Sunday, 31 August 2014

Literature, Modernism and Dance

Susan Jones, Literature, Modernism, and Dance, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013.

The relationship between literature and dance has only recently began to be addressed by scholars and, during Modernism, numerous interactions took place. Susan Jones rightly speaks of reciprocity, as it was not a question of one art influencing the other, but a two-way process, where sometimes dance inspired writers, and some other times literature inspired dance. Jones's intention is to uncover this reciprocal approach, even though most of her examples focus on writers who reflected on and were influenced by dance. They include important names such as Stéphane Mallarmé, William Butler Yeats, D. H. Lawrence, Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Samuel Beckett. What emerges from these studies is that dance was indeed a substantial part of the Modernist literary aesthetics.

Accomplished writers like Virginia Woolf did go to the theatre to watch the ballet and were particularly attentive about it. In her work, Woolf’s “interest in spatial forms” and her way of arranging her novels according to specific patterns, can be seen as a kind of “text as choreography”, an utterly beautiful image. One example is given by her most experimental work, The Waves, published in 1931, where her “representation of a cyclical notion of history through the typographical distinction of roman and italicized passages (…) moves closer to an imagining of text as choreography, to be experienced by the reader as one ‘body’ moving in relation to another”.

T. S. Eliot's poem Burnt Norton presents an insightful dance image connected with the idea of stillness, "at the still point of the turning world. Neither flesh nor fleshless;/Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is". Jones scrutinises this concept contextualising it within Eliot's knowledge of ballet (he went to see the Ballets Russes) and linking it to a sense of timelessness and transcendence.

Jones’s analysis of Samuel Beckett’s relationship to dance is a welcome surprise. Especially when she talks about Léonide Massine, the marionette topos in the Ballets Russes’ Petrouchka and Beckett’s reflections. Beckett quotes the ballet in his novel Murphy and, according to Jones, “Petrouchka triggered Beckett’s thinking about philosophical treatments of the issue of self-consciousness and movement”. In later works Beckett’s approach to movement became more abstract and oriented towards a “minimalist treatment” as is shown by “his ongoing philosophical interest in the relationship between stillness and mobility”.

On the other hand, there were dancers who chose novels for their work and a fertile example is represented by the experience of various choreographers at Ballet Rambert. Jones highlights that one of Ballet Rambert’s specificity was to work on narrative in order to represent the characters’ psychological insights. She aptly talks of dance drama and presents a list of significant examples, such as Antony Tudor, Andrée Howard and Agnes De Mille whose collaboration with Ballet Rambert in England is little known. The way these choreographers dealt with interiorisation recalls Martha Graham’s use of inner characterization which is quite layered and distinctive. Graham is mentioned but unfortunately no real comparison between her work and Ballet Rambert's dance dramas is given.
Literature, Modernism, and Dance is an invaluable contribution to the study of dance and literature and it starts filling a huge gap within Modernist Studies. It is not the only one, but it is one of the few and, most of all, one of the most documented and original ones. Other notable choreographers and dance companies included in the book are Loïe Fuller, Martha Graham, The Ballets Russes with a splendid analysis of both Nijinsky's Rite of Spring and Nijinska's Les Noces, Léonide Massine and Rudolf Laban. Jones’s analysis is filled with marvelous technical details and observations which do justice to both literature and dance. In particular, the above-mentioned chapters on Woolf and Eliot are revealing and riveting. Furthermore so, if we think of the persistent neglect of the subject on both dance and literary scholars’ part. The reasons are quite complex, as Jones notes, and have to do, for example, with the way dance is seen and was seen with respect to literature and other art forms.

Jones’s choice not to centre on a specific method or approach makes the book almost encyclopedic in scope and, at times, a bit fragmentary. The overall impression is that each chapter is worth a book-length study on its own and one is left with a sense of thrilling anticipation to get some more.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

"The Ancestress figure", my essay on the European Journal of American Culture

Sometimes essays take a while to get published, sometimes they need to be rewritten and sometimes they get rejected on questionable bases. With regards to this last option, it has happened to me on a number of occasions and, if I find the courage (it is a very sotf spot of mine), I will to talk about it in the future. In the meanwhile, though, there are essays that are being published, as it happened to my "The Ancestress figure: Puritanism in Martha Graham's choreography", on the present number of the European Journal of American Culture, published by Intellect, here the link for those interested in knowing more about it. Chapter 6 of my forthcoming book (in Italian), Letter to the World: Martha Graham danza Emily Dickisnon, published by Aracne is a more updated version of this essay.

