Saturday, January 31, 2009

This just in...

According to the recent National Geographic (February 2009) Double Dutch Jump Rope is now a "varsity sport in New York City schools".

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Finals of Superstars as disappointing as the rest of the series

The finale of SSD was broadcast Monday night. It was a one hour episode in which the top three contenders in each category—solo, duet, and team—competed for bronze, silver, and gold medals. The judges scores were hidden until each three performances were completed (relieving us of the melodramatic South African judge: “I feel compelled to give you a three” as if God was guiding his hand). The winning soloist went, perhaps predictably, to the Russian ballerina; the duet, rightly, went to the Argentine couple whose artistry was superior; and the team gold went to the US hip hoppers, a great injustice, in my opinion. The scores were totaled and one Superstar team was declared: USA with Gold and Australia with silver.

I am sorry to say that the final episode was every bit as disappointing as the rest of the series. Michael Flatley’s Yankee Doodle performance was pre-recorded, over-lit, and tackily costumed. The series seems to have been put together on a miniscule budget, with little serious thought given to the comparative quality of the dancers or their professional or amateur standing, and with utter disregard for how the dances were presented for a television audience. The camera work was so erratic that the performances were cut into ribbons and randomly flashed across the screen. It literally made me dizzy. It was a disservice to the dancers, the choreographers, the fans, and to the art of dance itself. I doubt the show will return for a second season.

Nonetheless, Superstars of Dance provided us with some interesting things to think about (the nature of dance and of competitions) and moments of kinesthetic pleasure.

I wish the producers had been more transparent about the audition system: How were these teams selected, by what criterion, and by whom? How are the artists challenged week-to-week? On SYTYCD, ABDC, and American Idol, contestants are given new challenges every week: they are required to perform outside of their personal training and experience. The finalists in those shows represent broadly talented artists; and in fact, the process of learning new styles or responding to specific challenges forces them to grow as artists. Witnessing individual development is one of the most rewarding aspects of these programs.

I am delighted that American audiences have been introduced to two of India’s classical forms, Bharatya Natyam and Kathak, and to the exciting social dance, bhangra. These dances have deep histories and strong national associations and I hope we will see more of them as the dance world globalizes. The Irish team performed with characteristic precision and the duets and soloists surprised me with their grace. They were highly underrated. I expected, and got, a professional-level performance from the Argentine tango duet. (I am planning to be a tango dancer in my next incarnation. Or a hula dancer. I will need many lives.)

Don’t forget to watch America’s Best Dance Crew on Thursday nights!

Friday, January 16, 2009

Commentary on SuperStars and America’s Best Dance Crew

Please forgive me for delaying this blog. I took two dance classes this week and they did me in. Its hard being an old dancer with a willing heart and failing joints. But I will carry on.

There isn’t much more to say about SuperStars of Dance: its pretty much a flop. So I will comment on only two things: Robert the Popper and the director’s flipping camera work.

The public first met Robert when he auditioned for SYTYCD. He made the cut but quit at some point (I don’t remember). But the producers were so taken with his quirky popping contortions they invited him back to perform on the finale show. Then he shows up on SuperStars competing as a soloist for the US. I was surprised because I thought he was a one-trick, completely idiosyncratic pony…and I was not alone in that judgment. But in this weeks episode of SSD, he defended himself by reminding us that he too is a true student of dance. He prepares his body, he rehearses, he exchanges movement ideas with other Bboys. Plus he improvises his stage performances which takes skill and confidence. So in what way is he really different from a ballerina at the Bolshoi? The contestants on SYTYCD were expected to be able to adapt to a variety of dance forms, but I doubt the ballerina would be anymore flexible than was Robert. Is he the best popper? I don’t think so, but he deserves to be in the competition.

