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The FRESH PENCIL dance blog has moved

May 3, 2013

truckIt’s moving day. I’m so excited to become part of the website, founded by my old Seattle Weekly colleague Doug McLennan. Inspired by the great group of thinkers and writers over there, I’ll be posting more than just links to and re-hashes of my Los Angeles Times reviews. Take a look! And check back here soon for an expanded look at some yet uncharted Lenihan territory.

Blessed Stillness of Trisha Brown Retrospective at CAP-UCLA

April 9, 2013
Amelia Rudolph in "Man Walking Down the Side of a Building."

Amelia Rudolph at the top of the Broad Arts Center. photo: Spencer Davis

A funny thing happened when Amelia Rudolph, artistic director of Oakland-based BANDALOOP dance company, launched into the very rare, permit-heavy re-staging of Trisha Brown‘s “Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” (1970) during the Brown Dance Company Retrospective on Friday evening at CAP-UCLA. Just as she crested the edge of the 8-plus story Broad Art Center, in that split second of obtuse-angled suspension before snapping into the 90-degree downward wall-walking path, she heard — amidst a generalized audience gasp — the abrupt words of a young child on the lawn below rising up to meet her. “That’s not dance!” the young girl blurted, and though inaudible to most audience members, the words rose straight up to Rudolph’s ears.

A life-long climber and aerialist dancer, Rudolph inhabited “Man Walking” with a generosity and control simply unavailable to other performers who’ve recently attempted it. It was Rudolph’s first time with a back-oriented cable, and she’d practiced for weeks with rigger Derrick Lindsay. (She usually dances with a cable harnessed to her front mid-section, twisting around and dancing with it.) While the Twitterverse dubbed it “(Wo)Man Walking Down the Side of a Building” in her honor, Rudolph never missed a step, and with permission from the Brown company, added a couple of delicate gestures that made the enrapt viewers downright giddy. Around the halfway mark of her walk, she glanced gently to the right; a few steps further she reached a hand up as if to brush back a piece of hair. Within shouting distance on the sculpture garden lawn, Rodin’s “Walking Man” was caught in his own immortal stride.

"Floor of the Forest" at Hammer Museum

UCLA students in a restaging of “Floor of the Forest.” photo: Phinn Sriployrung

This went on all weekend — the creation and displacement and reconfiguration of priceless body-borne Brownian silences and stillnesses, often fittingly (for conceptual art) altered by chance and context. Unbelievable, really, that there were four different site-specific performances, along with the two-chockablock proscenium concerts at Royce Hall. At the Hammer Museum, Brown’s “Floor of the Forest” (1970), featuring two dancers climbing in and out of clothing suspended from a steel-and-rope grid, was performed 3-4x daily by UCLA dance students in the Hammer Courtyard (through April 21), to a soundtrack of voices and plunks coming from the ping-pong games on the terrace above. Dressed so drearily correct, with all our clothing hanging staidly, us human witnesses nearby became audience and performers both.

"Astral Converted"

“Astral Converted” at Sunset Canyon Amphitheatre. photo: Roger Wong

At last Thursday’s outdoor performance of “Astral Converted” (1991), the weekend’s first glimpse of the Brown company’s current iteration of super-dancers, condensation problems on the Sunset Canyon amphitheater stage resulted in a transfigured piece. Though we lost the second half of the work (dancers had arranged to cue one another when the floor surface was too slick to continue, so at a certain midway point the piece suddenly ceased on a dime), the movement quality throughout was more weighted and deeply plunging than usual, plus a half-hour stage-drying prelude drew an effecting new boundary. Waiting on the bleachers for the show to begin, the audience watched for a half hour while black-clad helpers — using hands, feet or brooms — swiped white cloths around the unlit stage. In the distance, a single top-corner window in a darkened dorm glowed yellow, with an additional flickery-blue rectangle from an illuminated computer. Midway through the clean-up, it was announced that Robert Rauschenberg’s eight freestanding lighted towers were going to be switched to aid the work, but this was not “the dance” yet. (If you say so…) When the sleek, silver-clad dancers arrived, and the low groans of John Cage’s score began, the ceremony switched gears and some kind of gathering began. A little bit extraterrestrial, a little spidery, perhaps a summoning of evolved bullfrogs. We were witness — however briefly — to some singular phenomenological visitation.

When she was still choreographing Brown spent little time re-staging past works — especially these amazing site-specific pieces. She felt the maintenance competed with her ability to create new work. This was just the fourth time in 40+ years that “Man Walking” has been performed. Re-stagings of “Roof Piece,” performed twice on Saturday at the Getty Center, have been equally rare. And they’ve never been paired on a single weekend before. And what a pair they make.

