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Wexner Audiences Take a Tour of the 20th Century Through Dance with “Paramodernities”

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Wexner Audiences Take a Tour of the 20th Century Through Dance with “Paramodernities”Photo by Arnaud Faulchier.
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Wexner Center audiences got their first taste of acclaimed New York-based dancer Netta Yerushalmy in Joanna Kotze’s antic, beautiful IT HAPPENED IT HAD HAPPENED IT IS HAPPENING IT WILL HAPPEN in February 2018. Yerushalmy returns to Columbus this weekend with one of the most intriguing choreographic projects in recent memory: Paramodernities.

Yerushalmy’s website calls Paramodernities “[A] meditation on different tracks of modernism within and beyond the purview of dance… Performed alongside contributions by scholars from different fields in the humanities, who situate these iconic works within the larger project of modernity, Paramodernities explores foundational tenets of modern discourse — such as sovereignty, race, feminism, and nihilism — and includes public discussions as integral parts of each installment.”

I spoke with Netta Yerushalmy by phone before her visit.

Paramodernities begins with the first shot across the bow of polite society by high modernism. Vaslav Nijinsky’s collaboration with Stravinsky, The Rite of Spring. Yerushalmy said, “[That] argument is made in the Nijinsky installment, by the philosopher David Kishik.”

Before the series revealed itself to Netta Yerushalmy came The Rite of Spring’s centennial.

“The origin was a conference-festival in Berlin where artists were invited to contribute a direct response to the original Right of Spring from 1913 [for its centennial.] I was outside of my realm, my making-home, my New York dance scene, for many, many months,” she said. “Because of that [isolation], the simplistic scheme came of taking a famous dance, learning the material from video, re-performing the material in a completely new order [in collaboration with] a scholar. I performed it there. I wasn’t in my community so I had a lot fewer inhibitions about what it would yield.”

Yerushalmy saw something there as soon as it was performed.

“The experiment was sort of a shield, and it ended up feeling like a question mark. I liked that a lot — I didn’t know where it was going. I did it in New York almost a year later and the responses were: ‘What is Netta doing? Why is she doing this?’ That felt exciting: these potentially generative question marks.”

Photo by Paula Lobo.

Casting a wide net through her scene, Yerushalmy settled on subjects who tower over the dance world but weren’t so codified in her own practice.

“I hadn’t grown up in this country so these kind of quintessential American modern dance forms weren’t super in my body. They definitely weren’t figures I had grown up identifying with and studying about very much.”

“It was 2015,” she expanded, “And my body was entrenched in different, more contemporary kinds of forms. It became interesting to make the list of artists I was interested in visually and aesthetically, who were bonafide canonized artists, and who I also felt a certain distance from. I did a lot of research, a lot of looking at a lot of dances, and here I am.”

Paramodernities pairs each response to one of the six classic modern dance pieces with an original essay, performed live. By her own account, the search for writers to pair with “was always about the search for someone accomplished as a scholar but who [is] thinking broadly. ‘Interdisciplinary’ is a sexy word right now, but to pluck people out of academia and ask them to write a paper and then perform it is a big leap. I talked to people who didn’t end up doing it because there wasn’t a spark. The people who did were excited, they understood that dance was something interesting.”

Yerushalmy talked about that collaborative process with that same intoxicating “question mark,” sense of discovery. “In the same way I didn’t tell the dancers how to dance — it’s not my place to say, ‘This is how you do Cunningham correctly’ — the whole project disperses authorship. The project says, ‘Okay, you’re a professional dancer, you’re an incredibly experienced performer, a researcher of bodies. Look at the video and figure out what they’re doing.’”

“The process with the scholars was similar,” Yerushalmy said. “I knew their discipline, and I knew they were interested and that was enough. [For example, in the case of Paramodernities #6], I knew I wanted to talk about disability but I didn’t know what they’d be pulling out and neither did she [at first].”

Overall, “These people embarked on a journey with these works [being responded to] to find out what they thought was worthy of saying at this moment in time. Culturally and politically, what would be an important contribution; [they found] illuminating things about the dance works and pulled things we never thought we’d be talking about.”

“There are also the normal elements of collaboration. They bring a text, we see the length, we see how it feels, then we start to [dance] against the text. We feel the body of the scholar, their energy, and their voice; how that might be part of the whole fabric. Then it becomes part of the choreographic space. I know how to arrange things in space and time; that’s what I do. So I have to think of the meaning of the text, the voice and body of the scholar, and our bodies, and how that all gets a place.”

