Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Robert M. Pirsig, 88

Robert M. Pirsig, Author of ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance,’ Dies at 88
by Paul Vitello, The New York Times, April 24, 2017

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Lea Marshall: Who--and what--reinvigorates ballet?

Dance writer and educator Lea Marshall
(photo: courtesy of Lea Marshall)

Guest contributor Lea Marshall responds to New York Times dance writer Roslyn Sulcas's conversation with three contemporary ballet choreographers--Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon (April 20, 2017).


Open Letter to The New York Times
on the Memorable Occasion of 
“A Conversation With Three Choreographers 
Who Are Reinvigorating Ballet.”

by guest contributor Lea Marshall

Monday morning, when I opened my weekly ArtsJournal emailed roundup of dance articles from around the web, I knew better than to click on the title above. I knew better, but I clicked anyway. And then I posted the piece on Facebook with the comment, “Huh. Three white men. Imagine.”

The image alone was enough.  You wouldn’t even have to read the piece to understand whose voices are most valued in ballet today, according to the Times. There they are, all in a row: Justin Peck, Alexei Ratmansky and Christopher Wheeldon--three white men.

Under my Facebook post, a friend asked: “Lea, not being into the dance scene like you, and acknowledging the racist and sexist nature of the article, if you had written this article, who would you have included?”

In response, I realized I wanted to dismantle the whole premise of the article and start over. Editors, the problem lies not just with ballet, but with you.

If we’re presented with this question--“Which choreographers have reinvigorated ballet?”--and the answer we come up with is “These three white male choreographers,” we must re-examine the question. What does it mean to “reinvigorate ballet”? Obviously, in this equation it doesn’t mean taking dramatic steps toward diversity, or critically thinking about ballet’s de facto position at the “top” of our white, western, racist, sexist, popular cultural understanding of what dance is. Rather, it appears that in this context to “reinvigorate” means to make dances that seem fresh and appeal to the tired eye of the Eurocentric or Balanchine-worshiping balletomane.

Of course these choreographers make great work. But the context for that work demands examination and discussion. Sulcas actually asks the men why more women don’t hold “major choreographer” status in ballet. For the most part, their answers are laughably inadequate.

So, let’s change the whole question so that the answer includes Dance Theatre of Harlem; includes Misty Copeland, Michaela DePrince, Yuan Yuan Tan; includes American Ballet Theatre's Project Plié’s goal to diversify American ballet companies; includes Ballez (performance, company, class and community, that invites everyone to witness and celebrate the history and performances of lesbian, queer and transgender people). New York Times, you can do so much better.

Throughout the day after the piece appeared, a great flurry arose that focused in large part on the choreographers’ responses to that question about women. But the problem, as I’d hope we all realize, extends far past the privileged men; it’s with the system that privileges them, including the Times.

There’s an easy fix for this article, as a start. Change the headline to: “Privileged Positions: Three White Male Choreographers Get Extra Credit in Ballet.”


Lea Marshall is Associate Chair of the Department of Dance and Choreography at Virginia Commonwealth University, as well as a dance writer, critic and poet. She writes for Dance Magazine, Dance Teacher and Richmond’s Style Weekly.

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Saturday, April 22, 2017

Dancer Kayla Hamilton up close at BAAD!

Dance artist Kayla Hamilton
(photos: Travis Magee)

She moves through the world with a chronic illness that has left her with sight in one eye, loss of peripheral vision, double vision, blurred vision, and difficulty seeing in low light.
 --from publicity for Nearly Sighted by Kayla Hamilton

My experience of Nearly SightedKayla Hamilton's solo performance at BAAD!, actually started before I reached the theater. Coming off the #6 train at Zerega Avenue, I ran into a group of people--including some I knew--heading for the show, all in good spirits. We walked together past the churchyard and, once inside BAAD!, were warmly greeted by more people we knew. While we waited for Hamilton to perform, we watched a wonderful video compilation of interviews and studio scenes with the much-loved choreographers, all Black and women, who contributed work to this evening--Francine E. OttNia LoveChristal BrownCrystal U. Davis and Jaimè Dzandu. Fond co-workers and at least one grateful student of Hamilton spoke up during the post-show discussion. Yes, that kind of evening. More like a family gathering than most anything you'll find at your typical New York dance concert.

Clearly, Nearly Sighted is the place to be. And you're lucky if you can get a ticket. Yes, BAAD! is not the largest venue in town, but even so.

