Letter from the XIV Annual International Contemporary Dance Conference & Performance Festival of the Silesian Dance Theater in Bytom, Poland
June 24 — July 7, 2007

Lines BalletSilesian Dance TheatreKorina KordovaKristina Isabelle –  Georg Blaschke — David Dorfman — Diversions — Hans Beenhahker

by George Jackson
copyright © 2007 by George Jackson      

Very alive, avidly breathing and with intensely thoughtful expressions, a young woman from Brazil — compact Korina Kordova — takes tiny items out of a box and puts them down at her side. She becomes my poster child for non-dance at this year’s Silesian Festival. The men of Lines Ballet cock fingers, flip wrists and bend elbows as their legs stretch and their feet flex in tempo to the pulsing of drums. I make them, with their elegantly faceted bodies and musically responsive brains, my icons of dance. What is dance and what is it not?

Conversations in the Phantom — the festivals’ smoky, midnight-at-high-noon social hub — make it clear that some in the audience had no problem recognizing Kordova’s actions as dance. After all, she was so vivid and isn’t that what dancing is — movement as the sign of life? As for Alonzo King’s manipulations of the Lines males, isn’t he merely transferring the ultra-articulated technique Balanchine devised for women onto men’s bodies? Does that count as original? Today, perceptions of dance (and what constitutes good dance) differ drastically from person to person.     

In the festival’s dance history and criticism classes, we tried to understand how the definition of what dance is (or what it ought to be) has changed. No question that it has expanded and on occasions contracted with the passage of time and with travel from place to place. Dance came to seem to us less an idea and more a living thing that adapts and evolves. The classical concept went something like this — dance is rhythmic movement done for its own sake as abstract pattern or in imitation of life’s actions. That statement has all sorts of hookers. Why rhythmic and not melodic? Can stillness be part of dance? Can’t dance be done for a purpose — be it pleasure or emotional purgation or disciplining the temperament? How does imitation differ from actuality, and don’t we learn by imitating? If we learn from dance, what sort of knowledge does it impart? Etc.

Imperfect as it was and open to further extrapolation, the classical concept of dance functioned for centuries at the practical level. Ask any culture’s child about dance and it will answer with motions in which steps and poses may differ from culture to culture but pattern is so recognizable that it seems intuitive. Even the most dim witted dance anthropologist has no difficulty in recognizing dance in extremely isolated and odd societies — until now, or perhaps until Judson Church, Tanztheater and Butoh happened.

That was in the 1960s and people at the time did question whether Yvonne Rainer and Steve Paxton wielding a vacuum cleaner in the Judson sanctuary, Hans Kresnik deploying facial expression and body language in his Cologne choreographies or Tatsumi Hijikata’s martial-meditative-masochistic Japanese rituals constituted dance. Such objections were not brand new even then. Looking further back, already in the 1750s the reforms of Hilverding, Angiolini and Jean-Georges Noverre away from divertissements prompted complaints that there was too much walking and not enough dancing in their “action” ballets. Francois Delsarte’s declamations and the German gymnastic displays of the 1800s would be seen as dance today, yet were not in their own time; similarly for Emile Jaques-Dalcroze’s eurhythmic exercises at the beginning of the 1900s. It appears at first glance that the definition of dance expanded more than it contracted during the course of history.

Contracted, though, it has too. Censorship by dictatorial regimes is one reason that the dance domain has been known to shrink. The Nazis’ ban on improvisation (because it couldn’t be controlled) pretty much killed the spirit of German modern dance in the 1940s. The Soviet Union’s designation during the Stalin years of modern dance as an amateur form demoted and stunted the artform. In freer societies it is the market place that imposes limits: ballet still sells better than modern dance, post-modernism or the contemporary genre and consequently the newer forms’ resources are scarce.  

Is expanding the definition of dance always good and restricting it always bad? That seems to depend on historical circumstance. Modern dance had grown stale by the 1960s and the Judson/Tanztheater/Butoh revolution refreshed the scene even for ballet. Doing vacuuming as dance was a reduction to basics on the one hand. On the other hand it was a sophistication, for it isolated a mundane act, taking it out of its routine context, clarified the movement’s pacing, and pointed up its dynamic and spacing. It was not just the doing of something routine but an examination and analysis of the habitual. Kordova’s removal of things from a box was too much like all other mundane acts executed for dance audiences since the ‘60s. It failed to astonish. Moreover, it was dishonest insofar as it hid from the public her technical skill.

