Last weekend was rough, and I haven’t quite woken up yet. But I’d better make some notes before the experience fades away.
My wife and I went to the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s Celebrate Seattle Spring Dance Festival performances Thursday and Friday night and matinee Saturday, the Experience Music Project’s Pop Conference “Waking Up From History: Music, Time, and Place” Friday happy hour, Saturday morning and Saturday after the matinee, and the Seattle Symphony Saturday night. We’d also attended the first Celebrate Seattle performance Friday the week before.
Where to begin? The Celebrate Seattle Festival showed the most promise, The EMP conference was the most interesting, and the Symphony was the usual satisfying snooze.
So let’s start with Celebrate. PNB’s new artistic director Peter Boal, imported last year from New York, is really starting to shake up this sleepy berg. I’ve been meditating trying to start a Seattle play festival myself, but he’s already gotten a Seattle dance festival off the ground, bringing other Northwest companies we never see to town, and importing New York and international choreography that we’ve never seen before, even though – oddly enough – the choreographers originally hailed from here.
The first Celebrate night was part of our regular subscription, and featured Mark Morris’s Pacific and Kent Stowell’s Carmina Burana. We’ve been going to Mark Morris dances since we lived in Boston in the late 1980s and saw Dido and Aeneas there, fresh from Belgium. He’s been at the University of Washington before, but this was his PNB premiere – bizarre. I guess former artistic director Kent Stowell was jealous.
Though born and trained here, in his program notes Morris denies any local influence on his art:
Being from Seattle has nothing at all to do with my being a better choreographer…. I have not lived in Seattle for 30 years. I’m not nostalgic. I live in New York and love it…. I visit often. But as an artist…not much impact that I can think of . My work does not reflect my Northwest roots.
Not a very auspicious opening commentary on Celebrate Seattle.
And the performance of this piece, orginally choreographed in 1995 for the San Francisco ballet, was most interesting for showing PNB dancers caught at distinct points on the road between their native instincts and the playful, easygoing elegance of Morris’s actual aesthetic. None were quite there yet, though some were further along than others. Not that it’s really their fault – in the after dance discussion, Carla Korbes not only talked about how she was discovered as a teenage dance prodigy in Brazil by the visiting Boals, came to New York at his encouragement to study, then spent a decade being typecast as an emotive dancer at the NYC Ballet, before prevailing upon Boals to bring her to Seattle with him – but also about the single day Morris came to work with the dancers, during which he told her she just needed to be “less dramatic.” With so little effort on Morris’s part, it’s a tribute to the dancers that they came anywhere near his conception.
Okay, time to telegraph and edit later:
Carmina Burana – blast from the past – lumbering, Latin, monastic jokes. Surprisingly erotic, though, and heterosexual. Odd skin tight, flesh toned body suits seem as if dancers angelically sublimate the coarse desires of their monking counterparts – Barker and Weevers as reconfigured, prelapsarian Adam and Eve, transcending the crude whorishness of the tavern scene, without desexualizing it at all.
Started to think that maybe was dance represents is, well, sex. Not really contradicted by anthing we saw the next few nights. PNB dancer Kinyon Gaines got his chance first thing Thursday with Schwa – the fey male dancers much more convicing, if entirely reminscent of Gaines’s own dancing style, than the heterosexual pas de deux. Who knew Joffrey, Merce Cunningham, and composer John Cage were from Washington State? They made their names in New York, across the country, and around the world – idea Seattle trajectory before the Microsoft era. Jane Englen was She, who sings – the opposite trajectory some, like Boals too, are finally following now – in better voice than ever singing Wagner’s lovesongs to his paramour, and patron’s wife. The Cage/Cunnigham Inlets 2 most interesting for the odd sounds of water draining through conch shells, oddly in synch if not synchronized with the bird-like motions of the dancers. Torque we’d seen before, but not in such bright costumes. The dancers twirled like marvelous dervishes.
Friday’s highlight were Trisha Brown’s little intermezzi the Carmen Overture, Carmen Entre’acte and Spanish Dance. In the Entre’acte Miranda Weese, soon to join Boal and Korbes in moving to PNB from the New York City Ballet, danced herself amazing down into the ground. The Spanish Dance gave us a conga line of dancers assembling themselves pelvis to butt as they sashayed across the stage in time to a Bob Dylan song. We also caught Brown’s charming pre-performance chat, in which despite her fulsome opening declaration that’s it was great to come back home to Seattle, she nevertheless revealed that like Morris, her choreographic career was the product of the New York loft scene she was furtunate enough to enjoy in the 1960s.
The former co-artistic directors’ son Christopher Stowell took after his father’s Carmina in the similarly bodysuited, similarly heterosexualized Adin, though with what appeared to be a bit of simualted domestic violence thrown in for good measure.
If I had any doubt that dance these days is fundamentally a representation of sexual actions of various kinds, Saturday’s much anticipated Bhangra Fever from Donald Byrd, who closed up his New York based troup in 2002 to move to Seattle and to take over the Spectrum Dance Theater. In his own pre-show Chat, Byrd talked about how Arjun Appadurai’s notion of a the emergence of a globalized, diasporic culture where we are free to make up own identities from whatever bits and pieces of other cultures we choose to assemble had inspired it theoretically, while practically his investigation of the Asian Massive techno-meets-India club music movement had furnished the music.
