Arts Review

Minimalism and Its Contents

Experimental dancers have always looked for the rock-bottom expressive tools. In that sense, you could say minimalism goes back a hundred years, to Vaslav Nijinsky’s notorious Sacre du Printemps. Stravinsky’s score, a riot of dissonances and rhythms, matched the choreography in refusing to deliver what the audience expected a ballet to be. Severe and didactic, the dance did more than describe a ritual; it was a ritual itself. As reconstructed for the Joffrey Ballet in 1987 by Millicent Hodson, the Sacre was almost as controversial as its original. Hodson’s intensively researched Sacre featured spare, repetitive movement stripped of the courtly attitudes, the decorative arms and virtuosic steps treasured by classical ballet. Despite being scorned by some critics, Hodson’s restoration has been performed widely in Europe and has now been acknowledged as Nijinsky’s ballet.[1]

An early section of the Joffrey production, filmed for PBS, was included as a wall-sized projection in the Victoria and Albert Museum’s Ballets Russes exhibition (The Hudson Review, Winter 2011). Seeing those excerpts again last summer in the remounted show at the National Gallery in Washington, I was struck by the stark movement: small clusters of men pumping up and down on both feet, to Stravinsky’s almost randomly accented music, and the women bending their upper bodies with hands clenched at their ears. Nijinsky’s disappeared and debatably restored Rite of Spring has begged to be embellished and reformatted by other choreographers, if only because its minimalism left so much out. Hodson’s après-Sacre was quoted in at least two recent postmodernist productions, Yvonne Rainer’s RoS Indexical (The Hudson Review, Spring 2008) and Bill T. Jones and Anne Bogart’s A Rite, which had its premiere at Bard College last summer. Combining Nijinsky/Hodson’s choreography with their own, Rainer and Jones extrapolated from the original Rite to a history of postmodern dance (Rainer) and to comments on war, art versus science, and the evolution of performing since the jazz age (Jones).

Other performances of last summer suggested several new ways to think about minimalism and dancing, none of them leading back to ballet. Possibly the first minimalist dance was based on rhythm. The proto-minimalist rituals of ancient Russia, as interpreted in Nijinsky’s Rite of Spring, and innumerable tribal dances from the aboriginal Pacific to Africa and Native America, involved the whole community in translating music into foot action—stepping, stamping, and the rebound into jumping. Take away the ritual content and you could say these were the rhythm dance ancestors of tap, which we know as a highly refined, individual practice developed for entertainment purposes or competition. The most minimal tap dancer I ever saw was Chuck Green in the 1970s, during the New York tap revival that brought the almost-elderly hoofers back from retirement and triggered a new generation of tappers. Green at that time was a big, verbally inarticulate man who danced volumes from the hips down, ramming his big feet into the ground with unheard-of, unimaginably delicate elaborations of rhythm.

The cohort around Chuck Green danced for the sound, not the look. Whether or not accompanied by music, they were composing their own music as they danced. This tradition lives on in young dancers like Savion Glover, and it was celebrated at Jacob’s Pillow, in The Blues Project, by the choreographer-dancer Michelle Dorrance with a company of eight dancers and a small band. Dorrance credited dancers Derick K. Grant, Dormeshia Sumbry-Edwards, and musician-singer Toshi Reagon as co-creators of the piece, with choreographic input from the other dancers.

Dorrance has the look of a farm girl: tall and skinny in a cotton summer dress, she’s unglamorous, almost reticent, as if she isn’t performing at all. Early in the show she did two solos, starting with quiet, close-to-the-floor tapping and circular brushes. Three men appeared as backup; then another woman (Sumbry-Edwards) joined her for a call- and-response duet. After that, the band, led by Toshi Reagon, began a slow blues in march tempo, and Dorrance splattered embellishments between the beats, flinging into turns with loose arms. Although she can stomp with the best of them, she reads as a light dancer, her weight held above the ground so she can articulate those fast beats with casual ease. The duet made a point of the contrast between her lightness and Sumbry-Edwards’ earthiness. Later, in her own solo, Sumbry-Edwards reminded me of the great tapper Brenda Bufalino, both of them grounded and not trying to make a lot of their femininity.

