The Performance Club

Thoughts from afar

Norway is almost unbelievably beautiful. The air is drinkable. I’m stranded in it.

Land’s end in Flåm

Which sounds like it shouldn’t be so bad, and is of course a hell of a lot better than many New Yorkers have it right now; but somehow it’s panicky making, not being able to get home when home seems to be simultaneously burning and underwater.

Hi Brooklyn. Hi. I miss you.

So … I’ve been medicating with lots of sleeping and sjokolade drinking and incessant listening to Philip Glass, mostly the Dance pieces. Which to me are and always will be the Twyla Tharp pieces. Listening to this music, like watching her ballet, In the Upper Room, sometimes I get so crazy excited about the idea of human beings that I can barely sit still.

I’ve been thinking about Sarah Michelson, too. Her work does that to me a lot, also—more so by a longshot than anything that Tharp has made in years and years. I’m not sure if I will make it back in time to see Michelson’s new work at MoMA. I hope so.  I just caught In the Upper Room again at City Center during ABT’s season. It was a rather raggedy affair, but still but still—exhilaration. What the human mind and body can do. What the human mind and body can’t do. The crazy junctures where those two things and non-things rub up against each other. Afterwards, a bunch of us, dance and visual art folks and something in between, stood huddled on the sidewalk under that marvelously stupid 6th and a half Avenue sign (I didn’t even know we had vanity avenues!).  Several people had never seen In the Upper Room before. I still remember the first time I did. Wowee. (I just discovered Firefly on Netflix and a friend told me he was jealous of the experience I had in front of me, and that’s what I was thinking about, a weird little side note, listening to their exhilaration.)

And of course Michelson came up. Specifically, Michelson’s Devotion—the obvious debt it owes to the Tharp work, obvious except for the fact that it wasn’t in the program, or anywhere officially associated with the dance, as far as I’ve seen or been told—the ways in which Devotion borrowed from In the Upper Room: costuming, music, steps, propulsive and powerhouse drive, the idea of the human body and spirit pushed and pushed and pushed and pushed, and still going somehow, even if the flesh at a certain point can’t. Because it also can. Because it wants to.

And then we had the whole conversation about appropriation and sampling and art world mores versus dance licensing and who is the intended audience for these insertions (hasn’t SM said she makes her dances for four people in the world?) and on and on and on … I don’t care here about the money issues or the legality. But in terms of the ethics of it, and the question of why not credit … I don’t know. Some people are all for it, the sort of “We live in the 21st century and Michelson made her own work and how great that she is in conversation with Tharp” and I can see that (and indeed when I reviewed Devotion I wasn’t especially bothered by the non-crediting—it didn’t make my word count. I adored and still do adore that Tharp lives on in Michelson—especially at a time when Tharp doesn’t seem to live on in Tharp). But then there is this argument, put forth by Nancy Dalva in a longer conversation about crediting initiated by a Siobhan Burke essay for the P Club:

Consider in contrast To Yvonne Rainer, another Kitchen presentation, Sarah Michelson’s “Devotion” (reviewed by you Claudia) where neither Merce Cunningham, Twyla Tharp, nor Lucinda Childs were mentioned in the program, though their “texts” were clearly legible to those familiar with them. (Cunningham’s technique class;and “Interscape”; “Upper Room,: including  Norma Kamali costumes; “Dance,” Child’s solo.) There are photos and videos on line which readily document the source material, right down to the actual “figures.” (I know because I tracked them down.) Michelson readily discusses her decision to credit or not–and what she did she did for love. But it was an open source cultural moment (so 20th century and boring  of me to want otherwise, no? so “generational,” to use the dismissive adjective conjured up as a label for the old hat and uncool) that left to the viewer to know or not know what was quoted. I wondered what would have happened if the two living choreographers so quoted had happened by and seen it; whether the lack of attribution implied a lack of permission; and so forth. A lot of extra-theatrical concern, so instead of admiring the deft manipulation and giving myself over to the compelling performance of the given items, I fretted. Michelson tells me she doubts she will ever bring back that piece, but I’m still worrying over it. I totally got it. I should have loved it….and I can still run it in my head.

And I can see that, too… I wonder if there is any good answer to the question, what would it have taken away from Devotion to have credited Tharp? and if it was an issue of not getting permission, and the artist you are paying tribute to wouldn’t give it to you, well that would be really bad, but … would it be your responsibility to live with that, if you truly respected this artist, or this particular work?

So, so so….

I’ve been reading incessantly online—mostly storm reports, but also things like this depressing New York magazine article about Jonah Lehrer. I think mostly I agree with it. (Though for me also it has that inevitable NY Mag arc, where you can see the potential that the article might have and see, simultaneously, that it is never going to fulfill that potential. Always stops short, somehow.)

So but anyway, I came across this paragraph:

In reply, Gladwell offered another anecdote. A while back, he’d found out that the playwright Bryony Lavery’s award-winning play, Frozen, cribbed quotes from one of his stories. Though he might have sued Lavery for plagiarism, Gladwell concluded that, no, the definition of plagiarism was far too broad. The important thing is not to pay homage to the source material but to make it new enough to warrant the theft. Lavery’s appropriation wasn’t plagiarism but a tribute. “I thought it was a terrible answer,” says the attendee. “If there was ever an answer that was about rationalization, this was it.”

And it reminded me immediately of Michelson-Tharp. Gladwell’s answer makes sense to me, but it’s also kind of gross. A terrible answer.

I can’t think of a fully satisfying way to reconcile the question of appropriation versus plagiarism.

I’m on a ferry from Bergen to Stavanger. The early morning sun is incredibly bright on the water. It looks cold out there, and the men behind me are talking so loudly. Glass’ Closing just came on.

I almost can’t believe this music exists.

But we are moving toward a giant glow, something Jennifer Tipton would make if she were in charge.

The ferry is turning course now, away from the sun. I feel very far away from home.

One Comment

  1. Nancy
    November 2, 2012

    Love from here, this long distance conversation to be continued at closer range….What about those portraits of Michelson in her own work, at the Whitney in neon at the Kitchen in oil? What do they tell us? Still thinking about that….

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