Posted on Mon, Jan. 31, 2005

The dancing was inept, the theater annoying

It’s hard to tell what ArcheDream is up to. But to call this stuff “dance theater” insults the real thing.

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

The Philadelphia-based company ArcheDream is performing The Poet’s Dream this week at the Harold Prince Theatre of the Annenberg Center. Supported by Penn Presents, it is part of an optimistic new initiative called the Philadelphia Presenting Project that offers local talent a chance to perform in the professional space.

While the group does have some professional aspects – lighting, elaborate costumes, a decent program – to call ArcheDream a dance-theater company (as it labels itself) is a disservice to the fine dance-theater companies that grace Philadelphia’s boards. It is simply hard to figure out what ArcheDream wants to be.

To one who had just seen Momix’s endlessly inventive Lunar Sea and its often hilarious use of black light, watching ArcheDream’s black-lit, character-driven story – characters ingenuously called Peace, Death, The Poet, The Guide and The Sphynxx – was like ordering chateaubriand and getting a nuked veggie-burger.

With its vaguely Aztec-inspired costumes and high school-level pantomime, The Poet’s Dream looks like children’s theater. But it would bore any smart kid into a mega-tantrum. With its emphasis on pseudo-Jungian character development, ArcheDream is clearly reaching for adult audiences. But by the time the preachy prologue was finished, I was ready to kick the seat in front of me.

The amorphous, New Age-sounding music, mostly by Alex Mitnick, equally grated. Impeded as they were by their overstated costumes, none but Gabrielle Burke Casella (as The Polluted Earth) showed any proclivity for dancing. Mummers dance better.

There was movement, but no choreography that I discerned. Everyone just seemed to wing it in a free expression of what each thought the character should be. For the most part, that meant crouching with arms and fingers splayed. On top of that, “multimedia projections” titled the cartoonish characters’ photographs as they appeared onstage.

This kind of antiwar, antipollution twaddle could cause World War III. Please, before anyone funds this group again, bring back Woofy Bubbles and WooWorld. That went down a bit easier.

This is an open letter I sent to the head of the Arizona Commission on the Arts back in 2002. I copied it to 50 heads of museums, cultural centers and arts funders and it drew almost as many replies.

There was unfortunate and objectionable language in the September/October issue of the Arizona Commission on the Arts newsletter characterizing the arts in Arizona.  It quotes the council’s executive director as having said, “The arts industry in Arizona plays a significant role in the state’s economy and quality of life. With the fragile nature of the state’s current economy, arts organizations AS SMALL BUSINESSES (my caps and itals) are also under stress….”

Many arts administrators fell into this trap in the late 80s during the first attacks on the NEA by Dick Armey and Jesse Helms. As a former arts administrator, and current cultural reporter and dance critic for The Phoenix New Times and The Philadelphia Inquirer, I am sorry to see this ugly rhetoric resurfacing in Arizona.

The objective of artists is the process of making art that, sure, they hope people will buy or pay money to see, but most artists would continue to do work they believe in whether or not it sells. I cannot imagine an artist waking up in the morning and thinking I want to make a community-based work that will change the neighborhood. Sure that is the objective of such hugely-funded organizations such as the Mural Arts Project in Philadelphia. But too often the result is funder-driven, art-like work spuriously celebrated by philistines who want to seem smart.

The business of business is product and profit.  The business ends of local business criminals like Charles Keating and Fife Symington, and national corporate criminals from debacles like Enron and Tyco are smeared with the defecated dreams of millions of honest Americans.  Not even Martha’s butt is clean.  To equate artists with sludge such as these is to impugn one of the few groups of Americans who we can largely trust to do good work merely for the good of the work and the community that is blessed by it.  Communities do not consume arts and culture, but rather absorb it.

“Arts organizations” I might characterize as small businesses are for-profit art galleries, those traveling “starving-artists” auctions, touring and performing troupes such as Cirque de Soleil, Riverdance, and the ethno/artistic travesties spawned by their success.

These examples of marketing-driven — not arts-driven — phenomena impoverish rather enrich our communities.  They retard America from developing and appreciating its own culture outside of the profit-making world.  They reduce intelligent, mature discrimination to accepting, docile consumption.

It is legitimate to point out, for example, the oft-proven fact that arts and culture bring greater revenue to a city or state than the sports industry, as it can correctly be called.  But using terms like industry and small business to describe the arts derides the integrity of artists and panders to the lowest common notion of what art means to the community.  Of course, arts administrators feel they must use these descriptives when they are trying to pry loose funds from the collectively mindless and unimaginative business community.

