Friday, May 12, 2017

Koma Otake honors his ghosts at Danspace Project

Master dancer Koma Otake performs
the final section of his solo, The Ghost Festival,
outside St. Mark's Church, May 11.
All photos ©2017, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

all photos ©2017, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Using a mobile trailer, Koma creates an interactive visual art installment, as well as a performance space. The design, paintings, and choreography, have all been created or set by Koma himself. Only through performance and the presence of his body in relation to the set does The Ghost Festival truly come to form. Koma envisions The Ghost Festival as a meditative and communal space to honor the connection between past and present, and provide a home for lost spirits.
--from publicity for The Ghost Festival by Koma Otake 

The legends surrounding St. Mark's Church-in-the-Bowery--home of legendary Danspace Project--include hauntings by its 17th Century builder, Peter Stuyvesant, Secretary-General of the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, who is entombed in the church's east wall. But now dance artist Koma Otake has raised other shades at St. Mark's with The Ghost Festival, his first multidisciplinary project without Eiko Otake, his wife and long time creative partner. Although not entirely without Eiko!

If you showed up at St. Mark's at 7pm to catch a five-minute preview in the little park outside the church, you'd catch a glimpse of Eiko ladling cool water onto Koma's naked but bandaged back as he crouched and bent into a trailer painted with his art and bearing a shallow pool of water in which a stand of candles float and glisten.

This mysterious preview is almost unbearably poignant, especially when Eiko carefully closes the trailer's doors around Koma's still-crouching body. One thinks of the foot injury that kept this master dancer from performing for nearly a decade and set the stage for Eiko's well-honored solo projects. It is wonderful to see Koma again. The image he presents carries dimensions of sacredness and of sadness. Of course, isn't that almost a definition of what Eiko and Koma have always done--together or apart?

Inside the church, shortly after 8pm, the performance proceeds like an offering to the spirit of Pina Bausch, an early influence on Eiko and Koma, especially heard in the Francisco Canaro milongas and tangos that fill most of the soundtrack, music that brings to mind Bausch's signature dance-theater. Butoh's genius, Kazuo Ohno, is also here, for sure, from Koma's legacy, but I do not think I am wrong to see Charlie Chaplin peeking impishly from behind an invisible curtain.

How is it possible that I have never truly focused on Koma before The Ghost Festival? How is it that I find myself now smitten by this dancer when, before, I was merely impressed? He is heartbreaking. He is sexy. He is coy and elfin and sly. His unkempt cascade of hair and soft, pliable form are illuminations. He is rumpled, dusty, disheveled, musty, imprecise as a branch in the wind that carries a current of feeling. He is one with the props that surround him, folding his entire slim and yielding body over a chair stacked with black pillows, his legs splayed behind him. He is an irresistible performer. All of this must come from the love he offers these predecessors in dance. Koma is radiant with this love for performance and performers; as the piece opens with Jacques Brel's Ne Me Quitte Pas, he seems to plead for even the shadow of their presence to stay and never leave him.

In the spirit of "every goodbye ain't gone," Koma's "festival" does not end despite an assistant parading around the space with a sign that reads "Finale." We're given a fifteen-minute break, mainly to pick up our belongings and move outside the church. (People lagged a bit; it was a chilly evening.) Once assembled, we heard the strains of a Japanese folk song--one perhaps related to traditional celebrations of the departed--and Koma emerged in flowing white to engage with his intriguing trailer/temple, at one point mounting it and generally behaving like the sort of looney you rarely see anymore around this East Village neighborhood. It was fun to watch unsuspecting folks walk by and check out our crowd and Koma's commotion.

With lighting by the legendary Kathy Kaufmann

The Ghost Festival continues through Saturday with performances at 8pm as well as free 5-minute public previews, open to all, at 7pm outside St. Mark's Church. For information and tickets, click here.

Danspace Project
St. Mark's Church in-the-Bowery
2nd Avenue and 10th Street, Manhattan

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Thursday, May 11, 2017

Celebrate Ballet Hispánico and Latina leaders

Rita Moreno

Nina Vaca
CEO/Chairman Pinnacle Group

2017 Carnaval Gala

Celebrating Trailblazing Latina Leaders



The Plaza Hotel
Monday, May 15, 6:30pm
Festive black tie


Gina Rodriguez and Ralph de la Vega

Gina Rodriguez

Ballet Hispánico will honor Puerto Rican legendary actress and EGOT winner Rita Moreno with the Toda Una Vida Lifetime Achievement Award, presented by actress Gina Rodriguez, and Ecuadorian-American Pinnacle Group Chairman and CEO Nina Vaca with the Nuestra Inspiración Award, presented by Ralph de la Vega, the former Vice Chairman of AT&T Inc. and CEO of Business Solutions & International.
Cocktails begin at 6:30pm. Dinner and dancing commence at 7:30pm. Proceeds, which last year totaled over $1.1 million, benefit the creation of new company works, scholarships in the Ballet Hispánico School of Dance and community arts education programs.

