Friday, April 13, 2018

92Y presents a tribute to Arthur Mitchell

Arthur Mitchell
dancing in George Balanchine's Agon
(photo: Martha Swope)



presented by



Arthur Mitchell--who, in 1955, brought Black excellence to Balanchine's New York City Ballet as a principal dancer and, in 1969, founded historic Dance Theatre of Harlem--is, at age 84, a stone-cold hoot. Sure, it took a couple of folks to help the man to his chair at 92Y's Buttenweiser Hall today but, as soon as he took that seat, he took control. Just ripped control right out of the hands of Donna Walker-Kuhne, veteran arts marketer, billed as moderator of his conversation with Ford Foundation president Darren Walker. Make no mistake, Walker-Kuhne can handle herself. But, at least for the moment, there was no handling Mr. Arthur Mitchell.

There was so much he wanted to tell us, you see. And he wasted no opportunity to admonish the young students lining the floor in front of the first row of audience seating at this sold-out event.

"Pull your feet back!" he ordered a few.

"Don't upstage me, dear!" he warned a scurrying Catherine Tharin, Fridays@Noon's curator.

"Darren is one of my role models," he told us. "I need someone to educate me in the business part of dance."

Well, thank goodness there's a reason to keep Darren Walker around!

When Walker-Kuhne finally took the reins, posing a question about diversity in the dance field, Mitchell held to what seems to always be his primary focus--discipline.

"Very few people know what [diversity] means," he said.

To Mitchell, it brings thoughts of the multitude of dance techniques and performance skills today's dancer must possess--everything from ballet and tap to a strong, projecting voice.  Speaking of projection, everyone--from audience members with mumbly questions to the moderator of the concluding panel--got a tongue lashing for not speaking up!

Next up, Darren Walker offered that "diversity is about excellence" and that excellence has the potential to lift everthing from dance troupes to major corporations and foundations like Ford.

"It does not correlate with a loss of quality," he argued. Rectifying the chronic inequality in our society and establishing social justice should be the ultimate goal of philanthropy. However, today's philanthropists, many of them flush with Silicon Valley success, have not yet turned attention to the arts.

"But the arts are what make it possible for us to be empathetic," Walker said. "Without empathy, we won't have justice."

Both men lamented the decline of arts education in our nation's schools, and Walker offered the example of how pressuring New York mayor Bill de Blasio led to his establishment of universal pre-K. Why can't we have a similar push for more arts activities in all our schools?

"You've just implemented the most complicated thing you can do--add on a new population of students," Walker said. "But we lack the political will for an arts policy that puts arts education in every classroom. We have to hold our political leaders accountable to get to that goal."

The program stretched Fridays@Noon's usual ninety minutes to a full two hours. It included an enjoyable slate of performances: Paunika Jones (Mitchell's Balm in Gilead), Rasta Thomas (Flight of the Bumble Bee by Vladamir Angelov after Milton Myers), Jones and Jamal Story (Doina by Royston Maldoom), and Maria Kowroski and Amar Ramasar (the duet from Agon by George Balanchine, made famous by the extraordinary Mitchell and Diana Adams and controversial for that interracial casting). A panel, facilitated by archivist Gillian Lipton, featured remarks by Anna Kisselgoff (former chief dance critic of The New York Times) and remembrances from Lydia Abarca Mitchell (DTH's first prima ballerina), Sheila Rohan (soloist) and Tania León (conductor and composer).

For information on upcoming 92Y Harkness Dance Center and Fridays@Noon events, click here.

92Y
1395 Lexington Avenue (between 91st and 92nd Streets), Manhattan
Subways: #6 to 86th or 96th Streets

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mayfield brooks: improvising while Black at GIBNEY

mayfield brooks
(photo: Amar Puri)


I spent some time this week drifting back into that intriguing realm that Reggie Wilson's Danspace Project platform opened a few weeks ago (Dancing Platform Praying Grounds: Blackness, Churches, and Downtown Dance). Back with native people of stolen lands and enslaved people of the Middle Passage, back beneath the physical and psychic layers that make up present day Manhattan--this time, though, instigated and guided by mayfield brooks who calls her/their dance practice Improvising While Black.

With the three-part IWB: Dancing in the Hold, brooks opened a new series at GIBNEY called Gathering Place: Black Queer Land(ing), curated by Marýa Wethers as a place of "intersection among blackness, queerness and indigeneity." This series will continue with performances by jumatatu m. poe (Apr 19–21) and I Moving Lab (Apr 26–28).

The design of brooks's IWB: Dancing in the Hold breaks the framework for presentation. It is not one thing; it is different things. People gather not to just watch people do stuff but possibly do stuff themselves. Anything originally planned for one point in time might easily show up in another. And we all bring ourselves to it because it can't exist without us. In essence, this truly is Black space.

IWB: Dancing in the Hold is a performance in three parts investigating mayfield brooks’ ongoing project, Improvising While Black (IWB), which uses dance improvisation as a tool to create atmospheres of care and inquiry while listening to ancestral whispers of the middle passage.

