Tuesday, January 1, 2019

2018 Milestones

The Trout by Mark Morris. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Jane Comfort’s 40th Anniversary Retrospective, La MaMa
Well-produced video, tight direction, and a welcome reminder of the breadth of Comfort’s warm-hearted oeuvre and the tightly knit dance community.

Balanchine: The City Center Years
A dream mini-festival of companies and dances that reminded us of City Center’s sometimes overlooked history.

The Trout, by Mark Morris, Mark Morris Dance Group, Mostly Mozart, Lincoln Center
Displayed Morris’ musical insightfulness and the intelligence to embrace simplicity, even if it pointed out the diminished dance offerings at Lincoln Center.

Canto Ostinato by Lucinda Childs, INTRODANS, Fall for Dance, New York City Center
This mesmerizing gem performed by a Dutch troupe was overshadowed in a strong festival that is more focused, if less populist, than ever.

The Runaway, by Kyle Abraham, New York City Ballet
Taylor Stanley’s dynamite solo was the transcendent performance of the year in a work that felt revolutionary in the Koch Theater.

Dearest Home, Kyle Abraham, A.I.M., Quadrille, Joyce Theater
In contrast, this subtle work had just enough narrative implication. One of five fascinating choices for a continuing series done in-the-round.

Lazarus, Rennie Harris, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, City Center
Subtle but gut-wrenching movement metaphors and well-paced dynamics building in two acts to an exuberant and elating finale.

Paul Taylor

Cy Twombly, Gagosian
Who needs museums? (Kidding. Sorta.)

The Overstory, Richard Powers
Interwoven stories, all somehow involving trees, made me realize how much I take them for granted.

Warlight, Michael Ondaatje
In wartime, seemingly neglected children have been cared for by a colorful supporting cast of characters.

The Library Book, Susan Orlean
History and a crime make for surprisingly compelling reading. Plus, a killer title and book design.

Clock Dance, Anne Tyler
Redemption and personal re-invention sneakily prevail in this novel with many odd characters.

There There, Tommy Orange
The fates of a roster of characters comes together at a powwow in Oakland, CA.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Rennie Harris' Lazarus Lifts the Ailey Company

Lazarus. Photo: Paul Kolnik
On Dec 11, City Center turned 75, and this season is Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater’s 60th. They celebrated together with a program featuring not only Ailey’s finest, Revelations, but also longtime City Center artists Paul Taylor and Twyla Tharp. The evening showcased Ailey Company’s strengths and weaknesses underlying its artistic model.

The late Paul Taylor’s work might seem a fine fit for Ailey, but its “cover” of Piazzolla Caldera merely skims the surface of this rather dark dance. Its two most important characters are the first male solo and the spurned woman (done respectively and most memorably in recent years by Taylor’s Michael Trusnovec and Annmaria Mazzini). The man leads the group of men, moving first and slicing and attacking like a toreador. Jamar Roberts performed this role for Ailey, and lacked the necessary ferocity, thereby diffusing any dramatic tension. The female part was danced by Jacqueline Green, who also presented very little of the built-up angst and desperation of the character, who is cruelly rejected by every man on stage. Both Roberts and Green are tall, lithe, elegant dancers, but in this case lack the grit and aggression that roil beneath the surface of this deceptively shadowy piece.

The Taylor lexicon also might appear easy from a technical point of view. Stag leaps, low jetés, and chassées comprise its core. The Taylor company obviously renders these moves constantly in Taylor’s repertory, thus they are consistent among performers. The Ailey company doesn’t perform these daily, and each dancer does the moves slightly differently, resulting in a lack of visual cohesion. When you watch the Taylor company, there are passages when these synchronized sections whir and click like a Swiss clock’s movement, creating visual harmony. I missed this tuned, symphonic sense with Ailey’s interpretation.

