Tag Archives: nadine matthews

July 4th Dances: Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” and Mather Dance Company’s Choreo to Katie Perry’s “Firework”

Happy 4th of July! Of course I had to post a couple of dances in honor of the holiday. The first is an excerpt of George Balanchine’s “Stars and Stripes” for New York City Ballet. It debuted in January of 1958. It should be noted that by that time, NYCB was a (relatively speaking) integrated company having already admitted two African-American dancers. One of those was the great Arthur Mitchell- who went on to found the Dance Theater of Harlem. Balanchine was a Russian immigrant and is known to have loved all things American. He was exceptionally enthusiastic about the music of John Philip Sousa which is the very definition of patriotic American music. Balanchine created this ballet to John Philip Sousa’s “Stars and Stripes”.

“Firework” is performed by American pop-star Katy Perry who also co-wrote it with several other songwriters including the venerable Ester Dean. Aside from the very obvious fit of the song title for this particular holiday, the song is about being a patriot to oneself. That is, self-love. It was released in October 0f 2010 and reached number one on the Billboard chart. I chose a performance by students of Mather Dance School performing in the annual Pulse dance tour to a slower version than the original release. The dancers are: Genneya Walton (yellow), Simone Camersi (red), Audrey Lee (green), Samantha Grayson (blue), and Autumn Miller (purple). The colors refer to their costumes. They bring a lot of great technique of course but I though they were special because of the emotion that they imbue the piece with as well which is impressive for their ages.Choreo is by Shannon Mather.

“Stars and Stripes”- Liberty Bell and El Capitan
Mather Dance Company Choreo to Katy Perry’s “Fireworks” (Slow Version)

Film Review- THE FITS A Young Girl Uses Dance as Guidepost to Identity

The Fits is a film not so much about the performance of dance but about dance and movement as the language of the film itself. It shapes both the characters and the narrative. The actual dance pieces performed in the film were only part of the story- the punctuation. As the director Anna Rose Holmer states in her notes on the film, “I directed The Fits as a dance film, considering the movements of the actors and camera to be choreography in each scene.” The movie’s subject is Toni played by Royalty Hightower, a tiny eleven year-old who is coming into her own as an adolescent and starting to become conscious of her own identity as a person.

Trailer- The Fits

When we meet Toni, she is boxing at a community center gym with her older brother Dante. It is clear that they have a close relationship and that Dante is one of the few, if not the only, meaningful emotional connection that Toni has at this point in her life. She does not yet truly have her own identity but is instead, an extension of her loving brother’s identity. His friends are her friends, his avocation, her avocation. And so she boxes and helps out at the community center- just like Dante does. And she dresses like Dante in tanks, sweats, and sneakers. Other than that, the pretty, diminutive pre-teen is, for all intents and purposes, invisible. Toni does however, observe.

There is also a girls’ dance troupe at the community center. They form the backdrop to Toni’s life at the gym- the background noise… The viewer gets the feeling that these are the type of girls that Toni’s family- who besides her brother Dante- remain offscreen, may have perhaps warned her about. Communities from time immemorial, have often looked askance at women who perform dance. So we at first get the sense that Toni thinks she knows these girls and indeed fears them. In fact she knows nothing about them. There comes that moment though when Toni is caught off-guard. She glances over as they are playing around during practice one day and it is as if she is seeing the girls for the first time. They are generally older than her and seem to be fully in charge of their identities. They are confident without being overly brash. They are an intriguing admixture of passion, femininity, resilience and healthy self-respect. Though they’re not as loud as she’s probably been taught to believe, she suddenly hears them better. Though not as audacious as she’d been led to believe, she suddenly sees them more clearly- and perceives something of herself in them. She starts to understand that they embody some necessary part of herself that she hasn’t yet tapped into but knows is there. Still, her fear stops her and it takes the urgings of her brother to push her to audition. She gets in.

