Monday, November 24, 2014

The Mikhailovsky Shows Its Depth

Class Concert. Angelina Vorontsova and Leonid Sarafanov. Photo by Stas Levshin
The Mikhailovsky's mixed bill offered us a snapshot of how the company envisions itself in the historic past, present, and recent past. It's a bit confusing, chronology-wise, but it is revealing.

Le Halte de Cavalerie (1896, company premiere: 1975) is ancient history, relatively speaking. With a libretto and choreography by Petipa, it is old enough to embrace slapstick chauvinism and broad caricature. In a way, this permits the dancers to sink deeply into their cartoonish characters, and simply have fun. Two young women pursue a local lad (Leonid Sarafanov, who was, delightfully, omnipresent in the programs I'd chosen); they in turn are wooed by officers in a military platoon. There's a lot of ogling and flirtation and silly walks, all in outdated fun. One of the women even gives the men some comeuppance by imitating their foolish mannerisms. 
Class Concert. Ekaterina Borchenko.
Photo by Stas Levshin

Class Concert is familiar in form—the re-enactment of a ballet class starting with the little sprouts (area ballet students), up through company principals. It displays the structure and rigor of the art form, which can evoke fond reminiscences from those of us who studied ballet. The performers are all excellent and clearly chosen for their physical gifts, even if the strenuous effort to raise their legs the highest shows. As the exercises build in amplitude, we are reminded that the classroom is a crucible of pressure—Natalia Osipova, the company's biggest star, landed on her fanny after a line of grand jetés. No risk, no reward. (Another dancer fell shortly thereafter.) Ivan Vasiliev, another of the troupe's stars, showed why he's the dancer some love to hate and hate to love, with his wrestler's build, ballon, speed, and deliberate lack of art. Principal dancer Ekaterina Borchenko danced the most sections, showing her pristine line and textbook placement.

Duato stuffed a lot into the subtext of Prelude, a one-act ballet; unpacking it was not an easy task. All but a few of the pointe shoe-clad women wore soft slippers; the ensemble women wore floor-length tulle skirts (Duato also designed these and the sets). All the men wore slick black separates except Sarafanov, in gold. The long skirts alluded to Wilis and swans and Romantic ballets, as did the painted backdrop that resembled so many artificial riverine realms familiar to the story ballet. But creeping under that backdrop were two dancers—modern allegories—who soon took over the stage lit by a chandelier and blue beams; a shimmering bronze drape now covered the cyc. I got the feeling that it was a loose parable for Duato's desire to bring the company into the contemporary era. That said, while he's still affiliated with the company on paper, he is now at the Staatsballett Berlin (read about the company in Marina Harss' NY Times profile). His style is well presented by the Mikhailovsky—Sarafanov is in some ways a prototypical Duato dancer, lean and all line—but the fit has always seemed odd.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Evidence and Mikhailovsky Ballet—Surprising Similarities

Mikhailovsky Ballet in Flames of Paris. Photo: Costas
Ronald Brown's Evidence: A Dance Company, from Brooklyn, and the Mikhailovsky Ballet, from St. Petersburg, Russia, couldn't be more different. Or could they? Both have had recent/current runs in New York. And both, in their own ways and on vastly different scales, told stories of the past with unique communicative genres of dance. 

The Mikhailovsky performed Giselle and Flames of Paris in its first week at the Koch. Its production of Giselle feels familiar to the production performed by ABT. The backdrops are painted a little more realistically, and the foliage rises and falls, revealing and hiding Myrta and Giselle, and also alluding to the supernatural setting of the woods. (The elegant Borzois seem to be the same pair, however.) Natalia Osipova is the epitome of a Giselle, radiating innocence and sweetness at the beginning, and descending into a catatonic state of madness. Famous for her ballon, she appears weightless in jumps and when lifted by Leonid Sarafanov (the Count), who spears the air like an arrow when he leaps. 

