Repertory Dance Theater’s Time Capsule is nothing if not aptly named. The evening, which ran today and yesterday, is RDT’s attempt to educate the public about the history of American Modern Dance in one night. The goal was audacious and important. The attempt made some grand mistakes which belie important issues in our local dance community.
Narrated by company director Linda Smith with contributions from Marcia Siegel, Time Capsule begins with selections from Isadora Duncan, Ruth St. Denis, Ted Shawn and Doris Humphrey. A less textbook choice is a solo by Japanese-American Michio Ito from 1916. Pizzicati, performed with wit by Nick Cendese, reminded me of the first time I’d ever seen Steamboat Willy, the first cartoon to star Mickey Mouse. It was music visualization at it’s most lighthearted. This work could have used some better context from Smith, who at times says too much and at times not enough.
The discomfort I had at watching Cendese in a shapeless kimono was to be overshadowed by embarrassment I felt at seeing how Black American dance experiences were referred to, and then ultimately ignored in the next few numbers. Cutting the Sugar Cane was Ted Shawn’s 1933 treatment of sharecropper life. It featured four white performers in straw hats who toiled in the fields and then, though pantomiming exhaustion, roused themselves for a jovial romp around the stage. Excerpts from Helen Tamiris’ Negro Spirituals followed, which according to Smith is one of the first pieces of concert dance performed to the African American music. The work is a study of Black American spirituality, again performed by an all white cast.
These dances do have a historical value in that they are examples of how prominent white artists used various conceptions blackness in their work in the thirties and forties. But they were presented with hardly any mitigating context, in a show that reported to celebrate the diversity of what has fallen under the term “modern dance” through the twentieth century. Here they were in an evening that encapsulated the “American century” of dance without presenting a single black choreographer.
Time capsule indeed. I have a friend who likes to joke that living in Salt Lake is like living in the 90’s, but watching this show I felt like I was living in the heart of the Cold War. Even after intermission as the experimentalism of the fifties and sixties was trotted meekly across the stage, I felt like already conservative repertory was being unnecessarily cauterized toward homogeneity. Daniel Nagrin’s 1948 Strange Hero mobster looked tame in the hands of Aaron Wood. Scramble by Merce Cunningham was earnestly undertaken, but seemed stern and cold, in the hands of dancers who looked like they’d rather be doing something else. And I wondered if Chair/Pillow, a 1969 exploration of pedestrian movement by Yvonne Rainer, had originally been done in matching Capezio jazz shoes.
From 1969 and Rainer we skipped directly to Shapiro and Smith’s Dance with Two Army Blankets, which like Laura Dean’s Skylight, I’ve seen RDT do so many times that I’ll have to recuse myself from saying anything critical about it. In Gamut, a group of high school students performed a sweetly awkward attempt at Cunningham/Cage chance procedures. Karyo, by RDT alum Susan McLain closed the evening. It didn’t offer a bridge into the twenty first century, but I liked it anyway, almost in spite of myself. The lighting was dark and sexy, and the content unabashedly dramatic, like Graham, who McLain performed for.
There’s a lot more I’d like to say about the dancers, who work really hard in this show. Katie Winder captured the strange theatrics of Limón in a solo from There is a Time. Sara Donohue and Nick Cendese made a better pair of Holy Rollers than I’ve ever seen (and like the blankets I’ve seen many). Rosy Goodman was stunning in everything as always, her Graham and Humphrey demonstrations making me nostalgic for summer workshops of my teenage years. Toni Lugo should have had more stage time, her interpretation of the solo from Lyric Suite struck just the right tone for Anna Sokolow, stricken from the interior without being at all self absorbed.
Maybe it will be these dancers who stand up and ask for a more coherent fulfillment of the company’s charge to be a historical and contemporary gallery for modern dance. I hope so. I would like to be as moved by that mission as I was in 2004 for when RDT wowed me with a show devoted to the sixties and seventies. I’ll never forget Chara Huckins and Josh Larson in Relief by Douglas Dunn, the whole ensemble in Steps of Silence by Sokolow, or the first time I saw that dance with the chairs and the pillows.
Samuel Hanson is a dancer and film maker. He is currently working on an evening length duet with Kitty Sailer.
After this review was published, the "ashley anderson dances" board president, Ishmael Houston-Jones sent this response:
It was very interesting for me to read Sam Hanson’s review and critique of Repertory Dance Theater’s Time Capsule. I am not familiar with RDT or the Salt Lake dance scene beyond what I know thru lovedancemore but Sam’s article brought up several concerns for me. Sam takes issue with a sense of irresponsible, if unintentional, racism in the casting of several of Time Capsule’s pieces. He also ponders why the Time Capsule fails to include post-Cunningham experimentation.
These issues: Dance, Race, and Post-Modernism, were fresh in my mind as I read this. I recently attended a performance of Deborah Hay’s Blues in the atrium of the Museum of Modern Art in New York. I’ll be reductive here since I will include a link to a blog post written by one of the performers. I will just say that I was very troubled by the casting (half of the cast was composed entirely of “White” women wearing black tights and leotards and the other half by “Black” men and women wearing “colorful” street clothes.) What the two casts performed was very different; the White women were mostly still and meditative, the Blacks were free to improvise throughout the space in a loose-limbed, released manner. Deborah Hay, who is counted as one of the Judson Dance Theater’s experimentalists from the 1960s, offered no explanation of her casting choice other than an aesthetic one about how skin colors looked against the white walls of the MoMA atrium. To me this was unconscionable.
Kathy Wasik, a dancer whom I don’t know, wrote on the Performance Club Blog about her troubling experience being a performer in this piece. It’s worth a read. It may put some of what Sam Hanson wrote about RDT into greater context and give you an idea that Salt Lake is not the only place where dance, when it comes to race, is stuck in the cold war era, and that even PoMo experimentalist icons can make huge blunders.
One final note: if you read Kathy Wasik’s blog post you will notice that there are over 15 responses. I wonder why most lovedancemore posts get zero replies. Just askin’.