What is 'manly' dancing?

Separate performances by an all-male dance troupe from Senegal and a local collaboration called 'Men in Dance' provide a varied look at masculinity in all its forms.

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Crystal Pite and Peter Boal in Boal's PNB offices.

Separate performances by an all-male dance troupe from Senegal and a local collaboration called 'Men in Dance' provide a varied look at masculinity in all its forms.

Had Michael Chabon blown my cover? While riding the bus this past week or so I have been reading his book, Manhood for Amateurs, in which he describes his life lessons from boyhood to fatherhood as to what it is to be a man in today’s America. It is frank, funny, sad, and evocative, and I recommend it to those with any interest in this subject — which should be any guy over the age of 25. It made me think about my own masculinity, especially since my wife had read it first, and kept on laughing out loud as she did. My greatest fear was what secrets of our fraternity had Chabon indiscreetly revealed?  

The book jumped into my head while I attended two concerts this past weekend (Oct.8-9) in which only men danced: Compagnie Jant-Bi from Senegal at Meany Hall; and Men in Dance 2010 at Broadway Performance Hall. The range of subject matter and performance styles in these two events were a reminder that like men in general, there is no single profile of what “manly” dancing should or should not be.  

As a young dancer, I grew up in an environment that all too often stressed a brawny “Gene Kelly” approach to performance, in which men dancing were to be in control, muscular, direct, and rigorous, as much athlete as artist.  

I remember a photo spread in a 1969 issue of Life Magazine that asked, if I recall correctly, if Edward Villella of the New York City Ballet might be the world’s greatest athlete. A decade or so later there was much hoopla over the professional football player Lynn Swann legitimizing ballet for men because he was a student of it. The opprobrium in my youth for dancing as a career was centered on both issues of sexual identity and “appropriate roles” for men.  

It was great fun and very revealing to see these two programs, starting with Senegal’s Compagnie Jant-Bi in its first Seattle appearance. Formed in 1998, the group fuses traditional West African dance vocabulary with other sensibilities. They have worked with European, Israeli, and Japanese contemporary choreographers, have engaged in collaborative work with our country’s Urban Bush Women dancers, and make pieces that have strong political and social content. 

Seen at Meany this past Friday night, Jant-Bi’s 2007 work "Waxtaan," a Wolof word meaning “discussion or debate,” centered on the role of power, that most masculine of assumed attributes, within the context of modern African politics. Six male dancers, accompanied by articulate and at times thunderous drumming from four musician-performers, explored the multiple identities of Africa’s political elite. They veered from modern dress, power meetings, and glittery receptions, to rural roots, tribal dances and music. 

There were a number of delicious moments that marked the politics of identity and the shifting roles of men in a culture other than ours. At the opening, a group of janitors prepared a room for a meeting and reception, doing minimal but jauntily expressive movements with their brooms, only to drop into submission when the “suits,” the people really in control, made an appearance.  

At another point, one of the suits opened his briefcase, then pulled out and put on traditional dance attire. It reminded of my own experience in non-Western cultures, and men I knew in Port Moresby, Suva, or Bamako, who dressed like Europeans at work, but would return to their home villages for ceremonies and social events, doffing their suits and buttoned-down shirts and donning instead their dance skirts and robes. 

Waxtaan did not fully cohere as a meditation on the politics of power in Africa and the “hope that things could really change for the better” in the future. But this was offset for me by the work’s display of bravura dancing drawn from traditional sources.

The exceptional character of the dance of Black Africa — the rapid shift between heat and cool, the extraordinary isolation of body parts, the ease of the dancing body, the ability to suspend movement in mid-point and quickly return to it, to “get down” with flexibility and suppleness, and to carry on a remarkable dialogue with the live drumming — all these attributes were amply on display from the six fine dancers. It would be nice to see where this company is a few years from now, and Meany’s World Dance Series is to be praised for bringing them to our city. 

Started 17 years ago to celebrate and encourage dance as a career choice for men, Against the Grain/Men in Dance provided a bill of 10 short works, created by an impressive grouping of local male and female choreographers, performed by dancers both well-known and accomplished, and those who were relative newcomers to the stage.

There were many things to be enjoyed in this concert, beginning with "Small Spaces," performed in the lower lobby of Broadway Performance Hall as the audience entered from the street; continuing on the steps leading to the upper lobby with the five dancers (six were listed in the program) good-naturedly mixing with the crowd rushing to get seats; and ending on-stage with at least one dancer staking out a small bit of turf as his very own “Nevada.” Take that, Sharron Angle!

Three amiable young tap dancers, including the loose-limbed Evan Pengra-Sult, all trained by the wonderful local hoofer Cheryl Johnson, performed her work “15-20,” to the nifty improvised accompaniment of Kenzo Perron on a snare drum.  

A quartet in all white, one sporting a short tulle tutu, danced a goofy send-up of the mid-19th-century Romantic ballet Pas de Quatre, the original “battle of the divas” in Eva Stone’s "Me Over You."  This is by now well-mined territory, but the work still had its amusing moments, particularly from the robust and flirtatious Fausto Rivera. 

Fine dancing on the program was also offered by a quintet led by Jason Ohlberg and Kelton Roth in Deborah Wolf’s muscular new work "Frattura"; the clarity of Andrew Bartee and Lucien Postlewaite in an excerpt from Olivier Wevers' emotionally resonant "Monster"; and again by Ohlberg in his own solo, "Ascent," created in 2008. At one moment, Ohlberg, with shaved head and powerful body, lies on his side, head dropping to the ground, long neck extended, looking like a bronze by Henry Moore.  

The most extraordinary performance of the afternoon came not from an active dancer, but from one whom I presumed to have been retired for several years from active duty. I never had the pleasure of seeing Peter Boal dance with New York City Ballet, and know him only as the inventive and eloquent director of the Pacific Northwest Ballet.  

In the premiere of "Carveresque," a new dance choreographed by Donald Byrd, Boal gave an astonishing performance, filled with unassuming power, grace, and vulnerability. Filled with simple and direct movements, Boal and Byrd offered a portrait of a man at the crossroads, facing age and taking stock of what has passed and what is to come. There are a few moments when Boal wavers in his steps, a bit off balance. I am not sure if these were choreographed or unintentional, but they added more poignancy to the moment.  

I hope that every dance student at the PNB School, and every performer in the "Men in Dance" program had the opportunity to see Boal. There is a gravitas to his dancing that asks that you watch him not for signs of virtuosity, but for the intelligence with which he has considered his material, and the maturity and unaffectedness with which he performs it. He is present, focused and centered at every moment, investing each movement with absolute clarity.  

Byrd and Boal are a fine match, and though one could see some of the distinctive character of the choreographer’s trademark movement style, he had the wisdom to make a dance that in its simplicity allowed Boal to say so much.  

If you go: "Men in Dance" continues Oct. 15-17, with a program that offers new works and some of those already seen, at Broadway Performance Hall, 1625 Broadway Ave., Seattle. Tickets cost $12 to $20. For more information: www.menindance.org 


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