Ceiling, Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery

Ceiling, Kogod Courtyard, National Portrait Gallery

We gathered under the floating glass and steel roof of the Kogod Courtyard. Encircled by the Portrait Gallery and the American Art Museum in Washington, DC, the courtyard, with its filtered light and lacey trees, is always magical. But on Saturday, November 16, it bloomed in a new way when the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Dance Company took to the floor to perform a new site-specific work, “Homage.”

Inspired by the show now on display, “Dancing the Dream,” the piece drew from the work of the greats of American dance: Katherine Dunham, Martha Graham, Alvin Ailey, and Bill T. Jones, to name just a few. The accompanying music drew from the show as well, and flowed into spoken commentary by dance sages: Merce and Martha, Bob Fosse, and others’ voices I didn’t recognize. No matter—the combination of music and spoken word blended well and reminded the audience that dancers are smart, and that dance is about ideas, emotion, and idiosyncratic expression as much as it is about supple, rigorously trained bodies.

Rehearsal, "Homage," at National Portrait Gallery, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company

Rehearsal, “Homage,” at National Portrait Gallery, Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company

But oh, those bodies! Burgess’s dancers are highly skilled performers of his fluid, organic, choreography. Theirs is a quiet strength, never flashy, but delivering the emotional depth and joy this piece demanded.

Opening with a bang and declaring right off the bat that the piece was to celebrate and explore the heart of what makes American dance American—a “regular guy” burst onto the stage in a blue shirt and bow tie. Dancing along to an exuberant “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” he was joined by eight dancers who performed duets, solos, and ensemble dances. Accompanied by classical music, blues, rock, Elvis, and possibly Shirley McLaine, the choreography suggested rather than mimicked the greats of Broadway, ballet, and modern dance. Love duets were particularly fresh and charming. The dancers moved in perfect unison even when dancing to the spoken word. They were counting in their heads, you knew that, but their rapt faces never betrayed anything other than the spontaneous joy of the dance.



Judy Hansen’s costumes were perfect. In a range of blues and blacks, they included a swingy ingénue dress, simple work-out clothes, and a jaunty Busby Berkeley-like culottes dress with a pale blue collar.

After the performance, “Dancing the Dream” beckoned from inside the Portrait Gallery. The show “tells the story of performers, choreographers, and impresarios who harnessed America’s diversity and dynamism into dance styles that defined the American experience,” through “experiment and lack of truck with the past.” Organized by rooms devoted to Pop, Ballet, Broadway, Hollywood, and Choreography, all painted in vivid colors–Chinese red, lime green, peacock blue, fuchsia, and a deep marigold–the show presents portraits of dance greats in all media: film, photography, drawings, paintings, posters, and video clips.

The photographs drew me most powerfully.

Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins (from "Chaconne"), by Max Waldman, 1976

Suzanne Farrell and Peter Martins (from “Chaconne”), by Max Waldman, 1976

Here are the sweetly paired Peter Martins and Balanchine muse Suzanne Farrell, by Max Waldman, 1976, accompanied by this quote from Martins: “. . . We were literally dancing the music. I felt like a violin.”

Michio Ito, pictured in an image by Nickolas Murray, 1921, has a fascinating story. He visited Paris in 1911 where he saw Isadora Duncan and the Diaghilev Company perform. Profoundly affected by this experience, he formed his own troupe and went to Hollywood in 1929. After Pearl Harbor he was interned, nay imprisoned, at a relocation camp in New Mexico until 1943 when he was repatriated to Japan in a prisoner of war exchange. After the war, he choreographed revues for the soldiers of the American occupation in Tokyo.

Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

Doris Humphrey, by Barbara Morgan, 1938

After studying at the pioneering Denishawn School, Doris Humphrey developed her own technique that emphasized breath, balance, “fall and recovery,” using weight and spatial orientation in new ways. She left the dance world her invention– “labanotation”–a system for recording dance which allows choreography to be passed along to future performers. Here she is, as photographed by Barbara Morgan in 1938.

Judith Jamison, upon taking over as head of the Alvin Ailey Company, said, “I don’t feel I’m standing in anyone’s shoes. I’m standing on Alvin’s shoulders.” This gorgeous image taken by Max Waldman in 1976, shows her own formidable shoulders and strong presence.

Judith Jamison

Judith Jamison, by Max Waldman, 1976

Gregory Hines, who raised tap dancing to a high art and believed it to be the true American dance form, started off performing as a child with his brother and father in “Hines, Hines and Dad.” I love this barefoot image by Robert Mapplethorpe taken in 1985.

Finally, the incomparable Bill T. Jones, as captured by Robert Mapplethorpe, again in 1985. Founder of a highly experimental dance company with Arne Zane in the 1970s, Jones used improvisation and an individual style to shape his works, among them Tony award winning “Fela!”

Gregory HInes, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

Gregory HInes, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

While I was delighted to see a portrait of our own Dana Tai Soon Burgess (Mary Noble Ours, 1978) I could have done without Beyonce’s video of “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” and sorely missed seeing an image of one of the most important modern dance pioneers, Erick Hawkins, my great teacher in New York.