In fact, Dorrance and all four other females in The Blues Project (Elizabeth Burke, Claudia Rahardjanoto, Karida Griffith, and Sumbry-Edwards) resisted the stereotype of the tap-woman as a seductive, stylish adornment for what was essentially a male art form. They all danced enthusiastically but without girly guile, wearing simple cotton dresses (costumes by Andrew Jordan), no fancy hairdos except for Sumbry-Edwards’ long dreadlocks. They joined with the men in ensemble numbers that only distinguished between the sexes when they adopted social dance forms.

Dorrance, a veteran of Stomp! and several Broadway jazz shows, has a loving sense of tap history and of choreographic form. Set as a revue without special announcements or emcee personality interjections, The Blues Project incorporated several distinctive talents, styles, and unmatching entities. Music and dancing wove together. Every performer got an opportunity to be seen or heard as an individual. Violinist/fiddler Juliette Jones accompanied one group dance in a hoedown style. Nicholas Van Young scraped a rhythm on a washboard to spark a duet, and later he produced a spell of body-slapping that speeded up and slowed down without hesitations. Byron Tittle, in a golfer’s cap, wove acrobatics into his dancing. Derick K. Grant scuffled on with an inner concentration reminiscent of Savion Glover and did a solo that alternated with Reagon’s singing.

I’ve seen many tap shows that featured assorted talents, but this one was like no other. The musicians (Reagon on acoustic guitar; Fred Cash, electric bass; Allison Miller, percussion; Adam Widoff, electric guitar; and violinist Jones) backed up the dancers and supplied Reagon’s original music numbers. No overfamiliar Tea for Two or Take the A Train on this program, and no jazz piano to preempt spontaneous rhythms. The other striking thing about Dorrance is her ability to choreograph for the group. She allows you to see the whole dance as well as hear it, with small groups in counterpoint and a number that surveyed a stream of social dance signatures like the Charleston, Lindy and Shorty George. Refreshingly, Dorrance resisted chorus lines, the Broadway solution to ensemble tap dancing.
Tap took on another new look in David Parker’s Tap Lab at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art in July. This show was one of only two offerings by Summer Stages for the 2013 season. After fifteen years of bringing new dance to the Boston area under directors Richard Colton and Amy Spencer, Concord Academy drastically curtailed the program, shifting the majority of the activity to its own “summer camp” for teenagers. After working residencies at Concord and in Boston, Rashaun Mitchell showed a work in progress, Romance Study #1, and Parker and the Bang Group gave one performance of Tap Lab. There have been discussions between Colton, Spencer, and the administration of Concord Academy, where they run the dance program year round, but what, if anything, will occupy next summer’s Stages is unclear.

David Parker is a longtime tap dancer, though his company, the Bang Group, is better known for its amusing ballet and modern-dance takeoffs. He did a hilarious rendition of “We’ll have an old-fashioned wedding” with longtime associate Jeffrey Kazin for a benefit performance on Martha’s Vineyard a year ago,[2] starting with the two of them singing and then tapping an elaborate soft shoe. For the ICA occasion in Boston, Parker said he was exploring “ideas about rhythm, which is about time,” and investigating how rhythm can show personal relationships. Parker’s “experimental tap” began with an admittedly undeveloped version of Morse code, translating the international telegraphic signals into a tap alphabet.

More challenging was the tap extrapolation of Steve Reich’s “Clapping Music.” Composed in 1972, “Clapping Music” is an iconic piece of minimalism, a 12-count pattern of beats and rests. Performed by two musicians, it spawns a series of eleven intricate new rhythms when one of the performers moves the starting point one beat later against the original phrase that’s being maintained by the other performer. The process is a variant of phasing, an essential device in many of Reich’s later orchestral compositions. The tap translation was shown in Boston by two dancers (Nic Petry and Amber Sloan), then by the Bang quartet (Parker, Petry, Sloan, and Kazin), and finally by all four of them tapping the variations while the audience clapped the first phrase. The whole thing takes great concentration. I’ve tried it with students—clapping, not tapping—and we never got past the third variation.

