On Interdisciplinarity, Collaboration, and Attribution (Or Lack Thereof): Elad Lassry’s “Untitled (Presence)”

Thoughts on what happens when dance is framed as, or used in service, of art (in the “art world”/visual art sense of the term)…

The description for Elad Lassry’s “Untitled (Presence),” an exhibition of photographs, a film, and a dance performance presented at The Kitchen, was quite vague. According to the press release, his work to this point has been concerned with “the question of when the photographic image obtains presence,” an inquiry that, with this performance, would be extended into “real space.”

The exhibition upstairs featured a number of portraits, some of which featured the dancers who would perform later. The dancers in the portraits looked directly ahead, with the same impassive gazes they would later wear in the performance. Their portraits were interspersed with a number of black and white screenprints of Hollywood types, generally looking away from the camera, as well as two of artfully arranged dishes. All of these subjects were titled generically: “Man 065,” “Women (055, 065),” or “Dishes (Strawberry).”

Heading downstairs, I was surprised, upon walking into the  theatre, to receive no program. There had been no mention of dancer or choreographer names in the press release, and apparently, no further materials were forthcoming.

We were facing a stage set with large, colored-saturated pieces, like over-sized blocks, which formed a series of frames. A mint colored block at the front of the stage would soon obstruct our view of the dancers’ bottom halves; there were two more walls behind that, with various apertures. These pieces would be moved around throughout the performance, creating different frames through which we saw the dancers.

The performance consisted of a number of sequences in which the lights came up, and different groupings of dancers either stared out at the audience, performed a repetitive sequence of simple steps or gestures, or some combination thereof. There were five men and five women, all dressed in button down shirts and high-waisted trousers, yellow for the men and blue for the women (pointe shoes included). A series of blackouts, which seemingly signaled the end of a particular scene or image, were cut short as the lights came back on while dancers were still walking off.

The choreography frequently referenced Balanchine, with jazzy inflections and mannered port de bras. However, it was never more than that: a Balanchine reference here, a classroom exercise-like series of steps there, all performed in a repetitious manner with an impassive stare. The gender divisions so endemic to classical ballet remained, unquestioned: men and women were dressed in different colors, and all of the heavy lifting (of the various set pieces) was done by the men, in the manner of glorified stage hands. There were no bows by the performers.

Perhaps the generic labeling by numbers of the dancers in the portraits upstairs was a clue here (we were supposed to see them as generic men or women?), yet, why use dancers from such elite companies–ABT & NYCB–and highlight this affiliation multiple times in promotional material, if they were to remain unidentified and to perform unremarkable choreography? If they were meant to suggest some generic image of ballet, why use potentially recognizable dancers from well-known companies?

I must admit to feeling generally annoyed by the way that dance, dancers, and choreographers are expected to become transparent—to signify nothing (other than perhaps, presence) in and of themselves—when in the service of art. While the choreography was far from inventive, it was clear that the movements in the piece were conceived of and put together by people with ballet training and knowledge and yet, no choreographer is given.

The press release suggests that the repetition of these “limited movements” suggests “a kind of historical compression.” I’m not entirely sure what is meant by this, but I don’t think it worked. Taking these movements out of their context and distilling them to this limited expression isolates them, but performs no sort of compression, historical or otherwise. These are still classical ballet steps and positions, performed by highly skilled dancers.

I’m sure some of this has to do with my lack of familiarity with art world conventions, but in dance and performance works, there is typically much more acknowledgement of collaboration, and of the other artists involved. Did Lassry design the costumes as well? The lighting design? No mention.

When one art form is juxtaposed with or framed through the conventions of another, it doesn’t necessarily lose its formal and aesthetic qualities, or become emptied it of its original significance. Rather, this juxtaposition or framing should complicate the way we view both forms, and perhaps adds unexpected dimensions as we make new connections. (This of course ignores the very desirable possibility that lines between art forms are often not so clear to begin with and become even more blurred in interdisciplinary works.)

I suppose what I’m trying to say is that you can’t just put watered-down choreography within an art piece as some sort of interesting statement on presence, because it is still watered-down choreography. Not acknowledging this, and expecting dance and dancers to signify only a generic concept of presence, inevitably undermines the project’s potential.

From The Shins to Ancient Greece: Smuin Ballet at the Joyce Theatre

The choice to set a ballet to contemporary music can be a dangerous one: Complexions Contemporary Ballet’s Rise, for example, recently performed at Prospect Park to a live U2 recording, made the company seem like backup dancers for the (absent) band. On Wednesday afternoon at the Joyce however, Trey McIntyre’s “Oh, Inverted World,” danced to songs by The Shins, skillfully avoided such pitfalls. The piece, which the San Francisco-based Smuin Ballet premiered in 2010, began with the eight dancers crossing the stage in a pack, backs slightly hunched, hands on others’ shoulders, to familiar opening strains of “New Slang.”

