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Month November 2011

Review of Asphodel Meadows/ Enigma Variations/ Gloria performed by The Royal Ballet.

Asphodel Meadows, choreographed by 24 year old dancer in The Royal Ballet Liam Scarlett

This week [November 29, 2011]  the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden performed ‘Aspohodel Meadows’, ‘Enigma Variations’ and ‘Gloria’. This is only the eleventh performance of this work  choreographed by Liam Scarlett to music by Poulenc.  This featured two solo pianos, played by Robert Clark and Kate Shipway, while ‘Gloria’,also with music by Poulenc, featured the rich soprano voice of Madeleine Pierard. I have seldom attended a ballet performance in which so much attention has been paid to the quality of the music, and certainly  the dancers seemed more inspired because the music was a force in itself.

Asphodel Meadows

The Asphodel Meadows was where the souls of people who lived lives of finely balanced good and evil rested. It essentially was a plain of Asphodel flowers, which were the favorite food of the Greek dead. Edith Hamilton suggests that the asphodel of these fields are not exactly like the asphodel of our world but are “presumably strange, pallid, ghostly flowers.” Other traditions have stated that all residents drink from the river Lethe before entering the fields, thus forgetting who they were. ‘Asphodel Meadows’ is a concert piece choreographed by Liam Scarlett, which required ensemble work from the company and depended on a high standard throughout to sustain it. Even though we saw some fine technique from the pairings of Sarah Lamb and Johannes Stepanek, Leanne Cope and Jose Martin, Yuhui Choe and Steven McRae, others of the company were as responsible for the moving cohesion of its anonymous inhabitants. One was reminded of Balanchine at his best- with a dash of Jerome Robbins’ sense of adventure in lifts. The design element was strong.The lifts and pas de deux work were beautiful and spritely, and with such a recent birth, this piece could still evolve.  It was an unusual opportunity to be able to compare ‘Asphodel’ with the Kenneth Macmillan ‘Gloria’, which was later to follow  to Poulenc’s music.

Enigma Variations, choreographed by Frederick Ashton

Next to follow was Elgar’s powerful ‘Enigma Variations’. Choreographer, Frederick Ashton, had chosen to follow Elgar’s description of this this work, a theme and its fourteen variations. Elgar dedicated the piece to “my friends pictured within”, each variation being an affectionate portrayal of one of his circle of close acquaintances.The enigma is not the identity of the persons portrayed, as those are known, but rather a hidden theme that is, in Elgar’s words, “not played”. This hidden theme has been the subject of much speculation, and various musicians have proposed theories for what melody it could be, although Elgar did not say that it was a melody. I found the set nostagic and melancholy, perhaps because the music is so haunting. I felt the characterisations  presented by the choreographer were rather slight and unformed, with the exception of Christina Arestis as Elgar’s wife ‘whose life was a romatic and delicate inspiration’. Ashton does hint at the nature of the enigma- it is his interpretation -as three dancers are centre stage, utterly still, as the exquisite theme rises. There is Elgar’s wife between Elgar and another man. Is she a woman with two loves? At this moment the audience was so still one could have heard a pin drop. They were moved by the physical stillness juxtaposed to the feeling of soaring on sound. There was an emotional tension. Elgar’s wife departs on her husband’s arm.  Afterall, this is the Victorian Era, and such chapters always remained closed. It suggests the secret, inexpressed life of a woman. The dancing was excellent, but there needed to be more dramatic development, although this was difficult in the brief, funny, tour-de-force dances of Thomas Whitehead or Paul Kay or Ricardo Cervera. Iohna Loots was charming as ‘Dorabella’.

Gloria, choreographed by Kenneth Macmilan

The evening concluded with a strong composition, ‘Gloria’ by Kenneth Macmillan. I felt that there was something of a mismatch between the rust or flesh -coloured body suits  worn by the men and the glittering body suits and caps with a suggestion of a skirt , worn by the women. As the set concept was structural and abstract, it seemed that the women should be costumed with the same austerity as the men. There were some awkward moments when the choreography seemed torn between contemporary dance and ballet. Overall, the dance design thrust powerfully through the music with a most amazing exploration of lifts, not always from a pas de deux base. Leanne Benjamin’s presence elevated the piece because she was so technically lovely. She used her torso and back fully to heighten her emotional vocabulary,while possessing a delicacy which made her seem vulnerable amid so much masculinity. It is interesting that Liam Scarlett, who danced in this, was the creator of ‘Asphodel’. Both artists, Scarlett and Macmillan, refused to be limited by gravity. Hurrah for them. May Scarlett feel free to swing from the chandeliers!

More Leanne Benjamin in The Firebird.

Alwin Nikolais, a post for Lindsay Kemp.

 ‘Noumenon’ is performed by the Nikolais Dance Theater. It explores shapes in space but also shapes in unexpected planes.