But why not be all that you can be?  We need advocates for the arts and cultural community who fearlessly champion the arts for what they are.  Better to see and characterize our artists as resources to help people reflect on the beauties and tragedies of our times, on history, on the future, and on our relationships to each other and to the world.  Better to stress to the business world/world of government how our artists enhance our lives, as the director does when she says, “The arts contribute to community identity, economic development and tourism development.”

Art is not made by punching timecards, but by dreaming. Using terms like industry and small business to describe the arts is nightmarish.  Please don’t do it anymore. Tell the politicians and funders that business should emulate the arts, not the other way round.

Merilyn Jackson

At 45, Ailey troupe still young



By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer
Posted on Sat, May. 15, 2004

Last week, the United States Postal Service honored four great American choreographers with stamps of their own: George Balanchine, Agnes de Mille, Martha Graham and Alvin Ailey. Ailey, who died in 1989 at the age of 58, was the youngest of the honorees.
His now-legendary 45-year-old company, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, thrives and balances on the maturity of former star and current artistic director Judith Jamison and the exuberant youthfulness of its spectacularly gifted company of 30. The audience that packed the Academy of Music Thursday night gave the Ailey-ens a roaring, hooting stamp of approval.

Two Philadelphia premieres, Alonzo King’s Heart Song and Robert Battle’s Juba, had the rib-pumping, bravura styles these dancers can deliver. The 2003 Heart Song is King’s second work on the company; audiences may recall his sensational Following the Subtle Current Upstream performed by the company here two years ago.

With its costumes and scenic design by Robert Rosenwasser, Heart Song is an instant classic. Dwana Adiaha Smallwood and Asha Thomas twirl out in sculpted, lit-up tutus that say 21st-century ballet and set the scene for solos, duets and large ensemble dancing to come. Among these exceptional dancers, many stand out: Linda-Denise Fisher-Harrell for her truncated rapid moves in a duet, Benoit Swan-Pouffer for his high-flying jetes, and Matthew Rushing and Jeffrey Gerodias for their brotherly rivalry in a long, sinuous duet.

Although Juba is the term for a slave dance, Battle’s folk-derived, yet nearly mechanized, steps, Mia McSwain’s blue tunic costumes, and John Mackey’s original, highly varied electronic score suggested a Balkanized world, divided, unified, repartitioned and then optimistically reunified in a triumphant crescendo. Juba, Battle’s first work for the company, offered a wide geographical reach. As if the shape of the world depended on this dance, former Philadanco dancer Hope Boykin, Philadelphia native Abdur-Rahim Jackson, Samuel Deshauteurs and Rushing stretched it to global proportions.

The seamless fluxion in Elisa Monte’s 1979 Treading gave it the feeling of an amniotic float that was also erotic and athletic. Fisher-Harrell’s and Clifton Brown’s virtuosic interpretation of Monte’s dance displayed a slow contrapuntal control against Steve Reich’s pulsing Eighteen Musicians. Like two mighty rivers flowing purposefully to meet at their delta, the dancers ended this masterpiece with Brown carrying Fisher-Harrell aloft, her arms flowing behind her deeply arched back. Sadly, the lighting technician spoiled this gorgeous image by closing the spot too abruptly.

The now permanently endowed 1960 Revelations by the great Ailey closed the program and still revealed its timelessness, spirituality and jubilation. Gerodias’ solo to the hymn “I Wanna Be Ready” fully expressed the human need to reach one’s potential, which is what these dancers do.

Dance Exploding

DanceBoom!’s “African Threads” weaves a stunning tapestry of movement.

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer
Posted Feb. 2, 2009


If Africa is the origin of human life, it is also the origin of language, art, music and dance. As Philadelphia’s most renowned modern and Africanist dance writer and scholar, Brenda Dixon Gottschild, writes in her elegant DanceBoom! catalog essay, “African culture [and its] seeds pervade our daily lives from basketball to ballet and beyond Broadway.

“Africanisms are not a choice,” she writes, “but an imperative that comes to us the way electricity comes through wires.”

With a dozen dance groups, this year’s DanceBoom!, called “African Threads,” at the Wilma Theater offers a stunning array of Africanist-based dance works. There can be no stereotyping of Africanist dance. It is everything from traditional rite-of-passage dances to the celebration of hip-hop, Caribbean, jazz-inflected ballet, and cool tap.

“We looked at all the compass points of where our diaspora resides,” DanceBoom! curator Nick Stuccio said. “Koresh Dance Company is very interesting to us as they are rooted in jazz, but also [choreographer George] Balanchine was such a fan of African dance and first shocked ballet audiences when he introduced bent wrists and thrown-out pelvises like you’ll see in Agon.”

