Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Bokaer installation honors women's acts of resistance

Have you read this New York Times article about dance artist Jonah Bokaer's tribute to four little-known women of courage?

Commissioned by the American Jewish Historical Society and curated by Rachel Lithgow (AJHS's executive director and Bokaer's co-researcher), October 7, 1944 is a multimedia installation inspired by the resistance activities of a network of Polish Jewish women, laborers at a munitions factory near Auschwitz and Birkenau. Róża Robota, Estera Wajcblum, Regina Szafirsztajn and Ala Gertner were among the women recruited by the underground to smuggle out small quantities of gunpowder to be used to create grenades and, on the date of Bokaer's title, destroy a crematorium. Just a few weeks before the advancing Soviet army could reach and liberate the camps, the Nazis arrested, tortured and hanged these four women while their fellow workers were forced to watch.

"These women were not remarkable in any way that is known to us," writes Lithgow in her essay for the exhibition's brochure. "They were young women who believed what they were doing was right."

Bokaer's structurally elegant, haunted arrangement of archival documents, fragmented music instruments, blow-ups of sheet music and projected imagery includes two dance films--one made for this project (Four Women), another from 2012 (Study for Occupant) with eerie echoes of his current theme. Both films feature the dancing of Laura Gutierrez, Catherine Miller, Irena Misirlić and Sara Procopio.

The exhibition is small in size, but its inner density invites commitment of time to lengthy videos and documents in plexiglass display cases. These cases stretch along a white table, oddly protected and recessed just far enough from its edge to make a reader bend in an awkward way to read the typed or printed words. To read each document, you end up leaning over a concrete block in front of each case. Each block has a piece of a musical instrument resting on it. A strange experience, as I saw it: You must decide to skim a selection of a document's words, get a general sense of what's there and move on or to tilt yourself just so, hold that pose and read word for word until you're done. With his dancer's sensibility, Bokaer seems to be trying to create discomfort and effort in our bodies as well as our minds. He introduces a sense that learning all there is to know about the gruesome reality of the Holocaust is both important and impossible.

I keep returning to Lithgow's words about this exhibition's heroes. Are they not, in fact, remarkable? In a sense, they most certainly are. But in another sense--her meaning, surely--they were ordinary women and ones whose small but essential contributions have remained largely obscure except to scholars of the Holocaust. Bokaer does not overdramatize this heroism but his work reminds us that anyone of us, at any time, can choose to do the one thing that will make a difference.

October 7, 1944 will be on view in the Popper Gallery at the Jewish Historical Center (home of the American Jewish Historical Society) through December 30. For visitor information, click here.

Center for Jewish History
15 West 16th Street (between 5th and 6th Avenues), Manhattan



night aware awoke
goes down
maat though
weighs the heart
in every stairwell
at every step
with her spare scales
and her
interrogation a stairwell
asking are you
with your bargain
you’ve gotten
for your harvest
for your trafficked soul
invisible in
maat of a million
a body a
dance against
are you
content now
are you

(c)2014, Eva Yaa Asantewaa

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Black Violin schools 'em in Brooklyn

Black Violin co-founders
Kevin "Kev Marcus" Sylvester, left, and Wil "Wil B" Baptiste
(photo courtesy Black Violin)

The entire world, it seems, knew about Black Violin...except for me. I feel really bad about that. Here are a couple of Black guys from South Florida who became virtuosos of classical strings and then proceeded to turn all that upside down/inside out by folding in hip hop, blues, roots music, rock and more. No lumps in that batter, just streaming, massive energy that does not quit or let you just sit there stony-faced.

Photo: Colin Brennan Photography

Kevin "Kev Marcus" Sylvester (violin) and Wil "Wil B" Baptiste (viola, piano, vocals) and fellow band members have appeared everywhere from Harlem's Apollo Theater to Obama's Inaugural balls to three Super Bowls. They have accompanied Alicia Keys, opened for Kanye West and collaborated with Aerosmith and Aretha Franklin. They've played for our troops in Iraq and wowed a lot of school kids while advising them to "reach for the stars."

