Sunday, February 23, 2014

Dance Review: Complexions Contemporary Ballet

by Susan Kepecs
Complexions Contemporary Ballet, at Overture Hall last Wednesday (Feb. 19), drew a large, enthusiastic audience and received a standing ovation at the end. I’m not sure why. The dancing, in general, was technically impressive (though the company’s flight from New York was delayed for hours, thanks to the polar vortex, and I spotted some shaky standing legs on those very muscular but possibly tired dancer bodies).  But overall the performance left me cold; most of the choregraphy was formulaic and earthbound, and the dancers never just took off and ran away with it – there was no sense of simply of dancing for joy. Why dance, then?
Complexions’ artistic director Dwight Rhoden’s 2010 “Moon Over Jupiter” opened the program.  This long, full-company work to a compilation of Rachmaninov’s greatest hits was done in three sections.  Like much “contemporary ballet” the choreography here was ridden with commercial cliches.  Rhoden's piece was built on a classical base that was spiked with non-classical hip / torso moves, floor rollovers, and an incessant barrage of crotch-exposing, wide-open second-position leg action.  Set in semi-darkness, the work featured an ever-shifting series of groups: seven men in unison, five man/woman pairs,  four pairs executing a follow the leader combination, three men in a diagonal line juxtaposed against a pas de deux, mix up a bit and repeat.  I like seeing lots of action onstage, but I got tired of so much relentless technical prowess without any soul to speak of.
“Moon Over Jupiter” was the only one of the three works on the program in which the women were on pointe.  Still, there are no fairylike ballerinas here.  I’m all for revealing every nuance of women’s strengths in ballet, and other choreographers – notably Alonzo King – do so with prodigious sophistication.  But the women in Rhoden’s dance were as dedicated to power poses as the men. Throwing gender stereotypes out the window should be a good idea, but obliterating diversity – and Complexions, after all, is famous for its ethnic diversity – is not.
“Recur” (2013), by Complexions associate artistic director Jae Man Joo, was divided into four parts.  In the first, dimly lit men and women dancing against a black backdrop wore nude-toned tops and black pants – another disturbing approach to de-gendering, in which sexless torsos flailed, swiveled, contracted, twisted, and slouched, hips thrust forward.  There was a stretch without music, accompanied by breath, the squeaks of feet on floor, and an annoying whistle pitched just low enough for people as well as dogs to hear it.  
“Recur”’s second section was a totally different dance, and offered, in fact, the most interesting choreography of the evening.  It was impossible to tell which dancers did what from the minimal program, and I don’t know this company well enough to guess.  But the action was divided between two genderless dancers in large black coulottes, dancing against black, and a very tall, imposing man  silhouetted against a rectangle of white, arms angled, wrists flexed, spidering his fingers.  All three were Buddha-like, and the composition carried a sense of significant ritual. 
The third segment essentially was a recurrence of the first, except the flesh-toned tops were replaced by black ones with white stripes. But the fourth part, like the second, broke the pattern. A sculpturally lit, unabashedly homoerotic duet between two men, naked above the waist and wearing nude-toned pants, this dance avoided being tacky simply by providing the program’s only glimpse of real human drama. 
The evening wrapped up with Rhoden’s “Innervisions” (2013), which, given its Stevie Wonder soundtrack, could have been a real show-stopper.  But it turned out to be just a modern dance Motown imitation.  The shifting groups of dancers from “Moon over Jupiter” returned, though instead of contemporary ballet the work was done in an urban-social vocabulary that involved hip thrusts, rollovers, a silhouetted line of dancers, bits of ballet, some Funky Broadway-esque arms.  The dancers moved on the beat, off the beat, around the beat and double time, but they hardly ever hit the backbeat, which might have set them free. 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

Brenda Bufalino Taps to Town

                                                       Tony Waag photo
by Susan Kepecs
Master of American tap dance Brenda Bufalino, who’s been playing bebop with her feet since before most of you were born, comes to town March 2 – 4, thanks to TAPIT/New Works, the Wisconsin Union Directorate, and Edgewood College.  There’s a for-fee master class at TAPIT’s Winnebago St. studio on March 2 (call for info) and a free, open-to-the-public lec-dem titled “Tap Dance … Made in America: The Rhythm and History of America’s Own Indigenous Art Form,” with Mad City’s very versatile jazz pianist Dave Stoler on keyboards: 7 PM at Edgewood College’s Black Box Theater on March 3 and 7 PM at Great Hall in the UW Memorial Union on March 4.
Tap and jazz go together like toast and jam, but Bufalino’s art is no simple snack.  She’s the kind of free-spirited, eclectic, bohemian all-around artist you don’t see too much any more.  She choreographs, she sings, she teaches, she writes books.  She’s made films. 
And, of course, she taps. Now 76, she got her slinky style in the early ‘50s from her mentor, the late, long, tall Charles “Honi” Coles, who hoofed with Count Basie and Duke Ellington; Coles also was a soloist with Cab Calloway’s orchestra in the 1940s, and a member of the Original Copasetics, a Harlem hotshot hoofers fraternity formed in 1949.  Coles didn’t believe tap was invented to accompany jazz – on the contrary, he attributed the birth of bebop to tap – take a look.


