at the Dance Center of Columbia College

July 20

The subject of many dances seems to be the virtuosity of the dancers themselves: the thrill of seeing a ballerina do a triple pirouette on pointe, or Gregory Hines land after a rubber-legged leap, tapping perfectly in time.

But the pleasures of virtuosity can pall. When 20 ballerinas in the corps do triple pirouettes in unison, we enjoy it, but we also recognize that a pirouette is a skill that can be learned with enough practice. Watching virtuoso dancing can be like watching a sport: we get over our astonishment rather quickly and take our primary pleasure in the competition, as we would watching gymnastics in the Olympics. When dancing becomes a spectator sport, the main thrill is the competition between favorites.

To maintain the human, emotional element in dance is an almost Herculean task. Our society loves competition, and creating an atmosphere of cooperation and humane values within a competitive environment requires continual effort and careful thought.

Columbia College brought in two out-of-town choreographers to teach there this summer for two weeks. I took classes from Karen Bamonte and Loretta Livingston, and though both are concerned with issues of virtuosity, they come down on opposite sides of the fence. Each set a dance on Columbia students, which was then presented at an open showing. Each choreographer’s teaching and work was a consistent whole; together, they represented a concrete dialogue on virtuosity in dance.

Bamonte is the artistic director of Zero Moving Company in Philadelphia. Though she has had the eclectic training of most American dancers, her most important training was in the German expressionist technique of Mary Wigman, one of the founders of modern dance whose aesthetics and technique were created independently of the Americans: Martha Graham, Doris Humphrey, and Helen Tamiris. She made her best work in the 1920s, during the Weimar Republic, at a time of tremendous interest in dance. Millions of German men and women went to Tanzgymnasien, schools that encouraged expressive, interpretive movement. Films of dances from that period are often excruciating to watch; you may see a plump German matron interpreting the flowering of a rose. The interest in dance coincided with physical-fitness and nudist movements. The common theme was the natural relationship between a healthy body and a healthy spirit.

Wigman’s technique emphasized expression. She portrayed a witch in one of her famous dances, a performance critics have said made her appear a primal force of nature. Bamonte also emphasizes expression, focusing as a teacher on the “why” of movement, its expressiveness, rather than the “how” of movement, its technique. Each person, each body, she told us, has a unique pathway for movement that is part of the dancer’s presence, part of his or her ability to communicate. She said to our intermediate-level class that everyone could dance, and that perfect technique was not required to fill a movement with meaning.

Livingston is an instructor at the California Institute of the Arts and an independent choreographer in the Los Angeles area. Her style, well within the mainstream of contemporary American dance, emphasizes eclectic movement, virtuosity, and freedom in the torso and hips. As a teacher, she was clear, patient, and rigorous. There was a correct way to perform every movement. Her approach made virtuosity feel natural.

These two dances were set under difficult circumstances. Each choreographer had only six rehearsals. Most of the dancers were not at an advanced level. But both Bamonte and Livingston solved these problems creatively, in ways emblematic of their different approaches to virtuosity.

Livingston’s solution was to make a dance with a restricted palette: Take Me/With You, for three pairs of dancers (Julie Hopkins, Kathleen Kemme, James Lacey, Marisa LaRette, Vernell Morse, and Scott Putnam). The pairs began in a kneeling position, facing each other, then progressed through a series of counterbalances, each person holding his or her partner’s weight. Sometimes the dancers simply touched each other, or briefly rose to their feet, then released to the floor again. The movement was delicate; its composition, the pattern that the three pairs formed, was always visually interesting. And the dancers performed well.

Take Me/With You illustrated Livingston’s skill at choreography, her ability to create a work that succeeds despite limitations. Still, I felt vaguely dissatisfied. Though complete in a way, the dance also seemed merely a fragment of a larger dance. Take Me/ With You seemed to say: “Well, this is the best I could accomplish here.” It highlighted Livingston’s skills and subtly undercut her dancers.

Because Bamonte works “at a glacial pace,” she decided to teach a previously choreographed piece. And Then There Was One . . . is a version of musical chairs: seven dancers and six chairs become one dancer in one chair. The competition was real; all the dancers (Patrick Dooley, Hopkins, Kemme, Lacey, LaRette, Morse, and Putnam) learned the entire dance, but if a dancer was eliminated in the first round, he or she was out for the rest of the performance.

And Then There Was One . . . offers a rather heartbreaking metaphor for the dance world, where many talented dancers compete for the few jobs available and where who wins is sometimes determined by luck rather than talent.

Bamonte encouraged her dancers to express their actual feelings when they lost. The winner, Putnam, gave a gracious impromptu victory speech, saying “winning doesn’t mean much after all but winning,” and how much he had enjoyed working with the other dancers. The dancer who lost in the first round, Dooley, had told me before the performance that he would be very disappointed at losing early in the game. And he was clearly frustrated and angry: he jerked off the gym trunks he was wearing over his leotard, pulled a chair almost out from underneath another dancer, carried it to the corner, and stood on it to watch the rest of the dance.

And Then There Was One . . . is a wonderful statement about the humanity in dancing, which has nothing to do with virtuosity. The human dilemma of Bamonte’s dancers drew the audience into their game. The dancers’ enthusiasm and commitment are what made the dance work. Its metaphor–the competition within the dance world–gave the game a deeper resonance. And Then There Was One . . . accepts the limitations of its dancers, and finds meaning in their limitations. Livingston tried to protect her dancers by giving them simple movements; paradoxically, she diminished her performers. Bamonte’s work confronts the competitive element of virtuosity; its dancers are people engaged in the give-and-take of competition as they master a craft.

In the choreographic competition, Bamonte’s kindness stood clearly against Livingston’s acceptance of virtuosity as a standard. Kindness won, hand over fist. Virtuosity may be stunning at given moments, but as Ezra Pound said, “Only emotion endures.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Sharon Bays, Breatriz Schiller.