Friday, November 16, 2007

New Traditionalist

New Traditionalist
Originally published in Pitch Magazine, October 2007

Seven male dancers take the stage, moving rapidly from left to right, with swooping arms set to a thunderous Beethoven piano sonata. Their gestures spring from classical ballet, but the emphatic lateral arm thrusts have the urgency of African dance. The company drops to the floor for a quick push-up reminiscent of butoh, a Japanese performance art that melds traditional Japanese dance with various Western influences. After the men’s athletic, aesthetic grab-bag, the female corps are a bit more refined, almost demure. Still, the pumped up score and the dancers’ quick, taut movements give both performances equal intensity.
The Sacramento Ballet performs Amaranthine in 2006, Helen Pickett’s first commission after Etesian, her break out piece for the Boston Ballet earlier that year. Because of Pickett’s longtime involvement with William Forsythe and the Wooster Group, I confess to her that I had expected “difficult” dance: deconstructive work with multi-media stage elements. ” You didn’t expect something so traditional?” she interjected, and burst out laughing. She hooked me with her choice of Beethoven for Amaranthine, whose compositions are difficult enough to play, let alone dance to (his piano sonatas are full of lightning-paced runs countered by abruptly slow phrasing with pregnant pauses). This astute choice of score speaks to the rigorous and emotive quality of Pickett’s choreography. It also speaks to her confidence as a new choreographer, which she has in spades.

Pickett’s pieces to date contemporize ballet via her distillation of gesture; the grace, agility, and rigor traditionally associated with the form remain. She is a dancer’s choreographer and gives her dancers the creative space to explore and push the boundaries of movement. Some movements are slightly off-kilter, imbuing her choreography with a richness that is akin to dissonance in music. The vivacious, loose-limbed male soloist in Amaranthine channels a loopy, unhinged nutcracker. His performance is joyous; I rewound and watched him on repeat.

No doubt Pickett’s confidence – and talent – is due to her rich and varied background; Her career signature is interdisciplinary collaboration and improvisation. Pickett is a transmedia flirt. She has worked with the some of most exciting and innovative names in dance, theater, and fine art: William Forsythe and the Ballet Frankfurt, the Wooster Group, the artist Eve Sussman and The Rufus Corporation, among others. While schooling me in the intricacies of dance and choreography via the telephone, Pickett dropped references to Paul Virilio, Iggy Pop, Baudelaire, and various mind-body integration techniques. Yet one of her greatest charms is how humble she remains for such an accomplished and heavily referenced woman. Her quest for knowledge, like her art, is a work in progress. “The more education you have the more you can riff…it’s an addictive personality,” she says.
As a student of the San Francisco Ballet, Pickett danced with the company under the direction of Michael Smuin, Lew Christensen, and Helgi Tomasson. After meeting William Forsythe, director of the Ballet Frankfurt (now the Forsythe Company), in San Francisco while he was choreographing New Sleep, Pickett went to Germany to audition for the company. It was an important move, Forsythe being a major innovator of contemporary ballet; his highly cerebral, intuitive choreography and inventive use of non-traditional scores stretch the limits of the genre. In 1991 Pickett became a lead dancer for the Ballet Frankfurt. Her working relationship with Forsythe lasted until the late 1990s, when she was forced to leave the company due to a recurring injury. The two remain fast friends. “I owe a lot to William Forsythe,” Pickett says. “I consider him one of my greatest mentors.”
After leaving the Ballet Frankfurt, Pickett joined the Wooster Group, the renowned genre-bending downtown Manhattan theater company known for its incorporation of dance, movement, and multimedia elements in its performances. She performed in a number of productions directed by Elizabeth LeCompte, including the Obie-winning House/Lights. One night, Pickett met the artist Eve Sussman in the lobby after a Wooster Group show. Sussman, who Pickett describes as “hyper-energetic,” told Pickett, “you look like the queen of Spain.” This mysterious compliment led to Pickett being cast in the role of Queen Mariana in the video installation 89 Seconds at Alcázar, a poetic meditation on the creation of Velázquez’s painting Las Meninas that blurs the boundaries between painting, appropriation, and video. The piece was a favorite at the 2004 Whitney Biennial.

Pickett didn’t rush to break out on her own as a choreographer. “If you‘ve worked with a bright light, it’s hard,” she told me. “But when I got into that studio and started choreographing, I felt like I was dancing again. When I left, I called my husband and said ‘I feel the completion again.’” She has an exploratory approach to choreography. A piece only takes shape once she has met the company. “I need to see personalities,” she explained. “I need to see the dancers’ strengths; to see them shine. Music is important; I need to see how people listen. I construct (the piece) as I go.”

All of Pickett’s commissions begin with a two- or three-day improvisation session with the dancers. She acknowledges that improvisation can be extremely difficult for classically trained dancers. Her improvisational approach, rooted in William Forsythe-based techniques and mind body integration exercises, is designed to help. “Improv is hard to do, period,” she says. “As people we are told what to do all the time.” The freedom Pickett offers is rare in the regimented, hierarchical world of ballet. It is the performing arts equivalent of giving employees stock in the company. It works. Pickett’s pacing is sublime; her choreography feels like a conversation. Tight movements are countered by expansive, interpretative gestures, and the tension generated between the two combines ethereal grace with restrained primal dissonance.

