Bait and Switch

The advance materials for a performance that will repeat today at 2 and 7 at Duke’s Nasher Museum of Art show Thomas F. DeFrantz dancing. True, the photo shows him dancing in the Ninth Street Dance studio, but one is led to think that DeFrantz himself will dance in the performance at the Nasher.


SLIPPAGE: reVERSE-gesture-reVIEWed supposedly explores “the provocation of Kara Walker’s Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” and maybe that is what the three dancers did, but most of the audience saw only a small fraction of the movement and the projections. DeFrantz was there, speaking cryptically in a tone suited to first year students in a classroom, and gliding about in his groovy multi-hued seersucker suit (yes, Virginia, it IS still January) and his white buck (heavy sartorial symbolism) shoes, but he did not dance.

DeFrantz is Professor and Chair of African and African American studies at Duke, and I had expected a sophisticated work, and was hoping for something as brilliant as Colson Whitehead’s recent book, The Underground Railroad. The use of technology was sophisticated (DeFrantz came to Duke from MIT), or maybe just cool, but neither the choreography nor the visuals were. What one could see of them.

I can think of three reasons for this performance to have been set up in an empty gallery, rather than in the museum auditorium. 1) They didn’t expect a crowd–didn’t think more than 10 or 15 people would show up–and that many would have been able to see. 2) The real purpose of the live performance was to create a video, so the audience didn’t really matter. 3) DeFrantz may have been trying to make a point about how difficult it is to see the whole picture and how few can actually do it. That is a point that one always must keep in mind.

But to lure people to a performance, people who are curious, and willing to look for what they have not noticed before–and not let them see it, strikes me as sadistic and self-defeating.

If you, like me, are really interested in “the place of Black women’s presence in the landscape of the Civil War,” you would do better to go back to Margaret Walker’s Jubilee. This 1966 book turned my head around when I was 15. The Durham County Library has four copies.



Big Art in a Small Box: Trajal Harrell in Sheafer as ADF Continues


Trajal Harrell, left, with Ondrej Vidlar, performing in Duke’s Sheafer Theater, 7/19/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


Trajal Harrell is amazing. His work is so smart that watching it will probably make you live longer, because you can feel the neural pathways lighting up in your brain as it tries to make all the connections quickly enough to follow the parade of thoughts and feelings as they shimmy and sashay through a dense atmosphere of image and sound. And then there is the dancing, which tends to short-circuit thought and take you directly to real meaning. It is exhilarating. Also, Harrell can be very funny, but he may make you cry, too.

I was introduced to the stage art of Trajal Harrell this spring at Carolina Performing Arts, and Harrell’s was among my most anticipated productions at this summer’s American Dance Festival, where Harrell is being co-presented by the ADF and the Nasher Museum of Art.

This show has a crazy long title, but don’t be put off by Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M). The more you know about early Post-Modern dance c. 1963 and the Harlem ballroom Voguing style of dance, the more subtleties you will appreciate in the work, which is just one section of a must larger project. But you don’t have to know anything, just pay attention.


Judson Church is Ringing in Harlem (Made-to-Measure)/Twenty Looks or Paris is Burning at The Judson Church (M2M), 7/19/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


You may feel that the work’s first section goes on too long. Almost nothing happens except that a couple of phrases are repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated, with jazz-like modulations of tone and inflection.  Certainly my mind wandered to my grocery list. But after Harrell declares “conceptual dance is dead!” and the actual dancing springs forth, you realize that the ensuing euphoria required that initial compression.


The fabulous dancer Thibault Lac glamorizing the concrete box of Sheafer Theater, ADF 7/19/16. Photo: Grant Halverson.


This is a very high grade of performance art, and guaranteed to be 100% free of the me-me-me virus that infects so much of contemporary dance theatre. It’s not for everyone, but if you are up for a challenge, don’t miss this. And if you sit in the front row, the dancers will come within inches of you. It is fantastic to observe the details of their glorious bodies (Trajal Harrell has the most beautiful feet), and to be–as Harrell asks–a witness to this highly crafted, but unvarnished, truth.

This program repeats July 20 and 21 in Sheafer Theater, lower level of the Duke Bryan Center, at 7: 30 pm. Tickets here.


ADF: One Duet, One Dastardly Duo

The American Dance Festival has presented two small-scale programs this season away from its main series venues of Reynolds Theater and the Durham Performing Arts Center. The first, which I had thought might be arid, was instead subtle and austerely beautiful. The second, which I had high hopes of being waspish and thrashingly sardonic, was instead…not much of nothing.

