When Rennie Harris’s troupe comes chugging out on stage, as a mass compulsion of hip-hop togetherness, you know the concert world has blown wide open.
Why? Because what these street dancers did recently in 100NAKEDLOCKS at UCLA’s brand-new, pristine Glorya Kaufman Hall was not some improvised, of-the-moment popping or locking, not some stunt-oriented show of virtuosic breakdancing that began ever so spontaneously and ended the same way – with stray onlookers getting some free entertainment.
What they proposed is a carefully choreographed spectacle that had all the fierce expressionism of Edvard Munch’s The Scream – with the best part being what led up to that climax. And what Harris and his dancers were saying was that street dance can disclose just as much drama as Shakespeare or Pinter, as Martha Graham or Antony Tudor.
His actual description of the piece, “a hip hop science fiction work, based on our current state of being as humans,” is inarguable. And its various movement riffs, whether performed by the corps or soloists, riveted the attention the way involuntary acts grounded in rhythmic spasms would. But ah, the nuance and variety of that discourse, the darkness of its environs, the organic depths of its feeling, the constant counterpoint of its motifs – and even, don’t laugh, the magnitude of hair worn by this characterful crew.
Toward the end of the piece, one Peter Chapman took the spotlight, at stage right. This young drummer, who is to skins what Savion Glover is to taps, crosses the threshhold of any percussionist I’ve ever heard. With his multiple, parallel beats, motoric intensity, and dexterous control, he’s a bona-fide phenomenon. What’s more, he can singlehandedly create all kinds of scenic moods.
The whole enterprise, in fact – with other notable offerings from the UCLA faculty – made an impressive opening for Kaufman Hall, formerly the Dance Building and before that, of all things, the Women’s Gym! How tempus fugit(s). That little nod to history also takes in more vast changes.
Time was when modern dance, under its experimental banner, occupied the realm of academia everywhere, while ballet – the glittery, formal stuff – took to theatrical stages. Slowly the two became enamored of each other, incorporating a little bit of this-a, a little bit of that-a from the other side. But then came the need, i.e., marketplace forces, for even greater inclusivity – in not just the world of dance, but music as well. The old modern dance department, at UCLA and elsewhere, has rolled into World Arts and Cultures.
And that’s not all. The genre called world music finds a prominent place at both UCLA Live! – with border-breakers like Yuri Yunakov’s Bulgarian bebop and Les Yeux Noirs’ klezmer octet – and the Walt Disney Concert Hall programs, which feature those good old standbys, Ravi Shankar and Les Ballets Africains. Maybe we’ve found the right kind of global free trade, after all. I say down with small-minded insularity!
Even composers today – unlike the international academics of 40 years ago, who were content to noodle around in their atonal logarithms and toy endlessly with abstract complexities – find greater absorption into the specifics of culture.
Recently, Osvaldo Golijov’s folk song cycle “Ayre,” had a world-music hearing at Disney Hall, courtesy of everyone’s favorite new-music songbird, Dawn Upshaw, and backed by the instrumental group eighth blackbird (yes, it eschews capital letters, just like e.e. cummings).
Golijov, an Eastern European Jew who grew up in Argentina, is the perfect practitioner of this flowering world culture. First, because he’s benefited from being a displaced person. Second, because he straddles several universes and thus is in a wonderful position to synthesize his observations. And third, because he’s simply a witty, feeling, creative spirit – one who could freely (and authoritatively) dip into Jewish liturgy, klezmer tootlings, Piazzolla tangos, Viennese chamber music; they, along with American academic influences, form the mosaic of his thinking.
“Ayre,” as heard by Disney’s world-music audience (not, by a long shot, the usual symphony attendees, but largely drawn by the bill’s other headliner, popular guitarist Gustavo Santaolalla), was a compendium of “found” music and original composition. Golijov uses a Sephardic lullaby here, a Christian Arab Easter hymn there, weaving together romance and tragedy through the prism of enmity between ancient cultures living side by side in a perpetual state of war. But he also can set the aural scene for expecting, at any moment, a belly dancer to enter the floor of a cool club!
Front and center was Upshaw, giving herself over to the work’s extreme vocal demands – nasal, gritty incantations, deep growling, high-pitched ululations, sweet crooning – all in the service of a musical picture that had great cultural import. The ensemble (yes, these “blackbirds” number eight) seemed, if not the most convincing advocates of Golijov’s “Ayre,” at least a serviceable bunch.
Back in the realm of symphonic paradise, the Los Angeles Philharmonic recently had two different conductorial mavens before it for programs of those be-all, end-all dead white men – namely Beethoven and Mahler. And, believe it, no amount of contempo-cultural crossbreeding can wipe these geniuses out of fashion.
But the ambitious series title, “Beethoven Unbound,” might leave a few scratching their heads, since the Phil’s chief, Esa-Pekka Salonen, does not exactly come through as a champion of the Bonn master. Yes, he can and did put across the Fourth Symphony because it’s full of big, architectural sites and needs only to be whipped to a rhythmic fury by this fabulously well-honed band.
At intermission, though, and just after the performance of the gorgeous “Pastoral” Symphony, a friend strolled over to me and asked, “Why was I bored?” Easy answer. There was little beneath the perfect, shining surfaces, no hushed, lyric intensity sustaining the sublime slow movement as a single breath. Salonen can approach music like a sonic engineer. Just don’t ask him for deep affect, the kind Giulini could and did give us, the kind the Munich Philharmonic’s Christian Thielemann delivered as a rare, one-time guest here 10 years ago.
As for Mahler’s Fourth, it was left to Jonathan Nott, a Brit who, in his well-publicized American debut, knew just how to find the fluid beat, connecting the work’s many vistas. If others dote on its various contrasting dramas, this maestro made the landscape so natural that there was little surprise. But for the skill in this, I’m not sure that we all didn’t want the more emotional gut-punch Mahler was driving at. The chasms between mountain tops really are supposed to be viscerally scary to contemplate.