Twyla Tharp’s Golden Section is a signature work by this uncategorizable, prodigious choreographer, and a very challenging one to perform. It’s not easy to appear as if you’re carefree and louche while doing super hard steps that require great coordination and precise timing between dancers. That said, Ailey has been performing this on and off for many years, and it looked better synced than I remember. David Byrne's jaunty score, which hasn't aged a bit, does a lot of heavy lifting by moving the action along.
Kairos. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The program on Dec 18 offered highly contrasting works. Wayne McGregor’s Kairos (2014), a company premiere, offers more of the British choreographer’s affinity for exaggerated positions and ballet shapes. While Ailey’s dancers are obviously accomplished in many styles, they aren’t strictly ballet dancers, and so many of the lines that might make sense on point, or on exaggeratedly balletic bodies, here feel blunted. Idris Khan’s set—scrims with graphics resembling musical staff lines—make the dancers appear like musical notes. But this somewhat promising metaphor is diluted with the use of Max Richter’s version of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons, a by-now clichéd composition that elicits thoughts of background  car commercials. McGregor’s athletic, balletic style may be tempting to set on Ailey for many reasons, but for me there is an emotional void at its core.

How wonderful then to follow this soulless work with the world premiere of Rennie Harris’ Lazarus in two acts. A central character (Daniel Harder) falls and rises several times in the piece, a motif that could be seen through various lenses in civil/human rights—racial, economic, despotic—or even as a metaphor for an artist and his life and work. The beginning of the piece feels like a dream (or nightmare) scape, with a soundtrack mixing words and sounds (barking dogs) accompanying seemingly discrete scenes featuring a group working or praying. They support Harder as he coughs and collapses, and in a harrowing scene that elicited gasps, lynched bodies achieved through the simplest of gestures—a listing head and small twists of the body on the balls of the feet. 

Jamar Roberts supports the stricken Harder, who then does an arduous phrase, falling forward with the body folded, rear leg aloft. The pace quickens to Michael Kiwanuka’s “I’m a black man in a white world,” and the costumes shift from old fashioned cotton blouses, skirts and pants to more modern garb. The group claps, skipping and crossing their feet, but then appears to be sprayed with fire hoses. Jeroboam Bozeman, wearing only jeans, symbolizes modern man acting with individual intent. The corps, lying down, transforms from a sprouting field, to waving grass that subsumes Harder’s body, to cresting waves.

In the second act, the dancers sport LA Laker-inspired purple and gold tunics. The movement is less trance-like and more rhythmic, clicking and snapping crisply. Harris’ choreography is less reliant on the hip-hop in which he made his name, with more strands of upright fast footwork and joyous space-eating steps. (It feels very connected to Ron Brown’s style.) The pure joy of dancing is rapturous and contagious, and the dancers literally dust off their heels, shaking off the historical luggage and issues of mortality to simply live. Harder walks toward the light, and the audience departs on a cloud.

A couple of notes on dancers: Clifton Brown looks truly joyous and inspired in Revelations, after so many years performing it on and off; his power and stasis in "I Wanna Be Ready" are particularly moving. Vernard Gilmore has been with the company for 21 years, and has gradually (for me) developed into its emotional center with his unshowy, grounded approach in a company of spectacular dancers. 

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Tharp, Pared Down

Eight Jelly Rolls. Photo: Ian Douglas
If Twyla Tharp had failed at choreography, which she obviously hasn’t, she could’ve become a professor. Half of Minimalism and Me, the Twyla Tharp Dance program at the Joyce Theater (Nov 14 to Dec 9), features Tharp at a downstage lectern recapping the ideas behind works between 1965 and 1971, accompanied by priceless video footage of original company members and live performance segments by current dancers. It’s an excellent primer on a less-known period in Tharp’s prodigious, multifarious career which is best known for Broadway smashes and symphonic ballets. 

She traced her path through minimalism, citing simple concepts: the body at a right angle, standing in releve in a star position for 2+ minutes (demonstrated by an implacable Kellie Drobnick), placing one foot in front of the other, and putting the performers behind a wall. Tharp placed an emphasis on learning, not presenting; and going for shock and not entertainment. These experiments were done mainly without a large audience, although for the purposes of the demonstration, a small group sat on folding chairs and conveyed puzzlement or comprehension. 

Twyla Tharp and Rose Marie Wright at the Met
Museum. Photo: James Kravitz
Then a group of rising choreographers—including Martha Graham and Paul Taylor, besides Tharp—were collectively featured in a program on Broadway, and public became an increasingly important component. This led to Medley, a flash mob in Central Park, and a piece at the Met Museum, and the realization that a dance was a commodity. (A group of volunteer performers helped to show the gist of these happenings at the Joyce.)