For information and tickets, click here.

Grand Ballroom
The Plaza Hotel
768 Fifth Avenue, Manhattan

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What fresh hell? Enda Walsh brings "Arlington" to Brooklyn

The world beyond whatever literal, metaphoric or metaphysical rooms or shelters we construct for ourselves is a precarious place--is it not, now more than ever?--and any time spent hiding from it will be limited. Even your own body, in fact, can be thought of as a room or containing structure--illusory, in its way, and unstable.

In his 2016 play, Arlington, Irish playwright and director Enda Walsh--who collaborated with the dying David Bowie on one of his last works, the musical Lazarus--imagines the loveless, meticulously sterile environment of a waiting room, a transitional space continuously and increasingly imposed upon by a ravaged and ravaging external world. Neither the artificial potted tree (easily toppled) nor the aquarium (where are the fish?) provide reliable signs of life and warmth. And surveillance monitors deny even the solace of privacy as you wait for your number to be called.

Staged in its American premiere at St. Ann's Warehouse and co-presented with the Irish Arts Center as part of IAC's Enda Walsh in New York project, the 90-minute play overlaps its three characters' actions with radio voiceovers and highlights the physical quality of their desperation with Emma Martin's ingenious choreography. Alarming sounds, malfunctioning lights and even a small shower of what looks like blood-red ash intensify the situation for Isla (Charlie Murphy), stuck in a room in a tower, a gawky young man (Hugh O'Connor) tasked with keeping an eye on her from his monitor-cluttered security office and another oddball (Oona Doherty) who, in the midst of it all, bursts onto the scene to unleash an extraordinary dance solo. It is Doherty--in her fiery, doom-eager vigor--who dares to raise the banner for life. Although her appearance certainly kicks this play up several notches, there's continuous interest for fans of dance throughout--in particular, the brilliant angularity of Murphy's embodiment of Isla, easily a Duchamp/Marcel Marceau/Pee Wee Herman collab.

Arlington is a disturbing, bracing collage of Walsh's text, Martin's movement, music (Teho Teardo), sound (Helen Atkinson), video (Jack Phelan), scenic design (Jamie Vartan), lighting (Adam Silverman) and the riveting work of its three performers.

Arlington continues through May 28 at St. Ann's Warehouse. For information and tickets, click here.

Rooms--the companion production in the Enda Walsh in New York series--continues through May 28 at Cybert Tire, site of the future home of the Irish Arts Center. For complete information and tickets for Rooms, click here.

St. Ann's Warehouse
45 Water Street, Brooklyn

Cybert Tire
726 11th Avenue (near 51st Street), Manhattan

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Sunday, May 7, 2017

Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE moves to value and protect culture

Left to right: Sita Frederic, Michael Manswell, Candace Thompson,
Jessica Phoenix and Valierie McLeod-Katz
(photo: Adanna Jones)

As you can imagine, there are so many exciting and important events in New York, and beyond, that I cannot get to, and--as a woman of Caribbean heritage--I'm grateful to Candace Thompson for putting me in touch with Adanna Kai Jones, today's guest contributor, who offers following report on Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE's May 4th gathering at Brooklyn College.

Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE 
Takes a Stance Against Cultural Appropriation

by guest contributor Adanna Kai Jones

On Thursday, May 4, a relatively quiet evening, some fyah-starters gathered in the Woody Tanger Auditorium of the Brooklyn College Library to hold the first ever Dance Caribbean COLLECTIVE (DCC) town hall meeting on cultural appropriation. Walking into the auditorium, people quickly noticed “graffiti” on the walls, to use the lingo of DCC’s town hall moderator Sita Frederick. Large sheets of white paper, taped to the walls, bore questions that all participants were invited to contemplate and to respond to in writing:

1. Do you think about the creators of your favourite Caribbean music? What ways have you tried to support them (financially and otherwise)?