And the setting as it turned out: youthful dancers out clubbing. Which would have been marvelous, with the energetic Indian/club fusion of moves – except for the distraction of the central couple, all too ably danced by Allison Keppel and David Alewine I think, who stripped down to their underwear for an extended bout of a contemporary and even more sexualized version of dirty dancing – the memory is blurred now a week later, but I’m pretty sure lots of pelvic grinding was involved, while the side couples performed a strange game where the men laid on their back, right foot in the air, while their partners leapt up and landed their crotch on the sole, balancing there for several moments.
I wonder how that felt…
Actually, I think I recall similar problems the last time I caught a Spectrum performance at Bumbershoot or somewhere – great music, excellent energetic dance, inventively choreographed – but a little too in-you-face sexualized to be enjoyable. And here I’d been intending to drop in on their intimate Madrona bath house (that’s where they’re based, right on the Lake Washington beach a short walk down the hill from my house) performances for those in the know. Now I’ll have to reconsider – I’m not sure I’d really like to come that close to a Byrd dance after all.
The EMP Pop Conference revealed a once thriving industry – rock journalism – now threatened with economic irrelevance by the decline of the record labels, the emergence of online media – iTunes, Rhapsody, and music blogs – and the rise of the New Times / Village Voice Media conglomerate. We came to see Robert Christgau and Greil Marcus – but Christgau it seems had recently lost his job at the new Village Voice – a pale capitalistic shadow of its former self – and his talk was mainly venom directed at them, and how his departure had ended his control over his famed Pazz & Jopp poll of the best music of the year, and its bifurcation into competing pretenders to the throne.
Christgau did mention two groups my wife and I were unfamiliar with that would prove increasingly interesting as the conference continued – TV on the Radio, who Christgau didn’t like at first, but now does like after their high standing in the polls forced him to listen more closely, and Joanna Newsom, who despite high standing and repeated listening, Christgau still despises.
As, alas, I myself came to despise the next speaker, Princeton English and African American Studies prof Daphne Brooks – representative of the entrenched academic wing of the conference that, thanks to tenure and the enduring dominance of universities by narcissistic, self-satisfied boomers, have not had to face the wake-up call that’s been ringing louder and louder in the ears of professional rock journalists, and those bloggers and authors who aspire to join their ranks. She kept the same sh*t-eating grin plastered to her face throughout the panel presentation, as if to say – I’ve got mine jack, and I could care less about any of the rest of you.
Her thesis was pretty bogus: that TV on the Radio is black like her in an African American studies kind of way, despite all the good evidence to the contrary. Apparently there has been some controversy in the rock press about whether one should mention that most of the group’s members are black – when their music is apparently diasporic in the sense Byrd embraced in his dance – some kind of techno club music assembled from disparate sources, some of them rooted in the member’s black immigrant experience, most not – a synthesized art for a composite, self-fashioned identity – hence it’s wide appeal and the respect it’s garnered. They sound like the Barack Obama of the pop world. White boys will always be outsiders in rap and hip hop, by definition – while this kind of music includes and subsumes them.
But Daphne wanted none of this – I guess it does threaten, if not her livelihood, at least its intellectual validity. She certainly seemed to feel a great need to reclaim TV on the Radio for African American studies, jealous that they might escape its confines, and require a new way of theorizing their music that might eventually make her own work irrelevant. One sees similar problems in the African American political community’s ability to deal with the Obama phenomena.
The last paper in this panel was by Rhapsody VP Tim Quirk, and was the most interesting of the bunch, even if it was merely an adapted PowerPoint he probably gave to his bosses. By analyzing how songs are played online in Rhapsody, iTunes, and some other service, he’s deduced that the most successful music in the future will not be albums the major labels are pushing – but songs of any vintage that bear repeated listening – the kind of songs you’re happy to hear anytime, and all the time. I can’t remember all the specific examples, but Otis Redding’s Sitting by the Dock of the Bay was high on the list, as were most of the song on Pink Floyd’s Dark Side of the Moon, and apparently climbing the charts is Yo La Tengo.
Instead of ego, what will be needed in the rock journalist of the future is the modesty of a forest ranger, taking music lovers down paths they haven’t explored yet, but based on their previous listening preferences will probably enjoy.
Okay, this posting is getting way too long – too much interesting stuff last weekend to even recall the highlights.
To conclude very briefly then: Yuval Taylor gave an idiotic paper putting down the early 1970s as a musical wasteland, seeminly inspired by animus as the songs his parents forced him to hear. Nate Chinen and Greil Marcus, on the other hand, gave inspired readings of what was really happening then: guys like Neil Young and Rod Stewart leading bands that jammed their way through welcomed error and instant adaptation into a music that wormed its way outside of time itself, into the realm of the eternally recapitulating moment.
And then in the afternoon, we caught a weird Carl Zimring recapitulating Jonathan Raban’s Woody Guthrie thesis with odd enthusiasm for an environmental historian – I guess he was thrilled by how different a conservationist like Guthrie could be from an environmentalist of today, how open to idea that we should control and transform nature to make jobs and improve the living standards of all – and the long-lost childhood friend of emergent superstar Joanna Newsom, newly minted UC Riverside ethnomusicologist Meghan Drury Askins, telling us about the childhood they shared in Nevada City, playing some of Newsom’s bizarre vocals over Senegalese harp, and explaining its popularity with an equally bizarre thesis that it represents nostalgia for the days before cellphones in last generation born before their existence – a truly academic thesis, but entertainly nonetheless.