Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.
Paramodernities by Netta Yerushalmy is a multidisciplinary performance that combines dance and scholarly texts read live on stage. Yerushalmy and a cast of twenty dancers and scholars, ranging in age from twenty to sixty-eight, perform deconstructed installments from Vaslav Nijinsky’s Le sacre du printemps (1913); Martha Graham’s Night Journey (1947); Alvin Ailey’s Revelations (1960); a mix of Merce Cunningham’s works including RainForest, Sounddance, Points in Space, Beach Birds, and Ocean (1968–1994); dance numbers from the Bob Fosse film Sweet Charity (1969); and a response to George Balanchine’s Agon (1957) that includes none of the original choreography.
The performances are mesmerizing and jarring, familiar and odd all at once. As the scholars roam among the dancers, they theorize movement and gesture as it happens, allowing for the usual distinctions between theory and practice, speech and silence, and thought and action to collapse. Paramodernities is something entirely new, built upon the ruins of aesthetic practices that have become part of a modern vocabulary of expressive culture. I interviewed Netta Yerushalmy about dance, art, improvisation, and stillness.
Jack Halberstam Before we understand Paramodernities, maybe we need to understand the para. In Paramodernities, the para is described in terms of irregularity, assistance, adjacency. Para can refer to a stillness, as in paralysis, but it can also relate to a kind of rhetorical slipperiness. So, there’s both movement and stillness in the para. I’m interested in using the para to think about this relationship between language and gesture in your work.
Netta Yerushalmy I like that. I latched onto the para first and foremost by thinking about historical information as horizontal—basically saying no to the traditionally vertical narrative of dance history. As a dance person, I wanted to disrupt that chronology of “This person begot that one, and this is how we tell dance history.” I was more interested in seeing history as side-by-side legacies.
JH Or adjacencies. Would you say you’re eliminating historical chronology?
NY I’m considering these seminal works as modular pieces.
JH Paramodernities has six installments and for each installment there’s a script—a scholarly text—that’s being read aloud. And each installment presents and responds to a dance by a particular choreographer from Western dance history. What’s the relationship between the text and the dance?
NY There’s an unresolvable tension between gesture and language. Some people want dance or gesture to denote feeling or tell a story. Like, “I did this and he did that, and this is what happened.” In order to make that work, we’d have to establish a gestural grammar and organize language around movement. But that’s very limited. So for me, to bring critical texts together with dance onto the stage was about highlighting the tension between language and movement and then seeing and feeling that they really can’t do the same thing.
JH Dance is its own language. As you say, it’s not a substitute for narrative. In fact, when you disarticulate dance from narrativity, other forms of storytelling become possible. The story that unfolds through a set of bodily gestures is never a conventional narrative.
NY And if we have to use these words—then what is the drama, or the narrative, of these physical shapes, these idioms, these expressive modes in the body? What do they do, if anything? Sometimes they do things insofar as they’ve become part of a culture. People recognize them because they refer to other things, they have circulated. But then, dance is so marginalized in society that I have to wonder whether these physical forms are charged with the same meaning for the larger population.
JH What makes you say dance is marginalized?
NY I did this Paramodernities project wanting to say, “Can somebody like Jack Halberstam please think about life using dance as well?” Because I felt that wasn’t happening. Plenty of people think about visual art and literature as part of a larger cultural discourse, but they don’t mobilize their thinking through dance. Dance is systematically marginalized both as a form of knowing and as a field worth turning attention to.
JH Of course, choreographers like Merce Cunningham wanted to merge everyday movement and dance, and not have dance be this rarefied art form—although it’s debatable whether that’s how one experiences his work.
Let’s talk about The Rite of Spring, the first installment of Paramodernities, which responds to Le Sacre du printemps (1913), choreographed by Nijinsky. I’ve been reading a lot about this particular Ballets Russes performance, wanting to understand where those movements came from. Most books historicize The Rite of Spring and the mythos of the riot in the theater. But what’s interesting to me are the queer relationships behind the production. Nijinsky was working with Stravinsky, and there was a whole set of queer men from the Parisian scene behind that. I’m trying to read the ballet as a queer production on the one hand, and on the other as a breaking of classical ballet and as the inauguration of modernity through this broken ballet.