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor. Photo: ©Vojtech Brtnicky.

Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor. Photo: ©Vojtech Brtnicky.

The Nasher Museum of Art at Duke University was the co-presenter on June 17 for Niv Sheinfeld and Oren Laor‘s reconsideration of Two Room Apartment, a work by all accounts important in the history of Israeli choreography. (Certainly, the commanding, sensuous movement style can be seen in many contemporary Israeli companies, and one thinks especially of Emmanuel Gat.) Created in 1987 by Liat Dror and Nir Ben Gal, Two Room Apartment was originally for a male-female couple, but Sheinfeld and Laor have reworked it to reflect their own life and work partnership. They have used the original music by Ori Vidislavski, supplemented with songs by Elton John (“Yellow Brick Road”!) and Vains of Jenna. (Video teaser here.)

The Nasher atrium provided an ideal setting for this intelligent and wonderfully constructed dance, with a dark rectangle of marley laid down the center and chairs arranged on all four sides. I attended the 7 p.m. show, so there was still ample natural light, but it was augmented by a simple lighting array. Ready waiting in the performance area, and very carefully placed, were two folded jackets (one blue, one green), two folded towels (both white) and two water bottles (identical), and two rolls of wide white tape.

The two dancers appear, one tall, one not. For their ADF debut, they wear similar gray jeans, black tops and scuffed brown boots. Each takes a roll of tape, with which they delineate the two square rooms, side by side, one “wall” shared. The “ownership” of each room is indicated by which jacket is now within its space. They begin to walk around these rooms, each man staying on “his” side.

Tension builds with repetition, as in minimalist music. Speed increases. Small changes–a stumble here, a hair-smoothing there–begin to occur. Then meetings, collaborations, conflicts, transgressions, relentings, rapproachments, and sex and its aftermath are all danced, with a stripped-down dance vocabulary combining beautifully-timed simple movement with subtle gestures and expressions. Sheinfeld and Laor also exhibit a honed sense of the comedic, and  offer a right-sized (aesthetically speaking) jolt of nudity. The personal relationship interleaves with the artistic one–through all this, the artists are trying to choreograph a dance. Nesting a representation of dance-making within the dance they were actually making made the viewer feel both the domesticity of the set-up, and the way the domestic, in life, is nested inside of art-making. This is one smart, fully-thought-out work of art by two fine, fierce dancers.

Over the course of the dance, Sheinfeld and Laor cross every boundary, both those on the stage and all the implied and expected boundaries between roommates, partners, lovers and performers (the tall one kept a little flirtation going with a long-legged girl seated on the floor in front of me–apparently there’s someone on the outside in every performance). All that’s left of those boundaries in the end is a discarded wad of tape, and the heady scent of clean male sweat.


After that exhilarating work, maybe 13 Love Songs: Dot Dot Dot (2014) was at a disadvantage. This first evening-length collaboration between 60-something Ishmael Houston-Jones and 30-something Emily Wexler, also making their ADF debut, was presented June 24 and 25 in the PSI Theater of the Durham Arts Council. Supposedly they were to eviscerate the popular love song, but that Hydra has survived this ludicrous conceptual attack.

The ideas were murky, the dancing hideous, the stage craft abominable. The performers talked too much and very little of what they said was worth repeating, although there was one interesting piece by Houston-Jones (I believe that the “authenticity” of his Some Reasons Your Anus is Not Like Everest was supposed to contrast tellingly with the lyrics of classic pop love.) It was boring. And, nothing happened. No, I take that back, there was a good thing where they cut an onion and rubbed it on their faces to generate specious tears, crocodile tears, to accompany some sad song. But so much nothing happened that Wexler had to tell the audience when the show was over.

I’ve spent a week trying to think why ADF booked this and haven’t come up with a plausible reason. It was the worst thing I’ve ever seen in 30+ years of ADF, and that includes the revolting piece in which Miguel Gutierrez hovered his naked butt over an open flame on stage with real time video multiplying the yuck factor (turns out Houston-Jones is affiliated with Gutierrez). At least I remember Gutierrez’ piece. Already the main thing I remember about 13 Love Songs: Dot Dot Dot is how glad I was to burst out the door when its pitiful hour of crime against art was up.

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler in 13 Love Songs: Dot Dot Dot. Photo:©Ian Douglas.

Ishmael Houston-Jones and Emily Wexler in 13 Love Songs: Dot Dot Dot. Photo:©Ian Douglas.

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