With its single dancer on an irreversible trajectory, “Man Walking” was like an arrow shot from Brown to her audience. Her man took off from the sky and bore down towards the gathered mass, finally falling to all fours on the ground at our feet. The clarity and beauty of the extraordinary task delivered a rush of silence, a blanket of hush.

"Roof Piece" at the Getty. photo: Roger Wong

“Roof Piece” at the Getty. photo: Roger Wong

In “Roof Piece,” (1971), featuring 10 dancers signaling to each other across distant rooftops, Brown took the opposite tack: diffusion to the nth degree. Diffusion so extreme that in most iterations — including the Getty last Saturday — you couldn’t glimpse the full picture at once. Seeing the full ‘stage’ on Saturday meant you had to jog in criss-cross patterns around the museum’s plazas and terraces with a map trying to locate all the dancers and pick the best vantage points before the half hour piece concluded.

Though “Roof Piece” was created in downtown New York, it seemed made for the hazy, vertiginous hilltop. While the regular family-heavy Saturday crowd milled around, a scattering of red-clad TBDC dancers appeared like lone, post-season berries dotted against the sunbaked walls and terrace edges. The soundtrack was chance (in my case a burbling multi-layered composition dramatically punctured by a mother repeatedly yelling “Slow down Ayla! Slow down Ayla!” and a tour guide explaining gleefully how every year the Getty gardeners thin out every third leaf from the London Plane trees).

"Roof Piece" at the Getty. photo: Roger Wong

“Roof Piece” at the Getty. photo: Roger Wong

Panic and loneliness and bewilderment of all this sprawl — so recognizable — ruled at first. The flowing red beacons in the distance seemed able to either intensify or ameliorate the sense of entrapment — my choice. So I ran, like a crazy woman, from space to space, dodging marble waterfalls and statues and family clusters, until I found a place, finally, on the South Terrace, where I could see three dancers at the same time, and feel the transmission of movement. To the north, about 30 yards away and 20 feet up, Samuel Wentz was positioned on a stairwell of the South Pavilion sending physical messages to Tara Lorenzen, standing on the plaza right beside me. I was this close to Lorenzen — I could feel the air shifting from her arm swings and hip wiggles. After she initially ‘caught’ a transmission from Wentz, I’d glance southwest, in the low distance. There, about a football field away, the movement would bloom again on Neal Beasley, an oscillating red shape, framed by the Cactus Garden and sealed entirely in silence.

[This piece originally ran with more images and video on KCET’s Artbound site.]

The Horses Keep Coming

April 5, 2013
Cavalia horses

Arabian grays. Courtesy of Cavalia.

Back in February, I received the fun assignment to look at the choreography created for the dozens of horses in “Odysseo,” the new $30 million touring production from Cavalia. As usual, the show is a popular hit — originally slated for a 3-week run in March, it keeps getting one extension after another after another. As of now, the end date is April 21.

The revue, created by one of the Cirque du Soleil founders, Normand Latourelle, was a little TOO spectacular for me. (It’s not just my age — I’ve been a fraidy cat for decades.) Aerialists without nets, suspended from the eight-story-high big top tent, hanging by crisscrossed ankles, isn’t my preferred theatrical orientation. I also worried that the horses might slip in the water (it’s happened before in Burbank). I wished it were possible to just enjoy the horses’ natural grace and power the way I was able to do for one dreamy afternoon during their pre-show Simi Valley vacation. Full story here at the Los Angeles Times.

Buried Love Affair Evokes Elusive Moment in American Ballet History

February 19, 2013
Golden headshot

Ballet Theatre dancer Miriam Golden.

With ballet’s 15th-century Renaissance origins still somewhat imaginable,  it’s hard to keep in mind that American ballet — born in 1940s New York City — is still less than 100 years old.  The two pillars of American ballet —  George Balanchine’s New York City Ballet and Lucia Chase’s American Ballet Theatre — both arose in that same urban, pre-war moment, with dogged New York City arts impresarios ushering in choreographers’ arrivals from Europe, the formation of the first classical training academies, and the organization of the first fledgling U.S. companies (boasting works by such seminal figures as Agnes de Mille, Antony Tudor, and George Balanchine.)

Yet in that formative moment,  as it usually goes, both companies had to hustle constantly, spending more time touring outside of New York than in.  And during 1940-1941 the lucrative locales were the Latin nations to the south — Mexico, Colombia, Brazil, Argentina, Peru.  Yet while both companies spent long stretches there, its been terribly difficult to find historical documentation or stories that effectively re-animate that cinematic moment when gutsy young American dancers were hoofing and partying in European-style palacios across South America.

