Thursday, March 7, 2019

Dirty Dancing

"One. One & One"
Vertigo Dance Company 
Baryshnikov Arts Center, New York
March 6, 2019
-- By Tom Phillips 

Except for a neat row of dirt at the front of the stage, the opening section of “One. One & One” by Israel’s Vertigo Dance Company looks much like the closing elegy of George Balanchine’s “Serenade.” It’s a solemn communal idyll, to sonorous cellos in a minor key, with a motif of dancers leaning on each other for balance and support. They seem to be a close-knit group, working out complex tasks together –- as when three men braid the hair of a woman while she uses her long tresses to pull them across the stage.

The communal spirit stays as more dirt is spread in the rectangular, closed space. But the mood changes suddenly with the sound of a cannonade -- big guns, firing in the distance. After that, the dirt and the dancers start to fly, and the communal idyll is transformed into what looks like an army boot camp, whipping troops into combat readiness. The motif here is “bring it on,” with dancers lining up on each side of the stage and charging at their opposite numbers, trying to breach their defenses. Every charge is repelled!

So much for “Serenade.”  This looks more like socialist realism, the kind of state-sponsored art that Balanchine came to America  to get away from. And if it reminds you of the modern history of Israel, as seen by the State of Israel, that’s just what it looked like to me.

Wednesday, December 5, 2018

Passing for White in The Great Gatsby: A Spectroscopic Analysis of Jordan Baker

-- By Tom Phillips

This is an expanded version of my article published in The Explicator, Vol. 76 No. 3, November 2018.  

The character of Jordan Baker in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby has puzzled readers for nearly a century.  She is glamorous and opaque, her “pleasant contemptuous expression” (23) so polished it deflects interpretation and critical analysis.  However, a close reading focused on Fitzgerald’s descriptions of Baker suggests she can be seen as central to the novel’s concern with identity. Amid the sexual and racial upheavals of the Jazz Age, she may be Gatsby’s most successful imposter -- a light-skinned, mixed-race person “passing for white.”

Such suspicions were directed at Gatsby himself by Carlyle V. Thompson in a 2000 essay, “Was Gatsby Black?” -- an argument quickly dismissed for insufficient textual evidence (Manus). In Jordan’s case evidence runs throughout the text, obscured by her proximity to Daisy and Gatsby, and Fitzgerald’s deceptive style, in which significant detail can “pass” as merely decorative.

Sunday, November 18, 2018

Hip-Hop Round-trip: London to NY

"Blak Whyte Gray"
Boy Blue:  Michael "Mikey J" Asante, Creative Direction and Music; Kenrick "H2O" Sandy, Choreography
Lincoln Center White Light Festival 
November 16, 2018

-- By Tom Phillips 

Members of Boy Blue held a post-performance chat last night after the US premiere of "Blak Whyte Gray," and it was a shock to hear their British accents. Their intense and acrobatic hip-hop dancing was straight from the streets of New York -- having made a round trip from east London.

Flipping the usual progression from darkness to light, this young British troupe gives us a three-part journey of liberation that starts with "Whyte" and ends with "Blak." The progress is upward, from a kind of enslavement to a celebration of strength and freedom.  But the opening depiction of present-day slavery seemed the most relevant to an American audience.

Wednesday, November 7, 2018

20th Century Unlimited: Beckett and Warhol in NY

"Waiting for Godot"
By Samuel Beckett, directed by Garry Hynes   
Gerald W. Lynch Theater, Lincoln Center, New York 
November 5, 2018 

"Andy Warhol -- From A to B and Back Again"
Whitney Museum of American Art, New York 
Opening November 12, 2018

Aaron Monaghan, Marty Rea 
In the mid-Twentieth Century, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot” seemed like an end game. Two vagabonds meet daily by a tree, and hope for a deliverance that never comes. In Act One they decide to hang themselves, but can’t decide on the best method:

ESTRAGON:  Use your intelligence, can’t you?                        
Vladimir uses his intelligence. 
VLADIMIR: (finally) I remain in the dark.

Diversion arrives in the form of a master and slave, but their journey also appears to be heading nowhere. Master Pozzo torments his lackey Lucky, who babbles theological gibberish. Pozzo goes blind as they exit in Act Two.  Vladimir and Estragon continue waiting.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Civilization in Splitsville: The Collapse

Lucy Guerin Inc 
Baryshnikov Arts Center
New York 
October 13, 2018 

The piece is called "Split," and the idea is simple:  Divide things in two, over and over again, and see what happens.   
Two women -- one naked, one in a modest blue dress -- dance parallel figures to the sound of drums, on a bare stage marked off by a square of white tape. The gestures suggest a range of human activities: play, sport, religious ritual, repetitive work, rest, sex, sleep, and dance itself, ballet and modern and folk. The moves are identical but look different, articulate and sensuous in the flesh, hidden or suggested in the folds of a dress. The two dancers have plenty of room to share, and seem to co-exist peacefully. After 15 minutes or so, they pause and divide the square in two, laying a line of tape straight down the center.

The next section takes place in one-half the space, and peace gives way to a relationship that looks sometimes like beggar and hoarder, sometimes like predator and prey. The fully clothed Lilian Steiner is focused mainly on eating, and the naked Melanie Lane in taking some of that lunch for herself.  Lane, described in the program as Javanese-Australian, crouches and then pounces on the  white Australian Lilian Steiner, who evades, resists, repels her. They do not get along, they do not work together. But still there's room for this tense relationship to play out.  
That's until they divide the square again, and again, and again, in shorter and shorter increments of time. One-eighth of the space becomes one-sixteenth, one thirty-second, sixty-fourth, 128th, 256th. Within an hour the stage has shrunk to a box too small for two to stand abreast, so the naked woman climbs onto the shoulders of the clothed one. They topple backward as the lights go out.

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Believing in Truth

-- By Tom Phillips 
Rudy Giuliani: "Truth isn't truth"
It’s happening more and more these days – people say things that just a few years ago would have been considered insane.  At a recent party, a young female stranger – a graduate student – asked me, “What do you think about the post-truth moment?”  My flustered answer: “I’m against it.” 
On the street and even in church, on hearing that I used to write for CBS News, people have cheerfully piped up: “Oh, fake news!”  Absolutely not, I tell them.  I never knowingly wrote a word of fake news.  Oh, they reply, but you’re retired.  How about the people writing now?   
I am a member of two establishments -- the press and the church -- that depend for their existence on the idea of truth.  Both are under siege by a new wave of old politics that values visions over facts, slogans over reason, personality over truthfulness.  The press is in danger of being discredited, the church of being co-opted.  And so far, the press is holding up better, more resistant and resilient.

Thursday, July 26, 2018

Pinker's Paradise

-- By Tom Phillips

Steven Pinker 
Harvard professor Steven Pinker is out with another of his weighty books about how the world is getting better all the time. This one's called "Enlightenment Now."  Readers should appreciate his contrarianism; his mass of statistics about the world's rising prosperity, improving health, reduced violence and increasing personal satisfaction is a welcome antidote to studies that show humans growing more lonely, pessimistic and frightened.

There's a fly in the cream, though. While Pinker's global stats generally show that happiness rises along with income, here in the United States, the pursuit of happiness has ground to a halt.  In recent decades, Pinker reports, American men have gotten no happier, while women have actually grown less happy. This could simply reflect the stagnation in middle-class incomes since the 1970s.  But happiness is not an isolated phenomenon -- it reflects much broader societal trends.