Sunday, December 30, 2007

Dance Timeline of the Second Half of the Twentieth Century

Some of the dances and events that I feel are important from 1950-2000.

1950- Martha Graham’s The Gospel of Eve and Judith.

1950- composer John Cage was looking for ways to impose as little as possible on musical elements as a way of rebelling against prescribed scenarios of one thing having to lead to another.

1951- Martha Graham’s solo The Triumph of St. Joan where she presents several aspects of woman, the Maid, Warrior, and Martyr. Jungian thought provided Graham with an approach to personae, she was stimulated by the idea of the collective unconscious and the power of the archetypal images that dwelt there.

1953- a new work was being planned for the New York City Ballet with a proposed collaboration between Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine.

1953- Merce Cunningham forms his Cunningham company.

1954- George Balanchine uses Charles Ives’s The Unaswered Question for a section of Ivesiana, a restless, yearning call of a melody never resolved where amazingly the female dancer never touches the ground.

1955- Anna Sokolow’s work Rooms about urban isolation in tenements.

1957- Agon premiered, the final product of the collaboration of Igor Stravinsky and George Balanchine. It was perceived as a dazzling contemporary work, dense and lean, no fancy costumes only black and white practice clothes.

1958- Merce Cunningham and his company premiere Summerspace at the American Dance Festival. It was the first time Merce and his dancers had been invited to teach and perform at this bastion of modern dance.

1960- Liebeslider Walzer by George Balanchine and the music of Brahms, this ballet is poignantly romantic.

1960- Martha Graham’s Alcestis where a tipped, massive inverted L was a bed for the heroine’s unquiet slumbers.

1961- Anna Sokolow’s work Dreams about the horrors of the Holocaust.

1962 Judson Church becomes Judson Dance Theatre, it was a very experimental container for post-modern work.

1963- Suzanne Farrell’s status as a new muse is announced in Don Quixote, where Balanchine himself played the impotent and idealist Don to Farrell’s Dulcinea.

1965- Twyla Tharp left the Paul Taylor Company and started doing her own work.

1967- Cunningham Company does Rainforest, with glinting, gently bobbling stacks of helium-filled pillows that where designed by Andy Warhol.

1968- Merce Cunningham does Walkaround Time, which eventually erases the very notion of follow-up from the audience’s slate of possibilities.

1969- The Grand Union Collective is begun with Steve Paxton, Yvonne Rainer, David Gordon and Trisha Brown.

1969- Cunningham Company does Canfield a dance where the order of sections or how many of them are performed may change from one performance to another.

1973- Martha Graham ends her performing career though she still animated and controlled her dancers, some say making them into appurtenances.

1974- a revival of “The Kingdom of the Shades” act from La Bayadere, staged by Natalia Makarova for American Ballet Theatre.

1975- Jiri Kylian joined the Netherlands Dance Theatre as resident choreographer and co-artistic director.

1975- Cunningham Company does Torse, a fast, bright, rather dry virtuosic piece, stressing five basic positions of the torso – straight, twisted, tilted, arched, and bent.

1976- the X6 Collective was formed in England and was similar to what the Judson Dance Theatre was doing ten years prior.

1976- revival of George Balanchine’s 1957 Square Dance where he inserted a new solo for the dancer Bart Cook because of Cook’s ability to blend lyrical plastic with a forthright farm boy persona.

1979- Glacial Decoy was the start of Trisha Brown’s lifelong exploration of the relationship between dance and visual arts. This quiet piece sees five dancers perform before Rauschenberg’s astonishingly beautiful slide projections.

1980- premier of Bell High for the Rambert Company by Richard Alston.

1981- Lar Lubovitch’s inward looking piece called Cavalcade to Reich’s Octet.

1986- Ulysses Dove’s Vespers, this piece has a postmodernist movement style featuring strong gestural phrases, a side-facing focus and a lot of waiting, along with a driving, percussive musical score by Mikel Rouse.

