Seeing Dance, Talking Dance in Washington, DC

With its flag-bedecked entrances, huge lobbies and wings that you get lost in, the Kennedy Center in Washington, DC speaks of an era now gone, an America self-confident and imperialistic. It’s not a welcoming place but Edward Durrell Stone’s late modernist architecture does impress with its grandeur of vision and, one has to admit, a certain elegance, ostentatious as it is.

When the Kennedy Center opened in 1971, it had been thirteen years in the making and was intended as a marker for Washington as the Nation’s cultural and not just political capital. Art and not deal-making would be the lingua franca in its corridors. As such the place has functioned fairly well though its resident orchestra, opera and ballet are by no means of world-class stature. But the Kennedy Center has become a focal point for featuring—this is Washington after all—the high and mighty of visiting companies. This seems to be particularly true of ballet. The next season, for instance, includes, in addition to the DC’s Suzanne Farrell Ballet, the San Francisco, Kirov, ABT, Joffrey, New York City, Bolshoi and the Royal ballet companies.

So the Kennedy Center’s “Arts Across America” Initiative signaled a welcome departure from the status quo. From June 10-15, 2008 nine ballet ensembles from across the country performed one work each, attracting full houses and filling the lobbies with the kind of buzz that I don’t remember having heard on previous visits. For many of these companies this was not just a prestigious engagement but also a rare opportunity to see each other’s works.

The Dance Critics’ Association held its annual meeting at the same time. It was one of the more felicitous occasions for dancers and critics not just to watch but also talk with each other.

The dance programming was conservative but nicely representative of the 20th and the first decade of this century. It offered one lovely surprise and a couple of lesser ones. Works by George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, Todd Bolender, Antony Tudor and Twyla Tharp balanced pieces by Christopher Wheeldon, Stanton Welch, Jorma Elo and Nacho Duato.

This was the line-up:

Program One:
Ballet West “Serenade”
Pennsylvania Ballet “In the Night”
Houston Ballet “Velocity”

Program Two:
Pacific Northwest Ballet “Jardi Tancat”
Kansas City Ballet “The Still Point”
The Washington Ballet “Nine Sinatra Songs”

Program Three:
Boston Ballet “Break the Eyes”
The Joffrey Ballet “Lilac Garden’
Oregon Ballet Theatre “RUSH”

Judging from the two programs I saw, the quality of dancing across the country is very high. Even when the choreography did them a disservice, these were beautifully trained, expressive dancers who threw out the window any pejorative connotation that the label “regional” still implies. Instead it recalled the dictum by a man who had the ideas right but didn’t implement them, Mao’s “Let there a thousand flowers bloom.”

Bolender’s “The Still Point” was the surprise. Choreographed in 1955 by the NYCB dancer and longtime Artistic Director of Kansas City Ballet, “Still” was set to three movements of the Debussy String Quartet. I had never seen any of his work, and while the wistfulness in this tad of a story about a young woman’s rejection by her peers and finding true love oozed of the 1950’s, Bolender handled the material delicately and with a touch of drama. I later learned that he had originally set the piece on modern dancers and put it on point when it entered New York City Ballet. That’s probably why I thought I saw traces of Graham in this lovely piece.

Less welcome a surprise was Pacific Northwest Ballet’s “Jardi Tancat” to Maria del Mar Bonet’s Catalan songs. This is a problematic work, becoming more so with every viewing. PNB’s dancers worked hard to get into Duato stark groundedness and its sense of choking confinement but it was rough going. The Washington Ballet’s performance of “Nine Sinatra Songs” missed some of Tharp’s essence. The choreography may be based on “pop” music and dance, but it is rigorous and nuanced. There is no need to sell it; it speaks well enough through movement.

From a more chauvinist perspective, in a field where it still seems that if you were a male New York City Ballet dancer you can walk into the directorship of just about any ballet company in the country, I couldn’t help but notice that three of the nine artistic directors had come from SFB: Ashley Wheater (The Joffrey Ballet), Mikko Nissinen (Boston Ballet) and Christopher Stowell (Oregon Ballet Theatre).

Granted that these nine companies perform in metropolitan centers and can count on a knowledgeable audience (and the financial support that comes with it), these performances nonetheless made me wonder what else is out there in the heartland. What could a continuation of this Kennedy Center Initiative unveil? Shouldn’t there be room for modern, world dance, dance-theater companies to also show themselves in this prestigious venue? And not, inconsequentially, give the dancers the opportunity to see each other’s works.

If the performances left me most encouraged about the state of dance in America, the DCA’s conference left me much less sanguine about the future of dance criticism or even its more modest cousin, dance reviewing. It’s not that critics, for the most part a passionate, committed lot, don’t always complain about diminishing space and editors who don’t know tiddly squat about dance. They do, it comes with the territory. But something akin to a kind of torpor, a sense that we were part of a dying species like some odd ground squirrel who is losing its habitat to urbanization, hung over parts of the conference like a heavy blanket of fog.

How can we encourage fresh voices to enter the field, when there are no jobs, the questions went. None of the major West Coast dailies, for instance, have a dance critic on staff. They make do with freelancers who, however, have no voice in setting editorial policy. Dance criticism in daily journalism is disappearing–even though with Rachel Howard at the Chron, dance gets more and better coverage in the Bay Area than it has in years. From talking with colleagues, it’s clear that she is very much the exception to the rule.

A panel on Internet writing, not surprisingly, held out hope for reaching broader audiences. Suggestions included the use of video clips or tying a specific performance into a larger context. Questions about length of reviews, and styles of writing on the Net and the legality surrounding YouTube were discussed from many angles. More controversial ideas included turning critics’ into “content providers”—writing program notes or website information, blogging for and about a festival or a company. Fundamental questions about the role of the critic as a disinterested observer or committed advocate of the art were aired.

Another panel addressed nuts and bolts issues. How much description should you include? How do you deal with mixed reaction in very few words? Decide on whom you write for. Realize that all you can give is one viewer’s perspective. Pick what is relevant and write about that.

Topics on touring and the nature of American ballet had critics and artistic directors sit around the same table exchanging ideas that probably were useful to both. But two live performances trumped all the talking. Delphina Parenti performed a reconstructed 1938 solo by Jane Dudley, “Harmonica Breakdown.” Miyako Nitadori danced Michio Ito’s 1914 “Ave Maria.” Rising from the past, these wonderful pieces served as reminders of why we do what we do. No matter what.

PUBLISHED September 1, 2008

POSTED IN In Dance

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