Dance style mutates as it’s transmitted from dancer to dancer. Ballet is the exception, meant to remain intact as a movement idiom. In the early twentieth century, forceful performers—the modern dancers—challenged the conventions of ballet, offering instead their own movement preferences as the basis for choreography. Sometimes these preferences were codified into training systems that prepared disciples for learning repertory or creating new dances. Each generation of modern dancers reinvented what it received from its parents: slight changes inevitably crept in; repertories softened; new forces asserted their ideas; the rebellion happened again. As early as 1935, Lincoln Kirstein, at the beginning of his own crusade to establish George Balanchine and a new American ballet, swept aside the modern dance upstarts. Dismissing the idea that expressive movement based on individual choices could generate a significant form of theater dance, he was confident anything useful they had discovered could be incorporated into ballet.
As it matured, modern dance sought a bigger audience and developed strategies for communicating with viewers who couldn’t “read” a nonverbal message. By the time the counterculture of the 1960s undermined the authority of the canonical repertory and its creators, modern dancers were already appropriating ballet steps. They borrowed from movies and media, sports, ballroom dance, street performance, other theatrical traditions, and every kind of signifying gesture to expand the possibilities for communication. This deliberate eclecticism tore apart whatever respectability early modern dance might have acquired, and infected ballet as well. Today the heirs of the modern dance pioneers are struggling to hold onto diminished historic styles that the public views as dated. Over the years as it’s turned out, only a few modern dancers created repertories and techniques that stood the test of time, let alone companies to execute them. But the sense of individual style and attitude still distinguishes a generation of dancers who aren’t trying to join the ballet establishment. The continual annexation of new material turned out to be one of the reasons modern dance has survived. Alongside the bland, quasi-balletic, and seemingly random eclecticism we now call contemporary dance, new voices appear with distinctive things to say.
Last fall Boston got to see the notable offspring of three modern dance institutions: Paul Taylor, who left Martha Graham long ago enough to have invented his own style and repertory; Rashaun Mitchell and Silas Riener, late of the late Merce Cunningham company; and Stephen Petronio, a descendant of Trisha Brown. We also saw an almost unclassifiable Karole Armitage, who danced with Cunningham but is more indebted to ballet and commercial performance. The question for all these artists, and for all second-generation modern dancers, is how to do something different, knowing they could not escape the physical DNA they have inherited.
Karole Armitage is perhaps the hardest of this group to associate with any one dance ancestor. Her early training and dancing experience was in the Balanchine-oriented Ballet of Geneva, followed by six years with Merce Cunningham. She crashed onto the independent scene in 1981 with Drastic Classicism, a piece using music so loud (by Rhys Chatham) that she supplied the audience with earplugs, long before rock concerts made them mandatory. At that time she was using pointe shoes and pop art designs and styling herself a Punk Ballerina. After that she bounced around Europe, choreographed for ballet companies, returned to New York, and formed her own company with the trendy title Armitage Gone! Dance. Now she calls what she does contemporary dance. Armitage is brainy, media savvy, charismatic. She’s choreographed music videos, shows, operas, and dance pieces. In the two things she showed in October at the Institute of Contemporary Art, she might have been two different people. Ligeti Essays (2005) is cool, seemingly objective, arrestingly abstract; the kind of thing that still mystifies audiences unaccustomed to the expressive assumptions of modern dance. Rave (2001) is overwhelmingly popular/populist, with its roots in the gay balls of the 1980s and in Madonna’s 1990 music video “Vogue,” which was choreographed by Armitage.
