Sidra Bell, the New York-based guest choreographer whose two pieces were featured in LEVYdance’s 10th Anniversary celebration on November 15 at ODC Theater in San Francisco, said in a preview interview, “I am more a facilitator than a choreographer.” It’s clear why a dance piece needs a choreographer, and unclear why it requires a facilitator, but Bell’s dropping the ball in both capacities was apparent in Less, which she set on LEVYdance and Nudity, which she created on her own dancers during a six-week residency in the Bay Area.
Two of Benjamin Levy’s older works, Falling After Too and Physics, book-ended Bell’s. He brought no new works to the company celebration. In the program, he explains his motive for giving the new works of the evening entirely over to Bell: “I wanted my dancers to be informed by working with another artist, while clarifying to them what it means to be a LEVYdance artist.” Two facts raise doubts about this statement: The first is that LEVYdance looks to be more of a brand than an established dance company, with only one of Levy’s dancers, Scott Marlowe, being a 10-year veteran, and the others, pickup dancers, and the second is that the individual he has chosen to work with his dancers rejects the role of choreographic artist in favor of “facilitator,” a function she neither defines nor fulfills.
The dancers in Falling After Too, Yu Reigen and Paul Vickers, wear drab, shape-blocking street clothes that are far less theatrically exciting than what the audience wore to celebrate the occasion. Facing one another, they hold hands as they dance circling arpeggios to live piano music. The arms start swinging and soon they push and pull to the limits of their acquired dance technique, completing a circuit that intermittently shorts out because he is pushing her away, casting off centrifugally, yet prompting her to come back for more until he doesn’t like the persona of himself that he discovers reflected in her movements. So he reconnects on a level of intimacy that is just enough to salvage his ego and dignity. You feel how taxing this process is for them as they strain away from each other, slam against the consequences of their own calamitous approaches, or more plainly, when he kicks the back of her knee repeatedly and she nonetheless continues to stroke him tenderly. For those of us who’ve come to see something stately instead of domestic violence-lite, the segment where Reigen and Vickers arch toward one another like slender birches, creating an arbor-ish canopy with their heads, adds a welcome layer of complexity. The brevity of the nine-year-old piece leaves it as more of a quick-study sketch than a finished work.
Substantial funds were raised and spent several years ago to improve the performance space at ODC Theater, but for “artistic reasons” related to retaining its exposed-brick open ambience, no curtain was installed. This is problematic when for artistic reasons, a program requires a curtain. With no announced intermission or pause, the seated audience witnesses black-clad stagehands with a studied lack of affect, drag a piano across a diagonal and shove it through an upstage door, yank cable onto the stage as a bank of lights descends to lower the ceiling, and a strip of klieg lights is strung across the stage to bisect it horizontally. Bored kids for whom the stage is too much of a temptation are shooed off of it when they try out their own steps during the scene change. Necessity is rechristened a virtue in the guise “radical” stagecraft. Call me a classicist, but an entire science that stagehands have taken pride in improving over centuries, intended to preserve the magic by shielding us from the cranking, dragging, and spiking, is tonight scrapped so that the show’s seams can be perversely exposed to us.
The voiceover words “your loss, weight loss, nameless” introduce Less. Vickers is huddled on the floor downstage right while two men and two women form a cluster in the corner diagonally opposite him. The costumes are white leotards for the women with attractive cowl-like ropes draped from the neck, but the leotard bottoms are so ill fitting as to get caught between the dancers’ buttocks. Did no one notice this wardrobe malfunction at the dress rehearsal and facilitate a fix? There is a menacing walkabout of the stage, where dancers you just know aren’t very scary offstage get to look a little bit that way onstage. The lone dancer does sideways chassés low to the floor, and like Quasimodo’s, these are announced by grunts that, as they aggregate, sound more like barks.
The women are challenged with side-to-side second position jumps. The barking dancer is now standing and rotating his outstretched arms the way you do in PT when you’ve had a rotator cuff tear. The remaining men half-lift Sarah Dionne Woods against the backdrop, and the first couple is left downstage, gesturing with rotating arms. The score is electronic, made musical by the occasional clap of a cymbal. Josiane Valbuena steps to the front to treat us to a shimmy. The lights go bright white. Scott Marlowe is fearless, allowing the movement to carry him as far as the choreography will permit. The thought in my head is, “I’d like a chance to watch them in class to see them actually dance.”
The dancers are behind a screen in the second segment. Marlowe walks forward with jazz hands. Reigen is standing downstage doing rippling seizure-like movements. Another woman upstage does the orgasmic shrieking part.