Smuin Ballet in “Oh, Inverted World”
Benjamin Behrends, Jane Rehm, and company
Photo Credit: David Allen

The dancers were dressed in hipster-inflected casual clothing—striped athletic socks and short gym shorts for the men and a colorful assortment of similar attire for the women, with some skirts and bra tops thrown into the mix. The movement style was loose: undeniably balletic, but tempered by flattened arms and hands.

McIntyre’s response to the songs was continually inventive: quick movement of a head, arm, or leg drew out the music’s punctuations without being overly literal. He also drew our attention to the different songs’ different layers, with, for example, two dancers responding to the melody line, while a group behind them highlighted the underlying beat with a simple walking pattern.

As the mood shifted from song to song, now playful, now pensive, so did the groupings of dancers and their relationships. One section began with Christian Squires dancing alone, striking a balance between earnestness and casualness before he was joined by three other men. The four danced in shifting groups, often partnering each other, their various groupings and interactions complicating the imposition of any one narrative on the ballet. A later grouping of three dancers, who finished heads on the floor, backs to the audience, and limbs askew, injected an element of pure fun. In the final section, John Speed Orr danced an affecting solo, often casually pausing near the front of the stage while the other dancers continue behind him.

On the whole, the choreography for the men was stronger and more interesting. I find myself making this observation often in contemporary ballet choreography, and can’t help but think that it is linked to the dearth of women ballet choreographers. This is not to say, by any means, that women choreograph better for women and men for men (there are countless examples to the contrary, not to mention the fact that gender binaries are notoriously unhelpful). However, in an art form in which men and women are trained differently, it seems only natural that this different training would result in a different body (literally) of knowledge and experience upon which to draw. The contemporary ballet choreographers who get the majority of opportunities and attention are a pretty homogeneous group, and ballet could only benefit from an increased diversity of perspectives.

It was hard to give company founding Michael Smuin’s Medea an unbiased viewing, having recently been immersed in feminist-inflected dance history and criticism. Unlike Martha Graham’s pioneering re-visionings of Greek mythology, Smuin’s version did not give us any glimpse into Medea’s side of the story—we rarely get any real sense of her motivation. Danced by Robin Semmelhack, Medea is the evil villain from the moment the curtain rises: glaring out at the audience from within her imposing robe. This woman, in her tellingly red unitard, clearly has only one emotional setting: icy, calculating anger. Cresusa (Janica Smith), for whom Jason (Joshua Reynolds) leaves Medea, is presented as her rival, in the worst tradition of comparing women: Cresusa is light where Medea is dark (she wears a strange pale blue and nude unitard), and all smiles to Medea’s glares. Both of the women danced with strength and authority, but the scope of this production seemed too small to encompass their complex drama.

Robin Cornwell as Medea
Photo Credit: Marty Sohl

Orr and Squires, as Medea’s sons, were appealingly boyish, horsing around and partnering each other in a sprightly manner. They were clearly in thrall to their mother, their disturbing devotion presaging their unfortunate end.

It was strange that murder of Cresusa was much more central and affecting than the murder of Medea’s sons, which ought to be the horrific climax of the story. (Instead, the revelation of their death in the final scene comes off almost as an afterthought.) There seems to me something off in the fact that the strangling of this woman, with the help of Medea’s sons and a long rope, is danceable, while the murder of her sons must happen offstage.

The final ballet, choreographer-in-residence Amy Siewert’s “Soon These Two Worlds” was set to a lively score of selections from the Kronos Quartet’s Pieces of Africa. I was nervous that the piece was going to be an appropriative attempt to graft “African” themes onto ballet, but the sculptural arm and hand motifs and wide, bent-kneed second positions came across as natural permutations of ballet vocabulary. The piece was least successful in responding to the percussive, weighted elements of the score: the dancers did not convey a sense of weight or grounded-ness, and were more comfortable in the more buoyant passages. Susan Roemer in particular stood out for the clarity and openness of her movement.

Members of the Smuin Ballet in “Soon These Two Worlds”
Photo Credit: Scot Goodman

The lovely costumes by Sandra Woodall—strapless, flowing dresses for the women and tights for the men—were covered in wide vertical stripes of yellow, green, magenta, and turquoise, echoing the cheerful good-nature of the piece (hugging was a recurrent motif). It was a joyous ending, and one that allowed us to revel in the dancing of this engaging company.