Friday, 11 July 2014

Vital Ritual

Villa Adriana, Tivoli, 25 June 2014, h 21.00

The Rite of Spring, photo Musacchio&Ianniello.
Martha Graham was always interested in dance and ritual and, in a way, her approach to dance can be summarized by this evocative term, ‘ritual’. Her teacher, dancer and choreographer Ruth St. Denis, had developed an elegant style reminiscent of the Orient, transforming dance into something profound and meaningful. In addition to that, at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s, Graham encountered the concept of ‘dance as ritual’ in two fundamental experiences: as a The Chosen One in Massine’s 1930s Rite of Spring and as observer of the pueblo cultures in the Southwest of the United States. The former was an intense and, at times, troubled situation as she often quarreled with Massine and struggled to adapt to a balletic aesthetic. The second was particularly inspiring and brought her to witness the pueblo’s contact with the land through dance, an aspect that left an enduring mark in her life. The evening at the ancient Roman Villa Adriana in Tivoli presented this vital ritualistic element within Graham’s work in a breathtaking environment. Part of the Festival Internazionale di Villa Adriana, the event was organised in collaboration with Daniele Cipriani Entertainment. Pity that Tivoli itself is not very trourist-friendly, especially if you do not have a car.

Janet Eilber, the artistic director of the Company,  gave a short introductory speech, with the aid of a translator. On the menu there were some of Graham’s best pieces, the lyrical Diversion of Angels (1948), the dramatic Errand, a reworking of Errand into the Maze (1947) by Luca Veggetti, Depak Ine (2014), that Nacho Duato specifically created for the Company and last but not least, The Rite of Spring, Graham’s 1984 potent version of Nijinsky’s 1913 masterpiece, set to Stravinsky’s revolutionary score.

I had not seen the Company perform since 2010 and the first thing I noticed was the change in the cast. Many new people have joined the Company, which looks fresher without losing its status. At the same time, the presence of fundamental figures such as Tadej Brdnik and Blakeley White-McGuire keeps it in a brilliant form. Diversion of Angels is the perfect start for an evening like this. As one of the few pieces where Graham did not create a strong female central protagonist, it is poetic, dynamic and cheerful, and centred on the three aspects of love, each danced by a woman dressed in a symbolic colour: yellow for adolescent love, red for erotic love and white for mature love.
The Rite of Spring, photo Musacchio&Ianniello.
Each woman has a partner and they are often surrounded by a group of other couples. Eilber has talked about a “world without gravity” and “geometric patterns” with regards to this piece and it is true: the grounded, floor-based Graham technique acquires a lighter flavor in the vibrant interchange of patterns drawn by the dancers. Natasha Diamond-Walker is a refined Woman in White and Abdiel Jacobsen dances beautifully with her, Mariya Dashkina Maddux is particularly apt in her role as the Woman in Red, a role of precision and fluidity. As she enters the stage, she slips on a humid stage (it is a bit chill) but immediately gets up, thus recalling one of Graham’s best mottos, “My dancers fall so they may rise”. When she performs the split fall it is as if she were seductively melting to the floor and then up again she goes in her flaming red dress.

In 2012 hurricane Sandy has done a lot of damage to the Company and has affected Errand into the Maze, ruining Isamu Noguchi’s sculptures. This has brought to the birth of Errand, a recreation of the piece by choreographer Luca Veggetti, with the aid of Graham principal dancer Miki Orihara. There are no sculptures and there are some changes in the choreography as well as the costumes and lights. It is perhaps the best piece in the programme. Samll and red-haired Blakeley White-McGuire is a stunning protagonist in search of her way to deal with her fears, which are embodied by a tattooed and sculpted Ben Schultz, the Creature of Fear. The piece is a reworking of the Theseus and Ariadne myth, where the former is absorbed by the latter to embark on an inner quest. Veggetti’s changes are subtle and significant: a light-coloured veil covers the male figure’s head, instead of Noguchi’s horns and a transparent chic stick replaces the one Noguchi had created. However, what is perhaps the most striking element, is that he never leaves the stage, walking his way along its perimeter when the heroine performs her solo pieces. And when he does walk, he takes away the stick from the back part of his neck where it is positioned to make his figure stiff and bidimentional. This adds a new mysterious tension to his role. White-McGuire’s marshalling through the piece, her hands on her womb at the beginning and her self-reliance growing as she fights against the Creature, is very deep and dramatic. This is a  particularly ritualistic work, both in form and content.

