“What We See” from learning to loveDANCEmore volume 8

The latest edition of our performance journal, edited by New Media Coordinator Samuel Hanson, will arrive this coming week. Volume 8, displacement, features the work of many talented artists and critics from Utah and beyond. It’ll be available at Daughters of Mudson, get your tickets here. To whet your appetite, here is a piece by Ashley Anderson, which deals with how we see dance from ballet to Monica Bill Barnes.

What We See: Thoughts on Ira Glass, Monica Bill Barnes and The Rite of Spring

Several weeks back I got to see Monica Bill Barnes and Anna Bass perform Monica’s choreography as part of Ira Glass’s show at Kingsbury Hall, and later on I got to see Ballet West’s Rite of Spring. Both experiences left me asking questions about what frames my experience as a viewer, and also placing myself in the position of other audience members. The writing below is my way of grappling with my identity in relation to my peers in an audience. I am trying to see what they see, which is a task I don’t always consider while writing (or thinking) about dance.

I have long loved Ira Glass’s radio show This American Life on NPR. The show transports me to other parts of the country, but also to empathetic and interior parts of myself. When I had finished my MFA and was feeling extremely deflated at the difference between the work I was creating in the supportive environment of a liberal arts college versus my first apartment in Philadelphia, This American Life was one of the only things I enjoyed about my week trudging to and from a day job as a paralegal.

When I learned that Ira Glass was sharing the work of Monica Bill Barnes as part of This American Life performances and later, planning an entire tour, I got heated. My feelings about her works I’ve seen are best summarized by a piece by Andrew Boynton in the New Yorker (November 13, 2012). The title of the article is “Dance that tries too hard”. I’ve always felt that the jokes were just to get a laugh, and that it made me feel talked (or danced) down to. In addition to my hesitance about the creative work itself, I became frustrated that Ira Glass got to  “discover” modern dance for all these people in the audience. In descriptions of the project, modern dance, a vast tradition, was deemed generally unlikeable or un-gettable, by Glass himself. It made me wonder why people couldn’t discover something without it having been curated as extremely palatable for them. What if, instead, I was the person curating someone’s first viewing of modern dance through some of my most favorite things…

…Emily Wexler with walnuts pouring out of her skirt in Yvonne Meier’s Mad Heidi or better yet, her black boots narrowly missing colorful glass bottles in her own solo Fact or Fancy inspired by her grandmother’s radio program of the same name.

Naughty Bits by Jen McGinn where some dancers wear tails, feathers or priest collars while performing the most difficult and intricate musical patterning I can imagine.

…Children’s Dance Theatre teenagers embodying Water Study and trying to explain to their parents the importance of silence and breathing.

…Katie Meehan lying on the floor listening to the Beach Boys playing out of a seashell covered television; Leah Nelson & Cortney McGuire pulling dresses over pregnant bellies before a re-staging of a duet they made as fivefour; Linda Denise Fisher-Harrell performing Cry in rehearsal in the smallest studio at the American Dance Festival; Dawn Springer breathing life into cover song after cover song in a token of one’s affection; Tara McArthur first performing Duet for Ririe-Woodbury, looking so unbelievably cool; Miguel Gutierrez working on Retrospective Exhibitionist in the small basement studio of the Dana Science Building at Hollins University as my childhood best friend Sarah Crass strides through having no prior knowledge about the artist she will witness and no suspicion of how well-known this piece will become…

Why would those introductions to modern dance be things that anyone would get “less” than highly choreographed jokes? They might not be inherently better than the introduction provided at Kingsbury Hall that night, but would they be as awful as Glass made the rest of “dance” sound?

A week or so later, in the Capitol Theater I watched Ballet West’s The Rite of Spring. The evening featured the title work by Nicolo Fonte, Forgotten Land by Jiri Kylian and Divertimento No. 15 by Balanchine. I experienced the same phenomena of an audience viewing something fresh while I saw different things living inside the dancing.

In the opening piece by Kylian, the audience gasped as the dancers did backbends or offered any kind of yielding in their partnering. What they found surprising I found to be comforting, as I could see inside it the dancing of Jose Limón and Helen Tamiris, or Alvin Ailey’s careful groupings, Doris Humphrey and every other modern dance choreographer who was inspired by the Shakers. While I know the piece is uniquely inspired by visual art, I can see inside of it numerous dances that share the same themes or physicality.

This isn’t to say the choreography is derivative because it wasn’t, it was complex and fascinating. But, in my viewing of both concerts, dances became houses for memories of other performance experiences. And in both cases, the people around me seemed, for the most part, to be watching something new, something singular rather than simultaneous. It almost gave me envy, of what I might experience if I had seen somewhat less.