The film has almost as much silence as dialogue which is a reflection of Toni’s quiet, reflective nature. There are a lot of close-ups on Toni emphasizing her stillness and solitariness-her apartness. When she first starts out with the squad she is the last person to leave the locker room for practice. Instead of hurrying out, she does a slow grapevine toward the exit. Her ubiquitous grey sweatpants her cocoon as she studies the various and sundry colorful pieces of clothing the girls have left behind in carefree abandon. They are like a sartorial trail guiding her to her own destiny. Like many solitary people, she becomes friends with someone with the gift of loquacity, Beezy played by Alexis Neblett. Beezy is more your typical talkative, excited about everything eleven year-old. She is spry and spontaneous where Toni is lumbering though not ungraceful. Where many might take it as a personal affront, Beezy does not seem to either notice or care that Toni does not have much to say. She needs an audience and Toni fits the bill. It is a perfectly symbiotic relationship- partners in the tango of friendship.

Soon after Toni lands her spot on the squad, the members starting with the squad’s captain start having mysterious fits that manifest almost like epileptic seizures except none of the girls have epilepsy. The community center launches an investigation into what environmental factors might be causing these “fits” but there are no definitive answers. It is also very strange that none of the boys who use the community center just as much as the girls are, have gotten these fits. Initially, everyone becomes afraid of being the next girl to suffer from the seizures until they realize that there are apparently no other effects of the minutes-long seizures except a little extra attention. There are no physical or psychological effects. So the seizures morph into a badge of belonging. Now the girls begin to hope that it befalls them. It is now a matter of fitting in with everyone else.

As for the fits themselves, the fact they affect only the girls indicates symbolism about the girls’ maturation into womanhood. In the same way that menstruation is something that girls both dread and anticipate as a rite of passage and badge of honor, these fits function in much the same manner in the film. The anxiety for the “late bloomers” is also very similar. Toni is not immune to the feeling of wanting to belong. Beezy also becomes a victim and Toni can only sit and listen as Beezy commiserates about the experience with another girl on the squad. When Toni inquires about her wellbeing, Beezy cruelly replies, “What do you know about it?” before dramatically flouncing off. Well, Toni soon gains first-hand experience with the seizures during dance practice one day not long after Beezy’s cold retort. The viewer has to wonder if Toni’s episode was manufactured. Did Toni so want to be able to bond over this experience that she faked having the fits? If so, did any of the other girls do so as well? We can’t know for sure. But how many of us have faked liking something we don’t like or knowledge of something we have no clue about in order to fit in or just not to be an outsider? Toni has finally found a place where she can not only belong but also use as a guide for finding herself as a young woman. Some things are hard to let go of and a few minutes of pretending to have a fit can seem a small price to pay-especially to an eleven year-old.

Apart from the beautiful physicality of the girls dancing, the movie is pleasing in a larger way. Novelist Zadie Smith has said, “black culture is a house with a thousand rooms, with windows looking out on so many views”. That a film like this was made with an African-American female protagonist is testament that finally there is incipient recognition of the varied lives, cultures, proclivities, and personalities of Black girls and women. The Fits implicitly acknowledges that the black female community intersects with female communities of other races in our likewise infinite ways of being and seeing life. Granted, the familiar “athleticism” trope is invoked but the filmmakers are to be credited with not resting on their laurels. Yes Toni is written as “physical” but the writers and director have done the work to make her in the end, much more than that.

The Fits is currently playing in select theaters. Check theater listings for location and times. It will be released on a number of digital platforms on August 16th and will be released on DVD and Blu-Ray September 13th.

Tony Awards 2016

Here we are on the day of the latest Tony Awards! This year it feels especially exciting with how very diverse the Tonys are in contrast to previous years so that is something to celebrate as well. In any case, we are all about applauding-literally- the artists who have put in their blood, sweat, tears and otherwise on the Great White Way this year.