Depak Ine, photo Musacchio&Ianniello.
As are the other two choreographic pieces, Depak Ine and The Rite of Spring. In creating Depak Ine, Nacho Duato was inspired by Darwin’s evolution theory, Eilber notes in the introduction, and that is why the dancers move highly grounded to the floor in a more relaxed and fluid way with respect to the Graham technique. They also resemble posthuman creatures, the result, perhaps, of human, animal and machine union (John Talbot's electronic music is the perfect touch, in this sense). Watching this layered piece after the Graham pieces creates a shift in perception about the dancers’ abilities and proficient technical potentiality. They are simply, amazing! They move in groups and in couples with PeiJu Chien-Pott lying onstage, face down, for quite a while. Once we convince ourselves that her role is to figure as the static and still contrapuntal point to the other dancers, she ‘wakes up’ and astonishes us with a flexibility I have seldom seen anywhere else: she throws her legs through space, bending, standing, and breaking the time-space continuum…in my mind she is a new and vigorous embodiment of the Chosen One, the sacrificial victim of The Rite of Spring, which closes the evening.

This last choreography has the flavor of the above-mentioned Southwest pueblo cultures as a Shaman, confidently interpreted by Ben Schultz, guides the sacrifice required for a propitious spring. Men and women dance in separate groups, the stage is not very big and the masterfully Graham organized structure of this work suffers a bit because of that, even though it acquires an intimate touch it did not have. When the Shaman chooses his victim, it is a striking moment of despair and revelation: she is on her partner's shoulders and is almost abruptly taken away from him. Xiaochuan Xie dances a belligerent Chosen One, even when she is overtaken by the Shaman’s controlling power. I reckon she will get even better with time and the experience needed for this role.

The stage is now empty, people start moving away, a nice walk awaits us to get out of Villa Adriana, the best closure for this vital ritual.

Friday, 27 June 2014

Martha Graham Dance Company - Tivoli (photos)

On 25 June I have been to the FestiVal Internazionale di Villa Adriana in Tivoli to see the Martha Graham Dance Company perform. here are some photographs, soon my review.

Arrival at Villa Adriana, sunset.
The programme.
Ticket and programme.
Stage just before the beginning of the performance.
On the way back, after the performance.
A view of Villa Adriana after the performance.

Saturday, 31 May 2014

Martha Graham. Gender & the Haunting of a Dance Pioneer

Victoria Thoms, Martha Graham. Gender and the Haunting of a Dance Pioneer (Bristol: Intellect, 2013).

Martha Graham's legacy is a complex issue that can take many forms. On my part I have already written a piece about it, but Thoms's book is different as it delves into aspects of what I have called Graham's choreosophy in penetrating ways.
Her monograph takes a (long-awaited, I would say) gender perspective on Graham, analysing her in relation to feminism,  UK ballet, film, and queer culture. Graham herself is associated with the ghost concept not just because she was a fundamental presence in dance history and is no longer with us now, but also and most of all, because it is very hard to pin her identity down as her life and work have been very much shaped by myths nad legends. Thoms skillfully moves inside this ghost-shaped approach to Graham following the above-mentioned four threads, four spectre figurations that lead to a more profound understanding of what Graham's world means today.

The first spectre confronting Graham is the spectre of feminism, which is an endurable presence in her work in spite of the fact that she never fully aknowledged it. Thoms then investigates Graham's ambivalent relationship with it, analysing her life and statements as well as the women who surronded her, like Frances Wickes and Katharine Cornell, other stronf and independent women who could be associated with first wave feminism. As a consequence of that, a masterpiece like Primitive Mysteries dedicated to the Virgin Mary and her female followers, can be seen as the embodiment of  a feminist consciousness in Graam's work, "even in the face of (...) [her] refusal".

