Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Royal Danish Ballet and the Joys of Bournonville

Ida Praetorius and Andreas Kaas in Flower Festival in Genzano. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
There is simply nothing like the choreography of August Bournonville. With so much amazing ballet in the city, it is still a rare treat to see lead dancers from the Royal Danish Ballet in a program of Bournonville excerpts at the Joyce. The repertory dates to the mid-19th century, yet feels timeless. Its breadth is represented here and includes a modern-feeling male duet of Jockey Dance to the glorious abundance of the folk-infused Napoli, Act III. The lack of sets may actually serve to let the dance emerge more clearly.

What defines this distinct style? Some thoughts: 
Susanne Grinder and Ulrik Birkkjaer in Napoli.
Photo: Costin Radu

  • The inventive phrasing which can change directions in the blink of an eye.
  • The thrilling musicality, which underscores the cursive flow of the dance phrasing.
  • Moments of stillness in contrast to great space-eating passages.
  • An entire section of grand allegro in which a man's feet barely touch the floor.
  • Details such as landing a jump with the arms held above the head with the palms facing outward rather than inward; or turn preparation from the second position rather than fourth; or landing a pirouette gently in a closed fifth position. 
  • There is such joy and life in the style, while it retains a consistent elegance and purity. This attitude is summed up in the signature leap, with the front leg straight, the trailing leg bent to form a split, and the arms spreading in front in a welcoming gesture.

The signature leap, shown by Alban Lendorf. Photo: Costin Radu
Ulrik Birkkjaer, a principal dancer who also organized the tour, exemplifies the company's style and aesthetic. In La Sylphide, kilt-clad, he leaps and slices across the stage like a laser beam, his ballon and precision astonishing—and effortless. All of the other 12 dancers on this ingenious bill gave charming, smart performances that deepened a love of the art form. This includes Sorella Englund, a former principal, now a character artist and ballet master, who performed the sorceress in La Sylphide and reminded us of the keen importance of gesture and acting. One single terrifying gesture of hers aimed at Birkkjaer seemed to drive him into the ground, and it certainly electrified us mortal viewers.

While the company, now led by NYCB alum Nikolai Hübbe, is uniquely prepared to perform Bournonville, even its skilled members encountered some difficulties, no doubt magnified by our close proximity to the stage. Wobbly balances, an occasional unpointed foot, indecisive finishes to pirouettes, a tendency to push a few degrees too hard to achieve more height... all reminders that very few other companies could undertake this exquisite, difficult repertory.

Read Marina Harss' New York Times piece here.

Thursday, January 8, 2015

Elkins—Playful and Deadly Serious

Alexander Dones in Mo(or)town/Redux. Photo: Christopher Duggan
Doug Elkins' program at the Joyce this week shows two sides of his artistic sensibility—the playful, lighthearted goofball in Hapless Bizarre, and the serious dramatist in Mo(or)Town/Redux (2012). While there are some sweet moments in the first work (a premiere), it's a tall task to ask it to stand next to the taut, compelling second work, which takes nothing less than the story of Othello and Limon's modern dance classic Moor's Pavane as influences.

Hapless Bizarre has a thin filament of a narrative thread. A nerdy, bespectacled guy (the vaudeville performer and clown Mark Gindick) chases, and is chased by, a black hat, which is replaced by a mauve hat, a harbinger of creativity and the onslaught of a gang of free spirits wearing paisley and bright colors (costumes by Oana Botez). Amanda Ringger designed the lighting, which perhaps includes the psychedelic projections. Gindick is swept along in familiar ways—first as an outsider, and eventually as a unique member of this fun-loving group. Elkins uses social dance and pedestrian movements, including basic interactions that resemble how children behave. It's a less studied vocabulary, more relatable. The music (credited as "musical supervision and original music: Justin Levine and Matt Stine") is a melange of mostly romantic songs hewing to the nouvelle chanteuse; I recognized Madeleine Peyroux, but regrettably the specific artists included are not listed.   

