Thinking about Bill T. Jones’ Lincoln portraits

This month, I’m involved in a special project commissioned by the Massachusetts state humanities agency: publishing three very different perspectives on choreographer Bill T. Jones’ Serenade/The Proposition, the first work he did for Abraham Lincoln’s bicentennial. I first saw the work soon after its premiere, in 2008. Jacob’s Pillow will be presenting the company in the work July 21-25 and I’ve invited two novice dance critics to respond: John Stauffer, a historian of the Civil War from Harvard, and Miriam Ornstein, a Boston-area child psychiatrist who will be attending with her 11-year old dancer daughter and her senior citizen mother.

The complete coverage will be on the Arts Fuse page; read the section under “Judicial Review” for details on our experiment in arts criticism.

I’m gratified that I was able to do something I only occasionally was able to do when I worked for NPR’s much-missed WBUR Online Arts blog — link to clips of the work I am describing. This is of course thanks to Bill T. Jones and his collaborator, video artist Janet Wong, who have been forward-thinking about making Bill’s work available across media platforms.

Think about what happens in a volume of art history when the text is juxtaposed to a color plate of the painting under discussion: good, right? This, I’m convinced, is the shape of the multimedia arts criticism to come, incorporating “fair use” excerpts of work we want to engage with, across disciplines.

Language is still a worthy accompaniment: if I do my job right, it will whet the appetite of audiences who are exposed the work from afar, but I’m even more excited at the possibility of using the combination of literary description and analysis with video elements to help audiences experience the work in front of them more deeply.

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Sometimes artists work outside genres — and sometimes they don’t convey a clear sense that they know other people have crossed those boundaries before them. Is it the job of the artist to know and acknowledge that history, or is it just critics like me — who are required by professional standards to be exposed to the breadth of the field and are the de facto guardians of the long view — to keep that memory current?

Here’s my recent comments on the French scientist-turned-performance-artist Xavier Le Roy who is in Boston on a long-term residency at MIT.

And yes, Danny Kaye’s concert really did happen.


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Ephemeral arts, perception, and the shape of memory

Frederick Wiseman, the master documentarian based in Cambridge and Paris, was asked recently about his attraction to ballet, the subject of the 2009 “La Danse.”

I used to sneak into the ballet in New York when I was in law school…I became fascinated with this beautiful form which is so evanescent, so ephemeral, and all the work that goes into it and it’s over in a flash.

Beneath admiration floated a clearly discernable layer of puzzlement. Wiseman, like every filmmaker since the invention of cinema is in the profession of pinning down the butterfly, making the evanescent solid, replicable, negotiable.

Dance, and I would venture, our lives, are no such thing. We have to be paying attention in the first place, but after that point we are constantly sifting through, and shifting, the traces of what we remember. As a performing arts critic, my role has been to use language to pin down the butterfly’s wings, but in a media-saturated age, the recording eye of video cameras and infinitely available computer screens have taken pride of place as the mechanisms we rely on for recalling and making sense of what we have seen.

Last year, throughout the 2008-2009 dance season, I ran a blog for World Music/CRASHarts, a major arts presenter here in the Boston area. I called it Dancing in the Present Tense. The website was intended to be a supplement to the preconcert talks I gave – and continue to give — before every dance performance to offer context from the field – the backgrounds of the artists and companies, the places their work fit into dance’s contemporary landscape — and perceptual “hooks” that would make audiences more comfortable with the art passing in front of their eyes.

In this newly revived and occasional blog, I want to explore one thread that came out of those talks, postings, and the conversations I had with audience members, at the theatre and in many other settings: the nature of our interactions with the ephemeral arts, the way we take them in, grasp or fail to grasp them, and how we make sense of what we’ve seen after a performance or event – sometimes a long, long time after.  Occasionally, I’ll cross-post relevant reviews and more formal writings I have contributed elsewhere.

These musings are a journey. As the poet Antonio Macado said, in something that itself could qualify as a dance instruction, we make the road by walking.


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  • Debra-Dancing-with-Statue

    Debra communes with ballerina Marie Taglioni in the lobby of the Hermitage Theatre, St. Petersburg, 2003

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