ANN LIV YOUNG had been in jail for about two hours when I got to Jack. She didn’t seem especially unhappy about it. She seemed, in fact, and no surprise, like she had the upper hand—for example, she had a chair, more than was provided to anyone who had paid fifteen dollars to come look at the performance art incarceration spectacle that was set to unfold over the next few nights at the interdisciplinary Brooklyn space. I mean, her wig was slightly askew. But when isn’t it?
When I returned three nights later, the scene was much the same, with two key differences: The rickety cell constructed within Jack had been strengthened by means of a plywood roof, and the door had been chained and padlocked, so that Young couldn’t exit at will, as she had done during the opening evening of her term. Young’s escape was in violation of the conceptual rules laid out by Jack’s artistic director Alec Duffy, but Young, reasonably enough, pointed out that she didn’t see much point in staying inside an unlocked cell just because somebody said it was art.
“Thank you all for coming tonight,” she said cheerfully at the end of that first, four-hour night. “I’m sorry if I shattered your dreams when I left the jail.”
Ann Liv Young: Destroyer of Worlds & Unrepentant Shatterer of Dreams. For those of you who have been living under a rock/paying attention to less insular social dramas, Young was ostensibly being punished for, among other misbehaviors, a nearly year-old transgression at American Realness in which she interrupted the work of the artist Rebecca Patek; I wasn’t at the scene of that crime, and so won’t write about it here, beyond observing that it’s intriguing to think about the evening, and various responses to it, in light of the ways in which young female artists like Emma Sulkowicz are now using (repurposing?) sexual assault as a subject—the kid gloves, in other words, are coming off. (Patek wrote her own response here to Young’s interruption, and seems understandably disgusted by the show at Jack; the online and social media rabbit hole goes deep on this one, so have at.)
Young and I go way back as public figures. I’ve critiqued and interviewed her; she’s stuck foreign objects up her anus in performative responses to my written responses of her performances; we’ve had Twitter exchanges ranging from philosophical debates to insignificant falsification of the facts. At Jack, she started calling me “Claudina,” a nickname which has already since been repeated to me by another audience member, the artist Jim Findlay. The power of art to transform lives. Great, thanks.
Here it seems important to say that I don’t claim to know Young at all as a private figure, and have zero interest in contributing to the ongoing public deliberations around what sort of person she is, which ranges from her being “psychotic” to “an unfit mother” and is about many things, including ongoing and tedious societal ideas about how women should behave. Like her art, don’t like her art [I go back and forth], but give me a fucking break with the gendered moralizing.
But also, it’s hard to have too much (as in, any) meaningful sympathy for claims by Young’s team that she is being somehow persecuted for the sins of her unruly theatrical creation Sherry. (Though I was intrigued to learn that one of the major European backers of Elektra, a show created in collaboration with Annie Dorsen, who was in attendance at Jack, pulled out following the Realness kerfuffle.)
Because, really, one of the things that’s most intriguing about Young these days is the extent to which her onstage persona is impossible to fully separate from Sherry, a fearless character maniacally parasitic in scope.
“Are you guys clear that Sherry and I are different people?” Young asked on the first night. What an uninteresting question.
Here’s an exchange I liked more. It was in full swing Saturday when I walked in, Young going at it with an audience member who had somehow gotten himself to this unwise level of individual attention from Young:
Young: “You can’t trust me. If you were in this cage I would rip you to shreds in a flat second.”
Young, accompanied by a devilish, condescending smile: “You really think I’d do that?”
And then later, while effortfully squeezing her head in and out of the thick rubber bars of the jail: “You understand that I’m a character, right? That I’m not real… I’m contradicting myself? Never. I am a contradiction. I am a made up character—for people like you.”
Young’s ability to work a room—and, maybe more to the point, people’s (not to mention one’s own) abilities to variously allow, deflect, resist, or succumb to her deeply charming, deeply unsettling machinations—is the ur-subject of every unscripted Young performance. It is the material with which she builds a fractious, truly public space, the sort that rarely exists within art that promises to create the very same thing.
