Wednesday, July 11, 2007

A Brief Tharp Diversion

Following up on this post: when discussing Tharp’s work with A.V. and why I don’t regard her as highly as Paul Taylor or even Mark Morris, I realized that part of the problem for me is the lack of dance images in her work. She has a mastery of movement - an ability to break movement apart and put it back together so that simple steps are seen in new and clever ways – but lacks that gift for creating/assembling a movement or placing a configuration of bodies in a way, that, no matter how theatrically artificial, feels like something that happens in one’s own (interior) life, as critic Robert Garis liked to describe great dance images. It’s the difference between finding yourself participating in the dance with one’s own body (Tharp’s works do make you feel this), and feeling emotionally and spiritually involved in the work when the emotion isn’t adrenaline-evoked elation but communal experience. She lacks the intuition of an image-maker.

Tied to this is the lack of stillness in her work – not actual motionlessness, but the feeling of breathing, which is in itself real stillness (not-breathing is a void). Sometimes it seems that no matter the dance (and what steps the dancers are actually performing), everyone in a mature Tharp work is jitterbugging like mad in the California sixties - this is where the energy level of her dances often resides. And it’s for that reason that I suspect she is sometimes criticized as being too commercial: not because she does commercial ventures (almost every great choreographer has done “s/lighter” works to sell tickets), but because her works, while sometimes brilliant, are not transcendent. As a result, her ingenuity in movement comes across as a clever gag – slickness. And I can think of no other choreographer who would have written a book titled, The Creative Habit: Learn It and Use It for Life. The polar opposite of Balanchine’s “one can’t talk about such things.”

Now back to Balanchine, NYCB, and my favorite dancer, Suzanne Farrell…

NYCB Style - Part II: The Farrell Influence, by Croce

Suzanne Farrell in the sixties

“Balanchine's Girls: The Making of Style” April 1971, Croce.

[Farrell] was big and strong and handsome, but without much personal force. In her tiny leotard, she looked very like a big bee, but more like a woman-sized baby. With that almost perverse precocity that was then characteristic of the younger generation, she could do anything Balanchine asked of her, and do it on a grander scale, at greater speed, and with a silkier recovery and sense of control than anyone else. And then we began to see that Farrell had a line that was positively voluptuous. Farrell, her stage personality as yet undeveloped, moved at once into a lead position. Our style was thin no more.

In any decently written history of the NYCB, the years 1963-9 would consume several chapters. The Farrell Years saw the company remade in a new, younger, and more romantic image. For Farrell personally they began in glory and ended in confusion and estrangement. Because of her importance to Balanchine – she was probably the most important dancer who ever entered his life – her rise to prima status was spectacular and sudden, perhaps too sudden. When her break with Balanchine came in the middle of the 1969 season, her repertory totaled 32 roles. She was everywhere and nowhere. Her beauty fascinated more people than were repelled by her flamboyance. She transformed the company, freed Balanchine from the excessive braininess of “modernism” and departed, like Dulcinea, who in the ballet is apotheosized, the Queen of Heaven. Her place in the history of the company is sacrosanct.

Peter Martins and Farrell in Diamonds, photo by Paul Kolnik

“Farrell and Farrellism” February 1975, Croce.

It isn’t that Farrell is so terribly big; it’s that she dances big in relation to her base of support. The lightness of the instep, the speed of her dégagé are still thrilling. You’d think a dancer moving that fast couldn’t possibly consume so much space – that she’d have to be more squarely planted. Farrell defies the logic of mechanics, and in that defiance is the essence of the new heroism she brought to Balanchine’s stage a little over a decade ago.

Farrell and Balanchine 'shopping' for jewelry, mid-70s

“Free and More Than Equal”
February 1975, Croce.

Farrell’s independent drive no longer seems unacceptable burdensome to her, and her mastery implies no rebuke. And what mastery it is – of continual off-center balances maintained with light support or no support at all, of divergently shaped steps unthinkable combined in the same phrase, of invisible transitions between steps and delicate shifts of weight in poses that reveal new and sweet harmonies or proportion no matter how wide or subtle the contrast. Your eye gorges on her variety, your heart stops at the brink of very precipice. She, however, sails calmly out into space and returns as if the dancer did not exist. Farrell’s style in Diamonds (and the third act of Don Quixote) is based on risk; she is almost always off balance and always secure. Her confidence in moments of great risk gives her the leeway to suggest what no ballerina has suggested before her – that she can sustain herself, that she can go it alone. Farrell perfects the act of balance/imbalance as a constant feature of dancing. It is not equilibrium as stasis, it is equilibrium as continuity that she excels in. Although she can take a piqué arabesque and stand unaided, she’s capable of much more; her conquests are really up there where the richer hazards are. In the finale, her partner is only there to stop her. She slips like a fish through his hands. She doesn’t stop, doesn’t wait, doesn’t depend, and she can’t fall. She’s like someone who has learned to breathe thin air. Of course, the autonomy of the ballerina is an illusion, but Farrell’s is the extremest form of this illusion we have yet seen, and it makes Diamonds a riveting spectacle about the freest woman alive.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Jacob's Family History: The State Isaac is in

A prologue to the discussion of Jacob

Isaac is the patriarch principally remembered for being conned by family members, twice. First, by his father to his near sacrifice (he even carried the wood); second, by his wife and younger twin son for the only thing an old man has left to give: his blessing.