2. Who do you think should be able to teach Caribbean dance styles? What should the requirements be?

3. What does mastery look like? What qualities or skills make one a Master teacher?

4. Do you enjoy seeing Caribbean dance/music on the mainstream?  Why? Why not?

5. What do you think is the responsibility of mainstream artists when using our culture?

Given this already-rich food for thought, participants were next offered a taste of Caribbean creativity--a mini-class on Jamaican dancehall taught by the dynamic duo of Kendell “History” Hinds and Korie Genius (a.k.a. Genius), two members of the Black Gold Dance Crew. We learned old school dancehall dances such as the Willie Bounce, the Wacky Dip, the Gas and the Mad Run. After we practiced these steps for a bit, the teachers changed to a follow-along method, the way dances were taught and learned in the dancehalls of Jamaica. Similar to a call-and-response format, first History and Genius would execute a four-count movement, then we would be expected to repeat their steps. Although these steps were tricky, we caught the flows, styles and energies of our instructors. In effect, “responding” to their “call” got easier and easier as the class continued.

Kendell "History" Hinds and Korie Genius (a.k.a Genius)
teaching the Willie Bounce
(photo: Adanna Jones)

Following the class, five people took to the stage and the main discussion began. The panel featured dance masters Michael Manswell (Creative Director of the Something Positive dance troupe) and Valerie McLeod-Katz (Artistic Director and Coordinator of the Visual and Performing Arts Programs at Medgar Evers College Preparatory School) plus the up-and-coming game-changers Candace Thompson (Artistic Director of ContempoCaribe and Founding Executive Director of DCC) and Jessica Phoenix (founder of FIYAH Dancehall Theater). And, as aforementioned, Sita Frederick (Director of Community Engagement Programs for Lincoln Center Education) moderated the panel discussion.

Frederick started things off by posing a question to everyone in the room: “What does cultural appropriation look like?” After calling attention to Drake’s obsession with Jamaican dancehall and to Beyoncé’s invocation of Oshun, she then shifted the conversation to a discussion of how we should take on such forms of appropriations, which have become rather commonplace in today’s society.

Over the next hour, panelists discussed their training, mentors and inspirations, calling the legacies of Eugene Joseph, Pearl Primus and Katherine Dunham into the space. These are the great shoulders upon which today’s Caribbean dance makers stand.

Talking about how and why each panelist began teaching and promoting Caribbean dance and culture, everyone recalled recognizing the need–really, a demand--for their teaching as well as the need to build community. They have all created a space where cultural history is kept alive, valued and passed on for many generations that will follow.

Thereafter, Frederick opened the floor for questions and open discussion. The first audience member to speak called attention to the nuances of the term “natural,” specifically citing the exploitation of Caribbean cultural labor by people who claim a “natural” affinity for all things Caribbean. (Her line of questioning further brought to mind Rachel Dolezal’s infamous appropriation of Black identity.) In response, panelists and members of the audience prescribed the following remedies:

1. As a Caribbean community, we need to put money and value back into our own arts, culture and heritage.

2. We must institutionalize our cultural practices so that the state has no choice but to support us, especially through large grants.

3. We must make sure that our team is filled with people knowledgeable about all aspects of society--especially experts in law and policy, accounting and finance, marketing and social media, in addition to cultural masters, writers and creators.

4. We must be honest, be of integrity and hold everyone, especially ourselves, accountable.

As the first DCC town hall meeting ended, it was very clear that everyone still had much more to say. Most of the audience members and panelists lingered, getting into deeper discussions of many of the points raised.

In general, we need this type of gathering in New York City, period. In today’s fast-paced world of Instagram, YouTube, Facebook and Snapchat, there is too much at stake for us to not take more control over how Caribbean dance cultural practices are transmitted and used.

As a Trinidad-born, US-raised, winer woman, I look forward to the next town hall meeting where we can clarify our agenda, further our vision and expand our audience. In conclusion, with DCC taking the lead in creating space for Caribbean dancemakers to take a stance against cultural (mis-)appropriation, I expect that the Caribbean dance community will continue to work together and forge a path for profound social change, not only throughout New York but also throughout the world.

