Scapegoats, Bad Girl Ballerinas, and Breathtaking Performances

By Rachel Straus

Scapegoats. They come in all shapes and sizes, especially in climates of fear and loathing. On June 1, a Sun News broadcast journalist scape goated the Canadian-based modern dancer Margie Gillis. A recent recipient of Canada’s highest cultural honor (the Governor General’s Performing Arts Award for Lifetime Artistic Achievement), Gillis was accused in Fox News style vitriol of squandering more than $1M of taxpayer dollars for her “interpretive dancing.” Gillis didn’t know the Sun News interview was going to caste her esteemed career as a symbol of superfluous government spending. What became doubly painful was that Gillis, when faced with such an attack, made a big mistake. She explained that the money—allotted to her over several decades for educational, solo, and collaborative projects—allows her to make a sacrifice. If ever there were a poor word choice, Gillis chose the one.

Gillis stayed firm with her statement that she sacrifices, despite the broadcaster’s heckling. She said she contributes to the greater good of her culture, and creates regardless of financial rewards and recognition. She impacts all stripes of people. But she failed to admit that her work is a labor of love more than anything else.

The Sun News broadcaster must have known that it would be easy to skewer Gillis. Her devotion can be compared to a religious calling. She sees herself as a missionary. During the 20-minute interview, the Sun News editors interpolated segments of Gillis dancing in a slow motion film. The footage segment they chose to show focuses on Gillis’s ecstatic looking face, where she resembles a medieval mystic having a hallucination. Needless to say, the film segment needs contextualization, but Sun News offered none. Also shown were photos of a Gillis workshop, which she naively said fosters world peace. These snapshots revealed participants sprawling on a studio floor and cheerfully gathering in bucolic settings. They hammered home Sun News’s argument: Viewers’ tax dollars are going to mystics! To communes! To waste!

Gillis is one of the most expressive solo performers working today. But the film clip diminished her artistry. Though she remained composed while the Sun News talking head mocked her as being elitist and sacrificial, Gillis didn’t defend herself well. I wish the eloquent and intimidating Bill T. Jones had been in this hot seat. He would have ripped the blond telecaster a new one, if she had accused him of misappropriating taxpayers’ dollars. But Gillis is a better target for Canada’s (and America’s) current arts funding controversy. She’s a soft-spoken, polite, white woman. Her dances aren’t politically driven. They aren’t about race. They focus on something much more intangible. The spirit.

The Sun News team didn’t ask Gillis hard questions like, can the human spirit be danced? Is its artistic expression vital? Does it deserve tax dollars? These were the questions buried beneath the vitriol. The fact that Gillis’s work, which investigates and expresses feeling, was trashed is horrific. To see the interview click on: Sun News Broadcast

Another video delivered down the virtual rabbit hole came via New York City Ballet’s press office. Called “Make Your Move,” it serves as advertisement for “Dancer’s Choice,” the last performance of the company’s spring season in which the dancers (as opposed to Ballet Master in Chief Peter Martins) choose the repertory and cast the dancers.

While the program will feature five works by George Balanchine, Christopher Wheeldon and Angelin Preljocaj, the video, made by unnamed dancers, features six City Ballet females. By day the You Tube film shows the women being obedient, pink-tight wearing professionals, taking cues from their male rehearsal coach. By night they transform into vamps, kicking and slinking through the streets of New York with spray paint cans in hand.  With the exception of principal dancer Ashley Bouder, who is in white, the black-leather crew looks like they are ready to hit the Meat Packing district clubs. Defacing public property, they paint their logo—“make your move”—on buildings. Scoundrels!

Does this ballet narrative sound familiar? It reminded me of Darren Aronofsky’s “Black Swan” film, with its fast-editing techniques and good ballet girl/ bad ballet girl done-to-death theme. The video is also false advertising. Those who hope to see Ashley Bouder shaking her groove thing at the June 12 performance (where tickets are discounted at $25 and $50) will be sorely disappointed.

To see the Dancer’s Choice video click on Make Your Move

Last week also featured two fabulous performances. Both were intelligent, inspiring, entertaining. The first was “Misters and Sisters” by The Bang Group at Joe’s Pub on June 2. In this dancing-singing homage to love, the company’s founders David Parker and Jeff Kazin pose as long-time lovers along side Nic Petry and Amber Sloan. The soundtrack is 12 Broadway show tunes and Hollywood musical ballads, written by Rodgers and Hammerstein, Irving Berlin, and Arthur Freed (among others), which speak to heterosexual love.

Because “Misters and Sisters” celebrates homosexuality with a Mister Roger’s glee, it feels as subversive as sing-a-long. Kazin and Parker dress sometimes in drag, other times in suits. The men never aim for the grotesque, as is can be the case with cross-dressing performers. Kazin performs proficiently on pointe. Both tap with flare. They wisely leave the heavy duty partnering and contemporary dancing to their younger friends. They share stories with the audience like seasoned vaudevillians and sing like pros. You can’t help but fall in love with their quirks: Kazin’s rangy energy, Parker’s child-like smile.

In ways that are too pat to be formulaic, their dance vignettes illuminate the songs’ lyrics: “All I Do is Dream of You,” “You Were Meant for Me,” “Tea for Two.” What makes their performance memorable is their comic timing. Resuscitating these songs from late-night TV oblivion, they make them their own. This practice began more than three decades ago, when Parker and Kazin say they were dancing and singing to show tunes in their Boston family homes’ basements, unbeknownst to each other.

The second stupendous performance came from New York City Ballet at the former New York State Theater on June 3. George Balanchine’s full-length 1967 “Jewels” shows how it’s possible for a non-narrative, 80-minute work to be riveting. The conceptual thread connecting the ballet’s three segments is bling, specifically emeralds, rubies and diamonds. But here’s the ingenuity: Each stone represents a period in ballet’s history. In the Emeralds section, to music by Gabriel Fauré, Balanchine celebrates the Paris Opera Ballet, where Romantic ballets bloomed and women’s ethereal dancing became the focus. In the Rubies section, to music by Igor Stravinsky, Balanchine casts his eye on American burlesque, specifically its enticing, leg slicing, extroverted showgirls. In the Diamonds section, to music by Tchaikovsky, the Russian-born choreographer reinterprets the Russian Imperial Ballet tradition, with its phalanx of kaleidoscopically shifting dancers whose aristocratic splendor mirrored the audience composed of the Tsar, his court, and military retinue. Dancers whose performances shone the brightest were Wendy Whelan (in Diamonds), Sara Mearns (in Emeralds), and Megan Fairchild and Joaquin de Luz (performing together in Rubies).

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