 ‘Tensile Involvement’ performed by the Joffrey Ballet of Chicago.

It seems appropriate to follow the discussion of Japanese theatre / dance with dance which could have been influenced by the visual nature of the Japanese forms.

Alwin Nikolais (1910-1993) was an American choreographer who after attending a performance of Mary Wigman, was inspired to study modern dance. His teachers at Bennington College included Hanya Holm, Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, Charles Weidman and Louis Horst. Nikolais did active duty in World War II. After the War he relocated to New York. There in 1948 Nikolais was appointed the director of The Henry Street Playhouse where he formed the Playhouse Dance Company, later named the Nikolais Dance Theater.

In 1893 Lillian Wald “settles in” on the Lower East Side to care for the poor. Wald’s philosophy established Henry Street Settlement as a national leader in service to children, families, and the poor. The Lower East Side was ‘home’ for a first generations of immigrants who arrived from Ellis Island (The statue of Liberty is located there, as was immigration control). The Henry Street Playhouse , which was part of the Henry Street Settlement project, allowed the children of immigrants an opportunity to study dance. My old friends, daughters of immigrants, Irene and Peggy Novey were just such two, and Peggy Novey was a member of the company in 1960.

It was at Henry Street that Nikolais began to develop his own world of abstract dance theatre, portraying man as part of a total environment. Nikolais redefined dance, as “the art of motion which, left on its own merits, becomes the message as well as the medium”. It was also at Henry Street Playhouse that Nikolais was joined by Murray Louis, who was to become a driving force in the Playhouse Company, Nikolais’ leading dancer and longtime collaborator.

In 1956, the Nikolais Dance Theater was invited to its first of many appearances at the American Dance Festival. With this, his total dance theatre had begun to take shape, and the company established itself in the forefront of American contemporary dance. With the company’s 1968 Paris season at the Théâtre des Champs-Élysées, Nikolais’ impact on dance grew internationally. Following Paris, the company began performing around the world. Here began a long artistic relationship with the Théâtre de la Ville which began in 1971 and continued after his death.

In 1978, the French National Ministry of Culture invited him to form the Centre Nationale de la Danse Contemporaine in Angers, France. In December 1980, he created his 99th choreographic work Schema, for the Paris Opera. At the same time, his choreography for an opera by Gian Carlo Menotti was being staged at the Vienna Staatsoper.

I took classes taught by members of the Company in 1960-61. The classes emphaslized isolation of movement and development of a strong sense of design through the awareness of negative space. The technique drew upon modern dance technique, but had a structural and impersonal quality. If there was an emotional tone, it came from the whole not the parts. The technique used parallel as much as turnout positions and moved through many planes. It was a difficult technique for someone who came from ballet. It used tension created by the body pulling in opposite directions. At times, the dancer did not move very much- in a sense, moving around one’s own body. In performance, there was experiementation with music, costumes and other visual effects, including lighting and film.There was a sense that costumes were not worn by dancers but were the dance.

At the same time as taking Nikolais classes, I had regular classes with Judith Dunn, who was very productive at the same time. She belonged to a group of independent dancers who performed at the Judson Memorial Church in Greenwich Village, Manhattan New York City between 1962 and 1964. It grew out of a dance composition class taught by Robert Dunn, a musician who had studied with John Cage. The artists involved were avant garde experimentalists who rejected the confines of Modern dance practice and theory, inventing as they did the precepts of Postmodern dance.

The first Judson concert took place on July 6, 1962, with works created by Steve Paxton, Fred Herko, David Gordon, Alex and Deborah Hay, Yvonne Rainer, Elaine Summers, William Davis, and Ruth Emerson.

Seminal dance artists, musicians and visual artists who were part of the Judson Dance Theater include: Trisha Brown, Jessica Cargill, Lucinda Childs, Philip Corner, Judith Dunn, Tony Holer, Meredith Monk, Aileen Passloff, Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, Carolee Schneemann, Jen Scoble, Elaine Summers and James Warin.

‘Shadow Dance’ comes from ‘Liturgies’ and is performed by the Nikolais company:

The next dance is ‘Crucible’, an exploration of the fluidity of structure and shape performed by the Nikolais company.

‘Pond’ is performed by the NYU Tisch School of the Arts:

Alwin Nikolais Theater in ‘Lythic:

Finally,’Dime in the Slot’ from ‘Mechanical Organ’ by the company. Indeed, there is a mechanical qualitiy to the choreography. It is a spoof of the concept of dancing to the music:

Tachibana, Tamasaburo, Japanese Dance and Theatre including Wig-making and Makeup.

The Butterfly Dance: which blossom will the butterfly choose?