The Bang Group’s performance was part of an “ICA Family Play Date” and included appearances by two youth groups from the Boston suburbs, Boston Tap Company, led by Sean Fielder, and Project HIP-HOP, directed by Wyatt Jackson. Fielder, a well-known member of the younger tap generation, danced a music-less solo that was like several small songs or paragraphs, each in a different tap rhythm. A large ensemble from the HIP-HOP group and other young dancers who had been working at Concord Academy learned excerpts from David Parker’s Nut/Cracked, not a tap piece but more of a gesture-dance with a choreographic thread of moves matching the familiar music—some of it punctuated by Parker’s sly references to other versions of The Nutcracker.
Rashaun Mitchell’s Romance Study #1 had a sunset preview performance at the ICA a week before the Bang Group, continuing Mitchell’s connection with the ICA and his high school alma mater, Concord Academy. Mitchell was a prominent dancer with the Merce Cunningham company for eight years, until the company’s termination at the end of 2011. The independent works I’ve seen him do since then were composed of many elements, and, Cunningham-like, the collaborators retained their own identities. Dancers, musicians, designers, and poets had sometimes created their parts independently, sometimes they improvised together on the spot. All of Mitchell’s works I’ve seen had an organic quality despite the seeming disparities among the creators. I’ve seen them in an oddly shaped studio at Wellesley College and at the ICA, where two window walls of the theater overlook Boston Harbor. Each time, Mitchell managed to assemble all the elements, with different collaborators, into one resonant universe.

None of these pieces showcased Mitchell or anyone else in a display of virtuosic Cunningham dancing. But one aspect of Cunningham that didn’t often come to the surface in his own choreography, his spirituality, is unabashedly foregrounded by Mitchell. Romance Study #1, which will have its official premiere at the ICA in January, is a scene of stillness and quiet. The four dancers (in addition to Mitchell, Silas Riener, Cori Kresge and Hiroki Ichinose) used the dynamic Cunningham idiom sparingly. I remember a lot of standing still and isolated, idiosyncratic moves done by each dancer, but little ensemble work, and enough spaces in the dance to look closely at a changing environment, both in and outside the building.

At the beginning, pipes with lighting instruments on them were positioned close to the floor (lighting was by Davison Scandrett). Gold foil shapes dangled from them, lit and sparkling as they ascended one by one. (Design was by Ali Naschke-Messing.) On one pipe there was an old-fashioned music stand. Later, musician-singer Stephin Merritt climbed onto a pipe that was about four feet from the floor, and he sang softly, reticently and unamplified while perched there, accompanying himself on the ukulele. Sometime later in the performance, Merritt went up a side aisle and sang from the audience, also unamplified. I understand he also played a horn, but I didn’t hear or see it. Late in the dance, Riener tugged at a large, nebulous golden object hanging from a pipe; it became a curtain, a dragon, a big net made of twisted rope, as the dancers played with it in turn. Throughout the work, the two window-walls were open to the panorama beyond the dance: boats going by in the harbor, lights twinkling on the opposite shore, and the light gradually fading.

I thought Mitchell was deliberately resisting the appeal of dance spectacle in order to create a meditative mood, asking the audience to do more than its customary easy watching.
Brian Brooks also created an environment before our eyes in Big City (2012), at Jacob’s Pillow, but the construction was more conventionally theatrical. Affecting a natural look, the dancers walked across the background, carefully pulleying up aluminum tubes that had been lying on the floor. The tubes were hinged in two places to create angular shapes when hauled partway up. More lengths of tubing were laid on the floor downstage like mats. (Brooks and Philip Treviño designed the installation.) Their set-building duties completed, the six dancers and Brooks came out and walked on the tubes (the bottoms of my feet hurt just watching them), pushing them aside as they moved, to clear some floor space. They crawled on all fours, with other dancers mounted on their backs. Two women lifted each other without stopping their movement, spiraling, sliding, remaining in body contact but avoiding eye contact. A woman walked above a man who revolved slowly on the floor while spreading out a hand to accommodate her advancing foot. The idea seemed to be to keep moving regardless of the difficulty of their tasks.

