Saturday, April 22, 2017

Ballet Hispánico Brings a New Norm

Línea Recta. Photo: Paula Lobo
A number of mid-sized ballet companies exist in the US, and even in New York alone, but Ballet Hispánico stands out for its dedicated focus on the work of Hispanic artists and themes. The program at the Joyce through this weekend is also remarkable as all three choreographers are women, a refreshing change. Each of the three works that comprise the evening are quite distinct in form and content.

Annabelle Lopez Ochoa, who created Línea Recta, was in the news last fall for her intriguing commission for New York City Ballet, Unframed. The dance for Ballet Hispánico takes as a foundation the style and attitude of flamenco. A barefoot Melissa Fernandez wears a red dress with lace bodice and a long, narrow, flounced train that whips and winds around her limbs; four men, bare-chested, wear high-waisted red pants and red socks. Without the heeled, leather soled shoes typical of the genre, the stamping is more attitude than striking force, but there are plenty of gravity-bound deep pliés to convey an earthbound feel. Fernandez dances a duet in which she chafes and strains against the embrace of her partner. She's joined by three women; they all wear shorter versions of the original dress. Eric Vaarzon Morel wrote the original guitar compositions, which move through an array of emotions. The dance captures the general flavor of flamenco in a modern vehicle. 
Con Brazos Abiertos. Photo: Paula Lobo
Michelle Manzanales' Con Brazos Abiertos ("With Open Arms," made with artistic collaboration by Ray Doñes) is a high-spirited take on growing up as a Mexican in Texas. Manzales is the director of BH's school of dance. The costumes, by Diana Ruettiger, feature flattering white halter tops to which were added high-waisted lurex pants, and finally flouncy circle skirts for both the women and men. The score is a playlist of charming ballads in Spanish, spoken word (including a joke about Mexicans taking Spanish and getting Bs), and even a cover of Radiohead's "Creep." In one section, everyone wears large sombreros which hide their faces from the audience, raising the idea of group identity, or the lack of an individual one. It pays homage to Mexican tropes with tongue firmly planted, refreshingly, in cheek. 
3. Catorce Dieciséis. Photo: Paula Lobo
The program ended with 3. Catorce Dieciséis, Spanish for the numerical equivalent of pi. Choreographed by Tania Pérez-Salas, it is a study of kinetic patterns and shapes, danced to a medley, with an emphasis on early music. The style feels similar to a number of post-classical choreographers working today, if perhaps a bit less fluid syntactically. Tossed leg extensions and hyper-extended torsos and arms are used frequently. One hallmark was to creative passages of movement that move perpendicular to the audience, rather than the typical, dramatically effective diagonal or lateral crossing. But it was a taste of global contemporary ballet to cap an all-female creator program remarkable for being, in a sense, all in due course. 

Saturday, April 15, 2017

Scottish Ballet Debuts with Flair

Ten Poems. Photo: Andy Ross
The Scottish Ballet showed its artistic breadth and technical fortitude in a program of three diverse dances at the Joyce. It is Scotland's national company, begun in 1969, and is led by artistic director Christopher Hampson, who contributed Sinfonietta Giocosa to the program. This crisply structured neoclassical ballet, bookended by a tableau of two taut columns of dancers, is full of virtuosic leaps and turns. It's a work with great dynamic flair to match the music by Bohuslav Martinu.  

The highlight of the slate was its closer, Ten Poems, to said poetry by Dylan Thomas read on a recording by actor Richard Burton. It sounds somewhat dry at the outset, but Christopher Bruce's occasionally mimetic gestural movement ebbs and flows gracefully with the text's lyrical phrasing. He mines the emotion of the poetry without being too literal; rectitude might translate as upright posture and right-angled arms, childlike joy by jaunty, darting leaps. While there is no outright narrative, as each section is performed one or more new characters are introduced, culminating in a ensemble section. Marian Bruce designed the nostalgic streetwear costumes.

Sophie Martin and Victor Zarallo in Bryan Arias' "Motion of Displacement." Photo by Andy Ross.

