July 2012


Experimental dance artist Simone Forti has been doing News Animations, as she calls them, since 1982. Now 77, Forti is still doing them. As I understand the concept, Forti begins with journal writings based on news articles she reads, and from there creates improvised dances with dialogue. The Hammer Museum has included five News Animation performances in its Made in L.A. 2012 exhibition, and I caught one Thursday evening in a Hammer Museum gallery. Reading from one of Forti’s journals, exhibition curator Cesar Garcia helped introduce the concept; think of the descriptive language that reporters use, such as the economy is in “free fall” or a”stream” of consumers, and so on. Forti is inspired by the events she reads about, but also by the use of language. She explores the relationships between words, ideas and natural body movements.

The last time I saw her perform was in 2004 at a historic Getty Center performance shared with Yvonne Rainer. As I recall, Forti did dozens of pushups, during that show. She is considerably more frail now, but still questing, still able to roll about the ground, her mind still jumping amongst different topics in a lively, spontaneous way, despite the occasional forgotten name. On Thursday she performed with Batyah Schachter, a longtime collaborator from Israel, and the women talked about war and security, Israel and Syria. They could have been sitting in a cafe having tea. They finished each’s others sentences, and gently glided inside a circle of about 100 spectators. Their 30-minute dance was intimate in scale and the gestures were delicate, sometimes illustrative of the words they spoke and sometimes symbolic. My favorite part: Chatting away, Forti asked rhetorically, what advice would she give to future generations? “I have no idea. No idea!” she proclaimed, flummoxed, slightly alarmed, as she lay on her back, her legs and arms dangling skyward, like a baby seeking to be picked up for comforting. The crowd laughed warmly.

My advice is go see her, if you can. The remaining performances are a solo show at 7 p.m. Aug. 16 at the Hammer and a duet with Fred Dewey at 7 p.m. Aug. 30 at Barnsdall Gallery Theatre. They are free.

Photo above of Simone Forti performing her News Animation improvisations June 12, 2012. Courtesy of LA><ART, Culver City.

Melissa Barak (photo by Joshua Spencer) was in her late teens, early 20s, dancing in the New York City Ballet corps de ballet, when Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins saw some of the choreography she was working on, and began nurturing her talent. He invited her to participate in the first NY Choreographic Institute and then commissioned her to create a piece for the students at the School of American Ballet. That piece, Telemann Overture Suite, was an audience favorite and a critical success. The next season it was added to the repertory of the New York City Ballet. Martins eventually commissioned three more ballets from Melissa, a boon for any young choreographer, and for a woman especially. She has also made pieces for Sacramento Ballet, American Repertory Ballet and Los Angeles Ballet, where she also danced for several seasons.

But it’s the last piece that Melissa made for NYCB, Call Me Ben (2010), that I asked her to talk about. Call Me Ben, to music by Jay Greenberg, was unusual for several reasons: it was about the gangster Benjamin “Bugsy” Siegel and it included dialogue for the dancers. Unlike her other pieces, this one was not well-received by critics. Some of the reviews were harsh. (I wrote a feature story for the Los Angeles Times while Melissa was creating Call Me Ben, but I never got to see the ballet.) I asked Melissa if she might be willing to talk about what it’s like when your work receives a drubbing and what impact it had on her. Her comments are below.

Melissa, who grew up in LA and  studied with Yvonne Mounsey at Westside Ballet, is one of  four choreographers currently participating in the National Choreographers Initiative at UCI. An informal, workshop showing of their pieces takes place 8 p.m., Saturday, July 28 at Irvine Barclay Theatre. You can read my story about that here.

You had great popular and critical acclaim for your choreography early on. Call Me Ben, however, did not get great reviews, and I’m wondering if that was upsetting for you? Do you normally read the reviews of your work? What did you think of the comments?

I do read reviews of my work. Reading some of the reviews for Call Me Ben was mostly frustrating rather than hurtful. Many people don’t realize that I was given (by director Peter Martins) the score of music to use, and I knew from the beginning it wasn’t music that I felt something for. But instead of giving up and passing on the opportunity I decided to go against my instincts and take a chance. Before a single review came out, I knew it was going to be a ballet that the critics were going to have a field day with.

 If the criticism bothered you, how did you go forward from there? 

I just decided that at the end of the day I tried something new, something different, something risky, and I had to be proud of that. The music itself didn’t inspire me whatsoever; it was the story of Bugsy Seigel that at least conjured up creative thought in my head. I felt I did all I could with that particular piece of music. I’m not the type of choreographer that can create without music. Music is my guide, and in this case I was trying to create out of a whole different process.