Social commentary in dance is difficult to bring off. If the comment is about alienation, it is best to not trick out the piece with blinding lights (this reviewer was seeing blue spots in front of her eyes post-show), a score that mostly consists of non-musical devices such as defective plumbing, car alarms, air-raid sirens or a robot voice with bad diction repeating the announcement “reduce the noise level” so that what you hear is “re-juice the noise level,” or repetition of the expletive “bullshit” in reference to what looks like war. War is anything but bullshit: war is for real and war is hell. If alienation is how you celebrate your company’s 10th anniversary, it deserves a libretto that justifies the choreography, and just as an actor or dancer playing drunk must play sober as the drunk does, expressing alienation works best when the dancer dresses for success, with every gesture pointing in the direction of the perfect outcome that never arrives.
Reigen initiates a mean-girls game of domination meant to demean the discipline of ballet. Unfortunately, the would-be dominatrix is largely inaudible thanks to the high pitch of the noisy score. When dancers in the mean-girl sequence speak, you are transported to the ballet academy dressing room of your youth, where complaints about class, casting, rival dance students and costumes, were communicated in nasal whiny voices and untutored diction that would never be tolerated on the legitimate stage, or if allowed, would cue Henry Higgins to sing a jaunty, “Why can’t the Californian ballet dancer learn to articulate?” What you end up with is a kind of Marat/Sade of Temescal and the San Fernando Valley, with one dancer yelling, “jump,” and the other answering “No!” but jumping, or the first dancer yelling, “higher,” and the second answering no again and doing it anyway, and on and on goes the gambit. One of the women is interesting to watch when she dances, but when she barks orders, it is tempting to offer her assertiveness training classes with coaching in voice and diction thrown in. It amounts to a radical-trite attack on the discipline of classical ballet under the faked rubric of sympathy for dancers. The great crimes against ballet dancers have nothing to do with the art form’s discipline or its high standards, but with the uncertainties of work, promotions, low pay, ill-equipped dressing rooms, lack of state support to cover not only company expenses, but dancer health care and attention to their injuries and retirement needs.
It is a relief when Scott Marlowe moves into the next segment doing a kind of femme balletic funky chicken. At least it’s dancing!
In Nudity the dancers wear black leotards and tights with broad transparent harlequin stripes. While revealing no sexual organs, Nudity does its exposé of the classical ballet art form to a score of guttural sounds, alarms going off and a gravelly-voiced old Frenchman singing a dirty ditty. There is minimal turnout, hips jut out delinquently to raise extensions higher, and dancers step into the risers, to “interact” by caressing and kissing individual audience members, including children and dance critics—a bad idea. To mock classical ballet you at least have to have the cred to be able to perform it as well as professionals who take daily class, and sorry, but that level of commitment is nowhere in evidence. This is not The Concert, nor Sandpaper Ballet, nor Etudes, nor Ballet 101, nor any of the many brilliantly choreographed and facilitated pieces that succeed in having dancers poke fun at their own training, or salute it because the source of inspiration for the work is as beloved as it is authentic.
And because it is authentic, Levy’s Physics is the strongest piece of the evening, bringing two couples front and eventually center, where the force field of their relationships creates the impulse for movement. Much of it is nihilistic, but well drawn, and its drama emerges from the resulting tensions instead of superimposed gimmickry. This is the Benjamin Levy I remember from a decade ago! The motive for reviewing this evening’s program was to find more to embrace in new works by him, but there were none, and of all the mysteries woven into this 10th anniversary program, the biggest one was and remains: Why not?
Toba Singer, author of “First Position: a Century of Ballet Artists” (Praeger 2007), was Senior Program Director of the Art and Music Center of the San Francisco Public Library and its dance selector until her retirement in 2010. Raised in The Bronx, she graduated from New York City’s School of Performing Arts with a major in Drama, the University of Massachusetts with a BA in History; and the University of Maryland with an MLS. Since high school, Singer has been actively engaged in a broad range of pro-labor, social, and political campaigns. She has lived, worked, organized and written in Baltimore, Boston, The Bronx, Cambridge, Charleston, West Virginia, Jersey City, Richmond, Virginia, San Francisco, and Washington, D.C., working in steel mills, chemical refineries, garment shops and as an airlines worker; also editing, teaching and as an office worker. Singer has contributed articles to the “Charleston Gazette,” “San Francisco Chronicle,” “Dance Magazine,” “Dance Europe,” “City Paper,” “Provincetown Advocate,” “Voice of Dance,” CriticalDance.com, “InDance,” and “Dance Source Houston.”
Singer returned to the studio to study ballet after a 25-year absence, and in 2001, was invited to become a founding member of the board of Robert Moses’ KIN dance company. Singer studied ballet with Svetlana Afanasieva, Nina Anderson, Perry Brunson, Richard Gibson, Zory Karah, Celine Keller, Charles McGraw, Francoise Martinet, Augusta Moore, E. Virginia Williams, and Kahz Zmuda; and Modern Dance with Cora Cahan, Jane Dudley, Nancy Lang, Donald McKayle, Gertrude Shurr, and Zenaide Trigg. Her son James Gotesky dances with Houston Ballet. Singer lives in Oakland, California, with her husband Jim Gotesky.