The key word to learn at this festival is polyrhythmic, a term that ties this festival together. The dancers and choreographers throw the word around as easily as they swish their hips while bobbing their shoulders to contrapuntal rhythms. (“The polyrhythmic dancing body may carry one rhythm in the feet plus one or more additional accent patterns in other body parts,” Gottschild writes.)

Audiences can sample from the festival’s following five groupings spread over different nights through Feb. 6.
Rennie Harris Puremovement

Rennie Harris Puremovement will start the festival off on its hip-hop head, hands and feet with a pastiche from the repertoire and add a premiere that Harris says “expresses the souls of inner-city African American and Latino communities.”

Lisanga Ya Bana Kin Philadanco or Odunde Kulu Mele African American Dance Ensemble Joan Myers Brown, America’s most formidable heroine of African American dance, will have her 35-year-old Philadelphia Dance Company (called Philadanco) perform the riveting trio from Alonzo King’s Steal Away, in which a woman dissolves into despair under the weight of slavery while her two male partners fail to save her.

Philadanco will perform only on Sunday and Tuesday, with Philadelphia’s Odunde appearing on Feb. 4 and 5 to teach audiences social dances of the ’40s, ’50s and ’60s.

Kulu Mele’s steely artistic director, Dorothy Wilkie, is North Philly-born and -reared, and melts into sweet smiles when the dance takes over her body. Her company will present three dances, including a solo called Amazon War Dance by guest artist Djian Tie from the Ivory Coast.

Congolese choreographer Mufulu Kingambo Gilonda, who has been living and working in Philadelphia for 15 years, will perform with his company, Lisanga Ya Bana Kin. They will perform Gizembe, about two regions in the Congo that “have to learn to get along.”
Koresh Dance Company Pennsylvania Ballet Merian Soto

Roni Koresh describes his Negative Spaces as a cabaret.

“It’s all urban jazz-influenced, almost done like a minstrel show, but all the dancers are in white face,” he said. “Once you put on a mask you can do whatever you want.”

George Balanchine made his 1957 masterpiece Agon with an awareness of the era’s racial tensions. He set a major male role on Arthur Mitchell, at the time the New York City Ballet’s only black dancer. Now Meredith Rainey, one of several black dancers in the Pennsylvania Ballet, profoundly inhabits the role he dances with principal ballerina Arantxa Ochoa.
Merian Soto changed her The Art of Improvisation program at the last minute, recycling a title from a show last year, What’s Heart Got to Do With It, a structured improvisation duet for dancer and musician.
Tania Isaac Paule Turner / court Charles Anderson / dance theatre x A phenomenal dancer from St. Lucia, Tania Isaac explores the “cultural schizophrenia” of living in a strange land.

“We jump-cut our lives every day,” Isaac said. “You become adept at shifting from one personality to the other, depending on who you interact with, and that is implicit in my work.”

For DanceBoom! she has streamlined an earlier work, home is where I am… .

In the belief that shock is the best route to awareness, Paule Turner presents the fourth and final section of Touched, the 25-minute “Hitting Bottom,” with his company of six dancing in the nude. Turner has been working with dramaturge and author Don Belton on this explosive multimedia show for more than a year. With the Ku Klux Klan and a beheading in the piece, Turner hopes to show that the world can survive such atrocities.

Charles Anderson is black and gay, and known for big works with magnificent male dancers. Here, however, the cast of Parables of Mutants and Madmen consists of 18 women, with live music.

“Being a member of a historically marginalized group, I’ve always identified with superheroes and their dual identities,” Anderson said.
Germaine Ingram Kariamu & Company Eleone Dance Theatre

DanceBoom! will often move you to tears, but nothing else can make you weep like Nina Simone’s songs. Germaine Ingram, Philly’s top tapper, has refitted three of them for her new show, Nina’s Laments. A jazz quartet interacts with the three women dancers, and Ingram shows segments of her ground-breaking video, Plenty Good Women Dancers: African American Hoofers From Philadelphia.

Kariamu Welsh’s company of seven astonishingly gifted dancers will perform the Jamaican-influenced Sankofa-Ja! and The Museum Piece, a work that harks back to when Sarah Baartman, the so-called Hottentot Venus, was displayed throughout Europe, and arcs through the American objectification of black peoples.

Eleone is a title made up from its founder’s name, the late E. Leon Evans. Its 13 finely tuned dancers will perform a lyrical work by codirector Shawn-Lamere Williams to Bobby McFerrin’s “Sweet as the Morning’s Flow,” innovative choreographer Christopher L. Huggins’ Highway, and The Movement by Wayne St. David.

