“Today, unless a choreographer presents her work at a major venue like Lincoln Center, she’ll be lucky if she gets a single professional review. And the review will be a short one; when critics do write, they do so in less space and with less breadth than their predecessors.” –Madison Mainwaring, The Atlantic
To my knowledge, I am the only member of the Dance Critics Association within the State of West Virginia (and even beyond its borders in some directions). In reading the Atlantic Monthly article “The Death of the American Dance Critic,” I wondered about what obligation I might have to write more often about the performances I see, especially those within West Virginia. And with that in mind, I offer the following assessment of the West Virginia University School of Theatre and Dance annual Dance Now! performance.
Critics tend to write about opening nights, but I enjoy coming on second or third performances. Performers often enjoy the adrenaline of openings, but can they recapture the magic after the thrill has passed? I feel there is something more honest about those non-opening performances.
It may seem awkward to write about a program in which I used to teach and that has faculty that I consider among my friends. Such is the burden of small communities. I left the dance program not because I was unable to teach classes, but to take a more substantial role in another department teaching my other artistic love (writing). In my new capacity, I have recently published and presented on leadership, women and ballet, as well as taught special topic courses for the Leadership Studies program (Leadership and the Arts). Stay tuned for new interdisciplinary blending.
But, for this writing, I like to identify as dance writer and critic. Madison Mainwaring, quoting dance critic Pia Catton: “The companies need that external check, that expert pair of eyes—I wonder what they would do without it,” said Catton. “But then—who wants a critic?”
The BA program in Dance is the particular accomplishment of the Director of Dance, Yoav Kaddar. It should be noted that WVU’s program is a BA and not the conservatory-style BFA, which, as a studio art program would require many more hours of technique per week. The Dance Program also must manage extremely limited resources in space and in instructors, relying on part-time lecturers to augment a small full-time faculty. With budget cuts looming over the university, we will see how these cuts might impact dance faculty. The program may be expected to grow with one hand tied behind its back.
However, a broader base of styles might enliven the current makeup of this faculty. Friday’s performance showcase a predominately modern dance program, and particular flavor of modern dance. A quick look down the list of faculty shows a robust cadre of modern/contemporary faculty, and one might hope for growth of faculty—especially fulltime faculty—across genres. One would also like to see more tap, jazz, and, yes, please more hip hop. Styles that ring the changes. And more instructors who can focus on clean classical ballet.
The overarching emotional tenor of the show, from costumes to lighting to choreography, stemmed from a dark, shadowy brooding. Perhaps this comes from the current political and cultural climate—the National Endowment for the Arts, for instance, is perched near the chopping block. In an evening of dance, however, the contemplative mood and homogeneity of style became a bit stifling both in emotional tenor and technical variance. Too much of the same numbs.
Over many Dance Now! performances, The Pittsburgh Ballet Theatre School has added a dash of classical ballet, if, with a few exceptions (a lovely bit of Le Corsaire was presented early on in this partnership) lackluster results. The excerpts from the Harald Landers ballet Ètudes as a choice for the concert felt just beyond the technical range of the dancers presented from the guest school—even while noting they are still students. The result is a piece that looks sloppy, even if it is a nice change of pace to see women in pointe shoes, some partnering, and men’s roles with entrechats.
Ètudes, as many of the pieces featured in Dance Now! featured large ensemble casts. The WVU dancers have improved their abilities in these ensembles over the past few years, resulting in ensemble work that presents as polished and well-rehearsed. It’s an accomplishment to see the dancers being able to move well together, and when appropriate, move as one. I felt this way about Friday’s performance despite seeing the absolutely marvelous American Ballet Theatre corps de ballet in Swan Lake just the week before. Even with ABT’s magic still in my imagination, I saw the ensemble work as a true accomplishments of Friday’s performance.
However, the lack of diversity in the styles weighed weary on even an enthusiastic dance observer. More heavily weighted to professional choreography than student choreography, perhaps the expectation for greater range wasn’t satisfied because of this roster. Angela Dennis presented R & D from the repertoire of her Alchemy Dance Project. A capable contemporary choreographer, it showed her signature style of architecture and line, sometimes at the expense of spontaneity and wit. Donald Laney, of the West Virginia Dance Company created Frenetic Contemplation, which might have been better named Writhing Contemplation, as the movement lacked uncontrolled, wild energy but used twisting and contortion more aptly to embody reflective thought. Both seemed in keeping with the somber tone of the evening’s offerings, and had common ties in technique and form.
If the act of writing poems has a kinship with choreography, it may be how the element of language in poetry and steps in choreography have the capacity for surprise. Both should render things new through their structures, and within this structure one tool both the poet and the choreographer can wield is repetition. While repetition can add weight and importance in a poem, it’s overused flattens language and makes the poem read as overly elementary, or instead of amping up intensity, nullifies it. The same can be said of choreography. The repetition within Dan Karasik’s Tides flattened instead of intensified. With a large corps of dancers clad in elegant, long, black costumes, repetitive lyric moments intersect with pedestrian-like stylized running. While one might give a nod to the postmodern blend, there’s only so much of it that we need to see before we get the point of such a mashup. It’s not that postmodern blends can’t work—recent work by Justin Peck integrating ballet, tap, and a sense of the street prove it can work well. Tides fell flat, perhaps, because the integration didn’t add up to something new or surprising.
