first published in the Performance Club Blog

"critique as performance"

Letter from Manhattan

Sean Mahoney and Heather McGinley in "House of Joy." Photo: Paul B. Goode.

With Paul Taylor’s choreography newly set inside the proscenium arch of the theater that Lincoln Kirstein built for the New York City Ballet, how not to read his work within that context, as well as the overarching Taylorian one from which it springs?  You can, for instance, approach his new House of Joy as a gloss on Jerome Robbins’s seemingly innocuous  Fancy Free (1944).  Because what do you see when a sailor saunters on stage in search of female companionship, if not a visual echo?

 Intentional, or coincidental,  there are clear correspondences. Seeing the Paul Taylor Dance Company at the Koch Theater is like looking at it though a new lens. The theater is larger, but the dances seems more enclosed.  These dances have always been self-contained worlds, but here they seem more so.  You can peer in.  You can fall in, the way Harry Potter falls into Dumbledore’s pensieve, that stone basin filled with a silver fog of memories. And, as ever, you can make stuff up about the dances. This is delicious, and fun, to let your mind range around inside a repertory, finding things to think about…. Why take Paul Taylor literally, I wonder? People seem to do it, but while he is plain-spoken and unfancy in movement terms, he is a fanciful dance-maker. Macabre, but fanciful.

Which leads us to the final weekend of the company’s three week run, and the Saturday Matinee From Hell. On the program: Oh You Kid (1999), involving among other amusements some larking about by the Ku Klux Klan, and an intermission;  House of Joy, that brief work—devoid of pleasure—about some hookers and their pimps and their johns—with one undergoing a beating that looks suggestive of gay bashing, despite the story line; and then after a pause, Big Bertha (1970), a work of such utter depravity that it is a source of amazement to me that it ever got allowed on stage in the first place.  This was topped off by Esplanade (1975)—which I adore as who does not?—but I staggered out after Big Bertha to think over what I had just seen. It was so grim that the children in the audience and their chaperones were invited to enjoy an ice cream party during the middle two numbers.
Watching these pieces I wondered, Who are these people rattling around in the choreographer’s head?  That’s for him to know  (or not know—his choice)  but whether his  dance-making is displacement, projection, observation, fantasy, or what have you, once it’s on stage it is what it is: art.  Dance fiction. What kind, from what period, for whose delectation, and their contemporary applicability and relevance are currently popular questions beyond the scope of the kind of thinking I do about these things. It’s becoming trendy to call Taylor dated, or cloaked, though really the only thing dated about him is some of his latter-day costuming. Nothing stales like stretch fabric. In  House of Joy, the choreographer is possibly addressing these literalist critiques. He casts his most beauteous female (prima inter pares in a stable of pulchritude) Parisa Kobdeh as a vicious character of indeterminate sex—her breasts are clearly there but  she otherwise leans towards male. A biker, in the market for a sado-erotic threesome. She doesn’t happen to pick the sad wallflower hooker  played by Jeffrey Smith.  Like Kobdeh, he’s not really successfully transitioned—he has huge biceps—and he can’t walk in high heels. His gender is entirely smudged, and the message seems to be: This is make believe, there are characters, this is the theater, my mind is singular but my themes are plural. This isn’t about me, and it isn’t about you.

Social relevance comes and goes; but these dances are always relevant to me. First of all because they are objects of beauty; and second, because they are interesting. (I like thinking about matters like revealment and concealment.)  Further, love is always in season, and true evil never goes out of style.
Amy Young, Michael Trusnovec and Eran Bugge in "Big Bertha." Photo: Paul B. Goode.

