Gimp: A New Kind of Kick

Lincoln Center is doing its outdoors program right now, where the public can take in dance and music performances for free as long as they are willing to forego air conditioning and sit a few hours to save a place. I was first exposed to the Paul Taylor Dance Company through the Lincoln Center Out of Doors festival and to a lot of great step fraternities and sororities.

The name and premise of Gimp attracted me to this particular performance out of all the festival’s programming: regular and disabled dancers take the stage together to make a statement about beauty and motion. I met a friend an hour and a half before the performance and we were able to pick out primo seats after being told by the house manager that there would be a lot of floor work in the performance so we’d do best not to be sitting right up front.

It was pleasant at first sitting under the trees near the reflecting pool of Hearst Plaza. A woman with Down’s syndrome sat behind us with her family and friends, and when somebody asked her what she wanted to drink, she answered back, “I don’t care as long as it’s alcoholic.” My kind of people. After the woman went to join her friends, we heard somebody else discussing how she charged a client three hundred grand because she would have to pay her own medical insurance. That’s definitely a sphere I don’t participate in. Sometimes I forget how rich dance patrons can be.

Eventually, the seats were all taken, and people in wheelchairs were edged in at the ends of rows, so it was incredibly difficult to catch a breeze. Purple silk scarves draped down from a hook and fluttered in the very slight wind as the first two dancers took the stage. A ponytailed woman, with arms that rival some of our Olympic athletes, slowly moved her torso onstage from a ramp in back of the stage. A male dancer with legs fashioned a swing for her torso, raised her up, and then swung the woman around like a slingshot. I was afraid the silk was going to snap and hurl the woman out into the audience, and she didn’t have legs to break her fall. I could see a million injuries happening, which made me wonder what rehearsals were like. Magically, she did not get dizzy, vomit, or fall. After many other stunts and a swinging kiss, the male dancer lowered her back to the stage and she calmly walked herself off the stage with her hands, as if to say, “And that’s how it’s done.”

The company’s head Heidi Latsky then came to the stage with five other dancers. They were evenly mixed between disabled and regular dancers, but during the performance, I found my eye drawn to the disabled dancers because their movements were so unique compared to other dance that I have seen. Compared to this, the regular dancers suffered. Their dance and movement were boring in contrast, and I only watched them when their bodies were juxtaposed in some way with the disabled dancers’.

Sweat was beading up on the audience’s faces as the performance progressed, and it seemed overlong with the heat outdoors. People were arriving at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theater for the eight o’ clock performance of War Horse, and it was entertaining to see members of this audience do a double-take as they took a look at the dance performance in progress and then realized, Wait a minute, that guy’s got no hand. Gimp gave both audiences a chance to look without being rude, and in looking to realize that there’s nothing monstrous or disgusting about having a different kind of body. It can be a thing of beauty too.

Get Out of My Car!

Subways are one of the last places on earth safe from cell phones—for now. I hear the tunnels are going to be rigged up for satellite service soon. I book about an hour of my time on subways daily, and with all of the white noise and people minding their own business, it’s usually an enjoyable part of my day. I can get a lot of work done on the subway when I get a seat. I plug in my iPod, open my notebook, and start writing. Every once in a while, though, my private time is intruded upon.

Today it was the subway dancers—a duo that’s been haunting the Q line the past couple of weeks. I was in a half-empty subway car yesterday when the pair came in and judged the car not at a capacity where they would dare deign to dance for us—thank God. I didn’t get off so lucky today. The dance team came into the car, checked both adjoining cars to see if there were either more people or cops, and then started loudly clapping and the call and response that is now de rigueur for subway dance performances. “What time is it, folks?” “Showtime.” “What time is it?” “Showtime.”

Now, this back and forth is between the two performers, not the performers and those forced to be the audience. The performers will have their boom box cranked to the highest level, and my poor little iPod can’t compete, not even if I’m playing Judas Priest. The dancers will tap people on the shoulders who are near poles and have them move to the side, regardless of whether they paid $2.50 for their rides or not. This is so they can move freely through the car using all available poles and railings. And then the dancing begins.

About six months ago, there was a trio going through the cars who had co-opted stripper pole moves and used that as part of their routines. It was fun once or twice, but I started to become resentful when it was the same thing day after day. Today’s duo had the hat trick—“Watch the hat, folks. Watch the hat”—and again, I’ve seen it lots, and it wasn’t that impressive the first time around. If you’re going to rip my attention away from something I want to be doing, at least be original. I suppose I should just count myself lucky that I got the dancers and not junkies trying to hustle their next fix or subway preachers telling me all about Jesus and my sins.

I hunker down and wait for the performance to end, sure I’m going to get a foot in the face as the dancers clamber up and down the subway car’s poles and rails, using them as acrobatic and trapeze equipment. Afterward, they go up and down the subway car soliciting “donations.” Usually this is when I close my eyes and pretend that I’m listening to my iPod, which has been drowned out up until now, unless it’s been a pretty spectacular performance. If I’ve seen something good, then I give up the Sacagawea coin that I carry around in my MetroCard wallet for just that purpose.

These two kids finish soliciting, then start talking about how lame the audience in our car was before moving on to the next car. This pisses me off. It’s not like I’m at the Metropolitan Opera with a hundred-dollar ticket to see a performance of La Bohème. I did not pay to see a secondhand hat routine, and I do not appreciate being critiqued as an audience member, especially when I wasn’t looking to be one. It makes me wish one of the harsh reviewers from one of those dance reality shows, like So You Think You Can Dance, was there and could take these two down a peg with their forced routine and bad use of props.

