The Class Divide in Theatre


Very fine column about power, respect and money in the theatre.

Originally posted on Bitter Gertrude:

For so long I’ve wanted the Theatre Industry machine to behave a certain way and suddenly I realized I want to take that machine apart and build a new one instead.

It’s been brewing in the back of my mind for awhile, but it really came to a head last week in a Facebook discussion about Charles Isherwood’s condescending language when writing about plays by people of color. Isherwood has enormous power to make or break the success of a play and/or playwright, and he’s not the only one using that kind of language, but he has extraordinary power because of his position with the New York Times.

But I think the problem isn’t just Isherwood personally, since we could fire him into the sun and there’d be another one right behind him to take his place. We should start thinking in terms of dismantling the power we accrue to that position…

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ADF: Footprints–follow those tracks–and then th-th-that’s all, folks, until 2015

Leonie McDonagh.  Photo: Brian Farrell.

Leonie McDonagh takes her dancers over the top in her Footprints dance. Photo: Brian Farrell.


The well-programmed 2014 American Dance Festival performance season comes to a close this weekend with the final performance of Footprints in Reynolds Theater on the 26th. What a year it has been! full of surprises and fresh juxtapositions. I’ll have a few reflections next week, but right now, let me encourage you to follow the tracks and catch the three ADF-commissioned world premieres of the Footprints show.

The ADF has many roles. One is to support the creation of new dances, and another is to give the advanced students and young professionals in the ADF School the opportunity to work with choreographers and perform on stage. The Footprints program this year combines these two aspects of the ADF mission with that of presenting important, interesting new work to audiences. We get to see the super-fresh art danced by the fresh and enormously enthusiastic young dancers.

I have this theory that it takes about 12-15 years for the zeitgeist of a new century to really take hold. Well, kids, we are definitely not in the 20th century any more. We’ve passed that awkward cusp time when the ashes of the old are raked by all and sundry and may flare into a simulacrum of newness. These dances, as different as they are, share the complicated hyper-charged sensibility of NOW. The ideas about simultaneity that so intrigued artists 100 years ago appear thin and simplistic in light of the layering used by these three choreographers.

Leonie McDonagh literally piles it on in the hilarious opening sequence of Four Fingers and One Thumb. Netta Yerushalmy runs bands of action across the stage, making stripes of dancers weaving across the stripes of marley floor laid up and down in her Pictogrames. Carl Flink has action boiling out of the shadows in An Unkindness of Ravens, and overtaking other action before being layered over by another. They also share a sophisticated visual sensibility, so that color and light and graphics become key elements of the performance. Rather than single pieces of music, these dances have soundscapes.

Flink’s work is dark, full of strife, and I had a hard time engaging with it after the belly laughs and hot pink finale of McDonagh’s piece. But that’s just me, wanting to hide my head from war. And strife is not missing from the other two dances, it is just prettied up and played for laughs. All are very strong. As I heard someone say while leaving the theater, “the ADF got something for its money with these commissions!”

Recently I was chatting with a friend who was worrying about the decline of audiences for music and theater. I told him people were not going to quit wanting art, but the art would be different. In Footprints, it already is.


Carl Flink's An Unkindness of Ravens closes the Footprints program. Photo: ©Bill Cameron

Carl Flink’s An Unkindness of Ravens closes the Footprints program. Photo: ©Bill Cameron


ADF: Four Choreographers Dance ON THEIR BODIES

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.

Ronald K. Brown. Photo courtesy of ADF.


An artist stands alone before the blank page.

A choreographer stands alone on a blank stage.

Any mark is possible. The infinitude of choice paralyzes. But the force of creative will touches the brush to paper, declares an arc through space with an arm–and choice disappears, paralysis gives way to the requirements of the images and actions pressing their way into the world through the body of the maker. The calculating, crafting artist becomes the tool of the art.

And so it is in the penultimate show of the 2014 American Dance Festival season. Four very different choreographers whose work we are more used to seeing on other dancers, perform personal acts of soul-baring, painting the stage space with their ephemeral kinetic inks, in a quartet of meditations on time, death and transitions. This special concert will repeat 7/23 in the DPAC.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei. Photo: Stephen Xue.

Shen Wei, the slim body of his youth given way to the thicker forms of middle-age, legs and torso draped in sheer white jersey and feet encased in white socks, danced his 2014 Variations alone on white marley to the gently solemn sounds of Arvo Part’s Variations for the Healing of Arinushka. He is no less graceful than the youth who so amazed us all as a young ADF student, but far more powerful now in his sinuous elegance that never fails to make me think of swifts and swallows soaring and swiveling through the sky. Shen Wei is such a man of the world that it feels extremely complimentary to have him consider Durham his summer home. The other night I was watering my garden and who should walk by, coming no doubt from rehearsal at the DPAC. It seemed so normal to see Shen Wei in my parking lot that I just waved and said hi. Turning his head in that impossible bird-like way, his arm rose seemingly of its own volition to complete the line of nose/shoulder/hand, and he smiled before disappearing down the alley. I got my own tiny personal solo dance, to treasure in my mental file of Shen Wei images, but the one he does on stage is not a fragment torn from time. It has a completeness that is enormously satisfying, even while one remembers this twist, that arm’s curve, those cloaked feet in stringent fifth position.


Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Doug Varone. Photo: ©Rose Eichenbau.

Three ADF-commissioned world premieres follow, the first and most emotional by Doug Varone. He dances his work The Fabulist to David Lang’s exquisite Death Speaks (uncredited, but probably Shara Worden singing) in cones of smoky light cutting the dark. Varone is, I believe, a great humanist. Something, probably honesty, makes his movement powerfully touching–you feel like he is telling you secrets in the dark. He’s got a bullet head and is built like a tank but moves like a…man. The bottom several inches of his pant legs are sheer, and through them you see his strong slim ankles, while most of his body is covered. I was brought to tears by this sight and pretty much all of the dance. If Varone has ever interested you, do not miss this solo.


Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

Stephen Petronio. Photo: ©Sarah Silver.

A less satisfying piece by Stephen Petronio comes next. Big Daddy is about Petronio’s father, and yes, there is talking. Petronio wears a suit and a headset–and speaks from a podium microphone as well. He wears too many clothes and does not dance enough. At first I feared the piece would be as dreadfully self-centered as Loudon Wainwright III’s one-man show about his father, but actually, Petronio’s writing was beautiful. I was just disappointed not to see him really open up with those huge shapes he can make.

The evening closes with the luminous Ron K. Brown, in his new work Through Time and Culture. Brown, who is brown, was dressed in pristine white pants and knee-length tunic, which set a meditative tone and set off his beautiful beaming face and expressive hands and feet. I never have perceived ideas in Brown’s work so much as feelings, and feelings pour forth with abundance here. Reverence is the greatest among them, and gratitude.

Each artist received much applause–Shen Wei being treated like home folks–and at the final bow, all received a long standing ovation, which appeared to surprise them all very much. Surprise them again tonight. ADF has been promoting the show with $15 tickets. Use promo code ADFLEGENDS.


Dedicated to the dancing memory of my aunt, Mary Carolyn Dobbs, who left her body July 23, 2014.

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