Mar/April 2009 Journal

REVIEW: A WINK AND A SMILE by Shantal Parris Riley An energizing and exciting foray into the West Coast world of burlesque dance, A WINK AND A SMILE is a real adrenaline shot in the arm. Produced by Golden Echo Films, the film tells the story of a group of firsttime performers participating in a months’ long burlesque workshop at Miss Indigo Blue’s Academy of Burlesque in Seattle. The film gets off to a racy start with a clever and naughty opening sequence featuring lingerie-clad burlesque dancers who put Victoria’s Secret models to shame. The audience is then given one of many heartstopping feature performances, as academy headmistress and founder Miss Indigo Blue is introduced in a shroud of soft, powder blue feathers. She teases, fans, flirts and fankicks with flawless execution. With her long, false eyelashes and glittering eye shadow, she is a cabaret lover’s dream come true. This number is followed by a lineup of equally provocative, exciting routines by a slew of world-renowned burlesque performers. Stereotypes are turned upside down in this film by an array of twisted but ingenious interpretations, onstage and in real life, of traditional archetypes; a strong, aggressive Asian muse; a hairy, masculine male bride; Miss Indigo Blue as sex kitten, teacher and businesswoman. As the “girls” work their way through weeks of frustrating training sessions, it is clear that this is not your everyday group of students: a waitress, bartender, college student, magazine editor, opera singer and taxidermist all combine to turn the class into a source for social commentary. One of them is, of all things, still a virgin. As Miss Indigo Blue explains, “There’s no average burlesque student.” These women, however, cannot hold a candle to the strength and power of the film’s professional burlesque performers. This may be an unfair comparison to make, but the contrast nonetheless inspires bouts of attention deficit disorder. Themes of self-loathing and self-hatred are visited as the students express negative opinions about their bodies and their fears of the big stage. It is here, at last, that we can identify ourselves in the faces of these young, brave souls. When the students finally appear onstage it is a relief to both themselves and the audience. Though their unpretentious release of pent-up sexuality is endearing, it is not necessarily entertaining. Perhaps only one or two of the students’ routines stand out, ironically performed by the women who expressed the most reservations about their bodies and performance. The utter spoiling of the audience by powerhouse performers featured early on in the film creates a somewhat anti-climactic feeling near the end. Despite the obvious escapist, hedonistic appeal of the film, it provides a serious dose of education on the history and application of the burlesque dance form. And, if one is paying close enough attention, they might even pick up tips on how to construct a sexy, burlesque routine. Miss Indigo Blue says the basic formula of the burlesque routine is simple: “Performers enter with some clothing, magic happens, and performers exit the stage with less clothing.” Not included in this formulaic explanation, however, is the hard work factor –intended to be hidden from the audience, of course, but paid loving attention in this film. Shantal Parris Riley is a newspaper reporter by day and performer of Middle Eastern dance by night. Hippo In a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation Book review by Mary Hodges If your dance book shelf is looking stale, consider Mindy Aloff’s Hippo In a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation a beautiful remedy. Though thoughtfully written, it is the stunning images— on nearly every page—that make this book such a trophy. Once you have your hands on it, it’s hard to stop flipping and cooing. Stills from Disney features and shorts mingle with images plucked from live reference footage, rough artist sketches, and relevant photos of concert dance artists who may have influenced the Disney output—or been under its influence. The written content is sweeping. A brisk tour of dancing in Disney’s history, the use of dancers as reference models, an explanation of how taped footage is converted to animated art, and a detailed look at the making of FANTASIA. There are a few close analyses of dance passages, memorably the “I Wanna Be Like You” song in THE JUNGLE BOOK and the 1953 Goofy short HOW TO DANCE. Aloff zooms in on the relationship of movement to storytelling, a good angle since this was also Disney’s focus. Her introduction sets us up for an even, praising tone, outlining the delight Aloff has found in Disney films throughout different stages of her life. And of course! Who hasn’t gotten hours of merriment from SLEEPING BEAUTY, PETER PAN, or the charming LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW? I had nearly forgotten the last one, screened in elementary schools every Halloween, until I opened the stunning two page spread of Ichabod Crane and Katrina Van Tassel dancing a minuet. It’s beautiful, but I’m also distracted by the size of Katrina’s waist—about the same as her neck—and her visible cleavage. The author notes approvingly that she looks a lot like a cartoon Marilyn Monroe, but refuses to comment further. If we’re talking about dance, we’re talking about bodies after all, and Disney’s role in promoting impossible standards of