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Sunday, February 19, 2017

“Everything Has Changed": A Conversation with Laura Peterson

Laura Peterson in "Failure" 
-- By Tom Phillips 

If your step has a name, keep working on it,” Laura Peterson tells her students. A dancer, teacher, and choreographer of the 21st century, she has created a whole vocabulary of steps without names, drawing on modern dance, ballet, sports, physics, animal behavior and pure play. Endurance and resilience are job requirements for her company, usually three women and a man, always including herself. Their moves are physical, fast, often punishing. Knee pads are essential. Stamina becomes style. 

She begins with a setting – sometimes outdoors, sometimes in, sometimes a combination, as when her company danced “Wooden” on a live lawn at the Here Arts Center in New York, or under a huge kite-like structure designed to collapse during their performance of “Failure.” (Above.  All these constructions are made to order by her husband and long-time collaborator, Jon Pope.) Lately she has also been using her own abstract paintings, as a backdrop, a floor, or even a covering.
In the thirteen years I’ve followed her work, it has moved from satire, through abstraction, to an almost reluctant admission of the personal and political, brought to a head last year by a family tragedy and the shock of the election. At Judson Memorial Church in January, she wrestled with her own grief and anger in a ground-breaking “Solo.” With politics in mind, she’s now creating a new production of “Failure” for Judson this summer. But even with feelings rampant, her compositions always retain a strong formal structure -- and this is what sets them apart from mere bodily emoting.


Laura grew up in Syracuse, where her father Philip L. Peterson was Professor of Philosophy at Syracuse University. She learned about Epistemology at the dinner table, and she’s bold enough to say she plans to explore its fundamental questions – what do we know and how do we know it? -- in dance. 
Like most Syracusans she was also a rabid follower of the school’s basketball team, the Orange. Laura and I met recently at a café near Marymount College in Manhattan, where she had just taught a choreography class, and started by talking sports.  

TP: I see athletics in your choreography. How does dance relate to basketball? 
LP:  I feel like basketball is so much choreography and improvisation, and constant movement. You’re saying Yes and No, but within a highly structured score. So you have all the plans, all the intentions in the world, but you have to react to what’s going on. And you have to be positive, and say Yes, Yes, Yes all the way down the court, but when the ball changes over you have to back up and say No, No, No.  There’s a lot of choreography and traffic, quick starts, fast breaks, constantly shifting tempos. And there’s also a lot of arcs, the ball is arcing, your pathways are arcing, you’re spiraling, trying to reach something. I’m working on my transition game… 
OK then, what’s new with Laura Peterson Choreography?
Everything has changed since the election. Every single thing I see or do has a new content. I see content where I saw form only. I see content in relationships – not necessarily narrative – but politics, the power dynamics and negotiations between people.  And it’s directly related to the election and the current political climate.
I saw Lucinda Childs, who is among my favorite choreographers. And I thought, what a wonderful break from humanity, just to watch this form. But then I wondered, what are the relationships here, what are the dancers experiencing? I was watching one dancer breathe. So there’s that kinesthetic empathy. But now I thought about what she was thinking, whereas before I would just say – person, design, organization. So I wonder about what’s going to happen next.

Thursday, December 29, 2016

Poor Tom Speaks to the President-Elect

-- By Tom Phillips  

(After fasting through the Winter Solstice, Poor Tom puts on his clothes and comes in from the cold.)

Poor Tom in "King Lear"
OK friends, I apologize.  As some of you realized, Poor Tom was just a naked disguise, and his impenetrable essays on Irony no more than a post-election distraction for an old man -- an old man fearing for his grandchildren, trying to step back and love the world from an ironic distance, a literary perspective.

Still, it was a timely topic.

The primary definition of irony -- saying one thing and meaning another -- is Trumpspeak, the new lingua franca of our land.  A University means a scam.  I grabbed her by the private parts means I didn't do anything. "Make America Great Again" means make the rich richer.  "Lock her up" means drop the case.  A Wall means a fence, and then nothing.  NATO means NADA.

Everything he says means nothing -- he speaks in the moment only, and the meaning disappears like a post on Snapchat.   This is the ultimate in irony -- not the distance between one meaning and another, but the distance between meaning and non-meaning, being and nothingness.

However!

(With little hope but firm resolve, Poor Tom dons a scholar's robe, shakes his sleeves and begins to speak into the air)

Listen up, Mr. President-elect:

Friday, December 9, 2016

Friend of the Poor


-- By Tom Phillips

Bob Dylan is a serial disappointer, and that is part of what's kept him thriving as an artist for six decades.  A Swedish friend tells me his nation is deeply hurt that Dylan declined to come to Stockholm to accept his Nobel Prize for Literature.  But this is just one of a long series of disappointments and shocks to his fans -- going back to the Newport Folk Festival of 1965, when the left's favorite folk-singer came out with a snarl and an electric guitar.  