Do you think the reviews have had any impact on your receiving or being considered for other commissions? Has it been harder to get work?

That’s hard to say…. possibly? I know companies are very strapped for money these days and they may not want to take a chance on a choreographer that they feel uncertain about. That goes back to the frustrating part about the reviews I received – Call Me Ben wasn’t a clear example of who I am as a choreographer.

What did you think of Call Me Ben? Are there things about it you would change?

I actually thought there were a lot of good ideas in the ballet. Perhaps a stage at Lincoln Center wasn’t the right venue for something that risky, but I was very proud of the dancers that got up there who spoke and acted. I think we all stepped way out of our comfort zone for that one, and I do know some people who quite liked it. I actually believe the story of Bugsy is perfect for the stage, and perhaps its something I would explore at some later time, but next time to very different music!

I want to add a few words of praise to the many others already written for Never Stand Still, the award-winning documentary by director Ron Honsa about Jacob’s Pillow Dance Festival (distributed by First Run Features). The film had an oh-so-brief life in theaters a few months ago, and was screened at dance film festivals in 2011, so I’m playing catch up here. Nevertheless, I want to bring it to your attention because this 74-minute movie is a little gem, and I found it extremely affecting.

It does tell the history of Jacob’s Pillow, the oldest and longest running dance festival in the United States. But it’s also a wider story, based on the belief that dancing is a basic human need. Much of the commentary, from performers, choreographers and students, focuses on the spiritual nourishment that dancing gives to dancer and audience alike. Honsa very specifically chose to frame the story this way and it serves him extraordinarily well. You will learn how Ted Shawn founded the Pillow in 1933, first as a home for his all-male dance company, and then turned it into an international dance festival, which he successfully ran until his death in 1972 (the history portions are narrated by Bill T. Jones).

But you will come to understand the Pillow’s soul through the many scenes of dancing there. Honsa has represented a wide range of artists, plus archival footage, because one of the Pillow’s strengths and unique attributes is the diversity of dancing represented there. Honsa shows dancers in performance (how about that outdoor stage in the top photo!), in rehearsal, in class, and at ease in the idyllic Berkshire countryside. The insightful and hearfelt comments of those who have performed there, including Mark Morris, Merce Cunningham, Rasta Thomas, Shantala Shivalingappa (a gorgeous kuchipudi dancer), Judith Jamison and Joanna Haigood (whose Zaccho Dance Theatre is shown above), are oral captions for  the feelings that the movement gives you. Never Stand Still is so-named because that’s what dance is — the body in continuous movement. It did occur to me that viewers who don’t have an extensive knowledge of dance might occasionally feel lost; the film does jump from artist to artist. But, ultimately, I don’t think that’s a problem. Honsa and Nan Penman, co-writer and co-producer, have confidence in the more universal approach they’ve taken, and the beautiful artistry they’ve captured in Never Stand Still proves their point. Dance should appeal to everyone.

There’s more information about the movie here, on the First Run Features website.

Kingsley Irons in performance. Photo by Jorge Vismara

It’s not unusual for me to do long interviews for a story, and then not have enough space for all the great material from the conversation.

That’s where “interview leftovers” comes in. The blog is a good place to run, in a fuller form, excerpts from past interviews.  Today, I’m posting parts from an interview I did with Los Angeles choreographer and filmmaker Kingsley Irons, the co-founder of Dances Made to Order, which is a subscriber-based, online dance-film festival. (My stories about Dances Made to Order ran in the LA Weekly and the Boston Globe.) This season, Kingsley is featuring 33 films from teams of choreographers and filmmakers in 11 different cities. Three movies go up on the site each month. It’s interactive, too. Subscribers to Dances Made to Order get to vote each month on the subjects and themes for the films.

It’s a good time to revisit my conversation with Kingsley because one of the films commissioned by Dances Made to Order will be screened at the Topanga Film Festival Dance Film Showcase. It takes place this Friday, July 27 at 8:30 p.m. I went last year and it was a great evening.

In this excerpt, Kingsley talks how she came to Los Angeles, and some thoughts about dance and screendance:

Laura: The dance film or screendance genre is so diverse. Some of the dance films on the site don’t contain conventional dance steps at all. So what makes a work a “dance film”?