I know that you notated some movements from the Joffrey Ballet reconstruction from 1987, and recombined them in a random way. What made Nijinsky’s choreography so different from what came before and after?
NY That’s a good question. If you think in a binary kind of way: In classical ballet the legs are turned out, and Nijinsky turned them in. Classical ballet reaches up, while Nijinsky went down. But we don’t know what his original dance actually looked like. That sense of not knowing was where my whole project started from. I had a taste of deliciousness on my tongue when I set about learning the dance from the video of the Joffrey Ballet’s reconstruction. These movements felt really interesting to my body, but I knew I couldn’t know them.
JH They are awkward.
NY I love awkward and I loved filling in the gaps. Because the reconstruction was done with classical ballet dancers, the movements in the video are hyper-articulate and clear—these really etched, angular, almost hieroglyphic bodies. We know the 1913 Ballets Russes performance caused a riot, and people sensed a kind of breaking with classical dance. And it does indeed seem like a special moment for dance, given what the accounts from 1913 indicate Nijinsky did with dancing bodies. But I had to work with not knowing, and I latched onto the unfamiliarity of the movements. That’s why it was so delicious, you know?
JHThe Rite of Spring is very hard on the body too, right? I mean, when you see Pina Bausch’s version, the dancers are so exhausted at the end; sweat pours off their bodies.
NY Well, because the virgin has to dance herself to death.
JH Yes, but there’s also so much jumping, and the body gives out by the time of the final sequence. Of course the virgin has to die, but in the process, so does everybody else on some level.
NY Interesting. I extracted all the movement sequences directly from the Joffrey video. I broke them up into what I call “movement-units”: a jump, a gesture, a short series of weight shifts, or whatever seemed to me like a “thing.” Then I assigned a musical notation symbol to each movement-unit. This assignment was totally arbitrary. I don’t read music. The jumps turned up in a lot of notes, resulting in a ton of jumping in my sequence. So, I didn’t decide to do this jumping insanity; it just happened through the method.
JH The script makes the link between the disciplining of the body that ballet entails and the sacrifice the dancer makes for this art. It literally breaks the body—which may have been one of the reference points for Nijinsky, who was also suffering from a broken mind at the time. Performing that ballet is like running a marathon. You push your body past the point that it should go.
NY Yeah. In this particular installment of Paramodernities, there’s also a struggle between the seated speaker onstage and the performer who’s going through this punishing physical sequence and who “wins.” In the end, the dancer is kind of broken and exhausted, but there is a sense of triumph. I don’t even know if that makes sense.
When I used to dance it, I’d feel like I was louder and stronger than the words, stronger than this guy sitting there philosophizing. I’m catching your eye more. So I felt empowered. I guess I’m also addicted to pain and exhaustion.
JH Right, which goes with the idea of dance as sacrifice. To dance, you have to agree to be broken; you have to become addicted to pain.
NY In some way. But it’s a back and forth, a kind of dialectic: at the same moment something seems to be taken away from you, you’re also gaining something.
JH Which, I guess, is also the narrative of contemporary movies about ballet like Black Swan. The popular film and the classic ballet end up telling the same story: the dancer must be broken for the dance to emerge.
Stravinsky said he was just the vessel through which the Sacre emerged. In Paramodernities you definitely feel that the dancers are vectors for a larger expression—either through scripted movement or improvisation.
NY The only unscripted part in the entire four-hour piece is in the live banter between the two dancers in Paramodernities #4 [Cunningham], but movement-wise the whole project is notated in direct—you could say mimetic—relationship to the originals. Paramodernities #6 [Balanchine] was messed up because the Balanchine Trust filed a cease-and-desist against me after an ugly back and forth. It would have been a worthy cause to push back on their copyright claims because my work was so clearly transforming the movement into something other, and quoting is such a common practice in scholarly work, which is what I see my project as. But I decided I could not stomach the stress of a legal battle, so I made up fake Balanchine steps! I was sort of choreographing alongside the original. So if the original was this sequence of steps, how would I dance next to it? Similar enough to resemble but not close enough to be sued.
