Other Arts: Dance

'Be With' —Eiko & Koma/Anna Halprin
at the Joyce Theatre 02/02
by Zoe Artemis

The modern dance performance, 'Be With,' worked as a performance art piece, but I do not consider this piece a dance performance. I believe that most modern dance is more about performance art than dance, and as a dance form it tends to be experimental, cold, ugly, stark or a form of expressive therapy.

Wife and husband, Eiko and Koma, legendary slow-moving, post-modern, butoh-like performers moved to New York from Japan in 1976. This was their first collaboration ever, and it was with 81-year-old Anna Halprin that they performed their first collaboration. The most important aspect for me about this performance was that Anna Halprin, at 81 years old, is still struttin' her stuff and doing what she loves to do. Anna Halprin is a legendary experimental dance pioneer, proponent of dance as therapy and founder of Tamalpa Institute in Northern California.

The basic theme of 'Be With' is Life's Heart-Wrenching Journey: aloneness, caring, love, subdued violence, sensuality, relationships and death. The performers were accompanied by the Kronos Quartet's founding cellist, Joan Jeanrenaud, this time playing her own superb music, which included sounds from Armenia and Asia Minor.

The three-way collision begins with Halprin and Koma inching their way across the stage, against a luscious backdrop of paint-splashed, blood red textured cloth. The pair moved ever so slowly, and changed positions imperceptibly, appearing like fixtures in an ancient frieze. The lighting, by Penny-Ann Farrell, is exquisite and the costumes made from cheesecloth robes, resemble shredding skin, in fiery tones of saffron, coral and orange. These colorful materials made for images of flames and fiery shapes moving across a desolate landscape.

Once Halprin and Koma reach the other end of the stage, Eiko begins inching her way across and the drama begins with the three of them interacting, but barely dancing with each other. Anna was the wayfayer, with Eiko and Koma joining her on life's journey in a continuum of leaving and returning. Their subtle movements expressed nurturing and brutalizing; melding into each other/deserting each other; touching/embracing, to moments of same-sex love and the sexualization of the older woman. But there was more still life than movement, a lot of hesitation about how to relate to one another, and not enough vitality. We are left to wonder what the performers are trying to convey: the drama of a dying mother and the two children who must care for her? The inner workings of longing, aging and the fear of death or the navigation of relationships?

The deliberate, slow movements could be experienced as unnerving or as a meditation, depending on the personal vantage: I experienced them as both. It was good performance art, but it was not a dance performance. Isadora Duncan, mother of modern dance, was as minimalist as they come, yet she carried so much richness, femininity, love, passion, and grace—and she danced! Ruth St. Denis, mother of modern dance as well, was the most superb interpreter of ritual and sacred dance, largely influenced by Indian and Eastern cultures. What the Western art world calls modern dance is really more about experimental performance art or dance as therapy, but most of it does not translate into a dance performance.

I saw a dance performance December 29 at St. John the Divine by Allessandra Belloni, 'Tarantata, Dance of the Ancient Spider', inspired by ancient Italian trance-dances and Italian gypsy-folk dances. Ms. Belloni has traveled throughout the villages of Italy, studying and participating with the people and their time-honored traditions/rituals of music and dance. She was accompanied by multi-cultural musicians who played the tambourine, frame drum, guitar and various string instruments, flutes, and the accordian. The music was enchanting and extraordinary and the vocalists sang traditional chants, prayers, and songs of love and the plight of the workers.

Many of these dances invoke saints, holy energies, spirits and gods. Ms. Belloni and a second dancer wore white peasant blouses and big Gypsy skirts, with bright red sashes around their waist and forehead. The Gypsy dances were energetic, folkoric, playful, whirling and flirtatious. The trance dances were mesmerizing and graceful, moving into the realm of the sacred as a repetitive movement or continuous whirling, like a repetitive chant that can alter one's state of consciousness. The Gypsy dancing moved the audience into an elated frenzy of foot stomping, clapping and shouting, while the trance dances mesmerized, calmed and uplifted our spiritual nature. I left the performance feeling elated, ecstatic and most definitely entertained.

Native American, African, Middle Eastern, Flamenco, Hawaiian, Gypsy and most ethnic dance moves us into that realm of joy, ecstasy, trance, passion, euphoria and the sacred. This natural inclination towards ecstasy goes back to the ancient rites of Greece where the god Dionysius encouraged ecstatic dance as a means to cure depression, lift one's spirits and transcend the mundane. This rite was performed worldwide throughout all ancient cultures; the gods just had different names. It exists today primarily within indigenous cultures. In gypsy (Romany) culture you'll find this kind of exuberant dance within the subcultures, among the working class and the peasants, at the local bars, outdoor/indoor gatherings—eventually making its way to the night clubs and then to the concert halls. Once these dances go commercial they lose some of their authenticity; but on the other hand, if they weren't commercialized, we would never get a chance to see them.

I had a similar experience when I studied and watched the dances from Uzbekistan and Tajikistan several years ago. (Yes, I had heard about the 'Stans long before 9/11.) The 'Stans carry some of the richest dance traditions in the world, where upper body and hand gestures weave beautiful mythical tales. When I attend a dance performance, I don't want to see psychoanalytical drama played out through movement and called dance! Dance performed in ancient, folkloric and in indigenous cultures has always been one of celebration, joy, prayer, ecstasy, beauty, sensuality and passion. The other important element that runs throughout all of these ethnic dances is the honoring of the Feminine Energy.

As a dance therapist myself for over twenty years, it was when I began studying Middle Eastern, Gypsy and other forms of ethnic dance fifteen years ago, that my life changed immeasurably on every level; one could say I had a spiritual awakening. So I began teaching these dance forms instead of traditional dance therapy, and my students experienced much the same positive effect as I had.

I taught a Middle Eastern Dance weekend workshop at Naropa Institute about five years ago. Many of the students who took my workshop were also enrolled in the Dance Therapy Program at Naropa, and they all expressed the same sentiment: so much of what they were learning and experiencing in their Dance Therapy Program was too intellectual and sterile.

If dance reflects the heartbeat of the people, which I believe it does, then where does that leave us?

(Zoe Artemis, a writer, dance therapist, teacher and performer of women's ethnic/ancient dances, lives in New York. She worked for the Carter Administration between 1977 and 1979.)