Corrections or additions?
This column by Nicole Plett was prepared for the
April 11, 2001 edition of U.S. 1 Newspaper. All rights reserved.
Since the first light of the 20th century, American
modern dance has been the world’s envy. (Even when American dancers
had to travel the world to find their audiences.) So it was with a
mixture of astonishment and greedy pleasure that I sat at New York’s
City Center last Wednesday evening, watching the incomparable Merce
Cunningham Dance Company perform two Cunningham masterworks while
mentally preparing for this week’s Princeton appearances by Bill T.
Jones and the Mark Morris Dance Company. So much of the energy and
inventiveness of our dance generations since 1950 has been fueled
by Cunningham’s creative journey.
The dances I saw — "Summerspace" of 1958 and
of 1999 — separated by more than 40 years, will doubtless prove
the high point of my year’s dance watching. Though many words have
been wasted on defining "art," I myself look for its capacity
to give us something more and something different on each encounter.
And in the case of the almost-antique "Summerspace" and
(which I saw at its premiere), the "more" and the
I experienced in these two dances almost bowled me over.
Those who still associate Cunningham with terms like "cool"
and "cerebral" should return again to these almost achingly
beautiful dance landscapes. This year "Summerspace," set
Robert Rauschenberg’s multi-colored pointillist dappled backdrops,
with dancers clad in matching dappled unitards, seemed to be all about
a summer story. The clear, clean lines of a dancer’s raised arm or
a deep diagonal lunge shot the stage with an energy akin to shafts
of sunlight sifting through foliage. I saw dancers spinning with both
arms extended to the sides and thought of dandelion seeds airborne
on a summer breeze. And yet these were simply men and women on the
stage, radiant in their dignity.
The magnificent and imposing "Biped" likewise tells a humanist
story. Set in a box of light behind a filmy black scrim, dancers in
shining, iridescent tank suits appear, as if by magic, from three
sides of the stage to parade, gambol, and strut like Olympian gods.
From moment to moment, animated color line drawings, distilled from
filmed movement, loom before, above, and around the dancers, ghostly
reminders of their very real mortality.
The next day, Mark Morris opened our telephone
by remarking that missing Merce Cunningham’s annual New York season
was just about the only cloud on his otherwise sunny horizon. At age
44, as he celebrates a triumphant 20th anniversary season at the
Academy of Music Opera House and the company’s move into its first
permanent home studio, Morris has gradually morphed from the bad boy
of modern dance to join the ranks of its reigning masters.
this Seattle-raised choreographic master hasn’t lost any of his
wit, or accessibility. And it seems that he, like the 82-year-old
Merce Cunningham, has no plans to retire from performing.
Morris’s success with audiences here and abroad has brought him a
level of support enjoyed by few American modern dance companies. His
administrative staff has just moved into the office floors of the
company’s new, $6.2 million multi-purpose facility in the Fort Greene
neighborhood of Brooklyn, across the street from the Brooklyn Academy
of Music where studios will be completed by June.
Not only has Morris inherited an innovative dance tradition from
he also notes that his first company concert, in 1980, took place
at the Cunningham Studio in Westbeth. "I rented a studio and put
on a show," he says playfully.
Now, having just concluded their three-week retrospective in New York
in March, Morris and his company of 18 dancers and five musicians
have already hit the road with performances, in Illinois, Oregon,
and California. The company returns to the East Coast to McCarter
Theater and the New Jersey Performing Arts Center in Newark in April,
then proceeds to Virginia before concluding in mid-May in Seattle.
Mark Morris Dance Group’s McCarter concert features five works
to live music on Tuesday, April 17, at 8 p.m.
"It’s business as usual," says an only-slightly wearied Morris
from his hotel room, on tour in Eugene, Oregon. "That’s what we
do. A couple of days off, then on the road again."
"We’re very fortunate. We work all the time, we have good houses
and we’re in demand. We’re healthy right now and that’s great."