Still, there is much to love here: the mind-blowing Nicholas Brothers leaping down stairs and landing in the splits, a campy Busby Berkeley water ballet, the irrepressible Josephine Baker in her banana skirt, John Travolta’s oddly robotic “Saturday Night Fever” disco performance, and much more. The footage from “Soul Train” juxtaposed against that from “Dance Party” speaks volumes.

Bill T. Jones, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

Bill T. Jones, by Robert Mapplethorpe, 1985

On view until July 13, 2014, this show is not to be missed if you’re a dance lover, or simply an appreciator of this wildly diverse and creative country we live in.

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To learn more about the Dana Tai Soon Burgess Company, please click here:





someone_elses_love_story_review_429_648Someone Else’s Love Story, the new novel by Joshilyn Jackson, a New York Times best-selling author, tells the story of Shandi Pierce, the college-age mother of a brilliant 3-year-old, Natty, and William Ashe, a hunky geneticist with a tragic past. When Shandi and William meet during a botched robbery at a Circle K convenience store outside of Atlanta, their lives are changed in dramatic and unexpected ways.

Shandi, along with her best friend, Wolcott, has packed up her VW, left her beautiful and devoutly Christian mother back in rural Lumpkin County, and headed for her Jewish father’s condo in Atlanta. Although the move is eminently practical — Shandi and Natty will be closer to the Georgia State campus where Shandi is a student — it feels to her mother like the ultimate betrayal. She and Shandi’s father are in bitter, if amusing, competition for their daughter’s love, not to mention her religious affiliation.

During the robbery, Shandi realizes she must abandon her fantasy that Natty’s was an immaculate conception but involved a real human, likely her rapist. As soon as Dr. Ashe recovers from his gunshot wound, she will enlist his help in tracking down her son’s biological father. Despite the recent loss of his toddler daughter, and, we’re led to believe, his wife, William Ashe is intrigued by Shandi’s dilemma and agrees to help.

Told in alternating chapters — Shandi’s in first person, William’s in third — the narrative is lively, fresh and often hilarious. Each voice is distinctly its own. Shandi’s is peppered with millennialisms: “The tests said my kid was rocking an IQ north of 140 … ” The liberal use of “effing,” “bring it,” “freakin’” and statements ending with question marks makes her an authentic, if at times annoying, 21-one year old. William’s more mature narrative is equally quirky, as we’re told that he’s an “Aspie” who has had to learn to navigate social situations and interpret emotional cues. He does not seem to notice, until his brash and thoroughly delightful friend Paula points it out, that Shandi has set out to seduce him. William and Shandi have best friends of the opposite sex: salty Paula and the endearing poet Walcott, “the sperm-donated product of a pair of lesbians.” Both are loyal protectors of their friends.

Although an entertaining romp, the novel keeps the reader in the dark well into the story regarding a crucial fact upon which the narrative depends for its forward momentum. Even William, from deep inside his own head, manages not to give it away. The reader may feel a twinge of betrayal at being misled, but with a satisfyingly sweet resolution, can forgive the author in the end.

Ms. Jackson takes on lofty themes — faith, friendship, love and loss, not to mention the odd miracle — and delivers them with a distinctive Southern twang, “Atlanta, straight up, with a twist of hick.” If you’re rocking a 20- to 30-something demographic, you’re likely to be drawn in, even charmed, by Shandi and her sidekicks. If you’re somewhat older, perhaps a fan of clean, spare writing, this is not the book for you.

Ellen Boyers Kwatnoski is the author of a novel, Still Life with Aftershocks, which was a semi-finalist in the 2012 Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Contest. She blogs about art, design and dance at http://ellenkwatnoski.com/ and lives in Alexandria, Va., with her husband, son and growing collection of mid-century ash trays.

This review was originally published by the Washington Independent Review of Books, a wonderful source of book reviews, author interviews, and much more for readers and writers alike. http://www.washingtonindependentreviewofbooks.com/


It’s not all stockyards and cowboys in Fort Worth.

It’s also Matisse and Picasso, Caravaggio and Monet, and Mondrian and Motherwell.

Vaulted Ceiling, Kimbell Museum of Art

Vaulted Ceiling, Kimbell Museum of Art

The Kimbell Art Museum grew from the Kimbell Art Foundation, founded by Kay and Velma Kimbell and their family in the 1930s.  In 1964, after Mr. Kimbell’s death, the family left the collection (and a substantial personal fortune) to the Foundation to establish a public art museum “of the first class” in Fort Worth. The aim of the museum was to showcase quality works from all eras—“any and all periods in man’s history, and in any medium or style.”

"L'Asie," Henri Matisse, 1946

“L’Asie,” Henri Matisse, 1946

The small collection (about 350 works of art) is housed in a vaulted building designed by Louis Kahn which opened to the public in 1972. Yes, that Louis Kahn, the brilliant mid-century architect whose double life was exposed and tenderly explored by his son, Nathaniel, in the gripping 2002 documentary, “My Architect.” The building itself is a treasure, beautifully detailed and giving a sense of the sacred. Kahn said that here “light is the theme.” Natural light comes through skylights along the top of the barrel vaults and warms the travertine marble walls and beautifully lights the paintings that hang on them. Construction is underway for a newly expanded space by renowned architect Renzo Piano.