Bryan Arias choreographed Motion of Displacement, a contemporary take on ballet that shows possible influences from Complexions and NDT, where he has danced; he currently is a member of Crystal Pite's Kidd Pivot. The dancers pose downstage, each in a varied shape but touching one another, and energy snakes through them. Shapes morph from curvilinear to angular, everything feels pushed and extruded, attenuated. A tall woman pairs with a shorter man; the rest watch, indifferently shifting their weight from leg to leg. Body parts are isolated, and they change levels from planks on the floor to strongly resisting gravity in pulled-up attitudes. They all start by wearing socks (thanks, Mr. Forsythe, who seems to be another influence); some women don toe shoes for duets. Arias also designed the handsome costumes: white tops with pale grey trousers, sometimes removed. While one can admire the strength and fluidity of the dancers, the piece, while full of style and formal ideas, felt emotionally bereft, particularly in light of Ten Poems.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

New York Notebook

Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Cheryl Mann
How much fiddling can a stalwart ballet like Romeo & Juliet take? Turns out, quite a bit. In Krzysztof Pastor’s 2008 production, presented by the Joyce Foundation at the Koch Theater recently, the action takes place in three eras over the last century to underscore how history repeats itself. It’s an intriguing premise that mostly succeeds, supported by the designs by Tatyana Van Walsum and the sturdy Prokofiev score.

Pastor’s style of ballet tends toward expressionistic, with clean lines, twisting torsos, and limbs pulling in opposition. It’s most effective in the meaty group scenes featuring warring factions or ballroom dances. The character of Romeo (Alberto Velazquez) felt slightly undersketched; he came across as callow, rather than a soul-sick poet. Juliet (Amanda Assucena) was portrayed as bold and stronger than the traditional character of a child-woman. The role of Paris is greatly diminished in this version; at one point several men have a sort of speed dating meet-up with Juliet, who winds up with one, but it's more a metaphor of the dominance of the authoritarian ruling party than individual choice. For the balcony duet, Juliet is cleverly suspended above the stage in a small elevator, which lowers her to the ground to dance with Romeo. The level of technique is honed, with dynamic performances given by Derrick Agnoletti (Mercutio) and Edson Barbosa (Tybalt). 

Christine Rocas & Rory Hohenstein in Romeo & Juliet. Photo: Cheryl Mann
The overall metaphor of the effects of war is at times depicted as taking place between authoritarian figures—the ruling family and attendant police—and the people, as in the 1930s setting. In the first act, the differing dark vs. light costumes clearly distinguish the factions until the ball, where everyone wears black and white except the lead couple. They wear pale blue in every act; Juliet a camisole dress with a short skirt; Romeo a jacket over shirt and pants, reminiscent of terrible prom tuxes. In the final act, Juliet wears lingerie—an ill-fitting camisole and shorts, and Romeo cheap-looking shirtsleeves. The costumes undermined the stage power of the romantic couple, to a distracting extent.

In the act set in the 1950s, the palette becomes red and black, the background imagery full of Vespas. A window colonnade separates the inside from outside; people pass by the windows as fleeting shadows. The scene in the 1990s is set in Juliet’s room, now a sleek apartment building. Clever sculptural panels descend and rise to give texture to the austere basic set. Unfortunately, by lying in front of her, Romeo obscured Juliet from view in the death scene, which could be prevented. And after the first action-filled scenes, the finale dragged in pace. But overall, i
t was heartening to see that the Joffrey has flourished after departing New York for Chicago decades ago.

Anna Chirescu and Gianni Joseph in Place. Photo by Charlotte Audreau.

Cunningham via France

It seems almost cruel that the primary home for the choreography of Merce Cunningham is in Angers, France with the Compagnie CNDC under the guidance of longtime Cunningham dancer and steward Robert Swinston. After all, we in New York enjoyed the regular performances of Merce Cunningham Dance Company in its hometown over the course of his lifetime. But yearly visits by CNDC will help to assuage some of the emptiness from the disbanding of MCDC. 
(And Lyon Opera Ballet just performed Cunningham's Summerspace with Paul Taylor American Modern Dance.) 

The company recently brought to the Joyce three works of great variety. Inlets 2 (1983) is time-stamped by its pastel leotards of milliskin, very shiny lycra, designed by Mark Lancaster, who also lit it. The John Cage composition Inlets was played on sea shells, some giant conches, with water, making trickling and burbling sounds. The movement is one of Merce’s nature studies, mostly unhurried, or with quickened paces ebbing and flowing. Small groups move together and break apart amid the ice-hued lighting schemes. Legs cross and bend, like birds, but these organic postures are mixed in with the geometry of ballet.