So it was time for my ears to join in and, happily, Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts set the stage, yesterday afternoon, with a brilliant, family-oriented show.

Black Violin, including bandmembers DJ TK on turntables and Nathaniel Stokes on drums,
at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts, Brooklyn College
(photo:Tracey Wood Mendelsohn)

Completely informal and accessible, Kev Marcus and Wil B have great spirit. They also know how to rev up a crowd with a show that flows steady, hardly ever easing off the intensity. They allow no time to question the mix of genres or the unusual way instruments can be played. It's only too bad that the sound muffled quite a lot of their lyrics at the Brooklyn show, but here's the ultimate message, courtesy of....Yes, folks: Last year, they made a TED Talk! Check out the performance of "Virtuoso" at the end.

I promise I will not miss future Black Violin performances in New York, and neither should you. Keep up with Black Violin here.

For news on future events at Brooklyn Center for the Performing Arts--including appearances by Sweet Honey in the Rock, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, The Klezmatics, National Dance Theatre Company of Jamaica and Eddie Palmieri's Latin Jazz Septet--click here.

Friday, November 21, 2014

Covering up for Luke George

Dancer Luke George (above)
and a scene from Not About Face
(photos: Madeline Best)

Australian-born dance/performance artist Luke George has a pretty hearty notion of what audiences will tolerate. Never before have I been asked, as an audience member, to divest all of my belongings and don a bed sheet with eye holes that would make me look like a little ghostling who got terribly confused on her way back from Trick-or-Treating (with disconcerting, not so subtle visual echoes of chadors and KKK gear). George's current iteration of Not About Face, performed with collaborator Hilary Clark and, yes, every single person in attendance at The Chocolate Factory, has been described as:
An experiment in anonymous intimacy and fake belief, Not About Face questions the nature of the unspoken contracts between performer and audience, and accesses the supernatural and spiritual as a way to investigate how the yearning for belief can make people do many things. For this performance, audience members are robed in full-body shrouds and join a free-roaming and anonymous gathering in the performance space. We will come together. We will become anonymous. We will fake belief or believe in faking it.

Luke George
(photo: Madeline Best)

Funny thing about bed sheet ectoplasm: It underscores the earthly nature of the bodies underneath. Especially when you can easily recognize your friend or colleague or that downtown dance star by their height or their signature sneakers or snazzy boots. The quest for the intangible puts you smack up against the tangible when George directs you to huddle together ever closer, closer, closer to him and your neighbor runs into your toe.

The body also roars back into view with Clark's sudden crying jag, George's tantrums and, finally, George's lengthy, undeniably charismatic dance that concludes the performance. Transparency, here--used as a form of theatrics--is more spirited than spirit-ly.

I don't know about the "fake belief" thing or George's stated interest (see the program notes) in the behavior of crowds. Seems to me, it's pretty hard to see Not About Face, at least for its audience, as anything but an ordered experience that you consciously agree to participate in (with your paid ticket) to the extent of your comfort. Everyone covered up--that was the fun part--but not absolutely everyone followed every direction.

If you go, know that you will spend nearly ninety minutes mostly on your feet, milling around the space, wearing a heavy sheet that traps body heat. (Ah, yes, the body again....) Since it's cold out these nights, dress in layers and, before the show, leave most of them with that nice coat check person downstairs.

Sound/video/set/system programming: Nick Roux
Lighting: Benjamin Cisterne

Not About Face continues tonight and Saturday with performances at 8pm, and there's an additional show on Saturday at 5pm. Plan to arrive no later than 15 minutes before start time. For tickets, click here.

The Chocolate Factory
5-49 49th Avenue, Long Island City, Queens

Thursday, November 20, 2014

Thank you, Ursula K. Le Guin!

