Tonya Plank's Blog

February 3, 2013

Hi guys. I guess it’s obvious by now, since I haven’t blogged since September, but I’m going to need to put this blog on hiatus for a while. I’ve been working really long hours at my law job, and with the little time I have left over for writing, I must work on my novel or it’s never going to get done. Sadly, I have hardly any time for reviewing, or even viewing, dance performances these days.

I’ve been writing this blog since 2006 and I’ve had such a wonderful time with you all. I’ve met so many fascinating people here – from other ballet and ballroom enthusiasts, to professional critics and dance historians, to past and current professional dancers with so much knowledge. Talking about dance with you all has been so educational and enlightening for me – not to mention fun. So thank you!

When I get more time, or somehow figure out how to more successfully juggle my legal work, novel-writing, and dance writing, I will either pick back up here, or I’ll write for other publications. I definitely intend to keep tweeting about dance-related events, so if you’re on Twitter, please do follow me!

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Published on February 03, 2013 13:32 • 53 views

September 26, 2012

This past weekend marked the premiere of L.A. Dance Project at the Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown LA. Of course this is the event – the full-evening debut of Benjamin Millepied’s new LA-based company – that all dance-going Angelenos have been eagerly awaiting. There were two performances: opening night was Saturday; I went to the Sunday matinee. According to reports of Saturday’s performance, Natalie Portman was present, fully decked out in Oscar attire. Robert Pattinson was also there. No report of what he thought though, other than that the evening made clear to him that he has no talent for dance. His words :)

There were three pieces on the program: William Forsythe’s Quintett, from 1993; Merce Cunningham’s Winterbranch, from 1964; and the world premiere of a Millepied dance, Moving Parts (photo above, by Eric Politzer; all photos by Politzer).

By far the most astounding, confounding, spellbinding, brilliant piece on the program was the Cunningham. And for that reason alone L.A. Dance Project proved itself an invaluable asset to its new community. Every critic so far has said the same, so I know I’m not alone in thinking that. But I don’t know how much dance-going Angelenos would agree. During my performance, a woman sitting next to me angrily got up and walked to the back of the theater. Immediately after the dance ended, she cried out, “Thank God!” more than loudly enough for everyone in the entire theater to hear. Many showed their agreement with her as a chorus of loud boos started to emanate throughout the auditorium. This soon was countered by a chorus of cheers. For a moment there was a war going on. I have to say I’ve never ever seen that kind of visceral, dramatic reaction to any dance performance in New York. I’ve never seen that anywhere in response to dance; the only time I’ve ever seen a work of art booed was the Metropolitan Opera’s recent re-interpretation of Tosca.

I mean, part of me was excited that dance could evoke such strong feelings. But part of me was disappointed in the booing Angelenos for not being the least bit open-minded, for not giving the piece even a second’s consideration; for failing to think, “I’m going to go home and look up this Merce Cunningham person on the internet and find out what in the world that was all about.” Cunningham is obviously a master, and I don’t know as much about him as I should. This definitely made me want to know more. It also made me kind of sad that I wasn’t around in the 60s if that kind of art was going on. I wish Alastair Macaulay would have been in L.A. reviewing this for the NY Times. I’d like to know what he would’ve thought – of the piece, and the audience reaction, he loves Cunningham so.

According to program notes, Winterbranch was taken out of the Cunningham repertoire not long after it premiered, so most people probably know nothing about it. It was a collaboration between Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and sound artist La Monte Young. Rauschenberg designed the costumes (all six dancers are in black sweatsuits with smudges of black painted under their eyes) as well as the absolutely brilliant lighting (which was reconstructed for this stage by Beverly Emmons).

At the beginning one dancer (originally Merce himself) slithers across a dark stage carrying a flashlight. Following him, other dancers take the stage, and the piece is basically a meditation on the act of falling and and pulling yourself back up. Dancers sometimes fall quickly and violently, sometimes they fall slowly, as if they’re being crushed by some invisible psychological weight. Sometimes they have difficulty rising; they crawl over each other, they contort their bodies and crab-walk across stage. Meanwhile the stage is dark, except for that brilliant Rauschenberg lighting whereby a light will briefly flash, like a headlight, then fade, then reappear tunnel-like, growing stronger, again like the lights of an approaching car.