beauty for women (and in reinforcing racial caricatures as well) is the elephant in the room. In the last ten or fifteen pages, however, Aloff addresses some of the representations that today might be offensive. Her delicate treatment of Hattie Noel, the large black woman who served as a reference for the titular Hyacinth Hippo in FANTASIA, is disarmingly graceful. Disney’s aims, Noel’s career, and the racial attitudes of the studio and the culture are all carefully probed for context. I wish more of the book had tackled such material, but it is a topic for other venues. Hippo In a Tutu is an authorized publication by Disney Enterprises, so any real criticism must be deli vered with utmost care. And besides, Aloff keeps us focused on the dancing itself, finding plenty of material to explore. Mark Morris’s eloquent Forward: Where I Come From opens the volume. He conveys the wonder Disney instilled in him, and the direct ties between Morris’s own distinct musicality and optimism, and their seeds in Disney animation. Tucked in there is a poignant acknowledgement of the disappointment the real world can be when compared against Disney’s filter. But art is not life, fantasy is not reality, and for all its gloss, the world of Walt is unquestionably rich with treasures for the imagination. Finally, Hippo In A Tutu also acts as a gentle reminder of lesser known work. After reading Aloff’s detailed choreographic analysis of the SILLY SYMPHONIES series, I’ve been desperately tracking them down to take a look for myself. And how long has it been since I watched THE THREE CABALLEROS? Maybe it’s time to revisit DUMBO with fresh eyes, while I’m at it. Aloff reveals the dance art in these cartoons, sending readers hustling to their Netflix queues to marvel at Disney’s choreographic wit. Hippo in a Tutu: Dancing in Disney Animation; Publisher: Disney Editions, Published: February, 2009 in hard cover, ISBN: 9781423100799 Mary Hodges is a dance and book enthusiast, and contributor to The Brooklyn Rail. Microcinema DVD Release SPLIT SIDES by Merce Cunningham Dance Company An ARTPIX Release SPLIT SIDES (2003), directed by Charles Atlas, captures Merce Cunningham’s most radical use of chance procedures. The piece is divided into two parts, each featuring one of two options for set design, costumes, lighting, music, and choreography. The order in which each element appears is determined by an onstage dice roll before the performance. In addition to the two choreographies, the work features two set designs (one by Robert Heishman and one by Catherine Yass), two sets of costumes (by James Hall), and two lighting plots (by James F. Ingalls). Scores, composed for this collaboration by Radiohead and Sigur Rós, offer the two choices of music. Cunningham calls the films SPLIT SIDES 45 and SPLIT SIDES 46, because they capture the 45th and 46th performances of this event.  THE MYSTERIES OF NATURE: Dahci Ma’s Lyrical Exploration of the Three Realms by Deborah S. Greenhut, PhD THE MYSTERIES OF NATURE, the 2009 Jury Prize winner of the Dance on Camera Festival, comprises a diptych portraying human beings’ spiritual relationships with the sky and the earth. Through beautiful and complex imagery, the film relies on contemporary technology and cinematic capture to illustrate the interdependence of the three realms, sky, earth, and human, which is a core trinity of Korean religion. In the two parts of the film, the primitive and the modern find their complements in one another. Dahci Ma, the director, assembles the essence of yin and yang through a careful progression of mirroring images and repetitions of movement and image in the different realms—cinematic quotes that signify their interrelated, yet mysterious, essences. At one end of the film, the dancers appear to merge with the sky as they sky as they climb a minimalist tower; at the other, they build reverential piles of stones. In both sequences of the film, viewers are compelled to strive with the dancers. Ma arranges and shifts perspectives and colors between the blue of the sky and the ochre of the earth. Viewers can easily empathize with the exertions of the dance. That all is interrelated is a point reinforced by Ma’s frequent quotations of the film’s own narrative. Images the critical elements of a natural image mimic in shadow or light. A strategic huddle of humans resembles the earth. The frame divides, offering a witty play on parallax view of the sky through the tower. This filmmaker is always thinking; her portrayal of a multi-layered dialectic is fluid and compelling. The ascent to probe the sky is powered by the angles and lines of the dancers’ skeletons, mirrored in the rods of the tower; the corresponding dancers’ delve into the earth is accomplished by burrowing their round parts in the dirt….heads, buttocks, musculature, the ball of a foot echo the hard stones so laboriously lifted into the center. On first viewing, it may appear that two films have been joined together, linked by brief footage of black on white negative imagery in which the poles reverse from modern to primitive. The first sequence, primarily entailing blue-robed dancers’ ascent to the sky, includes elements of the second, which depicts “grounded,” earth-rubbed dancers probing the earth with every pore. A flock of pigeons, who have access to both sky and earth, seems, at first, to be all that ties the two beautiful halves together. But an attentive look reveals