In the wake of that epiphany came The Fugue (1970), an excerpt of which Kara Chan, Drobnick, and Reed Tankersley performed. It’s full of experimentation and invention, blending numerous forms of dance genres such as tap, modern, jazz, gesture, and body percussion, and solos and intricate interplay among the trio.

The second act of the evening comprised the 1971 opus Eight Jelly Rolls, in which the previous dancers were joined by Matt Dibble, Ron Todorowski, and Mary Beth Hansohn. It’s looser, more playful, and presumably takes cues from the accompanying music, by Jelly Roll Morton and Charles Luke. Tharp expands the kinetic ingredients from The Fugue to include more ballet, vaudeville, quotidian and gestural movement, giving each individual dancer sections that correlate with each one’s character and strengths, as she has always done. Chan has a standout solo done as if tipsy; Jennifer Tipton’s lighting features Chan in white hues while the upstage dancers are bathed in blue to create a background. Drobnick—lanky, fluid, and magnetic—has a quieter passage of poses, small moves, and stasis, echoed by five others.

In a coda, Tharp pokes fun at her aging self, skipping and running after her young brood, and being lifted and spun rapidly, held by her heels (a repeat trick from a recent past Joyce run). While her company is technically stellar, when Tharp is onstage at the Joyce—whether teaching or moving—there’s no doubt who the star is.

Sunday, September 30, 2018

NYCB's Fall Gala—Revolution in the Air

The Exchange. Photo: Paul Kolnik
By Susan Yung

In a sense, it was business as usual at NYCB’s fall fashion gala, “the most important night of our year,” as Teresa Reichlen put it in pre-show remarks at the Koch Theater on Sep 26. Somehow it felt more trite than that in the wake of the departure of Peter Martins last spring, and more recently three male principals, leaving the company in limbo both leadership-wise (currently four company members share that role) and with a shortage of tall leading men. Three new dances focused around fashion designs were hardly the headline.

Reichlen’s speech alluded to the departures: “We won’t allow talent to sway our moral standards.” There’s no dispute this is moral high ground, and yet who among them—us—are unimpeachable, morally? And yet in the face of powerful figures falling each day, the high ground seems to be the only safe spot.

Those remarks set the tone for three premieres which felt, as the evening passed, increasingly what the future will look like for new repertory for NYCB, apart from by now stalwarts Justin Peck and Chris Wheeldon. Matthew Neenan’s The Exchange seemed to pit the old against the new, or conservative vs. liberal, religious vs. atheistic, etc. In any case, a group of rule-bound people (the women in Gareth Pugh’s Martha Graham-esque long red gowns; the men in drum major reds and blacks; all wear red chiffon head covers) move in an orderly fashion, before the rebels (in short tablecloth, diagonal-drape dresses; the men in strappy harnesses and gaucho pants) move in and shake things up. The Dvorak accompanying it set a mostly solemn tone, with hints of Slavic dash.
Lauren Lovette & Preston Chamblee in Judah. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Still just 19, Gianna Reisen’s second work for NYCB, Judah, is set to John Adams’ frenetic score. Four dancers began the piece by walking onstage in front of the curtain, which then parted to reveal staircase segments on each stage side (an allusion to Apollo, intentional or not). Perhaps because Reisen is a woman who performs, sometimes on pointe (with LA Dance Project), she pushes the capabilities of NYCB’s women, who are astounding athlete-artists. An indulgent arc of piqué turns, or an arabesque “nailed” after running to a spot, or finishing a pirouette with an extended leg rather than a planted foot are examples of such ambition, rewarded. Alberta Ferretti designed the costumes—scarf-draped dresses and unitards with, oddly, silhouettes of dancers printed on them. Reisen uses the stair elements as perches and launch pads; Lauren Lovette leaps off of one into Preston Chamblee’s arms. Harrison Ball showed his power and magnetism in a featured role. Reisen packs a lot into the piece, which sometimes feels frenzied, but merits another viewing.

Taylor Stanley in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
Kyle Abraham’s The Runaway promised to be the mystery of the program since he had never choreographed a ballet. The curtain rose to reveal Taylor Stanley (in a black and white romper, by Giles Deacon) in a solo that began and ended with him slumped over and blossoming like a flower. It perfectly showed his absolute precision, nuance, and impeccable line, and which blended ballet with Abraham’s richly varied lexicon, from break to club to voguing. Unfortunately, Deacon’s costumes for some of the other dancers, mainly the women, were baroque and overwrought; headpieces with big side extensions looked ridiculous and rendered the women unidentifiable.

