The Red People from Merdith Monk's Ascension Variations
at the Guggenheim Museum
with Kate Valk, Gideon Crevoshay, Clarinda MacLow, LG
A MATCH MADE IN HEAVEN
Niles Ford, LG, Stanley Love
PHOTO: JACK VARTOOGIAN
By JENNIFER DUNNING
THE specter that has dared not speak its name has become almost voluble in recent years in dance. Bodies that would once have been considered imperfect — fat, disabled or old — are now in unselfconscious evidence in work that makes a virtue of their imperfection. That was the case with performances last month by Lawrence Goldhuber and Homer Avila.
Watching such bodies in action, one can often savor movement in unexpected and newly thought-provoking ways. But pity the hapless dance writer and, by extension, the general dance audience. The loud-and-proud presence of imperfection on the dance stage can be unnerving, and certainly seems to be giving the self- appointed guardians of the imperfect a new lease on life.
Classical ballet has to a large extent remained the province of perfection, at least in New York City. Jobs are hard to come by for dancers who do not have the properly slender, elongated bodies. A case may be made for perfect-looking bodies in ballet, however, given the stringent demands of the classical technique.
It would be hard for a prince to lift a 300-pound swan queen up toward a figurative new dawn or for that prince, now one-legged, to tear across the stage in soaring leaps and elegant landings driven by the fever of love. Even in non-narrative ballets, the speed and lightness that in part define the art would be difficult for our 300-pound ballerina or her one-legged male colleague to meet.
Modern dance has been more forgiving. Isadora Duncan was not a sylph. That was part of her point. Small, compactly built dancers who bore a passing resemblance to fire hydrants were not unknown in the modern dance of the 1930's. What mattered most was the emotion or point of view that they or their dancing communicated. As modern dance and ballet threw over the narrative in favor of pure movement over the second half of the last century, the need grew for dancers who could pass as athletes of God, as Martha Graham put it. But the less perfect athletes of the everyday help us to make the most of movement for its own sake.
One of the happiest surprises of my four decades or so of concentrated dancegoing was the sight, in 1988, of Mr. Goldhuber's monumental body rolling onto the stage at City Center in a piece choreographed by Bill T. Jones. For most of his career in dance, Mr. Goldhuber has weighed in at around 350 pounds. Reassuringly, perhaps, he was then considered an actor who had somehow wandered into the Bill T. Jones/Arnie Zane Dance Company. By the time audiences got used to Mr. Jones's idea that just about any body could be valuably expressive, Mr. Goldhuber, who performed last month with Keely Garfield at the Duke on 42nd Street, had become an artist of considerable depth and refinement without losing any of the excitement of his dancing.
For it is exciting to witness a bulky body darting and hurtling through space or simply claiming the stage with majestic stillness, notwithstanding the letter writer who complained about my description of Alexandra Beller, another Jones-Zane graduate, as "roly-poly" in a review of a recent program of her savvy dances. (Then there are the letter-writing psychotherapists dismayed at unadulterated praise for anorexic-looking ballerinas.)
Performers like Mr. Goldhuber and Ms. Beller, both of them chubbier than the norm in dance, encourage a full and uncomplicated luxuriating in momentum, so central to the notion of dance. Conversely, wheelchair dancing seems to me to beg the question. Wheelchairs, like ice skates, give the performer an extra degree of glide. But how much more interesting to see Bruce Jackson, a performer of unforgettable authority, create vibrant art out of dance based in his pulling a sweater onto his spasm-wracked body in a 1995 performance with Teri Carter's Mobility Junction Dance Company.
It was with considerable trepidation that I went to a program presented late last month by Mr. Avila and Edisa Weeks. This was Mr. Avila's formal return to dance after losing a leg and part of a hip to cancer last year. The evening promised to be rough going for anyone who, like me, feels faint at the sight of a paper cut. But "Not/Without Words," a new two-part solo choreographed and performed by Mr. Avila, burrowed into dance in a way that communicated the pleasure of the movement that is its heart.
Simple and mostly direct, the solo did not attempt to make up for the absence of Mr. Avila's leg. The piece focused first on the sentient muscles of Mr. Avila's lithe back, picked out by a soft spotlight as he hunched on the dark stage, then went on to make dance of the ways his body rose, fell and traveled, without the aid of crutches and with very few of the expected, dreaded hops. His spins and kneeling veered close to the kind of tricks beloved of ballet pyrotechnicians, though clearly such complicated moves have a rightful place in his vocabulary.
Understandably but regrettably, Mr. Avila seems intent on doubling as a spokesman for the disabled. His use of a hearing-impaired composer for "Not/Without Words" suggested that he means to make a point, as he did with his charming insistence on lifting the dancer who had just lifted him in the improvisational audience participation piece that ended the evening. The message of that piece seemed to be that we are all dancers. But we are not, even in a time that welcomes supposed imperfection.
Or perhaps the message is that we are all in some way wounded. We live, after all, in a time when New York subway riders are encouraged to keep the city strong by seeking counseling for lingering feelings of post- Sept. 11 malaise. In her thought-provoking 1995 essay "Discussing the Undiscussable," the former New Yorker critic Arlene Croce sounded a useful warning about art that draws attention to victimhood. Ms. Croce's warning was muffled by the angry response to her intended review of Mr. Jones's "Still/ Here," a piece that she had not seen in which the seriously ill were enlisted as performers in a piece about illness.
"I can live with the flabby, the feeble, the scoliotic," Ms. Croce wrote. "But with the righteous I cannot function at all." I'm with her there. With dancers and choreographers like Mr. Goldhuber, Mr. Avila and Ms. Carter, one can forget for the moment about imperfection as a sociopolitical construct and delight in its unsuspected connections to movement, performing and the art of dance.
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