Regarding the camera work on SSD and SYTYCD: it infuriates me. The cameras are moving around at warp speed. They pan across the dancers, change angles and distances, close in and pull out. The dance is cut to bits losing all continuity and diminishing the power of the performance. They do completely idiotic things like showing a close up of the dancer’s face while her feet are stamping out complex rhythms and patterns. They will move to a new angle at a crucial point in a lift. SYTYCD viewers complained about this last year but SSD seems even worse. I don’t know where I learned this, but Fred Astaire is said to have insisted that the camera show his entire body at all times. Watch one of his musicals again: we don’t lose a second of his dancing to the editors. A dancer dances with her whole body. The overly directed style of SSD only distracts us from the art of dance and insults the efforts of the dancer.

But there’s good news, too: the new season of America’s Best Dance Crew debut this week. What a contrast to SSD! These dancers really are among the elite in their genre. The level of excellence surpassed even last season. Again, we saw some old friends from SYTYCD. In addition to breaking, popping, and locking, we saw strong influences from rock, clogging, and stepping. It was fun to debate with my husband, shout in amazement at a clever sequence, or groan in empathy and fear at their unnatural contortions and life-threatening tricks. The show worked…and, after the failure of SuperStars, I wondered why. That’s when it occurred to me that, unlike most of the dance forms on SSD, competition is part of the historical tradition of breakdancing, and for that matter, stepping and clogging. I have long been interested in competition dance, so look for a special blog on the subject in the near future.

In the meantime,
Think globally, Dance locally

Friday, January 9, 2009

“Hey! That’s not dance. I know dance when I see it…or do I?”

SuperStars of Dance (a preposterous idea to begin with) exposes a number of interesting issues concerning dance, including the nature of dance itself.

We might define dance as a patterned sequence of movements, gracefully executed, and intended to express something in performance to music. Except that I can think of several dance forms that contradict that: Merce Cunningham’s chance choreographies are a major case in point as is Contact Improvisation. The category of “dance” itself is an ambiguous category which may not be applicable everywhere at all times. So how can we make sense of the variety of structured movement systems on display in SuperStars of Dance?

There are personal and political stakes in classifying movements as “dance,” or as “martial art,” “sport,” or “prayer”. When, for example, the “Whirling Dervishes” perform for Americans they are often advertised as dancers. The “Dervishes” (a term they don’t like) are proponents of a Sufi order, Mevlevi. Because Irani leaders are averse to dancing as a social activity (they are what Anthony Shay calls “choreophobic”), it is dangerous to call the rhythmic, synchronized whirling of these Sufis “dance.” To do so is to open them up to charges of heresy: whirling is a prayer activity. It’s the difference between sacred and secular.

As a second example, after China’s Cultural Revolution, social dancing was forbidden. In order to dissociate disco dancing (which became very popular in China) from the bourgeois West, it was reconfigured as a public, group exercise activity — like tai chi — thus fitting it into an on-going Chinese movement tradition. When the producers of SSD accepted Shaolin martial arts masters into their dance competition, they simultaneously acknowledged them as dancers.

Complicating the matter even further, dance itself constantly merges with other movement systems making its boundaries indistinct. We have seen dance combine with martial arts, as in the Brazilian capoeira/samba complex. We have also witnessed martial arts movements become dance. The “ginga,” which is the basic step of capoeira, was adopted by NYC hip-hoppers who saw it performed in the parks. These exchanges are not only a modern phenomena. In the late 16th century, South Indian kathakali dancers used the training techniques of the 12th century martial art, Kalaripayattu.

There is precedent for dance entering the world of competitive sports. Olympic synchronized swimming can be directly traced to the mid-century choreographies of Busby Berkeley. Some years ago, DanceSport, formerly called Competitive Ballroom Dancing, attempted to enter the Olympic arena. I don’t think they were successful. But ice dancing is an Olympic event. Aside from the ice skates, how is the choreography for an ice-dancing pair different from the choreography performed by the South African Latin ballroom team? The woman spent most of the time in the air doing balancing tricks. They were great at that but what happened to all the leg work that has always been an essential element of ballroom dancing? In addition to these instances of dance becoming sport, there are many examples of dancers competing for prize or pride without losing their identities as dancers: ballet, hip hop, Irish step, African-American stepping, tap…you get the idea.