On Saturday night, for example, Young took one look at Findlay, asked if he was a performance artist (he said yes) and quickly moved on after they shared a nod of mutual “you are not a soft target” recognition. She and I shared some banter that left me feeling both energized and destabilized, having revealed more than I intended, and less than I would have had she not moved on. And she spent a good amount of time alternately interrogating and befriending a young woman about her relationship with a transman, with what seemed to me a keen understanding of how much, and where, she could push. Young got the men to turn around so the woman would dance topless for a female audience. Why did that woman continue the exchange? What did it profit her? The fast-moving play of complex emotions across her face was riveting.
Such fascinating encounters are gussied up by things like raucous karaoke renditions of pop songs (Kanye West, fittingly, is a frequent choice), urination so matter of fact you might miss it, the handing out of clothing as gifts (Claudina got a beaded tunic for her troubles) and group movement exercises.
Not quite—but I stayed longer than I can remember staying for any recent durational work. And while I was sometimes bored and sometimes totally turned off, I was held by a question I couldn’t answer, then or now: Is there any other contemporary performance artist this adept at manipulating a crowd, physical and virtual? Young, like Kanye, is a celebrity monster—one whose power is drawn directly from her creators. Us.
“Ann Liv Young in Jail” ran December 3–6, 2014 at Jack in Brooklyn, New York.
Tere O’Connor, BLEED, 2013. Performance view, Brooklyn Academy of Music, Brooklyn, NY, December 10, 2013. Photo: Paula Court.
I’M ON A PLANE from Seattle to San Francisco. A little plane, tilting fiercely the way little planes do high up here in the dark clouds. It’s Monday night, 6:29 to be precise. I have just spent the weekend watching four dances by Tere O’Connor: The large ensemble work BLEED, which enfolds and explodes elements from the three smaller dances Secret Mary, Poem, and Sister.
So many bodies cast into and about space. Pleasures of full movement, both simple and ornate. Collisions of virtuosity, formalism, technique, rigmarole, the pedestrian, the absurd. All the little cruelties we casually gift to others, to ourselves. The events that don’t quite come into being, and in fact are gone before we have ever fully registered them. Torsos folding, manic arms, sensuous and sensual grasping. Bodies curled in and curving. Breathing room. Gender performed and performing. Moments in time as characters.
This mini-survey came courtesy of On the Boards theater and Velocity Dance Center, making Seattle the only place other than the American Dance Festival to showcase this particular moment in O’Connor’s extensive body of work; lucky them, and unlucky the rest of the country. I had seen all of these dances before, other than Sister, and I have seen just about everything O’Connor has made in the past decade. But the cumulative weight of experiencing them all together like this—I wasn’t expecting it to feel so important.
The mind watching others. The mind watching itself. That’s something I thought a lot while taking in these restless, exactingly built dances. They are the sentences I would choose if I had to say what these interconnected pieces are about—but the less reductive answer is that this question of “aboutness” is the wrong one entirely to ask, or answer.
Why bring it up at all, then? Yes, that’s a better question—but people seem to want to ask it all the time of O’Connor, shaping the wording this way and that but essentially wanting to know, what’s this about? His resistance to this sort of narrative, and his insistence on dance being ill equipped to deal with singularities, is part of what makes sliding into his choreographic world such a relief.
And, of course, O’Connor is entirely in control of his narrative as a public figure—he talks easily and elegantly about the politics and poetics of his work, both of which come from strong traditions of opposition to neatly understood meanings in dance. (Along with a deep affinity to film, O’Connor cites Merce Cunningham as a strong early influence on him, not stylistically but philosophically.) So this becomes another way to consider aboutness: dance as defiance, as movement away from message-making. Think of a wilderness surrounded by a glittering city.
“I’m not looking to square up,” he said in a post-show discussion with the audience at Velocity following Sister. And earlier: “Language as a stitchery on the outside of consciousness, not its trumpet.”
I love that phrase. It connects in my mind (among many other things) to the impossibility of writing about dance, what a fraught translation it is, and how necessary that failure feels. Again, I’m thinking of wilderness. It’s somehow like being an explorer, thinking maybe this time you’ll find a river that gets you from one ocean to the other, while knowing that possibility only exists if you never find it. Ambiguity as salve for the oppressiveness of our shrinking, beset upon globe.