Cantinflas and Golden.

Cantinflas and Golden in Mexico City.

Filling that gap in a most unusual and delicate way is a new limited edition art book by Seattle artist Ellen Ziegler entitled “El Torero y la Bailarina” (The Bullfighter and the Ballerina), which chronicles a year-long affair between Ziegler’s mother Miriam Golden (1920-2010), a principal dancer with American Ballet Theatre, and Cantinflas (1911-1993), the beloved Mexican actor/comedian/bullfighter, during Ballet Theatre’s 1941 residency at the Palace of Fine Arts in Mexico City. Heralded as the “Charlie Chaplin of Mexico,” Cantinflas  is best known for his 1956 appearance with David Niven in the film “Around the World in 80 Days.”

In photographs, Golden appears a sumptuous beauty (unsurprisingly, she went on to become one of the dancing “Goldwyn Girls” at MGM soon after this tour) . Originally a dancer with Ballet Caravan (later NYCB), then a founding principal with Ballet Theatre (later ABT), Golden’s roles on this tour included leads in the first American staging of Antony Tudor’s  grave “Dark Elegies” plus Agnes de Mille’s uplifting Western ballets:  “Billy the Kid” and “Rodeo.”   Cantinflas may well have been in the audience for these concerts. And she surely sat, one time or another, in the stands at the bullring watching his antics as both a comedian and toreador.

Miriam Golden.

Miriam Golden.

Billed as a “hand-typed hand-built hand-bound love story,” Ziegler’s elegant, concise book features letters, telegrams, and photographs. The couple are shown posed together only once — it’s the series of solo images of Golden from that time that beautifully reflect how their passion reverberated through her over the course of the year.

Told in both Spanish and English, Ziegler’s careful, loving arrangement of ballet headshots, personal photos and yellowed telegrams — covered in cloudy, crinkled onionskin —  truly physicalize a moment of heightened love and artistry in the life of a 21-year-old, far from home, with World War II just around the corner.  That the love was ill-fated, and the story’s pieces incomplete, is suggested by Ziegler by the paper’s gnarly texture and the imperfections of the hand typewriting. But Ziegler found ways to deliver a satisfying wholeness to the project, too, as by bringing her manuscript down to Mexico City to be typed up by one of the for-hire mecanograficos in the Portal de Evangelistas.

 Albia Kavan, Donald Saddler, Alicia Alonso, Miriam Golden, Anthony Tudor, John Kriza, Jerome Robbins, Charlie Payne.

In Mexico: Albia Kavan, Donald Saddler, Alicia Alonso, Golden, Antony Tudor, John Kriza, Jerome Robbins, Charlie Payne.


In creating this loving paean to her mother, Ziegler has gifted all of us with a book whose artful sensuality offers all of us a glimpse into a special moment during the genesis of American ballet.  For more information, see Ziegler’s kickstarter video.

Krump Choreography, Coming to a Stage Near You

February 11, 2013
The Underground by Dan Carino

Rehearsal of the Underground with Christopher “Worm” Lewis. Photo: Dan Carino

Over three months, I followed pioneer krumpers Lil’ C and Miss Prissy (from “Rize”) during the gestational year of The Underground, the first-ever krump-based concert-dance company which they’re building with street dance artists from Los Angeles and beyond. I saw their concert, talked to them at Miss Prissy’s house on South Wilton Place, and watched them dance at a krump session at Chuco’s Justice Center in Inglewood. It’s still remarkable to think that Miss Prissy, one of the very first krumpers, actually chose the very aggressive, twisted energy of krump over all the ballet/jazz/hip hop she was studying as a kid. With Lil’ C, it’s almost inconceivable that he’s entirely self-taught. His choreography is just so sublime. There’s great video accompanying my story over at Los Angeles Times. And here’s a link to their new Kickstarter page.  The full article is also pasted below:

The Underground aims to take krump from the street to the stage

In a small Inglewood house near the end of a quiet, dead-end street, Marquisa “Miss Prissy” Gardner and Christopher “Lil’ C” Toler are mock arguing about a bag of Martha’s burritos he’s carrying. “You didn’t bring me any?” she taunts. “Chris-TOE-pher!”

The longtime friends — launched to fame seven years ago by “Rize,” David LaChappelle’s 2005 documentary on South L.A.’s clown and krump dancers — wanted to meet in their childhood neighborhood as they discussed their new joint venture, the Underground, the first-ever concert-dance company to use street-born krump as its choreographic base.