1991- Marie Chouinard first group work, Les Trous du ciel, was acclaimed in Canada, the United States and Europe. Critics and public alike felt the same intensity as in her solos, heightened by the numerous dancers.

1991- Ms. Tharp regrouped her company Twyla Tharp Dance and created a program with Mikhail Baryshnikov called Cutting Up, which went on to become one of contemporary dance's most successful tours, appearing in twenty eight cities over a two month period.

1999- Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake won the Drama Desk Award and two Tony Awards, Best Director for a Musical and Best Choreography. It was reviewed as pure theatre and most likely the most impressive and significant show to open on Broadway in a long time.

Monday, December 17, 2007

Tibetan Sacred Dance Part II

This is continued from Part I...

Padmasambhava came to Tibet in the eighth century C.E. and is often revered by Tibetans as the second Buddha. He established Buddhism on a firm basis and built and consecrated Samye, the first monastery. Under his direction Tibetan scholars translated innumerable tantras, commentaries, and ritual texts. The lineage of Padmasambhava is called the Nyingma Tradition and was the sole guardian of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition from the ninth to the eleven centuries. Other lineages prospered as well, from the eleventh century onward on the basis of new translations of Sanskrit texts. It is said that Padmasambhava entrusted his disciples with secret teachings in the form of parchments written in symbolic language that he hid in the sky, the earth, a rock, a lake, or a sacred image. The tradition of “revealed treasures” (terma) has played an important role up to the present day. Such revealed teachings are considered to have particular potency because they are specifically adapted to the epoch in which they appear (Govinda, 1996).

A number of these treasures contain instructions for new forms of sacred dance. The best known is that of Guru Chowang (1212-1270). In a vision he found himself riding a white horse that carried him aloft through the air to the glorious copper-colored mountain, the paradise of Padmasambhava. There he met Padmasambhava’s eight manifestations and received teaching from them on the nature of mind (Trungpa, 1992, 2001). He also saw a vast gathering of celestial beings dancing before the master. After this transformation experience he inaugurated the festival of the tenth day, which celebrates in the dance the coming to Tibet of Padamasambhava and the establishment of Buddhism (Govinda, 1996).

This process of new dances being created as a result of visionary experiences has been repeated again and again over the centuries. An example of one of these visions goes as follows: the great Bhutanese treasure revealer Pema Lingpa (1450-1521) had a dream in which Yeshe Tsogyel, the principle consort and spiritual disciple of Padmasambhava, showed him the dance of the five dakinis (feminine deities). When Pema Lingpa awoke he clearly remembered the images of the dance. He taught himself to execute the movements and then transmitted them to his disciples. Another example of this is in the sixteenth century when the great teacher Khamtrul Kunga Tenzin, in retreat in a mountain hermitage, had a vision in which the whole universe became the mythical pure land of Padmasambhava where he saw wonderful dances were being danced. Padmasambhava appeared and told Kunga Tenzin to leave his retreat and work for the benefit of all beings by teaching the dances he was seeing, for they would bring great blessings to those who saw them. Kunga Tenzin was responsible for establishing the Gar Cham, a dance festival that took place at Khampar in eastern Tibet and continues today at Tashijong in northern India (Govinda, 1996).

Training for these dances often takes place in the evening in the middle of the monastery courtyard under the watchful eye of the dance master who indicates the rhythm by tapping the cymbals he carries. The dancer monks often continue the training in the lamplight until late at night. To coordinate their movements they count the steps in a slow recitative. The boy monks are often enthusiastic spectators, and sometimes imitate their elders in a corner of the courtyard. When it is their turn to learn, they will already know most of the dances by heart. Once or twice a year the monks’ prowess is tested in the presence of the abbot and the dance master. They are the dance students in the monastery and are marked on their capacity to memorize the movements, their expressiveness, or, in the case of some dances, on their sheer athleticism (Garcham, 1992).