“African Threads” includes a talk on “The Rise of the Tango” by Robert Farris Thompson, art historian and Yale professor, on Feb. 5 at 10:30 a.m. Odunde, a Philadelphia organization that promotes African culture, will give dancing lessons on Feb. 4 and 5. And a dance photography exhibit called “Roots and Threads” will run from Feb. 3 through April 17 at the Open Lens Gallery at the Gershman Y.

Daily Magazine


Universal African Dance

By Merilyn Jackson
For The Inquirer

Posted Jan. 14, 2005

Sochenda means “the traveler” in Dagomba, a language of northern Ghana, and is the title of the featured dance in the 2005 Dance of Our Ancestors Festival presented by Swarthmore College and Temple University.

Choreographer F. Nii Yartey, creator of Sochenda (so-CHEN-da), arrived from Ghana at Philadelphia International Airport last week toting enough titles to wear down any baggage handler. He is artistic director and choreographer of the Ghana Dance Ensemble, a senior research fellow at the University of Ghana, project director of Noyam Contemporary African Dance Research Project, and president of the National Committee of the International Dance Council of UNESCO.

Moreover, when asked what his name means, he said Nii was actually a royal title. “Something like ‘Your Highness,’ ” he admitted with a slight giggle. “I come from a royal family, the Ashantes. Yartey is really my given name.”

This first celebration of African-based dance begins Sunday with a public reception for Yartey. The festival culminates in performances at Temple and Swarthmore, which are cohosting the weeklong sessions of panels, workshops and lectures, all open to the public, on Swarthmore’s campus.

Philadelphia offers a surprising amount of African and Caribbean-based dance. As if to illustrate this, the DanceBoom! festival at Wilma Theater later this month features dance with African flavor by local companies such as headliner Rennie Harris Puremovement.
Yartey is setting his piece on the Temple University-based dance troupe Kariamu & Company: Traditions, under the artistic direction of Temple professor Kariamu Welsh.

She and professor Sharon Friedler, director of dance at Swarthmore College, conceived of the festival. New Yorker Welsh had traveled to Ghana numerous times, starting in 1977. While she was living in Zimbab-we in the early ’80s, Prime Minister Robert Mugabe asked her to work with the National Dance Company of Zimbabwe; she later became the company’s artistic director. “The dancers were all paid by the government,” she said. “Rehearsal space was extremely humble and the performances were often outside.”

Welsh arrived in Philadelphia in 1985 to teach African American studies at Temple, and soon set about to translate African dances to the concert stage without compromising their integrity. She taught the first classes on African dance at Swarthmore in 1988: “My first degree is in literature, but all things African came to me after I was entrenched in dance.”

In 1995, Swarthmore invited professor J.H. Kwabena Nketia to fill an endowed professorship. “Dr. Nketia is considered the foremost ethnomusicologist in Africa,” said Friedler, who has studied African dance since the ’70s, “and he played a very strong role in forming the African wing of our [Swarthmore’s] World Dance Cultures program, inviting me to spend my sabbatical in Ghana in 1997.”

“The people Kariamu and I had contact with in Ghana overlapped,” said Friedler, “and eventually we both met Nii and began to plan these annual festivals. Next year we will have Sir Rex Nettleford, head of the National Dance Theatre of Jamaica.”

Yartey said his soul-searching piece was “inspired by the problems that all of us have as humans. Life is a journey of pain, but there are moments of happiness.”
Ghana Dance Ensemble member Joshua Trebi is guest artist. He will perform a solo in next week’s Friday and Saturday programs at Temple and Swarthmore, which will also include three of Welsh’s own works. During rehearsals, the dancers imitated Trebi’s crouching, hunterlike, “traveling” movements.

When asked if the Americans were meshing African movement with their own previously learned techniques, Yartey said they were doing this very well: “I am measuring them not by the standard that would be used in my village or on my company, but rather I see each body as a sponge that is dipped in a liquid and that liquid is squeezed out by each in his own way.

“My perception of dance is not limited to where I come from,” he continued. “I am a universal African. Any cultural values that are compatible with my own I can use it.”

The performances will be dedicated to the tsunami victims, Yartey said, “because their journey is now in the spiritual world.”

By Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer

Posted: July 22, 2014


(CLEM MURRAY / Staff Photographer)

The Koresh brothers – (from left) Nir, Roni, Alon – with their troupe rehearsing for the Come Together Festival.

With the Come Together Festival presenting five nights of dance and the city celebrating the annual Philadelphia Dance Day with free workshops, performances, and a massive dance party on Saturday, you won’t be able to miss dance in Philadelphia this week.

You can either sit through it or get up and do it, but why not do both?

For the festival, Koresh Dance Company is sharing one of its weeks at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre with an ingathering of regional companies, both well-established and upstarts. Choreographer Ronen (Roni) Koresh launched the festival last year with support from PNC Arts Alive.

