Everybody Dance Now 4: Time/Travel

This fourth edition of Everybody Dance Now involves travel in space and time, beginning with a short from Arizona filmmaker and photographer Harrison J. Bahe of Navajo Joe Films. “Xibalba” comes from the soundtrack of The Fountain (2006) composed by Clint Mansell, which also accompanies Bahe’s film. Xibalba is the Mayan underworld, which figures in The Fountain, a once-and-future picture that weaves together Mayan and Hebrew mythology, featuring a Spanish conquistador astoundingly being recognized by a native priest as the First Father, the life source.1

Perhaps this is not so strange for Bahe, a brown filmmaker whose company name is lifted from a spaghetti western that starred, in the title role, a white Burt Reynolds, who like many an American claimed Cherokee heritage despite evidence to the contrary. The title Xibalba appears to have been appended to the film rather than being its inspiration—the footage being the outgrowth of a boudoir photo session. Nonetheless, brown and white literally are intertwined in Bahe’s short, set in a striking, near-monochrome pecan grove whose barren branches mirror the roots that lead to a netherworld of skulls, bones, scabs, puss, and of course blood, reflected in the dancers’ shroud and carpet.2 The foot-like tread of the tractor is a corrective to whatever we assumed.

Moving from the New World to the old, from the sixteenth century to the seventeenth, and the pomp of the Sun King’s court in an excerpt from Gérard Corbiau’s Le Roi danse (2000). Depicted below is but an amuse-bouche for a ballet de cour of thirteen hours’ duration. Ballet Royal de la Nuit (1653) featured the dancing of a fourteen-year-old Louis XIV, and of the twenty-year-old Italian expatriate who would become Jean-Baptiste Lully when Louis would become king, de facto, eight years later. Dance would be Lully’s downfall. Having pierced his foot with his conducting staff, he refused to allow its amputation, believing dance to be more important than the music for which he’s mainly remembered, and so he died of gangrene.3

Skipping a few centuries: Pop music fans might best recognize a work by the German artist Oskar Schlemmer (1888–1943) that became the, mm…, face of the Bauhaus movement in the 1920s, due to its appropriation sixty years later by the Northampton band of the same name.

Bauhaus Emblem

The Bauhaus art school was a marriage between arts-and-crafts individuality and technological mass production. It also had a theater workshop, led by Schlemmer. And so this passage from Wikipedia explains how well he fit into the Bauhaus milieu:

Schlemmer saw the modern world driven by two main currents, the mechanised (man as machine and the body as a mechanism) and the primordial impulses (the depths of creative urges). He claimed that the choreographed geometry of dance offered a synthesis, the Dionysian and emotional origins of dance, becomes strict and Apollonian in its final form.

Whether Schlemmer succeeds in his synthesis, via his Triadisches Ballett (Triadic Ballet), is debatable. But note that he began developing the ballet seven years before the Bauhaus opened its doors in 1919, and well before he would head the school’s sculpture department in 1920. The ballet was inspired by Pierrot Lunaire by Schoenberg, who declined Schlemmer’s invitation to provide the score. Fellow German Paul Hindemith stepped in and the ballet received its full 1922 premier in Stuttgart. The reconstruction below (1970) features new music by Erich Ferstl.

Eight years after Schlemmer’s ballet, Russian composer Shostakovich premiered his opera The Nose in Leningrad. Whereas Schlemmer felt a traditional script to be a “literary encumbrance” on the Theatre of Totality’s “organism” (“light, space, plane, form, motion, sound, man”),4 Shostakovich based his opera on Gogol’s short story of the same name, which drew upon the author’s own catalog including “The Overcoat,” Marriage, “Diary of a Madman,” and Dead Souls as well as Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Not so encumbering is this snippet.

Mid-century dance by Maurice Béjart with an electroacoustic score by Pierre Schaeffer and Pierre Henry should be the perfect marriage. Symphonie pour un homme seul (1950) is considered musique concrète‘s first major work, to which Béjart choreographed what follows five years later.