Flames of Paris (1932) is an oddity—to Americans, in any case. It was commissioned to mark the 15th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution. Set in 1792, in a suburb of Marseilles, and in Paris, it's a simplistic account of the clash between classes. It switches locales from a marquis' ballroom to the streets of Paris, and from swanning bourgeoisie in velvet to peasants in clogs bearing the tricolor. One problem with the concept of the revolution is that it's supposed to be about the people, so pulling out principals to perform impressive solos and duets goes against principle. And yet, Angelina Vorontsova and Ivan Zaytsev led the cast with, respectively, delicate pizzicato steps and flying, muscular leaps. The peasant crowd scenes were the most energetic, with rousing folk dances (including an adorable little girl who kept up with the steps) and representatives from different ethnic segments of the country. The ballet will most likely not be adopted by non-Russian companies, so its rarity gave a viewing all the more urgency.

One Shot. Photo: David Andrako

Turning to Evidence, in residence at BRIC in Brooklyn, on the surface, the company and its repertory is the polar opposite of ballet, right? But it has a good deal in common. Brown's choreography, an inventive amalgam of African and all manner of modern dance, is a constant stream of communication to the audience. There are several kinds of steps in his vocabulary, which he combines and mixes to create continuously fascinating dance: 

* The emphatic statement, which can be a phrase that includes some gesture to convey specific concepts. In One Shot, one example was two hands clawing the air plus a fishing rod gesture.
* The bass line, when the lower body marks the rhythm while the upper does its own thing
* Traveling moves, which get the dancers from one place to another; these can feel ceremonial or just fun. 
* Marking time, providing a breather in action while reinforcing the music's pulse.

Broadly, ballet is not all that different. Mime and gesture play a big part and are used to denote a specific action. Waltz steps can behave in a similar way to the bass line, following the music while the upper body has its own set of complementary moves. There are many traveling steps in ballet, some small, like bourées; others big, like grand jétés. 

Brown's One Shot (2007) is an homage to Charles Teenie Harris, who documented life in Pittsburgh. It includes many of his photos of his projected behind the dancers. We get a glimpse of prosperous folks in the mid-20th century—beautifully dressed, and sometimes downright glamorous. Most of the subjects are black, although there are several group shots that include whites as well. There's a feeling of elegance and conviviality. Evidence's dancers are dressed in an approximation of the photographs' feel. They showboat, flirt, social dance, enter the military, and return. To Lena Horne singing, Coral Dolphin has a lovely solo, showing her silky style and a burning intensity the radiates through her cucumber-cool exterior. Annique Roberts, as always, rewards viewers with a boneless, impressively economical way of dancing. The company, clad in denim, led off with Come Ye: Amen (2002), an energetic work to the music of Fela Kuti.

Brown's choreography is wondrously consistent in connecting with the audience and conveying a constant stream of storytelling. The grand spectacles of the Mikhailovsky (which continue through this week) similarly grasp viewers' attention, with the help of lavish sets and dozens of dancers. Both in one week is a major gift for dance fans. 

Friday, November 14, 2014

Takashi Murakami at Gagosian; Albert York at Matthew Marks

Bakuramon. Photo: Susan Yung
Takashi Murakami is known for his Superflat style—anime and cartoon-like imagery composed using oval or circular forms, giving them a cuddly affect. The Macy's Thanksgiving Day parade boasts a float of his design, and Louis Vuitton has embellished handbags with LV logos in his rainbow palette. In his new show, In the Land of the Dead, Stepping on the Tail of a Rainbow, at Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea through January 17, he  draws on sources from Japanese history, but taps into a dark figurative array. It also reveals the breadth of his thematic and technical ambition concerning subjects no less than life, death, the depiction of religion, and creativity.

The behemoth of the exhibition is Bakuramon, a life-sized installation after the gate Rashomon, in Japan, modeled after a Chinese Tang Dynasty piece. Murakami packs a lot into this symbol: cultural appropriation and loss of original meaning, a mistaken religious icon, and a gateway between in/out, life/death, and the act of artistic interpretation. Funny thing though: the gate building itself comes across not as a work of art, but a stage set. 
Detail: A Picture of the Blessed Lion Who Nestles with the Secrets of Death and the Universe. Photo: Susan Yung
Some of his paintings appear to be battlegrounds for a standoff between a staid icon (a temple) and a platoon of horrifying, zombie-like dudes with multiple eyes and snaggly teeth. (His notes on the painting refer to a WWII-era painter, Arnold Bocklin, who became suddenly popular and thereafter painted the same subject again and again.) In another series, he has graffitied DEATH HATE I (to be read in reverse) and HOLLOW over a field of small cartoon figures. These read as public exhumations of internal conflict about the nature and purpose of art, an odd kind of self-loathing and intentional sabotage of otherwise happy paintings.