But still (words accrue)—may I tell you that Sister is pure deliciousness, a battle and commiserating of wills, if wills could be understood as rhythms? And maybe I can say that Poem is sublime, oblique formalism, or that Secret Mary is at once arch and abject: here I am! here I am! (wink wink)?
Or perhaps the better information to give you is that the performers in BLEED, who are also the performers in various groupings in those other dances, are the following people: Tess Dworman, devynn emory, Natalie Green, Michael Ingle, Ryan Kelly, Oisín Monaghan, Cynthia Oliver, Heather Olson, Mary Read, Silas Riener, and David Thomson. And that these people are such good and smart company—you hardly know where to look when they’re all onstage. Luckily (or, I guess, unluckily, depending on your disposition), there’s no one to tell you how to direct your gaze.
And yes, I know, I am gushing. And, yes, of course, there are things that I’m not sure about in the work—sometimes it can feel a bit too the same in its unceasing change, or sometimes I wonder if O’Connor isn’t cheating just a little bit by using James Baker’s scores to guide his audiences (emotionally, if not narratively), and whether he might make sartorial decisions that give the dancers somewhat more neutral breathing room than Walter Dundervill’s brilliant object (even objectifying) costumes.
But that isn’t so much what I want to say here on this little plane, which is not so much tilting this moment as lurching. I want instead to say that I am grateful that these dances, and the man who made them, and the dancers who fulfill them, exist. I want to say: thank you.
BLEED, poem, and Secret Mary were performed November 20–22 at On the Boards in Seattle.
Young Jean Lee, Straight White Men, 2014. Rehearsal view, The Public Theater, New York, NY, November 6, 2014. Matt and Ed (James Stanley and Austin Pendleton). Photo: Julieta Cervantes.
IT’S ALL IN THE TIMING. The same week that former President George W. Bush published 41: A Portrait of My Father, his “love story” for pater and predecessor George H. W. Bush, the Farrelly Brothers’ (d)ur-comedy sequel Dumb and Dumber To was number one at the box office. Also that week, “The Innovations Issue” of the New York Times Magazine championed failure as the new success: “Welcome to the Failure Age!” “Virtual Reality Fails Its Way to Success,” “A Brief History of Failure.” A prodigal son who sinned and was born again—first into Christ, then into art—writing the record for dear old dad. An extreme “masculinfancy” comedy, a popular genre populated by the manboy, the doofus, and, more recently, the douchebag genius. A national newspaper’s spin on losing as the way of the winner. At the center of all of these stories—produced of course with an eye to sell as many copies, seats, and papers as possible—are America’s current favorite characters-of-no-character: white men.
Also consider a part of this moment Young Jean Lee’s newest play Straight White Men, which opened at The Public Theater earlier this week. The title clearly frames Lee’s production as an attempt to wrestle her subjects both as characters in her play, as well as players in a cultural super narrative on the world’s stage. Of course, we’ve been told for quite some time that straight white men aren’t what they used to be. Writers and critics as varied as Avital Ronell, A.O. Scott, Hanna Rosin, Cintra Wilson, and Andrew O’Hehir have each pondered the dull strain of American “middle-bro” culture, with its dutifully crafted tales of feckless men—“inaction heroes,” to borrow a phrase from Ronell—stumbling rather than journeying through life. If the erosion of traditional masculinity has been attributed at various points to the rise of feminism, the demise of authority, or to the fallout of late capitalism, Lee chooses another angle—white liberalism— from which to explore why these men just don’t know their place anymore.
In Lee’s surefooted and affecting story, a father and his three grown sons gather to celebrate Christmas at the old homestead. Each man, we learn, is untethered in his own way. Father Ed (Austin Pendleton) is a retired widower whose days are filled with little more than learning guitar and being waited on by his eldest son, Matt (James Stanley). Second-born Jake (Gary Wilmes) is the alpha of the pack, a divorced banker and father of two whose unapologetic swagger keeps the room roiling. The youngest, Drew (Pete Simpson), holds a fulltime position at a university, writes well-received political novels, but can’t seem to hold down a steady girlfriend. The boys were raised in a liberal household, where Mom did things like recraft Monopoly into a game called Privilege, “where you have fun by not having fun,” Drew remembers. “How else were you gonna learn not to be assholes?” their father explains.