Click the link below for the LIVE STREAM OF THE 70th ANNUAL TONY AWARDS.
http://www.tonyawards.com/en_US/console/console_responsive_ibm.html

Julian Mackay Joins Select Group of Americans to Graduate From Bolshoi Ballet Academy

Julian Mackay is the most recent of a small, select group of Americans to graduate from the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Founded over two hundred years ago, the Bolshoi Ballet Academy is one of the oldest and most highly regarded training ground for ballet in the world. Mackay joins just three other Americans- Joy Womack, Mario Labrador, and Maria Theresa Beck as US graduates of the famed institution.
He is now a member of the Mikhailovsky Ballet in St. Petersburg as its youngest soloist. The eighteen year-old Montana native was quoted on the NYC Dance Project site saying that his inspirations are his sisters and the documentary Born To Be Wild: Leading Men of American Ballet Theater. Check him out in the video directed by Charles Thompson below. The gorgeous music is Oecologia by Benjamin Faugloire Project. It’s available on Itunes, Spotify, and Tidal.

 

***This article was updated 6/3/2016 to reflect the number of dancers who have graduated from Bolshoi Ballet Academy.

Paris is Burning and Madonna: Truth or Dare Leaving Netflix June 1st

Dancers from Paris is Burning, Madonna: Truth or Dare
Dancers from Paris is Burning, Madonna: Truth or Dare

Two of the most iconic documentaries about dance are about to leave Netflix in a few days. Paris is Burning and Madonna: Truth or Dare will be removed from the Netflix library on June 1st. In actuality, Paris is Burning and Truth or Dare are iconic because they are about more than dance. Both of these films chronicled an aspect of LGBTQ life and culture seldom seen prior to that time. That of gay men and transgender women who lived lives filled with joy and friendship even in the face of great difficulties and hardships. Still, Paris is Burning was one of the first movies to also gave us a stark depiction of the threat of violence that loom constant for many transgender women of color. A type  and level of danger that does not intersect with any other social group.

 

Both films brought to the fore the underground club dance genre of Voguing. It is a genre that continues to thrive and evolve. Paris is Burning and Truth or Dare, though relatively modest films, both stand tall in the canon of movies about LGBTQ culture, dance history, and American history. Like Jazz, Voguing is an art form that originated in America in very similar circumstances though in very different eras. This Memorial Day weekend, hopefully true dance lovers will take a break from the beach and the barbecue and take in one or both of these two important (and downright entertaining) films before they are removed from Netflix.

 

Paris is Burning Trailer

Truth or Dare Trailer

New Documentary Strike a Pose Revisits Madonna’s Classic Concert Film Truth or Dare

BlondeAmbitionDancersGroup

Chemistry is everything. In the now classic concert film Truth or Dare, Madonna proved she was savvy enough, even at the relatively young age of thirty-two to put together and successfully lead a team of dancers who would perform with her during her iconic Blonde Ambition tour. One of the films that screened at the at the 2016 Tribeca Film Festival, Strike A Pose, pulls the curtain back on the Blonde Ambition tour and Truth or Dare and gives us a three dimensional look at the backup dancers who helped Madonna’s star to rise even more. Madonna and those dancers brought to the fore many of the dance genres from the underground dance scene of that era of which Voguing became the most prominent in the public consciousness. What emerges from the documentary is that a certain fellowship or brotherhood formed between the dancers. The type of bond that is usually the result of people going through larger than life experiences together.

 

As one of the documentary’s directors Reijer Swaan described in a recent roundtable discussion, Strike A Pose is, “Like a ‘where are they now’ because they impacted so many people.” The film is a revisiting and a reunion. It carries the audience twenty-five years back in time to the spectacle of the  Blonde Ambition tour and the eye-opening and titillating Truth or Dare documentary. A time when Madonna’s star was at its zenith and the public’s attitude toward homosexuality was much, much less enlightened than they are today. One of the implicit arguments at the heart of Strike a Pose is that the seven dancers as well as Madonna herself unwittingly took on the burden of challenging the public to see the world in which they lived in all its glorious diversity- racial as well as with regard to gender and sexual orientation. All of the dancers were men of color and all except one, Oliver Crumes were gay. Ironically though, Crumes was and still is the most flamboyant of the bunch. Though his hair is no longer platinum blonde, he sports striking silver framed sunglasses and shows off his vast sneaker collection (which includes pink Adidas) in Strike A Pose. If one were going to choose ambassadors to spread this particular message, Madonna had the enviable ability to choose just the right group of people who were both attractive enough on the outside and charismatic enough to change attitudes and inspire courage by seemingly simply being themselves. She also had the discipline and will to lead a group of extremely young, extremely attractive, extremely talented men. Luis explains that, “She led by example. We had her at the time she was going from rubber bracelets and lace skirts to couture costumes from Gaultier so her focus was laser sharp so we took that on as well. I mean we wanted a fantastic product as much as she did. Did we kind of get that from her? Yes, because she led by example.”