Alexandre Tondolo and Adrien Mornet in How to Pass, Kick, Fall and RunPhoto: Charlotte Audreau
Place (1966) is far more dramatic. Gianni Joseph slowly, muscularly, strides centerstage into a pool of yellow light (Beverly Emmons, who also designed costumes and the wooden palette decor) and drops to a pinwheel. Several women wearing tinted plastic tunics join him, spinning rapidly and rocking in second position relévé, and then a few men wearing plain brown. Later, dancers enter one by one, fabricating a modulating tableau. Joseph slides two multi-sided lit orbs upstage, perhaps a kind of time tracker. A man carries a woman wound, front side out, around his torso like an expressive sculpture; she then lies face down, suspended on his thighs. There’s more lifting than in your average Cunningham dance—cruciforms, splits, and more. Joseph digs out a translucent plastic sack and, legs inside it, struggles across the stage.

For How to Kick, Pass, Fall and Run, two readers sit at a table, stage left, reciting short anecdotes about random topics. The dancers wear black tights, white stirrups, and bright tops. In this athletic dance, they bound, jump in x-shapes, twist, and leap full-out. Standing legs bent, they crisply développé the other leg to the side and front. The viewer’s attention is torn between understanding the speakers’ stories, and giving full regard to the movement. No doubt John Cage (who provided the text, Stories from Indeterminacy) was smiling as one of the spotlights in an upstage string of them blew, sparks showering onto the stage before those fixtures were turned off. Truly, anything can happen in live performance.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

2017 Whitney Biennial

Samara Golden, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, 2017. Photo: Susan Yung
The 2017 Whitney Biennial is the first edition to be held in the new building, which itself still feels more like news than the show itself. The museum's 2015 inaugural aspirational statement show on Gansevoort (America Is Hard to See) felt like a biennial, and probably helped to alleviate some of the pressure that builds up before each biennial. Mia Locks and Christopher Lew curated this edition, whose work was chosen prior to the 2016 election.

Biennials, by nature, are notoriously overstuffed. The most memorable works are often distinguished, for me, by scale or craft. The standouts in this show are the site-specific installations that make use of the vast window walls facing the Hudson River. Foremost among them are Samara Golden's Escheresque work, The Meat Grinder's Iron Clothes, comprising scale models of the offices or residences of several occupants of a multi-story building. Tenants include a treatment room (of an unspecified medical, dental or vanity service), a restaurant, an office, and more, all with breathtaking river views. By using mirrored panels and securing some of the units upside-down, the effect evokes that of an infinity mirror. It's both realistic and completely disorienting. (Curator Locks is publishing a book on Golden's work this spring.)

Raύl de Nieves, beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end, 2016. Photo: Susan Yung

Another work that takes cunning advantage of the glass and sunlight is beginning & the end neither & the otherwise betwixt & between the end is the beginning & the end by Raύl de Nieves. Using mundane media, de Nieves has crafted an impressive faux stained glass composition on the windows, which backgrounds beaded, knobby, vaguely monstrous sculptures and costumes, some of which de Nieves wears in performances. It's not exactly water into wine, but he does create the feeling of ecclesiastical opulence with simple materials. It occupies the lounge area behind the partial wall that provides shade to the galleries, where people check their phones while resting on the tasteful leather sofas.

Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel, Reflections, 2017
In a similar vein, in Reflections, Casey Gollan & Victoria Sobel adhered reverse cut-out vinyl text that appears in negative form on the adjacent wall. The text summons verbiage from the 1968 student strikes in Paris, which aimed to destabilize the university system.

In Root sequence. Mother tongue, Asad Raza arrayed 26 individually potted saplings in one of the galleries that leads to an outdoor exhibition space. The trees have been assigned personalities, scents, and/or traits. This indoor grove is clearly conducive to socializing, with groups of chatters standing amidst the installation as if the trees were guests at a cocktail party. 

Occupy Museums is an installation organizing the debts of 30 artists, with artifacts somewhat hokily embedded within the sheetrock walls of the galleries. Like the Occupy Wall Street movement from which it derives its name, it is meant to underscore economic disparity—in this case between debt-laden artists and the lending institutions which profit from the debt.  
Occupy Museums, Stress, Fear and Anxiety Bundle, 2015.
One of the oldest painters represented is Jo Baer (born 1929), whose unstretched, sparingly-marked canvases with a harmonious organic palette are a breath of fresh air. Other art world veterans include Lyle Ashton Harris, with an atmospheric video room installation, and Jon Kessler, who combines machinery and detritus into densely-packed sculptures. Of representational art and photography, the subject matter is predominantly, refreshingly, non-Caucasian. There are full rooms devoted to one artist's work; some puzzling, such as the grotesque, charred pastiches of KAYA; others check the pulse of painting, including Carrie Moyer Ulrike Müller, and Shara Hughes.