JH Right, it’s a para again.
NY Exactly. It’s proximity. I’m walking alongside Balanchine, but do not touch. (laughter)
JH How do you walk alongside a text and not touch it? When does something become cultural appropriation? When is it mimicry? When is it something new?
NY I mean, yes, there’s appropriation here, but it’s repositioning and recontextualizing. That’s what I thought I was doing, but there isn’t always agreement about that. Obviously, people in dance are taking from each other all the time. We share our legacies—that’s the point of the Paramodernities project. There are these famous dances that are elevated and protected by institutions, trusts, and codified techniques. But we’ve integrated them, and they circulate not only in our visual memory, but also in our bodies as dancers. In what way do we own these dances? How is a movement mine? Or how is this dancing me, and not me? These were the seed questions for the project.
JH When we are watching Paramodernities, we are only able to access the so-called original dances through your complex restaging. You force us to watch the dance anew and through the history of its reception. The ballet is original and reperformed; it is both by the great modern artist and now attached to you; it is an homage and a deconstruction.
NY That’s very true. We all participate as a collective. Nothing new just sparks from one genius mind. However, having those famous names attached to Paramodernities gives the work a certain power. It probably helped to get funding, to get people willing to take risks with the project, and to attract a crowd and all that. The project is a weird hybrid, and it’s hard to swallow for some people. But yes, that power is undeniable, and it did feel icky to me. I would ask myself, Am I really going to utter those names again, turning your attention toward the past, saying, again, that they are geniuses?
JH I feel like what you’re doing is an incorporating gesture. You’re like, I can’t deny this archive, but I’m not going to simply reproduce it. I’m doing but also undoing it. Paramodernities seems very much like an unraveling.
NY From the beginning, I’ve said that this work is about reverence and violence at the same time. So there’s an undoing for sure.
JH The third installment in Paramodernities is titled Revelations: The Afterlives of Slavery, and it reflects on Alvin Ailey. To me, it felt very different from the other pieces. One might approach Nijinksy or Cunningham, and certainly Balanchine, with both reverence and violence, seeking to pull the most amazing gestures from these works, while also undermining their authority. That wasn’t necessarily your attitude toward Ailey, which felt more like an homage. Also, Thomas F. DeFrantz’s presence as both a dancer and a theorist was very different because he seemed as much a part of the dance as apart from it. Ailey’s black dance doesn’t sit comfortably within the white modernist canon, and the text you paired with it doesn’t sit comfortably either.
NY Indeed. For me, it was obvious that Ailey’s piece Revelations had to be part of my project. Ailey, when he was alive, would have liked to be considered among the ranks of Balanchine and Graham, but he wasn’t, because not only was his work “black,” it was also deemed “too commercial,” “too crowd-pleasing,” whatever ways people found to undermine its value.
When Tommy came on board, he had already thought a lot about this particular dance and the issues he wanted to bring to the table: slavery as constituting modernism and tying that into questions of coercion in dance like, “Is the modern dancing body actually free?” Also pointing to what Revelations has done and can do for black and queer presences in dance. A lot of what he’s talking about is hyper-relevant and potent today. And obviously deeply important. The delicacy that this work required was very clear to me because Ailey and his dancers are icons. When Revelations is performed today, it’s still sacred. It continues to change lives and offer hope. It’s not a historical artifact. It’s alive in the present.
JH In my queer performance class, we did a week on queer dance where we read Tommy DeFrantz’s work but we also read an amazing essay by the scholar Autumn Womack titled “Object Lesson(s),” in which she describes a spontaneous dance performance by Lavinia Baker in 1899. Baker was a “survivor of mob violence and star of an anti-lynching performance revue” in which white abolitionists performed songs and Baker was simply supposed to stand by as an “object lesson.” But on one occasion, before the revue began, she began to dance spontaneously.
Womack makes the argument that the dance is the anti-lynching campaign. And the white discourse is an attempt to still that body, which then bears some grotesque resemblance to the stilling that goes on in the lynching itself. The black bodies are only there as examples of people who have been subject to this violence. They are not to speak, they are not to—
NY They are definitely not to dance.