He says the process of planning and raising money for the new building
extends back about six years.
"We started looking for a space in 1994 and ’95," explains
Nancy Umanoff, executive director of MMDG. "We looked throughout
Manhattan and even drew up some preliminary plans but the spaces were
expensive and none were ideal. Then in mid-1997 we started looking
in Brooklyn and purchased our site in March 1998." Demolition
and construction on the dance center began in June 1999.
Although the company publicly launched its capital campaign at that
point, in July 1999, it had already raised $1 million from the Council
of the City of New York (a sum that has now grown to $1.5 million)
and had received two other million-dollar gifts. It has now met its
$6.2 million goal.
The center will boast a "giant studio," 60-foot square, that
includes a lighting rig and space to seat about 150 for studio
Morris says the space will allow the company to replicate the size
of almost any stage they will perform on.
"We’re intending to start to offer some community classes in the
summer, maybe a small-scale workshop, but nothing full time till early
fall," says Morris. "We’ll spend the time this summer
the studios and then go into a long rehearsal period this summer."
Community classes, he says, will start in earnest this fall.
Bricks and mortar are good enough, but dance-making is Morris’s
Among the three new works featured on the McCarter program is
a solo danced by Morris and set to an Erik Satie score for children,
played onstage by Ethan Iverson on a toy piano. "Peccadillos"
was originally choreographed for Mikhail Baryshnikov and for long-time
company dancer Guillermo Resto, who now doubles as MMDG’s full-time
"Usually when I make a solo I choreograph it with and on somebody
else," he says. "I’m usually with another dancer or two, and
that person may perform it or not. That’s so it’s not just me dancing
around by myself. I compose the solos in as much detail as the groups.
I compose it and I have to learn it."
In recent years Morris has gained not only respect but a bit of
too, yet he continues to perform, primarily in solos. "I dance
my own work. That’s how Merce [Cunningham] danced for so extra long
— by doing his own work," he says with a laugh.
"Sang-Froid" is Morris’s newest group work, for nine dancers,
to music of Chopin. He describes the dance as "stern and
"It’s a mix of stuff," he says, a series of short piano pieces
that include "The Butterfly Etude," "The Winter Wind
"The Minute Waltz," and "Nocturne in F-minor" which
Morris selected and arranged with music director and pianist Ethan
Iverson. The work’s evocative, cool title came after the dance,
is always the case," says Morris.
"I didn’t touch Chopin for years because there are a bunch of
good dances to Chopin — as well as a bunch of terrible ones —
and we all spent so many years listening to Chopin chopped up into
eight-bar phrases for barre work in the studio. But partly because
Ethan was raised as a jazz pianist, he has incredible rhythm, and
this music is fierce and direct. I find the music so modern and
I don’t see it as beautiful ballet music. It’s driving and
"Falling Down Stairs," set to Bach’s Third Suite for
Cello, was originally created for a television special featuring
and cellist Yo-Yo Ma. "For television, the dance had no front,
but I rearranged it for a proscenium stage and it works quite well.
But we only do it when we have a genius cellist available."
for the performance is Matt Haimovitz.
Also featured is "Dancing Honeymoon," seen here on previous
tours, a lively and witty group piece set to popular songs of the
1920s and ’30s.
The company will also present Morris’s 1994 work, "The
a politically trenchant dance which, sad to say, never seems to go
out of date. Commissioned by the Balkan dance ensemble Zivili, and
set to Dvorak’s "Five Bagatelles," the work premiered during
the period of genocide in Bosnia. The company last performed it in
New Jersey at the State Theater during the war in Kosovo. And as
mount once more in the region, it’s back again.
What do you do for fun? we finally ask Morris. "This is kind of
fun — it’s hard, but it’s fun," he replies. "We’re here
in Eugene, Oregon, overlooking the river, happy to be on the road.
After this giant difficult season, a hotel in a small town is great.
And when we’re not performing here, we’re kind of taking it easy."