Maurice-Jean Berger, born in Marseille, adopted the Béjart surname, which supposedly belonged to his mother as well as to a seventeenth-century theatrical family with ties to Molière. He became a dancer after seeing Kiev-born Serge Lifar, who had worked with Diaghilev and Ballets Russes. L.A. Times dance critic Lewis Segal wrote of Béjart upon his death in 2007:

Although he began his ballet career dancing the 19th century classics in pristine versions staged from the choreography notebooks of what is now the Kirov Ballet, Bejart eventually developed a complex style of contemporary ballet. It incorporated movement influences from a number of cultures, along with a flamboyant theatricality very much in the neo-Expressionist tradition of Western Europe but foreign to classical dancing.5

It took Béjart some time to get there, however. New York Times critic Clive Barnes savaged the Symphonie in 1971, calling it derivative of Jerome Robbins and Roland Petit, and that “even Nijinsky himself would be hard put to make the ballet interesting.” Barnes likewise dismissed the score as “faintly avante-garde” as well as “a little old-fashioned, and may even be regarded as nostalgic.”6 (I include these remarks up front not so much as a spoiler but rather as a heads up.) One thing I’ll suggest, although I may be mistaken, is the ambiguity of the title, perhaps even in French. I believe it can be understood as Symphony for a single man, for a man alone, and/or for a lonely man. Béjart’s “longtime companion, Argentine dancer Jorge Donn, died of AIDS in 1992,” wrote Lewis Segal in the artist’s obituary. If the richness of that ambiguity and hindsight can sweeten this Symphonie, so be it.

In 1977 Béjart founded the Centre Africain de Perfectionnement et de Recherche des Interprètes du Spectacle Mudra Afrique in Dakar with Léopold Sédar Senghor, Senegal’s first president. But for some the school retained the redolence of colonialism.7 Don’t let that nor the Symphonie dissuade you from seeing what Béjart created twenty and thirty-five years later.8 (You’ll want to catch the reprise of the conducting staff.)

Polish singer Jakub Józef Orliński is a countertenor and thus has his own Baroque repertory. I’ve posted his shut-in performances on Facebook. But as shown in the portrait below, he’s also a breakdancer.

Like Maurice Béjart, choreographer Darrell Grand Moultrie has been panned by the New York Times. Last June his craft for Alvin Ailey was compared unfavorably to an earlier piece by another choreographer—a piece that appeared on the same program.9 Exactly a year later Dance Theater of Harlem has posted Moultrie’s Vessels (2014), as part of its On Demand series to keep us engaged during lockdown. Italian composer Ezio Bosso, who died two months ago at age 48 of a neurodegenerative disease, contributed the score, which itself can be described as derivative (Glass, Bach), but which nonetheless seems to transport the dancers. Music and movement, as formal and formulaic as they are, mirror each other with a rare gesture here, a lilting lift there.

[Earlier today, after I had written the above, the video of Vessels was pulled from YouTube. What follows is an excerpt from one of the four movements.]

Moving on, from the diaspora to South Africa, two artists, black and white.

Nakhane is a singer-songwriter, actor, and novelist. His 2019 title “New Brighton” appears to be both a reminder of his roots as well as a connection to his new home. New Brighton is the name of a Port Elizabeth township on the Eastern Cape as well as of a suburb of Johannesburg; he lived in both. But his promo video was filmed in Kent, in the southeast of England, the country where he moved in 2018, and so its impressive geology also hints of the cliffs in East Sussex to the west. The lyrics touch on Britain’s role in South Africa’s colonization: through the lens of a whitewashed, plantation-esque English somewhat-less-than-stately home, Nakhane fingers the iconography of the religion he abandoned, its squirrelly genesis manifested by the wrapped-for-transport lamassu-cum-poodle in the chamber.10 Okay, so the movement is minimal in the promo, but I like this guy.

Johannesburg-born singer-songwriter and actor Troye Sivan had a bit part in Boy Erased (2018) and wrote the picture’s award-nominated song “Revelation” with Iceland’s Jónsi. Sivan has been staring into the vlogcam’s eye for so long you’d think he’d like to mix up his moves. That is, his pop brand is dance but he settles for disco-motion and a wardrobe. Yet the first of his promos, for “Happy Little Pill” (2014), was an intriguing still-life contrast between the beats of his inner and outer pulse. Since then Sivan has drifted towards a documentary style on the one hand and a fashion-forward stance on the other; take it or leave it. With “My My My!” (2018) this Peter Pan of pop attempts to act his age (at only 22) circa 1979. Again, the movement is minimal, but I like this guy.