Grief and loneliness aside, what’s eating these men is Matt’s move back home. Once a prodigy who spent his youth protesting injustice, even founding a “School for Young Revolutionaries,” Matt now spends his days at a temp job, his nights and weekends cooking, cleaning, and running errands for his able-bodied father. In other words, Matt is spending his life doing things a brilliant straight white man shouldn’t, and his father and brothers want to know why. Each has a theory. Jake argues that Matt’s political beliefs have necessitated the choice of standing down, of becoming invisible. “Women and minorities may get to pretend they’re doing enough to make the world a better place just by getting ahead,” Jake booms, “but a white guy’s pretty hard-pressed to explain why the world needs him to succeed.” Drew believes instead that Matt’s current state is indicative of a deep need for therapy, which will help him become happy. (After all, it worked for Drew). Ed, the most perplexed and disappointed by Matt’s underachieving, thinks perhaps his son’s paralysis has been brought on by the financial strain of his student loans, or perhaps for reasons that hit even closer to home. “I look at you now and don’t even recognize you,” he mourns, “I feel like I haven’t done a good job as a father.”
If the story feels conventional, it is. Pointedly. What is meant to be the oddest aspect of Lee’s play is that it’s written in the realist tradition, as though to tackle straight white men on their own playing field. (Lee’s previous work has heretofore been outwardly experimental.) It’s a striking idea, the subtle cracking open of a genre by a close adherence to it, and in certain moments, Straight White Men’s normalcy is what ironically gives it its edge. It’s as though all the tropes have been given the space to play themselves out. That said, it’s a slippery idea too, and although thankfully the play never slides into parody (a most infantilizing genre, mimetic, ever dependent upon the existence of the thing it’s supposedly sending up), it does lose certain potential sharpness, negotiating the clichés it sets before us while never quite firming up a tack or tone of its very own. (And here I will seem to unfairly pick on Lee—and it is unfairly—in an attempt to articulate my exhaustion with a narrative strategy that has become au courant in contemporary storytelling.)
Matt—around whom the large questions spin—remains enigmatic, a blank screen onto which the rest of the family projects their theories, and so too can the audience. (One might be reminded of Melville’s Bartleby and his haunting refrain I would prefer not to, but the character isn’t given even that much gusto or direction.) His blankness is useful up to a point, but his lack of shape allows Lee to unhook herself from articulating a position, or of expanding the conversation beyond the tropes we’re being asked to consider. “Let the audience decide” is a mirroring tactic I’ve become weary of, as it relies on loose ends to produce meaning rather than risk saying something. In this case, it’s the meta-ness of Lee’s play that gives it its aura of profundity—watching straight white men in a play titled Straight White Men in a genre that was largely the territory of straight white men. Perhaps that’s enough for some, though in this moment when the Bushes are back, the masculinfants rule our screens, and thumbs are way up for a generalized dumbing down, I was hoping for fresher insight.
RUSHING FROM BROOKLYN, the subways are slow and I don’t catch the right train up to Beacon to see Steve Paxton’s not-a-retrospective. The work of the virtuoso Cunningham dancer, Judson pioneer, Grand Union collaborator, and Contact Improvisation creator is precisely about awareness of one’s body and so as a distraction I try to pay attention to mine. Pacing on the platform is a kind of magical thinking, I realize, an impotent attempt to speed up trains or slow down time, as if my internal velocity could exert some force outside its own envelope. It is impossible not to make metaphors of this. I am late and I miss the first piece.
Writing on Paxton in 1968, Jill Johnston cites the opening line to a taped lecture he gave that year: “Like the famous tree which is uncertain if it will be heard should it fall in a forest without people there is a way of looking at things which render them performance.” Trees need an audience to make a sound, and so too goes the party line about performance and presence, the idea that dance disappears. I have always been more interested in how performance can be fugitive even when it’s right in front of you, how much escapes even in close proximity. You can’t ever claim to master it; you can’t have it all, and certainly not all at once.