Koresh emigrated from Israel in 1983, followed by his brothers Alon in 1989, and Nir in 1994. All three had served in the Israeli military, so you’d think anything they did after that would be a cakewalk. But starting Koresh Dance Company and School of Dance in Philadelphia in the early 1990s proved challenging.

The company opened on a Friday the 13th in 1991, and presented its next show a year later at the Warwick Hotel. “I built a stage in the ballroom. We had a cocktail hour hosted by WXPN’s David Dye and Channel 3’s Evening Magazine host Ray Murray, a show at 9 and a dance party till 2 a.m.,” Roni said while sipping wine at a sidewalk table at Twenty Manning recently.

“When I came onto the scene, I had to rely on audiences, not funding. It was flashy. It had to be – we had to satisfy the audiences. We were young and so were they.”

A year after that, their first show at the Mandell Theater had a packed audience and won a standing ovation. “But Nancy Goldner” – then The Inquirer’s dance critic – “tore us to shreds. That was the first shock,” he said. “I didn’t leave my apartment for three days, I was so embarrassed.”

Roni is Koresh’s artistic director, Alon serves as executive director, and Nir directs the Koresh School of Dance. Recently, they signed a deed to a beautiful building at 2002 Rittenhouse St. – a building with a dance history. Laura Keeler, late wife of director of Dance Celebration Randy Swartz, once owned it, and Roni got his start there in the ’80s jazz dance company Waves.

Today, Koresh Dance Company fills a respected niche in contemporary dance – sometimes with a jazzy edge, often with ethnic characteristics, and always hot and hip. As dance company in residence at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, it joins BalletX, Philadanco, and Pennsylvania Ballet on Broad Street, making Philadelphia the only U.S. city with four major companies dancing within a block of each other.

Koresh begins a 26-city tour in October that runs through next May and includes a festival in Belarus. “I like going on the road because I feel rewarded,” says Roni. “We’re lionized wherever we go, especially Melissa Rector, who’s danced with me since Day 1.”

The Come Together Festival includes mixed programs from Wednesday through Sunday, with Nora Gibson’s geometric ballet, Rennie Harris Puremovement hip-hop, and Brian Sanders’ Junk’s physical theater – among a total of 26 companies – sharing the stage. Sanders “creaks” around in Dancing Dead, which he remounted in suite form with support from the Swarthmore Project this summer. Koresh performs each night with excerpts from its spring premiere of Promises I Never Meant to Keep, Bolero, and excerpts of other works.

More highlights:

 Kun-Yang Lin/Dancers performs Be/Longing 2 on opening night. It created a chiaroscuro of light and dark, movement and stillness in spring when he premiered this work, which has been whittled down to a more concise form for the festival.

Raphael Xavier – hip-hop artist, photographer, filmmaker – returns this year to perform Still. “It’s a four-man piece about maturing as a dancer,” he says. At 43, he’s no aging b-boy, though. “I may not be able to do some of the things I could do when I was younger, so this is a kind of transitional exploration. The 23-year-olds I’m working with know how to move, but I slow down and ask them to just react to me.”

Alchemy Dance Company has been performing in small venues around town and shows Beggars and Choosers, “an explosive excerpt of 2013’s Follies,” to music by composer Jonathan Bowles.

Melissa Chisena of Chisena Danza solos in Breathe with percussionist Jonathan Cannon. “Breathing is a universal experience,” she says. “This dance is an exploration of breath.”

DanceSpora was formed in 2008 by Pennsylvania Ballet alum Heidi Cruz-Austin and David Austin, an accomplished house dancer who performed with Renee Harris Puremovement. Cruz-Austin wanted her Trenton-based company to look like contemporary ballet with house and jazz influences.

Danse4Nia Repertory Ensemble performs an excerpt from Falsely Accused to music by James Blake and choreographed by Itola Byrd. It’s a tribute to women unfairly or unjustly accused of crimes they did not commit.

Ballet Fleming presents an excerpt of a staple of its repertory, a lovely, lyrical work to American composer Paul Schoenfield’s Cafe Music.


Come Together Dance Festival Wednesday through Sunday at the Suzanne Roberts Theatre, 480 S. Broad St.

Full schedule and ticket information at

Philadelphia Dance Day

A schedule of events is at


David Zambrano of "Soul Project." (Photo: Anja Hitzenberger)

David Zambrano is the creator, choreographer, and ringmaster of “Soul Project,” which returns to Swarthmore College from the Fringe Festival. (Photo: Anja Hitzenberger)

Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer

Posted: Thursday, September 24, 2015, 3:01 AM

Soul Project, a European hit since 2006, tours extensively, performing for intimate crowds that mill around its international crew of dancers as they solo to American soul and R&B songs. Swarthmore College helped bring it here as one of Fringe Festival’s final shows, where the two-night run sold out at Christ Church last weekend. It reprises on Swarthmore’s Lang stage Friday and Saturday.

