Published Attitude: The Dancer’s Magazine Spring 2010

It’s the new inevitable.  A cellphone rings at the theater/a meeting/a museum/a formal dinner/fill in the inappropriate place.  The shattered mood is further scrambled by the offender’s mad dash to silence it, followed by contrite apologies, or the opposite: I’ve witnessed instances where people actually took the call (at a performance of Gypsy starring Patti LuPone) or pretended that those strains of the Village People’s “YMCA” weren’t wafting from their purse, or coat pocket.   Such a disruption occurred during the presentation of choreographer Richard Daniels’ newest work, Dances for an iPhone in Studio 2B at the Baryshnikov Studios.  Holy irony and surprise—the usual glares of reproach were absent, a sign of either acceptance or a willful denial of technology’s worst excesses.  Both, considering the evening’s subject, made perfect sense.

To my thinking, 9/11 pinpoints that moment in time when cellphone ownership became de riguer for much of the U.S. population.  Suddenly it became important to keep tabs on the whereabouts of everyone at all times.  Suddenly all of us needed to be a phone call away, or else suffer the kind of sweaty fretting not experienced in this country since the Red Scare (I was vacationing in Spain at the time, which elicited a scolding “you just can’t leave town without telling someone,” from my older sister, an irrational denial of a forty-something’s right to do as he pleased—but that’s another story).  This false sense of connection came with a catch: being reachable opened us to a plague of inconvenience, as those ringing phones wormed their way into our consciousness, disrupting everything from business meetings to sex.  As ringing phones continue insinuating themselves some of us question whether staying connected was worth it.  Since purchasing one, I’ve yet to receive a call that was a genuine emergency—though the calls that come at a rotten time continue their assault.

Sophisticated cellphone technology created another imperative.  The mad scramble to create the phone that does the most has arguably been won by Apple’s iPhone, the gold standard for palm-size communication devices that, as their owners attest, do everything except take out the trash, making the smartphone is the new pacifier for adults, serving up games and music (when was the last time you were able to ride public transportation without having to contend with the sound bleed of a fellow passenger’s playlist?) to fill our idle seconds.

Can an app, those downloadable tools of convenience coveted by smartphone users, deliver art?  Daniels’ Dances for an iPhone set out to demonstrate this viability.  Before the evening’s program even touched on technology, it presented the dances themselves.  These were short pieces of choreography designed to accommodate attention spans unused or unwilling to sit still for evening-length works, or those anxious to move on to something less cerebral.

They ranged from pure ballet to modern and in one case, dabbled in performance art.  I’m not sure if Daniels’ choreography broke any new ground but all, aided by a bevy of outstanding artists, deployed enough charm to make an impression.  Regina Larkin was a saucy wench in Homage to Fellini, all hips and swishing skirts.  To a concertina score by Gerald Busby, she distilled the essence of Fellini’s Italia with blown kisses, repeated body slaps and what looked like attempts to grab birds from the air.  The elegant Christine Redpath brought balletic grace to Suite Dansante en Jazz: Waltz with long lines and a sense of elegiac longing (Daniels later shared his direction to her in rehearsals: “like smoke”).  4 Love Notes used text by Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas and minimal, illustrative movement to delineate the relationship between these women that, in the hands of Deborah Jowitt, conveyed not only the shorthand of domesticity, but also a winking sexuality.  The kinetic Megan Williams danced the scampering Glider; its jumps and runs, abetted by a snip of Bill Conti’s score from the motion picture The Thomas Crown Affair, was perhaps the most accessible piece of dance for the current iPhone market: young and vibrant, Williams propelled through space like a doe that’d just discovered the power of its legs.

The last was the most moving: Carmen de Lavallade, to the accompaniment of Stephen Sondheim’s Children and Art (from the musical Sunday in the Park with George) turned this theater song into a lovely rumination on the many stages of a life lived richly and without regret.  De Lavallade’s tall, majestic body sometimes rocked, sometimes floated as her eloquent arms stretched as if to envelop the world.  Her hands were a story in themselves: one moment they suggested wavering dementia, and in another, they embodied the joie de vie of a 20’s flapper.

All were lovely snapshots that reiterated the power of dance to lift the spirits and soothe the soul.  There’s definitely something appealing about the ability of smartphones to access works, and experience them in doses that might accommodate, say, a wait in line at the grocery.  In the presentation that followed Daniels expressed the far-reaching idea that a dance app might also serve an archival purpose by creating a storehouse of dance by a variety of choreographers in a range of movement styles.  One imagined that for Daniels, issues of morality and permanence also fuel his project: he was diagnosed with HIV years back, and had in fact, stopped dancing to care for his partner.

But as the audience watched the dances played back on monitors much larger than a smartphone screen, the drawbacks of such a project became clear.  The difference between live performance and film is like the separation of church and state: both have their own rules.  Daniels’ use of the medium ranged from cursory to instinctual—he managed to make visual chapters of the Stein/Toklas letters, for instance.  Sometimes he’d fade in or out, employ a slow-motion effect or a closeup as he did in Homage to Fellini (Larkin’s swaying hips filled the frame before the camera pans out for a full-body shot). Film should magnify, make larger than life, but the opposite was true here: a loss of dimension prevailed.  The expressivity of little gestures, like de Lavallade’s expressive hands, became muddy and vague.

In fairness, Daniels said that the video presentation were sketches of shorts that could be further developed via location shooting, sets and costumes.  He also expressed his hope that technology (all video images were processed through iMovie) might avail an interactive experience—viewers could manipulate the screen by employing collage, multispeeds, etc to create their own effects.

I wish Daniels had made more of his good idea.  There’s certainly a market for it: the November issue of Wired Magazine reported that Apple now offers over 100,000 downloadable apps: of those, 65 percent of those purchased are games.  Reducing dance to a form on a par with Gameboy© might not be what Daniels had in mind, but Dances for an iPhone might be just the thing for users in search of more highbrow diversions.  Just imagine the TV ad: “Want a dose of Paul Taylor, Twyla Tharp or Merce Cunningham?  There’s an app for that.”