After Kylian, an overlong Balanchine piece rolled around. The friends I was with asked how I could possibly like something so boring and conventional. My only reply was that based on my experience in ballet class, it seemed like it would be fun to do. I’ve always loved the slightly off kilter petite allegro of Balanchine because I’m good at it; that’s why I was watching his work enthusiastically. Maybe Balanchine is my Monica Bill Barnes, something I find infectious or likable despite my objections to the particular hierarchical structures of ballet including endless pas de deux and stationary corps. It’s something I like just because it makes me personally happy.

Ballet West’s final piece, a new Rite of Spring by Nicolo Fonte, was another exercise in viewing a real life performance simultaneously with other things, namely, Pina Bausch’s dancers running through the dirt and my toddler son watching a T-Rex brutally murder a brontosaurus on a VHS tape of Fantasia in the living room of my childhood home. For others in the audience this Rite, leather clad and featuring an industrial set characteristic of the choreographer, was their first taste of a narrative that, to me, was already distinctly experienced.

Despite it’s newness, ballet audiences can recognize The Rite of Spring the same way they recognize a Bolero, as a system where new ideas can play out rather than a purely new work. I remember in college learning that during the reconstruction of the original Rite, pointe shoes were examined to explore the steps. We all called it “Ballet CSI” but really it’s more magical than that, and speaks to what I’m after here–– that steps performed fleetingly do hold a lot more of a moment inside them than we offer credit for when we engage in conversations about the way in which dances disappear in time. While this wasn’t my favoriteRite, it does remind me just how many exist and that’s a kind of gift.

Despite my preferences, or those of the New Yorker writer mentioned above, the audience at Kingsbury Hall and Capitol Theater on those nights seemed to be eating up what was presented, whether it was because of a witty radio host or an astute artistic director. The landscape of performance is inevitably dominated by what we are told is likable or good rather than what we may find on our own.

As I write this I can already predict the response from my peers: “but don’t you think Ira Glass opened the doors for people to think differently about dance?” My answer is unequivocally no–– it only opens doors for people to think differently about Monica Bill Barnes, a person they’ve now been given permission to understand. I significantly doubt that anyone left Kingsbury Hall choosing to look into what modern dance offerings were made by comparable regional artists. Similarly, I’m curious if Ballet West audiences were motivated as viewers to seek out other Rites, or if they simply enjoyed the work of Nicolo Fonte, who will make many more ballets for the company, then left the theater.

All of that is fine. Beyond my curiosity over my relationship with other dance goers, I ultimately left both theaters glad that people enjoyed dance. It’s the same way I felt when my young students at the American Dance Festival enjoyed Pilobolus. You couldn’t have payed me to watch the concert, but when something seems magical or fresh to you, it just is.

Ashley Anderson is a choreographer based in SLC. Her recent work has been presented locally at the Rose Wagner, the Rio Gallery, the BYU Museum of Art, Finch Lane, the City Library, the Ladies’ Literary Club, the Masonic Temple and Urban Lounge.

When the Daughters Shave Their Heads

In one of her smaller black boxes, The Rose Wagner provided a cool, air-conditioned escape from Salt Lake’s summer heat on Saturday, June 16. People gradually filled the chairs for “Daughters of Mudson” in the intimate space, and theatre workers pulled out extra chairs for last-minute concert-goers, which had already seemed especially replete with spectators for the production by loveDANCEmore (a division of the local non-profit, “ashley anderson dances”). The chitchat amongst the audience evinced a sense of community between attending dancers and reinforced camaraderie between the audience- and performers-to-be that evening. Ashley Anderson introduced Daughters of Mudson and the Mudson series at large, explaining how the “ashley anderson dances” Board President, Ishmael Houston Jones, selected five Mudson works-in-progress by five different women choreographers, who would show their completed pieces that evening.