Sara Mearns, Georgina Pazcoguin, & Ashley Bouder in The Runaway. Photo: Paul Kolnik
The mixed soundtrack ranged widely from Nico Muhly to Kanye to Jay-Z, and perhaps the sound of hip-hop and rap in the Koch Theater felt like the most revolutionary thing about the night. At the same time, it adrenalized the dancers and created an interesting tension with the tradition and classicism associated with the institution and theater itself. Despite the contemporary music, the ruffles, feathers, and crinolines used by Deacon created a courtly atmosphere. Punchy solos were danced by Ashley Bouder (in a flapper mini) and Georgina Pascoguin, who shed a bulky skirt with a sassy toss reminscent of Ratmansky’s fourth wall-breaking asides. 

In some ways, Abraham’s fluid, heady mix of styles evoked William Forsythe, who has underscored the physical intelligence of dancers to transform them into incredible alien beings. In the end, Stanley resumed his bowed position alone. Fittingly, the work began and ended with him, currently one of the most exciting dancers in a temporarily depleted troupe that is facing revolution on several fronts.

Friday, August 31, 2018

Paul Taylor, 1930—2018

James Samson, Michael Trusnovec, and Sean Mahoney in Brandenburgs. Photo: Paul B. Goode
We mourn the loss of Paul Taylor at 88. As a choreographer, he was a shapeshifter. How else to explain the fantastically varied body of work he produced over his nearly nine decades of life? His work ranged from conceptual and rebellious; slap-stick humorous; dark and psychologically probing; wartime based; stories; and formal with patterning, often to classical music, for which he is probably best known. 

Some favorites:

Beloved Renegade (2008)
Michael Trusnovec perfectly portrays the Poet facing death, tenderly interacting with his friends and being led mercilessly out of life by the Angel, Laura Halzack.

Promethean Fire (2002)
A masterpiece in patterning and coordination, but also a gut wrenching paean to human bonds through a 9/11 lens.

Brandenburgs (1988)
The odd-numbered groupings, with passages for women that are as powerful as the mens', plus a wonderful hero solo.

Sunset (1983)
Old world gentility, romance, poignant war motifs, a moving male duet, Alex Katz's simple and beautiful set. 

Lost, Found and Lost (1982)
Antipathy and apathy to elevator music, done in elegant rhinestone-studded catsuits and veils.

Le Sacre du Printemps: A Rehearsal (1980)
A funny, scary story dance done in Taylor's flat Egyptian style, plus socialist demagoguery.

Profiles (1979)
A quartet related to a section of Sacre, and one of the most challenging short dances requiring incredible strength and coordination.

Polaris (1976)
Amid Katz's simple cube of tubes, two casts perform the same sequence to skew time and space.

Cloven Kingdom (1976)
Societal norms butt up against primal instincts in both movement and music. The male quartet among the fiercest and rousing passages in Taylor's oeuvre.

Esplanade (1975)
Walking, running, and hurtling through space, plotless but elicits all range of human emotion.

Junction (1961)
Elemental sculptural, modern, abstract shapes made by the dancers' bodies, spiced up with Katz's color block costumes and set elements.

Three Epitaphs (1956)
Caveman style walking—slumped over, effortful—and windmilling forearms by dancers in mud-colored catsuits with mirrored accents, to a New Orleans brass line. Breaks so many norms.

His dancers were his clay to mold and create sculptures. They inspired him and their great abilities and courage fueled his demanding choreography. So the current company members are the last ones to work personally with Taylor, which in the near future will perhaps be compared to Balanchine's last stable of dancers. The company goes on under the artistic direction of recently appointed Michael Novak (recent interview here), but no doubt it is a new era in modern dance. We are richer for Taylor's output, but sadder for his loss.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Sarasota Ballets Gifts of Ashton and Gomes

Victoria Hulland & Marcelo Gomes in The Two Pigeons Act II. Photo by Frank Atura
Sarasota Ballet’s visit to the Joyce Theater last week brought things I have been wistful for of late—the repertory of Ashton, and the performing of Marcelo Gomes. The August 19 show led off with There Where She Loved, a suite by Christopher Wheeldon from 2000, to music by Kurt Weill and Chopin performed live. The seven sections featured small groups—four men and a woman, a trio, duets—emphasizing the difficult and sometimes knotty partnering that the choreographer endlessly explores. In the quintet, Ryoko Sadashima’s toe shoe-clad feet rarely alight as she is hoisted, flown, and manipulated in myriad ways by her four squires. (The main theme is danced by the men in shirts and pants, and later without shirts.) Some moments feel awkward: a couple lies head to head, holding hands, and rolls upstage; a woman scooches backwards offstage, seated. The singers (Stella Zambalis and Michelle Giglio), accompanied by pianist Cameron Grant, add luster.

