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Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Body Speaks


-- By Tom Phillips

DownloadMidway through "Unwanted," a woman steps forward and begins to sing "Ave Maria," in a sweet, clear soprano -- then suddenly rips the name of Mary into a horrific shriek. It's a heart-stopping moment that encapsulates the theme of this piece: the trauma of women raped in war, and the horror they experience bearing the children of their tormentors.

"Unwanted" is the work of Dorothee Munyaneza, a pastor's daughter who was 12 during the genocidal civil war in Rwanda, in 1994. She escaped the war with her family, but years later went back to interview the women who were among its victims -- who carried the unwanted children, often the offspring of men who had murdered their fathers and brothers. These mothers instinctively nursed their babies, against the wishes of their relatives. One recounts a conversation with an aunt who advised her to kill the child before it opened its eyes. "Look," said her auntie, "your child resembles a hyena. How can you nurse a hyena?"  Munyaneza, writhing and recoiling, embodies the distraught mother as she kept the boy, nursed the hyena, hid her face from her own kin.  

Thursday, August 24, 2017

An American Eclipse

 -- By Tom Phillips


 August 21, 2017

I ran with the eclipse today across America, and what a day it was.

It just so happened that August 21 was the day I had a ticket to fly west and visit our daughters and grandchildren in Seattle  -- right along the path of the total eclipse, or just north of it.

 Alaska Airlines was 30 minutes delayed but our pilot assured us we'd get to Seattle on time. He was a retired Navy Captain, and this, he said, was his "afterlife" job.  Before takeoff he came back into the cabin to brief us on the E-clipse -- that's how he said it.  It would be following us, tailing us across the west and reaching its peak just as we landed.  Still, he warned us, don't look at the sun unless you have those special glasses.  A couple of passengers did have them, but I had neglected to get them.   This was gonna be frustrating.

 Still, I had a window seat on a clear day, and I got my first look ever along the northern border of the US -- narrated by the pilot, whose interest in geology and geography sparked a running account.  We crossed Lake Erie, meandered over Canada and then across the farmland of Wisconsin.  "The Cheesehead State!" cried our captain. 

How many people get enthusiastic when sighting Bismarck, North Dakota?  He did, and I did shortly after that as the flat Midwest farmland broke into a rutted surface, then into stark Black Hills with only patches of farmland, then into a lunar waste with no towns and barely a road.  Then suddenly out of the clouds ahead a whole landscape, blue heaped upon blue, of sheer uninhabitable gorges and peaks -- the Rocky Mountains. "We're goin' over the Continental Divide!" whooped the pilot.  And now the race was on.

Sunday, July 9, 2017

Reflections on "Failure"

-- By Tom Phillips


The Virgin Spring
In 1960, Swedish director Ingmar Bergman’s film ”The Virgin Spring” shocked and outraged audiences  in Europe and America.  The film dramatizes a medieval Swedish ballad of rape, murder, and revenge – all shown with brutal realism.  It ends with a scene of penitence and prayer, as a spring bursts forth from the shallow grave of the young victim.  

The rape scene was censored in the US, and I saw the film in a truncated form in 1960.  Still, it took 57 years until I dared to look again.  “The Virgin Spring” is 89 minutes of continuous  tension, dread, shock, and only at the end, redemption. 

Bergman, wounded by the violation of his work, put out a brief letter defending its frankness.  He said the rape scene had an ethical significance.  “It shows the crime in its naked atrocity, forcing us, in shocked desperation, to leave aesthetic enjoyment of a work of art for passionate involvement in a human drama of guilt and grace…  We must not hesitate in our portrayal of human degradation, even if, in our demand for truth, we must violate certain taboos.”

Ethics trumps Aesthetics. 

In 2017, Laura Peterson will not be censored for her new version of “Failure.”  But in its way, it is just as shocking a violation of our usual aesthetic standards.  Refashioned in the wake of the 2016 election, “Failure” is a picture of just the “American carnage” that our new leader claimed would end with his inauguration.  In her program note, the choreographer calls it “a protest against the elevation of materialism and thoughtless accumulation of wealth at any cost.”