A series of round paintings are minimalist compositions of pretty elements. Another series, the Arhat paintings, are no less than what Murakami thinks "a contemporary Japanese belief system might look like." Perhaps not coincidentally, these essentially abstract works, each focused around a mesmerizing multi-layered circle, seem to tap into strands of modern art movements. His "Lion" paintings are at once irresistibly opulent and plasticky—gold and platinum leaf over relief painting form backgrounds—with motifs of lions on bridges of skulls and lion cubs (death and rebirth).

Albert York, Pink and White Flowers in a Glass
Container
, 1965
Photo: Susan Yung
Albert York, Landscape with Trees and Snake, 1980
Photo: Susan Yung

A giant mural, from which the exhibition takes its name, is so long, it's best to read it as you walk from end to end (it's 25,000 mm long, whatever that is. Long.). Skulls, ships, elephants, fish, and a million other elements populate this composition, similar in form to multi-paneled ancient screens. He also includes several sculptures that range from your basic manga-like demons to The Birth Cry of a Universe, a garishly opulent gold-leafed totem that represents a ferocious natural force, but not a physical imitation of one.

It's hard not to be impressed by the sheer ambition and scale of this exhibition, but then go and see Matthew Marks' quiet, beautiful show of paintings by Albert York, also on 24th St., through December 20. This show of 37 paintings done between 1963 and 1992 are primarily of the landscape and still-life mode, mostly around 12" square or a bit smaller. A cheery floral bouquet is dimmed slightly by some murk in his palette. A snake slithers across the bottom of a field of grass, and a gator inexplicably hovers at the side of another. He worked primarily from his home in East Hampton, but for all the touches of goth, he could've been in the tangled swamps of the South. Without illustrating life vs. death, he implicates the everyday world in just that battle.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

Sally Silvers' Actual Size—A Study in Noir

Dylan Crossman and Melissa Toogood in rehearsal. Photo: Karen Robbins
After decades of creating dance, how does one find inspiration? Postmodern veteran Sally Silvers looked to film noir, and specifically Hitchcock, in Actual Size, performed at Roulette. The results were pleasingly robust, danced by a superb cast of Melissa Toogood, Alicia Ohs, Luke Miller, Carolyn Hall, and Dylan Crossman, plus the choreographer. 

In elegantly wrapped and fitted skirts and separates by Elizabeth Hope Clancy, the dancers moved confidently and eloquently. But rather than an absence of facial expression, as is so common in modern dance, they wore expressions similar to actors' in suspense films—suspicion, fear, hauteur, wistfulness. The movement contrasted to what I've seen from Silvers in the past, as seen in an early solo by the choreographer: a looser adherence to classical technique, a more personal interpretation. It may have been in part because Silvers' dancers for this project are among the most accomplished in the genre; Toogood and Crossman danced with Cunningham, the others are widely experienced and mature in their artistry and to a person spellbinding. 

Michael Schumacher's textured and varied sound score was consistently interesting, if vexing, to listen to and included text snippets, slinky trombone lines, and cartoon-music quotes. Ursula Scherrer designed the austere set and the video projections, geometric forms and black and white found footage and clips of the dancers off stage. It felt like Silvers has newfound vigor for the art which she has created for nigh on three decades.

Monday, November 3, 2014

ABT's Fall Season Wrap-Up

Marcelo Gomes, Cory Stearsn, and Herman Cornejo in Fancy Free. Photo: Marty Sohl
ABT's two-week fall rep season at the Koch included a production premiere of Raymonda Divertissements, choreographed by Petipa with staging by Irina Kolpakova and Artistic Director Kevin McKenzie. Hee Seo and James Whiteside danced the leads, interesting complements of cool and hot, both with crisp, taut lines. The duo of Misty Copeland and Sarah Lane were warmly energetic and well-matched. Corps member Skylar Brandt danced a solo with lucidity, and soloist Christine Shevchenko once again demonstrated her burnished technique that has garnered her more and more roles. 