Many of the Silesian Festival’s almost 30 different performances over 14 days were non-dance. I’m picking on Kordova (for her “Karolina” solo on the Bytom Cultural Center’s Main Stage, June 26) because it was the first of that category I encountered at this year’s festival and because she has dance potential. The festival also had dance, some of it good.

The already mentioned Lines (Main Stage, July 2) fascinates me because Alonzo King is one of the very few choreographers-teachers taking ballet beyond neo- and fragmented-classicism as he gives human bodies as many facets as cut diamonds. His “Migration” alludes not just to wildlife but to human journeys too; “Moroccan Project” seemed more of a ritual divertissement. King’s pairing of ballet with African music in these two pieces is problematic but worth trying. Lines performances leave me wanting to see more.

Good tidings from the Silesian Dance Theatre! The two new works by its director, Jacek Luminski, show that he again acknowledges dance (Main Stage, June 30). He’s outspoken about it in the first piece, “To See the World in a Grain of Sand”. Athletic modern movement that’s vigorous, inventive, fairly continuous for stretches at a time  and of varied mood depending on the music (Pawel Szymanski; Gotan Project) is contrasted and compared with passages of behavior that are less dancy but not quite non-dance. Another contrast, not developed in depth but suggested by the gymnastic gear on stage, is that between athletic modern dance and acrobatics. Notions of accident/improvisation vs. choreographic construction are also brought into play. There are passages in “Grain of Sand” that are grateful for the dancers and striking to see, particularly an arms and upper torso solo for the blond man in the cast.  

The second Luminski, “Moments Only”, is a story piece. Two couples go on an outing. Wojciech Blecharz’s music incorporates a schmaltzy old German song — “In a Hundred Years We’ll Have Such a Spring Again”. Prominent on stage is a sandbox that represents itself and the beach. It provides an apt site for game playing (walk-the-plank), sunbathing, bits of social dance and behavior in which the two women increasingly abuse the two men. This excursion turns violent. The cast is the same as for the first piece: Sylwia Hefczynska-Lewandowska, Korina Kordova (yes, she can dance), Aleksander Kopanski and Sebastian Zajkowski (who took the solo in “Grain of Sand”).

Other performances during the festival that left favorable impressions were: Kristina Isabelle’s stilt version of a solo from “Les Sylphides” (outdoors, in front of the Bytom Cultural Center, June 29); Georg Blaschke’s stagger solo (to Bach) against two walls and the floor of their corner in a vast and empty turbine hall  (Szombierki Power Plant, matinee July 1); David Dorfman’s baseball pitcher who remains the same as he transforms into a terrorist throwing a bomb (Main Stage, evening July 1); and a lighting display that almost danced by Phillip Sandstrom’s and Cheles Rhynes’ stagecraft students (Silesian Opera House, matinee July 4). A funny piece in the repertory of Diversions, a company from Wales (Main Stage, July 4), would have been even funnier had it used ballet pantomime and classical technique (like the Trocks) instead of slick balletomodern movement. This was Belgian choreographer Stijn Celis’s “Practice Paradise” in which eight ornery witches (like Madge of “La Sylphide”) transform into glamour pusses, all to the score for “Les Sylphides”.

For two weeks the dance history and criticism students looked not only at the festival’s live performances and classes but also at famous examples on screen (from 1913 “Excelsior” footage to Hans Beenhahker’s about-to-be released film of powerful Alvin Ailey dancer Prince Credell). Some of the students wrote reviews of the live performances for the festival’s Polish/English newspaper (which issued every other day). These new critics concentrated on meaning in the works they had seen. Characterizing the movement and analyzing the performers’ skills were definitely lesser priorities. Not just dance, but writing about dance changes from generation to generation.  

Photos (from top):
John Michael Schert of LINES.
Lauren Keen and Brett Conway of LINES.
“To see the World in a Grain of Sand”, performed by the Silesian Dance Theatre.

Volume 5, No. 29
July 23, 2007

copyright ©2007 by George Jackson

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