This is going in my notebook


The Pleasures of Jumping

A little video clip from company class at Pacific Northwest Ballet.  So fun. So seemingly effortless (of course it is not).

My favorite part is how the dancers clap for the gentleman at the end--goes against what a lot of people I know who are not dancers think of ballet. It isn't cutthroat all the time.


Air Twyla

West Virginia University's Creative Arts Center played host tonight to Twyla Tharp's Come Fly Away, featuring the music of Frank Sinatra.  This is not the first of Tharp's choregraphy to Sinatra's music.  She originally created Sinatra Suite for Mikhail Baryshnikov and Elaine Kudo at American Ballet Theater and Nine Sinatra Songs which was choregraphed for her own dancers.

Come Fly Away included dancers of an ilk rarely seen in Morgantown, West Virginia.  Full of techincal range and with bios to rival any traveling company, the sheer joy of seeing performers at this level made the evening more than pleasant. 

The piece, an 80 minute "musical" (as billed by the program) had no intermission expect a short musical interlude by the live band that accompanied the piped-in Sinatra. The overall choregraphy is governed more by mood than by plot, although that, too, became problematic.  A barroom feel from the beginning gave way to brothel, speakeasy to orgy. Come Fly Away is saturated in sex; barechested men and stripteasing women, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  The probelm is that it feels like sex for sex sake, not set up as the result of tension, longing, desire, or intimacy.  That left the piece flat and two dimensional.  Sure, the dancers had exquisite bodies to show off, and the sheer athleticisim made them highly erotic.  The presentation, devoid of emotion, was more the issue.  And, the choreography had more than it's share of crotch flashing moments. At the risk of sounding prudish, it felt salacious more than earned.

That's not to say that the choreography didn't have it's moments.  In one section a woman dances with four men, hardly ever touching the ground.  The movement is both fluid and gritty, a precarious balance to maintain, but one that really worked.  Keeping the woman aloft enhanced the sense of danger, a delicious kind of risky foreplay that kept a raw energy going. Early on, a rather innocent and playful flirtation between two young dancers, including some of the most graceful spoofed falls I've seen on stage gave a lightheartedness to the otherwise stereetwise sexuality of the bar scene.

But these pieces didn't fit as a whole.

From a more technical standpoint, there were many times there was just too much happening at once on stage that the whole scene felt jumbled. The effect was to make the dancers look fuzzy, if not fussy, when their technique begged otherwise. The dances were presented at a frenetic pace, dancers tossed around, over, under, through around, thown from partner to partner.  A points, this pace felt necessary, but often there was too much going on stage at once to get a real feel for any of the atmosphere, and even the dramatic capactities of the dancers. Choreographically, Come Fly Away lacked sustained moments of stillness.  We never got to breathe.

Hedy Weiss, writing in the Chicago Sun Times review, wrote, "Its greatest sin is that it wastes the talents of dancers with Olympian bodies and technique to spare, showcasing them only as fabulous but soulless machines."


AWP: A Collage

The annual AWP conference is too unweildly to comment on in any linear or clear cut way.  Instead, here is a short collage of thoughts, impressions, experiences and the like.

Most unusual moment: when my friend Natalie and I offered a seat to the woman behind us in line for food, because there was very limited seating and she looked like she could use the extra chair at our table, and she told us she was a famous poet, and by George, she is.

Moment of Good Fortune: the first person I ran into that I recognized was Mike Czyzniejewski while  passing the Mid American Review booth as I was frantically looking for registration. Side note: You should read Mike's new book, Chicago Stories, 40 Dramatic Fictions.

Another Curbside Splendor book, is Piano Rats, which has a lovely cover:


Fun at the Bookfair, with Erin Murphy. We also made a pinky pact.  I know, now you want to know what it is.  Instead, read her newest book, Word Problems.

I also ran into John Hoppenthaler and yes, we had a two-beer lunch.  Who would have it any other way?