Adanna Kai Jones
(photo courtesy of Adanna Kai Jones)

Adanna Kai Jones received her Ph.D. in Critical Dance Studies at the University of California, Riverside, and her BFA in Dance from Mason Gross School of the Arts—Rutgers University. She has performed in professional dance companies based in NYC, including the Julia Ritter Performance Group and Souloworks with Andrea E. Woods. And in general, her research remains focused on Caribbean dance and identity politics within the Diaspora, paying particular focus to the rolling hip dance known as winin’. With regards to her own creative pursuits, she has choreographed dance-theater pieces that were not only based on her research, but were also used as tools for generating more research questions. In July 2015, she choreographed Wine & Tales in Port of Spain, Trinidad, which was presented by New Waves! 2015 and the Dancing While Black Performance Lab. And in May 2016, she performed Rum & Coke in New York City at Field Studies 2016. Both performances were rooted in her ethnographic fieldwork on the wine and Caribbean Carnivals within the US. As a visiting lecturer at Stanford University in the Department of Theater and Performance Studies, she taught a survey class on folkloric and popular Afro-Caribbean dances, as well as a composition dance class that used Caribbean aesthetics along side that of US contemporary dance practices. Currently, she is an adjunct at both Marymount Manhattan College and Temple University, teaching two lecture courses on dance and culture.

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Friday, May 5, 2017

Got GRIT? What's new and what's reworked at Gibney

Nigel Campbell (left) and Brandon Welch
perform in Joanna Kotze's world premiere, Already Ready.
(photo: Scott Shaw)

Invent, reinvent. Configure, reconfigure.

Since forming her Gibney Dance Company in 1991, Gina Gibney has continually re-imagined who and what it could be--from its demographics to the degree of its performers' engagement with the world outside of studios and theaters. And, this week, comes the second round of another programming structure out of the Gibney organization--GRIT (Gibney Repertory Initiative for Tomorrow) which, in effect, gives her five-member ensemble the challenge of working with choreographers other than herself.

The organization describes the program as follows:
Gibney Dance Company’s GRIT series “makes space for the future of dance” by commissioning new works and reimagining signature works by contemporary dance artists. GRIT posits the possibility that the present generation’s work will be recognized and celebrated in live performance by future audiences.
So, if I got this right, part of the mission of the troupe will be to embody and preserve works by other select dance makers. What GRIT mainly sounds like, though, is a way to expand on what Gibney dancers are exposed to and what they can be prepared to tackle in the future--an interesting development.

The opening last night at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center showed GRIT to be very much a work in progress. You wish well for these dancers but, with the distinct exception of Gibney stalwart and Associate Artistic Director Amy Miller, they have not yet opened into the depth of the work--in the case of Joanna Kotze's new Already Ready, potential depth; in the case of Reggie Wilson’s collaged config. Khoum-baye Heah, near-bottomless depths.

They risk looking far more callow and untried than they actually are. And even a secure veteran like Miller--whose every appearance is a master class in how to think about performance, how to perform and how to see performance--often seems to be just keeping up with the surface, basic requirements of the Wilson work.

Devin Oshiro, Brandon Welch, Amy Miller,
Nigel Campbell and Kasandra Cruz
in Reggie Wilson's config. Khoum-baye Heah

Wilson has made many dances for his exciting Fist and Heel Performance Group largely informed by his research into the arts and spiritual cultures and ritual practices of the broad African diaspora and infused with his wit and contemporary, formal inventiveness. (Long ago, he named this wondrous melange "post-African/Neo-HooDoo Modern dance.”)  It is to be hoped that Wilson's valuable repertory will indeed be available to future makers, scholars, performers and audiences.

Veteran FHPG dancer Paul Hamilton assisted Wilson in setting a medly of elements of PANG (2000), The DEW WET (1997) and Big Brick – A Man’s Piece (2002) on the Gibney troupe. By Hamilton's account, the experience was a generous one on both sides with the Gibney dancers bringing their strength of community, willing to embrace the Wilson aesthetic's formidable physical demands. Physically, those demands are ones of speed and a furious multiplicity of isolations, directions, levels, uses of weight and deployments of the pelvis. So much going on at once, often at full force. Their bodies hit it, but I don't see the whole of each person living it, being in it. I don't get why they're doing what they're doing.

Kotze's Already Ready, she tells us, comes out of desire to meet the demands of the current moment for stepping up--as citizens, as activists, as creative people who care. Are we ready? She believes we are, and that fits in with everything I've ever known about what Gina Gibney wants for her dance artists and for dancers in general. So, here, a good match--at least in terms of aspiration.

What I appreciate about Already Ready is that is does, indeed, seem to be about people ready to play. They bring their noisy feet into the space, and they boldly doodle and squiggle themselves all over it as if they were big, fat crayons. Diverse in racial background and motley in costuming, they're just a bunch of folks making their particular marks in time, bringing what they bring. I don't see a whole lot more going on here, but I do see that, if this is Kotze's ultimate point, it got across.