Compared to the chapters covering his father Abraham and his son Jacob, Isaac gets short shrift in the Bible. One rabbi wrote that his story is meant to indicate "continuity." Indeed, Isaac has a wife brought to him by his father's servant, he leaves for new land as his father did, he gets in a scuffle with a ruler for his wife, as his father did. He even re-digs his father's wells. His prayer comes in the afternoon (Genesis 24:64), neither the stand of his father at morning (Genesis 19:27) or the alertness of his son at night (Genesis 28:11). God gives him wealth and blessings, but his is a static personality in between that of two dynamos. What's up with Isaac?

We get a hint near the end of his life: his eyes are too dim to see (Genesis 27:1). According to Genesis Rabbah 65:6, "when Isaac was bound on the altar, and his father was about to slaughter him, the heavens opened, and the ministering angels saw and wept, and their tears fell upon Isaac’s eyes. As a result, his eyes became dim." In Jewish tradition, it is also significant that Isaac is the patriach who introduces suffering as a blessing of God (for Abraham, old age; for Jacob, sickness). Isaac's blindness is not just a physical malady, but a mental state. He has seen death at his father's hand, and death haunts him like a shadow the rest of his life. He has no vision of his own, for suffering and death cloud his eyes.

The binding of Isaac, the Akedah, then takes on new meaning: Isaac is not only physically bound onto the altar to be a sacrifice, but is henceforth psychologically bound. His vision, while still under formation, becomes trapped. He serves the Lord without rebellion and is successful, but he has no creative spirit to drive him into the spiritual territory of Abraham or Jacob. In some ways, he is a dead man walking. God even accounts for him as dead while he is still alive. When Rebekah meets him, she covers her head with a veil. While this is the tradition of marriage and modesty, it can also be read as covering one's self with a death shroud. The Hebrew word used -"she covered herself" - also means "she was buried." She dies to herself to live with a dying man.

In childhood, I had a book about female women of the Bible. In these girl-friendly tales, the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah is seen as a "happy" marriage, free of the conflict and turmoil that occurred in the households of Abraham and Jacob, who both took other wives/concubines. But a woman who dupes her blind husband in as elaborate a plot as Rebekah sets up and then stands watch to make sure Jacob receives the blessing isn't the happiest and most devoted of wives. Indeed, Rebekah cries, "Why am I here?"
It's into this strange environment that Esau and Jacob are born. Why does Isaac favor Esau? Esau is a hunter, he wanders the field - those who wander cannot stand firmly on the ground. To wander is a curse from God (see Cain), yet Esau chooses to do so. Esau takes an unbeliever as a wife. Is Isaac's love for Esau a manifestation of his own rebellion against God?
Rather, Esau is Isaac's physical state. In his mind, Isaac must wander, haunted, lacking a vision for his life. Even Esau's statements to Jacob, "I am faint...I am dying," are the words of his father on Mount Moriah and throughout his life. Isaac and Esau are both trapped: one by events under divine decree, the other by choice. Isaac sympathizes with Esau, and favors him, as he also favors Esau's displays of virility, without seeing their superficiality.

P.S. An important point here: the God of the Old Testament, of Judaism, is not an arbitrary God. When St. Paul writes that God 'hated' Esau, one has to look at what Esau has done in his life. He takes an unbeliever as his wife; he "cares little for his birthright/ he despised his birthright." Esau chooses to be a hunter, forever wandering. Esau has earned God's disregard.
In addition to Genesis Rabbah and Rashi's commentary, see also Avivah Gottlieb Zornberg's The Beginning of Desire

Life moves fast....

First, I apologize for the long delay in blogging. Almost every day in June, I thought to myself, “Today I will have a chance to finish up such-and-such post for my blog,” but it never happened.

Second, it is not fun to travel I-80 across the country. There are a few crude jokes to be made about a ubiquitous Iowa gas station chain, the Minute-Men of Lexington, Nebraska, and a fine-dining establishment in Wyoming that served ‘Es Cargo’ (and it had an herb aftertaste). But it is close to Lake Tahoe (my recommendation: travel the Nevada side even though they charge you to park). It is less fun to do this trek when you have a cat in the backseat who believes in waiting ‘til everyone is in the car and the car is cruising at 80 mph on the interstate before takin’ care of business.

Third, I will hopefully post more regularly once I have a daily schedule worked out, and will resume the series of posts I promised way back when.

Fourth, God bless you all and thank you for your patience.