The second is her presence in the UK, a really haunting precense. At least at the beginning. Graham, in fact, was neither accepted nor fully understood untill the 1970s. In the 1950s, just after the war, it was important for England to rebuild a national identity and Graham's style did not fit into this plan. Ballet did. Margot Fonteyn did. Dance in this context served as a diplomatic tool which showed what each country could offer. And the Uk chose ballet, their ballet, in particular Sadler's Wells ballet, "a symbol of national pride". As a corollary to this aspect, there is the question of femininity that ballet dancers perfectly embodied, with grace and harmony as its qualities, unlike Graham's self-assertive heroines and percussive style. The press contributed to shape this idea. For example Paul Holt saw Graham as "an American intellectual" who "put the human body into the most grotesque positions" and Cyril Beaumont said "arm and leg positions are deliberately distorted, steps often begin with the working leg (toe upward) thrust forward, pelvic tilts, constricted thorax and abdomen, and rolling on the floor".

The third spectre confronting Graham is film, an art form she engaged with late in her career with documentaries like A Dancer's World and filed choreographies such as Night Journey. To Thoms, film constitutes a significant medium to study Graham as it "provided a greater mass access to Graham's works, both nationally and internationally". Furthermore, what they give us is Graham's aged body and, on a more general level, a peculiar notion of time, linked to "a sense of immediacy; a feeling of being-threre-ness". In this respct, if compared with photography, film does not leave as much space for the imagination, because the frozen image can let us focus on one single pose and, at the same time, think about what came before and what comes afterwards.

The fourth spectre is the least Graham herslef would probably expect, as it has to do with queer culture and, more psecifically, with two drag performances inspired by her iconic figure, Roy Fialkow's Lamentations of Jane Eyre and Richard Move's Martha@.... The concept of queer is defined as "a positive re-appropriation of pejorative non-normative sexualities and applied to a diverse set of evolving areas of study and activism around lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgendered identities", it is uncanny and particularly suitable to Thoms's discourse, also for the way she then analyses Move's non-drag Bardo, performed by Katherine Crockett, in connection with "queer mourning".  

The book ends with a reflection on the "ghostly relationship between dance and writing", which requires for us to think in a different manner and go beyond essentialisms. This is a rich and exciting study, a must read for all those interested in cultural history, gender, and dance.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Charlotte Trowbridge and Letter to the World

Letter to the World. Drawing by Charlotte Trowbridge, 1945.
Charlotte Trowbridge’s Dance Drawings of Martha Graham is an art book entirely devoted to Martha Graham’s work and part of it is centred on Letter to the World. In this respect, it resembles Barbara Morgan's celebrated book Martha Graham. Sixteen Dances in Photographs (1941, 1980). It was published in 1945 by the Dance Observer, and represents a fine attempt to confer, in drawings, Graham’s kinetic subtleties and dramatic stances. Trowbridge had studied dance at Neighborhood Playhouse, and, in 1941, had created the costumes for Graham’s Punch and the Judy (1941).

Her drawings are neither figurative nor faithful representations of Letter to the World, but rather an insightful and stylised glance at “the frenzy which animates the dancer’s body frame from within,” as Graham noted in the Foreword. They are black-and-white minimal shade-less drawings, where perspective and proportions are replaced by the artist’s sensitive touch. Some of the spoken lines are printed with the drawings.

Unlike Morgan’s powerful photographs, Trowbridge’s drawings are feeble presences on the page, and do not necessarily follow the chronological development of the piece. The third drawing presents, in fact, the One Who Dances and the Lover at the bench (in the actual piece, the One Who Dances and the Lover are not seated at the bench in this moment) with the Ancestress at their back, ready to separate them, a crucial moment which takes place in the fourth section of the piece. On a couple of occasions, Trowbridge seems to have taken inspiration from Morgan’s photographs, as in a drawing of March, who is depicted doing his famous entrance jumps. Of particular interest, is the way Trowbridge portrays the One Who Dances in one drawing inspired by the final section, when she is desperate for the loss of the Lover: her face is lifted upwards, but her body is filled with hand drawings, that convey her inner turmoil. It is very evocative of the dancing protagonist’s state in that phrase.