About half-way through the sound starts. And, yes, it’s very harsh. Young’s composition is called simply 2 Sounds and those two sounds are: the sound of “ashtrays scraped against a mirror;” and of “pieces of wood rubbed against a Chinese gong.”

Yes, the whole thing was very unsettling. It felt like being caught in headlights, perhaps in a tunnel, or on a dark street, with sound so shrill you couldn’t escape. It felt very industrial, urban, Los Angeles – probably why Millepied thought to bring it here.

Wasn’t Cunningham all about questioning what dance is? Do people really want it to be all about pretty girls doing sexy things? Don’t people want to be challenged? Believe me, the people doing the complaining (mainly about the sound from what I overheard) didn’t look like they’d never been to a rock concert before. And after this ended my eardrums were nowhere near numb.

I think Millepied took a real chance bringing such a piece to a place where perhaps many have only seen classical ballet and popular dance on television. And for that I respect him more than ever.

The other two pieces weren’t quite as strong. I think Forsythe’s Quintett (photo above) meant more if you knew about it, about him, and about his wife who died young of ovarian cancer. It’s a waltz but there are five people – three men and two women. So there’s a woman missing. The music is Gavin Bryars’s Jesus’ Blood Never Failed Me Yet, a sweet, folksy choral piece in which the singer keeps repeating that line over and over and over again. The dancing is mainly light and joyful, and the press notes state that he meant it to be a kind of tribute to her. Unfortunately the program notes don’t give out that information, so the audience was unaware.

I kept thinking of Forsythe’s intense, unforgettable installation piece, You Made Me a Monster, another take on the same thing, with a completely different mood, which showed in New York several years ago at the Baryshnikov Arts Center (and which I wrote about here). The dancer Charlie Hodges – my favorite of the six-person dance troupe – reminded me of a similar-looking dancer in Monster. His movement was the most expansive with every motion seemingly filled with intent. And he was the character who seemed to evoke the sole man, the man without the partner. Quintett had much more lightness and fluidity than Monster, and was far more hopeful than tragic, and it nearly made me cry. I’m just not sure if an audience who knew nothing about his wife and the work’s origins, and who’d never seen Monster, would have gotten the same out of it.

Third on was Millepied’s new Moving Parts, a collaboration with the always rousing Nico Muhly, costumers Kate and Laura Mulleavy of Rodarte, and visual artist Christopher Wool. I thought the most interesting parts of this collaboration were Muhly’s music – a bold, rich combination – at times mellifluous, at times slightly off-kilter a la Philip Glass – of violin, clarinet, and organ (played spectacularly on the magnificent, elevated organ at the top of the concert hall) and Wool’s artwork, consisting of three large canvasses bearing a combination of letters and numbers. One or two of the six dancers would push the paintings, on wheels, around the stage, the others dancing around them. The dancers wore basic black unitards; and were paired – male and female – by a same colored stripe running along the top of the costumes. Each painting also bore one of those colors. But this color-coordination didn’t seem to have much meaning.

The dancers were all very good – Hodges, Frances Chiaverini, Julia Eichten, Morgan Lugo, Nathan Makolandra, and Amanda Wells, but I didn’t find the choreography particularly intriguing or the dance as a whole to have much meaning. But I find Millepied to be like that – he’s either on or off. This time he was off, but next time he may well be very on.

Nevertheless, every time this company performs, I will always be there. That Cunningham revival made me trust that Millepied will always bring something significant.

Here are a few more photos of Moving Parts, courtesy of the Music Center.

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Published on September 26, 2012 22:13 • 36 views

September 3, 2012

On Monday September 10th Turner Classic Movies will devote an evening to the movies of Hollywood jazz choreographer Jack Cole. The presentation will be hosted by my friend, Los Angeles Times dance critic and founder of the blog, Arts Meme, Debra Levine, along with TCM’s Robert Osborne.