JH Yeah, and the dance is spontaneous, almost like speaking in tongues. This dance is performed completely outside of conventional dance history and within a different understanding of body, gesture, political will, and so on. To me, it feels like the Paramodernities installment on Ailey has to be placed in relationship to that kind of history.
NY Interesting. What is clear in Revelations is that there’s ballet, and [Lester] Horton, Graham, and Haitian dance techniques are woven throughout it. Of course, there was a lot new there in terms of embodied cultures and history, but the bulk of the dancing is pushing toward the Western way, the hegemonic, codified way of dancing. Or maybe that’s just what my eye can detect.
JH Let’s talk about sexuality and dance—and I don’t mean just sexual identity. In the Bob Fosse section of Paramodernities, the historian Julia Foulkes talks about Fosse’s habit of having sex with his dancers because he said he needed to know how to choreograph for that body, and he could only do that once he knew that body sexually. Having sex with the teacher is probably only one of many examples of the abuse of dancers by teachers—after all, dancers are also regularly told to lose weight or go up en-pointe even with a broken toe. At the New York City Ballet, what’s been a long-standing, sexually charged dynamic is now revealed as potentially abusive, when, of course, as we were saying earlier, dance training is abuse. In your production of Paramodernities, how did you imagine the constellations of pleasurable and damaging sexual dynamics at play in dance?
NY I thought about sex mostly with Graham, who is the only female in my little group of dance icons. I started thinking about the contraction—Graham’s quintessential movement where you strongly contract your lower abdomen and pelvic muscles and curve your spine by drawing your navel back—and how that takes the form of a female orgasm and/or violence toward the reproductive organs. At least that was my own physical experience when I tried to learn to do the contraction. I mean, the Graham people might say, “What are you talking about? You don’t know how to do a contraction.” And they are right. Though I studied Graham technique as a teenager, when I researched Graham’s movement for Paramodernities I realized I didn’t have any lingering memory of instructions from teachers about how to do a contraction. And this was fine since I was actually interested in finding my way to the movement through obsessively watching it on video. I think she was really in touch with her body and with her sexuality.
JH With Fosse, so much is about a face in the hands, which almost feels like a cheap gesture, compared to the hard-won gestures that come out of contractions, inflections, and stretching. But I’m still taken with that idea, however offensive it may be, that in order to create choreography for a body you need to know it. Sex is a way of knowing that Fosse valued. And of course, it’s so easy, now especially, to just read into that the shitty narrative about bedding your principal dancer and then discarding her for the next one.
JH And yet, what is that knowing that is sex? What about the intimate care Balanchine had for Tanaquil Le Clercq, his fourth wife? He created a choreography around her illness. The intimacy of that is so interesting to me. It’s a narrative we’re uncomfortable with when it’s Fosse creating movements for dancers he’s bedded. But I’m not sure I want to dismiss it completely.
NY We’re comfortable with Graham creating these phallic leg extensions for the male dancers.
JH With her, everything was about bringing the emotion out. But the contraction is actually an unusual gesture in Graham’s repertoire because it’s also a withdrawal.
The body is pulling into itself as opposed to giving. Your piece brought out this other, almost shadow narrative that’s got quite a tragic feel to it. And that’s the other side to romance really.
NY Yes. Thank you for that. It’s useful to think through this.
In my constellation of working with dancers, often the last thing that’s in the room is sex. I mean, I’ve danced with other dancers and felt the generative power of sexual tension, or sexuality in a room. So far, in the works I’ve created, sexuality is just woven into how I perceive a dancer’s unique energy. I would be interested in making a dance with somebody I’ve slept with. But it hasn’t happened yet. I think through dancing we always exert some form of sexual energy. What we do with our bodies has to do with vulnerability, power, sensation—
NY The sensation you feel in relationship to gravity and to other people. I mean, it’s a body. Period.