In Monday nights episode of SSD, the Shaolin soloist with weapons was criticized for having too few pure dance “elements” (lets think about dance elements next time we watch…can you determine which elements are dance?). The judges were also troubled by the Argentinian Gaucho trio’s interpretive dance with bolos. The Chinese duet were acrobats from Red Apple circus. I was wowed the girls ability to balance on the shoulder of her partner on pointe shoe, that most iconic of dance shoes. Still wasn’t dance, though, was it?

What ideologies or aesthetic criterion should we use to distinguish between ice-skating pairs and Latin ballroom pairs? Is there room in the Western category of “dance” for sport dance or martial dance as well as art or social dance? Is “dance” a collection of specialized steps and movements intentionally performed? Or is it an experience of the moving self in a particular social, cultural, and historical context? Is it dance if the people performing it say it is and what might their motives be in so defining a their activity?

In actual practice, categories of human movement are flexible and context-dependent. And there is no real answer to the question What is dance (although I do love to play around its edges). In this global movement environment, we should expect to see more juggling of movement systems and remember that these reclassifications will surely be contested.

Here are some more comments on Monday nights performances.

USA tap solo. This woman met and worked with Gregory Hines and Savion Glover on set of “Tap” and that ain’t no fooling around. That girl could dance! A gold medal performance if ever there was one. It had charm, grace, humor, and skill. What did those judges see? This was a 10, easy. A clear case of BBI: betrayed by idiots! What an insult to this virtuosic dancer. (I wonder, what DID those judges see and through what cultural lens?)

Russian Cossak group. Good but I saw better in Yul Brenner’s Tarus Bulba.

Indian bhangra harvest dance group. Well done. Bawdy and gaudy as it should be. But was it the best bhangra? Shouldn’t we judge a performance of bhangra against other bhangra performances? Or with other Indian dances or other harvest dances?

South African fusion solo. I was electrified by it (my husband was cross-eyed). Her screams and body shivers, the mix of African and modern dance appealed to me. She seemed to be performing in the traditions of Katherine Dunham, Pearl Primus, and Alvin Ailey bringing traditional African themes and styles onto a modern stage.

Irish step pairs. Ok Renee, I said to myself, be open to it. I have to admit that I am not a big fan of Irish dance. It just doesn’t move me. But I really enjoyed this performance. The couple are well suited to each other stylistically and technically and they had chemistry. I was taken in completely by their choreography and their performances. The white wedding dress on black tights lent dignity to what often seems to me an inelegant form of dance. I was happily surprised.

Australian contemporary solo. A mix of athletics and pure dance, this was an excellent example of the form. I’m an old timer: I come out of the Modern dance era--Martha Graham, Judson Theater, and the like. But I’ve been out of the scene for a long while. I first encountered Contemporary dance on SYTYCD. It has very different qualities from old-school modern. I think I’m beginning to identify some of its features: it appears free flowing, direct, intense. I should study this more. It’s a reflection of a generation about which I know little. What might I discover?

USA hip hop group. Well, ya can’t beat US hip hoppers. Apparently, the judges agreed with me. Upbeat, democratic…very American. Group/team hip hop is another 21st century dance development that I’ve been watching on America’s Best Dance Crew.

All in all, SuperStars of Dance should have had a much higher quality of dance. It feels like the producers just wanted to capitalize as quickly as possible on their previous successes. Their standards are uneven, their definition of dance overly broad even by the standards of today’s creolized movement forms, the solos are too short for the dancer to develop any kind of narrative. I see much better performances locally (but I live in the San Francisco/Santa Cruz area which is rich in ethnic dance. Just attend one of the annual SF Ethnic Dance Festival weekends for proof). I hate to complain. It isn’t often that world dance is featured in primetime. But so far…feh. SSD does not live up to the level of excellent shows Nigel Lithgow and Simon Cowell have previously produced.