As Anderson wrapped up her introduction to the showcase Rachael L. Shaw’s “Chrysalis” ensued. The piece begins with a woman in a yellow dress pacing along the perimeter of the stage, moving toward upstage left. She approaches the center of the space and begins a pattern of movement involving deep, harrowing breaths, twirling, and then an excruciatingly slow ascent of her forearms that cross in front of her face. She reinstates this pattern with another twirl, with her arms positioned as if she’s a ‘little tea pot,’ then knocks her arm in vertical, 360-degree swing. For me, the positioning of her crossed wrists in front of her face indicates a narcissistic mania caused by self-movement, a disconcerted acquiescence of a previously unfelt state that is to come, but is alien nevertheless. The unease of chrysalis, a transitional state, makes its presence felt as a second dancer follows the same path onstage—again, in a yellow summer dress—drawing out the length of the path that the piece must traverse. As she enters, the first dancer begins to flop around violently, like a rag doll, and plummets from her slow, calculated movement to chaotic flailing that communicates a delirium onset by change without clear resolution. The second performer’s motions involve the raising of her arms (the first dancer kicks up her legs, laying down, then exits). The lone dancer left onstage continues her pattern, just as steady as her predecessor. As a third yellow-dressed pacer enters, the second dancer increases her speed and begins lapse into disarray as well. The third dancer never arrives at her movement niche, as the lights cut out before she can attempt her dance to complete the triptych. Thus, “Chrysalis” evinces a Laocoon-esque quality, but without leaving any foresight as to how the situation will resolve—it leaves me forever in a state of deferment, without expectations, foreboding.

Leah Nelson then took the stage, jogging in place to Edith Piaf, her arms erect in the air, waving them back and forth to begin “Wow, Utah.” The first snippet of her monologue explains why she chooses this limb predicament—because she’s been told that she has prominent shoulders. The performer goes on to section off areas of the stage where she sidles into ‘dancy-dance’ phrases and makes deliberate, angular shapes with her arms and bends her legs, almost as if she’s perverting aerobics workout videos. She seems to begin and end as to strike a pose, so to speak, because she’s all that’s there for us to behold—why not? As she moves about, she goes on to say that there is a lot of space in New York City, referring back to the initial skyscraper she formed with her arms pointed vertically; she subsequently elucidates that, because of this, all the available space has been taken up by people (hence her shoulders). She continues to try out different areas of the stage and how she fits into and around them. She continues her eroded soliloquy by commenting on how the piece feels different than the first time she performed it, as she has been away from her NY friends longer. She then examines the different reactions she witnessed, from New Yorkers and Salt Lakers alike, to her move, still surprised that there can be “opinionated questions.” ‘Oh, are you going for work?’ In a way, she seems to say, as parses through the stage, now in Utah. ‘It’s beautiful there.’ It’s beautiful because I’m here, is what I almost hear, as she moves. She responds to all of the comments and questions by moving. She is about 20 feet away from me, from the front row, and she has the space she needs to articulate herself without me getting all up in her business, without her having to get too close for comfort. Her loose, paisley-esque pants reflect the earthy styles around these parts—she appears to be one who values comfort. Some people, she says, responded with a “Wow … Utah.” She’s all over the stage—Wow! Utah! seems to be the retort. She ends her speech by illustrating how somebody who was already here felt selfishly glad that the dancer would be coming here, as they would in the same city; this person, however, implored the performer to reconsider.  Nelson comments on how this person’s words were chosen carefully because they were conveyed via email, and the lights shut off. Ah, carefully chosen words then a slumber paced between another’s work—no more hustle, no more bustle till tomorrow.

A couple ad-hoc stagehands set up a square structure for Emily Haygeman’s ode to her grandmother, “For Dorothy.” It could be an easel. It could be a window or picture frame. A woman enters wearing a blue dress, tearing out sheets of paper and strewing them about the stage, away from the frame. Another woman, Dorothy, comes over the speakers and begins the tale of her daughter’s passage into the world. Dorothy was a Catholic girl, and there was no sex talk in her family’s household. She had had a one-night stand with a boy, and was well into her pregnancy when her parents finally relegated her to a before-unknown couple’s house to have her child then bequeath it to the government. The woman in blue continues the sheet-tearing, and hops to the occasional piece of paper like an island. She twists atop it, almost tortured, but silent in her task. Dorothy continues: She tried to get her baby back from the State of California, but her parents and a priest stopped her, and let her know that what she had done was disgraceful enough. The dancer tears the sheets out—they’re everywhere—and they crinkle beneath her footsteps. Dorothy ends by stating her retroactive gratitude that it all happened so that her daughter would call her and instill her with glee in their reuniting phone conversation. But it also forced her to relive the treachery of her loss of someone she wanted to love face-to-face. Dorothy bids Emily farewell. The dancer sits in a chair behind the frame, like she’s trapped at one side of the structure, but not within. A second performer enters, and a Mama Jungle song plays. The newcomer collects the pages and tapes them up along the frame as the song plays. When the song stops, the blue woman dances, oftentimes to the edge of the frame, just craning her neck out of its confines. The song restarts, and she sits back down, the second woman taping up the pages all the while. Sometimes the song stops abruptly, and the blue performer starts up again until the song restarts, and she begins to appear as a silhouette behind the reassembled pages. She never had the chance to read them in the way they were meant, but can now see them as a pallet. The story seems completed, but it is bittersweet—the two dancers have brought their stories to the other, but remain separated by a re-appropriation of their respective pasts, characterized by scission and the lack of an in-person experience of each other’s journeys. The two part ways in the darkness.