Many of the student pieces felt derivative of the professional ones, which, I suppose, is consistent with the moniker “student pieces.” At one point, I actually wondered how many times the audience could be asked to watch an extension in àttitude devant with a flexed foot finish by moving through developpé into tombé with a run, deconstructed turn or the like. I didn’t count, but such phrasing felt repetitive. In some cases, the change in choreography revealed other problems. Michael Morris’s Merging Paths, overtly bright and colorful in costume and lighting design—a welcomed change in tone, skewed contemporary towards ballet, but in doing so, highlighted the inequities of the dancer’s ballet technique. Take first arabesque—in the ensemble, some placed the arm in the classic position while others looked like the front arm sprung from the top of the head. Whether this was a lack of training or a choreographic decision was not discernable. Either way, it was problematic because it distorted the aesthetic without context.
There were overall issues with technique—again, consistent with student dancing, but issues that should nonetheless be addressed. Anyone serious enough to choose a degree in dance should be able to do clean double pirouettes, turned in or turned out, from 5th, 4th, even second, and, if one is very serious, in arabesque and àttitude. This is as much the responsibility of the dancers as it is their instructors. Use a clear spot, and don’t spot the floor; In fact, I wondered why these dancers look down so much while dancing. How exciting is the marley?
Most of the pieces reflected exactly one emotional state: concentrated looks across the dancers’ faces. The choreography’s sameness may not have helped, but certainly there should be more emotional nuance. Whether your audience pays $5 or $50, as performers, it is your obligation to give your audience its money’s worth. This gets to my final technical critique—upper bodies. The bodies looked pliant but lacked a sense of the structure and line that classical positions support. Sometimes it made even less classical positions look sloppy, and lacking in purpose. Even when the upper body is extended or contracted from classical positions, or take completely other shapes, there should be the sense of purpose in the upper body. It’s one of the dancer’s best vehicles for expression, and thus connection with the audience. Though viewing dance can be an acceptable form of voyeurism, performers ought to look out and connect with the audience from time-to-time.
Take, for instance, the fun piece by Peter Pucci danced by Yoav Kaddar and Maureen Mansfield Kaddar. Not only did it give the audience a much needed moment of comic relief, it was a study in nuance and gesture. Comedy is a tough sell on stage, and in dance, where often there is no voice, it must be portrayed only through movement. What made Can’t Get Started laugh out loud funny was how Kaddar and Mansfield Kaddar could inflate the simplest movement or gesture to convey meaning, and how even pauses were timed and held for comedic effect. One can only hope that the student dancers take notice of these skills, incorporating them in to their own technique and choreography. An audience tends to appreciate a good laugh well executed. We also benefitted, as I hope the student dancers did, from watching such veteran, seasoned performers.
Can’t Get Started was a part of the first Dance Now ! concert, if memory serves, and so was Standing Tall, which was reprised from its original performance at SUNY-New Paltz. Choreographed by Yoav Kaddar, I have a special, if not overtly personal connection to this piece because it is the first performance I was a part of after total knee replacement in 2009, and the only overtly modern choreography I’ve been a part of. I wrote in Crosstimbers about the experience of returning to the stage nearly twenty years after my performing career, and in a very altered body from my struggles with rheumatoid arthritis. In seeing Friday night’s rendition, I was struck by how well the moments of light and the bare stage achieved the heightened emotions of the piece than others cloaked in shadow. Bach’s “Air on the G String” strikes a particular pitch as well, where one might expect more ethereal movement, subverted and transposed by the groundedness of the movement, which, buoyed by moments of reach and stillness, do echo the voices of “One” that come before the repeated strains of Bach’s music. The performance layers homage, and in this I find a sense of repertoire forming within the program, and that seems a good thing.
A college dance program ostensibly lacks ranks like those in organized troupes, particularly the hierarchy of ballet companies. But if Dance Now! had a principle dancer, it could be Kathleen Sweat. Tall, long limbed, statuesque and adaptable to many forms, Ms. Sweat was featured in several dances as a soloist. She brings a range of emotion and technique to the stage. However, in ensemble, it is sometimes impossible not to train one’s eye on her dancing because of a purity of technique and clarity in her movement. And it sets me to wondering two important questions: what future might this performer have as she graduates the program, and who within the program will rise to her stature in technique as well as performance?
In years past, I have thought about writing about Dance Now! performances, but until this year I didn’t feel the time was right to put forth the kind of criticism that, if Mainwaring is correct (and trust me, she probably is) is typically reserved for a small group of choreographers and companies. That the program seems ready should be seen as a positive. True critics, though seldom popular, serve an important role in nurturing the arts they love, most often through tough love. If dance in West Virginia is to grow in substantial ways, we need informed criticism from critics who hunger for more. Let this serve as a nod in that direction.