Nonetheless, I go to Beacon again the next weekend, and when the first piece, Flat, 1964, begins, the audience is oriented toward a false promise. In this staging, the performers enter from behind, the first indication of their presence is through the echoing clomp of shoes on the old Nabisco factory floor, sounds rattling around in the cavernous gallery. K. J. Holmes comes into view in an unflattering navy suit. From behind and now ahead, she keeps walking, clomping, looking forward, getting smaller into the distance. Chamberlains glare menacingly on all sides. Jurij Konjar and Polly Motley join—in ill-fitting suits all three—each new entrance indistinguishable from squirmy children and shifty latecomers.
Disappearing behind and beyond the hulking metal masses, they sit, stand, pose, and take off their clothes. Operating at different paces and in the deep space of the gallery they look like refractions of one another, in and out of sync. The piece is structured around the shadow of a striptease, and yet, unlike so much contemporary performance, Flat is blissfully uninterested in titillation. For a maker so associated with “ordinary dance,” it gleans instead mutant images. Once shed, articles of clothing sprout like fantastical appendages from the sternum and the back, hooked to the skin by invisible means.
The body is so often a kind of equipment in Paxton’s work: dogged and reliable. A 2010 solo performed by Paxton himself, The Beast, figures these mechanics into a foreign other, its minutely articulated gestures in each moment a surprise. The spine, pelvis, and core all form a central axis, but from where and how the movements originate is impossible to locate precisely. Arms stretch outward in a pose of supplication; in other moments his chin tucks, seeming to recoil from his extremities. I wonder if I could ever look so beautiful or assured; probably not.
Steve Paxton, Flat, 1964. Performance view, Dia:Beacon, Beacon, New York, October 16, 2014. Polly Motley, K.J. Holmes, and Jurij Konjar. Photo: Paula Court.
Later, the Slovenian-born Konjar dances Bound, 1982, a fitful fifty-minute solo wrapped in camouflage. Disguise and segmentation are the games here, as sleights of body mutate and are revealed, showing their seams of construction. Lurching, at one moment Konjar is suddenly flat on his back. So many pieces from the early Judson days are structured around falling. The 1964 Cunningham piece Winterbranch (done in the dark, illuminated mostly by flashlight, and which Cunningham built around Paxton) takes falling as its premise; the “first” contact improvisation dance—Paxton’s Magnesium, performed at a Grand Union workshop at Oberlin College in 1972—uses the same devices: gravity, inertia, the shifting and transfer of weight.
Between Bound and the final work, the audience is herded across the temporary dance floor—wood squares pieced together that echo the Carl Andre sculptures in the other room. Later I will stand on Andre’s 46 Roaring Forties, 1988, and quietly perform a work that Paxton calls the Small Dance: “Standing still and feeling your body. Doing absolutely nothing but letting your skeletal muscles hold you upright.” I think about the immense effort it takes to stay vertical and I think of Ana Mendieta, whose presence here is everywhere felt, but whose work is in fact about absence—or, in other words, how much even immediacy can leave wanting.
“Presentness is Grace.” That old modernist dream of a vision so fast it evaporates the body entirely, leaving behind only rods and cones in its wake. For Frank Stella—as relayed by Michael Fried to Rosalind Krauss—this promise was realized in the figure of baseball player Ted Williams (he could see the stitches on a ninety mph fastball). Krauss recounts the story in her book The Optical Unconscious (1994), the title a riff on Walter Benjamin’s famous observation that what escapes human perception is captured by the camera. Into all this, Krauss reinserts the strangeness of desire.
Of course, the poses interrupting all that walking in Flat are themselves derived from sports photographs, baseball to be exact. Wily (Yvonne Rainer’s term), and smarter than the rest of us, fifty years ago Paxton was already tangling the logics of performance first, then documentation. Try to keep up.
Smiling, 1967, the last dance, is almost imperceptible. Two performers stand and smile at one another—unassumingly—for a loose duration of about five minutes. It’s just long enough for restless audience members to get a clue that the piece is now, it’s happening, it’s here right in front of you. You are missing it.
I’M NOT SURE HOW MUCH I learned about Fred Herko during “Fred Herko: A Crash Course,” a four-hour-plus symposium organized by Joshua Lubin-Levy and presented Saturday afternoon by NYU’s performance studies department and a bunch of other august orgs.