Taken together, the decline of big-band jazz and the advent of rock n’ roll induced the near-absence of tap dancing in the public eye from the mid-50s through the mid-‘70s, but halfway through the disco decade, Bufalino brought Coles out of retirement.  Ten years later, with Coles and tapper Tony Waag, who I think started out as Bufalino’s student, she founded the American Tap Orchestra, which, when the jazz clubs were all gone, put rhythm hoofing under the proscenium arch and in the spotlight as a full-concert, large ensemble artform:

At the dawn of the new century the ATO became the American Tap Foundation, with a much broader mission, focused, according to its website,, on education, presentation, preservation and creation.   
I managed to catch the very busy Bufalino by phone last week, right before she took off to perform in Europe.  Here’s what she had to say about her life in hoofing.

CulturalOyster: You’ve had a remarkable career.  Did you start out as a little girl taking ballet and tap and knowing dance would be your passion?

Buffalino: I did.  I had a conservatory training, six days a week since I was six or seven, at Professor O’Brien’s Normal School of Dancing in Lynn, Massachusetts.  I studied many different kinds of dance, Egyptian, Spanish, ballet, tap, acrobatics.  My mother was a lyric soprano and my aunt was a coloratura and concert pianist.  We had an act – we were the Strickland Sisters.  In many ways my one-person shows even now include much of what we did then – writing music and monologues, singing, telling stories, dancing – it’s pretty all-encompassing.  I call our curriculuum at the American Tap Dance Foundation conservatory training – it’s not exactly like what I did growing up, it’s mostly about tap, but it’s not just about dance technique – it’s also about music composition, choreography, improvisation, performance – it’s quite a program.  I like the idea of approaching dance from many angles.

CulturalOyster: Your major influence in tap was Charles “Honi” Coles.  You met him in the 1950s, when he must have been in his 40s.  I think of that as a rough time for tap, and for jazz – it was the end of swing and bebop, and before postbop, and even in the ‘60s nobody was tapping to Coltrane anway – as far as I know that only happened later, when Savion Glover decided to do it.  So what was going on in the tap world when you started working with Coles?

Bufalino: It’s interesting – when I was working with Coles in ’54, ’55, bebop was still very much in the New York scene.  The tap dancing I did was to bebop.  There were still a few nightclubs left, but mostly it was jam sessions at peoples’ studios.  Poor Honi, he’d try to send me out to get jobs and they’d hire me as an Afro-Cuban dancer.  I danced a lot at the Palladium. But my influence was really jazz.  [Count] Basie was playing at Birdland; I could go hear the Modern Jazz Quartet, Charlie Mingus, Max Roach – it was all going on simultaneously.  It was quite a time for a seventeen year old girl.  I’d go from club to club.  When I was working I’d leave my Afro-Cuban gig late and go to after-hours clubs. They’d have Monday night jams at his and Pete Nugent’s studio [Nugent was another member of the Original Copasetics; together, Coles and Nugent ran the the Dance Craft Studio, on 52nd St. in Manhattan] and jam with the Copasetics. 

CulturalOyster: What was Coles like, and how did you come to work with him?

Bufalino: I studied with Stanley Brown [Brown, originally from the West Indies, taught the famous hoofer Jimmy Slyde, who was one of Savion Glover’s main mentors] in Boston before I left for New York.  In my early teens I was working with the Bobby Clark Dancers, a group that came out of Brown’s studio.  It was an unbelievable show, one of the first interracial shows – we got run out of a lot of towns.  Pete Nugent had taught at Brown’s and that’s how I found Honi when I came to New York.  I was already a pro, but Nugent scared me – instead I went with Honi, who seemed very sweet, but of the two he was probably the dangerous one.
In those days you were taught one-on-one.  There were no classes.  Honi would show me something and then leave the room and you were left there to figure it out.  It was an interesting kind of training – however you figured it out was fine.  It never came back the way Honi taught it – he didn’t remember how he taught it.  But there was a lotta hanging out and a lotta listening and stories.  After 14 years we disappeared from each others’ lives – I was doing avant garde performances and he went on to manage the Apollo.  Eventually I started using tap in my avant garde shows and I ended up making a documentary film about Honi and the Copasetics – Great Feats of Feet.  That was 1975.  It was the beginning of the tap revival.  Honi got back into tap then, they all did.  And Honi and I started working together as a duo.  That’s when I really absorbed so much of what he did, his theories as well as his dancing – I was old enough then to be involved in the process.  So he was my mentor till he died.    

