names. And locally, I will always wonder what Tere Mathern, Mary Oslund, Bonnie Merrill, Jann Dreyer, Judy Patton, Linda Austin and a raft of younger choreographers might have accomplished with professional companies to work with.  Depending on my mood, I can get very angry or very depressed about what we've missed and, more importantly, what they've missed.

Dance is an indication, maybe. Majestic in its way, profound without being dense, a place where we can find ourselves, the best part of ourselves.

Walter Jaffe and Paul King of White Bird have dedicated part of their season this year to women choreographers. So, yes, Childs has come and gone. Andrea Miller's Gallim Dance will be here Thursday-Saturday at Lincoln Hall. The Martha Graham Dance Company, sporting that dance by Moseley, arrives Tuesday, Nov. 9.  Mary Oslund's company performs January 20-22.  And much of the rest of the local dance scene offers a continuing series of work by women choreographers, with Tahni Holt's Culture Machine, which opens on Thursday, next up.

My point is simply this: We have the power to provide some balance ourselves, to look beyond the big names and discover and embrace dance that hasn't gotten major support from foundations, big donors or government grants. And a lot of the time, those choreographers and dancers will be women.