What Brooks does is related to the original dance minimalism—very simple, repetitive movement that’s often derived from everyday action—but he’s expanded the vocabulary so that the repetitions can be strenuous, and he’s added the element of stage design being created by the dancers in motion. Descent (2011) is like a miniature circus. Dramatized by sidelighting and stage smoke, the dancers first trudge across the stage, bent over, carrying partners on their backs. The ones being carried are stretched out rigid on their sides. Later they all take turns jumping, diving headfirst, and finally ending in a pileup. In between these sections, there’s a magical interlude as one after another they cross the space, wafting big pieces of gauze into the air on air currents they produce with what look like pieces of cardboard.

There were two earlier works on the program, both even more spare than the other two. In I’m Going to Explode (2007), Brooks enters dressed in suit and tie; sits in a chair, takes off his jacket, tie, and shoes; then he stands at the other side of the stage and begins thrusting both arms forward very fast and energetically. Someone is rapping quietly in the recorded background (LCD Soundsystem’s “Losing My Edge”). The song, and the dance, is about getting too old to do what you used to do. Brooks’s frenzied arms gradually spread into bigger, freer, but still compulsive moves, with small mimetic intervals that reflect the vocalist’s words (“You sold your guitar”). Finally he goes back to the chair. The last thing we see before the lights go out, he’s bending over pulling on one shoe.

The performance ended with an excerpt from Brooks’s 2010 Motor, a virtuoso duet with Bryan Strimpel that physicalizes the idea of automatic energy. The two men, identically dressed in black briefs, hop very fast in perfect unison for what seems like an eternity. They travel forward and backward, inserting small changes in the step to relieve their muscles. They change from one hopping leg to the other, extend how long they stay on one foot, switch directions, hop higher, stop dead. An equally minimalist score by Jonathan Pratt accompanies them, setting a rapid pulse with soft, sticklike drumming under an organ and trombone drone. When the lights fade, they’re hopping backward into the distance. The dance makes you think of endurance, courage, and working through your pain. It’s as exhausting to watch as it probably is to do, but you imagine they’ll go on forever, and you wouldn’t be bored.
I went back to Jacob’s Pillow in early August to see the Montreal-based company O Vertigo Danse in La Vie Qui Bat (The Beat of Life), a 1999 piece by company director Ginette Laurin. I couldn’t resist a dance set to Steve Reich’s “Drumming,” with the music played live by the Société de Musique Contemporaine du Québec. The first time I saw and heard “Drumming” was in 1975, when Laura Dean premiered her dance of the same name at Brooklyn Academy of Music, with Reich and his ensemble playing it. By then, Dean had been working with Reich for several years, and I’d become a big fan of his music. I reviewed Dean’s premiere rather ecstatically for the Soho Weekly News.[3]

Written a year before “Clapping Music,” “Drumming” was a transitional piece for Reich, a bridge between the austerity of his early work and the later, lushly orchestrated “Music for 18 Musicians,” “Different Trains,” “The Desert Music,” and other more recent combinations of live instruments, voice, and electronics. Scored for nine percussionists, two female voices, and a piccolo (the Canadian ensemble had a flute instead), “Drumming” used mind-altering minimalist techniques like building up phrases by accumulating one note onto another, and extended repetition with tiny changes. It exploited Reich’s daring idea of having the instruments gradually go out of phase with each other to create new rhythms. “Clapping Music” made its transitions by having the players simply move from one combination to another. True phasing is almost impossible to do in clapping, but the gradual shift from one beat to another is more manageable on instruments.