CulturalOyster: What kind of avant garde work were you doing during the years you weren’t working with Coles?

Bufalino: That was the ‘60s, the period of John Cage and the Judson Memorial Church [where the postmodern dance movement was born].  I was writing poetry and doing total improvisation and I worked with [pioneering liturgical and avant garde jazz saxman] Ed Summerlin, in a group supported by the National Council of Churches.  There were a lot of happenings.  It was a great experience.  I’m happy I was part of that.  I learned to break away from form, which informed my later work a lot – when I came back to form I had a predilection for freedom, so I wasn’t handicapped by form, and could play with it instead.

CulturalOyster: In your song and dance routine “Too Tall, Too Small,” which I just watched on YouTube, you joke that tap dancing is a man’s game.  There’ve been some great women tap dancers, but most of the really famous ones really were men – or at least, that’s how it used to be.  What did it take to break that glass ceiling?

Bufalino: Withstanding humiliation, and being able to tolerate being humiliated!  A resistance to being told “you can’t do that!”  And working really hard.  A lotta, lotta practice.  We were told we couldn’t be strong or fast or sophisticated enough.  That’s what led me to go into flat shoes.  Oh, that was a travesty!  The flat shoes – there’s a limit to how much you can practice in heels.  The girls are dancing in heels again, but that’s not how they practice – they got good before they went into the heels.  It’s a totally different sound.  I don’t like the sound of the heel – it’s tic-tic-tic, like a rim shot rather than a bass drum.  I like the bass drum sound. I was also dancing in men’s suits, so I’d be taken seriously.  The guys had a fit.  Honi thought it was so unfeminine! It was tough, but finally he came around – he’d say women in heels weren’t serious.  There’s a story in my book [Tapping the Source: Tap Dance Stories, Theory and Practice, Codhill Press 2004] about my white tuxedo – that chapter is the breakthrough moment for me and for women later – nobody says women can’t tap any more! Women are really able to use their strength now – that’s required.  I am so happy – we won!  But it took forever. 

CulturalOyster: Wikipedia tells me you were born in 1937.  The old tap masters, including Honi Coles, pretty much danced till they dropped.  You’re still performing, and that’s an inspiration for us all.  But as an aging dancer myself, I’m wondering – have you slowed down at all, or do you just keep on going?

Bufalino: In terms of actually creating and performing work, as long as I can do it at a level that’s not degraded energetically, I’m OK with it.  But I suspect another year or so might be it, mainly because putting a show together involves working long hours by myself.  It’s not that my body won’t do it, it’s that I’ve lost some of my enthusiasm for all that practice.  If I don’t put in the work my technique will suffer and if that happens, I’m not interested in performing. It’s lovely to be older and feel you’ve accomplished what you set out to do and you no longer have to prove yourself or make a statement.  So about performing, I just say, so what?  I did it and these youngsters today are so good – we have a youth group at the foundation that’s my favorite – I love to teach them, and you would die if you saw these young kids, they’re doing unbelievable things.  The students are interested in nuance and subtlety again – there was a time when it was just about dancing fast. 
I’m very interested in what the young people are doing, and I still care very much about what happens to tap.  I suspect I’ll keep teaching.  And I’m happy to do these lecture-demonstrations, which are an opportunity to talk about the history of the artform and just demonstrate some steps.  I’d feel pretty selfish to keep all this knowledge to myself.