After walking up the perfectly proportioned staircase from the lobby you are met by two gallery spaces. The permanent collection, which we’ll explore today—is on the left. Upon entering, you’re greeted by Matisse’s “L’Asie,” 1946. Accompanying the lush painting is this revealing quote: “I have always tried to hide my own effort and wanted my work to have the lightness and joyousness of a springtime which never lets anyone suspect the labors it has cost.” Good advice for any art form. As I labor over still more revisions to my novel, I hope my characters, their surroundings, and their observations on  life are as fresh and seemingly unworked as this lovely young woman’s image.

"Four Figures on a Step," by Murillo, 1655 - 60

“Four Figures on a Step,” by Murillo, 1655 – 60

Bartolome Esteban Murillo’s 1655 genre painting, “Four Figures on a Step,” grabs the viewer with the immediacy of a contemporary photo-realist work. You do a double-take. Is the woman wearing glasses Susan Sontag? Did they even have glasses in 1655? What’s up with the child and his bare bottom? What’s going on here? Apparently, quite a bit. Procuresses were commonly shown as a bespectacled, calculating business woman in Spanish art and literature of the day. The lifting of the veil is a common come-hither gesture and the frank lasciviousness of the boy on the left makes the viewer feel he’s enjoying our discomfiture. Realization dawns and you step back. That poor child! Still, the painting fascinates as does a Wee Gee photograph. You feel you’ve had an authentic, if appalling, glimpse of the underbelly of real life more than three hundred fifty years ago.

"Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbon," by Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun, 1781

“Self-Portrait with Cerise Ribbon,” by Elisabeth Louise Vigee le Brun, 1781 (Detail)

By comparison, Elisabeth Louise Vigee Le Brun’s 1781 “Self Portrait” is as refreshing as a palate-cleansing sorbet. You bask in her creamy skin, clear eyes, glossy hair and chic hat. Not to mention those gorgeous earrings. She has the confidence and directness befitting her status as a successful 27-year-old painter of nobility, including Marie Antoinette.

A short walk across the street will take you to “the Modern,” an equally stunning building designed by the Japanese architect, Tadeo Ando. Opened in 2002, with its floating glass pavilions, the Modern is a graceful companion to the venerable Kimbell. Chartered in 1892 as the Fort Worth Public Library and Art Gallery, the Modern is the oldest museum in Texas, and one of the oldest in the United States.

Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth

Museum of Modern Art, Fort Worth

Having recently visited Donald Judd’s Chinati Foundation in Marfa, TX, the Modern gave us another helping of the artists’ work we’d enjoyed there. Here’s the Donald himself in: “Untitled,” 1967, a stainless and orangey-pink Plexiglas creation. The ten units are hung equidistant from each other from floor to ceiling. The plexi glows against the white wall of the gallery, giving mysterious energy and presence to the simple totemic arrangement. Judd’s aim was to create “specific objects” that exist in harmony with their surroundings, rather than sculptures made to be seen in virtually any setting.

"Untitled," by Donald Judd, 1967

“Untitled,” by Donald Judd, 1967

Judd’s long-time collaborator, Dan Flavin, also rejected the notion that he was a minimalist or a sculptor. He’s been compared to Marcel Duchamp for his delight in using off-the-shelf-objects and placing them in such a way, as does Judd, that their settings inevitably become a part of the work. “Diagonal of May 25, 1963,” 1963 exemplifies this principal perfectly.

"Diagonal of May 25, 1963," 1963, by Dan Flavin

“Diagonal of May 25, 1963,” 1963, by Dan Flavin

The wall panel accompanying Carl Andre’s “Tau and Threshold (Elements Series),” 1971 tells us that he was inspired by Brancusi’s 1918 “Endless Column.” Frankly, for this viewer, it’s a bit of a stretch to see the connection. In Andre’s work, blocks of western red cedar are placed, much as a child would do with toy blocks, to form this piece. Resisting the temptation to think “my kid could do that,” I looked up a more extensive analysis of this work on the Modern’s website. Michael Auping tells us, “Andre devised the Element Series in the early 1960s with the suggestion that the same identical units could be used to create different configurations endlessly. . . .Tau and Threshold addresses the architectonic and figurative possibilities of sculptural form in a radically fundamental way.” Another definition of child’s play? Maybe…

"Tao and Threshold," 1971, by Carl Andre

“Tao and Threshold,” 1971, by Carl Andre

"Endless Column," 1918, Constantin Brancusi

“Endless Column,” 1918, Constantin Brancusi

After taking in the art, we repair to the lovely café for lunch. Outside on the deck, you float over the shallow pool filled with round rocks and feel a part of the art. And also pleasantly full, both of art and curried chicken salad. The perfect combination: good food and engrossing art.

What’s for dessert? The gift shop, of course!

The Modern’s website is an excellent resource for researching artists:


For information on the Kimbell go to: https://www.kimbellart.org/architecture/kahn-building