Its creator, teacher, and choreographer, David Zambrano, is a Venezuelan who divides his time between Amsterdam and Brussels. He is something of a magical-realist Pied Piper – or a ringmaster.

A topknot sits where the ringmaster’s top hat would be, if designer Mat Voorter had provided one – and the barefoot Zambrano is dressed only in wide red-and-white striped tails. And though he had no whip in hand, the audience meekly obeyed his invitation to enter from the cobblestone street outside. Lace-gloved Edivaldo Ernesto shouted, “Be careful!” and danced as we proceeded to the now-seatless fourth-floor space.

Each dancer found a spotlight, getting cues from an iPod Shuffle. That inflected a nice touch of chance for audience and performers, uncertainty causing everyone to shuffle around before finding where to be or look.

Slovak Peter Jasko, in sequined eyelids and Elvis jumpsuit, often danced low velocity, almost in place. In polka dots and hula skirt, the only woman, Slovenian Nina Fajdiga, blunted her most violent movements with catlike disdain. For us?

With a half-shaved head, South Korean Young Cool Park offered the most original, overtly political move of the night, goose-stepping out of his spot. Zambrano began with an energetic Pogo-dance in what I hope was a waggish wink at overwrought Jennifer Holliday singing, “And I Am Telling You, I’m Not Going.”

Curiously, he chose mostly American soul songs of the ’60s and ’70s, concert recordings – to Philly ears, tired-sounding – rather than their dancier versions. Philly invented many social dances in that era – the Mashed Potato, Watusi, and, of course, the Twist, all of which morphed with dances from other cities into funkier club and house styles by the ’80s. Gloria Gaynor’s 1978 anthem, “I Will Survive,” had an urgent rhythm we all danced to; here, the more saccharine 1982 version by Gladys Knight didn’t get our dance cells grooving.

Instead, this cast of seven found Euro-grooves, isolating body parts in wildly opposing directions, flexing whatever they could simultaneously, hands almost flung off the wrists like the opera gloves in a burlesque show. These moves were like choreographic selfies – contact-improv for the soloist.


Soul Project

8 p.m. Friday and Saturday at Lang Performing Arts Center at Swarthmore College.

Admission: Free.

Information: 610-328-8200 or

Merilyn Jackson For The Inquirer

Merilyn Jackson, For The Inquirer
Posted: Sunday, August 30, 2015, 3:01 AM

BERLIN – Approaching 75, choreographer Lucinda Childs carries her dancer’s body regally. Her high cheekbones and upturned collars reinforce the queenly effect. But though she’s a grand dame of American dance across Europe, her work has been more or less on hiatus in the United States until recently.
Childs divides her time between Paris and the world, her current company based in New York and at least two revival projects touring regularly.

Philadelphia saw her seminal Dance, created in 1979 with composer Philip Glass and artist Sol LeWitt, at the 2010 Fringe Festival. And now her minimalist 1983 Available Light comes to Philadelphia for its East Coast premiere as a headliner in this year’s Fringe Festival, which begins Thursday. This month, it ran three nights at the Berliner Festspiele at the Tanz im August Festival, now in its 27th yeaAvailable Light was originally a site work for architect Frank Gehry’s then-new Temporary Contemporary at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles. Beverly Emmons, Childs’ lighting designer, worked with Gehry and the overhead skylight that joined two buildings, coating them with gel to diffuse the light. Childs collaborated with Gehry on the set and with composer John Adams on music. (He called his piece Light Over Water, and still does; Childs renamed it for the dance
In the spring, she revised Available Light at the Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, and Gehry, now 86, redesigned the set for the proscenium stage, making it portable for touring – with a platform above the main stage, staircases on either side, and a chain-link fence backdrop. It will be installed at the Drexel University Armory at 32d Street and Lancaster Avenue.

“Ironically,” says Fringe Arts director Nick Stuccio, “the armory has marvelous windows all around, but since the scheduling is for night concerts, we won’t be able to use the available light.” So the windows will be covered and Emmons “will bend the lighting design for the Philadelphia space.”

“The project was first conceived by Julie Lazar,” Los Angeles MOCA’s curator in 1983, said Stuccio. “She commissioned the work and brought Gehry, Adams, and Childs together in a kind of shotgun wedding.”