One thing that struck me immediately was how big the larger group of four corps men looked on the Koch stage (as exemplified by Alex Hammoudi); this is New York City Ballet's house, and the men are generally smaller in stature. Although ABT's ensemble men looked as if they could use another week of rehearsal, all nine couples performed shoulder lifts smoothly. The ballet is a reliable, classical confection and repertory staple, if a tad dry, to hummable music by Glazounov, costumed in hues of vanilla cream frosting by Barbara Matera.

How is it possible to distinguish Fancy Free, that 1944 Jerome Robbins staple to Leonard Bernstein (here staged by NYCB's Jean-Pierre Frohlich), performed with clockwork regularity in New York? How about Cornejo's triple tours en l'air into splits, and Marcelo Gomes' unfettered goofiness? Add in an aw-shucks sweetness by Cory Stearns, and welcome appearances by Stella Abrera and Gillian Murphy, and you have a rejuvenated vehicle with sparkle and pyrotechnics.  

James Whiteside and Misty Copeland in With a Chance of Rain. Photo: Marty Sohl
Frederick Ashton's Jardin aux Lilas was staged for the company by Amanda McKerrow and John Gardner. In the ballet's few years' absence from the rep, I'd forgotten how succinct and probing Ashton's choreography can be. Simple head turns, body direction changes, and lifted hands speak volumes about the players' psychological states. Two couples in love with the others' partners arrange furtive trysts in the sylvan moonlight, wary of being caught. Its simplicity and humanity makes you yearn for more Ashton. Chris Wheeldon's Thirteen Diversions (2011), to Britten, is a handsome, elegant dance for 24. Bob Crowley's silver and black costumes, and Brad Field's at times retina-searing lighting, underscore the ambition of the dance. But it hints at a weakness for the ubiquitous Wheeldon, in that apart from narrative ballets and icons such as After the Rain, he creates lovely, flowing dances that can be indistinguishable. However, it did match Boylston with Stearns, another unexpected, satisfying pairing.

Saturday, November 1, 2014

BalletCollective—A True Collaboration Evolves

Troy Schumacher and Ashley Laracey in Dear and BlackbirdsPhoto: Matthew Murphy
Collaboration is frequently used to describe the performance creation process, even if it's simply the gathering of disciplines in a studio or theater. But BalletCollective, under Troy Schumacher's direction, employs the sharing process from the genesis of a dance. Taking a poem or artwork as a source, the composer Ellis Ludwig-Leone writes music, and then Schumacher choreographs. (For more, read Marina Harss' recent NYT article on the process.) They riff on evocations or inspiration, and not literal interpretations. The underlying structure supports the piece, giving it an inner vitality that sets it apart from many of the handsome, but essentially formalist, ballets that have been made lately. (I should add that it's possible such sources have been used to create those ballets, but they are not presented as prominently as this.) 

The company, comprising New York City Ballet dancers, premiered All That We See at the Skirball this past week. Ludwig-Leone and Schumacher worked with artist David Salle, who showed fragments of a larger painting to the pair, waiting until the piece had been completed to reveal the whole picture, which we never see (although the beautiful poster/program shows the details from which they worked, including a pot of coffee and a bitten ice cream bar). The music and dance took form in response to "structure, line, and emotional response" rather than image or narrative. This process is fascinating to learn about, but not essential to viewing. The work's multi-sections shift in tone and dynamic, from Taylor Stanley's taut, snapping lines, to Meagan Mann's lushness, to Claire Kretzschmar's angular elegance. Ludwig-Leone's music, played live by the ensemble Hotel Elefant, ranges from energetic to jazzy to contemplative.

There's always a sense of community in the company's works, akin to many of Jerome Robbins' dances; the simple act of placing one dancer near another instigates an emotional relationship. In a larger group—five in this dance—that can mean that Stanley and David Prottas partner Lauren King at the same time, or one another. The chemistry blends, clashes, flows, but rarely simply paints a pretty picture.
Claire Kretzschmar in All That We Seer.
Photo: Matthew Murphy

The relationship is more straightforward in Dear and Blackbirds, a duet choreographed for Ashley Laracey and Harrison Coll (as seen in this video), who unfortunately was injured and, fortunately, replaced by Schumacher in the performances (he and Laracey are married). He pursues her, she resists, succumbs, and has to coax him back after spurning him. It's sweet, playful, and conveys the boundless joy, and vexing melodrama, of young romance. One of them performs a ballet phrase, then stops to react or gesture. The varying expressiveness of the vocabulary is bound into the narrative.