Monday, February 3, 2014

Dance Review: Madison Ballet's Repertory I

Quirk and Stohlton in Smith's "Sonata No. 1"   © Kat Stiennon 2014
by Susan Kepecs
Madison Ballet’s Repertory I, at the Bartellwhich I attended Friday night, Jan. 31, was a choreographers’ showcase, presenting works by the company’s artistic direcctor W. Earle Smith as well as the UW-Madison Dance Department’s Marlene Skog and Jin-Wen Yu, plus former Madison Ballet dancer and current New York choreographer Nikki Hefko.  In best-case scenarios using outside choreographers takes dancers out of their comfort zone, giving them new moves to chew on and stretching their technical and interpretive skills.  The Repertory I program fell in the middle; overall the evening was interesting, but the dancers and the choreography didn’t always mesh.
Among outside works, the best fit came last. Nikki Hefko’s “Mandolin Amble” – to Vivaldi’s Mandolin Concierto in C – was a frothy little frolic in pastel tones, fairylike and classical. It reminded me of how Peter Anastos’ Midsummer Night’s Dream, last performed in 2011, sits on this company – Madison Ballet’s dancers can handle more of a challenge, but works at this level look good on them.  Mandolin”’s three parts included a bright, light-filled trio for McKenna Collins, Anna Reikersdorfer and Jackson Warring; a more challenging and contempory brief pas for Rachelle Butler and Eoin Gaj, and an ensemble allegro – courtly, in a contemporary way – that began with Warring’s whirring feet beating entrechat quatres and ended with Butler’s single, high-flying grand jeté.  Butler’s been having a stellar season – I’d have liked to see more of her in this concert – but that lone leap left a fine final image before the house lights went up.  
Skog’s “Un-Tango,” “Mandolin”’s polar opposite, was a short, staccato un-ballet set on Warring and Marguerite Luksik.  At the heart of this piece – playful and beautifully danced – were some zingy, recurrent themes.  In one, the two dancers checked each other out like snakes, heads and shoulders undulating, eyes locked.  Another  involved dropping precipitously from releve into deep second position plié.  But the choreography didn’t play much to the balletic strengths of these dancers, and it lacked both the emotional punch and the powerfully contemporary ballet vocabulary of Skog’s 2010 environmental statement, “Swans,” set on Shannon Quirk and Cody Olsen for “Exposed,” Madison Ballet’s 2013 spring repertory concert.
Tango seems to be a main metaphor for the UW Dance Department these days – if Skog’s piece was an “un,” Yu’s work, “Transit,” the longest piece on the program, was an “almost.”  It was done in four parts: man / woman (Gaj and Luksik); man / man (Gaj and Warring); woman / woman (Luksik and Shannon Quirk) and quartet (for all four).  Classical combinations, adorned with tango-esque arms and hip-led struts, are common enough in ballet choreography.  This blended idiom was extended with surprising slides – dancers ran and then skidded gracefully to the floor, like birds landing on water.  These flying drops were full of movement and long lines that extended the balletic look of this piece – truth be told, I just loved them.  But the aerodynamic flow of tango / ballet / slide was broken by a variety of floorbound rollovers drawn directly from modern / postmodern dance that seemed like extraneous fill – I’d have liked “Transit” much better without them.
“Transit” had another problem, largely due to its length plus the short rehearsal time (it was set on the company just two or three weeks ago). Despite the allusion to a smoldering social dance form, some of the passion in the music was missing in the dance. Yes, there was a bit of sizzle – these are confident, highly trained dancers – but for the most part the choreography hadn’t seeped into their bones.  I liked parts of the quartet; the shifting combinations of dancers created interesting patterns that flowed across the floor.  But best segment by far featured Luksik and Quirk, looking Spanish in lacy black tops and short red skirts.  It was fun to watch the contrast between Quirk’s long-limbed, expressive, contemporary style and Luksik’s compact, pitch-perfect precision as the two spun toward each other or in unison, arms overhead, flamenco-style.  Part of this dance had the same not-quite-finished look as the rest of the piece, but near the end the tempo sped up; without warning Luksik and Quirk threw all techniquiness to the wind and just danced their hearts out.  Brava. 
I saved the very best for last, though it fell in the middle of the program – W. Earle Smith’s  “Sonata No. 1 in F Minor,” named for its Scriabin accompaniment.  Smith, of course, is in utter command of his own company, and his piece – a complex and serious work that epitomizes the Balanchine side of his choreography – fit just right.  It began and ended with Morgan Davison, Jessica Mackinson, Shannon Quirk and Courtney Stohlton in simple gray leotards with black straps, moving to or through the music as the tempo changed and shifting from unison to two-plus-two mirror patterns; from staccato passages, dancers moving with arms out in T position, wrists flexed, to waltzy and lyrical; and from croise to effacé facings.  A solo, bookended by this theme, was sweeping and straightforward, adding a new texture to this study in contrasts.  Choreographed on and for Stohlton, who’s new to Madison Ballet this season, it revealed her as a lovely neoclassical dancer, able to sail turns effortlessly and possessed of a certain kind of lifted, stretchy tensegrity that’s appealingly visual and kinesthetic.