Friday, April 12, 2019

Martha Graham's 2019 Legatees

Charlotte Landreau, Lorenzo Pagano, Lloyd Knight, Anne O'Donnell in Untitled (Souvenir). Photo: Brian Pollock
Choosing Pam Tanowitz to choreograph a commission for Martha Graham Dance Company highlights Graham’s ever-growing legacy as it zigzags through generations. Tanowitz’s style is most often compared to that of Merce Cunningham’s—formal, angular, classically-based, rigorous. Before founding his own company, Cunningham danced with Martha Graham. And while their choreography differs in innumerable ways, he retained her senses of plasticity, theatricality, and purity of line. These elements can be found In Tanowitz’s new work, Untitled (Souvenir), seen at the Joyce Theater on April 11.

And like Cunningham, Tanowitz’s work is more cerebral, and less emotional and expressionistic, than Graham’s. Tanowitz really pushes form, articulating the limbs tautly, and inventing witty traveling steps that are simple, yet new, such as hopping on one foot with the other leg at 90º, foot flexed. Port de bras defy convention, and like Merce, the torso often creates odd angles with the pelvis and legs. It is not what you’d deem organic movement, but highly thought-out and experimental, given the same old human body. For all of Tanowitz’s formality—underscored by Ryan Lobo/Ramon Martin’s elegant, black & white columnar jumpsuits and pieces—the work is couched in humor. Those at rest observe the others dancing, as if in rehearsal. They gather and form a handsome tableau in the finale.

Deo. Photo: Brian Pollock
The other premiere on the program (there were three different slates) was Deo, by Maxine Doyle and Bobbi Jene Smith. In stark contrast to Untitled (Souvenir), the dance for eight women employed a highly expressive vocabulary. Leslie Andrea Williams, standing alone, flinched with increasing movement until she contracted deeply. The dancers lay on their backs but for their legs and heads, which floated off the ground listlessly. The women clumped together, with little space between one another, tottering across stage like a floating raft. One arrayed her limbs apart from her body, and resembled a spider. Low, wide squats and contractions lent a primal feel that summoned the power of Graham’s vocabulary. The beige/mocha-toned dresses (by Karen Young) evoked slightly more modest versions of those worn by Pina Bausch’s women in her Rite of Spring, and gave the similar impression of flesh. Deo created a hermetic world which made me feel as if I watched a private ritual that held deep meaning for its participants.

Laura Andrea Williams in Chronicle. Photo: Melissa Sherwood
The Graham works performed were Errand into the Maze and Chronicle. A willowy Xin Ying and brute-like Ben Schultz performed Errand, a concise and epic telling of the Minotaur tale; Isamu Noguchi’s spare but strategic set pieces are always thrilling to re-see. And Chronicle remains one of Graham’s high points, its urgency and rebel- summoning drumbeat as fervent as when it was created—as Graham refused an invitation by Hitler to perform in the 1936 Olympics. Williams danced the opening "Spectre" solo, a masterpiece portrait of an individual’s physical and spiritual strength danced breathtakingly well, plus a demonstration of Graham’s brilliance with costuming as drama. (The double disc podium she stands on seemed to be cleverly repurposed in Tanowitz’s work, albeit standing on its edge.) The stage-crossing “défilé” exercises have retained their speed and drive, and are a reminder of the light of perseverance hope in dark times—a useful notion at the moment.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

Hubbard Street's Crystal Pite Program

Grace Engine. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
Choreographer Crystal Pite harnesses the potency of the stage and all its components to create an atmospheric microcosm within each dance. Hubbard Street Dance Chicago performed three of them at the Joyce recently, giving New York audiences a concentrated, if bleak, dose of an accomplished choreographer whose work is primarily seen here in mixed repertory programs. The company, under the artistic direction of Glenn Edgerton, also brought a program of work by Ohad Naharin.

In the first of two Pite duets, A Picture of You Falling, the lighting design by Alan Brodie is the de facto set design—the lamps, fixed on poles, are on rolling stands that form a semicircle upstage. Dancers move through and around them. Jacqueline Burnett and Elliot Hammans performed to a mellifluous voiceover by Kate Strong, Owen Belton contributed supplemental music. To the line, “This is the sound of you collapsing,” Hammans sinks, articulating each limb onto the floor; descriptive hand gestures are done with a theatrical flourish. The overall effect integrates the movement with the text/sound and lighting, creating the sense that one element could not be removed without subtracting substantially from the whole.