The fact that the work was made in a pre-Trump presidency time gives it an almost nostalgic feel, free from the overbearing story line that will most likely dominate work made in 2017 and after—the way 9/11 affected everything that came after. And there's no getting around the tension between the prominence of the disenfranchised in the subject matter and the expensive river views and surrounding glitz. Tis ever thus.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

An Angel, Feet Planted Firmly

Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks. Photo: Nir Arieli.
Since her 2014 retirement from New York City Ballet, Wendy Whelan has kept consistently busy exploring genres outside of the genre of classical ballet, which made her a beloved star there for decades. One of the first projects she pursued was Restless Creature (2013), in which four male choreographers created pieces with her. It was intriguing, but she was still a Ballerina, for whom to design reverential and mostly careful movement. One of those was Brian Brooks, and the two perform Some of a Thousand Words at the Joyce, a five-part work plus musical interlude, with live music (by five composers) played by the string quartet Brooklyn Rider.

From the outset of the evening, it's clear that Brooks has worked extensively with Whelan on neutralizing her innately lyrical line and comportment, which were honed and developed expansively over her 30 years with NYCB. At the start, the two walk slowly downstage. Of a similar height, wearing tank tops and pants, and with Whelan's hair pulled back tightly, they almost look like mirror images. The movement becomes bigger—deep second positions, pivots, tilting torsos, slashing arms. The phrases form a kind of serialism reminiscent of choreography by Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker or Lucinda Childs. In the next section, the pace quickens and the dancing is more darting and pond-skimming. Whelan has a solo that is sinuous, fluid, organic, lifting a pointed foot and snaking her body. 
Wendy Whelan and Brian Brooks. Photo: Nir Arieli.
Brooks brings two chairs onstage. They each stand atop a chair, and Whelan slowly tips to the side while Brooks stealthily rushes to catch her atop his shoulders. It's a fancy trust fall, and the timing is impressively synchronized. They sit on the chairs and tip to one side, evoking a kneeplay from Einstein on the Beach (more Childs). Still seated, they perform a passage of arms and upper body moves and poses that recall Brooks' Bolero, in which his dancers perform the entire work with their feet planted, using only their upper bodies. Brooks has always explored movement ideas like a mad scientist, taking an idea to its physical limits and sometimes beyond. 

It's hard not to watch Whelan, whose luminous presence and clarity of line have always distinguished her onstage, but actually Brooks draws the eye equally. His everyman appearance and humble bearing don't demand our attention, but he has a lush muscularity and physical intelligence, and creates movement that complements these factors. The final section, which incorporates parts of his duet for Restless Creatures, feels as if it was made early in their working relationship, when reverence for her illustrious ballet career was at a high. She comes across as more fragile, a falling angel now in white (her body in a cruciform, no less) to catch softly on his back time and again. It's good to have seen in earlier sections that their partnership has brought her back down to earth and alongside a partner who is inspired by her, and vice versa, feet planted firmly on the ground.   

Sunday, February 19, 2017

Dorrance/Van Young Transform the Guggenheim Into a Giant Instrument

Photo: Matthew Murphy
No other building in New York City can compare to Frank Lloyd Wright's Guggenheim. The spiral ramp that forms the rotunda may pose logistical problems when installing an exhibition, but who among us hasn't daydreamed of rolling from the top to the bottom on the ramp, ideally free of visitors? The museum is currently showing Visionaries: Creating a Modern Guggenheim, which is essentially a selection of core works elucidating the museum's mission, essentially the history of modern 20th century abstract art.
Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young. Photo: Matthew Murphy
Michelle Dorrance and Nicholas Van Young, plus her company, were given free rein on Feb 16 to turn the rotunda into a giant instrument, with the full-house audience as participants. Dorrance is known for her imaginative tap choreography, but here the company for the most part wore street shoes (at least I think that's what they were, as I watched at a distance from the top level). As Dorrance whacked a drum, dancers pushed boxes on the ground (that comprised platforms when assembled), tracing figure 8s, and slapping or stomping on them to create sounds. A pair lay on the floor and posed in various shapes which read clearly from on high.