In an interview just before the final show in Berlin, Childs mused wryly, “It was more like a blind date. We all knew of each other but we had not met.”
Gehry was already known as a sculptural architect, but Childs was beginning to view her work in cinematic terms. In an early interview with Lazar, she pointed out how in film, information is shifted around, there is repeated action and backtracking to the original material.

“Frank knew about Trisha [Brown, from Childs’ early days at Judson Dance]. But he came to my studio and I showed him some material, just so he could see the way I moved,” she said. Gehry told the Los Angeles Times in June, “It was probably one of the most unforgettable experiences of my life.”

He ultimately came up with the two-tiered stage that echoes Sol LeWitt’s 1979 ghostly film of Childs hovering in the background in Dance. It also underpins Childs’ “geometric and mathematical ideas to organize material and to arrive at some kind of expressiveness.”
Since Stuccio brought Childs to Philadelphia five years ago, she’s reconstructed shorter pieces with Philadelphia dancers at the Performance Garage, performing them at the FringeArts space. She recently mentored local dancer/choreographer Megan Bridge for her piece based on Robert Ashley’s opera DUST in the spring. Bridge says “learning how to make a storyboard or score à la Childs” helped her greatly in her own work.

I asked Childs whether I could see one. “Yes, they’re in the U.S. now,” she said, ultimately to be donated to a museum in Paris, “but I’ll send you the score that inspired Frank. . . . I don’t think a collaboration is artists’ giving each other an assignment” – though she did ask Adams for a piece at least 55 minutes long.
Just as the impetus for the Dance revival was to preserve LeWitt’s decomposing 35 mm film by creating a digitized version, Available Light became an opportunity to update Adams’ 32-year-old multichannel electronic piece with contemporary technology. For this re-creation, “John added he what calls a few windows of pulsation for the dancers to hold on to.”

And Kasia Maimone designed new costumes. “The old costumes from 1983 by Ronaldus Shamask did not suit these dancers and seemed dated,” Childs said. “We kept the color scheme – red, white, and black – which was my request from the beginning of the collaboration.”

She insists they are not just restaging a historical artifact; they are producing a fresh piece of art, molded by new spaces, vastly updated technology, and different, more highly trained and technically proficient dancers. “The dancers of today bring to it a certain style or quality,” she said. “This group has a more uniform look, and they are all ballet-trained.” They will include Caitlin Scranton, who so spectacularly performed Childs’ role in Dance, and the tall, lanky Ty Boomershine.

Though she holds that these technology-dependent recreations are important for preserving the works of all the artists involved, in the near future, Childs says, “I’m not so much working on any more revivals. I’m continuing my practice of working with a composer and an artist – a new project with Philip Glass and James Turrell.”

More Fringe dance:
Another festival favorite, Norwegian choreographer-director-playwright Jo Strømgren, returns with three diverse works, one of which, The Border, is less theatrical and very dancey, to use the technical term. It goes up against the three Available Light performances but at different times, making this “must-see” possible to fit your schedule.

On the festival’s final weekend, David Zambrano will bring his frenzied, high-intensity Soul Project, with an international cast of virtuosic dancers performing solos to songs by artists including Aretha Franklin and James Brown.

Another import, Still Standing You, with Pieter Ampe and Guilherme Garrido, promises to be the killer dance piece – or, if not killing, perhaps maiming. These two highly skillful dancers take (naked) male roughhousing over the edge. Bring an open mind.

Of course, there is lots of terrific Neighborhood Fringe dance to look forward to, as well: it’s not me it’s you, by; Of Our Remnants, Olive Prince Dance; Arielle Pina’s Unarmed; 2000 Movements, Gregory Holt; Purgatory, Gunnar Montana; and, of course, American Standard by Brian Sanders’ JUNK. It just wouldn’t be Fringe without JUNK, would it?

Available Light 8 p.m. Sept. 10-12, Drexel Armory, 32d and Lancaster Ave.
The Border 9 p.m. Sept. 9 & 11; 6 p.m. Sept. 10; 2 p.m. Sept 12, FringeArts. 140 N. Columbus Blvd.
Still Standing You 7 p.m. Sept. 9-11, Painted Bride, 230 Vine St.
Soul Project 8 p.m. Sept. 18 & 19, Christ Church Neighborhood House, Second and Market.
More information at
Merilyn Jackson reviews dance for The Inquirer

A tale of Lost Luggage

A Tale of Lost Luggage
by Merilyn Jackson

Poems New and Collected
1957 – 1997
by Wislawa Szymborska
Translated from the Polish
by Stanislaw Baranczak
and Clare Cavanagh

Reviewed by Merilyn Oniszczuk Jackson
For The Inquirer
April 19, 1998


Reading Wislawa Szymborksa’s poems is like gazing into Poland’s famed amber. What does the cracked, ancient resin refract? An insect’s eyelash, a fish’s scale? Her verse exposes the universe’s most mundane rubbish and mankind’s banal indifference to all in its grip.

