Saturday, April 27, 2013

Rooted In Vaudeville

On Sunday evening, my parents, my sister-in-law, and Joshua and I went downtown to The Cowles Center to see MOMIX.

It was our first visit to The Cowles Center, which opened in September 2011. The Cowles Center is a venue primarily devoted to modern dance, and is comprised of three buildings: the former Schubert Theatre, completed in 1910, and moved from its previous location a few blocks away; the former eight-story Masonic Temple, completed in 1888; and a new connecting structure that features an atrium.

The restoration of the Schubert Theatre was not a success. The original Beaux Arts design was not respected, inside or out, and the auditorium was reconfigured, with seating reduced from 1500 to 500. I have never seen a more dismal or cheap-looking renovation result—and the auditorium is an out-and-out aesthetic disaster.

The new connecting structure is merely bad 1960s architecture, something already half-a-century out-of-date by the time it was designed. I predict the wrecking ball will be called in within twenty or thirty years.

It is somehow fitting that the name Cowles is attached to this less-than-pleasing array of buildings. Over the years, I have observed, as a general rule, that people begin to snort and roll their eyes whenever the name John Cowles, Jr., is mentioned. Cowles, not a man of impeccable reputation, was a bit of a gadfly and a bit of a scoundrel and a bit of a loon. He came perilously close to destroying the Minneapolis Star-Tribune before a reluctant Board Of Directors intervened and discharged him. Even though his views, on any subject, were considered by no one to be penetrating or thoughtful, Cowles interjected himself for decades into virtually every public activity and public controversy in the State Of Minnesota. The man was incapable of embarrassment: late in life, Cowles joined a modern dance troupe and began doing nude scenes—which I am very much pleased I missed. When Cowles died, local obituary writers had a field day, there being so much delicious material from which to draw.

MOMIX’s current piece is “Botanica”, unveiled in January 2009. It is an examination of nature, plant life and changing seasons, and has not enjoyed the success of MOMIX’s “Opus Cactus” (which I have seen, and rather liked) and MOMIX’s “Baseball” (which I have not seen, and would like to).

“Botanica” received withering notices when first performed—both reviews in The New York Times were notably cruel—and creator Moses Pendleton has since cut more than a quarter of the work. “Botanica”, once two hours in length, now comes in at ninety minutes—but one cannot help but notice, even for the truncated version of the work, that the words “pablum” and “shtick” keep cropping up in critical notices all over the country.

Pendleton’s work is sometimes cute and sometimes clever, but an entire evening of his work is not fulfilling. Pendleton’s work is rooted, not in modern dance, but in Vaudeville. Pendleton is a creator of illusionist skits in which costumes and props—and plots and gimmicks—are of far greater importance than dance. What Pendleton does is no different than the work of skit-writers from early television: the creation of jokey five-minute interludes. Seeing fifteen jokey five-minute interludes in succession quickly becomes tiresome.

Pendleton uses music in his work, but Pendleton’s use of music is mood-setting, like television background music, and not connected to dance. Pendleton most often uses New Age Music—and most of “Botanica” was performed to New Age Music (with nature sounds thrown in). The selections were gruesome.

Minneapolis has a very weird audience for dance. The local audience ate up “Botanica”. There were three well-sold and well-received performances. Local audiences, chilly to George Balanchine ballets, go wild for pig slop.

In another week, Pilobolus (Pendleton’s former company) will appear in Saint Paul.

I don’t think we can take a second Vaudeville presentation in such quick succession to the first.

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