I think hard times are coming, when we will be wanting the voices of writers who can see alternatives to how we live now.... Power can be resisted and changed by human beings; resistance and change often begin in art, and very often in our art--the art of words.
--Ursula K. Le Guin
Read more:

“We Will Need Writers Who Can Remember Freedom”: Ursula Le Guin and Last Night’s N.B.A.s
by Rachel Arons, The New Yorker, November 20, 2014

"It's time for courage." Rodabaugh + Orange = DoublePlus

DoublePlus, the smart new artist-curated performance series at Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis Performing Arts Center (280 Broadway), is quickly coming into focus as a space for risk-taking by everyone from maker to presenter to watcher. Without advancing a narrow aesthetic agenda, it is breaking lesser-known artists into potentially wider exposure. More than just a chance for Gina Gibney to host formal performances--still restricted at her original 890 Broadway studios--DoublePlus is shaping up as a contender in the crowded New York dance scene, serving up adventure in a sophisticated container.

Last evening, guest curator Miguel Gutierrez introduced us to the work of Alex Rodabaugh and Rakiya A. Orange.

Alex Rodabaugh with cast of g1br33l
(photo: Alex Escalante)
Alex Rodabaugh channels the archangel Gabriel
(photo: Alex Escalante)
Rakiya A. Orange in her solo, Aziza
(photo: Alex Escalante)

Rodabaugh's ensemble piece, g1br33l, looks like a nightmare that might well start off with spooky space music, cheesy, makeshift costumes, ritual gestures and exhortations to "Breathe and let go" but end in Manson-like bloodshed. Actually, no New Agers are harmed in the making of this movie, but it does veer from Rodabaugh's oft-cited comfort zone into unexpected, suggestive and subversive territory. I think Rodabaugh's channeled alter ego, the archangel Gabriel, might have spent some earthbound time occupying Wall Street as well as a few queer dives. And I found one of his pronouncements intriguing: "We can't change government, but we can change our reaction to government" echoes a familiar spiritual nostrum for all kinds of complicated personal and social ailments. Gabe, as embodied by Rodabaugh, is a modest-looking archangel but with a detectable modern edge, and I think "reaction" might be the word to focus on in that sentence. (Visit Rodabaugh's page here.)

Rakiya A. Orange
(photo: Alex Escalante)

Let me cite the DoublePlus description of Orange's extraordinary solo, Aziza:
...a complicated investigation of self and identity, foregrounded by Stephanie Leigh Batiste’s idea that “The performing black body is material and metaphorical, real and unreal.” Orange’s body becomes a site of infinite feedback, reflecting the gaze of the spectator. She foregrounds her ambiguous status—as a real person, a theatrical representation, and a sociocultural construction—to explore, expose, and explode definitions of blackness.
Orange, when we first see her, dances atop a triangular platform of ludicrous dimensions. It's kind of the size of an American flag folded and handed off to a war widow. But you don't need a lot of space for strip-club moves. Later, she will indeed take the whole of the floor space, and forcefully, but she starts off pinned to this tight spot like the specimen she is for the audience's gaze. And still looks completely in charge. A beautiful woman and dancer, she invites the gaze and is quite good at feeding it while clearly enjoying the rush ride of her powers and savoring music that is nothing short of inviting and wonderful. She's all over a spectrum of being ours and being her own. Her skill, creativity and confidence are clear but complicated by the mundane and exploitative uses to which they are usually put. The world is not necessarily her friend. In silent, strange moments, she might end up upended like a beetle, legs flailing. She seems, at times, to follow ideas and try things out as she dances, raising questions like, Because she smiles, is everything always all right? She seems to be asking questions, too: Is this one thing enough? Is it good enough? How far do I need to go? Can I enjoy this? Can I let you see me enjoying this? Can I let you enjoy this? Who's watching me? Are you WATCHING ME?!!

Orange and Rodabaugh continue tonight through Saturday with performances at 7:30pm. Tonight's show will be followed by a Q&A with the curator and choreographers. For schedule information and tickets, click here.

Gibney Dance: Agnes Varis
Performing Arts Center
280 Broadway (enter at 53A Chambers Street), Manhattan

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