Big Bertha is just that. Evil. It seems to show how an unfettered libido functions outside the restraints of common decency and common sense, this season via a true Apollo of the dance theater—Michael Trusnovec, who elsewhere during the run was the sunlit god at the center of Aureole. Trusnovec doesn’t look anything like Evil, being a  blond prince of lightness, but there he is, got up in clothes from the Eisenhower Administration, and off to the fairground with his wife and daughter. These two are a sub-plot unto themselves: the daughter can dance up a storm whereas the mother is beginning to trip—or always has tripped—over her own feet.
That’s an old story. The girl who outshines her mother. Otherwise, this dance is totally Oedipal, except Oedipus here is not enjoying the sexual favors of a woman who unknown to him is his mother—like say, Paul Taylor dancing with Martha Graham in her company, when he was a handsome young man, and she was a ravenous Jocasta, no matter the name of the roles she gave herself.  So here’s the story Martha’s son Paul tells in Big Bertha: At a fair ground, a decorous family happens upon a patriotic looking nickelodeon. (Its name is the same as the infamous German howitzer, but also serves as a portmanteau moniker for things that are large for their type: Big Bertha.) The happy scene immediately spirals out of control, until under the influence of  this malign Freudian Jukebox, father debauches and then rapes daughter, to carnival music. Meanwhile, mother discovers  dirty dancing, and stripping to her chemise, does some suggestive things with her scarf. And we sit there slack-jawed at what we are looking at.  Exquisitely danced, exquisitely lit, exquisitely designed, meticulous in every way. Fantasy is one thing. This is something else. What it seems, and something else.
So let’s see. What’s going on here?  Some people arrive on the scene, just kind of happy-go- lucky normal folks. They torture an authority figure with a wand into playing music and conducting them in dances. The figure takes over, directing them in ways that are shocking and seem to expose their darkest secrets. These are dancers, I thought, and Big Bertha  is Terpsichore, the Horrible Awful Muse of Dance.
And then I got it. Bertha is Martha. Because back when he made this dance, Taylor was himself in it. He was telling his own story! He was just an ordinary guy, handsome as the day was long, and he wandered into  Martha Graham’s studio and the next thing he knew, he was up to his ears in onstage incest. These days, he’s moved on. And up. Offstage in his studio, Paul Taylor is up on that platform now.
Paul Taylor is Big Bertha! The dancers wander in, and again and again and again, they start him up,  he raises his wand, and out pours choreography. And the next thing they know, they’re cross-dressed hookers. They’re the stuff of  nightmares, of daydreams, of sunshine, of sorrow. Whether Taylor enfolds us in joy or grief or melancholy or horror or sentiment or comedy  or introspection or retrospection depends on I don’t know what. Maybe the weather. Maybe his dog at any given time. Maybe what arrived in the mail. Maybe what he’s reading.  Maybe—and this is so likely it goes without saying—the music he decides to work with…
The music. There is one last possibility. What if those people in Big Bertha are attending a matinee? They buy a ticket, the apparatus jerks into action, and people are made to dance. We make them do it. Time and again, year after year. I don’t know whether to cry, or to laugh. But this:  when Paul Taylor takes a bow—still dreamboat handsome in his dark suit—I rise at once to my feet. He tugs at me. He’s a man for all seasons and a man for all moods, and every spring since forever, it’s Taylor time.
Bettie de Jong, Eileen Cropley, Paul Taylor and Carolyn Adams in “Big Bertha.” Photo: Jack Mitchell.

Thanks to my Performance Club editor Claudia La Rocco. This post first was published on the Performance Club Blog in slightly different format.
©Nancy Dalva 2012

OCEANOGRAPHY: Cunningham / Atlas

originally published in

Ocean (2010)

directed by Charles Atlas/ choreography by Merce Cunningham


“Could you make a dance in the round?” John Cage asked Merce Cunningham before the James Joyce/John Cage Festival in Zurich, in June 1991. Cage had in mind a dance performed in the middle of a circular space, surrounded by the audience and then musicians, in concentric circles. There being no suitable venue at the Swiss event, Cage’s idea was set aside, and a little more than a year later, he died, quite unexpectedly.
Photo credit: Cameron Wittig. Courtesy of Walker Art Center.
Cunningham, as ever persevering, finally realized their grand scheme in Brussels on May 18, 1994, at the vertiginous theater-in-the-round called the Cirque Royal. There, for the first time, 112 orchestra musicians played a complicated 2,403-page score, “Ocean 1-95,” by Andrew Culver, elaborating on Cage’s initial plans; at the same time, David Tudor introduced his live electronic soundscape, “Soundings: Ocean Diary,” comprised of eerily reprocessed underwater noise. Marsha Skinner’s sea-inspired leotards and filmy dresses painted the dancers in purples, turquoises, oranges, mauves, violets — the colors of the sun, the sky, the untroubled sea. The dance itself was an amazement: 90 teeming minutes of movement, perfectly without front, back, or sides.

The dance has since been revived thrice, most recently for a fantastic run in a setting for the Rainbow Granite Quarry in Minnesota, in 2008. There, Charles Atlas, Cunningham’s long time collaborator in filmmaking, captured the dance. Although you can’t see him in the film, the choreographer is there just off the circle of the stage, near the ramp by which the second dancer in the piece enters, bundled in a winter coat and hat and scarf against the damp and bitter night air.