Scrambling time and place, with “Shields” we are voyeurs along with others on a Dionysian yet disciplined dance held in a setting by which we travel from chiaroscuro to cutup in 3:33. Montreal deejay and singer-songwriter Marie-Hélène Delorme performs under the name of MHMHMH and Foxtrott, respectively. The choreography is provided by Ottawan Wynne Holmes whose “projects lay at the intersections of dance, contemporary art, and performance.” And so her Lo Fi Dance Theory is both a well-traveled company and a classroom “for dancers and movers of all genres and abilities, providing pathways into deeper perception, heightened awareness and expanded movement possibilities”—reminiscent of the Art Moves workshops of Rudy Perez.

Denver band Pan Astral embodies Wynne Holmes’s three intersections with “Seaside” (2018), but with modernist enchantment. Lead singer Gabriel Otto is a songwriter and producer but also a fine artist, demonstrated by this promo’s, mm…, mixed media. Choreography by Ben Youngstone, who worked locally with Wonderbound contemporary ballet, joining the Sacramento Ballet last year.

Bonnie “Prince” Billy, aka Will Oldham, is a naïve artist to Otto’s fine. And his moves are strictly lo fi. The promo was released on March 4, the day of California’s emergency declaration.

Friendship, a Philadelphia band, is a new fave of mine. The 2015 white-on-white promo below, perhaps better in concept than consummation, is danced by Hillary Pearson and choreographed and directed by Antonia Z. Brown.

More monochrome (black on black?), from Californian singer-songwriter H.E.R. (Gabriella Wilson). This is last month’s reworking of last year’s “I’m Not OK,” with uncredited choreography and dancers, featuring actor Affion Crockett whose work normally tends to the comedic. Seemingly simple.

SYML is “simple” in Welsh. Conceived by his wife, it’s Washingtonian Brian Fennell’s pseudonymous homage to his birth parents’ home. (Next time we’ll go across the pond to Britain and beyond.) Credited in this promo, released three months ago, are director Keith Rivers and “movement artists” Uma Shannon and Isaac Williams.

To be continued… Part 1 • Part 2 • Part 3

  1. I know nothing of writer-director Darren Aronofsky’s inspiration for The Fountain, but discussion of a white god’s visitation on the mesoamerican landscape is a popular topic. See, e.g., Tony Shearer’s Lord of the Dawn: Quetzalcoatl and the Tree of Life (1995) and J. M. G. Le Clézio’s The Mexican Dream: Or, The Interrupted Thought of Amerindian Civilizations (1993).
  2. See the Wikipedia entry for Xibalba for details regarding its denizens and characteristics.
  3. For a mention of Lully’s importance to dance in France, see Jamake Highwater, Dance: Rituals of Experience (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 69–70).
  4. Quotations, presumably from Schlemmer, are taken from his entry in Richard Kostelanetz, Dictionary of the Avant-Gardes (Chicago: A Cappella Books, 1993, 194).
  5. “Maurice Bejart, 80; Influential French Choreographer,” Los Angeles Times, 23 Nov 2007, B8.
  6. “Dance: Bejart’s ‘Symphonie Pour un Homme Seul’,” New York Times, 03 Dec 1971, 32.
  7. See the Wikipedia entry for Mudra Afrique and the note that follows.
  8. Notes in the description of the video posted by makendawn state that Mozart–Tango consists of multiple works. Google translation: “Two of his choreographies—M pour B & Sept Tangos—are mixed in this ballet. The 1st was created by Béjart to commemorate the 60th birthday of King Baudouin of Belgium and premiered on 9/10/1990 in Brussels. Mounted with music by Mozart. The 2nd is taken from another, Notre Faust, which premiered in 1975 in Brussels. On that occasion the tangos offered a vibrant musical contrast with Bach’s “Misa en Si” [Mass in B minor], as a contrast between the sacred and the profane, while now they alternate with Mozart’s music.
  9. Seibert Brian, “Review: At Ailey, an Overdone Ode to Inspiration and Education,” New York Times (online), 13 Jun 2019.
  10. See the Wikipedia entry for Cherub. See also my discussion of a fabulous hybrid in Left the Nest: Jimmie and Penelope Spheeris. And see my mention of Nakhane’s collaborator on this track, ANOHNI, in Part 2.

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