JH Dance is a nonlinguistic expression, and expression partly takes the form of the sexual—without being sex. The ways that bodies wrap around each other might indicate or gesture toward the queerness embedded in dance. Modern dance arranges bodies in unusual ways where the sparks are sort of unpredictable. As opposed to conventional ballet arrangements, where you have bodies that do the lifting and bodies that must be lifted. And the schema for that is male and female.
JH I thought Paramodernities was a very sexy performance. I guess that’s what I’m getting at.
JH You were willing to gradually—sometimes in great ruptures—unleash a desiring presence.
NY Thank you. It was also about casting and inviting these particular individuals, the dancers and scholars, into a permissible creative space; sort of saying, I would love for you to work on this with me, but you just bring you. You’re going to be the author of your relationship to these dances and to these essays and to my vision. So there’s a lot of authorship and agency there. And if you work with a bunch of mature, sophisticated people, there’s probably some access to their sexuality.
JH The installment about Balanchine (Paramodernities #6) gave incredible insight into the tensions around disability, mobility, and disarticulation in dance.
NY At some point in the development of Paramodernities, it became clear that I had to activate the discourse around disability. The installments that deal with Cunningham and Balanchine had not been made yet. Because these works’ vocabularies center on upright virtuosity, it felt like “fancy dancing,” dancing that involves ballet physicality and is tied to ballet history, its hegemonic power and aura. So I strongly felt that disability had to come in to disrupt this self-satisfied uprightness.
When looking for a scholar to work with on the Balanchine installment, I specifically tried to find someone from the field of disability studies. And I came upon Mara Mills. In her research for the project she found this story about Balanchine’s muse-ballerina-turned-wife Le Clercq, who contracted polio and became paralyzed from the waist down. Balanchine spent a year with her at a renowned whites-only rehabilitation center in Georgia. I had known about Le Clercq having polio, but I didn’t know anything further. Mara found these links between Balanchine doing the therapeutic and rehabilitative exercises with Le Clercq during this year and the choreography he created immediately after returning from Georgia. So there’s a thesis here about the duet choreography in Agon being inflected by disability. Mara chose to highlight this in her text and also to talk about race relations.
JH Right. I mean it was all very Jordan Peele, Get Out—ailing white bodies and black bodied servants.
NY Yes. It’s always chilling to me. You know, there are people who’ll say, “Well, that duet is only one part of Agon and there’s a lot to Agon as a whole that has nothing to do with rehabilitative practices.” But we wanted to highlight a discourse on disability and change the angle from which to look at this particular work.
JH You were able to find these darker recesses in Agon. I mean, who thinks about Balanchine in this context? But after seeing your piece, who can think about it separately? As you say, it’s putting virtuosity and disability side by side as joint discourses in a culture that willfully refuses to acknowledge disability and desperately invests in these extra able-bodied fantasies.
NY Totally. In her essay Mara asks, “When does a limp become a step or a turn out?” The question implies wonderment about a body that may be organized differently, that clearly has a movement logic, but you may not have the familiar codes to track its movement pathways.
JH Are there other artists whose work interests you in particular?
I thought about Okwui Okpokwasili’s Bronx Gothic, where she takes trembling (also an important gesture in The Rite of Spring) and makes it into a primary dance grammar. Her trembling body became a commentary on unstable foundations, black aesthetic practices, and bodily unraveling.
NY I sadly did not see Bronx Gothic, although I’ve heard about it. Okwui shaking might be in relationship to a different cultural history and set of methods. I mean, there are many practices people pursue to have their body in conversation with itself, with raw expression, and with emotional states. These practices often have nothing to do with the codified techniques of Western modern dance.
JH The Western canon is the scaffolding for the structures of power within which we find ourselves. It becomes visible when you see the dance—or invisible when the dance occludes its own training. Audiences only see the en-pointe or the leap or the lifted leg. What we do not see is the often violent training that makes such gestures possible. The training punishes the body and makes seemingly impossible movements possible. That seems to be part of the tension you’re exploring in Paramodernities.
NY Totally. It’s about having more possibilities. For me, having not grown up in this country has something to do with it. I wasn’t really indoctrinated with classical Western ballet. I had a pretty free training and upbringing in Israel and didn’t come to this project with the baggage of needing to say no to these modern dance forefathers and cut them up into pieces. But I said no to the notion of the vertical replication and hierarchies. Hence, Paramodernities.