Feel-good moment: Susan Neville, my first creative writing teacher, recognizes me after many years as I walk down the hallway towards the room where her panel on point of view was to be held. Listening to her talk reminded me how smart and articulate she is, and how much I learned about craft in her classes.

Dinner with Chelsea Henshey and her friends from the MFA program at GCSU included an upgraded bottle of wine at the same price as the lesser one we chose, since the restuarant was out of the bottle we orignally ordered. Fun conversation, good times, see you in Atlanta sometime!

Favorite Reading: A tough one to call.  Perhaps a toss up between Pam Houston, and Bonnie Jo Campbell

Person I was least likely to run into, but did: either Jeff Link or Sarah Harris.  I'm glad I ran into both!

Actually, this puts me in mind of a shorty ditty to end with (for now). Several years ago I remember talking with John Hoppenthaler at AWP Atlanta.  The conference seemed so daunting to me then, so full of people and things I didn't really know anything about.  And John said that he often came to connect with friends he didn't get to see often, or any other time.  And I thought then that I'd never know enough other writers that the same would be true for me.  I haven't been to AWP in a couple years, and this year, running into friends and hanging out and getting caught up and reacquainted was the best part of AWP.

Once again, John was right.


Must See Documentaries: 20th Century Ballet

After viewing Joffrey: Mavericks of American Dance, I was struck by a curious notion: that, in fact, the documentary on Joffrey was Like a continuation of Ballet Russe (2006) about Diaghilev and his famed company in Europe.


Though Robert Joffrey was a dancer, he was not unlike Serge Diaghilev in his role as impresario.  Whereas Diaghilev put together the renown artists of his day—such as Picasso, Satie, Cocteau and Massine for Parade, which, incidentally, the Joffrey painstakingly reconstructed, Joffrey pushed the boundaries of multimedia, with ballets like Astarte. Watching the two in tandem is to see a certain history of ballet impresario and the results of those efforts—maverick, avante guard, each reacting to its time through art.


Diaghilev required the help of certain patrons over the years, one of the most famous being Coco Channel, who also designed costumes for the company. Joffrey relied first on the heiress Rebekah Harkness, only parting ways when she insisted on renaming The Joffrey Ballet as The Harkness Ballet.  Later, the company would find financial if not artistic success through the music of Prince, who allowed the company to use his work royalty free for the commercially successful Billboards.  Thus, Prince was a defacto patron of one of America’s most innovative home-grown companies.


Both the Ballet Russe and Joffrey Ballet flourished through artistic collaboration.  Balanchine and Lifar first choreographed for the Ballet Russe, whereas Joffrey collaborated with a relatively unknown to be star choreographer, Twyla Tharp, to produce Duce Coupe, a piece that blended classical ballet with modern dance.  Joffrey Ballet would also go on to restage Le Sacre du PrintempsThe Rite of Spring—the Stravinsky/Nijinsky creation that caused a riot in 1913 when the Ballet Russe originally performed it.  Seeing clips of the Joffrey dancers in Rite of Spring, the stylized movement did retain a freshness that, though dated, still feels risky and avant guard.


Diaghilev and Joffrey both had vision, that ability to chart a course and bring in the people they needed to make their vision a staged event. However, Joffrey was aided by longtime artistic and former romantic partner, Gerald Arpino.


The language ascribed to both companies is remarkably similar: breathtaking, risky, maverick, new, energetic, modern.  Each company survived war—Ballet Russe World War I and II while Joffrey’s was Vietnam.  Each ushered and reflected massive social and cultural change, creating art through dance that was both thoroughly of its time, and withstands the tests of history.


Of course, the Joffrey remains, and it will be interesting to see where it is to go next. 


To get a full snapshot of 20th Century dance would take more than two documentaries, but these two together start to show theme and trends that make their pairing provocative both to the dance aficionado or critic as well as someone new to the art form.