Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Trisha Brown Dance Company Moves Forward by Looking Back

Opal Loop. Photo: Ian Douglas
It was just coincidence that the companies of Trisha Brown and Stephen Petronio, who began his professional career as a dancer for her, had coincidental runs at, respectively, New York Live Arts and the Joyce, just a half a block apart. But still, it was strange to walk by the Joyce, as it was filling up for the show, en route to Brown's performance, at the smaller venue. It was just another reminder of the generational shift in modern dance that has been in process for years now.

The program by Trisha Brown Dance Company was a well-chosen slate of three older works: Opal Loop/Cloud Installation #72503 (1980); Solo Olos (1976); and Son of Gone Fishin' (1981), plus Rogues, a newer duet from 2011. Each dance showed a facet of Brown's impressive canon: structured improvisation, accumulation, retrograde. The apparent ease and bonelessness of Brown's style usually cloaks the rigorous intellectual underpinnings, but Solo Olos pulls back that curtain A square dance-style caller commands the six other dancers to perform certain phrases, in reverse, and sometimes in double-reverse. It's apparent how complete their mental and physical dedication must be. 

Son of Gone Fishin'. Photo: Ian Douglas
It was a satisfying show, for sure, and it was the first in New York since Brown stopped choreographing, which was marked by the troupe's run at BAM last year and Brown's final work, if I toss my arms.... Of course Brown isn't the first choreographer to depart, but despite her irreplaceable output, she doesn't have a huge mythology built around her, like Merce, Pina, or Martha. She has always seemed like one of us, only smarter and cooler and way more talented.

As Brown and many other choreographers have demonstrated, retrograde is a highly useful creative method, but you need forward progress in order to reverse it. It may only be a matter of time before the currently assembled dancers and staff dissipate by necessity, despite fund-raising achieved and pedagogical goals set, in addition to an isolated performance project here and there. As the pioneer modern dance generation ages, there is an ominous premonition of loss, that a repertory will never be the same as under a choreographer's hand. That it will be watered down by added contemporary repertory (Graham) or simply vanish (Cunningham).

Perhaps some of Brown's repertory will surface in the newly formed vehicle of Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance. (Since that announcement, a lot of similar suggestions are going to be aired by a lot of voices.) Brown's work qualifies when measured by all three definors within the title, and is as worthy as any. TBDC's relatively small infrastructure is there to support a huge artistic achievement, so some timely external support might be just thing.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Petronio at 30—C'mon baby, see the Locomotor

Joshua Tuason and Melissa Toogood in Locomotor. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Stephen Petronio's group premiere, Locomotor, is a stunning dance and a worthy milestone to mark the company's 30th year. It isn't easy to continually produce new work for three decades, especially if, like Petronio, you generally shy from narrative and gesture. That said, there are moments in Locomotor that profit from this dearth of emotion, so touching are they when finally shared. In keeping with the collaborative tradition, the beige and black geometric unitards are by haute designer Narciso Rodriguez; the soundscape, shifting from crisp clicks and church bells to shimmering drums, is by Michael Volpe (appetizingly nicknamed "Clams Casino.")

The work's premise is simple: movement, both forward and backward. In a leadoff solo, guest artist Melissa Toogood slips perfectly into Petronio's precise, demanding style that somehow requires both dangerous kineticism and stillness at the same time. The company's remaining eight dancers enter in pairs, carving arcs from and into the wings. Two men, one in front of the other, hold hands as they dart about the stage—a simple, ingenious device, and one of those "why haven't we seen this before?" moments—and pivot and loop their arms like ballroom dancers; at a point, one kneels and receives a kiss on the head from his partner. It's like they're locked into the idea of forward progression, and yet their mutual bond is as much a necessity.


Barrington Hinds, Nicholas Sciscione in Locomotor. Photo: Yi-Chun Wu
Raised legs are at right angles, feet crisply pointed, torsos bent and twisted to preset degrees off-center. The technique is modern, but with a highly classical skeleton; it can pound into the floor, but the overall effect is to instigate flight, if for a split second. Petronio's choreography is reliably exciting to watch, but his singular invention and sui generis technique are polished to a diamond brilliance here. 