Place, 609-258-2787. $35 & $38. Tuesday, April 17, 8 p.m.
Program includes "Falling Down Stairs," "Peccadillos,"
"Sang-Froid," and "Dancing Honeymoon." $40. Friday
and Saturday, April 27 and 28, at 7:30 p.m.; Sunday, April 29, at
And `The Body’
The Body" has been a conspicuous topic of national
debate among the beautiful — and the not-so-beautiful — people
for at least two decades now. The body accompanies us from cradle
to grave, but how well do we really know it? Dancer and choreographer
Bill T. Jones asks, "Is the body the site of all knowledge and
awareness or is it a vessel we use to negotiate the journey from our
birth to our death?"
As a dancer, Jones’s sensuous performance style has been mesmerizing
audiences for more than 20 years. The Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane
Dance Company has been a regular attraction at McCarter Theater for
more than a decade. And last year Bill T. Jones brought his solo
Show" — a mix of dance, speech, song, and improvisation —
to the McCarter stage. This year he returns to the Princeton campus
as a lecturer. Jones will speak on "The Body: A Gateway and Two
Doors," on Thursday, April 12, at 8 p.m., in McCosh 50.
Now 48, Jones told U.S. 1 last year that he felt he was at the height
of his creative abilities. Keen to take a break from his customary
responsibilities creating and directing large group works, his project
then was to return to and explore the truth of his own physical
with a solo program. The company’s major works have included
Pastures," "Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin,"
and "We Set Out Early… Visibility Was Poor."
Born in 1952, the tenth of twelve children in a migrant worker’s
Jones spent his early years traveling the East Coast as his parents
followed the crop seasons. When he was seven, the family settled in
upstate New York. Jones attended high school there and was the second
child in the family to go on to university. He began his dance studies
in ballet and modern dance at SUNY, Binghamton.
During his freshman year he met Arnie Zane, a photography student,
and together they embarked on a personal and artistic partnership
that lasted 17 years. Their first collaborative duet, "Pas de
Deux for Two," was choreographed and performed in 1973. They went
on to found the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company in 1982. But
in 1985, both men were diagnosed as HIV-positive; Zane died in 1988.
Jones, who keeps Zane’s name as an integral part of the identity of
his thriving modern dance company, continues to live with HIV.
HIV and AIDS are among a panoply of hot-button issues that Jones has
brought out of the closet over the course of his career. Following
the premiere of the company’s evening-length work
created in part during participatory community workshops for survivors
of terminal illness, he was cast as the calm eye at the center of
a storm of controversy on art and criticism. The fracas was
by the publication, in the New Yorker, of a lengthy, negative
by noted dance critic Arlene Croce who had, in fact, declined to see
the work that she called unworthy and "victim art." Time
dubbed the ensuing outpouring of responses from cultural leaders on
both ends of the political spectrum, "the biggest since the
debate over Robert Mapplethorpe’s photography."
Among the intellectuals who came to Jones’ defense was Princeton’s
Joyce Carol Oates, whose essay on the history of death and dying as
a worthy subject for great art was published in the New York Times.
"The very concept of `victim art’ is an appalling one," wrote
Oates. "Only a sensibility unwilling to attribute full humanity
to persons who have suffered injury, illness or injustice could have
invented such a crude and reductive label."
"I began to dance because I fell in love with the idea of sweat;
I was an athlete who was repulsed by the idea of competition, so I
wanted a poetic, competition-free sweat," Jones told U.S. 1.
dance was, in a way, an act of rebellion. It said `No’ to the world’s
expectations of me as a young male, a young black male who was
to be an athlete or a good family man. It said `No’ to the world of
theater, which has a rich heritage, but which somehow separates the
mind and the body.
"But this was how it started. It really was an unconscious act
of rebellion, and I developed a real taste for the abstract beauty
— Nicole Plett
McCosh Hall 50, 609-258-3000. Free. Thursday, April 12, 8 p.m.
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