In 1967, after a year's hiatus attributed to a mysterious accident, he again came out with a new style that distressed his followers.  Suddenly Dylan's words and music seemed thin and spare -- compared to the hard rock and smoldering satire that began in Newport and culminated with "Blonde on Blonde."

Sunday, December 4, 2016

History Without Hate?

-- By Tom Phillips
"this election showed... the emergence of white people as a minority-style political bloc."  NY Times, 12/4/2016

“Let the grassroots turn on the hate"   Stephen Bannon, Trump adviser 
 
When one of my daughters was in middle school--  a public school, in New York City -- she came home one day with the following reflection:  "I hate English people."

 I asked why, and she answered with a litany of all the horrors visited by English colonialists on native peoples in the course of their imperial rule.  That was all she knew about "English people."  She didn't even know she was one of them.

When I informed her of her own heritage -- Anglo-Saxon and Celtic -- she was puzzled.  She was old enough to realize the implication -- that she ought to hate herself.  

The next day I went in to talk to the teacher.  When she heard what this 12-year-old had got out of her class, she too was puzzled.  The last thing she wanted was for students to hate themselves.  The school was also busy teaching self-esteem and self-love.  Unfortunately, they were pitching that message to a diverse student body by giving them someone to hate -- an undefined class of imperialists loosely interpreted as "English people."

This is one of the ways that white people in America came to think of ourselves as an oppressed minority.  We're not, of course.  We're still a privileged plurality, assured of special treatment by the cops, the courts, and financial institutions.  But as long as as we teach history in a way that casts Anglo-Europeans mainly or exclusively as oppressors, we reject and alienate them just as we have rejected minorities in the past.  This is one source of the resentment felt by less fortunate whites against an intellectual regime they have characterized as "politically correct."  The hate they are now acting out is payback for their long years not just in the economic doldrums, but also the doghouse of history.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

That Murrow Moment

 -- By Tom Phillips

Last summer, journalists great and small were questioning whether 2016 was a "Murrow Moment"  -- whether they should cast off their  professional neutrality and warn the nation about the dangers of Donald Trump.  The New York Times, after a brief struggle, went all in -- calling out his falsehoods in every news story, while thundering daily denunciations from the editorial and Op-ed pages.

The Huffington Post huffed and posted -- and tagged every story with a disclaimer, complete with otiose adjectives:  "Trump is a serial liar, rampant xenophobe, racist, misogynist etc etc.."

On election night, Rachel Maddow melted down, blaming his win on the hapless Libertarian candidate who siphoned votes from who knows who?  MSNBC punctuated its coverage with sighs of grief and an audible "Jeez.."

Even the supposed right-wing nuts who led Fox News's coverage were in denial: long after midnight, Shepard Smith was looking grimly away from the handwriting on the wall, murmuring  "it's not over, it's not over."

But it is.   The "Murrow Moment" has come and gone.  Those who tried to turn the tide found the power of the press was zero, or less. 

Saturday, August 27, 2016

The Art of the Ego

Donald & Marla, 1990
-- By Tom Phillips 

One night in 1990, my Presbyterian minister wife and I were seated on the couch, watching raptly along with thirty million Americans as Diane Sawyer scored her exclusive interview with the woman of the hour -- Marla Maples, the girlfriend of Donald Trump.  The real estate mogul was leaving his wife Ivana for this foxy anonymous model, and the nation was transfixed.  The tale was taking on biblical proportions, like David and Bathsheba.

Suddenly I sat up.  What the hell were we doing?  Neither of us cared a fig for moguls or models.  How had this semi-scandalous affair become a national obsession?  How had it sucked us in? 

Well, it wasn't her.  Marla soon faded back into anonymity, just another ex-wife.  But the Donald never went away.  I can't stand him, never want to be in the same room with him, cringe with terror at the thought of his becoming president.  But like millions of hapless onlookers, I still can't take my eyeballs off him.  What is going on?

Thursday, August 11, 2016

A "Murrow Moment"?

Edward R. Murrow
-- By Tom Phillips

This year's presidential campaign is proving to be a challenge, or maybe just a temptation, for some journalists.  In the last week some have questioned the old standard of "objectivity" -- asking whether it's time to declare an emergency, jettison a disinterested approach to events, and ride like Paul Revere to the rescue of American civilization.

A front-page article in the New York Times asked rhetorically what reporters should do if they believe  Donald Trump is a demagogue who would be dangerous with nuclear weapons.  The answer: "you have to throw out the textbook American journalism has been using for the better part of the past half-century, and approach it in a way you've never approached anything in your career."  Really?