Drudi is a dance master who came from Tibet to transmit his knowledge of this art to the young monks of Shechen in Nepal. He explains the basic principles of what makes cham a dancing meditation. As in any spiritual practice, the dancer has to apply three essential points. Firstly he should prepare himself beforehand by having the right motivation, which means to have the ‘mind of enlightenment’, the wish to attain enlightenment for the benefit of all beings. Secondly, when he dances he should be perfectly concentrated, with an awareness that all phenomena are like dreams. His mind should be clear, watchful, serene, free from attachment, and conscious of the illusory nature of things. With his body, he should faithfully represent the positions and expressions of the mandala (Kyabogon, pg, 108, 1992).

The richness and vigor of the Tibetan religious tradition can be seen in its rituals, which often last all day. In a type of annual ceremony known as drupchen the ritual continues day and night nonstop for nine days and nine nights. A ritual is a call to reflection, contemplation, prayer, and meditation. The chanting of the liturgy is interspersed with bursts of musical offerings, which mingle with the sounds of long trumpets, bells, drums, and cymbals. For these grand ceremonies, a mandala is created which represents the pure land of divinity. Symbolically mandalas can be seen as meditation objects whose purpose is to gradually transform our way of perceiving the world until we rediscover its intrinsic purity. Externally a mandala takes the form of a diagram painted on canvas or drawn with colored powders. First the dancer monks dance the patterns of a mandala. Then the monks who are the painters in the monasteries, in meticulous detail, using colored powders, draw it. At the end of the ritual, the mandala is swept away, symbolizing the impermanence of all things. The powders are gathered up and thrown in the river, so that all who use the water, animals or humans, may be blessed (Garcham, 1992).

Sometimes the ceremonies end with dances which serve as a visual teaching, in which the world is transformed, negative forces subdued, and beings awakened to their ultimate nature and freed from suffering. Every hour in the monastery is considered precious, whether it is spent in study, in performing rituals, or contemplation. Each day brings a new enrichment and leads a little further toward perfection, at the same time helping to maintain the continuity of the universal values and truths, that many people feel, are essential not only for Tibetans but for the whole of mankind (Trungpa, 1992, 2001).

Tibetan Sacred Dance Part I

In this post I am going to cover some of the history of Tibetan Sacred Dance and how this dance form is evolving today and where. I will also give insight into the spiritual meanings and implications of these dances and how they tie into the Tibetan Buddhist Religion. Since the Chinese invasion in 1959, much of Tibetan culture and religion has existed in exile. In Nepal, Bhutan, and India the festivals of sacred dance have been able to continue without constraint. For example, Nepal straddles the Himalayas between Tibet and India and has a very rich heritage of peoples, cultures, and spiritual traditions. The people that dwell in the mountains of Nepal are mostly Tibetan refugees who are Buddhists; this is also true of the peoples of the Mustang and Dolpo regions. On the other hand, the religion and culture of the people of the valleys are mainly Hindu of Indian origin. The constant mingling of peoples and cultures between the valleys and the mountains has created a religious coexistence characterized by exceptional tolerance. This has allowed places like the monastery of Shenchen in Bodhnath, in Katmandu valley, to become a haven for the development of sacred art and dance (Kyabogon, 1992).

The traditional Tibetan Buddhist understanding of sacred dance, or cham, originated in India with Buddhism, and then diffused to Tibet where it flourished for centuries. In Tibetan Buddhist philosophy sacred dance has a different basis than secular dance, which often engages the emotions; contrastingly sacred dance pacifies the emotions (Trungpa, 1992, 2001). When the monks of the Tibetan Buddhist tradition dance ceremonially, they are meditating while offering a spiritual gift to the witnessing lay community. Through “symbolic gesture” and sound the monks transmit an experience that is the culmination of long contemplative visionary experience and meditation, and it is believed that this kind of dance liberates the audience. When I say liberate I am referencing the Buddhist idea of liberating oneself from the bondage of the five poisons that work against inner peace: hatred, covetousness, ignorance, pride, and jealousy (Khyentse, 1992).