It does this by showing the cost – i.e.  the degradation of American lives, one by one, into the slavish pursuit of an illusion.  A great chasm has opened between the rich and the rest of us in America, and for the vast majority, there is no way to bridge it.  Working three jobs will not do it for the single mother.  Teaching ten courses will not do it for the PhD adjunct professor.  For-profit colleges with E-Z loan terms will not do it for the hopeful student.  Unpaid internships will not do it for the would-be young professional.  The reality for most is a new form of slavery. 

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

On the Altar of Art

Mearns Rehearsing "Narcissus"
The Art of Isadora
Lori Belilove and the Isadora Duncan Dance Company
Joyce Theater, New York
June 19, 2017

A prophet is always without honor in her home country, but Isadora Duncan may finally have come into her glory. It happened last night at a jam-packed Joyce Theater, where a world-famous ballerina gave a boost to an infamous enemy of ballet. Isadora would have been amazed.
Sara Mearns of New York City Ballet joined the company, briefly, for a solo to Chopin's "Narcissus." Duncan's choreography has probably never been performed with the articulation, power and speed Mearns brought to the myth. It was exciting, electric, especially the upsweep of her moving turns. But it wasn't strictly Duncanesque.  

Thursday, June 8, 2017

Circus with a Purpose

Limits_MB-5248_PC_Mats-Baecker
Saara Ahola, Peter Aberg in "Limits"
-- By Tom Phillips

Midway through Cirkus Cirkor's "Limits," aerialist Saara Ahola asks the audience to join her in a little trick: stand up with your feet together, close your eyes, and remain standing. Be careful in the balcony, she says, and with good reason. We immediately feel ourselves swaying, shifting our weight to stay in balance. The lesson is this: the world cannot keep its balance by holding still, it constantly needs to shift its weight, to allow movement. She asks: what happens when the world is in a great upheaval, and suddenly borders are closed, people arrested, stranded, abandoned, drowned? Will the whole world lose its balance and fall?

Saturday, June 3, 2017

Failure: A Conversation with Laura Peterson, Part 2


-- By Tom Phillips

In Part One of this conversation, Laura Peterson talked about the sea-changes in her art over the years --- from satire, through abstraction, to a complex vehicle for personal, emotional expression.  

After years of being cast as microscopic bugs and atomic particles, Peterson and her dancers emerged as human beings in 2012, in a piece called “Failure.”  It addresses a universal human experience, but you’ve never seen the human condition rendered like this. The unique touch is the scenery -- a huge kite-like construction, designed to collapse during the performance.   

Laura Peterson is the daughter of an academic philosopher, but as an artist she is also the child of the Judson School – drawing on the ideas incubated at Judson Memorial Church in the 1960s – among them minimalism, repetition, unusual settings and collaborations with other arts, and chance combinations. 
In “Failure,” it all comes together. We see choreography as philosophy – a working out of the paradoxical relationships of determinism, chance, and human will.  And in a particularly satisfying twist, we can see it this summer at Judson Memorial.   “Failure” will make its New York debut in that sacred space, June 29 through July 1. In March we talked about the work, and its new, post-election incarnation.  


LP:  “Failure” I did after “Wooden” in 2011.  Something happened there, in “Wooden,” when we’re running back and forth, over and over, but I didn’t think it went far enough.  I could see a possibility there, the possibility of exhaustion, and that it has an emotional quality to it.  And then I thought, when does the body fail?  What are your personal physical limits?  And can you go farther than that, can you ask more of your body than that?  The 2012 Olympics were happening then.  And I looked at people’s effort, and their limits, and then more effort and passing a limit you think you have.  And then watching somebody collapse, because their effort goes beyond their limit.  And then you become a person, which is excruciating.  I keep thinking, why do I have to have limits? 

TP:  For me, “Failure” is the most clearly realized piece you’ve done, because the concept is very simple.   It’s just that people tend to avoid it.  They don’t want to talk about it, everyone wants to be a success.  But even success has its limits.  And then what?


Wednesday, May 31, 2017

15 Minutes of Beatledom



It was 50 years ago today:  On June 1, 1967, the Beatles released  their eighth record album, "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," and its last note is still echoing. Today, "Sgt. Pepper" has its place in history -- considered by many the greatest record album ever made, and mistakenly identified (initially, by me) as the work that turned the record album into an art form.

And that was my 15 minutes of fame!

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.