I can’t say much about O Vertigo’s part because I was so absorbed in the music that I hardly looked at what the dancers were doing. There seemed to be a big generational gap between their aesthetic and Reich’s. Minimalist art cultivated our acute attention to the moment, to taking in all the nuances and changes possible within a single sound or movement. There would be no sense of boredom; everything was new and newly discoverable. Even the trancelike states audiences sometimes fell into were revelatory. Laura Dean had about five basic steps in her whole vocabulary, which she manipulated to reflect Reich’s shifting rhythms. Dean’s best-known movement was Sufi spinning, which could go on for long periods of time, the arms changing but the body maintaining a smooth continuum. Without stressing the inner rhythms or accents, Dean didn’t emphasize Reich’s complexity, but her spinning provided an even tone that encompassed it.

O Vertigo’s dancers seemed barely to hear the music. They moved in very formal patterns, observing the changes in Reich by leaving and entering the stage to create new visual architecture. But where the music had a driving intensity underneath its meditative harmonic atmospheres, the dancers looked almost casual, not particularly precise about the placement or designs they were making. When I think of the severity of the hard-core minimalist dancers—Laura Dean, Lucinda Childs—this group looked released, sensual. Perhaps the slight variation in their approaches to the music was a contemporary way of bringing out individual differences. At the beginning one woman moved across downstage with a slow phrase that would become a signature for the whole dance and be repeated in different ways and different combinations of dancers, as a kind of frame for the rest of the action. People lifted each other in close contact, they threw each other widely into space. One woman soloed during a whole section of the music, splayed on the floor, stretching and rolling, changing her shape with huge extensions. Two men shared another section, one behind the other in an intimate lifting duet.

The musicians had their own, nearly invisible choreography. As the piece began, two of them accumulated a rhythm on a set of small tuned drums, starting with one loud drumbeat. As more drummers joined one at a time, they built up a twelve-beat pattern that lasted through several repeats before phasing into a new one. The phasing sections are like a movie going out of focus. Then everyone locks back together to create a new pattern. The drumming sound changes as well, from beating on the drumhead with sticks to hitting the sticks on the rim. After a quarter hour or so, the conductor brings in a set of three marimbas, which have their own quality but play the same phrase. They’re accompanied by the voices which are meant to imitate the percussive sounds with stopped syllables, like doot-doot-doot. (Reich, like his contemporary Philip Glass, probably was a bebop fan in his youth.) The marimbas are gradually replaced by three glockenspiels, which create a high ringing overtone and change the sound again, but not the structure.

I think the conductor (Walter Boudreau here) decides how many repetitions there will be in each pattern and cues the musicians when to enter and withdraw. He also cues them to move to new instruments, and the groupings around the instruments are changing too, sometimes they’re spread out, sometimes clustered together. The players stood by their instruments, intent on the sounds they were making. Very contained, they hardly moved anything but their hands and arms, as if to avoid distracting us from the dancers. Toward the end, one of the glockenspiel players started keeping time by vigorously nodding his head, and you could see others also pulsing in their bodies. The ensemble was stationed in the wings of the theater stage right. Axel Morgenthaler’s subtle lighting applied to the musicians as well as the dancers, but the wings were seldom brightly lit. I couldn’t always see all the people and all the instruments. But some people on their side of the audience could hardly see them at all.

The work can last an hour and a half or less—O Vertigo’s was about an hour. I left with Reich’s rich, propulsive music ringing in my head. Choreographer Laurin spoke of images (“vibrant scenes as touching as life itself at its simplest”) that occurred to her on hearing the music. I didn’t retain any dance like that, but Reich’s was enough.

[1] In connection with the summer 2013 centennial performances of Hodson’s Sacre by the Mariinsky Ballet in Paris, Tamara Nijinsky, the choreographer’s youngest daughter, demanded royalties on Hodson’s production, effectively validating its authenticity.
[3]“Dancing in the Celestial Orchestra,” Soho Weekly News, 10 April 1975. Reprinted in my collection Watching the Dance Go By (New York, 1977).