The six varied pieces Yerushalmy responded to represent a who’s who of the biggest names in 20th-century American dance. Thematic elements echo and reverberate between them. #1 and #6 both take on pieces almost as well-known for their Stravinsky scores as the dances. Yerushalmy said, “[Bookending the six pieces with Stravinsky] was not intentional, but I like that [connection]. We don’t necessarily perform them in that order. The question of ‘The West’ looms [over this project] and there’s the question of America. Who are the figures here who are not American? It’s just the Russians. There’s something to take from the ways Stravinsky apparently engendered works from powerful artists through these collaborations.”

The later Stravinsky-laced piece, Agon by New York City Ballet maestro George Balanchine, is the only one of the six to come with a carefully worded disclaimer affirming this response is not authorized by the estate and does not use any of Balanchine’s choreography. Yerushalmy chuckled through her response, “Is that because we’re in the middle of a legal dispute?”

“[For] the Balanchine, I knew I wanted to tackle ballet through the lens of disability,” she said, “so I looked for somebody who worked on disability so I ended up with two scholars [Georgina Kleege and Mara Mills]. I always want to make clear I didn’t dictate the content of the essays.

“The scholar researched Agon and was hooked by the idea that Balanchine spent about a year with Tanaquil LeClercq [his wife and dancer] who contracted polio and was paralyzed, [at Warm Springs, Georgia]. He did all these exercises with her and people have said, including Arthur Mitchell [who originated the male half of Agon’s centerpiece], that he could feel the partnering was inflected with those exercises.”

That interdisciplinary spirit Yerushalmy spoke of came to the fore along with her enthusiasm.

“[Mara Mills] uses this story in her essay to talk about disability theories and rehabilitation; trying to position virtuosity not as a polar opposite of disability but could they cross-pollinate? Could they learn something from one another? She upends a lot of dichotomies [in the essay]; she’s not trying to do one thing. In Warm Springs, when Tanaquil and Balanchine were there, the only black people were tending to their [white patients’] bodies; this crazy choreographic image of black people moving a white ballerina’s legs. Then you end up with Agon.”

Intrigued by the subtle semantic difference, I asked why Paramodernities #4, “Inter-Body Event,” is billed as “with material from,” Wexner Prize recipient Merce Cunningham instead of “a response.” She said, “We’re quoting from five different pieces of his from five decades and the poet, Claudia LaRocco, is a L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E poet. She’s not present and controlling the information the same way a lot of the other scholars are. The research, the Cunningham, is in the tricks I’m playing and the filter I’m putting on the material. It also has a respondent from the community,” a play on Cunningham’s relationship to chance.

“We do a different cocktail [of the pieces] each time. When you put things in a different order, people make different connections,” Yerushalmy said. “You put Cunningham next to Graham and Ailey and you think about those legacies, who took what from whom. With Fosse, definitely the essay speaks about his relationship to women, his depiction of women, his commodification of sexual body language.”

She drew a deeper line under her trust in the audience. “I trust there are enough conversations between all the dances I don’t need to draw a deliberate this-to-that. So many people are answering so many people’s questions without even intending to that if you put the Nijinsky next to the Ailey or the Ailey next to the Balanchine, all these things are firing. It’s very exciting and very dynamic in that way.”

I asked Yerushalmy about the demands on an audience of a four-hour evening of dance with no music. Her response glowed with enthusiasm. “It doesn’t feel durational. There are six different installments with different casts and different costumes. There are two intermissions and a lot of stimulation. The audience moves around, there are slightly different seating configurations. It doesn’t feel like ‘Oh, here we go, long haul.’ You have an hour, you have a little break, you have snacks, then you have more. It feels like a lighter load than it might appear.”

She summed up the appeal of Paramodernities with, “We are encouraging people to come for the whole thing because it really is a rich offering; kind of a feast. Everybody in the audience just has to listen and watch and make a bunch of connections as they will. Once you see a few, you might as well see all of them, right?”

Paramodernities is presented with a shortened, three-piece version at 8:00 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 7, and the full six-piece presentation at 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 8, and Saturday, Feb. 9. For tickets and more info, please visit wexarts.org/performing-arts/netta-yerushalmy.

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