Grace Engine. Photo: Todd Rosenberg
The second work, The Other You, was also a duet, which alone is a quietly radical gesture in the world of modern dance. This is especially for an out-of-town company in New York, where there’s a tendency to pull out the stops with large ensemble works that vary in tone. It was performed by Michael Gross and Andrew Murdock, who appeared interchangeable at a distance, with the same buzzcuts and suits. One mimed pulling up his knees with invisible marionette strings. A found soundtrack by Belton of rain, traffic, dogs barking, and Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata, accompanied the work, which also used the same lighting fixture semicircle. The second man joined; they mirrored one another in sync, seemingly two sides of a coin.

Grace Engine, which completed the program, premiered in 2011 on Cedar Lake, the New York-based company with which Pite most often worked, and whose ex-artistic director, Alexandra Damiani, restaged it. (Despite garnering lots of early negative juju for its Walmart empire-derived funding, Cedar Lake did fill a big niche in commissioning contemporary work performed by skilled dancers; many of those dances live on today in other companies’ repertory.) 
Again, all elements of the piece cohered to create a taut, gritty, urban atmosphere for 15 dancers in suits (by Nancy Bae) who rush on and off, flowing around a soloist. Pite does not utilize a conventional dance lexicon, instead connecting graphic, articulated poses with flowing movement, channeling energy into organic-feeling phrases. While it’s related to the more commercial “contemporary” style seen in popular tv dance competitions, it doesn’t exist only to serve freakish feats of technical prowess. The chiaroscuro lighting (by Jim French) and the urban soundscape (Belton again) contributed to the overall feel of a busy city sidewalk at night. It ended a cohesive program notable for its dynamic and atmospheric continuity, as well as Hubbard Street company's all-around excellence.

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Vertigo's One. One & One at BAC

Hagar Shachal and Shani Licht. Photo: Stephanie Berger
Vertigo Dance Company had a two-night run at Baryshnikov Arts Center on Mar 5 & 6. It’s a shame it wasn’t longer so more New Yorkers could have had a chance to catch its wonderful piece, One. One & One. This Israeli company, led by Noa Wertheim, further burnishes the country’s reputation for producing notable choreographers. And while each one furthers her/his own individual style, there seems to be a physicality, sensuality, and interpersonal connection in common.

At the start of One, a man pours dirt in lines across the stage as Shani Licht stands and begins to undulate and bend backward, her long hair grazing the floor. Three men approach her, divide her tresses in three, and by crossing over and under one another, braid her hair. Eventually all 10 dancers enter, and each struts downstage and throws the audience a look. Here, the varying score by Avi Belleli crescendoes into loud rock section as the dancers move with more urgency and violence. More dirt is spread. The first woman is joined by another; they face each other separated by only inches, and move in symmetry, highly sensitive and in tune. A woman charges across the stage at a man, flinging herself at him; this repeats. They slap their chests, legs bent deeply, summoning images of gorillas asserting themselves.

In groups of four, they soften their movement, sweeping their legs in circles in the now pervasive dirt, as the sound of muffled blasts combines with plangent guitar, evoking—as does the dance—violence and beauty. They ripple their bodies, energy phasing from head to toe; a woman runs figure 8s around her curves. They run backward, bent forward, arms flung up and out like a diving cormorant. Music that might accompany a line dance at a party accompanies big chassees, spins, and deep plies; one man is carried aloft by three mates as if seated. Hagar Shachal goads the men, lunging at them as if suddenly provoked, and they begin to chase her as she evades their grasp. They finally catch her and subdue her, pinning her down until she subsides fully.
Vertigo Dance Company in One. One & One. Photo: Stephanie Berger 
A solo by Etai Peri features effortless, silky, upright movement, legs floating high, and a rippling torso. The dancers often evoke animals, moving individually, but sometimes en mass, communicating wordlessly and with physical cues. One man remains lying on the dirt as the group moves ensemble, beating their chests and leaping like frogs; the loner grabs one man’s ankles as if to beg for a savior. The music swells like an orchestral film score, punctuated by twinkling keyboard notes. As the lights dim, the dancers recede, flapping their arms slowly.

Wertheim also established the Vertigo Eco-Art Village in Israel, a learning center that promotes sustainable, eco-friendly practices. This attention to one’s surroundings and a heightened awareness and appreciation of the environment perhaps informs Wertheim’s movement and the company members’ interactions.

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.