Cole was born in New Jersey and actually began his career as a Denishawn dancer at Jacob’s Pillow. He choreographed for Broadway (Man of La Mancha, Something For the Boys, etc.) before moving to Los Angeles to choreograph for film. He worked on many huge films, including Gentlemen Prefer Blondes, Some Like It Hot, On the Riviera, the list goes on. Yet, strangely, many have never heard of him. Why?

Here he is with Marilyn Monroe:

So, on September 10th, beginning at 8 pm ET (5 PT), TCM will show four Cole-choreographed films: Tonight and Every Night (1945, starring Rita Hayworth), On the Riviera (1951, starring dancer Gwen Verdon, later famous for being Bob Fosse’s main muse), Gentlemen Prefer Blondes (1952, starring Monroe and Jane Russell), and Les Girls (1957, starring Gene Kelly).

I’ve heard Debra give several talks about Cole, the latest of which occurred at UCLA’s Hammer Museum a few weeks ago when the museum showed a rather hilarious film called The I Don’t Care Girl starring Mitzi Gaynor. Several dance sequences, which I found brilliant, were choreographed by Cole. Gaynor was there, looking gorgeous I might add – I have no idea how old she is now – and she entertained the crowd with her tales of working with Cole, of learning to dance, and of her film career, with loads of dirty jokes thrown in. She can be quite lewd! But sweetly so.

Anyway, Debra is hugely knowledgeable on Cole. You’ll learn so much listening to her talk about him on TCM. It’s tragic he’s so little remembered now when he worked on such classic films. I hope she writes a biography of him someday. Please tune in!

Here’s a sneak preview of Debra speaking with Robert Osbourne:

And here’s a clip from The I Don’t Care Girl:

Go here for more information on the exact TCM schedule, and go here and here for more info on Cole.

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Published on September 03, 2012 17:30 • 24 views

August 12, 2012

Reminder: A CHANCE TO DANCE, a new show on Ovation TV, where dancers throughout the US audition for and learn a routine created by Britain’s Ballet Boyz to be performed with the SO YOU THINK YOU CAN DANCE TOUR, premieres this Friday evening. The network sent me an advance preview and I really think this one will be better than many of the current shows — a big reason being that it seems to be more focused on – hello- dance. Most of the footage – at least what I was sent – is of Michael Nunn and Billy Trevitt — the Ballet Boyz, both of whom danced with the Royal Ballet — actually rehearsing the dancers. They talk a lot about the choreography, about what they want from the performance, about what makes a dancer captivate the audience, about all the aspects of a show that really make a performance work, including, very importantly, the right music. Trevitt says at one point that great music can save bad choreography but the reverse is not true, which I found interesting…

At one point, one of the men (I think it’s Trevitt again) tells a dancer he’s focusing too much on technique, not enough on performance, which of course I love! As they rehearse the dancers, they’ll call out the name of the ballet steps, giving the audience insight into the dance, into this rarefied world. The backstage melodramatics, at least from what I was shown, seem minimal.

Here are a few clips.

Meet the choreographers here:

One on Trevitt’s dance tips:

Allison Holker’s dance tips (you’ll remember her from SYTYCD)

And a couple funny ones — Trevitt learning to pole dance:

And the two Brits in a Texas road-side shop trying to find clothes that will allow them to fit in with the locals, and a place to go dancing:

For more info on finding your local Ovation station, go here.

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Published on August 12, 2012 21:01 • 24 views

July 29, 2012

Here is part of the Akram Khan piece from Friday evening’s opening night Olympic ceremony that NBC inexplicably cut from its American broadcast. Unfortunately, the quality of this video isn’t terrific – and the posters said they’d put up the latter parts of it later this week – but this is the only copy I could find right now on YouTube.

But why did NBC cut it from the US broadcast? Here’s a short BBC article on Khan’s disappointment and his explanation of the piece. The journalist interviewed NBC but the network still didn’t give a reason for its decision to air a Ryan Seacrest interview instead of Khan. Do they think Americans are too dense to appreciate high art? That we could only appreciate the names and faces we’d recognize from Hollywood? I wonder what else they denied us. I only knew to look for Khan’s piece from the UK-based dance bloggers in my Twitter feed, who tweeted about the performance as it happened, earlier in the day. Because of them, I was so excited to go home and watch it Friday night. Then I became so disappointed by NBC that now I really want to boycott the network. Thank god for the internet. It just makes you realize how biased and incomplete was the news we used to receive in this country.