Works by Frederick Ashton comprise the rest of the program. Monotones I & II are performed periodically by ABT, but on the larger Koch Theater stage. Each is done by a trio in yellow and white unitards with sparkles and toadstool headcaps. The three often move in unison, or in canon, or the two women partner one man, and vice versa. The pace is stately and even-paced for the most part; abrupt moves might include a jump into fourth position, or a sissonne into a low arabesque. The close proximity at the Joyce adds even more possibilities to scrutinize off timing or bobbles. But the company essentially fared well under pressure.
Ryoko Sadoshima, Samantha Benoit & Alex Harrison in Monotones I. Photo Frank Atura
Four wide-ranging Ashton miniatures closed the bill. La Chatte, a study of a cat woman, features cliched air-clawing and ear cleaning gestures, and a comedic loud meow at the end; it shows Ashton’s earthy sense of humor. Les Patineurs pas de trois demonstrates Ashton’s fluency with capturing the essence of expression, in the case of ice skating. Elongated chassees and strategic hops impressively create the effect of the real thing, and the simple joy skating evokes is conveyed by the dancers’ luminous faces. Méditation from Thaïs is a more traditional pas de deux with “exotic” costumes of orange and apricot, and numerous technically difficult lifts and partnering maneuvers.

It was only when Marcelo Gomes appeared at the start of The Two Pigeons that I was reminded of how great stage presence can be relayed even while simply walking (albeit with a live dove on his shoulder). Lost in thought, it’s clear he is consumed with emotion as he tenderly places the dove on a chair. Victoria Hulland enters, settling into a “dying swan” pose; he impulsively plunges his arms around her waist to pick her up. It’s during such elemental moments, and not necessarily bigger moves, when Gomes is most moving—like he has created a backstory and lives that character. As they dance together, absorbed in romance, another dove flies onstage and joins the first. The poetry of the parallel pairs carries great pathos and reminds us of the power of theatrical ballet, of which Ashton is exemplary. And also of the recent absence of Gomes, one of his generation's finest performers, but the glimmer of hope that he will periodically return.

Thursday, July 5, 2018

Gabe Stone Shayer in Whipped Cream

Gabe Stone Shayer as Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Photo: Gene Schiavone

Gabe Stone Shayer, a corps member of ABT since 2012, made his debut in the lead role of The Boy in Alex Ratmansky's Whipped Cream on July 4, dancing with Sklyar Brandt as Princess Praline, and alongside Gillian Murphy (Princess Tea Flower) and James Whiteside (Prince Coffee). While Shayer is perhaps a bit larger in frame than the role calls for, his fresh youthfulness and exuberance are entirely appropriate.

Fittingly for the holiday, there were fireworks onstage as Shayer soared and leapt high, with his outstanding ballon and scissoring legs, and spun breezily, showing his solid balance. Besides his technical ability, honed by years studying and performing with the Bolshoi, the Philly native has a magnetic personality and an infectious enthusiasm that has won audiences’ affections. He dances with tremendous confidence and with a relaxed joy more commonly held by far more experienced dancers. (This relaxed attitude unfortunately applies to the carriage of his arms and hands, which could be crisper and might convey less flourish.)

Whipped Cream finale. (Gabe would be in the gold shorts suit at left center; this cast featured Herman Cornejo.) Photo: Gene Schiavone

He has been steadily garnering meaty roles at ABT, notably performing the lead pirate recently in La Bayadère and Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet. Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie announced season promotions recently. Zhong-Jing Fang (at last!), Catherine Hurlin, and Katherine Williams are now soloists. I was half expecting Shayer to receive a promotion this season; no doubt it will follow soon given his abilities and appeal. I'm looking forward to seeing him in even more primary roles.