György Ligeti’s late twentieth-century music is relatively unknown here. Born in Hungary in 1923, he immigrated to Germany and died in Vienna in 2006 after a career of composing in a huge variety of forms and sensibilities. For Ligeti Essays, Armitage chose three small chamber pieces from both ends of the composer’s life. The recorded music was based on folk songs, incorporating voices and both Eastern and Western instruments. Against Armitage’s choreography, it felt like a blend of post-expressionist atonality and Indonesian gongs—not exactly formless but highly atmospheric. The choreography set small combinations of dancers doing short kinetic puzzles: two women mirroring each other, a woman being hoisted by three men, solos with gestures and stretches, and finally a group dance that could have referred to Russian rituals. It was choreographed with a set by David Salle, but the black-box stage at the ICA doesn’t allow for much theatrical support so the set was omitted. I liked the dance for its spareness and its refusal to push for literal meaning.
On the other hand, Rave entertained the audience with sexy bodies, poses, mugging, extravagant costumes, wigs, masks, and bits of loose accessories that obscured the bodies and drew your attention to them at the same time. The whole cast was plastered with body makeup, in different ice cream colors for each dancer. Armitage augmented her company of seven dancers with nineteen recruits from the Boston Conservatory dance program, who learned the piece in the week before the performances. It was the kind of adventure you’d think young dancers would relish, but the night I attended, their posturing was low-key, as if they figured the costumes would do the job. The choreography was limited to lineups, turns, stretchy duets, and finally a couple of Balanchinian diagonals crossing through each other. As planned, the audience screamed.
Merce Cunningham dismantled traditional choreography—which aims to lead the audience in a sequence through thematic elaborations and variations to some integrated conclusion. Sanctioned by the success of Cunningham’s genius, few dancers since have worried about either visual or narrative linearity. Many contemporary dancemakers have taken the Cunningham dictum as a way out of the difficult task of making choreographic sense. Dances today depend on strong personalities who can deliver extreme movement with technical mastery and perceptible riskiness.
Cunningham alums Mitchell and Riener trust the audience to make up its own logic, as their mentor did. In a preview performance of Way In at Wellesley College in early November, the pair were accompanied by critic Claudia La Rocco, who stood against the window-wall in a big studio and read from a cryptic script that included bits of anonymous dancers’ rehearsal conversations and disjointed but graphic notes from what might have been a dance review. I thought, this must be the new dance criticism: you have only to write descriptive phrases but you don’t have to connect them or interpret what you’ve seen.
Meanwhile, Riener and Mitchell conducted an amorous but equally cryptic duet in which they pulled apart to the far sides of the space as often as they twined together in unimaginable but intimate ways. Their vocabulary derives from Cunningham in its strength, flexibility, and very specific attention to the space they’re traveling through. But they don’t really look like people in a Cunningham dance, any more than Armitage’s dancers do. Their dance isn’t continuous, but it’s riveting because you don’t know what they’ll do next. One move doesn’t follow another logically—unless you see the logic of Mitchell prancing slowly up to Riener on his fists and knees like a monkey, squatting beside Riener, biting Riener’s dangling hand, then Riener promenading him in a circle as Mitchell, with his partner’s fist clamped between his teeth, pivots on one knee with the other leg stretched out in arabesque. Or Riener doing a half-accomplished port de bras as Mitchell hangs upside down on his back.
The piece continued move by skewed and tangled move, sometimes referencing ballet, sometimes looking like nothing I’d ever seen. Often the dancers threw themselves at or climbed on each other, trusting the receiver to be strong and rooted enough not to fall over. Then they’d reverse roles. There were parts where one of the two would do a solo while the other watched. Mitchell patrolled the edge of the room, where the audience was seated, slowing down in front of certain people. He didn’t look directly at anyone, but I thought he recognized me via his peripheral vision. Later, while Mitchell was doing a series of jumps, Riener semi-pirouetted upstage, spiraling slowly backwards with one foot placed behind the other.
La Rocco returned, and they all ran in a big circle, not connecting. The dancers met in a tight embrace, body to body, and they rolled together toward La Rocco’s microphone. She was reading again, with a slight electronic echo. Riener stealthily twirled a knob on the amplifier, gradually increasing the volume and turning her words into cacophony. I thought the piece was about Mitchell and Riener being in love, and/or about the death of criticism, and probably many other things.