Part I, P(a)rLAY, is an invitation to Black-identified artists to participate in an improvisational dance workshop and performance exploring IWB’s improvisatory techniques including speaking in tongues, wandering practices, somatic awakenings and partner work.

Part II, Dancing in the Hold, is an evening-length performance exploring underwater textures like shipwrecks and contaminated seaweed while embracing Black queer ancestors, Black rage, brilliance and joy.

Part III, Process(Ion), is a durational performance installation exploring gestures of Black revolt, poetics of oceanic abyss, spontaneous readings of Afropessimist scholarly texts and a procession to the African Burial Ground in Lower Manhattan.

P(a)rLAY was my second time taking a workshop with brooks--the first, hosted by Movement Research at Abrons Arts Center. Once again, I was amazed by how one gifted teacher's gentle invitations can quickly lead to profound revelations.

brooks has been spending time visiting, contemplating and drawing inspiration from the nearby African Burial Ground memorial. We visited as well, on a windy late afternoon, the twelve of us, and took away impressions for the work we would do together back in the Black Box studio. We also wrote letters to ancestors known and unknown, and learned meaningful things in the writing that perhaps we would never have attained any other way.

I will not be able to attend the durational event, Part III, tomorrow. However, I did return to GIBNEY's Black Box last night for Part II, Dancing in the Hold. I witnessed the entirety of it through a shroud of silver. Because I was a spirit. Because brooks asked nicely. Because two of us from the P(a)rLAY workshop showed up/said yes. So, into the depths where inky dark and screams and whimpers are broken by bioluminescence. Where a switched-on, unrestrained brooks is joined in liberation by South Africa's outstanding Mlondi Zondi.

It's late in the day now, but tickets might remain for tonight's show. Try for them!

For information and tickets for mayfield brooks's events tonight and tomorrow, click hereFor information, tickets and series passes for Gathering Place: Black Queer Land(ing), click here.

GIBNEY
280 Broadway (enter at 53A Chambers Street), Manhattan
Subways: 4/5/6 to Brooklyn Bridge-City Hall; N/R/W to City Hall; 2/3 to Park Place

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Thursday, April 12, 2018

Eliza Bent gets personal on race and cultural appropriation

Eliza Bent
(photo: Knud Adams)


It's far worse than you might think.

No, that's not my review of Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen, the new monologue written and performed by Eliza Bent, now at Abrons Arts Center. But that's what I believe Bent wants viewers to grasp.

The piece jumps off from the playwright's memories of a film on the 19th Century queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii's last monarch--a school project Bent cooked up at age 13 with a friend and classmate. The young auteur cast her white affluent self as the indigenous queen and now looks back on it--as we get to do; the film is both cringe-worthy and just ridiculously audacious enough to kind of work, ya know?--with no small amount of shame. I can't gauge how completely woke today's Bent is but, as things unfold, you will definitely see she's got her eyes propped open.

She might have forgiven her teenaged self (and begged our forgiveness) for youthful indiscretion. But she does not stop there.

Surrounded, inexplicably but beautifully, by Elizabeth Chabot's rich, thick textile art and a row of fetching portraits--Bent resembles some combination of high-class talk show host and star monologist. Wearing a buttoned-up little black dress with A-line cut, she talks nonstop with well-practiced intensity that pegs her as facile, artificial, privileged, ready for PBS or an NPR podcast.

Frankly, even when self-revealing, she's off-putting. You take note when she utters something amusing. You note that amusement and yet stand clear of enjoying it. You definitely stand away from Bent, and maybe she means you to do so, because her delivery of text is noticeably, oddly driven, airless, leaving no room for her breathing or your own.

At some point, you get used to that. Which might mean an unseen internal change within her or--and this is really what it felt like--something shifting inside you, like when a climber gets more and more acclimated to lower levels of oxygen.

Maybe, though, Bent's the sort best positioned to lead us where we need to go and show us what we need to see--what she's done and what she's witnessed, particularly in the world of media and the arts. (In addition to her stage work, she served, for several years, as a senior editor at American Theatre magazine.) Deep into the play, she circles back to her own relationships and disconnections--refusing to absolve herself for what remains unresolved, tasking herself and the rest of us with acknowledging the pervasive breadth and durability of privilege and the damage wrought. Not a curious fossil from the ancestral past. Not a specimen of a problem that has not a thing on Earth to do with us now.

Direction: Knud Adams
Textile panel art: Elizabeth Chabot
Sound design/original composition: Jerome Ellis
Lighting: Kate McGee
Make up and styling: Naomi Miyoko Raddatz

Aloha, Aloha, or When I Was Queen continues through April 21. For information and tickets, click here.

Abrons Arts Center
466 Grand Street (at Pitt Street), Manhattan
(directions)

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Lois Wheeler Snow, 97

Lois Wheeler Snow, Critic of Human Rights Abuses in China, Dies at 97
by Amy Qin, The New York Times, April 11, 2018

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