Surprisingly, the most captivating move, and one that is clearly not easy to pull off with grace, is the reverse leap, which occupies the final thrilling movement. Prior to that, Nicholas Sciscione and Josh D Green—both muscular and dazzlingly fleet—partner Toogood, flinging her high, or feet overhead, flipping her around a leg rotisserie-style, pulling her from a prone position as she flutters her arrowed feet in unexpected, delicate battements. 

Petronio danced the other premiere on the Joyce program (through April 13th), Stripped. This brief solo is to Philip Glass' Etude No. 5; the visual punchline is designed by artist Janine Antoni—a headwrap of neckties, which meets a linear fate in the finale. No further spoilers. The third piece, Strange Attractors, was created in 1999; its silken pajamas (by Ghost) and Michael Nyman score are the only indications of its pre-millenial age. It showcases well the standout, eclectic company, in particular the ageless Gino Grenek and an eloquent Jaqlin Medlock. The program rightly travels forward—and backward—with gusto.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Humanity in the Machine

Michael Trusnovec in Banquet of Vultures. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
Marathon Cadenzas, the second season premiere for Paul Taylor Dance Company, evokes the carnival glossed nefariousness of Taylor's Big Bertha (1970) and Oh, You Kid! (1999). Those dances also come to mind when seeing Santo Loquasto's gorgeous atmospheric light string and pennant set, recalling those sultry summer nights in smalltown America where the unexpected is to be expected. The costumes define the characters by type—sailors, middle aged, vamps (which seems to be the only shading for women other than average); wigs and hairstyles play a larger than usual role.

The dance, to Raymond Scott's antic music, depicts old fashioned dance marathons. Sean Mahoney plays the white suited ringmaster inured to the dancers' suffering. He could be interchangeable with a tent preacher, snake oil salesman, or for that matter, choreographer. (Taylor's To Make Crops Grow, which preceded Marathon Cadenzas on Thursday's program, featured a similar figure in the form of Rob Kleinendorst.) Round and round the  dancers go, until they drop from exhaustion. Pullout duets and solos punctuate the monotony; Michelle Fleet, in a sleek jumpsuit, jitterbugs frantically. Sailors James Samson and Francisco Graziano toss off heel kicks and other gee-williker moves. Laura Halzack swivels her hips and bevels her feet, and gets pawed by the emcee. Finally, a depleted Michael Trusnovec wins the contest in a woozy, comic number, in which every move is rubbery, and possibly fatal. As Mahoney forced the weary dancers to keep going, I could only think of the company working tirelessly in the studio to prepare two premieres and 20 other dances for our viewing pleasure.

This season's premieres seem to have found Taylor in a nostalgic mood, reflecting on his role as an artist within the tight context of his de facto family. Seeing Mercuric Tidings (1982) and Arden Court (1981) on consecutive programs drew attention to a particularly fertile spell for abstract dances chock full of movement invention and extreme physicality. Mercuric Tidings contains devilishly quick, filigreed footwork sustained for long periods, and explosive movements that regularly punctuate the proceedings like mini fireworks. Like so many of his dances, it also has several breathtakingly lovely tableaux that crystallize out of nowhere. Arden Court is back in the rep after a deserved rest; it was last performed in New York by the Ailey Company. When it was last in PTDC's rotation and performed frequently, it was easy to take for granted the imaginative time shifts and the seemingly simple lift in which the woman locks her legs around the man's waist while pulling her torso apart from his to form a human tree. Seen anew, these small inventions are far better appreciated.

George Smallwood, Francisco Graziano, Rob Kleinendorst, and Sean Mahoney in To Make Crops Grow. Photo: Jamei Young
Two dark revivals featuring Trusnovec are reminders of how dark and sardonic Taylor can be. Banquet of Vultures (2005) is barely lit (by Jennifer Tipton) and Trusnovec, in his dark suit and red tie—the uniform of ruthless power—appears out of nowhere, ghoul-like, hell bent on utter domination of the soldier minions. His on-point timing and precise positions, the tautness with which he draws his upstretched arm like an arrow, and when he crosses his arms on his chest, tilts his head back, and channels some divine power all work to terrifying effect. The stygian setting is augmented by Morton Gould's glowering score. 