At the time of that revival, in July 2008, I asked Merce Cunningham about the process of making “Ocean,” in one of 19 interviews for the web series “Mondays with Merce.” Here are excerpts, never before published, from that discussion.

Nancy Dalva: Ocean took its title from Joyce, in a sense.

Merce Cunningham: Yes. I’ve forgotten when, but Joseph Campbell, the mythologist who was a friend of ours [Cunningham and John Cage], was talking once about Joyce, that he thought the next work Joyce would have done would have been about water—Ocean. That’s how it began. And John Cage began putting ideas about it with [the composer] Andrew Culver’s help into the computer. This would be a large work. We had both decided it could be 90 minutes, and we both liked the idea of intermission, because I thought, well, that’s the length of movies and people don’t expect an intermission. So we could begin to think that way. And then there were, again from Joyce, I think it’s Ulysses that has 17 parts. Finnegan—the Wake—has 18. So we assumed that this could be 19. So in my choreographic scheme, I decided there would be 19 sections. That had nothing to do with the length of any given section, except the whole thing would be 90 minutes.

Dalva: How did you determine the length of the individual sections?

Cunningham: A great deal of it came up by chance. For Ocean I first thought to make 64 phrases, but I didn’t think that would be enough, so I made 128. Some of them are very short, some of them are long continuous phrases. Then the order I did again by using chance. So that often the length of the section was determined by how the phrasing came out. If it were a long phrase, it might take three minutes.

Working on Ocean was an absolutely extraordinary adventure. I came here [to the Merce Cunningham Dance Studio at Westbeth] on a Sunday. We were going to begin rehearsal that week. So I came and marked out—here by myself in this large studio—I marked out a circle. Then I thought, well, since I’m not in the circle yet, I—trying this out—would have to start off stage.

What was off stage? So I figured out—well, I’m practical, I put it at the back, and that was an entrance. Then I started the phrase that came into the circle—into the performing area—and stopped—

What’s front? It’s all front. So then I thought, well, if I use chance to determine—having come in—which way you face, how many space changes do you make…? So again, to aid in all this—or I thought it would—I divided this circle into a maximum of 12 possible spaces. Then again by chance I determined whether a phrase would stay in a given space or whether it would move from one to another. And in the course of all that, how many times did it turn, so to speak, front. Front was wherever you face.

Okay, well that you can see took a while, and it took me quite a while to figure out a way to translate this to the dancers because the whole thing was an adventure. But it was so fascinating to me the way something that I had always seen from one angle, now I was seeing it from three or four different angles.

Dalva: After the premiere in Brussels—just after the opening night party—you said to me, “Now all my dances look flat to me.”

Cunningham: Yes. With a proscenium space your focus is mainly front. Even though you can turn this way and that way [gestures with his hands], ordinarily, you see it mainly this way. Maybe this way. Maybe this way. How often do you see it from the back?

Dalva: It’s like trying to get through a canvas on a painting to see the other side.

Cunningham: Yep. But also the chance operation, using it that way made one shift constantly. For instance, the dancers were in one space facing this way. Then the next phrase having gone through the chance operation, you find three of them are going to be over there and one of them is going to be there. But when they get there, which way do they face? So that the thing was not always a reference constantly to one direction, but to this multiplicity of directions.

Dalva: There’s no bad seat in the house for Ocean.

Cunningham: Nobody has ever complained to me that they had a bad seat.

In his editing of the film he captured at the quarry, Charles Atlas has captured not an experience of seeing Ocean a single time, from a single seat, but the experience of seeing it many times, from various points of view; a notion of the work in its entirety. This was a last collaboration, because just as Cage died before the dance could be made, Cunningham died before the film was complete. Like Merce before him, Charles Atlas completed the work begun in tandem: a marvelous, monumental, and infinitely telling ending to their marvelous partnership.

 Photo credits: Cameron Wittig. Courtesy of Walker Art Center.
© Nancy Dalva 2008, 2012



Theme and Variations was choroegraphed in  1947; Schumann Concerto in 1951.

Alicia Alonso was born in Cuba in 1920, and moved to New York at age sixteen. Here she studied at the School of American Ballet, this but an early chapter in a storied career at companies including New York City based American Ballet Theater. In 1948, she founded the company that would become, under her directorship. The Ballet Nacional de Cuba.

 Lourdes Lopez was born  in Havana and raised in Miami, and moved to New York  at age fourteen. Here she studied full time at the School of American Ballet, then dancing with New York City Ballet from 1974-1997. Today she was named Artistic Director of the Miami City Ballet.