Toler, 29, skulks to his chair, his red cap pulled low, a chain with three bullets swinging as he moves (“I’m like live ammunition,” he later explains). Vamping like this, Toler evokes one of his film portrayals in “Stomp the Yard” and “StreetDance 2.” But when he sits down next to Gardner, tucking his food aside, he speaks with the same wry, brainy language that’s made him a beloved panelist on “So You Think You Can Dance” (Sample Toler: After a ballroom dancer attempts the chest pops and foot stomps of krump, Toler said: “Swagger is kind of evading him.” )

Gardner, 31, has traded teenage braids for a dyed rooster cut, but otherwise seems the same fearless champion from “Rize.”

Krump dance — though sharing rhythmic origins with clown dancing’s exuberant battles and stripper-style booty-shaking speed — implodes inward with jagged, personalized gestures and seizures of pain and pleasure.

Commercial tastemakers seized on the dance quickly. Since the film Gardner has balanced dance jobs — a tour with Madonna, Pepsi commercials and a recent appearance on “Glee” — with teaching gigs around the globe (most recently Finland and Japan). Also a single mom to Saadiyah, 4, she exudes maternal pragmatism in the playful exchange with Toler. “This is what I’ve dealt with from Christopher since he was 17 years old,” she says. “When I am stressed up to here with dance, C comes to rehearsal like that and it just calms me down.”

In the last six months, these pioneering krumpers have embraced stress. Launched quietly, their company features nine krumpers and street dancers from L.A. and beyond — black and Latino, male and female — with a mixed-bill program of dance for indoor proscenium stages. Conceived by Gardner, with choreographic input from Toler, the richly textured show conveys krump’s origins of “battling” freestyle circles, alongside stirring unison group dances.

Last year the dancers performed at USC and at the Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, and this year they’re booked at Cal State Long Beach in February and at the Nate Holden Street Dance Festival and the Pasadena Dance Festival in April. All this from an all-volunteer troupe without funding, paid management or rehearsal space. Their concerts so far have relied on help from their producing organizations plus small Kickstarter campaigns.

“All I’ve ever wanted is my own dance company,” Gardner says. “Taking the same kids that I danced in the street with all across the world like I’ve been.”

Gardner hopes to incorporate a teaching component into residencies as they start to tour. Feeling the overwhelming hunger for krump from young black girls in Paris and street kids in Rio de Janeiro’s favelas, Gardner says “I don’t feel like krump is just a dance. It’s a culture.”

Toler stresses that this is not just a nostalgic side project for him. “It’s not like I’m attached to [this company],” he says.

“I am a part of the underground. We’re all from here. No one’s an immigrant, no one’s being brought in. People may be from other states, but they’re still from the street.”

To this day, both artists have continued meeting with neighborhood dancers at late-night krump sessions held at rec centers or in parking lots. (“I’m going tonight!” she says.) And it is within these public spaces, with beats blasting from car speakers and dancers egging one another on till 3 a.m., that Gardner has honed her raw, theatrical style while Toler developed a slower, more demonstrative form of krump he calls “subtle bucc.”

“I think the krump style can only evolve if we continue to evolve,” he explains. “That means we have to stay connected and grounded to our art, and we have to stay motivated.”

So a few years ago he asked: “Instead of dispelling your energy at a rapid pace, instead of yelling,” he says, “how about we slow the tempo down and look at dance as a conversation?”

“Now you can tell a story with it,” Gardner says.

It was at one of these street sessions in 2011 that company producer Jessica Koslow, then shooting a film for her master’s thesis for USC Annenberg’s Arts Journalism program, lighted the fuse for the Underground.

With her own dance and production pedigree (Koslow’s stepfather was the late tapper Gregory Hines, her mother is producer Pamela Koslow of “Jelly’s Last Jam” and “Jane Eyre”), Koslow set off on a mission to help Gardner bring live krumping to a wider audience and defeat what they see as a bias against street dance on the concert stage.

“Street dance is valued commercially,” Koslow says, “but are we looked at as an art form? Why aren’t we at festivals, and why aren’t we touring?”

With faculty endorsement from Sasha Anawalt, director of USC’s arts journalism programs and a longtime dance writer, Koslow applied for a USC Visions and Voices residency grant for Gardner and Toler in September. The result was panel discussions, crammed workshops and the launch of the company to cheering crowds.

Anawalt describes the duo’s telepathic team-teaching (“they really don’t have to talk to each other to understand what the other wants”) and how their codification of krump’s moves convinced her of its lasting potential. “If you can teach it, and you can give it to someone else, then it’s a thing, it’s a technique,” she says.