Following the making of 89 Seconds at Alcázar, some members of the cast (Pickett included) went on to form The Rufus Corporation, a loose conglomeration of artists, actors, dancers, and musicians. The Corporation’s most recent film, The Rape of the Sabine Women (a mod feature-length reinterpretation of the early Roman legend) will be presented concurrently with the premiere of Pickett’s commission for the Louisville Ballet on November 2nd & 3rd. The film will be shown in the atrium of the 21c Museum Hotel, part of a film program jointly sponsored by the 21c Museum Hotel, the Louisville Film Society, and the University of Louisville.

Pickett is a star in her own right, no easy task considering the experimental super-stars she’s collaborated with in the past. Her influences are synthesized and filtered through the prism of collaboration. Her work is unencumbered and liberating; It is a pleasure to discover.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Growing Up '70s Style: Clane Hayward's Hypocrisy of Disco

Originally published on

Clane Hayward’s memoir explores the progressive freedom and moralistic repressiveness of the hippie ethos with grace and humor. The Hypocrisy of Disco tells the story of Hayward’s nomadic adolescence in California, New Mexico, and Nevada between the ages of eleven and thirteen. She is shuttled between vacation cabins, open fields, and trailer parks by her quasi-mystical, macrobiotic mother until she is sent to live in New Mexico with her laissez faire, grease-monkey father and, finally, her straight paternal grandmother in Las Vegas.

Her story is a tragic and heartfelt testament to American idealism gone wrong. Clane’s mother H’lane’s anti-authoritarian open mindedness often spirals into didactic, controlling harangues about eating “shitfood,” which includes everything from oranges and cheese to cake. New clothes, party dresses, and other trappings of an average American childhood are also off limits. Describing a typical run-in over food, Hayward writes, “Your children eat out of garbage cans and off the sidewalk because of your head trips.” Food is a big issue for Clane and her hippie-kid cohorts, the Macroteam. These grudgingly macrobiotic super-heroes steal snacks from other kids’ lunches and bust into neighboring cabins to mainline sugar and dance to records. Their antics provide much of the levity in this otherwise disturbing, heart-wrenching book.

Hayward’s writing is strongest when she talks about the American West. Despite a childhood of hardship, frequent embarrassment, and sugar-lust, Hayward represents the idyllic beauty of Northern California in lush, broad strokes. As she grows older, she contrasts living among the redwoods with the bleak American expansionism of trailer parks, K-Marts, 7-11s, and empty parking lots. When a toss of H’lane’s I Ching coins determine that Clane should live with her father, Hayward writes of the journey, “…America is just one long highway baking quietly in the sun and waiting for the cars it bears. America from the bus felt like all space, all distance, and this made me feel empty inside and a little tired, my mind wiped clean, just waiting for the next thing to happen, waiting for the next place I would be.”

A feeling of weightlessness and quiet despair permeates Hayward’s story.She inhabits a world of mystics, stoners, and zealots eager to change the world, but whose stringent limitations build systems of exclusion that mirror the straight world they have repudiated.

The Hypocrisy of Disco (Chronicle Books)
By Clane Hayward
256 pages

Thursday, November 1, 2007

New York Post

From the column "Required Reading:"

Twenty Thousand Roads

by David N. Meyer


It's been 34 years since the overdose death of Gram Parsons at age 26. But the mythic story of the artist who brought rock and country together - through the Byrds, the Flying Burrito Brothers and Emmylou Harris - calling it Cosmic American Music, continues to exert a strange fascination. With 34 pages of footnotes, plus a thorough discography and “recommended listening," Meyer gives Parsons a thorough, Peter Guralnick-like treatment.

honky tonk angel

Twenty Thousand Roads is the lead review in Sunday's LA Times!!!!

click here to read!

Twenty Thousand Roads

The date for the book release is drawing near and reviews are trickling in.

From The Atlanta Constitution Journal:

Bottom line: A terrific biography of a rock innovator that hums with juicy detail and wincing truth.

By the time he died of an overdose at 26, Gram Parsons brought the Byrds to Nashville, taught twang to the Rolling Stones and turned the spotlight on Emmylou Harris' serenades of high lonesome heartache. In the process, this Harvard dropout, who wore sequined suits as homage to the Nashville stars he loved, essentially invented country rock.

read more

Publisher's Weekly:

Gram Parsons is remembered as much for wearing sequined cowboy suits on stage and for being illegally cremated in the desert by one of his friends after dying of a drug overdose as he is for the half-dozen albums he played on in the late 1960s and early 1970s, including the Byrds' classic Sweetheart of the Rodeo. Meyer (A Girl and a Gun) covers both aspects of the legend, but he gives particular attention to the way Parsons brought together elements of country and rock music to forge a new sound. After a leisurely telling of Parsons's “rich white trash” family drama in Florida and Georgia, including his father's suicide and the barely contained contempt of his mother's family, the biography plunges into his musical career, careening from one band to the next just as Parsons himself did. Meyer is appreciative but never adulatory of Parsons, who he believes threw his talent away; while citing the influence of the Flying Burrito Brothers' debut album, for example, he repeatedly mentions the band's “unbelievably sloppy” sound. This isn't the first biography of Parsons, but Meyer's semidetached stance as a critical fan makes it a valuable one, in the vein of Peter Guralnick or Greil Marcus. (Oct. 30)

Men's Vogue:
Now an encyclopedic and likely definitive Parsons biography, Twenty Thousand Roads, by David N. Meyer (Villard), gamely takes the measure of the man without fixing the legend even further in amber. Meyers, a journalist who teaches at the New School in New York, notes that Parsons "had everything: looks, cool, charm, charisma, money…?and threw it away with both hands." Nevertheless, "the most talented musicians in America would do anything for him." Why did they care? And, by extension, why should we?

read more