Members of Movement Forum, a local improvisation group, began Ashley Anderson’s piece, all holding hands toward the back in a line, wearing an assortment of clothes—one man wears a brown vest over a blue long-sleeve that lends him a beatnik-like vibe, and one of the women wears a white leather jacket, which Joan Jett would drool over. Five of the seven dancers move to the front, toward the audience in a casual groove to an Elvis Presley classic, “Don’t Be Cruel,” which is eponymous with the piece at hand. The troupe eases into languorous poses, which evince a sense of teenage angst and apathy set forth by the rock n’ roll revolution. Two of the front line occasionally dip onto the floor and emulate a top in its final stages of its spin, a dilapidated (hip hop) windmill that segues into another rendition of “Don’t Be Cruel.” Two in the back synchronize arabesques. Dancers in the front engage in flow-y arm movements like they’re dancing to the music in a nonchalant way, like they came to have fun, but are reticent and don’t want to talk to anybody at the dance party, like contact improv would result in an awkward push away from the pursuer. Anderson seems to take what she thinks it would be like to dance to pop music from the ’50s onward if Soul Train had never happened. Another version of the song plays through, and the dancers continue their patterns of movement. It almost says, I don’t need narrative to dance. In light of what I’ve seen that’s been hip over in NYC for the last couple years, Anderson seems to answer back with a cold shoulder to being bawdy to be bawdy, or injecting her work with mono/dialogues to add a ‘performance’ aspect to the piece. She’s like the girl you try to grind on at the club that turns away and simply says, “I just want to dance,” and finds her swagger through the music that she likes, then gets a drink when she isn’t feelin’ the track.

Kitty Sailer’s gaggle entered in the dark for “Honey Cake Pony,” the final dance of the evening. Of course, knowing Sailer, the entrance isn’t typical, as rude audience members scuffle into the front row, loudly whispering “excuse me” and pointing distracting flashlights to find their seats, and asking each other boisterously if the others are to dance, or if they themselves are to dance. I have known it’s part of the performance all along, but Sailer has inducted me and those around me into her piece; she lets the fine line between audience and performer bleed into an ambiguous space, where she paradoxically inducts us into her work by sending her dance birds to squawk amongst us. As the lights come on, the giddy ebbs and flow of Sailer’s piece go on as she goes to her hands and knees in front of a male performer, Samuel Hanson, who then makes a phone call using her bare, calloused dancer foot. I am privileged enough, at one point, to have Sailer and Amy Falls play kitty cat at my shins and calves, and Sailer lifts my legs up with her back (I tell the two, “I hope I don’t have swass …”). The women she has contracted to be in and out of the piece dance in almost a can-can line in front of Hanson and Sailer, then retreat up to the back corner with the audience, farthest away from me. Sailer forces Hanson’s hand onto her left breast, and then they continue the tele-foot game until Hanson says, “Have you ever had a cat?” They both play a seductive cat in front of each other. Hanson begins a sing-along with the women in the audience—a church-choir-like tune. They begin to file down and the lights go off, and the flashlights come back on. Hanson and the women stand around Sailer, who sits in a chair at the forefront of the stage. Each takes a turn having a make-out sesh with her then sit in front of the kissing orgy to start up the previous song, and the flashlights turn off. Some may say that Sailer doesn’t necessarily take herself ‘seriously.’ They are wrong. Sailer is like a punk rock screamer who holds the mic out to the audience to sing along, foregoing any distance for the audience to make a high-brow judgment that we would normally make with another performance of a Graham piece. She’s weird, but remains enigmatic and without explicit use of the latest Nicki Minaj hit. She masks what this is ‘about’ without having to be Lydia Lunch.

Daughters of Mudson was a success. Plain and simple. I didn’t have to endure the stuffy atmosphere of academia. I saw a showcase with real artists, but didn’t have to fly where I can’t use a public restroom without buying something. I felt scared, and I laughed and I was engaged. I felt that people had made an effort to reinstate the element of danger.

Alexander Ortega is a freelance writer and musician about town. He also works for SLUG.