Donnell Oakley and Kyle Marshall in Hapless Bizarre. Photo: Jamie Kraus
In any case, the songs are not as familiar as those that accompany Mo(or)Town/Redux, which are mostly Motown staples. These are also not credited specifically, but the emotional evocativeness of many of the songs by artists such as Stevie Wonder, Otis Redding, and Amy Winehouse drives the work forward inexorably, with shifting dynamics. Jose Limon created the source dance which tells the Shakespeare story with audacious simplicity—of love, deceit, misunderstanding, and tragedy as told through a single misplaced hanky. Elkins was wise enough to base his dance on the solid bones of Moor's Pavane, but he leaves his mark in his fluid, eclectic choreography, with bits of modern connecting hip-hop and court dance. It already feels like an indispensable classic, despite its recent provenance.

Kyle Marshall makes a striking first image as the Othello figure, dressed in a suit and handling a mic and stand like Steven Tyler. Donnell Oakley, as his queen, and Cori Marquis, as the friend, convey jubilation and dreamy romance. But Alexander Dones is the dark Iagoian heart and quicksilver soul of the dance, with his elastic, compact body and coiled energy. He also embodies the everyman, as Elkins can (does) when he performs. It makes the sui generis choreography even more accessible, even if that's a quixotic illusion. Perhaps the one drawback of including this dance is the difficulty in matching its artistic achievement. Call it the Revelations Syndrome.

Tuesday, December 30, 2014

Ailey—A Different Kind of Revelation

ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson
If there's one person within the Ailey company who represents its soul, it might be Matthew Rushing, who has been with the troupe for 22 years and is now rehearsal director and a guest artist. As a dancer, he is noted for his humility, speed, accuracy, and the gift of parsimonious but deeply meaningful expression. When some dancers try to go big and spin off energy, Rushing seems to focus his energy like a laser beam and direct it precisely where it counts. As a choreographer, he is just beginning; he has made three works for Ailey, and ODETTA—which premiered this season—shows he has a very promising future making dances.

This tribute to the folk singer (embodied in the dance with great strength and nobility by Akua Noni Parker) naturally uses a selection of her songs interspersed with spoken and projected quotations affirming human rights and self-respect. Each song carries a different message, which Rushing elaborates upon. Some of the sections are earnest and forthright, others—"A Hole in the Bucket," in which Jacqueline Green and Yannick Lebrun act out the silly lyrics—exaggerated to the point of slapstick. The men go to war, and put on helmets, to underscore the action. Travis George's flexible set, of a series of lightweight benches with geometric cutouts, is arranged in a number of inventive ways. But on the whole, it's Rushing's choreographic style that propels the work, at times thrillingly. He parlays what would seem right on his own body into a vocabulary for the whole group—fluid phrases with precise gestures that connect directly with what Ailey produced, particularly in Revelations

The penultimate section that takes place downstage shows great skill. Initiated by a soldier going to war under a giant American flag, the dancers enter from the side in a line, holding hands, and shift through compact moves, pulsing and morphing; the group halves and the two parts alternate directions. It's almost as if the tightened spatial parameters were conducive to more creativity. (Earlier, we'd seen iterations of the forward-advancing line—in Hofesh Shechter's Uprising, which begins as the men stride to the apron and hit a passé, which they hold for a good long minute, and in Jacqulyn Buglisi's Suspended Women, when 15 women rustle their voluminous skirts as they advance downstage.) Rushing takes the subject matter to heart, and the song's messages resonate anew.
ODETTA. Photo: Steve Wilson

I recall Uprising (2006) differently from the company's 2008 Fall for Dance appearance, but perhaps it is simply Shechter's volatile, athletic language on Ailey's men instead of his own company. It shows how the Batsheva alum uses darkness and light to control the stage space and the level of drama. Stillness alternates with speed; gravity remains in control, as when the men motor about on all fours. The tongue-in-cheek Misérables finale—a red flag held aloft a pile of men, accompanied by a cheesy smile—put an odd exclamation point on an otherwise serious dance, as if to say, "just kidding!". 

