Accidental anthropologist
Once upon a time, artists were inextricably linked to their culture. Now it seems almost shocking to hear an older (sorry Misha) white male speak about artists and their cultural heritage – particularly their ethnicity. You could feel people bristle in the audience when Misha half-jokingly talked about Donna’s “Asian background” using the words secretive and conspiratorial. But by the end of the hour, we were talking about artists as cultural or economic refugees, fleeing New York and the United States for more hospitable environments.
I note that Misha refers to the U.S. as “our country” and acknowledges that his children are New Yorkers. He talks about the Irish and Italian immigrants (many of them artists) who came before him and his arts center to New York’s Hell’s Kitchen, and never misses the chance to reference the country of origin of the artists he works with. Donna describes dancer Hristoula Harakas’s movement style as having a “plushy strength, very grounded” and he adds “well, she’s Greek”. We hear mention of Swedish choreographers and Czech composers and American theater directors. We even learn about Misha’s fascination with the rich dance history of the Dominican Republic, where he has a summer home and has shot several photographs of people dancing.
I’m moved by his response to the last question, which is about how his classical training impacts his performance of contemporary work. He compared his early dance discipline to his own ethnicity by saying “it’s like it’s too late in life for me to lose my accent”. This was the only allusion to the fact that Misha too was an artistic immigrant, to this country. It’s difficult for me to imagine now that anyone, let alone an excellent artist, would move TO the U.S. I’m so glad he did.
The lecture wrapped up with a conversation about how New York and the U.S. are currently bleeding contemporary dance artists. The young arts students Misha works with are accepting jobs in Israel, and the dancers Donna sees coming to New York are moving to Europe in search of paid work. [I migrated to New York in 1995 and found the critical mass I was seeking, with mentors, classes, shows, opportunities to perform – as many in a single day as during a whole T:BA festival. But I left after 11 years. Not to pursue a more rewarding dance career but a more rewarding life style. Besides, many of my mentors had fled to Australia or Belgium to continue their dance careers AND have children.]
I am so grateful to Misha for what he has given back to his adopted country. Imagine where our cultural heritage would be without him. He came from a country with an enviably rich artistic history and embraced American contemporary dance – of all things! Still, I’m always a little bit frustrated by the fact that it takes an iconic, celebrity (white male) dancer to get people to come out and see the likes of contemporary dance choreographers Trisha Brown, Lucy Guerin, Donna Uchizono, etc. Of course it’s a draw to see what even Mark Russell and Donna herself referred to as “probably the last performance of this piece” and, as Misha intimated, maybe his last dance performance. Who knows? He may take Pina Bausch up on her offer if he feels like it come spring.
But who in the contemporary dance world EVER knows when their next gig might be? Did Donna know that State of Heads would be performed again after it premiered in 1999? What about when Carla Rudiger replaced her in the piece in 2002, then moved from New York to Texas a few years later? For all we know, we may never get to see Carla dance on stage again. Or see State of Heads again. Most of us will never know what the work looked like when Donna danced it.
You get where I’m going with this. Live, rather, time-based art, is ephemeral. And the artists, who are the art itself, are human. As Deborah Jowitt explained it much better than I will here, they get injured, sick, pregnant, tired, old, etc. Their ability to contribute to our cultural heritage is fleeting. Catch it while you can. See live art. Pass it on.
Posted by Nancy Ellis