Here is the Guardian’s Judith Mackrell on Khan’s work and what he added to the ceremony.

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Published on July 29, 2012 20:55 • 20 views

July 22, 2012

I meant to post about this much, much earlier but… what can I say; I’m a lawyer working for a big firm right now. So that’s that – things just don’t get posted in a timely manner…

Anyway, of course I want badly to see this particular campaign meet its goal, and it looks like it has! If you want to be a contributor, you have til the end of the month. Can’t wait for the movie!!!

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Published on July 22, 2012 15:56 • 30 views

A few weekends ago, I was invited to participate (via Skype) on a Dance Critics Association panel about dance on television (read a detailed write-up in Dance Magazine). Moderator Lisa Traiger mentioned this new show, A Chance to Dance, produced by the Lythgoes (Nigel, and son Simon) that was set to premiere soon. So I was really excited when Ovation network sent me more info. It’s going to premiere August 17th on Ovation (an arts and culture cable channel), and appears to be a more arty version of the popular shows like So You Think You Can Dance, or perhaps a kind of combination of that show and Breaking Pointe.

It will follow the formation of a dance company, helmed by Michael Nunn and Billy  Trevitt, the duo behind the well-respected U.K.-based Ballet Boyz. In the first few episodes, they will choose their dancers – and this will be the dance competition aspect of the show. Then, once the company is formed, they’ll begin choreographing and preparing for their first performance. This will take place at the esteemed Jacob’s Pillow, which, if you’ve ever been there, you know it’s the complete antithesis of Vegas, or Hollywood. I love it! The company will then tour with the SYTYCD tour.

Below is the flyer:

I have high hopes for this one; I like the Ballet Boyz. So, mark your calendars. More reminders as the date approaches…

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Published on July 22, 2012 15:29 • 18 views

Thursday night marked the first of three “sneak peeks” of Benjamin Millepied’s new L.A. Dance Project at MOCA – the Museum of Contemporary Art – in downtown Los Angeles. Millepied danced with Amanda Wells in four different galleries in the museum. At times they were accompanied by a live violinist, who played classical music, and at times, they danced to a voice recording by L.A.-based artist Mark Bradford, who was also there. Natalie Portman was not, or at least I didn’t see her.

Here are some of my photos.

The performance, called FRAMEWORK, lasted about half an hour, and was pretty good. The biggest problem was that it was hugely crowded, as probably anticipated, and it was very hard to see much, at least in the first three galleries. Even if you arrived early and got a good viewing spot in the first gallery, the second the dancers darted to the second room, you were going to now be behind a mass of people. Some people gave up and left. Others ended up turning their cell phone cameras on, and, holding their cell phones above the mass of heads in front of them, watched through the viewer. It was really the only way to see. There were early warnings from security guards that no pictures were to be taken, but either they meant no photos of the art on the walls, or else they realized that was the only way people could see, because soon the warnings stopped.

From what I could see in the first three galleries, the dance was lyrical, balletic, classical. The violinist played classical. But then came Bradford’s voice-over. Bradford is an African-American artist, his work mainly abstract. I don’t remember the soundtrack word for word, but I remember Bradford mentioning that race played a role in his art and that he strove to push boundaries. At that point, Millepied and Wells, two white dancers, were dancing fairly classical western dance to classical western music. So, I found that to be an interesting juxtaposition.

I, and I think everyone around me, enjoyed the performance much better in the fourth gallery, where Millepied broke the fourth wall and began dancing in and around and among the crowd, dancing with us in a way. At this point in Bradford’s voice-over, he spoke about how difficult it sometimes was for him to manipulate a crowd, partly because of his height – he’s a tall, tall man.

Here he is after the performance talking to an audience member.

Millepied was most playful here, and he interacted with the crowd very well, weaving around people, making eye contact, smiling, not touching. People were giggling and having fun with it.