This isn’t to say that I didn’t enjoy myself. I mean, we were fed well, for starters, and anytime anyone is showing Andy Warhol films, life is good. More on those later, but the above paragraph is to say that there is a lot of misinformation and mythology out there on our dear Freddie, and people really, really, really like talking about both.
This is understandable. First, there’s the mythology, which begins with the facts, such as they are: twenty-eight-year-old gorgeous queer charismatic strung-out dancer-poet-muse-etc. involved in uptown-downtown midcentury avant-garde excitement dies by jumping/dancing/falling/stepping out of fifth-story window of Cornelia Street apartment in 1964, possibly because he thought he could fly and possibly because he intended to commit suicide and possibly because, why let physics get in the way of a good old grand jete/swan dive? It seems he bathed before dying, in a tub, maybe with perfume in it.
And second, the people immediately able to account for what actually happened and why were artists. As in, decidedly not responsible for history. As in, maybe not even worth consulting (more on that later, also, with feeling), though they did write some pretty great poems about the situation. For instance, here’s the first stanza from Diane di Prima’s “FORMAL BIRTHDAY POEM: February 23, 1964,” when it seems the writing was already sliding down the wall in the house of Herko:
dear Freddie, it’s your birthday & you are crazy
really gone now, crazy like any other old queen
showing off your naked limbs a little withered
making fairy tales into not very good ballets
I have this poem because I have the course packet Lubin-Levy, Alan Ruiz, Kelly O’Grady, and Nova Benway edited for Crash Course, a document that includes writing by the likes of Jill Johnston, George Brecht, LeRoi Jones, and Ray Johnson, plus a nasty poem-review Herko wrote about Paul Taylor (“Paul Taylor is not ultimately beautiful”; bless you, Freddie), plus a nasty letter-response to that poem-review by Edwin Denby (“Herko had better watch his language”; bless you, Edwin), and even, delightfulness, Herko’s edited resume as a cover with his scrawl on top “SORRY—I’M SLOW—FH.” This little booklet, in other words, is perfect. Probably everything in it is inaccurate. I don’t care.
But I am not a historian. Gerard Forde is, and he is writing a biography about Herko (which will probably be great), and his opening talk, “Send Three and Fourpence, We’re Going to a Dance—Misreading Fred Herko,” was almost all about what everyone else got wrong. He took aim at a lot of people, but dance historian Sally Banes was the one who really got it, not just for what she apparently biffed on our boy but also for the whole Judson Dance Theater shebang. Speaking at a closing panel about her book (I’m not sure which book, or maybe he meant all of them, since JDT runs throughout Banes’s scholarship, though apparently I shouldn’t call it that anymore): “I just think burn the fucking thing and start over.”
Scholarly led book burning! Now we’re talkin’.
And here Forde wanted to give more JDT research credit to Johnston, thereby endearing him to me, only it seemed for others on the panel, particularly the art historian Julia Robinson, just because Johnston was there doesn’t mean she is a better source. And this of course led into the whole debate about whether people who have a firsthand stake in the game count for anything (Robinson: “And that’s a viable source, the artist documenting her own work!?”), and then the inevitable statement that history doesn’t exist anyway (Richard Move: “There’s no such thing.”), and then, most pleasurable of all, the theory versus facts knife fight, in which people’s metaphors are made to look stupid (if they haven’t made themselves look that way already through poesy and overreaching) and facts, what is it good for? The rest of the panel tried simply to maintain its dignity.
The whole thing reminded me (I mean, I wasn’t actually there) of that Jill Johnston panel when Trisha Brown stormed out and Johnston was upset until Brown reminded her that she, Johnston, had given her, Brown, the option of storming out. And here’s Johnston on panels in general, in an essay perfectly titled for this occasion, “Cultural Gangsters”: “In fact I began to think if things went right we could’ve had a gang bang on the spot without even knowing it.”
All we needed were the post-coital ciggies. That was one thing the buffet spread didn’t provide, shame on NYU—but actually no, hang on, they thought of everything, because, back to Warhol, we started the day with his magnificent Screen Test of Herko, that unbearably gorgeous face full of secrets smoking away like any old immortal.
“Fred Herko: A Crash Course” panel on October 25, 2014. Photo: Conrad Ventur.
