writers on dancing

The DanceView Times, New York edition

Letter from New York

23 February 2004.
Copyright © 2004 by Mindy Aloff

For the past 25 years, Theodora Skipitares has been making award-winning spectacles of puppetry, using techniques from around the world. The several productions of hers that I’ve seen tend to be optically spellbinding and aurally almost unendurable. Her scripts are disorganized and banal, the voices of her actors aren’t very interesting, and the minimalist electronic scores she uses, often for 70 minutes at a stretch, cancel out the delights that come in through the eye. What she really needs, from my perspective, is to present her puppetry in silence, with dialogue streaming electronically somewhere visible.

And yet, when she triumphs, one is knocked out with pleasure. There was one scene in Skipitares’s new production, Odyssey: The Homecoming, which I saw at La MaMa e.t.c. yesterday, that was worth the effort to go. Odyssey: The Homecoming attempts to retell Homer’s story and also to connect it to that of the returning veterans from the Vietnam War. The moment of glory, however, was when Odysseus—a handsomely formed fabric puppet with a wonderful face bearing an expression of open astonishment, who was half life-sized and who, somewhat in the manner of Bunraku, was worked by two hooded puppeteers in black—was recognized by his old nurse on the beach as she washes his body, battered by the waves. The nurse, who is twice the puppet’s size, is played by another puppeteer in black, wearing an outsized mask-head of a withered face. We saw the Odysseus puppet pull himself to a sitting position on a rock, saw his slow reaction of intense feeling as he realized that the nurse had recognized him from a childhood scar, and then saw him extend his hands, the fingers articulated, in a restrained gesture of acceptance and love. To get a puppet to make the simplest, most everyday movement—with the transitions between actions—is a kind of virtuosity that takes away the breath of the most jaded observer. At this moment, in fact, there was choreography of three kinds: that for the puppet, that of the people working the puppet, and that of the nurse. Skipitares has made a career of puppet-plays with strong social and cultural messages: I wish she would let go of the messages and follow the puppetry into dreams.

Also this past weekend, Barnard College and Columbia University hosted a remarkable program on the music and dance of India: “Contesting Pasts, Performing Futures: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Performing Arts in Modern South Asia” (the 2004 Barbara Stoler Miller Conference). I wasn’t able to get to the live performance; however, the academic session I attended was passionate and brainy—and filled with people who were agreeing on disagreeing about the discrepancy between theory and practice. The paper topics and their presenters are listed below; yet I’d like to note that the films of Orissi dancing presented by Ratna Roy of Evergreen State College were among the most amazing dance performances I’ve seen in New York this year. They included a teenager who tossed off bourrées on half-toe that were so perfectly matched they seemed to speak; five boys (ages 9 to 15) trained to dance Orissi using a feminine technique, who were so good that someone from the audience asked their gender; and an 86 year-old Orissi diva, who danced while seated, as, according to Professor Roy, she had a temperature of 102 on the day she was filmed. Common to all of them was an ease of execution that made their dancing look as natural as breathing, regardless of the difficulty of the choreography or its demands on stamina. It’s good to be reminded that there are still dancers in the world who dance like that.
--Mindy Aloff

(Photographs by Chris Maresca)
First: Shadow-puppet images of Odysseus (black figure) confronting Cyclops
Second: Detail from Rajasthani scroll painting of The Odyssey, by the brothers Rajesh Kumar Bhopa and Shankar Kumar Bhopa, commissioned for Odyssey: The Homecoming

Casting and production credits:
Odyssey: The Homecoming
Dedicated to Michael P. Moran
12-29 February
The Annex at La MaMa e.t.c.
Conceived, Designed, and Directed by Theodora Skipitares
Composers: Arnold Dreyblatt, Tim Schellenbaum
Lighting: Pat Dignan
Video: Kay Hines
(Fragment of film from Spartacus, directed by Stanley Kubrick)
Dramaturgy: Andrea Balis
(Fragments of text drawn from Homer’s Odyssey, Robert Graves’s The Fall and Sack of Troy, Gothics News Service, Jonathan Shay’s Odysseus in America)
Technical Design: David Adams
Scenic Artists: Jen Harris, Eva Landsberry (model of Walter Reed Army Hospital), Ronnie Lin (Odysseus video animation), Bernadette Witzack
Choreography: Alissa Mello
Stage Manager: Chris Mehmed
Storyteller: (Penelope) Meredith Wright
Puppeteers: Bronwen Bitetti, Deborah Herzberg, Michael T. Kelly, Chris Maresca, Alissa Mello, Amanda Villalobos, Bernadette Witzack
Voices: (on tape) Michael Arian, Andrea Balis, Raine Bode, Taylor Mac Bowyer, Agosto Machado, Nicky Paraiso, Zishan Ugurlu; (Odysseus puppet) Cathy Shaw; (Zeus on video) Christopher James; (Athena on video) Sarah Stern
List of Scenes:
Prologue: This is the story of Odysseus
Scene 1: Athena and Zeus
Scene 2A: Walter Reed Army Hospital
Scene 2B: The Returns
Scene 3: Childhood
Scene 4: A Strange Shore
Scene 5: Lotus-Eaters
Scene 6: Cyclops
Scene 7: Circe
Scene 8: Land of the Dead
Scene 9: The Recognition
Scene 10: The Battle for Home

Contesting Pasts, Performing Futures: Nationalism, Globalization, and the Performing Arts in Modern South Asia
(The 2004 Barbara Stoler Miller Conference)
20-22 February
Cosponsored by the Department of Asian & Middle Eastern Cultures and the Provost’s Office at Barnard College; and the Southern Asian Institute, Columbia Arts Productions, Department of Middle East & Asian Languages and Cultures,
and the Center for Comparative Literature & Society at Columbia University
21 February
405 Milbank Hall, Barnard College
“Institutions and canons: Constructions of the ‘classical’ performing arts in South Asia in the 19th and 20th centuries”
Chair: Rachel McDermott (Asian & Middle Eastern Cultures, Barnard College)
“Odissi Dance: Imagined Past, Reconstructed History, Monolithic Future?,” by Ratna Roy (Expressive Arts, Evergreen State College)
“Two Faces of Music: V.D. Paluskar and V.N. Bhatkhande,” by Janaki Bakhle (Middle East & Asian Languages & Cultures, Columbia University)
“Weaving Fragmented Pasts: History, Logic, and Form in the 19th-century Dance Compositions of the Tanjavur Brothers,” by Hari Krishnan (Dance, Wesleyan University

Originally published:
Volume 2, Number 8
February 23, 2004

Copyright © 2004 by Mndy Aloff



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last updated on January 11, 2004