As a bookend, the company's women (and four men) danced Suspended Women (2000). The lavish, Victorian-style dresses (by Christina Giannini) evoke both hyper femininity and its flip side, entrapment. Lines of dancers ebb and flow; there is much darting, skipping, and management of flouncy skirts and hoops. The men enter late in the work to lift and lug the women, doff their jackets to reveal bare chests, and disappear again. Daniel Bernard Roumain's score, using primarily violin and piano, grates at times. And at moments, especially toward the end, Martha Graham's influence can be felt in the urgent stage crossings. Yet the company felt truly at home in Rushing's work. It was an evening without Revelations per se, but with some promising revelations of its own. 

Friday, December 26, 2014

Ephemeralist's 2014 List


Leonid Sarafanov/Mikhailovsky Ballet, The Flames of Paris
Finding new treasures in the elegant, lithe Sarafanov, who performed in much of the Mikhailovsky's rep, including the Soviet-era spectacle Flames of Paris

Melissa Toogood (Petronio, Sally Silvers, Pam Tanowitz)

This all-purpose excellent Merce alum popped up, delightfully, everywhere.

Met Museum Presents
TwinnedJohn Heginbotham/Alarm Will Sound and El Greco/Cappella de Ministrers
One of the world's great museum's finds strong traction and modern relevance in its performing program. 

Kyle Abraham/Glenn Ligon's Watershed at NYLA
A harmonic partnership of movement and visuals.

What's It All About: Bacharach Reimagined, New York Theatre Workshop
Connecting pop music of yore to musical theater of today.


Chris Ofili, New Museum
A stunning exhibition, mounted beautifully.

Lee Krasner/Norman Lewis, Jewish Museum

Two overlooked expressionist greats given some overdue attention.


The Foundling Boy, Michel Leon

All the Birds, Singing, Evie Wyld

All the Light We Cannot See, Anthony Doerr

The Mad and the Bad, Jean-Patrick Manchette (this is old, but new to me)

Collected Short Stories, Lydia Davis

One More Thing, BJ Novak

The Miniaturist, Jessie Norton

Overhyped books:

The Book of Strange New Things, Michel Faber

The Bone Clocks, David Mitchell

Goodbyes, or at least for now:

Whitney Museum on Madison Avenue

Wendy Whelan at New York City Ballet

Looking ahead... 

Sports—Signs of Life after dismal seasons:

Jacob de Grom, Mets

Odell Beckham Jr., NY Giants

Modern Dance's Future Pivots:

Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance
The repertory floodgates open to other choreographers' work. First up: Doris Humphrey's Passacaglia and Fugue in C Minor danced by the Limon Company, and Shen Wei's Rite of Spring danced by his own company (seven times!). The selection of Shen Wei is, artistically, somewhat mystifying, although the two companies share deep roots at ADF. 

Stephen Petronio's Bloodlines Project
A five-year project to revive modern masterpieces to which Petronio connects, just as the companies of some of modern's greats are shutting down. First up: Cunningham's RainForest. How handy that Toogood (see above) has been guesting with the company lately. The following year brings Trisha Brown's Glacial Decoy. Can't wait.

Hello again:

Whitney Museum near the Highline

Wendy Whelan doing other stuff

Tuesday, December 23, 2014

A Nut to Squirrel Away

Anastasia Barsukova. Photo: Igor Siggul
Around the year-end holidays, we tend to settle into traditions and habits, and dance's one uncrackable tradition is The Nutcracker. The big two, at least through this year, are Balanchine's at New York City Ballet, and Alex Ratmansky's at BAM, which moves to California next year. A number of smaller companies mount productions, and Gelsey Kirkland Ballet's has risen surprisingly quickly as an alternative to the biggies. (She established her Tribeca-based school just four years ago and in recent years has mounted three or so ambitious annual productions.)