These films are too good to be true. That’s their whole point. Same with Warhol’s Jill and Freddy Dancing (1963), Herko and Johnston swanning about on an unfinished roof, looking ravishing. Or Harlot (1965), which Marc Siegel presented in the other talk of the day, “Good Bananas, Bad Bananas and Gossip,” an exploration of fugitive histories through the drag star Mario Montez.
I agree with Siegel’s faith in gossip. (“You don’t have to believe me, even though it’s true, as is all the gossip I share.”) And I agree with Ara Osterweil, a professor of film and cultural studies at McGill University and a painter, who was one of the non-Herko experts invited to give a brief riff inspired by Herko, and said to Forde in that final panel, “The corrective impulse in your work, I found it so ungenerous.”
But also I agree with Forde that if theorists are “only recycling half-truths” their constructs will suffer from “an increasingly limited gene pool.” I mean, how many falling metaphors can you really deal with before you have to get on with your day? There were so many mentions of bodies falling. The two I kept thinking of were female, and horridly incongruous: the loud-talker who fell out the window at that party in Sex and the City, and Ana Mendieta, who we also will never know the truth about. They were both, in violently different ways, inconvenient women.
And this brings me to the woman sitting next to me, Deborah Lawlor (back then she was Lee), who danced with James Waring and with Herko and who told me that Herko lived with her for the last six months of his life “as roommates”—she stressed that point, smart girl—and who rolled her eyes when I asked what she thought of much of the talk swirling around Herko and who later pointed out, “The women speakers always go last.”
It’s true, they did: Robinson, Osterweil, Danielle Goldman, and Heather Love, crammed in after the men who, as usual, talked at leisure. Pressed for time, pressing to make their points to a tired-out audience. And now, you see, I replicate the pattern.
But let’s give a woman the last word, at least. Isabelle Fisher, a fabulously dressed elderly woman who spoke out about how all of her friends-turned–historical figures were being distorted by interpretations, when actually they weren’t in their lives fitting their work into constructs. No, “they were just doing it.” Whatever the it (forever now in question) was.
WENDY WHELAN is twenty-two minutes late for her thirty-minute rehearsal with fellow New York City Ballet principal Robert Fairchild, who had been preparing to head out but now, smart man, quickly slips off his street shoes and gets back into studio gear.
“Sorry!” Whelan mouths, her face making an exaggerated smile-cringe as she rushes to put on her own pointe shoes. Apparently she thought the rehearsal began a half hour later than it did.
Somehow this isn’t even remotely obnoxious. If anybody is thinking irritable thoughts, they’re well hidden. (As one of the company’s publicists says to me as we’re walking out, “ ‘Anything for Wendy.’ That’s what everyone in this building says—and they mean it.”)
What I’m thinking, as I watch Whelan and Fairchild zip through their scene in Balanchine’s La sonnambula (at the beginning she is rushing so much that she actually sleep-runs through one passage, getting far ahead of the music—it’s all wrong, but still it’s beautiful, weightless, spooky), is that this is the last time I will ever come to City Ballet to watch Wendy Whelan rehearse.
All of it seems pleasingly fitting—that she’s so late, that she’s rehearsing a role in which the woman, as muse, is also beyond reach, already in another world. And, especially, that as I was waiting in the lobby for the publicist to escort me up, I watched Jock Soto enter and duck into an elevator—retired from City Ballet for ten years, and a teacher at the company’s School of American Ballet, he remains in my mind inextricably bound up with Whelan. Soto-Whelan-Christopher Wheeldon: a trinity that opened up a desperately needed new space for ballet to live in the House of Balanchine.
I can’t think of a more accurate description of what it was like—always—to watch her dance in that house. You could feel her heart—intelligent, authoritative, beating hard—in every exactly calibrated step.
Fairchild joined City Ballet in 2006, twenty years after Whelan. He never met Balanchine, of course. Whelan says she glimpsed the great man only once, just after she arrived as an SAB student, just before he died. She went on to become an anchor for the company in the hard years that followed, as City Ballet struggled to figure out what it was or could be without its brilliant cofounder.