I'd forgotten how funny parts of Dante Variations can be. This study of frustrations is one of Taylor's dances that parcels out solos or duets showcasing the dancers' characteristics. The piece begins with the dancers forming a pyramid shaped tableau of still, torqued bodies; as the wheedling Ligeti organ music starts, they pulse with it, inert beings come to life from the underworld. Trusnovec whirls and darts in his quicksilver way, showing the curving arm shapes and off-kilter stances that comprise the vocabulary. Rob Kleinendorst is at his funniest, dimly aware of a length of toilet paper stuck to his foot. Laura Halzack's knees are inexplicably tied together, as are Aileen Roehl's wrists. Trusnovec and Eran Bugge face off in an angry duet, formidable foes warily circling the ring like scorpions preparing to strike. The dancers return to their sculptural tableau, hell refrozen over.

Every dance company's members develop as individual, and Taylor's moreso than many, given the huge scope of his oeuvre. On Sunday, a version of From Sea to Shining Sea (1965) acknowledged this by inviting alumni onstage for a sloppy group hug of a performance. A handful of current dancers were joined by dozens of recent and vintage departures, including Carolyn Adams, AnnMaria Mazzini, Heather Berest, Orion Duckstein, Hernando Cortez, Rachel Berman, David Parsons, Senta Driver, and current rehearsal director Bettie de Jong. Many were unrecognizable in the motley costumes which ranged from bathrobes, circus gymnasts, Super Mouse, Miss Liberty, land masses, pilgrims, etc. Lisa Viola in particular, with her surgical comic timing and blank facade, reminded us of her glaring absence. The pageant was more about sentiment and the institution than choreography and dance, which happened to bind everything together.

Fibers (1961) provided another look back at the company's roots. Two men (Kleinendorst and Michael Novak, a ringer for a young Taylor) and two women (Aileen Roehl, radiant and pliant, having a break-out season, and newish Christina Lynch Markham) become sculptures themselves with costumes of colored straps, pads, masks or face paint, and bas-relief piping, by Rouben Ter-Arutunian, also the designer of the stunning, rainbow-hued tree-like set. Taylor danced with Martha Graham, whose influence might be found in the work's Kabukian drama, stillness, sculpted poses, and the use of spacious, at times tumultuous music by Schoenberg. On a program preceded by Sunset and followed by Troilus and Cressida (Reduced) and Mercuric Tidings, we saw the full range of the choreographer's visions of poetic romance, seminal modernism, slapstick comedy, and precision machine. Mercuric Tiding is so airtight, and its speed so unforgiving, that, like a Formula One engine, it might explode with one misfire. And yet watch closely, and you can see Trusnovec slide his hands along Halzack's arms in the gentlest of gestures before once again hoisting her overhead. There is humanity in that machine.

Friday, March 21, 2014

Martha Graham, Reduced

PeiJu Chien-Pott and Lorenzo Pagano in Echo
I'm all for brevity—there is no sweeter lyric than "one hour, no intermission"—but not necessarily when it comes to reducing full-length Martha Graham dances to 20 minutes. The one-act version of Clytemnestra (1958) led off the gala evening program at City Center on Wednesday, with Katherine Crockett in the lead role. Introductory projected synopses provided the dance's basic plotlines and I suppose getting a taste of the myth is better than none at all. But with so many shorter dances to choose from, does it make sense to cut one of Graham's best-known full-length works?

Crockett stands out as the glamazon in the company, and her recent stints in acting with SITI Company no doubt have enhanced her dramatic skills. The other solo roles are so reduced in this short version that they make little impact. The six Furies, by their number, reinforce the visceral impact of Graham's style. And, as always, Noguchi's spare, sculptural set pieces resonate with the svelte, flattering womens' costumes by Graham and Helen McGehee. 

