Tag Archives: dance

Memories of Lenore

Lenore Lattimer as a young dancer

My favorite professor at Bard has died.  This post is pretty late; she died in September.  But I didn’t hear about it until today.  My friend Dages will be performing one of her dances at her memorial soon; I’ll update this when I know the date etc.

I am not the world’s greatest dancer.  I was a shy nerd as a kid, and, as my friend Tyler would marvel back when we were in elementary school, “John doesn’t like music!”  Not strictly true; I loved the oldies station my mom always listened to in the car, and my parents often played tapes at home, Bob Marley or Bow Wow Wow, or (most often) gamelan, some of which my father had recorded himself while on research trips to Bali.  My sister liked show tunes and a few cassettes of Belinda Carlisle and Tiffany, and I listened to that just like I read her Babysitters Club and Nancy Drew Files books.  But it’s true I wasn’t very well-versed in pop music until I was a teenager, when I caught up on the 80s through VH-1 and got into “alternative” radio while learning to drive.  It’s not like I was completely ignorant of it, but it felt somehow out of my league, like I wasn’t cool enough to even try to understand it all.  At some point when I was very young someone laughed at me for not realizing “Beat It” by Michael Jackson was not the same song as “Eat It” by Weird Al; the possibility of making a mistake like that, humiliating when you’re a little kid (if not always), made it a bit too fraught for a shy and very cautious kid like I was.  Certainly, by the time I got to enjoy school dances, I was way behind on learning how to dance.  My best tactic was to simply fake it through abandon and enthusiasm, which I could rarely muster up the courage for, unless my friend Tim was there to set the example.

Strangely, despite growing up in a theatrical house, I don’t remember any contact with Western art dance–ballet, modern dance, any kind of choreographed performance with an audience–until I got to college.  I’d seen Balinese and Javanese dance, but that was about it.  I went to my first Bard dance performance partly out of curiosity, partly because it was the thing to do, but I think mostly because my friend Evan was going.  I was thunderstruck.  The show was very crowded, very hot, and very long–over a dozen dances, I think, of all sorts of moods, styles, qualities.  Most were choreographed by students, some by professors.  I used to say to my dad, I wanted “theater without actors”, and here it was, and even better than I’d ever imagined.  I saw a lot of great dance at Bard, some showy and Broadway,  some spooky or disturbing, some gorgeous or sexy, some bizarre and avant-garde (one was in almost complete darkness, with no sound but that of the feet of the dancers sliding across the floor; in another, a dancer in a figure skating costume stood motionlessly balanced on one leg to the soundtrack of the recorded voice of a figure skating commentator.)

By this time I had already committed to a fine art major, and dance seemed, like music before it, somewhere out of my reach; but my friends encouraged me to take some dance classes.  There were many professors teaching intro classes.  “Who should I take?” I asked.  “Lenore,” everyone said.

Lenore turned out to be a cranky and commanding old lady, in her 60s when I met her, rain thin and as flexible as a rubber toy.  When she led the stretches at the beginning of the class it seemed impossible that she had any bones at all.  She taught a very flowy, swooping kind of dance–I’m afraid I don’t know anything about the terminology or the various schools to talk intelligently about this–but was strict and demanding.  She knew when you were struggling and when you were just not trying your best.  “John!” she would shout with her raspy voice.  “Get those arms up!”  It was impossible not to fall in love with her from the first class.

I was usually very grumpy about the studio art department, as disgruntled as some of my theater friends were with the theater department.  We would sometimes sit around daydreaming out loud about being dance majors, how if only we’d known then what we knew now, we would have done dance all the way.  I don’t know what they think about that now.  But I still think about it sometimes, and I still wish I had had any idea that I might want to try dance when I was a freshman picking classes for the first time.  I still dream of it, being a full-fledged member of the world of dance.  I still hope to be someday.  It’s too late to become a dancer, or probably even choreographer; but I still aspire to become Leon Bakst at least.  Soon, I hope, I’ll be living in Chicago; hopefully I’ll be able to meet dance people there.

At Bard there were very rarely more than two other male students in a dance class.  My friend Caitlin told me that, before we met, she knew me as “the boy in dance class who’s really into it”, and as mortifying as I find that (for some reason), it’s true, I was really into it.  We would line up and do a series of steps across the room.  I was always first in line.  (This is not entirely due to my enthusiasm: I figured out that before you went out there, you were too busy trying to get the sequence straight in your head to watch the other dancers, so paradoxically, going first meant you were most invisible.)  I was ecstatic to be asked, by another of my professors, to perform in the dance she was choreographing.  But I was even more proud when Lenore told me she thought I was ready to try her intermediate dance class.  It was quite a jump up–I struggled very much in that class, basically always felt lost or inadequate to what I was being asked to do, and it was at some ungodly early hour of the morning, my final semester at Bard.  But I loved it.  And I loved Lenore.