The crap routine almost makes me nostalgic for the L train and some of its crazy performers. You’re not really living until you’ve stood during primetime rush-hour traffic in a subway car with a mariachi band playing around you, as my friend Sarah found out when she came to visit me her first time in New York. Another favorite was a guy I would see about once a month who had made himself a fake horse out of a bedsheet splattered with painted-on spots. He would ride his horse while singing “La Bamba” and sweat heavily during his routine.

Sarah and the mariachi band on the L train.

What the L train was most famous for, though, was panhandlers—usually younger kids with lots of tattoos and piercings, so I’m pretty sure I know where that money was going. The best thing I ever saw was when a social worker confronted a frequent panhandler on the L line, a woman with a high annoying voice and the scabby look of a meth head, who would hector subway riders with, “When I was in a position to give, I always did. Somebody please help me get something to eat.” This man got up and said he would take her down to the food stamp office to file for emergency food stamps; he’d even help her fill out the application. She stopped immediately, looked down at the ground, and silently got off at the next subway stop. From there, she got on the next subway car and started hustling again, and I was relieved to finally get some peace.

Meg Howrey Tackles NYC Dance World in The Cranes Dance

In Meg Howrey’s novel The Cranes Dance, older sister Kate Crane narrates what happens during a season at New York’ major ballet company. For some reason, New York’s major ballet companies—New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre—are never used in fiction, except in a peripheral way. That right is reserved for those writing biographies or autobiographies. I guess this is because of lawsuits, and only the companies’ own may trash those they work for. Not that Meg Howrey would have done either of the companies wrong in her novel. Her story is quite respectful toward those in the business of making ballerinas.

In The Cranes Dance, Kate Crane’s life has just gone to pot. Her boyfriend has dumped her for not being there for him. He comes from a long history of rescuing emotional cripples and isn’t able to take Kate’s self-sufficiency. At the other end of the spectrum is Kate’s younger sister Gwen, a principal dancer with the company, who has just had a psychotic break. Kate had to call in her parents to wrangle Gwen and even now is covering up for her sister. For years, Kate has known her sister isn’t quite right, but she chalked Gwen’s idiosyncrasies up to the trials of being a dance genius. During all of this chaos and while nursing an injury, Kate has her most successful season yet. For some reason, her dancing has improved with the drama, and besides dancing a lead in a new ballet, she takes over her sister’s role as Titania in a restaging of Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Kate and Gwen are two years apart and have been involved in ballet since they were kids. They’re part of a multitalented family, with a younger brother who’s a tennis prodigy and a father who’s nearly a concert-level violinist. Though she and Gwen have never been pushed to excel as ballerinas, the two sisters have, and Kate finds for herself that it’s more for the acclaim than for the love of dance. She’d rather be given special attention for something she doesn’t particularly like than to have no attention at all. Besides the year where Kate studied at a New York City ballet school (which seems to be the fictional equivalent of the School of American Ballet), this is the only time Kate has been judged on her own merits instead of being compared to her more talented sister. She feels guilty about enjoying this time to herself, but she does.

I really like Howrey’s portrayal of the dance world. The acerbic Kate lists all of the dance clichés shown in movies and then shoots them all down. And she gives details of the dance world that I’m dying to hear about—the loud joint crackings that alarm nondancers but bring a “Good one” from those in the dance community and dancers addicted to the current crop of reality dance shows. She shows what happens during a dance rehearsal and how monstrous egos are massaged, as well as the pecking order in the dance hierarchy and who’s sleeping with who in the company. It’s like peeping in at the real dance world. I don’t think I’ve been this thrilled at an insider’s view since a friend cleaned the hotel rooms of the Joffrey Ballet dancers while they were on tour. Being a curious college student, she checked out their wardrobes (clothes made for teeny-weeny people), their pill bottles, and journals. She looked at one dancer’s diary, which was just a laundry list of what vitamins and painkillers had been taken during the day and who he had slept with last night and planned on sleeping with the following night.

The dance world is still pretty sexist. For the most part, it’s women who want to be ballerinas, not men, so the male dancers are seen as a rare breed and get treated as rock gods. Also, a disproportionate number of the choreography and artistic director jobs go to males. Though ballet is woman, as Balanchine has said, it’s pretty much men who run that world. Howrey’s novel starts to get quite melodramatic at the end, but I found it refreshing that she makes her main character a bit of a choreographer with designs toward becoming the company’s artistic director. It’s rare to see a female dancer angling to become something other than a principal.

NYCB’s Firebird

I think George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins’ staging of Firebird has to be the closest thing there is to a horror ballet, an idea I’ve been playing with lately. It has magic and witchcraft–Prince Ivan captures the Firebird, and she gives him a magic feather once he releases her. Later, Prince Ivan, his bride-to-be, and his court are cursed by a wizard and beset by monsters. All of this is danced by backdrops done by Marc Chagall, proving a mythical and somewhat ominous presence. And then, of course, there’s the music by Igor Stravinsky.

Ashley Bouder played the Firebird with great energy (I could hear her pants from row D), but I found her pas de deux with Prince Ivan uneven, and I think that’s because of her choice in partnering. As Prince Ivan, Jonathan Stafford had a moment where it looked as if he were dragging the Firebird across the stage like a sack of potatoes and then he nicked poor Ashley’s knees on the stage at a different time. I don’t think these were planned moments of the Firebird choreography.

Once the monsters come flying at Prince Ivan like leeches in their lime green leotards, Firebird becomes a very different ballet. I truly love the monsters in their misshapen foam costumes with strange bloatings and protuberances, yet moving with such grace (as there is a dancer or two beneath each of those Chagall-inspired costumes). The beautiful movement and ugliness tied together makes for a wonderful combination.

When the Firebird returns to save Prince Ivan and his court, all eyes were on Bouder, especially when she turned her back to the audience and displayed physique and movement that reminded me of heat lightning. For a moment, she really did look like a phoenix rising.