Panorama (1935) is a large group work danced here by Graham 2 and the Hellenic Dance Company. It has political shadings—the potential power of the people to bring about revolution and order, and more specifically, art's ability to effect change—but also can be a technical showcase for students or an entire large company. Clad in all red, the 35 dancers rush across the stage in small groups and through various traffic patterns; they mass, form a circle, and move in a ring, stopping to stamp a metatarsal in a kind of call to arms. Five are left onstage, and each dancer, suddenly filled with calm, strikes a different sculptural pose. The metaphorical possibilities are rich, but it could also simply be a formal exercise.

Andonis Foniadakis' Echo made its premiere on Wednesday. Narcissus (Lloyd Mayor) dances with his reflection (Lorenzo Pagano); they're observed by Echo (PeiJu Chien-Pott), who remains boxed out of their ego-fest. Foniadakis' style is quite engaging at first—swirling, cursive movement phrases that recall tai-chi for their flowing energy and logical continuity. Anastasios Sofroniou designed the knife-pleat, long skirts (that's nearly a trend, what with Ballets de Monte-Carlo's similarly pleated sheaths last week; do I hear three?) that flare out and float down like rippling sea cucumbers*, further expressing the movements' impetus. But there is little shift in dynamic, and the phrases take on a sameness. Seven shadow-like dancers in dark blue (the women wear half dresses, for some reason; the men turtlenecks) emerge from the shadows like harrowing restless spirits. Chien-Pott gets to swing her long ponytail in a circle, in a show of frustration, and Mayor and Pagano make convincing mirror images. It ended a brief, somewhat harried hour-long performance before the gala began—an odd, un-Martha-like act of dance deferring to fundraising. Not that I'm complaining.

* Post-script: A reader kindly pointed out that sea cucumbers are slug-like creatures familiar to us through Chinese banquets, not the fringy, rippling things I am picturing. So let's say, like parachutes. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

American Dreamer—Reverie on Working in Dance

Michael Apuzzo and Michelle Fleet in American Dreamer. Photo: Tom Caravaglia
American Dreamer could be read as a nostalgic reverie about the daily life of a dance company. Santo Loquasto's set places it in a contemporary studio, with a parted curtain, barre, rolling clothes rack, upright piano, and assorted chairs; his costumes are pale leotards and rehearsal clothes, and hats for all. A selection of Stephen Foster songs sung on a recording by Thomas Hampson provides the soundtrack and some of the wispy plot lines. 

As in many of Taylor's works, there is a timeless sense of politesse and flirtation. The ensemble filters onstage; the dancers greet one another cordially before the rehearsal/performance begins. A man tries to get a woman's attention. Or, in Sean Mahoney's case, to the tune of "Beautiful Dreamer," he tries to catch the glazed eye of three sleepwalking women who are oblivious to his antics. Through segments to "Oh Susanna," "My Wife is a Most Knowin' Woman," and "Molly! Do You Love Me," the performers not dancing sit to the side, relaxing, drinking water, changing clothes, watching the onstage action nonchalantly but with quiet focus, just as they might in a rehearsal.

Many steps repeat; Taylor's soft chassée is the most common means of locomotion. Formations evoke folk dancing. The dancers move in a circle a number of times, sometimes splitting into pairs for some social dancing, or falling into lines for a square dance. The piece seems to focus on habits, on comforts—of familiar movement, of daily behavior, of the circumstances under which a dance is made. By simply donning a costume—symbolized by various straw hats—you can completely change your character. It's the beauty of art, the endless options available from which to pick and choose. It is not Taylor's most inventive or captivating work, but American Dreamer feels like an appreciative glimpse into the pleasures of a life path that isn't always poems and platitudes, but which does offer its share.

LAC—A Stylish, Rejiggered Swan Lake

Anja Behrend as the White Swan, Stephan Bourgond as the Prince. Photo by Angela Sterling
Cliché alert: absence does make the heart grow fonder. After seeing Les Ballets de Monte-Carlo perform Jean-Christophe Maillot's LAC at City Center, I realized what makes me so fond of my adopted version, by Petipa/Ivanov, currently in ABT's repertory. But first, about this new version, which, because of its foundation, begs to be discussed in relation to the classic version.