Kingsley: I think that goes back to, well, what is dance, and I have a pretty expansive definition of what dance is. I think it can include a range a styles, but also gestural work. I really don’t want to limit what the definition of dance is and I don’t want to limit the idea of what a dance film can be . I feel like if it’s involving a choreographer and they’re obviously doing body-based work, then that for me is a dance film. I think physicality, big or small, is dance, and I would never want to limit something or keep someone from exploring, or going beyond even what I think it would be.

Tell me about your background, where you grew up and how you got into dance.

I was born in the Philippines, but I grew up in New York mostly. I started dancing very accidentally. I started out as a salsa dancer, but then moved into more traditional Afro-Caribbean — Afro-Cuban and Afro-Haitian — and have been performing that kind of work for a while. But I studied art history and creative writing as an undergrad, so I was mostly working in museums. I went to Hunter College in New York. I realized I was just sort of at a point where I wanted to do something different with my choreography, but I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it and I needed time and a place to think about that. And that’s when I decide to apply to graduate school at UCLA. That’s about six years ago now. [She got an MFA from UCLA.]

Which professors were a particular inspiration to you?

David Roussève and Susan Foster are probably two of the most artistic influences on me since I’ve come  came to L.A.  And I think had I not met them, my work would be very different.  So I’m eternally grateful to have had them in my life.

What was it like moving to Los Angeles?

It was hard and it’s still hard, I think. At the core of it, I think I’m always going to be a New Yorker. I’ve lived in other countries and other cities and I’ve never had culture shock the way I had culture shock moving from New York to Los Angeles. I cried a lot my first year. It was just a really hard transition for me. I have a very intense love-hate relationship with L.A. There are so many things I miss about NY. But also, NY is so over-saturated it might be hard to find yourself in all the noise.

I think being in an uncomfortable place and feeling really challenged, really  pushed me to create something, create work and create the series [Dances Made to Order]. Because  I really needed to feel attached to something. And I wasn’t feeling attached to L.A.

…When I got my acceptance letter  to UCLA, [I said,] ‘Oh, my god! I should learn how to drive.’ I was 27 years old. The first time I was on a freeway, it was here. I was surprised to make it home alive.

What do you like about working in the screendance medium versus choreographing for the stage?

I don’t think I like one better than the other. I think they can serve your artistic intentions in different ways; I think they can serve the audience in different ways. Live performance will always be important. As a choreographer it’s the heart of where I’m coming from.

The internet is a venue and it hasn’t been fully explored by dance or dance film in a way that I feel like it’s really presenting dance you want to see. When you search dance on YouTube you get all this crap. When you search it on Vimeo, most of the time, you still get crap. So [for us] it’s about presenting dance in a curated way. And also being able to reach more people. … Like Lillian Ransijn [the Atlanta choreographer-director who made the short film “To Have and to Hold” on Dances Made to Order]. I am so happy to have been able to produce her work in this way. I may not have had the funds to bring her company here. But we were still able to be connected. To not be limited by geography in creating a working relationship with an artist, feels really great to me now.

Benjamin Millepied and Amanda Wells in “Framework,” at MOCA Grand Ave., July 19, 2012. Photo by Christina Edwards, courtesy of MOCA

There is huge anticipation — and some measure of skepticism — about Benjamin Millepied’s dance collective, LA Dance Project. Millepied, a former principal dancer with New York City Ballet and choreographer of the hit film, Black Swan, got about a quarter-million dollars from the LA Music Center to launch the Project. (Here’s my story in the LA Times.) It was a massive and uncharacteristic vote of confidence from the Music Center, especially for a company that does not yet exist. The Project’s official premiere is in September at Walt Disney Concert Hall. But last night, Millepied and dancer Amanda Wells gave a preview performance of the choreographer’s “Framework,” a site-specific work at the Museum of Contemporary Art, inspired by the mixed-media canvases of Mark Bradford (he’s the tallest man, on the left, in the photo above). I reviewed the show for the LA Weekly.

The museum, of course, has been awash in bad publicity surrounding the recent firing of chief curator Paul Schimmel. But Schimmel was there last night, greeting many well-wishers. Museum director Jeffrey Deitch was there, as well, and he, too, paid his respects to Schimmel.

Thanks for visiting! Emphasis Dance is a blog about dance and the arts in Southern California. But I’ll mostly be writing about dance, my great love and an art form that gets too little attention. I am an independent, freelance journalist with 30 years experience as a reporter and critic. I am a straight shooter and have no hidden agendas. My goal is to keep us all up-to-date on the dance scene in Los Angeles and Orange counties.

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Welcome again!