Saturday, February 18, 2012

Artificial Intelligence at the 92nd Street Y

"Reading is just the opposite of writing," someone declared to me the other day, "right?" I didn't think it was, but I didn't know why I disagreed. The answer seemed rooted in this idea of whether or not a writer plans what he is going to say ahead of time. The reader gets the product of a writer's work. If the writer envisioned the final product, put it into words and the reader accessed that very same vision by reading the words, then reading would be the reverse of writing.

But I don't start with a vision of my final product when I write, and even if I do start with some vision, the final work won't be just like it. Even if the writer could magically conjure up an idea into words, I doubt that the reader would arrive at the writer's original idea, because words have so many meanings and connotations, and everyone reads them differently.

Dancing certainly doesn't feel like the reverse of watching a dance performance.  Last night, listening to choreographer Lar Lubovitch talk about how he makes dances, I realized that watching a dance is more the reverse of choreographing than of dancing. The dancers are like choreographer's words.

The audience sees the choreographer's vision -- if he had one.  Lubovitch certainly did, as he explained in an onstage interview with Anna Kisselgoff, the top dance critic for The New York Times (1977 - 2005), last night at the 92nd Street Y. This was the first performance of a five-part series called Stripped//Dressed, in which choreographers present excerpts of their work and explain the concepts behind the dance.

Their conversation hammered into my head this idea that art that seems to flow perfectly, even spontaneously, is often the product of elaborate planning. Just as David Foster Wallace perfected a stream-of-consciousness writing style and Jackson Pollock, a child-with-a-set-of-paint-tubes style, Lubovitch affected a dancers-doing-what-felt-good-and-flowed style.

Almost. The dances were not as spontaneous-looking as that last phrase implies. People leading with their shoulders and chests or holding their arms too high above their waists, wrists slack, don't look natural. Granted, I'm used to ballet, but to me, these movements looked less natural than a ballet where everyone pretends to be a swan. I could tell these dancers were playing roles. It was neither improvised, like a dance party, nor planned and consummately acted, like "Swan Lake."

In the first excerpt, "North Star" (1978), the dancers looked as if they were moving together as one body, like an amoeba moves as a group of cooperating cells. Afterward, Lubovitch revealed his structure: the dancers were moving as one body, but a more orchestrated one than I had imagined. The piece opened in what Lubovitch said looked, from the sky, like fifth position, with different dancers representing right and left legs, torso, and arms. Different groups of dancers represented different parts of a dancer's body, and together, the group executed steps from the ballet canon: glissade, tour jeté, two jumps where the legs move one after the other. These ballet steps are the building blocks of ballet, the epitome of structure. In order for the dancers to represent those steps, they couldn't just do what felt good, by any means, even if it looked like that's what they were doing. The definition of a ballet step and a person's position in the collective dancer's body determined who could do what and where.

Learning how Lubovitch had structured his dance, I had the same feeling of betrayal that I felt when I learned that pieces of music had key signatures that determined the first and last notes of the piece, that the composer hadn't just happened to land on the note he ended with. I try not to feel wounded. It's art, I tell myself. That's one way to define art: something artificial, that comes across as one way (spontaneous, in this case) and is actually another (structured). Just like actors in a play pretend to be living real life. It is deceit, and that's why I feel betrayed when I discovered that art I love was crafted, in the sense of crafty, art in the sense of artifice.

But this artifice is not necessarily malicious. I'm not trying to say that structure is a bad thing. I'm just let down when I realize that art is not what it seems to me. I want the concerto to end on a note because that was the right note, the one-and-only note, the note the composer fell in love with at first hearing, not the note betrothed to the piece by the key signature. 

Unlike a key signature, which composers use but didn't invent, Lubovitch came up with his own rules for the dance, then followed them. The creativity was still there, but not where I thought it was. He wasn't creative in deciding which direction dancer A would go in a tour jeté, but he was creative in deciding to make a dance in which a group of dancers perform ballet steps as one body.

In the second half of the show, the company performed "The Legend of 10," in which 10 dancers, he said, map out a Brahm's Piano Quintet. This was the "dressed" half of the show, a more formal performance. The dancers wore those trendy, calf-hugging hunting boots, black pants, a velvety, ab-hugging bodice with a sheer top, so that they were all black but their arms and faces, which were all white (the color, not the racial descriptor). The dancers moved in a flock when the quintet played together, moving their arms as if doing the macarena, or clapping in a threatening pack (like hyenas), or they were swans running offstage, elbow first. These hand motions seemed purposefully, mockingly affected. The flock of dancers sometimes held hands and danced in a circle, then looking even more like hunters, though fake, fairy-tale hunters, whose flimsy boots are meant to look like the trendy hunting boots people wear on the street but were actually meant for another purpose, in this case, dancing. It's a double affectation, since those boots, even in real life, are fake, flimsy boots made for fashion that look like they were made for hunting or tromping through the woods.

I thought the costumes and movements seemed unnatural and jarring. I interpret that as the artifice of the performance coming through.

Beyond the structure of the dances, there was the interaction between critic and choreographer. Kisselgoff and Lubovitch matched. She wore black with a red and black scarf; he wore a red plaid shirt. They were both born over 60 years ago.  In the way that Lubovich thought about how individual dancers could move as a group, Kisselgoff, dance critic, thought about how the styles of various choreographers--Balanchine, Cunningham, Graham--fit together to create patterns or dissonance.

Kisselgoff had known Lubovitch since the days when he was a dancer in the Harkness Ballet, before he founded his own company. She'd seen his entire modern dance career. She referred to questions that she knew not to ask, like "What does it mean?" and grilled him with better questions, like, "Do your dances have emotion?" and "Do you choreograph as a frustrated dancer or as a choreographer?" She asked the last question more delicately than I'm putting it here. Lubovitch stopped performing earlier than other company founders of his time, they said. Kisselgoff's question was akin to asking me if I wrote about science because I wanted to do scientist but had been unsuccessful in the lab.

Lubovitch responded that he "sat right in the center of a hot fire of emotion" and that dancing, but not necessarily his own dancing, inspired him to choreograph. It was truly a deconstruction of dance, down to its emotional core, so often hidden behind the art.