LAC takes place in modern times, with minimal sets; the women's costumes and the overall styling make the grandest statements. The music (written by Tchaikovsky—credited nowhere—with additional music by Bertrand Maillot) is rearranged. The story is taken apart and reassembled to incorporate Her Majesty of the Night (a female Von Rothbart) who may have borne a child with the king, with whom she can't stop flirting, understandably driving the continually suffering Queen mad; the daughter is a version of the Black Swan, who is  covertly swapped for the White Swan as the Prince's betrothed. White is cursed to be human at night, and a bird by day, indicated by feathered gloves that make her look like a team mascot. The Prince is spineless and confused by the sterotyped, annoying women vying for his hand, as well as his Confidant, who can't stop pranking him. Her Majesty is the most interesting character; she comes with two acolytes who carry her ashoulder, handle her cloak, and ripple her arms as needed.

The inventive, haute-couture womens' costumes (by Philippe Guillotel) push beyond the norm. Many are versions of a sleek, fitted bodice of lace with a long, accordion pleated skirt. The line is columnar, but the skirts flare out for dramatic turns and leg extensions. The white gowns worn for the final ball follow the same elegant conformation. The swans wear short shifts with tufts and feather-fingered gloves; legs are bare and they wear matte pointe shoes for an unbroken leg line. To indicate that the Black Swan is disguised as the White, the dress' tufts are ombréed gray. Her Majesty's costume is a blue-black corset tunic with sprouting feather fringe. The mens' costumes are fairly generic short jackets and knickers; the Prince's silver lamé getup is particularly unbecoming. (It was good to see Christian Tworzyanksi in the ensemble, a longtime member of New York City Ballet.)

Maillot's movement phrases connect swells, swoops, and other musical dynamics. It can be quotidien and widely sourced—bawdy hip-thrusting hops, energetic military drills, chest bumps, rough housing, or girlish prancing on pointe. The sections for the many swans carry the most power; they bend forward at the waist, and pound the floor with one toe box, standing upright abruptly to demonstrate birdlike alarm. Highly articulated feet, sometimes in forced arches, and tautly extended legs are company signatures. Instead of going for high romance, the big pas de deux becomes a snapshot of young adults playing like children who are best friends. Alvaro Prieto (King), Maude Sabourin (Majesty of the Night), Noelani Pantastico (Indifferent One), and Jeroen Verbruggen (Prince's Confidant) excelled in their roles, which were the juiciest and most physically expressive.


Mimoza Koike as the Queen and Alvaro Prieto as the King. Photo by Doug Gifford
The re-ordering and re-assignment of the music to different subplots can be mentally vexing. For me, the reason the Petipa/Ivanov Swan Lake works so wonderfully is that the musical themes pair well with the storyline, and the classical ballet vocabulary is perfectly suited to describing these narratives. (I realize some of this might be Pavlovian at this point.) Taking it apart and putting it back together out of order makes LAC feel like Frankensteinian. Even the solid musical and narrative bones of the original can only take so much bending and stretching. I'll give LAC plenty of points for style, though. Now if only old Tchaikovsky could receive some credit...

Friday, March 14, 2014

Paul Taylor Company—0 to 60 and Back Again

Cloven Kingdom, the perfect gala dance. Photo: Paul B. Goode
Paul Taylor opened its 60th season last Tuesday at the Koch Theater, but there's little time to celebrate this momentous milestone. Yesterday at a press conference, the company announced plans to restructure, and by this time next year we should be seeing Paul Taylor's American Modern Dance performing its first season. 