For the suite of dances, which is surprisingly short--maybe 45 minutes at most--Hamilton has woven together material from the choreographers as well as video artists Sammie Amachree and Drake Creative.  Each member of the audience is encouraged to wear an eye patch through most of the performance, giving us a small taste of how Hamilton's vision disability alters her perception of and relationship to her surrounding environment. To work with this, I left my distance glasses off and, given the intimacy of the space, did not need them. I adjusted to the eye patch over time.

If you've ever seen Hamilton dance, you know she brings presence, passion, momentum and juicy fluidity. In her program notes, she calls herself "thick."

"Thick not as in muscular, but thick thick." She adds, "I rarely get to see a thick-bodied disabled person on stage...."

She is a thick spinning top, a thick blossoming flower, a thick burst of fire, a system of thick coursing energy. She is also Black and female all day and embodies Nia Love's words: "It's the way that you stand, the way you sit...the notion that all that you are is all that's right and powerful and good. That's dignity." Her work is a healing gift.

Nearly Sighted was two years in the making. It was fun to talk in our small discussion groups about it and hear Christal Brown tell us none of the choreographers had previous exposure to the finished work. They had no idea how Hamilton would turn their individual material into a this tapestry. The performance, then, was a revelation for everyone.

Nearly Sighted concludes this evening with a performance at 7:30pm. It is sold out, but if you want to try for a last-minute, unclaimed ticket, click here for information.

The Bronx Academy of Arts & Dance
2474 Westchester Avenue (Westchester Square), Bronx

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Cuba Gooding Sr., 72

Cuba Gooding Sr., Soul Singer, Dies at 72
by The Associated Press, The New York Times, April 21, 2017

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Friday, April 21, 2017

Magdalena Abakanowicz, 86

Magdalena Abakanowicz, Sculptor of Brooding Forms, Dies at 86
by William Grimes, The New York Times, April 21, 2017

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Shadow dancing: Okwui Okpokwasili at New York Live Arts

Katrina Reid (left) and Okwui Okpokwasili
in Poor People's TV Room
(photo: Paul B. Goode)

Follow me, follow me....

A gentle, haunting refrain concludes Okwui Okpokwasili's Poor People’s TV Room, shown now at New York Live Arts. The sweetness of that final plea cuts to the soul. The artist, with her multitude of tools and methods, draws us closer to a forgotten people and removes some of the false comfort of distance and ignorance.

For this complex, 90-minute piece, Okpokwasili drew impetus from the resistance of Nigerian women against British colonialism and, more recently, their organizing for the return of 300 girls kidnapped by the militant group, Boko Haram. Teaming up again with director/visual designer Peter Born, with whom she shares two Bessie Awards, Okpokwasili reshapes not only the stage space at New York Live Arts but the way in which the meaning of a potentially didactic history can be artfully conveyed through an assured blend of movement, text, song and imagery.

Born's set hacks a wedge of space out of the wide NYLA stage and litters it with things the eye works hard to identify or, if identified as they are used, resolve into an overall coherence. His lighting ranges from withholding to assaulting, mostly making us aware that there's so much we will not see, cannot interpret, might never reach. Like Okpokwasili singing "I am the face beneath the sand...," or a figure draped entirely in jet black cloth somehow twinkling from Born's harsh light, the visual space of the work tantalizes us with the possibility and impossibility of discovery. Or the unreliability of discovery.

For my part, I will long carry the image of a woman--Okpokwasili, it turned out--pressed into the far side of a wide stretch of translucent fabric, rising into elusive visibility like ectoplasm. I struggled with the violent mechanical sounds, which viewers readily feel within their own bodies. And I wondered at the tiny skitter steps of elder Thuli Dumakude, South African-born star of music and stage, and the precise, if arcane, gestures performed by the younger Black American artist Katrina Reid. Both bodies, at the epicenter of violent force, confront and defy the oppressive sound. Or so it seemed to me.

Poor People's TV Room is a robust creation transcending category for real and not just in the academic talk we've come to expect. But it's thrilling to know that an artist of the body, a dancer, envisioned and guided this achievement.


Thuli Dumakude, Okwui Okpokwasili, Katrina Reid and Nehemoyia Young

Poor People's TV Room continues with performances April 21-22 and April 26-29, all at 7:30pm. For information and tickets, click here.

New York Live Arts
219 West 19th Street (between 7th and 8th Avenues), Manhattan

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