Category Archives: Writing And Teaching

Ballroom: Beyond Glitz and Tits?

I’m a die-hard fan of Australian filmmaker Baz Luhrmann’s 1992 work “Strictly Ballroom.” It’s one of the few dance movies I can think of that fully acknowledges the very worst of the competitive dance world–the tasteless and trashy, the vapid and vain, the divas and drama queens. At the same time, it’s a moving story about the importance of following one’s heart, even when it means going against the tide.

The film was on my mind last weekend as I headed down the coastal highway through a blustery rainstorm to catch the opening night of Fascinating Rhythms, a ballroom dance production now playing at Ventura’s Rubicon Theatre Company through December 23. This show isn’t a satire, of course, and it’s not a competition either. Yet it’s another interesting blend of humor and sentimentality, glitzy glamor, and tender heartstring-tugging ballads. Headliner Melissa Manchester belts out some solid numbers with a backing band, the choreography is polished, and the dancers are totally pro–to the degree that anyone can be totally pro while doing the splits wearing strappy heels and a bikini covered in tassels.

In my review of the show in the Santa Barbara Independent, I stuck primarily to descriptive reportage–always the safest tactic when I find myself reacting to things like scandalously skimpy costumes, flashing colored lights, and Broadway-style ‘tits-n-teeth’ showmanship. The truth is, Luhrmann’s lovingly satirical take on the world of ballroom is so firmly lodged in my mind, I seem to be incapable of taking the form seriously.

But maybe that’s not a requirement.

Poetry in Motion

I’m really excited about the Santa Barbara debut of Sankai Juku at the Granada this Thursday evening, courtesy of UCSB Arts & Lectures. You can read my interview with the company’s founder and artistic director Ushio Amagatsu here. The evening-length piece they’ll be presenting is called Tobari: as if in an inexhaustible flux, and Amagatsu talks about the work as a reflection on the nature of time and the human condition.

A scene from Tobari

What I’ve noticed about all the butoh I’ve ever seen is that like poetry it cuts straight to the deepest and most universal themes. The stereotype of butoh is the solo male performer in white grease paint, his head shaved, moving almost imperceptibly slowly. While we may see some of that, Tobari has also got physically dynamic passages, stunning lighting, and rich metaphoric material. It’s poetry in motion, and that’s a rare and sacred thing.

I Can Fly!

My most recent dance feature in the Independent is about Santa Barbara’s first and only dedicated aerial dance studio, La Petite Chouette (The Little Owl, in French). Owner Ninette Paloma is a passionate, dedicated teacher and longtime circus artist who trained with some of the celebrities of Cirque du Soleil. She loves her work, and her students love her.

Ninette Paloma

I had the privilege of sitting in on her advanced youth class one afternoon last week, and now I’m eager to go try out some of their moves–especially the long tumbling descents that I imagine must feel almost as good as flying. If you’re in town, I suggest you check out the studio, which is located off lower Milpas Street between the Hamburger Habit and the Batting Cages. You might just find me hanging around.

Duende: Now I get it

I just filed a review of Piano Abierto, the highlight of the 11th annual Flamenco Arts Festival in Santa Barbara. Wow. As I said in the review, I didn’t totally get flamenco until I saw this performance. Saw isn’t even the right word. I experienced it–it being el duende–the hard to define quality flamenco artists are supposed to feel and transmit to the audience. When I interviewed the show’s composer David Peña Dorantes, I asked him to define duende. You can read his response in my preview of the show.

Rosario Toledo

Still, reading someone else’s description of duende is about as much like experiencing it as reading a description of sex is like actually making love; not very. Speaking of making love, that’s the analogy I used for the way Dorantes stroked and caressed the keys. More than orgiastic, which I always find a somehow reductive description, I’d call the dialogue between the performers in Piano Abierto ecstatic. It was ecstasy that made Rosario Toledo open her mouth and let out little cries as she danced, ecstasy that made the bassist beam and the audience shout and Joaquín Grilo, one of Spain’s superstar flamenco dancers, ham it up like a Spanish Grace Kelly and shake his booty like Shakira. I went in thinking “I’m not really a flamenco person.” I left thinking, “Ah: so that’s duende.”

Greetings from North Carolina

Greetings from Durham, North Carolina, where I’m currently in residence as a fellow at the NEA Arts Journalism Institute for Dance Criticism. The institute takes place at Duke University during the American Dance Festival, so over the past few weeks we’ve been attending ADF’s 2010 performances, including Rubberbandace from Montreal, Inbal Pinto & Avshalom Pollak from Tel-Aviv, Mark Dendy, Eiko & Koma, and Pilobolus.

It’s been an exhilarating ride so far, with a lot of long days gathered around one big mahogany table, talking about everything from the state of the arts in America to how to write an effective lede to why Paul Taylor so frustrates some critics. My 13 fellow journalists hail from Beijing, Melbourne, New York, Philly, Boston, and San Francisco, and we’re joined each day by luminaries in the field, from Deborah Jowitt of the Village Voice to the wonderful New York Times and Washington Post writer and dance scholar Suzanne Carbonneau, who has lead this program for the past nine years.

Last week, we experimented with new critical forms and created a website where you can check out our responses to Eiko & Koma’s retrospective performance. One colleague and I chose to focus on Eiko and Koma’s apparent affection for potatoes, which appear in a number of their dances. The film we made is called “Why Potatoes?,” and you’ll find it here on These artists are a total riot, and I hope their explanation demystifies what can be challenging work for some.

Eiko Otake in "Raven."

With the weather forecast showing a high of 96 today, I’d better head out for my morning jog before the sun gets any higher.