Sunday, April 20, 2008

A Willful Ignorance of History … or Not?

In "What Have We Learned, If Anything?," his latest essay for The New York Review, Tony Judt, pessimistically declared, "We have become stridently insistent that the past has little of interest to teach us." He was writing primarily about the political climate in the United States; but, on the basis of what I just saw of Doug Varone and Dancers during their visit to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco, he may as well have been writing about modern dance, if not a broader expanse of the performing arts. I make this assertion on the basis of two works, "Lux" and "Home," having made the decision to bail out at intermission and pass on "Boats Leaving," set to Arvo Pärt's half-hour "Te Deum," my mind having been contaminated by an old friend calling the Berlioz setting of this text "tedium."

My aggravation had less to do with tedium being the order to the day and more to do with why that turned out to be the case. Some would put the blame on Varone's decision to set "Lux" to "The Light," a 1989 Philip Glass composition; but, as I pointed out in writing about his Appomattox opera, while ostinato figures heavily in Glass' approach to minimalism, ostinato does not imply monotony. Those of us who have been fortunate enough to hear performances (as opposed to recordings) of Glass' music know how fortunate he has been to work with conductors such as Michael Riesman and Dennis Russell Davies (who conducted all but one of the San Francisco Opera performances of Appomattox). These conductors know that beneath the layer of ostinato lies a foundation of modulated energy, and it is because they understand the power of even the most subtle such modulation that all of those off-the-cuff accusations of monotony are so grossly unfounded.

This is why in "Lux" the dance is such a great disappointment when compared to the music. At best "Lux" is a moderately clever assemblage of steps that gradually increase in tempo; but, regardless of what the tempo happens to be over the course of the dance, none of the steps are executed with any sense of the expenditure of energy. One might as well be watching animated figures on a computer screen, which has as little to do with the performance of dance as most recordings have to do with the performance of music (particularly when, as is the case with Glass, performance is such a subtle matter). I am not saying that replacing the recording with a musical ensemble led by a competent conductor would have improved the choreography, but it could have done so had that conductor been able to communicate a sense of how Glass deploys energy not only to the musicians but also to the dancers, because those dancers were certainly not getting any such message from Varone himself.

Ninette de Valois was aware of this problem with the rise of interest in ballet in Britain after the Second World War. Of her primary rival, Marie Rambert, whose ballet company tended towards more "experimental" choreography, drawing upon recordings of relatively new composition, she once said that choreographers should know better than to spend so much time in gramophone shops. True, de Valois was fortunate enough to include performing musicians among her resources; but that is probably one reason (among many others) why the work of her chief choreographer, Frederick Ashton, has endured so much longer than anything in the Rambert repertoire. The performance of dance draws much of its strength from music that is actually performed, rather than simply partitioning the duration into intervals of time.

Yes, maintaining an ensemble of performing musicians does a lot to a dance company's budget, particularly when that company goes on tour. However, I came away from "Lux" wondering if Varone even knew enough about how to listen to "The Light" to recognize just was performance adds to this particular piece of music. Had he known that, he might have had a fighting chance of compensating for having to use a recording behind his choreography. Unfortunately, he did not know it; and, as a result, his choreography was little more than a matter of "partitioning the duration into intervals of time," most of which went on far too long.

Varone's background material does not say much about when he was born or where he studied. We only know that he has been making dances since 1986, which means he has been at it for over twenty years. Unfortunately, it also means that he was getting started at a time when the dance world was beginning to suffer from "cultural amnesia," with regard to both my "holy trinity" of ballet choreographers and all that work in modern dance that began with Martha Graham and was continued by those driven to get out from under her influence. Thus, while Judt seems to feel that we only started rejecting the twentieth century once we left it, Varone may well have been turning his back on his predecessors when he first started doing choreography.

This would seem to be the case with "Home," which was first performed by the Pennsylvania Dance Theater in 1988. This company should not be confused with the Pennsylvania Ballet Company, but both companies had the advantage of performing with an orchestra in the pit. However, the music for "Home" is a string quartet by Dick Connette, which he may have written for the Ethel quartet. So its first performance may have taken place through loudspeakers, possibly at the same ear-splitting level that the Yerba Buena audience experienced. Again, all problems could be traced back to sloppy management of the expenditure of energy. However, while "Lux" led me to question what, if anything, Varone had learned from the history of dance in the twentieth century, the male-female "alienation duet" of "Home" left me wondering if Varone knew who Harold Pinter was, because, having seen the result of Pinter having directed some of his own plays, it struck me that the playwright had a far better sense of managing human movement than the choreographer did.

I realize that one problem may be that I am just not bringing realistic expectations to dance performances in the twenty-first century. In my case it is a matter of having to carry the burden of history. Yesterday I was writing about the influence of the Sixties on the performance of music, but the decade was just as extraordinary in the development of both modern dance and classical ballet. Even that lioness Graham still had her teeth, while lions like Ashton and George Balanchine were never afraid to go after fresh prey; and, at that time, Merce Cunningham was finally coming out of the shadows and receiving recognition for his innovations from just about every critical source (with the possible exception of The New York Times). Those days are still very much alive in my memory, but I have a lot of trouble adjusting to the fact that they are pretty much beyond recall for everyone else making dance or paying to watch the stuff. So, if ours has turned out to be an age that has willfully decided to ignore history, perhaps it is just a waste of my own time, which entails that other consequence against with Mark Twain warned.

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