the intense interdependence of the first five minutes on the second. The capture begins with a lingering look at the shadow of a tower on the land, and then the following minute of the film  surveys the entire landscape, high and low. The breathing of a single earthbound dancer captures the eye, and the pattern of dirt on his back and shoulders seems to replicate the structural pattern of the tower. One realm is never far from the other; always interrelated. This dancer’s earthbound exertions echo the climbers on the tower just as the percussion of his breathing echoes the wind in that structure. By locating echoes of the sky on the earth, the filmmaker profiles the dancer’s ascent to the sky. The mysteries are linked, and human efforts to understand or be immersed in them run a similar course. At about two and a half minutes, the film depicts two dancers at the same level of its lattice work, presented to appear as a two-way mirror image of one another, revealing an idea that repeats in exciting variations throughout the film. Following this mirror, we see the sky reflected on the earth reflected back into the sky as the tower is captured from a new angle that depicts the dancer as a spider patrolling its web. The cranes and wires that enable these striking images are not visible to the viewer, but the impossible positions are another reminder of humans’ attempts to merge sky and earth. In the fourth minute, we return to the ground, the sky-draped body curled opposite an earth-covered human around a circular pile of stones, and the ochre color is introduced. The two parts of the film are both divided and linked by a brief black and white sequence that comprises a yin and yang-like assembly of birds, rocks, and humans into the previous image. What we see for the next four or so minutes is the humans’ achievement of that circular pile of stones. In Korean philosophy, a deity can inhabit such a form. Shaky and intense, these dancers climb about the earth and in the dirt with the same passion of the dancing climbers in the first half of the film. In this primal ooze, the dancers exhibit jerky, uncertain infantile motions, contrasting with the agility of the sky dancers, and the image is often framed by fingers of light in the outer corners as if someone is looking down on and perhaps photographing or capturing the scene. This exhausting merger with the earth parallels the climb in the first half. The dancers complete the pile, rest, and then move to another part of the earth to begin moving rocks again. As they start to merge with another hill, there is a blackout, which concludes the film. We can assume the actions will recycle in time beyond the film. While the film has been related in two parts, there is, finally, little division between the realms apart from the vocabulary we have to describe them. Ascent. Descent. Exertion. Release. Air. Earth. Birds. Humans. The fluidity of this film is all one verb: Dance. Which is also a noun. Dr. Deborah S. Greenhut teaches writing at New Jersey City University. She serves on the board of Jennifer Muller/The Works, for whom she is developing a film on technique. INDIA DANCES photo essay by Louise Spain In India, dance is as ancient as its culture. While traveling in the state of Karnataka in southern India, Louise Spain (DFA’s Treasurer) and her husband Mel photographed numerous images of dance, from ancient stone carvings to movie shoots. Here are a few of the iconic scenes they encountered. Dance images on rock carvings and cave paintings of India date back at least 5,000 years. The oldest on our trip were in four caves or rock cut temples from the 6th to 7th centuries in Badami, the capital of the Chalukyas Dynasty. In one cave–a temple dedicated to Lord Shiva which had been cut out of a red sandstone cliff–there was a remarkable wall carving of Lord Shiva as Nataraj (dancing king/Sanskrit: Lord of Dance) with 18 arms in precise positions of Bharata Natyam dance. In different combinations of two, one on each side, 81 arm positions of the dance form are illustrated. In another cave, visitors were barred from entering by a dance shoot for a Kannada remake of a Telagu original (two different Indian dialects). The film, called VEER MADAKARI (“The Brave Policeman”) was dubbed a Sandalwood movie, considering that the locality is rich in sandalwood trees and products. Ragine, the heroine, was rehearsing her moves on a sixth-cenury platform of the temple. This group of photos are from the Vittala Temple dedicated to Lord Vishnu in Hampi, capital of the Vijaynagara empire founded in 1336 and destroyed by Muslim invaders in 1565. The dynasty’s kings were patrons of the arts, and the third queen, daughter of a Devadasi (temple dancer), was herself an accomplished dancer who caught the eye of and was married to King Krishna Devaraya (ruled 1509 to 1529). The temple contains a dancing platform where the queen performed traditional dances, surrounded by niches from which the audience could watch. The pillars of the temple emit musical tones when tapped, and were used by musicians as instruments to create music for the queen. Musical and dance motifs appear in carvings throughout the temple. Note the position of the dancer in the photo. Sixteenth century Michael Jackson anyone? DFA’s Board Expands! DFA is pleased to announce a major expansion of its Board of Directors with 5 new board members: Harry Streep, Chris Henderson, Brenda Joyce