In the early 1960’s, I took on the role of Lotus Blossom in ‘Teahouse of the August Moon’ at The Virginia Museum of Fine Arts theatre. Lotus Blossom was meant to be performed by someone Japanese, and my part was in Japanese which I learned from tapes. While we were rehearsing, a dancer named Tachibana gave a concert performance at the Museum, enabling me to have a private class with her so that I could choreograph the dance of Lotus Blossom. How very stylized and restrained in gesture classical Japanese dance is. One aspect of Japanese culture is its formality and sense of precedence.

Women assume an inferior status to men. When my daughter was in Japan to film Lindsay Kemp a few years ago, her Japanese Inn keeper could not grasp that  she had brought a film crew of men under her.  He kept bringing free saki to the men. She made a  mistake in the hierarchy of etiquette by giving the secretary to the Director of the Theatre a gift a bottle of Chanel 5 as a thank- you for her help. The secretary promptly passed the Chanel to her male boss because my daughter had not produced a superior gift for him. I was reminded of a book by Maus (an anthropologist) called ‘The Gift’.

The dance here is visual and often tells a story so that one might say that there isn’t the same separation between music, dance and drama. In the Noh especially, I am reminded of ancient Greek drama. Do not feel that you must watch the full length of each offering, but I give you the opportunity.

First I will show dressing, makeup and wig making: In the 1990’s, I visited The Chinese Opera School in Taipei and had the pleasure of being made -up as a clown, with a black and white ying-yang design which was painted on my face. Thus, I have had a bit of experience, although I do not confuse the two cultures which are quite different. It was just the excitement of makeup made from crushed pigments and painted on with a brush by a makeup artist. It was quite funny, I was the only volunteer, because I think the other guests were concerned that the makeup might not come off. I, on the other hand, reckoned they had been removing their makeup for hundreds of years. Of course, it came off ! as three students in the School set about my face with cream, water and tissues.

The first film is of a Maiko Being Dressed Full  Version:

Next is the Maiko or Geisha painting her face:

Finally, to complete the dressing, here is a wig-maker:

Now to the dance: There is a little trailer ‘The Heron and the Geisha’:

Now the firefly dance:

The following are the work of a great artist, a man , Bando Tomasaburo. In the Japanese Kabuki Theatre, ‘onnagata’ or ‘oyama’  are male actors who impersonate women.

Tamasaburo performing  Sagi Musame [heron maiden]:

Tamasaburo performs ‘Inabune’ ,a Kabuki dance. It is so visual, like a Japanese painting:

Tamasaburo performs ‘Yokhi’ part 2: Yokhi is based upon an historical princess who was a concubine of a Tang Dynasty emperor.

A Note about Kabuki Theatre:

The history of kabuki began in 1603 when Izumo no Okuni, possibly a miko of Izumo Taisha, began performing a new style of dance drama in the dry riverbeds of Kyoto. Japan was under the control of the Tokugawa shogunate, enforced by Tokugawa Ieyasu. The name of the Edo period derives from the relocation of the Tokugawa regime from its former home in Kyoto to the city of Edo, present-day Tokyo. Female performers played both men and women in comic playlets about ordinary life. The style was immediately popular, and Okuni was asked to perform before the Imperial Court. In the wake of such success, rival troupes quickly formed, and kabuki was born as ensemble dance and drama performed by women—a form very different from its modern incarnation. Much of its appeal in this era was due to the ribald, suggestive themes featured by many troupes; this appeal was further augmented by the fact that the performers were often also available for prostitution. For this reason, kabuki was also written “歌舞妓” (singing and dancing prostitute) during this period.

Kabuki became a common form of entertainment in the Ukiyo, or Yoshiwara, the registered red-light district in Edo. A diverse crowd gathered under one roof, something that happened nowhere else in the city. Kabuki theaters were a place to see and be seen as they featured the latest fashion trends and current events. The stage provided good entertainment with exciting new music, patterns, clothing, and famous actors. Performances went from morning until sunset. The teahouses surrounding or connected to the theater provided meals, refreshments, and good company. The area around the theatres was lush with shops selling kabuki souvenirs. Kabuki, in a sense, initiated pop culture in Japan.

The shogunate was never partial to kabuki and all the mischief it brought, particularly the variety of the social classes which mixed at kabuki performances. Women’s kabuki, called onna-kabuki, was banned in 1629 for being too erotic. Following onna-kabuki, young boys performed in wakashu-kabuki, but since they too were eligible for prostitution the shogun government soon banned wakashu-kabuki as well. Kabuki switched to adult male actors, called yaro-kabuki in the mid 1600’s. Male actors played both female and male characters. The theatre remained popular, and remained a focus of urban lifestyle until modern times. Although kabuki was performed all over ukiyo and other portions for the country, the Nakamura-za, Ichimura-za and Kawarazaki-za theatres became the top theatres in ukiyo, where some of the most successful kabuki performances were and still are held. [wikipedia]