When she won the 1996 Nobel prize, Szymborska titled her acceptance speech, (included in this book) “The Poet and the World.” She spoke about the respectability of being a poet and places poets in “a select group of Fortune’s darlings.” The world is their subject.

Not surprisingly, Szymborska writes about the conflicting desires in the world; how they multiply and cancel each other out with dizzying speed. Every minute, every word is a wild card waiting to be dealt. Clothes parses no less than two dozen parts of clothing; nevertheless it presents a model of terse economy. The doctor tells the patient that for now it’s not too bad, and the matter-of-fact tone belies the relief in the lines:

…to pull out of handbags, pockets, sleeves
a crumpled, dotted, flowered, checkered scarf
whose usefulness has suddenly been prolonged.

At age 75, Szymborska has published nine volumes of poetry. This welcome new English translation of Szymborska’s poetry is by Stanislaw Baranczak and Clare Cavanagh. Baranczak, beloved as a poet and activist in Poland and respected as a poet abroad, holds the chair in Slavic literature at Harvard University. Cavanagh, is a professor in the department of Slavic languages at the University of Wisconsin. Cavanagh and Baranczak received the 1996 PEN Translation Prize for their View with a Grain of Sand. One hundred of Szymborska’s poems appeared in that 1995 volume, also published by Harcourt Brace & Co.

This latest translation is punchier, more direct, closer to Szymborska’s understated perceptions than the 1981 English translation by Robert A. Maguire and the late Magnus Jan Krynski. Some differences are worth noting because the present translation better projects Szymborska’s ironic voice.

A brief comparison between some of the older titles and the new, shows the earlier translations may be more lyrical, but wordier. What had been Two Monkeys by Breughel, becomes Breughel’s Two Monkeys. Four in the Morning is now Four A.M.
A sea change in cadence also occurs. In one of her most famous poems, A Million Laughs, A Bright Hope, it is “easy to drown in a teaspoon of ocean.” The subject in the current volume’s No End of Fun is “easily drowned in the ocean’s teaspoon.”

Szymborksa more or less repudiates a 1952 collection written in the political themes acceptable during Stalinist times, and her 1954 publication is inexplicably ignored in this translation as well as in the Krynski/Maguire edition. Both begin with the 1957 collection, Calling Out To Yeti. With the addition of 64 previously untranslated poems, including seven written in the last five years, this volume becomes the most complete English-language collection to date.

Her poems can be innocent and wise or truckling and truculent. Szymborska revels in contradictions like these. Seance ends “radiant and deceptive” and Sky in “rapture and despair.”

For Szymborska though, a word is only one consonant away from being a world, one continent away from being free. As a young adult living in the circumscribed world of post-war Poland, in the smoke-blackened, medieval town of Krakow, her writing found flight for her and her readers. She wrote a host of poems on poetry, death, and of course, war. In The End and the Beginning, she provides a formula for cleaning up after war where

Someone has to lie there
in the grass that covers up
the causes and effects
with a cornstalk in his teeth,
gawking at clouds. p.228

She takes us, her readers, with her on microscopic visits to the insectal world of “ants stitching in the grass” (No Title Required) and beetles “for such great despair/that beetle’s six legs wouldn’t be enough” (Interview With a Child.) And just as simply and swiftly she telescopes us into the universe. In Over Wine, she describes perhaps her own coquetishness at meeting a man:

And I tell him tales about
ants that die of love beneath
a dandelion’s constellation.

Along with inversions like these, Szymborska, like other great Polish writers, uses irony and self-mockery. An Opinion on the Question of Pornography, is a disquisition on the intelligentsia’s preference for “the forbidden tree of knowledge to the pink buttocks found in glossy magazines.”

Though Szymborska talks overtly about love or falling in love in at least five poems, she too, steers away from pornography. Two lines in Ruben’s Women, however, are powerful enough to make up for any lack of eroticism:

thick-whiskered Phoebus, on a sweaty steed,
riding straight into the seething bedchamber.
As intimate as her poetry can be, Szymborska is an intensely private person. She does not care for the attention she’s received since winning the prize and is said to go out even in Krakow in disguises. Fellow Nobel laureate and countryman, Czeslaw Milosz, [cq] wrote about writers in internal exile behind the Iron Curtain. In her poetry, Szymborska found internal freedom and so shared with her readers a space to breathe. May our continuing discovery of her poetry not diminish her freedom.


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