Performers: Nigel Campbell, Kasandra Cruz, Amy Miller, Devin Oshiro, Brandon Welch

GRIT continues through Saturday with performances tonight at 8pm and Saturday at 5pm and 8pm. For information and tickets, click here.

Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center
280 Broadway (enter at 53A Chambers Street), Manhattan

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Thursday, May 4, 2017

Stars talk star stuff: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Krulwich at 92Y

What's your hurry? Whatever.
Dr. Tyson's here to drop some science.
(W. W. Norton, 2017)

Since its 1935 opening, there have been five directors of New York's beloved Hayden Planetarium. Okay, class. How many can you name?

That's right: Neil deGrasse Tyson

L-r: Neil deGrasse Tyson and Robert Krulwich

And there you have it. A solid scientist---astrophysics, for heaven's sake!--with top-notch communication skills, irrepressible charm and the celebrity of a rock star. Raised in New York's very own Boogie Down Bronx by a Black father and Puerto Rican mother. Able to tap into his own life-long wonder and intellectual curiosity to help the rest of us mortals wrap our brains around stuff like the possibility of dimensions beyond the mere three we perceive with our puny, survival-oriented senses.

Last night, when Dr. Tyson strode out onto the stage of 92Y's Kaufmann Concert Hall, cheers went up from the audience, so much so that host Robert Krulwich (himself a celebrated broadcast journalist and co-host of NPR's Radiolab) had to wave us into silence so the two friends could get down to their conversation and the business of promoting Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, Tyson's latest book.
While waiting for your morning coffee to brew, or while waiting for the bus, the train, or the plane to arrive, Astrophysics for People in a Hurry will reveal just what you need to be fluent and ready for the next cosmic headlines: from the Big Bang to black holes, from quarks to quantum mechanics, and from the search for planets to the search for life in the universe.
Science and scientists have taken a severe beating in Trump's New American Order. In this toxic atmosphere, Tyson's educational mission, visibility and accessibility loom even larger, approaching heroic status. While no one, onstage or in the audience, broached political or needlessly politicized issues during the 92Y appearance, anyone who thinks Tyson shirks from speaking up for rational policy needs to look at this video. The informal and wide-ranging chat revolved around both men's interest in stripping science facts of their austerity and their abilities to approach all of this with a storyteller's ready wit.
Tyson: "I have a photon joke. Can I tell it?"
Krulwich: "Go ahead."
Tyson: "Photon checks into a hotel, and the bellhop asks, 'Do you have any luggage?' Photon says, 'No, I'm traveling light.'"

And if you ever run into Tyson, you must ask to hear the entire hot cocoa/whipped cream story, which I will not spoil here. No worries. Just thank me when you see me later.

To be honest, I'm more of a casual science geek (and Tyson fangirl) than a deeply knowledgeable one but, as a neo-pagan, I share the agnostic Tyson's sense of wonder and admire his dedication to a cosmic perspective that rescues spirituality from being defined, confined and ultimately smothered by religious orthodoxy.

Excerpts from "Reflections on the Cosmic Perspectives," Astrophysics for People in a Hurry
The cosmic perspective comes from the frontiers of science, yet it is not solely the provenance of the scientist. It belongs to everyone.
The cosmic perspective is humble.
The cosmic perspective is spiritual -- even redemptive -- but not religious.
The cosmic perspective opens our minds to extraordinary ideas but does not leave them so open that our brains spill out, making us susceptible to believing anything we're told.
The cosmic perspective opens our eyes to the universe, not as a benevolent cradle designed to nurture life but as a cold, lonely, hazardous place, forcing us to reassess the value of all humans to one another.

The Virgo in me--sorry for the astrological reference, Dr. Tyson--completely gets his resistance to calling the color violet anything but "violet" as in "Roses are red, violets are...violet." The poet in me forgives him for that and grooves on the very idea of things called dwarf galaxies and runaway stars. The nosy person in me likes the question "What's going on between planets?" OMG, what, indeed?

I'm sympathetic to the notion that humans are simply not smart enough to figure out universes that might be trivial to the brain of a more intelligent species. I've seen what my fellow Americans are capable of unleashing on this planet. So, there's that. And how's this for real talk from Tyson? "The universe is under no obligation to make sense to you." Oh, yeah. That much is clear every. damn. day.

For information on Astrophysics for People in a Hurry, click here. And to learn about other cool programs at 92Y, click here.

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