Leave a comment

Filed under just writing, Réflexions sur le théâtre

Influences: 1930s Movie Musicals

What Busby Berkeley did best

It’s probably clear by now that I have a big fondness for the pre-World War II Modern period. From the most austere avant-garde in painting to the most lurid of radio serials, something was in the air then that speaks to me. And if there’s one area where I think the pre-war efforts were clearly better than the post-, it’s in film. The 1930s are unquestionably my favorite time for movies–a sort of decade mirabilis. You can keep your Citizen Kane, and give me City Lights, King Kong, The Thin Man, The Public Enemy, Grand Hotel, Duck Soup, It Happened One Night, The Adventures of Robin Hood, Stagecoach, and all the great musicals, from 42nd Street to The Wizard of Oz.

Fred and Ginger in Swing Time

The movie musical of the 30s had two great masters: Fred Astaire and Busby Berkeley.  Both put dance at the center of things.  The plots are uncomplicated.  The singing is rarely especially good.  Good acting is the exception rather than the rule.  Outside the dance sequences, the direction is fairly unexciting.  Astaire/Rogers movies like Top Hat are basically so-so romantic comedies, full of cheesy jokes and mugging for the camera, which are periodically transfigured, like the Virgin in a Renaissance painting, into an exquisite vision of heaven.  Busby Berkeley movies like Footlight Parade, on the other hand, are unsentimental yarns of the seedy but glamorous backstage world of the theater, which end in monolithic, jaw-dropping art deco extravaganzas.

Warner Baxter as the desperate, monomaniacal director in 42nd Street--the best straight acting in any of these movies, in my opinion.

Astaire’s movies, all soundstage nightclubs, tuxedoes, unconvincing European settings, essentially distracted from the Depression.  Berkeley’s astonishing trio from 1933–42nd Street, Golddiggers of ’33, and Footlight Parade–on the other hand confronted it directly.  It’s really kind of amazing.  Of all depictions of showbiz I’ve ever seen, I think they’re my favorite–they’re the only ones that really make it look like work.  Sure, there’s those fairytale moments where Ruby Keeler takes off her glasses and gets cast as the lead, etc., but there’s also the grueling auditions in 42nd Street, the performers locked into the theater until they get the routines right in Footlight Parade, the three out-of-work chorus girls stealing milk and dodging the landlady in Golddiggers of ’33.  Considering the unabashedly left-wing politics of these movies–there’s an unbelievable moment in Footlight Parade when the dancers in formation create the face of FDR–I think part of the point was to show that performers were Labor too.

Disney's "Flowers and Trees"

What will last about all these movies is the dancing.  I don’t know if I’m romanticizing the time, but it seems like dance was in the air then, a part of life, more than it was after the war.  As one of my favorite articles ever points out, from the earliest days, Disney cartoons were saturated with dance–in the early days, even the flowers, trees, and the sun in the sky would be boppin’ back and forth as the scene opened.  Whether the virtuosity of Fred Astaire tap-dancing or a hundred dancing girls making simple turns in a spiral pattern, dance was made to be filmed.  Patterns and lines.  Music and motion.

1 Comment

Filed under Inspirations

Life in the cheap seats

I appreciated this article about the view from the cheap seats at various ballet theaters in NYC.  I’ve never actually been to a huge ballet like that, but any dance I get to see, I try to sit as far up as possible.  Generally speaking, I like to sit up close for movies and way back for live theater, but it’s hard to convince people to sit with me.  But at dances, as this article says, there is a contingent who likes to be able to see the whole space.  That’s certainly the most important thing, but for me there’s also the fact that I like to see the audience.

To me it’s part of the show.  Not just at the theater, but at concerts, at sporting events, at political rallies, whatever.  I like watching crowds, and you get a much better sense of the crowd if you’re in the back, with all of them between you and the stage.  And I like theaters, the actual buildings.  I grew up running around the bleachers and balconies, and whenever I see the light rigging, or the curtain ropes, it gives me a strange sense of home.  If I’m in the back, I don’t need to crane my neck and distract my neighbors; it only takes a glance around during the performance to give me that sentimental comfort.

The view is also great from backstage, or up in the lights, but as just an audience member, it’s the cheap seats for me.

Leave a comment

Filed under Réflexions sur le théâtre