The Impulse Wants Company (2013, performed at the Joyce last year) led off the bill, another dance using poetry by Cynthia Zarin as a source of inspiration. The seven dancers cross the stage, often facing into the wings, pushing the airs as if doing the breaststroke in water, playing off one another. Ludwig-Leone's violin line skitters, a piano thrills through arpeggios. Kretzschmar, now solo, shows us her expansiveness that brings to mind Wendy Whelan's modernity. Stanley, always exciting to watch, steals on, lunges deeply, and leaps, striking like a cobra. The dancers bounce in quick jumps to the tumultuous music.The vocabulary of ballet ties it all together, but we only rarely miss its full, connected phrases. This collective is coaxing it toward a new direction of their own device. Schumacher recently debuted as a choreographer at New York City Ballet; no doubt this boosted his own company's endeavors, and rightly so. 

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Chris Ofili at the New Museum—Embracing the Dark

Chris Ofili: Night and Day. Courtesy David Zwirner, New York / London. Photo: Maris Hutchinson. All works © Chris Ofili 
Go see Chris Ofili: Night and Day at the New Museum as soon as you can, because it will give you ample time to revisit the stunning show before it closes on January 25. You are probably familiar with his "elephant dung" series largely from the late '90s—full of delight, trippy patterns, and cartoon-like figures. One of them—The Holy Virgin Mary (1996)—was made a martyr-icon by Mayor Giuliani in one of the great culture war episodes of recent years (the events are retold in the companion catalogue). A strong selection of this period occupies the second floor of the exhibition, curated by Massimiliano Gioni, Gary Carrion-Murayari, and Margot Norton. The candy-colored series bursts with life, flesh, and adolescent star doodles; dung balls serve as pedestal feet and sculptural nodes. The Afro series, from the early 2000s, are painted in red, green, and black, and are suffused with mysterious romance and vitality.
Chris Ofili, Ovid-Desire, 2011–12.
 Courtesy the artist, David Zwirner, New York/
London, and Victoria Miro, London. 
© Chris Ofili
 

On the fourth floor is an intoxicating installation 
of wildly colorful canvases hung on a lavender floral  background. Many of these paintings (primarily in classic rectangular proportions of approximately 120" x 80") are from the Ovid series, painted around 2010 while he was working on a two-year commission from London's National Gallery in response to Titian's Metamorphosis series, inspired by the Ovid poem. Many titles are hyphenates—Ovid-Destiny, -Desire, -Actaeon. Even without the references, these paintings, of effusive yellows, violets, and greens deserve to be carefully looked at. 

Several evoke the interior compositions of Matisse, with tension strung between foreground and background. The verticality of the canvases is underscored by depicting one or two figures, a geological cleave, or splitting the rectangle with the floor taking half, and the wall the rest, as in Ovid-Desire (2011—12). Ofili applies layer upon layer, so that even fields that seem solid can, upon further examination, reveal subtleties of shadowy patterns. He frequently adds elements of relief, be they blobs or dung balls or simply bulked up sheafs of paint.
Untitled (Afromuse), 1995—2005. Courtesy the
artist and David Zwirner, New York/London. © Chris Ofili 

As you enter the main third floor gallery, you encounter what seems to be a group of black paintings. After you've allowed your eyes to adjust, you notice subtle variations in what are really inky blues. Some appear reddish, some violet, some have a sheen. Shapes emerge—figures, animals, foliage. It evokes being outside in the dark, with no artificial lights on. Everything takes on a sinister feel, especially when a lynched man becomes clear. Ofili has a home in Trinidad, and he noted in a fascinating New Yorker profile: “I had found that if you put silver underneath blue, the blue sits back, like night, or glows like moonlight.” He uses ultramarine, Prussian, and cobalt blues that read like feelings as much as hues. The dark, foreboding gallery becomes, in the passage of a short amount of time, a place you want to linger in to absorb the depth and intricacies of the work.

Several sculptures are on view, as well as suites of drawings—the Afro Margin series of abstract, black and white drawings, and Afro Muses, an engaging group of cameo watercolor portraits with washy gem tone clothes. The exhibition fills the New Museum to bursting, perhaps the best use of its new building since it opened. And Ofili's oeuvre connects the present with the history of art, infusing it with a life we had perhaps forgotten.