Now, in 2014, all that is (ancient, recent) history. And now, on Monday, October 20th, so, too, is Whelan’s City Ballet career, a singular three-decade sweep in which she ignited much of the best ballet choreography that’s been made post-Balanchine. There has been startlingly, dishearteningly little of lasting importance created in these years (and certainly not once you excise the American outlier William Forsythe, or modern dance crossovers like Twyla Tharp). What’s come, minus a very recent crop of promising young talents, has been almost exclusively from Alexei Ratmansky and Wheeldon, both of whom have by far done their best work for City Ballet, and, particularly, for and with Whelan.
And so, of course, these two men joined forces to create By 2 With & From, a piece d’occasion for Whelan’s City Ballet retirement performance on Saturday, a nearly three-hour event for which tickets sold out in about eleven minutes. People dressed as if for a gala, but the mood throughout the evening was hushed, heart in hand. People you don’t usually see crying were wiping their eyes.
Whelan danced in every ballet: La sonnambula (1946), as well as excerpts from Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering (1969), Ratmansky’s Concerto DSCH (2008), and Wheeldon’s After the Rain (2005). Does it need to be said that she was both transcendent and deeply human in each, that, as she always does, she made time do what she wanted it to do? Does it need to be said that retirements aren’t typically the occasions for premieres, but that in this case, how could it be otherwise? Here, the muse (again that troubling, troublesome word) was the generator, the reason for this work’s being.
By 2 With & From, which was set to Vivaldi (recomposed by Max Richter), was the final piece of the night, of course, and it was over too soon, just as it felt like the audience was fully sinking into “Part II: Autumn and Winter,” choreographed by Ratmansky. Wheeldon had “Spring and Summer”—and in each section you saw the choreographers go-tos, Wheeldon’s sculptural bodies wheeling through space, Ratmansky’s quicksilver flashes of humor and whimsy through darker, heavier currents. Mostly, though, you saw Whelan, which is what you see every time she dances—not in a showboat way, but as a miraculous inevitability. “See how she leads the dance”: these words were written by the former City Ballet star Jacques d’Amboise, who was sitting in front of me on Saturday (and later joined the parade of those paying tribute to Whelan on stage). Sorry, Jacques, I couldn’t help but look over your shoulder as you scrawled all those notes. See how she leads the dance. It follows her so gladly.
I wonder if By 2 With & From (whose cast was completed by Whelan’s steady partners Tyler Angle and Craig Hall) will ever be performed again. I hope it isn’t. And also I wonder—even while knowing that this is silly, and says more about me and my relationship to the past than to the present and future lives of these ballets, this company—how so many of the works Ratmansky and Wheeldon created for and with and on Whelan will ever be performed again.
Wendy Whelan takes a bow following her New York City Ballet farewell performance on October 18, 2014. Photo: Paul Kolnik.
In that same interview with Sulcas, Whelan pointed to Baryshnikov as a model, as she moves into a post–City Ballet career that won’t see her confining herself to the classroom, as is so (too) often the case for women in this art form.
Who can argue with Misha as model?
But. What about another road, one that keeps the dancer-as-creator in a central role? The Saturday before Whelan’s retirement, I was at the Brooklyn Academy of Music to see Moment Marigold, a new work by Jodi Melnick, an artist whose dancing is also inextricably tied with the choreography it inhabits—in this case her own.
Like Whelan, Melnick’s career has included dancing for giants (Tharp, Trisha Brown). Like Whelan, Melnick is a precision instrument for getting at the sublime, a dancer who unfurls a leg and tells you everything you never knew you needed to know. Like Whelan, Melnick offers a different idea of what a dancer’s “prime” can be.
I don’t know if Whelan has any interest in choreography. And I don’t want to hijack her for a feminist call to arms in the ballet.
But a gal can dream. That’s what I was doing anyway the Saturday before at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, even before Melnick held the stage alone for a moment, wielding a small knife as she scythed through steps, as I remembered something Whelan said to me in a profile I did of her a few years earlier, about how she feels in Wheeldon’s ballet Polyphonia: “I feel like a switchblade in that, like a very shiny, dangerous, elegant tool.”
I can only imagine all the choreographers salivating over the idea of getting their hands on such a tool. And so they should. But perhaps, just perhaps … a blade as fine as this will one day want to cut its own cloth.