In the West, we usually understand creativity to be the expression of the impulses that arise from personal subjective experience. From a contemplative standpoint this approach is not necessarily creative in its fullest sense because that subjective experience itself is limited by what Buddhism calls basic ignorance. Thus, what one considers to be an original creation is often the result of exploring one’s habitual tendencies and impulses that maintain the vicious circle of samsara, the wheel of existence. From this spiritual point of view, true creativity means casting off the veils of ignorance to discover the ultimate nature of mind and phenomena. In fact, sacred art is an element of the spiritual path. It takes courage to practice it, because its goal is to destroy the attachment to the ego. Furthermore, Tibetan dances are full of symbolic meaning. For instance, when a lone dancer in a stag mask cuts up an effigy with a sword it is not an act of violence but symbolizes destroying the ego with the sword of wisdom. The masked dancers who chase each other in a colorful noisy riot do not represent the pursuit of demons but the movements of inner energy, which give rise to the mental activity that continually agitates our mind. However, a few symbolic elements like these cannot encompass the profound meaning that the dances find in the much vaster sphere of the meditation on pure vision, the perception of the primordial purity of all phenomena, both animate and inanimate (Kyabogon, 1992).

At the time of the Buddha, in the sixth century B.C.E. in India, it is said that the Buddha appeared to certain particularly gifted disciples in the form of various wrathful deities, whose awesome appearance symbolized the indestructibility of compassion. These deities were said to have danced in a thousand majestic ways, symbolizing their innumerable activities to help all sentient beings. This is how the sacred dances came into being in India. The sacred dances were danced at spiritual feasts known as ganachakra where the monks would dance spontaneously, without hesitation or inhibition. Over the years the dances came to be codified and taught and their significance was explained. An uninterrupted transmission from teacher to disciple continues in some monasteries today, maintaining the continuity of the practice to the present (Garcham, 1992).

The fifth Dalai Lama explains that the trained dancer should flourish the tails of his robe like a great garuda gliding through the firmament, and shake his hair like a now lion shaking its turquoise mane. His body should have the grace of a tiger gliding through the Indian jungle; his trunk should be straight, his waist should form an elegant curve; his calves should be elastic, his elbows and knees fast-moving, his footwork elegant, and every movement of his body should be ample and majestic, full of ease and grace, precise and clearly defined. It is also said that the dancer should move as if his feet were drawing a lotus on the ground, and that his movements should be like the wing-beats of an eagle, (Kyabogon, pg, 157, 1992).

The symbols that the dancers hold are often in the form of weapons symbolizing the combat of enlightenment against ignorance and the victory of serene clarity over the whirlwind of emotions. The terrible laughter and song put to flight the legions of Mara, the demon who embodies attachment to the notion of self, the belief in the reality of oneself and phenomena, (Kyabogon, 1992).

This post continues....

Thursday, December 6, 2007

A Thought On Butoh

Butoh is often viewed as Japan's equivalent of modern dance, but in actuality it has little to do with the rational principles of modernism. Butoh is a theater of improvisation which places the personal experiences of the dancer on center stage. The dancer is used as a medium to his or her inner life, but not for the portrayal of day to day existence. A Dionysian dance of nudity, eroticism, and sexuality, Butoh's scale of expression ranges from meditative tenderness to excessive grotesqueness. By reestablishing the ancient Japanese connection of dance, music, and masks, and by recalling the Buddhist death dances of rural Japan, Butoh incorporates much traditional theater. At the same time, it is a movement of resistance against the abandonment of traditional culture to a highly organized consumer-oriented society. An alliance of tradition and rebellion, Butoh is one of the most fascinating underground dance movements. "Butoh: Body on the Edge of Crisis" is a visually striking film portrait shot on location in Japan with the participation of the major Butoh choreographers and their companies. Min Tanaka and Maijuku; Yoko Ashikawa and Hakutobo; Akaji Maro and Dai Rakuda Kan; Kazuo Ohno; Isamu Ohsuka and Byakko-sha; Natsu Nakajima and Muteki-sha; Sankaijuku; and Tatsumi Hijikata.