 

Kevin Stea, Luis Camacho, Oliver Crumes, Salim Gauwloos, Carlton Wilborn, and Jose Xtravaganza charm the viewer in Strike a Pose the same way that they did in Truth or Dare albeit with the gravitas that comes with age and experience. “There’s a real depth and seriousness about who we are that it’s really nice to to feel people acknowledge that.” Wilborn explained about the newest documentary. Noticeably missing is Gabriel Trupin, one half of the couple who performed THE KISS in Truth or Dare. He passed away in 1995. The dancers also acknowledge that Madonna was unique in allowing them to shine as dancers in a world where despite the amount of time, effort, and discipline that dancers put in and the value that they add to productions, they are almost invariably shunted into the background. Camacho speculated that Madonna “was not that insecure. I think that a lot of artists don’t do that because of their insecurities but she just focused on picking good talent and putting it all together.” They all credit Strike a Pose with carrying on that theme of celebrating dancers although the directors readily acknowledge that was not their primary intent. Said Wilborn, “This is making a big statement for dancers and dance. I’m a dancer and I’ve been waiting to hear stories of dancers.”

 

For Strike a Pose’s Dutch directors Ester Gould and Reija Swaan and many who viewed Truth or Dare so many years ago, Truth or Dare represented something else as well. Reija explains “The film showed you could be gay and happy” at at time when media tended to pathologize homosexuality itself and depict homosexuals as tortured souls. “Here they were having fun and being themselves.” But Strike a Pose also highlights the fact that enlightenment comes in stages and is an imperfect  and somewhat fraught process; especially for those without the type of power that someone like Madonna has. Truth or Dare positioned these men as having transcended the shame about their sexuality that society put on them but that was in fact not the full truth. Although Luis, Jose, and Carlton had been out and proud for some time, Strike A Pose reveals that one of the most famous scenes in Truth or Dare (when they are in fact playing the game Truth or Dare) where the dancers Gabriel Trupin and Salim “Slam” Gauwloos french kiss, Trupin felt coerced into doing it and was unaware it would be used in the widely released film. Trupin’s mother appears in the Strike a Pose and sadly tells the audience “he wasn’t ready to come out to the world as a gay man.” Gauwloos at the time was out but still not fully comfortable with such a public display since his father remained disapproving. Trupin, Crumes and Stea sued Madonna in 1992 for invasion of privacy saying they did not give permission to shoot the off-stage scenes.
Strike A Pose reveals Trupin was not the only one with something to hide and that his sexuality wasn’t the only thing bothering him. It turns out that he and two other dancers were also HIV positive although no one knew at the time. Carlton Wilborn was one of them and eventually disclosed his HIV status. Salim Gauwloos’ HIV status was actually disclosed for the very first time during the making of Strike a Pose after his keeping it a secret from everyone except his mother for over twenty-five years. Said Gauwloos, “Me coming out about my HIV status it feels liberating and I always wanted to do it but it was never the right time and Reija and Ester came along and it was the right time to do it and to hopefully inspire again more people.” For Wilborn disclosing in so public a manner as a documentary film has been a blessing. He explains, “What’s amazing about this right now is for myself the irony because I was also diagnosed in 1985, that the thing I thought I needed to keep secret and wouldn’t allow me to have a rich and prosperous life is exactly the communication that’s allowing me to soar in my career because of what Ester and Reijer have created; bigger than I ever had before. We think we’re crippled by whatever. The way that they have presented us, celebrates us because of that.”