This reincarnation of the current Taylor company anticipates the choreographer's eventual (but not currently planned) retirement. Work by other modern choreographers will be performed alongside Taylor's impressive oeuvre; the alien works—commissions and existing rep—are sure to be acquired slowly, so the programming probably won't be radically different at first. The release says: "To best showcase masterworks, they will be danced by legacy companies or artists trained in the signature techniques of the choreographers show pieces are being presented." Taylor was reluctant to name companies (and to speak, in general; if he were not a man, he'd be a clam), although Martha Graham popped up, and Merce Cunningham in the context that it might not be possible to perform his work.

Another interesting tenet says that live music will be used "where intended by the choreographer," and/or when possible. This addresses the one consistent criticism of Taylor's six decades of seasons, including by the union—the use of recorded music, which is an understandable compromise, faced with survival. What this means in practical terms is, again, yet to be determined. But in an impoverished dance climate, it is heartening to think of opening up this one-artist institution as a repository for modern dance, while maintaining Taylor's oeuvre.

To help finance this transition, four Rauschenberg artworks in Taylor's personal collection will be auctioned off in May, to raise an estimated $10 million. A representative from Sotheby's was on hand to speak about the specifics. One piece is a mixed media "combine" from 1954; another, Tracer, from 1962, includes a bicycle wheel and was made for the Paris Opera Ballet. Two additional 2D works round out the sale. You can't help but think about the trend of cultural organizations considering the sale of artworks to prolong the life of the institution. But in this case, apparently the Rauschenbergs have been in storage, and might never be seen otherwise. And it stems from personal relationship wrought in the nascent modernist movement of mid-20th century New York—reaping what was sown.

Sunset. Photo: Paul B. Goode
As for the current season, the company looks sharp, with some relatively new faces. Cloven Kingdom (1976) remains one of the gems in the rep; it opened the run, and was included on the gala program last night in a shrewdly sardonic bit of scheduling. As the tux and gown clad gala-goers took their seats, the curtain raised to reveal a parallel universe of fancily dressed women with shiny accessories (albeit mirrored objects on their heads) and men in elegant white tie tuxes behaving alternately like pouncing beasts and society swells, moving to a potent mix of classical music and tribal rhythms. The fact that it was being performed in the David Koch Theater, with its namesake in attendance, only contributed to its pungency.

Sunset (1983) followed, a gentle, if bittersweet paean to a bygone time of chivalry and military service. Each element fits perfectly within the whole—Alex Katz's mint-fresh set, Elgar's lilting string music augmented by the sound of loons, and Taylor's reductive, lyrical mode of movement in which even difficult feats are made to look effortless. Its undercurrents of war casualties and muffled male romance emerge, but never weigh down the mood. Guest artists Tiler Peck and Robert Fairchild danced a duet from Airs (1978). As you might expect, they added some speed and height to the more technical elements like jumps and hitting shapes, and rendered it with a far lighter—airier—touch than the grounded Taylor dancers. 

Piazzolla Caldera (1997) is an oddity in the repertory, with its stylized interpretation of the tango tied to Kronos Quartet's interpretations of Piazzolla's tunes. It dawned on me that in two programs, I hadn't yet seen one of Taylor's "pattern" pieces, often set to classical music, but that Piazzolla Caldera actually contains a fair amount of group traffic exercises and patterns that bind together a series of solos and duets. Michael Trusnovec slices and slips his way through his opening solo and duet with Michelle Fleet, making the tango feel truly dangerous, and in a section with Rob Kleinendorst, the contrast between a warm Eran Bugge and the cool Laura Halzack clicked nicely.

On Tuesday, the company performed Dust (1977). Made a year after Cloven Kingdom, but lacking its sociological and kinetic incisiveness, it features the visual punch of Gene Moore's set—a thick, twisting column, like Jack's beanstalk—and costumes, flesh-hued unitards with blobs of color. Black Tuesday felt like a retort to Cloven Kingdom, with its Depression setting and roster of characters either succumbing to poverty and loneliness, or finding the brighter side. The absence of Parisa Khobdeh (out with an injury) and her current role as the company comedienne and daredevil was felt strongly here. Christina Lynch Markham handled the "Big Bad Wolf" solo ably, while Heather McGinley continues to make her mark as a memorable presence (flame-colored hair doesn't hurt). The season continues through March 30.