Way In was shown at Danspace in New York a few weeks later. When I checked to see what the New York critics had said about it, I discovered it had become quite a different piece, with all-over-pink walls and ceiling, elaborate lighting and onstage action by Davidson Scandrett that hadn’t happened at Wellesley, and costume changes that may or may not have signified something. From reviews I’ve read by Deborah Jowitt, and Marina Harss, I gather that in the intervening days the piece accumulated many more choreographic, scenic, and interpretive layers, and I wondered if the co-creators had succumbed to what I call Kitchen Sink mania. In fact, there’s a lot about this piece on the internet, including an extensive “Rehearsal Diary” by La Rocco, and a Vimeo in which the dancer-collaborators say they were thinking about, among other things, the process of observing and making dances. So much has appeared online about it, in fact, that one scarcely has to go see the dance. Maybe this is the future of dancing and criticism.
All second-generation modern dancers confront the question of how to do something different. When you have a teacher as distinctive as Cunningham or Trisha Brown, not to mention Martha Graham, how do you reinvent a movement vocabulary that’s become ingrained in your body from years of training and dancing? How do you think of your own way to make a dance? For that matter, how do you make a piece that means something in the post-Cunningham era? Since the 1970s the ideas of Cunningham and John Cage have dominated the new-dance universe: out with ego-centered expression, logical sequence, formal composition, and the obsession with meaning. Now we have hordes of expert dancers dancing night after night in the theater, teaching the audience to be satisfied with virtuosity, even to take virtuosity for granted. But the all-dance dance piece has its limitations. In recent years, I think, dancemakers have been looking for ways to make their movement material more connected to everyday life and culture again, without relinquishing the superhuman dancing skills they’ve inherited. Mitchell and Riener’s mining for Cunningham’s under-the-skin surrealism, and their incorporation of nondancing collaborators who have their own professional identities is one solution. Armitage’s composite of unrelated but coded moves is another. Stephen Petronio gave us a litany of religious allusions in Like Lazarus Did.
Petronio danced for seven years with Trisha Brown after studying contact improvisation. Before he left Brown’s dance company in 1986, he was already choreographing and working with a group of his own. Now numbering ten dancers, the Stephen Petronio Company brought Lazarus to the Institute of Contemporary Art in November. Noted for his stylish, sexy dancing, Petronio now makes only brief, nondancing appearances in his works, but he’s instilled his own sensuality and daring in the company dancers. Their multi-directional movement, which can be initiated in any of the large or small parts of the body, clearly comes from Trisha Brown, but unlike the flung-out continuousness of Brown’s movement, Petronio’s has tiny built-in stops and is very carefully delineated, almost carved, in space.
Petronio has often been accused of making nothing but movement without giving the audience relief or the means of narrative tracking. In Lazarus, he takes a route followed by many of his contemporaries: he surrounds the dancing with loaded clues to a more serious theme. In this case, the theme is related to the Biblical character who rose from the dead. Like Lazarus Did (LLD 11/15) doesn’t overtly retell the story, but it offers a series of images that evoke death and resurrection, compassion and sorrow, and even the possibility of redemption. But the dance movement isn’t expressive in itself. As Lazarus opens, we see a man (Petronio) in a black suit, lying completely still on the floor. Then three trios of scantily clad men and women walk forward, hopping, squatting down, gesturing, wheeling out into space, in a continuous repeating process. Perhaps a viewer can interpret death and regeneration from this, but Petronio helps us out with a score by Son Lux based on spirituals and slave songs. “I want to die” sings an androgynous voice. “. . . like Lazarus did,” answers a recorded chorus. When the piece was premiered in New York last spring, it included a lot more markers to the trail the audience was to follow. A children’s chorus began outside the theater and entered in a procession. Production designer Janine Antoni was slung in a kind of stretcher over Petronio’s prone body, with an arrangement of bones hanging above her.