The performers hit together red plastic sticks, and mock dueled one another. A trio stood mid-level and sang out into the atrium. They then ran down the ramp for a circuit, repositioned themselves against the railing, and sang again. Just below me, a team with longer plastic tubes whacked them against the railing in rhythmic patterns. 
Photo: Matthew Murphy

Van Young stood at the ground floor's center and conducted us, the audience, in alternating rounds of claps, varying in speed and pattern. It was remarkable how quickly people picked up what he was doing, and what we needed to do in response. He and Dorrance hit some spheres floating in the small pool (which I always forget is there), creating yet more types of sounds. Wooden platforms for tapping were dragged in, and the dancers carried their tap shoes out, laced them up, and made a cacaphonous barrage of reports which bounced around the rotunda. Dorrance's ingenuity emerged not only in the tap routine she performed solo, but in the simple yet effective section where most of the company marched in a looping line, each step resonating loudly.

The event is part of the Works & Process Rotunda Project, which intends to activate the main gallery space. Dorrance/Van Young certainly left no area unused, showing the potential of the iconic space when in the hands of visionary creators. The next work in the series will be in September by ABT principal Daniil Simkin. 

Thursday, February 16, 2017

Punch and Judy, Refreshed

Anne O’Donnell and Xin Ying in I used to love you. Photo: Brigid Pierce

Choreographer Annie-B Parson and her company Big Dance Theater have frequently used existing narratives and texts as bases for their varied repertory. In I used to love you, a premiere for Martha Graham Dance Company at the Joyce Theater, Parson has succeeded in acknowledging an oddity of Graham's repertory while creating an intriguing new entry. And the Graham company, under Janet Eilber's direction, continues to evolve smartly while embracing its rich history.

Parson conducted a "conversation" with Graham in I used to love you, using a film of Graham's 1941 comic dance drama Punch and Judy as a starting point. Parson skillfully deploys her wry wit and conceptual curiosity, enfolding scratchy clips of the original with other footage (video by Jeff Larson) to create something completely new. The Greek chorus, a standard feature in many Graham dances, comprises Anne O'Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, and Laurel Dalley Smith. They're the first thing we see—posed on the apron, strikingly costumed in Oana Botez's beautiful, hot-hued, pleated crinoline and floral dresses, a nod to Graham's focus on couture as an important production element. They each sit on a white rolling office task chair and hold mics with color-coordinated cords, fan kick their legs, and roll on their chairs casually while a drum roll (music by Tei Blow) sounds, raising the level of anticipation. 

Anne O’Donnell, Leslie Andrea Williams, Laurel Dalley Smith, and Xin Ying in I used to love you. Photo: Brigid Pierce

The choristers utter phrases that seem random while making bits of sense (text by Will Eno), referencing the moment (reciting the date) or an action (tapping the mic). Judy (Xin Ying) and Punch (Lorenzo Pagano) appear, bringing onstage a rolling cot and a portable film screen, which they set up. They dance as baggage-laden husband and wife, alternately beseeching and violent, and always intense, as the chorus moves downstage in slow motion, revolving on their chairs. Their daughter enters (So Young An); she's cradled by her mother, and then is partnered by her father as one of the corps describes the action as "virtuosic lifts, conveying complex emotions." It evokes an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000. (I must confess that at times I've wanted to similarly, and snarkily, narrate a war horse ballet like Swan Lake, just for fun.)

Ben Schultz then proceeds to steal Punch's affection. The two men strip off their shirts and perform a muscular acrobatic duet on the cot. There's a blackout, and we're informed that it represents the place where the original film broke. A stunning video of a giant moon appears on the backdrop. Judy dances a passionate solo filled with sweeping limbs and taut lines (Parson reinterpreted the original Graham choreography), and her face appears large onscreen. The kneeling chorus members pull their skirts over their heads and rock in a sort of physical keening as Judy hinges to the floor on her back. Martha's projected face looms over the drama, as the chorus moves to sit on the edge of the stage, their legs dangling. 

The February 14 program included works by Graham: Dark Meadow Suite (1946), an exercise in clear shapes and structures; the solo Ekstasis (1933), a snaky solo for PeiJu Chien-Pott; the bizarre, self-mocking Maple Leaf Rag (1990), plus Woodland by Pontus Lidberg, a work showing off his elegant, balletic phrasing.