Gardner’s weaving of other dance styles into the program serves to define krump’s distinct flavor too. On recent bills the group has featured a Chicago foot-worker, “King Charles” Parks, and a L.A. popper, Boogie Frantick. Another krump founder, Jo’Artis “Mijo” Ratti, sometimes performs.

Area presenters have taken notice of the Underground, appreciating its indigenous L.A. roots and diverse company roster, while acknowledging that the concert needs stronger shaping and higher production values. Gayle Hooks, managing director of Ebony Repertory Theatre at Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, hopes Gardner finds helpful directorial input soon. “That’s going to be the key to them getting ahead and getting ahead quickly,” she says.

Diana Rodriguez, a Center Theatre Group associate producer, hopes to matchmake a collaborator from her theater contacts. “‘Rize’ was David LaChappelle’s version of the krump story,” she says. “This is them telling their own story. I find that eminently more interesting.”

Back on Gardner’s couch, Toler excuses himself. He’s going to finally eat his food and needs to find hot sauce.

“It’s hard to dream something this big when, financially, it just seems like it’s impossible,” Gardner says. “But that’s what we’ve been working with our entire lives.”


The Underground

Long Beach: University Theatre, Cal State Long Beach, near 7th Street and East Campus Road, 4 p.m. Feb. 23. Free. (562)-985-4111

Los Angeles: Street Dance Festival, Nate Holden Performing Arts Center, 4718 W. Washington Blvd., 8 p.m. April 5-6. $15-$25. (323) 964-9766

Pasadena: Pasadena Dance Festival, Civic Auditorium, 300 E. Green St., 8 p.m. April 27. $35-$40. (626) 844-7008


Doug Varone the Painter-Choreographer

February 11, 2013

Doug Varone and Dancers in "Caruggi." photo: (c) Cylla von Tiedemann

Doug Varone and Dancers in “Caruggi.” photo: (c) Cylla von Tiedemann

“I’m like a painter,” said choreographer Doug Varone during his opening remarks for “Stripped/Dressed,” the unique program on choreographic process and performance that he and his company of dancers brought to the Segerstrom Center for the Arts’ Off-Center Festival in Costa Mesa on January 25-26 2013. The phrase sounds a little poetic (wouldn’t a choreographer be more of a sculptor?) but damn if Varone didn’t justify those four words with demonstrations of how he smears and strokes and dots his dancers around the stage using various crafty methods.

To play with tone, he told us he often asks his dancers to mark their steps, and then chooses that lighter touch for the final product. He’ll also upend the musical choice, swapping opera for pop rock. To create shapes and relationships between steps in a phrase, Varone demonstrated a brilliant technique that has lingered in my mind for weeks. First, he brought about 8 audience members onstage. He placed his volunteers around the stage in various positions, then had his company dancers go up to these stationary folks and alter their gestures (lower an arm, pick them up, etc) or inject their own moving body, or a part thereof, into the white spaces created within the volunteer’s shape. Okay, that’s an obvious technique — to behave relationally to static people — but one thing that seemed odd was how each Varone dancer — as soon as they’d been given their pathway amongst the bodies — immediately went upstage behind the volunteers to practice the moves on their own.

This mystery was revealed when Varone suddenly thanked the volunteers and told them to leave the stage. He asked the dancers to set off on their journey through the bodies without the bodies present. The men and women began lifting and jabbing at the air, stopping and starting as if pulled by unseen forces. It was so magical, and sparked such exquisite metaphors — how fervently we continue gesturing to the departed, reaching for them and reacting to them, long after they’re gone. He also had the dancers embark on the same kind of exercise with wooden folding chairs. A dance was created around and with the solid wooden shapes: then the chairs were removed.

Body paintings — that’s why his dances feel so organic and careful at the same time. Thank you for this lesson, Doug Varone.

ZinZanni to the Rescue

October 30, 2012

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What these static images of Teatro ZinZanni’s “Love, Chaos & Dinner” simply cannot convey is the hilarity and awesomeness of the vocal and character-logical metamorphoses that occur in the tent over the course of this loveably winding 3-hour show. Soprano Juliana Rambaldi begins as a ditzy floosy and ends in operatic triumph. Comic Kevin Kent enters as a fervent snake oil salesman and concludes as a drag Queen of the French Court. The amazing acrobats of Les Petits Frères are entirely convincing as simply a cheesy, comical lounge act. One never expects them to do what they later do.

In this nail-biting election season, for one rich glittery moment, Teatro ZinZanni whisked me far far away from stump speeches, polling numbers and chattering pundits. And in Costa Mesa no less!