Sunday, 5 January 2014

Body of a Dancer

Renée E. D’Aoust, Body of a Dancer (Wilkes-Barre: Etruscan Press, 2011).

Writing about dance is not easy. Writing about dance in a memoir is probably even more difficult and, when you find a cleverly written memoir which is also about leaving dance as a profession, you face a book worth reading. Why is that? Because the tone used to talk about dance is too often mistic, romantic, passion-driven and absolute, as if without dancing one could not live. And one wonders, what about all those who at one point in their life decide or are kind of forced to leave the profession? What about them? What do they feel? What do they think? What do they do?
Renée E. D’Aoust’s memoir is beautiful, ironic, sarcastic and intense. She trained as a professional dancer in New York in the 1990s and, if at first sight this sounds a thrilling and exiting thing, once you take a closer look, you realise it is tough, precarious and nervous breaking.

I find the title particularly apt as she highlights the way in which her body responded to different dance techniques and to her life-changing decision to leave dancing.

D’Aoust’s first love was ballet, so much so that when she left it to go and study dance in New York, she left her identity and felt as if she had failed: “I did not have the biology. My extension was not high enough. I had breasts. I would never be a ballet dancer. I was nothing”. 

In the Big Apple she gained a scholarship to get into the Martha Graham School of Contemporary Dance (a much wanted achievement) and her adventure began. It is entertaining and funny to read her view on the technique, “the Graham contractions hollows out the abdomen so that it looks like a sail filled with air. The spine is the webbing of the sail and the legs are the ropes. I contracted” and on some of Graham’s famous statements, “The body, Martha Graham says, never lies. My body lied all the time. (…) I didn’t tell anyone I used to spend days in bed or on the floor, trying to get my lower back to release various spasms”.

Her scholarship only covered tuition fees so that she had to find a way to support herself. And she did so by doing eight (yes eight!) different jobs, that included being a bathroom attendant girl for a Catering Company and a Sunday employer at a Freudian psychiatrist’s studio. 

D’Aoust also vividly introduces us into the life of her dance mates at the Graham Centre. She speaks of Daniela, who concentrated so much on a choreographic piece inspired by Stravinsky’s The Firebird that one day she actually “stepped out of the window”, and of Mara, the goddess, “partly because she had bodacious breasts, partly because she always had a new lover, partly because she was from Argentina, but mostly because we adored her”.

As D’Aoust does not make it into the Graham Company, she leaves to find a job in other dance companies, taking classes at various studios where different choreographers taught as “you hoped someone noticed and asked you to dance with them”. Her description of auditions is particularly insightful. She danced, among others, for Mary Antony and Kevin Wynn. In particular, while working for the latter, she got to know Liz, also called Bruce Lee, because she was a tough and commanding dancer. A dancer who committed suicide: “In the end, Liz’s boyfriend, also a dancer, / found her in her loft apartment. / (…) Once he enfolded her body into his, the way they had practiced many times, there was nothing left to do but cry”. The way the author builds the narrative about Liz's  talent and commitment up to the moment when she ended her life is moving and powerful. Suicides, she affirms, "is not always a cry for help (...). Sometimes it's an understandable release". 

Dancers do not often speak their voice and clichés are then difficult to question. In this respect D'Aoust expresses her viewpoint frankly and, at times, remarkably well, dissolving clichés in the span of a few words.

After dancing for Wynn, her body "felt, complete somehow. Finished and complete. And not bitter at all". That is when she stops dancing. That is when the hard work to keep her body trained and fit starts to be used to do something else. That is when her life changes for good. 

D’Aoust ends the book with two dance-related episodes: when she goes to see the Graham Company perform after she has left dancing and when she goes to pay a visit to Isadora Duncan’s grave in Paris. In the first case, she extensively talks about the dancers she danced with and their performance, interestingly calling that chapter, “Dream of the Minotaur”, thus recalling Graham's labyrinth-inspired masterpiece "Errand into the Maze"; in the second, she poetically removes her sandals, taking some photographs of her bare feet and draping her scarf over her right foot, as if to honour the revolution operated by the great bare-feeted dancer who tragically died strangled by her own scarf. No end could have been more perfect.