In Boston, the dance continued in a stream of highly articulated moves, accompanied by more songs and chants. Costume changes counteracted the dancers’ impassive faces by allowing as much skin to show as possible. No need for pushy poses or mugging when they wore pieces of fabric, neither shirts nor capes, that draped and floated to reveal the bodies underneath. The ongoing movement was sprinkled with tableaux that depicted soulful scenes for our contemplation: a woman cradling another woman, a man stretching out his hand like a beggar, a man with a gold stripe down his back, who dangled from silky ropes as if crucified. Finally, another man in flesh-colored briefs rolled in slow motion on the floor, changing position as if struggling to rise. “Hush little baby, don’t you cry. Go to sleep,” sang the music.
Several of Paul Taylor’s seventeen dancers are new since I last saw the company, but their program at the Shubert Theater recaptured his ingenuity. A lot of credit for this should go to rehearsal director and former dancer Bettie de Jong. Taylor, now in his 80s, is the grand old man of modern dance. In his sixty years of choreographing, he’s seen the gulf between modern dance and ballet dissolve into the styleless brilliance of contemporary dance. A barrier-breaker himself, he was a follower of both Balanchine and Cunningham in his early career as well as a slightly skeptical member of Martha Graham’s company for seven years. Once he began doing independent work in 1954, he rejected Graham’s movement style and ego-centered storytelling for a language he could use in his own compositions. His repertory, now preserved in the institutional memory of the dance company, has encompassed formal, music-based dances and narratives that comment on cultural styles and histories. Taylor celebrates love, lust, and mystery. He can encompass the grotesque and the sublime, often in the same dance. It’s the range as well as the expertise of Taylor’s dancemaking that gives him staying power and accounts for the longevity of the company.
Last fall I thought his newest work was the least new, but dancers in a touring company need the challenge of work that’s created on them. Perpetual Dawn (2013) has music by the Baroque composer Johann David Heinichen; it sounds a lot like Handel, with whom Heinichen was roughly a contemporary. Taylor has made innumerable dances to this kind of music; he can almost do it with his eyes closed. You could recognize lots of Taylor tropes: the neat floor patterns and ensemble arrangements; the buoyant chases, leaps, lifts; the sorting of the eleven participants into couples, with one extra woman. All of it carefree and beautifully plotted.
Less pretty but no less well crafted was Black Tuesday (2001), a reflection on the 1930s. With its use of popular songs (“Boulevard of Broken Dreams,” “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?”) that jangled against images of hard reality and escapism, it initially reminded me of Taylor’s 1991 Andrews Sisters crowd pleaser Company B. Taylor can smoothly organize a set of elements to convey an era, but, given this rational reassurance, the parts can clash with each other. The dancers in Black Tuesday jitterbug and Charleston carelessly, against the laments of a pregnant woman and an out-of-work panhandler. Two scruffily-clad buskers do a loose soft-shoe, then, as if homeless, they lie down in the street, to “Underneath the Arches.”
But it was Private Domain that struck me the most, even though it’s four decades old. I hadn’t seen this dance in years, but I remembered its harsh and stealthy look. With a daring pretext—Alex Katz’s proscenium-wide set of archways masks large sectors of the stage, and his turquoise satin costumes look like sleazy bathing suits—Private Domain hides what the audience wants to see. This was Taylor at his most misanthropic, peeking at behavior he isn’t meant to look at and inviting us to do the same. Seeing it again, I was prepared for the partial-view seductions and grapplings, and I admired, as I’d never done before, the formal construction of the dance, something Taylor more or less threw away. The slow acrobatic combines and separations. The way you were denied the pleasure of endings and beginnings and presented with body parts and skin instead. The strange distortions of time as people streaked across behind the frame and reappeared after what seemed an unnatural delay. Taylor can be suggestive, vulgar, raucous. He’s all those in Private Domain, but because it’s so depersonalized, I think this dance reveals a unique choreographic mind.