Here’s an up-close photo I got of his torso.

Back in the middle of the floor, he did a few corkscrew jumps and multiple pirouettes and the audience was very impressed. I think he is a mini-star here!

He also interacted with Bradford’s visual art. He stood in front of a large-scale abstract painting and, as Bradford’s recorded voice said something about how he studied a scene before painting it, Millepied stood squarely in front of the painting and contemplated it.

It’s a short program, definitely worth seeing. It shows on two other Thursdays, which are the nights when the museum is open free of charge: August 2nd, and August 9th. Go here for details.

In September the company has its much anticipated first regular performance in the Walt Disney Music Center hall.

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Published on July 22, 2012 14:58 • 39 views

June 3, 2012

So, did you all watch the premiere of Breaking Pointe this week? Thanks to Jeff (who commented on my earlier post complaining that the new TV show Bunheads was unrelated to Sophie Flack’s novel) or I wouldn’t have known about it. I don’t regularly watch the CW network so missed the commercials for it.

I don’t want to judge it yet until I’ve seen a few more episodes. But one thing that surprised me in this first week was how one of the dancers (the clip above introduces them) remarked on how the thing they all strive for is that one perfect moment onstage. It made me think – yikes – was Darren Aronofsky right? Is the end of Black Swan accurate, when Nina’s shrieking, “It was a perfect performance! It was a perfect performance!” that that’s what dancers actually dream of attaining?

I hope not. I hope they know perfection is ass boring. Nureyev was far from perfect. Fonteyn was far from perfect. Natalia Osipova isn’t perfect, Veronika Part isn’t perfect. None of my favorite dancers are technically perfect.

I don’t know. I’ve obviously never been in a ballet company but I’d think a dancer would have deep admiration for a star dancer, say with ABT or the Bolshoi or POB or what have you, and would aim to be like her, would strive to attain her passion and her intensity and her artistry. I didn’t see that at all. But they are probably showing what the producers think will most appeal to a general audience: the competition, the jealousy, the typical boyfriend / girlfriend disputes. Ha, I love the guy with the motorcycle. How Ethan Stiefel :D

Anyway, will definitely keep watching. It’s on the CW network on Thursdays. Check your local listings for times.

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Published on June 03, 2012 00:12 • 24 views

June 2, 2012

On Thursday night I was invited to an L.A. preview of Body Traffic‘s upcoming New York premiere. They’ll be performing in N.Y. at the Joyce (Chelsea) June 6th and 7th (they just received a $25,000 grant from the Joyce) as part of the Gotham Dance Festival, and I very highly recommend them.

Being new to L.A., this was my first experience with the four-year-old company (which is co-founded and directed by Tina Finkelman Berkett and Lillian Barbeito) and they weren’t at all what I was expecting. (I guess in L.A. I tend to expect to be surrounded by popular entertainment dance – hip-hop, the kind of contemporary modern showcased on So You Think You Can Dance, etc.) This company is more Batsheva, and the work is very intelligently choreographed and intelligently danced.

I don’t want to write much about the program right now; I’m just anxious for New Yorkers to see it and it’s work I think the New York critics will actually like, for a change!

The highlight, for me, was Israeli choreographer Barak Marshall’s And At Midnight, the Green Bride Floated Through the Village Square… which was kind of a cross between a dance and a play with multiple speaking parts (very funny, clever repartee) interspersed with ensemble dance. I loved it. Marshall gave an onstage interview during intermission. He has an endearing personality, as well as a beautiful voice. He sang a lovely, haunting-sounding song for us, in I think he said Yemeni, at the request of the interviewer.

Also on the program was Dutch choreographer Stijn Celis’s Fragile Dwellings, a poignant piece with four dancers dedicated to the homeless people of Los Angeles, and O2Joy by Richard Siegal set to music by Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Glenn Miller, and the Oscar Peterson Trio and just about the best homage to the pure joy of dance I’ve seen.

If you’re in New York, please do not miss them at the Joyce (June 6 & 7)!

To give you an idea, here are excerpts from an earlier Barak Marshall work:

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Published on June 02, 2012 23:36 • 25 views