Monday, January 5, 2009

First Night SSD Review

My Winners:
Top performance of the night must go to the Kathak soloist from India. Kathak is one of India’s multiple classical dance forms. According to one scholar “Kathak is less concerned with covering floor space than creating a soundscape of tonal variations, through its footwork and ankle bell sounds.” That final warp-speed series of pirouettes, called bhramari, is a defining feature of Kathak. Our soloist was expertly trained in this classical tradition and provided us with a virtuosic introduction to it. It was the only performance of the night that made my heart leap with joy.

Argentine tango deserves first place in the duet category. It was an outstanding example of theatrical tango (stylistically different from café tangos). Although it has come to epitomize the glamour and elegance of high society, with women in sleek glittering evening gowns and men in tux and tails, the tango originated in society's underbelly--the brothels of turn-of-the-century Argentina. World tango underwent a resurgence in the mid-1990s with the production of touring shows like “Forever Tango” (1994) and “Tango Argentino.” The style we saw on SSD was created for these theatrical stages (they are both alum, I believe), which typically means that the movements have to become bold and flashy. I thot it was beautifully executed and would have won Best of Night if the Kathak had not come along.

The best group piece of the night was the Irish number. These Riverdance/Lord of the Dance alum performed to expectation demonstrating the visual power of group synchrony, a skill developed in these large theatrical productions. Irish step dancing was originally a solo dance performed by men at social events. Dancers were judged on how small a space they could dance in: six square inches was the ultimate challenge. For Riverdance (first performed in 1995), the choreographers reinvented the form by, among other things, adding chorus lines and large group choreographies.

I think the judges completely missed it with the beautiful Chinese ribbon dancer. I admit a fondness for this form and I was very impressed with her control of the fabric. The judges perhaps didn’t understand how hard that was. My own recent attempts at working with a silk veil have been illuminating (and frustrating). A skilled dancer makes it look easy to keep the veil in motion while dancing with it. But it isn’t easy. It gets tangled and caught under feet; it snags on your jewelry; it slips out of your fingers; it falls flat when it should be floating thru the air. Last nights performance was flawless and deserved higher scores.

The rest of the evening was, I'm sorry to say, dull. Don't know what to expect for tonite. I'll make more critical comments later.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

World Dance makes Prime Time

On Sunday, Jan. 4, NBC will debut its latest art competition reality program. SuperStars of Dance is produced by Nigel Lythgoe and Simon Fuller who produced the enormously popular American Idol and So You Think You Can Dance (SYTYCD, to its fans). The program will be hosted by the self-proclaimed Lord of the Dance, Michael Flatley of RiverDance fame.

SuperStars puts into competition dancers from 8 countries: Argentina, India, Ireland, China, Russia, South Africa, Australia, and the US. Each “master” group will compete as soloists, partners, and group and are free to present a range of dance forms from within and without their national heritage. For example, the group from India will perform bharata natyam, Kathak, bhangra, and Bollywood—all traditional dances originating in India. But the South African team will compete with hip-hop and a jive-inspired duet (both American born), and Afrofusion, as well as Gumboot, a street style born in South Africa. Each group has a coach and a judge who are demonstrated masters of dance. For instance, the Australian judge, Kelley Abbey, choreographed the penguins in the animated film Happy Feet and the coach for China is an actual Shaolin Monk.

Unlike SYTYCD where the viewers are the judges, SuperStars will have a panel of judges with expertise in the represented genres. This way, they hope to avoid the problem of the home-stage advantage of the US team. In order to establish the viewer-performer connection that voting afforded, there will be lots of backstage and rehearsal footage. I wonder if the judges will vote on how well the teams function as groups?

How will the judges compare such diverse dance forms and performers? What constellation of characteristics describe the best dancers in the world? It will be interesting to see how the producers and judges negotiate these issues.

So tune-in on Sunday night for what is sure to be an exciting evening of dance. And feel free to comment here on what you think of it all.

Check out for details.