JH Is it a stretch to talk about a Jewish relationship to dance?
NY Israeli dance is totally informed by the Western canon. But I happened to be lucky in that my particular teachers were sort of hippies. I didn’t have the rigid “be skinny, wear tights, do these shapes” kind of upbringing. I had some of it, but it was very lenient, and much more about creativity and authenticity.
JH In the Paramodernities script, there’s much about place and topos—about topography, choreography, and chora. Israel at this point represents a struggle over space, imperialism and colonial relations to space. To me it feels like there is a deep relationship to some of the themes you’re exploring in dance and in placed-ness that must, even unconsciously, be informed by the extremely treacherous political scene that is Israel.
NY I had never thought about that in relation to Paramodernities. I always think about New York City as the place because that’s where these dances were made. I’m trying to disassociate from my Israeli identity because politically it’s a mess, and also because people in the dance world here have forced incorrect aesthetic assumptions on my work. I am not in the “Israeli dance” camp. Artistically, my work is actually not really in dialogue with work that germinates there. But I am sure there is a truth to your observation. I want to think about it more.
JH In the script, in the part about topos versus chora, the philosopher David Kishik basically asks: What is the place that dance creates? I think that’s a very interesting question. These choreographies literally create their own space and connect to global questions about struggles over space, movement, and mobility. I felt that Paramodernities is connected to some of the most urgent questions we face today. The recreation of The Rite of Spring conjures environmental decline on some level, but also immigration and refugees as it brings up questions about mobile versus static bodies.
NY I think the moment you’re dealing with bodies in motion, it’s a fertile place for all of these realities. That’s one way of thinking through dance.
JH We’re not a bodied culture, especially in the West.
NY You do have a body, you know that?
JH (laughter) I think dance can offer a lot, but it’s often lost.
NY Exactly. Lost.
JH This sort of pulls us right back to where we began, which is this relationship between text and movement.
NY Yeah, I was going to say.
JH Discourse can easily overwhelm other silent languages. All these bodies in motion gesturing silently to each other. But coming back to your work, I think there is a doomed relationship between text and dance. When watching Paramodernities, one is completely absorbed by the movement and doesn’t pay attention to the text being read. After reading the text separately, I was like, “Oh my God, I missed all of this?”
NY It depends on the viewer. We have had academic audience members, for example, who said, “I couldn’t watch the dancing, but I got the text.” Others said, “I have to read that. Please send the texts to me because I was unable to listen.” And you know that I’m married to an academic.
JH Your husband wrote and performed the Nijinsky text, right?
NY Yes. So basically this friction between moving bodies and spoken ideas, it’s a kind of couple’s therapy.
JH (laughter) Exactly.
NY I’m joking but also not.
Jack Halberstam is a professor of gender studies and English at Columbia University and the author of Trans* (University of California Press, 2017), Skin Shows: Gothic Horror and the Technology of Monsters, Female Masculinity, In A Queer Time and Place, The Queer Art of Failure, and Gaga Feminism: Sex, Gender, and the End of Normal. Halberstam is a founding member of the Bully Bloggers “queer word art group” (2009–18) and is currently working on a book titled WILD THINGS.
Paramodernities #1–6 is streaming May 4–9 at 3–4 PM ET. Performances will be followed by a live discussion with special guests Jack Halberstam, Tracy K. Smith, Fred Moten, Jeremy O. Harris, and Peter N. Miller.
Originally published in
Our spring issue features interviews with Chitra Ganesh, Tania Cypriano, Charles Atlas, Netta Yerushalmy, Vi Khi Nao, Amani Al-Thuwaini, Andrea Hasler, and Bruce Boone, as well as fiction from Verónica Gerber Bicecci, Justin Taylor, Rebecca Dinerstein Knight, and Lee Relvas, and poetry from Shuzo Takiguchi and Bruce Boone.
Where on the spectrum of loyalty and betrayal does song begin? And where does it end? I think each writer has to decide this over and over.