This production, choreographed primarily by Michael Chernov after Vasali Vainonen, takes few shortcuts other than using recorded music. The steps for the group scenes are smartly kept simple, garnering the basic desired effects. The costumes (also by Chernov) look of high quality, even from the close distance afforded by the wide house at Pace's Schimmel Center. With its shallow stage, there is nowhere to hide at such a proximity; jitters, sweat, and cheap fabrics could be easily detected by viewers, and the costumes fared well in this test (as did the jitters and sweat).
Chinese Ambassadors. Photo: Igor Siggul

At the Saturday matinee, Anastasia Barsukova danced the role of Marie, in this case both as a child and an adult (and shown above as a Flute from another cast). She impressed with her strong basics—balances, extensions, pirouettes—as well as in the fine tuning of her head positions and delicate hand gestures. A radiant Anderson Souza played her Nutcracker Prince, commendable for his partnering and the athletic sweep of his grand jétés. Of the many secondary roles, of special note were Katia Raj and Shelby Chaney as the Arabian Ambassadors, both long of limb and emanating a magnetic intensity, and an energetic Galen Bolard and Souza again, as the Russian dolls. 

The large group scenes felt well populated—no scrimping on the personnel—including the party scene, which the tiny Charles Klepner stole with his adorableness; the mouse/soldier battle, the snowflake dance, the angel scene, and the "Prince's Kingdom: The Theater of Life" scene with international dances. Chernov incorporated the dancers into the stage set by artfully arranging them in an upstage niche during the final scene. It's just one more indication of making the most of the company's assets, its dancers. Even the "that's theater" moments—seeing a stagehand haul the rope that moved the streetlamp, hearing the mesh-mounted Christmas tree unfold with a thud—had their charms, given the context.

With tickets ranging from $39—59, it's not the cheapest (ABT's tickets began at $20, but again, that's not an option starting next winter), but nowhere near the gulp-inducing range at the Koch Theater for NYCB's: $71—260. But it's the best production if you want your children to connect with the dancers; proximity and overcoming human vulnerability are its strengths. Kudos to Kirkland and company for making a real go at enriching ballet life in New York City. In May, the company takes on no less than a full-length Don Quixote.

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

El Greco—Contextual Immersion

El Greco’s Toledo: Capella de Ministrers at The Metropolitan Museum of Art. 
Photo courtesy of Met Museum Presents.

The Park Avenue Armory may have a lock on presenting some of the city's biggest cross-genre spectacles, but the Met Museum Presents boasts a vast choice of rooms, and thereby time and culture capsules, in which to host a variety of events. Some are tied to current exhibitions. This past weekend, Capella de Ministrers gave a series of concerts linked to the exhibition El Greco's Toledo, in the Velèz Blanco Patio, from Renaissance-era Spain. When combined with a tour of the El Greco show, it felt like a micro vacation, or being in a  snow globe within a larger snowglobe (the vast cultural riches of the Met) within the city.

Capella de Minstrers comprises five members: soprano Elisa Franzetti, and four on period instruments: director Carles Magraner (viol), David Antich (flutes), Sara Àgueda (double harp), and Pau Ballester (percussion). Franzetti's rich, focused voice permeated the small hall, moving between dancey, playful lines and the haunting lilt of more somber songs. Magraner, on viol, most often provided the steady pulse; the percussion, by contrast, was more embellishment, and Ballester deployed a wide array of small instruments in addition to a handheld, platter-sized drum. Antich's flutes at times engaged with the vocal line, or trailed it, while the harp contributed a delicate wash of notes, at times even taking the lead.

The song selection ranged from a Greek instrumental, with a nod to El Greco's hometown of Crete, to the Italian and Spanish Renaissance period, with longer selections of work by Ceari Negri and Fabrizio Caroso. In "Romerico Florido" by Mateo Romero, Franzetti sang with attack and felicitousness, boldly engaging while spinning a story. In the encore, "La Muerte de Absolan," a Sephardic lamentation, she strolled about while briskly regaling us in song.