Robinson, Linda Lewett, and Zach Morris. With this expansion, the board is also re-examining its by-laws, the duties and term limits for its board. The resumes of the new members follow. Harry Streep was a choreographer and director of: the Third Dance Theater and Harry Streep and Human Arms. Known for works that mixed set choreography with improvisation, and theater and text with dance, Streep founded the “Creativity Project” – a program of residencies to involve public school children in dance composition and performance which toured throughout the USA. In 1993, Streep helped co-found the Beacon School, a public high school in New York City known for its high quality portfolio-based education and exemplary arts programs. He is currently the Assistant Principal at Beacon where students are offered two levels of film classes, animation and after school programs run in conjunction with the Lincoln Center Film Society. Streep leads the after-school dance program, as assisted by Doug Elkins, who is currently creating a piece for students based on Parkour. He has a B.A. from Tufts, and an M.A. from Columbia Teachers College. Before coming to Beacon, he taught at the Fieldston School, in the dance program, and then in the history department, teaching both world history and American history. Chris Henderson is the creative director of Moviehouse, a monthly screening series of local filmmakers at 3rd Ward arts facility in Brooklyn. Each show opens with a salon-style party enhanced by the visual rhythms of a VJ and concludes with a conversation with the filmmakers. In 2008, Chris served as the Arts Services Director for the Queens Council on the Arts organizing the Queens Art Express, a multi-day multi-venue art event in 26 locations throughout the borough. At QCA, Chris curated and organized Live at the Gantries, a summer concert series and facilitated professional development workshops. Prior to his work at QCA, he covered politics, arts and entertainment for community newspapers in Queens and the Hamptons.He graduated from Sarah Lawrence (BA) with concentrations in photography and history and from Columbia Journalism School (MJ). Brenda Joyce Robinson, a native of Chicago, is a lawyer currently working as a Litigation Associate at Otterbourg, Steindler, Houston & Rosen, P.C. in New York. A graduate of the University of Michigan/Ann Arbor with a degree in English with honors and a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School and a Certificate in Business and Public Policy from the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, Brenda is also an avid fan of dance. She began her formal dance training at the Beverly Arts Center under Marylee Sinopoli. While in law school, Brenda took ballet classes at The Rock School in Philadelphia. She has accumulated over 20 years of training in a variety of dance styles. Linda Lewett is an award winning producer/director with over 20 years of experience producing documentaries, directing multi-camera concerts and events, and creating projections for exhibition. After graduating with honors from American University, she was on the staff of Channel 16 in Fairfax, Virginia. She produced and directed Metro Dance/Arts, a live-switch multi-camera concert series. She had a PEW Charitable Trusts Dance/Media Fellowship and a grant from the National Institute to Preserve America’s Dance. She produced a documentation project for the Martha Graham Dance Company and the Library of Congress. On PBS contracts for WETA-TV she produced: “Woven by the Grandmothers: 19th Century Navajo Textiles,” and “Legacy of Generations: Pottery by American Indian Women;” public service announcements for WNET’s Dancing series; and “Handmade: American Style.” She field-produced “From Renoir to Rothko: The Eye of Duncan Phillips,” produced “Dance Theatre of Harlem Community Dance Residency” narrated by Ruby Dee; “From Page to Stage”–a series of documentaries and talk shows.” For six years, she produced and directed a biannual gospel series at the Kennedy Center. She has served on the boards of Washington Area Lawyers for the Arts, and Washington Project for the Arts. She is currently completing a Master of Arts degree from the innovative European Graduate School. Zach Morris works in a variety of media that includes contemporary dance, site-specific performance, film, visual art, and large-scale installations. He is the recipient of a New York Dance and Performance (BESSIE) Award for Creation/Choreography, the Henry Boettcher Award for Excellence in Directing, the NYC Fringe Fest Award for Excellence in Choreography, and has been granted residencies or commissions from Arts, World Financial Center, Danspace Project, The Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation, Dance Theater Workshop, Topaz Arts, La Mama, LMCC, the Swarthmore Project, Epiphany Theatre Company, and others. He has taught master classes and workshops at Florida State University, Swarthmore College, and for The Hong Kong Youth Arts Foundation among others. Zach is Co-Director of Third Rail Projects and organizer/moderator of the NYC Dance Film Lab. He has also served as the co-creator/director of the Westbeth New Works Program; the national and international programs associate at DTW; and most recently as the dance coordinator at LEVELS, a teen-center in Long Island. Zach has a BFA in directing from Carnegie Mellon University.
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