The Blanco Patio, just off of the grand lobby, was a nearly ideal setting other than some ambient chatter from passersby and some echoing footsteps from above. The concert demanded a re-viewing of the El Greco in New York show—now degrees richer, armed with a greater context. 

El Greco, The Vision of St. John, 1608—14, oil on canvas, 87.5"x76"
The Metropolitan Museum of Art, Rogers Fund, 1956
The show, up through Feb 1, is a gathering of the painter's works from the Hispanic Society of America and the Met. It is surprisingly compact, filling one relatively small gallery. It includes two of the artist's best-known paintings: View of Toledo, in which every object and surface shimmers with electricity, and The Vision of St. John, whose modernist tendencies purportedly influenced Picasso's composition of Les Demoiselles d'Avignon. One of the earliest paintings on view, Christ Healing the Blind (1570), with its clinical approach to perspective, is a reminder of just how radical El Greco's subsequent work was, with its unfettered, supernaturally expressionistic brushwork and flattened planes.

The show contains several portraits: of Cardinal Fernando Niño de Guevara, with his searing and judgmental gaze; Saint Jerome as both a scholar and a penitent, his elongated features compounding his otherworldliness; and a tiny cameo cut from a larger canvas, painted with Holbein's exactitude. The collective experience of the art and the music— artifacts five centuries old, yet very much alive with us today—is a surprising gift amid the holiday clamor. 

Sunday, December 14, 2014

MoMA—Forever Now, or at least until April 5

Kerstin Brätsch, Sigi's Erben (Agate Psychics) (2012) at left; Matt Connors, Variable Foot (2014), at right. Photo: Susan Yung

The Forever Now: Contemporary Painting in an Atemporal World is the kind of show you'd expect MoMA to do more frequently—a compact survey of young painters expanding the genre, curated by Laura Hoptman, like a biennial (and including a number of artists that were in the last Whitney Biennial). In press materials, the obtusely titled show is parsed into four loose categories: reanimation, reenactment, sampling, and the archetype, which provides intellectual crunchiness if you prefer to go deeper than "I know what I like."

Some highlights:
Dianna Molzan, Untitled, 2012. Photo: Susan Yung

Kerstin Brätsch—some of Brätsch's "Blocked Radiant" paintings sit outside the gallery, like either greeters or warnings; frittery shapes surround fuzzy orbs. The large installation inside, Sigi's Erbe (Agate Psychics) (2012) is composed of a metal framework off of which hang panels made of glass or aluminum with imaergy, or of agate segments arranged into compositions, all meant to be seen from both sides. 

Mark Grotjahn—his carefully arranged psychedelic compositions of layered arcs, such as Untitled (Circus No. 6 Face 44.22) (2013) could be biological snapshots, or dense jungle. They are hermetic new worlds.

Julie Mehretu—she has relaxed somewhat from her hypothetical utopias that approach architectural renderings into scribbled graphite-hued fog banks that will be unavoidably compared to Cy Twombly, such as Heavier than Air (written form) (2014).

(Here, take note of the penchant for parenthetical titles. What gives?)

Amy Sillman, Untitled (Head), 2014. Photo: Susan Yung
Dianna Molzan—what she does—playing with the traditional format of painting—may not be entirely revolutionary, but it is entertaining and beautifully done. In the example pictured here, she has painted on sheer silk, which is then stretched onto bars so that both the canvas and stretchers are visible. In others, she slices the canvas, or reduces it to a net, whose strings receive the paint.

Amy Sillman—among the more traditional-seeming painters, which is perhaps the most ambitious. Her still lives and portraits resonate for their reductive shapes and gorgeous palettes.

Oscar Murillo—his extensive representation within the show is enough to make a statement. He pieces together canvases, using primarily dark hues with looping scrawls and dense occlusions.

The exhibition, through April 5, is on the sixth floor, next to the Matisse Cut-Outs. Catching both might give you a sense of the ongoing continuity within art.